‘What Ifs’ Fall of the Roman Empire III

The survival of the Western Empire: feasible with better luck?

A larger state: a match for the Germans and the East?

The survival of Theodosius I, only forty-seven at his death in 395, for another decade or two, putting him in the position to combat the Germanic crossing of the Rhine into Gaul in 406, should have made that attack containable like the previous invasions of the mid-270s and 350s. Probably Alaric the Goth would not have risked his attacks on Italy from 402. Even if the Empire had faced at least one of these challenges, an experienced adult Emperor would have been in a stronger position to meet them than the regent Stilicho. The Germans would not have had the opportunity to spread unchecked over Gaul, Spain, and later Africa from 406, detaching rich provinces from the Empire and so reducing its ability to pay for a militarily superior central army that could defeat tribal based armies led by opportunistic German warlords. Barbarian kingdoms would not have coalesced around successful warlords in Roman territory and become more powerful than the Imperial armies, or the central Imperial army been reduced to over-reliance on king-making German generals with their own loyal entourages, e.g. Ricimer and Gundobad. Crucially, the Vandals would not have been able to set up their kingdom in Africa from 429 and deliver the major blow of the sack of Rome in 455, ravaging the Italian (and other) coasts for decades thereafter and undermining trade. The Goths would not have been able to operate freely in Italy against an undefended city of Rome and a militarily weak government in Ravenna after Stilicho’s assassination in 408, or set up a kingdom in Southern Gaul in 418.

Thereafter, a more powerful Western Roman army, though probably still with a major autonomous allied German contingent, would have been available under Aetius to meet the attacks of the Huns. The latter might still have been undefeated until 451–2, due to earlier concentration on the weaker East, but German refugees from Attila’s empire fleeing to the West would have reinforced the Roman army. Even in the circumstances of a weakened Empire that had lost control of its African corn-supplies and much of Gaul, Aetius, who had usefully lived in exile among the Huns earlier and knew their tactics, was able to muster a Romano-German coalition to defeat Attila’s incursion into Gaul. How much better would he have fared had the Empire not already lost much of its revenues and power?

The assassination of Aetius by his jealous sovereign Valentinian III in 454 led to a vacuum in Roman military leadership, a new power-struggle at court, and Gaiseric’s physically and psychologically damaging sack of the capital in 455. It also led to Aetius’ successor Petronius Maximus, allegedly implicated in his murder, seeking alliance with the Goths, which Rome had avoided since 408, and the latter securing a free hand to operate in Spain and extend their power there. What if Aetius had escaped the attack and overthrown his monarch? (He was already rumoured to be intending to install his son Gaudentius as the next ruler, married to Valentinian’s daughter.) As praised by his contemporary and panegyricist Merobaudes in his laudatory poems of around 439 and 443, the indefatiguable Aetius had restored order to Gaul in the 430s and defeated Germans and ‘bacaudae’ alike – and even held up Gaiseric’s advance in Africa temporarily by bringing in Aspar and Eastern troops in 435. The relative stability he brought after three decades of chaos speaks for itself, as does his successful leadership of the Romano-German coalition to defeat Attila somewhere near Chalons in 451. The collapse of Roman power in Gaul and Gaiseric’s attack on the capital only followed his death, so what if his rule had continued?

The defeat, containment, and death of Attila in 451–3, followed by Aetius’ contining ascendancy at court, would have enabled Aetius to recruit many of the subject tribes who revolted against the Huns in 454 to be allies of Rome. The Western Empire would have continued as a major military power into the later fifth century with most of its provinces intact, and Aetius had competent officers to succeed him in power such as Aegidius and Majorian. In real life Aegidius ruled parts of northern Gaul as a Romano-Gallic warlord after 455, and Majorian became Emperor in 457. Such competent and energetic rulers, with appropriate armies, would probably have dissuaded or defeated further provincial revolts, and if North Africa and its corn supplies had still been in Vandal hands reconquest would have been a priority. The Empire would have been manageable without outlying regions of Gaul (lost to Goths, Burgundians, and Franks) and Spain (lost to the Suevi).

Either a strong military leader or a legitimate Theodosian would have served as a focus for stability in the 460s and after. With or without the continuation of the dynasty of Theodosius, the Empire’s military leadership and control of resources would have been adequate for survival on the politico-socio-economic basis of the state of the fourth century. It would have been the military equal of Justinian’s Eastern Empire provided that it was not undermined by further civil wars. Therafter it would quite possibly have been an unviable target to conquer. Indeed, the notion of an Eastern attack on the West owed much to the aggressive (and ultra-Christian) ambitions of Justinian himself, a conqueror, builder, and would-be theological arbiter on the scale of Constantine the Great.

But what if this humbly born Balkan peasant-boy had never become Eastern Emperor? He did not take the throne by obvious military talent as had the humbly born Balkan Emperors of the later third and early fourth century like Claudius II, Aurelian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius I.

His introduction to the capital, Court, and politics was due to his (childless) uncle Justin becoming an ex-ranker Guards officer and inviting him to the capital around 500 as his protégé. The disputed succession to eighty-eight year old Emperor Anastasius in July 518 then saw Justin, commander of the ‘Excubitors’ guards regiment, selected as a compromise candidate instead of the ambitious civilian minister Celer or Anastasius’ nephew Hypatius. The latter was the ‘legitimist’ choice of the Nika rioters to replace Justinian in 532.

Justin, then aged around sixty, may well have been seen as a stopgap by his selectors, less dangerous and strong-willed than Celer and a respectable Catholic in place of the unpopularly pro-Monophysite Anastasius. The latter had recently had to abandon his pro-Monophysite policies due to a Catholic military revolt led by the charismatic general Vitalian, who still had an army to hand in 518 and so was a potential Emperor. Instead, Justinian took control of the administration as his semi-literate uncle’s civilian strongman, had Vitalian bought off with a consulship and quietly murdered, and was duly made co-Emperor. In 527 he succeeded his uncle, despite tension over his marrying the ex-actress and alleged prostitute Theodora. But would the West have been invaded in 533–7 had Celer, Hypatius, or Vitalian secured the throne in 518?

Had the Vandals been kept or driven out of Africa, the only significant military challenge the West would have faced after Attila’s death would have been the armies of Theodoric the Ostrogoth (encouraged to leave the East after defying its rulers through the 480s) around 490–3. In real life Theodoric was able to overthrow the post-Imperial regime of Odovacer in Italy, but a strong Western central army could have held him at bay as Stilicho had done to Alaric in 402. Indeed, there is a possibility that a militarily strong West could have sent troops to assist the Catholic military revolt of Vitalian against Anastasius around 513 and helped to save the cause of orthodox religion in the latter’s capital. The West had intervened successfully in the East before, as Constantine had defeated the suspiciously lukewarm pro-Christian Licinius in the name of orthodoxy in 324 and Julian had attacked his uncle Constantius II in 361. A Western Empire controlling most of its provinces (and maybe with Gothic allies from Aquitaine) was a formidable foe for an East whose armies were in disarray, and in real life Anastasius had to treat with Vitalian as his armies could not defeat him. A West that had held or restored the Rhine frontier could have militarily outmatched Anastasius’ divided armies in 513–18, especially if its Catholic Emperor allied to Vitalian in the cause of orthodoxy.

A smaller state

Alternatively, if the Western Empire had been weakened by invasions and poor leadership in the fifth century, a core of Mediterranean provinces, probably minus Gaul, the Rhineland, and Britain, could have survived as a small state into the 530s. This scenario was possible from the recovery of the Empire in the 410s under Constantius III, which left a Gothic ‘federate’ state ruling south-west Gaul, Germans roaming at large in Spain, and the Rhineland and Britain permanently lost. Had the Vandals still managed to conquer North Africa, in which a power-struggle between Aetius and Boniface to control the regency in Rome around 428–33 aided their advance, the West would have faced a new pirate kingdom with a fleet raiding Italy, worryingly based at the ancient foe Carthage, and the loss of African corn and revenues. That need not have led to the devastating sack of Rome in 455, the result of the murder of the military leader Aetius by Valentinian III and the chaos that followed, which gave Gaiseric the excuse to intervene. But the surviving Empire would have been weakened further by regular raids and the defeat of a retaliatory expedition (e.g. that of Majorian in 462) would have been a signal for more political instability.

A massive expedition from East and West like that of 468 could have evicted the Vandals if competently led. The expedition apparently consisted of a huge armada of 1,100 ships according to Byzantine sources, and was only defeated due to skilful use of fireships by Gaiseric as the Eastern navy reached the Tunisian coast – against which the wind helped in trapping the Roman ships so they could not sail or row to safety. The Eastern commander Basiliscus was accused later by the sixth century historian Procopius of accepting a bribe to delay the attack, which enabled the Vandals to prepare and use their fireships (though nobody could have known that the wind would change and trap the Eastern ships against a lee shore). Once an army was ashore it had a reasonable chance of defeating the incumbent power, then blockading Carthage into surrender and driving resistance out into the deserts, as carried out by Scipio Africanus in 203–2BC and Belisarius in AD533. Had the alleged overwhelming size of the combined Eastern and Western force secured victory, the corn and tax revenues of prosperous North Africa would have been restored to the Western Empire and it could have raised the men to tackle the smaller kingdoms of German-held Spain (e.g. the Suevi).

A success by Majorian in Africa in 462–3 (his expedition was defeated en route and he was overthrown by Ricimer) would have been more useful in regaining Spain than a success by Anthemius and Basiliscus in 468, as by 468 the Goths were more entrenched in Spain. But either expedition could have regained Africa and tipped the balance of resources in the Western Empire’s favour, at least securing it control of nearer parts of Spain. This would have helped the Empire to hold onto central and southern Gaul too, with or without a war against the Goths who only gained control of the Auvergne region around 470. The North was partly ruled by survivors of Aetius’ Gallic army, under Aegidius and his son Syagrius, until 486 and this force (based at Soissons) was likely to rally to the Empire if the latter was in the ascendant. In that case, a revived Mediterranean-based Western Empire that Majorian or Anthemius had secured North Africa would have been viable for decades but for an external threat or civil war.

This smaller Empire could still have avoided ruinous civil war if there had been a stable succession within one dynasty, which could have been that of Valentinian III, his son-in-law Olybrius, and grandson Areobindus from 425 to around 510 or Anthemius’ family, or the role could have been taken by a series of strong military leaders such as Aetius, Majorian, Marcellinus, and Julius Nepos. It was actual or potential Roman civil wars that gave the Germanic tribal leaders their opportunities, from the time when Stilicho neglected tackling the invasion of Gaul in 406–8 to concentrate on the Eastern succession to the power-struggle in Rome in 455.

Holding onto its remaining Mediterranean territory with a viable army led by Roman generals, the Empire should have avoided becoming the puppet of German officers such as Ricimer. The latter’s emergence as commander-in-chief and Emperor-maker in the later 450s would have been inconceivable had Aetius been alive, and in any case he could have been overthrown by his Emperor (for instance the capable Majorian) as in the East the Germanic commander-in-chief Aspar was killed in 467 by his puppet Leo I. Majorian’s defeat of the Vandals, rather than his own defeat, in 461–2 would have strengthened both him and his rump Empire, and in 467–8 the Eastern fleet could have defeated Gaiseric and reconquered North Africa for the new Emperor Anthemius.

If the Western Empire had defeated the invasion of Theodoric in circa. 492–3 the state should have had no more military challenges into the sixth century, when it would have posed a tempting challenge to the aggressive Eastern ruler Justinian. (Being orthodox instead of Arian like the Gothic kingdom of Italy would not have saved it; the East had attacked the West already in 351–2, 388, 394, 425 and 467). The likelihood is that Justinian would have sought to reabsorb the West even had it been ruled by a Roman Emperor rather than several disunited heretic German kings, but he might have regarded this as a lower priority and taken on the Sassanids for a long-term war first. The attempt at reunification would have been risky, as in real life Justinian could only spare small armies to carry it out (due to the Persian threat to the Eastern frontier) and if the West had survived he would have been facing a Roman ‘comitatus’. But he could still have attempted it, particularly in order to remove a theologically unorthodox, possibly Arian, Emperor or to exploit a civil war. It appears from the contemporary accounts of the great plague that commenced in 542 that this cost millions of lives, and thus would have reduced military capability to send an adequate army West thereafter. But an attack before that date was still feasible, with the caveat that independently of internal Roman politics a new wave of Germanic, Asiatic (Hun and Avar), and Slavic attacks was disrupting the Balkans by the 540s.

Assuming Justinian and his general Belisarius had succeeded in invading the West, there would have been one Empire as last seen under Theodosius I in 394–5. The Imperial writ would have run from the upper Euphrates and upper Nile valleys to Southern Gaul and the Straits of Gibraltar, with or without a surviving Rhine frontier (which even if it had not been breached in 406 could have fallen to a migration of refugees from Attila’s empire in the 430s). The West could then have been given to a separate ruler in a new division of power in the later sixth century, as appears to have been considered as an option in real life by Tiberius II in 582. At the time, the possible division of power between Tiberius’ son-in-law Maurice (East) and Germanus Postumus (West) would have left a weakened West struggling to hold back the Lombards in an Italy ravaged by Gothic wars. But there could have been been no Gothic occupation of Italy in 493 (or any grant of land to Germans in 476), or a more decisive victory for the East by 540 without Totila’s subsequent fight-back. In these scenarios, Italy would have been free from the presence of German settlers with homes to defend against the Eastern troops and a ruinous war would not have occurred.

Even in the circumstances of real-life 540, the East had driven the Goths back into the Po valley and their demoralised remnants were reduced to inviting Belisarius (evidently admired as a chivalrous foe) to become their ruler. (This did not do his reputation any good with his suspicious Emperor.) The Goths’ initially successful recovery in the early 540s was partly due to the capable Totila taking on the command; partly due to Justinian’s recall of Belisarius and many of his soldiers, and partly due to Roman manpower losses in the devastating plague of 542–3. The Persian attack on Syria and sack of Antioch made the recalls probable, and the plague meant that Justinian could not send an adequate army West until his nephew Germanus’ mission in 550 (aborted by the general’s death). Justinian, like George Bush in Iraq in 2003, seems to have been too eager to proclaim ‘mission accomplished’ and not alert to the possibility of revolt. But what if Totila had been won over or killed quickly, or Belisarius had not been recalled? Italy would have been in a far better condition to meet any new invasions in the later sixth century, though still denuded of manpower if the plague of 542 had occurred. As it was, the land had already been ruined by decades of Romans and Goths fighting over it before the Lombards moved in, making conquest easier, and Justinian’s extortionate tax demands did not help agricultural recovery either.

The survival of the Western Empire during 476–535 would have provided a ‘comitatus’ to be incorporated into Justinian’s army at the reconquest, and a stronger force available to hold back the Lombards. The Western Empire, possibly incorporating southern Gaul and Spain as well as Berber-raided North Africa, should have survived as a viable political entity into the seventh century. Crucially, providing there were good relations with the current Eastern Emperor it would have been able to send him troops to fight the Persian incursions in the 610s, and later to fight the Arabs. But if the plague of 542 had carried off up to half the population, as estimated by Procopius, military manpower (and tax revenues to hire troops from outside the Empire) would have been smaller in the later sixth century than in the fourth and fifth. The military challenges from the new nomad threat, the Avar empire (centred in the Hungarian basin and Wallachia like Attila’s), and the mass-movements of its fleeing enemies (e.g. the Lombards) would have prevented a peaceful and prosperous future for the united or divided Empire of the period 570–600.

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