• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

How Byzantium Duped the West into Thinking It Had Fallen

Answering why societies rise and fall is often what brings enquiring minds to study history. And, in the West, the most totemic society on which theories can be tested remains the Roman empire.

Edward Gibbon, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and Joseph Tainter authored impressive contributions on the subject, and all contain an external dimension or aggressor – best summarised as the “barbarian” in the case of the Romans.

The issue with reducing the Roman-barbarian relationship to an Aztec-conquistador dynamic is first, the Roman empire lived for centuries alongside barbarians and (despite traumatic setbacks) tended to win its wars against them. Second, the homogeneity of the barbarians – unlike the Spanish – was almost entirely absent.[1]

Yet historians must track what went wrong with seemingly stable Roman-barbarian relations. And the date they pluck as an annus horribilis is invariably AD 180. Leading up to it is a tale of sunny, triumphant expansion and afterwards comes a story of fear, retrenchment and dread. A new barbarian momentum is inserted; a “tipping” point is usually referenced: Romania has over-extended itself and nasty barbaricum has decided on revenge.

Once pinned to this narrative, the wriggle-room is negligible. Yet it completely ignores the fact Rome suffered significant military setbacks at least once a century. It had always been terrible neighbour and tolerated the characteristic in others. Little shook the society to its core. What did sap the state was not some oaf called Berengar or Alfhard but a top-heavy elite in which almost every Roman who got a sniff of power decided to take their chances rather than prioritise another anonymous victory against a largely anonymous foe.

The elite dilemma is well captured by Ioannes Zonaras who wrote about Claudius Gothicus having to decide whether to take the field against a barbarian invasion or against a rival to his throne:

The war against Postumus concerns me, but the barbarian war affects the state, and its interests must be considered first.” [2]

This decision was more morally edifying than typical as the state was slowly brought to its knees by men who prioritised personal gain over imperial survival.

This internal dynamic, in which barbarians were the playthings of an admittedly disorganised and schizophrenic empire, is always downplayed in favour of a mass of Germanics whose great volkerwanderung is represented with giant arrows on maps as if, first, they came from the ends of the earth for some Mediterranean life. Second, they arrived in apocalyptic numbers. In reality, the most prominent tribes (Goths and Franks) were near neighbours of the empire and though statistical information is meagre, it’s likely that no single tribe numbered more than five figures.

In truth, the Germanic horde was no juggernaut but rather a splodge of flubber that kept getting sucked into Roman power vacuums. The Goths crossed the Danube in 376 because the government expressly permitted them; the Vandals invaded North Africa in 429 because a rebellious general invited them; the Saxons entered Britain after the Roman army had pulled out.

The truth lacks romantic gravitas, however. Those who sympathise with Rome want the Germanics to be a pestilential horde, a battering ram nobody could have predicted. While those who sympathise with the Germanics are attached to the idea rolling back the biblical-classical tapestry of history (which appeared to have no place for Germans) and frame the Germanic migrations as an independent point of departure for German history outside the orbis universus. This narrative, then, forms the Germanic equivalent of Rome’s Trojan roots.

Not content with the external sledgehammer dynamic, Theodor Mommsen liked to think the invasions had been prepared by either a fifth-column-type of German inside the empire, or at least the slow Germanisation (read: infiltration) of the empire’s institutions. As discussed, however, German homogeneity was non-existent. Moreover, as history had shown, if there was any assimilation it tended to be one-way i.e. in the Greco-Roman direction.

Instead of looking for signs of Germanic perfidy, it’s better to look at what changed institutionally within the empire. The most obvious breaks with tradition were the treaties that granted barbarians autonomy within the provinces. Why were these thought acceptable? Why did the Roman state go from bashing barbarians’ heads in the third century to granting them lands? Of course, 378, 406 and 409 had been terrible but so had the third century reverses.

In a way, imperial policy got a bit too clever for its own good. It gambled on not having to always play hammer to the nail and began to use force only to contain Goths, Vandals and so on, but only so that they could be manipulated into treaties on Roman-friendly terms. It was a win-win situation that satisfied those who maintained the triumphs of the Roman army were bought by the tears of the taxpayers.[3] Indeed, Themistius – with more than a hint of twenty-first century managerialism – asserted that far from being simply the correct course of action, insisted it was the ONLY possible course of action.[4]

But if it was so clever then why did the West fall? Typical answers reference relative impoverishment to the east, nastier barbarians and longer frontiers. But the West was just as rich in iron and wheat (the oxygen of the military), it had superior troops (often exported to the jealous eastern frontier) and Constantinople had a more significant enemy in Persia, as well as terrifying Goths on its Balkan front.

None of the externals present a satisfying answer. Instead, it’s coups and usurpers that again present the source of mischief. One glance at the West and its obvious that Britain and France represented some sort of geopolitical Gallic/Celtic powerbase/hinge in the same manner as Egypt or Persia to Constantinople: they both backed every usurper going. This became such a major headache that emperors preferred to place loyal barbarians on their lands than disloyal Roman elites. But coups still persevered in such an egregious manner that the emperor at Rome was reduced to the status of a junior by his colleague in the New Rome who was forced to keep bailing him out.

This trend was prefigured by the effaced role of Valentinian II and fully realised in the reign of Honorius. Despite both becoming senior emperors neither was allowed to claim the prerogatives of seniority. Constantinople had insulated itself from coups and western intervention, yet Rome had not managed to insulate itself from either coups or Constantinople.[5] This was a dynamic with roots that went back to the days of the Tetrarchy but fully exposed itself at Mursa (351) between Constantius II and Magnentius and the almost-war of Julian and Constantius II (only prevented by the latter’s death).

Though some (such as Valentinian I) tried to shore up affection for his dynasty within the western empire and bolstered the army, most emperors decided that weakness in the west was the condition of security for the imperial throne. Generals were picked for loyalty rather than gifts and frontier security’s ambit was thrown as far from the domestic court’s legitimacy as physically and conceptually possible.

The same logic dictated that the regime was safer with alien defenders (barbarians) than with Roman armies. Especially as their nationality excluded them from having designs on the throne. Though headed by royal families, the tribes and others had no real notions of sovereignty and independence; their status amidst a numerous Latin population appeared to rely totally on sustaining cheerful relations with the imperial court. The most awkward part of this was that the dynamic worked relatively satisfactorily with a Roman head of state, but was even better with a barbarian one. For the long span from 425 to 610, Constantinople never had to worry about a challenger out of the West.

Even in the West, the institutions that made the Latins Roman still functioned everywhere except Britain. People spoke Latin, worshipped as Catholics in a church whose temporal leadership was still invested in the emperor. Of course, the barbaric garrisons’ Arianism was abhorrent but it looked as though the Latins had time on their side; assimilation tended to be a one-way street. Testament to the eventual accommodation of both people and elites is the fact the former eventually began to identify with the tribal names of their local rulers.

The question then shifts to why Justinian felt the need to recover the West if it had never truly fallen. How could Constantinople conceive of the West as lost in a way that was so irredeemable that only armed force could save it. Possibly, it was Gaiseric who started terrorising the Mediterranean. Or Attila who temporarily scraped the Romans off both sides of their empire like a sunscreen wiper. But the Eastern Romans could deal with Africa without questioning the West’s romanitas. And Atilla had been put down by Romans and barbarians alike on the Catalaunian Plains (451).

No, the real venom lay not in temporal matters but ecclesiastical ones. The fifth century was less one large unfolding of a Chalcedonian consensus than the Byzantine charger continually running into a wall of papal resistance. Eschewing the political compromises of the New Rome, the old Rome enjoyed the security of Arian generals to oppose all modifications of Chalcedon. Emperors forced to endure such defiance could no longer sustain the idea that the barbarian elites were part of their own empire. Instead, a narrative had to be conjured that alienated them from the true font of legitimacy, the emperor.

The undermanned invasions were a bit of a disaster on the temporal front. Africa was claimed for a little slice of history and Italy was more wrecked by Romans than it had ever been by barbarians. Yet, this was all beside the point. To Roman elites the mission was a complete success thanks to the fact direct pressure could now be applied to the papacy: the emperor’s orthodoxy could finally be expounded by the See of St Peter. Popes could be bullied, arrested, exiled etc. in a way that recreated Roman universality (though only in a manner that separated large segments of the Latin episcopate from its spiritual leader).[6]

This was probably the moment when the West’s ingredients finally found a bond. Chalcedonian westerners stopped seeing the emperor as the font of all legitimacy. He could, in fact, be promoting heresy as far as they knew. A far safer option than following him down an unknown and potentially damning path was to follow the barbaric kings who, as dumb and oafish as they were, at least understood that orthodoxy was safer in the hands of bishops than their own. This sentiment can be traced, as a thin golden thread, through the histories of Gregory of Tours and John of Biclar. And can be seen as the true genesis of the Middle Ages.

In the short run, Justinian’s actions resulted in the Byzantine papacy (537-752) – a culturally significant union of the lopsided halves of the empire. In the long run, however, Justinian had planted fake news at the heart of the West’s self-understanding.

Instead of having always been there, Justinian framed the barbarians as the Germanic precursors of blitzkrieg emerging from primordial darkness. Instead of disparate bands of simpletons, Justinian painted them as a sophisticated fifth column. Instead of garrisons to be slowly assimilated, Justinian had them down as proud pollutants. So deeply embedded has the false narrative become that for centuries the West has been studying the wrong question (“how did the barbarians bring down Rome”). It should have been: “How did Byzantium dupe us all?”

Not that Constantinople had the last laugh. Western historiography eventually turned against all forms of ecclesiastical swagger, an asset the Eastern Romans possessed in abundance. And instead of viewing Byzantium as a potentially heretical Roman superpower (the ambivalence of the medieval view), it saw it as the place where barbarism and superstition triumphed (Gibbon);[7] where all the medieval vices were bundled into one sordid package.

[1] The irony being that their Germanic umbrella identity was mostly the construction of a Roman historian, Tacitus. It wasn’t until the ninth century that a German consciousness could be perceived. Even then it was a highly learned idea and not a sentiment rooted in popular consciousness.

[2] Zonaras, Epitomae historiarum 12.26, ed. Maurice Pinder, 2 (Bonn, 1844): 604.

[3] See Herodian, History of the Roman Empire, 7.2; and for Marcus Aurelius’ reply to the army’s demand for higher pay, see Cassius Dio 71. 3. 3.

[4] Dagron, “Le Temoignage de Themistios,” 103-06.

[5] Between 324-475, Constantinople suffered only one usurpation: the serious but brief rising of Procopius in 365.

[6] In a reversal of the apophatic stereotype of Orthodoxy, it was the Latins who had no an appetite for swallowing yet more eastern theology attempting to delve deeper into mysteries. The Latin tradition didn’t need to add some little-known potentially theologically dubious religious texts to finally reach a consensus, they had already one.

[7] Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J. B. Bury, 7 (London, 1909): 308.