Μήπως ἡ Κωνσταντινούπολη τοῦ 5ου αἰώνα μποροῦσε νὰ κάνει κάτι γιὰ νὰ ὑπερασπιστεῖ τὸ δυτικὸ τμῆμα τῆς Αὐτοκρατορίας, ποὺ ὑφίστατο τὴν εἰσβολὴ τῶν γερμανικῶν φύλων; Στὴν πραγματικότητα, τὸ ἀνατολικὸ τμῆμα ἔπρεπε νὰ ἀντιμετωπίσει τοὺς Σασσανίδες Πέρσες καί, δευτερευόντως, τοὺς Οὕνους. Ὅταν ἐπιχείρησε ὁ Ἰουστινιανὸς νὰ ἀνακαταλάβει τὰ ἐδάφη τῆς Β. Ἀφρικῆς, τῆς Ἰταλίας κ.ἄ. περιοχῶν, ἔκλεισε πρῶτα συνθήκη εἰρήνης μὲ τοὺς Πέρσες. Ἐπιπλέον, κανεὶς αὐτοκράτορας δὲν μποροῦσε νὰ ἐπιτρέψει τὴν ἀπώλεια τοῦ σιτοβολώνα τῆς Αὐτοκρατορίας (Αἴγυπτος) ἢ τὸ νὰ πάψει ἡ Μεσόγειος νὰ ἀποτελεῖ ρωμαϊκὴ λίμνη. Μὲ ἄλλα λόγια, ἡ αἴσθηση ἀπειλῆς προερχόταν ἀπὸ τὴν Ἀνατολὴ καὶ ὄχι ἀπὸ τὴ Δύση. Πράγματι, μόλις τὸν 11ο αἰώνα κατάφεραν δυτικὲς δυνάμεις νὰ εἰσβάλουν στὰ Βαλκάνια.
SOME HISTORIANS HAVE CRITICIZED Constantinople for not doing more in the fifth century to save the embattled west. From the Notitia Dignitatum we know that the east’s armies recovered from Hadrianople to comprise, by the end of the fourth century, a field army of 131 regiments distributed between four regional commands: one on the Persian front, one in Thrace, and two central, ‘praesental’ armies (from the Latin for ‘stationed in the imperial presence’). Its mobile forces, therefore, mustered between 65,000 and 100,000 men. Also, the east disposed of numerous units of frontier garrison troops (limitanei). The archaeological field surveys of the last twenty years have confirmed, furthermore, that the fourth-century agricultural prosperity of the east’s key provinces – Asia Minor, the Middle East and Egypt – showed no sign of slackening during the fifth. Some believe that the eastern Empire thus had the wherewithal to intervene effectively in the west, but chose not to. In the most radical statement of the case, it has been argued that Constantinople was happy to see barbarians settle on western territory for the disabling effect this had on the west’s military establishment because it removed any possibility of an ambitious western pretender seeking to unseat his eastern counterpart and unite the Empire. This had happened periodically in the fourth century, when the emperors Constantine and Julian took over the entire Empire from an originally western power-base. But in fact, bearing in mind the problems it had to deal with on its own frontiers, Constantinople’s record for supplying aid to the west in the fifth century is perfectly respectable.
Constantinople and the West
THE EASTERN Empire’s military establishment was very substantial, but large numbers of troops had always to be committed to the two key sectors of its eastern frontier in Armenia and Mesopotamia, where Rome confronted Persia. If you asked any fourth-century Roman where the main threat to imperial security lay, the answer would have been Persia under its new Sasanian rulers. And from the third century, when the Sasanian revolution worked its magic, Persia was indeed the second great superpower of the ancient world. As we saw earlier, the new military threat posed by the Sasanians plunged the Roman Empire into a military and fiscal crisis that lasted the best part of fifty years. By the time of Diocletian in the 280s, the Empire had mobilized the necessary funding and manpower, but the process of adjustment to the undisputed power of its eastern neighbour was long and painful. The rise of Persia also made it more or less unavoidable to have one emperor constantly in the east, and hence made power-sharing a feature of the imperial office in the late Roman period. As a result of these transformations, Rome began to hold its own again, and there were no fourth-century repeats of such third-century disasters as the Persian sack of Antioch.
When assessing the military contribution of the eastern Empire to the west in the fifth century, it is important to appreciate that, while broadly contained from about 300, the new Persian threat never disappeared. Even if there was less fighting – and what fighting there was largely confined itself to a wearying round of sieges and limited gains – the Sasanians maintained a constant presence in the strategic thinking of east Roman politicians and generals. Faced with the defeat of Julian’s Persian expedition in 363, then the longer-term effects of the Hun-inspired mayhem on the Danube in the mid-370s, successive Roman emperors had been forced on two occasions to grant Sasanian rulers peace treaties they would normally only have dreamt about. Following Julian’s defeat, the emperor Jovian made humiliating concessions of territory and bases in Mesopotamia. Valens made some preliminary noises, even moves, towards their recovery, but after his death at Hadrianople Theodosius not only confirmed Roman acceptance of these losses, but also did a deal over Armenia, the other great bone of contention – and again, massively in Persia’s favour .
These concessions ushered in a relatively peaceful phase in Roman- Persian relations, as Sasanian aspirations were, for the moment, largely satisfied. Anyway, Persia was facing nomad-inspired troubles of its own in two northern frontier sectors: to the east in Transoxania (modern Uzbekistan), and in the Caucasus, in which Constantinople, too, had an interest. Routes through the Caucasus led into Roman territory, if one turned right, and into Persian territory, if one carried straight on. The Huns had done both. The great Hunnic raid of 395 wreaked havoc not only in Rome’s provinces south of the Black Sea but also over a surprisingly large area of the Persian Empire. So, in this new era of compromise when both Empires had Huns on their minds, they came to an unprecedented agreement for mutual defence. The Persians would fortify and garrison the key Darial Pass through the Caucasus, and the Romans would help defray the costs. So tranquil were Roman–Persian relations at this time, in fact, that the myth arose that the Persian Shah had adopted Theodosius II, at the request of his late father the emperor Arcadius, so as to smooth the boy’s accession to the throne (he was only six when his father died).
None of this meant, however, that Constantinople could afford to lower its guard. Troop numbers were perhaps reduced in the fifth century, and less was spent on fortifications, but major forces still had to be kept on the eastern frontier. The Notitia Dignitatum– whose eastern sections date from about 395, after the Armenian accord – lists a field army of thirty-one regiments, roughly one-quarter of the whole, based in the east, together with 156 units of frontier garrison troops stationed in Armenia and the provinces comprising the Mesopotamian front, out of a total of 305 such units for the entire eastern Empire. And this in an era of relative stability. There were occasional quarrels with Persia, which sometimes came to blows, as in 421 and 441.The only reason the Persians didn’t capitalize more on Constantinople’s run-in with the Huns in the 440s seems to have been their own nomad problems.
Just as, for Rome, Persia was the great enemy, so Rome was for Persia, and each particularly prized victories over the other. As we noted earlier, the provinces from Egypt to western Asia Minor were the eastern Empire’s main source of revenue, and no emperor could afford to take chances with the region’s security. As a result, Constantinople had to keep upwards of 40 per cent of its military committed to the Persian frontier, and another 92 units of garrison troops for the defence of Egypt and Libya. The only forces the eastern authorities could even think of using in the west were the one-sixth of its garrison troops stationed in the Balkans and the three-quarters of its field forces mustered in the Thracian and the two praesental armies.
Up until 450, Constantinople’s capacity to help the west was also deeply affected by the fact that it bore the brunt of Hunnic hostility. As early as 408, Uldin had briefly seized the east Roman fortress of Castra Martis in Dacia Ripensis, and by 413 the eastern authorities felt threatened enough to initiate a programme for upgrading their riverine defences on the Danube and to construct the triple landwalls around Constantinople. Then, just a few years later, eastern forces engaged directly in attempts to limit the growth of Hunnic power. Probably in 421, they mounted a major expedition into Pannonia which was already, if temporarily, in Hunnic hands, extracted a large group of Goths from the Huns’ control and resettled them in east Roman territory, in Thrace. The next two decades were spent combating the ambitions of Attila and his uncle, and even after Attila’s death it again fell to the east Roman authorities to clean up most of the fall-out from the wreck of the Hunnic Empire. it was the eastern Empire that the remaining sons of Attila chose to invade in the later 460s. Slightly earlier in the decade, east Roman forces had also been in action against armed fragments of Attila’s disintegrating war machine, led by Hormidac and Bigelis. In 460, likewise, the Amal-led Goths in Pannonia had invaded the eastern Empire to extract their 300 pounds of gold.
Ἐδῶ, ἂς τονιστεῖ κάτι φαινομενικὰ ἄσχετο: Ὁποιαδήποτε ἐργαλειοποίηση τῆς ἱστορικῆς γνώσης ὄχι μόνο ἔχει τὰ ὅριά της ἀλλὰ καὶ εἶναι δυνάμει ἐπικίνδυνη: Ἔχει τὰ ὅριά της ἐπειδὴ ἁπλούστατα ἡ ἱστορία δὲν διδάσκει τίποτε ὅσο κι ἂν ἔχουμε δεῖ κάθε εἴδους ἀνθρώπινη, ἀτομικὴ καὶ συλλογική, συμπεριφορὰ στὰ τελευταῖα 2.500 χρόνια ἑλληνοδυτικῆς ἱστορίας. Ἡ τεράστια γκάμα ἐπιλογῶν ἀπὸ τὸ παρελθὸν συνεπάγεται ἄπειρο πρακτικὰ συνδυασμὸ τῶν παραπάνω ἱστορικὰ διεγνωσμένων συμπεριφορῶν, σημαίνει ὅτι τίποτε δὲν ἐπαναλαμβάνεται καὶ ὅτι δὲν ὑπάρχει ἕτοιμη συνταγή. Εἶναι δυνάμει ἐπικίνδυνη, σημαίνει ὅτι ὑπάρχουν ἐκεῖνοι ποὺ νομίζουν ὄτι ἐὰν ἐλέγξουν τὸ παρελθὸν θὰ ἐλέγξουν καὶ τὸ μέλλον -ἐνῶ τὸ μέλλον εἶναι ἀπρόβλεπτο καὶ ἀνεξέλεγκτο ἀπὸ τοὺς κάθε λογῆς μαρκετίστες καὶ μάνατζερ. (Τέλος πάντων, εἶναι ἐλέγξιμο μόνο γιὰ πολὺ μικρὸ διάστημα.) Τὸ ζήτημα αὐτὸ εἶναι ποὺ διαχωρίζει τοὺς πολιτικοὺς ἀπὸ ὅσους θέλουν ἁπλὰ νὰ ξέρουν τί συνέβη, τοὺς ἱστορικοὺς καὶ ἱστοριοδίφες, καὶ γενικὰ τοὺς φιλομαθεῖς. (Ἀφοῦ αὐτὸ ἀφορᾶ καὶ ἄλλα ζητήτηματα πέραν τῆς ἱστορίας.)
Ἴσως «ἡ γνώση νὰ εἶναι δύναμη» (λατινικὴ καὶ γερμανικὴ – νεοτερικὴ ἐκδοχὴ τῆς ἱστορίας), ὅμως ταυτόχρονα «ὁ ἄνθρωπος ὀρέγεται νὰ μαθαίνει» (ἑλληνική ἐκδοχή) ἀκόμη κι ἂν δὲν καθίσταται δυνατός, ἀκόμη δηλαδὴ κι ἂν δὲν ἔχει νὰ κερδίσει τίποτε (ἐξουσία κ.λπ.) πέρα ἀπὸ τὴν ὑποκειμενικὴ αἴσθηση πληρότητας (αἴσθηση ἰσχύος) ποὺ δίνει ἡ ἐπίλυση ἑνὸς προβλήματος καὶ ἡ κάλυψη ἑνὸς κενοῦ. Οἱ τοῦ «πρακτικοῦ ἀποτελέσματος» θὰ ἔπρεπε νὰ δείχνουν περισσότερη κατανόηση στὴν ἀνούσια (χωρὶς δυνατότητες ποικιλότροπης χρησιμοποίησης) γνώση τοῦ παρελθόντος, γιατὶ ἁπλούστατα καὶ ἡ δική τους ἡ ἐνασχόληση μὲ «τὰ πρακτικὰ» εἶναι ὑπαρξιακή κι ὄχι ἄλλου εἴδους (π.χ. δὲν πηγάζει ἀπὸ μεγαλύτερο ἐνδιαφέρον γιὰ τὸν πλησίον), κοντολογὶς θὰ μαράζωναν λ.χ. ἐὰν ἔπαυαν νὰ πολιτικολογοῦν, ἐνῶ ἡ ἴδια ἡ ἐνασχόληση μὲ «τὰ πρακτικά» δὲν ἐγγυᾶται ἀπαραιτήτως κανένα πρακτικὸ ἀποτέλεσμα (π.χ. συζητήσεις καφενείου, ἐντὸς ἢ ἐκτὸς καφενείων).
Ἂς ποῦμε γιὰ τὴν Ἑλλάδα, ἡ ἱστορία της δὲν εἶναι ἀξιοποιήσιμο κεφάλαιο, γιατὶ οἱ Δυτικοὶ τὴν μελετᾶνε 500 χρόνια τώρα. Αὐτὸ δὲν σημαίνει ὅτι ἡ ἀναβάθμιση τῶν ἀνθρωπιστικῶν σπουδῶν (ἱστορία, φιλολογία-φιλοσοφία) δὲν θὰ προσέδιδε κύρος στοὺς τωρινοὺς Ἕλληνες, ὅτι δὲν θὰ ἔφερνε ποιοτικὸ τουρισμό, ἢ ὅτι δὲν θὰ ἔδειχνε νέους δρόμους ἑρμηνεῖας κ.ο.κ. Ἁπλά, ὅταν λ.χ. βλέπεις τὶς ἐκδόσεις τῶν Ἀρχαίων ἀπὸ Γάλλους καὶ Ἄγγλους, πρέπει νὰ πιστέψεις στὰ σοβαρὰ ὅτι ὁ Κάκτος κι ὁ Ζῆτρος θὰ τὶς ξεπεράσουν καὶ θὰ βελτιωθοῦν μὲ τὴ βοήθεια τῶν πανεπιστημιακῶν φιλολόγων καὶ ἱστορικῶν… Ἢ ὅταν εἶναι γνωστὸ ὅτι ἡ Ὀξφόρδη ἔχει «Oxford Handbook of…» γιὰ κάθε τὶ ποὺ ὑπάρχει. Ἡ ἐνασχόληση τῶν Ἄγγλων καὶ τῶν Γαλλογερμανῶν μὲ τὴν ἱστορία καὶ τὴ φιλολογία εἶχε ἀντικειμενικὲς προϋποθέσεις (λεφτὰ γιὰ ξόδεμα) καὶ δὲν ἦταν προϊὸν κυρίως τοῦ εἰλικρινοῦς ἐνθουσιασμοῦ τους.