[Revised 12/8/14, 11/30/16 and 12/4/18]

Rome in the 5th and 6th Centuries

I made the generalization last time that the attempts of the emperors in the two centuries following the death of Constantine (AD 337-565) to unify Rome often backfired, creating more problems than they solved.  Now perhaps this is not quite fair to the 4th century emperors, and I can see a student defending these emperors as, essentially, making the best of a near-impossible situation. Constantine, one might argue, did do quite a bit to strengthen and unify his empire, and you can make a good case that Constantine’s religious policy was a good one and that his policy on succession likewise would have worked out if it had been implemented as he intended.  And while the shift in emphasis to the eastern portion of the empire didn’t work out well for old Rome or for the Western empire, it enabled at least a portion of the empire to survive clear up to 1453 AD…not bad at all.

One can even make the case that the paranoid Constantius was on the right track in some ways: the compromise “semi-Arian” position might have been the best policy for maintaining religious unity if only later emperors had stuck to it.  And even the cruel killings—maybe such cruelty was necessary in order to stave off the civil wars and usurpations that had plagued Rome in the preceding century.

Julian?  Well, he didn’t get a fair chance, and his policy of religious toleration plus a reformed paganism might have worked.

Theodosius?  Certainly he should get some credit for the 16 years of stability he provided, and just maybe his policy of returning to the promotion of a universally-Christian empire was better than the alternatives, who knows?  I probably didn’t make it clear last time that Theodosius ruled the whole empire for only a brief time, and that, among his other accomplishments, he helped the Western emperor Valentinian II regain his throne from a usurper and, after Valentinian’s eventual assassination, defeated yet another usurper and restored order again.   

But whether or not any of these emperors were on the right track, after the death of Theodosius, Rome once again goes through some mighty tough times, and as we end the 4th century and begin the 5th—well, once again, it’s show time!  We’ve got the old exciting game as leader after tries to win the grand prize: control of an empire with its millions of people.  But now we have also a super-grand prize: not only is it an earthly empire at stake, but (at least in the minds of the players), there’s a heavenly kingdom at stake as well.  And so, as we are about to play our final exciting game, let me first introduce to you the players:

First of all, there are the current co-champions, Arcadius and Honorius.  These young men inherited their championships when their father Theodosius split his winnings between them.  Arcadius got the eastern empire, Honorius the west.  These two should, of course, be playing as a team—and proper teamwork might well have enabled them to hang on to their co-championships and even increase their winnings.   The problem is that they are a bit young to playing the game.  Honorius is only 11, Arcadius 16 or 17.  Thus there is plenty of opportunity for other players.  Among those players, there are (behind the scenes, and often not-so-behind the scenes), an array of fascinating women, the mothers, wives and daughters of the emperors who often play a role both in the spiritual and temporal struggles of the empire.  Some of these women were absolutely fascinating figures, and it’s well worth your time to look at the career of, say, Arcadius’ daughter Pulcheria or Justa Grata Honoria:


The more visible players, however, as for some time in history, military figures, figures who, one would hope, would help create unity, but whose actual actions frequently did not.  Roman generals had a nasty habit of becoming championship contenders, and neither Honorius and Arcadius can be sure that there won’t be some general who will parley military victory into imperial purple.  Enter the game a couple of such generals.

First, Flavius Stilicho.  Stilicho was the right-hand man of Honorius in the west, a competent general and administrator, equal to almost any challenge he might face.  He was half-Vandal in his background and, as such, perhaps a little bit less likely than someone from an old, established Roman family to challenge for the purple.  But he had his ties to the imperial family as well.  He was married to a niece of Theodosius, and eventually he gave his own daughter as wife to Honorius.  Obviously, Stilicho is an important player in the game, and maybe key to Honorius chances as well.  Or, just maybe, Stillicho might turn out to be our grand prize winner after all--and certainly he had a great chance of seeing his grandson emperor.

Another contestant…would you please welcome Alaric the Goth?

Alaric was a leader of the foederati, barbarian groups who had been incorporated into the empire and the Roman military.  Theodosius, in particular, had found it useful to cut deals with these foederati, allowing them to settle within the borders of the empire in return for military service under their own leaders—and regular payments which almost amounted to bribery: fight for us instead of against us, and will pay you plenty. Alaric had helped Theodosius greatly, destroying the forces of the (Western) usurper Eugenius.  As a Visigoth, Alaric again not quite as likely to play for the grand prize, but certainly he has a chance at some big winnings: maybe playing in the East the same kind of role Stilicho does in the West.

Well, those are the initial contenders for the grand prize.  But, remember, there’s not just our grand prize, but our super-grand prize: the kingdom of heaven—or, at least, that portion of the kingdom of heaven that might be here on this earth.  And competing for this grand prize, or (to view them more sympathetically) trying to win this grand prize for others, we have the bishops of the major churches of the empire. 

Now there were several hundred bishops within the empire, but the most important were those whose church was of apostolic foundation or whose church was in a particularly important city.  The churches of Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome could claim both distinctions, and so were particular important.  The churches in Jerusalem and Caesarea were important as very early centers of Christianity, while the church at Constantinople was important because of its location in the most important city of the empire.

On occasion, bishops of less-distinguished cities might also play an important leadership role, e.g. figures like Augustine of Hippo.

Well, there are our players: now for Round 1.

It's AD 395.  Theodosius is dead, and Honorius and Arcadius have their prizes, as does Stilicho.  But Alaric doesn’t get the position and prestige he expects, and so he is determined to try for more.  His Visigoths proclaim him their king, and they head toward Constantinople.  They are unable to take the city, so he and his men turn South and plunder Greece. 

To the rescue: Stilicho, who takes his troops east and stops Alaric.  Alaric escapes towards Epirus, but, one would think, he would be out of the game.  Instead, Arcadius offers him a consolation prize: the rule of Illyricum.  Now the reason for this is anybody’s guess: but, perhaps, Arcadius thinks Alaric in power in Illyricum is going to be better than Alaric (potentially) coming back closer to Constantinople. Maybe he’ll now be the West’s problem rather than the East’s.  But he’s actually still a problem for both.

In 401 AD, Alaric launches an invasion of Italy…and Stilicho stops him.  Alaric escapes, and then regroups and tries again.  Again, Stilicho stops him, and, again, Alaric escapes.

Stilicho, meanwhile, has other fish to fry.  In 405, another Gothic group attacks across the Rhine, and Stilicho stops them.  In 407, the Vandals attack, and Stilicho stops them.

In the face of these attacks, Western Rome grew increasingly racist, developing a strong hatred of the blond-haired, blue-eyed settlers among them.  Uprisings led to the wholesale massacre of Germanic types—including the wives and children of officers and soldiers who were defending the empire at the time!  Naturally enough, these officers and soldiers defected to Alaric, and, of course, they had a score to settle. 

Stilicho also had problems because of the increasing anti-German sentiment.  Half-Vandal himself, he was accused of plotting with Alaric, and even of having once been Alaric’s lover!  Honorius was told that Stilicho was plotting against him, and he decided to arrest Stilicho—perhaps to put him in trial.  Stilicho took refuge in a church, but came out when promised that he would, first of all, get a trial, and, no matter what, his life would be spared.  They lied.  No trial. They cut off his head…and slaughtered his family too.  AD 408.  Bad, bad move.  Angry Visigoths under a capable commander, and you’ve killed the only general with any chance of stopping him.

Now Alaric marches on Rome.  The senate is going to bribe him, but Honorius (in Ravenna rather than Rome) doesn’t fulfill his promises, and after a siege, Rome itself is sacked. 

Now this is not quite as awful as it might have been.  Those involved are Christians (Arian or otherwise), and the sack of Rome isn’t accompanied by the rapes and mass destruction that invasion often otherwise entails.  But this was no bright spot for Rome, and certainly Honorius, for one, was not playing the game very well.

But he was not too bright a customer in the first place.  Says one source: 

“Honorius was fond of raising chickens, and there is a story that when he heard the new that Rome had "perished", he was initially quite upset, but was relieved when he learned that the Rome in question was the city, not the chicken he had named after it.”

This particular round of battles left the Western empire desparately weakened.  In 429, the Vandals take Africa, behaving like, well, behaving like Vandals.  But worse was to come. 

In AD 450, the sister of the western Roman emperor Valentinian III (yes, we’re skipping a bunch), Justa Grata Honoria, was faced with a marriage she didn’t want.  And so (at least the story is) that she wrote a letter to Attila the Hun, asking him to save her. 

Now, up to this point, Attila had been a real problem for the Eastern empire.  He insisted again and again on tribute, invading whenever he didn’t get what he wanted.  But paying him off may have been a worse mistake, because Attilla was then able to attract more warriors than ever before.   Attila’s followers were a  multi-ethnic group, and there loyalty depended mostly on the hope of reward.  Attilla had created for himself a sizeable kingdom, and, from that base, he launched his invasions, sacking hundreds of eastern Roman cities. 

Honoria’s letter was taken by Attila as an offer of betrothal, and an excuse to invade the west…which he does…approaching, even the city of Rome itself, and devastating Italy.  Sometimes, they destroyed cities without leaving so much as a trace.  Attila didn’t take Rome itself: he turned back, sickened and died c. 453.  But Rome wasn’t saved.  The Vandals sacked Rome in 455, behaving like…well, behaving like Vandals.

In 476 AD the Herulian Odoacer, deposed the last Roman emperor in the west, and in 488, the Ostrogoths under Theodoric took over in Italy.  In trying to protect Italy itself, Rome had pulled back troops from elsewhere in the empire.  This allowed the Franks to take Gaul, and the Saxons to take Britain.  And the Roman Empire in the west was gone…sort of.

Christianity meant that the fall of Rome was less than complete.  The church, and particularly the popes, took over much of what had once been done by Roman government.  Hobbes said “the papacy is none other than the ghost of the deceased Roman empire, sitting crowned on the throne thereof.”  Well, Hobbes was disparaging, but there’s a good deal of truth in this view.  The Popes and their clergy assumed the functions of Roman civil government, ransoming those sold into slavery, caring for refugees, etc, negotiating with Barbarians (as did Leo I with Attila), continuing the dole, etc.  Further, the Popes sent out missionaries, converting the barbarians, and making sure that the dream and legacy of Rome would be preserved.  In later history, the Frankish Charlemagne will be “Emperor of the Roman”, while Otto the Great will initiate the “Holy Roman Emperor” a dream of recreating the greatness of the time of Constantine. 

What the West sometimes only dreamed of, the Eastern Empire had, to some extent, in reality….

Christianity, in many ways, had given the Eastern empire a new lease on life.  Constantine had wanted to use Christianity as a force for unity, the glue to hold his empire together.  And, to a certain extent, it did.  It helped restore the morality of the Roman people (divorce down, infanticide down, harsh slavery mitigated, entertainments more wholesome).  It likewise helped restore the morale of the Roman people.  It was a good means of securing loyalty to the emperor himself (not a God, but God’s representative here on earth).

But Christianity could only work as long as the Christians themselves were unified--an unity proved tricky to maintain.  In AD 325, 218 of the 220 bishops assemled at Nicaea had agreed to condemn Arianism as a heresy. They had likewise adopted the Nicene creed.  Unfortunately, the introduction of a non-Biblical term (homo-ousias) had created controversy, and in AD 381, Theodosius had called for another council to try to settle the new dispute.  The 2nd Ecumenical Council (Constaninople) ruled semi-Arianism a heresy and affirmed the Nicene creed.

Good enough.  Case closed.  But, having decided that Christ was as the same essence as God raised further questions in what comes to be called the Christological controversy:  What is the relationship of the human and divine elements in Christ?

    Jesus is God, yes.  But then, who did Mary give birth to?  Should we call her the "god-bearer," the woman that gave birth to God? Nestorius, an important and influential bishop, said no: but others disagreed and, in AD 431, a great ecumenical council came together at Ephesus to decide the issue.  Nestorianism ended up condemned as a heresy. 

Next question: do the human and divine natures combine into a single new nature (the monophysite position) or do the two natures remain distinct?  At the Council of Calcedon (451) the majority of bishops end up condemning the monophysite position.  But monophysite views dominated some portions of the empire, and the ecumenical council was, to an extent, backfiring: creating, not unity, but an unacceptable insistance on uniformity that made folk angry. 

So what is an emperor to do?  Naturally enough, some of them worked for a comporomise.  Zeno (AD 476-491) issued the Henoticon, a decree asking both sides to simply be quiet about the issue.  This made *both* sides angry!  Anastasius (AD 491-518) tried the Henoticon, and, when that didn't work, sided with the Monophysites in an attempt to keep Alexandria and Syria loyal to the empire.  He ended up almost losing his throne in the bedlam that followed!

Imagine trying to rule a people like this, a people constantly arguing over obscure religious distinctions.  Constantinople itself was particularly bad.  One western visitor said that if you asked a grocer for a price, he'd give you a discourse on the begotten and unbegotten.  Go to the baker for bread, and you'd be lectured on how the father is greater than the son.  Ask, "Is the bath ready," and you'd be told about how the son was created from nothing.

So why didn't these people quit arguing?  It's because they cared: they thought it mattered.  Nestorius made a promise, "Give me, o emperor, the earth purged from heretics, and I will give you heaven in return.  Help me destroy the heretics, and I will help you conquer the Persians."

And, in a way, Nestorius was right.  A united Rome would still have been strong.  What Nestorius couldn't see was that he was part of the problem, as much guilty as anyone sles for heresy, e.g., division in the church.

Nevertheless, despite the squables, the Romans had one last chance at unifying East and West once again, recreating the empire of Constantine.  That chance came under Justinian (AD 527-565).  Justinian at first would not seem your candidate for most likely to succeed.  He came from a barbarian background, climbing to the imperial throne through military service.  His wife Theodora was an actress of dubious reputation: hardly the kind of woman that brings honor and respect to the royal family.  And, at first, it didn't seem like Justinian was going to last long.

The chariot factions in Constantinope had been getting out of hand with the "green" fans and the "blue" fans particularly prone to violence.  Justinian tried to settle things down by arresting the leaders of both factions.  It worked!  It brought the Greens and Blues together--at least on one thing.  Justinian had to go.  The riots that ensued (the Nika riots) were totally out of control.  Justinian was about to resign his office, but Theodora encouraged him to see it through: purple makes a splendid shroud, she said.

Well, 80,000 deaths later, the riots were done: and Justinian, when the dust clears, becomes an exceptionally successful ruler.  With the help of his general Belisarius, he conquers much of the West (Spain, Italy, and North Africa are all included in his empire).  He makes lots of reforms including (most important) a judicial reform.  His jurists took the complicated and inconsistent legal tradition of Rome and created a coherent and consistent law code that worked well for many, many years. And he created intellectual unity as well, closing the Academy and the Lyceum (no rivals now to the church schools, I suppose), and he simply took control of the church. 

The 2nd Council of Constantinope (AD 553) was nominally an assembly of bishops.  But, unlike Constantine, Justinian insisted on a fore-ordained outcomed.  Justinian ran rough shod over pope Vigilius and over his own bishops: Justinian insisted on the affirmation of the Creed of Calcedon.  No discussion. 

Justinian has moved to what we call Caesaro-Papism: a religious arrangment where the emperor is the equivalent of the Pope.  An elaborate religious ritual grows up around the emperor, and Justinian's successors are clearly regarded as God's represenatives on earth.  Thus what Christians had refused to give to Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Decius, and the rest, they now gave to their Christian emperors.

And so things stood in AD 560, with Rome reestablished as one of the mightiest powers in the world.  The Mediterranean was once again a Roman lake.  Roman doggedness and determination had enabled Rome to rise from near-disaster once again, and, once again, there was a powerful man on the throne regarded by his people as the speaking with the voice of God.

And here, it seems to me, is the most fitting place to end this class: not amid the ashes of the barbarian invasions, but with Rome risen once again to new glory.  It was not the heavenly city of Augustine's dreams, but it was the earthly city par excellence, a city well called aeterna Roma: eternal Rome.