The Fall of the West

[455-95]

Hesperium Romanae gentis imperium , . . cum hoc Augustulo periit. . . Gotborum dehinc regibus Romam tenentibus.

The western Empire of the Roman people . . . perished with that little Augustus . . . the Gothic Kings occupying Rome thereafter.

Count Marcellinus

Some time in the middle of March 455 - it must have been on or about the Ides - the Emperor Valentinian III, who had deserted Ravenna to take up residence in Rome, rode out of the city to the Campus Martius, there to do a little archery practice and to watch the athletes exercising in the spring sunshine. Suddenly, as he paused by some laurel bushes, two soldiers of barbarian origin stepped out from behind them and ran him through with their swords - none of his court or bodyguard lifting, so far as we can gather, a finger in his defence. To a considerable extent, Valentinian could be said to have brought it on himself. Only a few months before, he had personally killed in very much the same way his magister militum Aetius, who had effectively ruled the West for the past thirty years, for no better reason than that the latter had planned to marry off his son to one of the Emperor's daughters; and the murdered man's friends and supporters had there and then determined on revenge.

Valentinian left no son; and the choice of the army fell on an elderly senator, Petronius Maximus, generally believed to have been the grandson of the usurper Maximus who had been crushed by Theodosius the Great. As a young man he had had an outstanding career, having been Consul for the first time at the age of thirty-eight and Praetorian Prefect of Italy six years later; but he was now well past his prime, and if - as was popularly rumoured - he had bribed his way to power, he soon had cause to regret it: almost at once, he found the cares of Empire in the fast-disintegrating West too much for him. He showed, too, a deplorable lack of both political judgement and human sensitivity, first by refusing to punish the murderers of his predecessor and accepting them instead into the circle of his personal friends,1 and secondly by insisting on immediately taking the widowed Empress Eudoxia as his wife. Eudoxia

- now thirty-seven and, like her mother, one of the most beautiful women of her day - was still in deep mourning for her husband whom, despite his innumerable infidelities, she had genuinely loved; and she was horrified at the prospect of a marriage, against her will, to a tired old man nearly twice her age. Knowing that an appeal to Constantinople would have little chance of being answered, she therefore decided on a course of action similar to that chosen by her despairing sister-in-law Honoria a few years earlier: she invoked the assistance of a barbarian King.

So, at least, runs the traditional story. It does not, however, sound particularly convincing, and one of the only two chroniclers to report it

- John of Antioch - describes it as hearsay. A less romantic but, alas, more probable version claims that Eudoxia proved well able to look after herself and indignantly rejected the new Emperor's advances. In such an event she would have had no reason to appeal to King Gaiseric; and indeed the latter's subsequent invasion of Italy requires no explanation of this kind. Neither Alaric nor Attila had bothered to find pretexts for aggression: the reputation of Rome provided motive enough for any barbarian chieftain out for plunder. But the point hardly matters. Whatever the reason, the city was once again under threat - and this time from the last of the three formidable peoples that, during the fifth century, devastated so much of Europe: the Vandals.

By comparison with the Goths and the Huns, the Vandals had little direct impact on the Byzantine Empire; they will not, in consequence, occupy much space in this book. Suffice it to say here that they were a Germanic tribe, in creed fanatically Arian, who had fled westward from the Huns at the end of the previous century and, after invading and laying waste a large area of Gaul, had settled in Spain in 409. There they had remained until 428, when the newly crowned King Gaiseric led his entire people - probably some160,000 men, women and children — across the sea to the North African coast. (Already, it will be noted, the Vandals possessed a fleet - the only barbarians to do so.) A treaty concluded with Valentinian by which the Vandal state was acknowledged as part of

1 According to Procopius {History of the Wars, 111, iv) it was Maximus himself who had been responsible for Valentinian's murder, the Emperor having violated his wife shortly before. But Procopius (who was born in about 500) is, at least in the opinion of Gibbon, 'a fabulous writer for events which precede his own memory".

the Empire proved short-lived; in 439 Gaiseric tore it up and declared an independent autocracy - similarly, a step that no other barbarian ruler had ever taken. Some time later he added Sicily to his dominions. By now, having established his capital at Carthage, he was the undisputed master of the whole western Mediterranean.

Thus, whether or not he ever received an appeal from Eudoxia, he would have been able and willing to answer one; and Valentinian had been less than three months in his grave when the Vandal fleet put to sea. In Rome, the reaction to the news was one of panic. The Emperor, cowering in his palace, issued a proclamation - not, as might have been expected, calling upon all able-bodied men to rally to the defence of the Empire, but announcing that anyone who wished to leave was free to do so. He need not have bothered. Already the terrified Romans were sending their wives and daughters away to safety, and the roads to the north and east were choked with carts as the more well-to-do families -and indeed all those with objects of value that they wished to preserve from Vandal clutches - poured out of the city.

Such spirit as was shown was directed less against the invaders than against Petronius Maximus himself. He too had resolved upon flight; but his subjects, who held him responsible for all their woes, were determined that he should not escape. On 31 May, with the Vandal fleet already approaching the Italian coast, the palace guard mutinied, fell upon their hopeless master, killed him, dismembered the body and flung the pieces into the Tiber. He had reigned for just seventy days; and three days after his death King Gaiseric stepped ashore at Ostia. For the fourth time in less than half a century, a barbarian army stood at the gates of Rome.

Had it not been for Pope Leo, who had turned back Attila on the banks of the Mincio three years before, it would have been the fifth; and now once again the Pope set out for the barbarian camp to plead on behalf of his city. This time he was on far weaker ground: Gaiseric was already on the threshold of his objective, his men were healthy and well-fed, and he had no advancing army in his rear. On the other hand, though an Arian, he was at least a Christian - and as such might be expected to show some respect for the papal dignity. Leo's mission was not entirely successful - that would have been too much to hope - but neither was it a total failure. The Vandal refused to be thwarted of his plunder; he promised, however, that there would be no killing, no torturing to discover the location of hidden treasure and no destruction of buildings, public or private. It may, perhaps, have been cold comfort; but it was better than nothing.

And so the gates were opened, and the barbarian horde passed into an unresisting city. For fourteen relentless days they quietly and systematically stripped it of its wealth: the gold and silver ornaments from the churches, the statues from the palaces, the sacred vessels from the Jewish synagogue, even the gilded copper roof - or half of it - from the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. Everything was carted to Ostia, loaded into the waiting ships and taken off for the enrichment of Carthage. Their work done, Gaiseric and his men departed in good order, forcing Eudoxia and her two daughters to accompany them1 and leaving a desecrated and humiliated city behind. True to their word, however, they had left the people and the buildings unharmed. They had behaved like brigands, certainly; but not, on this occasion, like Vandals.

Less than two years after the death of Valentinian, in late January or early February 457, the Eastern Emperor Marcian followed him to the grave; and with Marcian the male Theodosian line - of which, through his marriage to Pulcheria, he must be counted an honorary member -came to an end. Such moments of dynastic exhaustion were always dangerous for the Roman Empire. Theoretically, the Augustus was still chosen by the army; if the diadem had long appeared to be almost hereditary, this was only because so many Emperors had followed the practice of nominating their sons and having them formally recognized during their own lifetimes. Marcian, without male issue, had nominated no one. Pulcheria would doubtless have saved the situation as before had she been alive; but she had died - a few months after Attila - in 453.2 Her two younger sisters (who had in any case never involved themselves in affairs of state) had both predeceased her. The throne, in short, seemed emptier than it had since the death of Julian; and the people of Constantinople looked to the army to fill it - or, more precisely, to its chief: the magister militum per orientem, Aspar.

Aspar had first distinguished himself as long ago as 424, when he had been a member of the expedition to Ravenna which had deposed Johannes and placed young Valentinian on the throne. Eight years later, in 432, he had commanded the army sent out by Theodosius to North Africa to

1.   Eudoxia was to remain seven years at Carthage. Only in 462, after repeated requests by Leo, was she permitted to return to Constantinople with her daughter Placidia - wife of the Roman senator (and later, briefly, Emperor) Olybrius. The other sister, Eudocia, Gaiseric had married off to his son Huncric.

2.   She left all her immense wealth to the poor - a bequest which Marcian, to his eternal credit, faithfully carried out.

reinforce the local legions and, it was hoped, turn the tide against the Vandal invasion; despite his failure, his reputation for leadership and personal courage had remained undiminished. Since then he had served as Consul, and his sons had been Consuls in their turn; he now bore the title 'First of the Patricians', and would in fact almost certainly have succeeded Theodosius instead of Marcian - who, when he had first arrived in Constantinople, penniless, from Thrace, had joined Aspar's domestic staff and remained a member of it for nearly twenty years - but for two things: he was an Alan - a member of that formerly nomadic, pastoral Germanic clan that in 370 had been driven by the Huns from its homeland beyond the Black Sea - and, like nearly all the Christian barbarians, an Arian.

There could, in consequence, be no question of Aspar's own succession. Like the Frankish general Arbogast, however - whose position in the West had been strikingly similar sixty-four years before - he was quite content to be a kingmaker. Significantly, his choice fell on another of his underlings -the steward of his own household, an orthodox Christian from the province of Dacia named Leo. The legions obediently acclaimed their new Emperor and raised him on their shields according to tradition; but now, for the first time, a second ceremony was instituted. On 7 February 45 7, in the course of a solemn mass in the Church of the Holy Wisdom, Leo was formally crowned by Patriarch Anatolius - a clear reflection of the increased importance of the Patriarchate since the Council of Chalcedon and at the same time a sign that the old order was beginning to change: away from the venerable military traditions on which the Empire had been founded and towards that religious, mystical concept of sovereignty which was to grow ever more insistent as the centuries went by.

Leo had little formal education; he possessed, on the other hand, a full measure of good sound common sense and - equally important -a mind of his own; if Aspar had thought that he was placing a puppet on the throne of Byzantium, he soon found himself mistaken. A furious dispute between the two broke out within weeks of Leo's accession - probably over his refusal to appoint one of Aspar's sons to a position of high emolument - and was further exacerbated by the Emperor's determination to clip the wings of the dangerously powerful Germanic element in the State, of which Aspar was the outstanding representative. In pursuance of this policy, he resolved to purge the army of Germans and to reconstruct it around a nucleus of Isaurians, a tough mountain folk hailing from a wild region of the Taurus south of Iconium and Lystra, around the basin of the Calycadnus river. Aspar, equally determined to preserve the status quo, fought back; and the rivalry between Emperor and general soon became the principal leitmotiv of Leo's reign.

It was perhaps inevitable that this rivalry should produce two distinct factions within the government. On the Emperor's side the leading influence was that of an Isaurian chieftain whose original name, Tarasicodissa Rousoumbladeotes, he very sensibly changed, before marrying Leo's daughter Ariadne, to Zeno. But Aspar too had adherents within the Palace, the chief among whom was Basileus, the brother of the Emperor's wife Verina. The two could scarcely have been more different. Aspar was a barbarian of little or no culture, who spent his leisure hours, wrote Priscus, 'with actors and jugglers and all stage amusements'; as a convinced Arian, he came near to denying the godhead of Christ; as a leader of men, he was the finest general of his time. Basiliseus, by contrast, was a Hellenized, well-educated Roman; a fanatical monophysite, for whom Christ was divine rather than human; something of a joke in Constantinople by reason of his consuming desire for the imperial diadem, which he made no attempt to conceal; and, as would soon be proved, a man totally unfitted for any sort of command. Despite their differences, however, they were flung together by their common hatred for the Isaurians; and when the Emperor decided in 468 to launch a massive naval expedition against King Gaiseric and his Vandals, he was persuaded by his wife and Aspar to put Basiliseus at its head.

To many a Roman, this expedition seemed long overdue. Thirteen years had passed since Gaiseric's sack of Rome, during which time the Empire had not stirred against him. The West, to be sure, was so near the point of collapse as to be no longer capable of avenging the insult; but the apathy of the East was harder to defend. Certain apologists for Marcian had attempted to excuse his inertia by claiming that in his youth, while a member of Aspar's ill-fated campaign of 432 against the Vandals, he had been captured, taken with a group of fellow-prisoners to the palace at Carthage, and there forced to wait for several hours in the courtyard with no protection from the broiling sun. Soon he had laid down to sleep; and Gaiseric, looking down from a window, had been astonished to see a huge eagle hovering above him, shading him with its wings. It was, he immediately understood, a sign from heaven; the young man clearly had a great future in store. Summoning him to his presence, he offered to release him on the spot in return for a promise that, whatever his destiny, he would never again take up arms against the Vandal Kingdom. Marcian had agreed, and had kept his word for the rest of his life.

It was a good story; but it is unlikely to have been widely believed.

Marcian had been a straightforward, down-to-earth character, not at all the sort to whom miracles occur. He had, on the other hand, inaugurated a blessed period - which Leo was to continue after his death - of peace, prosperity and good government, after eighteen years of which there could be no justification for leaving the Vandals still unpunished. Besides, he had another, even better reason for intervention: Gaiseric, a fanatical Arian, had initiated a savage persecution of the orthodox Christians. A number of churches and monasteries had been burnt to ashes, and many venerable ecclesiastics, if not actually put to death, had been dispossessed, driven from their homes, and even occasionally tortured. Leo's long-awaited announcement of his proposed expedition was therefore greeted with relief and satisfaction, and preparations began. They were conceived on a colossal scale: over a thousand ships, we are told, were collected from all over the eastern Mediterranean, and a hundred thousand men. If these figures are correct, the combined naval and military force should have been more than enough to wipe the Vandals off the face of Africa, and under virtually any other commander would certainly have done so.

Not, however, under Basileus. According to Procopius - our only source for the campaign1 - it began promisingly enough, with two highly successful subsidiary expeditions in which Marcellinus, Lord of Dalmatia, drove the Vandals from Sardinia while a Byzantine general named Heraclius landed in Tripolitania with a small force and advanced on Carthage from the south-east. Basileus had meanwhile landed at a place called Mercurion near Cape Bon; but instead of marching directly on the Vandal capital and taking the enemy by surprise, he settled down there and showed no inclination to go further. This gave Gaiseric precisely the opportunity he needed. He sent envoys to Mercurion to say that he would do all that the Emperor required of him, and asking only for five days' grace, during which he would make the necessary arrangements. Basileus, already congratulating himself on a bloodless victory, was only too ready to agree.

It was the greatest mistake of his life. Gaiseric spent the five days preparing his war fleet, together with a number of empty hulks to be used as fire-boats. The wind then turned, exactly as he had foreseen; and on the fifth day his ships sailed before a fresh following breeze into

1 History of the Wars, 111, vi. Despite Gibbon's strictures (p. 16m.), Procopius is probably quite reliable here. The true facts would have been well known in his day; and he had, moreover, been a member of the expedition against Carthage of 553, in which Bclisarius succeeded where Basileus had failed.

Mercurion, towing the hulks behind them. Just as they entered the harbour, the sailors lit the fuses, releasing the blazing hulks to bear down into the centre of the densely packed Byzantine fleet. Basileus and his men were powerless to stop them or to quench the flames, which spread almost instantaneously from one vessel to the next. 'And,' writes Procopius,

as the fire advanced, the Roman fleet was naturally thrown into confusion, and the noise of the wind and the crackling flames was mingled with the cries of the soldiers and sailors as they shouted commands to one another, using long poles to push off the fire-boats and each others' ships . .. And now the Vandals too were among them, ramming and sinking their vessels, taking prisoner such of the soldiers as attempted to escape and seizing their arms for plunder.

Within a few hours it was all over. The wretched Basileus, who had taken flight at an early stage of the battle, returned to Constantinople, where the mood of anger, disappointment and humiliation was such that he was obliged to seek refuge in St Sophia. Only after impassioned entreaties by his sister the Empress did Leo agree to spare his life.

It was fortunate for Leo that the blame for the North African debacle fell so squarely on the head of its leader. If anyone else was held responsible it was Aspar, who was suspected in some quarters of having secretly sided with his fellow-Arian Gaiseric and bribedBasileus to betray his trust. This rumour was almost certainly baseless; it was, however, a reflection of Aspar's extreme unpopularity, which was in no way diminished two years later when he persuaded - or, more likely, intimidated - the Emperor into agreeing to the betrothal of his younger daughter, the Princess Leontia, to his own second son Patricius, and proclaiming the latter Caesar. Just what pressure he was able to bring to bear on Leo to do this we can only guess; but given the Emperor's strict orthodoxy and his repugnance to the prospect of an Arian successor it must have been considerable.

In other fields as well, the activities of Aspar and his sons were causing concern. Already in 469 they had tried to assassinate Zeno and very nearly succeeded; and towards the end of 471 the elder son, Ardabur, was found to be involved in dark intrigues with the Isaurian faction in an attempt to win it over to his father's side. For Leo, this was the last straw. One morning in the imperial palace his guards suddenly drew their swords and cut down both Aspar and Ardabur; Patricius was badly wounded, but is thought eventually to have recovered.

It was presumably these murders which led the contemporary historian Malchus to give Leo the nickname Makelles, the Butcher; he also shows his dislike by describing him as 'a repository of every vice' and castigating him for his rapaciousness and avarice. Yet even Malchus has to admit that Leo was generally accounted the most fortunate, or most successful - eutuchesteros - of all the Emperors that had preceded him, and there can be little doubt that he was, though perhaps not loved, at least respected by the vast majority of his subjects. If he hardly deserved his title of 'the Great' - bestowed on him, apparently, for his religious orthodoxy rather than for any outstanding strength of character or brilliance of statesmanship - he was on the whole a just and merciful ruler; and when he died on 3 February 474 he had, by the standards of the time, remarkably little blood on his hands.

Five months previously, Leo had nominated his successor: not, as everyone had expected, his son-in-law Zeno but the latter's seven-year-old son, called Leo like his grandfather. Whether the Emperor's decision was taken out of personal animosity towards Zeno, whether he felt that the Isaurians were not of imperial calibre or whether he simply wished the diadem to pass to his own flesh and blood we cannot tell; in the event, however, the question proved academic - Ariadne having instructed her son, when his father came to him to make his formal obeisance in the Hippodrome, to crown him co-Emperor on the spot. It was as well that she did. Nine months later young Leo was dead.

One of Zeno's first acts on his succession was to put an end to the Vandal War. As his peace-maker he appointed a distinguished senator, Severus, raising him to the rank of Patrician as a sign of the importance that he attached to the mission; and he could not have made a better choice. Severus impressed Gaiseric by refusing to accept any presents for himself; far better than any gift, he said, would be the release of the Roman captives. The Vandal King immediately freed all those who were in bondage to himself and his family and gave Severus permission to redeem as many more as he could.1 Peace was signed before the end of the year; never again were the Vandals to cause the Empire concern.

It was an auspicious start; but already the storm-clouds were gathering. By now the Isaurians had made themselves thoroughly unpopular. Unlike the Germanic tribesmen they were subjects of the Empire, and could not therefore technically be called barbarians; in their behaviour, however,

1 Much of the necessary ransom money was personally raised by Severus on his return, from the sale of the magnificent robes and gold and silver vessels by which he had impressed the Vandal court with the majesty of Byzantium.

they had proved a good deal more objectionable than the Germans had ever been. The preferential treatment that they had received from Leo had gone to their heads: they were arrogant and noisy, with a regrettable propensity for violence. Inevitably, much of the hostility that they aroused now became focused on their most distinguished representative, the Emperor himself - who also had to face the implacable hatred of two powerful enemies within his own household: Verina the Empress Mother, and her brother Basileus.

The objectives of these two were not identical: Basileus, who had been understandably maintaining a low profile since the Carthaginian expedition eight years before, had emerged from his retirement on Leo's death still determined to secure the diadem for himself; the Empress, on the other hand, wanted it for her recently acquired lover Patricius, Master of the Offices at the palace.1 Both, however, were united in their primary object - to get rid of Zeno; and with the aid of an Isaurian general, Illus - who had suddenly turned, for reasons unexplained, against his imperial benefactor - they managed to recruit a number of powerful adherents to their cause. In November 475, as the Emperor was presiding over the games in the Hippodrome, he received an urgent message from his mother-in-law: army, Senate and people were united against him, he must flee the city at once. The thought of resistance, or that Verina's words might have been largely bluff, never seems to have occurred to him. That very night he slipped away from Constantinople with his wife and mother, to seek refuge among the mountains of his native Isauria.

With Zeno out of the way, and the cause of Patricius espoused only by Verina, Basileus was proclaimed Emperor - remarkable testimony to the power of human ambition. He began by ordering - or at any rate permitting - a widespread slaughter of Isaurians in the capital; but if the purpose of thus eliminating the enemy faction was to strengthen his own hold on the throne, it failed. Basileus did not last long. He lost the sympathy of his sister by having her lover assassinated; he antagonized his subjects by vicious taxation; and he incurred the lasting enmity of the Church, first by his openly-expressed monophysite opinions and then by his ham-fisted attempts to impose them throughout the Empire. In these he was encouraged by the former monophysite Bishop of Alexandria, the aptly named Timothy the Weasel, who had been expelled from his see after the Council of Chalcedon and whom Basileus now saw fit to restore. At the insistence of this poisonous cleric, he not only abrogated the decrees of Chalcedon but even tried to abolish the

1 And no relation, it need hardly be said, to the son of Aspar.

Patriarchate of Constantinople, causing Patriarch Acacius to drape the high altar of St Sophia in black and to put all his priests into mourning; meanwhile Daniel, the famous stylite of the city,1 actually descended from his pillar for the first time in fifteen years, haranguing the people and terrifying Basileus into the withdrawal of his edict. The heavens, too, showed themselves against the usurper: there could be no other explanation for the appalling fire of 476 which, beginning in the bazaar of the bronze-smiths, spread to the Basilike, the public library founded by Julian which was said to contain 120,000 books - including the intestine of a serpent, 120 feet long, on which were inscribed the entire Iliad and Odyssey in golden characters. Another tragic loss was the Palace of Lausus with its celebrated collection of antique sculpture, including the Hera of Samos, the Athena of Lindos and the Aphrodite of Cnidus. After all this it came as no great surprise when lllus, disgusted with the ruler whom he had helped to put on the throne, turned his coat again, joined Zeno in his mountain retreat and began to plan his restoration.

The person most directly responsible for the downfall of Basileus was, however, neither Zeno nor Illus but his own nephew Harmatius. This ridiculous young man, well-known throughout Constantinople as a dandy and a fop, was promoted by his uncle - despite the flagrant affair that he was carrying on with Basileus's own wife, his aunt Zenonis - to the rank of magister militum, an appointment which so delighted him that he took to parading around the Hippodrome dressed as Achilles. Sent with an army against Zeno and Illus, he was invited by them to negotiate and was easily persuaded - by the promise of the Praetorian Prefecture for himself and the rank of Caesar for his son - to declare himself in their favour. Thus, in July 477, Zeno returned to his capital unopposed. The would-be Augustus - who had, for the second time, sought sanctuary in St Sophia - was prevailed upon to surrender, on the undertaking that his blood would not be shed; and the real Emperor, true to his word, exiled him with his family to the wilds of Cappadocia where, the following winter, cold and hunger did for the lot of them.

After twenty months of exile, Zeno could at last turn his mind again to affairs of state. There had been several developments during his absence

1 Daniel the Stylite had visited St Simeon on his column near Antioch, and on Simeon's death had determined to follow his example. After some time on a fairly modest pillar he moved to a magnificent double column erected for him by the Emperor Leo himself, crossing straight from one to the other on a makeshift bridge of planks. He died on 11December 493, having remained aloft for a total of thirty-three years and three months. The author of his life claims that on this, his only venture down to ground level, he managed to persuade Basileus of the error of his ways and obtained from him a formal recantation in St Sophia; but this sounds suspiciously like wishful thinking.

that demanded his attention - among them, the final collapse of the Roman Empire of the West.

For seventeen years after the deaths of Aetius and Valentinian, the West had been dominated by the Suevian Count Ricimer,1 yet another of those barbarian kingmakers so characteristic of the time. He had brought on to the scene a succession of no less than five puppet Emperors. One of these, Avitus, he had forced to abdicate (but allowed to become Bishop of Piacenza) and two, Marjorian and Anthemius, he had had murdered. Two only had kept their thrones: Libius Severus and Olybrius, the latter having died of dropsy in October 472, two months after Ricimer himself. After a four-month interregnum Ricimer's son and would-be successor Gundobad had raised up yet another nonentity, Glycerius; but in Constantinople Leo I had refused to approve him, appointing instead the husband of his wife's niece, one Julius Nepos. Landing in Italy early in 474, Nepos overthrew his rival with scarcely a struggle and was shortly afterwards proclaimed at Rome. Perhaps, men thought, the age of chaos was over. Ricimer was dead, Gundobad and Glycerius discredited; Julius Nepos had the blessing of the Emperor in Constantinople - by this time Zeno had succeeded Leo, but his policy towards the West was unchanged - and might well, with help from the East, re-establish Roman supremacy over the barbarian adventurers.

But such hopes were all too quickly dashed. In August 475 Orestes, commander-in-chief of the army, rose in revolt against the new Emperor. He had had a curious career. Born in Pannonia, he had found his way while still a young man to the court of Attila, where he had been employed by the King of the Huns as his personal secretary and had played an important part in frustrating the murder plot connected with the embassy of Priscus. After Attila's death he had entered the imperial service, and had headed the household troops under the short-lived Emperor Anthemius; next, on Nepos's accession and his own promotion to the supreme command, he had been ordered to Gaul, there to arrange for the transfer of Auvergne, which had been ceded by the Senate to the Visigothic King Euric. Instead of obeying, however, Orestes took up arms against his sovereign and, with his army behind him, marched on Rome.

In these circumstances, Julius Nepos had no alternative but flight,

1 The Suevians were one of the several Germanic tribes that had been forced to flee their homeland

- for them, the valley of the Elbe - before the advancing Huns. The majority had by this time settled in Spain and Portugal.

first to Ravenna and then, as Orestes continued in his pursuit, across the Adriatic to Salona - where, presumably, he must have had a somewhat embarrassing encounter with his predecessor Glycerius and where, before that fateful year was over, he was to receive the news that Zeno, his co-Emperor, had almost simultaneously been obliged to seek refuge from his enemies. No help, clearly, was to be expected from the East. Nepos resigned himself to the inevitable and settled down to wait.

Orestes, meanwhile, had returned to Rome, where on 31 October he had proclaimed as Emperor his son Romulus, nicknamed - though perhaps only later - with the contemptuous diminutive Augustulus. The date of his birth is unknown, but he was still little more than a child and his father clearly intended to keep the reins of power firmly in his own hands. So, for the best part of a year, he did; but then the army turned against him, just as he had turned it against Julius Nepos. For a century or more it had been composed largely of barbarian mercenaries; and since the death of Attila the fellow-tribesmen of those mercenaries had been pouring across the imperial frontiers, unchecked and uncontrolled, in ever-increasing numbers. They now sought in their turn what barbarians within the Empire had always sought, and what many of them had found - a country of their own to dwell in; and they demanded of Orestes one-third of the land of Italy, with every Roman land-owner making over that proportion of his estate to a Germanic immigrant.

The proposal was perhaps less outrageous than it sounds; in 418 Constantius III had willingly transferred two-thirds of south-western Gaul to the Visigoths. That donation, however, had been the voluntary grant of a remote corner of the Empire to protect the rest of the continent; this, by contrast, was a demand at sword-point for its very heartland. Orestes must have believed that it would be open to negotiation; indignantly, he refused. But he had misjudged the temper of his men. Their answer was immediate mutiny, under the leadership of Orestes's own standard-bearer, a Scyrian named Odoacer.1 On 23 August 476 he was raised upon the soldiers' shields, and the fight was on. Orestes fled first to Ticinum (the modern Pavia) where he took refuge with its saintly bishop Epiphanius. A few days later, after Odoacer had stormed and sacked the city, he slipped away to Placentia (Piacenza). This time there was no escape. The mutineers caught up with him and killed him.

Few observers at that moment would have given much for the life

1 Or Odovacar. He was the son of Edeco, who may or may not have been the same as that envoy of Attila who makes a brief appearance in Chapter 7. The Scyrians were another Germanic tribe, of minimal importance in this story.

of poor Romulus Augustulus, lonely and frightened in the palace of Ravenna. But when Odoacer reached the city and summoned the miserable boy into his presence, his heart was softened. Romulus was very young, very pathetic and, by all accounts, quite outstandingly good-looking. Instead of putting him to the sword, the barbarian simply ordered him to abdicate, provided him with a generous pension and sent him off to live in peaceful obscurity with relatives in Campania. Then, as soon as he heard that Zeno had been reinstated - for he had never recognized Basileus - he sent ambassadors to Constantinople, to inform him of the new dispensation and to hand over the imperial insignia of the West as a sign that he, Odoacer, made no claim to sovereignty for himself. All he asked was the title of Patrician, in which rank he proposed to take over the administration of Italy in the Emperor's name.

The abdication of Romulus Augustulus on 4 September 476 is generally accepted as marking the end of the Roman Empire in the West. Historians, however, have gone to considerable lengths to persuade us that this is not so. The Empire, they point out, was one and indivisible; whether it was ruled at any given moment by a single Augustus, or two, or even three or four, was purely a matter of administrative convenience. Besides, they continue, Odoacer was always at pains to emphasize the Emperor's continued sovereignty over Italy. Here was simply a return to the days when the Empire had been governed by a sole ruler, just as it had been by Constantius II, and later by Julian.

All this is perfectly true; and it is also undeniable that most people in Italy at the time, watching the young ex-Emperor settle himself into his comfortable Campanian villa, would have been astounded to learn that they were living through one of the great watersheds of European history. For nearly a century now they had grown used to seeing barbarian generals at the seat of power. There had been Arbogast the Frank, then Stilicho the Vandal, then Aetius - who, though a Roman, was almost certainly of Germanic origin on his father's side - then Ricimer the Suevian. Was the Scyrian Odoacer, they might have asked, so very different from these?

The answer is that he was - though for one reason only. He had refused to accept a Western Emperor. In the past those Emperors may have been little more than puppets; nevertheless they bore the title of Augustus, and as such they were both a symbol and a constant reminder of the imperial authority. Without them, that authority was soon forgotten. Odoacer had requested the rank of Patrician; but the title that he preferred to use was Rex. In less than sixty years, Italy would be so far lost as to need a full-scale reconquest by Justinian. It would be two and a quarter centuries before another Emperor appeared in the West; when he did, his capital would be in Germany rather than in Italy, and he would be a rival rather than a colleague - not a Roman but a Frank.

Odoacer's decision was to have a second, equally important effect. The absence of any imperial representative in Italy created a political vacuum in the old capital. Instinctively, men looked for another father figure, someone possessed of a degree of prestige and offering a prospect of continuity far beyond the dreams of the most optimistic of barbarian adventurers. And so they raised up the Bishop of Rome, already the Primate of Christendom, investing him with temporal authority as well as spiritual and surrounding him with much of the pomp and semi-mystical ceremonial formerly reserved for the Emperors. The age of the medieval Papacy had begun.

The Emperor Zeno was, in all probability, no more perceptive in his appraisal of recent events in the West than the vast majority of his subjects. Apart from anything else, he had no intention of accepting the dethronement of his own nominated co-Augustus, Julius Nepos. Soon after his return to Constantinople he received a letter from Nepos in Dalmatia, congratulating him on the end of his exile and asking his help in effecting a similar restoration for himself. This appeal almost certainly coloured Zeno's reception shortly afterwards of the ambassadors from Odoacer. Nepos, he pointed out to them, was the Western Emperor. It was therefore to him, if their master wished to be made a Patrician, that his request should be directed. This, unquestionably, was the proper answer in the circumstances; but its effect must have been somewhat spoilt by the missive which Zeno had prepared for the envoys to pass on to Odoacer, in which the latter was already addressed as Patrician. A secretarial slip, or subtle diplomacy? We shall never know.

In any case, at that moment internal affairs seemed a good deal more pressing. The elimination of Basileus had done little to restore harmony within the State. Zeno's early suspicions focused on Harmatius, whose arrogance and narcissism had reached the point where there were fears for his sanity. To obtain the Praetorian Prefecture for himself and the rank of Caesar for his son he had unhesitatingly betrayed both his uncle and his mistress; what chance was there that he would remain loyal to his Emperor, particularly after the young Caesar had grown to manhood? The chroniclers all emphasize the struggle that Zeno had with his conscience, but its conclusion was foregone: Harmatius must be removed. A willing assassin was found among his many enemies, and the deed was soon accomplished. To the dead man's son - called, like his great-uncle, Basileus - the Emperor was more merciful: he was merely deprived of his rank and title and forced into the Church. A few years later we find him serving as lector in the chapel of the imperial palace at Blachernae, and he was to end his life as Bishop of Cyzicus. One suspects, somehow, that he may have welcomed his release from imperial responsibilities; if so, one can hardly blame him.

As the years passed, Zeno must often have wished that he could be relieved of them himself. In 479, only two years after his resumption of power, he had to face another insurrection - this time instigated by Marcian, grandson of his imperial namesake, son of the Western Emperor Anthemius and husband of Leontia, younger daughter of Leo the Great. (Her engagement to Patricius had naturally been broken off after the fall of Aspar.) His revolt was perhaps to some extent the consequence of the treatment of his mother-in-law Verina, who had recently been imprisoned for her part in a plot to assassinate Illus; he himself justified it, however, on the grounds that his wife, having been born in the purple, was of higher rank than her elder sister Ariadne, Zeno's wife, who had been born during the previous reign. Marcian and his adherents stormed the Palace, and would probably have succeeded in overthrowing the Emperor for the second time but for the swift intervention of Illus, who brought a detachment of Isaurian troops across the Bosphorus at dead of night and took the rebels by surprise. Their leader was sent in his turn into monastic exile, to Cappadocian Caesarea; he escaped, and attempted another coup, but that also failed. Even now - perhaps on account of his imperial blood - Zeno showed clemency: Marcian was ordained a presbyter, his wife Leontia entered the convent of the Akoimetai1 and the two are heard of no more.

Marcian's two insurrections, dangerous and symptomatic of the general disaffection as they undoubtedly were, had been quickly put down. More serious, and far more prolonged, was that which broke out in 483, the central figure of which was Illus himself. He acted, it must be said, under considerable provocation. Already six years before, soon after Zeno's return to power, one of the imperial slaves had been found lying

1 The Akiometai, or 'sleepless ones', had been founded around 400 by a certain abbot Alexander. Their rule stipulated absolute poverty, no manual labour and the routine (which gave them their name) of perpetual prayer and adoration by means of alternating choirs. They quickly grew powerful and - thanks to their habit of openly voicing their disapproval of imperial behaviour - unpopular with the government. Nestorius had evicted them from Constantinople, but they had soon reestablished both male and female communities on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus.

in wait for him, drawn sword in hand. No one had directly accused the Emperor, who had at once surrendered the slave to his intended victim for summary punishment; but suspicions had inevitably been aroused. Then, in 478, the Palace guards had discovered another would-be assassin, this time an Alan, who later confessed that he had been acting under the instructions of the Prefect Epinicus and the Empress Verina. Realizing that his life would be in danger if he were to remain in Constantinople, Illus pleaded the recent death of his brother and retired for a while to his Isaurian homeland. In September 479, however, an earthquake severely weakened the city walls and Zeno, fearing that the Goths might seize the opportunity to attack, recalled him to the capital, actually riding out as far as Chalcedon to receive him; but the general refused point-blank to enter the city until Verina was surrendered into his charge. Zeno had no love for his mother-in-law and was only too happy to comply; the Dowager Empress was first sent off to Tarsus where she was forced to take the veil, and then immured in an Isaurian fortress.

After that, the atmosphere lightened for a time and Illus was appointed Master of the Offices, normally a sign of high favour; but one day in 482, as he was mounting the staircase to his box at the Hippodrome, he was attacked without warning by a member of the imperial Life Guard. His armour-bearer managed to deflect the blow; but the blade, while missing his head, sliced off his right ear, obliging him to wear a skullcap for the rest of his days. This time the instigator of the crime was harder to deal with: it proved to be no less a figure than the Empress Ariadne herself, taking her revenge on Illus for his treatment of her mother - and, perhaps, of her sister as well.

What happened next is unclear: indeed, the whole story of Illus's revolt depends on such fragmentary - and occasionally self-contradictory - evidence that we are all too often thrown back on speculation and guesswork. The Master of the Offices seems to have prudently retired once again to Anatolia. Almost immediately after his departure, however, a revolt broke out in Syria, where a certain Leontius was staging a last-ditch attempt to restore the old pagan religion; and messengers sped after Illus, with orders to take command of the eastern armies and restore imperial rule. He, probably grateful for this opportunity to prove himself once again in the eyes of his sovereign, hurried at once to Syria; only on his arrival did he discover the local commander to be none other than the Emperor's incompetent and profligate brother Longinus, who deeply resented what he considered to be a usurpation of his own authority. A violent quarrel ensued, as a result of which Illus had Longinus arrested and imprisoned.

It was by any account a high-handed action to take against so powerful and influential a rival; but the Emperor's reaction, when the news was brought to Constantinople, was still more ill-judged. Issuing a command for the immediate release of his brother, he denounced Illus as a public enemy and ordered the confiscation and sale of all his property. In doing so, he virtually drove him into the opposing camp. Illus now made common cause with the rebel, and the two of them together released the old Empress Verina; she was only too pleased to crown Leontius at Tarsus and accompany him to Antioch, where on 27 June 484 he established a rival court.

He and Illus seem to have been content for the time to remain where they were; they certainly made no effort to march on Constantinople. This gave Zeno plenty of time to find new allies - among them a young barbarian named Theodoric, prince of the Ostrogoths, who had been a persistent thorn in Byzantine flesh for the past decade but who now agreed to lead an army of his subjects in the Emperor's name against the rebels. Thus the latter were soon expelled from Antioch and driven back into the Isaurian heartland, their leaders finally taking refuge in a castle known as Papirius. Here Verina died, lamented by no one; and here, after a four-year siege - during which Illus, always a scholar and intellectual, is said to have passed the time in philosophical study with his friend, the Egyptian sophist and neo-platonist Pamprepius - he and Leontius were betrayed by his sister-in-law, who in 488 gained admission to the castle by a trick (probably a non-existent promise of pardon) and then opened the gates to the besiegers. After so long a resistance, the defenders could expect no mercy: their heads were cut off and sent to Constantinople. The rebellion was at an end.

Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who had been partly responsible for the retreat of Illus and his friends to their Isaurian redoubt, did not take part in the ensuing siege. He had more important occupations elsewhere. Born around 454, the son of the Ostrogothic chieftain Theodemir, he had spent ten years of his boyhood as a hostage in Constantinople; and though he may have gained little intellectually from the experience - all his life he is said to have signed his name by stencilling it through a perforated gold plate - he had acquired an instinctive understanding of the Byzantines and their ways which served him in good stead when, on the death of his father in 471, he succeeded him as paramount leader of the Eastern Goths. He was not the only one: another Theodoric, son of Triarius and surnamed Strabo (the Squinter) was to set himself up in determined opposition to him. But the story of the kaleidoscopically changing relations between the two, and between the pair of them together and the Emperor in Constantinople, is too long and complex for our story. In any case the son of Triarius died in 481, leaving his namesake in undisputed control.

The main purpose of Theodoric's early life, as of so many barbarian leaders before him, was to find and to secure a permanent home for his people. To this end he spent the better part of twenty years fighting, sometimes for and sometimes against the Empire, arguing, bargaining, cajoling and threatening by turns. He helped Zeno in both the principal rebellions of his reign, that of Basileus and that of Illus; he became successively Patrician, magister militum and, in 484, even Consul; on the other hand we find him furiously devastating Macedonia in 479, laying waste Thessaly in 482and, in 487, marching on Constantinople itself. This constant vacillation between friendship and hostility was, in the long term, unprofitable to both parties; and both Zeno and Theodoric must have heaved a deep sigh of relief when a decision was taken that was to affect the whole future of Europe, both East and West - although neither may have suspected it at the time. Which of the two rulers deserves the credit for the idea we shall never know. Jordanes, doubtless quoting from Theodoric's chief minister Cassiodorus, attributes it to the Ostrogoth; Procopius, with equal conviction, maintains that it originally came from the Emperor. All we can say for certain is that, some time in 487 or early 488, it was agreed between them that Theodoric should lead his entire people into Italy, overthrow Odoacer and rule the land as an Ostrogothic Kingdom under imperial sovereignty.

The advantages of this scheme were obvious to both parties: for Theodoric, there was the promised fulfilment of his life's dream - a rich and fertile land for himself and his people; for Zeno, the prospect of ridding himself of the Goths once and for all. The two men must have taken leave of each other without a pang of regret, and early in 488 the great exodus took place: men, women and children, with their horses and pack-animals, their cattle and sheep, lumbering slowly across the plains of central Europe in search of greener and more peaceful pastures.

These, however, were not to be won without a fierce struggle. For five years Odoacer fought back, in 490 coming near to destroying his enemy by besieging him in Pavia; only in the nick of time was Theodoric saved by the arrival of Visigothic reinforcements. A few months later he turned the tables, blockading Odoacer in his turn within the walls of Ravenna and holding him there until February 493, when the local bishop arranged an armistice. By this time, however, thanks in large measure to the assistance of the Church, which gave its full support to Theodoric -although he was, like Odoacer, an Arian - the conquest of Italy was virtually complete; and it must have come as a surprise to many when the conqueror agreed to what appeared to be remarkably generous terms: that Italy should be ruled by him and Odoacer jointly, with both of them sharing the palace of Ravenna.

The reason for this apparent generosity soon became clear: Theodoric had not the faintest intention of keeping his agreement, and had merely determined to lull his rival into a false sense of security. On 15 March, only ten days after his formal entry into Ravenna, he invited Odoacer, his brother, his son and his chief officers to a banquet in his wing of the palace. As the Scyrian took his place in the seat of honour, Theodoric stepped forward and, with one tremendous stroke of his sword, clove through the body of Odoacer from collar-bone to thigh. The force of the blow and its effect surprised even him: 'The wretch cannot have had a bone in his body,' he is said to have laughed.

The members of Odoacer's suite were quickly dealt with by the surrounding guards, while his brother was shot down by arrows as he tried to escape through the palace gardens. His wife, Sunigilda, was thrown into prison, where she later died of hunger; his son, Thelane, whom he had surrendered to Theodoric as a hostage, was first sent off to Gaul but was subsequently executed in his turn on the King's orders. The Scyrian line, in short, was wiped out; and Theodoric the Ostrogoth, his ambition at last achieved, laid aside the skins and furs that were the traditional clothing of his race, robed himself - as Odoacer had never done - in the imperial purple, and settled down to rule in Italy. Despite all the pomp and ceremonial of his court, however, he did not forget his agreement with Zeno. While reigning as King of the Ostrogoths he remained, as far as the Empire was concerned, a Patrician and magister militum but no more, a vassal who owed allegiance to the Emperor just as did the meanest of his subjects. The laws which he passed were known as edicta, rather than the leges which were the imperial prerogative; and though his coins carried his own monogram, the only portrait they bore was that of the Emperor. Theodoric himself, it need hardly be said, had no objection to this arrangement. The Roman citizens in Italy - who outnumbered the Goths many times over - were a good deal happier to be ruled by an imperial viceroy than by someone whom they would otherwise have looked upon as a foreign oppressor. To antagonize them was the last thing he would have wished; he allowed them to live just as they always had with all their estates intact, excepting only that they were debarred from military service. The civil service, by contrast, was their exclusive preserve.

Theodoric's reign began with perfidy and bloodshed; its close was also clouded, by the imprisonment and brutal execution (by slow garrotting) in 524 of the philosopher Boethius,1 which left an indelible stain on his memory - though it is only fair to add that he afterwards repented, and bitterly regretted his action till the day of his death. With these exceptions, the thirty-three years that he occupied the throne were prosperous and peaceful; and the extraordinary mausoleum which he built -and which still stands in the north-eastern suburbs of Ravenna - perfectly symbolizes, in its half-classical, half-barbaric architectural strength,2 a colossus who himself bestrode two civilizations and lost no opportunity to promote and increase the harmony between his people and the citizens of Rome. No other Germanic ruler, setting up his throne on the ruins of the Western Empire, possessed a fraction of his statesmanship and political vision; and when he died, on 30 August 5 26, Italy lost the greatest of her early medieval rulers, unequalled until the days of Charlemagne.

1 The only offence of Boethius was to have energetically defended his friend, the ex-Consul Albinus, who had been wrongly accused of treason. This led him and his father-in-law Symmachus to be similarly charged. While he was in prison he wrote Tie Consolations of Philosophy, a work which enjoyed immense popularity in succeeding centuries and was translated into Anglo-Saxon by Alfred the Great.

2 The erection of the gigantic 200-ton monolith which forms its roof ranks among the most astonishing engineering feats of the Middle Ages.

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