Origins of Byzantium
In the year 284, the Roman Emperor Diocletian ended the social, political, and economic chaos that had consumed most of civilized Europe for the previous 50 years through a series of shrewd but tough decisions. One of these decisions was effectively partitioning the Roman world into four administrative districts, each governed by a co-emperor in a system known as the Tetrarchy. The Tetrarchy stabilized the rapidly crashing Empire but wound up creating more problems than it solved. Diocletian chose the Easternmost portion of the Empire as his particular domain, since it was closer to Parthia (the Romans' chief military rival) and because it was the economic center of the Mediterranean world. That the Roman heartland -- Italy -- was not included in Diocletian's area of control was a deliberate move to further isolate the increasingly marginalized Roman Senate and to let everyone understand the realities of the post-Crisis world: "Rome" as a concept was where ever the Emperor happened to be at any given time and hanging on to the tired traditions of the Principate system that had caused the previous unrest was the quickest way to find yourself out of favor and out of work. It also had the unintended side effect of permanently relocating the epicenter of power to the East, laying the foundations for what we now call the Byzantine Empire.
The point of the Tetrarchy was to make the Empire more politically manageable by providing for faster responses to regional problems and to regularize succession to the throne -- the very problem that had led to the near-collapse of Rome in the preceding decades. There were two Augustii (or senior emperors) and two Caesars (or deputy emperors). When an Augustus died or retired, his Caesar would automatically take his place. The new Augustus would then promote another Caesar and the system would go on forever. What really happened, though, was the multiplication of the same problems that had happened before. The Caesars and Augustii did not solve regional problems; in effect, they were the regional problems. In fact, the Tetrarchy did not even make it through its second transition without a succession crisis. Constantius Chlorus was the Western Caesar under Diocletian's colleague Maximian, the latter of whom was forced into retirement by his aging and ill co-emperor. Constantius and Galerius, Maximian's deputy, succeeded their respective Augustii in 305 and appointed their own successors in the same year. The next year, however, Constantius suddenly and unexpectedly died, which prompted his legions to demand the accession of his son, Constantine, bypassing the already announced Caesar, Severus. The following details are convoluted, but to make a long story short, several wars of succession broke out across the four regions and in the end, only Constantine remained. He did away with the Tetrarchy and became the first Christian Emperor. For the first time in a generation, a single man ruled a united Empire.
As we've established, the administration of the Roman Empire had already shifted to the East as a matter of fact and Constantine decided to make it a matter of law. He founded a new capital city on the site of an ancient Greek podunk town called Byzantium, which he rechristened Constantinople. Constantinople was of such importance that in Greek, it simply became known as "stan polis" - The City (its modern name, Istanbul, derives from this). Constantinople was a new Rome -- a Christian Rome. Although paganism was still legally permitted for almost a hundred years after the Constantinian conversion, Constantinople was meant to be exclusively Christian, and this came to be strictly enforced. After Constantine's death, the Empire again came to be managed by multiple people in multiple regions, but it was not until the beginning of the fifth century that the two Empires split for good. After the reign of Theodosius I ended in 395, East and West would never be united again.
A Fresh Start
The reason I bring all this up is because the story of the Leonid Dynasty is the origin story of the Eastern Roman Empire as an independent entity. The fifth century was a pretty crazy time to be alive, especially if you lived in Western Europe. There were civil wars, Barbarian invasions, religious controversies, and demographic upheavals. Ruinous policies enacted by unmotivated and unfit rulers like Honorius and Valentinian III contributed to the decline of the West and the loss of its territories to various different groups. In the 450s, under the Eastern Emperor Marcian, Byzantium divested itself of the West for the purpose of avoiding the animosity of the Vandals, the most powerful Germanic tribe of the day. Marcian also refused to pay the annual tribute to Attila the Hun that his predecessor, Theodosius II, had agreed upon to secure peace. Both strategies worked, as the Vandals stayed away and Attila died in 453 before he could mount a campaign against the East, which was enjoying a period of stability that the West could only dream about.
It was into this tense and trying time that Flavius Valerius Leo, a Thracian officer and government official, ascended to the throne. Although much is made of the historical conflicts between Romans and Germans, what is not often discussed is that by the end of the third century, virtually the entire Roman empire was comprised of Barbarian soldiers. The "auxiliary" soldiers could rise to great heights if they had ambition and skill and throughout the turbulent fifth century, it was frequently non-Roman military commanders who served as literal kingmakers -- many emperors in this era were effectively puppet rulers who served at the behest of foreign warlords. Marcian died in 457 with no issue and Aspar, the Alanic head of the Eastern Roman military, nominated Leo to succeed him. Aspar was intimately linked to the ruling class of the Eastern Empire, as Marcian had actually been his subordinate before his own ascension. If not for his barbarian ethnicity and faith, Aspar might have made himself Emperor. However, like most of his ilk, titles meant very little to him and he contented himself with being the power behind the throne...or so he believed.
Leo's reign began on an interesting note: traditionally, it was the army who acclaimed the Emperor; for the first time, however, it was the Patriarch of Constantinople who crowned one. This represented a shift away from the earthy, martial roots of the office and added a dimension of spiritual mysticism to it. On a more subtle level, it was also Leo's personal repudiation of what he felt to be Aspar's inappropriate meddling with Imperial affairs at court. To that end, he began a successful campaign to alienate not only the man who put him into his lofty position, but also the Alans in general. Aspar, needless to say, did not respond in a particularly favorable way to this mistreatment.
It all started with the Isaurians. The Isaurians were a tribe hailing from southern Anatolia who had never fully submitted to Roman rule. Going back as far as the days of the Republic, they had made trouble for the people whose ambition it was to dominate the known world. The chieftain of the Isaurians was a man by the positively barbarous name of Tarasicodissa. Tarasicodissa came to court in 465 and made a very positive impression on Leo. Leo, seeking to establish a standing army loyal to him personally rather than to Aspar, managed to get the Isaurians to agree to form the nucleus of his new military force. To say that Aspar was outraged is a severe understatement. In 466, Tarasicodissa announced that Aspar's son, Ardabur, was conspiring to depose Leo and install another candidate (possibly himself) on the throne. Whether or to what extent this was true is debatable since, unfortunately, the specifics of the plot seem not to have survived antiquity. What we do know, however, is that the crime was not sufficient to warrant Ardabur's death at the time. There were, however, two direct results: Aspar was disgraced and Tarasicodissa saw his star rise. Leo decided to make the alliance between Constantinople and the Isaurians more concrete by giving his eldest daughter Ariadne in marriage to Tarasicodissa. This scandalized the Greco-Latin elite and to mitigate this, Tarasicodissa converted to Orthodox Christianity and changed his name to the very Greek Zeno in 467 after the marriage (which was apparently happy as Ariadne gave birth to a son, also named Leo before the end of the year). It also made Aspar uncomfortable because another of his sons was married to Leo's second daughter Leontia. The competition was on.
It was around this time that Aspar acquired two very unlikely allies at court: Verina, Leo's wife, and Basiliscus, her brother. Leo's foreign policy was more aggressive and expansionist than that of his predecessor. After Marcian's washing his hands of the West, the Vandals had attacked and sacked the city of Rome. Although the two Empires were for all intents and purposes separate legal entities, they were still bound together by a deeper, more spiritual bond. To Leo, the fact that the sacking had gone unpunished for the better part of 15 years was intolerable. Not only that, he received reports that Gaiseric, the Vandal king and a committed Arian (like most non-Roman Christians at that time), was oppressing the Orthodox Catholics of the West. Leo declared a holy war against the Vandals in 468 and Aspar saw this as his chance to regain the Emperor's trust. Both Aspar and Verina sang the praises of Basiliscus' military prowess, and Leo appointed him as the head of the expedition. Why Aspar, who was a far more competent military commander, did not volunteer himself for the campaign is a mystery, since he had more martial skill and a decisive victory likely would have helped his case. Perhaps he felt it best to stay at court to make sure that no plots against him were launched in his hypothetical absence; whatever the case, he stayed put.
In the event, the campaign was a disaster. Basiliscus met Gaiseric near Carthage, and the latter explained that he had no wish for war and would be prepared within five days to accept terms. Basiliscus agreed, and on the fifth day, found the Vandal fleet surrounding his own, which had been set ablaze the previous night. Basiliscus lost more than half of the ships in his force as well as what amounted to about a year of Imperial revenue. It was only through Verina's pleas that Leo only exiled him after his return to Constantinople.
In 471, Ardabur and Aspar attempted to bribe the Isaurians into betraying Leo. The Isaurians were a rowdy enough bunch already, but this attempted solicitation of betrayal was too much. They started a riot in the palace and although its events are not very well recorded either, what is known is that both Ardabur and Aspar perished in the fighting. Leo was likely cognizant of the events and is said to have actually ordered the riot to occur. Regardless of the origins of the fight, the two biggest threats to his authority were dead. This left Zeno in an unchallenged position as Leo's most prominent and powerful minister. Leo compelled Leontia to divorce her husband and instead marry Marcian (not the previously mentioned deceased Emperor), who was the son of Anthemius, the Emperor of the West at the time.
That time, however, was extremely short. Anthemius was really rather unbalanced and eventually found himself deposed by Ricimer, the Germanic head of his army. Leo sent several advisers and diplomats to try to negotiate a peaceful resolution, but the whole thing quickly turned into a debacle when one of the negotiators, a certain Olybrius, was himself proclaimed Western Roman Emperor. The whole thing continued off and on until he finally sent his nephew by marriage, Julius Nepos, to claim the throne and expel all pretenders, which he accomplished in 474.
The Next Generation
In 473, Leo officially named his grandson -- aged 6 at the time -- as his successor. When Leo died the following year, Ariadne convinced her young son to name Zeno, his father, as his co-ruler, which he eagerly did. Leo II, sadly, did not reign for too long; he died of an unspecified illness the same year. Some people suggest that either Zeno or Ariadne had a hand in their son's death, but there is nothing to support this notion. Child mortality was and remains a sad fact of life, and it affects all types of people in all stations.
Zeno was now the sole ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire, but to say that the beginning of his reign was precarious would not do it justice. His cousin-in-law, Julius Nepos, had been deposed in favor of a 13 year old boy named Romulus Augustulus in 475. Nepos fled to Dalmatia (i.e. modern Croatia) and sent emissaries to Zeno to beg for help to reclaim his throne. By the time they got there, however, a rude sight awaited them: Zeno had been deposed by a triumvirate involving Verina, Basiliscus, and a certain Patricius, the lover of the recently widowed former Empress. Common dislike of the Isaurians allowed the revolt to flourish, but disagreements between the conspirators brought it down. Verina had hoped to make Patricius Emperor while Basiliscus wanted the throne for himself. To this end, Basiliscus had Patricius executed, which lost him the support of his sister. He quickly made a fool of himself through his political mismanagement as well as his religious policies, which were directly contrary to the beliefs of most Byzantines. Basiliscus sent an agent named Illus to assassinate Zeno, but instead, Zeno convinced Illus to defect to his side; it was the beginning of a decade-long friendship. Zeno secured enough support to return to the throne in 476, whereupon he exiled Basiliscus, who died the same year.
At the same time that all of this was going on, the Western Empire was never far from his mind. He seemed ready to provide material support to Nepos when a messenger from Ravenna arrived bearing the Imperial insignia. The sender was Odoacer, one of the architects of Nepos' ouster. Odoacer had now also deposed Romulus because of a failure to pay for services rendered. Odoacer requested that he be allowed to serve as Zeno's subordinate in the West, but with the title Patrician. Zeno replied that Nepos was still the legitimate Emperor of the West, but granted Odoacer the title while providing his relative with nothing more than moral support. Of course, Zeno was in no position to refuse Odoacer, but form was very important to the Romans. Even though he eventually took to calling himself the King of Italy, Odoacer kept up the pretense that he was serving Nepos, going so far as to issue coinage with his name on it! When Nepos was assassinated in 480, Odoacer conquered Dalmatia as well, but bizarrely began issuing coinage with Zeno's name on it. Needless to say, Zeno became very nervous about his "subordinate." In 487, he came to an agreement with Theodoric, the king of the Ostrogoths - Byzantium would not interfere if he overthrew Odoacer and took his land so long as he did not make any moves against the East. The ploy worked and by 493, Zeno succeeded in simultaneously removing a potential threat from his own backyard and getting rid of an old thorn in his side.
Zeno was unfortunately the victim of several revolts. In 478, Verina compelled her daughter Leontia and son-in-law Marcian to rebel against Zeno, but his trusted lieutenant Illus put it down. Illus then rebelled against Zeno, which caused the Emperor great pain. Angered at the betrayal, Zeno stopped at no cost to crush Illus, which he finally succeeded in doing in 488. Three years later, Zeno was dead at the age of 66. Having no natural male offspring other than his late son Leo II, it was up to Ariadne to choose a successor. She married an aristocrat and government minister named Anastasius, who was himself in his 60th year by this time.
Anastasius had a good reputation, regarded as he was as a man of faith and thriftiness. He had probably never given any thought to prospect of his having become Emperor, but he had very little time to ponder it philosophically since two wars and social unrest tested his reign. The first war was actually a revolt by the Isaurians led by Zeno's brother, whose Romanized name was Longinus. Longinus was something of a loose cannon, however, accounting for his lack of status at court even during his brother's reign. The major part of the Isaurian revolt was solved within the year and it resulted in the expulsion of all Isaurians from Constantinople in 492. After two or three years, the Anatolian part of the rebellion was quashed as well.
The other war that Anastasius had to deal with was with a familiar enemy: the Persians. Like the Blue/Green riots, the war started over something similarly odd. By 502, the king of the Persians, a certain Kavadh, was in dire economic straits. He had been usurped and had promised a large sum of money to a group of mercenaries to regain his throne. However, the Persian economy was in something of a depression due to a few very bad harvest seasons and nonexistent trade with the now defunct Western Roman Empire, leaving the purse rather empty. Kavadh begged to borrow money from Anastasius, whose frugal ways had made the Empire richer than it had been in two generations. Anastasius declined Kavadh's request. Kavadh decided that he would invade the East and ransom off captured cities. Fortunately for both sides, the war was primarily a series of border skirmishes and at the conclusion of the war in 506, no territory changed hands. Anastasius fortified the border a bit more heavily to prevent a recurrence of the same sort of invasion.
It was around this time that spectator sports caused a serious rift in Byzantine society. For as long as the games had existed, chariot racing was one of the most popular organized sports in the Empire. Almost five centuries earlier, the Emperor Caligula created a scandal by creating two new chariot racing teams in Rome; that this upset people more than some of his other proclivities shows how seriously the Roman world took its sports teams. Chariot racing teams were divided up by colors; the average theater supported anywhere from two to six different teams, with the Blues and the Greens being the most common ones represented in different arenas. You know how some cities erupt in violence when a particular sports team wins or loses? The Romans started that. Eventually, fans of these teams started organizing politically, and the Blues and the Greens in Constantinople came into open conflict. It took on a socio-economic flavor, with aristocrats and their allies favoring the Blues and tradesmen and civil servants favoring the Greens. Even religion was added into the mix, as the Blues were die-hard Orthodox Christians and the Greens were monophysites - that is, they believed that Christ was first all human and then all divine. In retrospect, it seems like a silly thing, that an argument over sports could almost bring down an Emperor, but that's exactly what happened when Anastasius unwisely publicly declared in favor of the Greens. There were riots in the streets and it led to the dismissal of two successive Patriarchs. The riotous Blues made their way to the gates of the palace when the Emperor and the Patriarch Macedonius jointly appeared and begged the citizens to calm themselves down. Bizarrely, this was not the last time something like this happened in the Byzantine Empire -- the Emperor Justinian was also very nearly killed in a similar sports-related rebellion. When another Blue/Green riot broke out the next year in 512, he appeared before his subjects, took off his crown, and promised to resign from office if they would appoint his successor. While this would have been extremely dangerous for someone with a less secure position -- especially for a man now in is 80s -- he promised with confidence and vigor that if no suitable replacement for him could be found, he would continue on as Emperor and never give his subjects cause to feel displeasure again. The crowd backed off and demanded he stay. No serious threats to Anastasius emerged for the remainder of his reign.
By 518, Anastasius was 88 years old, an extremely advanced age for the time. He had no natural sons but he did have three nephews. There is an old legend that says the Emperor asked God for guidance in choosing a successor. He invited his nephews to dinner and put pieces of paper under each of their dining couches. One piece had the Latin word REGNUM on it. Whoever occupied that seat would succeed him. Two of his nephews chose to sit on the same couch, which would be extremely odd, since they would basically be spooning each other during dinner. Either way, none of them sat on the appropriate couch. He again turned to God and supposedly the Lord told him that the first person to enter his room the next day was his appointed successor. When Anastasius awoke, the low-born commander of his guard, Justin was there. Anastasius proclaimed him as his successor and apparently died not too long after that. While this is an interesting story, there's no way to know if it's true; it seems more likely that Justin used his position to secure his elevation after Anastasius' death. Either way, being an adopted successor rather than an assumed one is a surer path to legitimacy, and given Anastasius' admittedly colorful persona, it's not impossible.
A New Beginning
Although Anastasius' reign was certainly eventful, it was not at all bad. As mentioned earlier, his wise financial policies ensured the safety of the Imperial treasury for some time, leaving his successor Justin with an ample purse. Notwithstanding his unfortunate choice of athletic preferences, he was generally liked by the Byzantine populace who had never really accepted Zeno. Part of this had to do with the syncretic Byzantine identity that was just beginning to emerge. The Eastern Roman Empire was Greek in language and (for most of the elites) race. The name they had for themselves was Rhomaioi, literally "Romans." Anastasius represented the Rhomaioi ideal: he was a pious Christian who respected tradition and who had both Latin and Greek blood. "Rome" as a physical location was lost to the Byzantines, but they never stopped considering themselves "Roman." They were proud of the ideals and the institutions put into place by their forebearers, and these ideas were meant to last longer than them anyway, so why adopt an entirely new identity if you don't have to? With the advent of Roman Christianity, the title took on a new dimension of significance. To be "Roman" was to be transcendental in a way. The crowning of Leo I by the Orthodox Patriarch showed the immutability of the new faith and cemented it as a concept that was central to the notion of a unique Rhomaioi identity.
The Leonid Dynasty presided over a turbulent period and made the most of it that they could. Leo I tried to manage two Empires out of a sentimental attachment to the West, but even his significant efforts couldn't change fate. It was up to Zeno's shrewd Realpolitik to salvage the situation without emotional concerns, but his efforts were frequently frustrated by internal strife. Anastasius was the first of the Eastern Roman Emperors to really be a Byzantine Emperor. He was not connected to the West by anything other than his ancestry and had no political stake in it. He used his talents to stabilize and enrich his domain, while at the same time providing for the psychological need for his subjects to reconcile their chiefly Greek culture and heritage with their Latin institutions and traditions. It would be up to succeeding Emperors to determine whether the relationship between East and West was purely geographical or something else.
The Fall of the Western Roman Empire | Leonid Dynasty | Justinian Dynasty