The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Byzantine shift

Now I'm on page 438, in the midst of the conclusion. I'm in agreement with O'Donnell, this far: Peter Heather's book is really a "Fall of the Roman West", with nothing about the overlapping fall of Romanitas in the Coptic / Semitic East. But I'm still seeing 22 September 455 AD as the last real day of the Roman West.

It had long been clear to everybody that Rome lacked enough manpower and finances to reassert itself in the West. It was similarly clear that the easiest way to recover such resources would have been to recapture Carthage from the Vandals. What wasn't clear to the Romans was that Rome had no hope of doing this, at least not without the East and while Geiseric was leading the Vandals' defense.

To be fair, I've argued that this had held true some time before 455 AD. But with Aetius leading the armies of the West, this didn't have to be tested. If Valentinian III had decided upon an invasion of Vandal North Africa, and gotten Aetius on board, it is possible that the West could have pulled some support off Constantinople and led the invasion on Western terms. Following Aetius's death, this was no longer possible; it just took the West another painful decade to learn it.

Soon after Avitus's accession, Italy-based generals Majorian and Ricimer (to be played by Tony Robinson and Rowan Atkinson in the TV movie) hatched a cunning plan. They decided that Avitus was an obstacle to Roman revival and so they kicked him out of office. The two eventually (457 AD) agreed to elevate Majorian to the purple. By 461, Majorian had scraped together 300 ships and collected them at a port in Spain. Geiseric starved that force into rout by simple piracy against the armada's supply lines. Majorian paid for his folly with his crown and, five days later, with his life.

The Byzantine Emperor Leo, in 467 AD, then hatched a plan of his own. Leo sent over to Rome his rival for the Eastern throne Anthemius Junior. Most factions in the West, including Ricimer, accepted him as the Western "emperor", and began a new propaganda campaign for the recovery of Carthage. Leo managed to provide 1100 ships and to protect their supply lines. If Leo's forces had landed, they would have been more than enough to see Geiseric off; Justinian's forces in 532 AD would do this and more numbering only 500 ships.

Leo's strategy was arrogant: it assumed favourable winds and Vandal barbarism, and the Vandals tore it apart at sea. But even if Leo had succeeded, it still would not have counted as a Western revival. This was not a Roman mission but a Byzantine mission. Leo did not let any Westerners or even Anthemius in on the fun; instead Leo appointed his cousin, a certain Basiliscus. Leo further set an Illyrian in charge of Sardinia and an Egyptian in charge of Tripoli. It is likely that Leo had Basiliscus tapped to rule Carthage. It is unlikely that Leo would have let Anthemius rule the West as he saw fit.

What Leo expected of his failed North African adventure can be extrapolated from the fruits of Justinian's successful one. The wealth of Carthage would be expropriated not for Italy's interests, but for Constantinople's. Leo after all had an Iranian border to bulk up, and a Danube frontier to repopulate (the Huns were active there even in the late 460s). Once the bill for the expedition and for homeland defence was paid, Leo would have had troops to spare in North Africa to follow up his conquests elsewhere. If Justinian's strategy is any guide, Leo would have tried for direct rule over southern Spain while Anthemius kept the peace in Italy.

It does not matter whether Anthemius would have continued to rule, or got assassinated by a Ricimer or an Odoacer. Rome in 470 AD would have ended up as it ended up anyway: a puppet state of somebody, bickered over between Byzantines and Goths, with nothing to offer its rivals but cession of territory. Before that fateful day in 455 AD, the West could have bartered with the East. After 455 AD, Constantinople was the Roman Empire.

(It's also possible that Leo, like Justinian after him, would have gotten drawn into a civil war in Italy. But if so, Leo had the advantage of superior numbers, greater historical memory, and decades to go before the Year Without A Sun and its attendant horrors in 535 AD.)

posted by Zimri on 10:01 | link | 0 comments

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