Rome and Constantinople

By Count Mummolus

The fifth century was a period of great change for Europe. Beginning with the Roman Empire split in two, the century featured the west suffering repeated barbarian invasions and eventually collapsing while the east survived in comparative peace and harmony. Crucial to an understanding of the relationship between the two halves of the Roman Empire is the knowledge that once the two sons of Theodosius I, Honorius and Arcadius, were to take power, the Empire would never be united again. In many ways the eastern and western portions of the Empire should be viewed not as halves of a whole, rather as separate but related 'twin empires'. The Eastern and Western Empires were administered in similar fashion and in the same Latin tongue; however in the East the vernacular was most certainly Greek, with small numbers, usually churchmen, speaking other tongues such as Coptic, Armenian, or Syriac. In addition, while the interests of the eastern and western empires were often the same, they are known to have negotiated separately as well. This is especially true during the early fifth century, in which the magister militum of each empire held the reigns of power. Priscus provides a contemporary example when he describes a chance meeting with western Roman emissaries while he himself was on a similar mission on the behalf of the eastern empire, and at times the twin empires may have come close to war with one another, particularly during the period of Stilicho's preeminence in the west. Important in these events are the relations between the east and the west - first, the divisions between them; second, measures taken by the empires to support one another against the wide variety of challenges each faced during the early and middle fifth century, and finally, the apparent failure of the eastern empire to re-establish its western counterpart in the second half of the fifth century. This essay will demonstrate that the eastern and western empires continued to work in conjunction with one another whenever possible, even when one or both faced external threats, and that the fall of the western empire was not due to any failure on the part of the east.

The two Roman empires began drifting apart almost as soon as Theodosius I died in 395. The magister militum in the west, Stilicho, quickly became the most powerful individual in the Empire as regent to the young emperor Honorius, but Stilicho's authority was not unchallenged. Several contenders for power in the east arose at the same time as advisors and regents to the Emperor Arcadius in Constantinople, and between the two Roman states were the Goths under Alaric, who openly revolted in 395. The Goths, at great cost to themselves, had helped Theodosius gain power by aiding him at the battle of the Frigidus against the usurper Eugenius, which due to the heavy Gothic casualties was described by Orosius as a victory over both the Goths and the usurper. The marginalization of the Goths followed by Theodosius' death led directly to the revolt of 395. Alaric led his Goths across the Balkans and invaded Greece, where they encountered but were not crushed by the forces of Stilicho, the western magister militum. The intervention of Stilicho requires some explanation, given that the Balkans and Greece were both nominally under the control of the Eastern Empire. The two sons of Theodosius I, Honorius and Arcadius, who became emperors of the west and eastern portions of the Empire respectively, were weak rulers but indisputably legitimate. After the death of Theodosius, the resulting power struggle was not for the imperial thrones, but for the positions of influence within either half of the Empire which in the west led to the rise of Stilicho. The east, however, suffered from repeated regime changes as a variety of politicians and generals vied for power which they were unable to hold. The first of these was the magister militum Rufinius, who according to one source attempted to use the Goths to his own advantage in a bid for power. Rufinius was murdered by the army in 395, and replacing him as the most powerful figure in the Eastern Empire was the eunuch Eutropius. Eutropius was not a popular pseudo-ruler, and Eunapius describes how he 'demolished everything' as he 'strove to be a man'. Eutropius was ousted by 397, and those following him refused to negotiate with Alaric any further. Alaric was a shrewd politician himself, and recognized that the two states could and would negotiate separately, so once it became clear that Constantinople was unwilling to deal with him he moved his forces into Italy in 401 to try and force a settlement out of Stilicho. No settlement was forthcoming. After several inconclusive engagements the Goths retreated back over the Alps before the end of 402. Meanwhile, the hostility of the eastern ministers to Stilicho and the west had been demonstrated beyond doubt.

In 397 the military commander of Africa renounced his allegiance to Rome and instead pledged himself to Constantinople. Stilicho dealt with the situation quickly, sending the African commander's brother to seize power, and by 398 Africa was once again a 'western' province, but the fact that such an event could even take place demonstrates the level of division between the Empires - while in many ways they shared the same goals, competition with one another was not out of the question. The loss of Africa would have been a major blow to the west; the grain supplied to the city of Rome by sea from North Africa was essential to keeping the city fed and had been for centuries. Failure to maintain the supply of grain was a quick way for a minister or general in Rome to find himself deposed or even killed, and the changing allegiance of Africa was no doubt a blow aimed at Stilicho himself. Were the East to maintain control over Africa, there is no reason the grain flow would have stopped, but in essence the west would have been made entirely dependant on the good graces of whoever was in power in Constantinople at a given moment.

Stilicho's response to the African incident was delayed by invasions, first that of Alaric in 401 and then that of Radagasius. After his defeat of Radagasius, Stilicho's intentions become rather unclear. What is clear is that Stilicho made some sort of agreement with Alaric, simultaneously putting pressure on the Eastern Empire to turn over eastern Illyricum to western control. Whether or not Stilicho actually threatened war with the Eastern Empire, his plans were put on hold by a series of uprisings in Britain and Gaul, as well as by the collapse of the Rhine frontier in 406 and the death of the eastern Emperor Arcadius in 408. Stilicho's focus on Alaric and the east allowed the loss of Gaul, and Stilicho himself was executed in August of 408, finally succumbing to the western internal politics which he had until then held in check. The result of Stilicho's death was the rise of Olympius, one of the plotters against Stilicho who was stoutly opposed to negotiation with the Goths. Under Olympius' influence, the Emperor Honorius refused Alaric's offers, and the outcome was the sack of Rome in 410.

The east, meanwhile, continued much as it had through the reign of Arcadius. Powerful ministers and courtiers dominated the Empire, and with the death of Arcadius and accession of his young son Theodosius II the eastern military was effectively removed from politics until the rise of Aspar in the 420's. As a result of this civil dominance, foreign policy changed substantially where the barbarians were concerned. Instead of meeting invading hordes with military strength, the east adopted a policy of buying off opponents which was to form an integral part of east Roman politics from this point forward. The west, on the other hand, was dominated by a series of generals like Stilicho - men who met threats to the empire with a combination of force and political maneuvering which had very different results from the eastern policy. With only the brief and anomalous period of Olympius' power in the west, the magister militum was supreme, and in 410/411 this was Flavius Constantius. When Constantius came into power, he found an Empire in chaos. Gaul was held by the usurpers Constantine III and Jovinus, and Spain by four barbarian groups who had migrated there from Gaul since breaching the Rhine in 405/406. Even the death of Alaric did not help circumstances, as his brother Athaulf was every bit as ambitious, leading the Goths into Gaul in 411 where they supported Jovinus. Constantius' successes were nothing short of miraculous. By 418 Gaul was once again under control and the Goths were allies campaigning with Roman forces against the remaining barbarian kingdoms in Spain. The east, as well, had not been idle. Fending off raids by a Hunnic warlord known as Uldin with bribes and diplomacy aimed at his followers, the eastern empire sent military aid to Honorius in Ravenna in 410. Aside from small raids and the payment of cash subsidies to a variety of barbarians (including the Huns), the eastern Empire was secure, and as a result the reign of Theodosius II was long and comfortable for the Emperor.

The relative peace and quiet in the east compared to the west allowed for a certain amount of intervention to ensure the Empire's mutual interests were maintained, and when Constantius and Honorius died in 421 and 423, respectively, it was the East which placed a successor on the western throne. The young Valentinian III and his mother Placidia had been exiled by Honorius in 422, but with his death they became the only representatives of the Theodosian dynasty aside from Theodosius II himself. Refusing to recognize an attempted usurper, an eastern army under Ardabur and Aspar accompanied Valentinian back west, and he was crowned Augustus in 424. Similar to the events in east after the death of Arcadius, the accession of the seven-year-old Valentinian left a group of the most powerful individuals in the west vying for control. Unlike the east, however, in the west the military was much more influential, and rather than a contest between eunuchs and ministers the western situation became a bloody civil war. The three main contenders were Felix, based in Italy, Aetius in Gaul, and Boniface in North Africa. Trapped between them all was Valentinian's mother Placidia, whose efforts to maintain a balance failed in 430 when Aetius had Felix killed. Boniface was recalled to Italy where he and Aetius fought a pitched battle, a battle which Boniface won at the cost of his own life. Boniface's son picked up where he left off, but utilizing a large force of Hunnic mercenaries Aetius became sole ruler of the west in 433, theoretically beneath only Valentinian III and more practically in complete control. Unfortunately, 'complete control' in the western empire now included only Italy, Sicily, and a small portion of Gaul. During the stasis of the past decade while imperial forces fought one another and jockeyed for power, the Vandals had established control over North Africa and the Visigoths over Spain, while a new group of indeterminate origin known as the Bagaudae pillaged much of Gaul. Britain had been beyond imperial control since at least 410, and was to remain so. Aetius' first priority was the economic heartland of the western Empire - North Africa. According to Procopius, Boniface had been responsible for inviting the Vandals into Africa to help secure his own interests, but his plan had backfired. The Vandals had now taken control of much of the region, disrupting Roman trade and hamstringing the western economy. Leaving Valentinian III on the throne while taking practical control of the west had garnered Aetius the much needed support of Constantinople in his efforts to restore imperial possessions, and by 435 Aspar was commanding an eastern army against the Vandals in Africa. Eastern support allowed Aetius the freedom necessary to move against the problem elements in Gaul, but even as Aetius and his Hunnic mercenaries returned much of Gaul and Spain to Imperial control, increased Hun raids on the east required the recall of Aspar and his troops. A treaty was signed with the Vandals recognizing their control over much of North Africa but keeping the most valuable portions in Roman hands, and while by 439 Aetius had subdued the Burgundians and regained much imperial territory, the Vandals were once again on the move. By the end of the year Africa was lost to the west, an economic catastrophe which arguably led directly to the downfall of the western empire.

The impact of such a loss was clearly not lost on either the western or eastern Empires - almost immediately preparations began for a decisive counterattack. The assembly of such a large force as that planned by the Empires in is in and of itself an economic and military drain, and the removal of a substantial portion of the eastern army from the Danube frontier to assist the west was to have dire consequences. Priscus describes how the fleet was assembled and awaiting orders from Theodosius when Attila seized power among the Huns and began an assault on the eastern Empire's Balkan territories. The west, still recovering from the ravages of both barbarian hordes and civil conflict, was in no condition to lend aid to the east as it had when Stilicho led his troops into Greece, especially given the loss of the valuable North African provinces. The eastern general Aspar, along with at least one other eastern army, was soundly defeated, and Attila's campaigns continued through the 440's until a treaty was arranged in 450 by which Attila withdrew from east Roman territories and left the Empire in peace in exchange for a large quantity of gold. Priscus provides a number of reasons for such a treaty, including Vandal piracy, Isaurian bandits, Saracen raiders, the unification of 'Ethiopian' tribes, and the possibility of renewed aggressions by Persia. While Priscus was on one of the many embassies running back and forth between Attila and the east, he encounters by chance a number of diplomats representing the western Empire, who as it turns out were not as successful as he was. In late 450 Theodosius II died, and despite his successor Marcian's refusal to pay the Huns an annual subsidy, Attila led his forces against the already ravaged western Empire.

The reasons for Attila's attack on the west remain somewhat mysterious. The east had recently refused him the equivalent of tribute and so was deserving of his wrath, but the Huns had spent nearly a decade plundering the Balkans and had been unable to take Constantinople in all of that time. Another campaign there would have been unlikely to reward the Huns as richly as the previous ones had, and campaigns into Asia Minor or farther east would have been difficult, as well as running the risk of encountering the eastern garrisons usually reserved for defense against the powerful Persian Empire, as well as potentially the armies of Persia itself. The west, on the other hand, had effectively been recovering for the past decade - agriculture and trade in the remaining provinces would have been much improved compared to the situation in 440, and the loss of Africa meant the western army was unlikely to have regained its prior strength. When Attila attacked the west it was an army of unlikely allies which met him there - Aetius led the west Roman army, while the Visigothic King Theodoric led a large contingent of Goths and other barbarians recognizing the threat posed by the Huns. Theodoric was killed in the fighting, but at the end of the day the Romans and Visigoths were victorious, and Attila retreated to Hungary. A second Hunnic campaign in 452 focused on Italy, but withdrew after capturing a number of North Italian cities from Aquileia to Milan. The withdrawal seems to have had its origins in cooperation between the east and west. Aetius led a series of guerilla-style attacks on the Hunnic supply lines and rearguard, utilizing his own remaining forces as well as reinforcements sent from the Eastern Empire. Additionally, the new eastern Emperor Marcian seems to have organized a series of attacks on the Hunnic heartland necessitating Attila's return.

A year after Attila's withdrawal, he died. His sons quarreled among themselves for leadership and the Hunnic threat practically vanished even more quickly than it had arisen. Such fortune should have bought the Empire a few years of peace. Instead, Valentinian III at the instigation of Petronius Maximus had Aetius killed in 454, and was himself assassinated by two of Aetius' followers in 455, again at the instigation of Petronius Maximus. Petronius Maximus was proclaimed Emperor and the Vandals sacked Rome. A Vandal noble, Huneric, had been betrothed to one of the daughters of Valentinian III, and Petronius Maximus' hasty seizure of power was seen by the Vandals as a pretext to attack the Empire once more. Petronius Maximus was killed in Rome before the end of the year, and one of his chief allies, Avitus, was declared Emperor in Visigothic lands where he had gone to negotiate their support for the short-lived Emperor. Avitus received the support of the Visigothic king Theodoric in exchange for permission to do as he wished in Spain, effectively trading imperial territory for military support, weakening the western empire in the process. Avitus' fate adequately demonstrates the importance of food to the Roman populace: forced by the people to send away his bodyguard and Gothic allies due to a food shortage, Avitus had to strip Rome of many decorations and much wealth in order to pay his allies. This was too much for the Roman military commanders in Italy, Ricimer and Majorian, both of barbarian descent themselves, who seized the opportunity presented to them by the departure of Avitus' support. Avitus was overthrown in 456, but the damage had already been done, and Spain was lost. Majorian was proclaimed Emperor at the behest of the east, and his reign started reasonably enough, with campaigns against the Visigoths in Spain and the Vandals, whose piracy was inhibiting Roman use of the Mediterranean, but when he returned to the city in 461 he was executed by Ricimer. Ricimer placed Libius Severus on the throne, an arrangement which lasted until 465. Unfortunately Ricimer had made the same mistake as Stilicho - he had alienated the eastern Empire, and Ricimer did not preside over so many resources as his predecessor. The western Empire was no longer able to fend off its foes without aid from its eastern counterpart, as Ricimer was to discover. Separate treaties were made between the east and the Vandals, which did not include the west. As a result, the Vandals stepped up their piracy against Sicily, culminating in significant raids every spring. Western requests for aid from the east went unheeded, at least until after the death of Severus 'who had seized the western empire' and the accession of Anthemius in 465.

The east, in stark contrast to the west, was recovering quickly under the Emperor Marcian. By canceling tribute payments to the Huns, Marcian had been able to reclaim a substantial amount of the eastern Empire's finances, and Jordanes records that during the collapse of the Hunnic regime after Attila's death Marcian received ambassadors from a number of former Hunnic subjects who were subsequently settled in Roman territory, no doubt aiding the economic recovery of the Balkans. Marcian's reign, despite his successes, was not to be a long one, and he died in 457, to be succeeded by Leo. Leo's reign was a time of relative peace for the eastern Empire, and he took the opportunity to intervene in the west whenever possible. Reigning until 474, Leo's seventeen years in power saw numerous interventions in the west but little success as a result. Upon the death of Libius Severus in 465, Ricimer petitioned Leo to send an Emperor from the east, and Anthemius was chosen. By 468 the two halves of the empire were once again coordinating their efforts, and once again the target was Africa. Unlike the expedition of 440/441, in 468 the Roman forces set out against the Vandal kingdom with minimal external interference. The expedition was an utter failure. The Roman commander was an eastern officer named Basiliscus, brother of the Empress and an accomplished general against enemies of Constantinople. Unfortunately he was not suited for naval warfare. Through the clever use of fireships and an error on the part of Basiliscus, the Vandals decimated the Roman armada, and as a result Africa was to remain under Vandal control until it was retaken by the Emperor Justinian's forces decades later.

The failure of the 468 expedition destroyed any chance of a real western recovery, and Anthemius was overthrown after a civil war against Ricimer in 472. Olybrius was the next western appointee, but both he and Ricimer died within months and Leo dispatched Julius Nepos to take the western throne. Rebellions had meanwhile broken out in Gaul as a result of central weakness, and the general Orestes, appointed by Nepos to restore order, instead drove Nepos from the capital in favor of his own son, Romulus Augustulus. Orestes was himself overthrown by Odoacer, who established himself as ruler of Italy and while officially recognizing eastern authority was never accepted as ruler of the west due to his own reluctance to recognize Nepos, still regarded by the east as the legitimate western emperor. Romulus Augustulus, widely known as the last emperor of Rome despite his lack of official recognition, was sent into retirement at a fort in Campania, and by 480 Julius Nepos had been murdered. Odoacer's refusal to recognize Julius Nepos and insistence that the west needed no emperor was the key point of contention between himself and the eastern emperors, indicated by the fact that when presented with a choice to support either Odoacer or a group of rebels in Gaul, Zeno chose to support Odoacer. The east at this point was in no condition to reassert its authority in Italy - Leo had died in 474, and his young grandson Leo II lived only long enough to appoint the Isaurian Zeno co-Emperor. Zeno was the son-in-law of the emperor Leo I, and according to Candidus had been passed over for rule because the people would not accept him. The events of Zeno's reign would seem to support this statement - from 474 to 488 the east was embroiled in civil difficulties at least partially because of Zeno's succession. With Leo II's death in late 474, Zeno was sole ruler of the east, but Zeno was driven from the capital by the usurper Basiliscus, the same who had commanded the failed expedition of 468, and from 475 to 476 the two rival emperors fought a civil war. Zeno was victorious and regained the throne in 476, but for most of Zeno's reign the eastern empire was struggling with internal difficulties, primarily in the form of Goths and Isaurians. By 484 Zeno had fended off revolts by the Isaurian Illus, the Ostrogothic leaders Theodoric Strabo and Theodoric the Amal, and the grandson of the previous emperor Marcian. Theodoric Strabo initially joined forces with Theodoric the Amal in a march against Constantinople, but Zeno negotiated separate terms with Strabo which resulted in Theodoric the Amal retreating to Epirus. Strabo died in a riding accident and Theodoric the Amal reached an agreement with Zeno, however as soon as the Ostrogothic threat was dealt with the Isaurian Illus revolted. In 484, with Gothic help, Zeno had pushed Illus back into Isauria and besieged him in a mountain stronghold, but in 486 Theodoric the Amal once again revolted against Zeno. By the end of 488 only Theodoric the Amal remained, Illus' final stronghold having fallen earlier that year, and Zeno convinced Theodoric with a significant cash payment to march on Italy.

Perhaps the most perplexing question regarding the relationship between the Eastern and Western Empires in the fifth century is why the East made no obvious attempt to reestablish its western counterpart after the victory of Odoacer in 476. The simple answer is that due to the unrest loosely described above, the eastern Empire was preoccupied with its own affairs, but in actuality the agreement reached between Zeno and Theodoric was in many ways an effort to reestablish imperial authority. The agreement had the added benefit of removing from eastern territory a proven rebellious element capable of threatening the emperor himself, and Procopius explains that the Emperor Zeno 'understood how to settle to his advantage any situation in which he found himself.' Procopius goes on to briefly describe the Gothic progression into Italy, and Theodoric's eventual defeat of Odoacer by subterfuge and betrayal. Theodoric took power in Italy in 493, and by 497 he had been officially recognized by the eastern Emperor Anastasius, who had come to power after Zeno's death in 491. From this point forward, the eastern Empire had no reason to make further expeditions against Italy, as it was controlled by a nominal Roman subject - Theodoric had been given senatorial rank by Zeno prior to his efforts against Odoacer. In addition, Theodoric never attempted to have himself proclaimed Augustus, and as a result was left to rule effectively as one. The reigns of both Anastasius and Justin I are notable in that no hostile action was taken towards Italy, which remained firmly in the hands of Theodoric and his followers. It was not until the East lost official control of Italy, when Theodoric's bloodline was wiped out by a rival shortly after his death in 526, that another Roman expedition embarked with hostile intent towards Italy - that of Belisarius sent by the Emperor Justinian, the details of which can be found in the works of Procopius.

The fall of the western empire, traditionally dated to 476, can be attributed to a number of factors both external and internal, but the inactivity of the east is not one of them. A detailed examination of the events of the fifth century demonstrates that with only a few brief periods of tension, the relationship between the 'twin empires' was one of mutual support and cooperation against common foes. The period of Stilicho's preeminence was a time of tension due to weak emperors in both parts of the empire, but even then the cooperation continued with Stilicho's expedition against Alaric in Greece. The lengthy reigns of weak and ineffectual emperors in both the east and the west resulted in internal struggles for influence over them, but most of the powerful individuals during the fifth century appear to have recognized the benefits of having an allied power nearby. The eastern emperors Theodosius II, Marcian, Leo I and Zeno each sent expeditions of some sort to the assistance of the west, while aside from Stilicho the western pseudo-emperors strove to maintain good relations with the east, as in the case of Ricimer who was careful to make amends after briefly losing eastern support. Once the western empire had 'fallen', it was the east which arranged for the overthrow of Odoacer, its 'conqueror', whose key mistake was refusal to recognize Julius Nepos, the eastern-appointed emperor of the west. Odoacer was replaced by Theodoric, who held high rank in the eastern government and was well-respected by the Romans, if Procopius' descriptions are anything to go by. The lack of punitive expeditions against Theodoric and the official recognition granted him by Anastasius in 497 both speak towards his legitimacy, as does the violent Roman response to the overthrow of his family. Taking this into account, it becomes clear that there was no failure of the east to support its western counterpart, and that despite the tragedies which overcame the west, the fifth century was a time of great cooperation between the two halves of the Roman Empire.

Primary Sources
Jordanes. The Origin and Deeds of the Goths. Trans. Charles C. Mierow. Princeton: Dodo Press, 1908
Procopius. History of the Wars: The Gothic War. Trans. H.B. Dewing. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007

Secondary Sources
Gordon, C.D., Age of Attila. Michigan: University of Michigan, 1960
Gregory, Timothy, A History of Byzantium Malden: Blackwell, 2005
Heather, Peter. The Fall of the Roman Empire. London: MacMillan, 2005
Millar, Fergus. A Greek Roman Empire. California: University of California Press, 2007
Mitchell, Stephen. A History of the Later Roman Empire Malden: Blackwell, 2007