Aspar the Alan: Generallismo and Senior Senator

Piatto_di_ardaburio,_argento_fuso,_434_d.c._(found_in_1769)_02[1]

In my previous blog I discussed the relationship between the Western Roman Emperor Anthemius and Ricimer. Today I turn my attention back to the East and look at the Alan generalissimo Aspar, a man who had risen from the ranks of the Eastern Roman army to become  by the mid 450s perhaps the most powerful man in the Eastern Roman Empire. Far from the uncouth barbarian found in the older historiography, judging from the negative reactions surrounding his assassination at the hands of the eastern Roman emperor Leo I in 471, Aspar was popular amongst Romans and non- Roman. This is the first of a two-part blog on the career of Aspar. It is part of a chapter from my book The Soldier’s Life that will be out in mid-2016…This is an unedited draft…so beware typos..

The sixth-century Byzantine chronicle of John Malalas records an intriguing letter written purportedly by the Eastern Emperor Leo to the Western Roman Emperor Anthemius.[1] Composed in the aftermath of Leo’s infamous assassination of his former mentor, the Alan generalissimo and senior Eastern consul Aspar in 471, in it, Leo explains to his protégée, Anthemius, that he had destroyed Aspar and his sons in order to be the one “who gives orders not takes them”.[2] To avoid being a mere puppet, he recommends to the Western emperor that he should immediately assassinate his supreme commander the Goth Flavius Ricimer, so too should he eliminate Leo’s rival (and future western emperor) the Roman noble and future Western Emperor Olybrius (ruled 472) whom he suspected was scheming with the Vandal rex Gaiseric. However, unlike Aspar, Ricimer beat Anthemius to the punch. According to Malalas, the man known in Italy as “the Patrician” (A title introduced by Constantine I as a high civil distinction, by the fifth century it was usually carried by the premier western Roman generalissimo) had posted his fellow Goths to guard the harbour and “every gate of Rome”. Although Anthemius controlled the city, Ricimer’s blockade was beginning to cause real strife in Rome. Priscus also provided the further detail (likely inaccurate) that Anthemius’ supporters were made up of the native Italians, while Ricimer relied on “a force of his own barbarians”. In Malalas’ version of events that compressed Ricimer’s the events surrounding the siege into a single episode, Leo’s magistrianus, Modestus had been caught by one of Ricimer’s men attempting to smuggle the letter to Anthemius. Alerted to the plot, Ricimer and Olybrius took quick action. Ricimer summoned his nephew the magister militum Gundoband from Gaul where he then assassinated Anthemius on July 11 472 while the emperor sought refuge inside the church of the apostle Peter in Rome.[3]

Reading the subtext of Malalas’ and Pricus’ accounts one sees that Anthemius’ to check the control of “barbarians” like Ricimer, led to marginalisation of the Western emperors, and ultimately to rise of non-Roman rule in Italy.[4] 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, Leo I’s assassination of Aspar and purge of his “Germanic” supporters had helped to assure the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire.[5] Whether one accepts the authenticity of this letter or the dependability of the factional views it espoused, it provides us with significant insight into the intense completion amongst the men to present themselves as “true” Romans. This helps to explain why on the one hand, soldier-emperors like Leo sought to paint themselves as true martial and Orthodox Romans, while simultaneously casting their rivals like Aspar as heretical barbarian others.

Of course, such a bipolar view of the relationship between “Romans” like Leo and Anthemius and “barbarians” such as Aspar and Ricimer stood in dissonance with the realities of the day. The old orthodoxy that presented these rivalries as a battle between noble Romans and rogue barbarian factions has largely been overturned. Recent scholarship has penetrated beneath the context of normative cultural tropes found in the majority of our sources. [1] Certainly, as we will see, men like Leo, Aspar, and Ricimer were not so different.[2] All had risen to prominence within the Roman military. These “humble” backgrounds meant that these Roman soldier-emperors and their generalissimos needed to earn their more aristocratic subject’s respect or loyalty. We find these men seeking to define themselves by cultivating the more refined intellectual and “Christian” qualities of the Roman elite. Moreover, evidence suggests that Aspar may have been “Roman” enough for a diadem.[3] Brute strength was not the only reason Aspar may have been sought out. 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.”[4] In fact, as an obscure soldier from Thrace, Leo would have been commonly regarded by some Constantinolpian elites as little better than a barbarian himself (a view of Justinian that we find in Procopius). [5]

The emperor Marcian, had died on 27 January 457. Many within Constantinople had probably expected that Marcian’s son-in-law, the blue-blooded Anthemius would be named successor. [1] Instead, 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 the crowd chanted in unison, “Leo augoustos may you always be victorious! He who has chosen you, may he guard you!”[2] Some within the crowd 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.

(Missorium of Aspar, 434)[3]

Marcian (probably) and Leo (definitely) had been raised by Aspar (c. 400-471).[4] Aspar had a long if rather chequered military career spanning five decades. Aspar’s rise to become the senior Senator in Constantinople offers an instructive example on the ways a military career could help non-Romans to break down some of the social and ethnic barriers within fifth-century Roman society. Certainly, as one military historian has recently observed, perhaps as a means of thwarting threats to his own regime, Theodosius II and his inner-circle tended to prefer Arian non-Romans in positions of high command.[5] Of Alanic descent, Aspar as a youth had undertaken a career in the military.[6] 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 and son were two of the three commanders that the emperor Theodosius II sent to Italy to overthrow the western usurper John.[7] Aspar established a reputation for quick thinking. After the capture of his father at sea, Aspar rescued him and detained John by stealthily overwhelming the usurper and his supporters in the formerly impregnable Ravenna.[8]

Even more impressive, especially for later writers, Aspar had defeated a large force of Huns led by the seminal Western generalissimo Aëtius.[9] In 431 Aspar teamed up with another Western Roman generalissimo Bonifatius in a game, but ultimately futile attempt to expel the Vandals from North Africa. In 432 the Romans had suffered a severe defeat at the hands of Gaiseric’s forces somewhere between Carthage and Hippo. [10] With the departure of Bonifatius to Italy in 432, Aspar was left as the primary commander to regroup the defeated Roman army defending Carthage and Roman North Africa from the seemingly unstoppable Vandals. [11] Though he received little credit from later Eastern sources, from 432-435 Aspar had remained in Carthage where he had stemmed—for the time-being at least— the tide of the Vandalic advance. For this service in North Africa, in 434 Valentinian III had named Aspar named consul for the West. These honours may have also served as a not too subtle warning to Western generalissimos like Aëtius not to aspire to acquire a diadem for themselves.[12] Aspar was probably present when the Vandals signed a treaty with the Western Roman in 435. Although the Romans ceded Northern Numidia and parts of Africa Proconsularis, for the time-being Carthage and the majority of Africa Proconsularis remained in Roman hands.[13] So we can see that Aspar’s “defeats” in North Africa were not quite as disastrous as later critics like Procopius maintained. Yet in 439, Gaiseric had violated the treaty signed in 435 and overrun Carthage and most of “Roman” North Africa. By 440 the Vandals were on the doorsteps of Italy pillaging Sicily. In the face of this disaster, it is not surprising that Aspar’s achievements in Africa were largely forgotten.

There was, however, a continuing will and joint military capability to resist Vandalic expansion in the twin regimes of the East and the West. Aspar, however, was not one of the five generals placed in command of the aborted naval campaign organised by Theodosius II and Valentinian III in 440 or early 441 to drive the Vandals from North Africa. Though the details are murky, Aspar may have been placed in charge of Theodosius II’s forces sent to counter Atilla and his Huns dangerous incursions into Eastern territory in 440. We know that in 441 Aspar was negotiating a treaty with the Huns.[14] 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. Aspar may have been one of the commanders that Priscus derided for cowardice in the face of the Hunnic threat.[15] The generalissimo’s enemies made it clear that Aspar was an unreliable barbarian.[16] 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.[17]

Although 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.[18] 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. To be continued….

[1] Though, writing nearly two decades later, Sidonius (Carmen 2 210-12) maintained that Anthemius did not want to become emperor at that time. Aspar most likely preferred the less connected and therefore less dangerous Leo. Anthemius hailed from the gens Procopia

[2] Following the complete depiction of Leo’s ceremony found in Constantine Porphyrogennetos, Book of Ceremonies 410-416 (trans. Ann Moffatt and Maxeme Tall).

[3] 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 the pair are two medallions containing the busts of Aspar’s father Ardabur, consul in 427, and his relative Plintha, consul in 419. For the historical and the archaeological background of the plate, see G. Bevan, A. Gabov, and C. Zaccagnio, “The Missorium of Ardabur Aspar: New Considerations of its Archaeological and Historical Aspects”, ArchCl LXIII, (2012): 419-54.

[4]For Aspar’s essential role in Marcian’s ascension, I side with arguments made by R. W. Burgess (“Marcian”). Cf., however, Chew, (“Faction Politics”) who contends that the empress Pulcheria was the primary player behind Marcian’s accession. For a treatment on the variety of ways emperors could be proclaimed even when heirs of the former emperor survived, see Henning Börm, “Born to be Emperor: The Principle of Succession and the Roman Monarch”, (forthcoming).

[5] Lee, “Theodosius and his Generals”.

[6] Candidus, frag. 1

[7] Olympiodorus, frag.46; John Malalas, 356.

[8] 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.

[9]  Cassiodorus, Chronica, s.a. 425; Gregory of Tours, 2.8; Philostorgius, 12.4; Prosper, Chronica s.a. 425; Chronica gallica 452, 100; Jordanes, Romana, 328.

[10] Procopius Wars 3.3.34-6. Perhaps in an effort to highlight the Alan’s “dishonour”, Procopius (and perhaps his probable source Priscus) claimed mistakenly that Aspar returned to Constantinople shortly after the devastating defeat.

[11]Prosper, Chronica s.a. 432; Chronica gallica 432. Bonifatius had headed to Italy, at the request of Valentinian’s mother Galla Placida, who shortly afterwards named made him magister militum. Although the precise details a murky, Aëtius’ had not taken kindly to announcement, and at the close of 432 the two generalissimos’ armies had clashed outside of Rimini. Although Bonifatius’ forces emerged victorious, the comes Africae had shortly afterwards died of his wounds incurred in combat. A good recent assessment of the circumstance that led to this confrontation between the Wests two supreme generalissimos is found in Wijnendaele, Last of the Romans, ch. 5.

[12] For this as a possible stratagem by Theodosius II and his inner-circle, see McEvoy, Child-Emperor Rule, 302. A fragment (13.2) in Priscus that describes Aëtius returning to Aspar a dwarf that the Huns had captured, suggests the two former antagonists may have developed a friendship.

[13] McEvoy, Child-Emperor Rule, 255-6.

[14] Marcellinus, Chronicle s.a. 441.

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

[16] Priscus, frag. 14.85-90. For these Hunnic attacks in the East, see still Thomson, Atilla and the Huns, 76-86.

[17] 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.

[18] Siebigs, Leo I, 201.

[1] Brian Croke “Dynasty and Ethnicity in the Reign of Leo I and the Eclipse of Aspar,” Chirion 36 (2005): 147-203

[2] For the Emperor Zeno being far more of a barbarian than Aspar, see Goffart, Tides, 38. In fact having been raised in the capitol, the future ruler of Ostrogothic Italy, Theoderic the Amal had probably received a more thorough education than either Leo or Zeno.

[3] 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. 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. Hagith Sivan (Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 105, n. 45), however, submits that the offer came in 425.

[4]Goffart, Barbarian Tides, 276. n. 43.

[5]Procopius, Secret History 6.1-3. For a discussion of a similar elitist attitude towards the emperor Anastasios amongst the upper-crust of Constantinople’s’ aristocracy, see Mischa Meier, Anastasios I. Die Entstehung des Byzantinischen Reiches (Stuttgart, 2009), 285.

[1] J.B. Bury (“A Note on the Olybrius”, EHR 1 [1886]: 509) believed the letter to be genuine. Modern historians like Penny MacGeorge (Late Roman Warlords, 257) are more hesitant, seeing it as an embellishment—albeit of actual factional politics.

[2] Philip Wood (“Multiple Voices”, 301-3) reads this passage as an instance of Malalas (or more precisely, his fifth-century source) 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. Indeed, it reflects the type of anti-barbarian rhetoric that circulated during the years of Justinian’s reconquest of the “lost” Western provinces, see, e.g. Procopius’ positive assessment of Leo and his actions against the “barbarian” Aspar. So too did Malalas (and probably his source) justify Leo’s move, suggesting that Aspar had been planning a rebellion.

[3] Priscus (frag.64) provides the further detail that Anthemius’ forces after losing a pitched battle against Ricimer’s forces had quickly abandoned the emperor and gone over to Ricimer. Anthemius was then beheaded by Gundobauld after attempting to hide amongst the beggars within the church.

[4] Malalas, Chronicle 14.45 (373-4, 383).

[5] This view for the fall of the West and the survival of the East found in writers like Procopius (e.g., Wars 3.6, 4.6.1-21) is still followed by more traditional scholars: e.g., Warren Treadgold, Byzantine State, 154-6; Heather, Roman Restoration, 22.

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