Extinction of the Western Empire

Leo was an unlikely man to end up being called ‘the Great’.  Emperors had become mere figureheads. Military strongmen of barbarian origin actually called the shots and decided who sat on the throne in Constantinople.  Leo looked very much like a figurehead.  He had no particular credentials for joining the imperial ranks, and only got the job as the frontman for the army chief Aspar.  

In fact it was Aspar’s role that showed more respect for the rules of heredity than did the purple.  He had inherited it from his father and passed it on to his son.  Leo on the other hand had no obvious connection to the throne at all.  He is often known as Leo the Thracian, reflecting the fact that he was a provincial.  Maybe that was the point – if Aspar wanted a puppet then one with no claim whatever would be the most dependent on him.  Incidentally, I have never come across anyone other than Gibbon who refers to this emperor as Leo the Great.  I am sure he didn’t make it up, but if it was current in his time its use has waned subsequently.  Of course he was a contemporary of a pope who is also known as Leo the Great.  Let’s just assume that is a coincidence.

Great or not Leo’s plans looked promising.  He appointed a new western emperor called Anthemius.  Anthemius was well connected.  He knew Marcellinus, which no doubt helped in bringing the one time rebel back into the fold.  In fact Marcellinus accompanied Anthemius on his journey to Italy to take over the crown.  He was well educated, having been schooled in the neoplatonic academy in the company of none other than Proclus, one of the major figures of neoplatonism.  And most importantly of all, he was married to the daughter of Marcian.  So although he wasn’t born to be an emperor, he had married into it.  He then added the final clincher by serving on the border and inflicting a severe defeat on the Huns.  It says a lot for Leo that he was prepared to risk giving so much authority to someone who was so obviously as much an insider as Leo himself was an outsider.

This was of a piece with Leo’s self confidence.  He had also successfully faced down his sponsor, the man who had put him on the throne.  And he had succeeded.  He can only have done this by force of personality.  This was something that not many emperors were capable of.  Diocletian maybe, perhaps Julian and perhaps Valentinian.  The intrigues of the court were enough to frustrate the will of most of the holders of the nominal top job.  Generally speaking, direct command of actual troops was the key.  But every now and again an emperor could rise above this situation and impose his own ideas on his empire and Leo was one of that select group.

Anthemius was clearly the junior partner in the arrangement, but this was a good thing.  If the west was going to be put back on its feet it needed to use the resources of the east to do it.  And the best way of ensuring that the east was on board was allowing the east to run the show.  Anthemius arrived in Rome where he was hailed by the people and the senate.  This instant popularity might have been genuine but it was reinforced by treating it as a big holiday.   And there was something to celebrate.   The daughter of Anthemius married Ricimer.  This brought the barbarian on board so that he would not threaten the reassertion of imperial authority.  Basically Leo had neutralised all the big internal problems and set up the preconditions for a Roman revival.  It was little wonder that the recently plundered city of Rome welcomed the arrival of its new emperor.  Many senators were so enthusiastic that they ruined themselves trying to project a good impression at the wedding celebrations.

There were two pressing external problems that also needed to be addressed.  The less obviously troublesome in the short run was the growing power of the Visigothic kingdom of southern France and north east Spain.  The Visigoths had already had the cheek to impose an emperor of their choosing once before in the shape of Avitus.  They had been frustrated in this project to take over the empire by guile, but were working conscientiously on the more straight forward approach of invading and conquering the steadily declining area of imperial authority in the neighbourhood of their already extensive kingdom.

But the headline problem was the continued existence against all the odds of the Vandal kingdom in north Africa.  Genseric had come perilously close to destruction at the hands of Majorian.  Now he had to face the full strength of the eastern empire which was gearing up to attack.  Leo’s plan was not a subtle, but it was well resourced.  An extraordinary effort was made to raise taxes and use them to build and equip an immense army supported by a huge fleet.

Genseric was no fool and realised that with the full power of the now united Roman world bearing down on him, his chances were slim.  But even though he was now an old man he had lost none of the cunning, ruthlessness and sheer determination that had always shown.  He had led an obscure and often defeated German tribe and by dint of willpower alone had carved out the most unlikely barbarian kingdom in the heart of the Roman world.  He was not going to give up easily.  Things certainly looked bleak for the Vandals.  General Heraclius marched across the desert.  He liberated Libya and advanced towards Genseric’s capital of Carthage.  Meanwhile Marcellinus reoccupied Sardinia.

The main thrust was entrusted to the brother in law of the emperor Leo, Basiliscus. His fleet was in the region of 1100 vessels carrying a strike force of 110,000 troops.  The cost is estimated by Gibbon at £5.2 million pounds in the money of his own time.  That would equate to over half a billion pounds or a billion dollars today.  This was an immense expedition.  The three prongs of the attack united in Sicily then proceeded to land at Cape Bon.  This isolated promontory some 50 miles or 80 kilometres to the east of Carthage was an ideal spot to land a large army away from the Vandal defences.  It could then advance on the city, capture it and bring an end to the Vandal kingdom.

Genseric sued for peace and offered abject and total surrender.  His only stipulation was that he needed five days to put his affairs in order.  Given Genseric’s track record and more or less total lack of a bargaining position, Basiliscus should have rejected any kind of deal out of hand.  Incredibly, he agreed to these lenient terms.  There was a suggestion that bribery was somehow involved with this.  If so, it is hard to see who exactly took the bribes and why they felt any need to honour them if they did.  It can hardly have been Basiliscus himself on the receiving end.  What possible price would be worth wrecking his reputation for?  I have to say that simple stupidity is the most straight forward explanation.

Needless to say Genseric used his five day reprieve to hatch a plan to save his own skin.  The Roman fleet was at anchor and under the impression that their display of overwhelming force had won the war without the need to fight.  Genseric broke the truce by launching fire ships against it.  The very size of the fleet became a liability, with fire spreading from one ship to another.  He then followed up with a conventional naval attack.  The fleet that had been assembled with so much care and expense was destroyed in a day.  Carthage was saved and the Vandal kingdom would go on to outlive the Western Empire – as indeed would Genseric himself.

Marcellinus escaped death in the battle itself but was executed shortly afterwards, probably on the orders of Ricimer who was happy for an excuse to get rid of a potentially troublesome rival.  Basiliscus fled back to Constantinople where he had to take refuge in Hagia Sophia until his sister intervened on his behalf to stop Leo executing him.  He was still exiled though.  Heraclius now stranded in Africa had no other option but to retreat back across the desert.

Genseric had captured a chunk of the Roman fleet and was now free to raid the empire again.  He was also pleased that Marcellinus had been killed, thanking the Romans for removing one of his most formidable enemies.  Winning victories against the odds and then turning the situation to his own maximum advantage was pretty much Genseric’s signature dish, but the battle of Cape Bon was exceptional even by his standards.  There are some great examples in history of underdogs tweaking the noses of bigger powers.  But the fiasco at Cape Bon really is in a class of its own.  It is hard to think of anything he could do to humiliate the Romans more than he actually did that day, short of turning up at Leo’s palace and painting his arse green.

The Byzantines might have been humiliated, but the effect on the Western empire was rather more serious.  Although the bulk of the cost of the war had been footed by the East, Ravenna could ill afford even the modest contribution it had made.  To have nothing to show for it left the initially promising reign of Anthemius looking a bit weak.  He attempted to recoup some prestige by acting against the Visigothic kingdom which now occupied a lot of southern France and Spain and was looking to take still more away from the empire.  They had recently brought Narbonne under their control.  The last time we looked at the Visigoths they were pretty pro-Roman under Theodoric.  He had, you will remember, come to power by killing his brother Thorismond.  Theodoric had in turn been murdered by another brother, called Euric.  Sibling rivalry can be an ugly business but it also meant big and rapid policy changes.  Under Euric the position of the Goths was more or less open hostility to Rome.

Anthemius had few cards to play.  He tried hiring a small army from Britain.  This force sailed up the Loire and made some inroads although the locals complained that they were as badly behaved as an occupying army.  The advance of the Visigoths in any case soon wiped them out.   So that was more money down the drain.

But as was often the case in Roman history, the emperor’s most dangerous enemies were those closest to him.  Ricimer chaffed at having someone blocking his own ambitions to rule Italy -even if that person was his son in law – and more or less openly set himself up as an alternative government.  He created his own court at Milan and prepared for a civil war to depose Anthemius.  A bishop was sent to try and broker a peace deal but to no avail.   Surrounded by enemies and with their cities and finances in ruins, the Romans squared up to fight each other again.

Ricimer was following a long tradition of military strongmen who regarded murder of an emperor as simply another item on the to do list.  And he already had an impressive number of imperial scalps in his trophy cabinet.  I don’t think Anthemius can have had any illusions that when Ricimer turned against him he was in trouble.  But although he put up a good fight he ended up holed up in Rome.  Shortly afterwards he was dead.  Ricimer’s replacement was Olybrias, an envoy recently arrived from Constantinople.  He might well have thought twice about taking on the job, but he did have a pretty good claim to it.  He was married to the daughter of Placidia who in turn was the daughter of Valentinian III.  But his better qualification was belonging to the enormously wealthy Anician clan.

Becoming an emperor was quite likely a way to lose his own life and his family’s fortune.  But his luck was in.  He died of natural causes after only seven months.   He  doesn’t seem to have tried to exert his authority in any particular way which was probably how he managed to die in his bed.  Also events were proceeding of their own accord.  Ricimer died, leaving control of Italy to his nephew Gundobad.  So one of the first problems Gundobad had was finding his own convenient Roman figurehead. He settled on a nonentity called Glycerius.  We don’t know much about him, and the chances are neither did anyone at the time.

In the meantime Leo was watching developments from Constantinople with exasperation.   He had sent Olybrius to try and reconcile Ricimer and Anthemius, so had not recognised his elevation to emperor, which was frankly mission creep at the very least.  He didn’t recognise his successor either.  So he found his own candidate in the form of a man called Julius Nepos.  Leo himself then died, delaying things, but his successor Zeno carried on the policy and Julius Nepos set out to Italy to become emperor of Rome.  Some of the delay may have been inevitable given the understandable shuffling and reorganising of a new reign, but even so you get the distinct impression that Nepos was in no hurry to take up his new post.  He was already the governor of Dalmatia, which probably seemed a safer job than emperor in Rome.  It turned out that being an emperor was not the draw it once was because his rival gave up without a fight.

Glycerius had in all probability been compelled to take on the role by Gundobad.  Gundobad however was of the royal family of Burgundy, and decided to leave Italy to try his hand at becoming king of the Burgundians.  A barbarian kingdom already looked more appealing than a role in the rapidly declining empire.  In the absence of Gundobad a new barbarian called Oerestes filled the power vacuum.  He was an experienced international player.  He was of German origin but was fairly thoroughly romanized.  His father in law was a major Roman count in the west called Romulus.  He had also been employed by Attila as a diplomat.  This flexibility probably seemed like a good quality to Nepos when he appointed him as Magister Militum.

But Oerestes had other ideas, and deposed Nepos.  Nepos fled instantly back to Dalmatia.  It is hard to blame him.  In the previous 50 years only one emperor had died of natural causes – and that was mainly because his reign was so short that he died before anyone could kill him. Oerestes now appointed his own son as emperor.  His name was Romulus Augustus.  But he was  a young boy and so was known as Augustulus, which is the form that means ‘little Augustus’.  But Oerestes did not have the upper hand for long.  One of the supporters of Ricimer had been an adventurer called Odoacer who was at the head of a mixed band of the Heruli and Sciri.  A year after the crowning of Romulus, Odoacer fell out with Oerestes and killed him.  Romulus was deposed.   He was the last Roman emperor.

Nitpickers and pedants have had a field day with the exact date of the extinction of the Roman Empire.  Romulus was technically a usurper, so it could be argued that the end of his reign is not officially significant.  It could also be pointed out that Nepos was still alive and so was on paper still the emperor.  In fact Odoacer who now styled himself the king of Italy did for a while include references to Nepos in his decrees and on his coins.  But it seems a bit overgenerous to credit as an emperor a man who ran away from the post as soon as he was challenged and made no attempt to recover his claim.  It is also pointed out that the Romans would be back in Rome again in the future.

But I think this is one of those cases where the general opinion has it right.  Romulus was very much the last holder of an office that had been in continuous existence since the time of Augustus.  The Senate, which according to the political theory of the empire was the actual sovereign body, still existed.  It ratified the resignation of Romulus and sent back his insignia to Constantinople.  With them was sent a message formally abolishing the role of an emperor in Rome.  The artful deception of Augustus that pretended that the emperor was simply the agent appointed by the Senate to carry out its will during a temporary crisis had finally in the last days of the empire come true.  The Senate had no further need of an emperor and was within its rights to restore the republic.

But the republic no longer existed in isolation.  It had to deal with the existence of the barbarian kingdom that now occupied Italy.  This it managed surprisingly well.  Odoacer’s policies were not particularly to the taste of the senators.  They must have been very unhappy with the rewarding of Odoacer’s followers with gifts of land for example.  The land Odoacer was handing out belonged to them after all.  But at least the Senate was given a role in the new settlement.  In fact the Senate was to have much more power and influence in the Italy of the post imperial world than it had had under the Caesars.  Odoacer proved to be a relatively long lived king in the event and gained recognition from Zeno in Constantinople. This recognition  was a purely pragmatic arrangement on both sides, and when the opportunity of invading Dalmatia arose Odoacer had no trouble going to war with his supposed superior.  Zeno’s response was to appoint an Ostrogoth called Theodoric as the king of Italy.  It was Theodoric who would create the kingdom of Italy in a long reign – though he had to fight Oodacer for it first.

The collapse of the empire in the west was surprisingly swift. Somebody born in 389 would have been born into a world where Theodosius the Great ruled an empire not much smaller than that ruled by Hadrian. If this hypothetical man had lived to be 88, he would have seen every stage in the extinction.  The main blows came in 405 when the Germans crossed the Rhine into Gaul.  The sacking of Rome of by Alaric in 410 had showed that Rome was no longer invincible.  But probably the event that made Rome’s fall inevitable above all the others was the Vandal invasion of Africa.  That the Vandals got there at all is a big enough condemnation of the men who ruled the empire at the time.  Then they continually failed to dislodge them once they were there.  In fact Genseric, the wily and ruthless king of the Vandals, had indeed been born in 389.  His long and active life saw him outlive the empire he had more than any other man done so much to destroy.

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