Monthly Archives: November 2013

Houston We have a Bikie Problem

Here on the Gold Coast of Australia we have a bikie problem. And for my non-Australian friends, by bikie I am not referring to the numerous “mamils” (middle-aged aged men in Lycra) that clog our streets as well. The term applies to members of outlaw motorcycle gangs. For years the gangs have pretty much been given free rein here on the Gold Coast. One could see Finks, Rebels, Hells Angels, and Bandidos roaming our city on a daily basis. In fact a high ranking member of the Hell’s angels owns my gym and when I drop off my wife to her gym roided out members of the rival gang the Bandidos are getting their pump on. Bikie gangs owned most of the nightclubs, restaurants, and gyms on the Coast. Indeed, a huge black-market in part helped to keep the Gold Coast economy going in the tough years after the global financial crisis. For years not much was said about this situation. Police denied there was a problem, whilst bikie members largely sorted out problems and carved out their own turf. The Finks ruled Surfers the Bandidos Broadbeach and so on in all areas of the Gold Coast. For the police the gangs served a purpose in that they largely “regulated” the drug trade and kept independent operators out of the clubs. If the gangs got out of line non-affiliated toughs largely put them back  in line.

In the past few years things have begun to unravel. It began a few years back with a major punch-up between Finks and Hells angels over the patching over of a Finks to the angels Christopher Hudson. The same individual who subsequently committed a heinous murder of a backpacker in broad daylight in Melbourne who was trying to keep Hudson in a drug fuelled rage from assaulting his girlfriend. Then last year at a major mall in the Gold Coast a member of the Finks shot at the leader of the Bandidos in broad daylight in a crowded mall where a passer-by was injured as well. The event caused uproar on the coast, but police tried to claim it was an isolated incident. Residents knew better. Sure enough incidents escalated: tit for tat shootings and a growing presence of patched members on our city’s street. On a daily basis me and my family would be having Baby chinos in Varsity lakes next to neck tattooed gang members….One known city tough made little secret of his identity driving around a car with the plates OIHit. Everything came to a head two months ago in the vacation suburb of Broadbeach. A huge gang of Bandidos in the busy restaurant hub dragged a member of the finks from a restaurant and into the crowded streets in front of a horrified public. A horrific brawl ensued, which the police were near powerless to stop. Like a scene from the streets of Baghdad a large number of Bandidos in black SUVs chanted and mocked the officers with chants of Bandidos!, Bandidos!. While the police arrested some of the bikies, a large group of Bandidos surrounded the police station in Southport in a show of force. Police were humiliated as their impotence was broadcast throughout Australia. People asked themselves do we live in a third-world country run by violent gangs like Libya?

Deeply embarrassed the Queensland government finally took action, and for the past two months has launched a military-like campaign against the gangs. Anyone who even looked like a gang-member was arrested or harassed. Much like George W Bush on the aircraft carrier, within two weeks some members of the government were already claiming victory, claiming that bikies were turning in their colours in droves. Locals knew better. Indeed it has come out that a loophole in the hastily written laws made it impossible to prosecute those who were “no longer” members of a gang. So too has the judicial branch of the Queensland government begun to question the harsh measures taken by the Newman government as a breach of Australian civil rights: where do I stand on the issue? Like many issues it’s more complicated than it seems. No matter what the government tells us that these gangs are not going to just disband no matter the laws. Like killing all of the sharks in the ocean to save a few fish, eliminating these organisations will do little to hinder the drug trade or indeed crime on the Gold Coast. It would probably grow worse. My guess is that once the furor dies down a bit gangs will try to merge back into the background where they belong. Its seems too many young Australians men have watching Sons of Anarchy. Certainly young men have always wanted to see themselves as tough guys. The sixth-century Roman historian Procopius described the action of similar groups in sixth-century Constantinople. He described the factions as dressing in a similar manner to modern bikies He sharply criticized the men of Constantinople for their embarrassing attempts to emulate the barbarians:

To begin with, the partisans changed the style of their hair to quite novel fashion, having it cut very differently from the other Romans. They did not touch moustache or beard at all, but were always anxious to let them grow as long as possible, like the Persians. But the hair on the front of the head they cut right back to the temples, allowing the growth behind to hang down to its full length in a disorderly mass, like the Massagetae. That is why they sometimes called this the Hunnish style. Then as regards dress, they all thought it necessary to be luxuriously turned out, donning attire too ostentatious for their particular station. For they were in a position to obtain such garments at other people’s expense. The part of the tunic covering their arms was drawn in very tight at the wrists, while from there to the shoulders it spread out to an enormous width. Whenever they waved their arms as they shouted in the theatre or the hippodrome and encouraged their favorites in the usual way, up in the air went this part of their tunics, giving silly people the notion that their bodies were so splendidly sturdy that they had to be covered with garments of this kind: they did not realize that the transparency and emptiness of their attire rather served up to show their miserable physique. Their capes and breaches too, and in most cases their shoes, were classed as Hunnish in name and fashion.

Procopius claimed that these men had merely taken on the semblance of the Hunnic warrior nature. While they frittered their time away attending races and terrorizing the local nobility in the capital, on the battlefields of Italy the Empire’s “real” men were dying. These words would resonate for most citizens of the Gold Coast today.

Like Father Not Like Son


George W Bush is not the first major politician to suffer from having a famous father. In the Roman Empire “Good”emperors were often followed by their ëvil “sons e.g. Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. 


Like the sons of many famous fathers, the Roman Emperor Constantius II (ruled 337-361) lived in the shadow of his famous father, the Emperor Constantine I (ruled 306-337). Undeniably, being the son of the first Christian emperor was both a blessing and a curse. Both ancient and modern historians have tended to dismiss the accomplishments of this long-serving emperor. Constantius’ “inability” to match the exploits and virtues of his famous pater, indeed, represents a favourite theme in the works of Late Roman writers.


Moreover, depictions of Constantius II in the fifth and sixth-century ecclesiastical historians depended primarily on where one stood on the Christological debates that beleaguered the Church in this era. For example, the first continuer of Eusebius, Philostorigus, supported the emperor in his struggles against the bishop Athanasius. Naturally, seeing Constantius as “orthodox,” Philistorgius highlighted the emperor’s victory over Magentius, which he claims a glowing cross that appeared over Jerusalem preordained.


According to the fifth-century ecclesiastical historians Sozomen and Socrates, the revival of “Arianism” under Constantius led to military set-backs during his reign. A few examples should suffice. A pro-Arian council in 341 was followed by a Frankish invasion of Gaul in that same year. Socrates too blamed the emperor’s defeat to the Persians on his religious stance. Though, somewhat surprisingly, Socrates supported Constantius’ victory over Magentius.


According to both Socrates and Sozomen, Constantius was a dupe to his powerful “Arian” advisers (Hunt 143). Sozomen (3.18.4), in fact, insisted that the emperor’s “core” doctrinal views differed little from that of his father Constantine and brother the Emperor Constans (ruled 337-50). As Hunt explains, since Constantius served as a foil to the pagan Julian, it proved difficult for later Church historians to be too critical of a Christian emperor who tried to thwart Julian’s claim to the purple.


So too did secular sources composed shortly after his reign like Ammianus and Eunapius use Constantius II primarily as a foil to their hero the apostate emperor, Julian (ruled 36-63). Constantius’ military record represented an area of focus for his supporters and detractors. In a back-handed compliment, Julian in a panegyric dedicated to Constantius, seemingly lauded the emperor’s martial prowess. It is important to note, however, he made it clear that Constantius’ achievements were against western usurpers not foreign enemies. Sources from the Later Empire criticize those emperors who celebrated their triumphs over usurpers. Certainly, victory in civil wars should not be equated to those over Rome’s foreign enemies. Ammianus (21.16.15) contrasted the emperor’s successes in civil wars with his ‘failures” against foreign enemies .Ammianus too famously mocked the emperor for celebrating a “triumph” in Rome in 357 for his victory over Magentius in 353. So too did later propagandists for Julian make it clear that the Apostate’s military victories were over foreign enemies. One finds further proof that this was an area of concern for Constantius and his backers in his attempt in his propaganda campaign against the usurper to paint Magentius as a barbarian who had the backing of Germanic hordes.


Partially as a result of taking these ancient criticisms of Constantius at face value, nineteenth and twentieth-century historians largely held a negative view of the emperor (E.g. Bury 579), (Stein 205), (Piganiol 205), (Demandt 101-102). Recently, however, the tide has begun to shift (PhD students, in particular, have found fertile ground in Constantius II’s reign: e.g. Bowder, Hunt). Constantius’ ability to deftly combine his role as a political and military leader with Christian engagement has been recognised. So too have these works recognised that

much of our vision of the emperor comes from secular and theological sources with an agenda. As mentioned above, historians are at the mercy of surviving sources that focus heavily on Constantius II’s religious and political disputes. Panegyrics praising the emperor also present a familiar problem. Just how much of this often empty praise is mere rhetoric? I would agree, with Michael Whitby ( “Images of Constantius,”), however, that a close reading of these pro and anti-sources can help one uncover areas that Constantius II and his backers sought to promote and areas that they needed to address.

The Soldier Emperors of the fifth-century Eastern Roman Empire

The third chapter of my manuscript The Soldier’s Life is one of two that did not appear in my dissertation….primarily because of time constraints and my 80,000 word limit. It will concentrate on the “martial” reigns of Marcian, Leo, and Zeno. Here are some notes I have taken. A bit like sculpting I will chip and add. Spelling and grammar, as one can see, play only a minor role. Crafting of eloquent prose is also kept at a minimum. This is a bit of an experiment; I will continually update this blog and those interested can watch the chapter grow.

Due largely to the paucity of sources, the reigns of the fifth-century eastern Roman emperors Marcian, Leo I, and Zeno have received far less attention from modern scholars than they deserve. Certainly these military regimes provide important clues for a historian trying to uncover how martial virtues shaped both ideals of leadership and masculinity. Indeed, one could go so far as to describe these years as a period of juntas. The military disruptions of the fifth-century marked by heavy fighting in the Balkans created the growth of career opportunities from men from all levels of Roman society. All three of these emperors, indeed, hailed from the military aristocracy, and had been raised from relative obscurity from the ranks of the Roman armed forces. The dominance of men in the politics of the day by men whom draped themselves in martial manliness serve as inconvenient reminder for those who suggest that Byzantine rulers and society as a whole were turning away from masculine ideals based on men’s actions on the field of battle.

Marcian (probably) and Leo (definitely) had been raised by the Alan magister militum Aspar (following the convincing arguments made by Burgess: though see the different views found in Chew and Beers that the empress Pulcheria was the key player).  Rather than rule himself, Aspar, like his western contemporary the Goth, Ricimer, largely tried to influence events behind the scenes. In establishing his role behind the scenes he was largely successful during the reign of Marcian, if obviously less so during Leo’s. Unfortunately for Aspar, Leo had an independent, and if contemporary sources are to be believed a violent streak. The relationship only gradually soured. Leo took his time before he made his move to eliminate his mentor. Only after a long campaign of bitter propaganda against his mentor the Alan and his sons were assassinated by Leo’s eunuchs in 471. Views were mixed on the justice of this move. Leo’s nickname “the butcher” was a slight used by his enemies (see e.g. the frags. of Malchus). Not everyone disagreed with the assassination of Aspar. Writing during the reign of Justinian (527-565) Malalas (cf. the similar positive view of Leo found in the history of Malalas’ contemporary, the historian Procopius) records a letter supposedly written by Leo to his western counterpart Anthemios that sheds light on how latter Byzantines viewed this action. Leo explains that he had killed Aspar and his sons in order to be the one “who gives orders not takes them.” He suggests that to avoid being a mere puppet, Anthemios assassinate his supreme commander the Goth Ricimer, and also that he should kill Leo’s rival (and future western emperor) the Roman noble Olybrius. Unlike, Leo, Anthemios failed to act quickly enough and Ricimer was left to his own devices, which eventually led to disaster for the Western halve of the Empire. A former magister utiusqe militae, consul, and patrician under Marcian, Anthemios had been hand-picked by Leo as his western counterpart. As we can see from the passage above, the easterner Anthemios had landed in a difficult situation. As one recent scholar has shown, ‘Contemporary western propaganda sought to paint the Gothic Ricimer “as a noble Roman protector” whilst casting Anthemios “as an enraged Galatian and Greekling rather than the Roman he claimed to be.” (Arnold, 153). Certainly Procopius depicts the Gothic Wars as a contest of manliness and courage between the Goths and the Romans Byzantines…. a struggle that was won ultimately by the Eastern Romans.

So why did not Aspar just make himself or one of his sons emperor or indeed a barbarian rex along the lines of the Ostrogoth Theoderic?  A.D. Lee (Contra Wood) suggests, the likeliest explanation was that as an Alan and an Arian, Aspar, like Ricimer, could not rule themselves. So too were links to the ruling regime important. Though it seems like Stilicho they sought to align their sons to the Imperial family. Kaldellis’ idea that it took two generations into become Roman may be apt, but it does not explain why Aspar could not reign since his father was an esteemed Roman general. Moreover, I would add that they may have preferred avoiding all the other obligations that went along with the role. Certainly Constantius III, if Olympiodorus is to be believed, only reluctantly gave up his military command to become Honorius’ partner in 421.

Leo’s success in eliminating his puppet master Aspar has been explained by A.D. Lee this way. He suggests that Stilicho’s decision at the opening of the fifth century to name a supreme commander of the Western Roman army stood in contrast to the East where five generals served to balance each other was one important factor. So too was Leo’s wise manoeuvring to gain a powerful ally in the Isaurian Zeno who could protect him in the dangerous aftermath of the Assassination. Valentinian III had not taken similar precautions. So too had he eliminated a Roman general, and one assumes orthodox who had famously defeated Attila. The swift retaliation against such a murder is understandable. Leo had an easier time explaining his elimination of a man he painted as a traitorous barbarian, who had tried to betray the Romans to the Persians and the Vandals. Valentinian III had a much more difficult time disparaging the Roman war hero Aetius.

As I have argued in an earlier blog…..this period was a real life Game of Thrones. The old vision of the fifth century as a battle between noble Romans and rogue barbarian factions has largely been overturned. The recent trend is to dismiss the older idea these men were motivated by issues of ethnicity. Hugh Elton, for instance, rejects the idea of “Germanic” and Isaurian solidarity as a prime-mover of affairs during Zeno’s reign. Roman factional politics remained the prime factor in the internal struggles that troubled the twin regimes during this period. Needing to confirm themselves as “true” Romans all three men went to great lengths to establish their credential of leaders of the state and the church. This helps to explain in Wood’s mind why Leo and Zeno took steps to paint themselves as supporters of orthodoxy whilst painting their rivals as enemies of the Church.

Moreover, Leo’s attempt to paint Aspar as an unorthodox and violent “barbarian” may have been an attempt to subvert propaganda critical of his regime. Men like Leo, Aspar, Zeno, and Theoderic were not so different. Like his successor Zeno, as an obscure soldier from Thrace, Leo would have been seen by many within the Constanlopian elite as little better than a barbarian himself. Latter historians, however, liked to present the old dichotomy between Romans and barbarians. For Byzantines like Procopius, the fall of the West was due to the rise of effeminate Western Roman emperors and the elimination of men like Aetius. Procopius believed that men like Leo who took a strong stand against barbarians like the Vandals and his former mentor Aspar were the reason why the Empire lived to fight another day.

Vale for now.

The Real Game of Thrones: Generalissimos and Politics in the Fifth-century Roman Empire

This is a copy of some questions I had for the Late Roman historian Ralph Mathison concerning his intriguing article< Ricimer’s Church in Rome: How an Arian Prospered in a Nicene world. Feel free to add to the discussion.

Hi Ralph, I just read your interesting article on Ricimer. Feel free to reply or discard. It makes an interesting companion to Woods’ recent paper on Malalas’ views on Aspar, Leo, and Zeno. Some questions and some comments: On p. 324 you reasonably raise the question of why Ricimer did not feel the need to be raised as emperor. Your answer that it now was not worth the hassle or the threat of assassination is reasonable. Though of course the generals Boniface, Felix, and Aetius had been consumed by the incessant rivalries that marked the age, so perhaps being a magister militum was only slightly less dangerous than being an emperor. As I am sure you know this reluctance predates Ricimer. Certainly, Aetius seemed pretty happy ruling behind the scenes until he received a sword in the guts after he tried to bind his son to Valentinian III.  Indeed, if Olympiodorus is to be believed, Constantius III had only grudgingly taken on the role as partner to Honorius four decades prior. Perhaps giving up direct command of Roman forces on the ground played a role? On a side note, interesting, that the ”non-martial” VIII commits the murder himself,  I am always surprised that later historians did not give him at least some credit for taking matters into his own hands, pun intended. Certainly, it seems that martial manliness plays an important role in these men’s self-presentation, and the depictions we find of them in writers like Priscus and Procopius.

Kaldellis (Hellenism) has argued recently that it took two generations before one could be considered as Roman, which offers perhaps a partial explanation of why Stilicho and Ricimer, had hopes to have their sons become potential emperors rather than themselves. I am not sure on where I stand on the offer that Aspar was given. Though as you point out there did not seem to be any formal ban, Lee raises the interesting point that Theodosius II may have depended on Aspar and other non-Roman generals precisely because they could not replace him. Procopius certainly believes that Aspar’s Ärianism banned him from the purple.  Even Zeno and Leo I seemed on somewhat shaky ethnic ground according to hostilie sources. As Wood’s suggests this may offer a partial reasoning for these emperors’ from the fringes of the Empire need to paint Aspar and others as unorthodox barbarians. Leo’s subsequent reputation as the butcher shows that there were at least some Byzantines against his purge of his Alan mentor. A new article explaining the similarities and differences between the politics surrounding Aspar’s and Ricimer’s hegemony that builds on the only partially satisfying work of MacGeorge (Warlords) seems needed.

Next, how large of a percentage of the Western military hierarchy were considered as Romans? You state on 324 that for a Patrician or Master of Soldiers that being a barbarian had become “part of the job description.”  Is this true?  As Goffart (Barbarian Tides) points out it seems that the percentage of natives in positions of command was actually greater in the West than the East in the first five decades of the fifth century. Men such as the future Constantius III, Felix, Boniface, Aetius would have most certainly considered themselves as members of the Roman elite. Though as you wisely point out; it remains difficult to know how men like Ricimer saw themselves. I find myself stuck somewhere between MacGeorge’s and Elton’s view on this question.  I have always found Amory’s suggestion that perhaps to paint oneself as a “barbarian” both as a military leader and religious leader was the safer option in this dangerous age, an intriguing idea. Moreover, building on your insightful observation that non-Roman generals could be non-Christian, Nicene, and/or Arian, do you have any cases of “Roman” generals in the fifth century being non-Nicene?

Finally, much like the era of the Republic, new men (e.g. Marius, Sulla) garbed in manly martial virtues  seem to have been seen as both saviours and as threats to the State. Whilst, as McDonnell suggests, the early emperors had taken steps to curb this threat, it seems to have become a problem once again in both twin regimes of the fifth century. Procopius certainly seems to promote this notion in the sixth century, where in theGothic Wars, in particular, manly Goths and Roman military men vie for control of an enfeebled and largely non-martial Italian population. The question that still seems to be answered in full is why even soldier- emperors were so willing to give up this important aspect of leadership? I know that some answers have been provided: the circumstances of succession, the threat of death on campaign as experienced by Valens and Julian, internal court politics, the age of the soldier- emperors when they obtained the purple, the growth of non-martial traits like piety. None of these seem completely satisfactory, however, Any thoughts