BMCR 2000.01.07

The Rome that Did Not Fall: The Survival of the East in the Fifth Century

, , The Rome that Did Not Fall: The Survival of the East in the Fifth Century. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. 282. $75.00.

Those who think and speak about the decline and fall of the Roman empire in the fifth century sometimes fail to specify that it was really only the western half of the empire that “fell”. The line of division marking the eastern half of the empire passed along the east side of Illyricum to Libya, leaving the significant provinces of Egypt, Asia, Macedonia, Thrace and Dacia (Hungary) under Constantinople (Byzantium). It was Italy, Gaul, Spain and the western side of north Africa that went into administrative flux, from the external pressure of energetic “barbarian” forces and the internal weakness caused by immature boy emperors and unruly, unstable armies. Many of the same elements of turmoil and crisis faced both sides of the empire, yet the eastern half, governed from Byzantium, managed to resist and surmount its problems, regaining sufficient energy and confidence to set about the reconquest of north Africa and Italy.

This book examines the reasons for the survival of the Byzantine empire in the chaotic upheavals of the fifth century. It documents developments in both East and West and the East’s adoption of new and successful strategies — diplomatic, military, political and fiscal — that led to a new level of centralised state at Constantinople. The resulting Establishment of Monarchy, Bureaucracy, Army, Law and Church was resilient enough to survive for another thousand years. Byzantium is the main line of continuity from the classical period until the stirrings of the Renaissance, as well as a military bulwark that shielded most of Europe from the vigorous inroads that would surely have been made by Islam in the early centuries of its expansion.

A meek request from the Roman senate to the Eastern Roman emperor, Zeno, in AD 476, starkly captures the differing fortunes of the two halves of the empire during the preceding century. The tough barbarian soldier Odovacer, having become effective master of Italy through a series of battles, forced the latest boy emperor, Romulus Augustulus, to abdicate and retire to his family’s estates in Campania. With no hope of finding a legitimate successor, the Roman senators begged Zeno to assume rule over the whole empire and to recognize Odovacer as administrator of Italy. In fact, they were seeking some threadbare cloak of legitimacy to cover the mosaic of warlike fiefdoms — Franks, Burgundians, Visigoths, Vandals and Saxons — that had replaced the once united empire of the West. The authors seek to explain the causes why Zeno remained in such a position of undisputed power at the head of his side of the empire and have provided a well-documented and stimulating analysis of a relatively unexplored period in Roman history.

In chapter 2, the authors lucidly portray the fourth century background, when the administrative division of the empire into East and West was still in good working order, with the House of Constantine providing a stabilising dynastic factor for seventy years (293-363), and soldiers and public fully expecting the purple to pass to male blood relations. A wave of instability was produced in the 370’s with the fierce westward movement of the Huns, causing the newly displaced Visigoths and Ostrogoths to pour across the Roman frontiers. When these were offended by local Roman oppression they gave battle and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Eastern Roman army at Adrianople in 378, in which emperor Valens and perhaps two thirds of his 15,000 men perished. The Western emperor, Gratian, nominated the general Theodosius as his co-emperor in the East, an excellent choice, which stabilised the eastern half of the administration for almost twenty years, until Theodosius’ death in 395.

The last decades of the fourth century saw an insecure and dangerous situation produced in Italy and the West by warlords like Alaric and Athaulf, who undermined the tottering imperial power of Valentinian, Honorius and Galla Placidia. The nadir was the fall of Rome in 410. News of the sack of Rome, which had not been taken by an army for eight centuries, “reverberated round the world in a brutal demonstration of how helpless the Western empire had become…. It stunned the imagination of this and later centuries” (p. 23) and spurred Augustine of Hippo to write his apocalyptic City of God.

From this point, the authors’ focus is upon how a stronger governmental and military system was forged in the East, at first during the reign of the boy emperor Theodosius II (grandson of Theodosius I) under the capable regency of the Praetorian Prefect Anthemius, and much later, in a second upsurge of effective administrative genius, under emperor Anastasius (491-518).

One wonders about the negative judgment made upon the persistent involvement of Theodosius II’s elder sister, Aelia Pulcheria, in the affairs of state. She aimed at integrating the most energetic of churchmen into the governmental structure. It was an era in the East when great public interest hung upon the correct expression of Christian doctrine and when the title Theotokos (“Mother of God”) was solemnly declared of Mary, mother of Jesus. Our authors see in Pulcheria’s enthusiasm for this doctrine a subtle promotion of woman’s social and political role and specifically of her own right to influence the course of affairs in Byzantium. It does seem, however, that the almost mystical link between throne and altar first forged by Constantine, and developed by Pulcheria, was an important factor contributing to the stability of Byzantium.

Under the heading “Centralised Power”, the authors show how the mandarins of the Constantinople establishment contrived to maintain their emperor as sole head of state by closing ranks around this office and fighting out their differences behind closed doors. When one male dynasty was coming to an end, they would normally arrange a convenient marriage to legitimate the imperial claims of the proposed successor. Thus, when her brother Theodosius II died in 450 following a fall from his horse, it was Pulcheria who gave a sense of dynastic continuity by marrying the tribune Marcian, who thereby became and acceptable choice as emperor. In effect, it was this sense of a revered, almost divinely-sanctioned continuity more than any other factor that carried the Eastern empire through the turmoil of the fourth and fifth centuries. In contrast to the ineffectual, little respected imperial puppets who could not impose their rule from Ravenna, the Byzantine emperors, however chosen, stubbornly refused to allow their imperial position to be diluted. Dynastic wrangles were ironed out within a closed circle of powerful figures from army and administration, and the resulting emperor was seen everywhere as the undivided, supreme source of all authority. He had, therefore, “every incentive to act this role to the full and, as far as possible, become it in fact” (p. 148).

Clearly, these two centuries in the Eastern empire were critical to the story of Western culture. This book is a significant and very readable study of the factors that enabled Byzantium survive into the longest continuous empire the world has known.