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. 

By contrast, the East maintained five separate field armies. A general in charge of one army could find his ascent checked by the commanders of one or more of the others. Even when a general made himself influential at court, he found that the eastern emperors were less pliable than their western counterparts. Emperor Leo, who reigned from 457 until 474, feared that his general, Aspar, was planning to supplant him and had the general and his sons murdered in 471 during their visit to the palace. As Lee notes, this action “gained Leo the unwelcome epithet of ‘the butcher,’ ” but it also helped to ensure that civilian rule continued in the East. Anastasius could not have carried out his economic reforms later in the century without the assistance of several talented civilian officials. 

During the fifth century, the East was secure enough to throw lifelines to the floundering West, including contributing troops to no fewer than three attempts to halt the march of the Vandals, the most serious threat to the western empire. The Vandals crossed the Rhine at the end of 406. After passing through Gaul and Spain, they made their journey intercontinental by invading North Africa in 429 and taking Carthage a decade later. Their takeover of North Africa knocked the props out from beneath the western empire; the provinces there were wealthy and had provided the West with much of its revenue. 

All three attempts to halt the Vandals failed. The last, mounted in 468 by the combined forces of East and West, was a fiasco. It culminated with the Vandals using fireships to ravage the imperial fleet. The financial cost to the eastern empire probably exceeded its entire revenues for a year. This disaster, in Lee’s words, “effectively seal[ed] the fate of the western empire.” Furthermore, “it left deep psychological scars in the memories of the elite in Constantinople for many years to come,” ensuring that the Vandals were left alone for decades thereafter. 

“Byzantium” is a term of modern scholarship. Some authorities see the reign of the great eastern emperor Justinian (527-565) as marking the point at which the Roman Empire had changed sufficiently (most strikingly by way of Christianization) to deserve the new appellation. Justinian finally brought Vandal rule to an end. A surprisingly swift and decisive campaign in 533-34 brought North Africa back under the empire, where it remained until the Islamic conquests of the late seventh century. Justinian attempted to duplicate the feat by retaking Italy from the Goths, with less success: A fresh wave of invaders undid most of his conquests in 568, a mere three years after his death. 

Justinian continued Anastasius’s tradition of able administration. His reforms—which he liked to portray as a return to traditional Roman practices—were well-considered and, at times, innovative. Justinian streamlined the clunky provincial administrative machinery. In one striking action, he unified two noncontiguous sets of provinces under a single official: those on the bleak Lower Danube (where army units were stationed in defense of the frontier) and those in the prosperous and productive Aegean. The responsibility of this official, the quaestor exercitus, was to see to it that supplies for the army units were transferred from the latter region to the former. 

A. D. Lee defends Justinian from his numerous detractors, both ancient and modern. Many commentators have focused on the prolonged and destructive war in Italy, occasioned by tough Gothic resistance, as well as on the devastating plague that struck the empire in the 540s and renewed trouble on the frontier with Persia. But Lee regards the failure in Italy as counterbalanced by the recovery of North Africa (which eventually contributed to the empire’s coffers) and the overall prosperity of the eastern Mediterranean. While Justinian proved unable to reunite the Roman Empire, he did well enough by its surviving eastern half. 

Richard Tada is a writer in Seattle.