Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Nineteen

The Crisis of 474–476

It is perhaps a little misleading to single out the years 474–476 as a time of imperial succession crisis when the previous chapters have shown that there was in the West an almost continuous problem from the time of the death of Valentinian III. However, the removal of Ricimer in 472 and of Aspar in 471 – the former having provided a measure of continuity – had set up a new situation in both halves of the Empire. The rule of Leo in the East and the brief supremacy of Gundobad in the West delayed the next crisis until 474; it was the removal of both these men at much the same time that brought the new crisis to a head; and in the West it was terminal, so the description of the events in the mid 470s as a crisis is surely justified.

At the beginning of 474 the Emperors Leo and Glycerius were in office in Constantinople and Rome, and were squaring up to fight each other; in the next thirty months or so the two parts of the Empire saw seven more emperors or would-be emperors between them, ending with just one in power and he was to be challenged twice during the succeeding decades. This was a final crisis only for the Western Empire; in the East the same sort of brief dynasties punctuated by assassinations and coups continued for the next 1,000 years.

Leo died a natural death in January 474. He had no sons, but he was the father of two daughters: Ariadne, married to the Isaurian chieftain Zeno; and Leontia, who had been betrothed to Patricius, the son of Aspar, and so was at this point, with Patricius in rebellion, neither betrothed nor married. Leo nominated his grandson, the son of Ariadne and Zeno, as his successor (Leo II), but he was only 7 years old. A fortnight after Leo I died, Zeno was co-opted as joint Augustus along with Leo II. (See Genealogical Table XXII.) This was done technically by the young Leo, with the connivance of the Emperor Dowager Verina and the Senate, and the installation took place in public in the hippodrome. Here again, as with Marcian and Leo I, it was necessary for all the political elements – the previous emperor, the Senate and the public – to be involved in the coronation, though the army was not specifically represented.1 The precedents went all the way back to Augustus’ adoption of Agrippa.

Leo II died before the year was out and Zeno reigned alone. He survived for only a month and was in effect driven out by Verina and her brother Basiliskos, who was then chosen as emperor by a group of ‘men of power’ in the city, as one source puts it; the group included at least two of the Isaurian senior commanders who might have been loyal to Zeno, but the Constantinopolitans then indulged in a massacre of other Isaurians in the city. Basiliskos had been technically made emperor by the Senate and went through a ceremony of coronation, but this took place inside the Palace, not in the public space of the hippodrome.2

Zeno fled from the city with some supporters and a substantial treasure, and holed up in a castle in his homeland. There he was put under siege by his former Isaurian colleagues who had supported Basiliskos. In the city Basiliskos’ regime, being both voracious and heretic, rapidly became unpopular and messages went to Zeno from the city promising support. By suborning his besiegers, Zeno broke free and he was able to recover control of Constantinople by August 476.3

This confusion, compounded by intrigues by the supporters of both men, prevented the Constantinopolitan government from intervening in the parallel and simultaneous crisis in the West. Leo had sent a new emperor to dislodge Glycerius and Gundobad late in 473. His choice was Julius Nepos, governor of Dalmatia, and a relative by marriage of the Empress Verina. There was no resistance from either Glycerius or Gundobad. The latter was apparently distracted by the involvement of the Burgundians in fighting in Gaul, in which his father died. Gundobad, in fact, soon popped up again as king of the Burgundians; that is, he abandoned Glycerius to his fate in favour of a more comfortable role as Burgundian king. Glycerius’ lack of resistance to Nepos permitted him to retire as Bishop of Spalato in Julius Nepos’ former province of Dalmatia.

Nepos had travelled to Italy by sea, landing at Portus near Rome. He was proclaimed emperor by Zeno’s representative, a man called Domitianus (Leo having died in the meantime). The ceremony, in a different place, was similar to that which emplaced Anthemius, but no local involvement can be seen other than a passive acceptance.4 Domitianus may have been Zeno’s man, but at the time Zeno was only precariously in control in Constantinople, so this did not imply that serious political and military help was available. By this time – June 474 – Leo II and Zeno were in power in Constantinople. It seems unlikely that they, or rather Zeno, bothered to reverse Leo’s policy towards the West, even if they had the time, so Nepos would have continued to be acceptable in the East as the Western emperor.

Whatever help and support Nepos hoped for from the East ceased to be possible when Zeno was driven out of Constantinople in January 475. Nepos appointed Ecdicius, the son of the former Emperor Avitus, as magister militum for Gaul in order to contest the Visigothic advance in central Gaul, but he was defeated. So Nepos’ Eastern and Western policies both failed. In addition he had, as it proved, no real basis of support within Italy. He ordered his magister militum in Italy, a man called Orestes, to relieve and succeed Ecdicius in Gaul but instead Orestes turned on his master and Nepos fled back to Dalmatia.5

Nepos, as a fifth-century emperor in Italy, was unusual in several aspects: he came at the head of an army to seize the Western throne by force. In this he followed other recent Easterners like Glycerius, but he seems to have done without a military commander as his minister, giving orders to his commanders directly. In these actions he was reminiscent of Majorian and Anthemius, and perhaps of Valentinian III at the end. He also made an apparently serious attempt to recover control in Gaul. He had been an active governor in Dalmatia and this background puts him in the tradition of active emperors in the later fifth century – Majorian, Avitus and Anthemius – compared with those who left the military work to their generals: Libius Severus, Valentinian III (for much of his reign), Glycerius and Olybrius. To make any serious progress, however, the Western emperor needed both local support in the West, particularly in Italy, and in the Western army, composed of barbarian mercenaries. He also required assistance from the East, but with Zeno beset and Leo dead, Nepos was alone. He seems to have gained little or no support in Italy, either from Italians or the military.

Orestes’ career, if a particular connection is accepted, was strange. He was from a Pannonian family, and had spent time at the court of Attila until the Hun king’s death in 453. Pannonia was a dangerous place in his youth, being on the frontier and subject to frequent attack, traversed repeatedly by armies of all sorts and repeatedly temporarily settled by barbarian groups. Orestes vanishes from our sight after Attila’s death, only to reappear as the commander in Italy in 475. He was presumably one of Ricimer’s officers, and he had been appointed as Ecdicius’ successor as magister militum in central Gaul, where he had negotiated a peace treaty with the Visigoths. He was also married to the daughter of Romulus, one of Aetius’ commanders. However, it seems that the ‘Orestes-Romulus clan’ was at enmity with the ‘Royal Scirian clan’, of which another of the commanders, Odoacer, was a part. The two were certainly at odds in 476.

Nepos fled from Italy, though he did not go any further than his old province of Dalmatia, nor did he abdicate; he continued to be recognized as emperor by Zeno. In Italy Orestes kept the position as magister militum for himself and put his own son on the throne.6 This was a teenage boy called Romulus, named for his grandfather. His appointment was a reversion to the puppet emperor style of Ricimer and Libius Severus. There is no sign in the (admittedly thin) records that there was any ceremony involved, though since Orestes was commander of the army, no doubt a military acclamation was laid on, but Orestes commanded the loyalty of only part of the army and other commanders were unenthusiastic. Their main demand was to be able to settle their barbarian soldiers on Italian lands; Orestes, perhaps because he looked to senatorial support, refused to allow this attempt to deprive senators of some of their property. This provided an opportunity for his enemies within the army, notably Odoacer, to take away Orestes’ military support. He was killed and Odoacer seized control of the army, promising a distribution of land. Romulus was retired and lived out the rest of his life at the family villa in Campania.7

Zeno regained control of Constantinople in August 476, the same month that Orestes was killed and Romulus deposed. There were now three men in or close to Italy who had been emperors: Glycerius, Julius Nepos and Romulus. Of these, Nepos had retained some sort of recognition from the East, but he had fled from Italy without a fight when Orestes rose to power. He could be said to have abdicated. Certainly Glycerius had abdicated, and since he had for two years been Bishop of Spalato he was now ineligible to return, apart from which he was living in Nepos’ territory and would never be allowed to leave to reclaim the throne. Romulus had never been recognized formally by anyone except his father and his father’s faction in the army, and he was still a child; he could be ignored.

Zeno was beset by troubles as soon as he regained the Eastern throne, by invasions in the Balkans, by dissension in the royal family and by a serious shortage of money. He had no available or acceptable candidate for the Western throne, his predecessor having used up three in the past ten years. Anthemius had left three sons in the East, including one called Marcian who aspired to the Eastern throne a few years later, but none of them seems to have shown any interest in the West. In truth the history of the Western throne in the past two decades, since Valentinian III’s murder of Aetius, would scarcely attract anyone.

Odoacer, no doubt, could have found a candidate in Italy if he had wanted to; there were hundreds of senators, after all. However, he had decided even before he forced the abdication of Romulus that an emperor in the West was no longer needed, for he had the army proclaim him as ‘Rex’ (‘king’) in August 476. He sent an embassy to Zeno, ostensibly in the name of the Senate and Romulus, announcing that the West no longer required an emperor. Zeno replied with a cunningly ambiguous letter, referring to Nepos as the West’s rightful emperor, and saying that it was Nepos who should give Odoacer the title of patricius which he had requested and that he would confirm it if it was given. Then he ended a letter by addressing Odoacer as a ‘patrician’. There was no reference to Odoacer’s other title of king.8

By this time Spain, Africa, Gaul, the Danube lands and Britain had all been removed from the political authority wielded by anyone in power in Italy. Nepos was recognized in a distant way in Italy and coins were minted in his name, but when he asked for help to recover power there he received none; in 480 he was stabbed to death in a plot in which the other ex-emperor, Bishop Glycerius, was said to be involved. Odoacer took the opportunity to seize control of Nepos’ Dalmatian territories in the name of revenge.

There had, perhaps, been no need for an emperor in the West for some time, but it is worth noting that as late as 471 Anthemius was able to send a force into Gaul to contest the advances of King Euric of the Visigoths, and in 472 Olybrius had been able to turn away a Gothic invasion of Italy, while Nepos had been able to appoint two commanders in Gaul as well: Ecdicius and Orestes. That is, even if they had only controlled Italy, Western Roman emperors were still relatively powerful, as Odoacer and Theoderic the Ostrogoth were to demonstrate; between them they ruled the same geographical area as the last of the emperors for the next half-century. Yet the emperors required a firm political base inside Italy to enable them to exercise power outside it. It was this that was their basic difficulty, for their forces owed allegiance to their immediate commanders and not to them. Odoacer’s solution, settling his men on Italian land, was the best answer, and was followed by Theoderic; had Julius Nepos done so he might have succeeded in maintaining himself, for such men would owe their prosperity and patrimony to him, and if a precedent for settling soldiers on confiscated land was needed one need only go back as far as Augustus.

From one viewpoint the last twenty years had seen a defensive political campaign by these military commanders against the revival of imperial military pretensions. The death of Ricimer had opened the way for the emperors to reclaim more authority, and the desertion of Gundobad allowed Julius Nepos, an experienced commander, to place himself on the throne with the intention of acting as emperor-commander. This combination of military and civil power and authority would have been a solution to the crisis in the West, but imperial power could only expand at the expense of the military men and Nepos forfeited the chance of any accommodation with Odoacer.

Nor could the Eastern emperors always interfere with any success. Odoacer’s message to Zeno in 476, sent in the name of the deposed Emperor Romulus and the Senate, that there was no need of an emperor in the West, was undoubtedly true – most of the West was already doing without – and clearly implied a recognition of Zeno as emperor in Italy. However, Odoacer was not about to accept Zeno’s orders, so the message behind the letter was actually one of secession, not submission. The Empire in the West had ended, and it was the failure of the emperors to develop or operate a credible system of succession that was at the heart of the problem, for if a credible system had existed the military regents would have been much restricted in their interference.

Of the emperors since Valentinian III, three – Anthemius, Olybrius and Julius Nepos – had been the candidates of the Eastern emperors and had owed their positions to heredity in some way, though always because of a marriage connection and not a direct descent. This may not have been all that impressive, but it did give them a personal and political authority that was independent of the army commanders and so set up a tension that could only be resolved by one or other being removed. Had there been a clear and accepted system of succession – by heredity, by election or by any other means – that tension would probably not have developed. This was a central part of the problem of governing the Empire, one that had lain at the very heart of the imperial system from the beginning. Augustus had struggled his whole reign to develop an hereditary scheme and had failed; the Senate, the other obvious source of imperial authority, had intervened repeatedly in 68, in 96, in 193, in 238 and even in the last years, with senators as emperors and senatorial participation in installing new emperors. This had helped to prevent the development of an hereditary scheme, and yet had never had the authority to put a system of its own in place in its stead. So when the Senate’s authority failed because of its divorce from the imperial government from the mid-third century onwards after Gallienus’ law debarred senators from commands or governorships, the only authorities with power to impose any sort of system were existing emperors by appointing their own successors, or the army, which was by definition an erratic, inefficient and murderous entity, incapable of acting with any consistency.

If there is to be a monarchy, only heredity makes sense. This became the preferred system in Western Europe, partly under the influence of the Christian Church and partly because it was the preferred method of the barbarian invaders. In the surviving part of the Roman Empire in the East, however, (the ‘Byzantine’ Empire), the mixture of heredity punctuated by military coups d’état that had operated in the Empire as a whole since the death of Tiberius continued until 1453. Even in the face of the last Turkish assault on Constantinople, the position of the emperor remained unstable; the last emperor had seized power only in 1449.

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