Justinian, emperor of Rome from 527-565, was famous for two things. First, he had the misfortune to be emperor during the outbreak of a pandemic that would ultimately bear his name. This devastating plague – caused by Yersinia pestis, the same bacterium responsible for the Black Death in the 14th century – arrived in the Roman Empire in 542 CE and did not disappear until 755 CE. During its two centuries of recurrence, it killed somewhere between 25 percent and 50 percent of the population, some 25-100 million people. Because the plague erupted on his watch, it has borne his name ever since.
But Justinian is also famous for a second reason — his failed attempt to restore the decaying Roman imperial order. At its height in the 2nd century, the Roman Empire encompassed the entire Mediterranean basin, all of what is now Western Europe and the Balkans, Anatolia and most of the modern Middle East.
In subsequent centuries, however, the Roman Empire contracted significantly. Largely as a result of repeated invasions in both the east and west, by Justinian’s day the western provinces had been completely severed from the empire’s eastern remnant, leaving a rump imperial order centered on the city of Constantinople. The golden age of the Roman empire – the glorious, peaceful and prosperous era of Pax Romana – had long passed. And Justinian and his courtiers were painfully aware of this tragic reality.
Aware but not resigned.
Justinian, driven by a somewhat inflated sense of destiny, took it upon himself to attempt a restoratio imperii, a “restoration of the Empire.” To this end, he launched a series of campaigns to recover the territories of the defunct Western Roman Empire, defeating in rapid succession the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa and the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. He then reconquered the south of the Iberian Peninsula, before proceeding to incorporate the Tzani, a people who had never been subject to Roman rule, into the restored imperial order.
These efforts ultimately failed, of course. Within a few decades of Justinian’s death, the combined impact of the plague and the continuing press of hostile powers around the empire’s periphery ended his bid to restore Rome to its former glory. That he failed, however, tells us less than the fact that he made the effort in the first place. After all, the first rule of empires is that they eventually fall; and the second rule is that, when their hour has come, there is little that individual emperors can do to change the first rule.
What is instructive is that Justinian, doubtless unaware of these rules, made a concerted effort to “build back better” — to exploit the opportunity provided by the twin crises of his time to revitalize the Roman imperial order, not only restoring the pax Romana of yesteryear but raising the empire to new heights of piety, peace and prosperity.
And what, if anything, is so instructive about this historical episode? What lessons might we draw from Justinian’s imperial “great reset” that might be applicable to this moment in the history of the American, rather than Roman, empire?
Three answers come readily to mind.
First, Justinian’s project of restoratio imperii illuminates the dynamics of geopolitical nostalgia, which can be broadly defined as a lamentation for a lost world that never really existed except in the imaginations of those doing the lamenting. Justinian was certainly guilty of this, premising his efforts to restore the empire on what he imagined to be Rome’s golden age. And so too was Dante Aligheri when he wrote his political treatise “Monarchia” in the 14th century and Xi Jinping when he penned his “China Dream” in the 21st. Both built their political visions on delusions of past imperial grandeur.
Similarly – as the endless flow of official and semi-official paeans to the postwar golden age of the liberal international order clearly reveals – America’s contemporary foreign policy establishment is guilty of precisely the same sort of mytho-history. As Patrick Porter amply catalogs in his recent book “The False Promise of Liberal Order,” one has only to review the pages of the journal Foreign Affairs or read the pronouncements of the Council on Foreign Relations or the Brookings Institution to get a sense of the degree to which America’s foreign policy blob is in thrall to an imagined postwar golden age characterized by liberal peace and liberal plenty — a golden age that simply never existed.
Second, Justinian’s exercise in restoratio imperii alerts us to the perpetual allure of political restorationism. Once one succumbs to the siren call of geopolitical nostalgia, the tendency is not only to lament the passing of a supposed golden age but to seek its restoration.
This was certainly true of Justinian’s Rome. But it is also true of today’s Washington. Again, one need only open the pages of the establishment’s foreign policy journals – not to mention those of the Biden administration’s “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” – to see on prominent display the assumption, assertion or argument that all that is wrong with today’s world can be put right if America simply modernizes or rebuilds or restores the world order that it built in the aftermath of World War II. Once this project of restoratio imperii is complete, a second golden age will be upon us — or so we are assured.
Finally, Justinian’s efforts at imperial restoration alert us to the destructive effects of both geopolitical nostalgia and imperial restorationism. Justinian’s restorationist project, built on a foundation of delusional nostalgia, led Constantinople into a series of expensive wars that neither restored the empire nor re-established the pax Romana imagined to have prevailed at its height.
Indeed, it led to a kind of imperial overreach that left Constantinople ill-prepared to meet the challenge of the “rising power” that was soon to burst out of Arabia and conquer all of the lands of the eastern and southern Mediterranean and even threaten the imperial capital itself. Justinian’s efforts may initially have paid some dividends, but in the end his efforts were all for naught. Indeed, they were disastrous.
Something similar seems to be happening now in President BidenJoe BidenBiden to provide update Monday on US response to omicron variant Restless progressives eye 2024 Emhoff lights first candle in National Menorah-lighting ceremony MORE’s Washington. Notwithstanding the recent decision to finally quit that most marginal outpost of empire, Afghanistan, the restorationist fantasy is blinding the leading lights of both the Democratic and Republican Parties to the prudent case for retrenchment, accommodation, offshore balancing and other approaches through which the United States might more realistically defend its interests in a post-unipolar world. It is in effect rendering invisible the reality that would otherwise be plain for all to see — that if an overstretched America is to address the growing imbalance of its power and commitments, it will have to look beyond nostalgic bromides and ritual calls for restoratio imperii.
We would do well, then, to remember that Justinian’s reign was not merely one of devastating plague (though it was that). It was also one of delusional geopolitical nostalgia and ultimately self-destructive projects of imperial restoration. And having remembered Justinian’s reign in all its fullness, we would do well to ask ourselves: Is Joe Biden the American Justinian?
Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.