With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Mediterranean Sea was up for grabs, with a variety of Roman successor states vying for control by the 6th century. Among these were:

  • The Ostrogothic Kingdom, which controlled Italy and parts of south-east Europe at its largest territorial extent.
  • The Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, consisting of south-east Europe, Turkey, the Levant and Egypt.
  • The Kingdom of the Vandals, controlling parts of North Africa, Sicily, the Balearic Islands, Sardinia and Corsica.
  • The Sassanid Empire, which ruled Persia, eastern Arabia, and frequently fought with the Byzantines over control of the Levant/Caucasus.

All four of these regional powers had powerful, experienced armies and navies that frequently fought for control over once-Roman dominated parts of Europe and Africa. By 527 AD, a man named Justinian came into power in the Byzantine Empire. Justinian dreamed of a resurgent Roman Empire that controlled Italy and Rome’s old Mediterranean possessions, having lost them only a few generations ago. After dealing with internal strife at home, Justinian sought a casus belli (justification for war) against both the Ostrogoths and Vandals.

After the pro-Catholic and pro-Roman king of the Vandals was deposed and imprisoned by a faction of Arian Christians (the dominant religion in the kingdom), Justinian had his justification for war. The Byzantine forces invading the Vandal Kingdom were not only stuck in enemy territory far from home, but were outnumbered in every engagement with Vandal forces. Despite this, and also thanks to rebellions in other Vandal territories, the Byzantines managed to crush the main Vandal army at Tricamarum, capturing the Vandal leaders in the process. The Vandalic War lasted less than a year and Africa was reincorporated into the Roman Empire.

A year after the war against the Vandals, the Ostrogothic Kingdom deposed and executed their ruler, for the same religious problems that saw the Vandal king deposed. This was Justinian’s chance to take Italy back and recapture the heartland of the Romans. The war against the Vandals was surprisingly quick and relatively easy, considering how outnumbered the Byzantine forces were, and Justinian started the Gothic War with an even smaller army, attacking a much stronger force over a larger area.

Despite this, the tactical genius of a general known to history as Belisarius meant that the invasion of Sicily and the advance to Rome from there was rapid, exploiting flaws in the defences of Naples, which alongside Palermo were the only cities that offered effective resistance against the Romans. Rome was impossible to assail with the meagre forces left to Belisarius, as much of the invasion force was dead, wounded or left behind in captured cities as garrisons. Only when reinforcements arrived a year later did the Siege of Rome end and the city was recaptured, giving credence to the name ‘Roman Empire’.

From there, the war in Italy bogged down as Belisarius attempted to conquer the rest of the Gothic Kingdom with less and less men as the Ostrogoths took the opportunity to ally with the Byzantine’s main rival: the Sassanids, who quickly set about invading the Byzantine’s eastern territories, breaking a peace treaty made years before. Things quickly got from bad to worse as the whole of the Mediterranean and the Middle East was ravaged by the plague, accidentally brought to Europe from trade with the Far East. Up to 25 million people died in the pandemic and Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantines suffered up to 10,000 deaths a day.

After the ravages of the plague, war and Justinian himself falling ill to the plague, the Byzantine Empire was extremely weak and vulnerable to collapse, from enemies within and without. Although Justinian miraculously recovered, the Byzantine Empire could barely hold on to its new territories, feed its people and keep the Sassanids out of Byzantine territory. Nevertheless, the Byzantines remained a serious power in the region for a while and managed to beat back the Sassanids one last time before both empires gave in to exhaustion.

The Sassanids were soon conquered by the Rashidun Caliphate, the successors of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Nearly all Byzantine territory outside of south east Europe and parts of Anatolia were also taken by the Caliphate. Italy was conquered and divided by numerous European empires, not to be reunited for over a millennium.

By AD 700, the Byzantine Empire was suffering a slow death, as new empires from Europe and Asia bit away at the territory it had left. Despite this, it would take 700 more years for the Roman Empire to truly die, its fortunes in war changing frequently but its fate inevitable. The true regional power at this point was the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate, which controlled the entirety of the Middle East, most of North Africa and Spain, with the Battle of Tours in what is now France preventing any further expansion northwards.

For the next several hundred years, the various Islamic caliphates controlled the Mediterranean, with the occasional Crusade by Christian Europe to attempt to bring the Levant under Christian control, which will be discussed in part 3. To this day, the Mediterranean remains important to maritime trade, and more recently, tourism. If you’re looking for a yacht charter based in the superyacht charter south of France with access to ports around the western Mediterranean, You Charter Direct provides several cruising locations in the Mediterranean so you can see some of the history of the Mediterranean for yourself.