Discover Fifth-century Politics II: The West from 423 to 500ish

Today’s post will include THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE

Fall_of_roman_empire_(1964)Picking up the narrative where we left it last time, at the death of Honorius. 423 was somewhat disastrous, with a usurper named John taking the throne, only to be deposed by an eastern army sent by Theodosius II to elevate Valentinian III, nephew of Honorius and son of Constantius III, to the purple. Valentinian was another boy emperor, and the leading figure at the start of his reign was his mother, Galla Placidia. Later, power would be negotiated by generals, as it had been under Honorius’ reign. What the empire needed to recover and survive was strong leadership, and western child emperors failed to provide this. (Gross generalisation — hopefully the rest of these posts make that clear!)

Spain, for example, was never really reintegrated into the Roman Empire. The final barbarian group sent in to clear out Rome’s enemies was the group called the Visigoths. They established themselves in Spain and southern Gaul and eventually became one of the successor states when there was no empire anymore in the late 400s. In 468, one Spanish bishop named Hydatius had this to say in his Chronicle:

having been undeservedly elected to the office of bishop and not unknowing of all the calamites of this wretched age, I have subjoined <an account of> the frontiers of the narrowly-confined Roman Empire that are doomed to perish, and, what is more lamentable, <an account of events> within Gallaecia at the edge of the entire world: the state of ecclesiastical succession perverted by indiscriminate appointments, the demise of honourable freedom, and the downfall of virtually all religion based on divine instruction, all as a result of the domination of heretics confounded with the disruption of hostile <barbarian> tribes. Such then are the contents of the present volume, but I have left it to my successors <to include an account of> the Last Days, at that time at which they encounter them. (Intro. 6, ll. 50-57, trans. Burgess, p. 75)

In ch. 38: The barbarians who had entered Spain pillaged it with a vicious slaughter.

Meanwhile, in the 420s, having been driven out of Spain by clever military action, the Vandals under King Gaiseric moved on to North Africa, which they took piece by piece, despite negotiating treaties with Roman generals along the way. By 439, they had taken Carthage, and all of North Africa was a Vandal kingdom to last until Justinian’s invasion 100 years later. They were in a strong enough position not only to engage in piratical activity in Spain, but also to take Sardinia, and, in 455, to follow the Gothic lead in sacking Rome, which they pillaged mercilessly and took off Valentinian III’s widow and daughter in the booty. Hence vandalism.

Gaul, modern France, was also disappearing—southern Gaul was under effective control of the Visigoths, despite any formal arrangements as yet. Burgundians had been settled on the Rhine with Worms as their capital. Northern Gaul, such as Brittany, had basically risen up in insurrection against the faraway and powerless empire and was being ruled by its own aristocracy. Elsewhere in northern Gaul, the Franks had moved in—mind you, they claimed to be ruling with Roman titles, something most barbarians did. Roman power was failing all over the West, but everyone kept claiming to have power sent from on high. And the generals were too busy fighting each other to keep any invaders out with armies that were too small, despite their enormous paper strength.

Up to 455, the General Aetius was the leading power behind the throne. A Roman, he had spent time as a hostage among both Vandals and Huns, and used his contacts amongst these groups to the Empire’s advantage by allying them to Rome. However, his actions were as short-sighted as everyone else’s; if Aetius wasn’t busy fighting off Huns, Goths, or Vandals, he was engaged in civil war against other generals.

Leo and Attila by Raphael

Leo and Attila by Raphael

In 450, Attila invaded the Western Empire after a long career in the East where he had wrought devastation and extracted money. In 451, Aetius defeated Attila in what has been called one of the most significant battles in ancient history, in Gaul at the Catalaunian Plains. However, since Aetius spent as much time fighting civil wars as Huns, Rome was never able to exploit any measure of stability he may have gained for the empire in 451. Attila and his Huns proceeded to pillage northern Italy taking notably Milan and Aquileia, ppl moved to Venice (legend), until an envoy including Pope Leo the Great convinced them to turn back in 452, an event immortalised by Raphael and commemorated on Pope Leo’s tomb:

IMG_2367It is likely that Attila and his army needed to regroup and were weakened by sickness. Attila died shortly thereafter in 453, and the Huns were no longer a great power. However, in 455, Valentinian III became afraid that Aetius would make a bid for power, so assassinated him with his own hand. Soon, Aetius’ men assassinated Valentinian.

The short-lived emperors come next. The next emperor was Petronius Maximus, from one of the leading aristocratic families of Rome. He lasted two and a half months before being killed in the Vandal sack. Then a Gallo-Roman aristocrat, Avitus, was emperor. His policies were a bit more wide-reaching, trying to reincorporate the Gallic aristocracy into the political life of Italy and making good terms with the Visigothic King Theoderic, but his actions only served to infuriate the short-sighted Italian aristocrats, so our next barbarian generalissimo, Ricimer, went to battle against him and deposed him.

Ricimer set up Majorian in 457, a potentially helpful emperor who tried to dislodge the Vandals from Africa. Eventually, Majorian tired of Ricimer’s control. So, in 461, Ricimer raised Severus to the purple. Emperor Leo I in the East refused to recognise Severus. Severus died in 465, possibly poisoned by Ricimer. Ricimer ruled without an emperor for 18 months before Leo appointed Anthemius in 467. Anthemius may have stood a chance had he been emperor decades earlier. However, things had been spiralling downward for too long; although he headed a combined East-West force against the Vandals in Africa, when he made an ill-advised five-day truce with the Vandals, they built a fireship and subsequently destroyed the large East-West coalition fleet. Anthemius’ ultimate failure was secured. Three more nonentities followed Anthemius, the last Romulus Augustulus. The final generalissimo was Odoacer who decided that he had no need of a puppet emperor and deposed Romulus, who went to live in a monastery. The insignia were sent East, and Odoacer was formally ruling Italy under the Eastern Roman Emperor’s authority.

Now, there was still, however, a western emperor kicking around in Dalmatia, one Julius Nepos, still officially recognised by his Eastern colleague. In 480, he was murdered, possibly due to Odoacer’s connivance.

Eight years later, in 488, Theoderic ‘the Great’ was commissioned by the Eastern Emperor Zeno to do battle with Odoacer and take Odoacer’s place as patrician and ruler of Italy. Theoderic had been making a small amount of trouble in the East until then, but also making himself useful. Zeno thus made him useful and got him out of his direct territory. Theoderic defeated Odoacer after a three-year struggle. He was master of Italy.

It has recently been argued that at this period and up to the accession of Justin I in 519, Theoderic viewed himself as a new Western Roman Emperor. He certainly acted like it, visible in the Anonymus Valesianus. But most of his story in Italy belongs to the sixth century, not the fifth.

In southern Gaul and Spain, the Visigoths were busy forging a kingdom in these decades. In northern Gaul, the Franks were consolidating their power. They would eventually rule all of Gaul in the 500s; as a kingdom, the Franks are first united under Clovis in 511. Various things are shadowily transpiring in Britain — we get nary a glimpse, but amidst the swirl of later legends and teleological readings of archaeology, we can see that Germanic persons are slowly gaining a foothold in the 400s, and that perhaps this century, perhaps the next, battles between them and the Romano-British leaders would lead to Arthurian tales.

Breathlessly, then, the West reaches 500.

****

Much in these two posts comes from Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West: 376-568. See also his Worlds of Arthur (my review here). The rest comes from my mind or notes from a lecture I delivered, and I cannot at present recall all of my sources!

Advertisements

One thought on “Discover Fifth-century Politics II: The West from 423 to 500ish

  1. Pingback: Discover Late Antiquity: Fifth-century Politics in the Eastern Empire | The Wordhoard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s