Tag Archives: alaric

Discover Late Antiquity: Fifth-century Politics in the Eastern Empire

Theodosius II, in the Louvre (my photo)

Theodosius II, in the Louvre (my photo)

Although I took not one but two posts to cover fifth-century Western Roman politics, I’m only going to give one on the East. Why? Because the West is more my thing, frankly.

In the East, from the death of Theodosius I in 395 to the accession of Anastasius I in 491, the Emperors are Arcadius (395-408), Theodosius II (408-450), Marcian (450-457), Leo I (457-74), Zeno (474-491). Arcadius and Theodosius II are both child emperors, thus under the sway of powers at court. In the West, this served the patricii well, resulting in Ricimer who was a kingmaker.

In 395, Alaric (whom we met in the West, where he would go later) threatened Constantinople. In 396, he and his army ravaged Greece. In 408, they entered Italy (and we all know how that went).

Alaric was not the only ascendant Goth at the time, though; in 395, the Goth Gainas, magister militum, made his way back to Constantinople with the Eastern army. Rufinus, who had been attempting to control Arcadius, was assassinated by Gainas. Another Goth, a federated general named Tribigild rebelled in 399 in Phrygia, Asia Minor. When Gainas was sent against him, they seem to have come to some sort of pact and combined forces to march on Constantinople. On the way, it seems that Tribigild was killed.

Gainas withdrew from Constantinople into the countryside of Thrace. In relatiation for Gainas and Tribigild’s activity, there was a massacre of Constantinople’s Goths. He was defeated in battle by another Goth, Fravitta, then killed by the Huns around the time of the new year of 401.

In the midst of this, Eutropius, the eunuch who had risen to the top of the heap after the assassination of Rufinus, was executed, after he sent Gainas out against Tribigild.

In Theodosius II’s reign, the Theodosian Code was compiled, being issued in the year 438. In 440, hostilities between Rome and the Sassanian Persians flared again when Yazdgard II attacked the easatern provinces. Around the same time, Attila the Hun appeared, winning victories in the Balkans and being so dangerous in 447 that he had to be paid off in gold. He would enter the Western Empire in 450.

454 saw the defeat of another Hun army at the River Nedao.

Although the family of Ardabur-Aspar did their best by being kingmakers of Marcian and Leo I (having come to the ascendancy after Ardabur’s illustrious career and the assassination of the eunuch Chrysaphius in 447), Leo I had Aspar and his sons assassinated, securing somewhat more stability. In 475, though, Basiliscus usurped Zeno’s throne. Zeno went into exile, only to return in 476. Basiliscus went into exile where he died.

In 484 Illus rebelled; Illus was a general who had originally supported Basiliscus against Zeno before changing sides to support the re-instatement of Zeno as emperor. He rebelled in an attempt to replace Zeno with Leontius. An army led by Theoderic the Amal and a certain John was sent against him in 485. The rebel forces were defeated by the empire near Hoth Seleucia; they retreated to Papurius where they successful held out for three years. In 488, the fortress was betrayed by Lando Calrissian treachery, and Illus and Leontius were killed.

The next year, 489, the Emperor Zeno sent Theoderic into Italy to deal with those who had assassinated the ‘Emperor’ Julius Nepos — as we already saw. To get into the long reign of Anastasius from 491 to 518 is beyond my mental capacity right now (kind of tired), so I’ll lump it in with the sixth century.

And so our tour of Late Antiquity has so far helped us discover:

This tour will move us into the world of the sixth century next!

Discover fifth-century politics I: The West to Honorius’ death (423)

The last post in the main thread of my Discover Late Antiquity series of posts addressed fifth-century religion and literature. I managed to forget Sedulius, whose Carmen Paschale would be a good recommendation for this time of year, available online in a partial English translation by George Sigerson (1922) or for purchase in toto by Carl P. E. Springer (2013). Anyway, today’s journey into the wonderful world of Late Antiquity is about ‘history’ as most think of it — society, politics, the military, etc., as opposed to the intellectual and religious history discussed last time.

The fifth century is a big deal: Sack of Rome (2x), Romans leave Britain, big church schisms, Fall of the (Western) Roman Empire, all sorts of Byzantine politics in the eastern court, and so on and so forth.

Here’s a quick, breathless, political run-though from 395 to 423 in the West; the next post will take us from 423 to the close of the century. Hopefully these posts can orient you if you want to start learning more about Late Roman history.

In 395, Theodosius I ‘the Great’ died. The Roman Empire was divided at his death between his sons, Honorius in the West, Arcadius in the East. This division was to persist until the cessation of effective Roman rule in the West, ca. 476, when the Roman Empire was reduced to the eastern Mediterranean.

Persian cameo commemorating the defeat of the Emperor Valerian

Persian cameo commemorating the defeat of the Emperor Valerian

I must emphasise that in 395, the empire was not at the edge of collapse. True, Valens had been killed and the Roman army thrashed at Adrianople in 378, but Rome had survived other, similar things in the 200s, such as Valerian at Edessa vs Shapur I, which I discussed in my post on the third century. The networks of trade were open, the lawcourts were in operation, and, despite some troubles, no one imagined that things were within 80 years of everything falling apart. Nonetheless, there were non-Roman peoples from across the Danube living within Roman territory in 395. These groups were also major constituents of the Roman military at the time.

Two barbarians who help show us how things might (not) work: Stilicho & Alaric. Both of these men are leading military contingents on Theo I’s behalf in 394 against the usurper Eugenius. Stilicho in 395 was made guardian of Honorius, Alaric was left out to dry.

StilichoFirst, then, Stilicho. As you can see on the left, he and his Roman wife Serena — possibly the niece of Theodosius — look very Roman. Flavius Stilicho was likely of Vandal descent, but that fact tends only to be brought forward in hindsight by either his enemies or by historians trying to paint a picture of barbarian dominance of weak emperorlings. His career is pure Roman: 387, he went as ambassador to the Sassanian Shah, Shapur III; in 390, he took his first Roman military command in battle against Visigoths, and from then on, he was on campaign on behalf of the Empire against her various foes—Huns, Alans, Sarmatians. In 395 he takes over guardianship of Honorius, but also wants power in the East over Arcadius.

Furthermore, the Balkan provinces of Illyricum were transferred to the Eastern Empire—Stilicho wanted them back, and he used his own soldiers to attempt this as well as provoking Alaric against the East. Nonetheless, he was not really a traitor, so when called upon to rein in Alaric and also to surrender his troops, Stilicho did so. In 400 he held the consulship. He was shortly in constant campaign against barbarians or the eastern empire, defeating Alaric in Italy in 402, until finally his own scheming caught up with him and he was accused of treason and executed along with his son, supporters, and many of the barbarian troops he had raised in 408. Stilicho’s scheming and that of his enemies serves as a reminder of how short-sightedness can ruin large enterprises. He was an able general, but no one trusted him enough, and he was too interested in his own inter-Roman disputes to hold things together, anyway.

Alaric, in 394, was fighting with Theodosius I against Eugenius and Arbogast as commander of the combined Gothic-barbarian force. He could have been a Stilicho. Instead, famously in 410 he sacks Rome.

Alaric spends his time either historically invisible, ravaging Roman territory in response to failures of the Roman government to respect him or his demands, or fighting on behalf of Rome. Most important for us, however, is that in 408 Stilicho was removed from power on suspicion of treason. Stilicho had been Alaric’s support in the Roman administration, giving him official command and recognition. Suddenly, his main ally was dead as were his ally’s supporters and their families, including many of Stilicho’s barbarian recruits. Alaric found himself and his army outside the normal machinery of Roman life, and in 408 they marched on Rome and received 5000 lb gold, 30,000 lb silver, 4000 silk tunics, 3000 scarlet coloured skins, 3000 lb pepper from the Senate to prevent their sacking the city. In 409, Alaric once again besieged Rome and installed his own puppet as emperor. This was still not enough, so in 410 he was back, still discontented, still making unmet demands from the Roman government. So he sacked Rome.

Not a contemporary picture of the sack of Rome

Not a contemporary picture of the sack of Rome

This is the most famous sack of Rome, in the wake of which Augustine wrote his masterpiece The City of God and Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans. The Eternal City, Roma aeterna, Roma invicta, had fallen to a foreign enemy for the first time since the Gaulish troops from northern Italy invaded in 387 BC—that’s 797 years. Not even Hannibal had taken Rome. There may have been military disasters within and beyond the provinces, and provincial cities may have at times fallen to the enemy, such as Colchester to Boudicca in AD 61, or the utter abandonment of Dura Europos in the 250s. But Rome herself? An unthinkable thought. An idea never to be entertained. Rome was the centre of the world. She was the capital of a great invincible empire. No one could capture her. Could they?

After Stilicho, Honorius was still under the persuasion of other forces at court in Ravenna, each of them vying for his own power and position, and none of them looking at the long-term peace and prosperity of the Empire. Because Honorius’ rule had such a long minority, under him and his brother Arcadius in the East, the religious aspect of imperial activity became more important than before. The emperors became conspicuously pious, not just in the building of churches and mausolea but also in their attendance at religious functions. Their own role began to take on an aura of the religious.

423, Honorius dies. There had been problems, illustrated by Stilicho and Alaric, but certainly not limited to them. There had been the Gallic usurper Constantine III. Troops left Britain never to return. Much of Spain fell under control of different barbarian groups—however, unlike Britain, there was still impetus to regain imperial control of Spain, and various imperially-sponsored armies campaigned there, whether federated barbarians or more regular Roman troops. Africa, the breadbasket of the West, was still intact, along with Italy and Gaul. From 413-421, in fact, a general named Constantius put the western empire back on the offensive. Things were looking good. Weren’t they?

Well, no. But that’s a story for next time.