Justinian's Flea by William Rosen
When Justinian is made Roman Emperor in 527, the Roman Empire has lost Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and North Africa to the barbarians and breakaway states. The Roman Empire is in a dire shape, and in economic turmoil. Internal power conflicts threaten to destroy the empire from the inside. Constantinople's Persian and Gothic enemies are at the borders.
Justinian's Flea is about the rise and fall of Justinian, the founding father of the Byzantine Empire. He managed to reconquer all of Italy, Carthage, the Balkans, and parts of Spain. He held back the Persians. He rewrote the legal code. Justinian's achievements are incredible on their own, but his legendary status is further reinforced by the incredible circumstances which plagued his reign.
The first Byzantine emperor surrounded himself with incredibly talented and loyal followers who were instrumental to his success. His wife Theodora, was a circus performer and prostitute who rose from the bottom using her beauty and intelligence. When Justinian was stricken by the plague she took the reigns and saved the empire. There is General Belasarius who led Justinian's armies to victory time and time again, and was instrumental in the reconquest of Rome and Carthage. Because Justinian was too busy administering his empire, he never left Constantinople. Belasarius was Justinian's sword-arm.
In 541, the plague of Justinian struck Europe. Justinian had already reconquered large portions of the Roman Empire from the barbarians
A word of caution: I listened to the audiobook version, which is very poorly recorded. While the book is great, the audiobook is terrible. Don't buy it. The narrator sounds like he's falling asleep after a large heroin overdose.
Constantine and the Conversion of Europe
by A.H.M. Jones
I was always very curious about the process by which Christianity supplanted European paganism, so who better study than Constantine?
The book is very clearly written, and kept me interested the whole time. I finished the book in just 2 days. I was disappointed that the author didn't include enough background historical information, and I occasionally found myself confused.
5 things I learned from Constantine and the Conversion of Europe
1. Europe was still mostly pagan at the time of Constantine's rise to power. Prior to reading this book, I had the impression that, by the 3rd century, nearly everyone had already converted to Christianity. I was shocked to read that the majority of the population was not Christian, and that nearly all of the land owning and senatorial classes were polytheistic.
2. The speed at which Christianity spread. When Constantine began coming to power, there were no Christians in the government or army. By the time Constantine died, paganism was outlawed and rapidly receding.
3. Constantine's life goal was to unify the Christian church. He miserably failed. As part of his attempts to centralize power, he called the council of Nicaea, where all of the various heresies of Christianity were to be debated. Clergy and theologians from across the empire debated and decided what was official Christian doctrine and what wasn't. This would be the first of many Ecumenical councils.
4. Constantine was a weak leader, prone to a short temper, lapses in judgement, and indecision.
5. Despite being the first Christian emperor, he wasn't baptized until right before his death. One possible reason why is because he knew that he would have to sin as emperor, and only received the baptism when he knew his life was ending so he wouldn't have to sin before his death.
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