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.


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