• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Anthemius: the Betrayed Byzantine Saviour of the West



When all seemed lost; when the chasm between the elder Rome and the new seemed unbridgeable; when the extent to which the Germanics had hollowed out the traditional arrangements of the empire appeared irreversible, Constantinople sent a leader to rescue the shattered remains of the West. His name was Anthemius (r. 467–72). Supported by many as a paragon of romanitas, ambitious players such as the Prefect of the Gauls, Arvandus, nevertheless explicitly stated the hostility many felt towards their eastern compatriots. In a letter to Euric, king of the Visigoths, for instance he urged the ruler not to make peace with the “Graecus imperator.”[1] While the sainted bishop of Pavia, Ennodius, petulantly referred to the emperor as a “Graeculus.”[2] All of which form a clear indication that the Germanics inherited rather than invented much of the prejudice about the eastern half of the empire (as evidenced in texts like the Annales Laurehamenses).[3] The sentiment is best preserved in the Latin poet Claudian (d. 404) who cleaved the eastern from the western empire by calling the former’s court officials merely the “lords of Byzantium” and “Grecian.”[4] Mocked as effeminate and weak, the fork-tongued poet crafted a non-Roman identity for the eastern Romans by branding them with non-Roman characteristics. Arvandus and Ennodius were Sidonius Apollinaris’ friends yet when the Gallic poet was selected to compose a panegyric he did a good job concealing the acrimony. Instead of snarling about how Leo had imposed his candidate upon the senior city, Sidonius trilled on how “Rome finally obtained a ruler of her choice.”[5] This contributed to a double-illusion in which Rome not only formed a counterweight to Constantinople but also exercised independence from the Germanics. In reality, it had long been eclipsed politically (if not symbolically) as the first city of the empire. And while the Germanics had once been little more than pawns in Roman civil wars, the latter were now the equivalents in the civil wars of Germania. Indeed, in the Rome of the 460s the Germanic Ricimer was dictator and commander-in-chief of the western army (which was of largely Germanic composition). Even the fact Leo’s candidate was accepted resulted less from competent east-west relations than the fact Ricimer was jealous his Vandal rival Gaiseric had come to terms with Constantinople. After killing his puppet, Libius Severus (who’d inconveniently never been recognised by Leo and was thus a usurper), Ricimer accepted Leo’s contender.


Anthemius, however, was a different beast to the disposable puppets to whom the general had grown accustomed. A Galatian by birth, his father had been magister militum per orientem, his maternal grandfather praefectus praetorio orientis (as well as regent in Theodosios II’s childhood), and as a young man he’d married Marcian’s daughter Euphemia. One of his ancestors – Prokopios – had been declared emperor in a rebellion against Valens in 365. And he’d proved himself as general, winning victories against the Ostrogoths in Illyricum (459-464) and the Huns at Serdica (466). To swallow such a pill Ricimer was offered the carrot of marriage to Anthemius’ daughter, Alypia, before the Senate and army could elect Leo’s new colleague and send his icons to Constantinople. To ensure Anthemius was no marionette Leo sent a substantial army (for an immediate campaign against the Vandals) and organised a marriage between Anthemius’ son Marcian and his own daughter Leontia – a signal that real imperial unity could be (re)achieved. Ricimer, however, refused to see the writing on the wall. A Sueve on his paternal side and pro-Burgundian thanks to the marriage of his sister to their king, he ultimately stood for a tide that was Germanic. Anthemius, meanwhile, clearly stood for tradition, classical convention and loyalism to the old cause. Not all Romans were loyal, however. The aforementioned Arvandus fostered a Visigothic separatist movement. Indeed, the Gallo-Romans in general appear to have formed potential a fifth column more than a support for the empire – often preferring direct roles in Germanic courts to potentially remote and “foreign” emperors. Sidonius even admitted having once sympathised with Arvandus in a plea that managed to commute his friend’s death sentence to exile. Indeed, rather than form an integrated cockpit the western court imported the civil war dynamic. A year after the fiasco against the Vandals at Cape Bon (468) Anthemius tried to counter the Visigoths with an alliance of Burgundians and Bretons only to be thwarted by Ricimer and his intrigues. These disasters culminated in the death of three Roman generals and Anthemius’ son, Anthemiolus, at the hands of the Visigoths on the west bank of the Rhône in 471.[6] Had military glory crowned Anthemius’ efforts he’d have undoubtedly been hailed as a saviour, a Roman champion sent from the Constantinian font. In light of his failures, however, he was resented as an uppity Greek. In truth, the West had become accustomed to the idea that it had more in common with the Germanics than its eastern compatriots, so any stick that could potentially bash the Eastern Romans became useful.


Perhaps the biggest cane was religion. Despite founding St Thomas in Constantinople and being of unimpeachable orthodoxy, Anthemius was attacked as potentially in cahoots with heterodox elements almost solely on the basis that Greek philosophical tendencies could be said to aid heresy.[7] While it was true that Hercules featured on the reverse of his contorniate, and he developed friendships with Arians such as the Macedonian Philotheus[8] and pagan mystics like Messius Phoebus Severus,[9] these were bridge-building exercises in order to build a (long evaporated) Roman consensus rather than serious flirtations with idolatry. In truth, little more than a century after the death of Constantine the Roman Church had little truck with betraying the empire. Fattened on power vacuums and obeisance from Germanic warlords, when Ricimer decided to call time on Anthemius the Church in Rome cheerily endorsed the message.

In 470, magic was on the menu. Anthemius executed those who’d tried use it to threaten his rule (Constantine had been the first to introduce nasty penalties for black magic).[10] When a plot was discovered that attempted to place one of Ricimer’s partisans, the magister officiorum Romanus, on the throne then the generalissimo removed himself to Milan with six thousand troops, declared Olybrius emperor and took Rome (via the Pons Aelius) after a five-month siege. Contrary to narratives that frame Anthemius as unpopular in the West (due to his origins) his popularity in Rome was an important factor in sustaining him (just as Avitus’ loss of such support had led to his downfall). Disguised as a beggar Anthemius sought safety at a martyr’s tomb where he was killed by Ricimer’s nephew Gundobad. Historians are not entirely certain where this tomb was located – it may even have been the old St Peter’s basilica where he’d celebrated a pontifical liturgy five years earlier, though the seventh-century chronicler John Antiochenus placed the murder at San Crisogono.

[1] Sid. Ap. Ep. I 7.5.

[2] Ennod. Vit. Epiph. 54.

[3] MGH Scriptores I. 38.

[4] Claudian, In Eutropiam, II.136.

[5] Carm. II. 523.

[6] Chron. Gall. P. 664, no. 649.

[7] Chron. Pasch. (ed. Whitby) sa 454, 468, 450/457.

[8] Gelas. Ep. 13; PL 59, 73b.

[9] PLRE II, 1,005-6.

[10] John Ant., frg. 207; Cassiod. Chron. 1289. Rome had traditionally had a rather ambivalent attitude towards magic. The city even buried two Gauls and Greeks alive during the Punic wars (Livy 22.57.6) – though human sacrifice was outlawed in 97 BC, and magic became associated with charges of impiety, insanity, subversion and ultimately being un-Roman. The main distinction was between good and bad magic, enshrined in the Twelve Tables and reinforced by Constantine, who was unafraid to condemn haruspices who worked on private divination (as opposed to public ones where they were often consulted when, say, a building had been struck by lightning) to be burned alive.

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