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Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian, by Peter Heather, Oxford University Press, New York, 2018, $29.95

Most histories of ancient Rome deal with the first two centuries of the Christian era, from the reign of Augustus to that of Marcus Aurelius. For that reason Peter Heather’s new work, Rome Resurgent, is particularly welcome. Its 6th century protagonist, Justinian, was one of the later Roman emperors and among the more significant ones, though modern scholars have afforded him scant attention.

Compared with many of the better-known Roman emperors, Justinian enjoyed a particularly long and successful reign, having ruled for 38 years by the time of his death in 565 at age 83. He successfully resisted incursions into the Eastern Roman empire by both barbarian tribes and the Persian Sassanid empire. He also reconquered much of the Western Roman empire—lost to Germanic barbarians in the 5th century—including North Africa and Italy itself.

Yet many questions about Justinian remain unanswered. Did his conquests ultimately restore the Roman empire or irrevocably weaken it? Was his reconquest of the West based on a desire to restore the empire or personal vainglory, or was it simply a means to divert his subjects’ attention from domestic political problems? Did the decades-long conflict between Justinian and the Sassanids weaken both empires to the extent that neither was able to withstand attack by 7th century Muslims? Heathers’ scholarly tome explores these and other fascinating questions.

—Robert Guttman