Dark Ages Politics, Part 1 – What’s Rome Got To Do With It?

Well, here we are with another tardy submission. But I just finished chapter nine of The Strife of Camlann, and it was a mental marathon to get that chapter to be a proper bridge from Act 1 to Act 2. I’m pretty happy with it.

So now let’s talk about the political landscape behind The Arthurian Age. That’s about as close to modern politics as I want to get, and it is, frankly, far more fascinating. This article will shed light on clues in the books that, of necessity, are subtle or hidden.

Setting the Stage

When The Retreat to Avalon opens, the year is 469 AD. Britain has been free of Rome for about sixty years. The Empire is divided into East and West, each with its own emperor. Internal politics create much of the tumult that will result in the fall of the Western Empire. These events, because of the vast influence that Rome has on Europe and beyond, set the stage for much of what happens in the books of The Arthurian Age series.

Reconstruction from Realm of History.

The Eastern Empire, with it’s capitol at Constantinople (modern day Instanbul), is still strong and prosperous, and is the default seat of power within the Roman Empire. The Eastern Emperor, Leo I, has pacified the eastern provinces enough that he can finally devote resources to help the Western Empire.

Fantastic reconstruction from this link.

The Western Empire has been struggling. Britain has broken away. Following the Huns, Germanic tribes have taken much of the Roman territory in Gaul, Spain and North Africa, isolating small Roman rump-states from the empire. Rome, itself, has declined due to disease and repeated sacking, and the capitol is now in Ravenna, which is better protected by surrounding marshes. Rome is only the capitol for the Catholic Church now, but remains a symbol of the Empire.

The Key Players

Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I
From Wikipedia

The Western Roman Emperor, Anthemius, was appointed by Leo I in 468 for political and military reasons. Anthemius was from Constantinople, and an able general, so his arrival in the west was not seen favorably by Ricimer, the Western Empire’s Magister Millitum (top general of the army).

Emperor Anthemius
From Wikipedia

Why? Because Ricimer, an Arian Christian of Visigoth and Suevi German descent, could not become emperor. But with civil wars and barbarian invasions causing a string of short-lived rulers, Ricimer often found himself without anyone appointed over him. When a new emperor was absolutely necessary for political reasons, Ricimer used his influence to have those he thought he could control appointed. And when that control slipped?

Flavius Ricimer
From Wikimedia

Looking Back to See Ahead

Well, a good example is his longtime friend, Majorian. They had served together in the wars against the barbarian takeovers of western territories. In 457, a time when there was no western emperor, the army proclaimed Majorian emperor. Seeing an opportunity to maintain control though his friend, Ricimer used his clout with the Roman Senate and the Eastern Emperor to get Majorian confirmed. But when it turned out that Majorian was not only a very capable general, but a reforming politician who Ricimer could not control, things changed.

Emperor Majorian
From Wikipedia

Majorian had great success reclaiming lost territories. While in Spain preparing an army and navy to cross to North Africa to deal with the troublesome Vandals, traitors caused the destruction of his fleet and ended Majorian’s hopes to stop the Vandal attacks. The treachery is thought by many to have been arranged by Ricimer, who had also been busy organizing opposition to Majorian’s reforms. When Majorian set out to return to Rome, his friend, Ricimer, arrested him, tortured him for five days and beheaded him.

The next puppet Ricimer placed on the throne, a spineless aristocrat named Severus, proved to be useless, as Leo would not recognize Severus and cut off aid to the West. So the hapless Severus soon died under suspicious circumstances. After a year and a half, Leo, pressured by Vandal raids, appointed Anthemius as Western Emperor. Ricimer, needing military and economic support from the East, was forced to accept Anthemius’ appointment. It seems Anthemius knew that Ricimer would be trouble, and married his daughter, Alypia (apparently against her wishes), to Ricimer in hopes of creating a peaceful bond.

It doesn’t seem to have helped. Leo and Anthemius organized a massive military expedition to retake Carthage from the Vandals and regain the ability for the West to be self-sufficient. But it appears that Ricimer, again, worked behind the scenes to ensure Roman defeat to protect his own power. With the Eastern and Western treasuries drained and thousands dead, there was no hope for Rome to regain North Africa and its important grain resources.

And here we are…

From The Retreat to Avalon

Anthemius faced a dire situation. In Gaul, the Visigoths were expanding their power and retaking Roman lands. Without the funds to raise an army capable of defeating Euric, the Visigoth king, Anthemius made an alliance with Riothamus, King of the Britons. As you know from The Retreat to Avalon, Riothamus is the Latinized form of Rigotamos, which is Brittonic for “Highest King”, and is the title for Arthur, who leads a council of British kings.

Euric, King of the Visigoths
From Wikimedia

With this powerful new ally, along with the Roman rump-states of Avernia and the domain of Syagrius, Anthemius has a real chance of stopping Euric and returning stability to the Western Empire.

Rump-state Realm of Syagrius
From Wikipedia

But, there is treachery afoot, yet again, and Ricimer’s finger seems to be on the scale. A high-level Roman official named Arvandus leaks the plan to Euric, and urges Euric to go on the offensive. Arvandus is arrested for treason and taken to Rome in chains, but is spared death and sent into exile on the pleas of several friends and politicians, including Sidonius Apollinaris.

Sidonius Apollinaris
From Wikimedia

In the meantime, Arthur, informed of Arvandus’ treachery, still intends to honor his agreement with Anthemius. When the book opens, Arthur is trying to build support and an army among the Britons, while moving forces across the channel to British colonies in Gaul.


I hope this is a good primer to the backstory for The Retreat to Avalon. Next time we talk politics, it will be about what is going on in Gawain’s neighborhood. Thanks for stopping by, and as always, I would love to see any comments or questions.

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