7 – Meanwhile, The East Stuck Together
Although the Eastern Empire wasn’t exactly a paradise, life was significantly better for the majority of its citizens. Never underestimate the survival instincts of people who feel as if they have something to lose. The East followed the Greek principle of Energeia, a situation where great houses competed in their efforts to aid the community. As a consequence, there was a more egalitarian feel to Eastern society as even peasants fared reasonably well. The system also resulted in an abundance of educated and talented civil servants which helped keep the system of governance at a much higher level than in the West.
The unity of the East is well illustrated in how it dealt with the Gothic threat. When Alaric marched on Constantinople in 395, Rufinus initially bought him off with gold, grain and the rank of general in the army. In 399, Stilicho sent men to the city, ostensibly as reinforcements. The group contained a Gothic opportunist named Gainas who apparently gave the signal to assassinate Rufinus. He installed a junta of sorts in Constantinople and was effectively the ruler of the city for a few months.
Rather than accept their fate, the people of the city made it clear that Gainas was not welcome. He made matters worse by removing all anti-Gothic officials in late 400, but soon, the people decided that enough was enough. With Emperor Arcadius’ wife, Aelia Eudoxia, pulling the strings, the city’s inhabitants rose against the Gothic usurper and killed 7,000 auxiliary Goth troops who were stationed in the city. Gainas and the rest of his men tried to escape via the Hellespont, but their fleet was destroyed. Gainas was captured by the Huns and executed. The Hunnish leader, Uldin, sent Gainas’ head to Arcadius as a diplomatic present.
All of the above was in stark contrast to the reaction in Rome when Alaric marched on the city. Emperor Honorius did nothing as the Visigoths sacked the city after their demands were not met in time. His inaction was partly due to the fact he was in Ravenna, and partly due to his inability to rule. Rather than having to face an army or at least a group of citizens determined to preserve their lives, and the might of Rome, Alaric had an easy time sacking the city and taking what he pleased.