I am working my way through an extended review of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I have reached the point at which we can start thinking of this as being a history of the Byzantine Empire. The term Byzantine to describe the Eastern Roman empire wasn’t commonly used in Gibbon’s time, though he uses that adjective often enough. It is often said that Gibbon disliked and disparaged the Byzantines, and it is from the start of Chapter 32 that the quote most often used to justify this idea comes.
In fact it is the first sentence.
“The division of the Roman world between the sons of Theodosius marks the final establishment of the empire of the East, which, from the reign of Arcadius to the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, subsisted one thousand and fifty-eight years, in a state of premature and perpetual decay.”
So you can see what they mean. I think it is easy to take this point too far though. The story arc from Gibbon’s point of view was the decline from the republic – which loosely resembled the constitution of his own country in his own time – to that of an absolute theocratic monarchy, which in turn was incapable of maintaining intact the state which it ruled. In that sense the Byzantine part of his story was no more than a continuation. I have certainly not found that the tone of the book changes when you move to the eastern half.
What does happen here is that the narrative splits. The final collapse of the West becomes one thread and the developments in the East starting with the reign of Arcadius are now dealt with in separate chapters. This scheme has been followed by most historians ever since, which is really why we think of the Roman Empire as having ended in the fifth century rather than the fifteenth.
This is only Gibbon’s achievement in the sense that he was the first to put that framework on things. It does match the real story so closely that it was bound to emerge as the way we would come to think about it. But nearly all accounts of this period are at pains to point out, quite rightly, that this is very much the view you get from the perspective of knowing what happens next. None of the players at the time would have regarded the division of the empire following the death of Theodosius as being any more significant than any of those that preceded it. Even the collapse of imperial power in the west would probably not have looked as irrevocable at the time as it later proved to be. The restoration of the empire would have seemed quite possible, probable even. And it would go on to be a recurrent theme for centuries with many historical figures casting themselves with varying degrees of credibility as restorers of the empire. Charlemagne in the eighth century is an obvious example. Napoleon a less obvious one, though he went to some trouble to make his empire look like the Roman Empire with his eagles and triumphal arches. Even Hitler had shades of it. It was also a common notion in culture. King Arthur was often portrayed as the restorer of the empire. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has the same idea ending with the return of the king who reforges a large political entity previously lost.
I think it is only in the late twentieth century that Europeans really seem to have finally let go of the idea that the empire might somehow reappear. Despite the obvious comparison, nobody refers to the European Union as a reborn Roman empire and none of its symbolism is derived from imperial precedents. (The treaty that set it up was signed in Rome – but nobody notices that it was the city that was capital of the state that covered a big chunk of the EU.)
The only figure who has made a big deal of the comparison between Rome and the modern European Union is semi-politician Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, a part time classicist and full time buffoon. He has written a book on the subject which I have no intention of reading. I just point it out to show that the idea is not a mainstream one.
But while the European imagination has until recently fixed itself onto the western Latin empire the eastern Greek one has tended to be ignored. It would be unfair to blame this on Gibbon, as is often done. Gibbon may have disliked what he learned about it – and frankly there is a great deal to dislike – but he still managed to keep writing for another three volumes giving the east as much coverage as he gave the west. So we get as much detail of the court of Arcadius as we got about Honorius. The two brothers shared a common lack of ability to either govern themselves or to find somebody capable who would do it for them. We have already heard about the shortcomings of Rufinus – the Eastern praetorian prefect gone bad. His rise to power and subsequent removal was intimately linked with Stilicho’s career in the west.
One might have supposed that with that experience behind him Arcadius might put a bit more thought into his choice of favourites. But he managed to find himself under the sway of someone who was if anything even less suitable. The eunuch Eutropius had a colourful background including spells as catamite, a pimp and even a beautician in residence to an aristocratic lady. That varied rather subterranean career must have given him one heck of perspective on human nature. He certainly ingratiated himself extremely extremely efficiently once he got to the palace. He used similar methods to Rufinus. Appointments to lucrative official posts were made in return for bribes. False charges were brought to extort the property from wealthy citizens. Rivals were eliminated and scores settled with enemies. The man who had introduced Eutropius as a slave to the emperor, one Abundantius, was later punished by his former servant. Eutropius had his estate confiscated and the man himself exiled. One might have thought some gratitude would have been in order to the man who gave him his big break, but I suppose the sight of a former master must have been uncomfortable.
Settling old scores is one of the pleasures of wielding power. Eutropius also knew how to use it to keep powerful potential enemies out of the limelight. Timasius was a successful general who had a good track record against the Goths. The prestige this brought him might have been turned into the basis for a bid for power. Eutropius had him hauled before the emperor on trumped up charges, and after a few more formalities he was banished to a place called Oasis in the deserts of Libya. It is intriguing to discover that Gibbon doesn’t know about the use of that place name as a description of a watering hole. In turn I haven’t been able to find any other reference to the place. I wonder if this is the result of some translation error on Gibbon’s part?
The novelty of having a eunuch wielding executive power did not go down well with commentators in the west. His lack of ability for the serious business of government was mocked and derided in Italy. But dissent was stifled in the east where the principles of theocratic autocracy were being developed and implemented. A law was promulgated making it illegal to even think about attacking the person of the emperor or his household. The penalties for such a crime were severe, and even the children of the guilty party were held liable. It is impossible to portray the Roman empire at any point in its history as a great upholder of human rights and Roman justice would barely qualify to even the name by our standards. But even so, the rule of law was an ideal to which the republic and the empire had aspired even if it usually fell quite a way short of that ideal. The Byzantine empire was not going to be like that. Its principles were going to be blind obedience to the will of God with the emperor functioning as the appointee of the Almighty. Any opposition was both treasonous and blasphemous.
There isn’t much to be said for this system. But it does have the one great advantage of stability. Reading the history of Byzantium this isn’t immediately obvious. About a third of all the monarchs in its history acquired the throne as the result of violence often specifically directed at the incumbent. But this instability at the top is misleading. The tradition was that once an emperor was established, his legitimacy was unquestioned. People carried on with their jobs and most importantly continued to pay their taxes. Success was a sign of the favour of God, and with God behind you, you were entitled to rule in His name. Many emperors were to be found wanting and replaced. But the institution itself was unquestioned until the empire itself ceased to exist.
So if somebody like Eutropius could effectively control the person of the emperor, he could run the s