Anastasius I (491-518). Settlement of the Isaurian problem. The Persian War. Bulgarian and Slavic attacks. The Long Wall. Relations with the West. — Following the death of Zeno, his widow, Ariadne, chose the aged Anastasius, a native of Dyrrachium, who held the rather minor court position of silentiary (silentiarius). Anastasius was crowned as emperor only after he had signed a written promise not to introduce any ecclesiastical innovations, a promise extracted by the Patriarch of Constantinople, an ardent adherent of the Council of Chalcedon.
Anastasius’ first problem was to settle with the Isaurians, who had acquired so much authority during the reign of Zeno. Their privileged position irritated the population of the capital and when it was also discovered that after the death of Zeno they were plotting against the new Emperor, Anastasius acted with dispatch. He removed them from the responsible posts, confiscated their property, and drove them out of the capital. A long and hard struggle followed this action, and only after six years of fighting were the Isaurians completely subjugated in their native Isauria. Many of them were transported to Thrace. The great service of Anastasius was this decisive settlement of the Isaurian problem.
Among external events, in addition to the exhausting and profitless war with Persia, the state of affairs on the Danube boundary was of great consequence to subsequent history. After the departure of the Ostrogoths to Italy, devastating raids against the northern boundary were undertaken by the Bulgarians, Getae, and Scythians during the reign of Anastasius I. The Bulgarians, who raided the borders of Byzantine territory during the fifth century, were a people of Hunnic (Turkish) origin. They are first mentioned in the Balkan peninsula during the reign of Zeno in connection with the Ostrogothic migrations north of the Byzantine Empire.
As to the rather vague names of Getae and Scythians, the chroniclers of that period were not well informed about the ethnographic composition of the northern peoples; hence it is very likely that these were collective names, and historians consider it probable that some Slavic tribes were included among them. Theophylact, the Byzantine writer of the early seventh century, directly identified the Getae with the Slavs. Thus, during the reign of Anastasius, the Slavs, together with the Bulgarians, first began their irruptions into the Balkan peninsula. According to one source, “a Getic cavalry” devastated Macedonia, Thessaly, and Epirus, and reached as far as Thermopylae. Some scholars have even advanced the theory that the Slavs entered the Balkan peninsula at an earlier period. The Russian scholar Drinov, for example, on the basis of his study of geographical and personal names in the peninsula, placed the beginning of Slavic settlement in the Balkan peninsula in the late second century A.D.
The attacks of the Bulgarians and Slavs during the reign of Anastasius were not of very great consequence for that epoch, for these bands of barbarians, after robbing the Byzantine population, went back to the places from, which they came. Yet these raids were the forerunners of the great Slavic irruptions into the Balkan peninsula in the sixth century during the reign of Justinian.
In order to protect the capital against the northern barbarians, Anastasius erected in Thrace, about forty miles west of Constantinople, the so-called “Long Wall” which extended from the Sea of Marmora to the Black Sea, “making the city,” said one source, “practically an island instead of a peninsula.” This wall did not fulfill the purpose for which it was erected, however. Because of its hurried construction and the breaches made by earthquakes it did not serve as a real barrier to the enemy’s approach to the city walls. The modern Turkish fortifications of the Chatalja lines erected in almost the same place pretty closely approximate the Anastasian wall, traces of which may still be seen today.
In western Europe further important changes were taking place in the time of Anastasius. Theodoric became the king of Italy; and in the far north-west Clovis founded a strong Prankish kingdom even before Anastasius ascended the throne. Both these kingdoms were established on territory which theoretically belonged to the Roman, in this case the Byzantine, emperor. Quite naturally, the distant Frankish kingdom could in no way be dependent upon Constantinople; yet in the eyes of die conquered natives the power of the newcomers had real authority only after official approval from the shores of the Bosphorus. So it was that when the Goths proclaimed Theodoric king of Italy “without waiting,” said a contemporary chronicler, “for directions from the new princeps [Anastasius],” Theodoric nevertheless asked the latter to send him the insignia of imperial power previously returned to Zeno by Odovacar. After long negotiations and the sending of several envoys to Constantinople, Anastasius recognized Theodoric as the ruler of Italy, and the latter then became the legal sovereign in the eyes of the native population. The Arian beliefs of the Goths stood in the way of a closer friendship between the Goths and the natives of Italy.
To Clovis, the king of the Franks, Anastasius sent a diploma conferring upon him the consulship, which Clovis accepted with gratitude. This, of course, was only an honorary consulship, which did not involve the exercise of the duties of the position. Nevertheless it was of great importance to Clovis. The Roman population in Gaul looked upon the eastern emperor as the bearer of supreme authority, who alone could bestow all other power. The diploma of Anastasius conferring the consulship proved to the Gallic population the legality of Clovis’ rule over them. It made him a sort of viceroy of the province, which theoretically still remained a part of the Roman Empire.
These relations of the Byzantine emperor with the Germanic kingdom show clearly that in the late fifth and early sixth centuries the idea of a single empire was still very strong.