West versus East: the Sixth Century Literary Sources and Justinian’s Wars

West versus East: the Sixth Century Literary Sources and Justinian’s Wars

By Maria Kouroumali

Paper given at Thirty-Eighth Annual Byzantine Studies Conference, held at Hellenic College Holy Cross in Boston, Massachusetts on November 2, 2012

Most scholars of the Byzantine empire have given an important role to Justinian’s invasion of Italy during the sixth century – it has been envisioned as a grand reconquest of the West by the East. This impression is largely due to the prominence of the war in the writings of Procopius, who devotes nearly four books to the Gothic Wars.

The Gothic Wars were fought between 535 and 554, as the Byzantine generals Belisarius and later Narses undertook campaigns to retake the lands of Italy from the Ostrogoths. Procopius’ account offers extensive coverage of the battles and sieges that took place in Sicily and on the Italian mainland.

However, Kouroumali notes that beyond Procopius and Agathias of Myrina, who continued the former’s work in his own History, other sources contribute almost nothing to events in Italy. Two important contemporary Byzantine sources, the Chronicle of Marcellinus and The Chronographia of John Malalas, have very little to say about the Gothic Wars while giving more comprehensive coverage to other conflicts. Malalas, for example, mentions the war in Italy only eight times in his Chronographia, and some of these references contain erroneous content.

Kouroumali also notes that Western sources, including such as Cassiodorus, Jordanes, and the collection of Pope’s lives known as the Liber Pontificalis, have little to say about the Byzantine invasion of Italy. She believes that the absence of details in these Byzantine and western sources “point to a lack of interest in the affairs of Italy.”

One needs to ask whether or not Justinian himself was that much interested in Italy – Kouroumali argues that the Emperor gave priority to the other corners of his empire, namely the Eastern front against the Persians and the Balkans. Even the campaign against the Vandals in North Africa was more important for the Byzantines, as this territory had rich agricultural potential and the religious persecution by the Arian Vandals made it more imperative for Justinian to send troops against them.

Kouroumali adds that the war in Italy was so long and drawn out because Justinian did not not send enough resources for his generals to be able to accomplish their campaigns against the Ostrogoths.

– Report by Peter Konieczny

See also our interview with Maria Kouroumali

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