Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. XX.: The Conquests of Justinian. Some Account of his Government. - Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters)
Return to Title Page for Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAP. XX.: The Conquests of Justinian. Some Account of his Government. - Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters) 
The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu (London: T. Evans, 1777), 4 vols. Vol. 3.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Conquests of Justinian. Some Account of his Government.
AS this vast body of people broke all at once like a flood into the empire, they mutually incommoded one another, and all the politics of those times consisted in setting them at variance together: this was a circumstance easy to accomplish, their avarice and fierce dispoposition greatly contributing to make it practicable. The largest part of them was therefore destroyed before they could fix themselves in any settlement; and this was the reason why the empire of the East still subsisted for some time.
The northern regions were likewise exhausted at last, and no longer poured out those innumerable armies they originally produced; for, after the first invasion by the Goths and Huns, and especially since the death of Attila, these people and their successors appeared in the field with force much inferior to the former in number.
When the nations, who assembled together in the form of an army, were distributed into peaceful partitions of lands, much of their martial vivacity was abated; and as they were scattered through the countries they had conquered, they were exposed themselves to the same invasions.
In this situation of affairs, Justinian undertook the recovery of Africa and Italy, and accomplished the same designs which the French so happily executed against the Visigoths, the Burgundians, the Lombards, and the Saracens.
When Christianity was first planted among the Barbarians, the Arian sect was predominant in the empire, and Valens sent priests to them, who were their first apostles. Now, in the interval, from their conversion to their establishment, this sect fell into disreputation among the Romans; for which reason, when the Barbarians of this persuasion found all the country orthodox, and could never insinuate themselves into the affections of the people, it was easy for the emperors to incommode them.
We may likewise add, that the Barbarians being unqualified for the siege of towns, and much more so for their defence, suffered the walls to drop into ruins. Procopius informs us, that Belisarius found all the Italian cities in this condition; and those of Africa had already been dismantled by Genseric * , with a Gothic view of fortifying the inhabitants.
The generality of these northern people, after they had established themselves in the provinces of the south, soon degenerated into the unmanly softness of those regions, and became incapable of the fatigues of war † . The Vandals were emasculated with pleasures; a luxuriant table, an effeminate habit, the delicacy of baths, the enervating lull of music, gay dances, florid gardens, and splendid theatres were now become their necessary gratifications.
They no longer disquieted the Romans ‡ , says Malchus ∥ , when they discontinued those armies which Genseric perpetually kept prepared for any expedition, and with which he prevented the vigilance of his enemies, and astonished all the world with the rapidity of his enterprizes.
The cavalry of the Romans, and that of the Huns their auxiliaries, were very expert at drawing the bow; but that of the Goths § and Vandals sought only with the sword and lance, and were unpractised in the distant combat; for which reason Belisarius ascribes part of his success to this difference * .
Justinian received signal services from the Huns, a people from whom the Parthians sprung, and these descendants combated like their ancestors. When the Huns lost all their power by the divisions which the great number of Attila’s children occasioned, they served the Romans in the quality of auxiliaries, and formed their best cavalry.
Each of these barbarous nations † was distinguished by their particular manner of combating as well as by their arms. The Goths and Vandals were formidable at the drawn sword; the Huns were admirable bowmen; the Suevi were serviceable infantry; the Alans were heavily armed; and the Heruli were a flying troop. The Romans selected from all these people, the different bodies of troops which were serviceable to their designs, and sought against one nation with the joint advantage of all the rest.
It is remarkable, that the weakest nations have been those that made the greatest establishments; we should be muched deceived if we judged of their force by their conquests. In this long train of irruptions, the Barbarians, or rather the swarms which issued from them, were vanquishers or vanquished; every thing depended on circumstances: and while one great nation was defeated or engaged, a body of new adventurers finding a country open, carried desolation into it. The Goths, who by reason of the disadvantage of their arms, were obliged to fly before so many nations settled in Italy, Gaul, and Spain: the Vandals, too weak to keep their possessions in Spain, passed into Africa, where they founded a great empire.
Justinian could not fit out more than fifty ships against the Vandals; and when Belisarius embarked, he had but five thousand soldiers. This was undoubtedly a bold expedition; and Leo, who before that time had sent against the same people a fleet of all the ships in the east, and manned with a hundred thousand soldiers, could not conquer Africa, and was even in danger of losing the whole empire.
These great fleets have been as little successful as very numerous land armies; for as they impoverish and depopulate a state, so, should the expedition be of a considerable length, or any misfortune befal them, they can neither be succoured nor recruited; and if one part be lost, the other becomes insignificant; because ships of war, as well as transports, cavalry, infantry, ammunition, in a word all the particulars, have a necessary dependance on the whole. The tardiness of an enterprize makes those who engage in it always find the enemy prepared to receive them: besides, such an expedition is seldom made in a proper season, and generally overtaken by the stormy months, because such a vast number of preparations are hardly ever compleated till the season is too far advanced.
Belisarius invaded Africa, and very advantageously supplied himself with provisions from Sicily, in consequence of a treaty made with Amalasonta queen of the Goths. When he was sent to attack Italy, he took notice that the Goths received their subsistence from Sicily, and therefore began his expedition with the conquest of that island; by which proceeding he at the same time starved his enemies, and plentifully supplied his own army with all accommodations.
Belisarius took Carthage, Rome, and Ravenna, and sent the kings of the Goths and Vandals captives to Constantinople, where the ancient triumphs were renewed after a long interval of years * .
The extraordinary qualities of this great man * , naturally account for his success. A general, who was master of all the maxims of the first Romans, was then at the head of such an army as that brave people anciently composed.
Virtues that are very shining are generally concealed or lost in servitude; but the tyrannical government of Justinian could not oppress the grandeur of that soul, nor the noble superiority of such a genius.
Narses the eunuch was thrown into this reign to make it still more illustrious: as he had received his education in the palace, he was honoured with a greater share of the emperor’s confidence; for princes always esteem their courtiers the most faithful of their subjects.
On the other hand, the irregular conduct of Justinian, his profusions, tyranny, and rapine, his intoxicated fondness for building, changing, and reforming, his inconstancy in his designs, a severe and weak reign, made still more incommodious by a lingering old age, were a train of real calamities, intermixed with unprofitable success, and a false glitter of unsubstantial glory.
These victories were not the effect of any solid power subsisting in the empire, but resulted from the lucky conjunction of some particular circumstances, and were soon rendered ineffectual; for whilst the army was pursuing its fortunate beginnings, a new swarm of barbarous nations passed the Danube, and spread desolation through Illyria, Macedonia, and Greece, and the Persians, in four invasions, weakened the empire with incurable wounds † .
The more rapid these conquests appeared, the less durable was their foundation: and Italy and Africa were hardly wrested from the enemy, before it became necessary to recover them a second time by new victories.
Justinian had taken from the theatre a * woman who had long prostituted herself to immodest pleasures, and she governed him with an authority that has no parallel in history, perpetually intermixing his affairs with the passions and fanciful inconsistencies of her sex; in consequence of which, she defeated the victorious progress of his arms, and disconcerted the most favourable events.
The eastern people were always accustomed to a plurality of wives, in order to deprive the sex of that strange ascendant they maintain over man in our climates; but at Constantinople the prohibition of Polygamy made the empire subject to the will of a female, or, in other words, threw a natural weakness into the government.
The people of Constantinople had for many years been divided into two factions, donominated the Blue and the Green: they derived their original from the approbation usually given in the theatres to some particular actors; and when races were exhibited in the circus, the charioteers who were dressed in green, disputed the prize with those who were habited in blue; and each of these spectators became interested even to madness, in the competition of those colours.
These two factions being diffused through all the cities of the empire, proportioned their animosities to the rank and grandeur of those cities, or, as we may justly say, to the indolence and idle lives of the generality of the people.
But though such divisions are always necessary in a republic, and may be considered as essential to its support, they are insallibly destructive to an arbitrary government, because they can only change the person of the sovereign, but never contribute to the establishment of the laws, or the discontinuance of abuses.
Justinian, who favoured the faction of the Blue * , and denied all justice to the Green, increased the mutual inveteracy of both parties, and consequently strengthened them in the state.
These contending parties proceeded so far as even to disannul the authority of the magistrates; the Blues were in no apprehension of the laws, because the emperor protected them against their severity; and the † Greens began to disregard them, because they could not defend them from insults.
All the bands of friendship, affinity, and gratitude, were cut asunder, and whole families destroyed each other: every villain who intended to be remarkably wicked, belonged to the faction of the blue, and every man who was either robbed or assassinated, was a partisan for the Green.
We may add, that the government was, if possible, more cruel than senseless; and the emperor, not satisfied with a general injustice of loading his subjects with excessive impositions, resolved to ruin them in their private affairs by all imaginable tyrannies.
I am far from entertaining an implicit belief of all the particulars related by Procopius in his secret history, because the pompous commendations he, in his other works, bestows on this prince, may make his veracity a little questionable in this, where he paints him out as the most stupid and inhuman tyrant that ever lived.
On the other hand, there are two circumstances which incline me to pay some regard to this secret history; for, in the first place, the particulars seem better connected with the astonishing weakness which discovered itself at the latter end of this reign, and in those of the succeeding emperors.
The other circumstance is that monument which still exists among us, and is a collection of the laws of this emperor, which, in the course of a few years, present us with greater variations than are to be found in our laws for the three last centuries of our monarchy.
These variations * generally relate to matters of so little importance, that we can see no reason to induce a legislator to make them, unless we refer to the secret history for a solution, and acknowledge that this prince exposed his judgment and his laws equally to sale.
But the political state of the government received the greatest injury from his project of establishing a general uniformity of opinion in matters of religion, and in circumstances that rendered his zeal as indiscreet as possible.
The ancient Romans fortified their empire by indulging all sorts of religious worship; but their posterity destroyed it by rooting out the various sects, whose doctrines were not predominant.
These sects were composed of entire nations, some of which, as the Jews and Samaritans, had retained their ancient religion after they were conquered by the Romans; others were dispersed through the country, as the followers of Montanus, in Phrygia, the Manichees, the Sabbatarians, the Arians, in the other provinces; besides which, the generality of the people in the country continued in idolatry, and were insatuated with a religion as gross as their understandings.
These sects Justinian caused to be extirpated by the military as well as the civil power; and the persecuted people, revolting in their own defence, he thought himself obliged to exterminate them from the empire; in consequence of which, he depopulated several provinces, and whilst he imagined himself increasing the number of the faithful, he was only diminishing the race of mankind.
Procopius assures us, that Palestine, by the destruction of the Samaritans, was changed into a desert; and this proceeding was the more singular, because the very zeal which weakened the empire, in order to establish religion, sprung out of the same quarter from whence the Arabians afterwards sallied with an intention to subvert it.
But nothing could be more aggravating, than that the emperor, whilst he was so averse to all toleration himself, should yet disagree with the empress in the most essential points; he followed the council of Chalcedon, and she favoured its opposers; whether, as Evagrius says * , they were sincere in this proceeding or not, is uncertain.
When we read Procopius’s description of Justinian’s buildings, and the forts and other places of defence he erected in all parts, it naturally raises in our minds the idea of a flourishing state; but that idea happens to be very delusive.
The ancient Romans had none of these fortifications, but placed all their security in their armies, which they distributed along the banks of rivers, and raised towers at proper distances for the lodgment of the soldiers.
Afterwards, indeed, when they had but very indifferent armies, and frequently none at all, the frontiers † could not defend the countries they limited, and therefore it became necessary to strengthen them; the consequence of which was, they had more fortifications, and less force; many places for retreat, and very few for security; the country was only habitable about the fortifications, and these were built in all parts. The condition of the empire resembled that of France in the time of the Normans, * which was never so defenceless as when all its villages were girt around with walls.
We may venture to affirm, therefore, that the whole catalogue of Justinian’s forts, which fills several pages in Procopius, only exhibits to us so many monuments of the weakness of the empire.
[* ]Precop. war of the Vandals, lib. i.
[† ]Ibid. lib. ii.
[‡ ]In the time of Honorius.
[∥ ]Byzantine history, in the extract of the embassies.
[§ ]See Procopius’s history of the wars of the Vandals, lib. i. and his war of the Goths. lib. i. The Gothic bowmen sought on foot and were but indifferently disciplined.
[* ]The Romans, having suffered their infantry to be weakened, placed all their force in the horse, and the more so because they were obliged to spring suddenly to every part, to check the incursions of the Barbarians.
[† ]A remarkable passage of Jornandes tells us all these discriminating circumstances, having occasion to mention the battle between the Gepidæ and the sons of Attila.
[* ]Justinian only granted him a triumph for Africa.
[* ]See Suidas, under the article Belisarius.
[† ]The two empires ravaged each other the more, because they had no hopes of securing their conquests.
[* ]The empress Theodora.
[* ]This political distemper was of ancient date; for Seutonius tells us, that Caligula, because he was attached to the Green faction, hated the people who applauded the other.
[† ]the reader may form a good idea of the spirit of those times, by consulting Theophanes, who relates a long conversation in the theatre between the emperor and the Greens.
[* ]See the Institutes of Justinian.
[* ]Lib. iv. c. 10.
[† ]Augustus established nine such frontiers, the number of which increased in the following reigns, when the Barbarians began to appear in several parts; and Dion. lib. lv. says, that in his time, when Alexander was emperor, there were thirty, as appears by the Noritia Imperii, written since the reigns of Arcadius and Honorius: there were fifteen even in the eastern empire, and the number was perpetually increasing. Papmhylia, Lycaonia, and Pisidia were made frontiers, and the whole empire was covered with fortifications, till at last Aurelian was obliged to fortify Rome itself.
[* ]And the English.