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The Eastern Roman Empire In The Fifth Century History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

This essay will explore the reasons behind the Eastern Roman Empire’s survival and look at the arguments to why it did not come to an end during the fifth Century. When studying the history books it’s difficult to find many that concern the east, most books are written by western historians and focus on the demise of the Western Roman Empire. A German scholar wrote that there were 210 reasons why the West fell! [1] Therefore in reverse there are 210 reasons why the east survived. Historian’s arguments can be split into two main areas, external threats and internal threats. This essay will explore the external threats which are mainly the barbarian migrations and how the Eastern Roman Empire was able to survive this threat. Internal instabilities played a major part in the decline of the West so a look at how the Eastern Roman Empire’s state, military and economy functioned.

When researching this period there are six main classical historians of which Zosimus’s histories offers the most complete work available. Other documents also survive in fragments and partly intact, these include Notita Dignitatum and Theodosian Codex to name but two. Archaeology, Papyrology and many other disciplines also offer invaluable information about this period in history. The works of Zosimus and others like him give an invaluable insight the lives of Romans in the Fifth century, although it must always be remembered the inherent biased involved.

Guy Halsall in his book [2] wrote that one of the biggest threats to the Eastern Roman Empire in the early 5th Century, was unruly settlements of armed barbarian federates. Goths had been settled in Eastern Roman lands including the Balkans and other areas of the empire due to a treaty in 382. The gothic federates were commanded by their own leaders and although in theory were paid troops, it could be argued this was more of a bribe to prevent these Barbarians from ravaging the lands as had happened in the West. Alaric the commander of the Visigoths was promised the title magister militum but this promise was made when the Romans needed his help but the promise of promotion failed to materialise Alaric ravaged the Balkans and Greece. Gainus another Gothic commander murdered the Praetorian Prefect Rufinus in what can be described as an attempted coup to gain the mentioned title above. When he was outmanoeuvred by Eutropius a eunuch of the bedchamber [3] he waited and then rebelled with another Gothic leader Tribigild which ended in portions of Asia Minor being terrorized and Gainus himself taking control of Constantinople as a military dictator [4] . These problems were simple what do you do with thousands of armed barbarian, promise them everything and use them to fight your wars. But then what, give then land and hope they become farmers put down roots this dilemma could have been fateful if Alaric hadn’t been sent West to retake Rome in a sort of hint that he could rule in the name of the emperor of course but still be the effective ruler. Gainus hadn’t been fully aware of the sentiment of Constantinople’s aristocracy and people until it was too late. Gainus of course came to a bloody end his head being chopped off by a hunnic chief and a large portion of his army literally tore to pieces by the mob in Constantinople. In the aftermath many Gothic commanders including Fravitta who had fought and defeated some of Gainus’s army were killed in an attempt to remove future threats. Historians like Ward-Perkins argue that through luck more than anything the eastern Roman Empire survived these early days [5] . Although the threat of external and internal pressure’s from barbarians still existed the Hunnic invasions of the mid 5th Century were stopped by a mixture of gold and the fact that Constantinople was a near impregnable fortress unassailable by land or sea.

Ward-Perkins wrote that a thin band of water, reinforced by sea power played a major part in the eastern empire’s ability to survive these threats [6] . Attila chose to go west he wasn’t able to take Constantinople by force and if he had he attacked the city he then had the difficulty of engaging the powerful Imperial fleet. The Isaurian’s a barbarian people from the Taurus Mountains prove a threat after being used in an attempted coup by Zeno’s brother the Isaurian threat was annulled by a huge military campaign that ended their power and the survivors settled not as federate but as farmers. The senate and Emperors had to tread a careful path the Ostrogoths in Illyricum and Thrace had huge armies at their disposal. During the 5th Century commander’s like Asper the Alan [7] had ties to both his own people and the through marriage the ruling elite of Constantinople. This fact could itself be argued worked in creating a new sense of belonging too many barbarian commanders, and severing ties to their own people. The Eastern Roman Empire became more important to the commanders than when barbarian commanders simply lived with their troops [8] . Military force alone wasn’t able to protect the Eastern Roman Empire but gold and astute political leaders also played an integral part, and the ability through whatever means to send the unwanted federates like Alaric and Theodoric West helped rid the East of troublesome barbarians [9] . The geography of Constantinople and the Fleet protecting the sea lanes also it could be argued played a part in the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Eastern Roman Empire was able to weather barbarian threats and internal threats; Guy Halsall argues that the state was able to able to withstand various threats because of the bureaucratic nature of the state [10] . Rulers and minister changed but the civil service remained the same and the effective way the state ran undoubtedly helped in its survival [11] . The structure of rule in the Eastern Roman Empire was much centralised and structured at the top was the Emperor who had absolute power praetorian prefect and then the ministers and below was a bureaucratic administration that kept the state machine working [12] . These civil servants were headhunted from within the Empire for their ability although this has been argued did result in a lack of talent in provincial cities. The success of the state in dealing with various threats seems to vindicate the decision. The senate which differed from Rome’s senate in that members were recruited from influential families, as well from leading lawyers and indeed service within the state as civil servants also meant elevation to the senate. There were four levels in the senate which was broken up into how wealthy senator were [13] . The state also had an integral communication system in the form of the Roman Post and geography meant fast ships could be sent to anywhere in the empire. This infrastructure had failed in the West but in the East this communication ability was paramount in an Empire’s ability to control provincial areas and be able to counter any threats with temerity. The foreign policies of the Eastern Roman empire also could be argued was a key factor Heather argued that the peace with Persia was a major factor in the survival of the East [14] . Minor conflicts were fought between the two superpowers no changes in territory took place and diplomacy and logical thoughts bought both states to the table to negotiate peace. Both empires were being threatened by barbarian incursions and indeed both empires helped to defend the Caspian Gates to prevent barbarian invasions [15] . Jones [16] argues that the Eastern State was no better that the Western state in its effectiveness but Wickham [17] argues that the main reason the Eastern Roman Empire survived was an effective tax system this in itself argues that for there to be an effective tax system there must be a way of collecting taxes, this could be argued means that the eastern Roman empire did indeed have a strong state.

Wickham [18] argument on economy is based on the Western tax system failing. The East’s taxation system in itself was paramount in its ability to survive the fifth century. The Eastern Roman Empire lands had been farmed for a thousand years and there were far more urbanised areas ninety five percent of taxes came from land tax [19] which was collected twice a year. The collection of the taxes usually twice a year to coincide with harvests meant there was an elaborate network in place in the form of civil servants to oversee the process. The post system and effective road network all combined meant that taxes could easily be collected. Goods could easily be transported to other areas with speed this ability to convert produce into cash and move easily around the empire was one reason behind Wickham’s argument. Taxes themselves could then be used in public works defence and perhaps the most important keeping an effective military presence.

The Eastern Roman empire’s military played a major part in its survival. A quarter of the Amy was barbarian in origin [20] . The rest of the army was recruited from the empire itself and was split into main areas the Limitana which was a border force and was two thirds of the entire Eastern army around 195.000 men and fifty percent was cavalry. The rest of the army was split into five mobile field armies numbering around 100.000 men [21] . The military during the fifth century were used when needed and usually after diplomacy had failed. Although the invasion of North Africa was disastrous for the East the army recovered but this was partly due to the fact the Vandals couldn’t follow up on their gains as they could not defeat the Imperial fleet [22] . The effectiveness of the Imperial Fleet was shown when Gainus mentioned earlier tried to cross the Hellespont, his army was crushed by the fleet this shows that the fleet was very capable of being deployed in defence of the empire [23] .

The Eastern Roman Empire did not come to an end in the fifth century for many reasons historians argue that there are one or two main points but when looking at the facts there are multiple reasons yes location, the fortified strength of Constantinople and the strip of water surrounding it helped to prevent gothic and hunnic armies crossing into Asia Minor but Gainus and his army was allowed into the city only the fact that he wasn’t very political astute led to his failure. The state economy and military all played a part in the survival but if Attila had been allowed to enter the heartland of empire would it of survived the armies of the east had no real luck defeating large barbarian armies at this time the eastern army was there simply to keep the status quo between Persia and itself. The simple fact is the Eastern Roman empire evolved to meet different challenges. The geography helped in the survival but the navy was the teeth that prevented successions of enemies enter the heartlands of the East this effective military and an astute foreign policy coupled with a strong economy and state were the main reasons behind its survival.

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