Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The Reorganization of the Eastern Empire

(A.D. 408-518.)

The feeble and inert Arcadius died in A.D. 408, at the early age of thirty-one; his imperious consort had preceded him to the grave, and the empire of the East was left to Theodosius II., a child of seven years, their only son. There was hardly an instance in Roman history of a minor succeeding quietly to his father's throne. An ambitious relative or a disloyal general had habitually supplanted the helpless heir. But the ministers of Arcadius were exceptionally virtuous or exceptionally destitute of ambition. The little emperor was duly crowned, and the administration of the East undertaken in his name by the able Anthemius, who held the office of Praetorian Praefect. History relates nothing but good of this minister; he made a wise commercial treaty with the king of Persia; he repelled with ease a Hunnish invasion of Moesia; he built a flotilla on the Danube, where Roman war-ships had not been seen since the death of Valens, forty years before; he reorganized the corn supply of Constantinople; and did much to get back into order and cultivation the desolated north-western lands of the Balkan Peninsula, from which Alaric and his Visigothic hordes had now taken their final departure. The empire was still more indebted to him for bringing up the young Theodosius as an honest and god-fearing man. The palace under Anthemius' rule was the school of the virtues: the lives of the emperor and his three sisters, Pulcheria, Arcadia, and Marina, were the model and the marvel of their subjects. Theodosius inherited the piety and honesty of his grandfather and namesake, but was a youth of slender capacity, though he took some interest in literature, and was renowned for his beautiful penmanship. His eldest sister, Pulcheria, was the ruling spirit of the family, and possessed unlimited influence over him, though she was but two years his senior. When Anthemius died in A.D. 414, she took the title of Augusta, and assumed the regency of the East. Pulcheria was an extraordinary woman: on gathering up the reins of power she took a vow of chastity, and lived as a crowned nun for thirty-six years; her fear had been that, if she married, her husband might cherish ambitious schemes against her brother's crown; she therefore kept single herself and persuaded her sisters to make a similar vow. Austere, indefatigable, and unselfish, she proved equal to ruling the realms of the East with success, though no woman had ever made the attempt before.

When Theodosius came of age he refused to remove his sister from power, and treated her as his colleague and equal. By her advice he married in A.D. 421, the year that he came of age, the beautiful and accomplished Athenais, daughter of the philosopher Leontius. The emperor's chosen spouse had been brought up as a pagan, but was converted before her marriage, and baptized by the name of Eudocia. She displayed her literary tastes in writing religious poetry, which had some merit, according to the critics of the succeeding age. The austere Pulcheria—always immersed in state business or occupied in religious observances found herself ere long ill at ease in the company of the lively, beautiful, and volatile literary lady whom she had chosen as sister-in-law. If Theodosius had been less easy-going and good-hearted he must have sent away either his sister or his wife, but he long contrived to dwell affectionately with both, though their bickerings were unending. After many years of married life, however, a final quarrel came, and the empress retired to spend the last years of her life in seclusion at Jerusalem. The cause of her exile is not really known: we have only a wild story concerning it, which finds an exact parallel in one of the tales of the "Arabian Nights."

"The emperor," so runs the tale, "was one day met by a peasant who presented him with a Phrygian apple of enormous size, so that the whole Court marveled at it. And he gave the man a hundred and fifty gold pieces in reward, and sent the apple to the Empress Eudocia. But she sent it as a present to Paulinus, the 'Master of the Offices,' because he was a friend of the emperor. But Paulinus, not knowing the history of the apple, took it and gave it to the emperor as he reentered the Palace. And Theodosius having received it, recognized it and concealed it, and called his wife and questioned her, saying, 'Where is the apple that I sent you?' She answered, 'I have eaten it.' Then he bade her swear by his salvation the truth, whether she had eaten it or sent it to someone. And Eudocia swore that she had sent it to no man, but had herself eaten it. Then the emperor showed her the apple, and was exceedingly wrath, suspecting that she was enamoured of Paulinus, and had sent it to him as a love-gift; for he was a very handsome man. And on this account he put Paulinus to death, but he permitted Eudocia to go to the Holy Places to pray. And she went down from Constantinople to Jerusalem, and dwelt there all her days."

That Paulinus was executed, and that Eudocia spent her last years of retirement in Palestine, we know for certain. All the rest of the story is in reality hidden from us. The chief improbability of the tale is that Eudocia had reached the age of forty when the breach between her and her husband took place, and that Paulinus was also an official of mature years.

Theodosius' long reign passed by in comparative quiet. Its only serious troubles were a short war with the Persians, and a longer one with Attila, the great king of the Huns, whose empire now stretched over all the lands north of the Black Sea and Danube, where the Goths had once dwelt. In this struggle the Roman armies were almost invariably unfortunate. The Huns ravaged the country as far as Adrianople and Philippopolis, and had to be bought off by the annual payment of 700 lbs. of gold [31,000]. It is true that they fell on Theodosius while his main force was engaged on the Persian frontier, but the constant ill-success of the imperial generals seems to show that the armies of the East had never been properly re-organized since the military system of Theodosius I. had been broken up by the revolt of Gainas forty years before, His grandson had neither a trustworthy body of German auxiliaries nor a sufficiently large native levy of born subjects of the empire to protect his borders.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


The reconstruction of the Roman military forces was reserved for the successors of Theodosius II. He himself was killed by a fall from his horse in 450 A.D., leaving an only daughter, who was married to her cousin Valentinian III., Emperor of the West. Theodosius, with great wisdom, had designated as his successor, not his young son-in-law, a cruel and profligate prince, but his sister Pulcheria, who at the same time ended her vow of celibacy and married Marcianus, a veteran soldier and a prominent member of the Senate. The marriage was but formal, for both were now well advanced in years: as a political expedient it was all that could be desired. The empire had peace and prosperity under their rule, and freed itself from the ignominious tribute to the Huns. Before Attila died in 452, he had met and been checked by the succours which Marcianus sent to the distressed Romans of the West.

When Marcianus and Pulcheria passed away, the empire came into the hands of a series of three men of ability. They were all bred as high civil officials, not as generals; all ascended the throne at a ripe age; not one of them won his crown by arms, all were peaceably designated either by their predecessors, or by the Senate and army. These princes were Leo I. (457-474), Zeno (474-491), Anastasius (491-518). Their chief merit was that they guided the Roman Empire in the East safely through the stormy times which saw its extinction in the West. While, beyond the Adriatic, province after province was being lopped off and formed into a new Germanic kingdom, the emperors who reigned at Constantinople kept a tight grip on the Balkan Peninsula and on Asia, and succeeded in maintaining their realm absolutely intact. Both East and West were equally exposed to the barbarian in the fifth century, and the difference of their fate came from the character of their rulers, not from the diversity of their political conditions. In the West, after the extinction of the house of Theodosius (455 A.D.), the emperors were ephemeral puppets, made and unmade by the generals of their armies, who were invariably Germans. The two Magistri militum, Ricimer and Gundovald—one Suabian, the other Burgundian by birth—deposed or slew no less than five of their nominal masters in seventeen years. In the East, on the other hand, it was the emperors who destroyed one after another the ambitious generals, who, by arms or intrigue, threatened their throne.

While this comparison bears witness to the personal ability of the three emperors who ruled at Constantinople between A. D. 457 and A.D. 518, it is only fair to remember they were greatly helped by the fact that the German element in their armies had never reached the pitch of power to which it had attained in the West; the suppression of Gainas forty years before had saved them from that danger. But unruly and aspiring generals were not wanting in the East; the greatest danger of Leo I. was the conspiracy of the great Magister militum  Aspar, whom he detected and slew when he was on the eve of rebelling. Zeno was once chased out of his capital by rebels, and twice vexed by dangerous risings in Asia Minor, but on each occasion he triumphed over his adversaries, and celebrated his victory by the execution of the leaders , of the revolt. Anastasius was vexed for several years by the raids of a certain Count Vitalian, who ranged over the Thracian provinces with armies recruited from the barbarians beyond the Danube. But, in spite of all these rebellions, the empire was never in serious danger of sinking into disorder or breaking up, as the Western realm had done, into new un-Roman kingdoms. So far was it from this fate, that Anastasius left his successor, when he died in A.D. 518, a loyal army of 150,000 men, a treasure of 320,000 lbs. of gold, and an unbroken frontier to East and West.

The main secret of the success of the emperors of the fifth century in holding their own came from the fact that they had reorganized their armies, and filled them up with native troops in great numbers. Leo I. was the first ruler who utilized the military virtues of the Isaurians, or mountain populations of Southern Asia Minor. He added several regiments of them to the army of the East, but it was his son-in-law and successor, Zeno, himself an Isaurian born, who developed the scheme. He raised an imperial guard from his countrymen, and enlisted as many corps of them as could be raised; moreover, he formed regiments of Armenians and other inhabitants of the Roman frontier of the East, and handed over to his successor, Anastasius, an army in which the barbarian auxiliaries now composed of Teutons and Huns in about equal numbers—were decidedly dominated by the native elements.

The last danger which the Eastern Empire was to experience from the hands of the Germans fell into the reign of Zeno. The Ostrogoths had submitted to the Huns ninety years before, when their brethren the Visigoths fled into Roman territory, in the reign of Valens. But when the Hunnish Empire broke up at the death of Attila [A.D. 452], the Ostrogoths freed themselves, and replaced their late masters as the main danger on the Danube. The bulk of them streamed south-westward, and settled in Pannonia, the border-province of the Western Empire, on the frontier of the East-Roman districts of Dacia and Moesia. They soon fell out with Zeno, and two Ostrogothic chiefs, Theodoric; the son of Theodemir, and Theodoric, the son of Triarius, were the scourges of the Balkan Peninsula for more than twenty years. While the bulk of their tribesmen settled down on the banks of the Save and Mid-Danube, the two Theodorics harried the whole of Macedonia and Moesia by never-ending raids. Zeno tried to turn them against each other, offering first to the one, then to the other, the title of Magister militum, and a large pension. But now as in the time of Alaric and Stilicho—it was seen that "dog will not eat dog"; the two Theodorics, after quarrelling for a while, banded themselves together against Zeno. The story of their reconciliation is curious.

Theodoric, the son of Theodemir, the ally of Rome for the moment, had surrounded his rival on a rocky hill in a defile of the Balkans. While they lay opposite each other, Theodoric, the son of Triarius [he is usually known as Theodoric the One-Eyed], rode down to his enemy's lines and called to him, "Madman, betrayer of your race, do you not see that the Roman plan is always to destroy Goths by Goths? Whichever of us fails, they, not we, will be the stronger. They never give you real help, but send you out against me to perish here in the Desert." Then all the Goths cried out, "The One-Eyed is right. These men are Goths like ourselves." So the two Theodorics made peace, and Zeno had to cope with them both at once [A.D. 479]. Two years later Theodoric the One-Eyed was slain by accident his horse flung him, as he mounted, against a spear fixed by the door of his tent but his namesake continued a thorn in the side of the empire till 488 A.D.

In that year Zeno bethought him of a device for ridding himself of the Ostrogoth, who, though he made no permanent settlement in Moesia or Macedonia, was gradually depopulating the realm by his incursions. The line of ephemeral emperors who reigned in Italy over the shrunken Western realm had ended in 476, when the German general Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus, and did not trouble himself to nominate another puppet-Caesar to succeed him. By his order a deputation from the Roman Senate visited Zeno at Constantinople, to inform him that they did not require an emperor of their own to govern Italy, but would acknowledge him as ruler alike of East and West; at the same time they besought Zeno to nominate, as his representative in the Italian lands, their defender, the great Odoacer. Zeno replied by advising the Romans to persuade Odoacer to recognize as his lord Julius Nepos, one of the dethroned nominees of Ricimer, who had survived his loss of the imperial diadem. Odoacer refused, and proclaimed himself king in Italy, while still affecting—against Zeno's own will to recognize the Constantinopolitan emperor as his suzerain.

In 488 A.D. it occurred to Zeno to offer Theodoric the government of Italy, if he would conquer it from Odoacer. The Ostrogoth, who had harried the inland of the Balkan Peninsula bare, and had met several reverses of late from the Roman arms, took the offer. He was made "patrician" and consul, and started off with all the Ostrogothic nation at his back to win the realm of Italy. After hard fighting with Odoacer and the mixed multitude of mercenaries that followed him, the Goths conquered Italy, and Theodoric German king and Roman patrician began to reign at Ravenna. He always professed to be the vassal and deputy of the emperor at Constantinople, and theoretically his conquest of Italy meant the reunion of the East and the West. But the Western realm had shrunk down to Italy and Illyricum, and the power of Zeno therein was purely nominal.

With the departure of the Ostrogoths we have seen our last of the Germans in the Balkan Peninsula; after 488 the Slavs take their place as the molesters of the Roman frontier on the Danube.