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Overview of Late Antiquity--The Fifth Century

Section 2: Weak Emperors and Warlords

Steven Muhlberger

Theodosius I died in 395, shortly after his second reconquest of the western provinces. Like other emperors before and since, he hoped to pass the empire he had worked so hard to acquire to his descendents. Arcadius, his elder son, had been established in Constantinople, and Honorius, the younger, in Rome. Both were underage in 395, and so real power passed quickly to their ministers: in the west, Stilicho, a military man who had married into the Theodosian dynasty, and in the east, a series of civilian officials. This division of authority quickly resulted in hostility. Stilicho claimed that the dying Theodosius had bequeathed the regency of the entire empire to him. Arcadius's advisors were unwilling to accept this claim. Until 408, when Stilicho was killed in a coup, a cold war obtained between the two courts.

It was thus possible for other ambitious men to play eastern and western courts off against each other, or otherwise take advantage of their weaknesses. In 397, a North African general named Gildo transferred his allegiance from Honorius (W) to Arcadius (E), and cut off the grain shipments from Carthage that fed the city of Rome. In 400, Gainas, a Gothic general in Roman service, exploited the revolt of another Gothic commander in Asia Minor, and briefly seized power in Constantinople. In 405, Radagaisus, an independent Gothic king, invaded Italy. All of these men were quickly defeated and executed, yet they kept the imperial governments off balance.

The most important of the opportunists was the Gothic king Alaric. In 395, he was the leader of the Gothic federates in the Balkans, and ideally placed to make trouble. One issue between the two courts was which should control the dioceses of Dacia and Macedonia. Because he had the largest military force in this area, Alaric could alternate between bargaining with each side for concessions and looting vulnerable cities. Alaric invaded Italy twice, then, in 407, made up with Stilicho and agreed to help him invade the east.

But Stilicho's power was already crumbling. On the last day of 406, a disorganized group of Vandals, Alans and Sueves had crossed the Rhine frontier into Gaul. At about the same time, the Roman army of Britain revolted, and its leader, Constantine (III), quickly crossed to the continent to establish his claim to the imperial purple. Alaric demanded payment, then invaded Italy for a third time. Stilicho, discredited, was killed by political rivals. His policy, which continued Theodosius' of using barbarians rather than massacring them, was castigated as treasonous and the cause of the disaster.

ILLUSTRATION: Ivory portrait of Stilicho.

Yet, once Stilicho was gone, an alternative policy proved impossible. Between 408 and 416, the court of Honorius, now hiding at Ravenna, had to face a plethora of hostile imperial claimants and barbarian kings. Armies of one sort or another crossed every province of the west, and a multitude of cities were plundered -- most notably Rome, taken by Alaric in 410. (Alaric died soon afterwards, to be succeeded by his brother.) In this many-sided struggle, the priorities of Honorius's ministers were clear -- and traditional. Rival emperors, who threatened the life of Honorius and the continuation of the Theodosian dynasty, had to be destroyed. Barbarians, even the Goths of Alaric who had sacked Rome, could be bargained with. Indeed, it is remarkable how the Goths were treated with kid gloves. One reason for this was that, from 410 to 416, they held captive the emperor's sister Galla Placidia; but an equally important consideration was that the Goths were a military resource too valuable to waste.

By 417, Constantius, Honorius' chief general, had brought the situation in the west under control. All the usurping emperors were dead, and an agreement with Alaric's Goths (later called the Visigoths) had been reached. They were assigned a territory in Aquitaine, where they were to be supported not by the imperial commisary, but directly by the local tax revenues formerly used to pay the regular army. In return, they were to be available for military service. In peace, the Goths were to live among the Aquitainians, and live off their taxes, but to remain a people apart, ruled by their own kings. This was a much better deal than any other group of barbarians had ever received, because it gave the Goths both security and autonomy.

In other ways, too, the order restored by Constantius was not the order that had obtained in 395. The western court had effectively abandoned direct control of large areas. For instance, Britain was no longer part of the imperial defense system -- the local authorities were now on their own, to look out for themselves as best they could. Parts of the Rhineland, previously the chief military frontier, had been turned over to Frankish and Burgundian allies. Large areas in Spain were left to the Sueves and the Vandals. Where formerly all these regions had been an integral part of the empire, they were now, in the years around 420, border zones where the civilian population had been entrusted to the care, gentle or otherwise, of warlords. The provincial population sometimes both resisted this fate and imperial restoration. In Armorica (northwestern France), the people had expelled the officials of the usurper Constantine III in 409 or 410, and refused to receive Honorius's replacements in 417? until a Roman army forced them to do so.

Yet in the early 420s, people at Rome and Constantinople were impressed by Constantius' success. The core area of the empire -- the Mediterranean coasts, especially Italy, Sicily, Provence and Africa -- were still secure. The extent of the change in what southerners had always seen as the cold and barbarous north was perhaps not apparent, even to well- informed observers. However, the strategic situation of the entire western wing of the empire had changed. With both the regular army and the taxpayers who supported it devastated by the previous round of civil wars, imperial control of the west could only be maintained through a web of alliances and ad hoc agreements. And following the death of Constantius in 421 (after a brief period as Honorius's imperial colleague), competition among the ambitious to control the feeble Honorius (d. 423) and his underage nephew Valentinian III (r. 425-455) destabilized politics once again.

In this situation, warlords were the key political figures. There were two types: generalissimos holding high rank in the regular army, and kings. Generalissimos of the regular army might be either barbarians or Romans. Kings were by definition barbarians. Yet all warlords were much alike. No one of them had enough power to destroy his rivals, and they fought and bargained by turns. The kings might seize cities by force, but also sought subsidies, grants of land and revenue, and legitimacy through treaties with the emperor or deals with his generals. The generalissimos pursued power at court, and dominance within the army, by gaining reputations as barbarian-tamers -- reputations which were obtained not only by fighting kings, but also through peaceful accommodations with them. Indeed, each generalissimo's worst enemies were others of his sort, for they all competed for a single prize, control of the central government.

The career of Aetius, sometimes called "the last of the Romans," and famous for stopping Attila the Hun's invasion of Gaul in 451, is illustrative. Son of a Roman general, Aetius was sent at an early age to the Huns as a hostage guaranteeing a Roman-Hunnic alliance. He learned their language and customs, and his intimate knowledge of the Huns became his passport to power within the Roman military hierarchy. In the 420s and 430s Aetius repeatedly used the feared Hunnic horsemen against the Goths, the Burgundians, the Franks, and rival Roman generals. Hunnic support made Aetius the key figure at court after 433; but at the same time the concessions he made to the Huns helped create the power of Attila. By the 440s, the Huns were the major threat to both imperial courts, and Aetius's greatest headache. It was only by turning to old enemies like the Goths and the Franks, who were also terrified of Attila, that the generalissimo won his most famous victory.

After the precedent-setting grant of Aquitaine to the Goths, wide concessions to barbarians were a constant expedient. Occasionally a barbarian people was humbled; more often, the weak western government or an ambitious generalissimo turned over land or rights to tax revenue to a king in exchange for support in whatever crisis was current. Sometimes the results were catastrophic. In 429, one of two competing generalissimos invited the Vandals to cross from Spain to Africa. Their king, Geiseric, quickly seized the richest grain-growing regions, and in 439, Carthage, the second city of the west. This drastically enfeebled the imperial government. Geiseric's pirate fleets became as feared as Attila's horsemen, and did as much damage to the imperial cause.

The competition of warlords likewise harmed the structure of Roman life all over the west. Kings looted cities and whole regions when they could. Roman efforts to restore imperial authority over barbarians or native secessionists were equally destructive. The experience of Armorica in the 440s is noteworthy. Again restive under a regime that could not protect it, the region revolted. According to a fifth-century account, Aetius "the Magnificent, who then governed the state," was enraged, and decided to turn Armorica over to Goar, king of the Alans, who was permitted to subdue it for his own profit. Goar, who "with a barbarian's greed was thirsting for its wealth," was turned back by the pleas of a holy and influential bishop, Germanus of Auxerre, who seized Goar's reins and refused to let go until the punitive expedition was postponed. Germanus then went to Ravenna and gained a pardon for the Armoricans. Yet after a further rebellion, "not even the intercession of the bishop could do anything for them, for common prudence made it impossible for the imperial government to trust them." Similarly in 456, Galicia (the northwest corner of Spain), which had long been under Suevic domination, was offered by the emperor to the Goths, who invaded, killed the Suevic king, plundered the chief towns, and enslaved hundreds of the local Romans. Our contemporary witness, Bishop Hydatius, believed the Goths had thus betrayed the empire and that their story of acting under imperial authority was a pretext. From our distance it appears that the imperial government, favoring one warlord over another for policy reasons, was willing to sacrifice a province it had already lost to maintain a fragile balance of power.

With such policies the order of the day, central authority and civil government collapsed. The area of direct imperial rule in the west shrank until it was restricted to Italy. Valentinian III, who had been a figurehead most of his life, was murdered in 455, and his shortlived successors in the west found it impossible to regain control of their commanders-in-chief. The latter were, effectively, the warlords of Italy, no stronger than the warlord of Africa (the Vandal king), or the warlord of southern Gaul (the Gothic king), yet more powerful than their titular masters. To be a warlord, the real master of an army, was far more important than to hold the hollow title of emperor, and be the theoretical master of everything. In 476, Odoacer, the commander in Italy, took the next logical step. He deposed the emperor Romulus Augustulus, the young son and puppet of the previous warlord, and had his troops declare him King of Italy. A group of senators took the imperial regalia to Constantinople, and asked the emperor Zeno to recognize Odoacer's royal title and authorize his power in Italy, because "a single emperor would be sufficient for both territories [east and west]." Zeno temporized, but it was clear that there would not soon be another emperor in the west.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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