An Update on Leo




What follows is an update on an earlier blog I wrote on the Byzantine emperor Leo I. This and other blogs are mostly my notes for my more polished projects. So forgive any lack of eloquence and/or proof-reading. I have a much more detailed draft on the fifth-century soldier emperors as a whole in the works, but I am using this as an essential book chapter draft, so it must remain unseen for now. To sum it up, my book chapter suggests that, in contrast to the idea in some scholarly circles that fifth-century and later Byzantine emperors were taking a step away from traidtional martial virtues in favour of “christian”virtues like piety, the examples of the soldier-emperors like Majorian, Anthemios, Marcian, Leo, and Zeno reveal the opposite. I suggest that in the propaganda surrounding these emperors and their generalissimos we see a return and to the military values and the idealised visions of the soldier’s life that we find before child-emperors like Arcadius, Honorius,Theodosius II, and Valentinian III took the purple. Contrary to argument found in some recent studies, this form of rulership had an continuing influence of ideals of leadership and masculinity throughout the Byzantine epoch. This reality helps us understand why Byzantine civilisation continued to respect and idolized emperors like Alexios Komenos (1081 to 1118) who hailed from the military and…at least in their propaganda embraced the simple tastes and values of a Roman soldier.


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 one should discount the figure of 100,000 ships given in one Byzantine source, clearly the attack represented an impressive display of planning and enduring martial puissance.[39] Organised as a three-pronged campaign—with his eyes on Carthage—Marcellinus took Sicily.[40] Meanwhile, Basiliskos sailed the bulk of the Roman navy to meet the Vandal naval forces, 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 Carthage in order to link up with Basiliskos’ troops when they arrived in Proconsular province. At this point, if we believe Procopius, Geiseric began to panic.[41]  The landing by Basiliskos, however, never occurred. Whether through treachery or (more likely) incompetence, Basiliskos and the Byzantine armada allowed the Vandals the time to recover from their initial shock, and the Roman fleet suffered a humiliating and devastating defeat at the hands of the Vandals and their fire-ships at Mercurium.[42]

It is interesting to note that Leo himself takes little of the blame in the accounts that survive.[43] 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. The ninth-century Byzantine chronicler, 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.[44] 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.[45]  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.[46]  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.[47] 

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.[48] 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.[49]  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.[50] 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[51] 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.”[52] 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.[53]

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.[54] Valentinian III had not taken similar precautions. With no one to protect him after he removed his generalissimo, Aetius’ supports quickly returned the favour.[55] 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.”[56]

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. [57]

Men like Leo, Aspar, Zeno, and Theoderic the Amal were not so different.[58] 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.[59]  

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.[60] 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.[61]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)[62]; so was Areobindus; so was Tarasicodissa Zeno.[63] 

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.[64]  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.[65]

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.[66] 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 asserted (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] Procopius, Wars 3.6.8.

[41] Procopius, Wars 3.6.9.


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


[43]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).


[44] Theophanes AM 5963.


[45] Priscus frag. 56.


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


[47] Croke, “Dynasty”, 193.


[48] 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,


[49] Malalas 371.9-372.2


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


[51]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).


[52] 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.


[53] 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).


[54]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.


[55] Priscus, frag 30.


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


[57] Wood, “Multiple Voices,” 310.


[58] 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.


[59] 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.


[60] 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.


[61] Olympiodorus, frag. 33.


[62] 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.



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


[64] 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.

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


[66] Arnold, Theoderic, 159.

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