The First Byzantine Emperor? Leo I, Aspar and Challenges of Power and Romanitas in Fifth-century Byzantium


Okay its a bit long for a blog, but for those interested I have added the final draft version of my article from Porphyra that began last year as a series of blogs, on the Emperor Leo I.

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, the recent guide to Late Antiquity makes 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 century will remain unknowable. As cited above, many modern scholars have preferred to cover the reigns of the much better documented sixth-century emperors, especially Justinian. Yet one may provide other more ‘correctable’ reasons. One recent biographer submits 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 social historians, 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.

Nonetheless, when reconstructing the crucial events that shaped the third quarter of the fifth century even more traditional ‘military and political’ historians have largely left Leo on the sidelines. Peter Heather’s recent account of this period, for instance, only mentions Leo in passing.[8] There have been exceptions. Significant articles by Brian Croke and Philip Wood have shed recently needed light on the internal politics and ‘propaganda’ surrounding Leo’s regime.[9] Additionally, 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 seeks to place Leo’s military regime within the context of Byzantine historiography. More precisely, it provides a brief diachronic overview of his reign, and shows that Leo deserves further attention from scholars, particularly those interested in the relationships among Roman and non-Roman political players. Certainly Leo’s regime provides important clues for historians trying to understand how and why soldiers like Leo and his rival Aspar dominated and shaped mid fifth-century Byzantine politics.

Some Current Debates

Modern historians primarily remember Leo’s reign 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,[12] Leo’s reign provides one 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.[13] Second, his self-assertion in the second half of his rule, and more precisely, his culling of the ‘Germanic’ faction at the Eastern court —marked by his successful assassination of his former mentor the Alan Aspar and his replacement by the Isaurian Tarasicodissa (the future Emperor Zeno)—have attracted attention. Third, scholars have long been fascinated by 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 fifth-century attempts by the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire to expel the Vandals from the vital lands of North Africa.[14]


A Barbarian Cloaked in Roman Clothing?

Leo was born ca 401 in the Balkans.[15] The Balkans had long served as one of the primary recruiting grounds for the Late Roman army.[16] Although we know next to nothing about Leo’s life before he ascended the throne, it seems that he was picked more for his loyalty than for any major military achievements. Indeed, Leo was serving as an undistinguished commander of the troops in Selymbria (modern Silivri in Istanbul district) at the time of his ascension.[17]

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 little knowledge about the man who was about to don the imperial diadem. When the crowd chanted in unison, ‘Leo augoustos may you always be victorious! He who has chosen you, may he guard you!’[18] Some within the throng might be forgiven for thinking that this protector was not the Christian saviour of the next line of the chant, but the Alan magister militum Flavius Ardabur Aspar, the driving force behind Leo’s unexpected crowning.[19]


(Missorium of Aspar, 434)[20]


Marcian (probably) and Leo (definitely) had been raised by Aspar.[21] 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 that the Emperor Theodosius II sent to Italy to overthrow the western usurper John. After the capture of his father at sea, Aspar boldly rescued him and detained John by stealthily overwhelming the usurper and his supporters in the formerly impregnable Ravenna.[22] Shortly after, Aspar defeated a force of Huns led by the seminal Western Roman generalissimo Aetius.[23] In 431 Aspar teamed up with another Western Roman 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. [24] Indeed, Aspar was probably one of the commanders that Priscus derided for cowardice in the face of the Hunnic threat.[25] It seems, however, that by the time of Theodosius II’s death in 450, Aspar had regained the emperor’s good graces, 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 named his successor.[26]

Though scholars continue to debate how significant 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.[27] Rather than rule himself, Aspar, like his Western contemporary the Goth, Ricimer largely tried to influence events behind the scenes. In establishing his influential role 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.[28]

The relationship only soured gradually. Leo took his time before making 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.[29] 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, as a result, dismissed him from the command he had held since 453. Fortunately we have a source that provides some insight into the affair, and Aspar’s vulnerability. Composed by an anonymous author sometime between 492 and 496, the Life of Daniel the Stylite provides an insider’s view on the incident.[30] In view of its importance in shedding some light on this affair, the rise of Zeno,[31] and the escalation in the simmering 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.[32]

Evidence 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.’[33] 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.[34] 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.[35]

The writing must have been on the wall for the Aspar. Though Aspar failed in his attempt to assassinate Zeno during the Hunnic campaign, the Isaurian fled to what Brian Croke describes as a semi exile for the next four years.[36] Aspar was probably not the only prospective challenger whom the emperor had to deal with. In the spring of 467, Leo sent another potential rival, the blue-blooded patrician Anthemius to Italy where he was named Western emperor outside of Rome on April 12.[37] A former magister utriusqe militiae, consul, and patrician under Marcian, Anthemius pedigree and proven military record made him an acceptable choice, at least at first, to Western elites.[38] Indeed, the erstwhile shadow emperor Ricimer had gone along with the appointment and at the close of 467 bound himself to the Easterner by marrying Anthemius’ daughter Alycia.[39] Such a move reasserting Eastern control over Western affairs provides us with evidence of Leo’s growing confidence.[40] It also reveals that cooperation between the Eastern and Western halves of the Empire was the norm not the exception.

Once Anthemius had established himself 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 and placed him in command of an army that Leo and Anthemius were gathering for a joint military campaign.[41] With his position secure in the East, and Ricimer’s stranglehold on the Western government broken—at least temporarily—Leo sought to finally recapture the vital provinces in North Africa from the Vandals.[42] 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.[43] In reality, Leo most likely sought a game-changing 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 maintained 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.[44] Indeed, attempting to regain the upper-hand in Western affairs, Ricimer had dealt the campaign a deadly blow by assassinating Marcellinus in Sicily.[45]

The massive logistical efforts behind the ambitious attack offer evidence of the continuing military capabilities of the twin regimes when acting in unison. Although we should discount the figure of 100,000 ships given in one Byzantine source, clearly the attack represented an impressive display of logistical planning and enduring martial puissance.[46] Organised as a three-prong campaign—with his eyes on Carthage—Marcellinus took Sicily. 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 then 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 Vandals and their fire-ships at Mercurium.[47]

It is interesting to note that Leo takes little of the blame for the rout in the accounts that survive. 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. Surely the example of the Western Emperor Majorianus’ (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 for the failure elsewhere, the defeat slowed Leo’s political momentum. Aspar appears to have regained the upper-hand or at least equilibrium. The economic and political impact of the defeat were devastating.[48] 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.[49] Though Leo seemed to have thwarted this conspiracy, Aspar kept up the pressure on the emperor. Aspar represents the likely culprit behind the magister militum Anagast’ revolt against Leo I.[50] 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.[51] 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.[52]

Without his primary protector Zeno, Leo must have feared for his life. Perhaps Leo had made the marriage pact with Patricus to buy some needed time. Indeed, some sort of political stability appears to have returned to Constantinople by 471.[53] Leo’s eunuch-assassins seemed to have taken Aspar and his sons by surprise when on August 11 of 471 they ambushed them during a meeting of the Grand council within the imperial palace (Patricus may have survived for a time). 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.[54] 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 some Byzantine sources.[55] Leo’s nickname ‘the butcher’ was a slight used by his enemies.[56] Not everyone disagreed with the elimination of Aspar. Writing during the reign of Justinian (527-565) Malalas records a letter supposedly written by Leo to his western counterpart Anthemius[57] 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.’[58] He recommends that to avoid being a mere puppet, Anthemius should assassinate his supreme commander the Goth Ricimer, and also eliminate Leo’s rival (and future western emperor) the Roman noble Olybrius. Unlike, Leo, Anthemius 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. Similar praise of Leo and his stand against Aspar is found in Procopius, and is probably reflective of the type of anti-barbarian rhetoric that circulated during the years of Justinian’s reconquest of the ‘lost’ Western provinces.[59]Certainly Leo was the last emperor before Justinian who took a major interest in the affairs of the Western realm.[60]

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.[61] Valentinian III had not taken similar precautions. With no one to defend him after he removed his generalissimo, Aetius’ supporters quickly returned the favour.[62] 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 world of rapidly changing political realities. 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. Most current scholarship rejects the idea of ‘Germanic’ and Isaurian solidarity as a prime-mover of affairs during Zeno’s reign.[63] Roman factional politics represent the primary 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 credentials as legitimate leaders of the state and the church. This desire helps to explain why Leo and Zeno took steps to paint themselves as supporters of orthodoxy whilst painting their rivals as enemies of the ‘true’ Church. We should be careful to accept such rhetoric at face value. The strict polarization between the ‘barbarian’ Aspar and the ‘Roman’ Leo is largely a creation of our sources.

Recent scholarship has sought to penetrate beneath the context of normative cultural tropes found in the majority 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.’[64] Moreover, Philip Wood has deftly shown how Leo’s attempt to cast Aspar as an unorthodox and violent ‘barbarian’ may have been an attempt to subvert propaganda critical of his own ‘lowly’ origins:

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. [65]

Men like Leo, Aspar, Zeno, and Theoderic the Amal were not so different.[66] All had risen to prominence within the Roman military. As a soldier hailing from Thrace, Leo would have been commonly regarded by many Constantinolpian elites as little better than a barbarian himself (a view of Justinian that we find in Procopius). [67] As Henning Börm has usefully highlighted, the threat of usurpation within the capital from a blue-blood aristocrat for many later fifth and sixth-century Eastern Roman emperors represented a greater threat than a potential rebellion from a general in the field.[68]

This threat from the older families within the Eastern capitol may provide us a reason for why Aspar did not just make himself or one of his sons emperor or indeed a barbarian rex along the lines of the Ostrogoth Theoderic. Recent scholarship has provided several other reasons for this reluctance. Doug Lee (Contra Arnold, Wood, and Mathisen) believes that likeliest explanation was that as an Alan and an Arian, Aspar, like Ricimer, could not rule themselves.[69] Procopius made it clear that he believed that Aspar’s Arianism and barbarian lineage disqualified him from the purple.[70] I believe some modern scholars have too readily dismissed Procopius’ assessment. So too were links to the ruling regime important. Though like Stilicho, Aspar and Ricimer sought to align their sons to the imperial family. Anthony Kaldellis’ idea that it took two generations for a ‘barbarian’ to become Roman may be apt, but it does not explain why Aspar could not reign since his father was an esteemed Roman general.[71]

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)[72]; so was Areobindus; so was Tarasicodissa Zeno.[73]

Perhaps his experience as an emperor-maker had led Aspar to prefer to bide his time, and therefore 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.[74]Acting as general also allowed men like Aspar to keep themselves involved in both the Roman and non-Roman spheres of influence. As Ralph Mathisen explains, especially in the West, the allure of the imperial office had declined markedly in the second half of the fifth century, therefore offering a partial explanation for why powerful man like Ricimer had no real interest in becoming emperor himself:

Ricimer saw emperors come and saw them go. As a patrician,

he had all the benefits of being emperor—issuing laws and coins, being cited on equal terms with the emperors, and marrying an emperor’s daughter—without any of the drawbacks—being burdened by court ceremony and being a ready target for assassination, not to mention being faced with the need to appoint a new patrician who would immediately become his own rival. Ricimer’s authority was more greatly legitimated as Patrician and Master of Soldiers, an office for which barbarian origin and Arian affiliations, far from being a possible hindrance, were virtually part of the job description.[75]

The theory cited above does not explain adequately, however, men like Aspar’s seeming reluctance, since in the East the imperial office appears to have been held in higher esteem than in the West. Moreover, as we have seen, Ricimer, like Stilicho and Aetius before him, faced the continual threat of assassination. So self-preservation does not seem a likely explanation.

I would agree that the Roman/barbarian binary may be a construct of our sources. 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.[76] So too could a Romanised Ricimer count on the backing of native Italians against an Anthemius painted by writers like Ennodius as an unmanly Greek.[77] As I have mentioned above, the extent that the Isaurians made up the majority of Leo’s support, and indeed palace guard, may be questioned as well. Indeed contemporary sources provides us with evidence that Leo recruited execubitors from the Western Roman Empire as well.[78] One suspects that as a former commander, Leo knew the dangers of filling his ranks with Isaurians who might turn on him when push came to shove.

Nonetheless, we should be careful not to dismiss all of these accounts describing the subtleties surrounding constructions 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.[79] I find it unlikely 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.[80]

Modern historians seem to make more of Leo’s and Zeno’s status as supposed barbarians than even their most ardent Byzantine opponents. 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’ is noteworthy. 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. Such a step may have alienated Aspar from many of the non-Roman men who were his key supporters. Aspar may have wanted to be able to travel swiftly between Roman and non-Roman worlds.

Leo’s legacy—good and bad— for later Byzantines 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. Indeed, we find Procopius presenting Justinian’s sixth-century reconquests of Vandalic North Africa and Ostrogothic Italy as both the culmination and fulfilment of Leo’s political aspirations. While it remains difficult to penetrate the deeply embedded tropes found in our sources, this paper has aimed to show that a revaluation of the reign of Leo I can help us get a glimpse of the dynamic cultural changes that were reshaping Byzantium in the second half of the fifth century.















[1] W. TREADGOLD, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford 1997, p. 847.

[2] G. SIEBIGS, Kaiser Leo I. Das oströmische Reich in den ersten drei Jahren seiner Regierung, 457–460 2 vols., Berlin/New York, 2010. For a modern account of the political background, see G. FRIELL and S. WILLIAMS, The Rome that did not Fall: the Survival of the East in the Fifth Century, London 1999.

[3] G. W. BOWERSOCK, P. BROWN, O.GRABAR, eds., Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, Cambridge 1999, pp. 541-42.

[4] E.g., K. HOLUM, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Dominion in Late Antiquity, Berkeley 1982; K. CHEW, Virgins and Eunuchs: Pulcheria, Politics and the Death of Emperor Theodosius II, Historia: Zeitschrift fϋr Alte Geschichte 55, 2/2006, pp. 207-227; F. MILLAR, A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II Berkeley, 2006; H. SIVAN, Galla Placidia: the Last Roman Empress. Women in Antiquity, Oxford 2011; M. MCEVOY, Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455, Oxford 2013.

[5] For only a small sample, see e.g., F. K. HAARER, Anastasius I: Politics and Empire in the Late Roman World, Cambridge, 2006; M. MEIER, Anastasios I. Die Entstehung des Byzantinischen Reiches, Stuttgart 2009; R. KOSINSKI, The Emperor Zeno: Religion and Politics, Cracow, 2010; J. MOORHEAD, Justinian, London 1994; J.A.S. EVANS, The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power, London, 1996; P. BELL, Social Conflict in the Reign of Justinian: Its Nature, management, and Mediation, Oxford 2013.

[6] G. SIEBIGS, Kaiser Leo I…, cit., p. 2.

[7] M. KUEFLER (The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity, Chicago 2001), for example, avoids these fifth-century military regimes in his ground-breaking 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 aspects of his primary conclusion that suggests for the majority of Romans 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 avoids discussing the reigns of these fifth-century soldier emperors. The large number of soldier-emperors, in fact, undermines some of her more sweeping suggestions (Child Emperor…, cit., p. 327) concerning the prominence of child-emperors in the Byzantine period.

[8]P. HEATHER, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders, London 2013.

[9]B. CROKE, Dynasty and Ethnicity in the Reign of Leo I and the Eclipse of Aspar, Chirion 36/2005, pp. 147-203; Leo I and the Palace Guard, Byzantion 78/2005, pp. 117-151; P. 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/ 2011, pp. 299-314.

[10] W. TREADGOLD, The Early Byzantine Historians, New York 2007, p. 102.

[11]MALCHUS frags. 1, 2, 3, translation by R.C. Blockley, Cambridge 1983. As TREADGOLD points out (Byzantine Historians…, cit., p. 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., Chronicle 14. 41, 42, 44, and positive (e.g., Chronicle 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] E.g. G. SIEBIGS, Kaiser Leo…, cit., p. 727.

[13] MARCELLINUS, Chronicle 458, with note by B. CROKE, p. 95.

[14]Though the battle itself deserves an in-depth modern analysis, Leo I’s failed attempt to wrest North Africa from the Vandals has long served as a favourite topic in scholars’ coverage of Leo I’s reign, see e.g., J.B. BURY, History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian London, pp. 336; G. OSTROGORSKY, History of the Byzantine State, translated by J. Hussey, New Brunswick, 1957, pp. 57; A. MERRILLS and R. MILES, The Vandals Oxford, 2010, pp. 121-122; J. CONANT, Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700 Cambridge, pp. 31-32.

[15] Writing during the early years of Anastasios’ reign, the Isaurian CANDIDUS (frag. 1, translation by R.C. Blockley, Cambridge 1983) maintained that he hailed from Dacia in Illyricum. While JOHN MALALAS (Chronicle 14.35, translation by E. Jeffreys, M. Jeffreys, and R. Scott, Melbourne 1986) 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.

[16] M. WHITBY, Emperors and Armies, in Approaching Late Antiquity: The Transformation from Early to Late Empire, ed. S. Swain and M. Edwards, Oxford 2004, p. 166. For a discussion of Balkan Military culture, see P. AMORY, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554 Cambridge 1997, pp. 277-313.

[17] CANDIDUS, frag. 1.

[18] Following the complete depiction of Leo’s ceremony found in CONSTANTINE PORPHYROGENNETOS, Book of Ceremonies, translation by A. Moffatt and M. Tall, Canberra 2012, pp. 410-416.

[19] Marcian’s son-in-law the future Western Emperor Anthemius (ruled 467-472) had probably been the expected successor. Aspar most likely preferred the less connected and therefore less dangerous Leo. Though, writing nearly two decades later, SIDONIUS (Carmen 2 210-12, translation by W.B. Anderson, Cambridge, 1965) maintained that Anthemius did not want to become emperor at that time. Whether this assertion was true, and this is doubtful, it shows that questions of why Anthemius had not succeeded Theodosius II were still circulating in the East and West.

[20] 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 thorough 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, pp. 419-454.

[21]For Aspar’s essential role in Marcian’s ascension, I side with arguments made by R. BURGESS (Marcian): though see the different view found in K. CHEW (Virgins and Eunuchs…, cit., pp. 207-227) that names the empress Pulcheria as the primary player behind Marcian’s accession. This opinion fail to convince; BURGESS argues persuasively that Pulcheria’s key role in Marcian’s appointment was largely an invention of later Monophysite writers seeking to undermine Chalcedon. For Aspar’s part in Leo’s rise, see Priscus frag.19. For the limitations of imperial women’s power to influence political events, see now M. MCEVOY, Child Emperor …, cit., p. 236. For a lucid discussion of the variety of ways emperors could be proclaimed even when heirs of the former emperor survived, see H. BÖRM, Born to be Emperor: The Principle of Succession and the Roman Monarchy, (forthcoming).

[22] SOCRATES, Ecclesiastical History 7.23; OLYMPIODORUS, frag. 43 translation by R.C. Blockley, Cambridge 1983. 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.

[23]  E.g., CASSIODORUS, Chronica, s.a. 425; PHILOSTORGIUS, Ecclesiastical History 12.4; JORDANES, Romana, 328.

[24]PRISCUS, frag. 14.85-90.

[25] PRISCUS, frag. 9.3. Priscus most likely composed his history during the second reign of Zeno. For this date, see W. TREADGOLD, Byzantine Historians…, cit., p. 100.

[26] JOHN MALALAS, Chronicle 14.27. Cf. CHRONICON PASCHALE, S.A. 450. We should, however, discount Malalas’ contention that Theodosius had named Marcian as his successor at this time.

[27] G. SIEBIGS, Kaiser Leo I…, cit., 201.

[28] MALCHUS, frag. 3.

[29] W. TREADGOLD, Byzantine Historians…, cit., p. 157. G. SIEBIGS (Kaiser Leo I…, cit., pp. 478-490), however, suggests that the opening salvos between the two occurred in the first years of Leo’s rule and were concerned with Christological issues.

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

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

[32] LIFE OF DANIEL THE STYLITE, 55 translated by E. Dawes and N. H. Baynes Three Byzantine Saints, Oxford 1948.

[33] PRISCUS, frag. 19.

[34] 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.

[35] For my interpretation of events I follow B. CROKE, The Date of the ‘Anastasian Long Wall’ in Thrace, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 20/1982, pp. 59-78.

[36] Aspar was a joint-commander of the campaign against Dengizich, see PRISCUS, frag. 49.

[37] PRISCUS, frag. 53.3.15-20; MARCELLINUS, Chronicle 467.1; THEOPHANES, Chronicle. AM 5957.

[38] E.g., SIDONIUS, Carmen 2 193. Anthemius had achieved major victories over the Ostrogoths in Thrace sometime during 459-462 (SIDONIUS, Carmen 2 224-26, 232-35), and over the Huns in late 466 or early 467 (SIDONIUS, Carmen 2 236-42, 269-80).

[39]PRISCUS, frag. 64. Perhaps because of Alycia’s failure to produce an heir, by 470 the two were engaged in a battle for supremacy that only ended when Anthemius was murdered in July of 472.

[40] For the influential role the Eastern court had played in the reign of the Western Emperor Valentinian III (ruled 425-455), see M. MCEVOY, Child Emperor Rule…, cit., esp. Ch. 8. The Western generalissimo probably saw the move as a threat to his interests, yet was hesitant to immediately resist Leo’s meddling in Western politics.

[41] MARCELLINUS, Chronicle 468. PROCOPIUS tells us (Wars 3.6.5) that Leo had made Anthemius emperor primarily to help him with his campaign against the Vandals

[42] 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 M. MCEVOY, Child Emperor…, cit., pp. 264-265.

[43] PRISCUS, frag. 52

[44] PROCOPIUS, Wars 3.6.1-2, 5-25. Modern historians (e.g. P. MACGEORGE, Late Roman Warlords…, cit., p. 58) doubt the bribe account, placing blame for the defeat on Basiliskos’ poor generalship. Aspar may, however, been seeking to replace Leo with a more ‘malleable’ Basiliskos.

[45] J. M. O’FLYNN, Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire, Edmonton 1983, pp. 117-118, 189, suggests that in an effort to undermine Ricimer, Anthemius had made Marcellinus patricius.

[46] A point made by A. MERRILLS and R. MILES, The Vandals, p. 122 on THEOPHANES, AM 5961.

[47] Ivi, pp.122-23.

[48] JOHN LYDUS, On Powers 3.43-4.

[49] THEOPHANES, AM 5963.

[50] PRISCUS, frag. 56.

[51] For these hopes, see J. ARNOLD, Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration, Cambridge 2014, p. 159.

[52] B. CROKE, Dynasty…, cit., p. 193.

[53] Most historians (e.g. HEATHER, Roman Restoration…, cit., p. 22), believe that Leo at this time was protected by bands of loyal Isaurians. CROKE (Dynasty…, cit., pp. 188-193) has, however, recently suggested that they only became a dominant force once Zeno became emperor,

[54]JOHN MALALAS, Chronicle 14.40.

[55] EVAGRIUS, Ecclesiastical History 2.16.

[56] MALCHUS, frag 1,3. For Malchus’ criticisms of Leo, see B. BALDWIN, Malchus of Philadelphia Dumbarton Oaks Papers 31 1971, pp. 89-107.

[57] As we can see from the passage above, the easterner Anthemius had landed in a difficult situation. As ARNOLD (Roman Imperial Restoration…, cit., p. 153) points out, ‘Contemporary western propaganda sought to paint the Gothic Ricimer ‘as a noble Roman protector’ whilst casting Anthemius ‘as an enraged Galatian and Greekling rather than the Roman he claimed to be.’

[58] P. WOOD (Multiple Voices…, cit., p. 303) 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.

[59] PROCOPIUS, Wars 3.3-7. This view for the fall of the West and the survival of the East found in writers like Procopius and Malalas is still followed by more traditional scholars: e.g., W. TREADGOLD, History of Byzantium…, cit., pp. 149-155; P. HEATHER, Roman Restoration…, cit., p. 49.

[60] For Leo’s heavy interest and involvement in the Western realm and his role in the replacing of the Western Emperor Glycerius with the magister militum of Dalmatia Julius Nepos in 474, see M. MCEVOY, Between the old Rome and the new: Imperial co-operation ca. 400-500 CE, in D. DZINO and K. PARRY, eds. Byzantium, its Neighbours and it Cultures Brisbane, 2014, pp. 251-52.

[61] A.D. LEE, From Rome to Byzantium, ad 363 to 565: The Transformation of the Ancient Roman World Edinburg 2013, pp. 98-101.

[62] PRISCUS, frag 30.

[63] Full discussion in CROKE, Dynasty…, cit., pp. 147-203.

[64] W. GOFFART, Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Late Roman Empire, Philadelphia 2006, p. 276. n. 43.

[65] P. WOOD, Multiple Voices…, cit., p. 310.

[66] For Zeno being far more of a barbarian than Aspar, see GOFFART, Barbarian Tides…, cit., p. 38. In fact, having been raised in the capitol, Theoderic probably received a more thorough education than either Leo or Zeno. Yet I would agree with Conor Whatley’s conclusion that ‘commanders from the Balkans serving Rome, and ultimately based in Constantinople’ were considered by their contemporaries as Roman: C. WHATELY, ‘Militarization, or the Rise of a Distinct Military Culture? The East Roman Elite in the 6th Century AD’, in: S. O’BRIEN and D. 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, pp. 49-57.

[67]PROCOPIUS, Secret History 6.1-3.For a similar condescending attitude towards the Emperor Anastasios amongst the upper-crust of Constantinople’s’ aristocracy, see M. MEIER, Anastasios…, cit., p. 285.

[68] H. BÖRM, Justinians Triumph und Belisars Erniedrigung Überiegungen zum Verhältnis Zwischen Reich, Chiron 43/2013, p. 81.

[69] D. LEE, ‘Theodosius and his Generals,’ in Theodosius II: Rethinking the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, ed. C. KELLY, Cambridge 2013, p. 108.

[70] PROCOPIUS, Wars 3.6.3.

[71] A. KALDELLIS, Hellenism in Byzantium: the Transformation of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition, Cambridge 2007, p. 77.

[72] ACTA SYNHODORUM HABITARUM ROMAE, 5.23-26. The story may be anachronistic since it dates from 501, recording a synod between Theoderic and a group of Western bishops. Indeed, it may be more reflective of Theoderic’s own aspirations to be seen as a new Western Emperor. Supporters of it validity have argued that the Roman senate offered to make Aspar Western emperor in 450 or 457

[73] J. ARNOLD, Theoderic…, cit., pp.159-60. Cf. J. MOORHEAD, Theoderic…, cit., p. 8. HEATHER (Roman Restoration…, cit., pp. 21-22), however, rejects the idea that Aspar could have been emperor.

[74] OLYMPIODORUS, frag. 33.

[75] R. MATHISEN, Ricimer’s Church in Rome: How an Arian Barbarian Prospered in a

Nicene World, in The Power of Religion in Late Antiquity, ed. A. CAIN and N. LENSKI, Burlington 2009, p. 324.

[76] Indeed, as mentioned above, Leo’s reputation as the ‘butcher’ was propagated in ‘Roman’ sources. JOHN MALALAS’ (Chronicle 14.40) 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.

[77] A lucid discussion of this propaganda is found in J. ARNOLD, Roman Imperial Restoration…, cit., pp. 16-20.


[79] J. ARNOLD, Roman Imperial Restoration, p. 159.

[80] N. LENSKI, Assimilation and Revolt in the Territory of Isauria, from the 1st Century BC to the 6th Century AD., Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 42, No. 4/1999, pp.413-465.

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