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Zeno and decision of millennium

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Emperor Zeno
Emperor Zeno | Photo: Author Unknown, Public Domain

When delegations from Western Europe arrived in Constantinople in 476, Emperor Zeno was fresh from the civil war that had left him in power for more than a year. The deputies represented two conflicting sides, one demanded the support of Julius Nepos, the overthrown emperor of the west, and the other asked for recognition of Odoacer’s power and granting him the title of patrician. Solomon’s decision of Zeno determined the fate of Europe, so it is worth looking at the geopolitical and dynastic conditions that the emperor had to consider.

The moment that started the avalanche was the year 473 and the departure from Rome of Gundobad, Ricimer’s nephew and successor. Germaninus preferred to secure his father’s succession among the Burgundians rather than defend his nominee Glycerius, who had to face an immediate threat. The eastern co-ruler, Leo I, did not recognize most of the puppet rulers, Antemius became the western emperor on his recommendation, and this time he had a suitable candidate. Julius Nepos married into an imperial family (Nepos’s wife was most likely a relative of the empress Verina), and at the same time the nephew of the famous leader Marcelinus, the lord of Dalmatia, seemed to be a perfect choice. Nepos and his allies had to hurry because it was possible that after securing his homeland, Gundobad would not return with his countrymen to look after business in Italy.

Western and Eastern Roman Empire before CE 476
By Electionworld | Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

The political situation became even more complicated, because at the beginning of 474 Leo I died. Power was taken over by his minor grandson Leo II, who was joined as co-ruler by his father Zeno. Julius Nepos landed in Italy a few months later and took power practically without resistance, dethroned Glycerius, but spared his life, appointing him bishop of Salona in Dalmatia. The almost simultaneous change of rulers of the empire had a significant impact on the further fate of the empire. Nepos lost his political patron, and Zeno – the de facto ruler – was unpopular due to his “barbaric” origin. Leo II died the same year, and the legitimacy of Zeno’s power was based on their affinity with his predecessor through marriage to his daughter Ariadne, and the military support of his Isaurian tribesmen. Both newly minted rulers did not stay on the throne for long. A year later, Zeno had to flee from Constantinople, and Basiliscus, the brother of the dowager empress, seized power from Verina, and at the same time Ariadne’s mother, starting a civil war. A few months later, a similar fate befell Julius, who fled to his lair of Dalmatia, and Orestes installed his son Romulus as emperor. Nepos never accepted the loss of power and, ruling in his domain, planned to return to Italy, but he expected the support of the East, where the situation was slowly changing in favour of Zeno. In 476, the power of Orestes and his son was challenged by Odoacer, and Zeno returned to the throne by killing the usurper.

It was at this time that the above-mentioned delegations arrived. Zeno had a big dilemma. Julius Nepos had support in Constantinople, but his family connections with the murdered Basiliscus were unlikely to arouse enthusiasm in the emperor, whose position in the capital was not strong enough to intervene. Nepos’s affinity with a relative of the current empress and the influential empress-dowager made him a potential contender for both titles, which could not have escaped Zeno, who was particularly keen to limit the influence of his mother-in-law who corrupted his blood throughout his reign until her death in 484. The emperor himself noticed that the intervention of Eastern Rome ended in the murder or exile of the ruler, so the effort put into restoring Nepos could again be in vain.

Eastern Roman emperors in purple, Western Roman emperors in dark red, rest of the dynasty members in red
By: own work based on John Robert Martindale, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. Volume 2, 395 -527 CE, Cambridge 1980

In fact, none of Zeno’s decisions was good for him. Failure could undermine his authority, sending an army under the command of an ambitious commander could encourage usurpation, and Nepos’ victory would force further help in recapturing lost provinces. The Germanic states then had a period of strong and stable rule, and the succession crises among the Visigoths or the Vandals will come much later. Odoacer, on the other hand, only asked for the approval of his rule in Italy, and by overthrowing Romulus, he restored the rule of law. German was not completely anonymous at the court of Zeno, because his brother Onulf deservedly fought for the return of the emperor to the throne in the city of Constantine and later held important positions in the army. So Zenon made a careful decision that postponed the responsibility in time. He confirmed the right to the throne of Julius Nepos, and directed all supplicants regarding intervention in the West to his “co-ruler”. For Odoacer, this was enough, and in recognition of the verdict, he minted coins with the image of Nepos. The ruler of Dalmatia did not have enough strength to defeat Odoacer, and the offer made by the ruler of the Ostrogoths – Theodoric, later called the Great, was not satisfactory, because Nepos did not want to become a puppet.

Again, the fate of the Western Roman Empire was in the hands of Zeno four years later, because in 480 Julius Nepos was murdered. Who ordered the murder remains a mystery, because the ruler was inconvenient for almost everyone. Anyway, Zenon had other problems on his mind. A year earlier, Marcjan, husband of Leoncia (Ariadna’s younger sister) and his brothers with the support of Zeno’s fellow tribesman – Illus and the Germanic leader Theodoric Strabo rebelled against the emperor. The usurper was the son of Anthemius, Emperor of the West, and Marcia, daughter of Marcian, Emperor of the East, so his ancestry gave him quite a strong claim, and additionally, his wife was a porphyrogenetic. Other family merits include the information that Anthemius’s first wife was Pulcheria, the daughter of Emperor Arcadius, which was a symbolic link with the Theodosian dynasty, which was the last to rule over the entire empire.

Ultimately, the lack of coordination of actions prevented the overthrow of Zeno, who remained in power but could not get rid of the conspirators. Another attempt to overthrow the ruler was made four years later, but the emperor was already strong enough to defeat and eliminate the enemies who again lacked a unified plan. Despite relative stability, he did not yet have tools that could influence the fate of Italy, and he was unable to take control of the abandoned Dalmatia and part of Illyria, which fell to Odoacer. The Italian elites were not so enthusiastic about the “Greeks”, and the new ruler of Italy took care of their well-being by consulting the decisions with the Roman Senate, cooperating with the Pope, who was reluctant to the emperor, or appointing aristocrats to traditional positions. It could even be expected that the Roman people and aristocracy would not want another civil war and that they would receive the Constantinopolitan nominee with indifference, and perhaps even hostility. In addition, the resurgence of an alternative centre of imperial power could have caused problems similar to those of 479. Leaving Odoacer as Zeno’s “governor” was the best solution, even though their relationship had cooled.

During the civil war, for unknown reasons, Odoacer’s brother fled to Italy, just like the aforementioned imperial usurper brothers. At one point, Odoacer had at least 4-5 claimants to Western Roman power within his domain. Romulus Augustulus spent the rest of his life in the Italian province, Glycerius remained the bishop of Salona, and Anthemius’ sons – Marcian, and Procopius – enjoyed the hospitality of the Italian court. Anthemius and Romulus. Odoacer, who played according to the rules of Roman politics until the very end, most likely wanted to have pretenders at hand who could be used as a bargaining chip in establishing relations with Zeno and his court.

The epilogue of this story is about the invasion of Theodoric of Ostrogoth in Italy, which started in 489. It was commissioned by Zeno, who wanted to get rid of the Ostrogoths from the controlled territory and at the same time regain Italy. According to the agreement, Theodoric was to rule in this area until the emperor’s personal arrival in Italy, although due to the lack of stability of power, such a distant departure could never have happened. However, during the conquest of Italy, Zeno died, so King Theodoric could set the terms of his reign as he saw fit. An interesting event took place shortly after the enemy army entered. Odoacer asked the Roman Senate to make his son Thela Caesar. The lord of Italy repeated the behaviour of Orestes or Illus but decided to choose a title lower in prestige than the emperor, which was supposed to be a gesture suggesting the independence of the western part of the state, but at the same time not undermining Zeno’s sole rule over the empire. The defeated Odoacer was treacherously murdered by the invader, and his son shared his father’s fate a few years later. Theodoric the Great continued the policy of respecting Roman traditions and formal submission to the rulers of Constantinople. A civil war broke out in the empire between Zeno’s brother and Ariadne’s second husband, Anastasius, which gave the new ruler of Italy time to build a position that the emperors had to respect.

Zenon had no gift for seeing the future and could only try to assess the short-term effects of his actions. He also did not study the economic and political reasons for the fall of the empire, which were thoroughly analyzed by generations of researchers, so he made decisions based on his negative experiences from the first years of his reign. Historians will point to 476 as the end of an era, and for the emperor, it was only a pragmatic and temporary decision. At that time, the Eastern Roman Empire had no possibility of real help to the West, which treated its richer eastern “brothers” with distrust and was slowly getting used to the new order. For most of Zeno’s reign, he fought against pretenders, and the temptation to eliminate one focus of the problem was too strong. In addition, all parties to the dispute respected the authority of the emperor residing in Constantinople, and Odoaker conducted politics within the Roman reality even in the face of “treason”. Zeno could feel himself as a ” unifier ” of the state, ending the farce of imperial institutions in the West, then the destroyer of ancient Rome.

Author: Wojciech Paukszteło (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West. The Death of the Roman Superpower, Londyn 2009.
  • Aleksander Krawczuk, Poczet Cesarzy Rzymskich, Warszawa 2006.
  • Francis Cairns, The Fragmentary classicising historians of later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus and Malchus, Blockley 1983.
  • John Robert Martindale, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. Volume 2, AD 395-527, Cambridge 1980.
  • Marek Wilczyński, Germanie w służbie zachodniorzymskiej w V w. n.e.¸ Oświęcim 2018.
  • Penny MacGeorge, Late Roman Warlords, Oxford 2002.

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