Byzantine Sea Battle

The Byzantine court during the reign of the ineffectual Arcadius in the late fourth century was run by two men.  The emperor’s favourite at court was the corrupt and worldly Eutropius who ran the civil administration of the empire largely for his own benefit.  The army was run by the Goth Gainas.

Promotion in the Roman administration was not a matter of gaining the right qualifications and proving your worth by building up a resumé of solid achievements.  It was more a question of suppressing your rivals by a combination of guile and ruthless violence.  Gainas had come to be in charge of the Byzantine armed forces thanks to dispatching the previous favourite Rufinus.  He seems to have been unimpressed by the emergence of Eutropius as a replacement.

But he soon had his hands full dealing with a military crisis caused by another Goth.

The father of the current emperor, the great Theodosius, as part of  a policy of getting barbarian tribes onto the side of the empire had settled a large colony of Ostrogoths in a fertile area in the centre of Asia Minor.  Their leader, Tribigild, sensing that the new regime was a lot weaker than the old one, led a revolt.  It is tempting to draw a parallel between the career of Tribigild and that of Alaric.  And it might well have been the case that Alaric’s success inspired his fellow Goth.  But the scale of the two operations were completely different.   Tribigild’s Ostrogoths were much less numerous and much less of a threat.  Nonetheless the Goths broke out of their settlement and started raiding and causing panic.

But they were far from being unopposed and quickly suffered reversals. It was to be largely the incompetence of the Byzantine general Leo that enabled the Goths to pose a threat at all.  In a complete contrast to the strategic ability of Alaric who could march where he pleased in Italy,  Tribigild and his followers managed to get themselves trapped in a valley by a scratch force of local peasants.

It was Leo that saved the day for the Goths.  His approach with some regular forces enabled Tribigild to recruit some of the barbarian auxiliaries sent against him.  The lack of military ability of Leo is not particularly surprising.  He had got the position as a result of being a favourite of Eutropius.  He was a former wool comber who was not noted for brain power.  It is said that first rate people surround themselves with first rate people and second rate people surround themselves with third rate people.  This is distinctly the case in centralised hierarchies where the last thing you wanted to do was to promote rivals for the patronage you were seeking for yourself.  The empire was to continually lose the services of anybody who could show a bit of initiative in the field to people with no military skill who had good connections at court but didn’t pose any threat of turning up with an army behind them.

Gainas was in charge of the imperial forces in Europe and had plenty of experience of military command.  So it made sense for him to be dispatched with his fresh troops to deal with Tribigild.   This would have been a good plan if not for the fact that he was in league with Tribigild to whom he was related.  Gainas knew how to turn the crisis to his advantage and talked up the threat posed by Tribigild.  As a result of this he was able to contrive to get Eutropius dismissed on the grounds that it was one of the conditions of negotiation. Quite why Tribigild was so interested in internal power struggles at the court was not explained.  You have to wonder how nobody spotted that one.

The fall of Eutropius was widely welcomed.  He was initially exiled to Cyprus. But then he was recalled to Constantinople and shipped off to nearby Chalcedon where a show trial was staged and a death sentence pronounced.  The charge was using the sacred animals reserved for the use of the emperor.  In a hierarchical society this breach of protocol was probably worse than the out and out theft, extortion and murder of which Eutropius was certainly guilty.

Gainas now openly joined forces with Tribigild and together they entered and effectively occupied Constantinople.  So Constantinople joined Rome in falling to a Gothic army.  Being occupied by barbarians was bad enough.  To add to the insult these were heretic barbarians.   The Goths were Arian christians and demanded a church consecrated to their own brand of the faith.  The spiritual problems mingled with practical problems – traders didn’t trust the honesty of the Goths and refused to set out their goods for sale in the market.  This must have cheesed off the warriors – what is the point in acquiring loot if  you can’t spend it.  The bad feelings erupted into open violence.  Some Goths tried to set fire to the imperial palace.  Things rapidly escalated with the populace turning on the Goths.  The Arian church was an obvious point for the Goths to gather in self defence.  But there was a long tradition of how to deal with such a situation.  The locals removed the roof and hurled rocks at the occupants.  7,000 Goths were killed.   This was a huge blow to Gainas who now found himself in a hostile city without an army.

And not only had he lost his army, he had lost his position with the emperor.  He was now in a precarious situation with the government in Constantinople showing unexpected and uncharacteristic resolve in dealing with the situation.

He attempted to escape to Asia Minor with the remnants of his army.  The fleet was in the hands of the official government, with the military now run by another Goth called Fravitta.   Undaunted, the Goths built makeshift boats.  They might have done better to have been daunted.  Fravitta dealt with this escape attempt, wiping them out on the waters of the Bosphorus with ease by simply deploying the Byzantine navy.

Most of the remaining Goths ended up drowning. The pathetic remains of their boats mingling with their drowned bodies on the Bosphorus.

Gainas now had few options left.  He gathered together a group of horsemen, and cut his way out of the city and headed as quickly as he could for the Danube frontier. He would have got away with it had he not run into an imperial ally in the shape of Alden, the king of the Huns.  The head of Gainas was sent to Constantinople where it was received gratefully.

The whole episode shows the empire in a rather pitiful light.   The ease with which Gainas was defeated just raises the question of why he ever succeeded in the first place. And it was rather humiliating that it was the Huns rather than the Romans themselves who finished him off.  But this didn’t stop Arcardius from being proclaimed a hero.  He had been saved by good luck, by the mistakes of his enemies and possibly by a new factor in the court policies.  Having fallen under the sway first of an advisor appointed by his father, then a worthless courtier he now found himself behoven to his wife Eudoxia.  It may well have been her that was behind the sudden resistance to Gainas just when he seemed at his most powerful.  I suppose if you really can’t hack it as an emperor then marrying someone who can is the best option.

Eudoxia might well have gone on to exert a lot of influence had she not died a few years after the revolt of Gainus.  But she did leave a son, called inevitably Theodosius, so she at least carried out the most significant duty of the empress by keeping the imperial dynasty going.  She also had three daughters.  So the court was well stocked with imperial DNA.  On paper at any rate, the prospects for the royal house in the East looked reasonable.

Photo credit: jacqueline.poggi via photopin cc

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