The death of their great enemy sent the Roman world into wild jubilation, but it did nothing to alleviate the true danger. Valens had let them inside the frontiers, Theodosius had allowed them to stay, and now the barbarians had turned both of Theodosius’s sons into puppet emperors. For the moment, the barbarians were content to stay behind the throne, but how long before they decided to rule on their own? If the emperors didn’t break free soon, the empire would dissolve from within into petty barbarian kingdoms.
The western emperor Valentinian III attempted to escape first. Flushed with excitement in the wake of the Hun’s departure, he rashly decided to assassinate his barbarian master, Flavius Aetius. He carried out the deed personally, naively assuming that his freedom could be purchased with a simple thrust of the sword. The barbarian yoke, however, couldn’t be thrown off so easily. The death of one man didn’t diminish the barbarian influence, and Valentinian hadn’t done anything to inspire his citizens’ loyalty. Early the next year, two of Aetius’s men angrily cut the emperor down in broad daylight while the imperial bodyguard just watched impassively.
The assassination threw Rome into an uproar, and, in the chaos, Valentinian’s widow made the terrible decision to appeal to the Vandals for help. Only too happy to come swooping down on the beleaguered city, the barbarians immediately appeared with a large army and demanded that the gates be opened. For the third time in four decades, the old capital was at the mercy of its enemies, and though Pope Leo once again trudged out to plead for mercy, this time he was in a far weaker position. As Arian Christians, the Vandals didn’t have the faintest intention of listening to a pope, but, after an extended negotiation, they did agree to spare the lives of the inhabitants. For two weeks, they sacked the city, methodically stripping everything of value that they could find, even the copper from the temple roofs.* When there was nothing left, they departed from the shattered city with their loot, carrying off the empress and her daughters for good mea sure, to their North African capital of Carthage.†
After the reverses of the past few years, this most recent sack of the city wasn’t quite as shocking as the first, but it did convince the watching eastern court of the dangers of trying to shake off their barbarian masters. It was a lesson that Aspar, the Sarmatian general who currently had Constantinople securely under his thumb, hoped his courtiers had learned well.‡
Aspar’s Arian religion had made him far too unpopular to seize the throne himself, but he’d found a tame proxy in the person of a rather bland, safely Christian lieutenant named Leo. The general had simply had him crowned and settled down to rule the empire from his perch behind the throne.§
Leo was the perfect choice for a puppet. Somewhat “elderly” at fifty-six, he was a deferential, undistinguished man with two daughters, but he had no son to follow him on the throne. His reign would most likely be short, and with no pesky heirs to challenge the general, he would serve as the perfect conduit for Aspar’s power. The barbarian general was well connected, with a long career of service to the empire, a glittering reputation, and personal control over half the army. Even had Leo wanted to, there seemed little chance that with only a worthless title, the emperor could pose a threat to the general’s authority.
Confident in his own security, Aspar failed to realize that he had dangerously miscalculated. Leo had both the ability and, more important, the will to lead, and he didn’t intend to remain a figurehead for long. The new emperor wasn’t rash enough to move against his master at once. Assassinating Aspar—even if it were possible—would only accomplish his own early death, and in any case, where one overlord was cut down, another would inevitably rise to take his place. What Leo needed was a permanent solution to be rid of barbarian masters forever, and for that he had to strike at the true source of Aspar’s power—his control of the army.
Looking around for a military counterbalance to his overpowerful general, Leo found a perfect candidate in a man named Tarasicodissa. He was the leader of a tough mountain people from southern Asia Minor called the Isaurians, and since he wasn’t a native of the capital, he depended completely on the emperor for advancement. Traveling with a small group of men to the capital, Tarasicodissa managed to find evidence of treason by Aspar’s son, providing the emperor a perfect opportunity to publicly scold his barbarian master. Tarasicodissa was rewarded with both the hand of Leo’s daughter and a post equal to Aspar’s. The suddenly respectable Isaurian mercifully Hellenized his name to the more acceptable Zeno and soon became the darling of Constantinople’s polite society.
With Aspar humiliated and on the defensive, Leo was temporarily free to direct imperial policy on his own. Realizing that the western half of the empire was on the verge of collapse, he launched an ambitious plan to aid it by conquering the Vandal kingdom of North Africa. Returning the province to the Western Empire would go a long way toward restoring both its solvency and its prestige, and, more important, it would punish the Vandals for their sack of Rome. The fact that it would also flex his growing power and prestige was, of course, an additional benefit, and Leo was determined to spare no expense. Emptying the entire eastern treasury, the emperor liquidated 130,000 pounds of gold to muster and equip over a thousand ships with four hundred thousand soldiers.
To command one of the largest invasion forces ever attempted, Leo chose one of the worst commanders in history. His name was Basiliscus, and his main qualification was being Leo’s brother-in-law Against any other leader, the Vandals would have stood no chance; but under Basiliscus, the overwhelming odds just made for a more spectacular collapse. Landing forty miles from Carthage, Basiliscus somehow managed to wreck his fleet and largely destroy his army within five days. Panicking in the middle of a battle, the wretched general left the remains of his grand force to fend for itself and fled to Constantinople.
When he reached the capital, Basiliscus very sensibly hid in the Hagia Sophia, which was soon surrounded by an angry mob calling for his head. Leo was also in a lynching mood, but the timely intervention of the empress Verina managed to save Basiliscus, and Leo exiled him to Thrace instead of beheading him. His incompetence had left the East nearly impoverished and had extinguished the last hope of the West. His mischief, however, was not yet completed, and, though disgraced and exiled, he would return to haunt the empire again.
The only silver lining in the disaster was that it enabled Leo to finally break completely free from his barbarian master. Since Aspar was the de facto head of the military, he was quite unfairly blamed for the entire debacle, and his reputation plummeted. Seeing his opportunity, Leo lured Aspar to the palace and had him quietly assassinated, barring the doors so that no help could come.* It was a less-than-honorable solution, but Leo was at last free. Zeno was now the most powerful general in the army, and he was completely loyal to the crown. Against all odds, Leo had broken the barbarian hold on the throne.
He was not, however, to enjoy his triumph for long. Three years later, in 474, Leo died of dysentery, and the throne passed to his son-in-law Zeno. The new emperor had handled his heady rise to power well enough, but his fellow Isaurians had let it go straight to their heads and were now getting on everyone’s nerves by strutting around Constantinople as though they owned the place. As if this weren’t bad enough for Zeno, he was also saddled with rather atrocious in-laws. Leo’s family could never quite reconcile themselves to the fact that a jumped-up provincial had risen so quickly, and Leo’s wife, Verina, in particular had been horrified by her daughter’s marriage to the uncouth Isaurian. For a few years, the Empress Mother managed to maintain a cordial disdain for her daughter’s husband, but it turned to outright hatred when her only grandson—Zeno’s seven-year-old son—died of an illness. For the rest of her life, Verina blamed the heartbroken Zeno for the boy’s death and did everything in her power to under cut him.
Slightly less dangerous an enemy than Verina was her worthless brother Basiliscus, who never let incompetence stand in the way of his dreams, and who was busy scheming to seize the throne himself. He had largely destroyed his own credibility with his shameful conduct against the Vandal kingdom of Africa, but this had done nothing to damage his unshakable belief that he should be sitting on the throne. Time, he was sure, had glossed over the mistakes of the past, and though he had never been particularly close to his sister, he was quite willing to make common cause with her against their mutual enemy. The vengeful siblings somehow attracted the support of a disgruntled Isaurian general named Illus, and the three of them hatched a plan to overthrow their despised relative.
Waiting until Zeno was busy presiding over the games at the Hippodrome, Verina sent a frantic messenger to tell him that the people, backed by the Senate, had risen against him. Zeno had grown up far from the busy life of the capital, and for all his success he never really felt at home in the cosmopolitan city. He was painfully aware of how unpopular he had become, and the roar of the crowd around him was quite indistinguishable from the cacophony of revolt. Not bothering to check if his citizens were actually rising against him, the terrified emperor fled with a handful of followers and what was left of the imperial gold reserve to his native Isauria.
Constantinople now belonged to Verina, the mastermind of the rebellion, and she planned to have her lover crowned immediately, but it turned out that toppling an emperor was a good deal easier than making a new one. The army may have not raised a finger to help Zeno, but they balked at handing the throne over to an unknown whose only qualification was that he was sleeping with Verina. Only a member of the imperial family could become emperor, and the army turned to the one candidate readily available—Basiliscus. Incredibly, the man who had almost single-handedly destroyed the military capability of the East and doomed the West with his disastrous African campaign now found himself hailed by the army as the supreme leader of the Roman Empire.
The new emperor soon proved that his stewardship was on par with his generalship. His first action was to allow a general massacre of every Isaurian in the city—despite the fact that Isaurian support had been vital in his bid for the throne. He then turned to his sister, rewarding her part in the revolt by having her lover executed and forcing her into retirement. Having thus mortally offended his coconspirators, Basiliscus sent an army to crush Zeno and secure his position on the throne. To lead this all-important expedition, the emperor made the baffling choice of the Isaurian general Illus, apparently without considering that his recent slaughter of Isaurians in the capital might make Illus a less than perfect candidate to go fight his countrymen. Indeed, Illus marched straight to Zeno and switched sides, encouraging the emperor to return to Constantinople at once and reclaim his throne.
Meanwhile, Basiliscus was busy eroding any support he had left in the capital. Appointing the dubiously named Timothy the Weasel as his personal religious adviser, he let the man talk him into trying to force the church to adopt the heretical belief that Christ lacked a human nature. When in response the patriarch draped the icons of the Hagia Sophia in black, the annoyed emperor announced that he was abolishing the Patriarchate of Constantinople. This action proved so offensive that it touched off massive riots and caused a local holy man named Daniel the Stylite to descend from his pillar for the first time in three decades.* The sight of the saint wagging his finger frightened Basiliscus into publicly withdrawing the threat, but that did little to restore his popularity.
By the time word came that Zeno was approaching with a large army, tensions in the capital were explosive. Basiliscus defiantly promised a valiant defense, but there was no one willing to waste any more time fighting for him. The Senate threw open the gates, and the population poured out into the streets, cheering Zeno as he triumphantly entered. Basiliscus fled with his family to the Hagia Sophia, but was led out by the patriarch after exacting a promise that none of his blood would be spilled. True to his word, Zeno had the fallen emperor sent off to Cappadocia, where he was enclosed in a dry cistern and left to starve.
Only two years had passed since that terrible night when Zeno had been forced to flee the city, but the world had irrevocably changed in his absence. In the moment of Constantinople’s weakness, the dying embers of the Western Empire had finally been snuffed out. A barbarian general named Odoacer, growing tired of the charade of puppet emperors, decided to rule Italy in his own right. Smashing his way into Ravenna, where the teenage Romulus Augustulus was cowering, Odoacer decided at the last moment to spare his life, choosing instead to send the young emperor into exile.* On September 4, 476, Romulus Augustulus obediently laid down the crown and scepter and went to live with his family in Campania. Though no one thought him important enough to bother recording when or where he died, his abdication marked the end of the Western Roman Empire.
It’s unlikely that anyone at the time noticed such a watershed moment in history. Barbarian generals overthrowing emperors had become distressingly routine for Roman citizens, and for most inhabitants of the former empire, life on the morning of September 5 was no different than the day before. The civil service and the law courts functioned as they always had, merchants and artisans continued to travel down the wide Roman roads, and nothing seemed to suggest a sharp break with the past. Nor, in fact (despite later claims to the contrary), had the Roman Empire actually fallen. A perfectly legitimate Latin-speaking Roman emperor sat on his throne in the East, and what fragments remained of western power withdrew to southern France to keep the flickering imperial power alive as best they could.† The only real change was that Odoacer didn’t feel like appointing a new emperor. He very sensibly decided that there was no use in going through the bother of ruling through a puppet when he could simply pay lip service to Constantinople and rule in his own right.
Sending the western imperial regalia to the East along with a letter congratulating Zeno on recovering his throne, Odoacer asked only for permission to rule the West in his name. The eastern emperor, of course, had no intention of legitimizing a barbarian strongman, but he could hardly go charging out to rescue the western throne when his own was so shaky. Prudently dodging the issue, he let Odoacer continue with the charade of ruling as a surrogate and concentrated on putting his own house in order.
Not surprisingly, Basiliscus had left the East in a mess. In addition to making himself hopelessly unpopular, in his two short years on the throne the wretched emperor had managed to mortally offend the Ostrogoths, who were now running amuck in the Balkans. Zeno solved the problem temporarily by bribing their powerful king, Theodoric, to enter imperial service, but after putting down a few revolts, Theodoric got bored and reverted to his favorite activity of plundering. Zeno desperately needed to find some sort of solution quickly, and, fortunately for the empire, he came up with a truly inspired plan.
The tacit approval from the East had convinced Odoacer that he could do what he pleased without fear of retribution, and the insufferable barbarian soon dropped the pretense of being the loyal vassal and began calling himself “King of Italy.” The imperial armies were too weak to avenge this obvious insult, but the clever emperor saw a way to solve two imperial headaches at the same time. Sending for the rampaging Gothic king, Zeno gave him his blessing to lead his entire people—men, women, and children—into Italy to rule it in the emperor’s name. Thus Theodoric got official sanction to rule a land more promising than the impoverished Balkans—and with it the gravitas of legitimacy—and the East would see Odoacer punished without the loss of a single eastern soldier. Most important of all, Constantinople would be rid of the Goths forever.
Within five years, Theodoric had battered Odoacer into submission and brought Italy welcome peace and a remarkably efficient government. He ruled for thirty-three years, and though he was independent of even the remotest imperial control, to the end of his life, the only face on his coins was that of the emperor of the East.
Zeno never lived to see the triumph of his strategem. He was obviously in declining health and survived just long enough to see his young son and heir die of illness before succumbing to dysentery himself. After such a turbulent reign, many of his subjects couldn’t help but remember him with disgust or at best ambivalence, but he deserved more than that. After inheriting the empire during its blackest days, he had guided the ship of state through the upheavals that brought down the West and left the empire stronger than when he found it. Thanks to his tenacious hold on power, the East had survived its first serious test, and the barbarian yoke had been thrown off forever. The empire’s foundation may have been shaken, but it had endured and was now ready to regain its strength.
There were certainly no shortages of problems for the empire to overcome. The years of chaos and weakness had taken their toll on virtually every level of society, commerce was crippled by heavy taxes, and the imperial treasury still hadn’t recovered from Leo’s disastrous African campaign. Zeno’s legacy, however, provided a secure throne to work from, and over the next three decades the empire experienced a remarkable recovery. Bribery and corruption were rooted out, money was collected more efficiently, and taxes were generally lowered. Commerce, freed from the burdens of excessive taxation, once again flourished, and wealth came pouring into the cities and markets of the empire. A population increase followed the improving economy, and the empire began to prosper on an unprecedented scale. The memories of the fifth century’s turbulence began to fade like a bad dream, and a new generation of Byzantines began to take up the reins of power. For the first time since Diocletian, the empire was facing no serious military or political threats, and despite the volatility of the past centuries, it hadn’t lost a single inch of imperial territory. Brimming with self-confidence, the empire was strong, secure, and ready for explosive growth. It only needed an emperor who was willing to dream.
*In our word “vandal,” we can distantly hear the horror of the Roman world at the thoroughness of this sack.
†The Roman population didn’t reach its imperial peak again until the twentieth century.
‡The Sarmatians were an Iranian seminomadic group that eventually settled in modern Georgia in an area called Ossetia.
§Leo was the first emperor to be crowned by the patriarch, infusing Christian elements into the coronation ceremony. Fifteen centuries later, this basic service is still in use.
*Palace eunuchs carried out the deed, but the emperor earned the nickname “Leo the Butcher.”
*Stylites were Christian ascetics who tried to escape the temptations of the world by ascending pillars to literally withdraw from it. These hermits commanded immense respect, and though the practice fell out of fashion by the seventh century, stylites could still be found in the eastern deserts well into the twelfth century.
*The name “Augustulus” means “little Augustus,” either in reference to his age or importance. Some writers sarcastically called him the “little disgrace,” but it seems somehow fitting that the last emperor of Rome had the same name as its founder and first emperor. In an odd twist of fate, the same would be true of the Eastern Empire, whose last emperor was Constantine XI.
†In fact, the West technically also still had a legitimate emperor in the deposed Julius Nepos, who had been overthrown the previous year by Romulus Augustulus’s father.