TO THE VICTOR, THE PRIZES: Constantius’ achievements did not go unrewarded. From 411, he was supreme commander of the western army. Other honours swiftly followed as his successes multiplied. On 1 January 414 he received the supreme ceremonial honour of the Roman world, the award of a first consulship. In the old Republic, the two consuls annually elected had wielded real power, but the consulship had long ago ceased to incorporate any function. Since, though, all official documents were dated according to the names of consuls, it carried with it a promise of immortality, and, given that one of the two was often also an emperor, it retained all its cachet. The next year, patricius (Patrician) was added to Constantius’ list of titles – this too meant nothing in practice, but the search was on for titles to express his special pre-eminence.
On 1 January 417 he became consul for the second time, and – even more significant – received in marriage the hand of Galla Placidia, the emperor Honorius’ sister, whom he had forced the Visigoths to return. Their first child, the strong-minded princess Iusta Grata Honoria, was born about a year later. Shortly after, Placidia fell pregnant again, this time with a son, Valentinian, who was born in July 419. The emperor Honorius was still childless, and no one had any doubt by this date that he would remain so. Constantius, Placidia and their children were the first family of the western Empire. Still, however, Constantius wasn’t finished. On 1 January 420, he became consul for the third time: then, on 8 February 421, inexorable political logic led to the final accolade. Married to the emperor’s sister, father of the heir apparent and for the last decade effective ruler of the Empire, he was finally proclaimed co-Augustus by Honorius. A new golden age seemed to be unfolding. Fate, however, wasn’t working to the same script. On 2 September, not quite seven months after his coronation, Constantius died.
Life – and Death – at the Top
TO UNDERSTAND the catastrophic effects of Constantius’ sudden removal, we need to consider how court politics worked in the later Roman Empire. Its public face was the ceremonial pomp appropriate for a ruler chosen by God to run an Empire destined by the same Divinity to bring Christian civilization to the entire world. All ceremonies were carefully orchestrated to express the unanimity of the participants in the belief that they formed part of a divinely ordained social order that could not be bettered.
Emperors were expected to conduct themselves accordingly. The pagan Ammianus Marcellinus criticized the pagan emperor Julian, in all other respects his hero, for breaking with these norms:
One day, when [Julian] was sitting in judgement . . . it was announced that the philosopher Maximus had come from Asia, he started up in an undignified manner, so far forgetting himself that he ran at full speed . . . and . . . kissed the philosopher . . . This unseemly ostentation made him appear to be an excessive seeker for empty fame, and to have forgotten that splendid saying of Cicero’s, which narrates the following in criticizing such people: ‘those very same philosophers inscribe their names on the very books which they write on despising glory, so that even when they express scorn of honour and fame, they wish to be praised’.1
Departing from the formalities was deliberate affectation, in Ammianus’ view. But Julian wasn’t alone in finding the demands of imperial deportment onerous, as Olympiodorus records: ‘Constantius . . . regretted his elevation because he no longer had the freedom to leave and go off wherever and in whatever manner he wished and could not, because he was emperor, enjoy the pastimes which he had been accustomed to.’2 This no doubt included jesting with the clowns over dinner, as he had previously liked to do. Being emperor was not just about giving orders; it also involved satisfying expectations.
But if the public face of court life was a ceremonial swan gliding effortlessly over the waters of world affairs, inside it was a hotbed of rivalry. Given that the Empire was far too large for any one man to control unaided, there had to be subordinates to see to its actual running. At the height of their dominance over Honorius, first Stilicho and then Constantius controlled top appointments, both civilian and military. In making promotions, the need was to balance practicality with politics. A well judged distribution of favour would build up a body of grateful supporters that would insulate the top man from potential rivals. Not that rivals were always easy to spot. It was, as we saw, Stilicho who suggested the promotion of his own eventual nemesis Olympius.
The official arena where this struggle for office and influence was played out was the central council of the Empire: the imperial consistory. Here the emperor and his chief officials, military and civilian, gathered for regular sessions, and real politicking was sometimes done. Ammianus records a general named Marcellus denouncing the Caesar Julian’s pretensions to the full purple and crown of an Augustus, and an extremely brave quaestor named Eupraxius telling Valentinian I, who had denied issuing an order allowing the judicial torture of senators accused in magic trials, that he had indeed just done so.3 But business in the consistory was usually run on very formal lines. It was where all the court dignitaries lined up in order of precedence and in full ceremonial robes to receive foreign ambassadors. It was also where the ceremony of adoratio – kissing the imperial robe – was customarily performed. The full consistory was more often a place for announcing decisions than debating them.4
Much of the real business of political negotiation and policy-making took place at a further remove from the public gaze, at council sessions with a few trusted officials present or in private rooms out of sight of pretty much everybody. The decision to admit the Goths into the Empire in 376, for instance, emerged only after heated debate amongst Valens and his closest advisers, but the public face put on the decision when announced in the consistory was cheerful consensus. Likewise, Priscus tells us that when wanting to suborn a Hunnic ambassador to murder his ruler, an east Roman official invited him back to his private apartments after the formal ceremonies in the consistory were done.5 The imperial court had to show complete unanimity in public, but knives were kept sharpened privately, and a constant flurry of rumours spread to advance friends and to destroy foes. Winning and exercising influence backstairs was how the political game was played by everyone.
The rewards of success were enormous: staggering personal wealth and a luxurious lifestyle, together with both social and political power, as you helped shape the affairs of the day and those below you courted your favours. But the price of failure was correspondingly high; Roman politics was a zero-sum game. A top-level political career generated far too many enemies for the individual to be able to take his finger off the pulse for a moment. You don’t hear of many retirements from the uppermost tiers of late Roman politics. The only exit for Stilicho, as we’ve seen, was in a marble sarcophagus, and the same was true for many other leading figures. Regime change, especially the death of an emperor, was the classic moment for the knives to come out. It was such a moment that claimed the life of Count Theodosius (father of the emperor Theodosius I) after the sudden death of Valentinian I, and later, of the faction behind the count’s death. If you were lucky it was just you who snuffed it, but sometimes entire families were wiped out and their wealth confiscated – Stilicho’s wife and son were killed shortly after him. Even if a fall from grace took the form of being retired from politics, you weren’t necessarily safe. As with Palladius in the Lepcis affair (see pp. 100-101), sudden exclusion from central politics was the moment your enemies would start gathering evidence and whispering, so that you never knew when an official with a warrant might knock on your door. The pinnacle of late Roman politics was for high rollers only: if you failed to stay atop the greasy pole, you were likely to end up atop a bloody one. By the year 414, the heads of no fewer than six usurpers were to be seen displayed outside the city of Carthage: two old ones (Maximus and Eugenius from the time of Theodosius I), plus four more recent ones – Constantine III and his son, together with Jovinus and his.6
Ammianus gives us a brilliant pen portrait of one of these late Roman grandees, Petronius Probus, prominent under Valentinian I (364–75) and after, which beautifully captures the power and precariousness of life at the top.
[Probus was] generous and ready to advance his friends, but sometimes a cruel schemer, working harm by his deadly jealousies. And although he had great power so long as he lived, because of the sums that he gave away and his constant resumption of offices, yet he was sometimes timid when boldly confronted, though arrogant against those who feared him . . . And as a fish, when removed from its own element, does not breathe very long on dry land, so he pined away when not holding prefectures; these he was compelled to seek because of the constant lawlessness of certain families which, because of their boundless avarice, were never free from guilt, and in order to carry out their many evil designs with impunity, plunged their patron into affairs of state . . . But he was suspicious . . . and sometimes resorted to flattery in order to work harm . . . At the very height of riches and honours he was worried and anxious, and hence always troubled with slight illnesses.7
Arrogant yet fawning, powerful yet plagued by anxiety and hypochondria: this seems like a perfectly reasonable reaction to the average career in late Roman politics. The other element here, which Ammianus picks out so well, is the extent to which top office-holders were subject to pressure from below. Above all, they were social fixers. Their power came from being seen to do a myriad small favours, from people knowing that so much influence was within their gift. Patrons were constantly harassed by petitioners, therefore, who would go elsewhere if the particular favour was not forthcoming.8 Once you stepped on the up escalator, it was hard to get off.
Such is the backdrop to the unexpected death of Flavius Constantius, co-emperor and effective ruler of the west, in September 421. You could be excused for thinking that he had owed his promotion to the speed and efficiency with which, from roughly the year 410, he put the western Empire back on the road. In part, this is true. Without this success, marriage to Placidia and the imperial promotion of February 421 would never have come his way. But military success by itself was not enough. Constantius also used this success to cement his position at court. As his stock rose, he could dispose of his rivals and turn an averagely important position at court into an unassailable one.
Constantius can only have been a second-rank supporter of Stilicho at the time of the old generalissimo’s death, since he survived the blood-letting. The early stages of his own rise were no less violent. The fall of Stilicho was followed by several swift changes of personnel as first one and then another politician rose and fell in Honorius’ favour. The rising star of Olympius, organizer of the coup against Stilicho, faded when his policy of resisting Alaric got nowhere. He was followed by Jovius, who transferred his allegiance to Alaric and Attalus when Honorius torpedoed the diplomatic settlement he was trying to negotiate. Jovius’ pre-eminence was followed by that of a eunuch official of the imperial household, the praepositus sacri cubiculi Eusebius; but he was soon ousted by the general Allobichus, who had Eusebius killed (along with two other senior military commanders) – clubbed to death in the emperor’s presence.9
It was at this point that Constantius burst on the scene, benefiting hugely from all the blood-letting, which generated room at the top for someone bold enough to seize it. On the grounds of an alleged connection between Allobichus and Constantine III, Constantius was able to discredit the former and have him killed. It is sometimes thought that Allobichus was in the pay of Constantine, but it may well be that he was simply in favour of a negotiated peace – which would have clashed with Constantius’ desire for violent confrontation. Constantius was then able to use the political capital gained from his early successes against Constantine and Gerontius to bring Stilicho’s archenemy Olympius to ‘justice’: his ears were cut off and, like Eusebius, he was clubbed to death in front of the emperor.
Constantius’ rise to power was equally based, then, on adroit political manoeuvring. By the end of the year 411, by dint of his execution of Allobichus and his military successes against the usurpers, he had stabilized the political situation around his own person. But one major rival remained: Heraclianus, military commander in North Africa. Heraclianus’ loyalty had sustained the emperor Honorius in his darkest hours of 409/10, when he kept enough funds flowing in from Africa to keep the Italian army loyal. In 412 he was duly rewarded, being appointed consul designate for the next year: the supreme accolade, short of the imperial purple. But Heraclianus was an old associate of Olympius – it was said that he had personally executed Stilicho. This may have been the original bone of contention between the two remaining stars in the western military firmament, but Constantius’ success was certainly another. Granting Heraclianus the consulship before Constantius, who had achieved so much more, suggests that the emperor was trying to reassure him that his position was safe. But the African commander was not reassured, and in spring 413, when Constantius was busy organizing the overthrow of the usurper Jovinus, he brought an army to Italy. The sources accuse Heraclianus of wanting the purple for himself, but he may just have wanted to destroy Constantius’ influence over Honorius. Either way, he failed. His army was defeated by one of Constantius’ lieutenants, and he himself was assassinated by two of Constantius’ agents on his return to Carthage.10
Constantius’ pre-eminence was based, then, on a mixture of outright victories, uninhibited back-stabbing and a little clubbing. With Heraclianus’ defeat, he had now removed all his major rivals. Even so, the further stages of his ascent were to be far from smooth. Photius preserves for us this account of his marriage to Placidia:
When Honorius was celebrating his eleventh consulship and Constantius his second [AD 417], they solemnized Placidia’s marriage. Her frequent rejections of Constantius had made him angry at her attendants. Finally, the Emperor Honorius, her brother, on the day on which he entered his consulship [1 January], took her by the hand and, despite her protests, gave her over to Constantius, and the marriage was solemnized in the most dazzling fashion.11
Some have supposed that she still loved Athaulf, her dead Goth, but Placidia clearly wasn’t keen on being used as a pawn in a strategy that closely imitated the one that had allowed Stilicho to marry his two daughters, in quick succession, to Honorius. While the emperor was clearly happy enough to hand over to Constantius the kind of power that Stilicho had enjoyed, his sister was much less keen.12
So nothing was easy for Constantius in his rise to pre-eminence. He had had to fight every inch of the way; even his promotion to the purple had been opposed by Constantinople, and the political establishment in the west had hardly rolled over in submission. Marriage to Placidia may have put Constantius beyond the reach of any rival, but his power had been built on a stack of bodies. On his death in 421, everyone in high office was a Constantian appointee, and all placed him at the centre of their political calculations (including those nursing plans for his removal). As in most one-party states, there was no successor-in-waiting – Constantius had seen to that. Honorius was incapable of politicking, so it remained for the leading subordinates that Constantius had left behind to devise amongst themselves a new pecking order. The result was more than a decade of political chaos, until a semblance of order finally re-emerged in the mid-430s.
After Constantius: The Struggle for Power
ROUND ONE of the struggle was quite short, lasting from the death of Constantius to the death of Honorius less than two years later, on 15 August 423. The game at this point still consisted of winning and retaining the confidence of the emperor. First off the blocks was his sister, who had the advantage of having been raised to the purple and having received the rank of Augusta when her husband became Augustus. As well as her own interests, she needed to safeguard those of her son by Constantius, Valentinian, potential heir to the throne. But there was nothing automatic in his progression to the purple. Succession, as we saw in Chapter 3, usually operated on a dynastic basis, but only if there was a plausible heir, one who could command general consent. Varronianus, infant son of the emperor Jovian, for instance, disappeared without trace after his father’s death, because no one had any interest in backing his claims. Placidia thus cosied up to her brother – to the extent that Olympiodorus reports a whiff of scandal in the air:
The affection of Honorius towards his sister grew so great after the death of her husband Constantius that their immoderate pleasure in each other and their constant kissing on the mouth caused many people to entertain shameful suspicions about them. But as a result of the efforts of Spadusa and of Placidia’s nurse, Elpidia, and through the cooperation of Leontius, her steward, this affection was replaced by such a degree of hatred, that fighting often broke out in Ravenna and blows were delivered on both sides. For Placidia was surrounded by a host of barbarians because of her marriages to Athaulf and Constantius. Finally, as a result of this flare-up of enmity and the hatred as strong as their previous love, when Honorius proved the stronger, Placidia was exiled to Byzantium with her children.13
Unfortunately, at this point we are dependent on Photius’ brief summary of Olympiodorus’ account, so that it is not exactly clear who was on whose side. ‘Spadusa’ is possibly an error for ‘Padusia’, the wife of an army officer called Felix.14 We know, too, that another senior military commander, Castinus, was involved. The fragment goes on to tell us that a third officer, Boniface, Heraclianus’ successor in Africa, stayed loyal to Placidia throughout her travails. The broad outlines, at least, are clear: Placidia tried to sustain her family’s position by monopolizing her brother’s affections, and attracted some support from among the military; but other interest groups prevailed, managing to prise brother and sister apart. The result was Placidia’s exile to Constantinople late in the year 422.
The manoeuvring continued in her absence, but was brought to a halt with the death of Honorius a few days short of his thirty-ninth birthday. All bets were now off, and round two of the struggle for power in the west began.
Placidia having departed with Valentinian for the east, there was no obvious candidate for the throne. The many highly capable subordinates, whom Constantius had promoted, were jockeying for position. Power was eventually seized, after a few months, by the Chief Notary, John. Having lined up the necessary support in the top military and bureaucratic echelons, he was declared Augustus on 20 November. In Africa, Boniface kept himself aloof. John’s most prominent backer was the general Castinus (whom we saw involved in palace plotting before Honorius’ death). The regime had one other significant military supporter in the person of Aetius, who held the prominent court post of cura palatii (Curator of the Palace). Aetius had first achieved prominence while still an adolescent on being sent on two occasions either side of the year 410 as a hostage to barbarian allies. He spent three years with Alaric’s Goths (405–8), followed by a stint with the Huns (perhaps in 411–14). The latter would have repercussions, as we shall see.
With the western military establishment divided, a key factor would clearly be the attitude of the eastern court of Theodosius II. John promptly sent an embassy requesting recognition, but the ambassadors were roughly received and sent into exile around the Black Sea. We don’t know how much debate was involved, but Theodosius and his advisers, encouraged perhaps by the fact that Boniface had refused to throw North Africa into the ring on John’s side, eventually decided to send an expeditionary force to Ravenna to uphold dynastic principle and the claims of his first cousin Valentinian. So Placidia and her son were despatched to Thessalonica, where Valentinian was proclaimed Caesar on 23 October 424 by Theodosius’ representative, the Master of Offices Helion. A father-and-son team of generals – Ardaburius, recently victorious over the Persians, and Aspar – were sent with an army, together with a third general by the name of Candidianus. At first, all went according to plan. Moving up the Adriatic coast of Dalmatia, they took the two important ports of Salona and Aquileia. But then disaster struck. A gale blew Ardaburius off course. He was captured and taken to Ravenna, where John tried to use him as a hostage. But the plan backfired because Ardaburius was able to sow dissent amongst John’s supporters, probably by stressing the size of the expedition on its way from Constantinople. As Olympiodorus’ history tells us:
Aspar came quickly with the cavalry, and after a short struggle John was captured through the treachery of his own officials and sent to Aquileia to Placidia and Valentinian. There his hand was first cut off as a punishment, and then he was decapitated, having usurped power for a year and a half.15
Theodosius then had Valentinian sent on to Rome where, on 23 October 425, Helion proclaimed him Augustus – Valentinian III – and sole ruler of the west.
THE WHOLE EPISODE was a triumphant reaffirmation of the political unity of the two halves of the Empire. An eastern expeditionary force had put a legitimate scion of the house of Theodosius back on the western throne, and the alliance was secured by the betrothal of the young Valentinian III to Licinia Eudoxia, daughter of Theodosius II. Olympiodorus chose this moment to bring his work to a close, his history of disaster and reconstruction in the west climaxing with this greatest of recent triumphs.16 But there was still a problem. Far from ending the political instability, the installation of Valentinian III merely redefined it. A six-year-old boy cannot rule an empire, even in the hands of so capable and experienced a mother as Galla Placidia. The race was now on among the grandees of the western court, and particularly the military, to see who could secure a pre-eminent influence over the boy emperor.
In the conflict that followed, his mother was a major protagonist. The fragmentary records indicate that she aimed to sustain a balance of power in which no one figure among the military or bureaucratic elite should become too dominant. The main contenders for power and influence in the years after 425 were the leaders of the three main western army groups: Felix, Aetius and Boniface. In Italy, the main man was Felix, whose wife Padusia may have played a role in sowing dissent between Honorius and Placidia. He was senior central field army general (magister militum praesentalis). In Gaul, Aetius had replaced Castinus, who had been commanding general there under John’s regime. The story of Aetius’ survival in the new set-up is a significant one. When John had been faced with the overwhelming force of Theodosius’ eastern expeditionary army, he sent Aetius, because of his old hostage connections, to the Huns to buy mercenary support. Aetius failed to arrive in time to save his master, but eventually turned up on the fringes of Italy with a huge force of Huns – sixty thousand, according to one source.17 A deal was struck. For a moderate price, Aetius persuaded the Huns to go home, in return for which the new regime retained his services and sent him off to Gaul as military commander. Boniface, the third contender for power and loyal to Placidia throughout, remained commanding general in North Africa.
For a while, Placidia’s strategy just about worked. The threatened dominance of first one figure, then another, was kept in check, if not entirely smoothly. Slowly, however, the situation fell out of the Augusta’s control. Felix made the first move. Accusing Boniface of disloyalty, in 427 he ordered him to return to Italy. When he refused, Felix sent forces to North Africa, but they were defeated. Then Aetius stepped in. On the strength of some military successes in Gaul against Visigoths (426) and Franks (428) (to which we will return in a moment), he felt confident enough to move against Felix. Perhaps his successes had won him new favour with Placidia, or perhaps personal extinction was the price of Felix’s failure against Boniface, but in 429 Aetius was transferred to Italy and to the post of junior central field army general. The sources don’t permit us to be certain of what exactly happened next, but in May 430 Aetius had Felix and his wife arrested for plotting against him. They were executed at Ravenna. Three had become two, and high noon was fast approaching for Boniface.
Aetius seems to have lost a little ground at court after he got rid of Felix. Perhaps, once again, Placidia was fearful of the dominance of one unchallenged generalissimo. Boniface was therefore recalled to Italy, seemingly while Aetius was absent in Gaul again; and Boniface too was promoted to the post of central field army general. Aetius immediately marched to Italy with an army, and met Boniface in battle near Rimini. Boniface was victorious, but also mortally wounded; he died soon afterwards. His political position, and the struggle with Aetius, were immediately taken up by his son-in-law Sebastianus. After the defeat, Aetius first retreated to his country estates, but after an attempt was made on his life, he turned to the Huns, as he had in 425. In 433, he returned to Italy with enough Hunnic reinforcements to make Sebastianus’ position untenable. The latter fled to Constantinople, where he would remain for over a decade. Next, Aetius secured the post of senior central field army general – his position was now unchallenged. On 5 September 435 he adopted the title Patrician to express the pre-eminence that he had finally, and with so much difficulty, achieved.18
The Road to Morocco
TWELVE YEARS of political conflict, involving two major wars and a minor one, had finally produced a winner. By a combination of assassination, fair battle and good fortune, Aetius had emerged by the end of 433 as the de facto ruler of the western Empire. This kind of court drama was nothing new. It was, as we have seen, a structural limitation of the Roman world that every time a strong man bit the dust, be he emperor or power behind the throne, there was always a protracted struggle to determine his successor. Sometimes, the fall-out was far worse than that witnessed between 421 and 433. Diocletian’s power-sharing Tetrarchy had brought internal peace to the Empire during 285–305, but the price was horrific: multiple, large-scale civil wars over the next nineteen years, until Constantine finally eclipsed the last of his rivals. This was a much longer and bloodier bout of mayhem than what took place in and around Italy between the death of Constantius and rise of Aetius.
There was nothing that unusual, then, in the jostling for power that took place during the 420s; but there was something deeply abnormal about its knock-on effects. While a new order was painfully emerging at the centre, the rest of the Roman world would usually just get on with being Roman. The landed elites carried on administering their estates and writing letters and poetry to one another, their children busied themselves with mastering the subjunctive, and the peasantry got on with tilling and harvesting. But by the second and third decades of the fifth century there were untamed alien forces at large on Roman soil, and during the twelve years after the death of Constantius they were occupied with more than the business of being Roman. As a result, if the events of 421–33 were in themselves merely a retelling of an age-old Roman story, the same was not true of their consequences. Political paralysis at Ravenna gave the outside forces free rein to pursue their own agendas largely unhindered, and the overall effect was hugely detrimental to the Roman state. For one thing, the Visigothic supergroup settled so recently in Aquitaine got uppity again, aspiring to a more grandiose role in the running of the Empire than the peace of 418 had allowed them. There was also disquiet among some of the usual suspects on the Rhine frontier, particularly the Alamanni and the Franks.19 Above all, the Rhine invaders of 406, the Vandals, Alans and Suevi, were on the move once again.
They were, as we saw in Chapter 5, in origin rather a mixed bunch. The Alans, Iranian-speaking nomads, as recently as AD 370 had been roaming the steppe east of the River Don and north of the Caspian Sea. Only under the impact of Hunnic attack had some of them started to move west, in a number of separate groups, while others were conquered. The two groups of Vandals, the Hasdings and the Silings – each under their own leaderships like the Gothic Tervingi and Greuthungi of 376 – were Germanic-speaking agriculturalists living, in the fourth century, in central-southern Poland and the northern fringes of the Carpathians. The Suevi consisted of several small groups from the upland fringes of the Great Hungarian Plain. This odd assortment of peoples may have made common cause in 406, but they were far from natural allies. First, the Hasdings and Silings and Suevi could certainly have understood each other, even if speaking slightly different Germanic dialects, but the Alans spoke another language entirely. Second, as far as we can tell, both Vandal groups and the Suevi are likely to have shared the tripartite oligarchic structure common to fourth-century Germanic Europe: a dominant, if quite numerous, minority free class, holding sway over freedmen and slaves. Tied to a nomadic pastoral economy, however, the Alans’ social structure was completely different. The one comment about them of any substance comes from Ammianus, who notes that slavery was unknown amongst them, and that everyone shared the same ‘noble’ status.20Whatever the particular terms used to describe it, a more egalitarian social structure is natural to nomadic economies, where wealth, measured in the ownership of animals, has a less stable basis than the ownership of land.21
Although rather odd bedfellows, then, the press of events prompted these groups to learn to work together, and this happened progressively over time. Even before crossing the Rhine, Gregory of Tours tells us in his Histories, the Alans under King Respendial rescued the Hasdings from a mauling at the hands of the Franks.22 We have no idea how closely the groups cooperated in Gaul immediately after the crossing, but in 409, in the face of the counterattacks organized by Constantine III, they again moved en bloc into Spain. By 411, when the threat of any effective Roman counteraction had disappeared, the groups went their own separate ways once more, dividing up the Spanish provinces between them. As we saw, the Hasdings and Suevi shared Gallaecia, the Alans took Lusitania and Carthaginensis, and the Siling Vandals Baetica (map 8). The fact that they took two provinces indicates that the Alans were, at this point, the dominant force in the coalition, as their crucial role in the events of 406 might also suggest, and the Spanish chronicler Hydatius confirms.23 These arrangements lasted for the first half of the 410s, when the coalition partners were left in peace: happy immigrants from the north soaking up the sun and wine of Spain.
It was, however, only the briefest of idylls. Constantius was tackling the western Empire’s problems in order, and once usurpers and Visigoths had been dealt with in Gaul, the survivors of the Rhine invasion were next on the list. Between 416 and 418, the Silings in Baetica (part of modern Andalucía) were destroyed as an independent force, their king Fredibald ending up at Ravenna; and the Alans suffered such heavy casualties, Hydatius reports, that: ‘After the death of their king, Addax, the few survivors, with no thought for their own kingdom, placed themselves under the protection of Gunderic, the king of the [Hasding] Vandals.’24 These counterattacks not only returned three Hispanic provinces – Lusitania, Carthagena and Baetica – to central Roman control, but also reversed the balance of power within the Vandal–Alan–Suevi coalition. The previously dominant Alans suffered severely enough to be demoted to junior partners, and for three of the four groups a much tighter political relationship came into force. Hasding Vandals, surviving Siling Vandals and Alans were all now operating under the umbrella of the Hasding monarchy. In the face of both the greater danger and the greater opportunity that being on Roman territory brought with it, much in the manner of Alaric’s Gothic supergroup, by 418 the loose alliance of 406 had evolved into full political union. A second barbarian supergroup had been born.
How the difficulty posed by integrating Germanic-speaking Vandals with Iranian-speaking Alans was overcome is something we can only guess at, and the differences in social structure must also have posed problems. I suspect that the official title adopted by the Hasding monarchs from this point on – reges Vandalorum et Alanorum, ‘kings of the Vandals and the Alans’ – was much more than a polite sop to public opinion: more likely, it was a shorthand way of expressing a reality of only limited integration. The panic generated in these groups by Constantius produced a coalition of about 70–80,000, capable of putting an army of 15–20,000 into the field.25
After his initial successes against the Silings and Alans in Spain, Constantius had brought the action to a temporary halt, so as to settle the Visigoths in Aquitaine.26 This brought a respite to the former Rhine invaders which Gunderic, head of the new Vandal-Alan supergroup, seems to have used in 419 to try to bring the Suevi, and their king Hermeric, under his control as well. The difficult mountainous territory of northern Gallaecia enabled the Suevi to resist, but they were struggling under a blockade. Then, imperial counteraction resumed in 420, when a Roman officer by the name of Asterius broke up the blockade, presumably not wanting Gunderic to increase his following still further. At this point, Constantius’ death intervened. In 422, another joint Roman-Visigothic campaign began against the Vandals and Alans, who had now retreated into Baetica. Given the amount of time the Empire took to organize anything at all, the necessary arrangements may well have been put in place by Constantius before his death.
Two substantial Roman military contingents – one under Castinus, probably from the Gallic field army, the other under Boniface, possibly from North Africa – now combined with a large force of Visigoths to attack the Vandals. But if the political uncertainty at court hadn’t prevented the campaign from starting, it certainly ruined its progress. Boniface broke with Castinus, presumably over the exile of Placidia, and retreated to Africa. The campaign continued, with Castinus at first seeming on the verge of another victory, conducting a successful blockade of his opponents which, according to Hydatius, had reduced them virtually to the point of surrender. But, again according to Hydatius, Castinus then ‘recklessly’ engaged in a set-piece battle, which, thanks to the ‘treachery’ of the Visigoths, he lost. Hydatius provides no details about this treachery, however, and for reasons of his own he hated the Visigoths, so I am uncertain about the reliability of his reporting here.27 The loss of Boniface’s contingent cannot have helped, but it’s much more likely that what we are really seeing in Castinus’ defeat is the overall effect of Vandal-Alan unification. Whereas, four years before, a combined Roman-Visigothic force had been able to defeat the two groups individually, the newly united force was much more able to resist. On his defeat, Castinus retreated north to Tarragona to think again. But before a further campaign could be launched or a new strategy formulated, Honorius was dead, and Castinus returned, as we noted, to become senior general in Italy under the usurper John. Political chaos at the centre had ruined any plans for exterminating the survivors of the Rhine invasion.
From 422, while the knives came out in Italy, the Vandals and the Alans were left in peace again. Not surprisingly, events in Spain attracted little attention from the chroniclers, given the star-studded mayhem going on at court, and we hear nothing at all about Vandals or Alans between 422 and 425. After this date, however, they were active for three years in rich districts of southern Spain: their capture of the cities of Cartagena and Seville are the two highlights mentioned by Hydatius. But from their experiences during Constantius’ ascendancy in the later 410s, these people knew perfectly well that, when a new supremo eventually emerged at court, they would be public enemy number one. They were in Spain by force, and had never negotiated any treaty with the central imperial authorities. So, while presumably making the most of the extended interregnum, they also knew that they needed to be making longer-term plans for their future.
In 428, on Gunderic’s death, leadership of the Vandals and Alans passed to his half-brother Geiseric. The sixth-century historian Jordanes, in his history of the Goths known as the Getica, gives us a pen portrait of the new king, who would go down in Roman circles as the epitome of barbarian cunning:28 ‘Geiseric . . . was a man of moderate height and lame in consequence of a fall from a horse. He was a man of deep thought and few words, holding luxury in disdain, furious in his anger, greedy for gain, shrewd in winning over the barbarians and skilled in sowing the seeds of dissension to arouse enmity.’ Whether the new policy was entirely his own, or whether it had been slowly evolving in the second half of the 420s, is unclear, but Geiseric now had his sights set on Africa. The move was a logical solution to the Vandals’ and Alans’ problems. What they needed was a strategically safe area; in particular, somewhere as far away as possible from any more Roman-Goth campaigns. Africa fitted the bill perfectly – it was only a short hop from southern Spain, and much safer. Seaborne operations always pose many more difficulties than land-based ones, and the logic of this kind of move had presented itself to others before. In late 410, after the sack of Rome, Alaric had moved his forces south to Messina with their wholesale transfer to North Africa in mind. His successor Vallia contemplated the same move from Barcelona in 415. In both cases, storms had wrecked such shipping as the Visigoths had managed to muster, and the attempts were abandoned. The Vandals, though, had had much greater leisure to lay their plans. While in southern Spain, they had begun to establish relationships with local shipowners, which had allowed them, amongst other things, to raid the Balearic Islands. Such raids were just a warm-up for the main event, allowing the Vandals to orient themselves, formulate a plan, and get hold of the required shipping. In May 429 Geiseric concentrated his followers at the port of Tarifa, near modern Gibraltar, and the expedition to Africa began.
We have quite a lot of written source material generated in the heat of the subsequent conflict, but unfortunately it largely denounces rather than describes the activities of the Vandal-Alan supergroup. Amongst other things, we have some of the letters of St Augustine who was caught up in the action and eventually passed away when the Vandals were besieging his episcopal see of Hippo Regius, together with a set of contemporary sermons written for an audience in Carthage. Geiseric had recently declared his allegiance to the so-called Arian form of Christianity as espoused by Ulfilas (see Chapter 3), which may well have spread to the Vandals from the Visigoths in the early 410s. The Vandals not only did all the normal damage that an invading army does, but also targeted Catholic Christian institutions and expelled some Catholic bishops from their sees. What the sources transmit, therefore, is not detailed information, but the outrage of good Catholics in the face of persecuting heretics.
The big question left unanswered is: how, exactly, did Geiseric get his army across the sea? It used to be argued, for instance, that the Vandals and Alans went a long way east from Tarifa by sea, landing close to Carthage itself. If so, where was the Roman army of North Africa? According to the listings of the Notitia Dignitatum, which records the state of the Roman field forces in or around the year 420, Boniface, the count of Africa, had at his disposal 31 regiments of field army troops (a minimum of 15,000 men), as well as another 22 units of garrison troops (at least 10,000 men) distributed from Tripolitania to Mauretania.29 It is normally reckoned that, for a successful landing, a seaborne force needs five or six times more troops than land-based defenders. So if, as we think, the Vandal-Alans could put into the field at best maybe 20,000 warriors, they shouldn’t have stood a chance, especially since they were also bringing with them large numbers of noncombatants.
The Constantinopolitan historian of the mid-sixth century, Procopius, tried to explain this conundrum by supposing that, faced with his own possible extinction in the three-way struggle for control of the young Valentinian III, the senior Roman commander in Africa, Count Boniface, invited the Vandals and Alans into his province – although even Procopius supposes that he later repented of the deed.30 But there is no reference to any such treachery on Boniface’s part in contemporary western sources (even after he was defeated by Aetius), and if you think about it, such an invitation would not make any sense: by 429, Boniface had made his peace with the imperial court, so he would have had no reason to invite them into Africa at this point.31
The real explanation for Geiseric’s success is twofold. First, on simple logistic grounds, it is nigh inconceivable that he could have got together enough shipping to move his followers en masse across the sea. Roman ships were not that large. We know, for example, that in a later invasion of North Africa an east Roman expeditionary force averaged about seventy men (plus horses and supplies) per ship. If Geiseric’s total strength was anywhere near 80,000, he would have needed over 1,000 ships to transport his people in one lift. But in the 460s the whole of the western Empire could raise no more than 300, and it took the combined resources of both Empires to assemble 1,000. In 429, Geiseric had nothing like this catchment area at his disposal, controlling only the coastal province of Baetica. It is overwhelmingly likely, therefore, that he would not have had enough ships to move all his followers in one go.
To move a hostile force piecemeal into the heart of defended Roman North Africa would have been suicidal, offering the Romans the first contingent on a plate, while the ships went back for the second. So rather than trying to move his force a long distance by sea, Geiseric simply made the shortest hop across the Mediterranean, from modern-day Tarifa across the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier (map 10): a distance of only 62 kilometres – even a Roman ship could normally make it there and back again inside twenty-four hours. For the next month or so, from May 429 onwards, the Straits of Gibraltar must have seen a motley assortment of vessels shunting Vandal-Alans across the Mediterranean. The intinerary is confirmed by the chronology of the subsequent campaign. It was not until June 430, a good twelve months later, that the Vandals and Alans finally appeared outside the walls of Augustine’s town Hippo Regius, about 2,000 kilometres from Tangier, having travelled there by the main Roman roads (map 10). As the Allies found in late 1942 and early 1943, much of the area is far too rough and rugged for any straying off the beaten track, and the Vandals were presumably hauling a wagon train to boot. French historians have busily calculated that, having finally assembled itself during the summer of 429, the force then moved east towards Hippo at a comfortable average of 5.75 kilometres a day.32
This also explains why the seaborne landing was successful. By choosing Tangier, Geiseric did not land his men in Roman North Africa proper. Tangier was the capital of Rome’s westernmost possession in North Africa, the province of Mauretania Tingitana (modern Morocco). More than two thousand kilometres to the west and separated by the barren mountains of the Er Rif, it was in fact so far from the heart of Roman North Africa that, administratively, it was part of Spain (map 1). Its defence, correspondingly, was not the responsibility of the Count of Africa, but of the Count of Tingitana. He had under his command five field army regiments, which might be reinforced by a further eight units of garrison troops, giving a grand total of thirteen units, or maybe 5–7,000 men. However, the main job of the garrison troops had always been to police the comings and goings of nomads, and it must be extremely doubtful whether they were really up to set-piece confrontations with Geiseric’s battle-hardened force. It had fought its way from the Rhine to Spain, and, at least from its unification in 418, had shown itself capable of standing up to major Roman field armies. The mismatch was even greater than first appears. As we saw in Chapter 5, Constantius responded to the huge losses suffered by western field armies after 405 by promoting garrison troops into mobile field army units. Of the force available to the Count of Tingitana, only two regiments were real field army units; the other three were promoted garrison troops.33 So he had maybe 1,000, at best 1,500, decent-quality troops with which to frustrate Geiseric’s designs. This despatches any idea of a contest, and with it, any mystery surrounding the Vandal-Alan coalition’s ability to get ashore.
Once disembarked, the coalition headed slowly east. The one possible cross-check we have on their progress is an inscription from Altava, dated to August 429, which records that one of its leading inhabitants had been wounded by a ‘barbarian’, but whether of the Berber or Vandal-Alan variety we do not know. After Altava, 700 kilometres from Tangier, there was only another thousand or so to go before the invading force hit the richest provinces of North Africa: Numidia, Proconsularis and Byzacena. The sources give us no details of the march, but a great deal of vituperative rhetoric:
Finding a province which was at peace and enjoying quiet, the whole land beautiful and flowering on all sides, they set to work on it with their wicked forces, laying it waste by devastation and bringing everything to ruin with fire and murders. They did not even spare the fruit-bearing orchards, in case people who had hidden in the caves of the mountains . . . would be able to eat the foods produced by them after they had passed. So it was that no place remained safe from being contaminated by them, as they raged with great cruelty, unchanging and relentless.
Stirring enough in its own way and probably fair historical colour, but not much help when it comes to historical reconstruction. Finally, on the borders of Numidia, the advancing horde was met by Boniface and his army. Boniface was defeated, and retreated to the city of Hippo Regius, where in June 430 a siege began that would last for fourteen months. While Geiseric’s main army got on with the business of besieging, some of his outlying troops, lacking credible opposition, spread out across the landscape. Leaving devastation in their wake, looting the houses of the rich and torturing the odd Catholic bishop, they moved further west towards Carthage and the surrounding province of Proconsularis.34
Boniface’s failure to hold the line was the result of the same financial stringencies that had hampered Constantius’ reconstruction of Empire everywhere outside Italy. In the fourth century there had been no field army in North Africa, only garrison troops under adux (duke), supplemented when necessary by expeditionary forces sent from Italy. By 420, and probably from rather earlier, Africa had acquired a field army commander (a count rather than a duke), and a substantial field force (see p. 268). Of the thirty-one regiments only four – maybe 2,000 men – were top-grade imperial field army units. Augustine, in a letter of 417, reports on the good job that Boniface, then a regimental commander, had done with just a small force of barbarian allies in securing the North African provinces against the new threats.35 I take it that these allies will have been some or all of the four units. But the reinforcement was only small-scale: apart from these four, Carthage had to make do with the same old forces that the Empire had always maintained in Africa.
When Geiseric finally trudged into Numidia, therefore, it was the Tingitana story all over again, but on a larger scale. Boniface did what he could, but the Vandal-Alan coalition was much more awesome than the Berber nomads that most of his troops had been trained to deal with. The key North African provinces were now under direct threat, and the future of the western Empire lay in the balance. For while the province of Mauretania Tingitana in the far west was in no sense imperial heartland, Numidia and its two eastern neighbours, Proconsularis and Byzacena, clustered around their administrative capital Carthage, were a different matter. These provinces played such a critical role in the Empire’s political economy that it is no exaggeration to state that, once the siege of Hippo had begun, Geiseric’s forces were looming directly over the jugular vein of the western Empire.
Jewel in the Crown
TWO PICTORIAL representations of Roman North Africa survive in medieval copies of late Roman originals. Between them, they take us to the heart of the region’s role in the western Empire. The first is the Peutinger Table, a copy of a fourth-century Roman world map made at Colmar in the Rhineland about the year 1200. It shows the inhabited world, stretching from Spain and Britain (all but fragments of which are missing) through the Mediterranean world, and on as far as India. The scroll is 6.82 metres long but only 34 centimetres deep: the world as you’ve never seen it before. Highly elongated, its proportions betray the place of its manufacture: about five-sixths of the total is devoted to the Mediterranean, and about a third just to Italy itself. North Africa appears as a line at the bottom, strung out below the west coast of Italy. Immediately below an elaborate Rome is a hardly less impressive representation of Ostia and Portus, Rome’s great ports. Through Portus passed the tribute of Empire on its way to the capital. Clearly visible are its lighthouse, breakwater, quays and warehouses. Immediately below Portus is a considerably more modest representation of Carthage, capital of Roman North Africa, given just a couple of towers. But for all its geographical oddity, the Table focuses our attention on a triangular relationship of key importance to the western Empire: Rome–Portus–Carthage.
The nature of this relationship emerges clearly from the other late Roman image of North Africa: the Notitia Dignitatum, as well as its military lists, also gives us an illustrated list of the main civilian office-holders of the Empire, along with their staffs. The upper half of the picture accompanying the post of Proconsular Governor of Africa shows, between an inkstand and a desk (on which is pictured the official’s letter of appointment), a female representation of the province holding out sheaves of corn.36 Below, ships loaded with sacks of grain strike out across the sea. By the fourth century, Carthage was the port from which North African grain tributes flooded into Portus, to be offloaded on to carts and smaller boats for the shorter trip inland and upstream to Rome. Carthage and its agricultural hinterland were responsible for feeding the bloated capital of Empire. But keeping the capital fed was no more than a specific application of a much more general point. By the fourth century AD, North Africa had become the economic powerhouse of the Roman west.
Given its ancient past, there is an irony here. The city of Carthage was founded in 814 BC, or thereabouts, as a Phoenician colony. And once it had come to dominate its hinterland, it spent a fair part of the next seven centuries vying, often violently, with Rome for mastery of the western Mediterranean. In 146 BC, when Carthage was captured after the three-year siege that ended the Third Punic War, the whole city was destroyed and its site symbolically ploughed with salt to prevent any resurrection of this great enemy of Rome. It seems odd, from the modern perspective, to think of North Africa, now very much on the periphery of the western European economy, as the powerhouse that it was back then. When the European colonial powers moved into the region in the nineteenth century, they were staggered by the wealth of its Roman remains – as tourists often are today – especially by the contrast between those remains and their barren and deserted surroundings.37
Most of the African continent north of the 15-degree parallel now consists of 10.25 million square kilometres of desert. Beneath it is a sunken water table, which, topped up by as little as millimetres of rain each year, maintains a dispersed network of oases. In the very ancient past, the area was much more humid and the water table higher, and the nineteenth-century Europeans originally supposed that part of the answer to the prosperity of Roman North Africa lay in the fact that agricultural conditions had been considerably better then. But the land had dried up long before the rise of Rome, certainly by 2000 BC. The only holdover by Roman times of this different ecological era was the survival close to the Mediterranean of lions, elephants, giraffes and other animal species now confined to sub-Saharan Africa.38 North African hillsides may also have been wooded, but otherwise, conditions were the same in the Roman period as they are today.
There are exceptions to the pattern of African aridness north of the 15-degree parallel: Egypt is watered by the Nile, for example. The Maghreb, heartland of Roman North Africa, receives rain from nearby uplands.39 In the modern world, the Maghreb comprises Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, an extensive landscape caught between the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean, varying between 300 and 500 kilometres from south to north over its 2,200-kilometre length from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Gabes. Hilly and interspersed with patches of desert, the region’s agricultural possibilities are defined by the exact distribution of rainfall. Where the average is 400 millimetres per year or more, wheat can be grown straightforwardly. The broad river valleys of Tunisia and the great northern plains of Algeria, together with parts of Morocco in the west, fall into this category. Where precipitation is between 200 and 400 millimetres, some kind of irrigation is required, but Mediterranean dry farming can still be practised. Where rainfall is between 100 and 200 millimetres, olive trees will grow – olives requiring less water, even, than palm trees. The North African climate, then as now, was a constant, and had the potential for a wide range of produce.
The first Roman Africa, ruled directly from Rome after the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, comprised only a small part of the Maghreb: about 13,000 square kilometres of northern and central Tunisia, bounded by the ‘royal ditch’ (fossa regia) which stretched from Thabraca to Hadrumetum (modern Souss). This territory was divided into 700 square-metre blocks. Apart from six small towns that had supported Rome in the war against Carthage, many of these blocks were kept as public property, rented out to settlers under long-term leases, while some were sold off to Roman magnates with money to invest. To this great sell-off is attributed the fact that in the fourth century AD many old Roman senatorial families (such as Symmachus’) still possessed large estates in this territory – lands that had been passed down and shuffled around over the ages by inheritance and marriage. The rest of the Maghreb was still in the hands of local dynasts, but over the next century these individuals were increasingly sucked into the Roman orbit, while Roman settlers began to move beyond the confines of the royal ditch. As with so much of the Mediterranean, these developments paved the way for the extension of direct Roman rule: first into Numidia (modern eastern Algeria) in the time of Julius Caesar (46 BC), on the pretext that the last of the local kings had supported his great rival Pompey; then, under Claudius, when two provinces were created in Mauretania (western Algeria and Morocco). From that point on, all of the Maghreb was Roman, although for geographical reasons it came to be administered in two parts: western Mauretania Tingitana run from Spain, and Mauretania Sitifis, Numidia, Proconsularis and Byzacena run from Carthage.
From early on, the Roman authorities grasped the potential of the well watered coastal lands to provide grain for Rome. Caesar’s expanded province of Africa – called ‘New Africa’ (Africa Nova) – was already shipping to the capital 50,000 tons of grain a year. One hundred years later, after the expansion of direct rule, the figure was 500,000 tons, and North Africa had replaced Egypt as the city’s granary, supplying two-thirds of her needs. A substantial process of development was required to guarantee and facilitate this flow of grain.40
The first priority was security. In a view heavily coloured by nineteenth- and twentieth-century experience, French archaeologists, some of them military men, considered that ‘civilized’ Roman life in the region must have been under constant threat from indigenous Berbers pursuing a more pastoral lifestyle. Air surveys in the 1930s revealed two lines of fortification and a series of fortified houses and storage facilities in the pre-desert, which were taken as proof of habitual confrontation. No doubt, as on all Rome’s frontiers, smallscale raiding was a constant irritant. It could also lead to larger-scale trouble. The Lepcis affair (see pp. 100-101) began, we noted, when a neighbouring tribal leader was burned alive in the city for unspecified crimes, then escalated into a more serious confrontation. But this clearly didn’t happen often, and even the larger-scale conflicts were not that large. Throughout the first three centuries of its existence, Roman Africa required no more than one legion and a range of auxiliary forces (a maximum of 25,000 men) to guarantee peace and stability throughout its vast extent. Britain, by contrast, needed four legions.
More recent re-evaluations of Roman fortifications in North Africa have shown, from the distribution of men and installations, that their main job was actually to manage nomads, not to fight them. North African nomads go south into the pre-desert in winter, when there is enough water there to generate forage for their animals, and back north into the more agricultural regions in summer, when the pre-desert dries up. Roman soldiers and forts were there to make sure that the flocks didn’t stray on to other people’s crops. The Romans, in fact, seem to have got on reasonably well with the nomads: they were happy enough to buy their wares, even offering them substantial purchase-tax breaks, which doesn’t really fit with a story of constant struggle.41 Even in the fourth century, the main Roman force in Africa consisted of garrison cavalry, much more suited to patrolling and chasing the occasional raider than to heavy fighting.42
Once security issues had been sorted out, the region’s infrastructure could be developed. Roman legionaries eventually constructed over 19,000 kilometres of roads in the Maghreb, both for their own military purposes and also to allow the easy movement of goods, such as the grain that arrived by cart at Carthage and the other ports. Carthage itself encompassed both beauty and functionality. It was in fact a double port, inherited by the Romans from the founding Phoenicians. A channel from the sea led into the outer, originally rectangular, harbour. From here a further channel led into the inner, circular harbour, with the ‘admiralty island’ in the middle; ships were able to dock both against the outer walls and alongside the island. Taking this as their basis, the Romans increased the size of the outer, rectangular, harbour, and turned it, under either Trajan or Hadrian in the early second century AD, into a hexagon. The other hexagonal port known from antiquity, significantly enough, was that of Portus (built by Trajan). At the end of the second century or the beginning of the third, the circular port was brought back into commission, a classical temple was constructed in the middle of the island, and a grand colonnaded boulevard led from there into the town centre. By about AD 200, the city was equipped to handle shipping on a massive scale. And Carthage was only one of a series of ports along the North African coast: Utica, for instance, could handle 600 ships.43 The docks at Lepcis Magna in Tripolitania were also revamped in the early third century.
As we saw in Chapter 3, the governmental capacity of the Roman state was at all periods limited by its primitive bureaucratic technologies. It tended to contract out, recruiting private parties to fulfil vital functions on its behalf. The African grain tax, orannona, was a classic case in point. Rather than finding and monitoring the thousands of labourers that would be required to operate the huge public estates that had come into its hands in North Africa, it leased land out to private individuals in return for a portion of the produce. Since the state wanted to lease out as much land as it could, the terms of these tenancies were made as attractive as possible. The emphyteutic lease allowed tenants heritable land more or less in perpetuity, plus the possibility of selling their leases on to a third party.
Shipping problems were similarly handled. By the fourth century the Empire had built up a powerful guild of shippers, the navicularii, who had to fulfil certain obligations to the state (though not every shipper was a member of the guild). The law codes make clear the broad principles on which the relationship between state and shippers was organized. The provision of shipping – operating not just out of Africa, but also in other parts of the Empire, particularly Egypt – was the first priority. With typical subtlety, therefore, the imperial authorities made membership of the guild an hereditary obligation, legislated against all possible means of exemption, and required that any land that had once been registered to a shipper should always be retained by a member of the guild, even if sold on, so that the guild’s financial base could never be eroded. In return, the state then proceeded to buttress the shippers with financial and other privileges. They could not be liable to any additional tax or public service obligations, and were protected against any claims on their property by relatives. Guild members were eventually awarded equestrian rank (equivalent to the status of a medium-level civil servant); they were allowed tax reductions on their own transactions, and had up to two years to fulfil a state commission. Sometimes they also received state assistance in refurbishing their ships.44 The state thus generated a powerful masonry of shipping magnates, with wide-ranging financial and legal privileges.
All of this, of course, the state set in motion for its own purposes. But such large-scale commerce stimulated the local economy too. If, in the first century and a half of Roman Africa (down to about AD 100), the focus was on grain production, during the next it was on olive oil and wine. Since both vines and olives require less water than grain, farmers were able to exploit the wider range of Mediterranean conditions available in the region. From about 150 to 400, with subsidized transport and land available on excellent terms, North Africa was booming.
The evidence is multi-faceted. It has long been realized that the buildings and inscriptions of North Africa indicate the flourishing here, after it had begun to decline elsewhere in the Empire, of a political culture typical of the high imperial period in which individuals competed for power on their town councils.45 Recent rural surveys have confirmed that this local prosperity was based on agricultural expansion, with both numbers and prosperity of rural settlements increasing dramatically, as farmers pushed down from the north into the drier fringes where only the olive could flourish. By the fourth century, olive groves could be found 150 kilometres inland from the coast of Tripolitania, where there are none today. All of this confirms more anecdotal, but nonetheless suggestive, evidence, such as the inscription celebrating the octogenarian whose life’s work it had been to plant 4,000 olive trees.46
Equally arresting is the huge amount of evidence demonstrating the ability of African goods to penetrate markets right around the Mediterranean. Our knowledge of this is based on archaeologists’ newly developed skills in identifying olive oil and wine amphorae made in North Africa. Also very widely distributed were North African fine wares such as dinner services, especially of the red-slip variety. Given that transport costs were usually prohibitive except for high-value goods, the question arises as to how it could have been profitable to trade outside Africa in staples like wine and olive oil, grown everywhere around the Mediterranean, or in relatively cheap products such as dinner services. The answer lies in the state-subsidized transport system. This allowed shipping costs to be reduced through a little creative accounting, other goods to be sent piggy-back with state shipments, and African products to compete right across the Mediterranean. The state organized an economic infrastructure for its own purposes and the locals took advantage of it, so that private enterprise was able to operate within the state’s version of a command economy.
And it wasn’t just settlers from Italy who flourished. The kind of irrigation regimes being used in the late Roman period in North Africa were actually ancient and indigenous: everything from terraced hillsides – to catch water and prevent soil erosion – to cisterns, wells, dams, to full-blown and carefully negotiated water-sharing schemes such as that commemorated on an inscription from Lamasba (Ain Merwana).47 These traditional means of conserving water were simply being applied more vigorously. The possibility of selling agricultural surpluses made it worth people’s while to make the best use of every available drop of water and to increase production. This happened not just in settler communities but everywhere else as well, including such old tribal centres as Volubilis, Iol Caesarea and Utica. Demand hit the African countryside in a big way. Nor were nomads excluded from the action: not only did they provide crucial extra labour at harvest time, working the farms in travelling gangs, but their goods atttracted preferential tax treatment. The results could be spectacular. There is an inscription recording the success of one landless labourer turned harvest gang leader, who made enough money to buy a patch of land and a place of honour on the council of his hometown, Mactar.48
Over time, the flourishing provinces of Roman North Africa acquired a suitably impressive capital. Although played down pictorially in the Peutinger Table, fourth-century Carthage – or to give it its full Roman name, Colonia Iulia Concordia Carthago – was a teeming Roman metropolis. It is well known to us both from texts, not least the writings of St Augustine, and from recent excavations on the site. Abandoned soon after the Islamic conquest of North Africa at the end of the seventh century, it sat there like a fossil over the intervening centuries, waiting to be recovered. As a result, we can fill out in quite extraordinary detail the description of Carthage contained in a fourthcentury survey, the Expositio Totius Mundi (The Description of the Entire World):
Its [urban] plan is completely worthy of praise; in fact, the regularity of its streets is like that of a plantation. It has a Music Hall . . . and a port that is quite curious in appearance, which seems to provide, as far as one can see, a calm sea with nothing to fear for ships. You will find there an exceptional public amenity, the street of the silversmiths (vicus argentariorum). As for amusements, the inhabitants get excited about only one spectacle: the games of the amphitheatre.49
Not what you might find in a modern guidebook, but ancient urban life was all about imposing a rational, civilized order on a barbarian wilderness (see Chapter 1), and nothing symbolized this better than a nice, even street grid. As the Expositio implies, the city also had more than the standard stock of public buildings. Apart from the music hall and amphitheatre, it also boasted a theatre and, from the early third century, a 70,000-seater circus for chariot-racing. Down on the waterfront was situated the large, second-century Antonine bath complex, and in the centre of the city around the Bursa Hill were the law courts, municipal buildings and the governor’s palace. Here too was the domed Hall of Memory, where Boniface was assassinated.
Around the public buildings was a host of private dwellings. Some of the grander ones have been excavated, several producing extensive ground plans showing richly coloured mosaics: notably, the ‘House of the Greek Charioteer’ and the poetically named ‘Villa with private bath’. But most of the area of the city where the majority of its population is likely to have lived has not yet been excavated, and we know of relatively few ‘ordinary’ dwellings. Everything suggests, however, that Carthage was home to about a hundred thousand people, a figure exceeded in the fourth century only by Rome and Constantinople, both of whose populations were artificially swollen by subsidized food supplies.
The public buildings hosted a wide range of cultural pursuits.50 Religions of all kinds were practised, from Christianity in its various forms to the traditional pagan cults, with every kind of eastern mystery in between. And amidst all this, classical culture flourished too. Augustine, for example, was a first-rate Latinist who had completed his education in Carthage. He stayed on for a while to pursue his teaching career, at one point winning a Latin poetry competition. The prize was presented by the Proconsul of Africa, Vindicianus, himself a man of considerable learning and one of a succession of well connected Romans who spent short periods, usually a year at a time, as governor of the city. (Our old friend Symmachus held the job in 373.) Such events as poetry competitions offered ambitious young Romano-Africans opportunities to attract the attention of the governor, and to use their education and culture as a path to social advancement. When he left Carthage, Augustine headed for Rome, and from there for the court of Valentinian II at Milan, speeding on the wings of recommendations provided by a range of contacts such as Vindicianus and Symmachus.51
Fourth-century Carthage, then, was a cultural and, above all, an economic pillar of the western Empire. Huge and bustling, it was a city where the cramped houses of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens offered a sharp contrast to the lofty public buildings and the mansions of the rich. Above all: high on productivity and low on maintenance, North Africa was a massive net contributor to western imperial coffers.
‘The Last True Roman of the West’
THE REVENUE SURPLUS from North Africa was essential for balancing the imperial books. Without it, the west could never have afforded armed forces large enough to defend its other, more exposed territories. Not only in Africa, but everywhere in the Roman west, predatory immigrants had been left to pursue their own agendas largely unhindered since the death of Constantius in 421. Along the Rhine frontier Franks, Burgundians and Alamanni, particularly the Iuthungi in the Alpine foothills to the south, had conducted raids over the frontier and were threatening further trouble. In southern France, the Visigoths had revolted and were making menacing noises in the direction of the main administrative capital of the region, Arles. In Spain, the Suevi were loose in the north-west and rampaging throughout the peninsula. With the arrival of the Vandal Geiseric on the fringes of Numidia in the year 430, the sword of Damocles was hanging over the entire western Empire.
Into the breach stepped the last great Roman hero of the fifth-century west, Flavius Aetius. As we have seen, he emerged in 433 as the eventual victor in the fierce disputes that followed the accession of Valentinian III. We also know that when young he had spent times as a hostage both with Alaric in the run-up to the siege of Rome and with the Huns in the 410s, a relationship which later allowed him to negotiate Hunnic help after the collapse of John’s usurpation and then to defeat his rival Sebastianus. He would never have been chosen as a hostage, of course, had he not had high political connections. His father Gaudentius, like Flavius Constantius, came from a Roman military family of Balkan origin, in his case the province of Scythia Minor in the Dobrudja (modern Romania). In his early career, attached to the eastern court, Gaudentius held a succession of staff appointments. But in 399, during the supremacy of Stilicho, we find him commanding troops in Africa. Again like Constantius, he was probably a distinguished eastern soldier who threw in his lot with Stilicho on the death of Theodosius I. Gaudentius then married an Italian senatorial heiress of huge fortune and the high point of his career was his appointment as field army commander in Gaul (magister militum per Gallias) in the later 410s. He was killed there in an uprising, perhaps to do with the usurpation of John in the 420s.
Aetius’ own career too followed a military trajectory, but rose to greater heights. Though never emperor himself, Aetius was the Octavian of his time. Once in power, he proved himself both a mighty politician and the restorer of Roman fortunes. The pen of a contemporary, one Renatus Frigiderus, in an extract preserved by Gregory of Tours in the later sixth century, draws this portrait of the man:
Aetius was of medium height, manly in his habits and well-proportioned. He had no bodily infirmity and was spare in physique. His intelligence was keen; he was full of energy, a superb horseman, a fine shot with an arrow and tireless with the lance. He was extremely able as a soldier and he was skilled in the arts of peace. There was no avarice in him and even less cupidity. He was magnanimous in his behaviour and never swayed in his judgement by the advice of unworthy counsellors. He bore adversity with great patience, and was ready for any exacting enterprise; he scorned danger and was able to endure hunger, thirst and loss of sleep.52
His skill at horsemanship and archery was perhaps another legacy of his time among the Huns, and he certainly drew on both, as well as on the other qualities described above, in tackling the great project that was his life’s work: trying to hold Octavian’s Empire together for another generation.
When Aetius finally took control of the western Empire in 433, the consequences of nearly ten years of paralysis at the centre could be seen right across its territories. Each of the unsubdued immigrant groups within the frontiers of the west had taken the opportunity to improve its position, as had outsiders beyond. Also, as had happened in the aftermath of the Rhine crossing, the trouble generated by immigrants triggered the usurpation of imperial power by locals. In northern Gaul, in particular Brittany and round about, disruption had been caused by so-called Bagaudae. Zosimus mentions other groups labelled Bagaudae in the foothills of the western Alps in 407/8, and Hydatius tells us in his Chronicle that they had appeared in Spain by the early 440s.53 Who these people were has long been a hot topic among historians. The term originated in the third century, when they were characterized as ‘country folk and bandits’. For historians of a Marxist inclination it has been impossible not to view them as social revolutionaries who from time to time generated a groundswell of protest against the inequalities of the Roman world, and who appeared whenever central control faltered. Certainly, Bagaudae do consistently make an appearance where central control was disrupted by the hostile activities of barbarians, but the glimpses we get of their social composition don’t always suggest revolutionaries. The smart money is on the term having become a catch-all for the perpetrators of any kind of dissident activity. Sometimes those labelled Bagaudae were bandits. Those of the Alps in 407/8, for instance, demanded money with menaces from a Roman general on the run. But self-help groups seeking to preserve the social order in their own localities when the long arm of the state no longer reached there, also seem to have been referred to as ‘Bagaudae’. In the 410s Armorica had already asserted independence in an attempt to quell disorder; later, something similar was happening in Spain.54
Either way, Bagaudae plus barbarians spelt trouble. By the summer of 432, the threat was widespread and imminent: in north-west Gaul there were the Bagaudae; in south-west Gaul, Visigoths; on the Rhine frontier and in the Alpine foothills, Franks, Burgundians and Alamanni; in north-west Spain, Suevi; and in North Africa, the Vandals and Alans. In fact, much of Spain had not seen proper central control since the 410s. Given, too, that Britain had already dropped out of the western orbit, the only places in decent shape from an imperial viewpoint were Italy, Sicily and south-east Gaul.
To shed some light on Aetius’ extraordinary achievement in dealing with this mess in the 430s, we have a few sparse entries in chronicles, which typically devote no more than two or three lines to an entire year’s events. But we also have one extraordinary manuscript: the Codex Sangallensis 908, a rather tatty book from the ancient monastery of St Gall in Switzerland, just to the south of Lake Constanz. Dating from about AD 800, it contains an extensive Latin vocabulary list – just the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a good Carolingian monastery where the monks were being trained in classical Latin. But parts of the list were written on reused pages; and close inspection (in 1823) revealed that one of the palimpsest texts underneath consists of eight folios from a fifth- or sixth-century manuscript of a Latin rhetorician by the name of Merobaudes. Born in southern Spain, he was descended from an imperial general of Frankish origins who went by the same name in the 380s. His work, apart from one short religious poem, survives nowhere else, so we can thank a Carolingian monk who did a lousy job of rubbing out for the fact that any of Merobaudes’ writings survive at all. Unfortunately, though, to make these few pages fit their new book, the monks trimmed them down from their original 260 by 160 millimetres to 200 by 135. All that scholars have managed to extract therefore is four short poems and the fragments of two longer panegyrics: about a hundred lines of one and two hundred of the other. (Contemporary examples of similar texts weigh in at around six hundred lines.)
As the virtuosity of his work shows,55 our Merobaudes went through a full Latin education, then made his way to the western imperial court in Ravenna. Here another survival allows us to pick up his trail. Not only a scholar, he was also, like his ancestral namesake, a soldier, and became a devoted henchman to Aetius, serving him in his wars and afterwards singing his praises in public speeches. For all these services he was honoured, on 30 July 435, with a bronze statue at Rome, in the forum of Trajan no less.56That same year he was made a senator as a reward for an early panegyric to Aetius (one that hasn’t survived), and fought with distinction in the Alps. He was subsequently awarded the epithet ‘Patrician’, and eventually became senior general (magister militum) commanding the Roman field forces in Spain. Not only does the case of Merobaudes show that Romanitas, the concept of Romanness, could still win over individual barbarians to the glories of Latin literature, but also his proximity to Aetius gives us privileged insight into how the latter wished his achievements to be viewed.57
The earliest of the surviving works, the hundred or so lines of the first panegyric, probably dates from the summer of 439. Not enough survives to recover anything much of its underlying argument, but its presentation of Aetius speaks for itself:58
Your bed is a barren rock or a thin covering on the ground; you spend your nights in watchfulness, your days in toil; furthermore, you undergo hardship willingly; your breastplate is not so much a defence as a garment . . . not a magnificent display but a way of life . . . Then if there is any respite from war, you survey either sites of cities, or mountain passes, or the broad expanse of fields, or river crossings, or distances on roads, and there you seek to discover what place is more suitable for infantry and cavalry, more suited for an attack, safer for a retreat, and richer in resources for a bivouac. Thus even the very interruption of war is advantageous for war.
The image of the breastplate as a way of life is magnificent PR, as is that of Aetius using any respite from war to extend his strategic and tactical grasp of potential battlefields. But it wasn’t just spin – it was reality. The 430s saw Aetius conduct one campaign after another, many of them successful, and all directed towards putting the western Empire back on its feet again, very much as Constantius had done two decades before.
Many of these campaigns find brief mention in the chronicles, and Merobaudes’ second panegyric, written in 443 to commemorate Aetius’ second consulship, lists them in order. From Aetius’ accession to power in 432 to the end of the decade, the record is impressive. The run of victories had started, in fact, well before the elimination of Felix and Boniface, and was one contributing factor to Aetius’ success in the struggle for power. In Gaul, from 425 to 429, he was general commanding Roman field forces, and fought successful campaigns against the Visigoths in 425 or 426, driving them away from Arles, and regained some land from the Franks near the Rhine in 427. In 430 and 431, having succeeded Felix as commander in Italy, he defeated the Alamannic Iuthungi and extinguished some kind of rebellion in Noricum,59 then wiped out a band of Visigothic freebooters near Arles; in 432 he again defeated the Franks.
From 433, his political dominance now secure, Aetius was in a position to take more comprehensive action to stabilize the Empire. Cold reason told him that the armies of the Roman west, while still powerful, were not up to tackling every problem at once. In particular, he was facing simultaneous conflict in two different theatres: on the one hand against the various parties inside Gaul and on its frontiers, and, on the other, against Geiseric and the Vandal-Alan coalition in North Africa. Rather than dividing his forces – always a dangerous move, and one that offered little hope of success – he extracted help from Constantinople. It came in the form of the general Aspar, one of the leaders of the army that had put Valentinian on the western throne in 425, at the head of a substantial force. Aetius had learned from Constantius’ one mistake. Rather than making any move on the purple himself and incurring thereby the displeasure of the dynastically minded eastern emperor Theodosius, he contented himself with exercising power in fact, but not in name, thus retaining the favour and assistance of Constantinople. On what followed, we have practically no information. We do know that, basing himself in Carthage, Aspar launched a war of containment against the Vandals and Alans, which was successful enough to force Geiseric to negotiate. A treaty was declared on 11 February 435: the Vandal-Alans received parts of Mauretania and Numidia, including the cities of Calama and Sitifis (map 9); but Aspar had managed to protect most of Numidia by the terms of the treaty, together with the two richest North African provinces, Proconsularis and Byzacena.60
With one flank covered by Aspar, Aetius was free to take on the problems in Gaul. Such was their severity that he needed yet more help. Constantius had used the Visigoths to help bring other invaders back under control. But the Visigoths’ ambitions were now running wild, and they were anyway a part of the overall problem: too many armed foreign groups on Roman soil. What Aetius needed was military aid from outside, at least until the Visigoths could be brought back into line. It couldn’t come from Constantinople because the eastern Empire was already embroiled in North Africa. His only recourse was the Huns, a force that may also have been drawn upon by Constantius. The Huns had already played a crucial role in Aetius’ career. Securing their departure from Italy in 425 had saved him from certain death for supporting the usurper John, and a Hunnic army had helped him regain power in 432 after his defeat by Boniface. So his first move, as the opening lines of the surviving section of Merobaudes’ second panegyric tell us, was to do another deal with them: ‘[Aetius] has returned with the Danube at peace, and has stripped the Tanai¨s [the River Don] of madness; he orders the lands, glowing hot with blackened upper air, to be free of their habitual warfare. The Caucasus has granted repose to the sword, and its savage kings renounce combat.’
Aetius’ powers, of course, ran nothing like as far as Merobaudes’ language might imply. What he was trying to evoke here was the notion that Aetius had established order within the land of Scythia, north of the Danube and east of Germania. This area, as we saw in Chapter 5, was dominated by the Huns from about 420 at the latest. What Merobaudes doesn’t tell us is that they forced Aetius to pay a heavy price for their support. Previously they had served in Roman armies for cash. This time, it’s possible that the west was simply skint – so many expensive wars had been fought and so much of its old territory was no longer producing revenue. Or perhaps the Huns now wanted something different. For whatever reason, Aetius was forced to cede to Hunnic control Roman territory along the River Save in Pannonia. Merobaudes never refers to this, although all of his listeners must have known what had happened. The best strategy for dealing with embarrassments is often not to mention them at all. Anyway, in return for the ceded territory, Aetius won sustained Hunnic military support, and this enabled him to do much good in Gaul.61
As Merobaudes tells us, the threats to the frontier regions of Gaul were duly nullified: ‘The Rhine has bestowed pacts making the wintry world Rome’s servant, and, content to be guided by western reins, rejoices that the Tiber’s domain swells for it from either bank.’
In one case, Aetius took particularly drastic action. Fed up with the incursions of the Burgundians into Belgica in 436, he again negotiated Hunnic assistance. The next year, the Burgundian kingdom suffered a series of devastating attacks (one source, Hydatius, reports twenty thousand Burgundian dead), and Aetius resettled the survivors, now chastened Roman allies, in the vicinity of Lake Geneva. The frontier secure, he then turned his attention to the Gallic interior. Roman forces with Alanic allies did a similar job on the Bagaudae of Armorica, who had revolted under the leadership of a certain Tibatto in 435. Thus by 437 the integrity of Roman rule had been restored throughout the north-west. As Merobaudes commented: ‘A native dweller, now more gentle, traverses the Armorican wilds. The land, accustomed to conceal with its forests plunder obtained by savage crime, has lost its old ways, and learns to entrust grain to its untried fields.’ Aetius also took steps to ensure longer-term stability in the area, settling Alans across the region in a line from Orléans to the Seine basin.
The way was now open to bring the Visigoths to heel. While he was dealing with the Burgundians in 436 a second Visigothic rebellion broke out, more dangerous than their earlier move towards Arles of the mid-420s. Again they moved south, but this time besieging Narbonne. And again, Aetius was up to the challenge. Recruiting more Hunnic auxiliaries, he launched a massive counterattack which forced the Visigoths back to Bordeaux. The violence was brought to a halt in 439 – not without some significant Roman losses – but the treaty terms of 418 were reaffirmed. The relevant section of the second surviving panegyric of 443 is missing, but the defeat of the Visigoths was evidently a recent event when Merobaudes delivered the first in 439. Its surviving fragment details Aetius’ defeat of the Visigoths at Snake Mountain (‘which the ancients as if by premonition called Snake Mountain, for here the poisons of the state have now been destroyed’), and the ‘sudden horror’ of the Visigothic king when he viewed ‘the trampled bodies’ of his dead followers.62 This barbarian people hadn’t been destroyed, but they had been checked, and with a bit of help from his Hunnic friends, Aetius had done wonders to stabilize the region after more than a decade of conflict.
Similar events were unfolding in Spain. The situation there had been significantly eased by the departure of the Vandals and Alans, which left only the Suevi at large in the north-west. Where before, Merobaudes tells us, ‘there was no longer anything under our rule . . . the warlike avenger [Aetius] has opened up the captive road; driven out the marauder’ – actually, they left for Africa of their own free will – ‘and regained the obstructed highways; and returned the people to their abandoned cities.’ Some of the locals, notably the chronicler-bishop Hydatius, wanted Aetius to come down over the Pyrenees with an army, but help seems to have mainly taken the form of diplomatic pressure. A political accommodation soon followed between the Suevi and the natives of Gallaecia, and the provinces abandoned by Geiseric were put back in some kind of order.
All in all, Aetius’ achievement during the 430s was prodigious. Franks and Alamanni had been pushed back into their cantons beyond the Rhine, the Burgundians and Bagaudae had been thoroughly subdued, the Visigoths’ pretensions had been reined in, and much of Spain returned to imperial control. Not for nothing did Constantinopolitan opinion consider Aetius the last true Roman of the west.63
BUT, JUST AS Merobaudes was putting the last full stop to his latest opus in Aetius’ praise, and Aetius was contemplating sending his trusty breastplate to the cleaners, a new storm burst on the horizon. In October 439, after four and a half years of peace, Geiseric’s forces broke out of their Mauretanian reservation and came thundering into the richer provinces of North Africa. But it was no walkover. They had to fight their way into Carthage, as a sermon given just after the action describes:
Where is Africa, which was for the whole world like a garden of delights? . . . Has our city [Carthage] not been punished cruelly because she did not want to draw a lesson from the correction handed out to the other provinces? . . . There is no one to bury the bodies of the dead, but horrible death has soiled all the streets and all the buildings, the whole city indeed. And think on the evils we are talking about! Mothers of families dragged off into captivity; pregnant women slaughtered . . . babies taken from the arms of their nurse and thrown to die on the street . . . The impious power of the barbarians has even demanded that those women who were once mistresses of many servants, have suddenly become the vile servants of barbarians . . . Every day there comes to our ears the cries of those who have lost in this assault a husband or a father.64
MORALIZING RHETORIC rather than straightforward account, the passage nonetheless does justice to the picture of devastation reported in other Roman sources. No other single blow could have done the Empire so much harm. At a stroke, Geiseric had removed from Aetius’ control the richest provinces of the Roman west, with the result that financial crisis loomed. How was it allowed to happen? Presumably, after four and a half years of relative peace, and thinking that Geiseric was going to keep to the treaty made in February 435, people took their eyes off the ball. There was, I suspect, simply too much instability in other parts of the Empire for troops to be left in Carthage on a ‘what if ?’ basis. The Visigothic war in particular, brought to an end just before Geiseric made his move, had probably demanded every available man. So with the Carthage garrison at minimum strength, the cunning Vandal had taken full advantage.
But autumn 439 wasn’t the time for recriminations, let alone commissions of inquiry. What was needed was decisive action to return Carthage and its provinces to Roman control. At around this time, in a short poem to commemorate the first birthday of Aetius’ son Gaudentius, Merobaudes commented that Rome’s ‘fierce leader . . . was worthy of the staff of retirement’ and might one day pass on the baton to Gaudentius.65 But now was not the moment – and again, Aetius didn’t shirk his duty. The logistic limitations characteristic of the Roman Empire ruled out all thoughts of an instant counterstrike, and for now the advantage lay with Geiseric. A series of laws issued in the name of Valentinian III in spring 440 testify to the impending sense of crisis. On 3 March, special license was granted to eastern traders in order to guarantee food supplies for the city of Rome: the cutting off of the African bread dole to the capital was not the least of Aetius’ worries. The same law also put in place measures to rectify holes in Rome’s defences, and to ensure that everyone knew what their duty was with regard to garrisoning the city. On 20 March, another law summoned recruits to the colours, at the same time threatening anyone who harboured deserters with the direst of punishments.66 A third law, of 24 June, authorized people to carry arms again ‘because it is not sufficiently certain, under summertime opportunities for navigation, to what shore the ships of the enemy can come.’
These, however, were merely piecemeal defensive responses to anticipated Vandal raiding, which duly followed when the sailing season began. In particular, Geiseric launched a series of attacks upon Sicily, including a siege of the island’s main naval base, at Panormus, which lasted most of the summer. Already, however, Aetius was thinking along broader lines, and there are allusions to his plans for restoring the situation in the law of 24 June: despite the immediate problem, confidence was expressed that ‘the army of the most invincible [eastern] Emperor Theodosius, our Father, will soon approach and . . . We trust that the Most Excellent Patrician Aetius will soon be here with a large force.’67 Aetius had been out of Italy gathering all the troops he could muster, but the key to success, given the diminution in western resources since 406, was negotiating help from Constantinople. Again, Aetius’ wisdom in not pushing for the purple is apparent.
Late in 440, after the onset of bad weather had forced the Vandals back to Carthage, a joint imperial army began to assemble in Sicily: 1,100 ships to carry men, horses and supplies. Aetius’ ‘large force’ crossed to the island, and was joined there by a substantial expeditionary force from the east. No source puts a figure to the Roman forces gathered there, but the shipping was enough to carry several tens of thousands of men. The size of the eastern army is also indicated by the fact that its leadership was shared between five commanders: Areobindus, Ansilas, Inobindus, Arintheus and Germanus. Pentadius, the lucky Constantinopolitan bureaucrat in charge of logistics, was later promoted, his reward for dealing with the administrative nightmare of despatching the expedition.68Everything was set for the counterstroke that would return Carthage to Roman rule. Come the end of March, when sailing to and from North Africa could resume after the usual winter break, Aetius’ greatest ever triumph would be within sight. But the armada never sailed, the troops of both east and west returned to their bases, and so much administrative effort came to nothing.
Cause and Consequence
WHY DID THE joint expeditionary force never sail? Some further fragments of Merobaudes’ panegyric for Aetius’ second consulship of 443 give us the clue. Having first enumerated his old victories of the 430s, then discussed his qualities as a peacetime leader, Merobaudes’ tone suddenly changed. He turned to an image of Bellona, the goddess of war, complaining about the era of peace and plenty that Aetius had brought into being:
I am despised. Thus all respect for my kingdom has perished owing to one disaster after another [Aetius’ victories and the Vandal peace]. I am driven from the waves and I cannot rule on land.69
But being a self-respecting goddess of war, she is not about to take this lying down, and goes to find Enyo, her long-time ally:
Sitting here under a jutting cliff, cruel Enyo had hidden a madness driven to flight beneath a long-lasting peace. She was distressed because the world was without distress. She groans in sadness at the rejoicing. Her ugly face is caked with hideous filth, and dried blood is still on her clothing. Her chariot is tilted back, and the harness hangs stiff. Her helmet’s crest droops.
Bellona then goads Enyo to restore the ‘madness’ of war, and the panegyric closes with everyone recalling Aetius to his customary position at the head of Rome’s armies:
Let him [Aetius] not delegate, but wage war, and let him renew destiny with the triumphs of old; let not booty as his teacher and the mad desire for gold compel him to surrender his spirit to unceasing cares; instead, let a praiseworthy love of arms, and the sword, ignorant of Latium’s blood but dripping with blood from enemy throats, show him unconquerable yet gentle.
The message is unmistakable. A new threat, well beyond anything the Vandals might pose, had arisen, and Aetius was needed back in harness to save the Roman world yet again. It was this threat that compelled the troops gathered in Sicily to return to their bases, thus leaving Carthage in the hands of the Vandals. And the western Empire would have to cope as best it could with the consequences of Geiseric’s success.
Thus, in 442 a second treaty was made with the Vandals, this one licensing Geiseric’s control of Proconsularis and Byzacena, together, it seems, with part of Numidia. The western Empire received back into its control the territories granted to him in 435; legal evidence confirms that it was subsequently administering the two Mauretanias (Sitifensis and Caesarensis) and the rest of Numidia.70
In return for peace, now that he had got what he wanted, Geiseric was willing to be generous. A grain tribute of some kind, although presumably rather diminished, continued to arrive in Rome from the Vandal provinces, and his eldest son Huneric was sent to the imperial court as a hostage. There is no doubting, though, the extent of Geiseric’s success. From the status of ‘enemy of Our Empire’ in the law of 24 June 440, after 442 he was a formally recognized client king of the Empire, with the title rex socius et amicus(‘allied king and friend’). Moreover, in a massive break with tradition the ‘hostage’ Huneric was betrothed to Eudocia, the daughter of the emperor Valentinian III. Thirty-odd years before, as we saw earlier, Alaric’s brother-in-law the Visigothic king Athaulf had married Valentinian’s mother Placidia, sister of the reigning emperor Honorius. But that was an unlicensed match. Now, for the first time, a legitimate marriage was being contemplated between barbarian royalty and the imperial family. The continuation of food supplies to the city of Rome probably seemed worth the humiliation.71
The fragments of Merobaudes’ writings contain two pieces written after the conclusion of this peace. The panegyric of 443 comments:
The occupier of Libya [Geiseric] had dared to tear down by exceedingly fated arms the seat of Dido’s kingdom [Carthage], and had filled the Carthaginian citadels with northern hordes. Since then he has taken off the garb of an enemy, and has desired ardently to bind fast the Roman faith by more personal agreements, to count the Romans as relatives for himself, and to join his and their offspring in matrimonial alliance. Thus, while the leader [Aetius] regains the peaceful rewards of the toga and orders the consular chair, now at peace, to abandon war trumpets, these very wars have given way everywhere in admiration of his triumphal attire.72
Merobaudes suggests that nothing could have been done about the seizure of North Africa, while stressing that Aetius has made the best of a difficult situation by coaxing a suppliant Geiseric towards a peaceful alliance with the Empire. A short poem about a mosaic continues the propaganda:
The Emperor himself in full splendour occupies with his wife the centre of the ceiling [of an imperial dining room], as if they were the bright stars of the heavens on high; he is the salvation of the land, and worthy of veneration. In the presence of our protector a new exile suddenly weeps for his lost power. Victory has restored the world to the one who has received it from nature, and an illustrious court has furnished a bride from afar.73
The ‘exile’ is Huneric, whose presence at court is a sign of his people’s subjugation to Rome but whose dignity will be in part restored by the gracious marriage alliance to follow. Just like Jovian’s surrender of provinces and cities to the Persians in 363, so the loss of Carthage to the Vandals and Alans in 442 was presented as a Roman victory, and for the same reasons. A God-protected Empire simply could not admit to defeat: the image of control had to be maintained, come what may.
None of this meant, of course, that the consequences of the new peace treaty weren’t disastrous. In Africa, Geiseric proceeded with the kind of pay-out that his followers were expecting, and that was essential to his own political survival. To provide the necessary wherewithal, he confiscated senatorial estates in Proconsularis such as those belonging to Symmachus’ descendants, and reallocated them to his followers. These estates were called sortes Vandalorum (‘allotments of the Vandals’).74 One influential line of argument holds that the Vandals were allocated portions of the state’s land tax revenue rather than full ownership of actual pieces of real estate. But decisive contradictory evidence is provided by the fact that in 484 Victor of Vita refers to Huneric as launching a persecution of Catholic Christians in those ‘allotments’.75 Proof, surely that they came in the form of pieces of land. From much nearer to the early 440s, we have supporting evidence that this was the case. Legal texts refer to there having been a substantial number of senatorial exiles from North Africa at this time, and individual examples are met in other sources. In the correspondence of a certain Syrian bishop we find a dossier of no fewer than eight letters of recommendation written for one expelled North African landowner, Celestiacus, and the case of a woman called Maria who, having spent some time in the east, was eventually reunited with her father in the west.76 The lands confiscated from these exiles provided the wherewithal to fund the settlement.
It is also important to consider the politics of settlement from a Vandal perspective. Here was a group of immigrants who, over a thirty-three-year period, had followed their leaders from central Europe, across France, Spain, and then on to North Africa. They had slogged over thousands of kilometres, and fought countless battles against Roman troops. Many of their campaigns were successful, but these Vandals and Alans had also suffered heavy casualties, particularly in Spain between 416 and 418 at the hands of Constantius’ combined force of Visigoths and Romans. And now, or at least after the peace treaty of 442, they were in secure possession of the richest provinces of the Roman west. Hardly surprising, then, if they were looking foward to a mammoth reward for everything they had endured and for the loyalty they had shown since 406. Had Geiseric not satisfied their expectations, his head would have been likely to join those of the Roman usurpers still mouldering on poles somewhere on the outskirts of Carthage. I find it impossible to believe, in these circumstances, that the Vandals and Alans would have been content with taxation grants rather than full ownership of land. But neither do I believe that they had it in mind to do much farming. It was, after all, Roman landowners, not Roman peasant tenants, that had been expelled, so it’s a fair bet that the same old peasantry continued to farm the same old bits of land. The difference was that the rent was now paid to new landowners.77
But this is what happened in Proconsularis. The rest of North Africa under Geiseric’s control, Byzacena and part of Numidia, saw no further land confiscations. Proconsularis was the best choice for the settlement, for two reasons. First, many of its landowners, because of its particular past, were absentee Roman senators like the Symmachus family, so it was the province where dispossession would cause the fewest ructions. Second, it had the strategic advantage of facing towards Sicily and Italy, where any future Roman military threat was likely to originate.
Clearly, for many Roman landowners in Africa, the arrival of the Vandals and the subsequent peace treaty of 442 was a financial and personal disaster. The state did what it could to alleviate their situation. On the fourth anniversary to the day of Geiseric’s seizure of Carthage, 19 October 443, Valentinian suspended the normal operation of financial laws in the case of Roman Africans ‘who are despoiled, needy, and exiled from their country’. They could not be sued by moneylenders for monies borrowed since their exile ‘until the recovery of their own property’, unless they were ‘rich elsewhere and financially responsible’. Likewise, they were not to be pressed on financial matters pertaining to the pre-exile period, and no one was to charge them interest on their borrowings. It may well be that quite a lot had been borrowed on the exiles’ immediate arrival in Italy in 439/440, since, at that time, the reconquest of Carthage was confidently expected. Once the peace of 442 was made, these hopes evaporated and Valentinian acted to protect the exiles from the consequences of bad debt. About seven years later, presumably after a lot more lobbying, the state was even more magnanimous. On 13 July 451, Valentinian published another law:
I decree that . . . wise provision shall be made for the African dignitaries and landholders who have been despoiled by the devastation of the enemy, namely, that in so far as it is able, the august imperial generosity shall compensate for that which the violence of fortune has taken away.
In Numidia, part of which had been in Vandal hands for the seven years separating the two peace treaties, the emperor granted a fiveyear tax remission on 13,000 units of land, in the hope that this would enable them to be brought back into production. He also provided cash grants. In the two Mauretanian provinces of Sitifensis and Caesarensis, those who had lost their lands in Proconsularis or Byzacena were given priority in the leasing-out of public lands, and other, less afflicted landholders were expelled from their pre-existing leases.78 Twelve years after the Vandal capture of Carthage, some of the dispossessed landowners of Proconsularis could look forward to at least a partial restitution of their fortunes by acquiring new lands in Mauretania: once again, we find the Roman state protecting its landowning classes.
The damage to the state itself could not be healed so easily. After 442, much of the revenue of North Africa, this crucial contributor to the western imperial budget, was lost outright, and the rest reduced by seven-eighths. Under the treaty, as we have seen, Byzacena and Proconsularis dropped out of central imperial control and, while some grain shipments did continue, most of their revenues were lost as well; the remaining provinces of North Africa either stayed under central control or were returned to it. On 21 June 445, Valentinian issued a tax edict covering these latter provinces, which reveals that Numidia and Mauretania Sitifensis were now producing only one-eighth of their previous land tax revenues.79 In addition, some further tax had normally been raised from them in the form of subsistence allowances for soldiers, and here too the Africans benefited from reductions. These allowances were formally assessed in terms of food and fodder, but often commuted into a gold payment, the Africans being awarded a special commutation rate of four solidi (gold coins) per unit assessed instead of the usual five – effectively, a 20 per cent reduction.
The loss of its best North African provinces, combined with a massive seven-eighths reduction in revenue from the rest, was a fiscal disaster for the west Roman state. A series of regulations from the 440s show unmistakable signs of the financial difficulties that now followed. In 440 and 441, initial efforts had been made to maximize revenues from its surviving sources of cash. A law of 24 January 440 withdrew all existing special imperial grants of tax exemption or reduction.80 In similar vein, a law of 4 June that year attempted to cut back on the practice of imperial officials – palatines – taking an extra percentage for themselves when out collecting taxes.81 On 14 March 441, the screw was tightened further: lands that had been rented annually from the imperial fisc, with tax privileges attached, were now to be assessed at the normal rate, as was all Church land. In addition, the law cast its glance towards a whole range of smaller burdens from which the lands of higher dignitaries had previously been immune: ‘the building and repair of military roads, the manufacture of arms, the restoration of walls, the provision of the annona, and the rest of the public works through which we achieve the splendour of public defence’. Now, for the first time, no one was to be exempt, and this was the justification offered:
The Emperors of a former age . . . bestowed such privileges on persons of illustrious rank in the opulence of an abundant era, with less disaster to the other landowners . . . However, in the difficulty of the present time this practice is obviously not only inequitable but also . . . impossible.82
Thus the west Roman state, run by and for its landowners, in the early 440s was forced significantly to reduce the splendid range of tax benefits it had offered for so long to its most valued constituency. As the loss of tax base began to bite, the grandees at court were forced to cut down on the privileges and perquisites they had generally allowed themselves. Nothing could better illustrate the level of fiscal crisis.
Roman historians tend to consider that the late Empire spent about two-thirds of its revenues on the army, and this figure can’t be far wrong. The army was bound to be the main loser, therefore, when imperial revenues declined drastically. There were no other major areas of spending to cut. And, as you might expect, the piecemeal measures of 440–1 were insufficient to compensate for the overall loss in African revenue. In the last quarter of 444, yet another imperial law admitted:
We do not doubt that it occurs to the thoughts of all men, that nothing is so necessary as that the strength of a numerous army should be prepared for the . . . afflicted condition of the state. But we have not been able because of various kinds of expenditures to effect the arrangement of a matter . . . in which must be placed the foundations of full security for all . . . [and] neither for those who are bound by new oaths of military service, nor even for the veteran army can those supplies seem to suffice that are delivered by the exhausted taxpayers with the greatest difficulty, and it seems that from that source the supplies that are necessary for food and clothing cannot be furnished.
Playing to taxpayers’ sympathies in recognizing their ‘exhaustion’ was a softening-up exercise: the law’s central provision was for a new sales tax of about 4 per cent, to be shared equally between buyer and seller. The law went on to state, quite straightforwardly, that the Empire could not afford, on its current tax revenues, the size of army that circumstances required. There is no reason to doubt that this was so.
How big a fiscal hole the loss of North Africa made in the western Empire’s budget is impossible to say, but we can work out the reduction in the armed forces implied by the revenue lost from just Numidia and Mauretania Sitifensis. From the figures given in the law of 445 it is possible to calculate that the total tax lost from these provinces, because of the new remissions, amounted to 106,200 solidi per annum.83 A regular comitatensian infantryman cost approximately six solidi per annum, and a cavalry trooper 10.5.84This means that the reduced tax from Numidia and Mauretania alone implied a reduction in army size of about 18,000 infantrymen, or about 10,000 cavalry. This, of course, takes no account of the complete loss of revenue from the much richer provinces of Proconsularis and Byzacena, so that the total of lost revenues from all of North Africa must have implied a decline in military numbers of getting on for 40,000 infantry, or in excess of 20,000 cavalry. And these losses, of course, came on top of the earlier ones dating from the post-405 period. By 420, as we saw in Chapter 5, heavy losses in field army troops had already been papered over by upgrading garrison troops rather than by recruiting proper field army forces. We don’t have an updated version of theNotitia Dignitatum’s army lists (the distributio numerorum) for the early 440s, but if we did, they would certainly show a further substantial deterioration since 420. Only a massive new threat, therefore, could have made Aetius call off the joint east-west expedition and accept these disastrous consequences.
Where had this threat come from? Merobaudes, in the surviving fragments of the panegyric of 443 at least, is allusive rather than explicit. Bellona, goddess of war, comments:85 ‘I will call forth nations situated far away in the North, and the Phasian stranger will swim in the fearful Tiber. I will jumble peoples together, I will break the treaties of kingdoms, and the noble court will be thrown into confusion by my tempests.’ Then she issues her orders to Enyo: ‘Force savage crowds into war, and let the Tanai¨s, raging in its unknown regions, bring forth Scythian quivers.’
Arrow-firing hordes from Scythia? In the middle of the fifth century, that could mean only one thing: Huns. And the Huns were, indeed, the new problem, the reason why the North African expedition never set sail from Sicily. Just as it was making final preparations to depart, the Huns launched an attack over the River Danube into the territory of the east Roman Balkans. Constantinople’s contingent for Carthage, all taken from the Danube front, had to be recalled immediately, pulling the plug on any attempt to destroy Geiseric. Yet all through the 420s and 430s, as we have seen, the Huns had been a key ally, keeping Aetius in power and enabling him to crush the Burgundians and curb the Visigoths. Behind this change in attitude lay another central character in the story of Rome’s destruction. It’s time to meet Attila the Hun.