Monday, January 09, 2017

January 9, AD 475 ~ Beginning of the disastrous reign of Basiliscus as Eastern Roman Emperor

Gold solidus of Basiliscus, ca. AD 476.
That the dissolution of imperial government in the Western Roman Empire took place in September of AD 476 is largely due to the ambitions and failures of one man: Flavius Basiliscus. For a guy whom almost no one today has ever heard of, he was the sine qua non for several major events that sent disruptive waves rippling across the history of the world.

Brother-in-law of the Eastern Roman emperor Leo I, Basiliscus was entrusted with command of the one of the largest military expeditions in Roman history – the 468 AD assault on the Vandalic kingdom which had squatted on Roman territory in north Africa for over 30 years. So crucial was this campaign to restoring the territorial integrity of the Empire that the treasuries of the Western and Eastern empires were emptied to finance it. The overwhelming force of 100,000-plus Roman troops and mercenaries led by Basiliscus reached Africa with little trouble. They were in the process of negotiating a surrender of the Vandals when their fleet was ambushed and destroyed by the elderly but wily Vandal King, Gaiseric, and his fire-ships.

This catastrophic defeat precipitated military, economic and political crises across both halves of the empire, but impacted the already tottering West most heavily. Basiliscus was able to escape the carnage and return to Constantinople where his sister, Verina, was Leo I's wife. When Leo died six years later, and the unpopular Isaurian general Zeno succeeded to the throne, Basiliscus began to agitate for a revolt.

The following passage from the Life of Saint Daniel the Stylite, was written by one of the saint’s disciples who was an eye-witness to these times. In this excerpt, we see the emperor Zeno approaching the famous pillar saint who resided at Anaplus, about 10 miles north of Constantinople, to ask his advice on the plots against him:
The Roman government was being well administered by the will of God, and the State was enjoying a time of quiet and order, and the holy churches were living in peace and unity, when the ever envious and malignant Devil sowed seeds of unjust hatred in the hearts of some who claimed to be the Emperor Zeno's kinsmen, I mean Basiliscus, Armatus and Marcianus and some other senators. When Zeno became aware of the treachery that was being planned against him, he went up to the holy man and confided to him the matter of the plot. The holy man said to him, 'Do not let yourself be troubled about this; for all things that have been foreordained must be accomplished upon you. They will chase you out of the kingdom, and in the place where you find a refuge, you will be in such distress that in your need you will partake of the grass of the earth. But do not lose heart; for it is necessary that you should become a second Nebuchadnezzar, and those who are now expelling you, having felt the lack of you, will recall you in the fullness of time. You will return to your Empire, and more honor and glory shall be added unto you and you shall die in it. Therefore bear all with gratitude; for thus must these things be'. The Emperor thanked him for these words (for he had already put him to the test in the case of other prophecies of his) and after being blessed by the holy man he took his leave and went down to the City.

Now the malicious men whom I mentioned above had free access to the blessed Empress Verina, Basiliscus because he was her brother and chief of the Senate, and Armatus as being her nephew and Zuzus as being the husband of her sister, and Marcianus the husband of her daughter and son of an emperor. They were constantly at her side and by their guile persuaded her to conspire with them to drive Zeno from the throne. As he knew of their wickedness and that he was in danger of assassination, he took his own wife, the Empress Ariadne, and some eunuchs, and unbeknown to all he left the palace one night during a very heavy storm. They crossed the straits and landed at Chalcedon because of their pursuers, and they escaped and reached the province of Isauria. The Empress Verina so controlled the revolution that she secured the crown for her brother Basiliscus; who shortly afterwards attempted to do away with his own sister. However, she fled to the oratory of the Ever-Virgin Mary in Blachernae and remained there as long as Basiliscus lived.
Basiliscus’s brief reign as emperor, which began on January 9, 475, was an unmitigated disaster. His alienation of the orthodox Christians eventually resulted in St. Daniel descending from his pillar for the first time in decades, causing a sensation in Constantinople that ended with both Basiliscus and the patriarch bowing down at the saint’s mutilated feet to beg forgiveness.

St. Daniel the Stylite.
Within a few months, whatever was left of Basiliscus’s base of support was gone. Zeno returned from Isauria and reclaimed the imperial diadem, casting Basiliscus and his family into the outer darkness of Phrygia to eventually die of starvation while locked in a cistern.

It was while Zeno was reconsolidating his power in Constantinople in September of AD 476 that Odoacer made his move and deposed the last Western emperor, Romulus Augustulus. Zeno was too weak to respond with any measure other than to ratify Odoacer as Dux of Italy, which merely confirmed his rule as an accomplished fact.

The excerpt above was taken from the Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook.

The complete life of Daniel the Stylite in book form may be found in an excellent compilation entitled Three Byzantine Saints, edited by Elizabeth Dawes. I own this book and highly recommend it.

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