Byzantine Intrigue- Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 29 Part 1

byzantine-intrigue

Theodosius was both a good soldier, and just the kind of soldier the empire needed at the time.  He was decisive when the need arose, but was cautious generally. He was basically fighting defensively – the game plan was survival not conquest. Typical of his initiatives was improving the defences of Constantinople, adding the Golden Gate to the walls built by Constantine.  This project was taken up by his grandson Theodosius II, who rebuilt the walls completely making the city virtually impregnable.  These were to stand the empire in good stead over the centuries.  Built to last, they are still there.  Only the invention of the canon finally rendered them useless.  

He wasn’t so good at handling the church.  In fact they filletted him like a kipper, which takes a lot of the lustre from his reign.  His last years were also characterised by him being taken for a ride by a courtier on the make called Rufinus who was way too keen on feathering his own nest.  More on that in a minute.

The death of Theodosius led to the final split of the empire into two, so in many ways he marks the end of the line of emperors that started with Augustus.  He was the last man who really ruled a Roman Empire that corresponds to our idea of the Roman Empire.   He divided this empire between his two sons.  Arcadius was the older, but even so was only 17 when his father died leaving him in charge of the East.  Honorius became the ruler of the West at the age of 10.

It isn’t that surprising then that the history of the next couple of years is that of internal politics, as advisers and officials of various kinds struggle for influence over the young princes. In the east Rufinus was perfectly placed.  Byzantine has become a by-word for complicated and impenetrable politics.  The name is well earned.  In fact, if you ever try writing about Byzantine history the temptation to use the word byzantine to describe what is going on is hard to resist.  Plotting, scheming and jockeying for position was the major obsession of the Byzantine upper classes.  And this was the case for hundreds of years, right up to the very end of the Byzantine empire.  It only stopped when the Turks finally conquered them.

So lets have a look at the career of Rufinus, as a typical example.

Rufinus was a chancer from Gaul who showed up in Constantinople with a poor grasp of Greek but a drive to get on.  He worked his way up in the civil service until he was the right hand man to Theodosius in the east. He got on well with the emperor but terribly with other people, especially those who were potential rivals. But it was dangerous to get on the wrong side of him.  One general, something of a war hero, got so cheesed off with the obnoxious schemer that he hit him.  Rufinus responded in the way he knew best by getting him posted to a dangerous frontier.   Shortly afterwards he was killed in action.

Rufinus used his position not just to settle scores with his personal enemies, but also to extort vast quantities of wealth. In an age of religious passion he settled for the more mundane motivation of lining his own pocket.  So he could claim in a way that he contributed to the unity of the empire. He was uniquely despised across the board by Pagans, Heretics and Christians alike.  And with the death of Theodosius he was able to take advantage of the situation very quickly.  He took control of access to the young emperor, and used this to amass even more cash.  Having got this far there were only two places to go.  Either the emperor would realise what was going on and get rid of him.  Or he could cement his position by getting into the royal family itself.  As it happened he had an unmarried daughter and the emperor was of the age that marriage was on the agenda.  Nip and tuck!

He started planning the wedding and looking forward to the day when he would be the emperor’s father in law and to all intents and purposes above the law.  Needless to say, those about saw what he was planning to pull off.  But what could they do?  Well they had a plan.  It was a long shot, but it might just work.  They went into action while Rufinus was out of town murdering a troublesome rival in Antioch.  (This was Lucien who was the son of Florentius – the governor who had given the young emperor Julian so much trouble in Gaul some thirty years before.  This doesn’t affect the current story but it does show what a relatively small group the Roman elite were and how they operated over the whole empire.)

Rufinus returned for the wedding, but was in for a huge surprise.  Rather than picking up the daughter of Rufinus, the entourage stopped at the house of Promotus, one of his rivals and a long standing friend of the imperial family.  There waiting for them was Eudoxia who was the daughter of Bauto, a Frankish general in the service of the empire.   He had been killed and Promotus had adopted Eudoxia.  Arcadius was in on the plot.  The poor teenager had been kept away from females due to his position and had been induced to fall in love with Eudoxia from afar by the provision of pictures of her.  Long range relationships didn’t start with the internet.  All the other officials involved were in on the plot.

So the plans and schemes of Rufinus were confounded, and one young couple had the most improbable but somehow rather romantic start to their married life together.  Now, that is what I call byzantine!

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