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The Emperor Zeno and the Fall of the Western Empire

Gregory DiPippo

On this day in the year 474 AD, according to the early Byzantine historian John Malalas, a Roman general named Zeno was crowned as co-emperor to his seven-year son old Leo II. (The date is given as January 29 in other sources.) He would become sole ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire on the death of his son in November of that year. Zeno was from the region of south-central Asia Minor known as Isauria, and was originally called Tarasis, a common name in that area; he changed his name to the more Greek-sounding Zeno in honor of a fellow Isaurian who had defended Constantinople from Attila the Hun in 447. His reign was a chaotic one for various reasons, marked by several rebellions, and important religious controversies in which he took no small part. Within a few months of his accession as sole emperor, he was driven off the throne and out of Constantinople by a conspiracy that involved two other Isaurian generals, in favor of yet another general named Basiliscus. The conspirators, however, soon turned against each other, and when one of them changed sides, Zeno was able to retake the throne in August of 476.

Within less than a month of his return, the last Roman Emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the general Odoacer, who proclaimed himself King of Italy under the one Emperor. Odoacer sent the imperial insignia used by Romulus and his predecessors to Zeno, declaring that “one monarch was sufficient to rule the world.” The military and political chaos of the era did not, of course, come to an end, and Constantinople’s actual suzerainty over Italy was at best nominal.

This event is traditionally regarded as the end of the Western Roman Empire. This idea of a “fall” of the Empire was instilled in the popular mind, of English speakers especially, by Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a thoroughly tendentious piece of history, to say the very least. Much of what Gibbon wrote was pure fantasy, written for polemical purposes, and has long since been replaced by better and more dispassionate works. Nevertheless, as a professor of mine once put it, the question of whether the Empire genuinely “fell”, or was simply transformed, will probably never be settled to the satisfaction of every historian.

(A bronze coin with a portrait of the Emperor Zeno; image from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-DA 2.5)

Regardless of how one sees this event, it is perhaps too little appreciated how much of the genius of Rome remained within the Eastern Roman Empire, more often called the Byzantine Empire. Despite continual territorial losses, it remained a multi-ethnic society; it was even ruled by a dynasty of Isaurian Emperors for almost the whole of the 8th century. Of course, most of its territory was in the Greek-speaking East, and not the Latin-speaking West, and this could not but be the most important factor in its cultural formation. But its capital was always officially called “New Rome”, Constantinople being more or less a nickname. In its earliest years, its laws were still officially promulgated in Latin, and Latin titles continued to be used for the officials of the eastern imperial court long after this was changed. Some of these titles, such as “kellarios”, from the Latin “cellarius – cellarer” remain in use in Greek monasteries to this day. New Rome had its own Senate and consuls, and although the latter office was often neglected, it was not formally abolished until the end of the 9th century. Titles such as “dux” and “rex” continued in use; these occur repeatedly in the writings of the historian Anna Comnena (1083-1153), daughter of the Emperor Alexius I. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the non-Muslim communities within the Ottoman Empire were called “the Roman nation”, and the Greek people continued to call themselves “Rhomei” rather than “Hellenes” well into the 19th century.

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