The Magazine

Imperial Transition

Sailing to Byzantium, with a push from the Vandals.

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By RICHARD TADA
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An economic miracle occurred in the fifth century: a leader was able to cut taxes and balance the budget at the same time. This improbable feat was pulled off by Anastasius, emperor of the surviving eastern half of the Roman Empire based in Constantinople. Anastasius, who ruled from 491 to 518 a.d., eliminated the collatio lustralis, a tax on traders and artisans, and reaped extra publicity benefits by staging a public burning of tax records in the city’s hippodrome. 

‘Barberini’s Ivory’ (sixth century)

‘Barberini’s Ivory’ (sixth century)

Anastasius made up part of the resulting shortfall by drawing on funds intended for the imperial household; he also economized by cutting off annual subsidy payments to the region of Isauria in southern Asia Minor. He could do so with impunity because Isauria had rebelled early in his reign and been defeated; he had no further need to buy its support. Modern political lobbies are rarely defeated so conclusively, which is why we are unlikely to witness a repetition of Anastasius’s achievement. 

A chapter of From Rome to Byzantium, which covers the complex period involving the downfall of the Roman Empire in the West and its survival in the East, is devoted to Anastasius’s pivotal reign. A. D. Lee, a classics professor at the University of Nottingham, has written a book that manages to be both accessible and comprehensive, giving thorough coverage to economic and religious topics alongside political history. 

It opens after the implementation of critical changes wrought by Emperor Constantine: the legalization and imperial support of Christianity, along with the establishment of Constantinople as a power center in the East. Rome itself remained a large and important city—modern estimates of its fourth-century population range from 500,000 to one million—though the emperors now based themselves closer to the threatened frontiers and rarely visited the city. 

The frontier was breached when a wave of Goths—initially refugees driven by the Huns to their rear—crossed the Danube into the Balkans and crushed a Roman Army at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. Four years later, Emperor Theodosius, hamstrung by the heavy losses at Adrianople, made an agreement with the Goths, allowing them to settle on Roman territory under their own leaders in exchange for providing military service. Once established within the frontiers, barbarian influence spread like a fungus, even pushing tendrils into the army itself. (The one weakness of From Rome to Byzantium is a relative paucity of information on the Roman Army as an institution, in particular on its barbarization in the West.)  

The well-known Gothic sack of Rome in 410 was an act of enormous symbolic importance, but it was only part of the decades-long disintegration of the western empire. Ambitious generals of varying abilities became the leading figures in the West, supplanting the emperors until the end came in 476. The last figurehead emperor was deposed by one Odoacer, a general in a “Roman” army made up mostly of barbarians. 

It was otherwise in the East. The two halves of the empire had been governed separately from 364, when emperors (and brothers) Valentinian and Valens divided up the domain between them. It was like bisecting an ocean liner, one half of which sank while the other half, astonishingly, remained afloat. The East’s geographical advantages have been cited to explain its survival: The western emperor had longer frontiers to guard, along the Rhine and much of the Danube. Lee grants the importance of geography, and cites another fortunate circumstance: Rome’s great power rival to the east, Sasanian Persia, was preoccupied with its own troubles during most of the fifth century, freeing Constantinople from worrying about its eastern frontier.

But Lee also implies that better leadership kept the East afloat. In the West, the military command structure was centralized, which enabled ambitious generals to amass power and to take charge of both military and civilian affairs. Thus, Aetius, the general who became the effective ruler of the West from 432 to 454, fought battles against Huns and Goths, but also, at one point, found himself dealing with a possibly less exciting matter: regulating the pork supply for the city of Rome.