Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Ides of March and Julius Caesar

On the eve of the Ides of March we start with a cartoon -- Caesar with a contemporary twist.


My thanks to Guido Giuntini for allowing me to us this.

Does everyone know the details of Caesar’s death? Perhaps a review would be helpful.

The Ides were one of the three calendar divisions in the Roman month. In its original version, the Roman calendar designated the date of the new moon as the start of the Kalends, the date of the half moon the start of the Nones, and the date of the full moon the Ides. Oddly, the Roman days were referenced by counting down to the next period rather than counting up. So March 2 was VI Non Mar, or six days until the first day of the Nones. When the month reached the Nones, days were counted down until the Ides. After the Ides, the days were counted down until the start of the next month. So the day after the Ides might be XV Apr – fifteen days until April.

In the year 44 BC, Caesar planned to address the Senate on the Ides but at the last minute thought of cancelling the meeting because the auspices were negative. To make matters worse, his wife had nightmares about him being assassinated on the Ides, but Caesar dismissed these superstitions and kept the meeting as scheduled.

The conspirators sent Caesar’s cousin to fetch him knowing that he would not raise any suspicion. Then, with Caesar enroute, the conspirators waited with great anxiety. They feared being discovered and could hardly endure the endless passage of time. Finally Caesar arrived and took his seat. As the session began a Senator, Marcus Tillius Cimber, requested that he be allowed to read a petition. As he moved forward, several conspirators gathered around the dictator. Suddenly, Tillius seized Caesar’s toga and pulled it down exposing his neck as a sign for the dagger blows to begin. Caesar tried to rise and, according to one account, stabbed an adversary with his stylus, before being overwhelmed. Suetonius says that Caesar shouted “this is violence!”

As the attack continued, Caesar is said to have pulled the toga over his head, after realizing he would soon die in an attempt to retain some dignity in death. Shakespeare has Caesar utter, “Et tu Brute (you too Brutus?), but these were the playwright's words written for dramatic effect. Their work complete, the conspirators fled, either through fear or shame at what they had done. Caesar's body lay alone in the chamber for some time until it was retrieved by his slaves.

A physician was called in to examine Caesar’s body and counted 23 stab wounds. Only one was lethal, the second blow struck, which entered his chest.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Trump in the Ancient World?

I decided to interrupt my series on the Byzantine Empire to write a piece about the current political climate in the United States. Not in my lifetime has there been such a state of confusion in American politics, so I’d like to try and ease people’s minds using ancient history as a context.

Since Donald Trump took office, there has been a cataclysmic angst enveloping the country, which shows no signs of abating. This angst, in my opinion, is based on three factors. The first is the relentless attack on Trump by the left, through the media and in demonstrations. This has created pressure on elected democrats to adopt a scorched earth strategy regarding Trump (burn down everything). One would expect disappointment and anger to follow any close election, but it is outsized and more visceral this time, even when you consider the media’s handling of the drama.

The second factor is a rebound response from the left based on their shock that Hillary lost combined with second guessing on why this happened. The left was very comfortable with continuing the trend toward a more socialist/progressive federal government, and their ease with the prospects for it to continue after 2016 were fueled by the media and the wide rejection of Trump as a candidate who could win. Unfortunately, their arrogance led to complacency.

The third factor, which crosses all political stripes, is the break in behavior Trump has made from every president before him. He doesn’t play the establishment role -- no quiet consultation and analysis on issues, no stiff control of information, and no politeness, to be honest. This is jarring to the public, because it’s all new and gives an impression of chaos, or an approach to governance that seems out of control. Republicans are as nervous as democrats.

The great sociologist Max Weber wrote about the basis for legitimacy of political leadership and defined three types: hereditary, charismatic, and rational-legal. Hereditary legitimacy is power based on family. This is the traditional royal family model where the son of the king becomes king. An unfortunate byproduct of this form is uneven quality of governance in and between generations. If the son of a great king is a loser, the political system goes through a period of instability. I often cite the example of the British crown as an example of this phenomenon. At the time of Henry VIII, the British monarch had ultimate power over the realm and Parliament was operating as a powerless opponent. After Henry, and through subsequent generations, Parliament used periods of poor kingship as opportunities to transfer power to itself. The endpoint of that process was a ceremonial monarchy devoid of power.

Charismatic legitimacy is granted by popular opinion. The personality of the leader is such that citizens take pride in being ruled by and expect great things from someone who is an elegant speaker and can control their emotions. But there are at least two problems with this. The first is that the power only lasts as long as the leader. When the leader goes away, there is a vacuum created when the next leader is less charismatic, so this type of legitimacy the least stable of the three.

But there is a second problem also. Charisma is dangerous when the leader is motivated in a direction that runs counter to the interests of those being governed. Think Hitler. Definitely charismatic; but at the same time a bad actor. More recently, we have the example of Obama who, unlike Hitler, never wavered from his effort to make America better. His legitimacy was based on charisma; not experience. Prior to being elected, he had served four years in the Senate and seven years in the Illinois legislature -- a short resume. But he was the perfect charismatic candidate – a black man who was intelligent, articulate, accomplished, and convincing in his argument that he could usher in a new era of unity for the United States. He also enjoyed the lucky circumstance of running against a party that had been in power for eight years with an uneven record. In the end, despite his charisma, it’s fair to say that the Obama presidency accomplished less than the American people had hoped for.

The third type of legitimacy is called rational-legal. This describes a formal structure which, in itself, grants legitimacy. In the United States we have a system of voting that allows all citizens to cast ballots for a slate of candidates. Checks are in place to make sure that citizens are not denied the right to vote and that the votes that are cast are legitimate. The American public’s belief that this system is honest grants legitimacy to those elected. Recall the hanging chad election of 2000. Once the votes were checked and re-checked, and the American people saw there was no corrupt process at work, Bush took office, and was accepted as president by the American people.

Now, with Weber’s theory as a backdrop, I’d like to go back to antiquity and look at a couple of relevant examples. There was no rational-legal option in those days, at least in the way we would see it today. Most ancient political systems were authoritarian and in the case of a few exceptions, participation was not equal. Only men who were landholders could vote or serve as candidates, and there was the always the potential for large scale corruption of the voting process. That means that political legitimacy was limited to heredity or charismatic behaviors.

The first example is Solon, the great republican of Athens, who rose to power around 600 BC, at time when Athens was in great disarray. As Plutarch puts it, “the state was on the verge of revolution, because of the excessive poverty of some citizens, and the enormous wealth of others, and it appeared that the only means of putting an end to these disorders was by establishing an absolute despotism.” Solon was elected Archon in 594 because “most sensible men in Athens perceived that he was a person who shared the vices of neither faction, as he took no part in the oppressive conduct of the wealthy, and yet had sufficient fortune to save him from the straits to which the poor were reduced”. Solon’s charisma and forceful personality led party leaders to urge him to take absolute power and make himself king. But he saw risks in that title and refused.

Athens was the first great democracy in the history of the world, and stands as an enduring example of a government granting rights to their citizens, but Solon was not a democrat. He was a republican who believed that republics were a better form of government than democracies. He rejected democratic equality – choosing instead a way of creating a balance between the classes. He believed the strengthening of the middle class would neutralize the conflict between the upper and lower, a sentiment we often discuss today.

To rule properly, Solon thought it best to “combine force and justice together” and he became “Trump-like”. He started changing Laws. What laws? Nearly all of them. He cancelled all debts and obligations in Athens, repealed the dreaded Draconian criminal code and substituted his own, and then he wrote a new constitution. These efforts were based on his judgment that the establishment was no longer working and needed to be overturned.

After his goals were accomplished, Solon resigned from power and left Athens -- a rare case of a man who held charismatic power but refused to be corrupted by it.

My second example is Julius Caesar. Highborn as a member of the family Julii, Caesar aspired to wealth and power. He knew that the family name and his status as a patrician gained him hereditary legitimacy for a career in government, but that was not enough. He wanted more. Caesar was intelligent with significant political instincts, but he saw obstacles in his intended path. He had enormous debts, which left him poor compared to men like Crassus and he possessed a weak military record which could not be compared to that of Pompey. The solution? Align with his two rivals until he could sharpen up his resume. 

Engaging his political skills, Caesar suggested that he, Pompey, and Crassus formed a unique administrative structure called a triumvirate, which would have all three rule the republic as partners. Then, once that structure was put in place, Caesar had himself made governor of Gaul.

For ten years Caesar ruled Gaul through a series of wars that left him with first rate military credentials and great wealth based on tax collections and bribes. Now sensing superiority over his partners (Crassus indifference to power and Pompey’s lack of political skill), Caesar made his move when he crossed the Rubicon. Defeating his rivals, be became supreme dictator of the republic. But whatever charisma Caesar may have had, it was not enough to overcome the anger and displeasure of the ruling class toward his arrogant theft of power. The republic was not ready to give up its trappings, so Caesar was assassinated. Unfortunately, the resulting vacuum of power caused further instability. The Senate had no great leader to help them restore the old Rome, so the republic drifted through fourteen years of contests for power until Octavian was able to win out and build a new political system.

Unlike Solon, Caesar was corrupted by power. He used charisma to his advantage but went too far. The last straw for the Senate was when he put his image on Roman coins, a place previously reserved for the gods.
So now we fast forward to the current day, and return our discussion to Mr. Trump. Elections throughout history have shown us that leaders get elected for a reason, not luck. It’s usually the merging of a personality with the times (works in Trump’s case), based on events that occur during the election campaign, emerging external threats, or the failures of the previous administration. Trump got elected because a) the democrats had been in power for the previous eight years, b) Mrs. Clinton was a flawed candidate who represented the establishment, c) people we fed up with the failures of an establishment-driven government, and d) Trump, as a successful businessman and outsider, was able to communicate to the American people about what he could accomplish.

Trump’s style is populist, a cousin to charisma. One would not call him charismatic in Weber’s sense, although success in business might engender respect, but populists succeed because people like leaders who they think understand their problems and want to fix them. Trump created enough support so that the rational-legal legitimization process could carry him to the white house, even though he channeled more cowboy than statesman.

American elections are always about the political pendulum and which way it’s swinging. Right left right left. The swing is never uniform because its endpoint is partly determined by the uniqueness of the recent past, and we end up being pushed to a new place. Societies move forward in “fits and starts” because human behavior is often irrational, so a government can never be more than the sum of its people’s humanness.

There have been a thousand Trumps in world history even if there have been none in America. In the end, Trump like every other elected leader will endure or fail based on what he is able to accomplish for the American people. If we can become more relaxed about his style and avoid too many literal interpretations of his behavior, things have a chance to get better.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Byzantine Empire 610-668

The next chapter in the history of the Byzantine Empire features two emperors, Heraclius and Constans. Their ability to survive an onslaught of wars that would have brought down many an empire would solidify the Byzantine model for centuries to come.

As mentioned in the previous article, Heraclius became successor to Phocas when he led a rebellion against him in 610. Heraclius reigned until his death in 641, and his military accomplishments were amazing as you will soon see.

The map shown above summarizes the military activity of the Byzantine Army during the reign of Heraclius. Click on the image to enlarge it.

            611 – The Persians attack and take Antioch
            613 – The Byzantine Army is defeated at Antioch by the Persians
            613 -- The Persians move south and take Palestine
            616 – The Persians attack and threaten Anatolia near Constantinople
            616 – The Persians attack Alexandria
            622 – The Byzantines defeat the Persians in eastern Anatolia.
            624 – The Byzantines capture Theodosiopolis and move into Armenia
            625 – The Byzantines defeat the Persians at Atropatene
            627 – The Byzantines defeat the Persians near Nineveh
            628 – The Byzantine–Persian War ends with a peace treaty

Meanwhile, starting in 622, Muhammad took over the Arabian Peninsula creating the kingdom of Islam, which he consolidated until his death in 632. Then in

            634 – The Islamic Army attacks and takes Palestine
            636 – The Islamic Army attacks and takes Damascus
            637 – The Islamic Army attacks and takes Ctesiphon, the Persian capital

The gap in the Byzantine–Persian War starting in 616, is explained by two factors. First, the Byzantines had to re-group after their initial losses, rebuild their army, and borrow money. Second, they were engaged in the Balkans fighting the Slavs, Goths, Bulgars, and Avars; enemies that had to be dealt with before the army could again be directed to the east again. At one point in 616, Constantinople, itself, was under siege by the tribes of the Balkans from the west and the Persians from the east.

Heraclius turned out to be the consummate war leader, who was able to withstand all the attacks on his empire, but died an ill man, broken by the pressure of war. His people did not appreciate all he was able to accomplish and did not miss him when he was gone.

Heraclius window, Martina, had a son with him, who she favored over Constantine the son of his first wife, Eudocia. Constantine was named emperor, but was sick with Tuberculosis, and died after three months as emperor. Martina supported her son Heraclonas as the replacement, but he was eventually pushed aside by the handlers of the eleven year old Constans, the son of Constantine. The boy matured quickly and by 645, ordered his navy to attack the Arabs (Islamists) at Alexandria. The attack force eventually had to abandon the effort when resistance stiffened. During the years 645-648, Constans was on the defensive as the Arabs attacked Byzantine Africa and Cyprus, but then his luck turned. The aforementioned losses were reversed and then in 654, as the Arabs were starting a major attack, an Arab civil war broke out.

Constans used the internal conflict between the Arabs as an opportunity to reorganize the Byzantine army, and he accomplished the task brilliantly. Creating a novel organizational structure called “themata” (themes), he divided the empire into geographical territories. Each theme was made up of a mobile army unit settled in a specific district that it was assigned to defend. Its soldiers were given land grants to tie them to the land and fund the purchase of supplies. This structure created loyalty because every man was now motivated to protect his own property. Each theme utilized a Greek name, such as Anatolian, Thracian, and Armeniac.

In 661, the Arab Civil War ended and from the Byzantine point of view, the wrong side won. The losing side had been easier to create treaties with than the winner, so Constans looked forward to a more hostile enemy. But he also had pressing problems in the west, so he put off going into battle with the Arabs, and sailed for Thessalonica in 662. After setting up a new theme on the Greek Peninsula, the emperor departed for Tarentum in the heel of Italy the next year. He fought the Lombards and was victorious over them before moving on to meet with the pope in Rome. Later that year, Constans moved on to Sicily which was strategic to his efforts to strengthen his control over Italy and Northern Africa.

In 665, there was an Arab attack on Africa which had to be fought off. Meanwhile the Arabs continued to peck away at imperial holdings in Anatolia. In 668, one of the Byzantine military leaders, Saborius, taking advantage of the emperor’s five year absence, declared himself emperor and put together an army force to attack Constantinople. On the way there, he fell off his horse and was killed. This good fortune enjoyed by Constans was short-lived, however, because the emperor was assassinated that summer while in the bath. Dead at 38, he had accomplished much – keeping the Arabs at bay and strengthening imperial holdings in Sicily and Africa.

Key words for this period – Hericlius, Mohammed, Islam, Byzantine Wars

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Byzantine Empire 518-610

The title of my last post included dates representing the time interval for the setup of the eastern empire and its separation from the west. Telling the story of the Byzantine Empire is such a large project, it demands that we divide it up into time intervals and focus on the highlights within each of them. The empire expanded and contracted over time based on its success at keeping the provinces in line and its ability to defeat those who would try and destroy it. Each period demonstrates a micro view through the events of the time, but also a macro view of the changing culture with respect to language, religion, and culture. Remember that the Byzantine Empire was an “empire” only by the loosest definition and never achieved status as a unified culture the way modern societies have.

When the Byzantine emperor Anastasius died suddenly in 518 AD with no heir, the imperial guard named the 68 year old Justin as the new emperor. Justin had an adopted son Peter, who also went by the name Justinian, a man was destined for greatness. Justin inherited two projects: the schism between the eastern empire and the papacy and a rebellion against the empire by Vitalian. He fixed both by mending fences with the pope and inviting Vitalian to serve as his master of horse to keep an eye on him. But his leadership skills were wanting so it was not long before Justinian began to accumulate power. He served as consul in 521 AD and was fully in charge at the time of Justin’s death in 527.

Justinian was an all-star in Byzantine history based on his dizzying list of projects and accomplishments. They would later have a far reaching impact on the empire and Western Europe. He started by shoring up the eastern army to protect the empire from the Persians. Then he appointed a council or jurists to create an official book of laws that would govern the empire. This effort produced the Justinian code which became the standard for European law for centuries to come.

Next, Justinian looked toward using his army to protect and expand the empire. He defeated the Persians and took Crimea. He defeated the Slavs and Bulgars in 530, making the Danube basin secure again. Justinian signed a peace treaty with the Persians freeing his up his eastern army to help attack the west. In 532, he planned an attack against the African vandals, but before he could depart, there was a coup against him in Constantinople which had to be put down. In 533, his general, Belisarius, defeated the Vandals and took Carthage. Belisarius also secured Sardinia, Corsica, and Gibraltar. This was the extension of the Roman Empire in reverse – taking back land that was part of the western empire for so many centuries.

But the prize – Italy – was still out there to be taken. How wonderful it would be to have Italy as part of the empire again, Justinian mused. Soon, he directed his two best generals to attack Dalmatia and Sicily -- both were taken. A nervous Ostrogoth king than made a secret pact to surrender Italy to Justinian’s troops. The pact was later rescinded, but the army of the east still prevailed at securing the Italian peninsula.

The king of Persia, seeing Justinian’s eyes turned west, decided to attack the Byzantines. Syria and Armenia were invaded and it took until 541 to end that conflict. That same year, the plague made its first appearance in southern Europe. By the spring of 542 it had spread to all seaports in the eastern Mediterranean, and there were 230,000 deaths in Constantinople alone. Justinian contracted the plague and became seriously ill, but survived.

The period of 542-548 saw wars, famine, and the plague as main actors in the story of the empire of the east. Then starting in 550, the emperor moved his army westward fortifying his control of Italy and conquering southern Spain. It took him another five years to stabilize the new western territories and then a calm period followed, only to be interrupted in by the return of the plague in 558. Then, more wars in the east ensued until 562, when the swords were finally still.
Justinian died in 565 at the age of 83, after a long a successful reign. The great frustration of his final years was his inability to unite the two warring Christian factions – Chalcedons and Monophysites -- and settle their argument over the divine nature of Jesus of Nazareth.

Justinian was followed by Justin II, Tiberius, Maurice, and Phocas during the period ending in 610. Justin, as the immediate successor, tried too hard to be Justinian and had fewer gifts of leadership to apply to the task. He mostly ignored the new western territories, causing them to come under attack. He spent his time focused on Persia and when an attack on them failed in 573, his mind gave way, and it was arranged to have the leading general Tiberius named as successor. Tiberius was a better military man than administrator so isn’t surprising that he decided the army was underpaid and used money from the treasury to win them over. Like his predecessor, he ignored the west because a war with Persia loomed on the horizon. That war was won by the general Maurice in 582, but Tiberius died soon after.

Before his death, Tiberius named Maurice emperor. The general looked at the empty treasury that resulted from Tiberius’ generosity and tried to refill it by periodically eliminated the army’s compensation. That generated at least two revolts, one of which led to his assassination in 602. Maurice was able to maintain stability during his reign as a result of victories over the Avars in the Balkans and the Persians in Armenia and Mesopotamia, but with his death became the first eastern emperor to lose his crown since the time of Constantine.

Phocas is to be given some credit for remaining in power for eight years. He executed Maurice and his family to try and legitimize his power but lived in an unlikely time. Wars with Persia continued, the plague returned, and the cut off of grain shipments caused a famine in the empire. When the people’s level of pain and disruption grew intolerable, the general Hericlius started a revolt, captured Phocas, and accused him of ruining the empire. As he was about to be beheaded, Phocas wished him better luck during his reign.

The Byzantine Empire during this period was greatly divided. The recovered provinces in the Italian Peninsula and Spain were distant, Latin speaking, and hard to manage, while the east maintained a strong army and spoke mostly Greek. The Catholic Church remained divided over the nature of Jesus and the power of the pope, but did manage to convert the empire’s remaining pagans and accumulate great wealth and authority.

When paganism was suppressed, it took with it all the contributions of the Greeks, including their science, philosophy, and literature, so what remained was defined by a Catholic view of the world.

The Byzantine Empire was larger in 610 than when the west fell, but it was also less stable. The skills of the emperors had been variable, the treasury often empty, and wars commonplace. Whether the empire could survive another century was a question mark.

Key words for this period: EXPANSION TO THE WEST, JUSTINIAN, PLAGUES, A DIVIDED CHURCH, CONTINUOUS WARS.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Thanks a million to my readers

This morning the one millionth visitor accessed my site, marking an exciting milestone.

I'd like to take a moment to thank all my readers for their interest, comments, and suggestions. The popularity of the site tells me people like the content, and that motivates me to continue the research required to put these posts together.

The site has been visited by people from 117 different countries. The top five are the United States, Ukraine, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Of the 327 posts on the site, the most popular title is "The maniple as a tactical unit in the Roman Army", with 34,000 visits.

As we go forward, I would remind everyone to reach out and let me know what subject matter you'd like to see, and I will do my best to accommodate the request.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Byzantine Empire 284-518

The Byzantine Empire is one of the more important cultures of the pre-modern era, surviving for eleven hundred years after its creation out of the collapsing Roman Empire. Its story is interesting for what it tells us about human society, governments, and power, and its history features common themes, such as the influence of geography and religion. Having said that, there are certainly enough uniqueness in this culture to qualify it as a “one off”.

Purists might say I’m out of scope because the focus of this blog is ancient history and Byzantine Empire falls outside of the designated end date for antiquity (476 AD). But it was a child of antiquity and carried forward its institutions for centuries, making it relevant alongside any story from the ancient world. It was a thousand year empire born at the end of the Roman millennium.

The Byzantine Empire was made possible largely through the influence of two men: the Roman emperors Diocletian and Constantine. The former divided the Roman Empire into east and west in 284 AD and, for the first time, set up an emperor and administrative apparatus separate from the west. Then, in the early decades of fourth century AD, Constantine renamed the city of Byzantium to Constantinople, made it the capital city of the east, and designated Christianity the official state religion of Rome. It took more than the organization and names of two men to launch the Byzantine Empire, however. It also took strength of leadership and hard work to repel wave after wave of barbarian invaders until that threat came to an end.

Diocletian divided the empire into east and west for at least two reasons. First, Rome was constantly being attacked by tribes from the Balkans, which was difficult for the western army to defend against. Secondly, Persia had risen to the level of a formidable adversary in Asia Minor, so it made sense to base a powerful army in the east. Once the maps were redrawn, Diocletian gave himself the east and named Maximian the emperor of the west. Why did he do that? We can only guess but most likely he favored the east because it had a larger army and a more significant adversary in Persia. As the senior leader of Rome it made sense to him to take on the biggest challenge.

Diocletian served until 305 AD and then he retired. His successors were not strong enough to maintain stability and civil wars dominated the Roman landscape until Constantine gained control of east and west in 314, after the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine ruled long and well, relying on subordinates to keep the Roman world together. In 324, he re-dedicated the city of Byzantium naming it New Rome (later renamed Constantinople), because he wanted create his own capital in the east to replace Nicomedia. Constantine re-fortified the city and began a large scale reconstruction effort designed to make the city worthy of its title as the capital of the east. He was also heavily involved in the philosophical battles within the Christian church during this period and he attended the Nicaean council in 325. Constantine was baptized as a Christian on his deathbed in 337.

The century and a half after Constantine saw significant infighting among the Romans for control of the empire and its territory, at the same time fending off invasions by the Goths and Huns. The most significant military event of the later fourth century was the Roman defeat at Adrianople in 376, which nearly destroyed the eastern army, and made it dependent on the armies of the west until it could rebuild itself. This Gothic invasion foreshadowed a period of wars lasting a century and included the invasion by Attila the Hun in 452. When the empire in the west collapsed in 476, the east was able to stand on its own as the legitimate successor state, but it took another forty years of fighting wars to end the threat and set the stage for the reign of Justinian.

The Byzantine Empire was not an “empire” in the way the dictionary would define it. It was, in reality, an artificial state which governed a diverse culture featuring Hellenistic philosophy, Christianity, and the Greek language. It survived for the same reasons any political system survives – strong leadership, a competent professional bureaucracy, and reasonable economic opportunity for its populace. Although its emperor’s sought to unify the empire’s religion as Christianity, they were never completely successful in this endeavor and, for the most part, chose to tolerate religious diversity.

There was no concept of patriotism in the Byzantine Empire in the way we understand it today, so language and religious differences did not rise to the level where they could destabilize the government. The people obeyed their emperors whether they liked them or not and lived their lives. They believed they lived in the greatest empire in the world but that didn’t have much to do with how big or strong the empire was and they never really resisted the idea that an emperor could be overthrown in favor of someone who might be better.

One might suggest that any perceived weakness resulting from the lack of structure in the Byzantine Empire was actually a strength because its “loose” cultural norms were not exclusionary based on any principle or set of principles.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

476 AD – So What!

What happened in 476 AD? Not much, if you look into the history.

By tradition, 476 AD marks the end of the Roman Empire and the end of antiquity: the latter transitioning to the Middle Ages, at least in Europe. I say “so what” because there is no catastrophic ending to the empire that year, only the minor event of the deposition of the last Roman Emperor Romulus Augutulus.

Romulus, aged fourteen, was proclaimed emperor on October 31st, 475 AD by his father Orestes, who was master of soldiers of the Roman army. He followed Julius Nepos, who had reigned for one year before being deposed and forced to flee by ship when Orestes took control of the Roman capital at Ravenna. Romulus was a figurehead covering the rule of his father and his status as emperor was disputed outside of central Italy from the outset. Ten months after his reign began, Romulus was deposed by Odoacer who invaded Italy, defeating and killing Orestes. Odoacer proclaimed himself King of Italy and not emperor of the west, ending the traditional line of emperors. Despite the change in title, Odoacer had the support of the Senate, so Rome (or more accurately) Italy had a king for the first time in nearly a thousand years.

What is there about the Empire in 476 that inspires me to use the term "minor event" to describe a change in rulers?

First of all, the span of control exerted by the western empire had shrunk down to Italy and parts of southern France by the mid-400s - hardly what we would call an empire. The emperor of the east had been an independent operator after 395 AD, so the western emperor had no say in the Balkans and points east. The Visigoths controlled Spain and shared southwestern Gaul with the Burgundians while the Franks controlled the north of Gaul. Africa was under the influence of the Vandals who had successfully attacked Carthage in 439 AD.

Second, Attila the Hun terrorized Gaul and the Italian peninsula between 440 and 451, so even the territory the empire controlled was ravaged. In 456 AD, Gaiseric the Vandal landed at Ostia and spent two weeks plundering Rome, after which he exited with thousands of captives. The imperial geography was not under control and was subject to attacks at any time. The word empire implies power and the western emperor had none.

Third, Rome was no longer the imperial capital, having ceded that role to Ravenna in 402 AD. You might even want to say that Ravenna was the fortress that protected the imperial court rather than the capital, because it didn’t represent the center of government. It was only chosen only because it was easier than Rome to defend. When the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD, they bypassed Ravenna because they figured (correctly) there was still enough left in Rome to plunder, and the swamps of Ravenna were not worth wading through.

The Senate was still in operation during this time and was propped up by Odoacer and subsequent Barbarian leaders who sought to protect it by making the leader of the Senate a key adviser to the king. The Senate was actually able to wield occasional power, as in the case of installing Laurentius as pope in 498 against the emperor’s wishes. Later in 552, many Senators were taken hostage and some were executed during a war between the Ostogothic king Theodahad and the eastern emperor Justinian. The latter eventually banned all Senatorial offices in Italy.

So we see that in the year 476 AD, the western empire controlled a small amount of territory without the means to govern or protect it. The western emperor had virtually no power absent the support of the army. The great institutions we think of as Rome – the monuments, the great army, the well-oiled political system, and the engineering – were all gone, so one last weak emperor’s deposition is hardly worth the headline.


It was the barbarians who held power over Rome and would eventually destroy it. Ironically, they would rather have had a strong and stable Rome as a partner, but the inner strength of the empire was gone and Rome did not have the capacity to continue. All that the Romans had accomplished during their thousand years was lost. Europe had to start over; re-inventing governments, laws, and new cultures.