The Greatest City on Earth: Theodoric in Constantinople 461-71

“It is not fitting that the Emperor should be bound to do the bidding of any of his subjects, especially when by his compliance he injures the state!”

Image: The Theodosian Walls at Constantinople, Wiki Commons CC (Source)

Portrait of a Pope: The Life of St Gregory the Great

Part I: Introduction – The Historical Context
The End of Imperial Rome
The Reign of Odovacer in Italy
Introducing the Ostrogoths
Barbarian and Roman: The Early Life of Theodoric the Great
The Greatest City on Earth: Theodoric in Constantinople 461-71

More on St Gregory the Great:
The Apostle of the English

Theodoric in Constantinople

In the previous instalment of this series, we saw that Theodoric the Amal, at the age of 8, was sent as a hostage to Constantinople, as security for a treaty signed between Leo I, Roman Emperor in the East, and the rulers of the Pannonian Goths. In this instalment, we continue the story and reflect on what the young Theodoric must have encountered in the great imperial city, and what lessons he may have learned during the decades he spent there.

The City of Constantinople 

Constantinople was founded by the emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306 to 337) in the 320s, on the site of the ancient city of Byzantium, as a new capital for the eastern provinces of the Roman empire. While Constantine established the basic plan and framework of the city, it was under his son, Constantius II, that Constantinople’s position as the premier city of the east was solidified.

Constantius II established a new Senate in Constantinople, to parallel the ancient senate of Rome. This caused an influx of rich landowners to the city, “to new houses, duties and honours.”[1]

Historian Peter Heather writes:

“Henceforth, the Senate of Constantinople became the prime political audience for imperial policy: the men to whom imperial policies had to be sold and justified, and whose continued importance in the home provinces they came from made their support for imperial initiatives a sine qua non for their successful implementation.”[2]

Bureaucratic growth created many new offices in the more centrally governed later Roman empire. Those dealing with the eastern provinces were all established in Constantinople, thus giving the city a unique importance in the east.[3] The situation in the west was different, with a number of cities, such as Milan, Trier and Ravenna, achieving political significance alongside the ancient capital of Rome. By the time of Theodoric’s arrival in 461 Constantinople would have had a population of around half a million people, making it the largest city on the Mediterranean. 

How would this great city have appeared to the young Gothic hostage, Theodoric?

As he approached, he would probably have been awed by the mighty Theodosian Walls which encircled the city. First came the moat, which was twenty metres wide and ten deep. Then he would have crossed twenty metres of flat ground – perfect for slaughtering an advancing force with missile fire. Next, he would have passed through the first of the walls, which was two metres thick and eight metres high. There were towers every fifty-five metres, with ninety-six in total. Once through the first wall, there was another twenty metres of killing ground. Then came the main walls, which were five metres wide and twelve metres high. Another ninety-six towers stood twenty metres high.[4]

These were the great walls of Constantinople, which were built around 410 and were not breached until the Ottoman Turks brought cannons against them and entered the city on 23 May 1453. According to tradition, the last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI, died on these battlements – in the peace and communion of the Catholic Church – defending his people against the Turks.

Once he was within the gates, he would have seen other masterpieces of Roman engineering and logistical achievement. Among these would have been three enormous open-air reservoirs, served by more than 150 miles of aqueducts, which brought water from the hills of Thrace. Food was brought to the city by the enormous grain fleets that Theodoric would have seen in the city’s massive harbours. It was stored in vast dockside granaries and then distributed to the populace.

As he progressed to the centre of the city, he would have seen the recently completed triumphal statue of the Emperor Marcian. He would then have arrived at the Capitol and the ceremonial heart of the city. He would have viewed the forum of Theodosius, with its mighty statue of the great emperor, as well as the Senate house, the Hippodrome and the Imperial Palace.

Other great architectural achievements were the church of the Holy Apostles, which served as the imperial burial place, and the Hagia Sophia (predecessor of the great church built by Justinian) and Hagia Irene.

The size and magnificence of Constantinople must have made a great impression on the young Theodoric. The empire in the east, which had constructed these great military, civic, and religious buildings, was no fading power, but the most powerful state in the world.

As a hostage of royal blood Theodoric would have been treated with great respect, though he would always have been aware that any breach of the treaty on his uncles’ or father’s part might mean death. But as long as they kept to their side of the bargain – as they did for the next decade – Theodoric would be treated well and given the liberty of the city.  

During these formative years of his adolescence he would have seen the operations of the Roman Empire from its political centre; he would have seen at close quarters the extraordinary administrative and financial power of the East Roman state. This was a state governed by an autocratic emperor, who was supported and advised by a senate of wealthy and influential men, who owed their status either to hereditary rank or imperial service. Justice was administered by an elaborate legal system, reaching back to the Roman monarchy, and made more effective by the recent promulgation of the Theodosian Code. An extensive bureaucracy brought in vast tax revenues, which funded powerful and effective standing armies. This was a great civilisation, and Theodoric must have realised that his own Goths could not directly oppose it but rather must find ways of working within this Roman world.

Of Theodoric’s life during this decade, we can know little. But we can recount the events of that period and speculate as to the effect they must have had on the young man. We will begin with consideration of the emperor who welcomed him to the great imperial city – Leo I.

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Emperor Leo I (r. 457-474)

The death of Marcian in 457 left the empire in the same difficult position as at the death of Theodosius II. The senior military commander Aspar remained the most powerful man in the state, but he remained ineligible for the office of emperor due to his Arian heresy and his Alan nationality. However, he once more used his influence to secure the election of one of his associates, who became Emperor Leo I.

Aspar no doubt expected that by placing an ally on the throne he would be able to largely control affairs. Leo I, on the other hand, had no intention of remaining a puppet. 

An anecdote told by ancient historians illustrates this. During the first year of his reign Aspar asked Leo to appoint an Arian to the post of Prefect of the City (of Constantinople), one of the most important offices of the state. Leo agreed, but immediately regretted it. That night he sent for a Catholic of senatorial rank – possibly Tatian, who had participated as an imperial official at the Council of Chalcedon – and installed him in the position. In rage, Aspar entered the imperial throne room and grabbed the imperial purple declaring “Emperor! it is not fitting that he who is wrapped in this purple should tell lies!”. Leo replied: “Yea, rather it is not fitting that the Emperor should be bound to do the bidding of any of his subjects, especially when by his compliance he injures the state.”[5]

The accession of Leo I initiated many years of intrigue and conflict between the emperor and the barbarian general. Aspar’s power rested on his alliances with Germanic groupings and on the reliance of the empire on Germanic military forces. His intention seems to have been not only to maintain his own influence but to secure the accession of one of his sons to the imperial throne. To counter this, Leo began to bring in large numbers of men from Isauria, a mountainous region in Asia Minor. These Isaurians were used as a counterbalance to Aspar’s Germans. Their leader Tarasikodissa  – who took the Greek name Zeno – married Leo’s daughter Ariadne. 

Eventually Leo, with the backing of Zeno and the Isaurians, would be strong enough move against Aspar, as we shall shortly see. 

Armada of 468

In the spring of 468, an armada set forth from Constantinople to recapture the Roman provinces of North Africa which had been conquered by the Vandals a generation earlier – and this event may have been an formative event in the life of the young Theodoric.

The loss of North Africa was one of the most significant events in the collapse of the western empire, separating Rome from some of its wealthiest and most productive provinces.

The recapture of these provinces was understood to be crucial. In 468, a thousand ships, set out for Africa, carrying a hundred thousand men, at a cost of one hundred and thirty-three thousand pounds weight of gold (this would be worth £3.2 billion today).

This great expedition was badly let down by the general placed at its head. Command was given to Basiliscus, the emperor’s brother-in-law, whose incompetence was so great that contemporaries speculated that he had been bribed by the Vandals, or that Aspar – whose ally he was – put pressure on him not to attain victory over an Arian power. The charges against Basiliscus may well be completely false, and nothing but his incompetence be to blame for the failure of expedition. 

The historian Procopius, writing half a century later, gave the following account, which worth is recounting here:

“Basiliscus, with his whole force, sailed for a town about thirty-five miles from Carthage, called Mercurion… and if he had not at once commenced his march to Carthage, he would have taken the city at the first shout, annihilated the strength of the Vandals, and reduced them to slavery; so thoroughly was Gaiseric now alarmed at the irresistible might of the Emperor Leo, who had taken from him Sardinia and Tripolis, and had sent against him such an armament under Basiliscus as all men said the Romans had never fitted out before. All this was now hindered by the general’s procrastination, which was due either to cowardice or treachery. 

“Profiting by the supineness of Basiliscus, Gaiseric armed all his subjects as well as he could, and put them on board troop-ships. Other ships, fast-sailors and carrying no soldiers he held in reserve. Then sending ambassadors to Basiliscus he begged for a delay of five days, pretending that if this was granted him he would consider how he might best comply with the wishes of the Emperor. And some say that he sent a large sum of money to Basiisicus, unknown to his soldiers, in order to purchase this armistice.

“He devised this scheme in the expectation, which was justified by the event, that in the meantime a wind would spring up which would be favourable to his purposes. Basiliscus then, either in obedience to the recommendation of Aspar, or as having been bribed to grant this truce, or because he really believed that it would be better for the army, stayed quietly in his camp waiting for the convenience of the enemy.

“But the Vandals, as soon as ever the wind arose which they had been patiently expecting, unfurled their sails, and taking the empty ships in tow, sailed against the enemy. As soon as they came bear they set the empty ships on fire, and sent them with bellying sails full against the anchorage of the Romans. The ships of the latter, being tightly packed together in the quarter to which the fire-ships were directed, soon caught fire, and readily communicated it to one another. 

“When the fire was thus kindled, great terror naturally seized the Roman host. Soon, the whistling of the wind, the roar of the fire, the shouts of the soldiers to the sailors, and of the sailors to the soldiers, the strokes of the poles with which they strove to push off the fire-ships or their own burning companions, created a wild hubbub of discordant noises. And now were the Vandals upon them, hurling javelins, sinking ships, or stripping the fugitive soldiers of their armour.”[6]

The defeat of the Armada was devastating for the Roman Empire. The failure to recapture North Africa, solidified the loss of Spain and Gaul.  There was desolation in Constantinople following its defeat. Basiliscus barely escaped with his life and Aspar’s influence was finally broken. 

But what lesson did the young Theodoric – then thirteen years old – learn from the debacle?

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Perhaps this: Constantinople had failed to project her power across the Mediterranean. However wealthy and secure the eastern provinces might be, the eastern part of the Empire could not intervene effectively to dislodge the Germanic kingdoms that had taken root in the west. 

The Vandal kingdom had survived for more than forty years. Visigoths were established in Gaul, Sueves in Spain, and Saxons and the Roman Empire, with all its wealth and administrative structures, now lacked the ability to extend its power into territories that she had once securely ruled.

What opportunities lay available for his own people, the Goths whom his father still ruled in Pannonia? Was it possible to establish a Gothic state on Roman territory, and yet beyond the avenging power of Rome? Did Theodoric now begin to dream of making the attempt?

The fall of Aspar

The year after the failure of the armada, Zeno, the emperor’s Isaurian son-in-law and the arch-rival of Aspar, held the consulship, which was still a post to which great honour was attached. In this post he took the field against the Huns and narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by some his soldiers, acting under the instigation of Aspar. After this he was appointed to one the most senior military positions in the empire, the Master of Soldiers in the East, which meant he was absent in the easternmost provinces.

During his absence Aspar secured the elevation of his son, Patricius, to the rank of Caesar, which implied he was heir to the imperial throne. There was great consternation in Constantinople at the thought of an Arian emperor; a deputation of clergy and laity presented themselves before the emperor imploring that a Catholic be chosen. A riot broke out in the Hippodrome and Leo pacified the crowd by promising Patricius would convert. Meanwhile evidence emerged that another of Aspar’s sons – Ardabarius – was instigating German troops to rebel against Leo.

Leo now acted. In the year 471 both Aspar and Ardabarius were murdered by palace eunuchs. Patricius was wounded but escaped. Leo I henceforth became known as the “The Butcher”. The historian J. B. Bury, while deploring the murderous nature of the act, saw a wider significance in it:

“It was an important act in the long struggle against the German danger in the East. But it inaugurated a period of Isaurian domination which was to involve the Empire in a weary civil war. This was a price which had to be paid for the defeat of the German generals who sought to appropriate the empire.”[7]

For Bury:

“the interest and importance of Leo’s reign lie in the struggle for ascendancy between the foreign and native powers in the State. To have averted this peril was Leo’s one achievement.”

The character of Leo I is summed up as follows by Bury:

“Leo was a man of no education, but he seems to have possessed a good deal of natural sense… The financial methods of the Empire were so oppressive that the charge of rapacity might be brought against any Emperor, but Leo seems to have done nothing to make the system more rigorous, and to have followed the steps of Marcian in adopting particular measures of relief and clemency as occasion offered. He is reported to have said that a king should distribute pity to those on whom he looks, as the sun distributes heat to those on whom he shines, and he may at least in some degree have practiced what he preached.”[8]

Leo I was a loyal son of the Catholic Church, who subscribed to the doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon. He died on 3 February, 474.

The return of Theodoric

In 471 – the same year that Aspar was assassinated – Theodoric got the opportunity to put the lessons he had learned into practice. At the age of 18, he was going home. 

We aren’t sure why he returned to Pannonia in this year. It is possible that the end date of his hostage period was written into the treaty, but there may be other causes.

Heather considers that perhaps:

“it was generated by more immediate circumstances. If the latter, two lines of thought suggest themselves. First, by the early 470s Valamer [Theodoric’s uncle] was dead, killed.”[9]

This made Theodoric’s father, Thiudimer, the most important leader among the Pannonian Goths.

However, Valamer may have died as early as the mid-460s, which would make this irrelevant to Theodoric’s return.  

Another reason however is that it was connected with the fate of Aspar and his son. Their murders sent shockwaves through the Germanic peoples who dwelt in the Danube region, and who were closely associated with Aspar and his sons. Goths dwelling in Thrace, led by Theodoric Strabo – “the squinter” – rebelled against Leo I.

It is possible that Leo allowed Theodoric to go home in the hope that his presence amongst the Goths of Pannonia would be of use to the Roman state.

Whether Leo’s hopes were fulfilled or not, we will see in the next instalment of this series.

Portrait of a Pope: The Life of St Gregory the Great

Part I: Introduction – The Historical Context
The End of Imperial Rome
The Reign of Odovacer in Italy
Introducing the Ostrogoths
Barbarian and Roman: The Early Life of Theodoric the Great
The Greatest City on Earth: Theodoric in Constantinople 461-71

More on St Gregory the Great:
The Apostle of the English

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[1] Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome(London, 2013), p13. (UK: here)

[2] Heather, Restoration, p13.

[3] Heather, Restoration, p13.

[4] The architectural details about Constantinople in this section are mostly taken from Heather, Restoration, pp12-17.

[5] Thomas Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders: Vol II, (London, 18xx), p444. (UK: here)

[6] As translated in Hodgkin, Italy, p447-49.

[7] J. B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire(London, 1923), p320. (UK: here)

[8] Bury, p321.

[9] Heather, Restoration, discussion of Theodoric pp21-25.


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