SOME HISTORIANS HAVE CRITICIZED Constantinople for not doing more in the fifth century to save the embattled west. From the Notitia Dignitatum (see p. 246) we know that the east’s armies recovered from Hadrianople to comprise, by the end of the fourth century, a field army of 131 regiments distributed between four regional commands: one on the Persian front, one in Thrace, and two central, ‘praesental’ armies (from the Latin for ‘stationed in the imperial presence’). Its mobile forces, therefore, mustered between 65,000 and 100,000 men.1 Also, the east disposed of numerous units of frontier garrison troops (limitanei). The archaeological field surveys of the last twenty years have confirmed, furthermore, that the fourth-century agricultural prosperity of the east’s key provinces – Asia Minor, the Middle East and Egypt – showed no sign of slackening during the fifth. Some believe that the eastern Empire thus had the wherewithal to intervene effectively in the west, but chose not to. In the most radical statement of the case, it has been argued that Constantinople was happy to see barbarians settle on western territory for the disabling effect this had on the west’s military establishment because it removed any possibility of an ambitious western pretender seeking to unseat his eastern counterpart and unite the Empire. This had happened periodically in the fourth century, when the emperors Constantine and Julian took over the entire Empire from an originally western power-base.2 But in fact, bearing in mind the problems it had to deal with on its own frontiers, Constantinople’s record for supplying aid to the west in the fifth century is perfectly respectable.

Constantinople and the West

THE EASTERN Empire’s military establishment was very substantial, but large numbers of troops had always to be committed to the two key sectors of its eastern frontier in Armenia and Mesopotamia, where Rome confronted Persia. If you asked any fourth-century Roman where the main threat to imperial security lay, the answer would have been Persia under its new Sasanian rulers. And from the third century, when the Sasanian revolution worked its magic, Persia was indeed the second great superpower of the ancient world. As we saw earlier, the new military threat posed by the Sasanians plunged the Roman Empire into a military and fiscal crisis that lasted the best part of fifty years. By the time of Diocletian in the 280s, the Empire had mobilized the necessary funding and manpower, but the process of adjustment to the undisputed power of its eastern neighbour was long and painful. The rise of Persia also made it more or less unavoidable to have one emperor constantly in the east, and hence made power-sharing a feature of the imperial office in the late Roman period. As a result of these transformations, Rome began to hold its own again, and there were no fourth-century repeats of such third-century disasters as the Persian sack of Antioch.

When assessing the military contribution of the eastern Empire to the west in the fifth century, it is important to appreciate that, while broadly contained from about 300, the new Persian threat never disappeared. Even if there was less fighting – and what fighting there was largely confined itself to a wearying round of sieges and limited gains – the Sasanians maintained a constant presence in the strategic thinking of east Roman politicians and generals. Faced with the defeat of Julian’s Persian expedition in 363, then the longer-term effects of the Hun-inspired mayhem on the Danube in the mid-370s, successive Roman emperors had been forced on two occasions to grant Sasanian rulers peace treaties they would normally only have dreamt about. Following Julian’s defeat, the emperor Jovian made humiliating concessions of territory and bases in Mesopotamia. Valens made some preliminary noises, even moves, towards their recovery, but after his death at Hadrianople Theodosius not only confirmed Roman acceptance of these losses, but also did a deal over Armenia, the other great bone of contention – and again, massively in Persia’s favour (map 3).3

These concessions ushered in a relatively peaceful phase in Roman- Persian relations, as Sasanian aspirations were, for the moment, largely satisfied. Anyway, Persia was facing nomad-inspired troubles of its own in two northern frontier sectors: to the east in Transoxania (modern Uzbekistan), and in the Caucasus, in which Constantinople, too, had an interest. Routes through the Caucasus led into Roman territory, if one turned right, and into Persian territory, if one carried straight on. The Huns had done both. The great Hunnic raid of 395 wreaked havoc not only in Rome’s provinces south of the Black Sea but also over a surprisingly large area of the Persian Empire. So, in this new era of compromise when both Empires had Huns on their minds, they came to an unprecedented agreement for mutual defence. The Persians would fortify and garrison the key Darial Pass through the Caucasus, and the Romans would help defray the costs. So tranquil were Roman–Persian relations at this time, in fact, that the myth arose that the Persian Shah had adopted Theodosius II, at the request of his late father the emperor Arcadius, so as to smooth the boy’s accession to the throne (he was only six when his father died).

None of this meant, however, that Constantinople could afford to lower its guard. Troop numbers were perhaps reduced in the fifth century, and less was spent on fortifications, but major forces still had to be kept on the eastern frontier. The Notitia Dignitatum– whose eastern sections date from about 395, after the Armenian accord – lists a field army of thirty-one regiments, roughly one-quarter of the whole, based in the east, together with 156 units of frontier garrison troops stationed in Armenia and the provinces comprising the Mesopotamian front, out of a total of 305 such units for the entire eastern Empire. And this in an era of relative stability. There were occasional quarrels with Persia, which sometimes came to blows, as in 421 and 441. The only reason the Persians didn’t capitalize more on Constantinople’s run-in with the Huns in the 440s seems to have been their own nomad problems.4

Just as, for Rome, Persia was the great enemy, so Rome was for Persia, and each particularly prized victories over the other. As we noted earlier, the provinces from Egypt to western Asia Minor were the eastern Empire’s main source of revenue, and no emperor could afford to take chances with the region’s security. As a result, Constantinople had to keep upwards of 40 per cent of its military committed to the Persian frontier, and another 92 units of garrison troops for the defence of Egypt and Libya. The only forces the eastern authorities could even think of using in the west were the one-sixth of its garrison troops stationed in the Balkans and the three-quarters of its field forces mustered in the Thracian and the two praesental armies.5

Up until 450, Constantinople’s capacity to help the west was also deeply affected by the fact that it bore the brunt of Hunnic hostility. As early as 408 (see p. 196), Uldin had briefly seized the east Roman fortress of Castra Martis in Dacia Ripensis, and by 413 the eastern authorities felt threatened enough to initiate a programme for upgrading their riverine defences on the Danube6 and to construct the triple landwalls around Constantinople (see p. 203). Then, just a few years later, eastern forces engaged directly in attempts to limit the growth of Hunnic power. Probably in 421, they mounted a major expedition into Pannonia which was already, if temporarily, in Hunnic hands, extracted a large group of Goths from the Huns’ control and resettled them in east Roman territory, in Thrace. The next two decades were spent combating the ambitions of Attila and his uncle, and even after Attila’s death it again fell to the east Roman authorities to clean up most of the fall-out from the wreck of the Hunnic Empire. As we saw in Chapter 8, it was the eastern Empire that the remaining sons of Attila chose to invade in the later 460s. Slightly earlier in the decade, east Roman forces had also been in action against armed fragments of Attila’s disintegrating war machine, led by Hormidac and Bigelis. In 460, likewise, the Amal-led Goths in Pannonia had invaded the eastern Empire to extract their 300 pounds of gold (see p. 368).7

Judged against this strategic background, where military commitments could not be reduced on the Persian front, and where, thanks to the Huns, the Danube frontier required a greater share of resources than ever before, Constantinople’s record in providing assistance to the west in the fifth century looks perfectly respectable. Although in the throes of fending off Uldin, Constantinople had sent troops to Honorius in 410, when Alaric had taken Rome and was threatening North Africa. Six units in all, numbering 4,000 men, arrived at a critical moment, putting new fight into Honorius when flight, or sharing power with usurpers, was on the cards. The force was enough to secure Ravenna, whose garrison was becoming mutinous, and bought enough time for the emperor to be rescued.8 In 425, likewise, Constantinople had committed its praesental troops in large numbers to the task of establishing Valentinian III on the throne, and in the 430s Aspar the general had done enough in North Africa to prompt Geiseric to negotiate the first treaty, of 435, which denied him the conquest of Carthage and the richest provinces of the region. In 440/1, again, the east had committed so many of its Danubian and praesental troops to the projected east-west expedition to Africa, that the bureaucrat whoorganized it received a mention in despatches and Attila and Bleda were handed an unmissable opportunity to unleash their armies on to Roman soil.

Although, as we saw in Chapter 7, Attila granted the eastern Empire an extraordinarily generous treaty in 450, the east did not even then baulk at its duty to fellow Romans. Troops – we are not told how many – were sent to Aetius to assist him in harassing the Hunnic armies sweeping through northern Italy in 452, while other eastern forces achieved considerable success in attacking Hunnic homelands.9 This is not the record of an eastern state that had no interest in sustaining the west. Nor is there the slightest sign that Constantinople had willed the barbarians to settle on western soil so as to weaken the power of the western emperors – not even, as used to be thought, to the extent of encouraging Alaric to transfer his Goths from the Balkans to Italy in 408. As Edward Thompson noted, choosing to fight and take what reprisals might come their way in 451/2, rather than grabbing Attila’s generous peace and running, was a sign of real commitment on the part of Constantinople.10

Of course, in Constantinople emperors and – in particular – imperial advisers came and went, and policies towards the west varied. As mentioned earlier, up to the death of Theodosius II in July 450, commitment to the west derived partly from the fact that eastern and western emperors belonged to the same Theodosian house. In sustaining his cousin Valentinian, therefore, Theodosius was also stressing his own family’s credentials for rule. And the largest single eastern expeditionary force of the period was sent west in 425 for a Roman civil war to put Valentinian III on the throne. But the catalogue of eastern assistance to the west cannot be reduced to mere dynastic selfinterest. Help continued to be given after Theodosius’ death, not least when Attila was attacking Italy in 452. Equally important, this aid list is compiled from a miscellany of sources and is unlikely to be exhaustive. In particular, I suspect that regular financial assistance was sent west during these years, in addition to the periodic offerings of military manpower. Thus, the decision of the authorities in Constantinople to mount a major rescue bid on the west’s behalf in the 460s was no sudden aberration from the norm.

Regime Change, Anthemius and North Africa

THE MOST OBVIOUS problem facing the Roman west round about 460 was a crisis of succession; since the death of Attila in 453 there had been little continuity. Valentinian III had been cut down by Aetius’ bodyguards, egged on by Petronius Maximus, who seized the throne but in no time at all was himself killed by the Roman mob. Soon afterwards, Avitus had appointed himself emperor in collusion with the Visigoths and elements of the Gallo-Roman landowning and military establishments. Then came his ousting in 456 by Ricimer and Majorian, commanders of the Italian field forces. This army was to be the single most powerful military-cum-political force in the Roman west, and the two commanders would play a central kingmaking role.

Of the two, Ricimer is a particularly fascinating character. His grandfather was the Visigothic king Vallia who had negotiated with Flavius Constantius in 416, and on his mother’s side he was descended from a princess of the Suevi. His sister married into the Burgundian royal house. Thus, in his family connections Ricimer reflects the revolutions that had recently brought so many autonomous groups of outsiders on to Roman soil. His career, however, was purely Roman and purely military, first reaching prominence under Aetius. Some have sought anti-Roman, pro-barbarian leanings in his policies, but none is apparent. Like Aetius and Stilicho, he was ready, when necessary, to make alliances with the new barbarian powers established in the west, but there is no sign that his genetic inheritance predisposed him to favour them at the expense of the central Roman authorities – in fact, quite the opposite. He was very much the heir of Stilicho: a well-connected barbarian proud to follow a Roman career, and who showed impeccable loyalty to the imperial ideal. Majorian too had served under Aetius, but, unlike Ricimer, was of a solidly Roman military family. His paternal grandfather had been a senior general in the 370s, and his father an important bureaucrat under Aetius; Majorian himself had eventually fallen out with Aetius, but Valentinian III recalled him after the generalissimo’s murder.11

Hostility to Avitus made allies out of Ricimer and Majorian but, having removed him, they weren’t quite sure what to do next. The result was an interregnum of several months. Eventually, the two decided to make Majorian emperor, and his installation was celebrated on 1 April 457. Despite some initial successes, the new regime failed to find a definitive solution to the west’s problems, and Ricimer and Majorian eventually quarrelled. On 2 August 461 Ricimer had his former partner in crime deposed, and executed five days later. He then turned to an elderly senator called Libius Severus to act as his new front man. On 19 November after another interregnum, Severus was raised to the purple. However, he was not well received elsewhere in the west. In particular, the commanders of what remained of the Gallic and Illyrian field armies, Aegidius and Marcellinus, were disgruntled enough to rebel.

The death of Valentinian III thus unleashed one of those bouts of protracted instability that were inherent to the Roman political system. Faced with nothing less than anarchy, Constantinople did what it could to promote stability. In the case of Avitus, the eastern emperor Marcian had refused to grant recognition, but negotiations with Constantinople over the accession of Majorian were eventually successful. After his initial installation, he was proclaimed emperor a second time on 28 December 457, quite probably on the receipt of recognition granted by Marcian’s successor Leo I. That Majorian’s regime had been recognized reflected the fact that it was much more broadly supported than that of Avitus. The same was not true, however, of Libius Severus – this time Leo would not play ball, and Severus remained resolutely unrecognized in Constantinople for the rest of his life.

As western regimes came and went, then, eastern emperors tried, it seems, to identify and support those with some real hope of generating stability. It was to preserve his position in Italy that Ricimer had appointed the harmless Severus. But as Aetius had shown, political longevity was inseparable from military success, and Ricimer also needed to defend Italy effectively, as well as the rest of the Roman west. For both of these objectives recognition and assistance from Constantinople were vital. Once it became clear that Severus was unacceptable to Leo – not least because of the opposition he had triggered in Aegidius and Marcellinus – he became an obstacle to Ricimer’s policies. Severus eventually died at a suspiciously convenient moment, in November 465. One early sixth-century source suggests that he was poisoned, while Sidonius goes out of his way to stress that he had died by natural causes. The comment stands out so starkly in the middle of a passage devoted to other matters that it really does look like a case of protesting too much. Whatever the truth of the matter, with Severus dead, negotiations could begin again.12

But granting or withholding recognition did nothing to address the second and much more fundamental problem facing the Roman west. As we saw in Chapter 8, the disappearance of the Huns as an effective force left western imperial regimes with no choice but to buy support from at least some of the immigrant powers now established on its soil. Avitus won over the Visigoths by offering them a free hand – to their great profit, as it turned out – in Spain. Majorian had been forced to recognize the Burgundians’ desire to expand, and had allowed them to take over some more new cities (civitates) in the Rhoˆne valley; and he continued to allow the Visigoths to do pretty much as they wanted in Spain. To buy support for Libius Severus, similarly, Ricimer had handed over to the Visigoths the major Roman city of Narbonne with all its revenues.13 But now, there were simply too many players in the field, and this, combined with rapid regime change, had created a situation in which even the already much reduced western tax revenues were being further expended in a desperate struggle for stability. Three things needed to happen in the west to prevent its annihilation. Legitimate authority had to be restored; the number of players needing to be conciliated by any incoming regime had to be reduced; and the Empire’s revenues had to rise. Analysts in the eastern Empire came to precisely this conclusion, and in the mid-460s hatched a plan that had a very real chance of putting new life back into the ailing west.

THE DEATH OF Severus opened the path to renewed negotiations between Ricimer and Constantinople. They were long and tortuous. No source gives us details, but there was a seventeen-month interregnum – the longest yet – before the next western emperor was proclaimed, on 12 April 467. This gap, as much as the new emperor’s identity, alerts us to the crooked diplomatic paths that must have been trodden in the interim. The choice fell on Anthemius, an eastern general of proven abilities and high pedigree, and the nominee of the eastern emperor Leo (although Ricimer certainly accepted the appointment). Anthemius’ maternal grandfather – also called Anthemius – had been virtual ruler of the eastern Empire for the decade 405–14, acting as Praetorian Prefect in the east during the last years of the reign of the emperor Arcadius and the early years of his son Theodosius II. The new emperor’s father, Procopius, was nearly as distinguished. Descended from the usurper Procopius of the mid-360s, and hence distantly related to the house of Constantine, he had risen to supreme command of Roman forces on the Persian front (magister militum per Orientem) in the mid-420s. The younger Anthemius followed his father into the army, where he gained distinction, emerging in the mid-450s to play a leading role in containing the fall-out from the Hunnic Empire after Attila’s death.14 Immediately afterwards, he was named consul for 455, and Patrician, and promoted to commanding general of one of the central field armies (magister militum praesentalis). He also received the hand in marriage of the emperor Marcian’s only daughter, Aelia Marcia Euphemia. Sidonius says that on Marcian’s death back in 457 Anthemius had nearly become emperor, and for once this doesn’t look like an exaggeration. The marriage suggests that Anthemius was Marcian’s preferred successor. But the purple didn’t come to him. Sidonius says that his own reluctance held him back (but that’s another common trope of panegyric). Instead, Leo was promoted – he was a guards officer through whom the other magister militum praesentalis, Aspar, was looking to run the Empire. Anthemius cannot, however, have been too disaffected, because he continued to serve the new emperor as general.15

In short, Anthemius’ imperial credentials were impeccable, and so equally applicable to the post of eastern emperor that Leo and Aspar may well have been scanning the ‘Italian situations vacant’ column in the Constantinopolitan Times for quite a while before Severus’ convenient demise. Even if happy to be rid of him, it did not detract from the level of support they were willing to offer him. In the spring of 467 Anthemius arrived in Italy with a military force provided by the commanding general of Roman field forces in Illyricum (magister militum per Illyricum), Marcellinus.16 Marcellinus was originally Aetius’ appointee and had taken control of the area on his assassination. The emperor Majorian had reconfirmed his appointment, but after Majorian’s death he applied to Constantinople rather than to Libius Severus, for authorization to continue in his post. It was through the eastern emperor Leo, therefore, that Marcellinus’ support for Anthemius was channelled. Leo also secured Ricimer’s consent to Anthemius’ promotion, and the relationship was sealed by a marriage alliance: as soon as Anthemius arrived in Italy, his only daughter Alypia married Ricimer. Combining talent and pedigree with backing from both the west in the person of Ricimer, and Constantinople, Anthemius was the man to restore political stability, if anyone could, to the Roman west.

Anthemius went to Italy with a plan for dealing with the more fundamental problems facing his new Empire. First, he quickly restored a modicum of order north of the Alps in Gaul. It is difficult to estimate how much of Gaul was still functioning as part of the western Empire in 467. In the south the Visigoths, and certainly the Burgundians, accepted Anthemius’ rule; both of their territories remained legally part of the Empire. We know that institutions like the cursus publicus were still functioning here. Further north, things are less clear. The Roman army of the Rhine, or what was left of it, had gone into revolt on the deposition of Majorian, and part of it still formed the core of a semi-independent command west of Paris. Refugees from battle-torn Roman Britain also seem to have contributed to the rise of a new power in Brittany, and for the first time Frankish warbands were flexing their muscles on Roman soil. In the fourth century, Franks had played the same kind of role on the northern Rhine frontier as the Alamanni played to their south. Semi-subdued clients, they both raided and traded with the Roman Empire, and contributed substantially to its military manpower; several leading recruits, such as Bauto and Arbogast, rose to senior Roman commands. Also like the Alamanni, the Franks were a coalition of smaller groups, each with their own leadership. By the 460s, as Roman control collapsed in the north, some of these warband leaders began for the first time to operate exclusively on the Roman side of the frontier, selling their services, it seems, to the highest bidder.17

None of these Gallic powers was strong enough directly to threaten what remained of the Roman west when it was buoyed up with eastern support, and Anthemius’ arrival cowed all of them at least into acquiescence. Gaul, however, wasn’t the fundamental problem. Even Majorian had done nearly as well there as Anthemius in attracting acceptance, even support, from the Gallo-Roman landowners. The Gallic Sidonius, for instance, had played a role in the Burgundians’ seizure of Lyon, and for this Majorian initially punished him with a higher tax bill. In response, Sidonius wrote the emperor a poem, complaining in mannered and deliberately self-deprecating fashion: ‘For now my talkative muse is silenced by the tax, and culls instead of Vergil’s and Terence’s lines the pence and halfpence owed to the Exchequer.’18 So Majorian let him off and, along with many of his peers, Sidonius joined the ranks of the emperor’s Gallic supporters. A letter of this era recalls a convivial evening when the emperor dined and swapped witticisms with Sidonius and his friends.19

The arrival in their midst of the engaging Anthemius led to queues of Gallo-Roman landowners anxious to court and be courted by the new emperor. We know that the cursus publicus was still working because Sidonius used it on his way to see Anthemius at the head of a Gallic deputation. Anthemius responded in kind. Sidonius wormed his way into the good graces of the two most important Italian senatorial power-brokers of the time, Gennadius Avienus and Flavius Caecina Decius Basilius, and with their help got the chance to deliver a panegyric to the emperor, on 1 January 468.20 As a result, he was appointed by Anthemius to the high office of Urban Prefect of Rome. A time-honoured process was in operation: with self-advancement in mind, likely-looking landowners would turn up at the imperial court at the start of a new reign to offer support and receive gifts in return.21 But fiddling with the balance of power in Gaul wasn’t going to contribute anything much towards a restoration of the western Empire.

There was only one plan that stood any real chance of putting life back into the Roman west: reconquering North Africa. The Vandal– Alan coalition had never been accepted into the country club of allied immigrant powers that began to emerge in the mid-fifth century. The treaty of 442, which recognized its seizure of Carthage, was granted when Aetius was at the nadir of his fortunes; it was an exception to the Vandals’ usual relationship with the Roman state, which was one of great hostility. The western Empire, as we have seen, from the 410s onwards had consistently allied with the Visigoths against the Vandals and Alans, and the latter’s history after 450 was one of similar exclusion. Unlike the Visigoths or the Burgundians, the Vandals and Alans did not contribute to Aetius’ military coalition that fought against Attila in Gaul in 451; nor were they subsequently courted or rewarded by the regimes of Avitus, Majorian or Libius Severus. Their leader Geiseric was certainly after membership of the club, as his sack of Rome at the time of Petronius Maximus paradoxically showed. This was partly motivated by the fact that Maximus had upset the marriage arrangements between his son Huneric and the elder daughter of Valentinian III. After they sacked Rome in 455, the Vandals continued to raid the coast of Sicily and various Mediterranean islands. This was an enterprise undertaken in large measure for profit, but Geiseric also had a more ambitious, political, agenda. Part of his booty from the sack of Rome had been Valentinian III’s women: his wife Licinia Eudoxia, and his daughters Eudocia and Placidia. Eudocia was duly married to Geiseric’s eldest son Huneric. Probably in 462, Eudoxia and Placidia were freed to go to Constantinople, where Placidia married a Roman senator called Anicius Olybrius, who had fled to the eastern capital to escape the sack. After 462, Geiseric was canvassing for Anicius Olybrius as heir to the western throne. From the Vandal point of view, this would have had the desirable outcome that the next western emperor would have the next king of the Vandals for a brother-in-law: another route to the political acceptance that Geiseric so obviously craved.22

The history that had brought the Vandals to North Africa was only marginally less respectable, from a Roman point of view, than that which had seen Visigoths and Burgundians installed in Gaul. All three had forced treaties out of the Roman state by military action, or the threat of it; given the choice, the west Roman imperial authorities would rather have had nothing to do with any of them. The real problem undermining Geiseric’s bid to be admitted to the immigrant powers’ club was not so much past indiscretions per se, but the fact that, while in flagrante, he had come into possession of the richest, most productive provinces of the western Empire. Since the 440s, in addition to the lands he already held in North Africa, he had seized Tripolitania and a number of Mediterranean islands. His annual raids were spreading fear and disorder up and down the Italian coastline. Destroying the Vandals would therefore achieve two highly desirable ends in one fell swoop. It would take out one of the three major barbarian powers established on western soil, and, more important, return an invaluable reservoir of wealth to the imperial treasury.

It is worth indulging here in a little counterfactual history. The knock-on effects of a decisive victory over Geiseric, itself far from inconceivable,23 would have been far-reaching. With Italy and North Africa united, Spain could have been added to the new western power-base. Unlike the Vandal–Alan coalition, the Suevi who had stayed in Spain were no more than a relatively minor irritant. Their power ebbed and flowed according to the amount of Roman resources devoted to the peninsula at any one time, and there is no reason to think that they would have been able to hold out against a full-scale imperial counterattack. Then, once Hispanic revenues had begun to flow in again, much reconstruction would in turn have become possible in Gaul. At the very least, Visigoths and Burgundians could have been reduced to much smaller enclaves of influence, stripped of some of their more recent acquisitions such as Narbonne and the cities of the Rhône valley. The assertive Bagaudae of the north could likewise have been brought back into line.

Such a reborn west would still have looked more like a coalition, with substantially autonomous Gothic and Burgundian spheres of influence coexisting alongside the territories under direct Roman rule, than a single integrated state like the old fourth-century Empire. But the Roman centre would have become once again the dominant partner, with the strategic situation restored at least to a level comparable with that of the 410s, before the loss of North Africa – better, even, since there would be no Vandal–Alan coalition loose in Spain. Move on another twenty years, and even the Romano-Brits, struggling against the Saxon invaders, might have benefited. This is, of course, a best-case scenario. The Visigoths had proved impossible to destroy even during the eras of Theodosius I and Alaric when the Empire had disposed of much greater assets, so they were a problem that was unlikely to go away. Nonetheless, there were plenty of Rome-focused landowners still around in Gaul and Spain in the late 460s, as Sidonius’ dash to Italy to seek out Anthemius shows, who would have welcomed the resurgence of a plausible western Empire. And, however you look at it, a reborn west based on the possession of Italy, North Africa, most of Spain and large chunks of Gaul was a formidable prospect. Even as late as the 460s, all was not lost: a successful campaign against the Vandals could have halted the vicious circle of decline and guaranteed the western Empire an active political life for the foreseeable future.

That eliminating the Vandals was the best available answer to the problems of the west had been appreciated for some time. The only other western regime to have shown much fight after the assassination of Aetius was that of Majorian, and he had adopted the same strategy. From early in his reign, we have a verse panegyric Sidonius gave in the emperor’s honour during a stay at Lyon in 458. After the usual expression of superlatives designed to demonstrate that Majorian has been blessed with all the qualities of the perfect emperor, the scene then shifts to Rome, personified as an armed goddess surveying her territories. All is well, until:24

Of a sudden Africa flung herself down weeping, with her swarthy cheeks all torn. Bowing her forehead she broke the corn-ears that crowned her, ears whose fruitfulness was now her bane; and thus she began: I come, a third part of the world, unfortunate because one man is fortunate. This man [Geiseric], son of a slave-woman, hath long been a robber; he hath blotted out our rightful lords, and for many a day hath wielded his barbarian sceptre in my land, and having driven our nobility utterly away this stranger loves nothing that is not mad.

This opens a long appeal for Rome to awaken from her slumbers and right Africa’s wrongs, into which Sidonius interweaves an account of Majorian’s martial past, again so as to parade his credentials as the right man for the job. The goddess’s speech comes to a close with a startling image of Geiseric:

he is sunk in indolence and, thanks to untold gold, no longer knows aught of steel. His cheeks are bloodless; a drunkard’s heaviness afflicts him, pallid flabbiness possesses him, and his stomach, loaded with continual gluttony, cannot rid itself of the sour wind.

Nothing like a little fart joke to lighten the mood, even at an imperial celebration. But Sidonius also had a more serious point. The time was ripe for Majorian to avenge Africa ‘so that Carthage may cease to war against Italy’.

This was a direct statement of intent. No imperial panegyrist was ever allowed to stand before an emperor and tell him to do some specific thing, unless that emperor already had every intention of so doing.25 Sidonius had clearly been told that one of the aims of his panegyric was to prepare landowning opinion for an assault on the Vandals. This was early in the year 458. There was still much to do in preparation, as Sidonius makes clear. For a start, more order had to be restored in Gaul before they could concentrate on the North African adventure; and fleets had to be constructed.26 But from its earliest days Majorian’s regime committed itself to an assault on the Vandals.

In 461, it was ready to deliver. Majorian’s plan was, with his main force, to follow the route taken by the Vandals themselves. By the spring, 300 ships were gathered in harbours along the coast of the Hispanic province of Carthaginensis, from Cartago Nova (Cartagena) to Illici (Elche) about a hundred kilometres further north. Majorian and his army duly arrived in Spain, from there to be transported, it seems, to Mauretania, with a view to marching in full battle order into the heartland of Vandal Africa.27 At the same time, Marcellinus led elements of his Illyrican field army into battle in Sicily, expelling the Vandals from footholds they had established on the island. Securing Sicily was an end in itself, but may also have been designed to sow doubt in Geiseric’s mind about the trajectory of the main attack. Feeling cornered, Geiseric made peace overtures, but Majorian was confident enough to reject them. More to the point, the emperor had staked too much in the expedition to contemplate compromise. But, informed of Majorian’s plans, Geiseric struck first: his fleet raided the Spanish coast and destroyed Majorian’s shipping. The emperor’s army was left cooling its heels on the Spanish beaches; the campaign, heralded as the centrepiece of Majorian’s policy as early as 458, had failed.

Majorian had lost his hold on power. He left Spain in high summer, travelling back overland to Italy. En route, he was arrested and deposed by Ricimer on 2 August, and executed five days later. For Majorian, the African gamble ended in disaster, but the reasoning behind it was sound. When Anthemius came west a few years later, it can have been no surprise to anyone that his eyes were fixed firmly on Carthage.

The Byzantine Armada

IF LEO WAS happy enough to remove so formidable a presence as Anthemius from Constantinople, the eastern emperor’s contribution to his attempt to reconquer Vandal Africa was unstinting. This may well have been part of the deal between them. A number of sources give us a fair idea of the costs involved. The most detailed account is found in fragments from a work by another Constantinople-based historian. Penned by a certain Candidus in the late fifth century, the fragments are preserved in an encyclopaedic Byzantine work, the Suda, of the late tenth. Here we learn: ‘The official in charge of [financial] matters revealed that 47,000 pounds of gold came through the Prefects, and through the Count of the Treasuries an additional 17,000 pounds of gold and 700,000 pounds of silver, as well as monies raised through confiscations and from the Emperor Anthemius.’28 One pound of gold equated to more or less eighteen of silver, giving a total of about 103,000 pounds of gold, and it was called in from every available source: from general taxation (the purview of the Prefects), from the exploitation of imperial estates (that of the Count of the Treasuries), as well as confiscations and anything else that Anthemius could extract from the west. Of other sources, one gives more or less the same figure as Candidus, while two others put it higher: at 120,000 and 130,000 pounds of gold. The figures are roughly similar (Candidus’ total does not include the monies he refers to as having been raised by Anthemius himself, from the west). The general level of magnitude is also perfectly plausible. The construction of Justinian’s Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the 530s, for instance, cost the east Roman treasury 15–20,000 pounds of gold. The emperor Anastasius (reigned 491–517), whose financial prudence was legendary and whose reign had been blessed with relative peace, left, on his death, 320,000 pounds of gold for his successor. A hundred and three thousand pounds is forty-six tons: a huge figure, then, but plausible enough, and a good guide to Leo’s commitment to the west.29

The military effort generated by all this cash was correspondingly massive. An armada of eleven hundred ships, nearly four times the size of the fleet assembled by Majorian, was assembled from across the eastern Empire. Again, the figure is plausible. If the much damaged western Empire could find 300 in 461,30 1,100 for such an ambitious project is entirely proportionate. No one gives tonnages for the 468 expedition, but the ships of an east Roman fleet of 532 varied between 20 and 330 tons. Most of the vessels were tiny by modern standards. The vast majority were merchant ships powered by sails alone, but there may have been some specialist warships, dromons, that would proceed as far as the action under sail, then join battle under oar power.31 The military manpower committed was similarly to scale. Procopius puts the figure at 100,000, but that seems both high and suspiciously round. The later fleet of 500 ships in 532 carried an army of 16,000, so the 1,100 ships of 468 may have been conveying something over 30,000 soldiers (sailors are not included here). In addition, as in 461, Marcellinus and some of his Illyrian command also came west. This time they first drove the Vandals out of Sardinia, and then occupied Sicily in force. A third force, recruited from the army of Egypt and placed under the command of the general Heraclius, was put ashore simultaneously in Tripolitania, where it joined with the locals in throwing out the Vandals who had occupied their cities since 455. Adding together the sailors and all these subsidiary forces, then, the total committed to the expedition was certainly well over 50,000 men.32

Command of this huge expedition was allotted to Leo’s brother-inlaw, the general Basiliscus, who had recently enjoyed considerable military success in the Balkans fighting off the last attempts of Attila’s sons to find sanctuary south of the Danube. By the beginning of 468 everyone knew what was coming, and there is a huge sense of expectation in the panegyric Sidonius gave in Rome on 1 January of that year in honour of Anthemius’ accession to the consulship. One influential historian has claimed that there is little reflection of the Byzantine armada in western sources. For once, I disagree with him.33 Imagery of the sea and sailing suffuse Sidonius’ speech, beginning with his introduction of Anthemius:34

This, my Lords, is the man for whom Rome’s brave spirit and your love did yearn, the man to whom our commonwealth, like a ship overcome by tempest and without a pilot, hath committed her broken frame, to be more deftly guided by a worthy steersman that she may no more fear storm or pirate.

Marine metaphor then tacks in and out, with the speech concluding:

But now too strong are the breezes that drive my sails before them. Check, O Muse, my humble measures, and as I seek the harbour let the anchor of my song settle at last in a calm resting-place. Yet of the fleet and forces that you, O prince [Anthemius], are handling and of the great deeds you will do in a short while, I, if God further my prayers, shall tell of in due course . . .

The sense of anticipation of a naval expedition in the offing is unmistakable. And Sidonius’ speech captures the grand design: ‘Anthemius came to us with a covenant made by the two realms; an empire’s peace has sent him to conduct our wars.’ He had come with the promise of military salvation for the west, and in 468 it arrived. Sidonius caught the moment perfectly. That such an armada could be assembled was in itself a tour de force. Now would come the true test. The storm of battle was about to detonate once more in the western Mediterranean. The fleet, the supreme symbol of imperial unity, was on its way.

The Roman plan was emphatically not to fight a fleet engagement. As in 461, the Romans wanted to get their army to North Africa in one piece and then fight it out on land. The campaign proceeded accordingly. Basiliscus’ fleet followed the main trade route south from Italy. It was a route dictated from time immemorial by the winds and currents of the central Mediterranean. In these waters the sailing season proper lasted from June to September, and it was probably in June that Basiliscus set out. With a decent following wind, it took no more than a day’s sailing to reach North Africa from Sicily. The armada anchored in the shelter of Cape Bon – no more than 250 stades (about 60 kilometres), one source tells us, from Carthage. This places the fleet somewhere offshore between Ras el-Mar and Ras Addar in modern Tunisia, a good choice because the prevailing winds here in the summer months are easterly. (A fleet anchored on the other side of the peninsula would have been driven onshore.) What was meant to happen next, we’re not certain. The armada was making for the army’s designated embarkation point. The nearby harbour of Carthage was protected against enemy shipping by a chain, so perhaps Basiliscus’ destination was the bay of Utica, a short march from Carthage.35

The Vandals, needless to say, were not prepared to follow a Roman script. In capturing Carthage in 439, they had taken possession of one of the busiest ports in the Roman Mediterranean, and had made full use of the shipping and maritime expertise they found there. Searaids had been their trademark since 439, and fighting at sea became something at which they excelled. We should not envisage here the sudden appearance from nowhere of hoary Vandal sea dogs. The nautical work was done by indigenous North Africans, as Sidonius conveys somewhat tortuously in a passage dramatizing their grievances in his panegyric to Majorian. As Africa herself complains: ‘Now he arms mine own flesh against me for his own ends, and after all these years of captivity I am being cruelly torn under his authority by the prowess of mine own; fertile in afflictions I bring forth sons to bring me suffering.’36 This is a phenomenon found elsewhere. In the third century, after taking possession of the northern shores of the Black Sea, Goths and other Germanic newcomers were able to persuade local sailors, in exchange for a share of the booty, to help them mount large-scale maritime raids on the Roman communities to the south. There’s also a law in the Theodosian Code promising to burn alive anyone teaching barbarians the art of shipbuilding, but some clearly weren’t put off.37 Most of the Vandals’ maritime manoeuvres took the form of hit-and-run attacks, forces being put ashore to raid and destroy. By 468, they and their naval aids could draw upon thirty years’ experience in military operations at sea. With this powerful tool at his command, Geiseric proceeded to act, like any good commander, in the fashion least desired by his opponent.

With the east Roman armada riding at anchor, the Vandal fleet hove into view. Here we come face to face with the factor that has decided many a battle – the element of chance. Against normal expectations, the wind was blowing from the north-west. The Vandals, having put out from Carthage, held the wind gauge so could choose exactly when and where to engage, while the Romans, with the wind in their faces, could move only slowly and at an angle. The sources give no sense of one side or the other possessing the better ships; the unchanging wind kept the Roman fleet pinned against the western side of Cape Bon. Grasping at the opportunity, the Vandals did in 468 exactly what the English would do eleven hundred and twenty years later, in 1588, when they found the Spanish Armada similarly placed. They launched fireships. The annals of ancient sea warfare are not replete with references to fireships, but it was a stratagem employed from time to time in favourable circumstances, especially when an enemy fleet was at anchor or in harbour and unable to move with any speed. The earliest mention of fireships occurs in relation to an Athenian attack on Sicily in 413 BC, and the Romans and Carthaginians had for centuries used them against each other, the latter being particularly successful against a Roman fleet in the spring of 149 BC.38

To understand the threat posed by fireships, you need to think about the kind of vessels carrying the Roman army. The classic account of the Spanish Armada puts it simply: ‘Of all the dangers to a fleet of wooden sailing-ships, fire was the gravest; their sails, their tarry cordage, their sun-dried decks and spars could catch fire in a minute, and there was almost nothing about them that would not burn.’39 On the night of 7/8 August 1588, the English launched only eight fireships. No one tells us how many Geiseric had at his disposal, but Procopius, probably drawing on Priscus’ history, gives us a vivid account of their effect:40

When [the Vandals] came near, they set fire to the boats which they were towing, and when their sails were bellied by the wind, they let them go against the Roman fleet. And since there were a great number of ships there, these boats easily spread fire wherever they struck and were themselves readily destroyed together with those with which they came in contact.

The sail-powered merchantmen of the Roman fleet were stuck fast. All they could do was try to pull themselves out of danger by attaching lines to all the rowboats they could muster – a slow process. The oared warships of the fleet, the dromons, though in the minority, were much better placed. The chief virtue of such vessels was that they could move directly into the wind if necessary – at least, for as long as the rowers could keep going. Procopius tells us what happened next, off Cape Bon:

As the fire advanced in this way the Roman fleet was filled with tumult, as was natural, and with a great din that rivalled the noise caused by the wind and the roaring of the flames, as the soldiers and the sailors together pushed with their poles the fire-boats and their ships as well, which were being destroyed by one another in complete disorder. And already the Vandals too were at hand ramming and sinking the ships and making booty of such of the soldiers as attempted to escape, and of their arms as well.

It sounds as though the Vandal fireships of 468 may have had a more telling effect on the enemy fleet in terms of ships aflame than those of the English in 1588. The classic counter to fireships was to put out oared vessels to take them in tow and pull them away from your fleet. In 1588 the Spanish dealt with two of the eight that way, but then lost their nerve, and pretty much the whole Armada scattered pell-mell into the night. Off Dunkirk, the Spanish did have sea room downwind, and could at least put on sail to escape, so that the only immediate casualty of the entire fireship episode was one already battered galleass which ran aground trying to make it into the safety of Calais. However, in escaping, the Spanish ships became so disordered that they lost all ability to function as a coherent fleet, effectively handing victory to the English.

In 468, the option of putting on more sail was not available to the Roman merchantmen, since the contrary wind would have driven them ashore, and ancient ships were not of strong enough construction to stand being beached. And, perhaps, anyway, Geiseric had many more fireships than eight. But if more direct damage was inflicted by the fireships of 468, it is also clear that, as in 1588, the concomitant disorder was at least as disabling as the number of Roman ships sent up in flames. Ancient sea battles were all about getting behind your enemy by some means (either enveloping from a flank, or breaking through his line), then ramming him from behind. If you rammed head on, the force of the collision broke your ram off. Isolating and boarding enemy ships constituted a second line of attack. Although lacking detail, Procopius’ account makes it clear that, following up the fireships, the Vandal fleet went quickly into action, making mayhem among the disordered Romans. The merchantmen, so busy avoiding the horror of fire, made easy prey.

The result was disaster. Some of the Byzantine armada stood and fought, though:

Most of all John, who was a general under Basiliscus . . . For a great throng having surrounded his ship, he stood on the deck, and turning from side to side kept killing very great numbers of the enemy from there, and when he perceived that the ship was being captured, he leaped with his whole equipment of arms from the decking to the sea . . . uttering . . . that John would never come under the hands of dogs.

Stirring stuff, and entirely typical of our ancient sources in concentrating on the actions of the few. It follows from this that we cannot assess the different elements of the action, such as how many ships were destroyed by fire, and how many subsequently by ramming and boarding. No one tells us, indeed, how many Roman ships were destroyed all told. This is where late Roman and Dark Age history ceases to be an unputdownable cryptic crossword puzzle and becomes merely annoying. What we do know is that the Vandals won a decisive victory – all the more decisive, of course, because every merchant ship they captured or sank meant the loss of Roman army units. Ancient warfare could be a bloody business, and the Romans could have lost here a hundred-plus ships and upwards of 10,000 men. My suspicion, however, would be that actual losses may have been smaller than Procopius’ rhetoric would at first suggest, and that in its fundamentals the action was not dissimilar to 1588. The Roman survivors were much too scattered to pose any further threat; no possibility, then, of landing Basiliscus’ expeditionary force as an effective army. Constantinople had stretched every sinew to reconquer the Vandal kingdom, but the expedition had failed. When Leo died on 18 January 474, five years later, the treasuries of the eastern capital were still empty. He had mobilized all his reserves, leaving nothing for a second attempt.

According to Procopius, the failure of the Byzantine armada was due to treachery on the part of Basiliscus: he was handsomely paid by Geiseric to agree to a five-day truce, whose sole purpose was to allow time for the wind to change round to the right direction for the fireships. But in Roman historiography great disasters are often blamed on treachery – another instance of that tendency to look to the virtues and vices of individuals when seeking causes. Procopius similarly blamed the Vandals’ arrival in North Africa in 429 on the treachery of Boniface, but this charge is certainly baseless. Basiliscus also, in January 475, seized the eastern Empire from Leo’s successor Zeno, and hung on to it until summer 476, at which point Zeno regained his throne. This condemned Basiliscus to go down in history as a usurper, and blaming him for the debacle of 468 then became an easy option. The causes of Roman defeat were probably more prosaic: a mixture of bad luck with the wind, unimaginative tactics in trying to land so close to Carthage that there could be no element of surprise, and overambition.41

WHETHER THE PREDESTINED result of a flawed conception or the contingent outcome of bad luck with the weather, the failure of the Byzantine armada doomed one half of the Roman world to extinction. Not that everybody realized this instantly. When a state of affairs has prevailed for over five hundred years – the time separating us from Christopher Columbus – it is hard to believe that it can vanish overnight. The situation was, however, hopeless. Constantinople had no more money with which to mount a further rescue. The resources now controlled by Anthemius and Ricimer amounted to little more than the Italian peninsula and the island of Sicily – entirely insufficient, as a source of revenue, to support a military force powerful enough to keep in line Visigoths and Burgundians, Vandals and Suevi, not to mention assorted local Romans – all the centrifugal elements, in fact, now running riot within the western imperial borders. Basiliscus’ defeat had destroyed the last chance of regenerating a dominant imperial force. In the decade after 468, despite the political and cultural inertia that made a world without Rome difficult to conceive, different people in different places gradually got to grips with the fact that the western Empire no longer existed.

The Unravelling of Empire 468–476: The Frontier

SOME OF THE first to realize the truth were Roman provincials living on the frontier. Historical and archaeological sources allow us to spotlight one particular group: the inhabitants of Noricum. This province comprised the foothill zone between the outer slopes of the Alps and the River Danube in what is now Lower Austria. Here the beautiful, fertile valleys of the Danube tributaries stretch towards Europe’s highest mountains: a stunning landscape. Into this magical Sound of Music country sometime in the mid- to late 450s wandered a mysterious Holy Man by the name of Severinus (we met him fleetingly in Chapter 8). Severinus refused to say anything about his origins, except that he had trained as an ascetic far away in the eastern deserts; but we do know that he spoke beautiful Latin.42 From the man himself no writings survive, but about a generation after his death one of his acolytes, a monk called Eugippius, wrote a memoir of the saint’s life. Severinus died in January 482, and Eugippius was writing in 509/11. Eugippius hadn’t been one of the saint’s close companions, but he was present at his death and had access to stories told by those who knew him better. What Eugippius produced was a disjointed account of Severinus’ life and miracles – hardly a biography, but it is packed with incidents that vividly evoke life in a frontier region as the tide of Empire ebbed away.

The old kingdom of Noricum had been founded about 400 BC when the Celtic-speaking Norici had established their dominance over a native population of Illyrian-speakers. In strategic terms, it was something of a backwater. It did control some routes over the Alps, but not the main ones running west and particularly east of it over the Julian Alps, whose lower slopes and wider passes offer much easier communications between Italy and the Middle Danube basin. Within its borders, though, were situated some important iron mines, and from the second century BC lively trade links had grown up between it and northern Italy, especially the city of Aquileia. This led to generally good relations between Noricum and the Roman Republic, evident not least in the permanent presence of large numbers of Roman traders at the royal residence from which the kingdom was run, the Magdalensburg.

Noricum was a Roman ally until the time of Augustus, when in 15 BC it was peacefully absorbed into the Empire. Since it was neither hostile to Rome nor sitting astride the major Alpine highways into Italy, Romanization took a different form here from that in Rome’s other Danubian provinces. There was no major Roman army stationed here, for instance, and hence no hothouse economy driven by state spending on infrastructure and soldiers’ pay packets. Nonetheless, roads were built and Roman-style towns sprang up in the same way we have observed everywhere else in the Empire: about one part central planning to eight parts local initiative. The province was badly hit during the Marcomannic War of the 160s and 170s AD (see pp. 97-8), and acquired a much more substantial garrison afterwards, but this did not affect the basic pattern of its development. By the late Roman period, Noricum was a province of smallish, moderately prosperous agricultural towns. Its landowning class spoke Latin, a reasonable elementary education could be got in the larger towns, and the region still swam in the mainstream of Empire. The best of the late Roman archaeological discoveries in the area is a Christian pilgrimage centre of the late fourth and fifth centuries, discovered on top of the Hemmaburg. Recent excavations have unearthed here three huge basilicas, and inscriptions commemorating the local donors responsible for their construction.43

For Noricum, as for so many other parts of the Roman west, the fifth century came as a nasty shock. It seems to have survived the major invasions in quite good shape. There was a moment in the late 400s when Alaric had his eye on the province as a suitable settlement zone for his Goths (see Chapter 5), but that never materialized and the Visigoths ended up in Aquitaine instead. Otherwise, precisely because there were better routes available on either side, the Noricans were able to be mere spectators as the waves of barbarians rolled past. The invaders of 406 moved north up the Danube valley and over the Rhine into Gaul, and Attila did the same in 451. Radagaisus, Alaric and their Gothic groups hurled themselves into northern Italy through Pannonia so as to take advantage of the passes through the Julian Alps, as did Attila in 452. Nonetheless, the first half of the fifth century witnessed a massive erosion in the general level of security enjoyed by the Norican provincials.


THE PATTERN OF settlement and order in Noricum – its spread of towns and agriculture – was the product of the military power of the Roman Empire. Round about the year 400, as recorded in the Notitia Dignitatum, the province was protected by a substantial garrison army (limitanei). Detachments of two legions provided the backbone of its defence: the Second Italica at Lauriacum (Lorsch) and Lentia (Linz), the First Noricorum at Adiuvense (Ybbs). Both legions included units of river police (liburnarii) stationed at three separate points on the river, and there were other fleet units. In addition, three infantry cohorts, four units of ordinary cavalry and two of mounted archers were stationed in the province, amounting, all told, to a force of close on 10,000 men, with a wide range of weaponry.44

In the Life of Severinus, beginning in the mid- to late 450s, there is not much evidence of this command. One unspecified military unit is mentioned at Faviana, modern Mautern (where the Notitia Dignitatum mentions river police belonging to the First Noricorum), and another stationed at Batavis (Passau), just beyond the border of Noricum in the province of Raetia (where the Notitia lists an infantry cohort). That’s all: nowhere near 10,000 men, despite the fact that much of the Life is taken up with hostile contacts between Noricans and various barbarian outsiders. There’s reason, in fact, to be just a little suspicious of this apparent absence of a decent-sized force. Since the whole point of the Life was to celebrate Severinus’ ability to stop barbarians terrorizing the population of Noricum, the presence of a largish army in the province would tend to spoil that narrative line. And I strongly suspect that, at least at the start of Severinus’ time in the province, there were a few more units around than the two that get a passing mention in the Life. Nonetheless, there is a broad range of evidence indicating that by the death of Attila, the Norican army was much reduced. It also makes clear how and why this had happened.

For one thing, archaeological evidence, particularly from the military installations, has shown that coin circulation collapsed in the province shortly after the year 400. The only partial exception to this was the old legionary base at Lauriacum. As we know, the Roman Empire produced coin above all for paying its army, so that a disturbance in the coin supply may well reflect disruption to military pay. The one exception suggests the same thing: since Lauriacum was the military command centre of the province, you would expect military units to survive there if nowhere else. A reduced military presence is also suggested by clear archaeological signs of greater insecurity. Shortly after 400, all the villas in Noricum (those so far excavated, at least) were abandoned or destroyed. Isolated, wealthy and undefended rural manor houses, which is what villas essentially were, provided an obvious target for raiders, and could not survive without a certain level of security. As we saw earlier, villas disappeared equally quickly in much of the Balkans at the time of the Gothic war of 376–82.

This doesn’t mean that all their former owners were necessarily killed and the landowning class eliminated. Rural surveys in Noricum have demonstrated, on the contrary, that building in the fifth century switched to the construction of what Germanophone archaeologists call Fliehburgen, ‘refuge centres’. These are substantial walled settlements, sometimes built with permanent occupation in mind, placed in highly defensible positions, usually on hill tops and frequently with a church at their centre. There were a fewFliehburgen in favoured spots to the north, close to the Danube, but most were further south, nestling in the Alpine foothills south of the River Drava in East Tirol and Carinthia. The largest of all was at Lavant-Kirchbichl, a settlement that replaced the old Roman town of Aguntum, where powerful defences surrounded an area of 2.7 hectares atop an almost inaccessible crag, with houses, storehouses and an episcopal church 40 metres long.45 The Life has Severinus giving the following advice to inhabitants of the countryside around Lauriacum in the 460s:46

The man of God, by the divine inspiration of his prophetic mind, instructed them to bring all their modest belongings within the walls so that the enemy on their deadly expedition, finding no means of human support, would at once be compelled by famine to give up their cruel plans.

The evidence suggests that the Noricans didn’t really need Severinus’ promptings, but had been busy constructing refuge centres since the start of the century: an appropriate response to the inability of such military garrisoning as there was in the province to protect Roman life there.

Much of the action of the Life of Severinus takes place against a backdrop in which small walled settlements, castella – the contemporary term for the archaeologists’ Fliehburgen – provide the basic form of settlement being used to protect Roman life. TheLifealso makes clear that, by the 460s, the citizens of these small towns had become responsible for their own protection, putting together small forces to defend their walls – citizen militias, in fact. Walls and/or citizen guards are mentioned at Comagenis, Faviana, Lauriacum, Batavis and Quintanis. Another defensive option – paralleling that taken by Romano- Britons in similar circumstances – was for citizens to hire barbarian warbands to defend their town for them. This is mentioned only in the case of Comagenis on the Norican frontier, and, as in Britain too, led to trouble. The Life opens with the people of Comagenis depicted as sorely oppressed by their protectors’ demands. They were lucky enough, with a bit of divine assistance mediated by the saint, to be able to drive the barbarians out.47 (If the Romano-British had been able to do the same, then Welsh, rather than English, might now be the language of computers and world communication.)

In the early 460s, some Roman military survived in the province, but nothing like the substantial force listed in the Notitia. One factor in the decline of this Norican army shows up in that work itself. The field army of Illyricum in about 420, the time of Flavius Constantius, included among its pseudocomitatensian legions two regiments of lanciarii (lancers) who had previously been stationed at Lauriacum and Comagenis. Their withdrawal was part of Constantius’ response to the heavy losses suffered by western field armies in the years after 406.48 After 420, it is impossible to follow the history of the western army in detail, but the loss of North Africa certainly forced Aetius into another round of belt-tightening, which would have led the central authorities in Italy to withdraw yet more units from the Norican garrison. And this surely happened at other crisis moments too. Equally important was the effect – on Noricum as everywhere else – of declining revenues at the centre. The Life includes a much quoted but nonetheless fantastic vignette of the last moments of one particular unit of frontier garrison troops:

At the time when the Roman Empire was still in existence, the soldiers of many towns were supported by public money for their watch along the wall [the Danube frontier]. When this arrangement ceased, the military formations were dissolved and, at the same time, the wall was allowed to break down. The garrison of Batavis, however, still held out. Some of these had gone to Italy to fetch for their comrades the last payment, but on their way they had been routed by the barbarians, and nobody knew. One day when St Severinus was reading in his cell, he suddenly closed the book and began to sigh heavily and to shed tears. He told those who were present to go speedily to the river [the Inn], which, as he declared, was at that hour red with human blood. And at that moment, the news arrived that the bodies of the said soldiers had been washed ashore by the current of the river.

As with all the episodes in the Life, this is impossible to date precisely. But when central funds began to run out, the surviving garrison troops just disbanded themselves. As the flow of cash slowed to a trickle, soldiers were paid less and less frequently (prompting the ill-fated initiative of the Batavian garrison), and the supply of arms and other essentials declined too. We are told in another anecdote that the tribune in command of the surviving unit at Faviana hesitated to go after marauding barbarians because his men were few and had little weaponry. Severinus told them that all would be well, and that they would simply take the arms of the defeated barbarians.49 This gives us a notion of what happened to those units of the frontier garrison force that were neither redeployed to field armies nor destroyed in encounters with the enemy. As the financial crisis worsened, deliveries of pay and equipment eventually dried up altogether.

In Noricum, it was sometime in the 460s that the troops disbanded, and my best guess would be that it happened shortly after the defeat of the Byzantine armada. But the garrison troops had wives and children living with them, so that even when they disbanded they stayed where they were. Old garrisons didn’t die, but slowly faded away into the citizen militias who, as we’ve already seen, continued to protect their walled settlements once the formal Roman army in the province had ceased to exist. This is the situation that most of the anecdotes in the Life of Severinus presuppose. But because Noricum was a backwater, remote from the main action, provincial Roman life still went on there much as usual. We know from the Life that the roads were still in good repair, and that trading was maintained both with Italy and with near neighbours up and down the Danube. Roman landowners still worked their fields from their walled settlements. At the same time the new political powers dominating the north Alpine region after the collapse of the Hunnic and Roman Empires also figure in the text: the Herules, Alamanni, Ostrogoths and, above all, because they were the province’s nearest neighbours, the Rugi.

The essential problem facing the Noricans at this point was how to continue living a provincial Roman life in the absence of the Empire within whose embrace it had evolved.

We learn from the Life that the Norican communities’ efforts at self-defence were far from unsuccessful – particularly, Eugippius is at pains to convey, given the assistance of Severinus’ powers of prophecy and mediation. Local communities had developed effective techniques for dealing with raiders, sending out scouts to provide advance warning of attacks so that everyone could hurry back inside the walls. Even full-scale assaults such as those carried out by the Alamanni on Quintanis and Batavis could be beaten off. And where raiders took provincials prisoner, they could sometimes be rescued or ransomed.50 More generally, while other more peripheral powers, particularly the Alamanni but also the Herules and Ostrogoths, looked on the Noricans as a source of booty and slaves, their neighbours the Rugi were interested in a more ordered relationship. Some of the Norican towns began to pay tribute to them, in return for which the Rugi left them in peace. Their kings even paid court to Severinus and always listened to his advice, or so the Life tells us, and extensive trading was carried on back and forth across the river.

With the divine assistance to which the saint had access, says Eugippius, some of the towns of Noricum were able to maintain for some time a lifestyle that preserved much of its old Romanness. The emphasis has to be added. One theme of the Life of St Severinus is a kind of London-in-the-Blitz determination to carry on being more Roman than usual. Another is more pessimistic. A sense of danger and threat is felt everywhere. If you ventured out from your settlement even at midday to pick fruit, you might be dragged off into slavery. The citizens of Tiburnia were forced to buy off Valamer’s Goths by handing them just about every item of moveable wealth they possessed, including old clothes and alms collected for the poor. More brutally, whole communities were picked off one by one by rampaging barbarian outsiders, who would carry off any survivors they chose to spare. Severinus tried to warn the inhabitants of Asturis of impending disaster when he left for Comagenis, but they wouldn’t listen, and this town that was the site of his first monastery was duly destroyed, except for one refugee – the individual who brought the news of the disaster to Comagenis. Later on, sudden attacks by the Herules destroyed Ioviacum, and the Thuringi despatched the last inhabitants of Batavis.

Most of the Batavians had already left for Lauriacum, another surviving settlement, and retrenchment of this kind is a third theme of the Life. Outlying sites that were too isolated and dangerous were progressively abandoned. Thus the inhabitants of Quintanis moved to Batavis, and it was together that the two groups sought sanctuary in Lauriacum. Even here, though, they were not completely safe. For the Rugi, although interested in a long-term relationship, nonetheless viewed the Noricans as a resource to be exploited. Different princes of the Rugi, not content with merely extracting tribute from them, also sought on occasion to transplant large numbers north of the Danube, where they would be more fully under their thumb. Severinus fought off these attempts, but it was a losing battle.51

Up to about AD 400, the military power of the Roman Empire had protected the area between the Alps and the Danube, largely excluding from it other forces based north of the river. With the disappearance of that power, the region as it had so far evolved couldn’t function as a self-sustaining unit. Its population became a valuable potential resource for a series of new powers. It was impossible for Norican settlements – even the Fliehburgen – to preserve their independence indefinitely; established patterns of Roman provincial life were bound to erode, whether through violent abduction or less aggressive resettlement.

All of this took some time to unfold. St Severinus died on 5 January 482, and at that point some of the towns even on the Danube line itself still existed. Many had already fallen by the wayside, however, and the new forces, which would eventually turn the region into a thoroughly non-Roman world, were irreversibly at work. As such, Noricum provides us with a case study, a model for what happened to provincial Roman life in areas where the Roman military presence withered away through lack of funds. The provincials were far from helpless, nor did their Romanness disappear overnight. But they and the pattern of their lives depended on the continued flow of imperial power into their locality, and when that ceased, the old way of life was doomed. Noricum also gives us a plausible model for the kind of thing that went on in post-Roman Britain, therefore, where another sub-Roman population struggled to preserve itself in the absence of central protection, first using immigrant Germanic warbands but then fighting against them. It didn’t happen overnight, but Roman villas and towns were eventually destroyed, and the population made to serve the needs of new masters: no longer emperors in Italy but, in Noricum, the Rugi (if they avoided abduction) or, in Britain, various Anglo-Saxon kings.

Heartlands: Gaul and Spain

THE UNRAVELLING OF Empire in Noricum took a particular course, one that flowed from its role as a strategic backwater combined with its lack of a rich, well connected elite of Roman landowners to agitate for its protection by what remained of the state. As a result the Roman Empire, as far as this province was concerned, just faded away. In the old heartlands of the western Empire, Gaul and Spain, the end of the Roman imperial project was never going to be such a low-key affair. The defeat of the Byzantine armada pulled the plug on the expectations of revival aroused by the arrival of Anthemius, but the two regions were still home to rich and powerful Roman landowning families. In Italy and parts of Gaul some quite powerful imperial military formations remained, as well as the by now well established barbarian powers, particularly the Visigoths and Burgundians.52 The fate of Gaul and Spain, therefore, could not be that of places like Noricum or Britain, where a relative power vacuum left provincials to struggle on as best they could. Gaul and Spain, by contrast, saw the intersection of, if anything, too many interested parties. A portrait of the end of Empire here must necessarily work, therefore, on the less intimate level of complicated manoeuvring at royal courts. But thanks to the surviving letter collection of Sidonius Apollinaris, it is no less vividly reflected than is the fate of Noricum in the Life of Severinus.

One of the first to grasp the significance of the defeat of the emperor Anthemius’ North African expedition was the Visigothic king Euric. This younger brother of Theoderic II, who had thrown his weight behind the regime of the western emperor Avitus back in 454, perceived that the world had changed. Where Theoderic had been content to chart the Visigoths’ future within a Roman world that seemed likely to continue and to seek power behind the imperial throne, Euric was made of different stuff. In 465 he had organized a coup in which Theoderic was murdered and he himself took power. Immediately, he sent ambassadors to the kings of the Vandals and Suevi, looking to reverse his brother’s hostile stance towards them.53 Theoderic had allied with the rump of Empire against these powers; now Euric aimed to ally with them against what remained of the Empire. The arrival of Anthemius with strong eastern reinforcements stopped these plans in their tracks, Euric immediately withdrawing his ambassadors so as to avoid finding himself in direct conflict with a newly rejuvenated western authority. With the defeat of the Byzantine armada, however, it became apparent that Anthemius would not become the power that Euric had feared. The Getica sums up succinctly: ‘Becoming aware of the frequent changes of Roman emperor, Euric, king of the Visigoths, took the initiative to seize the Gallic provinces on his own authority.’54 He understood that there was no longer any need to worry about the central Roman authorities. After their last defeat, they had lost all ability to intervene effectively north of the Alps. The way was open to him to pursue his own Visigothic agenda.

As soon as the dust had settled on the African fiasco, Euric set to work. In 469, he launched the first of a series of campaigns designed to carve out an independent Visigothic kingdom. In this year his forces went north, attacking the Bretons under King Riothamus, who were close allies of Anthemius. A Visigothic victory drove Riothamus into sanctuary in Burgundian territory, and gave Euric control of Tours and Bourges, thus extending his northern boundaries to the River Loire (map 16). Further advances in this direction were contained by what was left of the Roman army of the Rhine under its leader, a Count Paul, operating in conjunction with Salian Franks under their king Childeric. Gaul beyond the Loire, however, was of only peripheral interest to Euric. In 470/1, he turned his forces south-east towards the Rhône valley and Arles, the capital of Roman Gaul. There in 471 he administered the coup de grâce to Anthemius’ dwindling hopes by defeating an Italian army led by his son Anthemiolus, who died in the fighting. But capturing walled Roman cities, it will be remembered, was not the Visigoths’ forte. For instance, every summer for four years, 471–4, Visigothic would-be besiegers appeared outside the city of Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne without ever managing to force their way inside. It took Euric until 476, in fact, to gain possession of the region’s two great prizes, Arles and Marseille – by which time he also controlled the Auvergne, ceded to him by the authorities in Italy in an abortive bid to halt his expansion towards Arles. At the same time, more dynamic campaigns had been taking place south of the Pyrenees. In 473, Euric’s forces seized Tarragona and the cities of the Hispanic Mediterranean coast, and by 476 all of the Iberian peninsula was his, except for a small Suevic enclave in the north-west. The Visigothic settlement had finally become a kingdom, stretching from the Loire in the north, to the Alps in the east, to the straits of Gibraltar in the south.55

The Visigoths were not the only power interested in expansion during these years. Euric’s campaigns ran up against the ambitions of the Burgundian kingdom, established in the upper Rhône valley. The Burgundians too had long had their eyes on Arles. Not powerful enough to defeat the Visigoths in the race southwards, they nonetheless had some success in moving the boundaries of their kingdom in that direction. By 476 they had taken a salient of cities and other territory between the Alps and the Rhône, running as far south as Avignon and Cavaillon (map 16). Further north the Franks, too, were emerging for the first time as a major power on the Roman side of the Rhine. The full story is lost in myth and half-history, but roughly what happened is this. A Frankish world previously confined to the east of the Rhine and divided between a series of warband leaders both expanded its control west of the river and at the same time was slowly prompted to unite by the rise of more powerful warlords. Just as with the two Gothic supergroups unified by Alaric and Valamer, this created a force of unprecedented power, able to compete at an entirely new level and which rapidly acquired for itself new territories on former Roman soil. By the 470s, the process was far from complete, but Childeric was already prominent, and by the end of the decade, if not before, he and his Salian Franks had taken control of the old Roman province of Belgica Secunda with its capital at Tournai.56 A whole series of powers, then, carved up between them the old imperial heartlands of Gaul and Spain. Some, like the Visigoths and Burgundians, were well established features of the strategic landscape; others, like the Franks and the Bretons, much more recent creations. South of the Loire, the lands they took were also home to powerful landowning families, used to holding high office within the Roman state. Thanks to Sidonius, who was one of them, we have an inside view of the significance of these upheavals for a select Gallo-Roman few. No source gives us access to the experiences of elite Hispano-Romans, but there is every reason to suppose that their reactions were pretty similar.


In the years between 468 and 476, some of these landowners were manoeuvring to remain part of a functioning western Empire, however much of a rump this might prove to be. This in itself is vivid testimony to how powerful the idea of Empire, despite all its recent setbacks, remained. Sidonius himself, in the time of Avitus, had been happy to work with Visigoths like Theoderic II who knew their place and saw the future in terms of a Visigothic sphere of influence within a continuing Roman world. When other Visigoths, like Euric, wanted their own entirely independent kingdom, however, Sidonius was ready to fight not to be a part of it. In the early 470s he and a group of likeminded friends, including his brother-in-law Ecdicius the son of the emperor Avitus (by birth from the Auvergne), did everything they could to keep Clermont-Ferrand Roman. For example they put money into raising a military force to fend off the annual summer siege of their city by Visigothic forces. The fighting that ensued was pretty desultory. Clermont-Ferrand was not the centrepiece of Euric’s ambition, and Ecdicius once broke through Gothic lines with just eighteen men. The determination of these landowners to remain Roman, however, was deadly serious. They aimed to make enough of a show of armed loyalty to encourage first Anthemius, then his successors, to do their utmost to maintain the Auvergne within a minimal western Empire, rather than toss it away as a prize for Visigothic or Burgundian expansion.57

But while Sidonius and others like him were still labouring to remain Roman, others had already decided that the western Empire had no political future and that it was time to switch allegiance to one of the new powers in the land. The case of Arvandus provides a striking example. Though Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, he wrote to Euric immediately after the African defeat:58

dissuading him from peace with the ‘Greek Emperor’ [Anthemius], insisting that the Bretons settled to the north of the Loire should be attacked, and declaring that the Gallic provinces ought according to the law of nations to be divided up with the Burgundians and a great deal more mad stuff in the same vein, fitted to rouse a warlike king to fury and a peaceful one to shame.

Arvandus, who cheerfully acknowledged authorship of this highly treasonable letter during his subsequent trial, clearly preferred the rule of Euric or the king of the Burgundians to that of Anthemius. Or perhaps, like some Gallic landowners in the 410s, he saw this kind of territorial division as the best path to peace and the maintenance of some kind of social order. Whatever his motivation, the episode demonstrates that opinion in Sidonius’ circle of landowning peers was thoroughly divided. As we have seen, Sidonius took a very different view from Arvandus. But Arvandus was his friend and Sidonius did what he could to protect him when the former was indicted, even though the case had been brought to Italy by three other leading landowners who were also his friends (and one even a relative) – Tonantius Ferreolus, Praetorian Prefect of Gaul in 451; Thaumastius, Sidonius’ paternal uncle; and a lawyer and high-ranking senator (illustris), Petronius of Arles. Arvandus was not, however, alone in his thinking. By 473, Euric’s forces in eastern Spain were under the joint command (along with a Goth) of a certain Vincentius, who in a previous incarnation in the 460s had been commander of the last properly Roman forces in the region. Others of both greater and lesser standing in the Roman provincial hierarchy were making the same leap. One Victorius was commander of Euric’s forces in Gaul in the early 470s. And a second celebrated treason trial centred on the deputy prefect of Gaul, Seronatus, who in 475 was accused of facilitating Euric’s takeover of Gallic territories, and was eventually found guilty and executed.59

Further east, the rise of independent Burgundian power was having similar effects. Sidonius’ collection includes a letter to a certain Syagrius, who wielded considerable influence at the Burgundian court, not least through speaking Burgundian better than the Burgundians:

I am . . . inexpressibly amazed that you have quickly acquired a knowledge of the German tongue with such ease . . . You have no idea what amusement it gives me, and others too, when I hear that in your presence the barbarian is afraid to perpetrate a barbarism in his own language. The bent elders of the Germans are astounded at you when you translate letters, and they adopt you as umpire and arbitrator in their mutual dealings. A new Solon of the Burgundians in discussing the laws60 . . . you are loved, your company is sought, you are much visited, you delight, you are picked out, you are invited, you decide issues and are listened to.

Sidonius was praising Syagrius for making himself part of a post-Roman world dominated by alien kings: precisely what he himself was striving to avoid.61 There may even have been a generational element in the alertness of the younger men to the fact that the end of the old regime was nigh. Amongst Sidonius’ supporters in the Auvergne was a certain Eucherius who seems to have put up cash for the city’s defence, at the same time as his son Calminius could be spotted from the city walls lined up with the besieging Goths. Sidonius’ son Apollinaris, too, embraced the new Gothic order with enthusiasm, eventually holding high military office under Euric’s son.62 Thus after 468 Gallo-Roman landowning opinion was split down the middle even within the same family. In the meantime, Euric played his hand with skill. The waning of central Roman imperial power was allowing him to use the military strength of his Visigothic followers to establish a large territorial power-base. But he had no model for governing this new domain other than that bequeathed to him by the dying Roman state.

The Visigothic kingdom that would emerge after 476 was thus thoroughly sub-Roman in character. It continued to operate, like its Roman predecessor, by means of an infrastructure of cities, provinces and governors. It had written law (very often a continuation of existing Roman regulations), and levied taxation on agricultural produce – a practice only possible given that the existing Roman social order of landowners and peasantry survived. Landowners needed to stay in business to extract the peasants’ surplus, keeping part of it for themselves as rent while passing on the rest to the state as revenue. The operation of Roman law, together with the operation of the tax system, required the expertise of Roman functionaries to keep it going.

While he could use Visigothic arms to carve out a kingdom, then, Euric needed Romans to run it for him. The more members of the Roman aristocratic and administrative classes he could attract to his colours, the easier it would be to turn his conquests into a functioning kingdom. So he most graciously accepted all offers of service from Roman aristocrats, letting them praise him in iambic pentameters if they so chose. Euric was happy to perpetuate this practice begun in the reign of Theoderic, and showed the degree of respect for Roman cultural forms that was required to keep the flow of personnel coming. And he had his own Syagrius, a poet and lawyer from Narbonne called Leo, described by Sidonius in 476/7 as Euric’s letter- and speech-writer:

Through [Leo] the famous king himself [Euric] terrifies the hearts of nations far across the sea, or from his commanding eminence makes, after his victory, a complicated treaty with the barbarians trembling on the banks of the Waal, or having restrained people by arms now restrains arms by laws through the whole extent of his enlarged domains.

Having a deep need of them, Euric was willing to promote any Romans who would offer him service.63

He had, in fact, a mighty gift to offer in return. The disappearance of the Roman state put the Roman landowning class’s position in doubt, since along with the state disappeared the legal system that had secured it against all comers. And although this privileged class survived, for instance, in the Visigothic and Burgundian kingdoms, it was not always the case elsewhere. Political revolution is often accompanied by social revolution, as it was in other parts of the Roman west. In post-Roman Britain, for instance, the old Roman landowning class disappeared completely. Even if they merely allowed their resident Roman landowners to continue living as before, therefore, new states such as the Burgundian and Gothic kingdoms were doing them a huge favour.

Historians have sometimes been taken aback by the seeming readiness of this class to throw off their allegiance to the Empire, and renegotiate a fallback position with the nearest barbarian power of significance. This, it has been argued, shows a fundamental lack of loyalty to the Roman state – an observation which then becomes part of a narrative of imperial collapse. Roman Europe disappeared, it is argued, because its elites didn’t want to maintain it. In my view, such thoughts fail to do justice to the particularities of this group of people whose position was based almost exclusively on the ownership of land. Landed wealth is by definition immoveable. Unless you belonged to the super-rich of the Roman world, owning lands far to the east as well as in Gaul or Spain, then when the Roman state started to fail, you were left with little choice. You either had to mend fences with your nearest incoming barbarian king so as to secure the continuation of your property rights, or give up the elite status into which you had been born. If, as the Empire collapsed around them, Roman landowners perceived the slightest chance of holding on to their lands, they were bound to take it.

In his dealings with the provincial aristocracies of southern Gaul and Spain, then, Euric held the trump card. All he needed to do was steadily expand the area under his control – a relatively easy matter since the decline of its tax revenues meant that the Roman state could put few soldiers in the field – and the landowners would come running. Some required little prompting, others more persuasion, but most eventually came round. Even Sidonius himself crossed this Rubicon. Having led the resistance to Gothic expansion in Clermont-Ferrand, he could hardly expect Euric to smile upon him when the city finally fell into Gothic hands in 474/5. He was duly carted off to exile, first to a castle near Carcassonne, then to Bordeaux. There he tried to continue his literary studies, but ‘my drooping eyelids scarcely got a wink of sleep; for a din would immediately arise from the two old Gothic women near the skylight of my bedroom, the most quarrelsome, drunken, vomiting creatures the world will ever see.’ Biberunt ut Gothi – ‘drinking like Goths’ – would be a proverbial expression in Italy by the sixth century. The letter from which this passage comes was written to Leo of Narbonne, poet, lawyer and Euric’s chief adviser, accompanying a copy of a text called The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, which Leo had requested from Sidonius. Here, in fact, lay Sidonius’ path to redemption. Euric was so busy that he could only see Sidonius briefly, at Bordeaux, twice in three months, but Sidonius had friends at court: Leo, and another literary acquaintance called Lampridius. By their intercession, he got off lightly in the end. His estates in Clermont, which could easily have been forfeit, were returned to him. He wrote an ingratiating little poem in return:

Our lord and master [Euric], even he, has but little time to spare while a conquered world makes suit to him. Here in Bordeaux, we see the blue-eyed Saxon . . . Here your old Sygambrian,64 who had shorn the back of your head after defeat . . . Here wanders the Herulian with his blue-grey eyes . . . Here the Burgundian seven-foot high oft begs for peace on bended knee . . . From this source the Roman seeks salvation, and against the hordes of the Scythian clime . . . it is your bands, Euric, that are called for.

Sidonius sent this first to Lampridius, hoping that he would show it to the king. He did. Euric, the beneficiary of so many conquests, accepted this literary flag of surrender and could afford to be generous.65 Whether he let all his former opponents off so lightly is perhaps unlikely. And certainly in less successful kingdoms, where there were fewer resources to go round, Roman landowners found themselves having to accept harsher terms from their new masters than those meted out to Sidonius.

Compared with the Visigoths, for instance, the Burgundians managed to expand their domain only modestly between 468 and 476. Like Euric, the Burgundian monarchy needed to attract Roman supporters, but had its own armed men to reward as well; and all this from a much more restricted resource base. The result was a compromise, which we find reflected in one of the law-books of the new Burgundian kingdom, the Book of Constitutions:

It was commanded at the time the order was issued whereby our people [the Burgundians] should receive one-third of the slaves, and two-thirds of the land, that whoever had received land together with slaves either by the gift of our predecessors or of ourselves, should not require a third of the slaves nor two parts of the land from that place in which hospitality had been assigned him.66

There is much more that we would like to know, but the arrangement alluded to here gives us an insight into how Burgundian kings set about resolving the political balancing act that their situation required. About twenty years ago, the historian Walter Goffart argued that what was being referred to here was a division of the tax revenues from the Roman city territories (civitates) that had fallen into Burgundian hands, rather than actual real estate. This is a very forced reading and, as many have argued since, there is no doubt that what we’re talking about here is the division of actual estates, parts of which were to be handed over to the Burgundian freemen.67

Within the Burgundian kingdom, then, occurred a root-and-branch recycling of landed assets. And as the law makes clear, it was again a process rather than an event. The order that they receive two-thirds of the estates and one-third of the tenants applied only to those Burgundians who had not already been granted land or slaves. We’re also not told whether every Roman landowner was affected, or whether this was a matter in which the king exercised discretion. But the price of keeping some of your land was, on the face of it, relatively high for Roman estate owners. On the other hand, there is a singular lack of any mention of taxation in subsequent Burgundian legislation,which may also be significant. The total deal was perhaps that, in return for handing over two-thirds of your land, you not only got to keep the other third, but were also exempted from paying tax on it.68 If so, the situation was not so harsh as it might at first seem. From the 470s, as the legal evidence makes clear, Euric and his son and successor, Alaric II, were also paying off their supporters in the Visigothic kingdom with grants of estates.69 But that kingdom was much larger, and may not have required so much to be expropriated from its Roman landowners.

Either way, the final unravelling of the western Empire in its old heartlands of southern Gaul and Spain saw a great carve-up of the available assets. The interested military powers flexed their muscles, mounting the campaigns from which the new territorial boundaries emerged. The Visigoths came away with a huge kingdom, the Burgundians with just south-east Gaul. Further north, the situation remained in flux. In the north-east, the Salian Franks were the coming power, and in the north-west a Breton kingdom of some size was emerging. At the same time, the leadership of what remained of the Roman army of the Rhine seems to have established, for the moment at least, a power-base to the east of Paris. The defeat of Basiliscus’ armada in 468 prompted Euric’s wars of conquest, the campaigns of the Franks and Burgundians, and a consequent revolution in landownership. The overall result was a redrawing of mental as well as physical maps. Former barbarian settlements had become kingdoms, Roman landowners had been forced to make life-changing choices, and the central Roman state was in its last throes.

The Imperial Centre

WHILE WHAT REMAINED of the heartlands and outer reaches of the Empire in 468 was being annexed or just fading away, in the imperial centre – both in Italy and Constantinople – confusion and indecision reigned. In Italy, in the aftermath of the Byzantine armada’s failure, Anthemius and Ricimer were evenly matched in their jostling for pre-eminence. Ricimer’s acceptance of Anthemius’ arrival on the scene had certainly reduced his own power. But hopes that the assistance Anthemius was bringing in from the east would kick-start the rebuilding of the west had come to nothing. Anthemius now had little to offer, serving merely as an obstacle to Ricimer’s ambitions. A quarrel broke out between them in 470. Ricimer went as far as gathering an army of six thousand men and threatening war, but the two were reconciled early in 471. Then the defeat and death of Anthemiolus, the emperor’s son, followed later that year by the loss of all the troops that Anthemius had sent with him against the Visigoths in Gaul, cut away the regime’s last military prop, and Ricimer pounced. Anthemius holed up in Rome, and Ricimer besieged him there for several months before the city fell. The emperor was cornered and killed by Ricimer’s nephew, the Burgundian prince Gundobad, on 11 July 472.

Olybrius, brother-in-law of the heir apparent to the Vandal kingdom, Huneric, had long been pushed by Geiseric as a candidate for the western throne. He was sent to Italy from Constantinople in 472 by the emperor Leo to act as mediator between Ricimer and Anthemius, but became instead Ricimer’s next candidate for the purple. Having been made western emperor in April 472 (before the death of the present incumbent Anthemius), he died on 2 November of the same year, a short while after Ricimer himself, on 18 August. This left Gundobad as kingmaker-in-chief, and his choice fell upon a highranking guards officer, Glycerius, the Count of the Domestics (comes domesticorum). He was proclaimed emperor on 3 March 473. It was while all this fiddling was going on in Rome that the Visigoths, Burgundians and Vandals were busy expanding their realms. All that Glycerius ruled, therefore, as emperor of the west, was Italy and a tiny island of territory north of the Alps in south-eastern Gaul. The struggle for what was notionally the imperial throne had become a murderous competition for next to nothing. That, at least, seems to have been Gundobad’s conclusion. Having briefly adopted his uncle’s role as kingmaker, on the death of his father Gundioc king of the Burgundians in late 473 or early 474, he returned home. He must have decided that the struggle for power in Italy was a much less attractive proposition than claiming his share of the Burgundian kingdom alongside his brothers Chilperic, Godigisel and Godomar. What better measure of the erosion of the western Empire?

Gundobad’s departure created a power vacuum into which stepped Julius Nepos, nephew and successor of Count Marcellinus, the ruler of Dalmatia since the 450s. After the murder of his uncle in Sicily in 468, Julius inherited Dalmatia and what remained of the Illyrian field army. With the eastern Empire’s blessing but no actual assistance, he landed his forces at Portus, at the mouth of the Tibur just outside Rome, in early summer 474. Having overthrown Glycerius without a fight, he proclaimed himself western emperor on 19 or 24 June 474. But Nepos never reconciled the commanders of the army of Italy to his rule, which, as a result, lasted only just over a year. And it was one of his own appointees, the general Orestes, whom we met in Chapter 7 in the unlikely guise of ambassador of Attila the Hun, who eventually drove him out. Nepos’ aim in appointing Orestes had been to clear up the mess in Italy, but Orestes turned his forces on Nepos instead. On 28 August 475, Nepos left Ravenna and sailed back to Dalmatia, abandoning the Roman west.70

WHILE ALL THIS was going on in Italy, the emperor Leo in Constantinople, rendered impotent by the fiasco of the 468 expedition, looked on with increasing despair. On his return to the east, the armada’s commander Basiliscus fled for sanctuary to the Church of Hagia Sophia (not the current one, but its predecessor burned down in the Nika riot of 532), and refused to come out until Leo announced publicly that he was forgiven. The authorities in Constantinople had to decide what to do next. They did their best to stabilize the situation in Italy, wanting it to be ruled – naturally enough – by an ally. Although it should have been plain from the moment of the armada’s defeat that the western Empire was doomed, it was only after the death of Anthemius that it became inescapably obvious in Constantinople that there was no further room for manoeuvre. Since they couldn’t be defeated, and were already encroaching on the eastern Mediterranean, the Vandals needed to be conciliated. So negotiations began. The result was a treaty concluded between the emperor Leo and the Vandals in 474. Who could now doubt that Constantinople had given up all hope of reviving the Roman west?71

Fittingly, it was the army of Italy that was the last to give up on the idea of Empire. Having driven out Nepos, Orestes put his own son Romulus on the throne. Orestes had travelled twice on Hunnic missions to Constantinople. His father Tatulus and father-in-law Romulus were at this time, during the later 440s, close confidants of the Roman commander Aetius, and part of the embassy that arrived at Attila’s court when Priscus was there. After the collapse of the Hunnic Empire, Orestes had found his way back to Italy, and rose through the imperial ranks until appointed to senior military command by Julius Nepos. Bearer of the same name as Rome’s founder, Orestes’ son Romulus was made emperor on 31 October 475, but Orestes and his brother Paul were the real éminences grises. No doubt whichever panegyrist it was who spoke at the coronation declared it the start of a new golden age ushered in by a second Romulus. Reality proved somewhat different, and Romulus, this last western emperor, has gone down in history as Augustulus – ‘little Augustus’.

By this stage, no one could have thought that the ongoing struggle for power within Italy was likely to lead to the control of any assets outside the peninsula. With the rest of the west in the hands of other powers, and the remaining army of Italy more or less impotent, what further complications could there be?

As the Hunnic Empire collapsed in the mid-460s, many refugees of Germanic origin, particularly the Sciri but also the Rugi and others, had moved on to Italy and been recruited as allied soldiery by Ricimer. During the first half of the 470s they had made themselves useful to the Italian military establishment, and their leader Odovacar, of the old Scirian royal family, had become an important voice in Italian politics. He’d played a key role in the civil war between Ricimer and Anthemius, and had become Count of the Domestics (comes domesticorum) under Nepos, evidently receiving from him the rank of Patrician.72 On his way to Italy he had stopped off in Noricum to see Severinus: he was informed by the holy man that he would become famous.

When he took his leave, Severinus again said to him: ‘Go to Italy, go, now covered with mean hides; soon you will make rich gifts to many’73

By the early 470s, as we have seen, the Roman state’s main problem was lack of money. Even into the 460s, the army of Italy had remained the single largest military formation in western Europe – considerably larger, I suspect, than the tax revenues of Italy alone could support. And, as pay started to dry up, the troops began to get restive, especially the Sciri. Odovacar had enough imagination and intelligence to grasp the point: with the army becoming increasingly difficult to manage, trying to set up yet another short-lived regime was a waste of time. In August 476 he had gathered enough support to act. He captured and killed first Orestes, near Placentia on 28 August, then his brother Paul in Ravenna, on 4 September. Now in control of the immediate situation, Procopius tells us, Odovacar set about addressing the underlying problem. Since there was no prospect of pay increases, another form of reward had to be found. Accordingly, Odovacar set about distributing to the soldiers some of the landed estates of Italy: ‘By giving the third part of the land to the barbarians, and in this way gaining their allegiance most firmly, [Odovacar] held the supreme power securely.’74 As so often, we know much less about what happened than we would like to. The distribution was organized by a Roman senator by the name of Liberius, but clearly not the whole of Italy was involved. The armed forces needed to be retained in the strategically important areas of the peninsula, particularly the north, to guard the Alpine passes, and probably also the Adriatic coast, since Nepos was still at large in Dalmatia.75 Whether Odovacar needed, as had happened in Burgundy, to dispossess the Roman landowners of part of their estates, or whether sufficient land could be found by reallocating long-term leases on public ones, as Aetius had done for those senators driven out of Proconsularis by Geiseric (see Chapter 6), is also unclear. Certainly, unlike in the Burgundian kingdom, taxation remained a living feature of government in post-Roman Italy, so Odovacar, like Euric, perhaps had more freedom of manoeuvre and didn’t need to resort to large-scale private confiscation. Either way, he found enough landed resources to satisfy the expectations of his men – he path to a secure hold on power in these changed times.

By early autumn 476, most loose ends had been tied up. The changes brought on by Odovacar’s regime were pushing Italy towards a new political stability, even if no land distributions had yet taken place. One anomaly remained. At the moment, Italy still had an emperor in Romulus Augustulus, but Odovacar had no interest in preserving the position of this notional ruler who controlled nothing beyond the Italian peninsula. Consulting friends in the Senate, he came up with the solution. A senatorial embassy was sent to Constantinople, now presided over by Leo’s successor the emperor Zeno,

proposing that there was no need of a divided rule and that one, shared Emperor was sufficient for both territories. They said, moreover, that they had chosen Odovacar, a man of military and political experience, to safeguard their own affairs, and that Zeno should confer upon him the rank of Patrician and entrust him with the government of Italy.76

In the kind of language that accompanied the outbreak of the Falklands war in the 1980s, Zeno was to have sovereignty over Italy as Roman emperor, but Odovacar would control the administration. In practice, this meant merely that by promoting him to the rank of Patrician Zeno should legitimize Odovacar’s seizure of power; it was the title that the effective rulers of Italy such as Stilicho and Aetius had been holding now for the best part of a century. Zeno hesitated for a moment – an embassy from Nepos had just arrived asking for his assistance in reclaiming the throne. Here was Zeno’s chance to put the power of the east behind a last attempt to restore the western Empire. He weighed up the situation carefully, then wrote a sympathetic note to Nepos. The conclusion he had come to was what everyone else already knew. The western Empire was over. His letter to Odovacar expressed the pious hope that he would take Nepos back, but, more significantly, addressed him as Patrician, saying that he would have appointed him to this dignity but didn’t need to since he had already received it under Nepos. The reply seemed ambiguous, but wasn’t. The truth was that Zeno wasn’t prepared to move a muscle on Nepos’ behalf – he was writing to Odovacar formally, as ruler of Italy.

Odovacar took the hint. He deposed Romulus, pensioning him off with a charity rare in imperial politics to an estate in Campania. He then sent the western imperial vestments, including, of course, the diadem and cloak which only an emperor could wear, back to Constantinople. This momentous act brought half a millennium of empire to a close.

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