Dynasty and aristocracy in the fifth century

Brian Croke*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


The fifth century is regularly characterised as a period of upheaval and breakdown of Roman government and society, especially in the western provinces. Yet that is to overlook or underestimate the traditional social and political forces for continuity. Emperors may come and go, provinces may fall in and out of imperial authority, armies may form and reform with non-Roman generals and new military leaders; but the traditional drivers of power and influence, the imperial dynasties and aristocracies of both East and West, remain. The enduring pull of the dynastic principle, the quest to formally link self and family to a centre of power and influence, still drove and shaped fifth-century Roman political life. The Roman aristocracy traditionally dominated the imperial court through tenure of the highest civilian and military offices, while the impulse to dynasty continued to link the eastern and western imperial families and courts. Even so, dynasty and aristocracy were themselves subject to changes in character and texture over the fifth century. This chapter explores the essential dynastic politics of the fifth century and the mutating Roman aristocracies, focussing on their relation to military and political authority at the imperial court. As the fifth century progressed, the fluctuating balance of power between East and West, and between Roman and non-Roman, became key dichotomies, which were forever in tension but never resolved. In the wider context of Roman political and cultural life in the fifth century these particular themes provide key anchor points for analysing how control and influence were acquired and mediated, and how Roman government and society were developing. The actions and attitudes of the Hun king Attila in the 440s and early 450s illuminate these themes by showing that, unlike the leaders of Goths, Burgundians, and Vandals in particular, he remained a barbarian warlord who never appreciated, nor fully engaged with, the dynastic and aristocratic mainstays of contemporary Roman politics and society. Therein lies the key to his ultimate political failure.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to the Age of Attila
EditorsMichael Maas
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9781139128964
ISBN (Print)9781107021754, 9781107633889
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Dynasty and aristocracy in the fifth century'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this