`Theodoric ... secured the supremacy over both Goths and Italians. And although he did not claim the right to assume either the garb or the name of emperor of the Romans, but was called "rex" to the end of his life ... still, in governing his own subjects, he invested himself with all the qualities which belong to one who is by birth an emperor. For he was exceedingly careful to observe justice...' - Procopius, an eastern Roman historian, c.55L'
`Our kingship is an imitation ofyours ... a copy of the only empire.' - Cassiodorus, an Italian aristocrat who had a career in service to the Ostrogothic kings, c.537 2
By the end of the fifth century the territory once controlled by the Western Empire was now split into a number of separate kingdoms. The Visigoths controlled much of Gaul and almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. Only in the north-west did the rump of the Suevic kingdom survive. Similarly, the Vascones - from whom the modern Basques claim descent - were effectively independent in their lands along the northeast coast. The Visigoths, however, were not the sole power in Gaul. There was a substantial Frankish kingdom in the north, and smaller Burgundian and Alamannic states in the east. In the far north some areas had been settled by Saxons. Brittany was controlled by a combination of its old provincial population and the descendants of the refugees who had fled there from Britain. Across the Channel, Britain was divided into many separate groupings, and the east was now overwhelmingly dominated by rulers who were Saxon or from other north Germanic tribes. The Vandals remained in control of North Africa, although to the south they were under pressure from the Moors. Finally, Italy itself was in the hands of King Theodoric and the Ostrogoths.
It would be misleading to give an impression of stability or permanence at this stage. Conflict was frequent between and within the emerging kingdoms. Leaders murdered and killed rivals from within their own families, as well as chieftains from other lines. One branch of the Merovingian family had come to dominate the other Frankish groups and would continue to do so for several generations. This was achieved through the ruthless eradication of anyone who threatened their power. They were similarly aggressive in their relations with the other forces in Gaul. Early in the sixth century King Clovis of the Merovingian Franks attacked the Visigoths and eventually forced them permanently south of the Pyrenees. He also fought with great success against the Alamanni and Burgundians. The boundaries of early medieval Europe were not inevitable, but the product of long and often grim conflict. Individual leaders and their followers competed for power and eventually the overall winners were able to create fairly permanent kingdoms.
It has long been fashionable for academics to speak of the transformation of the Roman - or, more usually, Late Antique - world into the kingdoms of the early Middle Ages. Certainly, change did occur, and some things changed gradually and so might reasonably be described as having been transformed over time. Yet on the whole this characterisation is deeply misleading. Transformation tends to suggest a voluntary and relatively gentle process, but the changes to occur in the Roman west were anything but voluntary as far as the wider population was concerned. The barbarian leaders who emerged in the late fourth and fifth centuries mattered because of the number of fighting men who obeyed them. The chieftains and kings employed by the imperial authorities were only useful in the first place because they wielded significant military force. Controlling armed force made such leaders significant. This persuaded successive emperors to permit them to settle within the empire. It also allowed them to take lands they were not given. Whatever the origins of settlement, no group remained content with the territory on which it first settled and all subsequently tried to expand by force.3
The new kingdoms came into being and took shape through the military strength of their leaders. The scale was smaller, and there were many separate powers instead of one large one, but such men were as much imperialists as the generals who had once carved out Rome's empire. Force created the new kingdoms and maintained them as distinct units. This was a profound difference to the Roman period. The empire had been plagued by civil war since the third century. Roman armies had fought each other time after time to place a rival claimant on the throne. These campaigns had invariably occurred within the provinces, so that it was Roman cities and villages that were sacked and the produce of Roman farmers that was consumed by the rival armies. Linked with the constant in-fighting was a weakness on many frontiers. Large parts of some provinces had been exposed to raiding bands from outside the empire for generations. In both these respects the Roman Peace had been far less than perfect for a very long time. It is hard to say whether or not life became more or less dangerous when the empire vanished and the kingdoms were created. As always, so much depended on where an individual lived, as well as the vagaries of chance. Yet in one respect the change was profound and clearly for the worse. In the past one province of the empire did not arm itself to raid or conquer a neighbouring province. Civil wars had always occurred at a higher level. Now warfare was more local in focus and the probability is that as a result it also became more frequent and less decisive. Warlike competition was common between the new kingdoms.4
This is not to revive the old stereotype of relentlessly savage and violent barbarians. Force lay behind the creation of the new kingdoms, but all of the most successful barbarian leaders realised that threats were often more powerful than violence itself, and that conciliation offered even greater possibilities. In winning power, and defeating foreign enemies and rivals from amongst their own kin, such leaders were utterly ruthless. Warfare in the ancient world tended to be a savage business in all circumstances. Clearly, at times there was dreadful brutality, massacre and rape. Yet these were not mere thugs intent only on destruction. The successful leaders were all shrewd and highly ambitious as well as ruthless men, who did not want to destroy the empire, but to gain control of part of it and enjoy the comforts and wealth of civilisation. The aim was to create permanent kingdoms, not simply plunder and destroy. As the emperor Tiberius had once put it, the aim was to `shear' the provincials and `not flay them alive'.'
More than just pragmatism restricted their behaviour. As usual, we have no reliable statistics for population sizes in this period. However, even the most generous estimate of the largest barbarian groups would tend to number them no bigger than ioo,ooo people, including men, women and children. If such a population was even reasonably balanced, it would be hard pressed to field more than 30,000 warriors and nearer 20,000-25,000 would be more likely. In reality, the barbarian groups that settled within the empire were probably substantially smaller, their warriors counted in thousands rather than tens of thousands. No one would assess the provincial population of Spain, North Africa, Gaul or Italy as less than several millions each. There was no question of the eradication of the existing population and its replacement with new settlers. Perhaps one of the few exceptions to this was in eastern Britain as the fifth century progressed, although as we have seen the evidence for this can be interpreted in more than one way. Normally, the followers of the war leaders who created the new kingdoms had no choice but to live alongside the existing population. Similarly, the latter had no real choice about accepting new masters. This was still true even if, in some cases, they rarely saw a Goth or Frank. Both the occupying army and the occupied provincials simply had to accept and make the best of the new situation.'
The New Kingdoms
Compulsion and occupation underlay the barbarian settlement in the western provinces. The survival of institutions and a good deal of the existing culture should never blind us to this. In each of the new kingdoms an elite formed by the leading warriors of the new regime was imposed on all existing structures. Many wealthy families from the existing aristocracy survived with their riches and lands more or less intact. Persuading such men to accept the new regime helped to prevent them becoming leaders of wider resistance. Some embraced life in the royal court with enthusiasm. Sidonius Apollinaris joked with a friend who had become so fluent in the Burgundian language that he claimed the Burgundians themselves deferred to his knowledge of their own tongue. On another occasion, Sidonius mocked the supposed Burgundian habit of using rancid butter to grease their hair. Private disdain did not prevent Romans from showing respect in public, especially to barbarian leaders. A few fashions were copied from the tribes, although since these had themselves aped Roman styles in recent generations, and the Romans in turn had long since adopted `Germanic' long tunics and trousers, the result was already something of a hybrid. We hear of provincials who served at the Vandal court, because anyone wearing Vandal dress - which evidently included many of these men - was barred from attending services in a Catholic rather than an Arian church.7
Debate continues to rage over precisely how land was allocated to the barbarian groups in the new kingdoms. For some, estates were confiscated from their existing owners and physically transferred to individual barbarians who then ran them as their own. The main alternative argues that it was not the land itself that was taken and transferred, but the tax revenue due from it. Effectively, the two-thirds of taxation that had once gone to the imperial administration - and in theory at least was mainly then spent on the costs of the army - now went to individual barbarians. In Italy Theodoric and his successors stressed that the roles of the Romans and Goths were complementary: `While the army of the Goths makes war, the Roman may live in peace.' Therefore the taxation formerly devoted to funding the Roman military machine now supported Gothic soldiers directly. This transferral of revenue rather than the land itself is seen as likely to have been much less traumatic, hence the lack of substantial evidence for friction between the landowners and Goths. On the other hand, the suggestion that the warriors allocated the revenue probably collected in person creates a less amicable picture, and suggests considerable room for abuse and extortion.'
In the end, the evidence is insufficient to know precisely how the barbarians were supported from the land. We are probably wrong to expect this always to have been done in the same way in different areas and also not to have evolved over time. In due course it is clear that noblemen of barbarian descent came into direct possession of substantial estates. How they did so is uncertain, and purchase, theft or confiscation, royal gift and marriage into the existing aristocracy are all possibilities. The law codes set down by the rulers of the various kingdoms all maintain a clear distinction between the wider provincial population and the barbarian settlers and their descendants. Some of the former clearly had privileged status, but this was always lower than the equivalent members of the barbarian group. Nor was it simply the same as the distinction in Roman law between soldier and civilian. The Goths in Italy, and other groups elsewhere, were not simply soldiers, but the soldiers of an occupying power.'
Assimilation of the newcomers was never fast. In a real sense the continued authority of the new king and his troops relied upon their remaining distinct, as the controllers of all military force within the kingdom. There is a fierce and ongoing debate over the extent to which the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks or any others were truly a homogeneous ethnic group. There is good evidence that all at one time or another incorporated individuals and whole groups from other peoples. Yet whatever the precise ethnic composition, each group did remain distinct from the wider population it controlled. Any merging between the two was gradual and took several generations. Vandal Africa and Ostrogothic Italy both fell before the process was anywhere near complete. Elsewhere, in the long run the culture and language of the provincial population tended to prove most enduring. The Franks and the Visigoths would eventually become Latin speakers, so that today both the French and Spanish languages have clear Latin roots. Britain was an exception, the Anglo-Saxons continuing to speak a Germanic language, although Latin remained in use for literature and administrative writing.
One of the main obstacles was religion. By the period of settlement, virtually all of the barbarian groups had become Christian. The Franks were one of the last in mainland Europe to convert; the Saxons in Britain seem to have been the only ones to persist longer than this. Unusually, the Franks became Catholic. Almost every other Germanic group consisted of Arian Christians and this served as a constant reminder that they were different, distinct from the wider population. The Vandals were the most militant in their attacks on Catholicism, making use of the same imperial laws elsewhere applied to heretics. The peculiar conditions of North Africa, where since the Donatist schism there effectively existed two church organisations side by side with each other, ensured that hostility to Catholicism did not automatically alienate the entire population. Catholic bishops and priests were exiled from their sees and suffered other restrictions. Arians and others were favoured, although by the sixth century the attitude of Vandal kings became more moderate and some Catholic bishops were restored.
Elsewhere direct attacks on the Catholic Church were very rare. The Gothic kings in Italy and Spain built and endowed Arian churches, but there does not seem to have been any significant effort to turn Catholics into Arians. Indeed, there was usually official respect for Catholic churches and bishops, if only because this made sound political sense. Arianism was just another distinction of the occupying power, along with its physical appearance and style of dress. In the form followed by the rulers of the western kingdoms it may have had little in common with the ideas of Arius and his immediate followers. It is hard to discern any signs of major religious friction within these kingdoms. On the other hand, there is no evidence to suggest that the conversion to Catholicism of the Frankish King Clovis and his successors created more enthusiasm for their rule. In the long run, all of the kingdoms to survive eventually became Catholic."
Even in the initial phases of settlement most leaders - and also probably many of their followers - had already had considerable exposure to Roman culture. Clovis' father Childeric was buried near Tournai in a grave first discovered in the seventeenth century. The grave goods suggest a fusion of Roman and traditional styles. These included a ring with the Latin inscription `of King Childeric' (Childerici Regis) for use as a seal. Theodoric, the ruler of the Ostrogoths who took Italy from Odoacer, readily illustrates the changing allegiances and experiences of his age. He was born within the Hunnic Empire probably a little before Attila's death. Later, from the ages of eight to eighteen, he was a hostage educated at the court of the eastern emperor in Constantinople. Afterwards he returned to his people and led a group of the Ostrogoths, proving himself a highly successful war leader. During these years he fought variously against different barbarian groups, most notably other Ostrogoths such as those loyal to the powerful Theodoric Strabo, or `Squinty'. He fought both for and against the Romans, although it may ultimately have been with imperial approval that he moved to Italy. A story later circulated that Theodoric himself was only semi-literate. It was claimed that he had a stencil with the word legi ('I have read') so that he could write this on any document to show his approval. There is good reason to doubt the tale. More importantly, whatever his personal education, the kingdom he founded was fully literate in its administration and government."
Men like Theodoric knew something of the ritual and symbolism surrounding the Roman emperors. This makes it all the more striking that they did not copy it, but presented themselves as lesser powers. For all the ceremony at the courts of the new kingdoms, the rituals and honours were always far less than those of the imperial court. Kings behaved more like Roman magistrates or provincial governors than emperors. Sidonius Apollinaris' detailed description of the routine of the Visigothic King Theodoric mentions that he held court sitting in a chair like a magistrate, not an imperial throne. In the early years all this may have helped preserve the fiction that each kingdom remained in a meaningful way part of the empire. Roman law was preserved throughout the provinces of mainland Europe. The kings did not usurp the imperial prerogative by issuing new legislation. Instead, they modified the existing laws and in several cases issued new codes that collected existing legislation and also laid down the relationship between barbarians and Romans. The former were always granted the right to trial by their own countrymen. The legal principles of the new codes seem to have owed more to Roman ideas than any `Germanic' tradition. The key point was that they institutionalised the superior status of one section of the community. The barbarian kingdoms upheld the rule of law, but they simply made it favourable to the occupying power.
There is little evidence for an immediate and abrupt decline in the standard of living for the provincial population within the new kingdoms. In some regions it is in fact hard to see any obvious distinction at all between the Roman and post-Roman periods. Some of the barbarian monarchs continued to stage games - usually beast fights - and many circuses and amphitheatres remained in use for some time. Water supplies were maintained to many cities. There was some building, usually of churches and since these were most often Arian, such things tended not to be given much mention in the essentially Catholic sources. In general, these were smaller than the churches constructed under imperial patronage. More work was done to repair and maintain existing structures. The Visigoths rebuilt the middle spans of the great arched bridge that still stands today at Merida (then, Augusta Emerita) in Spain. There was little or no construction of grand new monuments, but then that had been true of many cities in the later empire after the heyday of the second century. Technical skill seems to have been lost fairly gradually. In time, lack of knowledge as well as funds prevented all of the more sophisticated pieces of engineering so common under the Roman Empire. Even more basic techniques faded from regular use. In much of Europe thatch replaced tiles as roofing, and timber or wattle and daub became far more common than construction in stone or brick."
On the whole, those areas with best access to the sea, and especially those on or near the Mediterranean, tended to fare better. Long-distance trade remained more frequent in these areas, if only of the light, luxury items that yielded the greatest profits. The Eastern Empire continued to bring in silks, spices and other exotic goods from India and beyond, and some of these items found their way into the west. Further from the Mediterranean, trade seems to have become much more local - in some cases this had already happened under Roman rule. The vast majority of the population came to use cruder pottery than had been common in the past. The new kingdoms do not seem ever to have improved the economic life of an area or the levels of comfort for those living there. The best that can be said was that they did not invariably have an immediate and detrimental impact on these. Yet the trend was certainly towards a less sophisticated and prosperous lifestyle. The luxuries of the empire - glass in windows, central heating, bath houses and the sheer quantity of consumer goods - had never been evenly distributed, but they had been fairly common. In due course they would cease altogether to be features of life in early medieval western Europe.
This change was not deliberate and in most instances it occurred very gradually over several generations. The sheer size of the old empire, with its single political authority, universal law and currency, and complex system of taxation had all stimulated the economy. Conditions were simply different by the late fifth and sixth centuries. Not only was trade massively reduced in scale, but life in general was simpler and its focus more local. Even ideas were exchanged less freely. For at least a few generations the surviving provincial aristocracies in the old western provinces seem to have maintained a fairly traditional education. Most were literate, some highly so. Very few, if any, were bilingual in Greek and Latin in the way that had once been common and the mark of the truly educated.14
The Church helped to preserve the use of Latin. It also maintained contacts between regions regardless of political boundaries. Yet we need to be careful. The institution of the medieval Catholic Church did not spring instantly into life, but developed very gradually. Over time the pope in Rome assumed something of the old role of the western emperors, even adopting some of their titles and ceremonial. Yet the pope's power was extremely limited and at times contested. Although various Church institutions had acquired wealth and lands, there was as yet little central marshalling of this. The kings of the west - and especially the Ostrogoths in Italy - generally respected the bishops and most of all the bishop of Rome. They did not do this because they had to, but because it made sound political sense. Respecting the Church helped to keep their new subjects content with their rule.
The survival of aspects of language, culture and institutions is important, but should never blind us to the degree of change. The kingdoms in the former Western Empire were fully independent. They had diplomatic contact with the emperors in Constantinople, but were not in any meaningful way subject to them. The kingdoms sometimes fought and also traded with each other, and their inhabitants had much in common with the peoples of other kingdoms. However, they were still utterly separate - far more so than the same regions had been as provinces. In the modern world many former colonies show the deep legacy of longterm occupation by an imperial power. Common survivals are in language, law and the shape of their political institutions. Many follow boundaries once created by imperial administrators and as a result often incorporate several ethnic or cultural groups. The imprint of the imperial power is clear. In spite of this, it would rightly come as a great surprise to their inhabitants to be told that they were anything less than fully independent.
The Empire That Did Not Fall
Emperor Zeno was hard pressed for money throughout his reign, in part as a legacy of the huge cost of the failed expedition to Africa in 468. He also faced a succession of serious internal threats and in many ways it is remarkable that he was able to survive in power for seventeen years. It took almost two years to suppress the rebellion of Basiliscus, Emperor Leo's brother-in-law, and during some of that time Zeno was forced to flee to his home territory in Isauria. Basiliscus made some serious mistakes, and when one of his main military supporters was wooed back by Zeno the rebellion began to collapse. Zeno reoccupied Constantinople in 476. Basiliscus was executed, along with his son whom he had named as co-ruler. Another victim in the months that followed was the commander whose defection from the usurper had made Zeno's victory possible. The restored emperor was taking no chances.
The next usurper was Leo's son-in-law Marcian. He was proclaimed emperor in 479 and attempted to seize control of Constantinople, but was narrowly defeated. This time there was greater clemency and the usurper was ordained as a priest and sent into exile. Both the challengers to Zeno had been supported by the Goth Theodoric Strabo. For a while he allied with the other Theodoric and their combined forces ravaged the Thracian provinces and even came close to taking Constantinople itself. Attempts to break Strabo's power by force had all ended in failure, but in 481 he died accidentally. Zeno gave the other Theodoric the rank of Master of Soldiers - a post also held by Strabo at various times when he was in favour with the Constantinople regime - and employed him to defeat Strabo's son. Many of his surviving warriors joined Theodoric's own forces, greatly increasing his power."
Zeno was the most successful of the Isaurian noblemen promoted to senior ranks by Leo. Yet there were clear signs that the rise of the Isaurians was resented by other officers, and their wider unpopularity was suggested when they became targets of the mob during rioting in Constantinople. The mere fact that the emperor was himself an Isaurian did not guarantee the loyalty of all the officers drawn from the same region. Disappointment, and quite probably also long-established personal enmity, led to rebellion by two such men in Isauria itself in 484. The rebel leaders had approached the Persians for aid, but the only practical support came from some of the Armenian satraps. Zeno managed to muster an army consisting of strong contingents of Goths and Rugians, as well as regular troops. The rebels were quickly defeated in battle, although it took four years of blockade before their last stronghold fell and the revolt was finally over. By this time Theodoric and his men had left the Danubian frontier for Italy. Whether or not Zeno had enlisted them to fight against Odoacer, he was certainly glad to see this powerful and uncertain ally removed from the Eastern Empire."
Zeno died of disease in 491. He left no heir, and after considerable discussion at court it was decided to let his widow Ariadne, who was the daughter of Leo, decide the succession. She chose a man already in his sixties, the palace official Anastasius, and promptly married him. His elevation prompted a new round of unrest in Isauria, initially on behalf of Zeno's brother Longinus, who had most pointedly not been selected as emperor by the court. Anastasius quickly exiled Longinus and met the rebellion with armed force. He was equally brutal in his response to unrest in Antioch and Constantinople itself, which seems to have been motivated by a wider unpopularity of his rule. In spite of this rocky start, as well as his age and comparative obscurity, Anastasius proved himself to be a gifted politician and a highly successful emperor, who reigned until his death twenty-seven years later. Under his rule the finances of the empire improved considerably, allowing him to leave a substantial surplus in the treasury.'7
The Eastern Empire he ruled was recognisably the same as the one created in 395. Although he reformed the currency, and took considerable effort to make the bureaucracy as efficient as possible, the structures of the civil service, its offices and departments remained virtually unchanged. Latin continued to be used in law and much official documentation, even if very few of the bureaucrats were native speakers. Anastasius reformed army pay, turning the bulk of this back into coin rather than allowances of clothing, equipment and food. He seems to have made military service considerably more attractive so that volunteering was enough to satisfy the army's needs. A little less use would be made in future of mercenary bands and allied contingents.'
In 395 there had been little fundamental difference between the civilian bureaucracy and the military structure in the two halves of the empire. In less than a century the army had vanished in the west, as had administration above the level of the individual provinces. Even more obviously there had ceased to be emperors in the west. The survival of the apparently identical eastern half of the empire after the collapse of imperial power in the west is often used to argue that the external threats in the west were greater than internal problems. If the east survived, so this logic runs, then the basic structures of the late fourth- and fifthcentury empire cannot have been terminally flawed.'9
The most obvious difference between the east and west was the barbarian settlement. The Eastern Empire faced serious attacks along the length of the Danubian frontier - Attila's great empire had targeted this region repeatedly, inflicting considerable damage. He only turned against the west in the final years of his career. Hunnic power collapsed rapidly after his death, but his sons led several major raids into Roman territory. Some of the powers to emerge from the wreck of Attila's empire, notably several groups of Ostrogoths on the Pannonian and Thracian frontiers, proved equally hostile. Later in the fifth and sixth centuries new groups such as the Bulgars, Slavs and Avars would be drawn into contact with the Roman frontier and would prove equally warlike and aggressive. Some barbarian groups had been permitted to settle in imperial territory from 382 onwards. Of these a portion had subsequently migrated again, invariably moving into the lands of the Western Empire. Inevitably, we hear much less about any group that remained peaceful. Unlike their western colleagues, the eastern emperors were not forced to accept the permanent occupation by barbarian groups of substantial parts of their provinces.
Geography played a role in this. The Bosphorus provided a permanent obstacle making it very difficult for any hostile group to cross into Asia. Persia was a major power, its wealth and military capacity only a little inferior to the Eastern Empire. Yet it was easier to deal with a single neighbouring king than a large number of competing chieftains and war leaders. This was especially true in the fifth century when the Persian monarchs were often weak and rarely inclined towards major aggression against their Roman neighbour. They also faced a serious problem on their northern frontier from the growing aggression of the `White Huns'. The problems on the eastern and southern frontiers of the empire were profoundly different in nature to those in Europe. There was not pressure from many different leaders eager to stake a permanent claim to parts of the empire. The eastern emperors did not successively lose provinces and their revenue to barbarian settlement. Their resources remained essentially undiminished throughout the fifth century. The support for expeditions to recover Africa from the Vandals proved costly to the Eastern Empire, but for all their concern over this the losses they endured were temporary.2O
At the end of the fifth century the Eastern Empire remained essentially intact and in possession of all its resources. The archaeology suggests that many of the eastern provinces were thriving, with high populations and good agricultural productivity. Again, the general freedom from raiding over the course of the century was in marked contrast to the western provinces and doubtless contributed to this prosperity. Thrace and Pannonia suffered far more from enemy attack, and territory closest to the border was permanently abandoned and occupied by barbarian peoples. Revenue from elsewhere funded a degree of defence for these regions. It also made possible the construction of major defensive works, most notably the Theodosian Walls, which kept Constantinople secure from foreign attack until the thirteenth century, when the city was stormed during the Fourth Crusade. The region was never fully secure throughout the fifth century and successive emperors had to balance fighting, conciliating and bribing the war leaders operating in this area. Many of these received Roman subsidies or tribute to keep the peace, and others were appointed to army commands. Disturbed as this frontier so often was, the essential geography kept the problems confined to a limited area and encouraged successive enemies to move westwards."
The Eastern Empire remained prosperous enough to support a large regular army and the imperial bureaucracy. Neither was any more perfect than the equivalent institutions in the west at the end of the fourth century, but they were not forced into terminal decline through lack of funds. As always it is worth reminding ourselves that the simple possession of such institutions, however imperfect, set the Romans apart from all their neighbours with the exception of the Persians. None of the barbarian kingdoms created in the Western Empire were able to maintain especially large or notably efficient professional armies. The Eastern Empire could do this and after Anastasius' reforms was less dependent on mercenary and allied contingents or unwilling conscripts. The Eastern Empire was a large, wealthy and powerful state. In most circumstances it did not need to be especially efficient.
At the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries both Western and Eastern Empires underwent decades of rule by emperors who came to power as children, and always remained weak and easily influenced. During this period emperors withdrew from active participation in campaigning, and indeed from much of public life beyond the complex ceremonies of the court. This trend was only partially reversed when men like Marjorian presided over campaigns in Gaul and the unsuccessful African expedition. The competition to dominate this succession of weak emperors was often fierce. In the Western Empire a series of generals became rulers in all but name. Their power was not formal, and was always subject to challenge by rivals, but was no less real for all that. Ricimer demonstrated how easy it was to make and break emperors, especially once the line of Theodosius had ended.
The western provinces had always produced a disproportionately high number of usurpers. All usurpers needed military support and large numbers of troops were stationed there, so there may be no more to it than this. However, more probably the constant threat of raiding and invasion encouraged these regions to feel neglected by central government. There was also the simple fact that each civil war tended to encourage further outbreaks. A successful usurpation showed what was possible. A defeat inevitably left some discontented survivors, who had little to hope for from the current regime and were therefore inclined to replace it. This pattern repeated itself again and again in the Western Empire during the fifth century, whether the conflict was actually to create a new emperor or simply to dominate the existing one. The majority of fifth-century western emperors died violently, as did many of their leading generals. Stilicho and Aetius were both killed, and Boniface died of his wounds. In contrast, Constantius and Ricimer survived long enough to die of natural causes.
The Eastern Empire was not altogether free of civil war, most especially in Leo's reign. Yet these were still markedly less frequent than in the west. Competition within the court remained fierce, but was only occasionally violent and even less often led to all-out warfare. Although several very powerful generals emerged in the Eastern Empire, and some had considerable power, they never quite achieved the dominance of men like Aetius in the Western Empire. In most cases there were other powers within the court, so that no single influence was overwhelming. Zeno was probably the most successful of these generals, rising through the army to marry the emperor's daughter and ultimately succeed him. With the exception of Zeno's short-lived son, all the men who became emperor after the death of Theodosius 11 did so at a mature age. None was a mere puppet, even if each had to struggle to free himself from powerful figures in the army and at court. Their success was not inevitable, but that they were able to overcome such challenges shows that the balance of power was very different to that in the west. The same was true of the failure of all the usurpers who appeared in the east. Success as usual fed off itself. Marcian, Leo, Zeno and Anastasius all had comparatively long reigns and died of natural causes at ages that were advanced for those days. Had any of them been supplanted then this would doubtless have fostered further instability.
Once again, the greater and more stable wealth of the Eastern Empire played a part. Shortage of funds contributed a good deal to weakening Zeno's power and making his reign so turbulent. In the west emperors and their commanders struggled to control ever diminishing resources, knowing that a serious failure could readily prove fatal. In the east there was usually money and sufficient troops to deal with any problem. It was just a question of controlling these and directing them reasonably efficiently. Another force for stability was the existence of Constantinople itself as the imperial capital. It was a large city, if not quite so big as Rome had been in its heyday. Housed there was a senatorial aristocracy consisting of the wealthiest individuals from the provinces, most of them former officials. There were also the key officials and departments of the imperial administration, all possessive of their responsibilities, and with their seniority marked and jealously guarded by the intricate details of uniform and insignia. The bishop of the city was one of the most important figures in the Church, in spite of rival claims from Alexandria, and the continued acknowledgement of the ultimate authority of the pope in Rome. Finally, there was the wider population itself, which, like the inhabitants of most ancient cities, was often unruly and willing to express its opinion."
Constantinople was a genuine capital, the centre of life for the court and administration. It contained many individuals and groups with more or less political influence and importance. The contrast with Ravenna - or even the earlier capital of Milan - could not be more marked. There the western emperors were isolated. The Senate's power had long since become symbolic, but it still consisted of rich and influential men. Both they, and other important figures including the pope, were in Rome, some distance away from ready access. A constant stream of petitioners and people seeking favours from the emperor still flowed to Ravenna, or wherever the court happened to be, but in no other respect was it an especially important city. Constantinople was genuinely the heart of the Eastern Empire. Controlling it did not guarantee the success of an emperor, as the ultimate failure of Basiliscus had shown, but it was a major asset."
The eastern emperors intervened on several occasions in disputes over the succession in the west. Zeno was too weak to provide meaningful support for Julius Nepos following his expulsion in 475. The latter lived on in Dalmatia until his death in 480, an emperor solely in name. The government in Constantinople never again tried to revive the Western Empire. It was content instead to deal with the individual kings, who were wooed in various ways. The Frank Clovis was even given the honour of a consulship, although he obviously did not travel to take this up in person. The break-up of the Western Empire did not pose a serious threat to the Eastern Empire. If anything, it made it more secure, since there was no longer a court in Italy that might seek to interfere in the politics of the east, backing a rival to the throne with either diplomacy or direct force. There was now no one in the west with the prestige even of the last few western emperors. No Gothic or Frankish king could claim the right to intervene in the east.24
It is fair to say that the threats faced by the Western and Eastern Empires in the fifth century were different. No independent kingdoms were created in the Eastern Empire and throughout the century its territory remained essentially intact. This does not mean that the structures of both empires were essentially sound and that the Western Empire only succumbed because the threats it faced were overwhelming. It is true that each new settlement robbed the state of precious resources, weakening its capacity to function in the future. It became harder and harder to deal with any problem, but this does not alter the fact that even before the first major settlement of the Goths in Gaul, the Western Empire consistently failed to deal with the threats it faced. It won no permanent victories and the only way it could break up one of the new kingdoms was by using another barbarian group. All too often, this simply meant replacing one group with another, not restoring a region to imperial control. At times, the western authorities seem consciously to have aimed at limiting the victories won by barbarian leaders fighting on their behalf. A leader fighting as an ally one year could easily become an enemy the next.
The survival of the Eastern Empire had less to do with the efficiency of its institutions than its sheer size. As in the past, the essential reality of its size and strength meant that it did not have to be especially efficient. Even the Western Empire did not fall quickly, in spite of the successive losses of major provinces and their revenue. The enemies it faced were disunited. They fought for dominance of their own people and were equally aggressive in their relations with other barbarian groups. For decades the western emperors survived by playing off one barbarian group against another.
The failure of the two Roman expeditions to Africa was not inevitable, with luck and human error playing a part. If the Vandals had been defeated and these lucrative provinces recovered, then this would have meant a substantial increase in the resources of the Western Empire. This assumes that the Romans would have been able to hold on to Africa in the long run. It is always possible that another barbarian group would have tried to seize this rich area, just as Alaric and others seem to have planned to do before the Vandals succeeded. Access was relatively easy from Spain, which the Romans no longer controlled. Even with the resources of Africa it is hard to imagine that the Western Empire would have been capable of destroying any of the barbarian kingdoms in the other provinces. Yet it could easily have survived, perhaps for generations. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that it would have remained free from civil war and usurpation, conditions that always created opportunities for ambitious barbarian war leaders.
The Eastern Empire was large, populous and wealthy. Throughout the fifth century it was simply bigger and more powerful than any of its neighbours and potential or real enemies. The advantage over Persia was slight, and the two now treated each other much more as equals. The comparative weakness and lack of aggression of the Persian monarchs in the course of the fifth century had clearly fostered the prosperity of the Eastern Empire. This attitude would change early in the sixth century, beginning a prolonged period of conflict between Rome and Persia. This test would give a clearer idea of the real strength of the Eastern Empire.