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                                                               The Byzantine Period
Byzantine map at the age of Justinian Byzantine map at the age of Justinian



The Reconquest of Italy

To the east of the Byzantine frontiers a new power was rising steadily, a revived Persian empire under the Sassanid dynasty which had succeeded to the Parthian monarchy of the early Roman Empire. This empire reached the height of its culture in the late fourth century, but had been compelled to wage a long series of wars with the Romans on its western frontiers. Treaties were frequently made between the two powers, but both sides kept them indifferently. When Justinian came to the Byzantine throne in 525 he determined to settle the Persian question once and for all by negotiations, even though it cost him money. He needed to have his hands free to pursue the reconquest of the West, which was his prime objective; and his country was still not free from barbarian invasions from the north, especially from the Asiatic Avars, Huns, and Slavs, who were beginning to raid across the Danube. A peace was duly concluded in 533, under which Justinian agreed to pay tribute to the Persian monarch; and though the latter soon broke it, and the war was renewed, a further peace was made in 562 on similar terms.

Meanwhile Justinian fortified his frontiers against the barbarians, building numerous forts, and set himself wholeheartedly to reunite the old Empire under his rule. Africa was quickly taken from the now enfeebled Vandal monarchs by Justinian's general Belisarius, and the conquest of Sicily soon followed. In a murderous war with the Ostrogoths lasting nineteen years (535-554), Belisarius, later succeeded by Narses, reconquered Italy, destroying the Ostrogothic kingdom. Southeastern Spain was taken from the Visgoths in 554. But this was the limit of Justinian's expansion. He was hard put to it to defend his own capital against the Huns and Slavs, who raided far into Greece and late in his reign had to be driven off from Constantinople by Belisarius.

                                                                       Justinian and Belisarius as depicted in a byzantine icon

The reconquest was, quite certainly, from the point of view of Byzantine interests, ill-conceived. The new empire could not be defended with the resources available to Constantinople. Justinian, who fancied himself as a Roman emperor, though he was a Macedonian Greek, did not perceive that the empire he and his successors could maintain and administer effectively must be in Eastern Europe and Asia Minor. Italy was invaded by the Lombards three years after his death, leaving only southern Italy and the exarchate of Ravenna in the northeast to his successors. In 616 the Byzantine possessions in Spain were recovered by the Visigoths, and north Africa fell almost without a struggle to the Muslim invaders in 699. However the Byzantines were able to retain southern Italy for a considerable period, and they won recognition of their suzerainty over Rome—largely an empty honor, since Rome made its own terms with the Lombards and later, in the eighth century, called in the Franks as protectors, when the Byzantines proved unable and unwilling to defend it against the encroaching Lombards.





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