The Senior Consul Aspar


Those familiar with this blog will note my fondness for the fifth-century Eastern general and senior consul, Aspar. What follows is a brief excerpt from my new study that examines his rise and fall. It is an unedited draft, so please ignore any typos!

Aspar’s biography is easier than most major fifth-century political figures to reconstruct. Certainly Aspar’s rise to become the senior Senator in Constantinople offers an instructive example on the ways a military career could help foreigners to climb the Roman social ladder. Of Gotho-Alanic descent, Aspar as a youth had undertaken a career in the Roman military.[1] His long if rather chequered military career spanned five decades. Scholars trace the Alans service within the Eastern Roman army to the command of the Eastern praetorian prefect Rufinus at the close of the fourth century.[2] Although the Alans had been ‘Gothisized’ in the late fourth and fifth centuries, their ancestry was Iranian not Germanic.[3] Aspar was no obscure barbarian auxiliary. While the exact circumstances behind their rise remains murky, Aspar’s relatives held important commands under Theodosius II.[4] As mentioned in the previous chapter, Aspar had served with his father, Ardabur (consul 427), in Theodosius II’s short-lived and indecisive war (421-22) against the Persians. Having earned a reputation for martial prowess during 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.[5] After the capture of his father at sea by John’s forces, Aspar rescued Ardabur by stealthily taking the formerly impregnable Ravenna.[6] In the summer of 425, John was captured in Aquileia and publically tortured before his execution.[7] Hints of hostility towards this macabre display may be found in the sentiment found in a sixth-century source that ‘John was killed by the treachery, rather than the manliness, of Ardaburius and Aspar’.[8]

Aspar’s defeat of a large force of Huns led by the formidable fifth-century Western generalissimo Aëtius did, however, garner later historians’ respect.[9] In 431, Aspar joined Bonifatius in a game, but ultimately futile attempt to expel the Vandals from North Africa. The next year, the Roman forces suffered a severe defeat at the hands of Gaiseric’s forces somewhere between Carthage and Hippo. [10] Shortly after the defeat, Valentinian III’s mother Galla Placida summoned Bonifatius to Italy, where she shortly afterwards named him supreme commander in the West (magister militum).[11]

Aëtius apparently had not taken kindly to Bonifatius’ promotion, and at the close of 432, the two generalissimos’ armies clashed outside of Rimini. As one scholar notes, this battle was significant because ‘for the first time a civil war was fought not over who should be emperor, but over who should be the emperor’s generalissimo’.[12] Despite achieving a narrow victory, Bonifatius had died shortly after the battle of wounds he may have received engaging in Aëtius in single-combat.[13]  This left Aspar as the primary commander to regroup the Roman forces defending Carthage and Roman North Africa from the unrelenting Vandals. [14]  From 432-435 Aspar stayed in Carthage, where his army—for a time— held back the tide of the Vandalic advance. Aspar seems to have employed political skills to match his soldiership; he was probably present when the Vandals signed a treaty with the Western Roman in 435. The Romans ceded Northern Numidia and parts of Africa Proconsularis, nevertheless, for the time-being Carthage and the majority of Africa Proconsularis remained under imperial control[15]

(Missorium of Aspar, 434)[16]

Militum et Consul

For his service in North Africa and likely role in negotiating the treaty with Gaiseric, in 434, Valentinian III had named Aspar Western consul.[17] This honour probably served a twofold purpose. First, awarding such an honour to an Eastern generalissimo would have functioned as a not too subtle warning to Western generalissimos like Aëtius not to aspire to acquire a diadem for themselves.[18] Second, as the third member of his kin-group the Adraburii to be named consul, it signalled to the Roman governing classes that Aspar and his relatives were a respected political force.

We are fortunate to have a largitio plate commemorating Aspar’s appointment. Such iconography reveals how quickly non-Roman generals could display outward signs of their Romanitas. The missorium above depicts Aspar and his family in all their glory, declaring: 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 to his father and also holds a mappa raised in his left hand, whilst saluting his Aspar with his right hand. Two medallions looming above the pair contain the busts of Aspar’s father Ardabur, consul in 427, and his relative Plintha, consul in 419.

As a recent study on the plate posits, it offers evidence, not only on Theodosius II’s and the Eastern Empire’s dominance in Western affairs, but ‘The degree to which Aspar, an Alan and an Arian Christian, could be assimilated to Roman norms, at least iconographically’. The missorium provides a ‘symbol of precisely this power and the dynastic aspirations of this eastern military family’.[19] Through loyal military service, in twenty short years, this Alan family had transitioned from barbarian auxiliaries to Roman elites. No other career could make Romans out of non-Romans so rapidly. No longer just fearsome barbarian auxiliaries, such iconography steeped in Roman aristocratic imagary sought to reassure the upper-crust of Roman society that Aspar and his son shared in their civilised Romanitas.

The honours he received offer firm evidence that Aspar’s initial ‘defeats’ in North Africa were not quite as disastrous as later critics like Procopius maintained. Yet in 439, Gaiseric had violated the accord from 435 and overrun Carthage and most of ‘Roman’ North Africa. By 440, the Vandals were on Italy’s doorsteps pillaging Sicily. In the face of this disaster, it is hardly shocking that Aspar’s earlier achievements in Africa largely evaporated from public memory.

The Eastern Romans, however, never gave up hope of recovering from this devastating defeat. As already discussed, Theodosius II’s regime continued to display the will and the military capability to resist Vandalic expansion. While Aspar did not serve in the aborted naval campaign organised by Theodosius II and Valentinian III in 440 (or early 441) to drive the Vandals from North Africa, the five commanders that were chosen had close ties to the generalissimo.[20] The details of Aspar’s whereabouts in the 440s is murky. We are told that he was one of three commanders sent to counter Atilla and his Huns thrusts into Eastern territory in 440.[21] These campaigns went poorly for the Eastern Romans, and 441 found Aspar negotiating a treaty with the Huns.[22] Two years later, however, Aspar and the Eastern Roman army suffered a further severe defeat at the hands of Attila’s army. By the mid-440s, Aspar’s star was on the wane.[23] Aspar was one of the commanders that Priscus derided for cowardice in the face of the Hunnic threat.[24] Relying on the familiar literary tropes, the generalissimo’s enemies maintained that these setbacks proved that Aspar remained an unreliable barbarian.[25] It seems, however, that by the time Theodosius II died in 450, Aspar had once again regained the emperor’s good graces, indeed, the sixth-century chronicler John Malalas declared 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]

Although scholars continue to debate how significant a role Aspar played in Marcian’s ascension, in the early years of Leo’s reign he wielded a great deal of power, and may be seen as a shadow emperor. [27] This shared rule explains why when the bishop of Rome Leo I sought to confirm the new regime’s stance on Chalcedon he sent letters to both Leo and ‘the illustrious patrician Aspar’.[28] Rather than rule himself, Aspar, like 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.

The relationship only soured gradually. Leo took his time before making an aggressive move to eliminate his mentor. Aspar’s long career and experience at cultivating his military patronage amongst Roman and non-Roman military men, at this point, probably would have made such a move suicidal. In particular, Aspar could rely on his Gothic buccellarii to quickly supress external or internal threats.[29] Moreover, we should not assume that Aspar and Leo feuded nonstop throughout the 460s. Such a view may be anachronistic, since later Byzantine sources naturally focused on the pair’s disagreements that led ultimately to Aspar’s assassination.

Whatever the precise nature of his relationship with Aspar, Leo soon began cultivating his independent authority. Revealing the mind of a deft tactician rather than the brute ‘butcher’ his later critics would make him out to be, Leo at first concentrated on Christological issues. 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.[30] In the view of his most recent biographer, Leo’s focus in these early years on promoting his orthodoxy in 460 represented the opening salvos in Leo’s and the Arian Aspar’s decoupling.[31] Leo supported Chalcedon while the Arian Aspar appeared to favour Monophysites.[32] Some caution must be observed, however, since we have a letter from 451 from the orthodox Theodoret to Aspar thanking him for recalling the bishop for exile.[33] Moreover, Leo had made numerous attempts to come to a compromise with the obstinate Timothy before exiling the patriarch to Gangra in Paphlagonia, suggesting that Leo’s primary strategy at this stage was one of tolerance and finding the common ground between Monophysites and Chalcedonians.[34]

This is not to say that Leo’s stress on religious matters served no other political purpose. His emphasis on Christological policy probably aided in establishing Leo’s credentials amongst the Eastern Empire’s ruling classes, while simultaneously highlighting Aspar’s non-orthodoxy. As a soldier from Thrace, many of Constantinople’s elites would have regarded Leo as little better than a barbarian himself (a view of Justinian that we find in Procopius). [35] Certainly soldier-emperors had long struggled to earn ‘their more aristocratic subjects’ respect or loyalty’. [36] The ruling classes may have needed some convincing that the former tribunis militum could brandish civilised Roman intellectual qualities to match his military credentials. Indeed, 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.[37] By showing himself as orthodox and devout, Leo could thus declare himself as authentically Roman. As Philip Wood explains:

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. [38]

To put it another way, by this period religion had become an increasingly central medium through which men like Leo could promote their Christian Romanitas, while simultaneously painting their rivals as heretical barbarians.[39]

The emperor’s creation in 460 or 461 of an elite palace guard the execubitors has traditionally served as another sign of Leo’s counterbalancing of Aspar’s authority.[40] This gathering of soldiers linked to him personally continued when in 464 Leo named his brother-in-law Basiliscus magister militum per Thracias.

Aspar still appeared, however, to hold the upper-hand in the two men’s power-relationship. A devastating fire that struck Constantinople on 2 September 464 seems to have undermined some of the progress Leo had been making.[41]The leading role Aspar played and the kudos he received in later sources for his efforts to protect the city from the conflagration, offers firm evidence concerning the generalissimo’s continuing puissance and popularity amongst Romans and non-Romans.[42] Constantinople’s citizenry, on the other hand, seemed to have partially blamed Leo for the disaster. Emphasizing his role as a religious leader, Leo looked to placate Constantinople’s terrified and superstitious citizens, who as a latter source tells us, during such natural catastrophes turned to religion (if only briefly) for answers.[43] A source close to his inner circle suggests Leo may have been in a precarious situation. Unable to match the active leadership of Aspar, the emperor and his wife led a procession to the pillar of the holy man Daniel the Stylite and beseeched the holy man: ‘This wrath was caused by our carelessness; I therefore beg you pray to God to be merciful to us in the future’.[44]

Shortly after the fire, relations between Aspar and Leo had openly broken down. [45] In 466, Leo’s support of the Sciri in their war with the Goths countermined Aspar’s recommendation to remain neutral.[46] An example that also suggests that before this time Leo had usually followed Aspar’s advice. In either 465 or 466, a whispering campaign initiated by the emperor and his inner-circle played upon the traditional Roman distrust of non-Romans in positions of authority.[47] 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. We are fortunate to have a source that provides some insight into the affair, and Aspar’s vulnerability to such propaganda. Composed by an anonymous author sometime between 492 and 496, the Life of Daniel the Stylite provides an insider’s view on the incident.[48] In view of its importance in shedding some light on this affair, and moreover, the rise of Zeno,[49] 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.[50]

Obviously, some caution must be observed both because this quotation post-dates Aspar’s death, and passes down Leo’s side of the dispute. Yet the episode offers tantalising glimpses of how Leo’s propaganda sought to move against his powerful rival. This account is certainly no frontal assault. Aspar, in fact, acts in the dignified manner befitting his status as Constantinople’s senior consul, treating Leo respectfully and revealing his Romanitas by recalling his son to face his accusers in Constantinople rather than rebel against the state in ‘typical’ barbarian fashion. Moreover, our author makes it clear that Leo had dismissed Ardabur on Aspar’s recommendation.

Yet this incident must have been a serious blow to Aspar’s prestige. Jordanes’ appointment as magister militum, to borrow the words of Brian Croke, not only ‘helped prise Jordanes loose from the patronage of Aspar’, but showed how Leo was using the orthodox/Arian paradigm to achieve his political goals. Indeed, the Life’s author emphasised (49) the role the holy-man Daniel had played in converting the Arian Jordanes to orthodoxy. So we can see that by using religion to drive a wedge between the Alan general and his co-religionists, the holy man and the emperor may have collaborated to undermine Aspar and his family.[51] Such alliances point to the complex web of alliances and intrigues that marked 460s Constantinople’s factional politics.

Further evidence from a fragment from Priscus suggests that some of Leo’s propaganda against Ardabur was gender-based. It explained that whilst Aspar’s son had done an admirable 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’.[52]Such sentiments 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.[53] Yet the mixture of praise and condemnation in this passage also reveals that Aspar and his family’s military service to Rome was recalled with respect even in Zeno’s reign when our author was recording his anecdote.

In 460s Constantinople, rhetoric and actual policy went hand in hand. Leo took further steps to marginalise a rival he cast as an untrustworthy. 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 then made Zeno magister militum per Thracias and sent him to thwart the incursion.[54]

Aspar served as a joint-commander of the campaign against Dengizich.[55] Although Aspar failed in his attempt to assassinate Zeno during this campaign; he succeeded in spooking Zeno, and the Isaurian fled to a semi-exile for the next four years.[56] The Alan generalissimo remained a potent threat to Leo’s rule.

Aspar was not the only prospective challenger with whom the emperor had to deal with. In the spring of 467, Leo sent the blue-blooded Anthemius to Italy where he was named Western emperor outside of Rome on April 12.[57] This appointment served three main purposes. First, it thwarted the Vandalic King Gaiseric’s hopes to install his preferred candidate, Olybrius, whose wife Placida was the sister of Gaiseric’s daughter-in-law Eudocia.[58] Second sending Anthemius to Italy rid Leo of a formidable potential rival in the East. Third, Anthemius’ extensive naval and infantry military background would be useful with the planning and implementation of the Eastern emperor’s imminent and ambitious three-pronged invasion of Vandalic Africa,[59]

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.[60] Incapable of standing up to Leo’s Eastern army,[61] the erstwhile shadow emperor Ricimer had gone along with the appointment, and at the close of 467, bound himself to the Western Emperor by marrying Anthemius’ daughter Alycia.[62]

Western Romans appeared hopeful yet wary that binding of the two most powerful men in Rome would help to remedy the factional disputes that had been plaguing the Western Empire since Valentinian’s assassination in 455. An eye-witness, Sidonius, recorded both the optimism and the financial consequences surrounding Ricimer and Alycia’s nuptials:

As yet, I have not presented myself at the bustling gates of Emperor or court official. For my arrival coincided with the marriage of the patrician Ricimer, to whom the hand of the emperor’s daughter was being accorded in the hope of more secure times for the state. Not individuals alone, but whole classes and parties are given up to rejoicing. . . . While I was writing these lines, scarce a theatre, provision-market, praetorium, forum, temple, or gymnasium but echoed to the cry of ‘Talassio’! [63]

By linking his young daughter to the old General, Anthemius (and through him Leo) likely sought to contain the dangerous Ricimer, who in his lifetime, would be behind the rise and fall of five Western Roman emperors. Yet despite the likelihood that he was compelled to accept Anthemius,[64] Ricimer doubtless also saw an opportunity.[65] Not only could he connect his family to the Western imperial regime, while simultaneously thwarting Gaiseric’s on-going attempts to link his family to the Western imperial throne,[66] by supporting Leo’s planned invasion, Ricimer could see his Vandalic nemesis eliminated for good.[67]

Ricimer may also have had the best interests of the Western imperial regime in mind. Having embraced the life of a Roman nobleman, Ricimer identified with the Romans’ cause; his arming of Majorian and of Anthemius offer firm evidence that he was willing to play second fiddle, if it helped Italy and the Roman’s cause in the long run.[68]

If Alycia was the carrot in Anthemius’ and Leo’s strategy to contain Ricimer, then the formerly independent warlord Marcellinus was the stick. Procopius explains that Leo and Anthemius, had enticed Marcellinus to join Anthemius on his journey to Rome. Marcellinus and Ricimer who had both served under Aëtius had been long-time rivals.[69] According to modern consensus, Marcellinus had gone ‘rouge’ after the assassination of Aëtius in 454 (though one new theory is that Ricimer’s killing of Majorian caused the breach).[70] Whatever date one selects for the initial split, Ricimer could not have been happy that Leo and Anthemius had chosen Marcellinus to lead the Western army in the campaign to retake North Africa. Even more insulting, Marcellinus had been granted the title of patricus (467 or 468), an honorific Ricimer had been granted by Majorian in 459, but Leo I had never recognised.[71]

By the opening of 468, Leo’s and the fifth-century Eastern Roman Empire’s power had peaked.[72] Similar to Theodosius II’s rhetoric from 425, Sidonius’ captured the vision of a Western imperial regime protected from a now dominant Eastern imperial regime:

Emperor Leo, you surpass the deeds of your forerunners; for he who can command a man to reign towers above regal power. Now your government shall be more perfectly one, having therefore becoming a government of two. All hail to thee, pillar of sceptered power, Queen of the East, the Rome of that region, no longer to be worshipped by the eastern citizen alone, now that you have sent me a sovereign prince.

This passage should not be seen as a ringing endorsement of Leo’s meddling in Western imperial affairs.[73] Yet the sentiment it expressed like the passages discussed above from Procopius, highlight the growing aura of potency developing around Leo and his resurgent Eastern regime.[74]

With Anthemius safely established in Rome, Leo sent an embassy to the Vandal King Gaiseric demanding that the Vandals evacuate territories they had seized in Sicily and Southern Italy.[75]  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. 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.[76] 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.

The two imperial regimes had gathered a truly intimidating force. 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.[77]  Such a move reasserting Eastern control over Western affairs provides evidence of Leo’s growing confidence.[78] Procopius explained that even the formidable Gaiseric feared Leo as an ‘invincible emperor’ [            αχον βασιλέα] and nearly capitulated.[79] Later that year Anthemius and Leo launched their campaign against Gaiseric that might have led to the Western realm’s revitalization.

Organised as a three-prong operation—with his eyes on Carthage—Marcellinus took Sicily.[80] Meanwhile, Basiliscus sailed the bulk of the Roman navy to meet the Vandal naval forces, lastly, a smaller fleet, led by Eastern Comes rei militaris Heracleius, successfully occupied the Vandal stronghold of Tripolis. Heracleius and his army then set out towards Byzacena in order to link up with Basiliscus’ troops when they arrived in Proconsular province. The landing by Basiliscus, however, never occurred. Whether through treachery or (more likely) incompetence, Basiliscus and the Byzantine armada suffered a humiliating and devastating defeat at the hands of the Vandals and their fire-ships at Mercurium.[81] The defeat had nearly bankrupted the Eastern Empire.[82]

It is worth noting that Leo takes little of the criticism for the naval rout in the accounts that survive.[83] This absence may partially explains why 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, Majorian’s (ruled 457-461) aborted attempt to launch a military expedition against the Vandals in 460, and subsequent execution at the hands of Ricimer’s henchmen, offered ample warning to Leo to proceed with caution in the aftermath of the defeat.

Leo had probably launched a propaganda campaign to deflect blame straight away. Procopius suggested that fearing the prestige that Leo would have gained from a reconquest of North Africa, Aspar had promised to make Basiliscus emperor if he sabotaged the campaign.[84] This aside probably contains only a sliver of truth.[85] As we have seen, the old topoi of blaming a barbarian like Aspar for betraying the Empire to ‘fellow barbarians’ had a long run in Roman literature. So while Aspar may have been wary of Leo gaining even further distinction, it seems unlikely that he took such a drastic steps to hijack the campaign. Perhaps blaming Basiliscus’ treachery in accepting a bribe from the Vandals comes later after he was deposed as emperor in 476, since it is unlikely that after such treasonous rumours he could still become emperor.[86]

Despite his largely successful campaign to divert blame and create Roman heroes in the face of military-calamity,[87] the defeat slowed Leo’s political momentum. Aspar appears to have regained the upper-hand or at least equilibrium in the pair’s relationship. The ninth-century Byzantine chronicler, Theophanes, maintained that Leo had immediately recalled Basiliscus, Heracleius, and another commander Marsus, to Constantinople in order to counteract a plot by Aspar.[88] Though Leo seemed to have thwarted this conspiracy, Aspar escalated his pressure on Leo. Aspar represents the likely culprit behind the magister militum per Thracias Anagastes’ revolt in Thrace against Leo I in 469-70.[89] By 470, we find Aspar powerful enough to have his son and former consul (459) Julius Patricus raised to Caeser. With Leo 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.[90] 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.[91]

Without his primary protector Zeno, Leo must have feared for his life.[92] Perhaps the emperor had made the marriage pact with Patricus to buy some needed time.[93] Indeed, some sort of political stability appears to have returned to Constantinople by 471. 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 fend them off.[94] 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.[95]

Views were mixed on the justice of this move. Distaste for the assassination is evident in some Byzantine sources.[96] Leo’s nickname ‘the butcher’ was a slight used by his enemies.[97] Not everyone, however, condemned Aspar’s elimination.  As discussed earlier, we find praise of Leo and his firm stand against Aspar in Procopius. This stance probably reflects the type of anti-barbarian rhetoric that circulated during the years of Justinian’s invasions of the ‘lost’ Western provinces.[98] Others writing during Justinian’s reign painted the assassination as an instance of an orthodox emperor righteously eradicating ‘an Arian, and his Arian family.[99]

[1] Candidus, frag. 1

[2]B. S. Bacharach, A History of the Alans in the West: From their First Appearances in the Sources of Classical Antiquity through the Early Middle Ages (Minneapolis, 1973), pp. 41-2.

[3] Goffart, Barbarian Tides, p. 90.

[4] Lee, ‘Theodosius and his Generals’, pp. 90-108

[5] Olympiodorus, frags 43, 46; Malalas, Chron. 356. Olympiodorus reveals (frag. 43) that the third commander, Candidianus was primarily responsible for the triumph.

[6] Socrates, HE 7.23; Olympiodorus, frag. 43.2. 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’s arrival.

[7] Procopius, Wars 3.3.9.

[8] Marcellinus, Chron. s.a. 425: ‘Superfatus Iohannes dolo potius Ardaburis et Asparis magis quam virtute occiditur’.Cf. Procopius’

[9]  Cassiodorus, Chron. s.a. 425; Gregory of Tours, 2.8; Philostorgius, HE 12.4; Prosper, Chron. 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 claimed mistakenly that Aspar had returned to Constantinople shortly after the devastating defeat.

[11] For Bonafatius’ recall to Italy, see Wijnendaele, Last of the Romans, pp. 98-9; McEvoy, Child-Emperor Rule, pp. 246-8.

[12] O’Flynn, Generalissimos, p. 80.

[13]Marcellinus, Chron. s.a. 432. Wijnendaele sees Marcellinus’ account as exaggerated, but possible, since we have other examples of fifth-century Roman generals engaging in single-combat with their enemies. I am more sceptical.

[14]Prosper, Chron. s.a. 432; Chronica gallica 432. A recent assessment of the circumstances that led to this confrontation between the Wests two supreme generalissimos is found in Wijnendaele, Last of the Romans, ch. 5.

[15] McEvoy, Child-Emperor Rule, pp. 255-6.

[16] 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.

[17] Bachrach, History of the Alans, p. 42, n. 47.

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

[19] Bevan, Gabov, Zaccagnio, ‘Missorium’, p. 421.

[20] Bachrach, Alans, p. 46.

[21] Pricus, frag. 9.4.

[22] Marcellinus, Chron. s.a. 441.

[23] Zuckerman (‘L’Empire’, 172-6) proposes that Aspar had been relieved of his command in 447. The Isaurian Flavius Zeno (not to be mistaken with the later emperor) then became the East’s leading commander until his death around 451.

[24] Priscus, frag. 9.3.

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

[26] Malalas, Chron. 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]Siebigs, Leo I, 201.

[28] Leo, ep. 153, trans., E. Hunt, Saint Leo the Great: Letters, Fathers of the Church 34 (New York, 1957).

[29] H. Wolfram, The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples, trans. T. Dunlap (Berkeley, 1990), p. 197.

[30] Marcellinus, Chron. s.a.458; Theophanes, Chron. AM 5952.

[31] Siebigs, Kaiser Leo, pp. 478-90. Cf. Treadgold, Byzantine State, 152.

[32] Pseudo-Zachariah, Chron. 4.6.

[33] Theodoret, Epist. 141

[34] Evagrius, HE 2.9-11, Pseudo-Zachariah, HE 4.5-9.

[35]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, p. 285.

[36] On the need of these soldier-emperors to cultivate more intellectual sides of their Romanitas in order to be accepted by the ruling elite, see Arnold, Theoderic, pp. 142-3.

[37] H. Börm, Justinians Triumph und Belisars Erniedrigung Überiegungen zum Verhältnis Zwischen Reich, Chiron 43 (2013), p. 81.

[38] Wood, Multiple Voices, p. 310.

[39] For Leo’s persecution of pagans, see Theophanes, Chron. AM 5960. On his ban on pagans working as lawyers, see Codex Justinianus, 1.4.15.

[40] Treadgold, Byzantine State, p. 152.

[41] On the fire, see Marcellinus s.a. 465, Evagrius, 2.13. Though many date the conflagration to 465, I follow Michael and Mary Whitby’s (trans. Chronicon Paschle, p. 87, n. 285) earlier dating.

[42] Candidus, frag. 1, Chronicon Paschale, s.a. 465, Theophanes, Chron. AM 5954.

[43] Agathias, Histories 5.5.1-5. Describing events after an earthquake, Agathias related how ‘charlatans and self-appointed prophets’ had roamed the streets of Constantinople preaching ‘the end of the world. Agathias made it clear that most of this religiosity was short-lived and most returned to ‘play lip-service’ to their devotion. One suspects that a similar hysteria enveloped the population after the earthquake. A lucid discussion of the nuanced and fluctuating role that eschatological and apocalyptic thinking played in Byzantine civilisation is found in A. Cameron,

[44]Life of Daniel the Stylite 55. Leo and Verina had previous approached Daniel (38) in the summer of 463 for Divine help in concieving a male heir. The couple was granted their wishes with the birth of a son on 25 April 463. This joy was shortlived, and the infant died five months later.

[45] Candidus, frag. 1. Blockley (p. 472, n. 3.) for the traditional idea that the dispute revolved around policy towards the Vandals or a political appointment. Evidence too perhaps of the rehabilitation of Aspar’s reputation under Anastasios.

[46] Priscus, frag. 45.

[47] For 465: Croke, Dynasty and Ethnicity’, p. 160. For 466: PLRE 2.136.

[48]For this date for Daniel’s vita, see R. Kosiński, ‘Leo II: Some Chronological Issues’, Palamedes 3 (2008), p. 210.

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

[50] 55

[51] Croke, ‘Ethnicity and Dynasty’, p. 160.

[52] Priscus, frag. 19.

[53] 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.

[54] For my interpretation of events I follow Croke, ‘Anastasian Long Wall’, pp. 59-78.


[56]The Chronicon Paschale (s.a. 468) reveals that the magister militum per Thracias Anagastes slew Dengizich. Afterwards, his head was brought to Constaninople where it was paraded along the main thoroughfare (the Mese) before being placed on display for public viewing.

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

[58] Whitby and Whitby, Chron. Paschale, p. 90, n. 292.

[59] Candidus, frag. 2.

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

[61] MacGeorge, Late Roman Warlords, pp. 234-5.

[62]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 472.

[63] Sidonius, Epist. 1.5.10-11: Dalton trans., 1.12-13.

[64] For Leo forcing his choice on Ricimer, see J. Harries. Sidonius Apollonaris and the Fall of Rome, AD 407-485. (Oxford, 1994), p. 142. For Ricimer accepting Anthemius because he wanted to promote Italian interests by destroying the Vandals, see M. Flomen, ‘The Original Godfather: Ricimer and the Fall of Rome’, Hirundo, the McGill Journal of Classical Studies, 8 (2009-10), p. 13.

[64] O’Flynn, Generalissimos, p.117.

[65] As Penny MacGeorge (Late Roman Warlords, 238), points out, Ricimer remained a formidable political force.

[66] The Vandals’ sack of Rome and capture of the Empress Eudoxia and her daughters Eudocia and Placidia after Valentinian III’s assassination in 455 was linked to the Vandalic king’s attempts to protect the betrothal of his son Hunneric to Eudocia, see Marcellinus, Chron. s.a. 468 Chron. Paschale, s.a. 455. Marcellinus (Chron. s.a.455 ) and Theophanes alledge that objecting towards marriage attempts, Eudoxia had asked Gaiseric for assistance.

[67] Ricimer had achieved acclaim by leading a victourious naval campaign in the late 450s against raiding Vandal ships, see Hydatius

[68] Ricimer’s rise to dominance had begun in 456 with a victory in Sicily over the Vandals, see Priscus, frag. 31.1, Hydatius, Chron. 309.2. Historians continue to dispute the extent of Ricimer’s Romanization. For two opposing portraits, see Arnold, Theoderic, pp. 16-20, MacGeorge, Late Roman Warlords, pp. 299-30s.

[69] O’Flynn, Generalissimos, p.117.

[70] Full discussion in M. Kulikowski, ‘Marcellinus of Dalmatia and the Fall of the Western Empire’, Byzantion 72 (2002), 177-91.


[72] Just how Leo had attained such a dominant position from the nadir of the fire in 464 is more difficult to ascertain.

[73] Indeed, Jill Harries is correct, to point out that the passage above and speech from which it is excerpted, none to subtly emphasized the continuing desirability amongst Westerners for political autonomyHarries

[74] A we have dis similar vison is found in Procopius, which likely stems from Priscus.

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

[76] Priscus, frag. 52.

[77] A point made by Merrills and Miles, The Vandals, 122 on Theophanes, Chron. AM 5961. Procopius (Wars 3.6.1) provides a reasonable number of 100,000 for the combined number of men for the Western and Eastern forces.

[78] Procopius, Wars 3.6.4.

[79] Procopius Add

[80]The circumstances behind this campaign are disputed, I follow Merrills and Miles’ reconstruction (The Vandals, pp.121-3).

[81] Modern historians (e.g. MacGeorge, Late Roman Warlords, p. 58) doubt the bribe account, placing blame for the defeat on Basiliscus’ poor generalship. Aspar may, however, been seeking to replace Leo with a more ‘malleable’ Basiliscus.

[82] The long-term fiscal consequenses of the failed campaign are discussed by John Lydus, De Mag. 3.43

[83] 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).

[84] Procopius, Wars Theophanes, Chron. AM 5961.

[85] Contra, Croke,

[86] The account of the bribe first appears in Priscus, frag. 53.1.


[88] Theophanes, Chron. AM 5963.

[89] Priscus, frag.56. Discussed in Croke, ‘Dynasty and Ethnicity’, p. 187.

[90] For these hopes, see Arnold, Theoderic, p. 159.

[91] Croke, ‘Ethnicity and Dynasty’, p. 193.

[92] Procopius, Wars 3.6.27.

[93] Theophanes (AM 5963) suggests that Leo had raised Patricus in order ‘to keep Aspar’s good will’.

[94] Malalas, Chron. 371.9-372.2

[95] Croke, ‘Dynasty and Ethnicity’, p 198, following the assertion found in Life of Daniel Stylite, 66.

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

[97] Malchus, frag. 1, Candidus, frag. 2.

[98] Procopius, Wars 3.3-7.

[99]Marcellinus, Chron. s.a. 471. Afull discussion of this passage and similar sentiments in other Byzantine sources is found in Croke ‘Ethnicity and Dynasty’, p.199.


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