History of the Byzantine Empire

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The main interest of the epoch beginning with Arcadius and ending with Anastasius (395-518) lies in the national and religious problems and in the political events, which were always closely connected with the religious movements. The Germanic, or, to be more exact, the Gothic, tyranny grew very strong in the capital and menaced the entire state in the late fourth century. This was further complicated by the Arian leanings of the Goths. This menace decreased at the beginning of the fifth century under Arcadius and was completely removed by Leo I at the time of its later and much weaker outburst in the middle of the fifth century. Then, at the end of the century, came the new Ostrogothic menace from the north, which was successfully diverted by Zeno into Italy. Thus the Germanic problem in the eastern part of the Empire was settled to the advantage of the government.

The eastern part of the Empire was also successful in achieving in the second half of the fifth century a favorable settlement of the less acute and significant national problem, that of the Isaurian predominance. The Bulgarians and Slavs were only beginning their attacks upon the borders of the Empire during this period and it was not yet possible to foretell the great role which these northern peoples were destined to play in the history of the Byzantine Empire. The period of Anastasius may be viewed as only an introduction to the Slavic epoch in the Balkan peninsula.

The religious problem of this epoch fails into two phases: the orthodox, up to the time of Zeno, and the Monophysitic, under Zeno and Anastasius. Zeno’s favorable attitude towards the Monophysitic doctrine and the explicit Monophysitic sympathies of Anastasius were important not only from the dogmatical point of view but from the political point of view as well. By the end of the fifth century the western part of the Empire, in spite of a theoretically recognized unity, had practically detached itself from Constantinople. In Gaul, in Spain, and in northern Africa new barbaric kingdoms were formed; Italy was practically ruled by German chiefs, and at the end of the fifth century the Ostrogothic kingdom was founded on Italian territory. This state of affairs explains why the eastern provinces — Egypt, Palestine, and Syria — became of exceptionally great importance to the eastern half of the Empire. The great merit of both Zeno and Anastasius lies in the fact that they understood that the center of gravity had shifted and, appreciating the importance of the eastern provinces, they used every possible means to find a way of binding them to the capital. Since these provinces, especially Egypt and Syria, were in general devoted to the Monophysitic doctrine, there could be only one course for the Empire — to make peace with the Monophysites at any cost. This explains Zeno’s evasive and purposely rather obscure Henoticon. It was one of the first steps toward the reconciliation with the Monophysites. When this attempt failed to bring results, Anastasius decided to follow a very definite Monophysitic policy. Both these emperors were politically perspicacious rulers as compared with the emperors of the subsequent period. In their Monophysitic policy both were confronted by the orthodox movement, widely supported in the capital, in the Balkan peninsula, in most of the provinces of Asia Minor, in the islands, and in some portions of Palestine. Orthodoxy was also defended by the pope, who broke off all relations with Constantinople because of the Henoticon. The inevitability of the collision between politics and religion explains the internal religious upheavals during the reign of Anastasius. He did not succeed in bringing about during his lifetime the desired peace and harmony within the Empire. His successors, moreover, led the Empire along an entirely different path, and alienation of the eastern provinces was already beginning to be felt at the end of this period.

On the whole this was a period of struggle on the part of the different nationalities, spurred by greatly differing aims and hopes; the Germans and the Isaurians wanted to attain political supremacy, while the Copts in Egypt and the Syrians were concerned primarily with the triumph of their religious doctrines.

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