Putin, Justinian and the Revival of Empire

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I in the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. (Credit: By Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40035957)

After decades of relative peace, a full-scale war has broken out in Europe with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Angered by the former Soviet republic’s efforts to integrate with Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rolled the dice and unleashed hell on his nation’s neighbor.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but there are patterns that echo down through time. Sixteen centuries ago, another European leader launched a similar invasion designed to restore past glories. He succeeded — to a point.

All this has Happened Before

In late June 533, an expeditionary force under the command of Gen. Flavius Balisarius set sail from the Eastern Roman Empire capital of Constantinople. After a voyage of several months along the coasts of Greece and Italy, the force landed at Caputvada on the North Africa coast in early September.

The expeditionary force’s target was the Vandal Kingdom, centered in the former Roman capital of North Africa, Carthage. Emperor Justinian I had dispatched the expedition with two objectives in mind, one short term and limited, the other expansive and long term.

The Vandals had been part of a wave of barbarian tribes that, pushed out of their homelands by marauding Huns, had overrun the Western Roman Empire in the early fifth century. (The empire had split into east and west in 395, with separate capitals at Ravenna and Constantinople.) Vandals and other barbarians had crossed the Rhine, pillaged their way across Gaul (modern day France and Belgium), and seized control of Iberia (present-day Spain and Portugal). For a period, life was good as the invaders soaked up the Mediterranean sun and lives off the tax revenues that used to go to the Western Roman Empire.

The Western and Eastern Roman Empires circa 395 AD. (Credit: Jan van der Crabben, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. https://www.worldhistory.org/image/11818/western–eastern-roman-empire-395-ce/)

Roman forces began to reconquer Iberia in the 420’s. By the end of the decade, the Romans had pushed the Vandals and a smaller barbarian tribe, the Alans, into the southern part of the peninsula. To avoid being wiped out, the Vandals and Alans crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into North Africa in 429 and began migrating east, conquering Roman territory as they went. Ten years later, they took Carthage after a long siege.

In 442, a treaty gave the Vandals and Alans control over the western half of Roman North Africa. The new rulers replaced the Roman system of government and laws with their own. Followers of the Arian form of Christianity, the new Vandal Kingdom of North Africa persecuted the Roman population that practiced Catholicism.

Routes barbarian tribes took invading the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth century. (Credit: By User:MapMaster – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1234669)

It’s difficult to overstate what a death blow the loss of North Africa was to the crumbling western empire, which had been gradually losing control of territories in Europe. Carthage was the second most important city in west. It and the surrounding North African provinces provided revenues needed to pay the Roman legions and the grain required to feed the swollen population of Rome and other Italian cities.

Multiple Roman attempts to reconquer North Africa failed. In 468, the Vandals sent fire ships into a joint Western and Eastern Roman fleet anchored off Cape Bon. The fleet was destroyed and the invasion failed, bankrupting the Eastern Roman Empire and dooming the west to extinction. In 476, a barbarian general named Odoacer deposed the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, a 12-year old figurehead whose “empire” barely extended beyond Italy. The Western Empire had completely splintered into a series of barbarian-rule successor states.

Europe and the Near East at the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. By then the west had splintered into multiple successor states marked with different colors on the map. (Credit: By Guriezous – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47800670)

A Prosperous East

While the West collapsed in the 5th century, the Eastern Roman Empire prospered. Relations between the surviving empire and the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa waxed and waned in the decades that followed the collapse of the west. Despite tensions, peace was maintained for the most part.

Relations took a turn for the worse in 530 when the pro-Roman Vandal ruler, Hilderic, was overthrown and imprisoned by his cousin, Gelimer. The new king ignored Justinian’s pleas to free the deposed ruler. A militant follower of the Arian form of Christianity, Gelimer resumed the persecution of followers of the Catholic faith that Hilderic had ended. Victims of the persecution fled to the Eastern Roman Empire, adding to Justinian’s grievances.

Gelimer’s overthrow of Hilderic, murder of his political opponents and confiscation of their wealth angered people and raised questions about his legitimacy. Revolts broke out in Sardinia and Tripoliania shortly before the Eastern Roman expeditionary force sailed in June 533. Rebels in both locations appealed to Justinian for support. Whether the revolts were coincidental or encouraged by Justinian is unclear. Unaware of the impending invasion, Gelimer sent away most of his navy to deal with the rebellions, leaving North Africa relatively undefended.

The Eastern Roman and Vandal armies clashed for the first time on Sept. 13, 533. Six months later, Gelimer surrendered and the war ended. Belisarius’ army had gained a great triumph. But, in one respect the war was a failure: there was no king to restore to the Vandal throne. Gelimer had his cousin Hilderic killed at the start of the war.

Part of a once-united Roman Empire lost almost century earlier had been restored to Roman control. But, as Capt. James T. Kirk once observed, conquest is easy, control is not. The Romans faced an uprising from the local Mauri tribes that were not happy to back under imperial control. It would take 15 years – until 548 – for Roman forces to subdue the tribes and bring peace to the restored provinces.

By then, the general that had led the conquest, Belisarius, was long gone. In 535, he led an invasion of Sicily. So began the Gothic War – the Eastern Roman Empire’s attempt to wrestle control of Italy from the Ostrogoths, who had ruled the peninsula since 493 when their king, Theodoric, overthrew Odoacer with the support of the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno.

The Roman Empire at its peak at the death of Emperor Trajan in 117 AD. The empire is in red and its client states in pink. (Credit: By Tataryn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19625326)

And here we come to Justinian’s ultimate long-term objective: to reconquer the Western Roman Empire. A fully reborn empire, stretching from northern Britain to Arabia, as it had been at its peak under Trajan in the early second century, ruled by one emperor from a single imperial capital. Justinian was determined to make it happen, whether the inhabitants of the reconquered territories wanted it or not.

Neither conquest nor control turned out to be easy in Italy. The 19-year long Gothic War was as long and bloody as the North African campaign had been short. The Romans would eventually triumph over the Ostrogoths in 554, regaining Italy, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia. The heart of the old empire had been restored to Roman control.

But, it would be a Pyrrhic victory. Italy was destroyed, its great cities depopulated as the countryside that had supported them was ravished by nearly two decades of war. One historian has estimated the war destroyed the productive capacity of Italy for 200 years. Italy generated little in taxes or goods but cost an enormous amount to maintain.

The military and financial strain left the Eastern Roman Empire open to devastating raids of its provinces south of the Danube by the Slavs and Kutrigurs. The taxes imposed on citizens to pay for the wars and maintenance of restored territories bred great resentment against the Eastern Roman emperor.

The Plague of Justinian, an outbreak of bubonic plague which in the midst of the Gothic War from 541-49, killed tens of millions of people throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. It would greatly hinder Justinian’s effort to regain control of the rest of the old western empire.

All this will Happen Again

Soviet Union (Credit: Golbez, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Like Justinian, Putin is an autocrat who rules over the largest and most powerful successor state of a once mighty and united empire. As a KGB officer in Berlin, he witnessed first hand the collapse of the East German government in 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed two years later, with Russia, Ukraine and 13 other former republics becoming independent nations. It was an event Putin described as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Post-Soviet nations in alphabetical order: 1. Armenia, 2. Azerbaijan, 3. Belarus, 4. Estonia, 5. Georgia, 6. Kazakhstan, 7. Kyrgyzstan, 8. Latvia, 9. Lithuania, 10. Moldova, 11. Russia, 12. Tajikistan, 13. Turkmenistan, 14. Ukraine, 15. Uzbekistan. (By USSR Republics Numbered Alphabetically.png: Aris KatsarisUSSR map.svg: Saul ipderivative work: Master Uegly – Own work, recreation of Soviet Socialist Republics numbered by the Soviet constitution.png, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68893861)

Germany was reunited as a single nation while Eastern European nations and three Soviet republics that had been part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact military alliance joined the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that had protected Western Europe during the Cold War. The decisions were driven by understandable fears that a resurgent Russia would try to conquer the lost Soviet republics and reimpose its will on Eastern Europe. NATO’s eastward movement angered the Russian government, which believes the United States promised the Soviet Union that this would not happen. American officials dispute the claim.

As with Justinian’s invasion of North Africa, Putin’s war with Ukraine has its roots in a change of government. On Feb. 22, 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to remove pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from office. An election was held three months later to elect a replacement.

Yanukovych’s removal came after Ukraine had been rocked for three months by the Euromaiden protests that had begun in Kyiv’s Independence Square on Nov. 21, 2013. The cause was Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement, a major step toward integration with Europe and eventual EU membership. Even though the Ukrainian Parliament had overwhelmingly approved the agreement, Yanukovych opted for closer ties with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union.

The struggle reflected divisions within Ukrainian society. Many Ukrainians supported the effort to integrate with the rest of Europe. Residents living in the predominantly-Russian speaking east supported the Yanukovch government and closer ties with Russia.

Roscosmos boss Dmitry Rogozin meets with Russia’s boss of bosses, President Vladimir Putin. (Credit: Russian President’s Office)

Like Justinian before him, Putin did not take the loss of a friendly ally lying down. Within days, the Russian leader dispatched troops to seize the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which had once been part of Russia. On March 16, 2014, residents watched over by armed soldiers in the street voted in a referendum on Crimea’s status. Officials claimed 97.5 percent of voters approved annexation by Russia in a referendum that was widely condemned by international community as fraudulent.

Like the Vandal Kingdom, Ukraine had to deal with revolts along with the invasion of Crimea. Pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luahnsk regions rose up at the same time, seizing government buildings, police stations and other key buildings. Referendums were held followed by the proclamation of people’s republics in both regions.

The Russian invasion and loss of Donetsk and Luahnsk did not deter Ukraine’s efforts to join the European Union. The government also wanted to become a member of NATO in order to gain the alliance’s protection against Russia.

This was a step too far for Putin. The Russian president ordered “peacekeeping” troops to enter the separatist Donetsk and Luahnsk regions there on Feb. 22, 2022 – eight years to the day after the Ukrainian Parliament removed Yanukovych from power. Russia also recognized the regions as independent states. A full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine followed.

The great fear is that Putin won’t stop if he is successful in Ukraine. Russia might invade other former Soviet republics lost in 1991 just as Justinian followed up his conquest of North Africa by invading Italy. The West would once again be faced with a resurgent Russian-dominated empire in the east. The Cold War, Part II. And if Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that sequels are usually much worse than the original.

And in the End….

The Eastern Roman Empire at its peak in 555 AD after the partial reconquest of the west. (Credit: By Tataryn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19926428)

Justinian’s wars of reconquest would succeed in seizing control of Italy, the Eastern Balkans, most of North Africa, and the southern coast of modern-day Spain. But, the rest of the old western empire – present-day France, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, England and southern Germany — remained in barbarian hands. Justinian didn’t have the money and manpower to reconquer them all.

Justinian died at the age of 83 in 565 after 38 years on the throne. He would go down in history as Justinian the Great, a label that would sound like a cruel joke to anyone on the receiving end of his conquering legions. Most leaders who receive this moniker are not known for their kindness and enlightenment. But give Justinian his due: he did lead the Eastern Roman Empire to new heights and partially restored its rule in the west.

Italy at the death of the Lombard King Rothari in 652. Lombard controlled territory is in blue; Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire land is in orange. (Credit: By Castagna – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7049848)

But, it wouldn’t last. Three years after Justinian’s death, an invasion by a Germanic tribe named the Lombards would result in the Romans eventually losing control of most of Italy. Although the Romans would maintain control of some major cities for quite some time, Italy – which had survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire as an intact political kingdom – would remain divided until it was unified again in the 19th century. Wars between the Romans and Lombards would continue on and off for nearly two centuries until 750 AD.

Justinian’s successors would manage to hold on to a shrinking part of its newly won western holdings after his death. But, the old Roman Empire of Trajan’s day would never be revived. The former Roman provinces in the west had moved on. The successor states didn’t want or need a restored empire, at least not a Roman one ruled from Constantinople. (They did later form the Holy Roman Empire, which I learned in school was neither holy, Roman nor an empire. But, that’s a story for another day.)

The Eastern Roman Empire would wax and wane in the centuries that followed Justinian’s reign as it dealt with the rise of Islam. Constantinople wouldn’t fall to the Ottoman Turks until 1453; by then, the city ruled a small fraction of the territory it had controlled at its peak in the mid-6th century.

Today, the fate of Ukraine hangs in the balance as a brutal war rages. Will it beat back the Russians and continue its integration with the West? Or once again fall under Moscow’s sway? Putin seems determined to destroy the country in order to save it – at least until Ukraine capitulates. It took the Romans and the Ostrogoths 19 years to destroy Italy. Modern weapons make that task infinitely faster.

As goes the war so will the reputation of Russia’s long-time leader. Will Putin be the restorer of Russia’s lost empire? Or will he fall short as Justinian did in his attempt to restore past glory?

Time will tell.