How the Eastern part of the Roman Empire avoided dismemberment by the Germans in the fifth century A.D.

Here we present the greatest part from the chapter ‘The Germans in the East‘ of the book ‘A History of the Later Roman Empire From Arcadius to Irene (395 A.D. to 800 A.D.)‘, by J.B. Bury.


“There were at this time three political parties at Constantinople. There was the German party, of which the chief representative was Gainas, the commander of the Eastern army, and which counted not only barbarians but Romans among its members. It is probable that this party was in constant communication with Stilicho in the West, and it is possible that the Frankish Empress Eudoxia may have looked upon it with a certain amount of favour. Secondly, there was the party of Eutropius, consisting entirely of time-serving hangers-on, bound together by no principle or common purpose-an ephemeral clique, clustering round the eunuch to receive his favours as long as he was in favour himself. These two factions, the faction of Eutropius and the faction of Gainas, were opposed. There was a third party, opposed to both of these, consisting of those senators and ministers who entertained a Roman abhorrence of the increase of German influence in the Empire, and a strong Roman detestation of the bedchamber administration of eunuchs; men who were equally scandalised by the fact that three commanders-in-chief in the Roman Empire were Germans (Stilicho in Italy, Alaric in Illyricum, and Gainas in the East), and by the appointment of Eutropius to the consulship in the year 399, an honour which was soon followed by his elevation to the rank of Patrician, which, after the imperial, was the highest title in the State. We may call this party the party of Aurelian, for Aurelian was its most important and respected member. He was the son of a distinguished praetorian prefect named Taurus, and he had himself filled the offices of quaestor and prefect of the city.

The Germans had friends among the Romans. The most distinguished of their Roman supporters was an enigmatical figure, whose real name we shall probably never know, the brother of Aurelian, but in character diametrically opposed to him. This shadowy person, who played a leading part at this period, is one of the riddles of history. We derive all that we know about him from a historical sketch, written in the form of an allegory, by Synesius, bishop of Cyrene, entitled Concerning Providence, or the Egyptians. Its subject is the contest for the Egyptian kingdom between the two sons of Taurus, Osiris and Typhos. Osiris, by whom is meant Aurelian, is the type of everything that is good and laudable; while Typhos, a sort of nature’s byblow, differing from Osiris, is ‘left-handed’ and perverse, gross and ignorant. It will be most convenient to call this unknown person by his allegorical name.

We are told that Typhos at one time held a financial post: but was soon obliged to abdicate it on account of malversation. He then obtained some other office, and performed its duties equally badly.

He allied himself closely with the German party, who saw in him, as a Roman of good family and position, an important supporter. In private life he is represented as a profligate, and Synesius tells stories to illustrate his indecent and frivolous habits.

The great struggle between the alien and the native element in the East, which was to decide that the eastern provinces were not to be dismembered by the Teutonic nations, began at the end of the year 398. It took the form of a contest between the two brothers, Aurelian and Typhos, for the office of praetorian prefect. The former was successful in obtaining the nomination, which was a great triumph for the anti-German Party. Synesius was at this time at Constantinople, and lived on very intimate terms with Aurelian and his friends, so that he had an excellent opportunity of observing all that went on. Penetrated with the spirit of old Hellenedom, especially Platonism, and feeling a Hellenic antagonism to barbarians, he sympathised fully with the aspirations and purposes of the Roman party at Byzantium. Aurelian seems to have been a man of culture and learning, and was surrounded with men of letters, such as Troilus the poet and Polyaemon the rhetor.

The success of Aurelian was a great blow to Typhos and his wife and his friends. His wife had been looking forward eagerly to the prefecture for the sake of the social advantages which it would confer. Synesius gives a curious account of the measures which Typhos took to console himself and his friends for their disappointment. He constructed a large pond (κολυμβήθρα), in which he made artificial islands, provided with warm baths; and in these islands he and his friends, in the company of women, used to indulge in licentious pleasures.

But this was only the prologue to the drama proper. It was a movement on the part of Ostrogoths, who had been settled in Phrygia by Theodosius, that brought on the main struggle; and this movement was hardly independent of the German faction in the capital, though we have no distinct evidence to show that it was instigated by Gainas or Typhos. The Count Tribigild, who commanded the troops in Phrygia, bore a personal grudge against Eutropius, and this drove him to excite to revolt the Teutonic laeti, or colons, consisting of Ostrogoths and Gruthungi, whom Theodosius, the friend of the Goths, had established in the fertile regions of Phrygia in 386. The revolt broke out in spring, as Arcadius and his court were preparing to start for Ancyra in Galatia, whither the Emperor was fond of resorting in summer on account of its pleasant and salubrious climate. The barbarians, recruited by runaway slaves, spread destruction throughout many provinces, Galatia and Pisidia and Bithynia.

At this moment Synesius presented a crown to Arcadius on behalf of his native town, Cyrene, and delivered his celebrated speech, ‘Concerning the Office of King‘. This may be regarded, as has been well pointed out, the anti-German manifesto of the Roman party of Aurelian. It urged the policy of imposing disabilities on barbarians, and thereby eradicating the German element in the State. The argument depends on the by no means christian assumption that the Roman and the barbarian are different in kind, and that therefore their union is unnatural. The soldiers of a state should be like watchdogs, as Plato says, but our armies are full of wolves in the guise of dogs; moreover, our homes are full of German servants. The lawgiver cannot wisely give arms to any who are not born and reared in his laws; the shepherd cannot expect to tame wolves’ cubs. The German soldiers are a stone of Tantalus suspended over the State. The only salvation is to remove the alien element – εκκρίναι δε δει ταλλότριον. This speech was not calculated to induce Gainas to take energetic measures against his fellow-Germans, whom he was sent to reduce.

For there seem to have been only two generals of any account at this time – Gainas, the Goth, and Leo, the Falstaff of that age. Both were sent with armies against Tribigild. The rebels, seeking to avoid an engagement with Leo, turned their steps to Pisidia and thence proceeded to Pamphylia, where they met with a brave and unexpected resistance. While Gainas was purposely inactive, and writing in his letters to Constantinople that Tribigild was very formidable, a land proprietor of the town of Selge, named Valentinus, formed a corps of peasants and slaves and laid an ambush hard by a winding narrow pass in the mountains leading from Pisidia to Pamphylia. The advancing enemy was surprised by showers of stones from the heights above them, and there was no means of escape, as they were hemmed in by a treacherous marsh. After a great loss of life, Tribigild bribed the commander, Florentius, who held the pass, and thus succeeded in effecting his escape. But he had no sooner escaped than he was shut in between two rivers, the Melas and the Eurymedon, by the warlike inhabitants of those regions, who were well used to warfare from their experience of Isaurian freebooters. Leo meanwhile was advancing, and the insurrection might have been utterly and easily crushed, but that Gainas secretly replenished the forces of’ Tribigild with detachments from his own army. Thus Leo had really two enemies in the field against him, one in the disguise of a friend. He found Tribigild at the head of a large army, with which he could not attempt to cope; but this was not all. The German regiments in his own army preponderated, and they suddenly attacked the minority of Roman soldiers, and easily overpowered them. Leo lost his life in attempting to escape: so that Gainas and Tribigild were left masters of the situation.

Gainas, who still posed as a loyal general foiled by the superior ability and power of Tribigild, despatched a message to the Emperor, misrepresenting the defeat of Leo, dwelling on the superiority of the rebel, and urging Arcadius to yield to his demands -the chief demand being that Eutropius should be surrendered. The Emperor hesitated, for he was probably attached to his chamberlain, but, in addition to the pressure of the Germans, another influence was brought to bear which secured the fall of the eunuch. The Empress Eudoxia, who had owed her position to the machinations of Eutropius, became jealous of his power with her husband; dissension and antagonism were born between them; and one day Eudoxia appeared in the presence of the Emperor, leading her two little daughters, Flaccilla and Pulcheria, by the hand, and complained bitterly of the eunuch’s insulting behaviour.

When Eutropius heard of the demand of Gainas, he did not disguise from himself his extreme peril, but fled to the refuge of the sanctuary of St. Sophia. There he might not only trust in the protection of the holy place, but might expect that the Patriarch of Constantinople, Johannes Chrysostomus, would stand by him in his extremity, when he was abandoned by his noonday friends. The personal interference of Johannes was actually necessary; he had to stand between the cowering eunuch and those who mould have dragged him from beneath the altar. This incident seems to have taken place on Saturday, and on the following day, Sunday, the service must have been curiously impressive, and the feelings of the congregation strange. Hidden under the altar, overwhelmed with fear and shame, lay the old chamberlain, whose will had been almost supreme a few days before, and in the pulpit the eloquent archbishop delivered a sermon ‘on the fallen eunuch’, beginning with the words, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. In this discourse he dwelled without mercy on the frivolity and irreligion of the party of Eutropius; but at the same time he sought to excite the sympathy of the audience.

When the church had been again surrounded and entered by soldiers, and Johannes had again personally interposed, Eutropius allowed himself to be taken away, on condition that his life should be spared. He was banished to Cyprus. Gainas, however, was not content with anything less than his death; and availing himself of the quibble that security of life had been granted to him only in Constantinople, Arcadius caused him to be brought back and tried at Chalcedon, where he was condemned on trivial, probably false, charges, and executed (autumn 399 A.D.)

It was after the fall of Eutropius that Gainas seems to have declared his real colours openly, and acted no longer as a mediator for Tribigild, but as an adversary, bargaining for terms. He and Tribigild had met at Thyatira and proceeded to the Hellespont, plundering as they went. At Chalcedon, Gainas demanded and obtained an interview with Arcadius, and an agreement was made that Gainas should continue to hold the post of magister militum per orientem, and that he and Tribigild might cross over with impunity to Europe. As a security, three hostages were to be handed over to Gainas – namely, Aurelian, the praetorian prefect; Saturninus, one of the chief men of Aurelian’s party; and Johannes, the friend (report said the lover) of Eudoxia.

The surrender of Aurelian as a hostage to the German general was a triumph for his brother Typhos, who appears to have succeeded him in the prefecture. Synesius attributes the combination against Aurelian to a drawing-room cabal – a plot brewed
for his destruction by the wife of Typhos and the wife of Gainas. It is evident at least that both city and camp were full of intrigues at this time, and that during the flrst half of the year 400 A.D. Typhos was the most important minister in the Empire. He did not however prevail upon the cautious Gainas to sacrifice his brother Aurelian; the three hostages underwent a sham execution, the sword grazing their necks, and were banished for a short time.

This event took place towards the end of 399 A.D., and soon afterwards Gainas crossed the Bosphorus with his Goths: and took up his quarters in the capital. Of Tribigild we hear no more; his historical importance is that he was a tool in the hands of Gainas. What events took place during the next six months, what were the designs of Gainas, what were the details of the administration of Typhos – all these, and many other questions, history leaves unanswered. Above all, we desire to know what circumstances checked and almost paralysed the action of Gainas and his Goths in Constantinople. It certainly seems that there were somewhere in the vicinity Roman troops (over and above the bodyguard of the Emperor), of which our authorities have left no record; for (1) Fravitta had troops at his command to oppose Gainas when he left the city; and (2) what is the meaning of Gainas’ bargain with the Emperor for a safe-conduct to Europe, if he had not some hostile force to fear? (3) All that we hear of the conduct of Gainas in the city demands such a supposition.

One great object of the combination of Typhos and Gainas was to relieve the Arians of their disabilities and establish the full freedom of Arian worship in the city. We might almost conjecture that it was their common religious belief that united originally the interests of Typhos and the Germans. This policy, however, was defeated by the firmness and courage of the Patriarch, who opposed Gainas face to face. The Emperor refused to yield to the demands of the Goths, and here we may suspect that the influence of Eudoxia was also operative.

About midsummer Gainas formed the resolve to leave the city, which he and Typhos together had kept in a ferment for six months. In two clandestine attempts – one to seize the imperial palace, the other to sack the bureaux of the money-changers – he had been frustrated; and combining this with his resolution to quit the capital with his large army, we must conclude that some material danger threatened or checked him. We know not what his wishes or designs were, but we can hardly see why he could not have carried them through, if Constantinople was as entirely unprotected by military forces as historians generally represent it to have been.

At length, feeling that his position in the city was not agreeable, Gainas resolved to leave it. Making an excuse of illness, he went to perform devotions in a church of St. John, about seven miles distant, and he ordered the Gothic forces to follow him in relays. The preparations made by the foreigners for departure frightened the citizens, who did not understand their intentions, and the city was in such a state of excitement that any accident might lead to serious consequences. It so happened that a beggar-woman standing at the gate of the city early in the morning to receive alms, and seeing the Goths
depart, thought the end of the world was coming, and prayed aloud. Her prayer offended a Goth who had just approached, and as he was about to cut her down, a Roman intervened and slew him. This occurrence brought about a general tumult, in which the citizens proved superior, and gave full vent to their rancour against the barbarians. Many of the Goths fled from the city. Then the gates were closed, and more than seven thousand remained, unable to communicate with their friends without, at the mercy of the infuriated mob. They fled to their church, which was near the imperial palace, but the sanctity of the building was not respected. The Romans obtained permission from the Emperor to resort to extremities, and the Gothic soldiers suffered a fate similar to that which befell the oligarchs at Corcyra during the Peloponnesian war. The roof of the building was removed, and the detested barbarians were crushed under showers of stones and burning brands [12th July 400].

Soon afterwards the conduct of Typhos was subjected to an investigation, his treasonable collusion with Gainas was abundantly exposed, and he was condemned preliminarily to imprisonment. He was afterwards rescued from the vengeance of the mob by his brother Aurelian, who had returned from banishment: but what further befell him we do not hear. Gainas meanwhile, as a declared enemy, proceeded through Thrace, seeking what he and his Goths might plunder. But his expedition was disappointing, for the inhabitants had in good time retreated into the strong places, and he was unable to take them. No resource remained but to pass over into Asia, and he marched to the Hellespont. But when he arrived at the coast near Abydos, he found that the opposite shore was occupied by an army, ready to dispute his passage, under the loyal pagan Goth Fravitta, who had once rescued Theodosius I. from his own countrymen; and was now, in advanced years, to perform a similar service for Arcadius. Gainas tarried on the shore until his provisions were exhausted, and then, constrained to essay the passage for which he was unprovided with ships, constructed rude rafts, which he committed to the current. Fravitta’s ships easily sank these unwieldy contrivances, and Gainas, who remained on shore and saw his troops exterminated before his eyes, hastened northward through Thrace, beyond Mount Haemus, even beyond the Ister, expecting to be pursued by the victor. Fravitta made no attempt to capture him, but he fell into the hands of Uldes, king of the Huns, who cut off his head and sent it as a grateful offering to Arcadius.


(Gainas killed by Fravittas. Artwork by maestro Giorgio Albertini under the instructions of maestro Raffaele D’Amato)

The Gothic discomfiter of the Goths enjoyed a triumph for his decisive success, and the christian Emperor granted to the old Pagan the only favour he requested – to be allowed to worship God after the fashion of his fathers.

Thus the great danger which was hanging over the Empire was warded off from the eastern provinces at the very beginning of the fifth century, and it was decided that it was not in the east that the Empire was to be dismembered by the Germans.

Alaric, indeed, was still commander-in-chief in Illyricum, but his eyes were bent westward, and within a few years the Illyrian lands were to be delivered for ever from the Visigoths. It was indeed an important episode in Roman history, and although modern writers have often treated it more casually than it deserves, it attracted appropriate attention in the fifth century, and was celebrated in two epic poems as well as in the myth of Synesius of Cyrene.

It is worthy of observation that it was this German movement that brought about the fall of the eunuch Eutropius. Eight years later it was the machinations of the palace official Olympius that brought about the fall of the German Stilicho. Thus, the chamberlains in the palace and the Germans in the camp – the representatives of the Orientalising and Germanising tendencies that were eating into the Roman spirit – were each a check upon the other; and the antagonism between these forces of corrosion was a temporary safeguard for the Roman party. With the Roman party, moreover, the Church was thoroughly in sympathy, for a defeat of the Germans was equivalent to a defeat of Arianism.

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus


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