Stuff from Way Back #35: A Tale of Two Empires

(This essay follows Stuff from Way Back #34b: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It.  I have got carried away, and this will be the last of the tedious history pieces – well, for a while.)

 

With the death of Theodosius in 395 the Roman Empire fell into permanent division into two separate states, marking the beginning of the emergence of the Byzantine Empire in the east.  A fiction of Imperial unity was maintained for a time, with one consul (the two annual chief magistrates dating back to the earliest days of the Republic) chosen in Rome and the other in Constantinople, but in fact there were two separate administrations and the death of one Emperor did not result in the other controlling the entire Empire.

The situation in 395 did not bode well for either half.  In the east Arcadius was a youth of eighteen under the influence of the Prefect Flavius Rufinus, while the western Emperor, Honorius, was only eleven and completely controlled by Flavius Stilicho (Flavius yet again!), a half-Vandal of low birth.  Stilicho considered himself a Roman, but in fact most of the western Emperors would never be anything more than puppets of Germanic barbarians standing behind the throne.

Stilicho and family

Stilicho and family

And serious troubles were coming.  Seizing the opportunity presented by the death of Theodosius, Alaric, leader of the Visigoths settled north of the Balkans, began plundering Greece.  In 401, while Stilicho was busy with an invasion of Vandals and Alans, Alaric attempted to invade Italy and was repulsed, then tried again two years later, only to be thwarted again.  But in 408 Stilicho was assassinated, and Alaric blockaded Rome, demanding a serious of huge ransoms, all of which Honorius, who was holed up in the virtually impregnable city of Ravenna, haughtily refused.  In 410 a frustrated Alaric sacked Rome for three days and having unwittingly secured his name in history, then died the same year.  For the first time since the Gauls captured the city eight hundred years earlier Rome had been occupied by a foreign army.

Alaric in Athens

Alaric in Athens

Honorius

Honorius

Visigoths on the road

Visigoths on the road

 

The Visigoths moved to Gaul in 412, popped into Spain to fight the Vandals and Alans, who had been settled there, and in 418 were settled in southern Gaul.  In 429 the surviving Vandals and Alans crossed to Africa to establish a kingdom there, and the Visigoths began extending their rule into Spain, dominating most of the peninsula by 500.  The Burgundians, who may have crossed the Rhine in 411, were defeated by Aetius in 433 and settled in southeast Gaul (not Burgundy) and aided general Flavius Aetius, the “last of the Romans,” in the defeat of Attila in 451.  The Salian Franks, settled earlier on the lower Rhine, also fought as Roman allies against Attila, and steadily expanded their power southwards, reaching the frontier of the Gothic kingdom in 486 under their king Clovis.  Finally, Saxons, Angles and Jutes began settling Britain, especially after the last Roman troops were evacuated around 442.

Barbarian shit hits the Roman fan

Barbarian shit hits the Roman fan

Meanwhile, in the east Arcadius had died in 408, and was succeeded by Flavius Theodosius (Minor).  Theodosius II was a weak Emperor, dominated in turn by the Praetorian Prefect Flavius Anthemius, his sister Pulcheria, who became Augusta, his wife Eudocia and finally his chamberlain (and eunuch) Chrysaphius.  He occupied the throne for forty-two years, however, a measure of the greater stability of the eastern Empire, and was not troubled by any serious domestic problems.  There were two successful wars against the Persians, in 421-422 and 441-442, but the real problem was the Huns.  Constantinople began paying a huge annual bribe to the Huns in 424, and when Attila became king in 433, he demanded even more, which was paid.  Never trust a Hun: in 441-443 Attila ravaged the Balkans anyway, defeated the imperial forces and received an even greater tribute, which was paid.

Hun central

Hun central

Three notable achievements emerged from the reign of Theodosius II.  In 413 a new circumvallation of Constantinople, the “Theodosian walls,” was completed, and in 448, after a number of serious earthquakes, the damage was repaired and a second outer wall was added.   In 425 Theodosius founded the Pandidakterion, a sort of proto-university with thirty-one chairs, half in Greek and half in Latin, further establishing Constantinople as the center of European civilization and learning, while Rome and the west sunk into barbarism.  Finally, the Emperor ordered a compilation of Roman law since Constantine, and in 438 the Theodosian Code was published, the first of the great late imperial law codes that would so influence medieval Europe.  It went into force the following year, though its impact in the west, which was already mostly barbarian kingdoms, was minimal.

Theodosian walls around Constantinople

Theodosian walls around Constantinople

Theodosius II

Theodosius II

When her brother died in 450, the Augusta Pulcheria married Flavius Marcianus, who became the next Emperor.  He refused to continue payments to the Huns, who were bankrupting the Empire, and Attila decided to invade the west, removing for good, as it happened, the Hunnish threat to the eastern Empire.  Upon Marcian’s death in 457 Flavius Valerius Leo, surnamed Thracius (the Thracian), became ruler and was faced with the growing power of his Gothic general Flavius Ardabur Aspar, who had risen to prominence under Marcian.  Aspar’s power base was Gothic mercenaries and allies, and Leo began recruiting Isaurians, a warlike people living in Anatolia, in order to undermine his position.  Aspar was assassinated in 471, and Leo and his successor, his grandson Flavius Leo (Minor), both died in 474.  Leo II’s father, Flavius Zeno, became Emperor.

Leo I the Thracian

Leo I the Thracian

Out in the wild west the collapse was accelerating.  When Stilicho died in 408, his place was taken by Flavius Constantius, who crushed usurpers in 411 and 413 and convinced Honorius to make him co-Emperor 421, promptly dying a few months later.  Two years later Honorius died, and he was succeed by the son of his sister Aelia Galla Placidia and Constantius, Flavius Placidius Valentinianus, a five year old, who was escorted with his mother to Italy by eastern troops.  Placidia was made Augusta and regent, but the real power would be in the hands in of Flavius Aetius, who became supreme commander of the army in 429.

Aetius

Aetius

Galla Placidia

Galla Placidia

Valentinian III

Valentinian III

He was ousted in 432, but with the backing of the Huns he returned the following year and subsequently drew upon Hunnish forces to preserve Roman control of central and southeastern Gaul.  In 451, Attila, refused more authority in the west by Valentinian III, crossed the Rhine and was defeated at the Battle of Troyes (or Châlons) by Aetius and an army composed mostly of Germans.  The following year he invaded northern Italy, but after a chat with Pope Leo I he returned to the east, an army ravaged by hunger and disease rather than the words of the Pope being the compelling reason.  He died in 453, and the Hun empire immediately fell apart.

Pope Leo I chats with Attila

Pope Leo I chats with Attila

Huns

Huns

A measure of his stupidity, Valentinian had Aetius killed in 454 and was then himself assassinated the following year.  He was followed by a string of losers.  Flavius Anicius Petronius Maximus lasted one year, chased out by the Vandal lord of north Africa, Gaiseric (or Genseric), who sacked Rome, while his successor, Marcus Maecilius Flavius Eparchius Avitus, a Gallic general, was removed after a year by his supreme commander, the German Flavius Ricimer.  Ricimer was content to remain behind the throne and elevated puppets instead: Flavius Julius Valerius Majorianus, who was deposed by Ricimer in 461, and Flavius Libius Severus Serpentius, who died in 465.  For the next two years there was no Emperor in the west, and Procopius Anthemius was sent out in 467 by Emperor Leo.  Ricimer put up with him until 472, when he was executed and replaced by Anicius Olybrius, who died the same year, along with Ricimer.

Gaiseric parties in Rome

Gaiseric parties in Rome

Rare portrait of Flavius Ricimer

Rare portrait of Flavius Ricimer

Gaiseric the Vandal

Gaiseric the Vandal

A nephew of Ricimer attempted to take over his uncle’s position, appointing Flavius Glycerius Emperor in 473, but the following year Flavius Julius Nepos arrived from the east with an army and installed himself.  He was in turn driven out of Ravenna (now the western capital) in 475 by his own supreme commander, Flavius Orestes, who made his twelve year old son Romulus (surnamed Augustulus) Emperor.  The pair lasted a year.  In 476 German mercenaries in Italy under the leadership the Scirian, Flavius (!) Odoacar (or Odovacar), demanded land, and when they were refused, they murdered Orestes and deposed Romulus.  Odoacar declared himself king, and his authority over Italy was recognized by Emperor Zeno.  In theory Odoacar ruled on behalf of the Emperor, but in fact the western half of the Roman Empire was now nothing more than a collection of barbarian kingdoms.  Ironically, the last Emperor in the west bore the names of the two “founders” of Rome; Romulus and Augustus.

Flavius Odoacar

Flavius Odoacar

Romulus Augustulus

Romulus Augustulus

Lights out for Romulus Augustulus

Lights out for Romulus Augustulus

The eastern half survived, on its way to becoming the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire, which would last another thousand years before the Theodosian walls of Constantinople were breached by the Turks in 1453.  In some ways the west was doomed once the Empire split permanently in 395.  The east was in a better strategic situation, with a shorter northern frontier and Constantinople guarding the crossing between Europe and Asia.  The lower Danube was the only seriously threatened border, primarily because of the sheer number of barbarians, whereas deserts helped protect Syria and Egypt, and the Persian Empire, exhausted from its long struggle with Rome and with its own barbarian threat on its northern frontiers, could generally be dealt with.  Further, Constantinople had the option through threat and reward of convincing barbarians, primarily Goths, who crossed the Danube to move on to better pickings in the west.  The west also had to deal with more Germans coming across the Rhine and upper Danube, especially when the Huns moved into eastern Europe, driving the other tribes westward.

Clearly, the policy of recruiting barbarians into the Roman army and settling entire tribes in the provinces as allied kingdoms led ultimately to their growing power over the actual Roman rulers and the making and breaking of Emperors.  This had a far greater impact on the western government, since outside the area between the Danube and Greece there was in the east very little settlement of barbarians, leaving the core provinces of the eastern Empire generally under imperial control.  Additionally, as early as Arcadius Constantinople was endeavoring to raise troops from within the Empire in order to forestall the emergence of powerful Gothic leaders; Leo I did precisely this when he began hiring Isaurians to thwart his Gothic general Aspar.  The eastern Empire was fortunate in having a supply of excellent non-Germanic recruits in Anatolia, and this became more or less a steady policy.  Troubles with barbarians were not eliminated, but the emergence of Germanic puppet masters was prevented, and by the time of Emperor Justinian (527-565) the armies of Constantinople were virtually completely indigenous.

Very important was the far superior economic situation in the east.  Because of the long presence of the Greeks, the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire were far more urbanized and productive than those in the west, and as the Empire fell into political and economic trouble, especially in the wake of the Anarchy, capital began fleeing to the more stable east, further aggravating the situation in the west.  To be sure, during the Dominate Constantinople had serious financial problems, but with the complete collapse of Roman authority west of the Adriatic and the suppression of the Goths in the east, the economy began improving.  In the sixth century Justinian had enough resources to attempt to reconquer the west, a foolish endeavor, as it happened.

Justinian the Great

Justinian the Great

The reign of Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus (527-565) in fact marks a symbolic end of the Roman Empire.  He was the last Emperor to attempt to reunite the Empire – he failed – and his administration was the last during which Latin was the official language of the government – it gave way to Greek, the true lingua franca of the east.  And under him for the last time consuls were appointed, ending a thousand year political institution.   A new history begins here.

Could it be that in addition to all its other problems the Roman Empire collapsed because during the Dominate virtually every official had the first name Flavius, confusing the hell out of everyone?

 

395-476 The Divided Empire

            383-408 Flavius Arcadius (East)

            393-423 Flavius Honorius (West)

395 Death of Rufinus; Huns invade Asia Minor and Syria

408-450 Flavius Theodosius (Minor) (East)

                        408 Death of Stilicho

409 Vandals and Alans settled in Spain

                        410 Visigoths sack Rome; Alaric dies

413 Theodosian wall

418 Visigoths settled in southern Gaul

421-422 Persian War

421        Flavius Constantius (West)

            423-455 Flavius Placidius Valentinianus (West)

                        429 Vandals occupy Africa

433 Burgundians defeated by Aetius, settled in Gaul

438 Theodosian Code

441-442 Persian War

442 Last Roman troops leave Britain

            450-457 Flavius Marcianus (East)

                        451 Attila defeated at the Battle of Troyes (Châlons)

453 Death of Attila

454 Death of Aetius

            455        Flavius Anicius Petronius Maximus (West)

            455-457 Marcus Maecilius Flavius Eparchius Avitus (West)

            457-474 Flavius Valerius Leo Thracius (East)

            457-461 Flavius Julius Valerius Majorianus (West)]

            461-465 Flavius Libius Severus Serpentius (West)

            465-467 No western emperor

            467-472 Procopius Anthemius (West)

            472        Anicius Olybrius (West)

                        472 Death of Ricimer

            473-474 Flavius Glycerius (West)

            473-474 Flavius Leo (Minor) (East)

474-475 Flavius Julius Nepos (West)

474-491 Flavius Zeno (East)

475-476 Romulus (Augustulus) (West)

                        476 Odovacar king of Italy

486 Salian Franks under Clovis occupy central and northern Gaul

493 Theoderic king of Italy

            491-518 Flavius Anastasius Dicorus (East)

            518-527 Flavius Justinus (East)

            527-565 Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus (East)

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Stuff from Way Back #34a: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It

 

(This essay follows Stuff from Way Back #33: Roma, We Have a Problem.  A note on Roman names: Romans – at least the elites – traditionally had a base of three names, the praenomen, nomen and cognomen, as in Gaius Julius Caesar.  The praenomen was the personal name, usually abbreviated, and by the time of the Principate there were only about a dozen in common use.  The nomen was the gens or clan name, and the cognomen was originally a modifier of the nomen, but could become hereditary, in which case it indicated the particular family in that clan.  Other cognomina might be added to express some achievement, such as P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus.  This arrangement crumbled during the Anarchy, and in the Dominate nomina [or a modified form of them] were frequently employed in the place of a traditional praenomen.)

 

Against all odds the Roman Empire had survived the Anarchy, but the Late Empire or Dominate bore little resemblance to the autocracy that Augustus had established three centuries earlier.  Most important, the political stability that characterized most of the history of the Principate was gone forever, washed away by the civil wars of the Anarchy and the corruption of the military.  The Empire was now facing continually growing barbarian pressure on the northern frontiers as the great German migrations to the west and the south got underway, while the effectiveness of the army had plummeted, allowing incursion after incursion into the provinces.  Economically, the Empire was in ruins, as the tax base shrank from devastated farmlands and declining commerce, while the state resources consumed by the army continued to rise.  The Empire had become an unpleasant place in which to live, and it may be assumed that any sense of loyalty to the state, which was now seen as an oppressor, had disappeared.

Maximian

Maximian

Diocletian

Diocletian

But Diocletian did bring a measure of stability, and the empire was relatively free of internal strife for the next two decades.  Having assumed the purple in 284, two years later he made another Illyrian, M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus, his co-ruler, who would look after the west while he took up residence in Nicomedia in the east.  Diocletian had determined that because of internal troubles and barbarian invasions the Empire was now too big for one man to govern, and in 293 he established the Tetrarchy.  Each Augustus appointed a Caesar, Galerius Valerius Maximianus for Diocletian and Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus for Maximian, the idea being that each Caesar would succeed his Augustus in an orderly fashion.

In a way the Tetrarchy was a return to Augustus’ original plan for succession – the Princeps would train his successor and associate him in power – but it is doubtful that this complex structure of four rulers could have worked even in the halcyon days of the early Principate.  It certainly did not in the wake of the Anarchy.  The type of man likely to be an effective ruler of the problem-plagued Late Empire was likely also to be ambitious and reluctant to share the ultimate power.  Further, the natural son of an Emperor was not likely to be amused if someone else was named his father’s Caesar.

Constantine Chlorus

Constantine Chlorus

Galerius

Galerius

When Diocletian abdicated in 305 and compelled a reluctant Maximian to do the same, the Second Tetrarchy quickly collapsed into a new civil war.  For a variety of reasons Diocletian decided to pass over the sons of Galerius and Chlorus as the new Caesars, naming Flavius Valerius Severus and Galerius Valerius Maximinus Daia.  In 306 Chlorus died after crushing an invasion of Picts in Britain, and while Severus succeeded him as Augustus in Rome, the army elevated Chlorus’ illegitimate son, Flavius Valerius Constantinus, to Augustus, thus opening the floodgates.  Maximian came out of retirement, and he and his son, M. Aurelius Valerius Maxentius, became Augusti in 306, turning out Severus and causing Galerius to invade Italy, unsuccessfully.  Diocletian himself attempted to negotiate a settlement in 308, retiring Maximian again, outlawing Maxentius and naming Valrerius Licinianus Licinius Augustus.  There were now six Augusti: Galerius, Constantine, Maximinus Daia, Maximian, who refused to stay retired, Maxentius, who refused to go quietly, and Licinius.  It was now necessary to have a program to keep track of the players.

Licinius

Licinius

Maximinus Daia

Maximinus Daia

Constantine

Constantine

Maxentius

Maxentius

Severus

Severus

It got simpler.  Maximian was murdered, and in 311 Galerius finally died, removing the major player from the game.  The following year Constantine formed an alliance with Licinius in the east and invaded Italy to take out Maxentius, who was allied to Maximinus Daia.  At the battle of the Milvan Bridge outside Rome, Constantine, a better general with a better though smaller army, crushed Maxentius, having sought the aid of the Christian god by having the Chi Rho (the first two letters of Christos in Greek) painted on his men’s shields.  For the first time a Roman ruler had appealed to the new god.

Chi Rho

Chi Rho

Now there were three, and in 313 Maximinus Daia, who had received no cut of Maxentius’ territory, attacked Licinius, was defeated and died of sickness.  Licinius began to intrigue against Constantine, but in the wake of inconclusive military action they reconciled and in 317 named their sons as their Caesars.  The showdown came in 323, when Constantine chased raiding Goths into Thrace, Licinius’ territory, and the eastern Augustus responded by launching a war, which ended the following year in Licinius’ defeat and later execution.

Constantine was now sole Emperor and would remain so until his death in 337.  During this period he continued and in some cases completed developments that had been underway since the Anarchy and especially since Diocletian.  The exclusion of the civil authorities from involvement in the military, begun in earnest by Gallerius during the Anarchy, was now complete, and the Senate had essentially become little more than a municipal council and a ceremonial and honorary association.  The autocracy had become an absolute despotism, and Constantine ruled by the grace of god.  He adopted the diadem and an oriental style court, replete with ceremonial procedures, titles and orders of preference, and what had originally been an unequal partnership between the Princeps and Senate was now a traditional Near Eastern kingship.

Constantine the Great

Constantine the Great

The Imperial bureaucracy continued its rapid growth, as the state attempted to control every aspect of the lives of the Empire’s inhabitants, and as much as was possible for a pre-industrial society, the Roman Empire became more and more totalitarian.  In order to prevent land from going out of cultivation, farmers were legally tied to their farms, unable to escape the increasingly oppressive taxation.  These bound farmers, the coloni, would form the basis of medieval serfdom.  Occupations, especially farming, were made hereditary, turning the Empire into a vast social prison and creating a highly stratified society, in which inequality was institutionalized in the law.  The elites, state and municipal officials, soldiers and veterans, were the honestiores; virtually all the rest of the population constituted the humiliores, who were subject to more restrictive laws and more brutal punishments.

These arrangements of course seriously injured agricultural productivity and especially commerce, and while Constantine reformed the currency, there simply was not enough revenue to support the military without crushing taxation, which further injured the economy.  The Empire was running out of silver and gold, and Diocletian’s attempt in 301 to freeze prices was, as one might expect, a complete failure.  Constantine had to accept taxes in kind, laying another foundation for medieval society.  Further, the maintenance of the Imperial infrastructure had traditionally relied upon liturgies, the voluntary contributions of the municipal elites, but these men were being now squeezed by the increasing taxation, which compelled the state to make such contributions mandatory.  The result was the deterioration of the middle income class, especially businessmen, who were at the heart of the non-agricultural economy, and it became harder and harder to find individuals willing to serve in the municipal offices.

Major changes were taking place in the military sphere.  Constantine created a Field Army that could be rushed to any crisis in the Empire, further emphasizing cavalry, which formed the core of the new army, while for the first time in Roman history infantry took second place.  The prominence of horse was not just a response to the Persians, who had excellent cavalry, but also because of its mobility in dealing with threats.  Meanwhile, the frontiers were increasingly dependent upon fortifications and border troops that were little more than local poorly trained militias.  From the point defense of the Principate and the elastic defense of the Anarchy the Empire moved to a defense in depth, in which multiple lines of fortified points would slow any barbarian invasion, providing the Field Army the time to move to confront the danger.  Finally, more and more barbarians were being recruited into the military, especially the frontier units, and entire tribes were being given land within the Empire in return for their military services.  This development was to a great degree a response to the declining population of the Empire, who were desperately needed in agriculture, but it nevertheless boded ill for the future.

Late Roman "Heavy" Cavalry

Late Roman “Heavy” Cavalry

Traditional Roman Infantry

Traditional Roman Infantry

Late Roman Infantry

Late Roman Infantry

Regarding that future, two of Constantine’s achievements were momentous enough to mark major turning points in Roman history – and that of the West in general.  Because of the Persian threat and the fact that the major barbarian pressure was along the lower Danube, he perceived a need for a “capital” in the east, and consequently the ancient Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosporus was rebuilt in 324 as Constantinople, the “city of Constantine.”  Constantine could hardly know it, of course, but the existence of a “New Rome” would certainly help facilitate the later separation of the Empire into two states and the emergence of the Byzantine Empire, which would carry on a Greek version of the Roman tradition for another millennium.

The other was even more world shaking, the establishment of Christianity as the favored and then official religion of the Empire.  I have tended to be cynical about Constantine’s conversion (which took place on his death bed, a not uncommon occurrence), but the more I look into this (I have always found studying the Late Empire depressing.) the more I think his commitment to the Church was genuine.  Most of the army was after all polytheist, and it is estimated that by the fourth century Christians only comprised about ten percent of the population, a weak base upon which to establish a new imperial policy simply for political reasons.  The stories of visions in the sky and dreams may be discounted, but it may well be that the success of his somewhat desperate invasion of Italy and the victory at the Milvan Bridge convinced him of the power of the Christian god.  His various efforts to preserve the unity of the religion, particularly the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which officially defined the Church’s understanding of the Trinity, strongly suggests a man who is personally concerned about the faith.

Whatever his motives, his conversion resulted in every succeeding Emperor but one being Christian, and Christianity thus rapidly became identified with the state and emerged as the official religion under Theodosius (379-395).  Constantine himself was generally respectful of the rights of non-Christians, but given the exclusive nature of monotheism and growing power of the Church, it was only inevitable that future rulers would become more repressive.  The persecution of the pagani would in fact begin under Constantine’s sons.  (See also Stuff from Way Back #14: The New God on the Block and Stuff from Way Back #15: These Christians Are Really Annoying.)

Constantine gained the appellation “the Great,” certainly deserved, for like Augustus he was one of the few individuals in history who single-handedly and dramatically affected the course of events.

 

285-337 Dominate I

284-305 C. Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (abdicated)

286-305 M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus (abdicated)

286 Peasant revolt in Gaul

297-298 Persian War

301 Edict on Prices

303-304 Edicts against Christians

305-306 Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus

305-311 Galerius Valerius Maximianus 

306-337 Flavius Valerius Constantinus 

306-307 Flavius Valerus Severus 

306-308 M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus

                           M. Aurelius Valerius Maxentius 

308-324 Valerius Licinianus Licinius 

310-313 Galerius Valerius Maximinus Daia 

                   312 Battle of the Milvan Bridge

313 Edict of Milan/Toleration

324-330 Foundation of Constantinople

325 First Council of Nicaea; Constantine adopts the diadem