This was brought to me by DelanceyPlace.com which sends daily interesting excerpts from books. Today they quote from James J. O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire (HarperCollins; 2008), pages: 285-289.
Though most historians have praised Justinian I, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (483 – 565 AD), because of the great monuments he built, martial victories he claimed, and legal code he sponsored, and have blamed his failures on the plague, in reality he ruined the finances of his Empire through his profligate spending on these wars and monuments.
Here is the excerpt from O’Donnell’s book:
Humankind does not live by edifices alone. The constant temptation of ancient monarchs was to seize grandeur rather than earn it, by coercing resources from the margins to the center, to invest in ostentation and display. The Justinian who is remembered for what he built is not the Justinian of history – or, rather, is an embodiment of the weakness of that Justinian. To see Hagia Sophia and the great church Justinian built in Jerusalem as testimonies to his weakness and shortsightedness is to see them as they really are. The outsize scale of his buildings shouts aloud the ego and insecurity of their creator. Justinian and his great empire proved vulnerable to the tiniest of enemies, the plague bacillus.
The years in which his military campaigns in the west went bad and he found himself in his Italian quagmire were dismal ones spent close to home. So much Justinian scholarship has concentrated on the self-glorifying legal, military, and architectural self-assertion of the early years that an important recent scholarly work was impishly called ‘The Other Age of Justinian’ – precisely to signal the long years of frustration and decline that formed part of the career of this grandiose monarch. …
Ancient empires kept abundant financial records, but hardly any of those documents survive. (Palaces and their archives are designed to be plundered, sooner or later.) A recent scholar has made some sober estimates of the profligacy of Justinian’s expenditures. A summary of the bad news runs something like this:
Justinian’s wars cost him about 36 million solidi, with some interesting proportions:
- About 5 million on the eastern front,
- About 8 million in Africa, half of it after ‘victory’ was achieved in Belisarius’s short campaign
- About 21.5 million in Italy, fully half of it in the last two ruinous years 552-554,
- By comparison, his annual revenues for a good year of his reign amounted to about 5 million solidi; when Africa and Italy were added to his domains, they brought about another ten percent each, or 500,000 solidi each. Most of that revenue was expended locally on governing those restive provinces.
When he began to feel the financial pressures of such extravagant wars, Justinian took the natural action of a martial but improvident ruler: he plundered his own subjects and attacked his own currency, progressively thinning out the amount of bronze in the coinage and profiting handsomely at the treasury as a result. The effects of such a devaluation [inflation] were slow but inevitable.
Justinian’s successor inherited (with Italy and Africa) greater responsibilities than Justinian began with, and had far more restricted financial capacity to address them. No emperor at Constantinople after Justinian had the opportunity for both lavish construction and warfare that Justinian had squandered so unwisely.
I haven’t read this book, but I just started The New Deal in Old Rome, by H. J. Haskell.