Peas from the Same Pod? Recent thoughts on the “Romanness” of the emperors Leo I, Zeno, and the “generalissimos”, Ricimer, Aspar in the fifth century

Almost everyone has had an older relative tell them how much simpler and better things were in the “good ole days”. This adage certainly rings true for those who study Roman and/or Byzantine history in the fifth and the sixth centuries. In the old days…say twenty-five to thirty years ago…. there were still “bad” barbarians and “good” Romans.  So too could the survival of the East and the fall of the West in the fifth century be simply explained as largely the result of how differently the Romans in these twin regimes dealt with their Germanic barbarian generalissimos like Ricimer in the West and Aspar in the East. According to this paradigm, the Western half of the Empire fell because the Western emperors failed to stand up to these barbarian strong-men, in contrast, in the East, the Roman Emperor Leo I assassinated his generalissimo Aspar and purged his Germanic supporters.[1] This failure led to the rise of barbarian kingdoms in the old provinces of the West, whilst in the East, the emperors Anastasios and Justinian continued the purge, and depended on largely Roman armies to create an increasingly prosperous Eastern Empire. Such a view closely follows the accounts found in our ancient sources (e.g., John Malalas 14.45, Procopius Wars 5.1-1-23..though Procopius later describes how Justinian’s overreach and greed caused havoc in the Empire).

Yet a vanguard of scholars has turned against such a succinct explanation. Partially, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, as well as the creation of the European Union at the close of the twentieth century, many scholars began to question the assumption that people from Late Antiquity could easily distinguish Romans from non-Romans, and/ or that barbarians like Ricimer and the Italian rex Theoderic were that different from Romans like Aetius and Justinian. Moreover, they frequently depicted the Roman Justinian as the “bad guy”, and the Goth Theoderic as the “good guy” (e.g. Moorhead, 1992; Kaldellis, 2004; Arnold, 2014). Certainly the idea that the fall of the West can be explained as a case of martial barbarians overwhelming increasingly non-martial Romans has been overturned.

Indeed, scholars have gone so far as to suggest that there was little “difference” between “Romans” like Aetius, Leo I, Zeno and their barbarian counterparts Aspar, Ricimer, and the two Theoderics. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that this period is marked by the rise of military strong men both Roman and non-Roman. Just how different these generalissimos were, however, has provoked considerable debate.  These new-school scholars (e.g. Hugh Elton, Patrick Amory, Brian Croke, Philip Wood, and Jonathan Arnold to name only a few) have asked in their work what is a Roman and why can’t a Goth be one?  In his 2014 study on Theoderic, Jonathan Arnold explains that Aspar was “Roman” enough for a diadem; so was Areobindus; so was Tarasicodissa (Zeno).  How was Theoderic different? He believes that Theoderic held hostage in Constantinople during his youth  had acquired an Eastern Roman” outlook that helps to explain why when he gained control of the Western half of the Empire at the close of the fifth century he sought to present himself as a Roman emperor, and his Goths as new Romans. To quote Arnold from a recent personal discussion we had:   “The problem with the traditional barbarian vs. Roman paradigm is that advocates of it (like Heather) simply assume we know (and contemporaries knew) what a Roman was.  This is absurd!  Romanness was extremely complex, had a multiplicity of manifestations, varied from one region and person to the next, and was subject to change over time.”

In an interesting recent article on Leo I, Philip Wood explains that Leo I in order to affirm his own Romanness went to great lengths to paint himself as an Orthodox Roman while painting the second generation “Alan” and long serving magester militum and senior consul, Aspar, as a barbarian-Arian-heretic… itching for the chance to betray the Romans to his fellow barbarians. Wood believes that this was largely a facade created by Leo to distract attention from his own humble and “semi-barbaric” origins.

Where do I stand on the issue? I largely agree with the newer scholarship that sees the turmoil that beset both halves of the Empire as largely resulting from factional rather than ethnic disputes. Yet I am more inclined to believe that men like Theoderic and Aspar may have promoted their non-Romanness, and indeed, Gothic or Alan identity. So too does it seems strange to me that Aspar would have promoted Leo I to the purple in 457 if he was going to be seen as a barbarian. Zeno too seems to have not promoted too much his identity as an Isaurian who technically were considered as Romans, if by this period as tenuous and semi-barbaric (see, Lenski 2011). The ideas that the Western senate offered to make Aspar emperor has also been disputed by some I believe rightly. Moreover, the fact that Aspar and Theoderic remained “Arians” seems important. If they wanted to be seen as Romans: Why not just convert to the “Orthodoxy” of the day? Certainly being an Orthodox Christian was becoming a marker of Romanness in this period. Though as others point out throughout Byzantine history one’s orthodoxy did not necessarily make one a Roman and/or Byzantine e.g. Serbians, Russians etcetera( following Kaldellis [Hellenism 2010] and others convincing argument that until the thirteenth century the people we call Greek Byzantines saw themselves as heirs of Latin-Roman Empire).

Kaldellis (Hellenism) has convincingly shown that it took two generations before one could be considered as Roman, which offers perhaps a partial explanation of why Stilicho, Ricimer, had hopes to have their sons become potential emperors rather than themselves.  Procopius maintained that Aspar could not take the throne himself. Though there did not seem to be any formal ban. Even Zeno and Leo I seemed on somewhat shaky ethnic ground, which explains the popularity of a “real”Roman emperor like Anastasios. 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.

It remains difficult to know how men like Ricimer and Aspar saw themselves. Much of the literature that survives comes from their opponents. I find myself stuck somewhere between Penny MacGeorge’s and Hugh 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. “Romans” risked being seen as usurpers and/or heretics.

Even today, an individual’s notion of identity has many levels. One may rapidly shift an allegiance from one ethnic group to another. This malleability makes it difficult to understand ethnicity in the modern world, and may help to explain why historians continue to struggle to understand how early Byzantine historians like Procopius, Cassiodorus, and  Jordanes, attempted to do the same for their own peoples. Humans, indeed, seem to have an innate way of pointing out difference that frequently defies scientific or historical explanation.

[1] This older” view is still followed by more traditional scholars: e.g., (Treadgold, 1997, 149-155); (Heather, 2013).


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