PLEASE NOTE: The article presented here has been stripped of its footnotes. In most cases the footnotes which accompany the article are extensive and offer important guidance to substantiating evidence and further reading. This article should not be cited from the reduced version offered on this web site, but from the full version published in ByzAus vol. 10.
Inheriting the Fifth Century: Who Bequeathed What?
The period between the death of Theodosius I in 395 and the accession of Anastasius in 491 has been described by Chris Wickham as “by far the obscurest of the late Roman centuries”. The obscurity springs not merely from a dearth of information. It is a century hard to make sense of – by which I mean, it is hard to know, as an historian, where to focus one’s attention; which developments matter most, gather threads together, herald, explain, perhaps even cause the years that followed. You may feel that I expect too much here, that “gathering threads together” demands too integrative a view of the historian’s task; and certainly there are assumptions of method involved. It is necessary, first, to avoid assessing the fifth century on sixth-century terms: we should not imagine that the fifth century was simply a problem that the sixth century attempted to solve. At the same time, sixth-century people obviously inherited a situation, even if they did not fully understand how or why; and it is sensible to ask, therefore, where we think the fifth century was heading. My chief assumption, therefore, at the level of method is that events can be made sense of as much by looking at their future as by looking at their past. What components of that earlier period most obviously leaned forward? The second major assumption concerns the unity of the Mediterranean world. We shall not be able to identify accurately the significant thrust of events, unless we avoid provincialism and struggle to hold developments together in as large a frame as possible. The notion in particular that East and West had gone their separate ways will be once more, and without apology, steadfastly rebuffed.
Our problems are largely of our own making. We balk, perhaps, at the scale of the inquiry but it is no greater, in fact, than the saga of our own “modernity” since 1789. The preoccupations of the European mind, still so relentlessly tribal, have encouraged disdain for the eastern Mediterranean and have concentrated on “Britain”, “Gaul” and “the Germanic peoples”. So, in spite of recent shifts of viewpoint, it is hard to escape from an emphasis on “barbarian settlement” in the western provinces of the Empire – the “imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand”, as Walter Goffart rather splendidly described it – and from the enduring assumption that something divisive occurred between East and West in the middle years of the fifth century, if not precisely in 476. Yet what appears descriptive here is in fact explanatory, representing a desire to get on with the Middle Ages, to establish some distance from Byzantium (and from its historians), and to set up the “western” future of the Franks and Anglo-Saxons in particular. Even those working in the Marxist tradition, exploring the cusp between slavery and feudalism (agricultural exploitation; the new dependence of the peasant) have paid more attention to the West than to the East. As for ideology (the increasingly Christian interpretation of world, time and humanity) doctrinal and political suspicions have continued to reinforce assumptions of difference. So the barbarized and falling West becomes protofeudal, while the “surviving” East remains theocratic – a rather simplistic picture, given that western medieval history could hardly dispense with its pope, while the East “survived” precisely because of its rural wealth and sophisticated social order.
That much may be said in general; but it introduces a quite specific difficulty. The dominant barbarian polity in the sixth-century West was that of the Franks. They were not, however, newcomers: they had been “settled” on the fringes of the empire (more or less in modern Belgium) throughout the fifth century, and had been directly affected by Roman policy at least since an agreement negotiated with the future emperor Julian in 358. They farmed the frontier region thereafter with secure success. They also seized the opportunities afforded by usurpations in Gaul from 407 onwards, that of Jovinus in particular. They were thus brought into conflict with Athaulf’s Visigoths, as well as with the imperial authorities; and that set the tone for two decades of new Frankish aggression in north-eastern Gaul. From the late 420s until the peak of his own career in the 440s, Aëtius was able to curb that expansion (as he did that of the Burgundians, even more ruthlessly, in the same period). From the mid-450s, however, a new dynasty of Frankish leaders under Childeric began to reach outwards once again towards the Somme (just as Gundiuc’s Burgundians were expanding their territory anew around Lyon). One of the most vivid surviving descriptions of barbarians in the fifth century is of Franks: Sidonius’s account of a disrupted wedding feast, in his panegyric on Majorian. They also began to work closely with the remnants of Roman administration and defence in north-central Gaul – the increasingly independent Aegidius in particular – achieving victories at Visigothic expense in 459, 463, and 469. By the end of that period, they were having to contend with Euric, Visigothic king since 466, eager to extend his territories at least to the Loire, as well as eastward against Burgundians, and southward into Spain. By the time Aegidius died, and his so-called “kingdom” passed to his son Syagrius, it was deeply entwined in Frankish court politics, in ways that Clovis was later able to exploit.
That brief account makes it dear that Clovis did not stumble upon the Gallic scene unannounced and unexpected. Most of the elements that might be thought of as governing the Frankish establishment in Gaul and Frankish relations with the Gallo-Roman population had already been evident for some considerable time before. It is not necessary, in particular, to place great weight on the orthodoxy of the Franks established only at the very end of the century in order to explain a contrast between them and the Visigothic Arians. Given the antagonisms that developed in Gaul immediately after 410, all that needs explaining is why the Franks took as long as they did to achieve their dominance; and Aëtius and Euric between them are enough for that.
Nevertheless, the Visigoths have been allowed to capture the limelight. For those who wish to regard the fifth century as, among other things, the period during which the West tipped from “empire” to “kingdom”, from a “classical” to a “medieval” system, the Visigoths supply the pioneering paradigm of “settlement”, “kingdom”, and “accomodation” with the Roman population. The Franks are made to wait, so to speak, to benefit from a Visigothic weakness only later exposed, to assert themselves in the broader Gallic theatre only after 507. The Visigoths, it is true, got off to a splendid start, winning the battle of Hadrianople in 378, and killing an emperor and a large portion of the Roman army in the process. They sacked Rome in 410. They seem so closely linked with those two dominant figures of the fifth-century West, Galla Placidia and the general Aëtius. They helped to defeat the Huns at the battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451. They fill the century’s space, in other words, at least in Gaul, between two clear events – their “settlement” in Aquitania in A.D. 418 and their defeat at Vouillé in 507. Little is made of their unscrupulous exploitation at the hands of Theodosius; of their frustration in the Balkans under Alaric and their hapless attempts at both diplomacy and violence in Italy; of the brutal control imposed by Constantius, when their own policies were either confused or unrealistic. One conveniently forgets that, settled in Aquitania, they were penned in such a way that adventure in Spain – away, now, from areas of Roman concern – was their only long-term prospect: Euric realised that only too well. The dialogue with romanitas revealed to us in the works of Sidonius – Avitus’s relations with Theodoric I and his sons, and Leo’s influence with Euric himself – pales beside the activities of the Vandals and the Ostrogoths in Carthage and Ravenna. Only, perhaps, in the field of law did the Visigoths achieve novelties of lasting importance. How exemplary, otherwise, were the techniques of their accommodation, to use Walter Goffart’s phrase? Their relationship with the land and their successful exploitation of a revenue system remain obscure, problematic, and scarcely characteristic of a state even in its infancy. They were never able to engage effectively with the central sectors of the Gallic élite, which congregated more thickly, in fact as well as in our surviving evidence, around Arles and along the Rhône corridor (Burgundian lands), reaching north rather than west, and flowing eventually into regions of the upper Loire and Frankish territory beyond.
Let us stand back a little, therefore, and view the architecture of the century in broader terms. It stretches most clearly between two emperors, Theodosius (379-395) and Justinian (527-565). Theodosius, certainly, had to deal with Visigoths – or at least with that group of people, among others, whom we come to think of as Visigoths – but he dealt with them as a Balkan problem. So did Stilicho, in the years immediately following his death. Land grants, redeployment, service in the army: all that was achieved in the East. Then Theodosius unleashed those new allies against the western usurpers Maximus in 388 and Eugenius in 394. Viewed in that light, Alaric, fighting on the emperor’s behalf in 394, bears much more analogy to Theodoric the Amal than he does to his own successors in Toulouse. He rose to power among his people against the background of a régime in Constantinople with universal aspirations, attempting to reassert its authority in the western provinces. His embroilment in those plans, for all their shifting character, led him eventually to Rome and to the support of a rival emperor in the West. There was also an African connection. Theodosius’s family had embarrassing links with that province; the revolt of Firmus was a recent memory (372); and Theodosius himself narrowly missed, so to speak, the revolt of Gildo (397), in which the government in Constantinople was by no means uninvolved. Justinian’s engagement with Carthage was different in detail, of course – his response to the deposition of Hilderic by Gelimer in 530, and his swift defeat and humiliation of Gelimer himself in 534. The point to note is the persistence of geopolitical axes in the Mediterranean, and the way in which barbarians of note operated, so to speak, along those axes – seeking their opportunities or gaining aggrandizement by tapping into the powerful channels of communication that lay between Constantinople, the Balkans, Carthage, Ravenna and Rome. Persistent also was the ambition of the emperors themselves, which spanned equally the whole empire in that period. Those are the structural elements that claim our attention; and they draw us away from southwest Gaul, indeed away from Gaul completely, and towards the bêtes noirs of Justinian himself, the barbarian intruders in Italy and Africa.
Let us look more closely, then, at the fifth-century fortunes of the Vandals themselves. They provide us with the clearest, perhaps the only, example of “invasion” on a grand and brutal scale. Unexpected, destructive and fast-moving, they crossed the Rhine in the winter of 406/407, cutting a swathe across Gaul and into Spain. It was an event that set in train a whole series of momentous consequences: the withdrawal of troops from Britain to defend the southern sectors of Gaul and, ultimately, the Alps; the fall of Stilicho in 408 (and consequently the discontent of Alaric’s Visigoths, leading to their sack of Rome in 410); the usurpation of Constantine III in Britain in 407 (quickly affecting Gaul and Spain as well); the consequent usurpation of Jovinus in Gaul itself in 411, which brought Franks and Burgundians into a new phase of involvement with the empire, and created the unrest in Gaul that attracted the Visigoths there after the sack of Rome, fostering also the career of Stilicho’s de facto successor Constantius; the pressure brought to bear on the Visigoths by Constantius himself, leading first to their enforced collaboration against the Vandals in Spain from 413, and then to their settlement in Aquitania in 418; all accompanied by alliances between the Visigoths and elements of the Roman élite, some from Italy, some from Aquitaine, symbolized by the marriage at Narbonne in 414 between the Visigothic “king” Athaulf and Galla Placidia, an apparently not unwilling hostage since her capture in Rome. On top of that, Augustine began to write the City of God. It seems a lot to blame on the Vandals; but those are all events that we could reasonably lay at their door.
That catalogue reintroduces, but from a different angle, a number of already familiar elements with a long fifth-century future. Three key groups were now firmly in place on the Gallic map – Franks, Burgundians and Visigoths. Barbarian was also pitted against barbarian: Visigoths had earned the hatred of Vandals and Franks and Burgundians were no less antagonistic towards Visigoths (the latter had helped the imperial authorities against the usurpers whom the former had aided). We observe at least a modicum of collaboration between barbarians and a local élite, and a potentially symbolic association with the imperial family – for Galla Placidia’s marriage (which produced a short-lived heir) represented a clear threat to her ineffectual and childless half-brother Honorius. Whatever the motive of the barbarian, the match could be seen as a bid by the “Valentinian” branch of the imperial family against the children of Theodosius’s first wife, the Spaniard Aelia Flavia Flaccilla. Such interweaving of barbarian and imperial aspirations will recur and it provides, in the Visigothic context, another admittedly crucial paradigm of change: for the “idea of empire” articulated at such moments represented a shift of perspective in response to shifts of circumstance, experience and opportunity. But those shifts should not be taken as symptoms or proofs of decline in the “empire” itself.
All the more reason, as we shall see, for keeping our eyes on the Vandals. They made their next major move in 429, under their first identifiable and significant leader, Geiseric, who did not die until 477 – a crucial longevity. They had had, in other words, a good ten years (not entirely uninterrupted by Roman attacks) in which to develop in Spain a sense of cohesion under a “king” who was comparable to the Visigothic leaders in Gaul. They crossed the Straits of Gibraltar as a people (much as the Visigoths had moved from the Balkans to Italy in 401); and they did so at the invitation of the governor of Africa, Boniface, engaged in his power struggle with the leadership in Italy.* [*In some ways, the Vandals followed in Boniface's footsteps, since he had, while in Spain, fallen out with the (then) magister militum Castinus as early as 422, and had taken refuge in Africa.] They were able, in other words, although they may not immediately have known it, to participate in that long-standing tension between Africa and Italy already represented in the rebellions of Firmus and Gildo, and more recently in that of Heraclianus (413). Boniface, like his predecessors, was able to wield the threat of cutting off Italy’s grain supply: a weapon the Vandals would inherit. Contributing to some degree to Africa’s potential menace was the recalcitrance of Donatists and the entirely local danger of the province’s own “barbarians”, the Mauri of the hinterland: Victor of Vita, some fifty years later, betrayed that, there too, pre-Vandal patterns persisted under Vandal domination. Boniface’s struggle (which he only just lost) was part of a long interregnum between the death of Constantius in 421 and the definitive triumph of Aëtius in 432. While that triumph was the main outcome, events were interwoven with the dynastic revolution presided over by Galla Placidia. “Rescued” from the Visigoths after the death of Athaulf in 415, and compelled to marry Constantius in 417, she saw her two children, Honoria and Valentinian, no matter how coolly conceived, benefit from their father’s brilliant career – magister utriusque militiae from 411 to 421, consul three times (414, 417, and 420), and briefly co-emperor in 421. It was because of that last development that baby Valentinian III succeeded to the western throne in 425 (after violent adventures, flight to Constantinople, and restoration with the help of eastern armies). The empire, therefore, in which Boniface failed and Aëtius succeeded, and in which the Vandals gained their advantage, was presided over by a granddaughter of Valentinian I until her death in 450. So, while the Vandals have allowed us to keep Gaul distantly in mind, they have carried us, and indeed the empress, onto a grander stage.
Once launched on their African path, the Vandals laid successful claim to a major role in the fifth-century world. Their spectacular and virtually unstoppable advance across the province culminated in the capture of Carthage in October 439. So, like the Visigoths, they gained a “kingdom”, but with the very different distinction of its having been violently and deceitfully seized and of its being centred on a major city of strategic importance, providing in particular a potential control of the sea, which the Vandals soon exploited, threatening eastern waters as well as western, and gaining access to Sicily and to the Italian seaboard beyond.
Even more important was the nature of the tense alliance that the Vandals were able to force upon the imperial government, faced with their fait accompli. After a treaty forged in 442, designed to salvage some Roman pride and to safeguard the supply of corn, Geiseric’s son Huneric was betrothed to Valentinian III’s six-year-old daughter Eudocia in 445. The marriage did not actually take place until 456; but the arrangement eventually brought Geiseric’s consequent grandson Hilderic into a direct relationship with imperial dynastic politics. So the Vandals succeeded where Athaulf and Galla Placidia had failed: new opportunities had allowed or compelled barbarian and Roman to join in attaching new meaning to the leadership and endurance of the empire -a meaning that did not necessarily presage that empire’s demise, even if the possibilities were not eventually realised. The suspense endured for a long time, because Hilderic (who was, not surprisingly, favourably disposed towards the imperial authorities) did not succeed to Vandal leadership until 523, and was not actually murdered by Gelimer until 533. So it was that arrangements made nearly a century before contributed to a casus belli in Justinian’s “reconquest” of the West.
Hilderic’s late accession to power (he was by that time sixty-six years old) resulted from Geiseric’s decision that succession to the Vandal kingship should pass always to his oldest surviving male relative, which gave in fact, after Huneric’s death, opportunities to Gunthamund and Thrasamund, Hilderic’s rather more “anti-Roman” cousins. That was an outcome perhaps not intended, as we shall see; but in any case, even before Geiseric’s own death in 477, the Romans themselves had shown every sign of their reluctance to fulfil the treaty obligations of 442 and 445. Not only were there many who balked at the prospect of any imperial woman marrying a Vandal; there were others who prized the advantage of the young Eudocia’s hand; and there was corresponding dynastic mileage to be made out of marrying her sister Placidia. Aëtius, for example, tried to gain that advantage for his son Gaudentius in 454, probably precipitating his own downfall. So there was going to be, at the very least, competition between a “Vandal succession” and something that might be regarded as more appropriately “Roman”: the “fall” of the empire was not envisaged, but rather the issue of who should control its future. Placidia eventually married the Italian aristocrat Anicius Olybrius, who sure enough was briefly emperor of the West in 472, and whose daughter Anicia Juliana (born in Constantinople in 461) played a not unimportant role in sixth-century eastern politics (her military husband Areobindus, a descendant of Aspar, was hailed briefly as a usurper against Anastasius in 512). But matters came to a head sooner than that, when Valentinian III was murdered in 455: faced with subsequent political instability in Italy, including the brief ambition of his old Visigothic enemies, represented by the short reign of the Gallic aristocrat Avitus, Geiseric decided to cash in his chips, sent a fleet to Italy, broke into Rome, and carried off not just Eudocia but her mother and sister as well (the last two of whom he did not release to Constantinople for several years). So we should keep in mind the sort of future the Vandals might thereafter have prepared for themselves, mentally, on the Mediterranean stage, compared with the miserable parade of emperors succeeding one another in Italy until the “collapse” of 476 (by which time Hilderic was conveniently on the verge of manhood).
That is to view the matter predominantly from an imperial point of view, which is entirely proper; but we know from African evidence that ordered succession was heavy on the mind of Geiseric and his immediate heir. Victor of Vita, the most vivid chronicler of Vandal affairs, writing around 485, describes a whole series of murders and exiles, over two generations, designed to clarify the family’s future, and in particular, interestingly enough, to safeguard it for the young Hilderic – a plan in which at least some of the Roman population were willing to acquiesce at the expense of their religious principles. There was, after all, a great deal at stake. Victor was fond of criticising Vandal greed; but he admitted in the process that there was something worth being greedy about. Africa was a rich place. The drought sent by God to punish Arian persecutors and Catholic backsliders only accentuated the norm of abundance in wine, olives and fruit, testifying also to a new diversity in agriculture familiar on other grounds, and to a vigorous tenantry in rural areas. The very article of persecution, so to speak, Huneric’s punitive decree against the Catholics, includes a detailed list of offices and social ranks, presenting priceless confirmation of what was still a complex, ordered and prosperous society. Plenty of Romans would long have wanted to keep it that way; and we should not be any more surprised to find Africans aspiring to wealth and influence than we are by the ambitions of Gallic aristocrats documented in the works of Sidonius and his contemporaries. The reign of Geiseric in particular had seen many lay provincials honourably, in Victor’s eyes, established in Vandal service, and only lately exposed to danger by their orthodoxy. Nor was Africa plunged in cultural darkness: Dracontius could flourish there, reflecting both classical and Christian values, and Victor himself was not ludicrous in acknowledging his debts to Cicero and Sallust, while taking pride in the Latin Fathers and in “our Augustine”. One recalls the observation of Lydus, that Africans spoke a more fluent Latin than the Italians themselves.
Those hints at continuity and acquiescence are not to be taken lightly. Victor had strong views about barbarians, which were no doubt shared. He thought of them as inspired by a natural hatred of all things Roman. They were all Arians, of course: for Victor, to be an Arian was equivalent to behaving more gentilium. Yet his account bears witness to a greater subtlety in both bishops and kings, as they tried to work out the distinctions between religion and politics and between Africa and the empire. Catholic bishops not unnaturally appealed for support among the like-minded overseas; and it was overseas that at least the richer persecuted often fled. Huneric, for his part, would entertain discussion only among churchmen over whom he exercised suzerainty – an “Arian” view that would have seemed scarcely surprising to Constantius or Valens; perhaps not even to Constantine himself. The bishops’ response was to call Huneric a tyrant, “a danger to the state”, misappropriating a style of legislative control more properly exercised by “our Christian emperors”. Not so, insisted the king: those emperors had slipped into error, abandoning the clear prescriptions of Ariminum and Seleucia, 359 (the shade of Constantius once more); and he skilfully branded his opponents homousiani, reinforcing historical allusions, but robbing them also of any political ground on which to appeal. In that deadly dialogue, we can see how the self-definition of both church and state in Vandal Africa was measured against broader imperial categories, both institutional and religious. It is no surprise to find, therefore, that while exiles flooded into Sicily, Sardinia, and even Spain, Arians worried about a backlash against their coreligionists in Thrace. Zeno, emperor since 474, also made his presence felt, sometimes at the price of humiliation, but with more success, perhaps, than his belligerent predecessor Leo. Geiseric modified his policies after an appeal by Zeno’s patricius Severus. A Catholic bishop was permitted in Carthage, after representations by the emperor and by Placidia (widowed since 472). Huneric’s more forceful moves were witnessed by Zeno’s legates, Reginus and Uranius – impotent, but still untiring (the last had travelled extensively on such assignments, in the West as well as the East). Zeno and Ariadne received, meanwhile, in Constantinople itself the mutilated heroes of Africa’s tragedy.
This is to anticipate. Although by the 480s there were sufficient people resident in Constantinople, including women of the imperial family, to feed the prejudices and fears of the next generation in regard to Africa, a concern with western affairs and with Africa in particular had long been a feature of eastern policy. Intervention was not a novel instinct. We have already placed in that context the assertions of Theodosius against usurpers and the intrigues of Eutropius against Stilicho. Honorius received eastern troops to bolster his régime. But a special bond was created in 425, when the restoration of Valentinian III ushered in a long period of collaboration between the two governments. There was more than a restoration involved. Political disturbance in the West, following the death of Honorius in 423, created the circumstances in which Boniface and Aëtius worked out their rivalry. It forced the eastern government of Theodosius II to recognise the claim of the “Valentinians” on its own terms; and Galla Placidia proceeded to reinforce her success with the aid of architecture and panegyric.* [*S. Maria Maggiore in Rome and Galla Placidia's tomb in Ravenna are the obvious examples, and, in the sphere of panegyric, the work of Flavius Merobaudes.] A betrothal was arranged between the infant Valentinian and Theodosius II’s daughter Eudoxia (they were married in 437), and administrative procedures were set in train that eventually produced the Theodosian Code in 438 (with all its implications for imperial unity and orthodox faith). The restoration of 425 also witnessed the emergence of the eastern barbarian general Aspar (an Alan by race, with Gothic connections by marriage), who maintained his influence for nearly fifty years, until his murder in 471: we shall have more to say about him in a moment. There followed a period of close interaction. Eastern troops supported the western government against the advancing Vandals (in 431, 439 and 441), probably preventing Geiseric from swinging north determinedly against Italy itself, although they had to withdraw then in response to new pressure from Attila and the Huns. After more than a decade of that preoccupation, the emperor Leo (457-474) attempted to stabilize affairs in the West by installing his own western emperor, Anthemius, in 467 (their children were later to marry). He mounted the following year what turned out to be a disastrous but nevertheless substantial naval expedition against the Vandals under his brother-in-law Basiliscus. Leo later supported the western imperial claims of Julius Nepos (never successfully asserted on the ground), who was also a relative (by marriage) of his wife, and who survived until 480. Finally, his successor Zeno (474-491) sent Theodoric the Ostrogoth to Italy to reassert imperial authority against the régime of Odoacer.
There is little room for suggesting, therefore, that division between East and West was of major significance in the fifth century. With Theodoric established in Italy – the third major western “kingdom” – from 493 until his death in 526, we also have in place the two major western polities that Justinian would attempt to control, the Vandals and the Ostrogoths. But we should think a little more about Aspar, who straddles that period so beguilingly divided for us by the demise of the Theodosian house and by the gap between the death of Aëtius and the rise of Ricimer: indeed, he had a direct hand in the accession of his client Marcian in 450. Aspar came to prominence on the shoulders of his father Ardaburius, who, with Plinta the Goth (consul for 419), had successfully reclaimed a right to central military office for men of barbarian extraction. They had done so under the aegis of Pulcheria, the sister of Theodosius II, and at the expense of a long-serving civilian régime, dating back to the reign of Arcadius, and hitherto controlling the minority of Theodosius II himself: Pulcheria now inspired him to assert some independence. Aspar provides us thereafter with the most obvious eastern analogue to the great military leaders of the West, who dominated imperial affairs there throughout the fifth century: Stilicho, Constantius, Aëtius and Ricimer, and the freelance strong-man (perhaps barbarian king) Odoacer. Having fostered the imperial promotion of Marcian (who died in 457), he continued to play a leading role in imperial politics. He successfully ensured that another subordinate, Leo, should override the interests of any potential dynasty that might have emerged among Marcian’s relatives. It was Leo who proved, however, Aspar’s match. While the general sought allies among Ostrogoths in the Balkans, Leo joined forces with his eventual successor, the Isaurian Zeno, who married his daughter Ariadne. (Zeno’s first intrigue, in 466, had been against Aspar’s son – a clear sign that we are dealing here with a long military dynasty). High-level politics and their wider reverberations in Constantinople during that generation became at that point immensely complicated. They consisted chiefly in the eclipse and eventual murder of Aspar in 471; the intrigues of Leo’s wife and widow Verina (which came to a head in the unsuccessful rebellion of her brother Basiliscus in 475-476); and in the appeal of the competing parties to the support of equally divided factions among the Ostrogoths – one led by Theodoric Strabo, originally encouraged by Aspar, and the other by Theodoric the Amal, who supported Zeno. That the preoccupations of a general should be so extensively political, and that his reputation should rest so little on success on the empire’s frontiers, was entirely characteristic of the East at that time. (The same would be true of Illus, for example, in Zeno’s reign, who led troops and held military commands, as well as high civil office, but mainly in the cause of domestic faction.) Persia offered a threat markedly less forceful than in the previous or the following centuries. In the Balkans, meanwhile, pressure upon Rome was exerted more by raiding and heavy-handed diplomacy: invasion and destruction on a large scale were not a feature of the age, even in the virtual civil war between the two Theodorics (both of whom were office-holders of the empire), or during the ascendancy of Attila. In contrast to events in the West, therefore, such tensions as existed did not weaken substantially the imperial system. After the turmoil of Zeno’s reign and the departure of Theodoric for the West, Ariadne presided over the transition of power with symbolic ease, marrying her husband’s civilian successor, the highly competent Anastasius, who reigned with not inconsiderable flair, both fiscal and strategic, for nearly thirty years.
The career of Aspar allows us to trace, therefore, a certain consistency in the character of eastern government – a submission of imperial leadership to military control (albeit at times contested), with strong barbarian connections. Contrast with the West, in other words, can be dangerously exaggerated; and the very playing out of the contest brought together, in any case, the two sectors of the empire. However, before the struggle reached its long climax in the reigns of Leo and Zeno, two important series of events took place: the rivalry between Pulcheria and her sister-in-law Eudocia, and the advent of Attila the Hun. For some fifteen years before his death in 453, Attila occupied in many ways the centre of the imperial stage. He had welded into shape during the late 430s what one might loosely describe as an “empire” of his own, based on the exploitative lordship exercised by sections of his own nomadic people over a range of more settled tribes around the western and southern perimeter of Hunnic territory. That was a perimeter that could be taken to include the polities of Persia and Rome: they too, from Attila’s point of view, were ripe for exploitation. To describe the matter in those terms is to adopt an arresting shift of geopolitical perspective – to make the empires with which we are familiar mere appendages to Attila’s achievement. Nevertheless, Persia felt the pressure of the Huns during this century just as much as Rome did, across her northern borders in the Caucasus and along the shores of the Caspian Sea. Indeed, from one point of view, Attila’s ascendancy represented just one phase in a series of preoccupations that kept Rome and Persia from their own traditional rivalry; and in that sense the fifth century formed a hiatus between two periods of tense confrontation, which emperors in the century between Diocletian and Valens (284-378) had to cope with constantly, and which Anastasius and his successors down to Heraclius (491-641) would experience again.
Attila showed little desire, however (unlike such traditional agriculturalists as the Visigoths and Vandals), to settle on Roman or indeed on any territory. The pressure he brought to bear, first on the eastern and then on the western empire, although undoubtedly intimidating and destructive, was devoted chiefly towards the extraction of tribute and of a promise not to interfere with his similar exploitation of other peoples outside the Roman sphere. Indeed, that latter demand may have been in Attila’s eyes the more important – first expressed in the Treaty of Margus as early as 435 (an agreement that saw the former consul Plinta still anxious to influence affairs). It was a demand that Theodosius II was not entirely willing to accept: a point worth bearing in mind, in relation to a government that had acquired some reputation for submissiveness. Heavy ambassadorial guns were brought to bear on Attila, Byzantium did not shrink from war, and renegades were murdered on both sides. So the impact of this fearful parasite on the Danube frontier, which, as we have seen, prevented the East for a time from playing much of a part in western affairs, consisted not so much in the sudden, terrifying descent of the scourge of God as in a wearying decade of raids, embassies, treaties and payments of gold.
The experience was undoubtedly traumatic, nevertheless, and prompted crucial debate as to how the barbarian should be dealt with. Antecedent arguments lay to hand, almost within living memory. The last major Balkan crisis – that surrounding Alaric in the late 390s – had prompted the fall of both Rufinus and Eutropius, witnessed the drafting if not the publication of Synesius’s De regno, and followed upon similar struggles between army and court in the reign of Theodosius I. Government in this new situation was wielded most by another eunuch, Chrysaphius (probably praepositus sacri cubiculi), who survived until shortly after the death of Theodosius II. A eunuch could be expected to represent predominantly civilian power, but more precisely the power of the palace and of the bureaucracy over the power both of the army and of the aristocratic élite: not perhaps the best outcome in the face of a man with Attila’s tastes and intentions. And, sure enough, there was a temporary decline in Aspar’s fortunes, with a corresponding and, as the future suggested, ominous favour displayed towards Isaurians, in particular towards an aggressive magister militum, who inspired the later Zeno (holding office 447-451).
Chrysaphius also came to power on the shoulders of the emperor’s wife Eudocia, an Athenian of wit and erudition. Her marriage to Theodosius in 421 had represented a deliberate move against Pulcheria; and the next twenty years witnessed a struggle between the two women (and no less importantly between their supporters), which was a struggle between two notions of how the empire should be ruled: by pious and belligerent Christians or by traditional parties steeped in the governmental and cultural traditions of the Roman world. Jill Harries has remarked recently that “an account of Theodosius’ reign based on the careers of office-holders has yet to be written”, and, when it is, it will reach forward into the reigns that followed, and enable us to decipher more precisely the steps taken in this long debate: for the time-scale is a big one. The middle decades of the fifth century seem to have witnessed the final incorporation of the illustris class into an aristocracy of service to the empire, while other local élites were allowed to fall away into provincial isolation. Synesius’s criticism had represented traditional reaction to such a policy; criticism already rumbling in the curial discontent of Libanius, and in the pagan Latin historiography of the fourth century generally. Priscus at the time displayed élitist misgiving at the conduct of government. John Lydus, a century later, was to pinpoint this period, particularly the prefecture of Cyrus (439-441), as ushering in a decline in the prefecture itself. Such voices, which would eventually coalesce into criticism of Justinian, were but part of a much deeper conflict over the nature and control of authority within the Mediterranean world; a conflict carried forward partly under the banner of Christianisation, although even Christians were divided as to what that might mean. Not everyone regarded the Church as the proper instrument of imperial unity and self-aggrandizement: the monks who now populated Constantinople in such large numbers, under imperial patronage, represented part only of a body of opinion deeply opposed to that development. The argument spanned some three centuries, in which the arrival of a barbarian like Attila served more as an accelerant than as an initiating stimulant, or provided just one among a number of clarifying moments in a long series of adaptive changes. As for Chrysaphius, he bit the hand that fed him: for Eudocia was cast aside in 443. However, his ascendancy had reflected to some degree adherence to a more secular if not civilian tradition; and in his fall Pulcheria gained a corresponding and final triumph: she married and thus legitimized Aspar’s creature Marcian, insisting with apparent and perhaps understandable success (when she was, after all, well into her middle years) that her “holy” virginity should be respected. Eudocia, meanwhile, was relegated to the patronage of the Jerusalem church.
Faced with enduring instransigence on the part of the eastern government under Marcian, Attila decided to turn his attention to the West. It was not a sudden whim. Priscus’s vivid account of the embassies of 448-449 includes a good deal of information about Attila’s western contacts. A surprisingly large number of westerners were at that time either “living among the barbarians” or wandering within Attila’s orbit. They were intent largely on commercial interests, and some of them were persons of significance. Attila’s own ambassadors to Constantinople were Edeco the Hun, possibly the father of Odoacer, and Orestes from Pannonia, certainly the father of the emperor whom Odoacer deposed. Orestes had been drawn into Attila’s world because of dispositions earlier set in place in his native province by the western general Aëtius. They were accompanied by an Italian Constantius, who had been sent to Attila by Aëtius as a secretary. (Aëtius’s own son Carpileon had been given as a hostage to Attila in 433, in return for services rendered in the struggle against Boniface and others.) That western connection engaged Attila’s interest in return: he pressed officials in Rome to deliver to Constantius promised rewards for his service in the negotiations. Priscus stumbled across another western party at this time (deep in modern Hungary) – the comes Romulus, the dux Romanus, and Promotus the governor of Noricum. They were accompanied by Tatulus, Orestes’ father (and Orestes was married to Romulus’s daughter): so now we have three generations of that one family involved. All were travelling (in spite of their rank) in connection with a private affair concerning a banker in Rome, from whom Attila himself was demanding recompense. Those are items we may add to the engaging if obscure story of Valentinian’s sister Honoria, who supposedly invited Attila to rescue her from her brother’s enmity, in exchange for her already sullied honour. Within the setting of Attila’s own ambitions, therefore, we detect a political and specifically an Italian thread that runs from the time of Aëtius in the 430s right through to that of Odoacer in the 480s. It suggests that, when Attila led his forces across the Rhine in 451, he already knew a good deal about the western empire and had important contacts there.
Priscus himself had been able to rise to a global view of these affairs. Like Salvian of Marseille, he criticised objectively the empire’s view of itself – its misuse of wealth and talent, and its refusal to focus on the real threats to its well-being. He was also willing to place the confrontation with the Huns in a broader context.
They were not only wary of undertaking war on [Attila], but they also feared the Parthians who were, it chanced, making preparations for war, the Vandals who were troubling the sea coasts, the Isaurians who had set out on banditry, the Saracens who were overrunning the eastern part of their empire, and the united Ethiopian races. Being humbled, they danced attendance on Attila and strove to meet the other races with military power, mustering their forces and appointing generals.
Not only does this represent a generous picture of Byzantine preoccupation in the late 440s, it picks out almost every geographical area (including Vandal Africa) that would foment the anxieties of eastern emperors in the century to follow.
The chief elements of Attila’s western campaign are familiar enough: the skill with which Aëtius attracted the support of the Visigoths, and the equal skill with which he dispersed those temporary allies after the battle of the Catalaunian Plains (assisted, no doubt, by the fact that their king had been killed). It would have given Attila no small satisfaction to defeat, or at least to injure, his ancient enemies the Goths. But politics, we now realise, will have counted for just as much. We should scrutinise carefully the equally famous meeting the following year between the Hunnic king and Leo, the bishop of Rome, a meeting (a few miles from the city) attended, in ways that legend and art (not to mention Jordanes) have been careless to ignore, by leading members of the western government and aristocracy, whom Attila would certainly have heard of, perhaps in some detail. These included Avienus, who had shared the consulship with the emperor in 450, and was still influential in Sidonius’s later days, and the ex-prefect Trygetius, who had already gained experience in negotiations with the Vandals in 435. Attila turned back from Italy with victories to his credit at Aquileia and Milan, and did so only for reasons that had made him turn back on earlier occasions from raids in the Balkans: stretched lines of supply and dubious diplomatic advantage, a reaction based on an astute understanding of the world he faced. Moreover, both he and Aëtius would have viewed those events, not as a chapter in a myopic history of Visigothic Gaul, nor even as a small step towards the “fall of the western empire”, but as part of a long association between the Huns and Rome.
Once again, the relevant sweep of events is broad, reaching back at least to the impact of the Huns on the Goths during the 360s and 370s, when some of the latter ran away (into the empire), some stood to fight (and largely go under), and some began to contribute to a growing web of tributary tribes and dependent confederations. The sweep reaches forward in the other direction beyond 451, and even beyond Attila’s death in 453. The Ostrogoths emerged on the Danube frontier as one among a number of people ready to fill the vacuum left by the break-up of his personal “empire”. Their departure for the West a generation later left the region open to new protagonists, who would play out another act in the province’s misfortunes: groups of Slavs, pressed southwards by the nomadic Avars, to set up tremors in the corners of Justinian’s web, and to challenge more substantially the security of his successors Tiberius and Maurice.
Aëtius’s own career, we may now discover, had more to do with Huns than with Visigoths. He had served as a hostage with Alaric, 405-408, but also with the Huns during the following years, an experience with more lasting effect. After the death of Honorius, he had mustered Hunnic allies in the cause of the pretender John, but used them instead (coming conveniently late upon the scene from his distant attempts at recruitment) to support and subsequently to intimidate Galla Placidia. He used Huns again in 432 to reassert himself against Boniface; and finally, in 437, they helped him to curb the growing power of the Burgundians (a humiliation ever afterwards embedded in the European poetic tradition).
As for the Ostrogoths who emerged from under the débris of Attila’s achievements, to be dominated finally by Theodoric the Amal, it is no longer necessary to regard them merely as supplanters of Odoacer in the West, welcomed by a crushed and disspirited Italian aristocracy. Thoroughly schooled in a wholly Greek romanitas by years of residence in Constantinople and of service in Zeno’s army, Theodoric was able to maintain order and win the admiration of the western élite as much by an imitation of Odoacer’s régime, identifying himself with a political tradition that reached back to the days of Aëtius, Majorian and Ricimer. He inherited and exploited in the process a tense relationship with Gaul, which was played out in his own time vis-à-vis the Franks, but which echoed a competitiveness between two western élites (landholding, senatorial, and greedy for imperial office) fully operative in Sidonius’s day, and reaching back to the days of Gratian and beyond. Finally, he took care to safeguard a modus vivendi with the Vandals, arranging one of his closest marriage alliances between Thrasamund and his sister Amalafrida (herself a veteran of eastern politics); and he felt personally the shift in political balance represented by the accession of the “imperial” Hilderic in 523, which resulted in the humiliation and eventual murder of Thrasamund’s widow some two years later. Here, as in other matters, Constantinople’s satisfaction was Ravenna’s sorrow.
This has been a heavily political investigation, with only passing acknowledgement of social and economic factors, of “the deeper, non-imperial rhythms of Byzantine history”. It would always be true, in the end, that the wealth of the land and its exploitation was what made both aristocracy and government possible, not to mention barbarian infiltration and successful war; and further wealth and status was always power’s prize. But such truth applied everywhere: indeed, where appropriation of surplus resources was concerned, it demanded a singularity in the state system that at least attempted to embrace every province. So it is the definition of the imperial theatre that most concerns us here. By placing the Vandals, Huns and Ostrogoths at the centre of the stage, we avoid being sidelined in Gaul and Spain with Visigoths and Franks. It was in response to the threats and ambitions of those major players that the Mediterranean empire continued to adjust its traditional priorities. At the same time, the Visigoths and Franks are retained in the narrative, cut down to size. We also keep the eastern empire in play, not allowing it to fall too quickly into a Byzantine future that saw the West as lost. Justinian, in that scenario, is not to be seen as trying unrealistically to reverse or deny a process: rather, he maintained the policies and preoccupations of his fifth-century predecessors. A single theatre, therefore, allows us to do greater justice to the social and economic developments of the time. The trade in corn and oil; patrocinium, bondage and estate management; taxation and law; the fortunes of provincial élites and of military and civilian servants of the state – all should be defined and explained within a central Mediterranean context.
There is one other matter worth our final attention: the unity or disunity of the Church. If the history of early Christianity teaches us anything, it is that unity among Christians was never likely to be achieved by their clergy. The Christian imperial government, on the other hand, regarded unity as a major goal, to be attained at the expense of heretics much more than by the defeat of the pagans whom we so relentlessly suppose it was the Christians’ chief purpose to supplant. One can understand why the government thought that way. Christianity had come to represent the theoretical framework within which the development and security of institutions, the loyalty and discipline of individuals, and the definition and justification of authority itself were expressed and enforced. Confusion within was much more dangerous than a challenge from without. From the time of Constantine himself, the government was intent upon suppressing Christian error – largely, at first, in the Arian cause, and then by adhesion to Nicaea.
We are still not very good at writing the history of that endeavour. Books abound in our libraries that outline the Arian argument, the christologies of the fifth-century fathers, the intellectual intricacies of monophysite indignation. We must honour all the more those writers who attend to the context: for when we examine who was writing when and where, we always find ourselves plunged into a thicket of bishops, barbarians and monks, not to mention the unpredictably independent patronage of landowners and army officers. The social profile of heresy, or more generally of religious dissidence and idiosyncrasy, has yet to be established. How rationally, for example, may we suppose that the relentless Arianism of barbarians rendered them inescapably marginal figures in the Mediterranean world? Surely we have learned, similarly, that monophysite thought did not render impotent the impulse to be Greek? Geographical perceptions also call for care. Reading the lives of Ambrose, for example, and of Gregory the Great, one cannot help being struck by the way in which, in both cases (two centuries apart), an Italian churchman of distinction and influence was preoccupied by both the dangerous errors and the powerful patrons to be found in the Balkans, in Africa, and in Gaul, not to mention Constantinople.
If there is one event in the fifth century that illuminates this discussion, it is the Council of Chalcedon of 451. The politics of the eastern churches during the previous fifty years had made some such occasion inevitable: conflict between Alexandria and Antioch, and jealousy of Constantinople, dominated those events, and therefore the discourse of the Council itself. Even more important for our purpose, the decisions of Chalcedon governed church affairs for more than a century to come; and for that reason its fifth-century quality is of considerable significance. Emperors and churchmen, barbarians and Romans, all in very different circumstances, were forced to define their relations by reference to that distant occasion; and the term “Chalcedonian” became subject to as many shifts as “empire”. An emperor’s natural regard for unity was now expressed in terms of Chalcedon’s market value, distressingly low in many quarters, and frequently abandoned. It is probably, however, the hay made by popes in the matter that counts for most; and the figure of chief significance was Leo, bishop of Rome between 440 and 461. His Tome, drafted in 449, served usefully to impose on the decrees of Chalcedon an interpretation that the East was never likely to accept. We might be tempted to focus at once, here, on the theoretical nuances, the characteristics of Latin vocabulary in particular, that suggest an irreversible divide between the eastern and the western churches, a “parting of the ways”. Yet the context of ambitions within which Leo expressed himself must be more gradually assessed. He had already, in ways characteristic of an Italian, flexed his muscle against the episcopate of Gaul (following the political trend of the time); and his general exaltation of the Petrine heritage, together with this forceful response to Chalcedon’s decrees – indeed, his calculatedly narrow gloss upon its definitions – was designed most of all to bind together the western episcopate under his leadership.* [*Evangelos Chrysos, during the 9th Conference of the Australian Association for Byzantine Studies itself (Brisbane, 1995), encouraged me in what I would see as a corroborating view, that the "teaching" of Chalcedon tout court was virtually a western creation, which never carried convincing theological weight in the Greek East.] (The local precedents thus set in place would affect considerably the world of the Franks described at the end of the sixth century by Gregory of Tours.) The unity that Leo hoped for in the West was not, however, achieved in isolation, but resided in a forceful address to his eastern colleagues. The post-Chalcedon church in the West never turned its back on the East, but began to achieve its new sense of identity under the bishop of Rome and amidst the burgeoning kingdoms of the western provinces by pressing its cause relentlessly in the eastern court. The fortunes of the papacy under Theodoric, the sorry saga of the Three Chapters, and Gregory’s rancorous correspondence with the patriarchs of Constantinople all make sense within that context only.
This painful engagement held together, then, the world of western bishops and the world of Pulcheria: for, overriding the intransigence of Leo and his successors, there remained the enduring, the rarely challenged conviction at the heart of imperial ideology that the emperor administered the judgements of God, defended the purity of the church’s doctrine, and revealed in his own life an appropriate virtue. Pulcheria instilled that belief in her malleable brother, Eudocia tried desperately to mimic it, and Justinian in particular laid bold and more effective claim to the same inheritance. The echo does not fade entirely in the pathetic letters of Gregory to Phocas. In the service of that ideology, the architecture of Constantinople in particular fused the hieratic and the political, in ways copied elsewhere in the East and even in Ravenna, though rarely further west than that. So we return to our original arch, from the time when, in 381, Theodosius presided over the first council of Constantinople, promising a reign of orthodoxy and fervour, to the time when Justinian, the instigator of the new Church of the Holy Wisdom, the Solomon and Moses of his age, would have been able to see himself in mosaic on the inner ceiling of the Chalke Gate receiving from his subjects, in Procopius’s ironic words, “honours equal to God”.