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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.

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A Gothic Hero

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Death of emperor Valens on the battlefield near the city of Adrianople. The emperor died fighting with his own bodyguards.

Fritigern is one of the most famous Gothic rulers in history. Contrary to popular belief, Fritigern was not born into a primitive and barbarian society. On the contrary, he was part of a group of people, the Tervingi Goths, who had been in contact with the Roman world for years, as a result of trade and Roman attempts at converting the Goths to Christianity. The Romans were even partly successful, with the Goths partly embracing Arian Christianity thanks to the conversion campaign promoted by bishop Ulfilas, with Frigern being one of those converted. In the year 375 AD however, things changed drastically for the Goths as bellicose Hunnic tribes invaded from the North. In 376 AD, in response to the invasions of the Huns, the Goths began amassing on the northern banks of the Danube, in modern day Bulgaria. The river served as the northern boundary of the eastern Roman empire, which at the time was led by emperor Valens. The gothic leaders, including Fritigern, did not want to invade the empire, instead they wished to settle down within its borders and be protected from the Hunnic threat. The gothic chieftains sent ambassadors to the emperor, who was based in Antioch, in modern day Syria. 

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Bust of emperor Valens. Capitoline Museums. Rome, Italy.

Valens, planning to enlist the gothic male population into the army, accepted their proposal. Therefore, the Goths crossed over the Danube under Roman supervision. The Roman provincial authorities however, were not able to deal with the immigration wave and, in the city of Marcianople, they slaughtered the gothic authorities. Fritigern was the only chieftain to survive the carnage. He maintained his pro-Roman policy, facing Roman armies only when necessary. In 378 AD, near the city of Adrianople in Thrace, Fritigern tried to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict with the emperor. While Fritigern’s delegation (which included a priest) and Valens were discussing peace terms in the Roman camp, a battle started outside. The confrontation would end with a complete victory for the Goths and with the death of Valens on the battlefield. Fritigern however, would always remain open to negotiations with the Romans. In order to bring them to the negotiating table, Fritigern even tried to besiege Adrianople and Constantinople, failing in both attempts and saying: “I make peace with stone walls”. He then confronted the new eastern emperor, Theodosius I, in three years of guerrilla warfare. During this period, he disappeared from history, probably dead in battle or assassinated by his own men (with the aid of roman gold). Fritigern is arguably the first germanic leader to truly challenge Roman power. He did not want however to replace the Roman culture with that of the Goths, instead wanting cooperation between the two groups. Being the leader of a tribal society, he must have been a truly charismatic and competent character, demonstrating his military prowess in the battles of Marcianopolis, Ad Salices and Adrianople. After his mysterious death, Fritigern was succeeded by Athanaric, who finally managed to negotiate a peace treaty with Theodosius I.

 

The Warrior Archbishop

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5th century mosaic of Ambrose as an imperial official. This portrait is considered a realistic one. St. Ambrose’s basilica, Milan, Italy.

On November 30th 374 AD, the atmosphere was extremely tense in the city of Medionalum (modern day Milan). Arian archbishop Auxentius had just died and the city had to nominate his successor. The election occurred in an unidentified church of the city. There, the citizens, divided between the Arian and the Nicene creeds, were struggling to find common ground, while a high ranking imperial official, a man named Ambrose, listened carefully to their speeches. After listening to their reasons, Ambrose made a speech aimed at restoring harmony between the two factions. While talking, a man in the crowd shouted: “Ambrose for bishop!”. Soon afterwards, the whole crowd started shouting: “Ambrose for bishop!”. This is how Ambrose, an important player at the court of emperor Valentinian I, became Archbishop of one of the most important cities of the Roman West. However, he never wanted to pursue a career in the church. Although a Nicene Christian, he was trained to become an imperial civil administrator, not a member of the clergy. With time however, Ambrose, a strong personality with impressive rhetorical skills,  learned how to act as a successful religious figure and even became the tutor of the emperor’s son, Gratian. Ambrose was elected bishop during a time in which the power of the Roman state in the West was waning and the Christian church was gradually taking control over secular matters. As a bishop, Ambrose was an enemy to Arian Christians, deemed as heretics at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The emperor’s wife, Giustina, however, was among the Arian faction. After the death of Valentinian I in 375 AD, Ambrose therefore entered into a fierce contrast with the imperial court, which was dominated by Arian christians. During this period, Ambrose built four basilicas in the city in order to strengthen his position: the basilica martyrum, the basilica apostolorum, the basilica virginum and the basilica prophetarum. He also clashed with a pagan aristocrat, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who was a stern supporter of the traditional politeistic roman religion. The Archbishop eventually won both encounters, risking his own life during an Arian attack and becoming one of the most powerful men in Milan. He went as far as excommunicating emperor Theodosius I after the massacre of Thessalonica, during which the emperor ordered the slaughter of 7.000 citizens. This demonstrated his enormous personal power and extreme self confidence. Ambrose introduced a new form of liturgical chant, the Canto Ambrosiano, known for its collective singing. He was one of the first Christian religious figures to hold significant secular power. Currently, he is the patron saint of Milan. He is displayed on the first Gonfalone of the same city.

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Beautiful absidal mosaic of St. Ambrose’s basilica. St. Ambrose’s basilica, Milan, Italy. 

Federico II: Un Imperatore Medievale?

“La vostra fedeltà brilla come stella intorno a noi e invidiata da tutti i popoli risplende nel mondo” – Federico II di Svevia ai pugliesi

 

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Taglio dal Codex Manesse, conservato nella biblioteca universitaria di Heidelberg, raffigurante il cantore Konrad von Altstetten con la sua amante, spesso identificato con Federico II e Bianca Lancia di Agliano. 

Uomo, imperatore, mecenate, “anticristo”, “stupor mundi”, “puer Apuliae”, Federico II fu tutte queste cose e anche di più.

Seguito durante la sua infanzia e gioventù da tutori di prestigio, tra cui il Pontefice Innocenzo III, un Imam musulmano ed il futuro papa Onorio III, Federico diventerà un giovane uomo dalla forte personalità, saggio e sorprendentemente precoce nel raggiungere la maturità. Egli cresce in Italia e soprattutto in Sicilia, al tempo crocevia della cultura greco-bizantina, islamica e latina che Federico assorbirà totalmente. Sarà anche addestrato all’uso delle armi e alla cavalcata, abilità tipicamente riservate alle classi dirigenti medievali. Lo Svevo, nato dall’unione tra Costanza d’Altavilla, regina normanna, ed Enrico VI, imperatore germanico (figlio di Federico I “Barbarossa”), erediterà il Regno di Sicilia e si aggiudicherà il Regno di Germania, caratterizzato da una monarchia elettiva, con l’aiuto di Innocenzo III e Filippo II di Francia e con la vittoria sull’avversario politico, Ottone IV di Brunswick, a Bouvines nel 1214.

Convinto difensore della superiorità temporale dell’impero sulle altre autorità laiche e soprattutto sulla Chiesa di Roma, Federico attua politiche espansionistiche in Oriente attraverso le Crociate, diventando anche Re di Gerusalemme, ed in Italia settentrionale combattendo contro la seconda Lega Lombarda. Lo Svevo è in continuo contrasto sia con lo spirito universalistico della Chiesa di Roma che con i Comuni italiani, in buon numero coalizzati contro di lui e favorevoli alla politica papale, sui quali non riuscirà mai ad imporre la sua piena autorità.

L’imperatore è un uomo di grande cultura, un mecenate ed un poliglotta, animato da una forte curiosità scientifica. E’ autore attivo, patrono di una corrente letteraria siciliana, poeta e grande costruttore di edifici pubblici. Insieme con i suoi collaboratori, tra cui spicca la figura dell’amico Pier delle Vigne, sarà responsabile di un programma di accentramento del potere regio nel Regno di Sicilia, culminato con l’emanazione delle Costituzioni di Melfi nel 1231. Profondamente innamorato della Sicilia e soprattutto della Puglia, da lui considerata rifugio spirituale e definita “luce dei miei occhi”, Federico è considerato da molti come un sovrano illuminato, predecessore del Rinascimento.

Il mito federiciano è sempre stato al centro di un animato dibattito storiografico. Da un lato, autori quali David Abulafia, presentano il monarca come un sovrano puramente tradizionale e quindi medievale. Molti storici lo considerano un uomo radicato nel suo tempo perché legato ai principi della tradizione medievale quali la religiosità cristiana, il timore verso i papi, la scarsa tolleranza nei confronti delle fedi non cristiane e la concezione del re come come princeps romano. Dall’altro autori del calibro dello storico polacco Ernst Kantorowicz, tratteggiano la figura di Federico II come quella di un monarca illuminato, profondamente laico parchè uomo di scienza e avversario della Chiesa e precursore del pensiero Rinascimentale parchè uomo di cultura, mecenate e dagli interessi poliedrici.

A mio avviso, Federico fu entrambe le cose. Se da un lato intavolò rapporti amichevoli con le componenti islamiche del suo regno tanto da formare un suo corpo di guardia con militari provenienti da quelle regioni, atteggiamento insolito per quei tempi, dall’altro ordinò deportazioni di massa di cittadini islamici a Lucera dopo averne giustiziato i capi. In uno dei suoi scritti, lo stesso imperatore affermò di fare la guerra ai papi e non alla Chiesa, rivelandosi uomo profondamente cattolico, aspetto proprio della tradizione medievale. Allo stesso tempo, si dichiarava avversario della politica universale adottata dal Papato.

Federico è stato un grande uomo ma anche una figura eccessivamente idealizzata. Infatti, i pochi episodi di maltrattamenti di prigionieri di guerra nell’età medievale sono riconducibili proprio al sovrano Svevo. Ad esempio, quando nel 1237 a Cortenuova le sue truppe sconfissero l’esercito della seconda Lega Lombarda, una volta catturato il leader dell’esercito nemico Pietro Tiepolo, figlio del Doge di Venezia, l’Imperatore lo fece uccidere dopo averlo umiliato. Si tratta di un comportamento insolito da parte di un sovrano medievale, in quanto ai prigionieri di guerra veniva solitamente risparmiata la vita e riservato un trattamento d’onore.

Perno del suo Regno non sarà mai la Germania, terra politicamente instabile, bensì proprio l’Italia meridionale, resa potente a partire dalla dinasta normanna degli Altavilla, da cui Federico è discendente da parte di madre.

La vita sentimentale dello Svevo fu sempre soggetta alla necessità di stringere alleanze politiche, come dimostrano le sue unioni con Costanza d’Aragona, Jolanda di Brienne ed Isabella d’Inghilterra. Ci fu però una donna, Bianca Lancia, probabilmente di origine piemontese, che occupò il suo cuore dall’anno 1225 e che sposò sul letto di morte.

La sua dinastia si rivelò alquanto sfortunata poiché il primo figlio Enrico si suicidò dopo una ribellione contro il padre. Il figlio illegittimo Enzo, re di Sardegna, preso prigioniero dopo la battaglia di Fossalta, morì durante la prigionia senza che il padre lo riscattasse. Manfredi, invece, figlio di Bianca Lancia, morì durante la battaglia di Benevento nel 1266, sconfitto dalle truppe di Carlo d’Angiò. La morte violenta a Napoli del giovane nipote Corradino pose fine alla supremazia della dinastia Sveva che si era fatta portabandiera dell’universalità dell’impero.

Federico subisce da sempre il fascino dell’assolutismo degli imperatori romani. La nuova monetazione da lui introdotta, l’augustale, un chiaro riferimento alla romanità, riporta da un lato l’immagine dell’imperatore laureato e dall’altra l’aquila imperiale. Lo Svevo amava farsi ritrarre come sbarbato e laureato, similmente alla ritrattistica traianea, mantenendo i tratti giovanili anche in età matura. Questo aspetto propagandistico della sua immagine si può ritenere attinente al processo di accentramento del potere ed all’esaltazione della sua autorità.

Frate Salimbene da Parma, che conobbe l’imperatore di persona, lo descrive come un uomo di bell’aspetto e di media statura. Il francescano fu avversario dell’imperatore, e difatti lo descrisse come un uomo avaro, malvagio e lussurioso seppur poi ammettendo la presenza in lui di grandi qualità.

Federico II risulta a mio pare una figura estremamente affascinante. La sua personalità poliedrica, il suo carattere duro ma allo stesso tempo sensibile fanno di lui un monarca ideale, con il quale si può cacciare con il falco e dialogare di filosofia.

Bibliografia

Abulafia, D. (2015). Federico II. Einaudi.

Bocchieri, M. T. (2005). Federico II. Ragione e Fortuna. Laterza.

Houben, H. (2009). Federico II. Imperatore, uomo, mito. Il Mulino.

Di Svevia, F. De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus.

Kantorowicz, E. (2000). Federico II Imperatore. Garzanti.

Vellucci, L. (2016) Federico II. L’imperatore del mistero. Tipheret.

 

Gratian the Elder

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Unidentified male portrait, Villa dei Papiri, Ercolano. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.

Gratian the elder was born in Cibalae, modern day Croatia, a region known for providing military officers and personnel to the Empire. At an early age, his compatriots nicknamed him Funarius. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that he was a rope salesman and the second is that he prevented a group of soldiers from stealing a rope. Despite not being a member of the aristocracy, Gratian managed to enter the Protectores Domestici, an elite body of high ranking officers close to the emperor. Thanks to his physical prowess and military skills, Gratian was promoted to Comes Africae, commander of the Comitatenses, professional soldiers of North Africa. However, he was soon accused of embezzlement and forced to resign. Unfortunately, little is known about this incident. Around 340 AD, Gratian was recalled to military service under emperor Constans I as Comes Britanniae. Gratian rebuilt the frontier forts and fortified the island, demonstrating his military capabilities. During this time, he is likely to have worked in close cooperation with the Comes Litoris Saxonici and the Dux Britanniarum, respectively the commander of the coastal defenses and the commander of the Limitanei or Rparienses. After this last assignment, Gratian retired to his country villa in Pannonia. He had two sons, Valentinian and Valens, who would both become emperors. His property in Pannonia would be devastated during the civil conflict between Constantius II and Magnus Magnentius. He died in the year 367 AD. A brass statue of him was built in the Curia of Costantinople. Gratian is a really fascinating character as he came to power and to a prestigious position only through merit and not thanks to money or social status.

Giustina: A Late Roman Empress

Giustina was born in Picenum, Italy to Giusto, the governor of the city under the emperor Constantius II. She was famously beautiful and ambitious, marrying the usurper Magnus Magnentius, a commander of the Ioviani and HerculianiAfter his suicide in 353 AD, Giustina became the second wife of emperor Valentinian I, a man of complex personality and great military prowess. According to legend, Valentinian’s first wife, Marina Severa, was the one who, being struck by Giustina’s beauty, presented her to the emperor. She gave Valentinian a son, Valentinian II, and became the stepmother of the emperor’s first son Gratian. During Gratian’s reign, Giustina lived in Sirmium, Pannonia. As most Roman empresses, she wore elaborate jewels, sported eccentric hairstyles and long, rich earrings. When her son Valentinian II came to power at the age of four, Giustina ruled in his name, showing the full extent of her ambition and strong personality. Being a fervent Arian Christian, Giustina ferociously opposed the powerful and influential bishop of Milan, Ambrose who was a Nicean Christian. Giustina died in 387 AD while traveling. Lacking her protection, her son Valentinian II was assassinated soon after. Giustina demonstrated an impressive personality, able to control the political scene at court even when the odds were stacked against her. With her legendary beauty, she enchanted the late Roman courtiers while also dominating them with her iron personality.

The Last of The Romans

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Famous portrait of the Tetrarchic emperors. The first tetrarchs were Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus. Venice.

Emperor Majorian was born around the year 420 AD. Coming from a prominent military family, Majorian served as an officer under the Magister Militum Flavius Aetius, a very able commander. Majorian lived in a violent epoch in which most of the western Roman Empire was flooded by germanic tribes or dismembered by civil strife and economic collapse. The professional legions, the traditional core of the Roman army, were disintegrating and increasingly replaced by germanic warriors. The empire was led by Valentinian III, an ineffective emperor, mostly concerned with issues arising from the rapidly growing Christian church. Under Aetius, Majorian distinguished himself as a cavalry tribune against the Franks of King Chlodius. On June 20th 451 AD, the armies of Aetius clashed with the Huns and their allies, led by King Attila, on the plains of Chalons en Champagne in Gaul, modern day France. The Romans, aided by the Visigoths of King Torrismund, were victorious and Majorian managed to survive the bloody battle. In 454 AD, however, Majorian’s commander Aetius was brutally assassinated by emperor Valentinian III in Ravenna, Italy which had become the fortified capital of the western empire. 

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Coin of emperor Valentinian III depicted with spear and shield.

One year later, Valentinian himself was hacked to pieces by two gothic soldiers loyal to Aetius in the Campus Martius in Rome. The western empire was in disarray. The two most important men of the empire had been killed, and inevitably, a power vacuum soon followed, causing a calamitous situation in ancient Rome. First, a roman aristocrat by the name of Petronius Maximus was elevated to the imperial throne, though his reign lasted just sixty days. The gaul Avitus replaced him, and managed to hold onto power for fifteen months. He was ultimately deposed, however, by Majorian and by his germanic coconspirator, Ricimer. Majorian was subsequently proclaimed emperor by the troops in 457 AD. During his reign, Majorian successfully defended Italy from foreign threats, strengthened the army by recruiting german warriors, and reconquered Gaul with the use of arms and diplomacy. He failed, however, to recapture Northern Africa, which had been previously conquered by the Vandals, as his fleet was destroyed by traitors near Elche, Spain. 

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Coin of emperor Majorian depicted with full military regalia, Arles.

Apart from being a great soldier, Majoran was also a cultured man and an admirer of philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius. Majorian was also a stern legislator as he wrote the Novellae Maiorani, a collection of general laws. The emperor minted coins in gold, silver and bronze and was often depicted with a helmet in order to show his military background. He tried to cooperate with the senatorial elites by involving them in civil administration. He also had a keen interest in safeguarding public monuments which were suffering from looting. The successful reign of Majorian ended when his germanic Magister Militum, Ricimer, betrayed him. Ricimer met the emperor  with a band of troops near Tortona and arrested him. Majorian was deposed and on August 7th 461 AD, and was beheaded near the river Iria, in the Italian province of Liguria. Majorian can be considered the last truly successful western emperor as he was a keen reformer and an able military leader, truly deserving, in my opinion, the title of Last of the Romans.

 

 

Alexander the Great and the loneliness of power

“There is nothing impossible to him who will try” – Alexander the Great

We all remember Alexander the Great as the ultimate hero who was able to achieve his dreams conquering half of the known world. Though, my essay will focus on a darker, less known aspect of his adventurous life: the dramatic consequences his almost unlimited power had on his behavior and the changes his character went through as he continued on his epic journey towards his dream of conquest. In this essay, I am going to analyze whether he had the potential to handle the greatness he achieved, concluding that he fell victim to power. In order to weigh the influence power had on Alexander’s life, I will embark on a great journey which starts from his first steps as a king.

During the 4th century BC, when Alexander was still a crown prince, his father Philip II tried to Hellenize his court because the Greeks considered Macedonian upper classmen barbarian and uncivilized. Also, he wanted to improve the relationships between Macedonian and Greek noblemen at his court. Alexander grew up in a court environment characterized by frequent intrigues. These led to a serious estrangement between Philip, Queen Olympias and Alexander himself, ultimately leading to Philip’s mysterious assassination in 336 BC. It is implied that Olympias and Alexander were heavily involved in the murder plot. In fact, Alexander was the one who profited the most from Philip’s death. With the help of Antipater, he secured his power. The king was safe but far from powerful. We must not think of this boy of less than twenty years old as the great leader he turned out to be. At the time, he was a youngster raised to power by a group of powerful nobles who certainly expected to rule through him. During this time, Alexander managed to overcome his numerous external problems such as barbarian invasions, insurrections and the newly started conflict against Persia as well as his most formidable domestic problem: gaining his independence as a king from the powerful influence of the Macedonian noble families such as those of Parmenio and Attalus.

When Alexander crossed to Asia in 334 BC, he brought with him a great army, led by his childhood friends. Most of them were tutored together with him by one of the most brilliant thinkers of the time, Aristotle. At the beginning of this journey, the young king could rely on his generals’ faith. The men were enthusiastic, motivated and ready to fight for their leader. Starting from the battle of the Granicus River, Anatolia in 334 BC, Alexander managed to open the path for the conquest of the Achemenid Persian Empire led by the great king Darius III. After the great victories at Issus in 333 BC, Gaugamela in 331 BC and endless siege battles such as those at Halicarnassus and Tyre, Darius was left as a fugitive and Alexander became the uncontested master of the lands west of the Euphrates.

Alexander was ably supported by his commanders and full of pride. However, despite showing exceptional qualities such as authority and courage, Alexander also began displaying a darker and more threatening side of his personality, undermining the life of his generals and followers and eliminating his political rivals to secure his great power. Why did he do that? Was something bothering him? As the glorious advance continued into Iran, the pulsating heart of the Persian Empire, tensions between Alexander the Great and the Greek-Macedonian allies grew because Alexander’s general did not have the same mindset as their king: in fact, they wanted glory, plunder and wealth.

On the other hand, Alexander had a greater, more glorious vision. He considered himself to be the new Persian king of kings, seeing Darius as an usurper. He wanted to push himself and his followers to the limit by reaching the ends of the empire, all the way up to India and its dusty royal palaces. This is not the way of thinking of an ordinary man. This is the tale of an individual who found himself alone with his dream of success and power. Moreover, he knew he had to conciliate his new Persian subjects and win over their support. This applied particularly to Persian aristocrats, who were the real administrators of the empire. Alexander started to behave like one of the great Persian kings. This policy could not have been carried out until Parmenio’s increasing power had been dealt with. His family and supporters were in fact among the strongest objectors to Alexander’s revolutionary policies because of their traditional Macedonian upbringing. It is hard to separate personal antagonism from political opposition in all this. As a result, tensions increased and conflict became inevitable.

In Media, Alexander took an important step; he left his general Parmenio behind, in charge of the supply lines. The general did not object this decision but the king had effectively got rid of his powerful presence. Soon after, Parmenio’s younger son died. A few days later, Philotas, the older brother and commander of the famous Macedonian noble cavalry called “Hetairoi”, was somehow implicated in a “conspiracy” against the king. A great description of it can be found in the writings of several Greek and Roman authors such as Arrian and Curtius Rufus. The king put him on trial for high treason before the army. Although no evidence of Philotas’ implications in the plot could be produced, Alexander demanded the death sentence for him. Now the king had another matter to deal with and wanted to do it using the army once again. It is incredible how both in politics and war, Alexander’s personality appears consistent and unmistakable. He never rushed things, always had a plan in mind and never missed the chance of finishing off an enemy leaving him with no hope of resistance or recovery because he was essentially insecure. Parmenio however, could not be tried before the army for actions there was no evidence he had committed. Aware of that, Alexander chose the swiftest and most efficient way of getting rid of him: assassination.

Having dealt with Parmenio’s influence, Alexander finally gained his long-wanted independence. A series of great trials of Parmenio’s supporters followed. All the Macedonian nobles somehow implicated in Parmenio’s faction were ruthlessly murdered. Alexander then assigned the command of the “Hetairoi” to his most trusted confidant and perhaps lover, Hephaestion. Though, discontent over the killings of generals and officers prevailed among soldiers. Shortly after, this bitterness led to a horrific incident at Samarkand, modern day Uzbekistan. At a banquet, common at the Macedonian court, Clitus the Black, a military officer, clashed with Alexander. Fueled by the alcohol, the king’s anger grew uncontrollably leading him to kill Clitus with his own hands and cry over his body afterwards. Alexander was becoming increasingly lonely in his position of absolute power, ruthlessly murdering and getting rid of his childhood friends and protectors he once loved and trusted. What followed Clitus’ death was of great importance as it proved Alexander’s ability to seize a chance and turn it to his advantage, not caring about his bad actions. Alexander locked himself up in his royal tent and proclaimed great remorse for what he had done. Did he really feel bad because of it? He probably used remorse to win back his shocked men as they realized that without their king, they would have faced defeat. In fact, on the third day after Alexander locked himself, army officers came to the tent begging for him to change his mind and pass a resolution convicting Clitus of treason, thereby legitimizing Alexander’s action.

The tragic death of Clitus marked a point of no return for the king’s degenerating mind. Now, Alexander wanted to tranform his court from a  Macedonian to a Persian-style one. His only probable supporter was Hephaestion, loyal to him till the end. Greek royal historian Callisthenes refused to submit to the new type of court by not making prostration, the usual way of saluting the Persian king. It was Alexander’s first defeat. The god king had lost the sympathy of most of his Greek supporters, even those who hailed him as monarch back in Macedonia. Callisthenes did not live much longer. He was executed by order of the king. This demonstration of absolute power on Alexander’s part was seen as a display of tyranny and violence even by his supporters. He now only had sympathy for Asiatics.

Alexander then used military success in India to cover up the memory of murder and purge from the minds of the soldiers. In his glorious Indian campaign, his war-tested men were united behind their great leader and the banner of the Argead dynasty. After the great victory at the Hydaspes river in 326 BC against king Porus came another huge disappointment for the great Alexander: the soldiers simply did not want to follow him any longer. The spokesman for the mutinous soldiers was Coenus, the very man who helped Alexander wipe out Parmenio’s power. The king who had once used the army as his main weapon now found himself in a condition of desperation because everyone he counted on was now turning against him. He was lonely, reduced to the status of a man who only relied on his unbreakable dream to go on. Alexander ultimately tried to threaten and intimidate his men but they would not yield this time. They knew that he could not do anything without them. Alexander finally gave up, a broken shell of his former self, retreating down the Indus valley to the sea. Thanks to the multiple sources we now have access to, we know that his soldiers did not follow him as eagerly as before. In a desperate attempt to regain his men’s loyalty, Alexander was always on the frontlines, and once, when storming the capital city of the Malli tribe, he was severely wounded and no one thought he could survive. After miraculously surviving the wound, Alexander understood that his power depended massively on others and that he had to be eternally vigilant to defend it. After innumerable executions, murders and increasing tensions, he realized that he could not count on the total submission of his nobles and men.

In the spring of 324, at Susa, Alexander and eighty of his principal courtiers and commanders married Iranian princesses in order to create an independent ruling class of mixed blood. What Alexander’s nobles thought of this decision became clear after the monarch’s death, when most of them repudiated their wives. Now a disillusioned man, with his glorious dream shattered, Alexander felt extremely vulnerable and insecure. His success in schemes and plotting only increased the resulting instability of his condition. In order to hide his fears, the great Alexander took refuge in the divine. Encouraging the myth of his own divinity as the son of god Ammon, he began to believe in his own godly status. Though, the enforced deification would not change the escalating situation. About this time, Alexander suffered his most serious blow. In the autumn of 324 BC, his most trusted friend and presumed lover, Hephaestion, the only man he fully trusted and who supported him, drank himself to death. At this point, Alexander approached insanity as he found himself completely alone, only surrounded by enemies who he once called friends. As Plutarch states in his “Parallel Lives”, Alexander also started to be negatively influenced by divine omens. Not even after celebrating his best friend’s funeral with full splendor, had Alexander given up on his dream. There is evidence of his great schemes such as the invasion of Arabia and Western Africa. To me, these ambitious plans represent the ultimate and desperate attempt by the great king to find his purpose again. He had won all the power he could, there was nothing left to do.

About midsummer of the year 323 BC, at the age of 32, Alexander fell ill. Whatever the nature of his illness, he aggravated it by drinking heavily until all hope was lost. Did ultimate power bring Alexander to his death? This, we will never know. The theory of poisoning suggested by historians can’t be proved. What we do know is that he was requested to designate a worthy successor on his death bed but refused to do so. According to a legend, as he was asked for the last time whom he wanted as a successor, he replied: “the κράτιστος”, the strongest. In my opinion, this quote ultimately proves that Alexander wasn’t, for the most part, interested in a future without himself and that he could not find anyone trustworthy nor powerful enough in his entourage to effectively succeed him.

My essay of course does not cover the whole adventurous life story of Alexander. His military and political skills are beyond question, as he continued to be the most powerful man of his time. Though, on an individual and psychological level, the life of Alexander the Great is that of a man who conquered the whole world using his determination and courage, only to lose his soul in the end. I personally believe that Alexander was brought to darkness only by his light, as he ultimately could not handle the power and success he achieved. After fighting, murdering and scheming against his own men and friends in a quest for absolute power, he found himself completely lonely on a pinnacle over darkness, with no actual use for his incredible power. His genius allowed him to end an époque and begin another one dominated by multiculturalism and peace. He however, never found peace. I consider Alexander to be the epitome of the tragic hero, illustrating with startling clarity the incredible success a man can achieve by following his own light and determination. Also, he shows the effects that supreme power can have on men. It can corrupt them and make them feel lonely and alienated. Alexander failed to achieve his dream but managed to change his world like no other great leader could have. Indeed, he revolutionized the ancient world by creating a concept which was unthinkable for his time: globalization. Although he is a controversial figure in the end, the legacy of his success was capable of reaching our times, shaping civilization for centuries. Many great men of ancient and modern history involuntarily followed Alexander in his footsteps towards absolute power ultimately finding themselves alone with their unbearable burden. Julius Caesar was killed by his countrymen because of it as he planned more conquests in Parthia and in the East as Alexander did; Napoleon was exiled to the island of Saint Helena because of his suffocating power and remained alone with his vision of glory and conquest.

 

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Alexander charging towards king Darius III at the battle of Issus. National Archaeological Museum, Naples.

Bibliography

Primary sources

Arrian of Nicomedia. The Anabasis of Alexander

Curtius Rufus. Historiae Alexandri Magni

Plutarch. Parallel Lives, Alexander the Great and Julius Ceaser

Secondary sources

Badian, Ernst. (2012) Collected papers on Alexander the Great, Routledge.

Freeman, Philip. (2011) Alexander the Great, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Holland, Tom. (2011) Persian fire, Abacus.

Manfredi, Valerio Massimo. (2011) Alèxandros, Oscar Mondadori.

Rodgers, Nigel. (2011) Alexander the Great, An illustrated military history, Anness Publishing Ltd. 

Videography

On the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Michael Wood, BBC.

Alexander the great, the man behind the legend, National Geographic.

 

 

The Mysterious Death of Emperor Valens: a historical investigation

On the 9th of August 378 AD, two great armies faced off on a still undiscovered hilly battlefield near the city of Adrianople, in Thrace. 

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Edirne, the ancient Adrianople. Credit to http://www.greeceturkeytours.com.

The imperial army of Augustus Flavius Iulius Valens faced the Goths who were led by their chieftains Fritigern and Alavivus. In the epic clash that followed, the eastern Emperor, Valens, leader of half the known world, mysteriously perished during the chaos of battle. As we known nothing definitive about the Emperor’s death apart from legends and stories, I will embark on an investigation in order to discover what truly happened to the emperor on that faithful summer day. Much of what happened during this battle is unclear as the only literary source we have, Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman officer and member of the Protectores Domestici, was not present at the event and only gathered convoluted information from survivors. To begin our investigation, let’s start with the physical description of the Emperor given to us by the Historia Augusta and Ammianus. 

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Emperor Valens. Credit to my talented classmate  Anita Giannasio. 

Valens was a man of medium height, dark skin, in his fifties at the time of the battle and had a visual impairment in one eye. Despite his age, he possessed enormous tenacity, was a loyal friend but was also lazy and overly passionate. 

On the battlefield, Emperor Valens would have been surrounded by his bodyguards, the Scholae Palatinae, an elite cavalry regiment introduced by Costantine the Great, as a substitute for the Cohors Pretoriae. He would have probably placed himself on the right of the formation as that was considered a place of honor. 

We do not know the intensions of Valens on the day of the battle but, given his character and the superior numbers and training of the Romans, we can probably say that he favored an attack on the Goths in order to annihilate the fortified camp they were erecting on a hill and who, it was believed, represented only a regiment of the enemy forces. Whatever his intentions were however, we know that before the battle occurred, long negotiations took place, a diversionary tactic most likely stemming from Fritigern, as a means of buying time.

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Coin of emperor Valens. Credit to The History Blog.

During these negotiations however, a Roman cavalry regiment, formed by the Scutarii and the Sagittarii, and led by Cassio and Bacurius, attacked the Gothic camp without orders and probably forced Valens into ordering an attack on the entire enemy camp. The Roman army at Adrianople was an elite force, it had Palatina Legions, Auxilia Palatina and also heavy cavalry regiments such as the Clibanarii. After the Roman attack however, regiments of gothic cavalry led by ostrogoth chieftains Alateus and Saphrax who had been away foraging for food, arrived at the battlefield and surrounded the Romans. As the Romans were compressed in a tight formation, our Valens, who was most likely positioned on the right, was probably driven to the centre of the formation. Here, we know that he sent a certain Comes Victor to fetch the Batavian auxiliaries in the rear guard, though they were nowhere to be found. At this point in the battle, Valens most likely panicked and took refugee with the Matiarii and Lanciarii, who we know, thanks to the Notitia Dignitatum, were elite Palatina units. Comes Peditum Traianus would have been there to protect the Emperor.

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Shield patterns of various units as shown in the Notitia Dignitatum. The Lanciarii Iuniores were present at Adrianople. Credit to Luke Ueda Sarson’s Wargaming Pages.

Now we face the great mystery surrounding the battle and the fate of Valens. Was the Emperor killed by an enemy warrior, was he trampled by his own men’s retreat or was he killed by a projectile? There is a story which says that the wounded emperor was escorted by his bodyguards to a nearby farm which was then besieged by the Goths and burned down. 

I think we can safely dismiss this version of events as more of a romantic story than a historical tale, but it does bring up an interesting point, as it tells us that when Valens was killed in the flames, his bodyguards told the Goths that they had just killed the emperor, and the Goths became desperate. But wait, why were the Goths desperate? Could it be that the Goths actually wanted the emperor alive? After all, a Roman Emperor was worth a fortune, not to mention the prestige of capturing him alive, as he would have been a splendid trophy of war. The emperor however died during the battle and his body was never found. 

After examining the evidence, my personal theory is that the Emperor was killed by a projectile launched by a gothic warrior. Valens would have been extremely heavily armored and well protected by his bodyguard, making death in a close quarter fight very unlikely. Only an arrow or a javelin could have breached that kind of security by exploiting vulnerable areas like the eyes and other parts of the face, but this is just speculation. There is also a possibility that he was killed by his own men, as we know that 1/3 of the Roman forces survived the battle and therefore there must have been disorder during the retreat. During a disorderly retreat, everyone is by himself, with no unit cohesion, no chain of command and as it appears, no Emperor, making it a time of terror for those involved. 

After the battle, Valens was succeeded by a headstrong Spaniard, Theodosius, who will fail to drive out the Goths through military means but will make them Foederati or allies of the Roman Empire. The famous Visigoth Alaric would grow up during this period.

 

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