Ancient History & Civilisation


The Roman Empire of the Fifth and Sixth Centuries



The empire divided and transformed


The Christian dominion of Theodosius II


The western empire and the barbarians


The reigns of Marcian and Leo, and the rise of the Ostrogoths


The struggle for control of the western empire


The Isaurian ascendancy of the emperor Zeno


Odoacar replaces the last western emperor in Italy


The eastern empire restored under Anastasius


War with Persia


Renewed imperial ambitions under Justin and the rise of Justinian


The historian Procopius


Justinian and the definition of Roman law


The imposition of Christian orthodoxy


The Persian war and the Eternal Peace


The Nika riot and the building of St Sophia


The reconquest of the West: Africa


The conquest of Italy


The Roman Empire in 540


The history of the Roman Empire in the fifth century cannot be reconstructed in the same way as in the fourth century. The reasons are partly due to the nature of the sources. No secular historical account survives in a complete form. There is not even a Zosimus, still less an Ammianus Marcellinus, to provide a narrative framework. Even for church affairs the ecclesiastical historians tend to offer a generic rather than an annalistic picture of events that occurred reign by reign.

However, the reasons for the changing historical picture also reflect the nature of events and the character of the empire, especially after the death of Arcadius in the East and the fall of Rome in the West. The roles played by the emperors changed radically. At least until the death of Theodosius the emperors in person had been the commanding political figures in the Roman state. They occupied strategically placed imperial palaces and traveled ceaselessly with their troops and members of their courts to control the empire's trouble spots and its threatened frontiers. They accompanied their armies into battle in person. They visibly took personal responsibility for the state's diplomatic and military successes, and were called to account for its failures. Successes were measured in victory titles, while failures might take a form such as Theodosius' act of atonement in Milan for the massacre at Thessalonica. After the child emperor Theodosius II succeeded Arcadius in 408 there was a major transformation. Arcadius, the eastern emperor, was confined almost exclusively to Constantinople, just as Honorius, his western counterpart, was largely based at Ravenna after 402.1 Both imperial courts were physically secure behind a protective barrier on the land side, but provisioned from the sea. Emperors only left the protection of their capital cities for brief periods – Arcadius in the early fifth century made summer visits to Ankara on a regular basis; western rulers periodically visited Rome.

One obvious reason for the splintering of the imperial power base was the literal division between eastern and western empires. This was not the case de iure. The Roman Empire remained a legal and constitutional unity until the sixth century. Even after the line of western rulers ceased with Romulus Augustulus in 476, the emperors in Constantinople never abandoned their claim to rule the Latin West. Zeno in 489 dispatched the Goth Theoderic to reclaim control of Italy from the German king Odoacar. Justinian in the 530s launched the largest campaigns of his reign to bring Africa and Italy back into the empire after the lineage of Ostrogothic kings founded by Theoderic had come to an end. However, for practical purposes the shrinking Roman territories in the Latin West and those in the Greek-speaking East remained distinct political entities, and their fates were separate. The roots of the division of the empire between east and west can convincingly be traced back to the start of the Valentinian dynasty in 365, when Valentinian I had been obliged by his senior military officers to take a partner as Augustus, and had chosen his brother Valens. Valentinian in the West and Valens in the East ruled independently of one another. Even the dynastic arrangements made by the emperors were not agreed between the brothers. In practical terms, laws made in one part of the empire were not disseminated or communicated to the other. The later compilation of the Theodosian Code, made up from copies collected in the provinces as well as in the imperial capitals, creates a misleading impression that imperial legislation had universal application, when in fact most laws deliberately addressed regional or provincial issues.2

Thus, as the empire fragmented, it makes sense to look at its political history in segments. We need to look in turn at the eastern court in Constantinople, above all in the age of Theodosius II, who reigned until 450, and at his western counterparts, first Honorius up to 423 and then Valentinian III. The first half of the fifth century saw the rise of the most powerful of the non-Germanic groups, the Huns, culminating in what has been called the empire of the Huns, ruled by Attila. Meanwhile after the fall of Rome to Alaric in 410 we see the rapid emergence of Germanic barbarian groups in the West, who took control of most of the western provinces: Vandals in Spain and Africa; Visigoths in Spain and Aquitaine; Burgundians on the upper Rhine and southern Gaul; Franks on the lower Rhine and in northern and central Gaul. Illyricum, as ever, was contested territory. After the eclipse of Hunnic power in the 450s, the dominant groups were the large bands of Gothic warriors in Pannonia and Thrace, respectively controlled by Theoderic the Amal, the later king of Italy, and Theoderic Strabo. Their history in turn was entangled with that of a new dynasty at Constantinople, the Isaurian family and followers of Zeno. These Isaurians were virtually a tribal group from within the eastern empire, and although Zeno was recognized as the legitimate emperor in Constantinople, the story of his reign, from 474 to 491, resembled that of the Gothic chieftains as much as it did the regimes of his imperial predecessors. Only with the accession of Anastasius in 491, and the subsequent reigns of Justin and Justinian, lasting until 565, is it possible again to form an impression of a unified empire.

One consequence of the changing imperial role at the end of the fourth century was that much of the effective power passed into other hands. Powerful figures close to the emperors became increasingly significant players in the high politics of the fifth century, whether family members, as in the case of the influential women of the Theodosian family, dominant individuals at court, or generals in command of the field armies. However, it was not simply a matter of power being exercised by proxy, with emperors acting as mere figureheads for other members of their regimes. The relocation of the emperors to their capitals reduced their ability to intervene directly in local or regional matters. The impact of this development, however, differed between the eastern and western empire. In the eastern provinces, which were not disturbed by any serious military threats during the fifth century, the imperial system of administration and bureaucracy proved highly effective. There was no disintegration or loss of control. The civic base of the empire remained intact. State taxes were gathered. Provincial communities sent petitions to the emperors or his officials to complain of administrative injustice or other matters, and these were handled according to strict protocols by the offices of state in Constantinople. In the West, by contrast, military matters were more important. Already since the death of Valentinian II real power in the Roman West lay not with the emperors but with their leading generals, especially the magistri militum, commanders in chief, as may be seen in the dominant roles played by Arbogast and Stilicho in the last quarter of the fourth and early fifth centuries, and by Aetius and Ricimer from the 420s to the 450s. This power in itself was diminishing, as Rome not only relinquished military control to the growing power of the barbarians, but also ceased to maintain its administrative structures and secure its tax base. Thus the Roman state began to break up, with divisions appearing between the landowning aristocrats of Gaul and those of Italy, even regardless of the overall loss of Roman control to the Germanic kingdoms.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!