The Byzantines in the West in the Sixth Century
By John Morehead
The New Cambridge Medieval History, ed. Paul Fouracre (Cambridge University Press, 2005)
Introduction: Throughout the political history of western Europe, there have been few periods of such dramatic change as the fifth century. In 400 the borders of the Roman Empire in the West, by then distinct from the Empire in the East which was governed from Constantinople, stood reasonably firm. They encompassed all of Europe south of the Antonine Wall in Britain and the Rhine and the Danube rivers on the continent, extending eastwards of the confluence of the latter river with the Drava, as well as a band of territory along the African coast which extended two thirds of the way from the Straits of Gilbraltar to the Nile. But within a hundred years this mighty entity had ceased to exist. North Africa had been occupied by groups known as Vandals and Alans, Spain by Visigoths and Sueves, and Gaul by Visigoths, Franks and Burgundians. The Romans had withdrawn from Britain early in the century, leaving it exposed to attacks from the Irish, Picts and Anglo-Saxons, while in Italy the last emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed in 476 by a military commander, Odovacer. The supplanter of Romulus was himself deposed and murdered in 493 by Theoderic the Ostrogoth, who established a powerful kingdom based on Italy. While the empire had weathered the storm of the fifth century largely unscathed in the East, in the West it had simply ceased to exist. Western Europe, one might be excused for thinking, had moved decisively into a post-Roman period, and the Middle Ages had begun.
However dramatic these events may have been, they did not constitute a definitive parting of the ways between the post-Roman West and what we may now call the Byzantine East. Long-distance trade continued throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, as research on African ports found over a wide area is increasingly making clear. In the year 500, consuls were being appointed for the West, and when, a few decades later, the western consulship lapsed, there were still people in the West who dated documents with reference to the eastern consuls who continued to be appointed. The Mediterranean was traversed by diplomats, such as a legate of Theoderic who made twenty-five trips from Italy to Spain, Gaul, Africa and Constantinople, and members of the intelligentsia. The West was awash with doctors from the East, among them Anthimus, who lived in Italy and wrote a fascinating book on diet for a Frankish king in which he recommended the use of such foods such as leavened bread, beer and mead made with plenty of honey. Another Eastern doctor was Alexander of Tralles, the brother of the well-known architect Anthemius, who practiced medicine in Rome and whose Therapeutica was translated into Latin in the sixth century. On the other hand Priscian, who was probably an African, was in Constantinople when he wrote what were to become standard works on Latin grammar; we know that Africans in Constantinople were renowned for their Latin accent but reviled for their poor Greek. Latin manuscripts were copied in Constantinople and Greek ones in Ravenna, the Gothic capital of Italy. Furthermore, despite the advent of new holders of power in the West, the new rulers were keen to represent themselves as in some way subservient to the Roman emperors who still ruled in Constantinople. Theoderic the Ostrogoth wrote to the emperor Anastasius that ‘our kingdom is an imitation of yours…a copy of the only Empire,’ and Sigismund the Burgundian informed him that, while he gave the appearance of ruling his people, he believed himself to be merely the soldier of the emperor. In these and many other respects, the post-Roman West remianed firmly a part of the Roman world.