Update on “The First Byzantine Emperor: Some thoughts on the reign of Leo I (457-474)


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.[2] For instance, in the recent guide to Late Antiquity there is a no mention of this important emperor, whilst the bishop of Rome, Leo I (440-461), garners two pages.[3] This void may also be contrasted with the relative abundance of recent scholarship on the ineffectual fifth-century Theodosian emperors[4], and Leo’s successors.[5]

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. 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. Modern historians have been more interested in the role that Leo’s predecessor, Marcian, played in the council of Chalcedon. For some in women’s studies, the dominance of military men in the politics of the day serve as inconvenient reminders for those who would suggest that fifth-century Byzantine society was becoming less androcentric and/or turning away from traditional views of imperial leadership based on martial qualities. [6]  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. [7] 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.[8]

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 preserving narratives describing an era that had led to the loss of the majority of the Empire’s Western territories.[9] So too did the non-soldier Anastasios appear to have wanted to marginalise and disassociate himself from the military reigns of Leo and Zeno.[10]

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. Certainly 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.


Some Current Debates

Leo’s reign is remembered primarily for three 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.[11] 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 replacement by the Isaurian  Tarasicodissa (the future emperor Zeno) have attracted intense from scholars interested in fifth-century factional politics and contemporary views on Roman identity. 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.

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) maintained that he was from Dacia in Illyricum. While John Malalas (14.35) writing under Justinian stated that he was of Bessian stock (the Bessi were an independent Thracian tribe).[12] 

At the time of his ascension, Leo was an undistinguished commander of the troops in Selymbria. Marcian had died on 27 January 457. Ten days later at the Campus Martius in Constantinople, Leo was proclaimed emperor in front of a mixed audience of senators, imperial regiments (scholai), key members of the military, and most symbolically, Anatolios, the archbishop of Constantinople. Despite the chants of the audience insisting that each faction “demanded Leo as emperor,” one suspects that most within the audience had a little knowledge about the man who was about to don the imperial diadem. When they all chanted in unison, “Leo augoustos may you always be victorious! He who has chosen you, may he guard you![13] Some within the audience might be forgiven for thinking that this protector was not the Christian saviour of the next line of the chant, but the Alan magister militum Aspar, the man behind Leo’s unexpected crowning.[14]

Marcian (probably) and Leo (definitely) had been raised by Aspar.[15] Aspar had a long if rather chequered military career spanning five decades. With his father, Ardabur, in 424/25 he had led Theodosius II’s armies into Italy to overthrow the western usurper John. In 431 Aspar had teamed up with the western generalissimo Boniface in a failed attempt to expel the vandals from North Africa.  From 431-435 he had remained in the West commanding the Eastern forces garrisoned there. This service saw Aspar named consul by the western emperor Valentinian III in 434. In 441 we find Aspar negotiating a treaty with the Huns. Aspar and his army in 443 suffered a severe defeat at the hands of Attila. Priscus tells us that by 449, Aspar’s star was on the wane. [16] Indeed, Aspar was probably one of the commanders that Priscus derided for cowardice in the face of the Hunnic threat.[17] By the time of Theodosius II death in 450 it appears that Aspar had regained the good graces of the emperor, and the sixth-century chronicler John Malalas maintained that Aspar was present when the dying emperor supposedly proclaimed that Marcian— a soldier who had served under Aspar— should be his successor.[18]

Though scholars continue to debate how important a position Aspar played in Marcian’s ascension, it seems clear that in the early years of Leo’s reign he wielded a great deal of power, and indeed served as a shadow emperor. 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.[19] 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.”[20] 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. 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.[21]

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.  Leo’s wise manoeuvring to gain a powerful ally in the Isaurian Zeno helped to protect him in the dangerous aftermath of the assassination. Valentinian III had not taken similar precautions. With no one to protect him Aetius’ supports quickly returned the favour.[22] 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. So too could Leo emphasize Aspar’s relatively poor record as a Roman commander. 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, however, 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.


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).

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.[23] 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.[24] 

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 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.

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.


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


[2] Gereon Siebigs, Kaiser Leo I. Das oströmische Reich in den ersten drei Jahren seiner Regierung, 457 

 –460 2 vols.(Berlin/New York: De Gruyter 2010). Bury’s History and Stein’s Histoire du Bas Empire remain the most in-depth accounts. For a decent modern account, see Gerard Friell and Stephen Williams, The Rome that did not Fall: the Survival of the East in the Fifth Century (London: Routledge, 1999).


[3] G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, Oleg Graber, eds., Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press / The Belknap Press, 1999), 541-42.


[4] 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).

[5] F. K. Haarer, Anastasius I: Politics and Empire in the Late Roman World (Cambridge:  Francis Cairns, 2006); Mischa Meier, Anastasios I. Die Entstehung des Byzantinischen Reiches (Stuttgart, 2009). Rafal Kosinski, The Emperor Zeno: Religion and Politics (Cracow: 2010). John Moorhead, Justinian (London: Longman, 1994).

[6]  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. The continuing praise of martial virtues as an essential aspect of hegemonic masculinity in the depiction of these military men in the literature of late Antiquity undermines his conclusion that non-martial “Christian” virtues had become the new ideal of masculinity in the later Empire.  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.


[7]Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (London: MacMillan, 2103),


[8]Brian Croke “Dynasty and Ethnicity in the Reign of Leo I and the Eclipse of Aspar,” Chirion 36 (2005): 147-203; “Leo I and the palace guard”, Byzantion: Revue International des études byzantines, 78 (2005), 117-151.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.

[9] Warren Treadgold, The Early Byzantine Historians (New York: Macmillan Press, 2007), 102.


[10]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 (e.g. Wars 3.6.3. 11), however, provides a far more idealised “tough guy” representation of Leo. The preserver of Malchus’ fragments, the tenth-century Suda (267), also seems to hold a more favourable view of Leo, who, in the scribes telling, ruled the Empire with “effective ferocity”.


[11] Marcellinus, Chronicle XI.

[12] Writing shortly after Leo’s reign, Candidus should be preferred. In fact, Malalas’ contention may represent later attempts to paint Leo as a barbarian cloaked in Roman clothing.


[13] Following the complete depiction of Leo’s ceremony found in Constantine Porphyrogennetos, Book of Ceremonies, trans. Ann Moffatt and Maxeme Tall (Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 2012), 410-416.


[14] Marcian’s son-in-law the future western emperor Anthemius (ruled 467-472) was probably the expected successor.


[15] I side with arguments made by Burgess (Marcian): though see the different views found in Chew and Beers that suggest that the empress Pulcheria was the key player.  


[16] Priscus, frag. 14.85-90.


[17] Priscus, frag. 9.3. Priscus probably composed his history during the second reign of Zeno (Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 100).


[18] John Malalas, Chronicle 14.27. Cf. Chronican Paschale, S.A. 450. We should, however, discount Malalas’ contention that Theodosius had named Marcian as his successor at this time.

[19] For a full account of Aspar’s career, see – Profile of Aspar in the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire.


[20] Wood (Multiple Voices) sees this passage as an instance of Malalas being ironic, he maintains that the chronicler sought to present Leo as a barbarian along the lines of Ricimer. I doubt that the rather clumsy historian Malalas was capable of such subtlety.


[21] This view for the fall of the west and the survival of the east found in writers like Procopius is still followed by more traditional scholars: e.g., (Treadgold, 1997, 149-155); (Heather, 2013).

[22] Priscus, frag 30

[23] Olympiodorus, frag. 33.


[24] Arnold, pers. comment.



3 thoughts on “Update on “The First Byzantine Emperor: Some thoughts on the reign of Leo I (457-474)

  1. roberthorvat

    Thanks Mike for your wonderful insight again on Byzantine rulers. I agree that being seen as Arian was probably a stumbling block for Theoderic and Aspar. I am curious on your thoughts on where you believe the Roman Empire, so to speak, became the Byzantine Empire ? Your article here introduces Leo as ‘The First Byzantine Emperor” ?I would love for you to a article sometime in the future on my Byzantine History blog.

  2. mikeaztec Post author

    Thanks Robert. I enjoy your blog as well. Indeed I saw some of my Byzantinists’ friends sharing your site on facebook last week. Much of my more academic stuff is here uq.academia.edu/MichaelStewart. There may be something there to share if you like. Or if you pick a topic I will give it a go. At the moment I will continue to post some shorter blurbs on the blog. The generalissimo Aspar is next.
    Byzantine of course is a convenient term for modern scholars trying to differentiate their field from Roman studies. Crusaders and Greek nationalists in the 19th and 20th centuries certainly overemphasised the Greekness of “New Rome”. Even today some scholars underplay the Romaness of the Byzantine state. Anthony Kaldellis’ book on the topic is a great revisionist take on the topic. Men like Procopius saw themselves as Romans, and he saw the term Greek in a pejorative way. Though as I discuss in a forthcoming article by the late fifth-century the Goths and Italo-Romans under Theoderic were trying to portray themselves as “true “Romans by disparaging the Eastern Romans as Greeks. The theme of just who were the real Romans is a prominent them in Procopius’ Gothic Wars. Not to self-promote but I have an article coming out this year on this very topic.

    With that said, I think Byzantine is an appropriate term for the modern historian to use, as long as we recognise its limitations. It is helpful to separate the Christian Empire from its non-Christian predecessor, so starting with Constantine as some scholars do is ok, though I would perhaps prefer the reigns of Zeno and Leo when Greek is becoming the language of choice in the East, and the Western Empire is beginning to crumble.


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