5 – Poor Relations Between East and West
You could make the very reasonable argument that no amount of help would have prevented the fall of the Western Empire once it had been split from the East in 395. At this time, it was necessary for full cooperation between the two empires but instead, there was a rather acrimonious divorce. One of the main reasons for the worsening of relations was the actions of a general named Stilicho; who was the de facto ruler of the empire under Honorius until the emperor had him executed in 408. Stilicho was determined to reunite the empire and viewed himself as the leader.
While Stilicho plotted in the West, Rufinus, his personal enemy, and guardian of Emperor Arcadius was viewing his rival with suspicion, and rightly so. For Stilicho to carry out his plan, Rufinus would have to be suppressed. However, Stilicho miscalculated what was to become a disaster for Rome. At one point, either Stilicho deliberately enabled Alaric to penetrate into Greece, so the Visigoths would switch attention East, or else Rufinus withdrew his troops on purpose. It was probably the former, and in 399, Rufinus was assassinated.
If part one of Stilicho’s grand plan was a success, the next one was an utter failure. For reasons historians are yet to agree upon, he allowed Alaric to escape from his grasp in 397. In 401, Alaric began raiding the West but was comprehensively defeated two years running by Stilicho. However, the Roman general allowed his enemy to escape yet again when he had the chance to kill him. It was a bizarre decision that had grave repercussions; Stilicho was not alive to see Alaric sack Rome in 410.
The East offered token assistance in 425 when Emperor Theodosius II responded to an appeal from Placidia to install her young son, Valentinian III, on the throne. He sent troops but demanded a huge tract of territory in the center of Europe to add to the Eastern Empire. Theodosius II helped remove Joannes, and Valentinian III ruled for over 30 years. The East also offered some assistance against invaders of North Africa, but soon, the East realized that its one-time sibling in the West was a lost cause. The legal code of Theodosius II in 438 was the last shared enterprise between both empires.
There were also a number of ecclesiastical disputes between the empires which only served to deepen the rift. When Marcian became Byzantine Emperor in 450, the West was initially reluctant to recognize him as a leader. Perhaps mindful of this snub, Emperor Leo I, who succeeded Marcian, refused to recognize Majorian, who is widely believed to be the last competent emperor in the West.
It is important to note that the East had problems of its own in the fifth century, so its reluctance to help wasn’t entirely borne out of spite. When Julius Nepos, the second last Western Emperor (474-475), appealed to his Eastern counterpart, Zeno, for help, he received nothing, and he was usurped by Orestes who in turn placed his son, Romulus Augustus on the throne. Zeno did ask the Roman Senate to take back Nepos, but Odoacer ignored him. Nepos ruled as a figurehead until he was murdered in 480; Zeno officially abolished the office of the Western Roman Empire at that point. Not only did the East fail to help the West, but it also sent dangerous barbarians West, whether this was by accident or design is not clear. Certainly, the East was better prepared for attacks, so would-be conquerors usually switched their focus West, with disastrous consequences for Rome.