Ancient History & Civilisation

The Goths in Constantinople

Events in the East during this period followed a radically different course, but one which was also decisive for the evolution of the eastern empire. After the murder of Rufinus in 395 there was a brief power struggle. The generals of the eastern armies were outmaneuvered by the eunuch Eutropius, who was the leading official in the emperor's household, his praepositus sacri cubiculi (Zosimus 5.8–10). Eutropius was able to consolidate his own position and increase the stability of the eastern court to such effect over a four-year period that the threat from Stilicho was neutralized, and Alaric was effectively enlisted as an agent of the eastern government by being offered the position of magister militum for Illyricum. Eutropius took over the senior military command in the East in person, and was responsible for defeating the Huns, who had been raiding Asia Minor and threatening Syria during the period from 395–8 (Claudian, In Eutrop. I, 236ff.).89 He was given the rank of patricius and made consul in 399.

The Goths, however, posed very serious problems for the eastern as well as the western empire, as become clear from a complicated political crisis that boiled over in Constantinople between 399 and 401. Part of the background to these events were the major policy issues raised by the incorporation of Goths in the empire, whether they were simply settled on provincial land as refugees from the pressures of other barbarian groups, or were accommodated as foederati, and thereby expected to supply substantial military support to the imperial armies when called upon. Clearly many Romans in positions of authority held the view that the Goths were always dangerous intruders, especially at times when the empire was in crisis or under threat, and that they should be dealt with by drastic measures. These issues were emphasized during the later 390s by the activities of Alaric and by the heavy dependence of the Roman armies on Gothic units both in the west and in the east. The dangers of this were highlighted in the speech On Kingship (De Regno) by Synesius of Cyrene, which purported to have been delivered in the presence of the emperor Arcadius himself, perhaps in the period 397–99.90 It seems extremely unlikely that this was really the case, since the work contains blisteringly frank criticism of the emperor's conduct and policy.91 There were two central points. Firstly, Arcadius should exchange his palace for the camps of his armies, and revert to the style of rulership of emperors before Theodosius, sharing the hardships of his soldiers, and campaigning in person to deter and defeat Rome's external enemies. Secondly, he should place no reliance on Scythian, that is Gothic, allies, but fight with Roman troops.92

In 399 a Gothic commander, Tribigild, led a rebellion of Gothic troops, who had been settled in central Asia Minor, against Eutropius. Another Gothic leader, Gainas, was sent to quell the uprising, but joined his compatriot and turned on Arcadius, demanding the dismissal and execution of Eutropius and other leading members of the regime. He achieved this aim, but, in obscure circumstances, the Gothic garrison in Constantinople itself was set upon by the local population, and seven thousand of them were massacred when they took refuge in a church designed for Arian worshippers. Fravitta, another Gothic leader appointed magister militum by Arcadius, compelled Gainas to flee over the Hellespont and into Thrace, and then to seek refuge beyond the Danube, outside the empire. Here he was confronted and killed by the first major Hunnic leader whose name is known to us, Uldin. The motivations and apparently numerous changes of allegiance of the protagonists in this bewildering civil war are portrayed from different perspectives by the various sources and remain today virtually impenetrable.93 The outcome for the emperor was better than might have been predicted. Fravitta himself was done away with in 401, and the Gothic issue thereafter disappears from view. The Gothic groups and leaders in the East had not been able to sustain a coordinated challenge to Constantinople or establish themselves as a permanent presence in the East, as Alaric and his followers were able to do in the West. The eastern empire had survived the crisis more by skilful political action than by military means, and this was to be the watchword of imperial policy until the death of Arcadius in 408 and throughout the reign of his son Theodosius II. Western barbarian commanders and units were largely excluded from the military establishment and their place taken by Armenians, renegade Persians, Isaurians, and others. Even more important, warfare was seen as an instrument of last resort in foreign policy, and the security of the empire was maintained by diplomacy with Persian rulers, and by paying subsidies and thus securing the peace with major barbarian groups, above all the increasingly powerful Huns.

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