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7-08-2015, 20:36

The successor states in the west

Nevertheless, there had been changes, and seen from Constantinople the political situation of the west in 500 cannot have given cause for joy. Developments in the west had not passed unnoticed by the emperors of the east, amidst the other internal and external problems besetting them in the fifth century. The last decade of the western empire had seen the despatch of new emperors and armies from the east, and Romulus Augustulus’ deposition in 476 was recorded by sixth-century Byzantine authors in terms which suggest they saw it as marking a major change: according to the Chronicle of Marcellinus, Rome was founded 709 years before Octavian Augustus held power, and he died 522 years before it perished in 476.5 Constantinople became a centre for refugees who fled the new kingdoms in the west. African catholics were prominent among these, including a widely reported group who miraculously found themselves able to speak after King Huneric had ordered that their tongues be cut out. There were also people from Italy who were said, early in the sixth century, to have received a warm welcome at the court of Anastasius (491–518), and in one of his works Priscian expressed the hope that Rome and Constantinople would both come to be under the emperor.6 Indeed, emperors who had traditionally had pretensions to rule over the whole known world could not have looked with complaisance on the loss of the western provinces, which constituted the greater part of the territory over which their predecessors had ruled. When the Byzantines looked westwards they saw a world dominated by the Mediterranean, and by the year 500 almost all of its coastline formerly within the western empire was under the control of three barbarian kingdoms. Vandals had occupied the bulk of Roman Africa where they proved stern rulers, whose expropriation of the landowning class and persecution of catholics made them unpopular. Using their powerful navy, the Vandals sacked Rome in 455 and withstood major Byzantine attacks in 460 and 468. They faced two other barbarian kingdoms on the opposite shores of the Mediterranean. The Visigoths, originally settled as Roman foederati around Toulouse, had gradually gained control of most ofGaul south of the Loire and begun moving into Spain, while Italy and some adjacent lands were under the control of Ostrogoths.7 They had made their way there in accordance with an agreement concluded with Emperor Zeno (474–91). Although in 497 Zeno’s successor, Anastasius, returned to Italy the palace ornaments, which Odovacer had sent to Constantinople after deposing Romulus Augustulus, this degree of recognition does not imply that the Byzantines were happy to accept the Ostrogothic state. The Vandals, Visigoths and Ostrogoths had far more in common than possessing adjacent kingdoms around the Mediterranean. They were all Arian Christians, adherents of a heresy which denied that the Father and the Son were of one substance as taught by the council of Nicaea (325); this marked them off from both the Byzantines and the great mass of the people among whom they settled. The Byzantines regarded them as speaking a single language and looking the same; together with the Gepids, they were viewed from Constantinople as nations distinguishable in name only.8 They were connected by a system of marriage alliances: one of Theoderic’s daughters had married the Visigothic king Alaric and his sister married the Vandal king Thrasamund, a web of relationships which may have been anti-Byzantine in purpose. Of these three states, that of the Ostrogoths was by far the most dangerous. To the east it included Dalmatia, which gave it a border with the empire hundreds of kilometres long: even if the Ostrogoth ruler had no expansionist designs in the east, he was well placed to influence developments there in turbulent times. So it was that a Byzantine rebel had already sought the aid of the Italian-based Odovacer in 486, a circumstance which may have helped prompt the emperor’s despatch of Theoderic and his Ostrogoths to Italy to discipline Odovacer shortly afterwards; and when, towards the end of Anastasius’ reign, the magister militum Vitalian rebelled against the emperor, he was believed to have sought Theoderic’s assistance. Some decades earlier, before moving into Italy, Theoderic had intervened when a rebellion threatened to unseat Zeno, for which the grateful emperor rewarded him with a consulship. An early sixth-century Italian author, apparently referring to these events, spoke of Theoderic as having bestowed the diadem on Zeno and compelled his love, with the implication that he was superior to the emperor.9 It was a perspective unlikely to have been shared in Constantinople. If this were not enough, in 504 one of Theoderic’s generals gained control of Sirmium, a city in Pannonia formerly part of the eastern empire. The Ostrogoths not only kept the city; they went on to advance further into imperial territory. Following a decisive defeat of the Visigoths at the hands of the Franks in 507, Theoderic ruled part of their kingdom as well as that of the Ostrogoths. Constantinople had reason to look with fear on the mighty Ostrogothic kingdom, in particular, from among the states that had emerged around the western Mediterranean. These, however, were not the only successor states to the empire in the west. To the north were territories that had come under the control of other peoples, notably Franks and Burgundians.10 Like the Goths, they had found homes within the borders of the old empire, and they had been integrated into the system of alliances set up by Theoderic; he himself had married the sister of Clovis, king of the Franks (c. 481–c. 511), and one of his daughters had married Sigismund, heir to the Burgundian throne. But around the end of the fifth century Clovis had adopted catholicism, and whatever his motives may have been in taking this step, it is clear that he saw himself as accepting the religion of the emperor. Catholic influence was also strong at the Burgundian court, where Sigismund was converted. More importantly, from a Constantinopolitan perspective the impact of the Frankish and Burgundian intruders on the Roman world would have seemed less than that of the Goths and Vandals: their capacity to harm imperial interests was slight, and with judicious encouragement they could be made to serve imperial policy. According to a strange story told in a seventh-century text, the Frankish king Childeric (c. 463–82) went to Constantinople, where he sought the emperor’s agreement that he should go to Gaul as the emperor’s servant.11 Hence it is not surprising that when conflict broke out in 507 between the Franks under Clovis, who enjoyed Burgundian support, and theVisigoths andOstrogoths, Anastasius intervened on behalf of the Franks. He dispatched a fleet which ravaged part of the coast of Italy and prevented Theoderic from intervening in Gaul as early as he would have wished; he also made Clovis an honorary consul. It is clear that Constantinople viewed the west in a differentiated way. TheMediterranean lands were occupied by powers that threatened Byzantine interests, but the empire could sometimes act to destabilise its enemies. Theoderic’s last years were clouded by accusations that a group of Roman senators was treasonably corresponding with the emperor, and by his possible over-reaction to reports that Arians were being persecuted in the east. These two issues were recurrent in the history of the Gothic and Vandal states. The Vandal king Huneric had been concerned at the possibility that catholic clergy were sending letters overseas – presumably to the empire – about the succession to the throne; and on one occasion Theoderic acted to stop correspondence from Burgundy reaching the emperor. The Vandals also felt that religious persecution was a tool that could be employed for reasons of diplomacy. The position of the emperor vis-`a-vis catholics in the west had been strengthened by the healing in 519 of the Acacian schism, which had divided the churches of Rome and Constantinople since 484.12 The last years of Theoderic therefore manifested some of the tensions implicit in the relationship between Constantinople and the successor states to the empire around the western Mediterranean. To the north, on the other hand, were powers from whom good could be expected. It was a basic distinction, and its application became clear during Justinian’s military ventures.