The Medieval Review 17.05.09

Sarantis, Alexander. Justinian's Balkan Wars: Campaigning, Diplomacy and Development in Illyricum, Thrace and the Northern World, A.D. 527-65. ARCA Classical and Medieval Texts, Papers and Monographs, 53. Prenton, UK: Francis Cairns Publications, 2016. pp. xxviii, 500. ISBN: 978-0-905205-58-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Brian Swain
Kennesaw State University

This is the best sort of military history. In a field that produces no shortage of (often excellent) work on the reification of ethnic communities or subversive intertextual discourses, Alexander Sarantis writes about forts, roads, equipment, diplomacy, and coin hoards, and he does it very well. Even so, it would be inaccurate to label Sarantis a 'traditional' historian because he heeds many of the warnings of postmodernity. He has taken the linguistic turn and is a subtle and circumspect reader of texts. Ultimately, though, the present volume is in the business of marshaling vast amounts of data from an array of sources to reconstruct what happened. Justinian's Balkan Wars is an impressive success.

The central contention of Sarantis' book is twofold: 1) the emperor Justinian pursued vigorous policies of military campaigning, divide-and-rule diplomacy, cooptation of non-Roman groups into Roman service, and fortification-building that both reasserted central imperial control over the Balkans and defended it against barbarian invasions; and 2) Justinian's policies were "extremely effective" (391). This thesis is a reaction to scholarship that holds that Justinian had no such policies--an outlook derived mainly from Procopius, but also Agathias and Menander, who claims that Justinian largely neglected the Balkans in favor of his other theaters of war, stripped the region of its military strength, and thereby exposed it to barbarian depredations. Countering traditional views that the Justinianic period witnessed the economic decline of the Balkans and Roman control over it, Sarantis argues that the vitality and integrity of the region held firm throughout the emperor's long reign, and that the decline and disintegration of Roman power in the Balkans occurred under Justinian's successors who failed to continue his successful policies.

The book is comprised of five, mostly lengthy, chapters, the first three of which span over 300 pages. It is a happy thing, then, that Sarantis is a clear and systematic writer. He furnishes each chapter with lucid and concise introductions and summaries and neatly divides subsections whose main arguments are articulated in their opening sentences. This organization is required by the sheer variety and quantity of sources under examination: literary (histories, chronicles), legal, artifactual, epigraphic, numismatic, material, even archaeobotanical. Sarantis' gaze is rooted in the physical. Both narrative and argumentative portions of the text regularly include mention of, for example, obscure river names and their tributaries, the lengths of geographical features and distances between them, the fertility of various regions, elevations and grades of mountains and their effect on troop movement, trade routes and the names of roads taken by armies, troop armaments, and descriptions of rural in addition to urban sites replete with discussions of their architectural features and building materials. Sarantis offers up a lot, and this may make reading a slog for some, but the present reviewer welcomed such an immersive accounting. As engaging as a galloping pace can be, a tour of these back roads gives one a fuller understanding of the historical terrain. But more than this, the breadth of Sarantis' source usage and historical concerns have larger methodological implications. Given that the study of the distant past is already hampered by our meager and lacunose sources, monographs such as this make it increasingly clear that the best studies of entire regions or periods will need to pursue similarly wholistic approaches.

Sarantis is not a credulous thinker: "this book will consider the contemporary literary sources fundamentally reliable, although it will take into account their literary techniques, biases and discourses. Indeed, a literary analysis of such works can bring out interesting points concerning their authors' views without detracting from their historicity" (15-16). Sarantis' approach is sound and he pursues it with success, but it should be noted that the fundamental premise of his study walks a fine line: on the one hand, he insists that the ancient authors are trustworthy enough to provide raw data for historical reconstruction, and yet his entire project is a corrective to what he argues is Procopius' misleading assessment of Justinian's actions in the Balkans. Although Sarantis never articulates this tension quite so explicitly, he remains aware of it, and works to reconcile it throughout his study (especially in chapter 3).

Moreover, while this is a study about imperial policies, its focal point is not the figure of Justinian nor does its view look out from the capital. In large part, it is the barbarians out in the Balkan provinces and beyond who capture the spotlight. Indeed, in addition to offering correctives to our understanding of imperial policy, this book doubles as the field's most systematic military and political narrative of these "barbarian groups," to use his term (passim). The author displays a fluent understanding of the heated debates over barbarian ethnicities and identities. He is a sober voice in this partisan arena, and "stick[s] to the middle ground in the ethnicity debate," trusting in the ancient authors' abilities to distinguish among different groups, and allowing that both ethnic and political forces defined group cohesion and disintegration (16-18). For example, Sarantis admits that there is much to recommend Florin Curta's thesis that Roman political and economic forces catalyzed the initial formation of Slavic ethnicity, but holds that one need not accept it entirely to benefit from it. Therefore, one can accept that the Slavs' entry into the gravitational field of Rome could further delineate the contours of their identity while still maintaining that "they already possessed distinctive characteristics which clearly set them apart from other barbarians in the minds of Roman observers, and it may be presumed their own" (76).

Chapter 1 is a chronological reconstruction of Justinian's military and diplomatic activity in the Balkans from 527 to 540, which begins the work of dislodging Procopian charges of imperial neglect. Although imperial territories faced a number of Hun, Slavic, and Germanic threats in this period, all save one (the Hun invasion of 539) were defeated by armies led by high-profile Roman generals and barbarian federate commanders. The recruitment of this latter group, among them Mundo the Gepid (51-60), was eagerly pursued by Justinian to exert Roman control over non-Roman, barbarian groups living within the empire. The size, speed, and effectiveness of Roman forces that responded to barbarian threats evince considerable Roman military presence in the Balkans (25). Indeed, one such Balkan army was even larger than Belisarius' Italian expeditionary force, a point hitherto unacknowledged (89). Count Marcellinus and Malalas fill out Procopius' sparse reporting and indicate that Roman campaigning in the Balkans was proactive, and that Roman victories in the Balkans were cause for empire-wide acclaim.

Chapter 2 retraces the chronology of the preceding chapter while focusing on Justinian's administrative reforms, fortification program, and the Balkan economy. The chapter opens with a brief overview of barbarian invasions of the Balkans since 376 both to contextualize the political landscape that Justinian inherited as well as to juxtapose fifth-century fragmentation with Justinianic efforts toward Balkan restabilization. These efforts included the creation of new administrative positions such as the Praetor of Thrace and the quaestor exercitus (Novellae 26, 41, and 50), the foundation of a new Illyrian capital at Justiniana Prima (of which Sarantis provides a vivid description by triangulating Procopius, Novella 11, and the archaeological record), and the construction and maintenance of an extensive fortification scheme. These fortifications were indicative of the imperial center's commitment to Balkan defense, but Sarantis stresses that they played an important offensive role as well. Furthermore, while this building program points to considerable investment in the provinces from Constantinople, it never could have happened without substantial funding and support from local populations. This reveals reestablished links between capital and province that had been severed in the fifth century. When all of this is placed alongside archaeological evidence for the revitalization of the Balkan economy, a general picture emerges in which renewed imperial commitment to Balkan defense, provincial buy-in, and an improved economy make for a reintegrated and restabilized Roman Balkan landscape. All of this works well to provide a physical, political, and economic context for the next rounds of barbarian threats to the Balkans treated in the remaining chapters.

Chapter 3 examines barbarian challenges from 540 to 552 and might have been titled "Sarantis vs. Procopius." Here, we see fully play out the interpretive tension established at the outset of the monograph: that the ancient authors generally should be trusted, but that Procopius' accounts and assessments of Justinian's actions in the Balkans are misleading. Sarantis stitches together the scattered bits on the Balkans from Procopius' texts, then goes about painstakingly and systematically detaching what he calls the "rhetoric" (102) and "emotive commentary" (103) that "serve to exaggerate the gravity of barbarian raids" (233) from a core of historically reliable testimony. He then supplies this testimony with a new interpretive framework in which the empire can be seen vigorously, and successfully, defending the Balkans, while barbarians are portrayed as political actors ruled by pragmatism, not savagery. The results are compelling and mostly convincing. This chapter could function as a sort of training manual for students on how to separate and reconcile the objective and subjective elements of ancient historians.

Chapter 4 builds upon the models of earlier chapters in examining Hun and Avar threats to the Balkans in the final stretch of Justinian's reign, 553-565. Here, Sarantis maintains his familiar position that barbarians were dealt with energetically and successfully through diplomacy and military action. While conceding that Hun and Avar attacks on Balkans cities and regions were "temporarily severe," he argues that Justinian's responses were successful because the incursions did not "seriously damage the long-term security or infrastructure of imperial administrative and military authority in the Balkans" (372).

Chapter 5 is a brief but effective coda that underscores the extent of Justinian's accomplishments by enumerating his successors' failures from 565 to 602. In brief, through a combination of miscalculation and neglect in both the diplomatic and military arenas, these emperors upset the careful balance of power in the northern world that Justinian had arranged. This opened the Balkans to especially devastating rounds of Avar and Slav invasions, which go far in explaining the material evidence for Balkan economic decline in the late sixth century. Sarantis ends his book by suggesting that the medieval and subsequent history of the Balkans would have looked rather different had Justinian's policies been continued.

Sarantis has proven beyond doubt the first half of his thesis: that the Justinianic administration pursued extensive military, diplomatic, and infrastructural programs in the Balkans. He has also produced what will remain an indispensable work of reference for sixth-century Roman-barbarian history. He is to be roundly commended for his efforts. But what of the second half of his thesis? Were Justinian's Balkan policies "extremely successful"? Clearly, Procopius did not think so and conveyed "a sense of genuine disappointment and disillusionment" about the pervasiveness of barbarian incursions and what he considered to be the military neglect of the Balkans and an over-willingness to appease barbarians with cash hand-outs (232). Sarantis dismisses Procopius' outlook as artificial and exaggerated. He argues that Procopius' views were colored, on the one hand, by the conventions of his classicizing literary genre which favored decisive battles and bold speeches, and held aloft the virtues of honesty, loyalty, and honor. The dictates of genre, therefore, required Procopius to lament a Balkan theatre of war characterized by guerrilla skirmishes and opportunistic, Realpolitik diplomacy. Beyond this artificiality, Sarantis also suggests that Procopius' "elite nostalgia for a Roman past" (232) that held up a "classical ideal of an all-conquering, culturally supreme, honourable and just Roman empire" (305) rendered him incapable of providing an even-handed assessment of Justinian's military and diplomatic engagements with barbarians.

Perhaps. But Procopius was not alone in his views about the Balkans. Jordanes, who, like Procopius, wrote history in the 550s, also clearly expressed how deeply disturbed he was by the regularity and destructiveness of barbarian invasions into these regions (Jordanes, Romana 388). Both of these authors published their views about the Justinianic Balkans during the emperor's lifetime (a rare thing) and wrote in the imperial capital. That they would do so under a regime singularly intolerant of dissent indicates that they wanted their voices heard. Sarantis has written convincingly about Justinian's efforts to defend the Balkans, but, in doing so, he has also produced what essentially amounts to a 400-page catalog of barbarian invasions into the Balkans over the course of Justinian's 38-year reign. These incursions were fairly common and often destructive. The Balkans remained a violent and dangerous place to live even if it was actively defended and administered. To be sure, Procopius and Jordanes were by no means purely objective or dispassionate commentators. Their fears for the safety of the empire likely led them to overstatement. But we should not underestimate the struggles of sixth-century Balkan life. These are not serious challenges to Sarantis' larger arguments, but they remind us that notions of effectiveness and success in measuring military and diplomatic policy are relative and contingent.

Copyright (c) 2017 Brian Swain

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