The Eastern empire
The story in the east was different, for Constantinople, unlike Rome, held out. Its defences were strengthened in the early fifth century and it proved impregnable and survived in one form or another till eventually it was captured by the Turks in 1453.
Throughout much of the fifth century the east gradually decayed, but in the sixth century there was a major revival under the Emperor Justinian. Justinian was remarkable in many ways: his great general Belisarius set out to reconquer the former empire in the West. He regained North Africa from the Vandals and Carthage enjoyed a late revival. Italy was reconquered from the Ostrogoths and even parts of Southern Spain were recaptured from the Visigoths. At home in Constantinople there was a major building programme: huge reservoirs were built under the city. But the most impressive of all is the great church of the Hagia Sophia, the Great Church of the Holy Wisdom, which despite earthquakes still remains standing, having been converted into a mosque by the invading Ottoman Turks, and acting as an inspiration for the great outbreak of mosque building which took place in the sixteenth century culminating in the Blue Mosque which still stands today a couple of hundred yards away from the older church and challenging it in majesty and elegance.
Justinian also set about codifying the law and his Institutions and Digest still form the basis of Roman law which has had such a powerful influence on the development of law in Europe. The last of the great Roman historians Procopius also flourished under Justinian, he was a friend of the great general Belisarius and accompanied him in his reconquest of North Africa and Italy, and wrote them up in the last great history of the Roman world. However he is best known for his ‘Secret History’ which remained unknown until a manuscript copy of it was discovered in the Vatican library. And if in his formal history he gives an account of the undoubted successes of Justinian, in his Secret History he gives the other side of the story, and in particular he gives an account of his second wife the Empress Theodora who began life as a circus performer who, he alleges, writhed naked on the circus floor. It is a delightful story, though one suspects it may have been improved in the telling. But surely every historian should follow in his footsteps and alongside the official history should also write a secret history to present the other side of the story.
Justinian’s rule was to a certain extent sabotaged by external circumstances – the outbreak of plague in 542 – probably the bubonic plague – which ravaged the empire for a dozen years, only to return sixty years later for a second outbreak. The plague weakened the whole of the Western world; indeed it probably caused havoc in China too and left the world open to the conquests by the Muslims that dominate the seventh century.
After the death of Justinian, the Eastern Empire continued in its more or less normal chaos: to the North, the Slavs gave trouble, but the real problem was the Persians in the East. Here the Sassanian dynasty was enjoying a second golden age, many of whose arts and ideas were to be taken over by the Moslems. However in the early seventh century Constantinople even had a not unsuccessful Emperor, one Heraclius, who became emperor after his unpopular predecessor, Phocas was assassinated. His rule was down, up, down; at first he was defeated both by Slavs and the Persians, then he got his act together and defeated both, and the last great Persian emperor, Khosrau II (590 – 628) was duly assassinated.
But then everything changed: the Moslems arrived.
On to The Moslems