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Religion and Authoritarians, to the death of Justinian the First

Most people in Europe did not read of write. Few went to school. And literate Christians saw books other than the Holy Bible as heathen, as pernicious or dangerous works of the devil. The only reading that the Church encouraged was the Bible. Bishop Augustine (a Trinitarian) believed that the Bible alone contained an authoritative account of the world and its phenomena. Meanwhile, many Christians had believed the world was inhabited demons and angels, but there was the intolerance common to monotheists toward those they considered heretics and toward those they called pagans. It was in 415 in Alexandria (Egypt) that the Greek mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and teacher, Hypatia, was pulled from her chariot and murdered by a Christian mob.

Many books had been or soon would be burned or not copied, and great libraries were ruined. Works by the pagan historian Zosimus survived. And so too did Martianus Capella's the Seven Liberal Arts, a work on grammar, rhetoric, oratory, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. But there was little that maintained the philosophies of the ancient Greeks The views of Aristotle (383-322 BCE) had faded or was fading. Advances in medicine that had come with Hippocrates and the Greek physician and scientist Galen were still around, but these advances were fading as Christians continued to regard disease as punishment for sin and as people sought remedy in prayer and repentance. Christian hospitals remained, but vivisection was forbidden because the Church held the human body to be sacred.

In judicial proceedings, signs from God were given serious consideration. These proceedings were often judged by two or three commoners under a nobleman or his representative. Eyewitnesses testified. Two people in conflict with each other might fight a duel, the idea being that whoever won had God on his side. And God was seen at work when the question of guilt or innocence was decided by throwing the person on trial into water. Floating to the surface was a sign of guilt because of rejection by the purity of water, and sinking was a sign of innocence. Attempts were made to prove innocence or guilt also by having the accused walk on hot coals or by the accused putting his hand into boiling water, the court believing that if the hand healed properly it was a sign of God's favor and therefore innocence.

In what had been Roman-ruled Britain, the Romanized population and Roman institutions disappeared. With the invasions of the Angles and Saxons, Celtic people had fled to Ireland, where they maintained their bond with the Catholic Church. Poetic fantasies about King Arthur defending Britain would remain, but the reality was rule by invader-kings and wars among them for hegemony.

In what today is France was a society of Franks ruled by a family that claimed descent from the gods. In the late 480s their 20-year-old king, Clovis, expanded his rule against other Franks, assassinating and plundering. Clovis married the daughter of the King of Burgundy, who agreed to it while fearing Clovis. The daughter was Catholic. According to the historian Bishop Gregory of Tours, a frustrated bargained with Jesus, telling him that if he helped him win one of his wars he, Clovis, would have himself baptized in his name. Clovis won his war and converted to Catholicism. With the help of Catholic evangelists, those he ruled converted, with him, and he continued to war for more territory, extending his rule as far south as what today is Switzerland. In Italy the Ostrogoth king, Theodoric, an Arian Christian, warned Clovis to advance no closer to Italy or to those nearby Germanic kingdoms to whom he was patron.

A war between Trinitarian Christianity and Arian Christianity came with the Trinitarian, Justinian (the First), becoming Constantinople's emperor. That was in 527. As he saw it, he was emperor of the entire Roman Empire – God's empire. He published a constitution, his Code of Civil Law, in 529, which contained laws against heresy and united church and state. Anyone not connected to the Church was declared not a citizen. Like other Christians, Justinian was expecting the Second Coming of Christ and in preparing for this he wanted to restore and unify the empire. He wished to liberate areas ruled by Arians. He believed that as God's chosen emperor it was his duty to create one state, one church and one law.

In June 533, Justinian sent a fleet of 500 ships with 15,000 soldiers against the Vandals, who were ruling in North Africa. Justinian's forces were victorious by December. In 536 Justinian moved against the Ostrogoths. His forces landed in Italy near Naples, and in November Justinian's general conquered that city. The Ostrogoths were threatened also by the Franks to their north, and they neutralized the Franks with a bribe, gold proving stronger than Frankish loyalty to the cause pursued by Justinian. The Ostrogoths abandoned Rome, Constantinople's army arriving there in December. The Pope went over to the side of Justinian. In March 537 and Ostrogoth army arrived and began a siege of the city. The Ostrogoths cut Rome's outside supply of water – the beginning of the end of Rome's great aqueducts and an end to its luxurious public baths. The Ostrogoths tried storming Rome's walls but failed – the city's defenders in one area throwing statues down upon the attackers.


The Ostrogoths had no navy, and Justinian ship food and reinforcements up the Tiber river and into Rome, he was able to blockade food from reaching the Ostrogoths. A little more than a year after the siege had begun, the hungry Ostrogoths lifted their siege of Rome and returned north. There the Ostrogoths and their fellow Arian Christians the Burgundians blockaded the city of Milan and reduced its inhabitants to eating dogs and mice. And when the Ostrogoths and Burgundians took the city they massacred all the city's adult males, estimated at 300,000, and the Burgundians took the city's women as slaves. By 539, food production and distribution in Italy had diminished to the extent that many were dying of malnutrition. Cannibalism appeared. Unburied corpses littered the countryside. Taking advantage of Italy's vulnerability, the Franks invaded Italy in search of plunder, slaughtering along the way.

In 540 Justinian faced renewed warfare with the Sassanid Empire, and he sent instructions to his general to make peace in Italy by offering the Ostrogoths territory north of the Po River in Italy in exchange for Justinian keeping all of Italy south of the Po. The Ostrogoths agreed. Meanwhile, Justinian's generals south of the Po River had taken advantage of their power to plunder the Italians, which turned many Italians against Justinian's effort there.

In 541, with the renewed war and troop movements, bubonic plague appeared in Constantinople's empire, It was noticed first in the Egyptian harbor town of Pelusium, which had a huge rat population, as did much of Europe. It was deadly bacteria that spread with flea bites. Fleas didn't travel far, but they rode on rats. Rats didn't travel far in their lifetime, but humans did, and humans transported infected rats. The plague spread to Alexandria and moved on to Syria, to Palestine and to Constantinople, where it lasted four months and killed an estimated 40 percent of the city's population before it died from a dearth of available hosts. The emperor, Justinian, was infected and seemed on the verge of death, but he was one of the lucky ones: the flea bites and disease was not too much for his immune system and he recovered.

In Italy the Ostrogoths, under a new leader, Totila, resumed their war against Justinian's forces, and they pushed these forces southward, bypassing Rome. In the spring of 543 the Ostrogoths captured Naples, with the new leader of the Ostrogoth army, Totila, treating the city's inhabitants humanely. The Ostrogoths advanced from town to town. The inhabitants of the town of Isaurius sided with the approaching Ostrogoths, and the town's garrison, loyal to Justinian's cause and to Catholicism, slaughtered them.

Around the first part of the year 546, another Ostrogoth siege of Rome began. The city's inhabitants went from eating nettles, dogs and rodents to starvation. In December, 546, a gate into Rome was opened from within, and Totila's forces rushed into the city. Justinian's troops and a few senators fled through another gate. Some within the city took refuge in churches, and a few were cut down by Totila's troops. Totila went to pray at St. Peter's Cathedral. He then had Rome destroyed, including a portion of the city's great walls.

Again naval superiority allowed Justinian to land troops in Italy, and his forces reoccupied Rome and rebuilt its walls. In 549 Totila and the Ostrogoths returned and began a third and final siege of the city. Bloody battles were fought, and the following year Totila took the city again. In 551 the superiority of Justinian's navy allowed his forces to obtain the upper hand in Italy. In 552, Justinian's forces seized two strongholds on the southern coast of Spain. And in 554 his armies finally defeated the Ostrogoths. The Pope and Justinian's Christianity now reigned supreme in Rome and central Italy. The Trinity version of Christianity had won against Arianism, violence again deciding a matter of theology.

But Justinian's conquest of Italy had drained Constantinople's resources and weakened Justinian's ability to protect his empire's northern and eastern frontiers. From the steppes west of the Don River (in today's Russia) came Bulgars, who raided, ravaged towns and farms north of Constantinople, and left again. From grasslands north of Constantinople's empire, and north of the Danube River, Slavic tribes speaking an Indo-European language invaded Constantinople's empire. Some of the Slavs turned from plunder to seizing the lands and settling into farming in sparsely populated areas and on what had been wasteland. The Slavs were followed by those who in theory are considered to be a Mongolian people – Avars – traditionally herders, bow legged from the constant riding on horseback. Like the Huns before them, they fought in cavalry formation, were organized and disciplined and were interested in plunder.

By the time of Justinian's death in 565, at age 83 or thereabouts, much of Constantinople's imperial wealth had been spent. Justinian's successor, his nephew, who took the title Justin II, inherited an empty treasury, and he discontinued Justinian's practice of buying off potential enemies. Justin halted payments to the Avars, ending a truce with the Avars that had existed since 558. United with the Avars were a Germanic tribal people called Lombards who had been moving south from around the Elbe River since the 400s. In 567, north of the empire near what today is Belgrade, they with the nomadic Eurasian Avars annihilated a Germanic tribe there: the Gepids. The Lombards moved on, across the Alps, and in 568 they reached Milan in Italy. Justin was unable to stop their march, and soon the Lombards took control of territory between Ravenna and Rome. Justinian's war for Trinity worship in Italy had become for naught.

But Trinitarianism did spread to the Visigoths in Hispania. A Visigoth king ruled all Hispania from the city of Toledo. In 589, upon taking the throne, the Visigoth monarch, Reccared, wanted to cement an alliance with Roman empire's center of power, Constantinople, and he renounced his Arian Christianity in favor of Trinitarianism.

Map of Constantinople's Empire (the Byzantine Empire)

CONTINUE READING: Making Way for Islam: Empires at War

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Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.