Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Isaurians – Rome’s homegrown barbarians

At the time Rome’s western empire ‘fell’ in AD476, the emperor in the east was a barbarian. The coins call him Zeno, a Greek name; however his real name was Tarasicodissa Rousoumbladadiotes and he was an Isaurian (reigned 474-91). Although notionally Roman citizens, the Isaurians were fiercely independent and antagonistic to Rome. So why were several emperors drawn from them, a people you might call homegrown barbarians?

The Divine Emperor Zeno

Isauria seems to have been a land that nobody else wanted. It’s located in what is now southern Turkey, next to Cicilia on the coast and Pamphylia to its west. To the north was Lycaonia and to its east was Commagene. These lands changed hands amongst Persians, Medes, Greeks and Romans, later Armenians and Turks. The Tarza (Tarsus) Mountains were their core territory, although at times they extended towards the coast and even onto Cyprus. As everyone knows, St Paul was born Saul of Tarsus, a diaspora Jewish tentmaker in the capital of the Province of Cicilia.

Dangerous Barbarians
Vainly the Romans planted cities in Isauria, or renamed them after famous Romans (Germanopolis, Claudiopolis, and even Zenopolis, the emperor’s birthplace, probably called Rusumblada until then). A fair comparison might be the renaming of places in Ireland by English and Scottish overlords.

The threat from the Isaurians can be seen in the myth of Typhon, a monster killed by Zeus. He seems to have been a local god of fire and earthquakes, portrayed by the Greeks as the father of Cerberus, the Chimera, the Sphinx and every other monster they could think of. Typhon is linked from Hesiod onwards as Cicilian, but the difference between Cicilia and Isauria seems to be political, not ethnic. But the Greeks and Romans, since at least the time of Hesiod, liked to portray the people of that area as not quite human.

A Necropolis in Isauria

Almost Useful Barbarians
Isauria overlaps too with the territory of Pamphylia, a land overrun early by Achaean Greeks c.1200BC, suggesting links with Troy. All the people of this area seem to have been Luwian speaking Hittites. The Isaurians are termed ‘Dorian’ by the Greeks, suggesting that they saw them as being very similar in attitudes to the Dorian Greeks, the ‘Sons of Hercules’, tough and violent upland dwellers, and indeed the Greeks claimed the Pamphylians were Dorians. What we seem to be seeing here is an attempt to impose a Greek identity onto Hittite/Luwian peoples. Lycaonia seems to be relate to the ancient Lukka people, and to names like Lycaeon of Troy, one of the sons of Priam, and to Lycaeon, king of Arcadia, son of Pelasgus in Greek myth and thus brother of Niobe and a dynast of the Pelasgians who at one point ruled Athens. Zeus was termed ‘Lykaios’ in the Arcadian festival of Lykaia.

This mythic muddle seems to point towards fusion and confusion of similar peoples with Greeks. A lot of the Greek myths draw on stories from Asia Minor.

How Roman is a Roman?
Lest anyone think that the emperor personified everything that was Roman, the rulers of the later empire often came from militarised districts. Diocletian was a Croat, Maximian a Serb, Constantius Chlorus was an Illyrian, while Galerius was a Thracian, in the military tradition of the emperor Maximinus Thrax. Most of the emperors succeeding Commodus were not Italians. But they were all Roman citizens, as was Zeno. To consider that certain powerbrokers in the later empire somehow couldn’t be emperor themselves and hid behind tame Roman emperors seems simply wrong, and Chris Wickham holds the same view in his recent book The Inheritance of Rome.

Most of the so-called Gothic commanders involved in the Sack of Rome in AD410 had been born after AD378 and the battle of Adrianople, so they were as Roman as anyone else. By the time Euric rebelled against the emperor Anthemius, a Greek, neither was more Roman than the other. Anthemius was put into office by Ricimer, his son-in-law, a Frank. We have no evidence of any Frankish or Gothic commander speaking anything but Latin.

Isaurians were politically distinct from the peoples around them, but not culturally so. Another comparison with a recent group would be with the Don Cossacks, whose name suggests a link with the Kazakhs of Kazakhstan. Like the Cossacks, there may have been a difference of lifestyle, but the Isaurians are clearly linked to the other states which emerged after the end of the Hittite empire in Asia Minor. We might also compare them with the Basques, who in the western Pyrenees survived the Romans, Goths, Moors and Franks, or the Highlander groups who fought the English as fiercely as they fought the lowland Scots before them.

Just as poverty drew the Scots and Irish into the British forces, it seems to have drawn marginal people into the Roman army, among them the Isaurians.

The House of Theodosius
Zeno spent many years rising in Roman service in the east. It’s worth tracing the dynastics of the eastern empire in the fifth century. Theodosius II, despite having his name on a famous Roman law code, did nothing during his 42 years on the throne, just shy of the reign of Augustus, and his sister Pulcheria ran the empire the whole time until her death in 453. In 450, after the death of Theodosius, she married the Illyrian general Marcian to make him emperor, which in turn ennobled his daughter to marry Anthemius, later western emperor.

Emperor Theodosius II

Pulcheria, emperor in all but name

Marcian, emperor and husband of Pulcheria

The house of Valentinian and Theodosius ended with the death of Marcian in 457, when another powerful soldier, Leo Marcellus from Dacia, was given the eastern throne. His daughter Ariadne married Zeno; their son Leo II briefly inherited the imperial title in 474 for a matter of months with Zeno as co-emperor; on his son’s death late in 474, Zeno became emperor.

Emperor Leo I


Succession idealised father-to-son transmission, derived in part from biblical models, but in practice emperors married their daughters to rising generals. It was a throw of the dice which put Zeno on the throne at the moment the western succession collapsed. Zeno faced a claim to the throne by Basiliscus, the brother of Verina, Leo’s wife, who was proclaimed emperor in Constantinople on 9 January 475 and tried to reign for 19 months until he in turn was overthrown and Zeno restored in August 476. The beneficiaries of the rout of the Isaurians were Ostrogoths, led by cousins Theodoric Strabo (‘squinty’) and Theodoric ‘the Amal’. Inevitably men of Germanic background dominated the new imperial close protection squad called excubitores.

It matches the English Wars of the Roses for dynastic complexity. So it was only a few days after his restoration to the throne that Zeno received the returned imperial insignia from Odoacer in Ravenna which ended the succession of emperors in Italy.

The Empire Need Not Have Ended
Given the closeness of timing, we should assume that Odoacer intended to surrender the insignia to Basiliscus, not Zeno. Perhaps Odoacer never intended the line of emperors to end with Romulus Augustulus, but to have become western emperor himself and that in formally surrendering the insignia to Basiliscus, he would receive it back with an ennoblement to become emperor in his turn. Given the weeks it would take to get messages even by sea between Ravenna and Constantinople, Odoacer could not have known it would be Zeno and not Basiliscus who would receive it.

We can think beck for a moment to the death of the emperor Valens in the Battle of Adrianople on 9 August 378. On his death, his nephew Gratian was the only Augustus with authority to reign (Valentinian II was a small child). Although he eventually made Theodosius Augustus of the East, initially he only made him Magister Equitum, commander of the imperial army in the east and it was five months later when Gratian elevated him as Augustus on 19 January 379 (see Thomas Burns’ Barbarians within the Gates of Rome, p.43). It is highly likely that Theodosius, son-in-law of Valens, had to hand the imperial regalia of the east to Gratian, and received it back when he was made emperor nearly half a year later.

Moreover, Odoacer is considered by many, including the ‘Byzantine’ historian John Malalas, to have been the nephew of Basiliscus. If that is so, then it looks increasingly likely that, like Theodosius, Odoacer expected to be made emperor. Basiliscus made his own son junior Augustus, so that would not be a surprise. On deposing Zeno. Basiliscus encouraged the mob to murder all Isaurians in Constantinople. He extorted  heavy taxes from the empire and allowed Constantinople to suffer a significant fire, that destroyed the library of Julian, which had existed for 110 years. It is ironic that the years which saw the end of the western empire also destroyed a lot of ‘pagan’ literature in the east.

Usurping Emperor Basiliscus

 Basiliscus also got himself caught up in one of the less interesting Christian controversies, and flip-flopped alarmingly. His sister, Verina, seems to have been involved in an intrigue against him, planning to marry the magister officiorum Patricius and have him made emperor. Patricius was murdered and Basiliscus lived. His two terms as consul and his former high command of imperial forces west and east seem not to have honed his judgement.

His nephews Odoacer, Onoulphus (Hunwulf) and Armatus formed shifting alliances, illustrated by their polyethnic names; their father Edekon had been an officer for Attila the Hun, and had or took a Hunnic name, yet later joined the Roman army as did his sons. Ethnic identity seems to have been malleable to say the least. Basiliscus was therefore a Hun or Hunnic ally too – the three brothers were his side of the family. We may be beginning to see the start of the practice, seen in Frankish Gaul, where names are given in expectation of  career involvement in Church or army, either in childhood or as an adult. Nor should we be surprised by sibling rivalry, which since Romulus has shaped power relations in antiquity. Those of the sons of Clovis and those of Louis the Pious were just as toxic.

Basiliscus sent out Illus and Trocundus, two Isaurian brothers and imperial generals, among the few left in the capital after the emperor had massacred most of them. The two brothers may have been from a rival grouping. They went to kill Zeno, but were suborned by the Senate to restore Zeno instead, which they did.

The complexity of this situation is reflected in the consulship. In 476, the consuls were Basiliscus (the for the second time) and Armatus. There were no consuls picked at all in 477, and in 478 Illus alone and 479 Zeno alone. Between 478 and 500 there are many consuls appointed sine collega (without a colleague). Western consuls ended in 534 and eastern ones in 541. As emperors became kings, there was little need for consuls to confuse things and Justinian simply abolished the position. The Greek title of the Roman emperor basileus always meant king anyway.

So the return of Zeno saw the return of the Isaurians, among whom he had sat out his interregnum, excluding his brother Longinus, who was held a hostage for ten years by Illus.

The best modern history of this I know is by Peter Heather, best known as the expert on the Goths. His book The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (Pan 2014) untangles this almighty mess with bravura and wit.

When Zeno died in 491, the mob in Constantinople called for a proper Roman emperor rather than accept Zeno’s brother Longinus (who had been consul in 486), so the dowager empress Ariadne provided them with Anastasius, one of her former silentarii (senatorial rank officials). He led the empire into a war with the Isaurians.

We have been able to see that it was not forbidden for a ‘barbarian’ to become emperor. Most of the emperors after Commodus were from outlandish backgrounds, probably because they were better fighters. Nearly all of the commanders who became kings were culturally Christians and legally Romans.

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