Economic and social policies
The empire’s economy had prospered in a spotty fashion. Certain provinces, or parts of provinces such as northern Italy, flourished commercially as well as agriculturally. Constantinople, in particular, influenced urban growth and the exploitation of agricultural frontiers. Balkan towns along the roads leading to the great city prospered, while others not so favoured languished and even disappeared. Untilled land in the hilly regions of northern Syria fell under the plow to supply foodstuffs for the masses of Constantinople.
As the 4th century progressed, not only did Constantine’s solidus remain indeed solid gold, but evidence drawn from a wide range of sources suggests that gold in any form was far more abundant than it had been for at least two centuries. It may be that new sources of supply for the precious metal had been discovered: those perhaps were in spoils plundered from pagan temples or perhaps were from mines newly exploited in western Africa and newly available to the lands of the empire, thanks to the appearance of camel-driving nomads who transported the gold across the Sahara to the Mediterranean coastline of North Africa.
The extreme social mobility noted in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries seems less characteristic of the second half of the latter century. Certainly the emperors continued their efforts to bind men collectively to their socially necessary tasks, but the repetition of laws tying the colonus to his estate, the navicularius to his ship, and the curialis to his municipal senate suggests that those edicts had little effect. Indeed, it would be a mistake to conclude from such legislation that Roman society was universally and uniformly organized in castes determined in response to imperial orders.
There was always a distinction between what an emperor wanted and what he could obtain, and, as the foregoing survey has suggested, there were distinctions between the provinces as well.
Even before the end of the first quarter of the 5th century, those provincial differences were visible, and in no small degree they help to explain the survival of imperial government and Greco-Roman civilization in the East while both eventually perished in the West.
Throughout the Eastern provinces, population levels seem to have remained higher, and the emperors in Constantinople never had to search (at least until the 6th century) for men to fill the ranks of their armies. As might be expected in those eastern lands in which urban civilization was several centuries old, cities persisted and, with them, a merchant class and a monetary economy. Eastern merchants, known in the sources as Syrians, assumed the carrying trade between East and West, often establishing colonies in the beleaguered cities of the latter region.
Most important, the emperor in the East never lost access to, or control over, his sources of manpower and money. An older and probably more-wealthy senatorial class, or aristocracy, in the West consolidated its great estates and assumed a form of protection or patronage over the labouring rural classes, depriving the state of desperately needed military and financial services.
The senatorial class in the East seems to have been of more-recent origin, its beginnings to be found among those favourites or parvenus who had followed Constantine to his new capital. By the early 5th century, their wealth seems to have been, individually, much less than the resources at the disposal of their Western counterparts; their estates were far more scattered and their rural dependents less numerous. They were thus less able to challenge the imperial will and less able to interpose themselves between the state on the one hand and its potential soldiers or taxpayers on the other.
Relations with the barbarians
Those differences between Eastern and Western social structures, together with certain geographical features, account for the different reception found by the Germanic invaders of the 4th and 5th centuries in the East and the West. Although the Germanic people had eddied about the Danube and Rhine frontiers of the empire since the 2nd century, their major inroads were made only in the latter half of the 4th century, when the ferocious Huns drove the Ostrogoths and Visigoths to seek refuge within the Danubian frontier of the empire.
The initial interaction between Roman and barbarian was far from amicable; the Romans seemed to have exploited their unwelcome guests, and the Goths rose in anger, defeating an East Roman army at Adrianople in 378 and killing the Eastern emperor in command. Emperor Theodosius I (ruled 384–395) adopted a different policy, granting the Goths lands and according them the legal status of allies, or foederati, who fought within the ranks of the Roman armies as autonomous units under their own leaders.
Theodosius I, detail from an embossed and engraved silver disk, late 4th century; in the Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid.Giraudon/Art Resource, New York
Neither in West nor East did Theodosius’s policy of accommodation and alliance prove popular. The Goths—like most Germanic peoples, with the exception of the Franks and the Lombards—had been converted to Arian Christianity. Roman Christians considered Arianism a dangerous heresy, despite occasional imperial support, in the wake of the Council of Nicaea (325) and the Council of Constantinople (381) because of its emphasis upon the uniqueness of God the Father and subordination of the other two persons of the Trinity. The warlike ways of the Germans found little favour with a senatorial aristocracy essentially pacifist in its outlook, and the early 5th century is marked in both halves of the empire by reactions against Germanic leaders in high office.
At Constantinople in 400, for example, the citizens rose against the senior officer of the imperial guard (magister militum), Gainas, slaughtering him together with his Gothic followers. Although that particular revolt was, in many respects, less productive of immediate results than similar episodes in the West, and the Germanic leaders later reappeared in roles of command throughout the East, the latter acted thenceforth as individuals without the support of those nearly autonomous groups of soldiers that western barbarian commanders continued to enjoy.
Furthermore, the East made good use of its resources in gold, in native manpower, and in diplomacy while quickly learning how best to play off one enemy against another. In the reign of Theodosius II (408–450), the Huns under their chieftain Attila received subsidies of gold that both kept them in a state of uneasy peace with the Eastern Empire and may have proved profitable to those merchants of Constantinople who traded with the barbarians. When Marcian (ruled 450–457) refused to continue the subsidies, Attila was diverted from revenge by the prospect of conquests in the West. He never returned to challenge the Eastern Empire, and, with his death in 453, his Hunnic empire fell apart.
Both Marcian and his successor, Leo I (ruled 457–474), had ruled under the tutelage of Flavius Ardaburius Aspar, but Leo resolved to challenge Aspar’s preeminence and the influence of the Goths elsewhere in the empire by favouring the warlike Isaurians and their chieftain, Tarasicodissa, whom he married to the imperial princess, Ariadne. The Isaurian followers of Tarasicodissa, who was to survive a stormy reign as the Emperor Zeno (474–491), were rough mountain folk from southern Anatolia and culturally probably even more barbarous than the Goths or the other Germans.
Yet, in that they were the subjects of the Roman emperor in the East, they were undoubtedly Romans and proved an effective instrument to counter the Gothic challenge at Constantinople. In the prefecture of Illyricum, Zeno ended the menace of Theodoric the Amal by persuading him (488) to venture with his Ostrogoths into Italy. The latter province lay in the hands of the German chieftain Odoacer, who in 476 had deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor in the West. Thus, by suggesting that Theodoric conquer Italy as his Ostrogothic kingdom, Zeno maintained at least a nominal supremacy in that western land while ridding the Eastern Empire of an unruly subordinate.