Francis Cairns Publications

ARCA Classical and Medieval Texts, Papers and Monographs ISSN 0309-5541


Campaigning, Diplomacy and Development in Illyricum, Thrace and the Northern World, A.D. 527-65

Alexander Sarantis

ARCA 53. ISBN 978-0-905205-58-8. Cloth, xxviii+500 pp., 13 maps, 20 coloured illlustrations. January 2016.  

Author   Reviews   Contents

Justinian’s Balkan Wars is the first history of military and diplomatic affairs in the Roman provinces south of the River Danube during the reign of the Emperor Justinian (A.D. 527-65). The Emperor’s policies in this region have received little attention from modern historians, who have focussed on his struggles with the Sassanian Persian empire in the East, and, in the West, his glorious reconquests of Italy from the Goths and Africa from the Vandals. This comparative neglect reflects the influence of the contemporary historian Procopius, who (following his own bias) viewed the Balkans under Justinian as a backwater denuded of manpower and left vulnerable to the depredations of barbarian raiders. In contrast Justinian’s Balkan Wars argues that the Emperor was fully aware of the region’s vital strategic importance, and frequently committed more effort and resources there than in other theatres of operation.

Justinian’s Balkan Wars offers a detailed reconstruction of military and diplomatic relations between the Germanic, Hunnic and Slavic peoples north of the Danube frontier and Justinian’s eastern Roman Empire. It uses a variety of contemporary histories and chronicles to chart barbarian raids, imperial campaigns and the receptions of barbarian leaders in the glittering halls of the imperial capital, Constantinople. In doing so it sketches the contours of Justinian’s Balkan strategy and its relationship to other theatres of operation such as the Italian Peninsula and the Transcaucasus.

The book draws on administrative reforms, epigraphic and numismatic evidence, and the archaeology of settlement patterns to place these historical events in a wider socio-economic and physical context. It shows the importance of infrastructure, logistical preparation, political control and the support of local hearts and minds for successful campaigning in Late Antiquity. Justinian’s energetic military, diplomatic, and development policies in the Balkans ensured that the eastern Roman Empire in general prevailed against its barbarian opponents. Hence the eventual loss of Roman control over the majority of the Balkan provinces and their colonisation by Slavic tribes in the 7th c. was by no means inevitable when Justinian died in 565.

Justinian’s Balkan Wars joins other Arca titles on late Roman history, including R.C. Blockley’s The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire; History of Menander the Guardsman; and East Roman Foreign Policy; Geoffrey Greatrex’s Rome and Persia at War; Fiona Haarer’s Anastasius I; and Steven Muhlberger’s The Fifth-Century Chroniclers.

Top of page


Alexander Sarantis presently (2019-2020) holds a Humboldt Fellowship for Experienced Researchers, having recently been a Research Fellow at the University of Tübingen, Germany. Previously he was a Lecturer in Early Medieval European History at Aberystwyth University and Honorary Research Fellow of the Centre for Late Antique Archaeology at the University of Kent. His research interests include war and warfare across the period of Late Antiquity (3rd-7th c. A.D), Roman-barbarian relations, and barbarian migrations and settlements in the Roman provinces, with particular concentration on the East Roman empire in the reign of Justinian. Since finishing his D.Phil at St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford in 2006 on The Balkans in the Reign of Justinian he has authored articles on barbarian groups such as the Gepids, Heruls, Sarmatians, Quadi and Lombards. He  co-edited and contributed seven papers to War and Warfare in Late Antiquity: Current Perspectives (two volumes, Leiden 2013).

Top of page


Gnomon 91 (2019) 180-183 (Mischa Meier). “Seine Monographie stellt, wie nicht zuletzt der umfangreiche einleitende Forschungsüberblick plastisch vermittelt, die erste systematische Behandlung der justinianischen Balkanpolitik dar. Und die Ergebnisse sind in der Tat überraschend, teilweise sogar spektakulär: Es gelingt dem Autor plausibel zu machen, dass der Kaiser den Balkanraum und angrenzende Gebiete nicht nur nicht vernachlässigt hat, sondern dass gerade diese Region sogar in besonderer Weise seine Aufmerksamkeit erfahren hat – und dies über die gesamten vier Jahrzehnte seiner Herrschaft.”

English Historical Review 2018 (Conor Whately). “While this book is a convincing and largely traditional military history of the Balkans in the age of Justinian, it also represents an important contribution to late antique military history more widely, and to the history of the reign of Justinian itself.” … “ with this provocative, lengthy but detailed book, Sarantis has written the authoritative account of Justinian’s Balkan Wars. Without the publication of new evidence, it is hard to imagine this book ever being superseded.”

De Re Militari: the Society for Medieval Military History, August 2018 (Craig Nakashian). “Alexander Sarantis has produced a valuable and illuminating treatment of the under-studied Balkan theatre during the reign of Justinian. While the tight focus of the book permits Sarantis to delve deeply into the varied source material, its conclusions extend beyond the reign of Justinian and have broader implications for the political and military history of late antique and early medieval western Eurasia.”

Miscellanea Hadriatica et Mediterranea 4 (2017) 163-170 (Amy Wood). “Sarantis does a good job: one of the real strengths of the volume is the author’s persistence in creating meaningful local, regional and empire-wide context for the actions of both the Emperor and the populations and issues he was dealing with.” “… well written and researched.”

Speculum 92/3, July 2017, 894-5 (Anthony Kaldellis).“This is a superb study of exactly what is promised in the title.” … “a compelling and coherent synthesis that alternates between narrative and analytical modes” … “The book is also readable: the explication of its main ideas and conclusions is engaging, intelligent, and written in lively English prose. Sarantis has finally made sense of this usually neglected region, placing it squarely at the center of Justinian’s attention.”

The Medieval Review May 2017 (Brian Swain). “This is the best sort of military history. In a field that produces no shortage of (often excellent) work on the reification of ethnic communities or subversive intertextual discourses, Alexander Sarantis writes about forts, roads, equipment, diplomacy, and coin hoards, and he does it very well. Even so, it would be inaccurate to label Sarantis a 'traditional' historian because he heeds many of the warnings of postmodernity.” … “Justinian's Balkan Wars is an impressive success”.

Plekos 19 (2017) 215-219 (Andreas Petratos). “Alexander Sarantis’ book will, no doubt, become a standard work for everyone who works on the Balkans during the reign of Justinian since it provides a serious and complete insight into what was required of the Roman authorities for the successful management of internal and external threats during this era. It sets out a new field for future research, while it revises older and sometimes outdates [sic: outdated] opinions.”

BMCR 2016.11.18 (Jan Prostko-Prostyński).   “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.”

Journal of Late Antiquity 9, Fall 2016, 552-555 (Andrei Gandila). “Sarantis’ book is a much needed addition to the historiography of Late Antiquity, especially since it brings into focus neglected regions and less known barbarian tribes. It is an excellent and well-documented narrative of confusing events and developments and a lucid assessment of the interplay between barbarian motivations and Justinian’s energetic response. It also includes many original points and intriguing analyses, which Western scholars in particular will find very useful not only for understanding the late antique Balkans but also as comparanda for their own studies of other regions.”

Revue des Études Byzantines 75 (2017) 371-374 (Anna Lampadaridi). “Cette monographie sur la politique de Justinien dans les Balkans trouvera à juste titre sa place parmi les manuels de référence sur cette page de l'histoire byzantine. L'auteur parvient à transformer un sujet austère en un récit coloré, écrit dans un style limpide. Une nouvelle lecture d'un aspect peu connu de la politique de Justinien dans une région sensible et conflictuelle, qui réussit à s'affranchir du poids de la recherche antérieure, à voir au-delà des sources littéraires et à apporter du neuf.”

Byzantinoslavica 75 (2017) 334-335 (Vincent Nicolini)

Historische Zeitschrift 306 (2018) 807-808 (Rene Pfeilschifter). “Die Forschung ist bislang meist Prokop gefolgt und ist der Meinung, Justinian seien die großen Kriege im Westen und gegen Persien wichtiger gewesen. Gerade deswegen sei der Balkan auch unter seiner Regierung immer wieder von barbarischen Invasoren überrannt worden und der römischen Kontrolle weiter entglitten. Gegen das Bild einer vergessenen, von Zerstörung und Zivilisationsbruch geprägten Region haben zwar schon andere Widerspruch erhoben, aber S. hat nun den argumentativ reichsten und wuchtigsten Angriff vorgelegt.”

Top of page


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




Top of page