There are plenty of options to choose from for dating the start of the Byzantine Empire. But if you wanted one that would stand up in court, the reign of Arcadius is a pretty sound bet. The great Theodosius I was the last emperor to rule both halves of the empire unambiguously. He divided his inheritance between his two sons with Arcadius taking the eastern half, and as it turned out that court was to have a more or less continuous history from that point, the year 395, until the final end of the empire.
Arcadius died at the age of 31 after a reign of 13 years during which he had managed to make almost no impression on his administration. He had been the tool first of the corrupt courtier Rufinus, then of the even more corrupt Eutropius and finally of his wife Eudoxia. When she died from complications arising from a miscarriage he was mortified.
He had clearly not inherited any of his father’s ability to command. He may not even have commanded the loyalty of his wife. Rumours abounded that she was unfaithful to him and hinted that his children were in fact somebody else’s. All in all,he was a bit of a pitiful figure albeit not as disastrously so as his equally untalented brother Honorius in the west.
The death of Arcadius led to one of the strangest of stories about an emperor. According to the historian Procopius the dying monarch foresaw the likely problems that might arise from a regency and avoided them by putting the seven year old Theodosius in the hands of a fellow monarch who would empathise with his situation. So if we believe Procopius the youth of Theodosius was supervised by the emperor of Persia. This sounds totally unbelievable and Gibbon doesn’t believe it. But it does have one element of the truth about it. Arcadius did dote on his son and did take some thought to his future. He appointed him as Augustus while he was still an infant, making him the youngest person in history to hold that title.
So Theodosius the second was a child when he came to the throne. It was inevitable that someone should step in to fill the power vacuum that this created. Luckily for the empire this was someone reasonably competent and responsible in the form of Anthemius. He had been the Praetorian Prefect under Arcadius, so in protocol terms was the most important non-royal. He set about educating the young prince and handling the general running of the empire. One of his actions was to be of some significance in the future. He considerably strengthened the landward walls of Constantinople. It wouldn’t be long before the wisdom of that move became apparent.
He had a defensive frame of mind, which in the circumstances was a good one to have. He reached out to the court at Ravenna and got relationships back onto a good footing. He strengthened the Black Sea fleet to protect from sea born attacks from the direction of Russia. It is likely that he put some efforts into diplomacy as well. The king of the Huns, Uldin, launched an attack. But in the event he had to quickly retreat when his allies deserted him. This might have been a stroke of luck for the Byzantines. But luck like that is often paid for. It might well have been the result of careful intelligence work, some well placed intrigue and bribery.
The challenges facing the eastern empire were very similar in type and scale to those that devastated the west. Indeed at one point they were facing Alaric himself, when Stilicho contrived to get him out of Italy. The east had more resources so was never as weak as Rome at this period, but it doesn’t seem unlikely that the good sense and diligence of Anthemius was one of the big factors that made all the difference. One interesting parallel problem was grain supply – in the case of Constantinople the city was fed from Egypt. Rome at this time was beginning to have issues with getting its calories from Africa. Both cities were always a few boat deliveries away from a famine. Anthemius re-organised the vessels that carried the vital supplies to avoid problems and bottlenecks. The relative peace of the East compared to the west was the result of a number of factors, but this attention to the detail of putting food on the table must have helped.
Theodosius showed if anything even less natural talent than his hapless father and uncle. He was not tremendously interested in the affairs of state preferring to make things with his hands. The nearest he got to paperwork was transcribing religious books, which he did well enough to earn the nickname calligraphes -or a fair hand. He was deeply religious and interested in the disputes of the time, but that was about the extent of his involvement with politics. It seems to be a very common feature of empires throughout history that the person of the emperor himself, despite being technically the source of all authority becomes a tool in the hands of powerful factions in the state. The most recent example of that is the subversion of the Japanese emperor by the military prior to world war two. But nearly every long lasting empire shows the same trend. It was certainly evident at this stage in Byzantium with the true power lying in other hands than the official sovereign. If this was predictable, it was far from predictable whose hands would pick up the baton – which turned out to be the emperor’s sister Pulcheria.
Pulcheria was only a couple of years older than Theodosius. But this was enough to give her a chance to break into the top circle of government, because when she came of age she was the only grandchild of the great Theodosius on the scene and able to participate. It was a narrow window, but she took full advantage of it. First of all she took charge of her brother’s education. She taught him all the things he’d need to be a show monarch. How to look grave, how to be dignified – that kind of thing. This prepared him admirably for the role she had in mind for him as a front for what effectively was going to be her government.
She also had plans for her younger sisters. Divine assistance was always needed for an empire with so many earthbound enemies. So what better way to deploy the imperial siblings than in penance and purity in a convent where they could concentrate on prayers to the Almighty. A more cynical observer might note that this also had the effect of taking them off the marriage market and so avoiding the risk of creating a potential challenger to the imperial throne.
Pulcheria herself also took a vow of chastity. But at the same time she had herself declared Augusta – so unlike her sisters she wasn’t doing the whole renouncing the world thing. One can’t really find fault with her actions here. The empire needed leadership, and it needed stability. Pulcheria was able to supply both. She didn’t have to do any of this. As the emperor’s sister she could have settled for a quiet luxurious life. While personal ambition must have been part of her motivation she was also being pretty conscientious about the well being of the empire.
Her religious convictions might be flexible enough to fit conveniently with her own personal goals and objectives. But that didn’t stop her doing all that a pious subject might expect of a God fearing monarch. Quite apart from converting a palace into a convent for herself and her virgin sisters, she also funded church building and charitable works across the empire. This got her plenty of good PR in the pulpits no doubt combined with gratitude for her generosity from the poor.
Pulcheria’s position as Augusta gave her a lot of prestige and authority. But we all know that while a swanky job title is handy, it is someone’s personality and approach that really matters when it comes to getting things done. Pulcheria had such a personality. She took an interest in everything and her influence was impossible to ignore. There was for instance, the delicate task of finding a suitable bride for her brother. A candidate appeared in the shape of the daughter of a pagan philosopher from Athens called Leontius. His daughter was Athenais, and Pulcheria picked her as an imperial consort that met the political needs of the day. Quite what she saw in her we won’t know. What she didn’t see was a rival or the representative of any particular faction. Theodosius was invited to observe her from behind a curtain and instantly declared his undying love for her. Which was nice. She converted to Christianity and adopted the Christian name Eudocia
Pulcheria no doubt intended Eudocia as her own creation and as a support for her own power. People don’t work like that though. Eudocia was intelligent and resourceful. She was an accomplished writer and made a reasonable fist of becoming a politician. She lavished resources on the church and pulled off a PR coup by going on a tour of the holy places. She splashed cash around the various religious institutions and was rewarded with the chains of St. Peter, the right arm of St. Stephen, and a picture of the Virgin painted by St. Luke. Quite a haul. This provoked the jealousy of Pulcheria and instigated a Byzantine cat fight of epic proportions. Pulcheria was more than up to it. Eudocia was accused of infidelity with a functionary called Paulinus. (He was executed.) Other supporters also ended up dead in various legal or quasi-legal ways. It soon became apparent that Eudocia was not in a position to protect her own faction, and consequently she found herself without a faction.
In the end, inevitably, Pulcheria was successful and Eudocia ended up exiled in Jerusalem. The extent of her defeat can be measured by the fact that she lived at all. By the time Pucheria had finished with her she was no longer enough of a threat to be worth the trouble of disposing of. She lived out her natural life span in the religious atmosphere of Jerusalem insisting to the end that she had done nothing wrong. She probably hadn’t, but that really wasn’t the point.
Theodosius was not really a hands on emperor and generally left running the show to others. It is possible that he wasn’t even particularly aware of the war that broke out between Rome and Persia over Armenia. Since the time of Augustus Armenia had been a client kingdom of Rome, maintained as a buffer state first against the Parthians and then against the resurgent Persian empire. It suited both sides to have the option of a proxy war rather than a real one.
But open war with the Persians was always a possibility and Armenia was always the most likely theatre for such a war. The initial cause of the war that broke out in the reign of Arcadius was the provocative destruction of a Zoroastrian fire temple by a Christian bishop called Abdas. This led to a tit for tat persecution of Christians by the magi. We know very well from recent history that religion can be a powerful factor in causing and prolonging conflict, but there were probably other pinch points contributing to this particular war. Armenia had fallen under the influence of Persia as a result of the treaty concluded by the emperor Jovian under duress some 40 years before when he found himself stranded in the desert surrounded by a Persian army. But the Christian aristocracy in Armenia had not themselves been defeated and probably most preferred Roman to Persian hegemony.
In any event, war broke out. The Persians’ reprisals against the Christians’ provocations led to Armenian refugees fleeing across the border. The Romans refused the Persian demand for their return and hostilities commenced.
The truth is always the first casualty of war, and stories of heroic deeds were relayed back to Constantinople. But the spin couldn’t forever hide up the real picture of a military superpower getting bogged down in a stalemate. Both sides decided it was time to negotiate.
Although this was ostensibly a religious war, there were apparently some trade issues at stake as well. They might well have been the real motive behind the whole thing all along. In any event, the behaviour of Acacius the bishop of Amida goes some way to offsetting the behaviour of the pious arsonist who triggered it all off. Acacius announced that God was not in need of treasures and sold off a pile of his church’s plate. He used the proceeds to buy up Persian prisoners. They were released and sent back to their emperor as a proof of how benevolent the creed of the Christians was.
It was a stirring effort though whether it had any impact on the policies of the Persians is rather doubtful. What no doubt counted a lot more was that despite both empires devoting considerable resources to the conflict there was no really decisive military event. The Romans failed to retake Nisibus: the Persians made little progress in the other direction. So after a while both sides were ready to talk and to concede enough to produce a lasting peace. The treaty was set for a hundred years, and actually lasted eighty which is pretty good going by the standards of these things.
In the settlement Armenia lost its independence – which had in any case been pretty fictional – and was divided between the two powers. The Persians got the larger share. Given that Rome had almost always held sway over Armenia this outcome was a bit pathetic really. But it was technically an expansion of the size of the empire at the expense of a kingdom that at the start of the war had been a client of the Persians. So it was possible to portray it as a victory, which the Romans duly did with Arcadius implausibly cast in the role of a hero. The size of the empire might not have declined but its ambition had.