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Renovatio Imperii

While the Western Roman Empire started to disintegrate in the first half of the 5th century AD, the Eastern Roman Empire was still intact and flourishing. Eastern armies guarded the frontier from the Danube to the border with the Sassanid empire. The main Christian centers of the late Roman world were situated in the east, in Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria of Egypt.

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Mosaic depocting Emperor Justinian in his imperial regalia. His earrings are a symbol of imperial power. San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Into this world was born Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus, known to posterity as Emperor Justinian I. When Justinian ascended to the throne of Constantinople in 527 AD, he envisioned a plan for the reconquest of the old Western Empire. In order to launch this great invasion, he first however needed a general and an army. The general he ultimately selected to lead this campaign was Flavius Belisarius, a Thracian with a keen strategic and tactical mind as well as  experience gained through conflict with the Sassanids. The army was duly formed after signing a peace treaty with the Sassanid Empire.
In 533 AD, Belisarius’ army landed in North Africa, a rich Roman province controlled by the Vandals, a Germanic people who had migrated there during the last years of the Western Roman empire. Belisarius acted swiftly and effectively, defeating the Vandals, led by King Gelimer. The conquest of North Africa was made easier by the religious divisions between the Romans and the Vandals, as the Vandals were Arian Christians while the Romans were Nicene Christians. The Vandals had also encountered difficulties in integrating with the local Roman elites.

After the conquest of North Africa, the next step in Justinian’s plan was to recover the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy, founded by Amal king Theodoric the Great. In the Ostrogothic kingdom, relationships between the old Roman elites and the recent Gothic arrivals had plummeted. After the death of Theodoric, power had passed to his daughter Amalasunta, who was deeply pro-Roman and fascinated by Greek and Roman culture. When Amalasunta was imprisoned and disposed of by Theodahad, count of Tuscany, Justinian declared war on the Goths. Belisarius was swiftly sent to Sicily in 535 AD, where he occupied the island with little resistance, before crossing into mainland Italy in 536 AD, where he captured Naples and Rome.
The recapture of Rome had a powerful symbolic meaning although real power was now located in the east. After defending Rome from a Gothic onslot, in 540 AD Belisarius took the city of Ravenna, the old western imperial capital. After having refused the Ostrogothic offer of getting crowned as Emperor of the Western Empire, Belisarius was sent back to the east by Justinian, to deal with the renewed Sassanid threat and probably because of the emperor’s envy of his military prowess. The Ostrogoths under king Totila exploited the absence of Belisarius to mount a counteroffensive that while initially successful, ultimately failed. Justinian’s dreams of reconquering Western Rome was fulfilled at great cost.

The “Gothic wars” caused institutional damage, farmland devastation and civilian casualties in the Italian peninsula. The wars also overstretched the Eastern Roman army and their supply lines. Eastern Rome had few soldiers to spare and it needed most of the legions at the frontier. Belisarius’ expedition had weakened the frontier and the troops which remained were not enough to hold the whole Italian peninsula and North Africa. This situation was exploited by the Lombards, a Germanic people who waged a violent war against the remaining Eastern Roman troops in Italy. The Lombards conquered most of the Italian peninsula except for a few coastal areas. Both Ravenna and Rome remained under Eastern control as they were supplied by the powerful Eastern Roman navy. The segments of Italy controlled by Eastern Rome would remain under the command of the exarch of Ravenna, a military commander subordinate to the emperor. The territories acquired in North Africa were governed by an exarch based in Cathage. These territories were always on the defensive as Constantinople could not supply enough military resources to mount a counteroffensive. The bishop of Rome gradually detached himself from the control and influence of Constantinople. While initially seeking help from Constantinople to defend Rome against the Lombards, the pope eventually found a new defender in the king of the Franks.

In the end, we can say that the Eastern Roman empire under Justinian did not have sufficient manpower or resources to maintain control over the new conquered lands. Although we have little information about the Eastern Roman army of the time, we know that the core of the army was made of Scutati or Scutatoi (shield bearers), which were essentially late Roman legionnaires, equipped with oval shields, Spathas, mail armor and ridge helemts. The role of the cavalry was increased as mobility was more valued on the battlefield. Most cavalry regiments were provided by Germanic peoples, the Huns, the Alans or the Sarmatians, all horse breeding peoples. However, the elite arm of Belisarius’ army was made of Bucellarii, privately owned soldiers who were loyal to their commander. They were the best trained as well as the best equipped of Belisarius’ troops. Belisarius could afford to employ thousands of them. It is also probable that some Limitanei regiments served under Belisarius in North Africa and Italy. Most of the information relating to Belisarius’ campaign comes from Procopius of Caesarea, Belisarius’ personal attendant and secretary.

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A New Horizon: The Reforms of Diocletian

In the later part of the third century AD, the Roman empire was in the midst of civil wars and a severe economic crisis. Generals were being declared as emperors by their troops, dangerously destabilizing the established system of centralized power. During this period of upheaval, Diocles, later Diocletian, was born in the province of Dalmatia, in modern day Croatia. Born of simple stock, Diolcles distinguished himself in the ranks of the roman army, even becoming a cavalry commander under emperor Carus. This was not an uncommon path for an emperor at the time, with many previous emperors using the army to rise socially, with high amounts of social mobility a defining characteristic of this era. His rise culminated in 284 AD, when he became princeps (emperor), inheriting an empire in chaos. He immediately set about to solve these problems through a series of political, military, social and economic reforms.

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Head of a togate statue of Diocletian. His gaze toward the sky indicates a link with the gods. His short hair and beard is common among military emperors of the time.
Photo credit: R.V. Huggins

For the army, he changed the traditional structure of 5000 men legions into more fluid and efficient units of 1000 men. Also, legions became more specialized and their equipment was to be provided by the state through the fabricae, which were groups of state-owned warehouses and workshops. The equipment of the soldiers morphed as they started adopting more oval shields and spears with longer spathas as secondary weapons. These changes may have been caused by many of Rome’s enemies being cavalry soldiers such as the Sassanids, the Sarmatians and the Scythians. The organization of the army into Comitatenses and Limitanei may have also began with the reign of Diocletian. The Cohortes Praetoriae, were relegated by the emperor to a secondary role, forming the garrison for the city of Rome, as they were considered too corrupt and ambitious to be trusted in the field. The new imperial guard was formed by the Ioviani and Herculiani regiments, chosen from the legio Iovia and legio Herculiana, famous for their loyalty to emperor Diocletian.

Diocletian, being a man of simple origins, born outside the confines of old aristocracy, disliked the senate and the old oligarchy it represented. He deprived the Senate of most of its powers, relegating it to the role of governing the capital. Power became increasingly centralized in the hands of the new military elites, which were forming the empire. This began the transition towards the separation of the military and civilian roles within the Roman world, which will happen during the reign of Valentianian I. The court system around the emperor became intricate and extremely bureaucratic, as nets of administrators and officials effectively shielded the emperor from the outside world, eventually making it difficult for him to connect to his empire.

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Head of Maximian, Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse. Born in Sirmium, Maximian was the military arm of Diocletian, leaving politics and reforms to the emperor.

The emperor, considered the first of the roman citizens, was now to be considered a dominus, an authoritarian father figure with links to the gods. Diocletian noticed that the empire was too large to be controlled by a single emperor. It simply was not possible due to its vastness. As a result, in 286 AD Diocletian elevated his old war companion Maximian to a Caesar in the West, based in Mediolanum. Maximian was a perfect candidate for the job as he was a loyal man as well as an able commander. Maximian was later promoted to the rank of Augustus, a full-fledged colleague of Diocletian. The Roman empire thereafter turned into a diarchy, with Maximian ruling the West and Diocletian ruling the East from Nicomedia. Diocletian quickly realized that two emperors alone were not able to maintain stability in the empire. Because of this, he formed the famous tetrarchy, rule of four, an effective division of the empire into four spheres of influence. Maximian had Constantius Chlorus as his Caesar (junior colleague) in the West, based in Trier, modern day Germany, while Diocletian chose Galerius, a peasant who had risen from the ranks of the army as his Caesar, based in Thessalonika.

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Emperor Galerius’ portrait head in porphyry, from his palace in Romuliana (Gamzigrad). Emperor Galerius was a rigid military commander and an advocate for the persecution of Christians during the tetrarchy.

Diocletian wanted to stabilize the economy but did not have competent experts at his disposal, so he only managed to debase the Roman coinage by creating a new series of imperial mints. Diocletian later died in 313 AD at his fortified palace at Split, Dalmatia, knowing that his tetrarchic project was doomed to fail. The rise of Diocletian and the tetrarchic period marks a new point in Roman history and it brings the crises of the third century to an end by projecting the empire into an era of political and military stability. The tetrarchic model revealed itself to be a political failure in that it did not account for the ambitions of men, and the impeccable order installed by Diocletian could not be maintained. Diocletian can be considered a pillar of the Roman state as he was an excellent legislator and reformer. The period from the rise of Diocletian onwards would be called the Dominate instead of the Principate as the authoritarian emperor created by Diocletian would become the norm.

 

 

The Brother Emperors

Valentinian I “the Great” is an extremely fascinating character.

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Coin of brother emperors Valentinian I and Valens. Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett. Photo credit to Adriano Zampolini.

A man mostly forgotten by history, Valentinian was a great military strategist and was prone to incredible bursts of anger. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, he was good looking, loved sober elegance, had good memory, was envious of other successful individuals, disliked the rich and the shy, being one himself and used to impose rigorous discipline on soldiers. However, underneath the harsh military exterior and the wrathful temper, he did have an extremely sensitive side, full of empathy and passion.

When he was acclaimed Emperor by the troops and the imperial Council on February 26th 364 AD, Valentinian was already an experienced military officer who had served both on the Rhine and in Mesopotamia, where he was promoted tribune of the elite Scutarii regiment. He was insecure, however, about the stability of his future reign, as immediately preceding him there had been a bloody civil conflict between the relatives of emperor Costantine. Therefore, to avoid further roman blood being shed and to impose his power on the imperial Council, he made his loyal younger brother Valens co-emperor in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, who disliked Valentinian, it was Germanic general Dagalaifus who pressured the emperor into choosing his brother Valens, despite him being inexperienced in civil and military matters. Though, according to the Late Roman historian, despite being greedy and quite lazy, Valens would turn out to be an excellent administrator. He was good looking and got a cataract in his eyes by the age of 50.

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Medallion of emperor Valens. Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett. Photo credit to Adriano Zampolini.

At Sirmium, in modern day Serbia, the two emperors divided their military personnel. The legions that were to serve Valentinian were dubbed Seniores while those under Valens were called Iuniores. Immediately, Valens’s power in the east was challenged by a usurper named Procopius, while Valentinian was occupied against the Alamanni tribe on the Rhine frontier. Valens was alone against Procopius, and as he had always been more of a follower than a leader, upon receiving news of the revolt, he faltered and even considered suicide. After this initial crisis of confidence, Valens strengthened his resolve to fight, ultimately managing to defeat Procopius in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) at the Battle of Thyatira. Procopius was captured and beheaded on the spot by Valens’s officers, and his head was sent to Valentinian as a trophy.

Meanwhile, Valens’s older brother was achieving victory after victory against the Alamanni in the West. An exceptional military man, Valentinian designed aggressive campaigns against the tribes living outside the Roman borders. One of these was the 368 AD expedition in which the Emperor gathered a massive army, including the Italian Comitatenses (professional troops) led by the Comes Italiae Sebastianus. He achieved a great victory at the Battle of Solicinium after which he then fortified the frontiers by building fortresses both inside and outside the established borders. Valentinian was the last western emperor to fortify the Roman frontiers and to lead an expedition outside the Roman Limes. By 370 AD, the empire seemed relatively stable after other successes against the Saxons.

 

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Colossal bronze statue of Valentinian I in Barletta, Apulia. Photo credit to Adriano Zampolini.

 

According to Ammianus Marcellinus, death for Valentinian came in the form of a bursting blood vessels during one of his angry outbursts while negotiating with tribes on the Rhine (14 November 375 AD). This account is questionable.

Power in the west fell to Valentinian’s young son Gratian while the east remained under Valens. Valens had obtained victories over the Goths under Athanaric in the Balkans by the year 369 AD while Armenia was invaded by the powerful Persian King of Kings Shapur II. The bloody military encounters that followed ended in a stalemate in the East, with the persian armies kept at bay for the time being. In the year 376 AD, Valens was forced to rush to the Danube frontier, as the gothic tribe Tervingi had crossed the river and had defeated a roman force near Marcianople. After some initial success by the Roman general Sebastianus, the Goths, led by chieftain Fritigern, managed to defeat Valens’s imperial army at Adrianople, in Thrace.

Valens was among the dead, though his body was never found. Thus the Valentinian brothers came to an end, a period in history which has been undervalued to say the least, but was nevertheless rich of heroism, intrigue, imperial might and cruelty. This period is also proof of the Late Roman Empire’s military and civil might, charateristics that will be preserved in the Eastern half of the Empire and deteriorate over time in the West after the demise of Valentinian.

 

Introduction to the Late Roman Army

After the military reforms of Emperor Costantine the Great (306-337 AD), the traditional Roman army as we know it morphed into a more mobile and specialized force, able to deal quickly with foreign and domestic threats that arose throughout the empire. The new army of Costantine was composed of three main groups: the Comitatenses, the Limitanei or Riparienses and the Palatina legions.
 

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Constantine the Great, Capitoline Museums, Rome. Copyright © 2016 Adriano Zampolini. All rights reserved.

The Comitatenses, heirs of the classical roman legionnaire, were the professional heavy soldiers armed with the long spatha and an oval shield. Their commanders were the Comes, a military figure who later gave birth to the medieval Count.
 

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Comitatenses

The Limitanei or Riparienses were paid less, had lower physical requirements but were still full-time professional soldiers who guarded the precarious roman borders, operating as an initial defensive line and an efficient scouting force. They only dealt with small-scale attacks and were usually withdrawn if the situation got extremely dangerous. Their commanders were the Duces, a word later used to indicate all kind of commands.
 

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Limitanei or Riparienses

The Palatina legions, which included the Ioviani, were elite regiments of soldiers and guards associated with the emperor’s presence. Contrary to popular belief, these legions were extremely successful against enemy incursions because of their structure but were considerably drained by civil conflicts.
 

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Herculiani seniores, Palatini

This new defensive model provided by the army of Costantine was called “in depth”, as it guaranteed different levels of protection.

 

As can be seen in the Battle of Strasbourg (357 AD), the late Romans, guided by Caesar Julian, were more than capable of forming disciplined and effective armies. Therefore, we cannot solely blame the army for the Fall of the Western Empire. In fact, the army remained a capable and efficient force almost until the last breath of the Roman West.

To further prove this, we can look at the Battle of Adrianople (378 AD), during which there were no morale or disciplinary failures by the army, with troops retreating only when the situation became hopeless. The late Roman army was not weaker than its predecessor, instead it had to face extremely precarious situations, often prevailing over insurmountable odds. Despite common belief, the considerable “barbarization” of the army did not cause it to decline in efficiency. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, the soldiers whose origins were outside the Roman Empire were extremely competent and reliable. 

 

The Heirs of Rome

 

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Coin of Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths in Italy.

 

By the time of the official political “fall” of the western roman empire in 476 AD with the removal of teenage emperor Romulus Augustus by Germanic general Odoacer, western Europe was a mosaic of so-called successor states led by “barbarian” kings and leaders. In this essay, I will focus on the successors I consider the most successful. But first, we must clarify what is meant by the term ‘successful successor state’. As an Italian, I believe that success in late antique and the early middle ages is shown through: political stability, military might, the presence of a central authority with administrative and military branches, territorial control and expansion, achievements in the arts, as well as the willingness to adopt roman cultural traits as the base for further reforms and development.

We often consider the political disintegration of the western roman empire as the end of what we think to be the classical period. Most evidence points to the contrary however, as the so-called “barbarians” that took positions of power inside the imperial bureaucracy became heads of successor states and tried to perpetuate the western roman empire. Most probably, the average roman citizen after 476 AD would not have noticed any changes in his or her daily life, despite now being ruled by a “barbarian” king. Proof of this is the consular ivory diptych depicting Manlius Boethius, father of the famous philosopher Severinus Boethius, shown after 476 AD as a man of high social status who was able to remain in a position of power even after the fall of the western roman empire in 476 AD.

Among the many successor groups of the western roman empire, I believe the Goths were one of the most successful. Both the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, respectively western and eastern Goths, had military and commercial contacts with the Romans for centuries and seem to have had some level of admiration for their culture, as they were the most ‘romanized’ of the “barbarian” groups. This can be seen even today, as Theodoric’s capital, Ravenna, shows his attempt at reproducing late roman and classical forms of art and architecture. Ravenna was to be modeled after Constantinople, as Theodoric had been raised there. His city also took from Rome, in particular his mausoleum, which imitates the classical tombs of the emperors Augustus and Hadrian. Another example is the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in the city of Ravenna, the palatine chapel of king Theodoric, built on the model of the roman civil basilica. Its mosaics on a golden background emulate eastern roman styles.

During the 4th century AD, the Goths’ conversion to Arian Christianity, aided by Bishop Wulfila’s translation of the bible into Gothic, constituted a clear attempt of an immigrant group to better integrate into roman society, although Aryanism was later deemed a heresy at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Their adoption of Arian Christianity presented a great obstacle to the successful amalgamation of Nicene Romans and Arian Goths under the rule of Theodoric in Italy, which would have otherwise been entirely successful.

Theorodoric’s respect and admiration for senatorial elites as well as roman civilization and administration reflects itself in the Ostrogothic administration of his kingdom, which was modeled on its roman counterpart. While military power remained in the hands of the Goths, he left the administration to the senatorial elite, as a sign of admiration for their experience and political shrewdness. He also kept some positions of courtly bureaucracy and power that were directly inherited from the late roman state, such as the office of quaestor sacri palatii, held by Aurelius Cassiodorus and that of magister officiorum, held by Severinus Boethius, author of De consolatione philosophae. Based upon our earlier definition of what constitutes a successful successor state, it is clear the Goths should be seen as successful because they had the ability to adapt and integrate the imperial roman administrative machine to their tribal reality, turning gothic kings from purely military leaders into heads of state with authority over both the administrative and military branches of their reigns.

In terms of political stability however, the Goths lacked continuity as they were often on the move, first on the Danube frontier, then in Moesia, Aquitania Secunda, Italy and finally Spain. These repeated migrations is where their success becomes blighted.

The Goths were to also find success though in the realm of law. The reign of king Chindasuinth saw the compilation of the Liber Iudiciorum, later expanded by his son king Recceswinth in 654 AD, based on the work of past great legislators, such as emperor Justinian and Theodosius II. The main innovations of this code were that women were allowed to inherit land and title, and dispose of their properties independently from their husband’s consent. In his Etymologiae, a monumental collection of general knowledge and etymology, Saint Isidore of Sevilla, although not a Goth himself, shows that visigothic Spain was not a brutish and “barbaric” land, but a culturally flourishing one.

In the field of numismatics, Theodoric the Great, tried to heavily imitate late roman coinage and their characteristic abstract representations while introducing some Germanic elements such as the moustache. During the middle ages, the main Visigoth mints were located in Gaul and in the Iberian peninsula. Visigoths minted mostly solidii and tremissis, two coins which were popular during the late roman era.

The Vandals are another Germanic group that can be considered successful within our construct. Beginning in 429 AD, they were able to establish a relatively stable kingdom in North Africa thanks to the leadership of King Geiseric, a politically able and intrepid leader. Their military prowess showed in their victories against the multiple roman attempts at regaining North Africa, such as that of eastern roman general Basiliscus in 468 AD. The Vandals were successful in developing advanced military tactics, as demonstrated by their use of fireships against the Roman fleet in Cap Bon, Tunisia. They went as far as sacking Rome in 455 AD, when led by Geiseric, who did not burn the city or slaughter its inhabitants due to his promise to Pope Leo I.

Like the Goths, the Vandals also minted their own coinage which was heavily inspired by late roman numismatics.

The Vandals are usually disparaged because of their perceived brutality, of which little historical proof exists. Modern historians however consider them as perpetuators of roman values and culture. I believe the Vandals were not as successful as the Goths or the Franks as their kingdom was brief and ended when North Africa was regained in the 6th century by Belisarius, with very limited resources and manpower.

The transition from a tribal system to some form of centralized government was also a unique skill of the Franks, another Germanic people who were first reunited under King Clovis I and had significant exposure to the roman world.

In terms of territorial control, the Franks came to rule most of central Europe with their sphere of influence extending to northern Italy and the Iberian peninsula under Charlemagne. However, this large territory was divided among Charlemagne successors by the treaty of Vedun in 843 AD, reducing the opportunity for a centralized government and undermining Frankish political stability and unity.

Unlike the Goths who were Arians, the Franks converted to Nicene Christianity with the conversion of King Clovis I on December 24th 496 AD. The king’s conversion to Nicene Christianity and alliance with the church constituted an attempt to align himself with the great Christian emperors of Rome, and the future basis for the empire of Charlemagne. Frankish leaders allied themselves with the personnel of the catholic Church in order to better control their lands as well as influence the political and social spheres of the empire.

In fact, the Frankish kingdom under the Merovingian dynasty paved the way for the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, a Germanic attempt at reestablishing some level of universal authority over Western Europe. The Franks were also able to demonstrate significant military strength, defeating Islamic forces at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD thanks to the leadership of Charles Martell, mayor of the palace under the Merovingian dynasty.

Even more than under the Merovingian dynasty, the reign of Charlemagne brought about a period of flourishing cultural activity called “Carolingian Renaissance”. This cultural renaissance was characterized by the restoration, preservation and emulation of ancient and classical texts and artistic canons by scholars and clergymen of the time, pointing in the direction of the renovatio imperii that saw Charlemagne as the restorer of imperial roman authority in Western Europe. In particular, illuminated manuscripts made mostly by clergymen, such as the “Godescalc Gospels”, can be recognized as works of particular artistic and cultural significance. Another relevant cultural innovation was the introduction of the Carolingian minuscule, a clear script promoted by Charlemagne between the 8th and 9th century AD. This script provided a standardized writing style which facilitated reading and comprehension of medieval Latin throughout Europe. During his reign, Charlemagne also promoted better education for clergymen as they played a relevant role in the administration of the Carolingian empire. The reign of Clovis I, saw the compilation of the Frankish legal code around 500 AD. Unlike the Visigothic legal code, the Frankish one displayed little Roman influence. However, it nonetheless represents an important attempt to regulate life in the Frankish kingdom and, most importantly, constitutes a transition from early Germanic laws, which were oral compilations of custom, to written statutes.

In my opinion, the Goths can be considered as a worthy successor state to the western roman empire. Their close interaction with the Romans within the lands they occupied shows a strong willingness to amalgamate with them. This may have been related to the fact that they conquered coastal territories such as Italy and Spain which were the heart of the old roman world. Their conversion to Aryan Christianity was also a way to integrate themselves into the empire in the 4th century, as the empire was almost fully converted to Christianity, with the eastern roman empire having an Arian emperor, Valens. The Goths also had the cunning and perhaps the luck, to keep the roman senatorial elites in a position of power, taking advantage of their administrative skills and keeping them in line. Unlike the Goths, the Vandals did not experience the same cultural development, as their reign was relatively brief, despite occupying the most fertile lands of the old roman empire. The Franks however do rival the Goths as the most successful successor group of the western roman empire. While the Franks developed a form of centralized government under Clovis I, their interaction with the Roman world at that time was relatively marginal. In terms of religion, the Franks made a more forward looking decision than the Goths, as they converted immediately to Nicene Christianity bypassing all other heresies. As for political longevity, the Franks outlasted all other Germanic groups as they formed the nucleus of what was to become the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, the Franks were also able to demonstrate the greatest military proficiency of all of the successor states, through their halting of the Arab advance into western Europe and the defeat of the Lombards under Charlemagne, while the Visigothic kingdoms fell prey to the Arab push and Ostrogoth Italy became prey to the armies of Constantinople. Although the Franks appear to be the most successful state in terms of prowess, longevity, and cultural achievements, I nonetheless believe the Goths had a symbiotic relationship with the roman world that the Franks never had, and are thus a more direct successor state to the western roman empire.

 

 

Death between the Dunes

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Al-Mutawakkil Great Mosque and archaeological site (9th century AD). In June 363 AD, it must have been boiling hot and wearing roman heavy armor certainly did not help.

In June of year 363 AD, near the city of Samarra in modern day Iraq, a large professional Roman army was in a state of total chaos. The Romans were led by Princeps Julian, a cultured and competent leader who had led the army to victory near the Persian capital of Ctesiphon a month earlier. Julian however failed to capitalize on this important tactical victory, and did not siege the city as an incoming force led by the King of Kings Shapur II was closing in from the east. Near Samarra, Julian’s army of 35,000 was intercepted by skirmishing cavalry sent by Shapur. The Persians attacked the roman cohorts who were advancing in square formations to avoid encirclement. Julian, seeing his troops panicking in front of the sudden Sassanid attack, rushed forward without his armor in order to encourage his men to fight on. He was however spotted by Sassanid officers who sent an arab regiment of auxiliary cavalry to assassinate him. Julian was hit on his back by a javelin and was immediately rushed to the rearguard. His doctor Oribasius couldn’t do anything, as the Emperor died a few hours later in his tent. The roman army, now without a leader, chose Jovian (Julian’s Comes Domesticorum) as the new emperor. Facing continuous raids from the Sassanids, the Romans were forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty with Shapur II. Shortly after the peace negotiations, emperor Jovian died in his tent in Anatolia (Dadastana) under mysterious circumstances.

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Emperor Julian (361-363 AD) is famous for his struggle against the now dominating Christian faith in the Roman Empire. Julian’s beard symbolyzes his philosophical erudition and his attachment to the pagan tradition.

 

The Sogdian Rock

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Babak Castle, located in North-Western Iran. The Achaemenid and Sassanid Persians were famous for building their castles on top of steep mountains.

In the spring of 327 BC, Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, had conquered most of the persian Achaemenid empire and defeated the King of Kings Darius III in numerous battles. Alexander had arrived in Central Asia, in a region known then as Sogdiana (modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and had encountered stiff resistance from the Iranic peoples that lived in the hereto unexplored region. One of the leaders of the resistance was Oxyartes, a persian nobleman who had a beautiful daughter named Roxanne. Roxanne was sent by her father to a fortified castle near the city of Maracanda (Samarkand). The castle was considered impregnable, as it was located on the top of a steep mountain and therefore nicknamed “The Sogdian Rock”. While Alexander was preparing the troops for the siege, the confident defenders told him that to take their castle he would need “men with wings”. Alexander took 300 volunteers experienced in rock climbing (Macedonia being a mountainous region, his men were skilled climbers) and sent them up the slopes of the mountain. When the men arrived on the top, Alexander sent messangers to tell the Persians that if they looked up on the walls, they would have seen their winged men. The Persians, astonished, surrendered to Alexander. After the siege Alexander married Oxyartes’s daughter Roxanne, who gave him a son, Alexander IV.

The Last Bastion of the West

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Stunning view of the Abbaye Saint Jean des Vignes in Soissons, Aisne, France. Credit to Dronestagr.am.

By the time teenage emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Germanic general Odoacer in 476 AD, the western Roman world was fragmented and governed by mostly “barbarian” rulers who led the so called “romano-barbarian” kingdoms. There was however a land in northern Gaul, near the city of Noviodunum (modern day Soissons), which still claimed to be part of the Roman Empire. The leader of the domain of Soissons was Afranius Syagrius, the son of the able Magister Militum per Gallias, Aegidius. He was referred to as “King of the Romans” by the Frankish nobles, and tried to maintain a successful Gaullic-Roman state in the middle of a mostly germanic ruled western Europe. Syagrius succeeded in pursuing his objective for about 25 years, but, in 486 AD, he was challenged by the ambitious king of the Franks, Clovis I. Syagrius confronted the armies of Clovis near Soissons, in the modern French department of Aisne. The Franks managed to crush the Roman forces, as Syagrius was forced to flee to the Visigothic court of Alaric II. Alaric, intimidated by the powerful Franks, handed Syagrius over to Clovis, who summarily executed him. Gregory of Tours wrote about the event, claiming that Syagrius was stabbed in secret. With the death of Syagrius, Roman rule in the West came to an end. This is not to say that Roman culture disappeared entirely, as the Eastern Roman Empire was still strong and the new germanic kingdoms viewed Rome as a model, which they copied extensively, from administrative posts to military tactics and ranks.

A Knife in the Dark: the Arcani

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Missorium of Emperor Valentinian I, surrounded by his bodyguards. From left to right, the second and fifth guard appear to be from the Lanciarii division. The Arcani were disbanded during the reign of Valentinian. Photo credit to MAH, photo J.- M. Yersin, inv. C1241.

The Arcani or Areani were a Roman paramilitary group which acted as a secret police force for the state. Their name means “the hidden ones” or “the secret ones” in Latin, which in and of itself, suggest a role of secrecy. The lack of information about the Arcani is another confirmation of their secretive role. The Arcani were mostly tasked with reconnaissance duties and intelligence missions around the frontiers, giving detailed reports about enemy forces and leaders. The majority of them most likely had military experience, especially “field agents”, whose mission it was to infiltrate enemy territory. We don’t know much about their techniques of subterfuge, but most of their covert operations probably took place during diplomatic gatherings, military expeditions or hostage exchanges. During the late Roman period, they were probably responsible for multiple assassinations of foreign chieftains and kings. They may have worked alongside the Exploratores and Praeventores in supervising the frontier. According to late Roman author and military officer, Ammianus Marcellinus, by the second half of the 4th century AD, the Arcani had become an old and corrupt institution. After being accused of collaborating with the enemy, particularly in regards to the Great Conspiracy, a joint invasion of Britain which included the Attacotti, the Franks, the Saxons and the Picts, the Arcani were disbanded by Count Theodosius the elder, father of future emperor Theodosius I. The Arcani were, and continue to be, often subject of romanticized depictions and wild speculation, especially because very little is known about them. Perhaps the mystery surrounding the Arcani was meant from the beginning?

 

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