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

Today’s blog takes a look at an important if underappreciated Roman emperor, Leo I. Its a “very” rough draft of chapter draft I am writing on the soldier emperors of the fifth century. This is how many historians start the creative process. We give papers at conferences that our colleagues can comment on. If the paper is good enough they may then be turned into an article and/or book chapter. What follows is at its very early stages. It is basically my notes set down in a basic order with only minimal attention paid on grammar, style and footnotes. If and when I present it as a paper I will also switch it to a more oral style.

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.” 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. This void may be contrasted with the relative abundance of recent scholarship on the ineffectual fifth-century Theodosian emperors, and Leo’s successors Anastasios and Justinian.

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. Modern scholars have preferred to cover the reigns of the much better documented sixth-century emperors, especially Justinian. Yet other more “correctable” reasons may be provided. Modern historians have been more interested in the role that Leo’s predecessor, Marcian, played in the council of Chalcedon. I would also 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 of imperial leadership based on martial qualities. 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. In Peter Heather’s recent account of this period, for instance, Leo is only mentioned in passing. There have been exceptions. Important articles by Brian Croke and Philip Wood, for example, have shed needed light on the internal politics and “propaganda” surrounding Leo’s regime.

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. So too did the non-soldier Anastasios appear to have wanted to marginalise and disassociate himself from the military reigns of Leo and Zeno.

Some Current Debates

Leo’s reign is remembered primarily for four developments. First, Leo was probably the first emperor to be crowned by the patriarch of Constantinople. Even if we doubt that this symbolic crowning occurred (e.g. Siebigs, Kaiser Leo I), Leo’s reign certainly provides us with evidence with how important the emperor’s role as the leader of the Church had become in the fifth century. Indeed, polling the Eastern bishops on their views towards Chalcedon was one of Leo’s first official actions after he became emperor. So too does the regime offer proof of how an orthodox” emperor could use religion as a weapon to disparage and destroy his enemies both within and outside of the empire. Second, his self-assertion in the second half of his rule, and more precisely, culling of the “Germanic” faction at the Eastern court —marked by his successful assassination of his former mentor the Alan magister militum Aspar and his sons have attracted the intense interest from scholars hoping to comprehend fifth-century factional politics. Third, scholars have focused on Leo’s failed attempt to retake North Africa from the Vandals in 468. This bungled invasion, which almost bankrupted the Empire, was the last in a series of failed attempts by both the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire to expel the Vandals from the vital lands of North Africa And finally the increasing power of the mountain people the Isaurians within his regime, that culminated with Leo’s henchman the Isaurian Tarasicodissa becoming the “Roman” emperor Zeno has also attracted recent interest.

A Barbarian Cloaked in Roman Clothing?

Leo was born ca 401 in the Balkans. Writing in the early years of Anastasios’ reign, the Isaurian Candidus (frag. 1) maintains he was from Dacia in Illyricum. While John Malalas (14.35) writing under Justinian suggest stated that he was of Bessian stock (the Bessi [Βῆσσοι or Βέσσοι]were an independent Thracian tribe).I would suggest that Candidus view is preferable, since the idea that leo was not a “true” Roman may reflect later propaganda promoted by Leo’s and Zeno’s detractors. At the time he was raised to the purple, according to Candidus, Leo was a commander of the troops in Selymbria.
Marcian (probably) and Leo (definitely) had been raised by the Alan magister militum Aspar. Rather than rule himself, Aspar, like his western contemporary the Goth, Ricimer, a bit like Roman Dick Cheneys, 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. Procopius also saw Leo’s strong stand against “barbarians” like Aspar as a positive trait in a ruler (compare his praise of the Roman general Belisarius’ execution of two Hunnic soldiers in his army).

Painting a barbarian: The struggle between Leo and Aspar

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. Other Scholars, however, disagree with this assessment. Jonathan Arnold points out that Aspar was “Roman” enough for a diadem (there is evidence that Aspar was offered to become emperor of the Western half of the Empire); so was Areobindus; so was Tarasicodissa (Zeno, though I would suggest Zeno was technically a Roman).

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.
The fifth century period was a real life Game of Thrones. The old vision of this era 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 ( a view of Justinian that we find in Procopius). 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.

Well that is it for now. The second half of the paper will explore how Leo avoided taking blame in his disastrous failed attempt to kick the Vandals out of North Africa. So too will it examine the portrait of Leo crafted in the fifth and sixth century sources like the Saint’s Life of Daniel the Stylite, the chronicle of John Malalas, the history of Procopius, and, finally the ecclesiastical history of Evagrius.


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