BMCR 2007.10.50

Anastasius I: Politics and Empire in the Late Roman World

, Anastasius I : politics and empire in the late Roman world. ARCA classical and medieval texts, papers and monographs ; 46. Cambridge: Francis Cairns, 2006. 351 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 090520543X. $130.00.

Table of Contents

The emperor Anastasius (491-518) has been thought commendably sensible, a fence-sitter, or (more often) intemperately heterodox in regard to religious policy — depending on sectarian loyalties (Monophysite or Orthodox), language (Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Arabic, or Latin) and geographical location (East or West) — while his management of the Empire’s finances, bureaucracy, and military has more readily attracted respect. In other words, though Anastasius failed to sedate the religious divisions between West and East as well as around the East, he did leave his successors Justin and Justinian with a solid administrative infrastructure, fairly secure borders, and a well-filled treasury. Although in recent decades scholars have scrutinized his reign’s doctrinal controversies and wars with the Persians, the only book-length treatment of his governance as a whole appeared in Italian nearly 40 years ago.1 This book, an expansion of Haarer’s (hereafter H) 1996 Oxford M. Phil. and 1998 doctoral theses on the reign of Anastasius (supervised by J. Howard-Johnson and Averil Cameron and Peter Heather respectively), thus aims to provide a comprehensive up-to-date study in English. As befits its academic pedigree, this volume’s eight chapters and seven appendices (plus a glossary, bibliography, index locorum, and general index) offer a carefully documented account of the background to and events of Anastasius’ reign.

H’s treatment of Eastern political and military affairs is commendably thorough, especially in chapters 3, 6, and 7. Ecclesiastical and Western matters, however, are not always so well served in chapters 4 and 5. For all that historical research owes nearly as much to secondary scholarship as to original documentary sources, that translations and commentaries are vital scholarly tools, and that the sources for the reign of Anastasius are many and diverse, H appears to have engaged more with previous scholarship than with the original sources, so that most of the interpretations and all of the translations are those of other scholars. Her book provides useful details that are not readily available in English and arrives at a largely favorable assessment of her subject’s accomplishments, but reveals little of H’s own understanding of specific problems.

The first chapter (1: “Introduction and Historical Background, 1-10) begins medias in res on the day Anastasius was made emperor. H briefly offers readers what little that is known of his origins and character, from his early life in Dyrrachium (now Dürres in Albania) to his long service as a silentiary at the imperial court. She then turns to the matter of the Isaurians, whose influence loomed large during the reign of Zeno, Anastasius’ predecessor. Their revolt disrupted much of the first eight years of the new reign, and only after its suppression could Anastasius devote himself to administrative issues (particularly fiscal reform), foreign relations with the Persian-dominated East and the barbarian rulers of the West, problems of Christian disunity, and frontier security (including the building of fortifications). These comprise the “key aspects of Anastasius’ rule” (9) to be analyzed for an assessment of his “successes and failures.”

Disposing of “the barbaric and generally peripheral Isaurians” (11), Anastasius’ first task, is the subject of Chapter 2, “The Isaurian Revolt” (11-28). H outlines the geographic factors and political situation since the Hellenistic period, the power struggle between Isaurian and German elements in the eastern half of the empire since 441, and the circumstances of Zeno’s reign before presenting a detailed account of Anastasius’ struggle to overcome the Isaurians. As also in subsequent chapters, the text is full of proper and place names. Some individuals occur only once (e.g. “Apskal, Sigizan and Zolbo” on 24). The city of Selinus (25) is said to have Antioch (i.e., on the Cragus; not indexed) as its port; it does appear on the map (12), but so does another Antioch (on the Orontes). Chronological problems and the manner in which Anastasius dealt with his defeated foes are discussed in footnotes; consonant with the overall negative characterization of the Isaurians H inherits from prejudiced primary sources, reflections on the forced resettlement in Thrace of many of the survivors of the conflict are confined to remarks on other scholars’ interpretations.

Relations with Persia and its neighbors occupy Chapter 3, “Eastern Foreign Policy” (29-72). From the Black Sea coast of Armenia to the Arab-controlled lands between the Red Sea and the Euphrates, Anastasius had to balance complex diplomatic, military, economic and religious considerations in order to secure the empire’s territory and commerce. Arab tribes, often with Persian approval, made continual incursions into Roman territory which required a military and diplomatic response. H discusses the evidence for treaties with the Kindites and the Ghassanids, who seem to have become Orthodox Christians, and other diplomatic efforts to secure their loyalty, including cultivating the popular cult of Saints Sergius and Bacchus with church-building at the pilgrimage site of Resafa. Overtures to the Lakhmids were less successful, since they, as Persian vassals, were unwilling to convert to Anastasius’ Monophysite Christianity when their overlords favored the Nestorians. Ethiopia’s Christianization made it more congenial to Roman interests, while the Himyarites of Yemen were targeted by Jewish and Christian proselytizing. Control of trade routes was a major concern to Anastasius, as H shows, using a fragmentary edict from the late 490s (44-47, with Greek text) found in fragmentary copies at several locations in Arabia. The emperor did not want open war with Persia, but the latter finally initiated hostilities in 502. H relates the events of the war, including the fall of Amida and the siege of Nisibis. The Persian king Kavadh’s financial needs were a principal motivation, but the Roman cause was not aided by dissension among Anastasius’ generals. After a truce was finally called in 506, the emperor rebuilt and reinforced the frontier defenses, though later building programs (i.e. Justinian’s) often obscure his accomplishments. The region was, according to H, “remarkably free from trouble” during the last dozen years of Anastasius’ rule; she considers his eastern policy innovative in terms of implementing “new policies, new developments and new solutions.”

Indicating “two main strands” for Anastasius’ policy for the West — namely resolving the status of Theoderic the Ostrogoth and reinforcing Balkan defenses against the ravages of the barbarians — H splits Chapter 4, “Western Foreign Policy” (73-114), into two sections, “Constantinople and ‘Old Rome'” and “Foreign Policy in the Balkans”. The narrative for the Latin-speaking part of the empire begins in the year 410 to provide a background to Anastasius’ initiatives. H passes from Valentinian III’s murder of Aetius in 454 to Ricimer’s 473 installation of Glycerius as Western emperor, who was soon supplanted by Julius Nepos (nominated by Leo I, the eastern emperor). Nepos was in his turn driven out by the magister militum Orestes (father of Romulus Augustulus; the last emperor is mentioned by name only on 73). Orestes was killed in 476 by Odoacer, whose political relationship to the emperor Zeno remained murky until Theoderic and his Ostrogoths arrived in 489. Not until H explains the situation underlying Theoderic’s mission to Italy at Zeno’s behest is the unlucky Anthemius mentioned, another would-be Western emperor supplied by Leo I, in connection with the failed armada against Vandal Carthage. The emperor Zeno’s dealings with the West and Theoderic’s constitutional status vis-à-vis the Imperial government in Constantinople are discussed at length, including the diplomatic activity of the Roman Senate in the early to mid-490s, with two embassies led by Festus, the caput senatus (80 has senati).

H discusses “the doctrinal schism of 491-506” and “the doctrinal schism of 516” as discrete phases of Theoderic’s relations with the East, but they are merely subsections of the larger conflict of the Acacian Schism (484-519), which began when Pope Felix III and his bishops condemned the emperor Zeno and Acacius, Patriarch of Constantinople, for unilaterally promulgating the Henoticon. While the disciplinary and doctrinal independence of the bishop of Rome was admittedly useful to a king desirous of asserting the autonomy of his Italian kingdom, asserting that the Pope Gelasius’ “assiduous correspondence” with the bishops of the Balkans “contained more than doctrinal purpose” and that his efforts to woo them away from Constantinople benefited Theoderic (89-90) goes too far. The bishops of Rome still claimed jurisdiction over a great deal of the Balkans, including Nicopolis and Thessalonica, long after Gelasius; Rome’s bishop needed no prodding from Theoderic. Within the Latin West, Theoderic’s wider political ambitions were destined to remain largely unrealized because of circumstances for which Anastasius was not responsible, but H registers the recognition of the Frankish king Clovis, favor toward the Burgundians, and ravaging of the Apulian coast as part of the emperor’s strategy to curtail Ostrogothic power. Anastasius’ epistolary contacts with the Roman Senate, H admits, show that Theoderic’s position was still “open to interpretation” as a result of Zeno’s “vague arrangement”. The remainder of the chapter considers the emperor’s handling of the barbarian threat in the Balkans. The construction of Constantinople’s Long Wall against invasion from Thrace and public works (walls and basilicas) at cities such as Histria, Tomis, and Callatis are illuminated by an excellent synthesis of the non-narrative evidence of brick stamps, coinage, and inscriptions. H concludes that Anastasius’ measures were more defensive than offensive and promoted urban life as well as security.

In Chapter 5, “Religious Policy: The Search for Compromise” (115-183), shows Anastasius’ forlorn efforts at compromise to reduce Orthodox/Catholic/Monophysite friction so he might return to the administration of the Empire. H indicates the “suspicion and antagonism” prevailing among the Roman bishops Gelasius, Symmachus, and Hormisdas, who insisted on Chalcedon’s formulas and Rome’s superiority to the emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople, stating that the Popes could not “sacrifice their principles” to end the Acacian Schism (certain that they were right, why would they?) and exploited the deteriorating relationship between king Theoderic and the emperor. Reviewing the background and aftermath of Chalcedon, H does not mention the Council of Nicaea in connection with Arianism, but does discuss Nestorius and the leading names of the early and mid-fifth century (Eutyches, Flavianus, Dioscorus, Leo and his ‘Tome’) on the way to the events of 451.2

The account of the negotiations regarding the formulation of the council’s canons stresses that the final result took both the letters of Cyril and the Tome of Leo into account while also reconfirming that Constantinople had status equal to Rome. Rome is characterized as “always jealous of its unequalled primacy as the see of St. Peter” without explaining how that ideology had been developed and refined in reaction to the rise of the empire’s new capital, though H is assuredly right in saying that Chalcedon “perpetrated and caused at least as many problems as it aimed to solve” (121-122). Unmentioned is that Leo and his successors regarded Chalcedon’s Christology as bindingly correct precisely because the Council adopted Leo’s Tome. Apart from the Rome problem, H regards keeping Palestine and Egypt in the Church and the empire as Anastasius’ greatest challenge. Discussion of the alternative to Orthodoxy relies on W.H.C. Frend’s 1972 The Rise of the Monophysite Movement. Zeno’s Henoticon was successful to “a certain degree,” but some Easterners, including “Peter Fuller” (124) could not accept an imperial document that ignored Chalcedon.3 H then considers Anastasius’ relations with Popes from Gelasius to Hormisdas; an aside (131-2, n. 61) comments that Gelasius’ Tractate 4 was “historically inaccurate” in saying Christian emperors were the first to renounce the title of Pontifex Maximus, since Gratian was the first to do so (but Gratian was a Christian, despite his fraught relations with St. Ambrose). H’s dependence on translations of primary sources by other scholars is especially marked in this chapter: her treatment of the Laurentian Schism relies heavily on H. Grisar, History of Rome and the Popes (1912) and other pre-1950 publications, and would have benefited from use of more recent work; her account of the revolt of Vitalian is similarly dependent.4 H calls Anastasius’ reign “a chapter in late Roman religious history” when imperial interventions in doctrinal matters strained East-West ecclesiastical relations.

Chapter 6, “Administration and Domestic Policy” (184-229) focuses on the functioning of the imperial bureaucracy, synthesizing a wide range of sources, narrative and non-literary, with coherence and clarity. H observes that Anastasius may have been criticized for not dealing with “doctrinal disunity” but is “almost universally” praised for rehabilitating the economy of the state. She ably surveys the taxation system, administrative shortcuts like coemptio, and the monetary situation. Imperial government departments and the officials who staffed them are described in detail; H then launches into a assessment of Anastasius’ financial reforms, including the abolition of the chrysargyron, the management of the res privata and patrimonium, the commutation of the land tax, coinage reform, the introduction of vindices and the defensor civitatis, and agrarian legislation. Anastasius also regulated the armed forces, as the section on army reforms explains, citing various laws and inscriptions. The undated and otherwise problematic Abydus edict on taxes on shipping in the Hellespont forms the centerpiece of a section on assorted socioeconomic reforms; the translation, complete with original Greek text, based on French editions of the mid-1980s, unfortunately omits to mention the sense break in line 2 and lacks line numbers. Anastasius’ strategies for responding to factional riots are then assessed; discussing each incident individually, H finds that the emperor favored no faction exclusively and used the hippodrome to channel potentially dangerous tensions. The chapter concludes with admiration for the emperor’s “interest in and flair for the administration and reform of the state” (229).

Chapter 7, “Anastasius’ Building Programme” (230-245), completes the assessment by examining the textual and archaeological evidence for extensive construction activity. Pointing out that “riots, fires, earthquakes and wars” provided Anastasius with many opportunities to show imperial beneficence, she classes as “utilitarian” structures such as basilicas, gateways, cisterns, and harbor installations, which were built and/or repaired not only in Constantinople, but also in Antioch, Rhodes, Alexandria, Caesarea Maritima, and other cities. Calling baths, on the other hand, “not strictly utilitarian” (233), H presents several inscriptions from Hammat Gader and Scythopolis that commemorate the construction and embellishment of bathing facilities and, in the latter city, an impressive basilica. For promotion of the emperor’s prestige, however, church-building was foremost. Anastasius built churches for Monophysites in Constantinople (two in locations where he had once lived), Amisa on the Hellespont, Tur ‘Abdin, Dara, and Qartmin in northern Syria. H also reproduces an inscription at Bostra records that the cathedral there, dedicated to Saints Sergius, Bacchus, and Leontius, was finished in 512, but the precise nature of the emperor’s involvement in the project remains speculative since the bishop at the time was pro-Chalcedon.5 Anastasius’ benefactions to his hometown of Dyrrachium are difficult to determine since the archaeological evidence has not yet confirmed Malalas’ “many buildings” and hippodrome, but he may be responsible at least for the walls, to judge from some brick stamps.

Chapter 8 (246-253), the table of contents’ “Conclusion,” is entitled “Anastasius’ Legacy.” Quoting several sources, H relates the odd portents that presaged the emperor’s sudden death as he approached his ninetieth year; with none of Anastasius’ three nephews designated successor, a scuffle ensued before Justin, count of the excubitores was elevated to the throne. Justin had the advantage of being able to utilize the talents of his nephews, particularly the one who adopted the name of Justinian, and the resources of an empire that, as H puts it, “enjoyed, on the whole, greater stability and security than it had in the late fifth century” (259) although outstanding doctrinal issues remained to be settled. The reassertion of Orthodoxy and reconciliation of the Eastern churches with Rome under Justin’s (and likely Justinian’s) leadership represented the first and most obvious change of course for the empire. H notes that this shift in religious policy brought with it a change of foreign policy toward the Ostrogothic regime in Italy, whereas relations with Persia and its allies continued along the lines Anastasius had established, reaffirming alliances and reinforcing fortifications, though tensions increased during the 520s. Anastasius’ fiscal and administrative policies gave Justin and Justinian the wherewithal for campaigns against the Persians and building churches. In concluding, H argues that Anastasius deserves credit for his adroitness in restraining factional violence, considering the 30,000 people died in the 532 riots; his legacy made the glories of Justinian’s reign possible.

The book’s seven appendices review the primary sources (ἀ, the dating of the panegyrics (β the Popes and the Patriarchs (ξ the 510/11 formula of satisfaction (δ key ministers and officers (ἐ, legislation (φ and the scholarship on Anastasius (E). A glossary follows. Were this an introductory text, it would be useful to include explanations of technical terms; the information presented, however, is generally too imprecise for beginners (e.g. “Acacian schism: schism between the eastern patriarchs (especially Acacius, patriarch of Constantinople) who accepted the Henoticon (q.v.) and the pope who did not”, ” clarissimus : grade of senatorial order”, illustris : highest rank of senator,” spectabilis : grade of senatorial order”) and otiose for specialists.6 An index locorum (327-337) and general index (338-351) close the volume. Appendix E’s survey of scholarship and the bibliography (297-325) displays some bibliographical gaps, many relating to Western matters.7


1. Capizzi, C. L’imperatore Anastasio I, 491-518: Studio sulla sua vita, la sua opera e la sua personalità (Rome, 1969). H’s bibliography omits the subtitle.

2. Inexplicably absent from H’s citations, numerous contributions to A. Grillmeier, H. Bacht, eds. Das Konzil von Chalkedon: Geschichte und Gegenwart I-III (Würzburg, 1951-1954).

3. Cf. 2: “Peter the Fuller” for Petrus Fullo.

4. For the schism, e.g., E. Wirbelauer, Zwei Päpste in Rom: Der Konflikt zwischen Laurentius und Symmachus (498-514) (Munich 1993). H’s principal source for Vitalian’s revolt, including translations of primary sources: P. Charanis, Church and State in the Later Roman Empire: The Religious Policy of Anastasius the First, 491-518 (Thessaloniki, 1974).

5. The Greek text of the inscription on 214 contains a typo (the B in Bacchus should be upper-case), while the translation “Under the most beloved God and most holy Julian, archbishop, was built…” should read “In the episcopate of the most beloved of God and most holy Julianus was built …”; the indiction (indicated by an epsilon in square brackets) should be the fifth, not the sixth. Alone among the book’s numerous quotations, this text has no footnote.

6. Latin slips on 294-295: comes rei militari (294), orginarius (295) should be …militaris and …originarius.

7. First, to 193 n. 49 regarding the last consuls of the Empire: R. S. Bagnall, A. Cameron and S.R. Schwartz, Consuls of the Later Roman Empire (Atlanta, 1987). As said, the literature on Western sources (in particular, those not translated into English) is not as up-to-date as could be wished: C. Rohr, Der Theoderich-Panegyricus des Ennodius (Hannover, 1995); Richard Bartlett’s University of Queensland PhD thesis, Ennodius of Pavia. A sixth-century churchman and his times (Brisbane, 1999); S.A.H. Kennell, Magnus Felix Ennodius: A Gentleman of the Church (Ann Arbor, 2000); J. Fontaine, “Ennodius,” RAC 5 (1962): 398-421, and O. Wermelinger, “Ennodius,” TRE 9.5 (1982): 654-657 (in preference to, at 266 and 322, W. Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (London, 1880) II.19-20. Also odd, considering that H cites not only Günther but also Mansi, Jaffé, and Thiel for items in the Collectio Avellana (163-164, 173-181), is that only F. Vogel’s 1885 MGH edition appears in the notes relating to Ennodius (266), although G. Hartel’s 1882 CSEL edition and Migne’s PL text are also available, though inferior in one way or another.