Ancient History & Civilisation

Anastasius

Zeno died in 491 and was succeeded by Anastasius, a sixty-year-old court official.54 According to Evagrius he was chosen by Ariadne, Zeno's widow, who married him, just as Pulcheria had married Theodosius II's successor Marcian in 450 (Evagrius, HE 3.29). The choice was not uncontroversial. Anastasius was considered to have unorthodox religious views, and his position was not confirmed before he had sworn an oath and made a written deposition that he would make no alterations to the creed or to arrangements within the church, in other words that he would respect Chalcedonian orthodoxy, which was upheld by the Constantinopolitan patriarchy (Evagrius, HE 3.32). The Isaurians, whose leaders were removed from power at the beginning of Anastasius' regime, attempted a rebellion and marched from their homelands in southern Asia Minor on Constantinople, but were defeated by Anastasius' forces at Cotiaeum in Phrygia in 492. This was the start of a seven-year guerilla campaign against the Isaurian heartlands. Their new leader, Longinus, was eventually captured, and the Isaurian strongholds in the mountains were razed. This extended campaign was vital for maintaining the security of the eastern empire, as the Isaurians had been able to threaten and interrupt the land routes between Constantinople and Antioch, which was the main base for warfare on the eastern frontier. The Isaurians had also posed an immediate threat to the rich olive-producing hill farms of Cilicia along the southeastern coast of Asia Minor, which sent much of their produce to supply the annona requirements of Constantinople (see p. 366). During this period Anastasius issued an edict which reduced the tolls paid by Cilician ship-owners passing through the Hellespont. This may have been a reward for their loyalty during the rebellion (SEG 1984, 1243).55 The scale of the Isaurian threat is revealed by the fact that before their final defeat they received a subsidy of 5,000 pounds of gold annually from Constantinople, a sum substantially greater than that paid to any of the barbarian groups in the Balkans (Evagrius, HE 3.35).56

During the 490s the Bulgars emerged as a new danger in Thrace and Illyricum. Anastasius' response was to reinforce the long wall which ran across Thrace some sixty kilometers west of Constantinople, creating a new military command to maintain its defense.57

One very memorable work was completed by the same emperor, the so-called long wall, which is well positioned in Thrace. This is about 280 stades distant from Constantinople, and links the two seas over a distance of 420 stades in the manner of a channel. It made the city almost an island instead of a peninsula, and for those who wish provides a very safe transit from the so-called Pontus to the Propontis and the Thracian sea, while checking the barbarians who rush forth from the so-called Euxine sea, and from the Colchians and the Maeotic lake, and from the regions beyond the Caucasus, and those who have poured forth over Europe. (Evagrius, HE 3.38)

Procopius, writing from his vantage point in Constantinople, stressed the wall's more obvious and immediate purpose, to protect the wealthy prize of Constantinople against barbarian attacks from Thrace.

The most detailed account of events under Anastasius is provided by the chronicle of John Malalas, book 16.58 The emperor recognized Theoderic as monarch in Italy in 497,59 and offered no interference as the Ostrogothic king began to extend his authority across Illyricum as far as Margus and Sirmium. Anastasius renounced Roman aspirations to wield direct military influence over the West, although he intensified diplomatic contacts not only with the Ostrogoths but also with the Franks and Burgundians. The focus of his policy was to maintain Roman authority in the East. This made excellent sense as the western kingdoms still acknowledged Constantinople's authority. The Burgundian king avowed that it was more important to him to be a subject of Anastasius than to be his own master (Avitus of Vienne, ep. 93; Shanzer and Wood, pp. 148–50), and Gregory of Tours reported that the Frankish king Clovis was honored with the rank of consul (Greg. Tur., Hist. 2.38).

There was a significant religious shift during Anastasius' reign. Zeno had unsuccessfully attempted to unite the church behind the formula of the Henotikon, which was intended to reconcile Monophysites to Chalcedonians. Rather than leading to doctrinal unity, the permissive and tolerant intentions which lay behind the Henotikon encouraged the separate churches to pursue their own forms of worship (see pp. 297 and 315–6). The Monophysites were in the majority throughout Syria and Egypt, and their doctrines were favored by Anastasius, who thus increasingly came into conflict with the monks, clergy, and ordinary people of Constantinople. Religious tension at Constantinople reached a climax in 512, when the emperor was almost deposed during a major confrontation in the hippodrome (see pp. 316–7).

The confrontations of 512 provoked another challenge stemming from religious dissidence. This was mounted by Vitalianus, commander of the Gothic foederati and the senior military commander in Thrace. His military challenge to Anastasius lasted until 515, when he eventually suffered a naval defeat in the Golden Horn. Vitalianus' rebellion clearly attracted much support from inhabitants of Constantinople at all levels who were alienated by Anastasius' monophysite leanings.60 The imperial forces eventually prevailed thanks to the first recorded use of “Greek Fire,” the combustible sulfur mixture which was targeted on the enemy ships as they attempted to cross the water. Malalas implausibly suggests that the proposal to use this new weapon had come from the Athenian philosopher Proclus (Malalas 16, 16; Evagrius, HE 3.43).

Anastasius' court was more favorable to cultural activity than any since the time of Theodosius II. Priscian, who wrote a Latin verse panegyric for the emperor, and John the Lydian, who began a successful legal career during his reign, both emphasized that the emperor appointed men of learning to official positions. Literature, especially poetry, enjoyed a renaissance after a fallow period which stretched back to the 440s.61 This concern for culture was matched by building activity both in Constantinople and in the other major cities of the East. Anastasius' own position was emphasized by having his statue erected on the column in the Forum Tauri, which had been built by Theodosius I. Reputedly he carried out building work in numerous provincial cities, “including walls and aqueducts; he dredged harbours, constructed public baths from their foundations and provided much else in every city” (Malalas 16, 13). These claims are clearly confirmed in the case of the newly founded frontier bulwark of Dara in Mesopotamia (see pp. 132 and 372).

This building activity was made possible by his decision to restrict Roman military ambitions. The state's income from taxation was well in excess of its spending needs. Procopius tells us that at Anastasius' death the treasury contained its highest ever surplus, 320,000 pounds of gold (Secret History 19.7). One of his most conspicuous acts, given pride of place in the surviving panegyrics of Priscian and Procopius of Gaza, was his decision to abolish the tax on urban services known as the chrysargyron, an act of imperial generosity which was publicized and celebrated by burning the tax records before the assembled people of Constantinople in the hippodrome. The Syriac Chronicle of Ps-Joshua the Stylite records that the news of the imperial decision reached Edessa in 497/8, immediately after the conclusion of the Isaurian war, and was greeted by a week-long festival (see p. 183). The emperor could readily afford the gesture now that the annual tribute of 5,000 pounds in gold was no longer required to pay off the Isaurians. The chrysargyron was certainly worth substantially less than this to the treasury, and may in any case have been hard to collect, as well as unpopular. Evagrius records that Anastasius' generous and spectacular gesture was marked by the public burning of all documents connected to the previous collection of the tax. He thereby ostentatiously annulled all existing debts to the treasury.62 Despite the grand gesture in revoking the chrysargyron Anastasius acquired a reputation for greed.63

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