Friday, November 11, 2016


Alexander Sarantis, Justinian's Balkan Wars: Campaigning, Diplomacy and Development in Illyricum, Thrace and the Nothern World A.D. 527-65. ARCA: Classical and Medieval Texts, Papers and Monographs, 53. Prenton: Francis Cairns, 2016. Pp. xv, 500. ISBN 9780905205588. $170.00.

Reviewed by Jan Prostko-Prostyński, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book is based on the author's doctoral dissertation from the University of Oxford (2006), but it has been completely re-written and nearly doubled in length. Certain conclusions and opinions from the original dissertation have been modified.

The main premise of Justinian's Balkan Wars is an observation that secondary works on the emperor Justinian follow Procopius (Secret History 11.5) in neglecting the emperor's Balkan policies and viewing them as of secondary importance (p. 4). Alexander Sarantis also emphasises that the majority of these works focus either on particular groups of barbarians or on particular regions of the Balkans. In his opinion, this is due to the widely-held view of the low strategic importance of the Balkans in Justinian's plans. The author therefore intends not only to fill this gap, but also to prove that Justinian was far from treating the Balkans as a less politically or strategically important area of the empire.

The book contains a detailed reconstruction of the military and diplomatic affairs in the Balkans during Justinian's reign, as well as of the aims and activities of his barbarian rivals, on the basis of narrative sources. The research method method adopted by Sarantis implies that those events should not be perceived in isolation, and thus he seeks to understand them in the light of imperial legislative projects, socio-economic trends, and natural and manmade landscapes (12). Note, however, that the legislative measures of the imperial government were often, in practice, merely reactions to already existing problems of all kinds.

Sarantis fully appreciates the importance of epigraphic and numismatic evidence as well as of archaeological reports and he uses them all to construct an image of urban and rural settlement in the Balkan provinces in the age of Justinian. He acknowledges 'a recent boom' (10) in archaeological research there (but with a striking omission of Novae, Lower Moesia, near present-day Svishtov in Bulgaria), yet stresses the difficulties in linking research results. The archaeological data is most often dated to broad chronological periods, e.g., the fourth, fifth, sixth, fourth-fifth, fifth-sixth century. Only coin hoards might be more closely linked to historical events; however there is still a difference of opinion among researchers even in this (11 and n. 52). Sarantis is methodologically correct when he claims that archaeological records must be 'analysed as critically as textual evidence' (19). However, every historian knows that for very practical reasons 'a critical analysis' of some of these records is often impossible.

The book is divided into three chronological periods: 527-540, 540-552, and 552-565. Chapters 1 and 2 cover the first of these periods. Chapter 1 discusses Justinian's diplomatic and military responses to the threats from the Huns and Bulgarians, who occupied the territory north of the Black Sea; from the Germanic Gepids, Lombards and Herules; and from the Slavic Sclaveni and Antae in the south-eastern regions of the Carpathians (21). The discussion of the Huns begins with their invasion of Thrace ca. 528. It is followed by an account of the baptism of king Grodes in Constantinople and its consequences. This part ends with the Huns' raid of 539. The monograph then addresses Germanic affairs, including an alliance with the Herules in 527/8, with Mundo the mercenary, and with the Gepids, and assesses their role in the fight against the Ostrogoths in the Balkans. The overview of Slavic affairs begins with a debate on the ethnogenesis of the Slavs and the arrival of their first representatives (Antae and Sclaveni) at the border of the empire. The final part explores their earliest raids on Roman territory.

Chapter Two examines Justinian's internal reforms and the fortification programme, and—more widely—Balkan settlement patterns of the fifth and sixth centuries and their socio-economic contours. The author even attempts to survey barbarian invasions and the loss of control over the Balkans between 376 and 488 by previous emperors (which is a debatable issue).

Chapters Three and Four examine military and diplomatic affairs in the second and third chronological periods. The Huns, Slavs, Herules, Gepids, Lombards, Avars, and even again the Goths (293-295), appear alternately as opponents and allies of Justinian between 540 and 565. Chapter Four includes archaeological evidence that can be more specifically associated with the barbarian invasions and raids in the 540s and 550s.

Finally, Chapter Five provides an outline of events in the Balkans until 602, actually until the Avaro-Slavic attack on Constantinople in 626. Perhaps some researchers will find this chapter redundant in a book exploring Justinian's policy. However, in my opinion, a look at the consequences of Justinian's policy during the reign of his successors is a definite asset of the book.

The main advantage of Justinian's Balkan Wars is its convincing presentation of the consistent actions of the Eastern Roman central administration during the reign of Justinian, which aimed at obtaining full control of the Balkan territories of the empire. Sarantis shows convincingly that Justinian's policy was pragmatic and varied. The emperor effectively combined divide-and-rule diplomacy with military force, a system of fortifications, and by settling various barbarian groups on the empire's northern boundary. There should not be much doubt that Justinian's civilian and military reforms as well as his construction projects contributed immensely to the strengthening of the overall strategic defence of the region. The author also demonstrates that, compared to the fifth century, in the Justinianic era a Balkan policy was pursued with great energy.

Arguably the most important contribution of this work is the fact that Sarantis has proven that Justinian did conduct a Balkan policy. The author rightly observes that it was, to a large extent, based 'on the efforts and initiative of centrally appointed and loyal bishops, generals, civil administrators and itinerant architects' (398). The policy's success was the result of efforts of those people as well. Justinian's Balkan Wars not only successfully presents an overall picture of the situation but also critically establishes a number of meticulous details.

These (generally) convincing research results were achieved not only thanks to Sarantis' diligent analysis of sources, but perhaps mainly because of his effort to combine various types of evidence such as narrative and normative sources, archaeological, numismatic, epigraphic, and even palynological data, to highlight the studied issues. It was not an easy task considering that the Justinianic era lasted for a relatively long time and that relevant sources are fairly numerous. Only in a few cases was it possible to correlate these diverse pieces of evidence. Even Procopius' Buildings—the only literary text that refers to architectural structures and landscapes—cannot always be precisely correlated with modern maps. It can nevertheless be roughly correlated with modern archaeological data, and sometimes with specific sites. Although, obviously, Sarantis is not the first one to employ the method of combining data from all available sources, such a methodology admittedly reaches its apogee in this monograph.

Some objections are unavoidable in the case of such a large-scale book. Some of Sarantis' specific conclusions require wider discussion, for which there is not enough space here. I confine myself to a few remarks.

The author's claim that Justinian's Balkan policy was 'a hitherto neglected aspect' (xi) of his reign is an exaggeration.1 The vast bibliography referred to in the book seems to prove otherwise (407-454). In addition, Sarantis does not refer to all previous secondary works and refers to only a few in the Slavic languages.

It is also not uncommon for the author to attempt to assess some secondary works based on conclusions in other secondary works, instead of directly analysing primary sources (e.g., 76 ff., 161-162 n. 272, 164, n. 284, 280 n. 251).

Furthermore, I must object to the abuse of the term 'barbarian group(s)' when 'barbarian peoples, tribes, and nations' are to be expected (e.g., at 3 and passim). These expressions are grounded in the ancient sources, while the term 'barbarian group(s),' for example Latin pars barbarorum (if the latter may be taken as the equivalent of "barbarian group") is rarely found in historical sources.

It is also hard to understand why the author felt compelled to enter the debate on the origins and ethnogenesis of the Slavs (72-82), without having knowledge of secondary works in the Slavic languages or in German, or not being an expert in linguistics. With the meagre historical data that we have, the problem of the emergence of one of the largest language groups ​​in Europe is never going to be solved by archaeologists, but by linguists, folklorists, and experts in comparative religious studies and DNA research. Sarantis relies heavily on Florin Curta's hypothesis, which stipulates that the ethnogenesis of the Slavs took place as a result of interactions between Romans and extant ethnic 'groups' living north of the Lower Danube in the sixth century. Sarantis disagrees with merely a few points. For example, he believes that migration did play some role in the emergence of the Slavs on the Lower Danube (81), yet rightly rules out the idea that the Slavs moved from Ukraine to the Danube en masse.

However, it is methodically inappropriate not to recognise the links between Venethi (Slavs) of Jordanes and the Venethi/Venedi of Pliny the Elder, Tacitus, and Ptolemy, who are considered to have been located somewhere west or east of the Vistula River (Poland). This must have been a very ancient Germanic term for the Slavs and only the Slavs, which made it into Latin and Greek sources. The term was still used in the Middle Ages by the Germans to refer to the Western Slavs, and by the Scandinavians to refer to both the Western and Eastern Slavs. There is little doubt that the authors of Scandinavian sagas did not read Jordanes. Sarantis' interpretation of Jordanes (Getica 5.35) is partly wrong and partly arguable. It is wrong to claim that the Sclaveni and the Antae 'were located south and south-west of the Hun groups' (66). In fact, the opposite is true: the Huns were to the south of the Slavs.

Having perhaps been influenced by Florin Curta, Sarantis accepts (65-66) that, according to Jordanes, the westernmost settlement point of the Sclaveni was Noviodunum (Iaşi) on the Lower Danube. However, it is quite possible (as accepted by several earlier researchers) that Jordanes is talking about Neviodunum/Noviodunum in Pannonia. In this case the Slavic (Sclaveni) settlement would have had a broader territorial base along the Danube. The author does not quote those who identify Neviodunum/Noviodunum in Pannonia as Jordanes' civitas Novietunense.

I also cannot see how Procopius' Secret History 11.5 refer specifically to any negligence on Justinian's part relating to his Balkan policies (4). The purport of this statement is a general criticism of the emperor's reign, and the Huns are mentioned (as a pars pro toto for other barbarians) simply because from the time of Attila they were synonymous with the wildest of the barbarians, at least in the eyes of a Roman audience.

Justinian's Balkan Wars neglects the fact that Justinian captured two major treasuries, i.e., those of king Gelimer and king Wittigis, in 534 and 540, respectively, which were important events in the context of the emperor's active policy in the Balkans and elsewhere. We have no knowledge whatsoever of the amount of money stored in the treasuries; still, Theodoric the Great is known to have saved forty thousand pounds of gold. In any case, this made extra money available to the emperor, which could have been used to finance his policies.

It is true that in ancient literature the mysterious land of Thule is generally located in Scandinavia, sometimes Iceland or other islands, and that its location varies depending on the ancient writer (44, 257). However, Procopius' Thule is described as an island ten times the size of Britannia; hence its identification with Scandinavia seems unquestionable. At that time Greenland still remained unexplored.

Praevalitana rather than Prevalitana should be preferably used in Map 2.

Maps 3 and 7 show Hun raids on Illyricum and southern Thrace in 529 and in 539, respectively. The book nevertheless provides no proof that those Huns sat north of the Danube and west of the Carpathian Mountains, as in the days of Attila.

Considering the scale of research the author needed to undertake, some minor shortcomings were perhaps unavoidable. Alexander Sarantis' enormous, strenuous, and multilateral efforts must be certainly praised. This monograph is going to be a seminal reference source for all scholars studying Justinian's era.

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgements
List of Plates
1. Historiography
2. Aims and Approaches
Chapter 1
The Early Justinianic Period: New Threats to the Balkans, Diplomatic Alliances and Imperial Military Campaigns, ca. 527–40
1. The Hun Invasion of Thrace, ca. 528
2. The Baptism of Grod and a Roman Expedition to the Straits of Kerch, ca. 527/28
3. The Baptism of King Grepes and the  Herul Alliance, ca. 527–28
4. The Recruitment of Mundo the Gepid and his Victories over Huns, Gepids and Bulgars, A.D. 529–30
5. The Roman-Gepid Alliance and Attack on Gothic-held Sirmium, ca. A.D. 530
6. The Origins of the Slavs and Justinian's Slavic Policy, A.D. 531–34
a). The Sklaveni and the Antae
b). The debate regarding the origins and ethnogenesis of the Slavs
c). The campaigns of the Magister Militum per Thraciam, Chilbudius, A.D. 531–34
7. The Roman-Gothic War in Dalmatia and Justinian's Gepid-Lombard Diplomacy, ca. A.D. 535–40
8. The Hun Attack of 539
9. Summary
Chapter 2
Justinian's Internal Reforms: Administrative Centralisation, Fortification Work and Socio-Economic Developments, ca. A.D. 527–42
1. Barbarian Invasions and the Decline of Imperial Control in the Balkans, ca.376–488
a). Huns and Goths in the Balkans
b). The archaeological evidence for the 4th to 5th c. Balkans
2. The First Signs of Recovery during the Reign of Anastasius, A.D. 491–514
3. The Rebellion of Vitalian, ca. 514–516
4. Justin I's and Justinian's Responses to Military Discontent, ca. 518–535
5. Administrative Reforms in Thrace
a). Novella 26, 'Concerning the Praetor of Thrace' (18 May 535)
b). Novella 41 (18 May 536) and Novella 50 'The constitution addressed to Bonus' (1 September 537)
6. Justiniana Prima, a new Illyrian Capital
a). Novella 11 'Concerning the privileges of the Archbishop of Justiniana Prima' (April 535)
b). The archaeological evidence from Caričin Grad and Procopius' description of Justiniana Prima in Buildings 4.17–27
7. Justinian's Fortification Programme
a). Textual evidence for Justinianic building work: Procopius' Buildings book 4 and inscriptions
b). The Chronology of Justinianic Fortification Work
c). Archaeological evidence for the Balkan fortification system in the Justinianic period
d). The Military Role of Balkan Fortifications
8. The Society and Economy of the Justinianic Balkans
a). The agricultural economy and aristocratic elites
b). Religion: church building and administration and the roles of ecclesiastical, imperial and local elites
c). Commercial and industrial activity
d). The role of local groups, professional artisans and central authorities in fortification work
9. Summary
Chapter 3
Crises in the Balkans:Pannonian Wars, Barbarian Raids and Imperial Responses, ca. A.D. 540–52
1. Introduction
2. Procopius' History of the Balkan Wars
3. The Hun Attack of 544
4. The Slavic World ca. 540–45: The Sklaveni-Antae War, an Antae Raid on Thrace, and the Roman-Antae Alliance
5. The Herul Leadership Dispute and Rebellion ca. A.D. 545–48
a). The Heruls' military roles
b). The Herul rebellion
6. The Rise of Gepid Power under King Thorisin and the Gepid-Lombard Wars, ca. A.D. 548 to 552
7. Barbarian Raids on the Balkans, A.D. 545–51
a). The Sklaveni raids of A.D. 545, 548, 549/50, 550–51, 551 and 552
b). The Kutrigur Hun raid of A.D. 550–51
c). The Hun raid of ca. A.D. 551/52
d). The Gothic raid on Epirus Vetus, ca. A.D. 551/52
e). The rebellion of Ildiges and Goar, ca. A.D. 552
f). The impact of barbarian invasions and rebellions, ca. 544–51: the evidence of coin hoards
8. Justinian's Diplomatic and Military Responses to the Gepid-Lombard Wars, Herul Rebellion and Barbarian Raids, A.D. 545–52
a). Diplomatic initiatives
b). Roman Military Campaigns in the Balkans
9. The Defeat of the Gepids in 552
10. Summary
Chapter 4
The Late Justinianic Period: Hun Raids and the Arrival of the Avars, A.D. 553–65
1. Justinian's Later Years: the Historical Context
2. Literary Sources for the Late-Justinianic Balkans
3. The First Avar-Roman Diplomatic Exchange, ca. 557–58
4. The Kutrigur Hun-Slav Invasion of A.D. 559
a). The causes and course of the invasion, and imperial military responses
b). Justinian's negotiation of the Kutrigurs' departure from the Balkans
c). Coin hoard evidence for the Kutrigur-Sklaveni raid of A.D. 559
5. The Avars' Defeats of the Antae, ca. 557–62 and Second Diplomatic Exchange with the Imperial Authorities, ca. 561–62
6. Spring 562: Justinian Establishes the Scholarii at Heraclea and the Huns Raid Thrace
7. Archaeological Evidence for the Impact of Barbarian Invasions on the Balkans, 539–65
a). Archaeological evidence for barbarian attacks
i. Destruction evidence from archaeological sites
ii. Coin hoards
b). Archaeological evidence for post-550 socio-economic decline as a result of barbarian invasions during the reign of Justinian
i. Urban and rural stagnation and decline
ii. Epigraphic evidence
iii. Numismatic evidence
8. Summary
Chapter 5
The Balkans Post-Justinian: Avaro-Slav Invasions and Imperial Responses, A.D. 565–602
1. Avar and Slav Invasions
2. Imperial Responses
3. Coin Hoard Evidence for the Post-Justinianic Era
4. The Reign of Heraclius
1. Barbarian Aims and the Impact of their Raids
2. Justinian's Diplomatic and Military Policies
3. Justinian's Internal Reforms
4. Impact of Internal Reforms on Military and Diplomatic Policies
5. Imperial Bias of the Textual Sources
6. Wider Historical Significance of Justinian's Balkan Policy



1.   See p. 8: "A small number of articles have been written on Justinian's Balkans..."

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