For the next millennium, until the discovery of America, western Europe will be the focus of history. Other parts of the world will be doing things that are in many ways more interesting than what the Europeans are doing during that time, but they will not be making history properly so called.

Let us therefore pause for a moment to survey the shattered remains of the Roman Empire in the west in about the year 500. Everywhere we look, we see barbarian kings as acknowledged rulers. In Italy, the Ostro­goths have conquered; in Spain, Visigoths rule. In Gaul, the Franks have made themselves at home and are already beginning to think of naming the place France after themselves; but they have encountered some opposition from the Burgundians, who vote for calling it Burgundy. Across the Mediterranean, the Vandals have established themselves in the province of Africa and covered the public buildings with graffiti.

Anyone familiar with our school histories would say that we are looking at the begin­ning of the Dark Ages, but our school his­tories are wrong. The lights are still on. Given half a chance, the barbarians find that they enjoy civilization and can get pretty good at it. It will be the Romans themselves who ul­timately destroy classical civilization, because they would rather destroy it than let filthy barbarians have it.

If we take a closer look at Italy, we find that the whole peninsula is thriving. Rome is still the queen of cities; her ancient splendor has been restored, and quite a bit of new con­struc­tion is going on. Art and literature are flourishing; merchants are growing rich; travelers make it to their destinations unmolested. After the disasters of the 400s, it looks like a new golden age for Rome.

All this comes from the wise and just rule of Theodoric, the Gothic king who swept into Italy, got rid of Odoacer, and went on to rule fairly and well for a generation. Under his benevolent government, the old Roman bu­reau­cracy continued to function unimpaired, and decades of stability brought both economic and cultural recovery. Naturally, the Romans were seething with resentment against a barbarian king who had the temerity to govern their country better than they could govern it themselves. Oh, how they longed to be rid of these disgusting Goths, with their uncouth language and their Arian heresy and their just and competent government!

There is an old Roman saying about “the curse of an answered prayer” that would be very appropriate here.

As for the rest of the West, it is true that occasional waves of barbarians are still sweep­ing across the landscape. (Historians once believed that history was made up of a series of such waves, but modern historians have shown that history sometimes behaves as a particle as well.) On the whole, however, there is more stability in western Europe than there has been for a century, and there is good reason to hope that the lingering shadows will soon be dispelled by the strong light of civilization still beaming from Rome. (Historians usually resort to elaborate metaphors when they are not quite sure what they are talking about.)

Now we must turn our attention back to Constantinople for a moment. During the reign of Theodoric, the relationship of the Roman emperor to Gothic Italy was rather like the relationship of the British monarch to Australia: his face was on the money and his name at the top of the chart, but he was not expected to attempt any actual governing, and any active interference in western affairs would have been hotly resented. In 527, however, a new emperor named Justinian came to the throne. Almost immediately he began rubbing his hands together and declaring that he was going to get a few things done around here.

Justinian is the most unaccountable character in history. No other ruler has ruled so well and so poorly at the same time. He could slip away unscathed from the most disastrous failures, but his successes were absolutely ruinous. His most conspicuous failure, the riots that burned half of Constantinople, ended up giving us the Church of Holy Wisdom, one of the most inspiring works of architecture on the planet. His most conspicuous successes, on the other hand, destroyed civilization in the west and caused the astonishingly rapid Islamic conquests in the East. He added millions to the tax base and bankrupted the Empire. There was nothing the man could not accomplish. And as if his life were not confusing enough, the historian who gave us the most fawning pane­gyrics on Justinian’s virtues, and the historian who penned the most outrageous calumnies against him, are the same man—Procopius, who, like many a cubicle-dweller since, kept a little notebook in his desk to jot down what he really thought of his employer.

Having consolidated his position with the usual round of murders, Justinian took it into his head that he was going to restore the Roman Empire to its former extent. This was without a doubt the stupidest and most unrealistic idea a Roman emperor had ever had. It was clearly impossible. Since no one dared to tell Justinian that, he very nearly managed to pull it off.

It helped a great deal that he happened to have an extraordinary military genius at his disposal. Belisarius, Justinian’s master strategist, took Africa from the Vandals so easily that his mere name could stir terror in a barbarian heart. From Africa he went on to Italy. Luckily Theodoric had died and been succeeded by a pack of idiots, so Belisarius rolled right up the southern half of the peninsula with very little trouble. As he continued his steamroller march toward Rome, the Goths decided that the wisest thing to do would be to run to Ravenna, screaming like little girls all the way. They took the most popular Roman senators with them as hostages and left the Romans some simple instructions (“Don’t do anything we wouldn’t do”) that they hoped would prevent them from handing the city over to Belisarius right away. Then they left, and the Romans handed the city over to Belisarius right away.

Holed up in the relative safety of Ravenna, the Goths had time to reconsider their position. Perhaps it had not been such a good idea after all to let the imperial army take the greatest city in their realm without a fight. It began to occur to them that there were a whole lot of Goths, whereas the imperial army was just a few dozen Greeks—the kind of people who sat around on velvet cushions and talked about philosophy all day. Why had they retreated? What were they afraid of? This Belisarius wasn’t so tough. So they decided to go down there and take Rome back. First, just to make sure they would be welcomed as liberators, they killed all the hostages; then they came and besieged the city.

They might have taken Rome easily except for two facts: first, that Belisarius was directing the defense, and second, that the Goths were spectacularly bad at sieges. They seemed to think that the way to besiege a city was to sit around in the suburbs until they got bored, and then hurl themselves at the walls, whereupon the imperial defenders would pierce them with arrows and crush them with stones until the Goths had had enough. Some­times Belisarius would send out a sudden sally while the Goths were still sitting around in the suburbs, which was awfully un­sporting of him, since they were never ready for him.

Having failed to take the city by standing around and glowering, the Goths thought up an idea that taxed the limits of their strategic thinking: they decided to cut the aqueducts, depriving Rome of her water supply. This was good thinking as far as it went: Romans were used to having water, and they would surely start to grumble against Belisarius if they had to remain grubby and unwashed. So the aque­ducts were cut, and the water ceased to flow into Rome. Instead, it poured out by the millions of gallons into the land around the city, turning the Gothic camps into squishy, malaria-infested swamps. This was not quite the result the Gothic brain trust had envisioned, though it might have occurred to any child who had ever played with a garden hose.

The Goths held out as long as they could, but it really did begin to feel as though Belisarius was somehow besieging them from inside the city. Every time they tried another assault, the Romans would rain down bits of statuary and architecture, not to mention arrows, which the Goths didn’t like at all. Belisarius, meanwhile, held firm. It was true that the greatest city in the world was being disassembled piecemeal around him, but he had the true military genius’ contempt for collateral damage. The important thing was that he was winning.

Finally, after a year, the Goths gave up, and the grubby unwashed citizens of Rome thought they had seen the last of them. They had not. It took several more years of the most devastating wars the Italian peninsula had ever seen before Belisarius could report back to Justinian, “I have returned Italy to the Empire,” the way a teenager might hand you a steering wheel and a bent fender and say, “Here, I brought back your car.” And even then, while Belisarius was reporting in at the palace, the generals he had left to guard Italy were botching the job so badly that the Goths reconquered almost the whole province, including Rome, and it had to be re-reconquered, and re-re-reconquered, and so on.

By the end of the Gothic War, as the imperial side called it, Italy was a wasteland. The city of Rome had been reduced to a clot of squalid villages huddling amongst the ruins. The great country houses, with their libraries and art collections, were blackened wrecks. Almost everyone who could properly conju­gate a Latin verb was dead. But it was Roman soil again, so that at least was cause for cele­bration. And that happy state of affairs lasted for about an hour and a half until the savage Lombards, seeing that there was almost no one left to defend the place, poured into Italy to destroy what little was left of civilization there.

So much for the destruction of civilization in the heart of the West, one of Justinian’s two greatest accomplishments. Meanwhile, Justinian had not been idle in the East. As the visible head of Christendom, he had the responsibility of seeing to it that his subjects enjoyed all the benefits of Christian ortho­doxy. It would be nothing less than rank dereliction of duty for him to allow a single one of his subjects to hold any religious opinion that differed in so much as a single iota from the orthodox standard. Immortal souls were at stake! It was clearly his duty to launch a ferocious persecution against the wicked iotists. He did not ask himself whether it would be wise to make half the East long to be free of the tyranny of Constantinople: he simply saw his duty, and he did it.

That is why half the East longed to be free of the tyranny of Constantinople. And those oppressed millions would soon get their wish, leaving them a millennium and a half to contemplate the curse of an answered prayer.


  1. Bravo, bravo, bravo! An almost flawless chapter, although a brief mention of Justinian’s other great success and failure would have been nice: His wife, who was at the same time one of the most competent and influential Empresses of all time, and an ex-prostitute whose mere presence at the Emperor’s side engendered such disgust and resentment among both the people and the nobility that the resulting unrest nearly destroyed the dynasty on multiple occasions. If they had Reality TV back then, she would have been the big-name star of The Real Housewives of Constantinople, the backstabbing bitch-queen from hell who everyone loved to hate…and yet who half the fanbase worshipped the ground she walked upon.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      There are so many enthralling characters who have to be left out if the book is not to swell to the size of three and a half Gibbons. Dr. Boli is particularly fond of Julian the Apostate, the emperor whose example shows us just what would happen if a pedantic and slightly eccentric junior-high-school social-studies teacher were suddenly given absolute power. But his relatively trivial reign had to be left out in order to devote proper space to the earth-shaking reign of Honorius.

  2. Dr Boli – thank you for these chapters. I’m rediscovering a passion for history and learning about whole centuries I’d never even heard mentioned. I might even work myself up to opening the Gibbons that I bought in a moment of earnestness 10 years ago. Please keep it coming. In a way I’m hoping that you never finish this project (so I know there will always be more to look forward to), but equally, think I’d like to buy a paper copy to keep on the shelf.

  3. Curious says:

    Dr Boli, could you give a brief description of the iotists? I am curious to know how their beliefs differed from the orthodoxy of the time. The OED professes ignorance and Google asks me if I mean artists, egotists, elitists or autists, so I turn to you…

  4. The orthodoxy of the time held that God the Father and Jesus the Son were identical, and thus logically made of the same “stuff”. In Greek, this is called Homoousianism, from the same Greek root Homo, for same, that gave us Homosexuality.

    One popular heresy was the idea that God the Father was a bit more powerful and important than Jesus the Son, who in being at least somewhat human, thus logically couldn’t possibly be exactly the same purely divine “stuff” as God the Father. In Greek, this idea was known as “Homoiousianism”, from the Greek root “Homoi”, for “Similar”. I suppose when we go out into space and meet humanoid aliens with funny forehead ridges in the Star Trek tradition, those who enjoy having sexual and romantic relationships with nearly-human aliens with not-quite-the-exact-same genders will be known as “Homoisexuals”.

    The fact that the two words differed from each other by a single Greek letter Iota (“I”) in the middle gave rise to the idiom “One single iota of difference”. The difference in question was of intense interest to theologians arguing over the true nature of God, but had zero interesting implications for practical morality or the day-to-day lives of anyone with an actual job.

    However, now came one of those historical accidents of the sort that left racist white Americans with no choice but to cling desperately to the same Party of Lincoln that, a generation earlier, they had formed the KKK to specifically combat. The heresy in question was, by coincidence that perhaps the good Dr. Boli can illuminate more than my own poor understanding of events can explain, popular with certain regional ethnic and socio-economic groups that were not on great terms with the powers-that-be in Constantinople in any event. Perhaps it was teenagers trying to annoy their parents by flirting with unorthodox ideas, perhaps it was political opponents of the regime having a knee-jerk reaction to oppose absolutely anything coming out of Constantinople, the way certain modern politicians oppose anything coming out of either the Democratic or Republican party platforms, depending on their own affiliation.

    But this identification of the heresy with certain ethnic, regional, and political affiliations served to reinforce both the heresy and the ethnic split. People already part of the minority ethnic group adopted the heretical belief in solidarity with their kin and opposition to the hated central authority. People already believers in the heresy joined the political faction of the ethnic minority, in solidarity with their co-religionists and opposition to the central authority.

    And gallons of blood were spilled over this one iota of difference, hatred and grievances built up, until when the Muslim armies came knocking at the gates of Jerusalem, the inhabitants opened the gates to someone, anyone, who could help protect them from the orthodox authorities in Constantinople.

    Eventually, most of the Homoiousianists got converted to Islam or killed, and Christians stopped killing each other over one iota of difference, and settled down to killing each other over the Filioque controversy, whether the Holy Spirit proceded from the Father AND the Son, or from the Father ONLY.

  5. Curious says:

    What a pleasure to learn so much from a single blog comment – thank you Martin! Humanity, eh?

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