Monthly Archives: April 2014

A New Justinian? Some Thought On Putin’s “Reconquest”


Since I first wrote this piece at the end of February events in Ukraine have moved rapidly. I have been fortunate to have a good number of Russians and Ukrainians share this blog, so I thought I would repost it.


In the past few days global media has been filled with cartoons of Vladimir Putin depicted as a modern day Adolph Hitler. Not only are such images unnecessarily provocative, they completely misrepresent the politics behind the events unfolding in the Crimea. I would suggest that caricatures of the President of Russia in the guise of the sixth-century “Roman” emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565) would be far more apt. Most modern historians are rightly cautious when comparing modern societies to ancient ones. Yet interesting parallels can be made between Justinian’s sixth-century “reconquest” of the lost provinces of the Western Roman Empire, with Putin’s opportunistic move into the Crimea this week.

The primary issue in both cases seems to be just who has the true claim to their state’s identity. Both the governments in Moscow and Kiev want to own the past.[1] The idea of a Russia founded by the ninth-century Scandinavian Rus in the lands surrounding Kiev is undisputed. Politicians in Kiev and Moscow have made legitimate claims to this history. Such a notion is similar to the belief on the part of many sixth-century citizens of Rome and Constantinople that the Roman Empire had been founded 1200 years earlier along the banks of the Tiber. However, just who owned this legacy—East or West—remained an area of contention.

The dispute lies in the ownership of this mythic history. So too do the modern cities of Kiev or Moscow continue an ancient battle for pre-eminence as the “true” heirs to this ancient civilization. A similar debate captivated the intellectuals and politicians in the Later Roman Empire. The eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople that Justinian ruled from Constantinople had been a comparatively recent invention. The emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 22 May 337) had founded the city and moved the capital of the Empire to Constantinople from Rome in 330. Over the next century and a half we see in the literary record an on-going debate concerning the primacy of old Rome and the new Rome, Constantinople. By the fifth century one sees the development of what Fergus Millar has described recently as increasingly independent  “twin regimes” in the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire.

Famously, this argument became mostly moot when the last Western emperor Romulus Augustus was overthrown in 476. Under the inept rule of the last Western Roman emperors, non-Roman generals became the true power behind the throne. In 476, a group of rebellious soldiers proclaimed one of these strongmen, Odoacer, king. Odoacer deposed the Western Roman emperor, Romulus. The new king dispatched a delegation to the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno, (ruled 474-5, 476-91), informing the emperor that there was no longer the need for a separate emperor in the West. Zeno, who himself was a former Isaurian chieftain (a pastoralist people who had raided throughout the Empire’s Cappadocian and Syrian Provinces) and who had taken control of the Empire after the death of Leo I had little choice in the matter. He recognized Odoacer’s right to rule, and appointed him to the rank of patricius.

Zeno, had problems of his own only recently reclaiming his throne from a “usurper” Basiliskos” in the prior year. Yet Zeno and his backers were only biding their time to retake Italy.  When he was more firmly established in power, emperor Zeno convinced Theoderic the Amal to gather his forces in Thrace and the Balkans and march into Italy to eliminate Odoacer. After a fierce struggle, Theoderic slew Odoacer and took control of Italy. Theoderic’s relationship with the Eastern Roman Empire became strained. Though technically subservient to the emperor, he was viewed as a usurper by many Romans in the East.

Yet, as with the Vandals in North Africa, it would be a mistake to see the triumph of the “barbarians” in Italy as the end of the Western Roman Empire. The barbarians of the late fifth century CE were far different from the fur-clad wild marauders portrayed in Classical literature. On the contrary, many Germanic leaders had adapted themselves to Roman society and rapidly became indistinguishable from their civilian Roman neighbours. They dressed in contemporary Roman fashions and possessed magnificent villas decorated with the latest mosaic floors and furnishings. Theoderic himself was attracted to Roman culture. Indeed, during his ten years as a hostage in Constantinople (461-71) he had received a Roman education. Subsequently, when Theoderic seized power in Italy, he did not destroy Rome, but cooperated with the Roman officials and attempted to integrate his people into Italian society. As Jonathan Arnold (Theoderic and the Imperial Restoration) has recently shown, Theoderic and his Goths were often portrayed by the Italo-Romans as new and “true” Romans. These images stood in stark contrast to their  frequent presentation of the Eastern Romans as non-martial and largely effeminate Greeks.

Roman decline continued in the sixth century. The military defeats in the West, as well as the renewed Persian threat to the East, created a sense of anxiety amongst the populace. Increasingly, many Eastern Romans, rich and poor, began to search for a “Roman” ruler to lead them back to glory. They got their wish when Justinian succeeded to the throne. Justinian believed that the loss of the Western Empire resulted from the fifth-century emperors’ incompetent rule and it was his duty to reunite the lost Provinces and restore order to the Empire. Sound familiar?

Justinian’s family came from the provincial Balkan town of Nis, and like Zeno, he had journeyed to Constantinople in the search for a position in the military. Justinian recognized that his humble origins meant that he had a tenuous hold on power. Accordingly, he took several steps to consolidate his authority. Under the guise of a Classical renewal, he gradually increased the authority of the emperor, and curtailed the aristocracy’s power. He claimed for the first time that the emperor represented the nomos empsychos (the living law). In the Digest, he codified Roman law and refused to allow lawyers to change these laws. It became the emperor’s duty to “resolve ambiguous juridical decisions.”

It is with Justinian that Classical Rome fades away and a recognizable early Medieval Christian State takes its place. Although Justinian played upon many Romans’ hunger for the return of the glorious Roman past, his centralization, strict regimentation, and “Classical Roman renewal” were based on Christian concepts. Justinian perceived himself as the head of the Church and State, and he ruled as both a religious and a secular leader. No other emperor either before or after had such control over the Church. It would be a mistake to see Justinian acting out these reforms purely from political necessity. What separated Justinian from many of his predecessors was his devotion to Orthodox Christianity and his abhorrence of heresy.  Like the emperor Constantine, Justinian seems to have honestly believed that he served as God’s vehicle in the secular world. Justinian thought of himself as a man who, along with his wife, the empress Theodora, served as God’s representative on earth. During the pagan era, the divinity of an emperor like Augustus isolated him from both his wife Livia and the general populace. Justinian’s role as mediator between heaven and earth brought him closer to the people and to his wife. Justinian assumed that for the good of the Empire, it was his duty to impose religious and legal conformity on his subjects. Before Justinian’s ascension, pagans had been allowed to serve in the bureaucracy as long as they kept their beliefs to themselves. Justinian, however, felt compelled to stamp out the last vestiges of the old faith. In 528, he commanded that all pagans had three months to be baptized. The next year he forbade the teaching of philosophy at the Academy in Athens. Pagan professors disillusioned with the Christianization of the Empire fled to the more “enlightened” court of the Persian king Chosroes.

Justinian’s autocratic rule and his humble background guaranteed that there would be strong opposition to his rule among the populace, especially the nobility, many of whom remembered the reign of the emperor Anastasios I (ruled 491-518 CE) as an era of relative religious freedom and prosperity. In January of 532, the anti-Justinian faction felt strong enough to make its move. A crowd of people went to the home of Anastasios’ nephew, Probus, in an attempt to name him emperor. Probus, perhaps purposely, was not there and the group burned down his house in frustration. In an attempt to appease the opposition, Justinian removed two unpopular officials from office. The emperor’s rivals, however, took this gesture as a sign of weakness and awaited the proper opportunity to make their move. Their chance arrived when Justinian attended a race at the Hippodrome and tried to placate the angry masses by giving a conciliatory speech. Both the Blues and the Greens, sporting factions that usually were bitter rivals, shouted down the emperor, and an uprising called the Nika revolt ensued. According to Procopius, the emperor attempted to abandon the capital, but Theodora stiffened the emperor’s resolve, and Justinian sent out his general Belisarius to punish the rebels. The Chronicon Paschale, an early seventh-century account, described Belisarius’ ruthless counterattack, “The people remained mobbing outside the palace. And when this was known, the patrician Belisarius, the magister militum, came out with a multitude of Goths and cut down many [rioters] until evening.” Justinian never forgot the lesson of his near overthrow. Perhaps he knew that if he wanted to survive he could never again show any signs of weakness or compromise.

Justinian’s actions cemented his power in Constantinople, and allowed him to conduct his campaigns to restore the lost Provinces of the Western empire. However, before Justinian could turn his forces to the West, he needed to secure his Northern and Eastern borders. Even before the Nika revolt, Byzantine armies had attained several important victories in these regions. In 530, for the first time in several years, the Byzantine army gained several victories over Persian forces in Armenia and Mesopotamia. The Empire gained further successes in the Balkans by defeating raiding Slavic and Bulgar forces. That same year, the Vandals deposed and imprisoned their king Hilderic. The Vandals replaced Hilderic with his fiery nephew and heir, Gelimer.Although this overthrow disturbed Justinian, for the time being he could only warn Gelimer “not to exchange the title of king for the title of tyrant.” The next year, the Persians and the Eastern Romans fought to a standstill in the East. However, the Persian emperor Cabades died in 531, and the new emperor, Chosroes, who needed time to consolidate his own power, readily agreed the next year to a five-year truce with the Eastern Romans. With both the dangerous Balkan and Persian frontier secured, Justinian eagerly turned his eyes to the West.

Justinian used both political and religious reasons to justify his attack on the Vandals.  In 533, claiming that he was protecting orthodox Christians from the dangers of an Arian usurper, the emperor sent Belisarius and his small army of about 18,000 men to North Africa. The landing caught the Vandals off guard. Although Gelimer attempted to block Belisarius’ march on Carthage, the Eastern Roman army soundly defeated him. He fled, leaving his forces in disarray. Belisarius captured the city, and that same year he destroyed the remnants of the Vandal army at the battle of Tricamerum. Although Gelimer escaped once more, in 534, he finally surrendered to Belisarius. Despite the seeming ease of the Byzantine victory over the Vandals, however, it would it take another fifteen years to stamp out the stubborn resistance of the local Berber tribes.

The defeat of the Vandals gave Justinian the confidence to retake Italy from the Goths. The emperor secretly negotiated with Theoderic’s daughter, Amalasuntha, (regent to her son, king Atalaric, ruled 526-534 CE), to restore Italy to Roman rule. However, when Atalaric died in 534, political considerations forced Amalasuntha to make her cousin Theodatus (ruled 534-536 CE) co-ruler. Theodatus suspected Amalasuntha’s “treason,” and he attempted to ingratiate himself with the queen’s enemies by imprisoning and then murdering her in 535.

Once again, Justinian used an “unlawful” usurpation of power by a barbarian king as a pretext for Byzantine intervention. Soon after Amalasuntha’s death, he invaded Italy and claimed the Ostrogothic kingdom for himself. Belisarius seized Sicily in 535. Exasperated with Theodatus’ inept leadership, in 536 the Ostrogoths killed him, replacing him with the general Vitigis (ruled 536-540 CE). Vitigis fared little better than Theodatus.  His attempts to besiege Belisarius in Rome from 536 to 537 failed, and in 540, he surrendered Ravenna to Belisarius. Despite being sent to Constantinople in chains, Vitigis was allowed an honorable retirement in Constantinople.

Victory seemed to be within Justinian’s grasp. Yet in 540 things took a turn for the worse. Justinian’s campaigns in North Africa and Italy had severely stretched the limits of the Eastern Romans’ military power. In the same year, Chosroes, fearing Justinian’s growing power, violated the “endless peace.”  Persian troops quickly overwhelmed the sparsely defended cities of Syria. Desperate to defeat the Persians, Justinian recalled Belisarius from Italy. While Belisarius had mixed success in his campaigns against the Persians, Justinian managed to sign another truce with Chosroes by agreeing to pay more tribute. Although the treaty with the Persians allowed Justinian to concentrate once more on his reconquest of Italy, ultimately, the payments reduced Byzantium’s power in the East, allowing the Persians to become the dominant power in the region.

The year 540 also marked a turning point in Justinian’s reconquest of Italy. Despite Belisarius’ victories, the Ostrogothic army had refused to submit to Byzantine rule. In 541, the Ostrogothic nobility appointed Totila (ruled 541-552) as king. Totila, a relative of the Visigothic king Theudis (ruled 526-548), revitalized the Gothic army’s fighting spirit. In a series of swift campaigns, he recaptured almost all of Italy. Finally, however, after a long and bitter struggle, the Byzantine general Narses defeated Totila in 552, and by 554, the Eastern Roman army had overwhelmed the remnants of the Ostrogothic forces. Victorious at last in Italy, in 555, Justinian sent an army to Spain, capturing the southeast corner of the Iberian Peninsula.

For contemporaries, it may have looked as though Justinian had succeeded in restoring the Western half of the Roman Empire. In retrospect, however, the “reconquest” was the last gasp of the ancient Roman Empire. The victories in the West had come at a steep price. The vicious wars had devastated Italy, and many Italians began to perceive the Eastern Romans as foreign invaders. The depopulation of Italy also made it increasingly difficult for the Byzantine army to protect Italy from outside invaders, and in 568 the Lombards overran Northern and Central Italy. Although the Eastern Romans managed to maintain a political presence in Italy until the eleventh century, they no longer treated it as if it were their ancient home, but simply as a frontier military Province.

Once again, sound familiar? In a similar manner to how and why the Byzantine Empire was forced through impotence to recognise Theoderic’s Italy, Russia has in the past twenty years outwardly grudgingly accepted Ukrainian independence. But one suspects, that they have been always waiting for the right opportunity to pounce. With a United States of America under Obama not likely to make more than ominous threats, Putin realizes that the perfect combination of the afterglow of a successful Olympics and the political turmoil in Ukraine have presented an unique opportunity. Similar stars aligning for Justinian, led to the idea of the reconquest of North Africa and Italy. Moreover, just as the coup in Vandalic Africa presented Justinian with the opportunity to present himself as the protector of Orthodox Christians, so too do the foolish opening acts of the new Ukrainian government to curtail the rights of “Russians” within Ukraine offer Putin an opportunity to be seen as the mighty protector of Orthodoxy. Justinian sought to present himself as a “true” Roman emperor protecting “true” Romans in recently conquered lands. So too has Putin cast himself as an ideal “new” Russian leader of both church and state.

Putin has skilfully crafted a sense of Russian identity in the post-communist world by adeptly appealing to a sense of nationhood based upon orthodoxy, autocracy and good old Czarist, and indeed Roman Imperial masculine ideals. Many within the west lampoon Putin for his outwardly and somewhat embarrassing attempts to look like a real man, whether this entails hunting without his shirt or taking a hard line on intellectuals and homosexuals. This propaganda, however, is not aimed at us in the West. Another Byzantinist, Peter Frankopan, has recently commented on the ways Putin has copied imperial ideals from the Byzantine Empire:

The Russian president and the Byzantine emperor had both begun their careers in the shadow military organizations that protected their respective regimes.[2]As a result of this background, these rulers seem to share a trait of observing caution and depending on detailed and careful planning when they decide to act. They also know how attract the audience’s attention, whilst marginalising their potential rivals. While I do not know how events will unfold, Putin, much like Justinian, will probably play upon any perceived weakness on the part of the Ukrainians or the West and probe for further opportunities to expand his dreams of “reconquest”. Following the policies of Justinian, Putin appears to recognize the importance of appealing to the past to create a state for the future. It is also important to recognise that, just like the sixth-century Italo-Romans, many Ukrainians are probably torn on just where their loyalty should lie. In the end Justinian’s reconquest led for disaster for many Italians. Let us hope the same does not hold true for modern day Uk


[1] An interesting discussion of this legacy is found in Taras Kuzio, “National Identity and History Writing” in Ukraine Nationalities Papers, Vol. 34, No. 4, September 2006


[2] Justinian had begun his career as a solider. He served as an elite member of the palace guards (kandidatoi) during the reign of the Emperor Anastasios I (ruled 491-518), and commanded imperial troops in Constantinople (magister militum praesentalis) under Justin I. Whilst, Putin famously moved up the ranks of the KGB.

Look Mom No Helmet!





It is no secret that today’s parents are obsessed with protecting their kids. Child seats, bike helmets, and indeed seatbelts would have seemed alien objects for me as a child. In the picture above I am a ten-year old racing in a GS event with no helmet. My mom would be arrested today. As a kid I wandered in the woods at the age of five with little thought of danger or getting lost. The question I ask myself, as I strap my five-year old into his car seat,  are we protecting or coddling them. I suspect a little of both. Though I am by no means advocating the elimination of helmets, seatbelts, and car seats, I would suggest that we let our kids explore the dangerous side of life. Back to the picture above; I love the juxtaposition of sheer terror and exhilaration. As an adult I avoid stressful situations like a ski race…the ten-year old me was certainly more courageous than the current me. I would like to have that feeling found in the picture again… race anyone?

Theoderic: Rex Genitus, Vir Inlustris




Pearl-diademed, helmeted, and cuirassed bust facing slightly right, holding spear over shoulder and shield
Victory standing left, holding long cross, RM monogram in left field, star in right; Q



Rex Genitus, Vir Inlustris

In today’s blog I will go into a little more detail on Jonathan Arnold’s stimulating new book on Theoderic and the “sixth-century” Western Roman Empire. Over the next few days I will be tackling some of the issues that he covers in Chapter 6. In this chapter Arnold expands on his idea that Theoderic “had literally become a new Augustus”. These virtues were not based solely on Theoderic’s ability to garb himself in martial virtues, but by the Goth’s ability to demonstrate that during his service in the East he had mastered the more civilised qualities of an idealised Roman from the upper-classes.

A (142) is certainly correct when he suggests that Roman “soldier-emperors were often unable to earn their more aristocratic subject’s respect or loyalty.” Following concepts found in Plato’s descriptions of the ideal philosopher-king, a model Late Roman emperor needed to be both a φιλόλογος (lover of reason) and a φιλοπόλεμος (lover of war).[i] We find in the texts at our disposal from Late Antiquity that the deeply rooted Hellenic virtues of courage in battle, justice in politics and calm majesty in the face of defeat helped to define notions of ideal rulership.[ii]For our Eastern authors, these qualities remained closely aligned to the four cardinal virtues: φρόνησις (prudence), δικαιοσύνη (justice), σωφροσύνη (temperance), and ἀνδρεία (manliness or courage), that served as vital components of the principle term for “goodness” and ideal manly behaviour in ancient Greek, ἀρετή. [iii] Efficiently juxtaposing these expected political and military virtues allowed the emperor to become an exemplar of not only ideal rulership, but of supreme manly conduct as well.[iv] Despite Arnold’s claims that the Western Emperors had developed  a less despotic form of imperial rule we find the adoption of this Hellenic model into Roman intellectual culture from the time of the Republic (McDonnell, Roman Manliness, 149). Cicero (De officiis 1.5.15. ) translated these four principle virtues into Latin as, temperantia, prudentia, iustitia, and fortitudo  Late Antique examples for the continuity of this concept include: Ammianus, Res gestae 22.4, and Ambrose, De officiis 1.24.115. So I am not completely convinced that Easterners and Westerners had that different a perception of an Ideal emperor as A argues.

I do agree with his next assertion that one’s noble lineage was as important as one’s ethnic identity in this age (143). A writes:

Theoderic’s perceived background, therefore, was extremely important to his acceptance. And his knowledge of high culture, combined with a noble pedigree and illustrious Roman career in the East, served to transform the otherwise “barbarian” king into an acceptably senatorial man, who shared these ennobling attributes with his Italian audience.

Arnold covers the numerous honours Theoderic had received in the East before coming to Italy. Theoderic had spent his youth as a captive in Constantinople. Arnold argues convincingly that these years were the key way Eastern Romans crafted “new” Romans like the Amal captive. Theoderic received a Roman education and probably, like the Alan Aspar saw himself as a Roman insider. Theoderic’s subsequent consulship in 484, appointment as magister militum, naming as a patrician, and dedication of an equestrian statue in Constantinople all point to the Goth’s integration into Eastern Roman society. Even his “rebellion” against Zeno and the Roman state is painted by Byzantine writers like Malchus (e.g. frag. 20) as justified.  In his telling, Theoderic comes down as a betrayed “Roman” soldier, whilst Zeno displays the typical traits of the barbarian of duplicity and reneging on agreements. Theoderic’s honours and conduct helped to define him as a “true” Roman. This is a view of Theoderic that comes down in some Byzantine sources.

Non-Romans like the Goths Theoderic and Ricimer, and the Alan Aspar had become commonplace, and an accepted part of the ruling elite in fifth-century Roman society. Indeed, made a hostage as an eight-year old, Theoderic had grown up in a Constantinople dominated by the emperor-maker Aspar, who after decades of Roman service, to borrow the words of Walter Goffart, “was a courtly grand seigneur.”[1]The number of non-Romans that spent much of their lives within the cultural imperium of Rome should stand as a reminder that the strict polarization between the ‘barbarian” Theoderic and the “Roman” Zeno is largely a creation of our sources, ancient and modern.  Indeed, in many ways, Theoderic was more authentically Roman than the Isaurian Zeno and the humble soldier-empeor Leo (ruled 457-47) who had first taken Theoderic captive. Procopius (Wars 5.1.29) even made the claim that Theoderic held the qualities appropriate “to one who is by birth an emperor”. Considering that he wrote under an emperor who was busy destroying Theoderic’s Italy, this passage offers proof that Procopius may have been more sympathetic to the Goths and Theoderic than A allows.

Such metamorphoses were not an innovation of the Later Empire. Roman history is littered with these “new” men. ” The fifth century saw the growing power of these soldiers roaming the corridors of power in Empire, frequently at the expense of the established landed elite.  From the time of the Republic, men from the upper-crust of Roman society had always had difficulty accepting these men, however, as “true” Romans. Indeed, from the end of the Republic, a Greek education, proper deportment and a mastery of public speaking increasingly stood as the mark as a true manly man, at least as much as the martial deeds. Arnold suggests that Theoderic had mastered some of these intellectual traits and thus broken down some of these barriors. Theoderic was authentically Roman”, he writes, and this “set him apart from his troops, who might be accepted as Roman in their own unique way, but were thought to be rude and semi barbarous like all soldiers.”

This statement above is vital to Arnold’s main thesis. While most modern academics will accept that Theoderic  was highly Romanized, many will probably have a more difficult time accepting the majority of Italians felt the same about his soldiers. A  is on shakey ground here.  Eastern sources, in particular relied on the old trope concerning the barbarous nature of the Gothic troops, and indeed, some of the “foreigners” serving in Justinian’s armies. However, these Eastern writers’ views of soldiers both Roman and non-Roman is much more complex than Arnold suggests above. Indeed, Arnold’s consistent portrayal of Procopius as an Easterner with an axe to grind against the Goths is not backed up in the historian’s writings. Procopius often provided a nuanced view of foreign peoples whom he generally labelled as barbarians.  While, at times, he displayed the traditional Greco-Roman distrust of “barbarians”, overall, his attitude towards foreign peoples like the Goths and the Vandals seems quite enlightened. Geoffrey Greatrex argues that Procopius’ sympathetic portrayal of the Goths mirrored other sixth-century writers’ flexible attitude towards “barbarians”, and reflected the blurring of boundaries between Eastern Romans and foreign peoples in the sixth century (G. Greatrex, Roman Identity in the Sixth Century) See too Kaldellis’ comment (Procopius of Caesarea, 221) that Procopius “treated Romans and barbarians impartially, condemning the former as often as he praised the latter”. Indeed, I would suggest that a closer reading of Procopius provides even more support for Arnold’s overall thesis on the acceptance of Theoderic and his Goths as at least semi Romans.

The idea that Roman aristocrats perceive their soldiers to be little better than barbarians is also more nuanced than A suggests. To be sure, some urbanised elites saw citizen soldiers to be little better than barbarians and saw them as potential threats to the “civilised” parts of the Empire. Late Roman writers frequently criticised Roman soldiers for their troublesome behaviour, particularly when the military interacted with Roman civilians. [v] One fourth-century critic of the senatorial elites even tells us that some members of the nobility had rejected military service as “a squalid occupation unfitting for a free man.”[vi] Most scholars of the Late Roman army agree, however, that this reluctance to serve had more to do with practical reasons, such as a dislike of distant postings, dissatisfaction with the Late Roman government and reluctance on the part of landowners to give up tenants, than with “an extreme loathing or fear of military service on the part of the Roman citizenry.”[vii]

Moreover, while it is true that some Romans from the upper crust of Roman society had seen even Roman soldiers as semi-barbarous because of their lack of “intellectual” masculine virtues, this animosity is sometimes exaggerated by our sources and balanced by other sources that continued to see an idealised “Roman” soldier as one who demonstrated a mastery of his physicality and his intellect. For example, following contemporary military treatises, the sixth-century Byzantine historian Agathias (Histories, 2.22.5) made it clear that “brains not brawn” represented the primary characteristics of a Roman general. Earlier in his account he had a Roman general (the eunuch-Narses, whose brains compliment his soldiers’ brawn) claim that, in stark contrast to the Frankish forces, the Roman soldiers had the complete package of the ideal soldier. He writes (2.12.6): It would indeed be shameful, fellow Romans, if you were to suffer the same fate as the barbarians and not outshine them as much by your superior intelligence as you do in physical prowess.”

We can see from this passage that by the sixth, many Easterners believed in the supremacy their soldiers. Control of Italy for the Goths must have been difficult once the “superior” Gothic armies suffered defeats at the hands of supposedly unmanly “Greeks”.

Indeed, there is evidence that increasingly from the end of the fifth century, Byzantium was becoming a more militarized culture.  Indeed, Conor Whately has recently shown how the sixth century witnessed the increasing militarization of the Eastern Roman aristocracy. The relatives of the reigning emperors in this period frequently served as high-ranking military commanders. These positions were not just symbolic. For instance, the future emperor Basiliskos (ruled 475/6), the brother of the empress Aelia Verina, led the failed campaign against the Vandals in 468. Three of the Emperor Anastasios’ (ruled 491-518) nephews—Hypatius, Pompey,  and Probus—held important military commands during the first quarter of the sixth century. One need not be a member of the imperial family to strive for a career in the military. We find, in fact, a growing number of men from elite Eastern Roman families serving in the armed forces. [viii] These men could not always count on their pedigree to land top commands. Even members of the imperial family were expected to serve and succeed as junior officers before taking on the highest ranks in the military. [ix] This militarization of Byzantium’s ruling elites only accelerated in the latter half of the sixth-century. [x]

I will conclude today’s blog with a few final thoughts. Advisors often rightly recommend to their PhD candidates to avoid tackling too large or revisionist of topics. This sage advice helps to explain why most dissertations concern very micro topics and/or concentrate their grand ideas onto one or two ancient writers. I am thankful that Arnold’s advisor at the University of Michigan took the opposite tact; expanding his original topic on the Goth’s in southern Gaul to its current form. While I do not agree with aspects of his thesis, the main argument seems plausible. To drive his thesis further Arnold could improve his presentation of Western Roman attitudes towards Eastern Emperors and soldiers in the fifth and sixth centuries. He takes the trope concerning the unmanly Greek identity of the Eastern Romans in the minds of Western Roman elites too far. While Arnold does discuss how Italo-Roman authors could have bi-polar views of a Goth like Ricimer, I am certain this bipolar view exists concerning both the Roman-ness and manliness of Eastern Romans. Moreover, further focus on the second half of Theoderic’s and his Gothic successors’ reigns would add to his study and main thesis. A deeper analysis of Procopius’ nuanced attitudes towards, “Goths, Italians, and Eastern Romans (P of course sees them as Romans though he does describe them as Greeks and Byzantines as well) is also needed. Finally, the disputed nature surrounding the date and purpose of Cassiodorus’ Variae must be dealt with in a future article, not just a footnote. With that said, the avenues for future research discussed above speak volumes to the both the quality of Arnold’s work, and the coming impact of his revisionist view of the sixth-century Western Empire.



Three Views of Theoderic

Three Views of Theoderic: Review of Sean Lafferty, Law and Society in the Age of Theoderic the Great: A study of the Edictum Theoderici (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and Jonathan Arnold, Theoderic and the Roman Restoration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (London: MacMillan, 2013).

On the one hand, Lafferty (from now on L) provides his reader with a traditional vision of Theoderican Italy as one of several post-Roman worlds. His Theoderic is a barbarian rex dressed in Roman clothing. L sees Theoderic’s as bit of a magician’s trick, heavy on rhetoric, but based on a much more humble and depressing reality. Despite the ancient rhetoric’s claims to the contrary, in L’s (20) mind, Theoderic was unable to solve most of Italy’s structural problems. L points out rightly that our major source for the reign, Cassiodorus’ Variae, “do not necessarily reflect conditions as they were”. Under the Goths, Italy was becoming increasingly militarized, which culminated with a merging of the civilian and military branches of the Italo-Roman government (101-102). L does find that in “Ostrogothic” Italy that “the integrity of the judicial system” was basically the same as in the Later Roman Empire. He concludes, however, that the Ostrogoths offered Italo-Romans and Goths a watered down version of Roman law and justice.  Ultimately, in L’s mind, Theoderic was a bit of a charlatan. While recognising Theoderic’s ability “to mask these problems behind a rhetoric of Roman renewal that stressed continuity between his reign and those of other great Emperors like Trajan or Valentinian.” L contends that “the ordinary citizen was worse off, unable to overcome the inherent biases that favoured the rich, the well-connected,” and the militarized Gothic elite.  While on paper things may not have changed much from when the Roman emperors wore the purple, L concludes that Theoderican Italy was hindered by a failure of “judges who were unable or unwilling to enforce the King’s laws”(155).

On the other hand, Jonathan Arnold is more inclined to take Italo-Roman writers like Ennodius and Cassiodorus at face value. Arnold (90) goes so far to say “Theoderic’s reign…constituted much more than simply that of a king along the same lines as Odovacer or other ‘barbarian’ kings of the West. He was a princeps Romanus, or Roman emperor, acknowledged as such by his own subjects and presented as such, though in a deferential and conciliatory manner, to the East.” The “glorious” opening decades of Theoderic’s rule were nothing less than the rebirth of the Western Roman Empire.[i]


Arnold, in my mind rightly, places much value on the martial reputation and military record of the Goths as a key factor in their acceptance as “new” Romans in the enfeebled West. He writes: “what separated the Goths from these (other Romanised peoples) was the fact that they remained proudly, perhaps even defiantly, unconquered by Rome”. Instead of being ruled by unmanly Greek emperors from the East like Anthemius (ruled 467-72), the effeminized fifth-century Italo-Romans had been both rescued and reinvigorated by the manly Goths, cast by men like Ennodius and Cassiodorus as “new” Romans draped in traditional Roman martial virtues. Arnold explains, “Contemporary western propaganda sought to paint the Gothic Ricimer as a noble Roman protector” whilst casting Easterners like the Western Roman Emperor Anthemius “as an enraged Galatian and Greekling rather than the Roman he claimed to be.” (153). “Goths and Gothicness”, he continues, “represented martialism, the old Roman virtue of virtus (the very source of the term virtue), which meant “manliness” or “courage.” Virtus was an ideal that the Romans had seemingly lost, becoming overly effeminate (perhaps even overly Greek), yet which until recently had been most Roman indeed”.


I would agree with Arnold that one can easily find this familiar trope concerning the unmanly and Greek identity of Eastern Romans in both Eastern and Western writers. Arnold makes it clear that this view of enervated Greeks and Western Romans are not his own views, but the ones found in the Italo-Roman sources. The mid sixth-century Byzantine writer Procopius spends much of his Gothic Wars trying to rebut this gendered propaganda. This does not mean that the majority of Italo-Romans saw Easterners like Anthemius as unmanly, only that they thought that men like Ricimer and Theoderic might want to hear such traditional tropes. As Procopius’ shows his readers throughout Wars the Italo-Romans often had mixed loyalties.[ii]

In chapters 5 and 6 Arnold expands on his idea found in chapter 1-4 that Theoderic “had literally become a new Augustus”. Arnold is certainly correct when he suggests that Roman “soldier-emperors were often unable to earn their more aristocratic subject’s respect or loyalty (142).” Arnold discusses how Romanitas (imperfectly translated as “Romanness” in English) had long consisted of a combination of martial and intellectual virtues. The Goth’s imperial virtues were not based solely on Theoderic’s ability to garb himself in martial virtues, but by his ability to demonstrate that during his service in the East he had mastered the more civilised qualities of an idealised Roman from the upper-classes.

The fact that the Goths remained the primary soldiers in Gothic Italy raises an interesting point.[iii] When describing Theoderic’s Italy, one thing that both Goths and Byzantines seem to agree on is that notion that the Italo-Romans lacked the manly courage and martial virtues to protect their native land.[iv] As the Goths become more attuned to Roman masculine ideals, the Italo-Romans become more effeminized. Roman aristocrats who had long been able to forego their martial roles for more intellectual forms of male self-fashioning increasingly had a difficult time being seen as “true” men in the increasingly militarized world of the late fifth and early sixth-century.[v] I would suggest that just as martial virtues were not enough to make Romans out of Goths, in writers like Procopius, intellectual virtues were no longer enough to make Romans out what he saw as enervated Italians.[vi]

Moreover, Procopius’ views of Italy and the major characters Gothic and Roman were not in as much dissonance with Western Sources as Arnold posits (e.g 73). Procopius’ character sketches of leading figures in the Gothic leadership such as Amalasuintha, Theodahad, Athalaric, and Totila appear very similar to accounts given in the Western sources.[vii] Indeed, much of what Procopius tells his readers about the Gothic Wars after 540 most likely came from his contacts within the Italian Senate.[viii]So too does there appear to be a continuing divide between Goths and Italo/Romans in the generation after Theoderic. If the Goths were truly “new” Romans more juxtaposition should be seen. Arnold does not address adequately the notion found in Wars that the Goths continued to live mostly amongst themselves in Northern Italy and that at least some within the Gothic hierarchy after Theoderic’s death resited the inevitable decline of Gothic cultural values that resulted from them being gradually absorbed by the Italo-Romans.[ix]

Moreover, abandoning his and his peoples’ Arianism would have been an easy step in being accepted as true Romans. In the East, the Alan generalissimo Aspar— albeit grudgingly— coaxed his son convert to orthodoxy in order to marry the Emperor Leo’s daughter in 470 to be better accepted… why not Theoderic? Religious conviction seems unlikely, indeed, as one scholar on Theoderic’s reign notes, “there was a steady flow of from Arianism to Catholicism among the Ostrogoths in Italy.”[x] Gothic identity and the need to maintain the continuing loyalty of the Gothic warriors that truly kept him in power seems the most likely reason that this step was never taken by Theoderic.[xi]

Arnold’s contention that years of service by the Goths within the armies of Rome and subsequent integration into Roman society would have made it difficult for one to distinguish the fifth and sixth-century Roman from the non-Roman certainly makes sense. The question that might be asked, and in my view Arnold never tackles satisfactorily, is why did these men in some cases seem to hang on to their Gothic and/ or Alan identities so vigorously. Was this perhaps, not a sign of non-acceptance by Romans, but a personal choice? Put more simply, why would you keep calling yourself a Goth and/or Alan, if you truly wanted to be seen as Roman?  For example, when Arnold discusses (146) Aspar’s son Patricius’ Romanised name as an indication of the generalissimo’s hopes to integrate him more firmly into Eastern Roman society, he also mentions that the generalissimo’s two other sons had been given un-Roman names of Ardabur and Hermineric since they were expected to “follow in his footsteps” as military men.  His assumption behind these names is likely correct, but what Arnold does not explore here, or indeed in his account of Theoderic, is why non-Romans like Aspar and Theoderic, even after years under the umbrella of Roman culture, appear to have wanted to maintain their non-Roman identity and culture.[xii] Though hinted at, Arnold does not consider the ramifications that such dedication to their sense of Gothicness might have on his larger arguments.

Arnold’s tactic instead, is to focus on the diverse cultural traits the individual peoples like the Gauls had preserved during their long tenure under Roman rule. In chapter five, he offers an adjustment to his previous story of a largely gentle merging between two martial peoples. Arnold writes:

The very nature of the Empire aided in the acceptability of such diversity, its existence an inevitable consequence of the assimilation process that radiated outward from the Roman core to its periphery (and back again). The Roman world was a heterogeneous composition of numerous ethnic and subethnic groups all of which had adopted various Roman cultural aspects to differing degrees and over different amounts of time thus becoming “Roman”, but with diverse manifestations that were constantly in flux (122).[xiii]

He resumes by suggesting that many Romans, and by this he means Italian elites, never fully accepted peoples like the Gauls as “true” Romans and, indeed, continued to view them in some cases as barbarians.

Fine so far, his next assertion and analogy, however, is more problematic. Arnold continues, “Gallo-Roman culture was still in flux….Gallo-Roman culture was still readily identifiable to outsiders as different or even bizarre, and to some degree Gallic society really did retain certain Celtic attributes (122)”. Okay, this is true to a degree, indeed, in his writings, the fourth-century Emperor Julian described the Celts and Germans as “fierce and warlike”, but “unruly”, “easterners” like the Syrians as “intelligent and effeminate”, North Africans as “argumentative”, and Greeks[xiv] and Romans as “warlike and intelligent”, all of which may seem a bit strange for some modern readers since almost all of these peoples were now Romans.[xv] Anthony Kaldellis, I believe correctly, sees these not so much as ethnic, but as regional stereotypes: a bit like some Americans seeing southerners as a bit dim-witted.[xvi]

Arnold concludes that these regional stereotypes help to explain why the Goths could “retain certain native characteristics, and still become Roman” (123). While I agree with this conclusion, the analogy he makes between Gauls and Goths is not apt. The Gauls had been part of the Empire for over five hundred years, and indeed, as Arnold later mentions, were a people from a non-Roman homeland who had been conquered by the Romans, whilst the Goths were recent arrivals, who had never been subjugated and were busy carving out territories within the Empire. This to me is a major difference.

The ethnic tropes discussed above are old standbys in Roman literature, but one needs to be careful to accept them as accurately reflecting contemporary views. Much opposing evidence could be gathered to prove that the Gauls were seen as primarily Roman.

Arnold knows this, and he does a good job of warning his audience once again, but he still makes the tenuous claim. Why? I would suggest that it is because he needs to explain away evidence that is rife in fifth and sixth-century literature depicting the Goths as typical barbarians.[xvii] My hesitance to accept his methods does not mean that I do not accept his main argument that the Goths—or at least certain peoples and individuals who called themselves Goths— were gradually being amalgamated into the Empire in the fifth century, and could be seen as Roman in the sixth century. What remains less clear, however, is how much of the Goths’ Romanization was voluntary or the inevitable result of a relatively small social group being gradually absorbed by the dominant culture.[xviii]

Despite my concerns with some of A’s more sweeping statements, his study is much more thorough and interesting for both the novice and the expert than L’s work that is based largely on a tenuous source. Indeed, despite L’s claims, whether Theoderic even composed the Edictum is not clear, or accepted by specialists who see it as a much later product. It is a bit strange given the two scholars’ familiarity and similar topic that they do not engage one another’s disparate views of Theoderic’s Italy. Perhaps like mixing matter and anti-matter, neither work would have survived the confrontation!

Peter Heather’s new book Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders is the sequel to his popular Fall of Rome (2005). While aimed at a broad audience, Heather also has many titbits and, indeed, sometimes startling conclusions for academics. Heather engages with many on-going disputes in the field of Late Antique history. The study, however, would have benefitted with further engagement with recent scholarship that contradicts many of his main points. His bibliography is missing many important articles and recent works that are fundamental if one hopes to put together a narrative on the poorly covered fifth century. While sections of this book are interesting, particularly his chapters on the two Theoderics and Justinian’s “reconquest” of the “lost” western provinces in the sixth-century, as a whole this is the weakest of Heather’s trilogy. Indeed, as he move away from his area of expertise the quality declines dramatically. His chapters on Carolingians and the rise of the papacy are convoluted and often unrelated to his main thesis. I will, however, leave my comments to his opening chapters on Theoderic’s rise and Justinian’s wars of reconquest.

While recognizing that he was aiming at a larger audience, his Theoderic offers a portrait of a stereotypical barbarian rex that could have been found in something published a century earlier. With some exceptions, H’s narrative falls back on the old ethnic divide of “Romans versus barbarians” as an explanation to the political turmoil that beset Leo’s and Zeno’s regimes (though H claims that he follows the newer consensus that depicts these divisions as largely factional disputes). Moreover, he makes no mention of Croke and Wood’s recent articles arguing that Leo and Zeno, indeed, may have been very similar to men like Ricimer, and the two Theoderics. His Theoderic educated in Constantinople had two choices once free from Leo’s captivity: mildly submit to Roman cultural superiority, or “smash” for himself and his people a place in this world; certainly this is a vision of Theoderic and the Goths that our Byzantine sources would have wanted us to believe. Arnold suggests plausibly that Theoderic had been shaped by those early years in Constantinople. He was, indeed, probably much more of a typical upper-class Eastern Roman than the Eastern Emperor, Zeno, who sent him to overthrow Odovacer. His study represents a very bipolar world of Romans against barbarians, a paradigm that has been demolished by many scholars in the past ten years.  Heather does however provide the reader with a lucid and fast-flowing narrative on the scheming that marked late fifth-century Eastern Roman politics. Following Jonathan Arnold, I would just argue that Theoderic and Leo would have shared many values and hopes for the Empire. Certainly, Theoderics move into Italy and subsequent reign is much more nuanced than H’s work suggests.

H’s views on Cassiodorus and other Italo-Romans having “to justify to the New Eastern Roman ruler of Italy why they had continued to serve Gothic kings despite their arrival on Italian soil” (55) is puzzling in light of the fact that he showed throughout his study that such propaganda had begun as soon as Theoderic arrived in Italy. His idea that as a consequence of an Eastern Roman victory, Cassiodorus gave his writings a quick rewrite and culling of his letters to ingratiate himself to Justinian and his inner-circle is unconvincing.[xix] Indeed, as Arnold relates, Cassiodorus remained loyal up until Vitigis was captured and sent to Constantinople in 540. So too has Arnold shown in his writings that Cassiodorus was only one of many Italo-Roman writers who composed works dedicated to depicting Theoderic and his Goths as the manly saviours of Italy.

Ethnic identity in Late Antiquity appears to have been much more fluid than Heather frequently suggests.[xx] I found some of his comments on Gothic identity incongruent. He posits, plausibly enough, that “the lower-status (Gothic) warriors and even more the slaves had much less of a stake in their group’s existence, so that the strength of individual affiliation to the group’s identity fell off dramatically as you moved down the scale.” However, he uses Theoderic’s famous “Romanus miser” quote to back up this suggestion. Certainly this example argues the opposite. Rich Goths—one would think including many high-ranking warriors,—in this passage imitate rich Romans.

The emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) has received a great deal bad press in the past two decades. Where the older historiographical tradition mostly praised him for his reconquest of the lost provinces in the West, law code, and his example as an engaged Christian emperor, revisionist scholars have lately condemned him as a megalomaniac Christian despot.[xxi] Heather’s work reflects this more negative view; though thankfully he does not blame the rise of the Arabs in the seventh century on Justinian’s failed policies. Heather (203) goes so far as to describe the emperor as an “autocratic bastard of the worst kind.” Heather compares Justinian to the twentieth century’s most infamous murders Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot. Even Procopius, who composed his Secret History in attempt to undermine Justinian’s legacy, might be surprised that such a negative description of an emperor has largely taken hold in modern scholarship. While I recognise that Heather’s emotive prose is designed to appeal to a less academic audience, this is only one instance of many where H’s hyperbole undermines his duty as a historian. I also doubt that Procopius merely hoped for the Secret History to be comical.

So if you only have time to read one new book on Theoderic this year, make it Roman Restoration. I would, however, keep John Moorhead’s less sensational—but in places more sound and thorough— 1992 tome on Theoderic (Theoderic in Italy)  by my side to check and compare some of the more sweeping assertions. Heather’s chapters on Theoderic and Procopius can also provide the usually accepted alternative views to be found largely in A’s extensive footnotes. Indeed, Arnold’s footnotes are detailed and packed with interesting information that engages with much current scholarship. Here he also ably translates and interacts with the difficult Latin texts of Ennodius and other Italo-Roman sources. Therefore his interpretations remain mostly his own and are not reliant on other scholars’ viewpoints.

As R.I. Moore rightly comments, studies on a big subject are always prone to oversimplification.[xxii] Every chapter in Arnold’s investigation gave me new insights—even where I disagreed. His reanalysis and fresh readings of the evidence surrounding Theoderic is thorough and engaging.  It is the best and ultimately most important of the three books reviewed above.

In closing, Arnold makes the wise point that our view of the period is often crafted by both ancient and modern historians who knew that Theoderic’s bold experiment had failed. As he points out both mid-sixth century historians Procopius and Jordanes offer us an Eastern viewpoint after Justinian’s reconquest had driven the Goths to near extinction. Seen from the vantage of 511 Rome, Theoderic’s regime may have offered much hope for Italo-Romans seeking to restore the military prowess and renown of ancient Rome.





[i] Other scholars have accepted that some Italo-Romans saw Theoderic as a new Western emperor, but suggest that Theoderic remained wary of taking such a step. See e.g. John Moorhead (Theoderic in Italy [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, 49]) who writes: “Despite the degrees to which some of his subjects were prepared to assimilate Theoderic into the category of emperor, for official purposes he remained cautious.”


[ii] A discussion of these mixed loyalties is found in Maria Kouroumali, “The Justianic Reconquest of Italy: Imperial Campaigns and Local Responses,” in War and Warfare in Late Antiquity, 2 vols (Brill, 2013), 970-71. Cf. with John Moorhead’s assertion (Theoderic in Italy, 111) that during Justinian’s reconquest most Italo-Romans “supported the armies of the Byzantines.”

[iii] On the primary role that the Goths played within Theoderic’s armies, and a discussion of the limited participation of Italians in these forces, see Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 71-75.


[iv] Procopius, Wars 3.3.10-13, 7.11.12-14.


[v] The increased militarization of Romanitas from the fourth century is discussed in Andy Merrills and Richard Miles, The Vandals (Oxford: Blackwell, 2014), 88-93.


[vi] For the increased militarization of sixth-century Byzantine culture as represented in writers like Procopius, see Conor Whately, “Militarization, or the Rise of a Distinct Military Culture? The East Roman Elite in the 6th Century AD”, in: Stephen O’Brien and Daniel Boatright, eds. Warfare and Society in the Ancient Mediterranean: Papers arising from a colloquium held at the University of Liverpool, 13th June 2008. (Oxford, 2013), 49-57.


[vii] E.g. the similar descriptions of Amalasuintha’s adulation of classical learning found in Cassiodorus, Variae 10.3.4; Procopius, Wars 5.2.11-17. Her “manliness” is extolled by both authors as well; Athalaric’s alcoholism discussed by Procopius is hinted at by Cassiodorus. The Goths seizures of Italian lands is discussed by Cass. Variae 8.29 and Proc. Wars 5.3.1. Totila’s restraint and “fatherly” treatment of the citizens of Rome: 7.8.12-25, and the Liber Pontificalis 61.7. In fact the entire episode found in Cassiodorus and discussed by Arnold (50-51) concerning the Western Emperor Valentinian III’s unmanly education at the hands of his mother Placida as a primary cause for the fifth-century Western Empire’s troubles is found in Procopius Wars 3.3.9-14. There are many more congruencies that could be added.


[viii] J.A.S. Evans, Procopius (New York: Twayne, 1972), 31-36.


[ix]Procopius, Wars 5.2.11-17. For a discussion of the creation of separate Gothic communities outside of Rome and Ravenna, see Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 112. On the other hand, Moorhead (84-87) also discusses the inevitable Romanization of some Goths through intermarriage primarily with wealthy Italo-Roman women.


[x] Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 95.


[xi] I do recognise, however, that there did not appear to be too much friction between Arians and Catholics in Theoderic’s Italy.


[xii] Aspar’s father had served in the Roman army and Aspar was the senior senator in East Roman at the time of his assassination in 471, having served the Roman state for nearly fifty years.


[xiii] Romans, like the Augustan geographer, Strabo (63/64 BC – ca. AD 24), had long stressed that barbarism was an escapable condition., in his writings he showed that by bringing good government and civilisation to barbarian peoples, Roman imperialism could overcome  some of the environmental and social factors that had contributed to these non-Roman peoples’ “savage” personalities. For the views of Strabo, see Michael Maas, “Strabo and Procopius,” in From Rome to Constantinople: Studies in Honour of Averil Cameron, ed. Hagit Amirav and Bas ter Haar Romney (Leuven: Peeters, 2007), 71-75.



[xiv] Julian here used the rather imprecise term Ελληνας.  As Anthony Kaldellis shows (Hellenism in Byzantium, 184-187), “Hellenes” is a problematic word, in that by the fourth-century CE it could be used to describe a variety of things: firstly, it could be used to describe “pagans” or all non-Christian peoples including barbarian peoples as well as the ancient Greeks. Secondly, it might suggest any contemporary Romans who lived in the province of Hellas. Thirdly, it was utilised as a term for anyone who spoke Greek regardless of ethnicity. Fourthly, it could depict anyone, regardless of ethnicity, who had mastered the Classical paideia.  Finally, it could be used in the same way that Julian does in the passage above to describe the ancient Greeks, a “national” identity that by Julian’s time no longer existed.


[xv] Julian, Against the Galileans (trans. Wilmer C. Wright, Loeb Classical Library, 3 vols.[Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923, reprint 2003]) 116 A. On the Celts’ fierceness in comparison to the Romans, see Julian, Misopogon 359 B. Julian amalgamated both environmental and social reasoning for the Eastern and Southern barbarians’ propensity to have effeminate and unwarlike natures. In 138 B He maintained that all nations “who possess and are contented with despotic governments” tended to be by nature “mild” (tiqasός) and “submissive” (ceiroήqhς).


[xvi] Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium, 82-84.


[xvii] For some Italo-Romans’ continuing perceptions of the Goths as barbarians in Theoderic’s Italy, see Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 83.


[xviii] Full discussion in Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 100-104.


[xix] Heather’s viewpoint represents a modified version of M. Shane Bjornlie’s controversial revisionist thesis (Politics and Tradition Between Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013] that the Variae had been composed in the 540s, not in 537/8 as commonly believed. Bjornlie contends, in contrast, that they were aimed at Roman aristocrats opposed to Justinian’s regime.


[xx] A good summary of these disputes and Heather stand on these issues is found in Andrew Gillett, “Ethnogenesis: A Contested Model of Early Medieval Europe,” History Compass 4 (2006): 1-20. For a more emotive (and indeed unabashedly hostile) synopsis of the main issues surrounding the dispute between these two schools may be found in the preface of Walter Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History A.D. 550-800: Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, reprint 2005), xii-xvi.


[xxi] See e.g., James O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (New York: Harper, 2008).


[xxii] R.I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society, 2nd ed (London: Blackwell 2007), 196



What follows is an update of an earlier blog. I have reposted these changes for anyone interested.I will be adding a bit on Leo’s foreign policies soon as well. This essay is mostly for fun and to serve as notes for a more formal chapter draft I am writing on the fifth-century soldier emperors.

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. One recent biographer suggests plausibly that the older scholarly view of Leo as a “puppet” emperor has led many to ignore or dismiss his role in his reign.[6]  I would also propose 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. In the past few years attention has turned to the role that these emperors played in the Christological debates that rocked the fifth-century Church.  Modern historians, for example, 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 argue that fifth-century Byzantine society was becoming less androcentric and/or turning away from traditional views of imperial leadership based on martial qualities. [7] 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 when reconstructing the crucial events that shaped the third quarter of the fifth centuryeven more traditional “military and political” historians have largely left Leo on the sidelines. In Peter Heather’s recent account of this period, for instance, Leo is only mentioned in passing. [8]There have been exceptions. Important articles by Brian Croke and Philip Wood have shed needed light on the internal politics and “propaganda” surrounding Leo’s regime.[9] In addition, one can only hope that Gereon Siebigs expands on his massive two-volume study on Leo, which at this point covers only the first three years of Leo’s reign.

Moreover, a penchant 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.[10]  The non-soldier Anastasios also appeared to have wanted to marginalise and disassociate himself from the military reigns of Leo and Zeno.[11]

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 qualities 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 one doubts 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 and supressing an uprising by the council’s detractors in Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem represented some of Leo’s first official actions after he became emperor.[12] 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 interest recently. 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.[13] The Balkans had long served as one of the primary recruiting grounds for the Late Roman army. [14] Indeed, the careers of men like Leo serve as an apt reminder that the army continued to offer Roman citizens from more humble backgrounds an attractive career opportunity.[15]

At the time of his ascension, Leo was serving as an undistinguished commander of the troops in Selymbria (modern Silivri in Istanbul district). 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![16] 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 militumFlavius Ardabur Aspar, the man behind Leo’s unexpected crowning.[17]

(Missorium of Aspar, 434)[18]


Marcian (probably) and Leo (definitely) had been raised by Aspar.[19] Aspar had a long if rather chequered military career spanning five decades. With his father, Ardabur (consul 427), he had served in Theodosius II’s short-lived and indecisive war (421-22) against the Persians. Having earned a reputation for martial prowess in the Persian campaign, in 424/25, the father/son duo represented two of the three commanders Theodosius II sent into Italy to overthrow the western usurper John. After the capture of his father at sea, Aspar boldly rescued his father and captured John by stealthily overwhelming the usurper and his supporters in the formerly impregnable Ravenna.[20] Shortly after, Aspar defeated a force of Huns led by the seminal Western generalissimo Aetius.[21] In 431 Aspar 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.  441 found Aspar negotiating a treaty with the Huns. Two years later, however Aspar and his army suffered a severe defeat at the hands of Attila. The fifth-century historian Priscus tells us that by 449, Aspar’s star was on the wane. [22] Indeed, Aspar was probably one of the commanders that Priscus derided for cowardice in the face of the Hunnic threat.[23] 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.[24]

Though scholars continue to debate how important a role 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 in fact may be seen 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.[25] In establishing his role behind the scenes he was 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 soured gradually. Leo took his time before he made his move to eliminate his mentor.  Though there are hints of friction from the first years of Leo’s rule, the emperor’s creation in 460 or 461 of an elite palace guard the execubitors has been seen by most historians as the first major step to counterbalance Aspar’s authority.[26] This gathering of soldiers linked to him personally continued when in 464 Leo named his brother-in-law Basiliskos magister militum per Thracias. The emperor’s next moves were even more dangerous to Aspar’s interests. A whispering campaign initiated by the emperor and his inner-circle played upon the traditional Roman distrust of non-Romans in positions of authority. The next year Leo accused Aspar’s son Ardabur of giving away state secrets to the Persians and dismissed him from the command he had held since 453. We are lucky to have a source that provides some insight into the affair, and Aspar’s vulnerability. Written by an anonymous author sometime between 492 and 496, the Life of Daniel the Stylite (55)appears to provide an insider’s view on the incident.[27] In view of its importance in shedding some light on this affair, and indeed, the rise of Zeno,[28] and the opening salvo in the dispute between the East’s two most powerful men, it is necessary to quote it in full:

About that time a certain Zeno, an Isaurian by birth, came to the Emperor and brought with him letters written by Ardabur, who was then general of the East; in these he incited the Persians to attack the Roman State and agreed to cooperate with them. The Emperor received the man and recognizing the importance of the letters he ordered a Council to be held; when the Senate had met the Emperor produced the letters and commanded that they should be read aloud in the hearing of all the senators by Patricius, who was Master of the Offices at that time. After they had been read the Emperor said, ‘What think you?’ As they all held their peace the Emperor said to the father of Ardabur, ‘These are fine things that your son is practising against his Emperor and the Roman State’. Aspar replied, ‘You are the master and have full authority; after hearing this letter I realize that I can no longer control my son; for I often sent to him counselling and warning him not to ruin his life; and now I see he is acting contrary to my advice. Therefore do whatsoever occurs to your piety; dismiss him from his command and order him to come here and he shall make his defence’.

The Emperor took this advice; he appointed a successor to Ardabur and dismissed him from the army; then ordered him to present himself forthwith in Byzantium. In his place he gave the girdle of office to Jordanes and sent him to the East; he also appointed Zeno, Count of the Domestics.

And the Emperor went in solemn procession and led him up to the holy man and related to him all about Ardaburs’ plot and Zeno’s loyalty; others told him, too, how Jordanes had been appointed General of the East in place of Ardabur. The holy man rejoiced about Jordanes and gave him much advice in the presence of the Emperor and of all those who were with him then he dismissed them with his blessing.

Evidence from a fragment from Priscus suggests that some of Leo’s propaganda against Ardabur may have been gender-based; it explained that whilst Aspar’s son had done a good job defending Thrace from the “barbarians” in the early years of his command, eventually he had succumbed to a life of “self-indulgence and effeminate leisure.”[29] Such a sentiment concerning the dangers of the soft life for even the most martial of non-Roman, and indeed Roman commanders represents a commonplace in Roman and Byzantine literature.[30] Leo did not stop here. In 466, the emperor appointed Zeno as comes domesticorum and, in that same year, the Isaurian married the emperor’s daughter Ariadne. Attila’s son, Dengizich, invaded Thrace in 467. Leo made Zeno magister militum per Thracias and sent him to thwart the incursion.[31]

The writing must have been on the wall for Aspar. While Aspar failed in his attempt to assassinate Zeno during this campaign, the Isaurian fled to what Brian Croke describes as a semi exile for the next four years. In the spring of 467, Leo sent another potential rival, the patrician Anthemios to Italy where he was named Western emperor outside of Rome on April 12.[32] Such a move reasserting Eastern control over Western affairs provides us with evidence of Leo’s growing confidence.[33] Once Anthemios was established in Rome, Leo sent an embassy to the Vandal King Gaiseric warning him to evacuate territories he had seized in Sicily and Southern Italy. Leo also gained the support of the quasi-independent Western generalissimo Marcellinus who was placed in command of a Western army that Leo and Anthemios were gathering for a joint military campaign.[34] With his position secure in the East and Ricimer’s stranglehold on the Western government broken—at least temporarily—Leo sought to finally take back the vital provinces in North Africa from the Vandals.[35] The next year (468), Leo launched his massive assault ostensibly to punish Gaiseric for his raids on Eastern and Western Roman lands in 467 that the emperor claimed violated a treaty signed in 462.[36] In reality Leo was seeking the type of victory that would assure the long-term viability of his rule. Leo certainly would have the upper-hand over Aspar, who as noted above, had been defeated several times by the Vandals. Relying on Priscus, the mid-sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius made it clear that a glorious Roman victory was not in Aspar’s best interests.  The historian’s further suggestion, however, that the commander of the campaign Basiliskos betrayed the Byzantine cause for a bribe from Gaiseric or as a favour to Aspar appear improbable, and are probably linked to later propaganda hostile to both Aspar and the future emperor.[37] Indeed, attempting to regain the upper-hand in Western affairs, Ricimer had dealt the campaign a deadly blow by assassinating Marcellinus in Sicily.[38]

The massive logistical efforts behind the ambitious attack offer us evidence of the continuing military capabilities of the twin regimes when acting in unison. Although we can discount the figure of 100,000 ships given in one Byzantine source, clearly the attack represented an impressive display of logistical planning.[39] Organised as a three-prong campaign, with his eyes on Carthage Marcellinus took Sicily. Meanwhile, Basiliskos, in charge of the Roman navy, sailed to meet the Vandal ships, lastly a smaller fleet led by Eastern Comes rei militaris  Herakleios successfully occupied the Vandal stronghold of Tripolis. Herakleios and his army set out towards Byzacena in order to link up with Basiliskos’ troops when they arrived in Proconsular province.  The landing by Basiliskos, however, never occurred. Whether through treachery or (more likely) incompetence, Basiliskos and the Byzantine armada suffered a humiliating and devastating defeat at the hands of the Vandal and their fire-ships at Mercurium.[40]

It is interesting to note that Leo himself takes little of the blame in the accounts that survive.[41] I would suggest that this is part of the reason that fifth and sixth century emperors did not feel the need to direct campaigns in person. If the assault failed, a scapegoat could be found within the military, whilst if victory was achieved the emperor could represent himself as the face of Roman victory. Certainly the example of the Western emperor, Majorian’s (ruled 457-461) aborted attempt to launch a military expedition against the Vandals in 460, and subsequent execution in August 461 at the hands of his non-Roman advisor Ricimer, offered ample warning to Leo to proceed with caution.

Despite his largely successful campaign to place blame elsewhere, the defeat appears to have slowed Leo’s political momentum. Within Constantinople Aspar appears to have regained the upper-hand or at least equilibrium. Theophanes maintained (most likely derived from Priscus) that Leo had immediately recalled Basilsikos, Heraklios, and another commander Marsus, to Constantinople in order to counteract a plot by Aspar.[42] Though Leo seemed to have thwarted this conspiracy, Aspar kept up the pressure on the emperor. Aspar was likely behind the magister militum Anagast’ revolt against Leo I.[43]  By 470, we find Aspar powerful enough to have his son and former consul (459) Julius Patricus raised to caeser. With Leo seemingly on his back foot, Aspar then arranged to have his son married to the emperor’s daughter Leontia. Aspar’s long-held hopes to have his Romanised son succeed Leo to the purple seemed possible once more.[44]  As a result of riots in the capitol by those against an Arian taking the throne, Patricus had even agreed to convert to Chalcedonian Christianity before marrying Leo’s daughter.[45]

Without his primary protector Zeno, Leo must have feared for his life. Perhaps Leo undertook the marriage agreement with Patricus to buy some time. Indeed, some sort of political stability appears to have returned to Constantinople by 471.[46] Leo’s eunuch-assassins seemed to have taken Aspar and his sons by surprise when they ambushed (Patricus may have survived for a time) them during a meeting of the Grand council within the imperial palace. Yet Leo’s survival was a near thing. In the aftermath of the assassination, rioting broke out in the capitol. Aspar’s supporters stormed the palace, and only with great difficulty were the execubitors able to fight them off.[47]  Further proof of just how dangerous a situation Leo found himself in before the assassination is the fact that Zeno only found it safe to return to the capital after Aspar and his colleagues had either been killed and/or fled.

Views were mixed on the justice of this move.  Distaste for the assassination is evident in many Byzantine sources.[48] Leo’s nickname “the butcher” was a slight used by his enemies (see e.g. the frags. of Malchus). Not everyone disagreed with the elimination 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[49] 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.”[50] He recommends that to avoid being a mere puppet, Anthemios should assassinate his supreme commander the Goth Ricimer, and also eliminate 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 led eventually 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.[51]

Leo’s success in eliminating his puppet master Aspar has been explained by A.D. Lee this way. 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.  Leo’s wise manoeuvring to gain a powerful ally in the Isaurian Zeno helped to protect him in the dangerous aftermath of the assassination.[52] Valentinian III had not taken similar precautions. With no one to protect him after he removed his generalissimo, Aetius’ supports quickly returned the favour.[53] So too had he eliminated a Roman general 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.  Leo emphasized, as well, Aspar’s relatively poor record as a Roman commander. Valentinian III had a much more difficult time disparaging the Roman war hero Aetius.

Factional Politics

The fifth century was a real life Game of Thrones. The older 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 why Leo and Zeno took steps to paint themselves as supporters of orthodoxy whilst painting their rivals as enemies of the Church. The strict polarization between the ‘barbarian” Aspar and the “Roman” Leo is largely a creation of our sources. After five decades as a member of the upper echelons of Roman society—and in fact the senior eastern senator—Aspar, to borrow the words of Walter Goffart, “was a courtly grand seigneur.”[54]

Wood has shown how Leo’s attempt to paint Aspar as an unorthodox and violent “barbarian” may have been an attempt to subvert propaganda critical of his regime:

Leo and his allies held on to power in the teeth of such elite criticism. Their ability to do so may be found partially in their appropriation of the idea so being Roman and being Christian that was used by the Theodosian dynasty, and the creation of scapegoats, such as Aspar, against whom they could define themselves. [55]

Men like Leo, Aspar, Zeno, and Theoderic the Amal were not so different.[56] All had risen to prominence within the Roman military. Like his successor Zeno, as an obscure soldier from Thrace, Leo would have been commonly regarded by many Constanlopian elites as little better than a barbarian himself (a view of Justinian that we find in Procopius). Yet I would agree with Conor Whatley that “commanders from the Balkans serving Rome, and ultimately based in Constantinople” were considered by their contemporaries as Roman.[57]

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?  Doug Lee (Contra Arnold and Wood) believes that the likeliest explanation was that as an Alan and an Arian, Aspar, like Ricimer, could not rule themselves.[58] 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. Perhaps his experience as an emperor-maker had led Aspar to prefer to bide his time, and thus allow Patricus to take the throne with minimal dissent amongst the Eastern Roman ruling classes—dissent that indeed bubbled over during the  Isaurian Zeno’s first reign. Moreover, I would add that they may have preferred avoiding all the other obligations that went along with the role. Constantius III, if Olympiodorus is to be believed, regretted giving up the relative freedom of his military command after he became Honorius’ partner in 421.[59]Other scholars, however, disagree with this assessment. Jonathan Arnold believes 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)[60]; so was Areobindus; so was Tarasicodissa Zeno.[61]

Where do I stand on these issues? I 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. Such strict ethnic polarisation found in writers like Priscus and Procopius seems to be in dissonance with the realities of the day. Evidence suggests that Aspar could count on support amongst both Goths and Romans within the city of Constantinople.[62]  As mentioned above, the extent that the Isaurians made up the majority of Leo’s support, and indeed palace guard, may be questioned as well. As a former commander one suspects that Leo knew the dangers of filling his ranks with Isaurians who might turn on him when push came to shove.[63]

Nonetheless, we should be careful not to dismiss all these accounts of differing levels of Roman and non-Roman identity. I am more inclined to believe that men like Theoderic and Aspar may have promoted their non-Romanness, and indeed, Gothic or Alan identity than scholars like Arnold. While Aspar gave his eldest son the Romanised name of Julius Patricus, the two sons he expected to follow in his footsteps were given the non-Roman names Ardabur and Hermineric.[64] It seems strange 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).

Modern historians seem to make more of Leo’s and Zeno’s status as supposed barbarians than even their most ardent Byzantine opponents did. The idea 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? If Aspar was ready to take this step in the case of his son, then why not change as well if he truly wished to become emperor”? One answer may be provided. Indeed, such a step may have alienated Aspar from the men who were his key supporters.  Orthodoxy (i.e. Chalcedonian Christianity) was becoming a marker of Romanness in this period. Though as other Byzantinists point out in Byzantium one’s orthodoxy did not necessarily make one a Roman and/or Byzantine e.g. Serbians, Russians etcetera.

Leo’s legacy—good and bad— was defined largely by his relationship with Aspar. While his enemies depicted the slaying of Aspar and his family as the work of a “butcher”, and a sure sign of Leo’s “true” barbarian nature, later Byzantine historians, such as Procopius, admired Leo for taking a tough stand against Aspar, a barbarian cloaked in Roman clothing. Certainly, Procopius sought to present Justinian’s reconquests of Vandalic North Africa and Ostrogothic Italy as both the culmination and fulfilment of Leo’s political aspirations.

Well that is it for now. The second half of the paper will 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. It will also examine Leo’s foreign policy and his role as the leader of the Orthodox Church.










[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]Siebigs, Kaiser Leo I”, 2. Siebegs provides a substantive revision of Leo’s early years.


[7]  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, 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.


[8]Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (London: MacMillan, 2013).


[9]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 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.

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


[11]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”.


[12] Marcellinus, Chron. 458, with note by Croke, 95.

[13]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). 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.


[14] Michael Whitby, “Emperors and Armies,” in Approaching Late Antiquity: The Transformation from Early to Late Empire, ed. Simon Swain and Mark Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 166. For a discussion of Balkan Military culture, see Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 277-313.


[15] A. D. Lee, War in Late Antiquity, A Social History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 82. The majority of recent scholarship on the Late Roman military has increasingly rejected the older entrenched theories surrounding the demilitarization of the Roman upper-classes and the increased barbarization of the Roman armies of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries.


[16] 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.


[17] Marcian’s son-in-law the future western emperor Anthemios (ruled 467-472) was probably the expected successor. The Alans were steppe nomads of Iranian decent. By the fifth century many groups had absorbed Gothic cultural ideals.


[18] FL (avius) ARDABUR ASPAR VIR INLUSTRIS COM(es) et MAG(ister) MILITUM et CONSUL  ORDINARIUS. Aspar, bearded and wearing a tunic and a toga, holds up in his right-hand the mappa, and in his left a sceptre surmounted by two small busts of Theodosius II and Valentinian III. He is flanked by his son Ardabur standing, with the inscription ARDABUR IUNOR PRETOR. His son wears a similar outfit and, also holds a mappa raised in his left hand, whilst he salutes his father with his right hand.  Above them there are two medallions containing the busts of Aspar’s father Ardabur, consul in 427, and his relative Plintha, consul in 419. For a lucid description of the historical and the archaeological background of the dish, see G. Bevan, A. Gabov, and C. Zaccagnio, “The Missorium of Ardabur Aspar: New Considerations of its Archaeological and Historical Aspects,” ArchCl  LXIII, (2012) 419-454.



[19]For Aspar’s essential role in Marcian’s ascension, I side with arguments made by Burgess (“Marcian”): though see the different views found in Chew and Walter Beers (“Faction Politics and the Transfer of Power at the Accession of Marcian”) that suggest that the empress Pulcheria was the key player. These arguments fail to convince; Burgess argues persuasively that Pulcheria’s key role in Marcian’s appointment was an invention of later Monophysite writers seeking to undermine Chalcedon.   For Aspar’s part in Leo’s rise, see Priscus frag.19 (Blockley). For the limitations of Imperial women’s power to influence political events, see now McEvoy, Child Emperor, 236.


[20] Socrates, HE 7.23; Olympiodorus, frag. 43. The ecclesiastical historian Socrates naturally focused on the miraculous aspect of Ravenna’s capture, whilst the secular minded Olympiodorus explained that the prisoner Ardabur had undermined John’s position within the city before Aspar arrived with his cavalry.


[21] Cassiodorus, Chronica, s.a. 425; Gregory of Tours, 2.8; Philostorgius, xii.4; Prosp. s.a. 425; Chronica gallica 452, 100; Jordanes, Romana, 328.


[22] Priscus, frag. 14.85-90.


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


[24] 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.


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


[26] Treadgold, 157. Siebigs (Kaiser Leo I, 478-49), however, has convincingly shown that the opening salvos between the two occurred in the first years of Leo’s rule and were concerned with Christological issues.


[27] Caution, however, must be observed both because it post-dates Aspar’s death, and it passes down Leo’s side of the dispute.


[28] Relying on the now lost sixth-century history of Eustathius, the late sixth-century historian Evagrius (2.15) explains that this accusation by Zeno was one of the primary factors in his subsequent rise.

[29] Priscus frag. 19.

[30] See, e.g., Procopius’ contention (Wars 4.6.5-8) that the Vandals’ martial edge and manliness had been eroded gradually by their love of feasting, baths, and “sexual pleasures. For a full discussion of this trope, see Michael Edward Stewart, Between two worlds: men’s heroic conduct in the writings of Procopius. Thesis (M.A.)–San Diego State University, 2003, 54-59.

[31] For my interpretation of events I follow here: Brian Croke, The Date of the ‘Anastasian Long Wall’ in Thrace” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 20 (1982): 59-78.


[32] Priscus, frag. 53.3.15-20; Marcellinus, Chron. 467.1; Theophanes, Chron. AM 5957.


[33] For the dominant role the Eastern court had played in the reign of the Western Emperor Valentinian III (ruled 425-455), see McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule, esp. Ch. 8. Certainly the Western generalissimo saw the move as a threat to his interests. For the propaganda campaign launched by Ricimer and his supporters to depict Anthemios as an unmanly Greekling, whilst painting the Goth Ricimer as a “true” Roman see, Arnold, Restoration, 16-20.


[34] Marcellinus, Chron. 468. Procopius tells us (Wars 3.6.5) that Leo had made Anthemios emperor primarily to help him with his campaign against the Vandals.


[35] The loss of North Africa to the Vandals in the 430s and 440s ultimately had disastrous consequences for the Western Empire and its army. A vital loss of tax revenues and corn from this region made it increasingly difficult for Valentinian III and his successors to pay, clothe, and feed his troops. For this problem, see McEvoy, Child Emperor, 264-265.


[36] Priscus, frag. 52.


[37] Procopius, Wars 3.6.1-2, 5-25. Modern historians (e.g. Penny MacGeorge, Late Roman Warlords, 58) doubt the bribe account, placing blame for the defeat on Basiliskos’ bad generalship. The entire campaign was also undermined by


[38] J. M. O’Flynn (Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire, 117-118, 189, n.59) suggests that in an effort to undermine Ricimer Anthemios had made Marcellinus patricius.


[39] Theophanes, AM 5961

[40] Andy Merrills and Richard Miles, The Vandals (Oxford: Blackwell, 2014), 122-23.


[41]Leo must have instigated a propaganda campaign to keep himself from blame straight away…e.g. painting Aspar as afraid of the Vandals…whilst promoting his own “fearlessness”. The old topoi of blaming a barbarian like Aspar for betraying the Empire to a fellow barbarian had a long tradition in Roman literature. Perhaps blaming Basiliskos’ treachery in accepting a bribe from the Vandals comes later, since it is strange that after such treason he could still become emperor. In the fifth and sixth-century sources, Roman failure in the battle is not blamed on the army as a whole. In the mind of contemporary Byzantine sources, the fleet’s defeat was to be attributed to the “betrayal” by a few individuals at the top.  We see in many of the accounts the subsequent growth of “true” Roman heroes in the face of defeat (note the different heroes found in the accounts of Marcellinus, Malalas, and Procopius).


[42] Theophanes AM 5963.


[43] Priscus frag. 56.


[44] For these hopes, see Arnold, Theoderic, 159.


[45] Croke, “Dynasty”, 193.


[46] Most historians (e.g. Heather, Restoration, 22), believe that Leo at this time was protected by bands of loyal Isaurians. Croke (“Dynasty”) has, however, recently suggested that they only became a dominant force once Zeno became emperor,


[47] Malalas 371.9-372.2


[48] E.g., Malalas, Chron. 371.9372.2; Evagrius, HE 2.16.


[49]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, “Restoration”, 153).


[50] Wood (“Multiple Voices”) sees this passage as an instance of Malalas being ironic, maintaining 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.


[51] 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).


[52]A.D. Lee, From Rome to Byzantium, ad 363 to 565: The Transformation of the Ancient Roman World (Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 2013), 98-101.


[53] Priscus, frag 30.


[54] Walter Goffart, Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Late Roman Empire (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 276. N. 43.


[55] Wood, “Multiple Voices,” 310.


[56] For Zeno being far more of a barbarian than Aspar, see Goffart, Tides, 38. In fact having been raised in the capitol, Theoderic probably received a more thorough education than either Leo or Zeno.


[57] Conor Whately, “Militarization, or the Rise of a Distinct Military Culture? The East Roman Elite in the 6th Century AD”, in: Stephen O’Brien and Daniel Boatright, eds. Warfare and Society in the Ancient Mediterranean: Papers arising from a colloquium held at the University of Liverpool, 13th June 2008. (Oxford, 2013), 49-57.


[58] Doug Lee, “Theodosius and his Generals,” in Theodosius II: Rethinking the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, ed. Christopher Kelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 108.


[59] Olympiodorus, frag. 33.


[60] MGM AA 12.425. The story may be anachronistic since it dates from 501, recording a synod between Theoderic and a group of Western bishops. Supporters of it validity have argued that the Roman senate offered to make Aspar Western emperor in 450 or 457.



[61] Arnold, Theoderic, 159-60.  Cf. Moorhead, Theoderic , 8. Heather (Restoration, 21-22), however, rejects the idea that Aspar could have been emperor.


[62] Indeed, as mentioned above, Leo’s reputation as the “butcher” was propagated in “Roman” sources. Malalas’ (371) account of the riots that rocked Constantinople after Aspar’s assassination would seem to suggest that Aspar had supporters from a large segment of Constantinople’s population, Roman and non-Roman.

[63] The Life of Daniel the Stylite  (60) provides us with evidence that Leo recruitedexecubitors from the Western Roman Empire as well.


[64] Arnold, Theoderic, 159.

Review of Mathew Kuefler, The Making and Unmaking of a Saint: Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac (Philadelphia, Penn Press, 2014).


One meets very few vital people in their lives. Mathew Kuefler was one of those individuals for me. In many ways we are dissimilar: e.g. Matt has an attention for detail and is a stickler for proper grammar. Matt was the most important mentor in making me a proper historian. Indeed, he took the time that I needed to hone all my skills, frequently with tough love and his green pen…red in his mind was too alarming. What follows is my review of his new book. I know from personal experience the long years of preparation and travel that went into his second major scholarly project. It is nice to say that the wait was worth it.

In his new book, The Making and Unmaking of a Saint: Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac, Mathew Kuefler describes the rise and fall of a Medieval Saint. What on the surface may seem to be an exploration of a rather insignificant saint is something much more substantive. While focusing on one of the few laymen to become a saint in the Middle Ages, Kuefler, in fact, takes on a variety of issues regarding, not only the value of hagiography as historical sources, but the worth of understanding what has “been lost”. Kuefler writes ( 117), “What has been forgotten in history is often as meaningful as what has been remembered.” In doing so Kuefler successfully takes on Walter Pohl’s challenge for post-modernist scholars to apply their methodology to a wide-range of medieval texts. Indeed, I believe that Kuefler has lived up to his own expectations (6) “to reveal the hagiographer behind the hagiography.”

Kuefler’s monograph may be divided in two parts: In the first two chapters that are aimed primarily at the scholarly reader, K takes on the deeply entrenched scholarly view that the original account on Gerald was the work of one scholar, the second abbot of the monastery of Cluny Odo (878-942). Building on his recent articles, K successfully takes apart this attribution as “a house of cards (14).” He suggests that Odo was the author of the much less detailed account known as the Vita brevior, whilst he attributes the main body of the life, the Vita prolixior, to the known forger of saints’ lives, Adamar, suggesting he reworked Odo’s original sometime in the 1020s.

“Why”, might the non-specialist ask, “is knowing the exact authorship important?” Because, as Kuefler explains so thoroughly in chapters 2 and 3, medieval historians have mined Gerald’s life for information on Odo and ninth and early-tenth century Southern France— a time when the Carolingians were losing their grip on power. If K’s claims are true then, Gerald’s life reflects the viewpoints of a man writing a century later than previously assumed. Indeed Kuefler suggests that the vita, and in particular Odo’s focus on violence can provide the scholar with insights on the early eleventh century struggle amongst “local  landowners and warlords” who were competing increasingly “with each other for greater wealth and status”. So too can we gain increased awareness in the ways that the primary victims of this violence—the churchmen and the peasants—dealt with this disorder. In particular, Kuefler suggests that some of the impetus behind the Pax Dei (Peace of God movement) that blossomed in this era can be detected in Ademar’s “remaking of Gerald’s life.

Kuefler writes:

“Whatever the complex motivations for these assemblies, devotion to the saints formed a chief ingredient in the mix: peasants and monks asked for the protection of God and the saints, and noblemen willing to agree to the principles of the Peace of God swore oaths on the relics of saints brought to the meetings to lend gravity and divine favour to their decrees.

In the second part of chapter 3, K discusses the difficulties Adamar faced in presenting a layman as a saint. He takes the reader through a step-by-step analysis on the “values” behind the depictions. K does a laudatory job of showing that saints’ lives were far more than banal rundowns of well-trodden traits, but individualist accounts that upon closer reflection reflect the values of the individual author and the era in which they lived. Indeed, K discusses adroitly both the dangers and profits of mining hagiography for historical nuggets.

Regardless of whether or not one accepts K’s view on the authorship of the early biography, his in-depth and careful analysis of these little known texts on Gerald will reverberate within the field.

The second half of the study, beginning with chapter 4, offers K’s original and in-depth analysis on Gerald’s legacy from the eleventh century to modern times. This section may be read as a separate study, and may be enjoyed by the non-specialist, perhaps not so concerned with the specifics of authorship.

In these final chapters, Kuefler uncovers and discusses how and why certain saints like Saint Martin of Tours gained notoriety and “eternal” vibrancy, whilst others like Gerald gradually fell into oblivion. If one had to describe this section of the work with one word, “metamorphosis” would be apt. Indeed, the most important idea found in these final chapters is the notion that saints’ lives were and are fluid and living objects.  Each generation saw the saint largely how they wanted to. Thus, nineteenth, depictions of saints like Gerald, tell one much more about that century than the actual saint. While these contemporary needs help to explain the survival of an obscure saint like Gerald, they also explain this saint’s gradual fall into obscurity, until only a fragment of the original Gerald exists.

Though this study may take some patience for the non-specialist to digest, Kuefler can only be applauded for a methodology and work that uncovers both the pitfalls and rewards that awaits the scholar and non-scholar hoping to mine these lives for traces of historical memory both remembered and forgotten.







Narses’ sack of Rome

After defeating the Gothic forces led by Totila, in 552, the Eastern Roman eunuch-general took Rome. This “sack” represents one of the final events in Procopius’ epic history of the emperor Justinian’s reconquest of the lost Western Provinces. Historians have been mixed on whether or not by this time Procopius had tired of the long war. Indeed, the “sack” is used as evidence that the historian had turned against the war. What follows are my thoughts on the “sack”.


The Heruls had led the Byzantine attacks on the circuit-walls of Rome. 8.23.17. The slaughter that engulfed the city after Narses’ forces breached the walls clearly upset the historian. He writes: For this victory turned out to be for the Roman senate and people a cause of far great destruction. Furthermore, upon hearing that the Byzantines had taken Rome, a number of roman senators sought to leave Campania and head to the city where they were killed by a garrison of Goths. Moreover, the 300 noble hostages first taken by Totila were killed by his successor Teïas. His lament that that for men even ‘blessings turn out for their destruction” has been seen by one specialist as a sign that Procopius believed only in tyche. Without a doubt, Procopius blames some of this misfortune to the whims of fate.

Yet should we go so far as one recent specialist to claim that this angst indicate that Procopius did not support a Byzantine victory (Kaldellis Procopius: 2004)? Clearly in Procopius’ account it was not the actions of the native Byzantines that caused most of the destruction. Procopius makes it clear that it was the “barbarians” in Narses’ army who had cut-down indiscriminately the Italo-Romans when they entered the city. Indeed, we may assume that the Heruls who had led the attack were primarily responsible. This behaviour should not surprise since throughout the Gothic Wars the historian had reserved particularly harsh rhetoric for the Herules. Indeed, Narses’ reliance on these auxiliaries represented one of Procopius’ harshest criticisms of the eunuch-commander throughout the Gothic Wars. I think that this may be a slap at Narses’ inability to control these unruly men. This flaw may be contrasted with the historian’s near constant praise throughout Wars of Belisarius’ ability to control his wilder allies such as the Huns through acts of strict discipline. Justice towards the Italo-Romans which throughout the Gothic Wars in Procopius’ mind would determine the victor in the ‘contest’ was conspicuously missing on both sides.  Such a reference would have suited Procopius’ purposes. It provided a dig at Narses, whilst not undercutting his larger accomplishments. Perhaps Procopius believed that if given the opportunity with such a large force, Belisarius would have achieved a similar result, without the disastrous repercussions for the local populace. It is in this context that we must see Procopius rather jaded view of Narses’ sack of Rome. Certainly he closes the Wars with a much more positive and optimistic depiction of the final confrontation between the Goths and Byzantines at the battle of Mons Lactarius in 553 that brings his history to a close.