The First Byzantine Emperor? Some recent work on the Reign of Leo I (ruled 457-474)

This a paper that I am working on for a conference later this year. It deals with the very important but very neglected Emperor Leo I. This is a draft of the introduction and the abstract.

An understanding of the reign of Emperor Leo I (ruled 457-474) is crucial for anyone attempting to comprehend the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire. Indeed, one prominent Byzantinist goes so far as to credit Leo and his successor Zeno with rescuing “Byzantium from becoming a plaything of the barbarians.”[1] Yet as this same scholar has pointed out, the crucial reign of arguably the first Byzantine emperor has received far less attention than it deserves. In fact, as far as I know, one finds no major recent studies on this seminal fifth-century emperor.[2] This void may be contrasted with the relative abundance of recent scholarship on the ineffectual fifth-century Theodosian emperors[3], and Leo’s successors Zeno and Anastasios.[4]

We may attribute some of this neglect to the paucity of sources available to scholars. Unlike the fourth and the sixth, many of the crucial events in the fifth will remain unknowable. Yet other more “correctable” reasons may be provided. I would suggest that a recent focus on the role of women and the role of religion in the early Byzantine Empire has turned many scholars away from these soldier-emperors. The dominance of military men in the politics of the day serve as inconvenient reminders for those who suggest that fifth-century Byzantine society was becoming less androcentric and/or turning away from traditional views on imperial leadership based on martial qualities. [5]  So too has a relative disdain in some academic circles for military history, biography and traditional narrative history played a part in this neglect.

Yet, even more traditional “military and political” historians have largely left Leo on the sidelines in their reconstructions of the crucial events that shaped the third quarter of the fifth century.[6] There have been exceptions. Recent important articles by Brian Croke and Philip Wood, for example, have shed needed light on the internal politics and “propaganda” surrounding Leo’s regime.[7]

Moreover, a tendency to skip over the events of the latter half of the fifth century is not just a tendency of modern scholars. Byzantine historians seemed uncomfortable creating an in-depth narrative describing an era that had led to the loss of the majority of the Empire’s Western territories.[8] So too did the non-martial Anastasios appear to have wanted to marginalise and disassociate himself from the military reigns of Leo and Zeno.[9]

This paper first summarises, and then addresses some of the issues raised in the recent scholarship. It also seeks to place Leo’s military regime within the context of Byzantine historiography. More precisely I will suggest that these reigns serve as evidence that the early Byzantine Empire continued to embrace martial virtues as key quality of both imperial leaders and men more generally. Leo’s military regime provides important clues for a historian trying to uncover how martial virtues shaped both ideals of leadership and masculinity. The dominance of the politics of the day by men whom draped themselves in martial manliness serve as an important reminder that Byzantine rulers like Leo I, and indeed fifth-century Eastern Roman society as a whole, continued to embrace martial virtues and representations of the soldier’s life as essential aspects of both imperial leadership, and masculine self-representation.


[1] Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 1997: 847.

[2] Bury’s  History and Stein’s Histoire du Bas Empire somewhat embarrassingly remain the most in-depth accounts.

[3] E.g., Kenneth Holum, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Dominion in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982). Kathryn Chew, “Virgins and Eunuchs: Pulcheria, Politics and the Death of Emperor Theodosius II,” Historia: Zeitschrift fϋr Alte Geschichte 55, 2 (2006): 207-227; Fergus Millar, A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Hagith Sivan, Galla Placidia: the Last Roman Empress. Women in antiquity.  (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2011); Meaghan McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[4] F. K. Haarer, Anastasius I: Politics and Empire in the Late Roman World.   Cambridge:  Francis Cairns, 2006. Add Zeno study.

[5]  Mathew Kuefler (The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001) for example, avoids these fifth-century military regimes in his study on Late Roman masculinity. Though following a more traditional narrative approach, so too does McEvoy in her commendable study on late Roman child-emperors, largely avoid discussing the reigns of these fifth-century soldier emperors. The large number of soldier emperors, in fact, undermines some of her more sweeping suggestions (e.g., 327) concerning the prominence of child-emperors in the Byzantine period.

[6] E.g., Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (London: MacMillan, 2103), where Leo is only mentioned in passing in Heather’s reconstruction of the events that led to Theoderic’s seizing of power in Italy.

[7]Brian Croke “Dynasty and Ethnicity in the Reign of Leo I and the Eclipse of Aspar,” Chirion 36 (2005): 147-203; Philip Wood “Multiple Voices in Chronicle Sources: The Reign of Leo I (457-474) in Book Fourteen of Malalas,” Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 4. No. 2 (Fall 2011): 299-314

[8] Warren Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 102.

[9]Malchus frags. 1, 2, 3. As Treadgold points out (Byzantine Historians, 105), Malchus was probably countering, or at least providing an alternative to the work of his contemporary the Isaurian born historian Candidus, which also covered the reigns of Leo and Zeno. John Malalas’ sixth-century portrait is more nuanced, mixing negative (e.g. 14. 41, 42, 44, and positive (e.g.14.39, 45) views of Leo. Procopius, however, provides a far more positive “tough guy” representation of Leo (add). The tenth-century Suda (267) that preserved some of Malchus’ history also seems to preserve a more favourable view who, in the scribes, telling ruled the Empire with “effective ferocity”.

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