The age of Justinian was famous for its military expeditions and the partial recovery of the western imperial territories. But before the recovery could begin, Justinian had to disengage the empire from an ongoing war with Persia. How did he do it and what price was he willing to pay?
The Sassanid Persian Empire
The Sassanid Persian Empire was a constant thorn in the side of the Roman and later the Byzantine Empire for centuries. Succeeding the Parthian Empire in 224, the Sassanid era lasted till 651 when it fell to the Muslims. At the height of its power, Sassanid territories stretched from south-western Pakistan to Turkey. Naturally, the Romans and the Byzantines could not ignore the might and influence of such a large empire. In their diplomatic relations, they had to regard the Sassanids as equals.
Shah Kavad’s first war with the Byzantines
In 488, Kavad ascended the throne as Shah of Persia. But the favour he showed the controversial Mazdakite sect caused him to lose his throne to his brother in 496. In 498, Kavad returned from exile to win the civil war and regain his throne. But he did not manage this alone. To regain his throne, Kavad allied himself with the White Huns. And as part of their agreement, he had to pay them a tribute. Unfortunately, years of civil war and barbarian invasions had depleted his treasury. Meanwhile, the Bulgars were raiding the western borders of the Byzantine Empire while the Arabs were raiding the south-east. Aware of these developments, Kavad tried to exploit the situation to pay off his debts. He demanded a tribute from the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius in return for maintaining the peace. But Anastasius refused.
Kavad was now in an uncomfortable position. If he did not pay the White Huns, he would lose their support and the throne he had just recovered. On the other hand, attacking the Byzantine Empire was a risky venture. There was a probability that he might lose the war and his throne. In the end, Kavad decided to take a gamble. In 502, he assembled his army to attack the Byzantines. They marched into Byzantine Armenia to pillage and plunder Martyropolis and Theodosiopolis. Then Kavad followed up his success by capturing Amida in northern Mesopotamia in 503.
But Anastasius had not refused the tribute out of foolish pride. He was confident of the reforms he had made to the Byzantine army. However, as the army was under three separate commands, the commanders’ lack of cooperation allowed Kavad to attain his initial successes. In 504, Anastasius remedied his mistake and placed the Byzantine army under a single commander. Thus unified, the Byzantine long awaited counterattack began. They recaptured Amida and raided Persian Armenia in retaliation.
In 505, Kavad was fighting the White Huns and had no chance of retaliating against the Byzantines. Negotiation between both sides began and Anastasius agreed to pay a tribute of 39,600 nomismata a year. In 506, the truce became official and the Persian war ended. The recent hostilities brought the weakness of the frontier to the attention of Anastasius. Prudently, Anastasius ordered the building of a fortified base at Dara in Mesopotamia. He also strengthened the other frontier fortifications in Armenia for future military operations against the Persians.
The unusual request of Shah Kavad
The peace between the Byzantines and the Persians lasted till 525. By this time Kavad was already in his final years. As such, his main concern was the succession of his favourite third son, Khusrau. But Khusrau’s older brothers and the influential Mazdakite sect opposed Kavad’s decision. Kavad once again turned to the Byzantine Empire. He requested that the Emperor Justin adopt Khusrau. Kavad probably reasoned that if Justin adopted Khusrau, Khusrau would have the backing of the Byzantines to defend his claim to the Persian throne. Justin and Justinian were thrilled at the idea for they viewed this as a Godsend to strengthen relations between the two empires. But the Quaestor, the highest legal authority in the empire, Proculus vehemently objected. He pointed out that the adoption of Khusrau gave the Persian prince a claim to the Byzantine throne as well. Instead he proposed adopting Khusrau as Justin’s son-in-arms. This way, Khusrau would not have a claim to the Byzantine throne.
Kavad was greatly annoyed to see his favourite son treated in such a manner. Worsening matters, the Iberian King Gourgen sought the protection of the Byzantines. Viewing themselves as the defenders of the one true faith, the Byzantines agreed to assist his revolt against Persian rule to protect the Christian Iberians. With the failure of negotiations, Kavad resorted to the same tactic he used 20 years ago. In 526, he once again declared war on the empire to achieve his aims.
Shah Kavad’s second war with the Byzantines
Kavad however did not launch a full scale attack against the Byzantines immediately. That would have been costly and unwise. Instead he got his allies to do the dirty work for him and the Byzantines in turn did the same. Back and forth the pawns of the two mighty empires skirmished along the borders.
The war however, went badly for the Byzantines during the early years when they fielded their army. Byzantine offensives only resulted in failures. Meanwhile, the Persians put down the Iberian revolt by 527. By this time, the aged Emperor Justin had passed away and Justinian succeeded him as the new emperor. Immediately, Justinian turned his attention to the ongoing Persian War and replaced the commanders with his own chosen men. He entrusted the command of the eastern forces to a young Belisarius, a former bodyguard, who would become the greatest general of his age. He also placed the command of the Armenian forces under the command of Sittas, another of his former bodyguards.
In 530, Belisarius faced a numerically superior force at the Battle of Dara. But despite his youth, he showed early signs of promise when he defeated the Persian army through his unorthodox tactics. This much needed victory raised the morale of the Byzantine army. Meanwhile, in Armenia, Sittas also successfully defended Theodosiopolis against a numerically superior Persian force. Unfortunately in 531, Belisarius was defeated at the Battle of Callinicum; the only blemish on his illustrious military career.
The Perpetual Peace
Meanwhile, the war continued. While Justinian’s armies engaged the Persians, he sent his diplomats to negotiate with Kavad in the hopes of ending the war. Kavad however refused to negotiate. The war would have continued, but fortunately for the Byzantines, Kavad died in 531. His son Khusrau was now the new Shah of Persia. Due to the strong opposition he faced, Khusrau was eager for peace with the Byzantines so that he could secure his throne. Justinian also wanted peace. He wished to secure his eastern frontier so that he could focus on recovering imperial lands in the west. Thus the two empires agreed to a peace treaty known as “The Perpetual or Eternal Peace.” Its unique name was due to the fact that there was no stated time limit for the peace.
During the lengthy negotiations that followed, both sides observed a truce. This allowed Justinian to withdraw the bulk of his eastern army and to recall Belisarius to the capital. Even before the finalization of the peace treaty, Justinian was already planning for his next expedition. Meanwhile, after much bargaining to secure the best possible terms, the two empires signed “The Perpetual Peace” in 532. The agreement was as follows. The empires regained their respective territories, restoring the status quo. But the Byzantines had to pay 11,000 pounds of gold as a tribute. Although Iberia remained in Persian hands, the Iberians had a choice. They could remain in the Byzantine Empire or return to their homeland.
Assessment of the Perpetual Peace
At first glance, the Byzantines seemed to have been worse off from the war. After 6 years of fighting, the Byzantines merely regained their former territories. Additionally, they had to pay a huge amount of tribute. But to Justinian, this was an acceptable price. Any territory gained from the Persians along the border would be difficult and costly to defend. More importantly, his vision did not lie to the east, it lay to the west.
The Western Roman Empire had fallen in 476 to the various barbarian tribes which occupied its former territories. Due to their different cultures and disunity, Justinian saw the opportunity to retake the former imperial lands. His immediate priority was the reclamation of North Africa from the Vandals. The general he had in mind for this task was Belisarius.
Reflections of the Vizier
During the last few decades, Byzantine Armenia and Mesopotamia suffered greatly from the Persian wars of Kavad. “The Perpetual Peace” gave the empire’s eastern frontier a respite from the hardships of war. Bearing this in mind, the inhabitants of the eastern frontier probably felt the peace was worth the price. But most importantly, with the peace came the opportunity to send Byzantine troops into foreign territories. The first stop was North Africa.
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Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.
Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. California: Stanford University Press, 1997.