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


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