Arcadius was only seventeen when he ascended the throne. He possessed neither the experience nor the force of will necessary for his high position, and he soon found himself completely overruled by his favorites, who directed the affairs of the Empire in a manner satisfactory to their own interests and the interests of their respective parties. The first influential favorite was Rufinus, appointed during Theodosius’ lifetime as general guide of Arcadius. Rufinus was soon murdered and two years later the eunuch Eutropius exerted the greatest influence upon the Emperor. The rapid rise of this new favorite was due primarily to his success in arranging the marriage of Arcadius and Eudoxia, the daughter of a Frank who served as an officer in the Roman army. Honorius, the younger brother of Arcadius, had been placed by his father under the guidance of the gifted chief, Stilicho, a true example of a Romanized Germanic barbarian, who had rendered great service to the Empire during its struggle with his own people.
The settlement of the Gothic problem. — The central issue for the government in the time of Arcadius was the Germanic problem. The Visigoths, who had settled during an earlier period in the northern part of the Balkan peninsula, were now headed by a new and ambitious chief, Alaric Balta. At the beginning of the reign of Arcadius, Alaric set out with his people for Moesia, Thrace, and Macedonia, threatening even the capital. The diplomatic intervention of Rufinus brought about a change in Alaric’s original plan for attacking Constantinople. The attention of the Goths was directed to Greece. Alaric crossed Thessaly and advanced into Middle Greece by way of Thermopylae.
The population of Greece at that period was almost purely Greek and, on the whole, almost the same as Pausanias and Plutarch had known it. According to Gregorovius, the old language, religion, customs, and laws of the forefathers remained almost unchanged in the towns and villages. And in spite of the fact that Christianity had been officially pronounced the dominant religion, and the worship of the gods, condemned and forbidden by the state, was doomed to die out, ancient Greece still bore the spiritual and artistic impress of paganism, mainly because of the preservation of the monuments of antiquity.
In their march through Greece the Goths pillaged and devastated Boeotia and Attica. The Athenian harbor, Peiraeus, was in their hands; fortunately they spared Athens. The pagan historian of the fifth century, Zosimus, narrated the legend of how Alaric, upon surrounding the Athenian walls with his army, beheld the goddess Athena Promachos in armor and the Trojan hero Achilles standing before the wall. So greatly astonished was Alaric by this apparition that he abandoned the idea of attacking Athens. The Peloponnesus suffered greatly from the Gothic invasion, for the Visigoths sacked Corinth, Argos, Sparta, and several other cities. Stilicho undertook to defend Greece and landed with his troops in the Gulf of Corinth on the Isthmus, thus cutting off Alaric’s way back through Middle Greece. Alaric then pushed his way to the north into Epirus with great effort and against many difficulties. The Emperor Arcadius apparently was not ashamed to honor the man who had devastated the Greek provinces of the Empire with the military title of Master of Soldiers in Illyricum (Magister mihtum per Illyricum). After this Alaric ceased to threaten the eastern part of the Empire and directed his main attention to Italy.
In addition to the menace of the Goths in the Balkan peninsula and in Greece, the prevailing Gothic influence since the time of Theodosius the Great was felt particularly in the capital, where the most responsible army posts and many of the important administrative positions were in Germanic hands.
When Arcadius ascended the throne the most influential party in the capital was the Germanic party, headed by one of the outstanding generals of the imperial army, the Goth Gaïnas. About him were gathered soldiers of Gothic origin and representatives of the local pro-Germanic movement. The weakness of this party lay in the fact that the majority of the Goths were Arians. Second in strength, during the first years of Arcadius’ reign, was the party of the powerful eunuch, the favorite Eutropius. He was supported by various ambitious flatterers who were interested in him only because he was able to help them to promote their greedy personal interests. Gaïnas and Eutropius could not live side by side in peace, since they were competing for power. Besides these two political parties, historians speak of a third party, hostile to the Germans as well as to Eutropius; its membership included senators, ministers, and the majority of the clergy. This party represented the nationalist and religious ideology in opposition to the growing foreign and barbaric influence. This movement, naturally, refused to lend its support to the coarse and grasping Eutropius. The party’s main leader was the city prefect, Aurelian.
Many people of the time were aware of the menace of Germanic dominance, and ultimately the government itself became conscious of it. A remarkable document has been preserved which describes vividly the reaction of certain social groups to the Germanic question. This document is the address of Synesius on “The Emperor’s Power,” or, as it is sometimes translated, “Concerning the Office of King,” which was presented, or perhaps even read, to Arcadius. Synesius, a native of the North African city of Cyrene, was an educated neo-Platonist who adopted Christianity, In the year 399 A.D. he set out for Constantinople to petition the Emperor for the remission of the taxes of his native city. Later, upon his return home, he was chosen bishop of the North African Ptolemaïs. During his three years’ stay at Constantinople, Synesius came to see very clearly the German menace to the Empire, and he composed the address, which, according to one historian, may be called the anti-German manifesto of the national party of Aurelian. Synesius cautioned the Emperor:
The least pretext will be used by the armed [barbarians] to assume power and become the rulers of the citizens. And then the unarmed will have to fight with men well exercised in military combats. First of all, they [the foreigners] should be removed from commanding positions and deprived of senatorial rank; for what the Romans in ancient times considered of highest esteem has become dishonorable because of the influence o£ the foreigners. As in many other matters, so in this one, I am astonished at our folly. In every more or less prosperous home we find a Scythian [Goth] slave; they serve as cooks and cupbearers; also those who walk along the street with little chairs on their backs and offer them to people who wish to rest in the open, are Scythians. But is it not exceedingly surprising that the very same light-haired barbarians with Euboic headdress, who in private life perform the function of servants, are our rulers in political life? The Emperor should purify the troops just as we purify a measure of wheat by separating the chaff and all other matter, which, if allowed to germinate, harms the good seed. Your father, because of his excessive compassion, received them [the barbarians] kindly and condescendingly, gave them the rank of allies, conferred upon them political rights and honors, and endowed them with generous grants of land. But not as an act of kindness did these barbarians understand these noble deeds; they interpreted them as a sign of our weakness, which caused them to feel more haughty and conceited. By increasing the number of our native recruits and thus strengthening our own army and our courage, you must accomplish in the Empire the things which still need to be done. Persistence must be shown in dealing with these people. Either let these barbarians till the soil following the example of the ancient Messenians, who put down their arms and toiled as slaves for the Lacedaemonians, or let them go by the road they came, announcing to those who live on the other side of the river [Danube] that the Romans have no more kindness in them and that they are ruled by a noble youth!
What Synesius advocated, then, in the face of the Germanic menace to the government, was the expulsion of the Goths from the army, the formation of an indigenous army, and the establishment of the Goths as tillers of the soil. Should the Goths be unwilling to accept this program, Synesius suggested that the Romans should clear their territory of Goths by driving them back across the Danube, the place from which they originally came.
The most influential general in the imperial army, the Goth Gaïnas, could not view calmly the exclusive influence of the favorite, Eutropius, and an opportunity to act soon arose. At this time the Goths of Phrygia, who had been settled in this province of Asia Minor by Theodosius the Great, had risen in rebellion and were devastating the country under the leadership of their chief, Tribigild. Gaïnas, sent out against this dangerous rebel, later proved to be his secret ally. Joining hands with Tribigild, he deliberately arranged the defeat of the imperial troops sent out to suppress the revolt, and the two Goths became masters of the situation. They then presented to the Emperor a demand that Eutropius be removed and delivered into their hands. Complaints against Eutropius were coming from Eudoxia, the wife of Arcadius, and from the party of Aurclian. Arcadius, pressed by the success of the Germans, was forced to yield. He sent Eutropius into exile (399 A.D.). But this did not satisfy the victorious Goths. They compelled the Emperor to bring Eutropius back to the capital and to have him tried and executed. This accomplished, Gaïnas demanded that the Emperor allow the Arian Goths to use one of the temples of the capital city for Arian services, A strong protest against this request came from the bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom (“the Golden-Mouthed”). Knowing that not only the entire capital but also the majority of the population of the Empire sided with the bishop, Gaïnas did not insist on this demand.
After gaining a stronghold in the capital, the Goths became complete masters of the fate of the Empire. Arcadius and the natives of the capital were fully aware of the danger of the situation. But Gaïnas, in spite of all his success, proved himself incapable of keeping his dominant position in Constantinople. While he was away from the capital a sudden revolt broke out in which many Goths were killed and he was unable to return to the capital. Arcadius, encouraged by the new course of events, sent against Gaïnas his loyal pagan Goth, Fravitta, who defeated Gaïnas at the time when he tried to sail across to Asia Minor. Gaïnas tried to find refuge in Thrace, but there he fell into the hands of the king of the Huns, who cut off his head and sent it as a gift to Arcadius. Thus the Gothic menace was warded off through the efforts of a German, Fravitta, who was designated consul for this great service to the Empire. The Gothic problem at the beginning of the fifth century was finally settled in favor of the government. Eater efforts of the Goths to restore their former influence were of no great importance.