The End of Rome in the West (450–476)

While the Colisaeus stands, Rome shall stand.

When the Colisaeus falls, Rome shall fall,

When Rome falls, the world shall fall.

Attributed to the Venerable Bede

The Survival of Rome in the East: 450 Onwards

While the Roman regime in the West was trying to stop itself from imploding, the new Eastern supremo Marcian was immediately faced with two equally daunting challenges: dealing with Attila the Hun and reconciling the feuding Christian factions within his own realm.

Early in his reign (451) he convened an Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon. This was done with the grudging assent of Pope Leo I ‘the Great’, and sought to rectify the shambolic outcome of the Second (‘Robber’) Council of Ephesus of 449. The vehement Monophysitism versus Nestorianism disagreement about the nature of Christ was still raging,1 and so the Council of Chalcedon issued the ‘Chalcedonian Definition’ or ‘Chalcedonian Creed’, in order to get things absolutely clear:

We [. . .] teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.2

In reality the judgement merely led to the so-called Monophysite schism between those who accepted the Second Council of Ephesus and those who accepted the Council of Chalcedon, and the issue remained a thorn in the side of Eastern Emperors for centuries.

The Council had less difficulty when they passed a decree known as the ‘canon 28’, which dealt with the rivalry between Alexandria and Constantinople: henceforth, as the New Rome, the See of Constantinople would have equal privileges with Rome, and be second in eminence and power to the Bishop of Rome. Pulcheria received great public acclaim as a ‘New Helena’ for her part in all of this, and when she died in July 453 aged fifty-four, there was an enormous public outpouring of grief.

As far as foreign policy was concerned, Marcian benefited from the settlement of Rome’s differences with Persia, and his approach to Attila became much more uncompromising. And it needed to be, because the Huns were still a formidable proposition. Ever since Attila and his brother Bleda had succeeded to the kingship in the 430s they had wreaked havoc in Rome’s Balkan territories on an unprecedented scale. In addition to harassing the East and extorting money from Constantinople, Attila had murdered Bleda in 445 and overrun Pannonia. Attila’s political heartland came to be the area north of the Danube that had once been occupied by the Tervingi, but by the late 440s the tentacles of his power were stretching far beyond there. Unlike the Goths, the Huns had no interest in securing a permanent residence inside the Empire and regarded blackmail and extortion as completely acceptable. Marcian, however, did not. He took steps to recover the Balkans, and he stopped paying them off. The policy bore fruit: Attila simply decided that the West was a softer target, which allowed Marcian a breathing space to establish a modicum of peace and prosperity throughout his own realm. Attila’s death in 453 eased the pressure still further, and the money that was once paid to the Huns was used to make tax cuts.

Marcian died, allegedly of gangrene, in 457, leaving a healthy treasury surplus. His intended successor was his son-in-law Procopius Anthemius, but the scheming Alan Magister Militum Aspar engineered the accession of the Dacian Leo I. According to Constantine Porphyrogenitus he was raised aloft on the shields of his soldiers in a gesture that recalled the practice of the Germanic troops who elevated Julian to the purple in 360, and was crowned by the ever-increasingly powerful patriarch of Constantinople.3Procopius Anthemius would duly become Emperor of the West on Leo I’s say-so in 467, but if Aspar was looking to become the power behind the throne, he would be thwarted by Leo I’s equally Machiavellian machinations. The Emperor recruited a bodyguard of Isaurian tribesmen (Isauria is a mountainous part of southern Asia Minor), who were intimately involved in the murder of the ‘dynasty of Aspar and his sons’ in the palace in 471. Leo I also married off his daughter Ariadne to a leading Isaurian called Tarasikodissa. This man won Leo I’s confidence, was promoted from Comes Domestico-rum to Praefectus Praetorio of the East, and assumed the Greek name Zeno.

On the world stage, Leo I tried to deal with the Vandal menace by sending an armada against them in 468, but this was a complete failure. Then in 474 he made an attempt to gain control over the Western Empire by sending Julius Nepos, the commander of the Balkan army and a relative by marriage of his wife Verina, to take over from Glycerius, who had ascended the Western throne in 473.4 Again this came to naught: Leo I died in February 474; his young successor Leo II died in November; and Julius Nepos returned to the Balkans after a brief tenure of power lasting into 475.5

Zeno, who had been appointed as the protector of Leo II, assumed sole control of the Eastern Empire from 474 to 491. He repelled Goths and usurpers, including Leo I’s widow Verina’s brother Basiliscus, who was proclaimed at Constantinople in 475. Verina contributed to the usurpation’s initial success, and Zeno was exiled for a time while Basiliscus and his son Marcus ruled together, but their heretical religious beliefs soon got them into difficulties, and Zeno was able to make a comeback. He has the distinction of being the Eastern Roman Emperor when the last Emperor of the West was deposed. The Eastern Roman Empire had effectively become the Byzantine Empire, and a new era was coming into being.

Attila the Hun

As the Eastern Roman Empire was heading off into its Byzantine future, the West was struggling to cope with Attila. Brandishing Honoria’s letter,6 he gathered his warriors, crossed the Rhine, destroyed Divodurum Mediomatricum (modern Metz) and several other cities, and arrived at the Loire. He was held at bay at Aureliana Civitas, which gave Flavius Aetius a breathing space to garner the support of various Gauls and Aquitanian Visigoths, the latter brought onside by a Gallic noble called Avitus. Valentinian III’s decision to betroth his daughter Eudocia to the Vandal Gaiseric’s son Huneric, and Gaiseric’s mutilation of the Gothic leader Theoderic I’s daughter,7 might have made a Gothic alliance with Flavius Aetius an unlikely proposition, but when Gaiseric allied himself with Attila, Theoderic I took a pragmatic approach and linked up with the Romans, possibly as the lesser of two evils. Flavius Aetius was also joined by a Frankish faction, some Alani and several contingents of northern Gallic Bagaudae, who started to be called by the more respectable name of Aremoricani once they were on the Roman side. He may also have been able to deploy some of the former Rhine limitanei and maybe some remnants of the old British comitatenses.

Flavius Aetius’ multi-ethnic army forced Attila to back off, and finally engaged with him at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields (known to the ancient authorities as Campus Mauriacus), which modern scholarly consensus places midway between Troyes and Châlons-sur-Marne (see Map 8). Prosper of Aquitaine described the incalculable slaughter; Hydatius numbered the dead at 300 000; the Gallic Chronicle of 511 spoke of innumerable cadavers; Theoderic I was killed in action; but crucially Attila got the worse of things and retreated to Pannonia.

The victorious army was too badly weakened to give chase, however, and by the following year Attila was attacking Italy with fresh forces. Flavius Aetius was powerless to keep him out. Aquileia, Mediolanum and Ticinum all fell but, rather unexpectedly, Attila did not press on and sack Rome. Legend has it that Pope Leo I talked him out of it (he certainly asked him to withdraw, although he may have paid him off); another version says that the Huns thought that there was a curse on anyone who sacked Rome (look at Alaric, they said); or Attila’s forces may have been suffering from malaria or dysentery, which commonly affected armies in Italy at that time; or the Eastern Roman army may have attacked Attila’s trans-Danubian heartland. In any case, Attila headed back across the Danube, where, in 453, he met a slightly bizarre and unheroic end. Having indulged in some serious drinking after another marriage to a Gothic princess, he had a nosebleed that choked him while he was sleeping.

Attila had been the glue that held the whole Hunnic project together, and his unexpected death was an enormous bonus for Rome. The Germanic tribes began to gain the ascendancy over the Huns, and they smashed Attila’s heirs in a huge battle in Pannonia:

And so the bravest nations tore themselves to pieces. For then, I think, must have occurred a most remarkable spectacle, where one might see the Goths fighting with pikes, the Gepidae raging with the sword, the Rugi breaking off the spears in their own wounds, the Suevi fighting on foot, the Huns with bows, the Alani drawing up a battle line of heavy-armed and the Heruli of light-armed warriors.8

The Hunnic survivors asked to be allowed to enter the Eastern Roman Empire, and their request was granted. From here on we see the rise of the Ostrogoths. The nomenclature was first used by Claudian in 392, when they were connected with the Greuthungi, but now they became the dominant Germanic group in the Balkan area. The term Ostrogoths is now used to demarcate them from the Visigoths who were settled in Aquitaine, but in reality neither group actually used those designations, even though some Italian Goths used Ostrogotha as a personal name.

The Fall (or Transformation) of Rome in the West: 453 Onwards

Attila had probably been the greatest threat to the Western Empire since Hannibal in the third century BCE, but Rome’s man of the moment did not get to enjoy the fruits of victory for long. Rather like a latter-day Scipio Africanus, Flavius Aetius campaigned effectively in Spain, bringing parts of Carthaginiensis back under Roman rule, and using Frederic, the brother of the new Gothic king, Theoderic II, to subdue some Bagaudae in Tarraconensis. Yet just like Scipio Africanus, Flavius Aetius became entangled in political intrigues, although his end was more violent, hacked down by Valentinian III in person on 21 September 454.

The Greek tragedian Aeschylus often explored the themes of vengeance in his plays: ‘The one who acts must suffer,’ say the Chorus of two of his plays,9 and so it was now as things descended into a cycle of vendetta. Flavius Aetius’ officials were purged, but on 16 March 455 two of his bodyguards, possibly Huns but with the Gothic names of Optila and Thraustila, avenged their master’s death:

Valentinian rode in the Field of Ares [Campus Martius] with a few bodyguards and the followers of Optila and Thraustila. When he had dismounted from his horse and proceeded to archery, Optila and his friends attacked him. Optila struck Valentinian on his temple and when turned around to see the striker he dealt him a second blow on the face and felled him.10

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that there was another motive, and that Optila and Thraustila were put up to this by Petronius Maximus, a wealthy Senator whose wife had been raped by Valentinian III and may have committed suicide as a result. On the other hand, Petronius Maximus might simply have wanted the throne for himself, since he now bribed his way into power and cemented his position by marrying Valentinian III’s widow Licinia Eudoxia, whose elder daughter Eudocia was offered to his son Palladius. The problem with the latter arrangement was, of course, that Eudocia was already betrothed to Gaiseric’s son Huneric.

The great Anglo-Saxon scholar the Venerable Bede (673–735) later expressed his view that the Roman Empire came to an end with Valentinian III’s murder, but that does not seem to be the way that people at the time saw things. There were certainly plenty of problems, but there were also plenty of people who fought tooth and nail to keep the Roman Empire alive. In Spain, the Suevi broke their treaty and ravaged Gallaecia. Closer to home, Licinia Eudoxia emulated her sister-in-law Honoria’s tactics for escaping an unhappy marriage by appealing to Gaiseric. This in turn presented Gaiseric with the possibility of getting hold of Huneric’s fiancée Eudocia, so he set sail for Rome.

The arrival of the Vandal fleet off Ostia caused panic, in the midst of which Petronius Maximus was hacked down by some imperial slaves on 22 May 455. His dismembered body was thrown into the Tiber, and Gaiseric now perpetrated another sack of Rome. This one lasted for fourteen days and was far more destructive even than Alaric’s:

[Gaiseric] took everything from the palace, even the bronze statues. He even led away as captives surviving Senators, accompanied by their wives; along with them he also carried off to Carthage in Africa the empress Licinia Eudoxia, who had summoned him; her daughter [Galla] Placidia [the Younger], the wife of the patrician Olybrius, who then was staying at Constantinople; and even the maiden Eudocia. After he had returned, Gaiseric gave the younger Eudocia, a maiden, the daughter of the empress Eudoxia, to his son Huneric in marriage, and he held them both, the mother and the daughter, in great honour.11

Huneric’s marriage to Eudocia was crucial: she was the granddaughter of Theodosius II, and from Gaiseric’s perspective, any legitimate male offspring would be the heirs to the Western Roman Empire.

Once Gaiseric had returned to Africa and Rome had been well and truly vandalized (in both the literal and the figurative senses – this was how the Vandals got the reputation that their tribal name still perpetuates), the question remained: who would rule the West? An ambassador of Petronius Maximus’ called Avitus, who came from a Gallic senatorial family, was currently at the court of the Gothic king, Theoderic II. There he was declared Emperor. Backed by the Gallic nobility and the army of Theoderic II and his brother Frederic, Avitus entered Italy and took the throne. He sought recognition from Marcian in the East, but it is not clear whether this was forthcoming.

Marcian was not at the top of Avitus’ agenda, however. Gaiseric was. When diplomatic overtures proved unproductive, Majorian and Flavius Ricimer, the commanders of the Italian army, fought the Vandals in Sicily with some success. Majorian was a young man, perhaps of Egyptian descent, whose father had been a financial official under Flavius Aetius, while Ricimer was the grandson of Vallia, who had taken over from Athaulph as ruler of the Visigoths between 415 and 418. For his part, Avitus set his sights on Africa. The omens were good. On 1 January 456 the young poet Sidonius delivered the customary panegyric, and talked up the benefits that Avitus would bring to Rome:

He will restore Libya to you a fourth time in chains [. . .] it is easy to feel sure even now of what he can do by waging war, how he shall, time and again, bring nations under your yoke [. . .] Lo, this prince of riper years shall bring back youth to you whom child-princes have made old.12

Avitus paid his Visi gothic troops with money raised by selling bronze fittings stripped from public buildings to metalmerchants, and focused initially on Spain. There the Suevi under Rechiar were making attacks on Carthaginiensis and Tarraconensis and abducting large numbers of prisoners. So Avitus sent in the Visigoths:

Theodoric, king of the Goths, entered Spain with a massive army of his own, at the will and behest of the emperor Avitus.13

On 5 October 456, the Suevi were comprehensively defeated at the Battle of the River Urbicus. Rechiar fled; the Visigoths invaded Gallaecia and sacked Rechiar’s capital; and Rechiar was subsequently captured and killed. But all this fighting only created chaos throughout the Iberian Peninsula, primarily because Avitus had to deal with more pressing issues in Italy.

The Vandals always had the option of cutting off or restricting Italy’s grain supplies:

When Avitus was emperor of Rome there was famine at the same time. The mob put the blame on Avitus and compelled him to dismiss from the city of the Romans his allies who had entered with him from Gaul.14

With Italy denuded of Avitus’ troops, Ricimer and Majorian rebelled. Avitus faced them on the battlefield at Placentia on 17 October 456, but was defeated. His life was spared, and Bishop Eusebius of Mediolanum used an innovative method of deposing him: he made him into a Bishop. Avitus seems to have lived until 457, when he may have been ‘removed’ by Majorian.

The uncertainty in the West was compounded by the fact that the Eastern Emperor Marcian died shortly after Avitus. His successor Leo I appointed Majorian as Magister Utriusque Militiae in February 457; the Italian army proclaimed Majorian Emperor in April; and he seems to have received formal recognition in December.

Majorian managed to rule until 461. He was a genuinely talented Emperor, and he needed to be. He beat off an Alemannic attack on Raetia, a Vandal raid on Campania, and quelled rebellions in Gaul by the Burgundiones and by some supporters of Avitus in Narbo. A Gallic officer called Aegidius was influential in restoring the Gallic situation; while in 458 Majorian went to Gaul in person and handled the diplomatic settlement with some aplomb. So with Gaul reintegrated into the Empire, Majorian turned his attention to the extremely confused situation in Spain, where a Gothic army loyal to Avitus was on the rampage, various factions were fighting over what was left of the Suevic kingdom and Bagaudae were making their unwelcome presence felt. However, when Theoderic II moved into Gaul he ended up defeated by Majorian’s army, commanded by Aegidius, at Narbo, and he had come to terms before 459 was out.

Majorian clearly did not envisage the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. His successes had given him the opportunity to focus solely on the Vandals, and if he could secure a successful outcome against them he could then concentrate on re-establishing Roman government elsewhere. So he moved into Spain in May 460, appointed Nepotianus as Magister Militum alongside Theoderic II’s general Sunieric, gathered a fleet at Cartagena, redeployed his general Marcellinus from Dalmatia to Sicily, and spurned Gaiseric’s offer of a peace settlement. The Vandal then poisoned the wells in Mauretania – Majorian’s Africa corps would have to transit that region in order properly to get to grips with him – and hit back with a highly effective surprise attack on the Roman fleet at Cartagena. That put paid to Majorian’s plans, and he signed a treaty with Gaiseric under which he accepted ‘shameful’, but unspecified, terms. However, no Roman Emperor could afford that kind of setback, and no sooner had he set foot on Italian soil than he was apprehended by Ricimer and executed on 2 August 461.

A power vacuum ensued, at the end of which Ricimer played Emperor-maker and installed an Italian Senator called Libius Severus (sometimes called Severus III), who assumed power on 19 November 461. We know nothing about Libius Severus’ preimperial career, and he made little impact as Augustus. Spain drops off our historical radar, too, apart from some contemporary accounts of raiding by the Suevi in Gallaecia and Lusitania from the local Bishop Hydatius. Libius Severus’ problem seems to have been that hardly anyone accepted the legitimacy of his rule: Aegidius (who assumed the title King of the Franks), the Dalmatian warlord Marcellinus and Gaiseric all refused to acknowledge him. Indeed, Gaiseric had plans of his own: he now wanted Valentinian III’s daughter Galla Placidia the Younger’s husband Olybrius to take the purple (the marriage links would then mean that Gaiseric’s son Huneric would be the brother-in-law of the Emperor). Adopting an aggressive stance, he took Sardinia and Sicily, and no one could do anything to curtail his widespread seaborne raids, although Emperor Leo I at Constantinople did get him to agree to release Placidia and Eudoxia (for a large ransom).

Inside Libius Severus’ regime, Theoderic II was looking powerful. In practice he commanded the Roman troops in Spain, and the Emperor badly needed his services, particularly in light of the nagging problem posed by the disloyalty of the Gallic army on the Loire under Aegidius. So in exchange for military support, Libius Severus, gave Narbonne to Theoderic II in 462. The strategic implications of this were enormous, since any Roman army wanting access to Spain, or indeed to Africa via the Straits of Gibraltar, would now have to pass through Gothic territory first. Gundioc, the king of the Burgundiones, was named in Aegidius’ stead as Magister Militum in Gaul, and he may have married Ricimer’s sister. It was Aegidius who initially got the upper hand, though, and in 463 he defeated the Goths near Aureliana Civitas and killed Theoderic II’s brother Frederic. Aegidius then sought to hammer out a deal with Gaiseric, but this came to nothing when he was killed, either in an ambush or by poison. The Frank Childeric I now assumed the most powerful position north of the Loire, and together with a Comes Paulus of Civitas Andecavorum (modern Angers), who may have been an ex-officer of Aegidius, he fought Saxons coming from Britain, who were led by a certain Adovacrius (Eadwacer), often, though almost certainly incorrectly, identified with Odoacer, the future king of Italy.

After Libius Severus died on 15 August 465 there was a period of almost two years during which the Western throne was unoccupied. Ricimer and the Senate at Rome asked the Eastern Emperor Leo I to step in, and he installed Procopius Anthemius as Caesar. This eminent aristocrat had family links to both the Constantinian and Theodosian dynasties (he was Marcian’s son-in-law), and a fine military track record in the Balkans to boot. He arrived in Rome in 467 at the head of an army of Eastern troops and backed by a fleet commanded by Marcellinus. Any potential opposition from Ricimer was defused when Procopius Anthemius offered him his daughter Alypia in marriage, and the Caesar was duly elevated to Augustus on 14 April 467. With this competent man on its throne, fully endorsed by Constantinople and allied to the Emperor-maker Ricimer, the West could face the future with a modicum of optimism.

As usual, the Vandals were public enemy number one. Procopius Anthemius’ offensive options were a seaborne assault into their territory from the north, a land-based attack from Libya, which was still part of Rome’s Eastern Empire, or some combination of the two. He opted to make use of his Eastern connections, and a plan was formulated whose ambition was matched by its vast expense: 64 000 pounds of gold and 700 000 of silver. But the cost-benefit analysis made it a gamble worth taking, and in 468 a mighty armada of 1 100 ships was assembled to transport a formidable army to Africa under the command of Leo I’s brother-in-law Basiliscus, while a land army under Heraclius, who was probably the Eastern Comes Rei Militaris, was to march simultaneously into Vandal territory. Marcellinus was to complete the offensive by invading Sardinia with a Western fleet.

All three prongs of the attack had initial success: Heraclius drove the Vandals out of the province of Tripolitania; Marcellinus captured Sardinia, and followed this up by driving the Vandals out of Sicily; and Basiliscus defeated one of Gaiseric’s naval squadrons close to the island. Unfortunately for the Romans, rather than driving home his advantage, Basiliscus allowed Gaiseric to negotiate a five-day truce. The Vandal exploited this to assemble a fleet that included fireships, and when he unleashed them against Basiliscus’ fleet, they caused pandemonium. Gaiseric’s conventional vessels drove home the advantage, and the outcome was catastrophic for the Romans, with Sardinia and Sicily going back under Vandal control, and Marcellinus being assassinated. Ricimer could well have orchestrated Marcellinus’ murder as he sought to eradicate any Eastern-backed rivals from Italy, but the main man fitting that description was still Procopius Anthemius, who, rather surprisingly, emerged relatively unscathed from the expedition’s failure.

Procopius Anthemius had other interrelated worries aside from the Vandals, namely Gaul and Ricimer. The relationship with Ricimer became particularly awkward when a character called Romanus had tried to poison Procopius Anthemius but been thwarted and then executed for sorcery. The problem was that Romanus had been a friend of Ricimer’s, and a stand-off then ensued in which Ricimer installed himself at Mediolanum with 6 000 men, and Anthemius, backed by the SPQR, based himself at Rome. For the time being, however, the two just conducted a rather crass war of words: Procopius Anthemius told Ricimer that he wished his daughter hadn’t married a ‘skinclad barbarian’; Ricimer dismissed the Emperor as a Galatian or a ‘Little Greek’ (Graeculus). Bishop (later Saint) Epiphanius of Pavia tried to mediate.

Meanwhile in Gaul, Theoderic II had been killed by his brother Euric just after Procopius Anthemius’ accession. Euric’s relations with the new Emperor seem to have been amicable enough to include possibly playing a role in the ill-fated anti-Vandal offensive, but things turned sour when Arvandus, the Praefectus Praetorio of Gaul from 464 to 469, was accused of treason. The allegation was that he had incited Euric to rebel against Procopius Anthemius and was planning to take over Gaul in concert with the Burgundiones, although the reason he had contacted Euric was partly because, for reasons that remain obscure, a substantial army of hostile Britons had turned up on the Loire commanded by a man named Riothamus. The plot was betrayed when an incriminating letter from Arvandus to Euric was intercepted:

This seemed to be a document sent to the king of the Goths [Euric], urging him not to make peace with the Greek Emperor [Leo I], demonstrating that he ought to launch an attack on the Britanni north of the Loire, stating firmly that the Gallic provinces should be divided with the Burgundiones according to the law of the nations, and very many other mad things in the same manner, such as might rouse an aggressive king to fury, a pacific one to shame.15

At the same time there seems to have been a deterioration in the détente between the Goths and the imperial court, and worries that their position was under threat may have underpinned Euric’s decision to rebel.

Arvandus was lucky to suffer exile rather than death, while Procopius Anthemius sent his son Anthemiolus over the Alps to confront Euric in a military operation that could have been designed to link up with Riothamus’ Britons. Anthemiolus was also prepared to negotiate, but his overtures were not sufficiently attractive to Euric, who opted for war, even though it meant fighting on two fronts. His confidence was justified, though, since Anthemiolus was defeated and killed, Riothamus’ army was crushed, the defeated British survivors sought refuge among the Burgundiones, and Euric’s troops took Avaricum (modern Bourges).

Euric’s success was good news for Ricimer, who now laid siege to his ‘Little Greek’ foe in Rome. But Procopius Anthemius was not a soft touch. When he had held out for four months, Ricimer proclaimed Olybrius Augustus of the West, which may have been a sop to Gaiseric, given Olybrius’ position as Huneric’s brother-in-law. We also hear that around this time an Ostrogothic leader called Videmer invaded Italy. Whose side he was on is not clear, but he died before he could influence events in any significant way. In the end, however, persistent siege operations forced Rome to capitulate. Procopius Anthemius’ escape attempt involved dressing up as a beggar outside the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, but it failed, and he was captured and beheaded by Ricimer’s nephew, the Burgundian prince Gundobad, on 11 July 472.

Ricimer’s triumph might have been sweet, but it was short. Just over a month after Procopius Anthemius’ death he died coughing up blood. Olybrius expired soon afterwards, also from natural causes, and an interregnum followed that lasted until March 473, when Gundobad took on Ricimer’s Emperor-maker role and appointed Glycerius, the Comes Domesticorum, as Emperor in the West. Glycerius perhaps appointed Videmer’s son, also called Videmer, as Magister Militum in Gaul, but if he did the outcome was totally unsatisfactory, since somehow or other his men ended up as part of Euric’s army. This was a damaging failure, especially since Glycerius’ appointment had never been acceptable to Leo I in the East, who sent his preferred nominee, Julius Nepos, to replace him.16 By the time Julius Nepos and his army landed in Italy, Zeno had replaced Leo I as the incumbent in Constantinople, but Julius Nepos carried out his mission anyway. Glycerius capitulated meekly and Gundobad decided there was no point in backing a loser, and went off to secure his position as King of the Burgundiones, who in due course came back into the imperial fold.

Zeno’s handling of relations with the Vandals took the heat off Julius Nepos somewhat, especially when the new Eastern Emperor signed a treaty that allowed Gaiseric to keep possession of all of his territorial acquisitions in return for ending the persecution of Catholics and releasing Roman prisoners. This agreement concluded what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Fourth Punic War’, even if equating the Vandals with the third- and second-century BCE Carthaginians is stretching historical veracity a little.

The removal of the Vandal menace allowed Julius Nepos a little breathing space, but the pressures on him and his dominions were simply too great. When Euric’s Goths overran Provence it took the Burgundiones, three Gallic bishops and the concession of Clermont to get them to withdraw. Julius Nepos did attempt to exert some degree of control over Gaul, and with this in mind he gave the command to Orestes, a Pannonian officer who had served at Attila’s court. Unfortunately for Julius Nepos, Orestes, with the Italian army in tow, rebelled against him in August 475. Julius Nepos fled to Dalmatia where, in 480, he was murdered, doubtless in an act of revenge, at the instigation of Glycerius, who was now the Bishop of Salona.

The Last Western Emperor

Orestes installed his own son Romulus Augustulus (‘Little Augustus’) as what would turn out to be the last ruler of Rome’s Empire in the West. For what it was worth, that Empire now only comprised Italy and southern Provence, and Romulus Augustulus was not recognized by Zeno in Constantinople anyway. Yet even this tiny realm proved too difficult to administer. Orestes lost the loyalty of his troops, who instigated a mutiny under their German commander Odoacer in August 476. Orestes was killed at Placentia, but Romulus Augustulus was not even worth putting to death. He was placed under house arrest, given a living allowance, and may have established a monastery in Campania with his mother. Odoacer assumed control, but the Western Empire didn’t need an Emperor any more, and when Zeno refused to legitimize him on the technicality that Julius Nepos still reigned in Dalmatia (which he did until he was assassinated in 480), simply took the title of Rex (King) instead, and governed from Ravenna, not Rome.

There is considerable irony in the fact that her last Emperor carried the names of Rome’s first king, Romulus, and her first Emperor Augustus, albeit in the diminutive. But the irony extends further. Although the Western Roman Empire became transformed into medieval Europe, the Eastern Empire lived on in the form of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire, still based in Constantinople, until the city fell to the Ottoman Turks under Mehmet II the Conqueror in 1453. In 1462 Mehmet II visited what he thought was the site of Troy, now under his sway, and his reaction was fascinating:

Allah has stored up for me [. . .] the right to avenge this city and its people. I have subdued their enemies, pillaged their cities and made them the ‘spoils of the Mysians.’ For it was the Greeks [. . .] who ravaged this city in the past, and whose descendants [i.e., the Byzantines] have now, after so many years, paid me the penalty for their hubris against the peoples of Asia.17

By sacking Constantinople, Mehmet II was claiming to have avenged the sack of Troy by the Greeks, and therefore, because the Romans traced their lineage back to the Trojans, he might be said to have done so on Rome’s behalf. Yet for all the scholarly dispute about whether Rome ‘fell’ or was ‘transformed’, there is perhaps a third option. In the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid, Jupiter had prophesied the future of the Roman race:

For the empire of these people I impose neither limits of space nor time: I have given them power without end.18

Odoacer’s barbarian-style coronation in 476 might seem to belie that prophetic vision, yet, as T. S. Eliot very pertinently wrote,

We are all, so far as we inherit the civilization of Europe, still citizens of the Roman Empire, and time has not yet proved Virgil wrong.19

Culturally Rome never fell; her history is our present; and all roads lead from, rather than to, Rome. In the Eternal City Goethe mused that

Everywhere else one starts from the outside and works inward; here it seems to be the other way round. All history is encamped about us and all history sets forth from us. This does not apply only to the history of Rome, but to the history of the whole world.20

And today the people who still admire the awe-inspiring relics scattered all over Rome’s former dominions are not so much looking at the ruins of a great civilization, but at the foundations of another.

1   See above, p. 395.

2   See Kelly, J. N. D., Early Christian Doctrines, 5th edn., London: Continuum, 1977, p. 340.

3   Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Ceremoniis 1.91.

4   See below, p. 419f.

5   See below, p. 420.

6   See above, p. 402.

7   See above, p. 401.

8   Jordanes, Getica 50.261, tr. Mierow, C. C., The Gothic History of Jordanes, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1915.

9   Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1564; Libation Bearers 313. See Kershaw, S., op. cit., 2010, pp. 166 ff.

10   John of Antioch fr. 201.4–5, tr. Gordon, C. D., in The Age of Attila: Fifth-Century Byzantium and the Barbarians, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960, pp. 52–53.

11   Malchus, Chron. 366, tr. Blockley, R. C., op. cit.

12   Carmina 7.587–598, tr. Anderson, W. B., Sidonius; with an English translation, introduction and notes by W. B. Anderson, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936.

13   Hydatius, Chronicle 173, tr. Kershaw, S.

14   John of Antioch fr. 202: tr. Gordon, C. D., op. cit., p.116.

15   Sidonius, Epistulae 1.7.5, tr. in Mitchell, S., op. cit., p. 176.

16   See, p. 407.

17   Critoboulus of Imbros, 4.11.5, tr. Kershaw, S. ‘Spoils of the Mysians’ is a proverbial phrase meaning ‘a prey to everybody.’

18   Virgil, Aeneid 1. 278 f., tr. Kershaw, S.

19   Eliot, T. S.,‘Virgil and the Christian World’, in On Poetry and Poets, London: Faber & Faber, 1959, p. 13.

20   Goethe, J. W., Italienische Reise, 1816–17, tr. Auden, W. H. and Meyer, E. in The Italian Journey, London: Collins, 1962, p. 137.

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