Roman Empresses, Barbarian Kings (411–450)

It was obvious to everyone that, if the Roman Empire had shunned luxury and embraced war, there was nothing in all the world it could not have conquered and enslaved. But God has infected man’s nature with a lethal characteristic, like the poisonous gall in a lobster or thorns upon a rose.

Eunapius, 55.5–91

Good Thing/Bad Thing; Fall/Transformation

By giving his magnum opus the brilliant title The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon exerted a huge influence on the way Roman history would be perceived. Rome’s historical trajectory could become a warning, or a model, or both, although there is no ‘one size fits all’ response to the events that unfolded after the death of Alaric the Goth. There are those who regard the demise of the Roman Empire as ‘a Bad Thing’, synonymous with the end of education, literacy, high-quality architecture, sophisticated economics and the rule of written law; but conversely there are those who see it as ‘a Good Thing’, turning a decadent, effete, corrupt, slaveowning autocracy into a manly proto-democracy of free peasants and ultimately a world in which human beings attained a much higher degree of equality. Current academic trends reflect current social values, and both Gibbon’s idea of the ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ and, to a degree, the idea of ‘the barbarian invasions’ have become extremely unfashionable. Academics prefer fifty shades of grey to black-and-white distinctions, and much discussion centres on the transformation of the Roman world, rather than the fall of the Roman Empire. Yet whether you subscribe to the ‘transformation thesis’ or not, and however you answer the question, ‘Did Rome really fall?’, there is no doubting that the mere idea that it might have done still has a deep resonance: Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America is one recent book title that plugs into the way that Roman history can fire the imagination and instil fear.2

Anyone seeking a single cause for the downfall/transformation of Rome will probably be disappointed, and even fixing a date can be problematical, since the process could easily be extended beyond 476, after which there were no more Roman Emperors in the West, until Mehmet II the Conqueror’s sack of Constantinople in 1453. There is enormous disagreement as to whether Rome was assassinated, (accidently) committed suicide, or died at all, and literally hundreds of ‘causes of death’ have been put forward: environmental problems, disease, decadence, dysgenic breeding, war, slavery, manpower shortages, lead poisoning from the pipes, impotence caused by hot water in the baths, ‘race-suicide’, Christianity, pacifism, economic stagnation, conflicts between discipline and liberty, the centralization of power, the problems of dynastic succession, migrants forcibly stripping Rome of her tax base, inept foreign policy and inadequate frontier defence represent just a small sample of the topics presented for discussion.3

The Post-Alaric Aftershocks

As the waters of the River Busentus closed over Alaric’s grave in 411, his brother-in-law Ataulf assumed the leadership of the Goths and ran amok in Italy:

Like a plague of locusts, [he] stripped all Italy bare of anything that still remained, not merely private wealth, but public too; and there was nothing that Honorius could do to stop him.4

Nevertheless, Honorius would not capitulate, and so early in 412 Ataulf changed his approach and marched into Gaul.

The Gallic situation was very unsettled. The Suevi, Vandals and Alani who crossed the Rhine in 405/65 had moved through the province into Spain, which itself was trying to decide whether to back Constantine III or stay loyal to Rome. Initially it had opted for Constantine III, but his forces had got embroiled in some convoluted local power struggles and he had been forced to dispatch a delegation to Spain to sort out the situation. Unfortunately, his general Gerontius, who commanded the occupying forces, had misread Constantine III’s intentions: suspecting his own life to be in danger, he had ‘retaliated’ by proclaiming his follower (or possibly his son) Maximus as Augustus. These rebels had taken the offensive and killed Constantine III’s son Constans in the process in late 410/early 411, although, with some help from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Constans found his way into medieval British legend as the brother of King Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon and himself King of Britannia, albeit as a puppet of Vortigern.

For their part, once they had perpetrated the requisite amount of devastation, the Vandals, Suevi and Alani had divided the Spanish provinces between themselves by lot. Gerontius and Maximus had effectively acknowledged this barbarian acquisition of political control over Roman territory, and Orosius makes the startling assertion that some Romans preferred to live in poor freedom under the barbarians than as subjects of Roman taxation.

While this was going on, Constantine III was holed up in Arelate, where, as a result of Gerontius’ defection, he found himself under siege in about May 411. Then Honorius’ general Flavius Constantius (who was nothing to do with the Emperors Constantius I and II) had arrived on the scene with a much larger army. From Honorius’ perspective, Maximus was just as much a usurper as Constantine III, and if he wanted to get rid of the latter, he would have to deal with the former. Sandwiched between two hostile armies, Gerontius and Maximus were deserted by their own men and hounded into Spain by Honorius’. Maximus escaped into historical obscurity (unless he is the same Maximus who was paraded in chains at Honorius’ thirtieth-year celebrations in 422), while Gerontius was run to ground in a fortified house with his wife Nunchia and a faithful Alan thegn. Having beheaded his wife and the Alan at their request, Gerontius failed three times to kill himself with his own sword, and so used a dagger instead.

None of this had really helped Constantine III, however. In fact, things had got even worse, because Iovinus, a Gallo-Roman Senator, had been proclaimed Emperor at Moguntiacum with the backing of the kings of the Burgundiones and Alani in 411. With the situation looking utterly bleak, Constantine III had doffed the purple robes that Honorius had once sent him, become a monk, and taken refuge in a church. Sadly for him, this proved a futile gesture: he and his son Julian were apprehended and sent off to Ravenna, but they were dead before they got there. Constantine III’s head received rather more than a monk’s tonsure, and ended up displayed alongside Constans’ on the walls of Carthage.

This, then, was the situation that Ataulf walked into in Gaul in 412. On Priscus Attalus’ advice, he backed the man that he thought would be the winner: Iovinus. But not for long. Ataulf discovered that his old adversary Sarus, the wrecker of the peace talks with Alaric, had now fallen out with Honorius and was about to join up with Iovinus. Ataulf couldn’t resist the opportunity for vengeance, so he waylaid Sarus’ twenty-eight men with 10 000 of his own. The pursuit ended with Sarus being lassoed and killed. This duly alienated Iovinus, who proclaimed his brother Sebastian as co-Emperor without seeking Ataulf’s approval. So the Goth simply switched his allegiance to Honorius. According to St Jerome, Ataulf ‘strove to turn his back on war and to promote peace’,6 although that clearly did not preclude defeating and capturing Iovinus in battle at Valentia in 413. His head was sent to Carthage where it made a neat trio with those of Constantine III and Constans.

If the severed heads of Honorius’ enemies were intended to act as a deterrent, they failed. As the controller of the African grain supply, Heraclianus’ loyalty had been crucial to Honorius’ survival, but now Flavius Constantius had started to purge Stilicho’s enemies. The eunuch Olympius had already had his ears lopped off before being clubbed to death, and the fact that Heraclianus was Stilicho’s killer put him in a dangerous position. So he cut off Italy’s grain before invading the peninsula in 413. The expedition soon ended in failure and Heraclianus’ death, but its ramifications were significant and centred on a woman who becomes one of the key figures of the period: Galla Placidia (see Genealogy Table 6).

Galla Placidia

Judging by images on coins, Galla Placidia possessed all the qualities that a Roman Empress should: good looks, charisma and expensive tastes in clothes, while Jordanes writes of her ‘nobility, beauty and chaste purity’.7 Ataulf was still holding her hostage, but now he was asked to return her. Flavius Constantius tried to exert some extra leverage by withholding grain supplies to the Goths, whereupon Ataulf went on the warpath in southern Gaul. Clearly Galla Placidia was going nowhere. Flavius Constantius, meanwhile, was granted all of Heraclianus’ property in Africa and a consulship, but all the honours and riches in the world could not assuage his jealousy when Ataulf married his prisoner at (probably) Narbo (modern Narbonne) in January 414. The wedding was astonishing, and his gifts to her included fifty good-looking youths clad in silk, each bearing plates laden with gold and with jewels from Alaric’s sack of Rome. Priscus Attalus sang the epithalamium.

Flavius Constantius still lusted after Ataulf’s bride and all her potential fringe benefits. He succeeded in souring the relationship between Ataulf and Honorius, who authorized him to blockade Gaul’s Mediterranean ports. Ataulf’s response was to elevate Priscus Attalus to the purple for a second, but ultimately equally unsuccessful, time. The Goths abandoned Priscus Attalus once Flavius Constantius got control of Gaul, and after his capture he was displayed in what turned out to be the last triumph ever celebrated in Rome:

Honorius ordered Attalus to stand on the first step of the tribunal [. . .] He cut off two fingers from his right hand, the [thumb?] and forefinger. Then he banished him to the island of Lipara, doing nothing more to harm him, but rather ensuring that he had all the necessities of life.8

Priscus Attalus didn’t get to enjoy his island life for long. He died in 415, by which time Ataulf had also expired. Flavius Constantius had forced the Goth to cross the Pyrenees into Spain, where he took Barcino (modern Barcelona), but Ataulf must still have felt confident for the future, since Galla Placidia had given birth to a son whom they called Theodosius after his mother’s father. Since Honorius was childless, this made Ataulf the sire of the potential heir to the throne of the West. But sadly Theodosius died in infancy (there is no suspicion of foul play), and his father followed shortly afterwards (there is a great deal of suspicion).

Ataulf was assassinated by one of his own men. Jordanes names the perpetrator as Everulf, whom Ataulf habitually mocked for being short, although other sources call him Dubius, motivated by revenge for Ataulf killing his former master who was ‘king of a part of the Goths’. This could refer to Ataulf’s old enemy Sarus, whose brother Singeric (also rendered Sigeric or Sergeric) emerged as the prime beneficiary:

Through treachery in force, rather than by lawful succession, Singeric became king. He killed Ataulf’s children by his first marriage, tearing them by force from the arms of Bishop Sigesarus. And out of malice against Ataulf, he ordered that his queen, Placidia, be made to walk in front of his horse, with the rest of the prisoners, in a procession of some 12 miles from the city.9

Singeric didn’t last long, though. He was murdered and replaced by a certain Wallia, and the Goths were again reduced to starvation by Flavius Constantius. This got so bad that the Vandals started selling them grain at the exorbitant rate of one gold solidus pertrula (‘spoonful’), and calling them by the derogatory nickname truli – ‘the Spoonies’ – as a result. Now, at last, Galla Placidia was returned to the Roman court, and an indication of her high value is that her ransom was enough wheat to feed a quarter of a million people for about three weeks.

As part of the Galla Placidia settlement, Wallia also agreed to provide military service to Honorius, and his first assignment was to campaign against the Alani and Vandal Silingi in Baetica and Lusitania. This he did with some success. In 417 and 418 he harassed the Silingi, killed the Alan King Addax in 418, and forced the survivors to seek refuge with the Hasdingi Vandals in Gallaecia. Flavius Constantius then rewarded Wallia’s Goths with a permanent residence, albeit not an independent kingdom, in Aquitania in southern Gaul in 418 or 419. However, Wallia did not live to see the great dream of a Gothic homeland within the Roman Empire realized, since he died a few months after the agreement was made. So it was his successor, Alaric’s grandson Theoderic I (also called Theoderid), who saw the arrangements through. From the Roman viewpoint, one major downside of giving up territory to Goths, Suevi, Burgundiones, Alani and Vandals, and abandoning Britain, was that they lost large amounts of tax revenues.

Galla Placidia’s return also gave Flavius Constantius the opportunity he had yearned for. He sought her hand in marriage. Unfortunately, his passion was not reciprocated, and one can perhaps see why:

In public processions, Constantius was sullen and morose. He had bulging eyes, a thick neck, and massive head. When riding, he slumped over his horse’s neck, looking shiftily from side to side.10

We are told that he was good fun at parties, though. But Gallia Placidia dug her heels in until Honorius had to force her to marry her unwelcome admirer on 1 January 417. Their marriage is portrayed as truly miserable, but it did fulfil one of its most important functions: the couple had two children, a girl called Honoria, and a boy, born in July 419, who would come to rule Rome as Valentinian III. That same year Flavius Constantius held office as Consul for the third time, and in February 421 he became co-Augustus alongside Honorius as Constantius III, while his spouse took the title of Augusta. The Eastern Emperor Theodosius II was unhappy at these promotions and refused to acknowledge Constantius III, who started to plan a campaign against him. But things never got further than that: Constantius III died of pleurisy before the year was out, leaving the Western Empire in better shape than it had been for some time, but also clearing the way for an ugly political aftermath.

In Spain, general Castinus had deployed the Gothic army against the Vandals in Baetica, but when he had all but forced them to surrender he was defeated thanks to some unspecified Gothic treachery. He also had a major disagreement with his co-commander and protégé of Galla Placidia, Bonifacius (‘Boniface’), who crossed over to Africa and started to build a power base there. The Augusta, meanwhile, started to become rather too close to her half-brother Honorius for the rumourmongers’ liking. Amid allegations of incest their relationship deteriorated, and by the spring of 423 Galla Placidia and her children found themselves in exile in Constantinople at the court of Theodosius II.

Everything changed, though, on 27 August 423. Shortly after Honorius had celebrated his thirtieth year as Augustus, he died from dropsy (pulmonary edema, perhaps), leaving Galla Placidia’s four-year-old son Valentinian III as his heir. The boy was made Augustus on 23 October, but was immediately challenged when John, the primicerius notariorum (Chief Palace Notary), declared himself Emperor of the West. John faced robust opposition from Bonifacius in Africa, but could count on the support of Castinus and a general called Flavius Aetius, who allegedly deployed 60 000 Huns (in his youth he had spent time among them as a hostage). Theodosius II rejected John’s attempts to reach an accommodation, and in 425 he dispatched a seaborne task force under Ardabur, and a land-based one under Candidianus and Ardabur’s son Aspar. When the Theodosians gained the upper hand, John was betrayed by his troops and duly decapitated at Aquileia; Flavius Aetius persuaded the Huns to return back over the Danube (no doubt sped on their way by a pay-off from Galla Placidia), received a pardon, switched sides and performed sterling work against difficult Goths and Franks for the rest of the 420s; the six-year-old Valentinian III was reinstated as Augustus, and his mother Galla Placidia became one of the world’s most powerful women.

The late 420s saw a Vandal revival in Spain (Andalusia is still named after them), to the extent that they were attacking the Balearic Islands and plundering Rome’s province of Mauretania Tingitania in North Africa. After their king, Gunderic, died and was succeeded by his brother Gaiseric they embarked on a hugely significant enterprise: in the month of May of some year between 427 and 42911 Gaiseric organized them into eighty groups of a thousand people, and ferried them across the Strait of Gibraltar into Africa. St Augustine would be one of the high-profile casualties of their advance, killed in the siege of the city of Hippo in 430.

A major incursion of Vandals would naturally have been of great concern to Galla Placidia’s African-based supporter Bonifacius, but his main worries centred on the court at Ravenna. Somehow Galla Placidia had been convinced that he was plotting against her, and when he took Flavius Aetius’ advice not to obey her orders to return to Italy, this simply confirmed her suspicions. Still, a Gothic commander called Sigisvult managed to smooth things over, which allowed Bonifacius to confront the barbarians. He was defeated, however, and by 434 the Vandals, having also overpowered an Eastern Roman force under Aspar, had been officially granted the two Mauretanias and Numidia.

Meanwhile, the power struggles at Ravenna moved to another level as Flavius Aetius’ machinations brought about the death of Galla Placidia’s Magister Militum Praesentalis Flavius Felix, and his own promotion to Magister Utriusque Militiae. To give him his due, Flavius Aetius turned out to be a highly effective commander, but his success provoked a backlash from Bonifacius, who also received support from Aspar. Bonifacius and Flavius Aetius contested a battle near Ariminum in 432 in which the former could have claimed victory, had he not died of his wounds. Flavius Aetius used another awesome force of Huns to expel Boniface’s son Sebastian. This effectively gave him total dominance over Galla Placidia and Valentinian III, and from 433 he remained unchallenged asMagister Utriusque Militiae until his death twenty-one years later.

Theodosius II, Pulcheria and Eudocia in Constantinople

Flavius Aetius was Emperor of the West in all but name, but almost the opposite has been said of Theodosius II in Constantinople, who ‘reigned rather than ruled’12 from 408 to 450. Orphaned and made Emperor at the age of seven, he was described by Priscus of Panion as an unwarlike, cowardly man who secured peace with cash rather than by force of arms, and whose every action was under the influence of eunuchs.13

However, other sources focus on the education he received from his fiercely ascetic, strong-minded, Christian older sister Aelia Pulcheria. In the past, influential Roman women like Livia and her ilk had achieved much of their influence through sex, marriage and their children, but Pulcheria exploited her virginity to gain power:

The Divine Power which is the guardian of the universe, foresaw that the Emperor would be distinguished by his piety, and therefore determined that Pulcheria, his sister, should be the protector of him and his government. The princess was not yet fifteen years of age [in 414 when she became Augusta], but had received a mind most wise and divine above her years. She first devoted her virginity to God [. . .] After quietly resuming the care of the State, she governed the Roman Empire excellently and with great orderliness.14

It might be closer to the truth to say that Theodosius II’s Praefectus Praetorio Anthemius ran the show down to 414, followed by the Master of Offices Helion from 414 to 427, but Pulcheria’s decision to devote herself to the cult of the Virgin Mary, irrespective of her true religious convictions, was a shrewd political move – any attack on her was by association an attack on the Mother of God – and her influence is noted by contemporary Church historians:

[Theodosius II] made the palace into nothing so much as a monastery (asketerion). He and his sisters used to rise at dawn and sing antiphonal hymns to the divinity. He knew the holy books by heart and could carry on discussions of the sacred texts with the bishops he met like a long established priest.15

A tradition (which modern scholarship treats with caution) has it that Pulcheria was also instrumental in finding her brother the perfect bride: an orphaned Athenian girl called Athenais who was highly educated in astronomy, geometry, Greek and Latin literature and philosophy, as well as being stunningly beautiful, witty and intelligent:

A pure young thing, with slim and graceful figure, a delicate nose, skin as white as snow, large eyes, charming features, blonde curly tresses and dancing feet.16

Such loveliness was marred only by her paganism, but she was persuaded to be baptized, and assumed a new Christian name: Aelia Eudocia (Greek eudokia = the Approval of God). The wedding took place on 7 June 421, and by the time Eudocia was made Augusta in 423 she had already borne Theodosius II the first of their three children, Licinia Eudoxia (see Genealogy Table 6). Aelia Eudocia, too, would come to wield great influence.

Pulcheria was not averse to courting ecclesiastical controversy. Her mother Aelia Eudoxia had carried on a perpetual feud with John Chrysostom and had even banished him twice, and now Pulcheria became the centre of some strongly divisive issues herself. There was already something of a power struggle between the Sees of Antioch, from where Nestorius, the current Bishop of Constantinople, originated, and Alexandria, where Cyril, whose fanatical monks had possibly perpetrated the murder of the pagan female mathematician and philosopher Hypatia in 415, was Bishop. Pulcheria and Nestorius had a fractious relationship that came to a head over whether the Virgin Mary should be called Theotokos (‘Mother of God’), which was the view of Pulcheria and the majority, or, as Nestorius espoused, Khristotokos (‘Mother of Christ’). It was the kind of problem that had ramifications for the entire vexed issue of the nature of Christ, and in 431 Theodosius II convened an Ecumenical Council at Ephesus (a strong centre of the veneration of Mary) where Cyril’s uncompromising theological onslaught resulted in Nestorius’ deposition and exile. Having disposed of her nemesis, Pulcheria received adulation from the crowds at Constantinople:

Long live Pulcheria! It is she who has strengthened the faith! [. . .] Long live the orthodox ones!17

However, Nestorius didn’t disappear without a struggle, and neither did the Christological problems, which polarized into positions known as Monophysitism, which maintained that Christ’s nature was single and indivisible yet both human and divine at the same time, and Nestorianism, which stressed the disunion between his Godhead and manhood.

After Cyril’s death in around 444, Theodosius II convoked a Second Council of Ephesus in 449 under the presidency of his successor Dioscurus. This was a brutally violent meeting, and was described by St Leo as a latrocinium (‘Robber Council’), a name by which it is still known.

At Theodosius II’s court, rivalry started to develop between his wife and his sister, and, given the forceful personalities involved, this made his domestic and political life very awkward. There was even an anecdote, which greatly amused the courtiers, about Pulcheria once tricking her gormless brother into making Eudocia a slave. However, Eudocia’s overall status shot up when Galla Placidia’s son Valentinian III, now eighteen years old, married her daughter Licinia Eudoxia, thereby unifying the houses of the East and West: the commemorative coinage depicted Valentinian III and Theodosius II holding an orb to symbolize the united Empire. As the happy couple honeymooned by touring the Empire, perhaps spending some newly minted coins, which carried the legendFELICITER NVPTIIS (‘Happy Wedding’), the mother-of-the-bride boosted her piety ratings by making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and returning to Constantinople with the holy relics of St Stephen, although it was Pulcheria who finally deposited them in the church of St Lawrence.

Unlike her offspring’s, Eudocia’s ‘honeymoon period’ did not last long. The palace eunuch Chrysaphius managed to wheedle his way into Theodosius II’s confidence. He engineered the removal of the highly cultured Cyrus of Panopolis, who, assisted by Eudocia’s patronage, had becomePraefectus Praetorio of the East. Known for replacing Latin as the language of administration and issuing his edicts in Greek, Cyrus had also introduced street lighting to Constantinople, but now he was exiled to Phrygia. Chrysaphius also played off Eudocia and Pulcheria against one another: Pulcheria stepped out of the public gaze, and in 443 Eudocia was accused of adultery with Theodosius II’s old friend Paulinus, the Magister Officiorum. According to the sixth-century Greek chronicler John Malalas, Eudocia was betrayed by a large Phrygian apple. Theodosius II had given this to her as a present, but when Paulinus, unaware of this, then showed the same apple to the Emperor, his suspicions were aroused, particularly since Eudocia had said that she had eaten it. Theodosius II concluded that his love-gift was doing the rounds in a rather unhealthy way, and Paulinus was executed. Eudocia fled to Jerusalem, where she wrote some decent literature and performed good works for the last eighteen years of her life. Her old enemy Nestorius tried to besmirch her reputation by arguing that her downfall was divine retribution for her heretical views, but other Christian authors regarded Nestorius as the heretic, the charges as scurrilous fabrication, and Eudocia as wise, chaste, spotless and perfect.

If all this palace intrigue leaves an impression of a chaotic administration, it should also be acknowledged that Theodosius II achieved some significant successes during his reign, notably the codification of all Roman laws issued since 312. This was published in the Codex Theodosianus(‘Theodosian Code’), which came into force on 1 January 439. On 23 December of that year the Senate of Rome formally received it, shouting ‘Well spoken’, and voicing their approval twenty or thirty times after each clause was read out.

Theodosius’ foreign policy was pretty effective too: relations with Persia were amiable enough, apart from a brief spat in 421–422 when Roman forces backed some Christians in a conflict with some Zoroastrian fire-worshippers; fleets were sent to Africa to address the threat from Gaiseric and his Vandals from Africa in 431 and 441, albeit with little success; the defences on the lower Danube were maintained; and the Praefectus Praetorio Anthemius oversaw the addition of a powerful outer ring of land walls to Constantinople’s mighty fortifications, to which Cyrus of Panopolis added the sea walls prior to his exile. The most difficult problem was the Huns, whose King Rua, and subsequently his successor Attila, demanded tribute and devastated the Balkans and Thrace whenever they felt the payments were insufficiently generous. Predictably the price of peace escalated: 350 pounds of gold per annum in 422; 700 in 434; and 2 100 in 443. Nevertheless, it was probably worth it:

The Romans complied with all Attila’s instructions, and treated them as the command of their master. For not only were they taking precautions not to engage in a war against him, but they also were afraid that the Persians were preparing war, and that the Vandals were disturbing the peace at sea, and that the Isaurians were inclined to engage in brigandage, and the Saracens were mounting raids into their Eastern Empire, and that the tribes of Ethiopia were in rebellion. For this reason they swallowed their pride and obeyed Attila, but tried to prepare for military action against the other peoples, gathering their forces and appointing commanders.18

However, looking at the big picture, these were relatively minor distractions, especially compared with the struggles that were unfolding in the West, and in reality Theodosius II’s reign probably represented the most settled period the East had enjoyed since the second century. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who are said to have awoken during his reign, experienced the situation at first hand, and were pleasantly surprised to find the Cross placed above Ephesus’ city gate, delighted to hear people swearing by the name of Christ, impressed to see a great church, and bemused by the reaction that their coins with a pagan Emperor’s portrait caused in the market.

On 28 July 450, Theodosius II died as a result of a riding accident. This placed Pulcheria in a tricky situation, since her brother had not produced a male heir. Nevertheless, she succeeded in acting as de facto ruler of the Empire until a successor could be found. After about a month she and theMagister Militum Aspar settled on a Thracian military officer called Flavius Marcianus (‘Marcian’). This meant that the fifty-one-year-old Pulcheria had to compromise one of her most deeply held convictions and agree to get married. However, in order for her not to have to violate her vow of chastity, Marcian promised not to violate her. On 25 August 450 she crowned him as the new Augustus.

The man at the top of Marcian and Pulcheria’s elimination list was Chrysaphius. Most sources simply say that Pulcheria handed him to another of his bitter enemies, Jordanes, who put him to death, but Malalas introduces chariot racing into the story. Apparently, Chrysaphius had been head of the Green faction, whereas Marcian was a fan of the Blues. Following some scuffles between rival gangs of hooligan supporters, Marcian ordered Chrysaphius to explain what was going on, but as the eunuch made his way to the tribunal he was stoned to death by an angry mob who resented the high taxes levied to pay the tribute to Attila the Hun.

Flavius Aetius, Vandals and Huns

Over in the West, the situation facing Valentinian III in 434 was that Galla Placidia was overseeing the life of the court at Ravenna, arbitrating various disputes, building churches and trying to manipulate powerful generals and control difficult children, while Flavius Aetius was in overall control, presiding over Italy, the recently pacified provinces north of the Alps, the West’s Balkan provinces, Africa Proconsularis and Byzacena, Narbonensis, Viennensis, and perhaps the frontier zone from the mouth of the Loire to the northern edges of the Alps. But large swathes of Rome’s former territories were no longer under his sway: Britain was completely out on a limb and fell prey to Picti, Scotti, Angles, Saxons and Jutes; the Rhine frontier had collapsed; northern Gaul had fallen outside Roman administration; the Goths in Aquitania II and Novempopulana may have been in revolt; the situation in Spain looked rather like that in northern Gaul, with a large kingdom of Suevi allying itself to the Visigoths of Theodoric I, who were settled around the Garonne; and the Vandals now had official control of Numidia and the Mauretanias. Essentially Flavius Aetius was caught in a vicious circle of three ‘T’s: loss of territory meant loss of tax revenue, which meant less money for troops. There was still a pretty effective regular Roman army, but this would need to be bolstered by barbarian allies from outside the Empire if he were to realize his ambitious plans to restore the West.

Gaul was the first area on his list. He recovered the strategically crucial cities of Arelate and Narbo from the Goths in 436, pushed some Frankish tribes back across the Rhine (or incorporated them as foederati, tribes subsidized by Rome in return for them supplying warriors to fight her armies), and destroyed the Burgundian kingdom of King Gundigar on the middle Rhine, an episode that later inspired the Nibelungen saga. The defeated Burgundiones were settled in Sapaudia (modern Savoy), while the Alani were established in Aureliana Civitas (modern Orléans). Flavius Aetius also brought to heel a number of rebellious local leaders whom the Ravenna government called Bagaudae. The famous gemitus Britannorum Agitio ter consuli (‘groans of the Britons to Agitius, three times Consul’) could belong in this context too, since ‘Agitius’ is usually held to be Flavius Aetius, and his third consulship fell in 446. The Britons groaned that:

The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us back to the barbarians; death comes by one means or another: we are either slaughtered or drowned.19

Military intervention in Britain was out of the question, but St Germanus of Auxerre made his second visit to the island, perhaps in 446–447. His first visit in 429 had been to combat a heresy known as Pelagianism. Despite being ridiculed by Jerome as a ‘stupid idiot stuffed with Scottish porridge [. . .] like a mountain of fat’20 and therefore prone to a weak memory, Pelagius was a well-educated man who rejected the idea that man’s capacity for good is most effective when his will is surrendered as a vehicle for the divine will, and would not accept that the weakness of their natures makes human beings entirely dependent for salvation on the grace or favour of God. On the contrary, he believed that the exercise of pure human will can give people control over their own salvation. In theological terms, Pelagius’ viewpoint amounts to a denial of original sin and Christian grace, so Germanus was keen to stamp it out. But whilst confronting Pelagianism, Germanus also defeated some Picti and Saxons in the ‘Alleluia victory’, where he baptized the British fighters, and taught them to shout ‘Alleluia’ at the moment of attack, which apparently so terrified their adversaries that victory was inevitable. So clearly Germanus was a good choice of ambassador in 446, for his military, civil and religious leadership qualities, and Pelagianism did not take hold.

The second item on Flavius Aetius’ ‘to-do list’ was Spain, where all went well initially. In the first half of the 440s the Magister Utriusque Militiae Asturius had success in Tarraconensis, as did his son-in-law Merobaudes, after which a third Magister Utriusque Militiae called Vitus led an army through Carthaginiensis and Baetica. So far so good, but the Suevi counter-attacked, and their leader Rechila defeated Vitus and reasserted Suevic control. When Rechila died in August 448, his successor Rechiar joined forces with one of the Bagaudae, who went under the name of Basilius (‘Emperor’), and not only wreaked havoc in Spain, but also visited Alaric’s grandson Theoderic I in Gaul and married one of his daughters. This was very worrying to the Romans.

Across the Straits of Gibraltar the situation was even more alarming. In 439 Gaiseric’s Vandals seized Carthage in a surprise attack (most of the inhabitants were watching the races at the hippodrome, we are told). This was a real game-changer: one of the Mediterranean’s premier cities was now under firm barbarian control; Rome’s grain supply was at risk; Sicily was under threat; and Constantinople’s access to the Eastern Mediterranean was inhibited. So in order to focus on this problem, the Romans struck a landmark treaty with the Goths in 439, which essentially granted them a sovereign (or at the very least, semi-sovereign) state within the borders of the Roman Empire. Then in 440 Gaiseric attacked Sicily; Theodosius II sent a naval expedition to the Western Mediterranean in 441, but this was not done with any real conviction, since he was already preoccupied with Persia and the Huns; and in 442 the Empire signed a treaty with the Vandals that acknowledged their control over Numidia, Byzacena and Proconsularis, and though the less attractive Mauritanian provinces were returned to the Romans, the Spanish situation precluded them exercising any effective government there either. Although some modern scholarship has tried to rehabilitate the Vandals’ image, Christian sources portray their activities in Africa as utterly terrifying. Nevertheless, Gaiseric softened his approach in the mid-440s, when his son Huneric was betrothed to Valentinian III’s five-year-old daughter Eudocia, despite the fact that he was already married to a daughter of Theoderic I of the Goths. Gaiseric marked the new betrothal by accusing Theoderic I’s daughter of trying to assassinate him, cutting off her nose and ears, and sending her back to her father.

By the time that Marcian succeeded the late Theodosius II in Constantinople in 450, it was hard to judge whether Flavius Aetius’ regime was a success, but in that year some unexpectedly bizarre developments pushed events in a new direction. At the sharp end of a curious love triangle was Galla Placidia’s daughter (and Valentinian III’s older sister), the thirty-two-year-old Honoria. Honoria had a chequered past. When she had fallen pregnant at the age of sixteen, her lover Eugenius had been executed and Honoria had been sent off to live with her hyper-chaste cousin Pulcheria in Constantinople. When she was finally allowed back to Ravenna (stripped of her rank of Augusta), a suitably admirable but low-key husband was found for her in the shape of Herculanus Bassus. Honoria clearly had aspirations of marrying someone much more exciting, and she rebelled from her family in the most extreme way imaginable: she wrote a letter explaining her predicament, enclosed her ring with it, and gave it to her eunuch Hyacinthus with instructions to deliver it to Attila the Hun.

Attila couldn’t believe his luck. He had just made a peace deal with Constantinople, and was already refocusing on the West. As far as he was concerned, Honoria’s missive was tantamount to a marriage proposal, and he demanded that Valentinian III should give her to him, along with her share of what he called the ‘sceptre of Empire’ – i.e., half of the Western Roman Empire. Ravenna responded that it had no intention of doing this, and that in any case females did not hold the ‘sceptre of Empire’. This gave Attila the excuse that he needed to declare war, on the (spurious) grounds that he was defending the honour of his ‘bride’. Obviously Theodosius III rejected Attila’s demands. The go-between Hyacinthus was duly tortured and beheaded, while Honoria was delivered to Galla Placidia for punishment. Galla Placidia simply insisted that Honoria marry Herculanus Bassus – presumably a fate worse than death.

This was Galla Placidia’s last contribution to the story of Rome. On 27 November 450 she died in her early sixties from unknown causes. She had built a mausoleum for herself in Ravenna, but she was not buried there. Recent research has suggested that the find on 25 June 1458 of a marble sarcophagus containing two silver-coated wooden caskets holding the bodies of an adult and a child, along with 7.25 kg of cloth-of-gold and an inscribed cross, could be the remains of Galla Placidia and Theodosius, her infant son by Athaulf. The items were discovered at the chapel of St Petronilla on the Vatican Hill, which had previously been Honorius’ mausoleum. Honorius’ wife Maria (the daughter of Stilicho and Serena) was buried there, and the literary sources tell us that Theodosius was reinterred in a silver coffin by Galla Placidia in 450 following the transfer of his body from Spain to Rome. It is an enticing inference to interpret the adult body found lying next to the child as that of Galla Placidia.21

While Galla Placidia rested for all eternity, Attila the Hun went on the rampage. Rome’s days were numbered.

1   Tr. Blockley, R. C., The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus and Malchus, Liverpool: Cairns, 1983.

2   Murphy, C., Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, Boston and New York: Mariner Books, 2008.

3   See Demandt, A., Der Fall Roms, Beck: Munich, 1984, whose last page gives a list of over two hundred reasons that have been suggested to explain Rome’s demise.

4   Jordanes, Getica 31.159, tr. Davis, W. S., op. cit.

5   See above, p. 369 f.

6   Quoted by Orosius, Histories Against the Pagans 7.43.4 ff., tr. Kershaw, S.

7   Jordanes, Getica 31.160, Cf. Orosius 7.40.2; 7.43.

8   Philostorgius, Ecclesiastical History 12.5.2, tr. Walford, E., The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen: comprising a history of the church from AD 324 to AD 440 translated from the Greek: with a memoir of the author. Also, the Ecclesiastical history of Philostorgius as epitomized by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople; translated by Edward Walford, London : Henry G. Bohn, 1855. Cf. Orosius 7.42.10.

9   Olympiodorus, fr. 26, tr. Blockley, R. C., op. cit.

10   Olympiodorus, fr. 23, tr. Blockley, R. C., op. cit.

11   Victor of Vita, History of the Vandal Persecution 1.2. The date of the crossing is problematical: see Mathisen, R. W., ‘Sigisvult the patrician, Maximinus the Arian and political stratagems in the Western Roman Empire, c.425–507,’ Early Medieval Europe 8 (1999), 177, n. 6.

12   Jones, A. H. M. and Liebeschuetz, W., s.v. ‘Theodosius (3) II’, in Hornblower, S. and Spawforth, A., The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd revised edn., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

13   Priscus of Panion fr. 3.

14   Sozomen 9.1, tr. Dods, op. cit.

15   Socrates 7.22.4, tr. Dods, op. cit.

16   Malalas, Chronichon Paschale a. 420 (p. 577 f.), tr. Holum, K., Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1982, p. 114.

17   Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum¸, tr. Holum, K., op. cit., p. 170.

18   Priscus of Panion, fr. 10, tr. in Mitchell, S., A History of the Later Roman Empire AD 284–641: The Transformation of the Ancient World, Oxford: Blackwell, 2007, p. 105.

19   Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae 1.20, tr. Kershaw, S.

20   Jerome, In Jeremia I and III, Praef., tr. Kershaw, S.

21   See Johnson, M. J., The Roman Imperial Mausoleum in Late Antiquity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 167–71; Freisenbruch, A., The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars, London: Jonathan Cape, 2010, p. 311 f.

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