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Overview of Late Antiquity--The Fifth Century

Section 4: Crisis and Recovery in the Eastern Empire

Steven Muhlberger

The eastern part of the empire -- the part ruled from Constantinople - - was not dismembered during the fifth century, and the regime headed by Emperor Arcadius in 400 still existed under Emperor Anastasius in 500. This does not mean that either the eastern government or its subjects got off lightly. Both suffered through crises aplenty. But the eastern court possessed the resources and the luck to meet the various challenges to its survival.

Perhaps the most important resource was the capital city itself, an impregnable fortress and a major port in one. Constantinople could neither be taken without inside help, nor easily cut off from its overseas suppliers in Egypt and Syria -- neither of which was seriously damaged by warfare in the fifth century. As long as this was the case, some sort of imperial government would exist on the Bosporus.

During the first half of the century, the government of the east was also more stable than that of the west. There were no usurpations or dangerous internal conflicts. Remarkably, this stability was not the result of the guiding hand of a strong-minded military monarch. The two emperors, Arcadius (395-408) and his son Theodosius II (who succeeded in 408 at the age of seven, and ruled until 450) were not decisive men, and they had no direct involvement in military affairs. The court was kept on an even keel by a succession of ministers and advisors: people like Anthemius, who farsightedly refortified the capital in 413; Aspar, a general of Alan background; and perhaps most important, the Empress Pulcheria, Theodosius II's elder sister, and a crucial figure in imperial affairs over several decades.

Finally, the eastern court benefited from the problems of the west. The opportunities for warlords in that region tended to suck potential troublemakers away from Constantinople: After Alaric left for Italy in 408, the Balkan front calmed down for three decades.

This does not mean that the east was completely indifferent to the western crisis. It is true that Constantinople cared little about faraway Gaul or Britain, but the stability of the eastern throne was obviously affected by insecurity in Italy and Africa, and by direct threats to dynastic succession. Thus, eastern troops helped defend Honorius in Ravenna in 409, made good Valentinian III's claim to the western throne in 425, and, less successfully, fought Geiseric's Vandals in Africa and Sicily in 433 and 441

. A direct threat to the east arose in the 440s, with the rise of Attila. Attila's base of operations was north of the Danube, from which he could attack the territories of either emperor. Backed by both his own nomadic cavalry and the Gothic and other allies he acquired with each successful raid, Attila was able to devastate the Balkans and demand huge tributes from Constantinople (6000 pounds of gold in 443). By the end of the decade, Attila was speaking of himself as the master, rather than the ally, of the emperors. In 449 one of his ambassors told Theodosius II that "Theodosius is the son of a nobly born father; Attila also is of noble birth...and he has preserved his high descent. Theodosius, since he has undertaken the payment of tribute to him [Attila], has cast out his own nobility and is his slave." But in the end, Constantinople was fortunate: when Attila made his big moves, in 451 and 452, they were against the weaker west. Then he died suddenly in 453, and his huge barbarian confederation disintegrated.

The situation in Constantinople was changing, too. In 450, Theodosius II had died suddenly without a direct male heir. (No one in the east wanted to submit to the rule of his unlucky western cousin Valentinian III). Stability was temporarily guaranteed by the unity of important court factions: Pulcheria, as representative of the Theodosian line, married and legitimized the succession of Marcian, a general closely associated with the powerful Aspar. But when Pulcheria and Marcian died (453 and 457), they left no obvious successors. The field was clear for the same destructive competition of generals that had been afflicting the west for so long.

From 457 to 498 the central issue of eastern politics was who would control the military establishment and thus the throne. At the beginning, one faction depended on Gothic support (Gothic refugees from Attila's broken empire had moved into the Balkan provinces), while another relied on the Isaurians, a belligerent group of mountaineers who had long been making trouble in Cappadocia and Syria. When the emperor Leo turned against Aspar and his Gothic allies in the 460s, Isaurian elements in the army leapt into prominence. Indeed, the next emperor, Zeno, was an Isaurian. Yet whoever was ahead at the moment, the involvement of these ethnic interest groups in imperial politics meant that both were out of control for much of the time. The Balkans were repeatedly plundered by a number of different Gothic armies, and even Zeno found it impossible to control his countrymen.

At the same time, eastern rulers had other crises that could not be ignored. After 455, the western court was constantly on the verge of collapse, and Italy threatened to fall under the control of the Vandal king. Leo and Zeno both insisted on their right to appoint or approve western emperors, and to enforce that right twice sent to Italy imperial nominees backed with eastern fleets. Neither these expeditions nor an attack on Vandal North Africa in 468 were able to save the western court. The most successful eastern intervention was when Zeno sent Theodoric, king of the Goths in the Balkans (later called the Ostrogoths), to Italy in 488- 9. Theodoric not only eliminated Odoacer (who had become inconvenient), his evacuation of the Balkans took pressure off Constantinople. In turn, the absence of the Goths from the gates of the capital enabled the next emperor, Anastasius, to launch a successful six-year war against the Isaurians. But as he destroyed their mountain strongholds, Anastasius had to face the first major Persian war since the mid-fourth century.

This inventory of troubles might seem to be enough for any society to bear. But, in fact, there is an entire category of problems not yet touched upon: urban unrest. The east, unlike the west, still held many populous and prosperous cities, and its politics were greatly affected by what happened in them. The large cities of antiquity were never placid, but in the fifth century they were disturbed by refugee movements, the economic impacts of civil war, and religious conflicts. Any of these factors, or the direct appeal of political aspirants to the crowd, could lead to serious riots. Emperors needed to worry not only about military coups and barbarian attacks, but also about their street-level control of the urban centers of wealth and power -- especially Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople.

The most spectacular manifestation of unrest was the rioting of the "circus factions," that is, the fan clubs that followed chariot-racing. Races at the circus (i.e. stadium or hippodrome) had been for centuries an important part of the life of the big cities, especially in the imperial capitals. Emperors had always shown themselves as men of the people by following the races as intently as anyone. At the races rulers and ruled were equal in their shared enthusiasm for their favorite teams (Greens, Blues, Reds, and Whites) and the dancers and pantomimes which were associated with the teams. More than once in imperial history the shouting of the crowd at the games had given voice to popular dissatisfaction.

In the second half of the fifth century, the two chief factions, Greens and Blues, were more organized and riotous than ever before. Each acquired a core group of idle young men who wore team colors, orchestrated the cheering, and fought their opposite numbers with a ferocity seldom seen in earlier times. Mostly they fought each other for the honor of the side, but sometimes their chants, their fists and their knives were put to other uses: attacking the Isaurians, the Jews, or even the emperor himself.

The Greens and Blues of Constantinople were the most volatile part of a volatile population, and they had the emperor's eye. He could punish them for their rowdiness -- and often did -- but he could not ignore them. It was a major display of personal power and a bid for even greater influence when Longinus, the Emperor Zeno's brother, provided the four factions at Constantinople with talented new dancers from the provinces: He was buying the cheers of the loudest groups in the city. As Longinus knew, such gift might pay extraordinary dividends in some future crisis. A few years earlier, when Zeno had lost his throne to the usurper Basilicus, Zeno's return to the city had been made possible by the Green faction within the walls. As soon as Basiliscus had given up and fled to the Great Church for sanctuary, Zeno "put up the flag for the chariot-races and immediately came to preside. He was received [i.e. acknowledged as emperor] by the whole city; after he had been received, and while he was watching, he sent to the Great Church and took the imperial insignia from Basiliscus."

ILLUSTRATIONS: The circus in later Roman political art.

Despite riots, civil wars, and a variety of threats from the barbarians, Constantinople emerged, by the end of Anastasius's reign in 518, reasonably secure in its position as the ruling city of the Mediterranean world. Such success was not easily gained. It is no paradox that Zosimus, the first historian to say (around 502) that the Roman empire had fallen, lived in Constantinople. In a words of a modern scholar, Zosimus looked around at the great city and saw not the capital of the world, but "an island of survivors in a sea of barbarism." The atmosphere of insecurity and the anxieties it produced are well illustrated by an incident that took place in 512. The Emperor Anastasius introduced innovations in the religious services at the capital, in a bid to restore Christian unity throughout the empire. The people of the city were enraged. They ran through the street, burning the house of an unpopular official, killing a foreign monk, and chanting "A new emperor for the Roman state." Anastasius met the challenge by appearing in his box at the circus, where, wearing no crown or insignia of power, he lectured the crowd, "exhorting them to stop murdering and attacking people at random." His audience quieted and eventually begged him to put on his crown, and the revolt was over -- to be followed, as the crowd must have known, by a savage repression. But for a moment at least, they had desired more than anything a crowned emperor who stood up for order in a world where order scarcely existed.

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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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