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Ch. 19, §§9‑12
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of the Later Roman Empire

by J. B. Bury

published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,

The text is in the public domain.

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Ch. 20


(Part 4 of 4)

§ 13. The Settlement of Italy

In the meantime Narses had been engaged in establishing an ordered administration in Italy, and restoring the life of the p282 provinces and their cities which had suffered so much through the long war. Though officially he held a military post, he acted as viceroy, and was evidently supreme over the civil functionaries as well as over the army. He had at his side a Prefect, Antiochus, at the head of the civil service, but it is significant that the title of Antiochus was not Praetorian Prefect, but simply Prefect of Italy.

The general lines for the reorganisation were laid down by the Emperor in a law which he addressed to Narses and Antiochus in August A.D. 554, and which he described as a Pragmatic Sanction.120 It was supremely important for the Italians to know immediately how far the Imperial Government would recognize the acts of Gothic rulers, particularly in regard to property. This law provides that henceforward the enactments of the Imperial Code shall apply to Italy as well as to the other parts of the Empire. All grants that were made to individuals or corporations by Athalaric, Amalasuntha, and Theodahad shall be valid, but all grants made by the tyrant Totila are annulled. All contracts made between Romans in besieged towns during the war shall remain valid.121 In many cases during the war and the Frank invasion people had been forced to flee from their homes and their property had been occupied by others; it is enacted that their property must be restored to them. The old regulations allocating funds for the repair of public buildings in Rome, for dredging the bed of the Tiber, for the repair of the aqueducts are all confirmed, and doles of food are to be supplied to the Roman populace as of old. A remarkable innovation is made in regard to provincial governors. They are no longer to be appointed from above, but to be elected for each province from among its residents by the bishops and magnates. This change may have had some arguments in its favour, but p283 it was evidently conceived in the interests of the large landed proprietors and must have increased their local power. In other regulations we see the desire to relieve the burden of taxation so far as was deemed compatible with Imperial needs.

The boundaries of the provinces122 and the general system of the civil service123 remained as they had been before the war. It is to be observed, however, that Sicily was not included in Italy. It remained under its own Praetor, who was independent of the Imperial authorities at Ravenna, and from whose courts the appeal was to the Quaestor of the Sacred Palace at Constantinople.124 Sardinia and Corsica were under the viceroy of Africa.

Narses administered Italy for thirteen years after the defeat of the Frank invaders, presiding over the work of reconstruction.125 The walls and gates of Rome were restored, and one of the few memorials of the time records the rebuilding of a bridge across the Anio, which had been destroyed by the Goths, about two miles from the city on the Via Salaria.126 Perhaps the most troublesome concern with which the Patrician was called upon to deal was the danger of ecclesiastical strife arising out of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in A.D. 553. The circumstances of that assembly will be described in another chapter. The Pope Vigilius who had been forced against his will to subscribe to its decisions died on his way back to Rome on January 7, A.D. 555, and his archdeacon Pelagius was, at the instance of the Emperor, consecrated as his successor on April 13. Pelagius was unpopular in Italy; he was suspected of having in some way caused the death of Vigilius, and only two Italian bishops could be found willing to consecrate him. Narses was present at the ceremony at St. Peter's, and Pelagius took the Gospels in his hand and swore that he was innocent.127 His oath p284 calmed the popular feeling, but, if he had had his way, he would soon have created a dangerous schism in the Italian Church. In northern Italy particularly, the opinion of the bishops was against the decisions of the recent Council, while the new Pope was determined to enforce them and expel from their sees those who refused to accept them. He wrote repeatedly to Narses requesting or rather requiring of him to use the secular arm against the contumacious bishops.128 Narses wisely declined to do anything, and the Imperial government, in the interests of peace, adopted throughout the Empire the policy of suspending the anathemas of the Council and allowing time to heal the discord which the controversy had caused. This unusual moderation, which we may probably attribute to the advice of Narses, was successful. If the matter had rested with the Pope, the Church in Italy would have been rent in twain at a moment when concord and peace were imperatively needed.

The secluded city of the marshes continued to be the seat of government in Italy under Justinian and his successors until it was lost to the Empire in the eighth century. The Empress Placidia had lavished money in making it a treasure-house of art; the barbarian king Theoderic had lived up to her example; and after its recovery by their armies, Justinian and Theodora, who knew it only by reputation, were eager to associate their names with the artistic monuments of Ravenna.

The octagonal church of St. Vitalis, close to Placidia's mausoleum, had been designed and begun under the regency of Amalasuntha, and the building was continued during the war, perhaps by the Ostrogoths themselves. But it was completed and decorated under the auspices of Justinian and Theodora, who made it peculiarly their own, — a monument of the Imperial restoration. It was consecrated by the archbishop Maximian in A.D. 547, the year before the death of the Empress, and in the mosaic decoration of the apse the most striking pictures are those of the two sovrans facing each other offering their gifts to the church. But it was not only by their portraits that they appropriated St. Vitalis. Justinian gave it his own impress in the scheme of the Scriptural scenes which are portrayed. They are not simply, as in the other Ravennate churches, intended to illustrate sacred history. The motive is theological, they are p285 designed to inculcate doctrine, probably the orthodox view on the question which was agitating the world, the two natures of Christ.129 The effects are fine, but these mosaics are far from possessing the charm of those which adorn the sepulchral church of Placidia.

Another church which had been begun by the Goths during the war and was left to their conquerors to complete was dedicated two years later (A.D. 549) to St. Apollinaris, not in the city itself but in the port of Classis. But many of the mosaics of this basilica, which still stands in the marshes, were executed at a later period; among them is the portrait of an Emperor who ascended the throne a hundred years after Justinian's death.130

The decorations of Theoderic's basilica of St. Martin were completed under Justinian, and a mosaic representation of the Emperor's bust was put up on the façade,131 but was afterwards transferred to a chapel in the interior where it may still be seen. In his time the church was still St. Martin's; it was not till the ninth century that it received the remains of Apollinaris, the tutelary saint of Ravenna, and was re-dedicated to his name.132

The island city, which was later to become the queen of the Hadriatic, had not yet been founded. But it is probable that long before the reign of Justinian inhabitants of the Venetian mainland had been settling in the islands of the lagoons, Malamocco and Rialto, as a secure retreat where they could escape such dangers as the invasions of Alaric and Attila. Under Gothic rule we find the people of this coast in possession of numerous ships, and they were employed to transport wine and oil from Istria to Ravenna. The minister Cassiodorus, in a picturesque despatch, calling upon them to perform this office, likens them to sea-birds.133 But though danger from Visigoth and Hun may have prepared the way for the rise of a city in the lagoons, it was not till three years after Justinian's death, when the Lombards descended into the land, that any such p286 large and permanent settlements were made on the islands that they could properly be described as the foundation of Venice.134

§ 14. Conquests in Southern Spain

It is impossible to say whether Justinian in the early years of his reign had formed any definite plan for reconquering Spain, but we may be sure that it was one of his ambitions, and that if the fall of Witigis had led immediately to the recovery of Italy, he would have sought a prize for carrying his victorious arms against the Visigoths. But before he had completed the subjugation of the Ostrogoths he was invited to intervene in Spain, and, although the issue of the Italian war was still far from certain, he did not hesitate to take advantage of the occasion.

Theoderic, who was regent of the Visigothic kingdom during the minority of his grandson Amalaric, had entrusted the conduct of affairs to Theudis, a capable general, and after the death of Theoderic and the end of the regency Theudis continued to be the virtual ruler. The young king, who had none of the qualities of either his father or his grandfather, married a Frank princess, and this mixed marriage proved unfortunate. Amalaric behaved so brutally to her because she refused to embrace his Arian faith that she invoked the aid of her brother king Childebert, and he advanced against Narbonne. Amalaric marched to defend his Gallic possessions, was defeated in battle, and was then slain in a mutiny of his own army (A.D. 531).135 The throne was seized by Theudis, who reigned for seventeen years, and after a short intervening reign136 was succeeded by Agila (A.D. 549). But Agila was not universally acceptable to the people; civil war broke out, and after a struggle of five years he was overthrown by his opponent Athanagild, who ascended the throne (A.D. 554).

In this struggle Athanagild sought the support of the Emperor, and the Emperor sent a fleet to the southern coasts of Spain. The commander of this expedition was the octogenarian patrician p287 Liberius, who, it will be remembered, had set out to defend Sicily against Totila, and had hardly reached the island before a more experienced general was sent to take his place.137 As he appears not to have returned to Constantinople till late in A.D. 551, it is probable that he received commands to sail directly to Spain with the troops who had accompanied him to Sicily, in A.D. 550, for the date of his expedition cannot have been later than in this year. As the armament must have been small, it achieved a remarkable success. Many maritime cities and forts were captured.138 They were captured professedly in the interests of Athanagild, but when Athanagild's cause had triumphed, the Imperialists refused to hand them over and the Visigoths were unable to expel them. Athanagild recovered a few places,139 but Liberius had established an Imperial province in Baetica which was to remain under the rule of Constantinople for about seventy years. There can be no doubt that this change of government was welcomed by the Spanish-Roman population.

We have very few details as to the extent of this Spanish province. It comprised districts and towns to the west as well as to the east of the Straits of Gades; it included the cities of New Carthage, Corduba, and Assionia;140 we do not know whether at any time it included Hispalis. It was placed under a military governor who had the rank of Master of Soldiers, but we do not know whether he was independent or subordinate to the governor of Africa.141

It is curious that the two well-informed historical writers who have narrated the fortunes of Justinian's armies in Italy in these years, Procopius and Agathias, should not have made even an incidental reference to this far-western extension of Roman rule. But Agathias was a poet as well as a historian, p288 and in verses which describe how Justinian has girdled the world with his empire, he alludes to the conquest of which in his History he was silent. Let the Roman traveller, he says, follow the steps of Hercules over the blue western sea and rest on the sands of Spain, he will still be within the borders of the wise Emperor's sovranty.142

The Author's Notes:

120 Considerable extracts are preserved, and will be found in editions of the Novellae (e.g. App. vii in Kroll's ed.). Another law, relating to debts incurred before the Frank invasion, and the rights of creditors, is incompletely preserved (App. viii). For the title and powers of the Prefect of Italy see Diehl, Études sur l'adm. byz. 157 seq.

121 § 6 quod enim ritu perfectum est, per fortuitos belli casus subverti subtilitatis non patitur ratio.

122 A new province, Alpes Cottiae, seems to have been cut off from Liguria; Diehl, op. cit. p3.

123 As to the meagre evidence for the vicarius Italiae residing at Milan) and the vicarius urbis Romae see Diehl, op. cit. p161.

124 Cp. above, p216; Diehl, p169.

125 His usual title was simply patricius (see next note; Pelagius, Ep. 2, P. L. lxix.393 patricius et dux in Italia.

126 It was destroyed in 1798. The inscription (CIL VI.1199) is dated in 565 and records how Narses expraeposito sacri palatii, excons. atque patricius after his Gothic victory, ipsis eorum regibus celeritate mirabili conflictu publico superatis atque prostratis, libertate urbis Romae ac totius Italiae restituta restored the bridge a nefandissimo Totila tyranno destructum. It concludes with eight verses of which the last two are

qui potuit rigidas Gothorum subdere mentes,
hic docuit durum flumina ferre iugum.

127 See his life in Lib. Pont.

128 Pelagius, Epp. ii.4 (P. G. lxix pp392, 397).

129 See Dalton, Byz. Art. 357‑360.

130 Constantine IV.

131 During the last years of the reign (553‑566).

132 Another church of the Justinianean period with St. Michael's (in Affricisco), A.D. 545. Its mosaics were sold to the king of Prussia in 1847 and are preserved in the Berlin museum.

133 Variae, xii.24.

134 See Kretschmayr, Geschichte von Venedig, p19. The foundation of Grado was older, but it was the Lombard invasion that transformed it into an important city and made it definitely the residence of the Patriarch of Aquileia.

135 Chron. Caesarum (in Chron. min. ii p223).

136 Thiudigisalus, 548‑59.

137 See above, p255. He died in Italy (later than 554); and was buried at Ariminum (CIL XI.382).

138 Jordanes, Get. c58. As he was writing in 551, we cannot place the expedition later than in 550. Isidore, Chron. 399; Hist. Goth. p286. For the return of Liberius to Constantinople see Procopius, B. G. IV.24.1.

139 Isidore, ib.; Greg. Tur. H. Fr. iv.8. Athanagild reigned 554 to 567.

140 John Biclar. Chron., sub 570. Dahn (Kön. der Germ. v p178) defines two groups of towns, (1) eastern on the Mediterranean, from Colopona to Sucruna, and (2) western, including Lacobriga and Ossonoba. See also Altamira, in C. Med. H. ii p164.

141 An inscription of New Carthage, of A.D. 589, records that Comentiolus, sent by the Emperor Maurice to defend the province, bore the title of magister militum Spaniae (CIL II.3420).

142 In the introduction to the Anthology which he edited (Anth. Gr. IV.3.82 sqq.). The passage ends with:

οὐδὲ γὰρ ὀθνείης σε δεδέξεταιτ᾽ ἤθεα γαίης,

ἀλλὰ σοφοῦ κτεάνοισιν ὁμιλήσεις βασιλῆος,

ἔνθα κεν ἀϊξειας, ἐπεὶ κυκλώσατο κόσμον


In l. 82 κυανωπὸν ὑπὲρ δύσιν means the waters of the west Mediterranean. There may be an allusion to the Spanish conquest in the poem of Paul the Silentiary on St. Sophia, v. 228:

ἠρεμέει καὶ Μῆδος ἄναξ καὶ Κελτὶς ὁμοκλή.

Cp. vv. 11‑13.

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