Raphael: Pope Leo bargaining with Attila

Theodosius I [AD 379 – 395] had been the last Roman Emperor to rule over both the western and eastern parts of the Empire. His sole daughter, Galla Placidia – a younger, paternal half-sister of emperors Arcadius and Honorius – we have met earlier as the wife of Athaulf, brother-in-law to Alaric, King of the Visigoths, and his eventual successor. When Honorius required the services of the magister militum Constantius III to put down a nasty revolt undertaken by co-emperor Constantine III, who had raised his standard in Britain AD 407, he gave him his widowed sister [ † Athaulf AD 415] as wife in the bargain, who proceeded to give birth to Valentinian III in AD 419, (Latin: Flavius Placidius Valentinianus Augustus; 2 July 419 – 16 March 455) who was Western Roman Emperor from 425 to 455 and one of the chief engineers of the Imperial collapse.

Mausoleum of Gallia Placidia in Ravenna

At that time, the “men” behind Emperor Valentinian III, who was six years of age in the year of his installation, AD 425, were his mother Placidia and the generals Aetius and Boniface. These two officers might have been able to protect the West had they cooperated; as they intrigued against each other, they largely failed, with one glorious exception, to keep the sinking ship afloat. As Edward Gibbon delineates, the designs of Aetius precipitated at length the losses of Spain and Africa:

The abilities of Aetius and Boniface might have been usefully employed against the public enemies, in separate and important commands. … But Aetius possessed an advantage of singular moment in a female reign; he was present; he besieged, with artful and assiduous flattery, the palace of Ravenna; disguised his dark designs with the mask of loyalty and friendship; and at length deceived both his mistress and his absent rival by a subtle conspiracy which a weak woman and a brave man could not easily suspect.
He had secretly persuaded Placidia to recall Boniface from the government of Africa; he secretly advised
Boniface to disobey the Imperial summons: to the one he represented the order as a sentence of death; to the other he stated the refusal as a sign of revolt; and when the credulous and unsuspectful count [Boniface, ¶] had armed the province [Spain] in his defence, Aetius applauded his sagacity in foreseeing the rebellion which his own perfidy had exited [AD 427].
A temperate inquiry into the real motives of Boniface would have restored a faithful servant to his duty and to the republic; but the arts of Aetius still continued to betray and to inflame, and the count was urged by persecution to embrace the most desperate counsels. The success with which he eluded or repelled the first attacks could not inspire a vain confidence that at the head of some loose, disorderly Africans he should be able to withstand the regular forces of the West, commanded by a rival whose military character was impossible for him to despise. After some hesitation, the
last struggles of prudence and loyalty, Boniface despatched a trusty friend to the court, or rather to the camp, of Gonderic, king of the Vandals, with the proposal of a strict alliance and the offer of an advantageous and perpetual settlement. (23)

the little drummer boy, p. 80

Boniface played a Spanish Gambit, so to say, based upon the momentary situation in Spain. The north-eastern parts of the land were controlled by the Visigoths; technically in the name of Honorius respectively Valentinian III, but as a matter of fact, control over the important parts lay in the hands of Athaulf’s successors. The north-western parts of the Iberian Chersonnese, however, known as Gallicia, had been the stage of a protracted tug-of-war between the two German tribes of the Suebi and the Vandals, who for an ancient feud were perpetual enemies.
The Vandals had only recently defeated a large band of Suebi when Boniface’s solicitation arrived. The missive invited them to turn their desires of settlement on the far richer provinces of Africa, which Boniface offered to share. There were, as he explained, no further Roman forces to be concerned with than the two legions routinely stationed in Numidia, which, however, were of low quality, and whose marginally better cohorts were in the process to be redeployed to Germania.

The Migrations of the Vandals

The offer seemed to promise the Vandals [FN1] a chance for permanent settlement, and a fortuitous occasion improved the chances of its acceptance: King Gonderic had had the decency to expire at the proper moment and had been succeeded by his half-brother Genseric [r.AD 428-477, ¶], who, with Alaric and Attila, was to become the third member of the barbarian troika which scourged the Empire in the fifth century AD. The native Celtiberians felt so elated by the Vandals’ intention to leave their soil that they assisted the Germans, who were not a seafaring nation, in the construction of the vessels necessary to get across the Pillars of Hercules, as Gibraltar and its opposite African promontory were called at that time.

[FN1] The bad reputation of the Vandals results from the entirety of their history having been written by their enemies. The Vandals were Arians, thus, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, heretics. But other Germanic tribes that were Arians, like the Goths, did not attempt to convert Catholics to Arianism, but the Vandals did. Chris Wickham observed: “Only the Vandals assumed that their version of Christianity should be the universal one, and that others should be uprooted, as the Romans themselves did: hence also the negative tone of contemporary accounts, which are all written by Catholics.” (25)

The size of the journeying multitude was augmented by the Alani, who had been faithful companions of the Vandals on the long trek from the eastern bank of the Danube to the Atlantic Ocean. Apparently onmipresent, a band of
Goths joined as well. Yet the number of travellers, which is usually given at about 50,000 warriors plus families and slaves, seems lower than it could reasonably be expected from the gathering of two complete tribes plus some Goths. Apparently, more than a few Vandals and Alans liked what they had found in Spain and detested further adventures.

The journey succeeded, and two lucky circumstances soon increased the number of Genseric’s followers in Africa. The indigenous and indigent inhabitants of Mauritania and Numidia had never been assigned a different role by the Romans than that of a feeder race for the slave markets, but when the Moors carefully approached the recent invaders, they could see at first glance that the new arrivées were different from their former oppressors. It took little diplomacy to convince the Moors that the enemy of their enemies was their friend, and “a crowd of naked savages rushed from the
woods and valleys of Mount Atlas to satiate their revenge on the polished tyrants who had injuriously expelled them from the native sovereignty of the land.” (24)
The second beneficial opportunity Genseric was able to exploit was the support of the Donatists, a Christian congregation that had settled in Africa Provincia just after AD 300. They found themselves objecting to the authority of the local metropolitan, Bishop Caecilian of Carthage, whom they labelled improperly consecrated, and after Emperor Constantine judged in favour of Caecilian, a schism occurred, for the Donatists did not give in. (26) Enmity ruled the next century until, after a formal debate in Carthage AD 411, the Catholic Church demanded their persecution, and seventeen years before the Vandals’ arrival, Emperor Honorius authorized the extinction of Donatism and supported the orthodox belief with the strongest of incentives. Edward Gibbon could barely hide his disgust:

The Vandal Kingdom at its greatest extent …

Three hundred bishops, with many thousands of the inferior clergy, were torn from their churches, stripped of their ecclesiastical possessions, banished to the islands, and proscribed by the laws if they presumed to conceal themselves in the provinces of Africa. Their numerous congregations, both in cities and in the country, were deprived of the rights of citizens and of the exercise of religious worship. …
By these severities, which obtained the warmest approbation of St. Augustine, great numbers of the
Donatists were reconciled to the Catholic Church, but the fanatics who still persevered in their opposition
were provoked to madness and despair; the distracted country was filled with tumult and bloodshed; the armed troops of “Circumcellions” alternately pointed their rage against themselves or against their adversaries; and the calendar of martyrs received on both sides a considerable augmentation.
Under these circumstances, Genseric, a Christian but an enemy of the Orthodox communion [being an Arian,
¶), showed himself to the Donatists as a powerful deliverer, from whom they might reasonably expect the repeal of the odious and oppressive edicts of the Roman emperors. The conquest of Africa was facilitated by the active zeal, or the secret favour, of a domestic faction; the wanton outrages against the churches and the clergy of which the Vandals are accused may be fairly imputed to the fanaticism of their allies; and the intolerable spirit which disgraced the triumph of Christianity contributed to the loss of the most important province of the West. (27)


The news of Genseric’s invasion and its success astonished the Emperor, the Senate, the bishop and the people of Rome. The opinion was pronounced by a number of Count Boniface’s supporters that it was hard to believe that a tried and trusted servant of the realm had indeed handled the pearl of the Empire to the uncouth chieftain of a barbarian mob and left the province he was supposed to protect to the doubtful benefactions of vengeful heretics or the savage tribes of the desert. An embassy was dispatched to Carthage post-haste, to investigate and report.

In Ravenna, meanwhile, the correspondence between Boniface, Aetius and Placidia was inspected, compared, and Aetius’ deception easily discovered: but the hastily enacted new resolutions turned out to change too little, and too late, to prevent the loss or to enable the recapture of the key province. Boniface was hastily reinstated to the graces of the court and the command of the African legions: he was able to hold, for a while, the important cities of Carthage, Cirta and Hippo Regius, but the vast domain of Africa and her fertile pastures were lost. Worse, perhaps, it also made the Vandals perpetual enemies of the Empire, as it happened with the Visigoths twenty years later, and Chris Wickham points out that “the conquest of the grain heartland of Africa by the Vandals in 439, which the Romans mistakenly did not anticipate and resist, seems to be the turning point, the moment after which these potential [Germanic] supports might turn into dangers.” (28)

But for the moment, Boniface, who had returned from Hippo Regius to Ravenna, faced civil war when Aetius led a force of German mercenaries from Gaul into the field in Gallia Cisalpina in an effort to overthrow him. Aetius lost the ensuing battle which, however, claimed Boniface’s life and left the Empire vulnerable. But in the following years, it was Aetius who showed the military knack that perhaps saved Italy from both Huns and Goths, by playing them against each other.
In AD 451, the principal Hunnish invasion of Gaul by the united tribes under Attila commenced. It would appear that Attila had received an embassy from Genseric just earlier, which described the mutual benefits that could be achieved by a strategic coordination against the Empire: if, say, the Huns were to invade the north-east while the Vandals attacked Sicily, and then Italy proper, the Empire, its protector Boniface dead, would be caught in a vise. [FN2] Attila may have pondered a similar scenario and his cavalry was in place at the eastern border at the right time: within days of the signal to attack the East was overwhelmed by his rapacious hordes and Theodosius II, successor of Arcadius and last of his line, had to accept a harsh peace treaty which made him, the Augustus of the East, a subaltern of the King of the Huns, and the debtor of an annual payment of twelve thousand pieces of gold.

[FN2] Chris Wickham explains the military and geostrategic factors that much differentiated the fate of the two parts of the Empire as follows: “It probably did derive in part from the greater exposure of heartland areas in the West, Italy and especially central and southern Gaul, to frontier invasion; attacks on the Balkans in the East rarely got past Constantinople into the rest of the empire, but attacks on the western military regions, northern Gaul and the Danube provinces, could get further much more easily. Accepting invading groups into the western empire and settling them as federates was a perfectly sensible response to this, as long as those federate areas did not become so unruly that Roman armies had to be held back to fight them, or so large that they threatened the tax base of the empire, and thus the resources for the regular armies themselves. Unfortunately for the West, however, this did happen.” (29)

Hunnish possessions around AD 450

He was not more of a military man than his uncles Honorius and Arcadius had been, and for all practical purposes, the state of the realm was only improved when his horse, on the Lycus River, threw off its rider who broke his spine and promptly expired. His sister Pulcheria was proclaimed Empress of the East by the courtiers, officers and plebs, and, aware of the sensible position a female reign might be exposed to in the time of war, she married, only a few days later, the senator Mercian, who, at the festive occasion, was invested with the Imperial title, purple and regalia.
The former senator was of solemn nature and an experienced administrator but unused and hostile to the arts of flattery and duplicity which are second nature to courtiers in the palaces of the East, then and now. He dared to send a
reply more independent than servile in nature to the envoys of the King of the Huns, who arrived in Constantinople to demand the delivery of the annual tribute [AD 450]. Yet as much as Attila was enraged by the rebuke, his recent designs had centred on the West, on Gaul and Italy, and the attention of civilization soon centred on Aetius, who seemed to vacillate between being the hope or the dread of the Empire.

After Boniface’s death, Aetius had undertaken a trip to Attila, to borrow a horde of Hunnish cavalry for aiding him to return to Rome with impunity, and “he solicited his pardon at the head of sixty thousand barbarians.” (30) Aetius was also promoted to generalissimo of the Western Empire: it speaks for his caution that he allowed Valentinian to wear the purple and his mother Placidia to sign the documents he supplied. But at AD 450, the balance of powers in the west had changed to the detriment of the Romans: most of Spain now belonged to the Suebi, the rest to the Visigoths, who also filled the south of Gaul. The northern and central parts of the region were held by the Franks, and Africa, alas, had been lost to the Vandals.
Notwithstanding his volatile loyalties, Aetius was well aware that a Hunnish conquest of Gaul and Italy would result in the collapse of the West: the Huns, being nomads, did not know any forms of positive laws or continuous government but the license of their chieftains, whose tyranny, caprice and ignorance could not support the complicated economical interdependencies of the Mediterranean nations nor sustain the regularities of commerce. That a decision, at length, had to be sought with military means became a foregone conclusion for both Huns and Romans, and both sides began to court Gothic mercenaries.

Attila was able to exploit yet another occasion of internal strife among the dukes of the Franks as a pretext for the invasion of Gaul he launched in AD 451, where he was met in the field by his former ally Aetius. The new commander-general of the West had collected a conglomerate of regular legions, mercenaries, and Gaul and German volunteers who had settled in Gallia and were esteemed to fight for their possessions with zeal perhaps superior to that of a common mercenary. In addition to this motivational advantage, Aetius was intimately familiar with Hunnish cavalry tactics and hence able to prepare his troops on what to expect. The typical moments of surprise and confusion, which accompanied Hunnish attacks and often resulted in their breaking the enemy’s lines, failed to materialize at the Battle of Chalons [AD 451]. Aetius’ troops were able to maintain their cohesion and inflicted on the Huns the first defeat they suffered in generations.
The loss at Chalons confused but did not diminish the Huns’ lust for conquest, or, rather, pillage and plunder, for notwithstanding their many military victories, the thought of becoming a settled people never entered their heads. In the spring of the following year, a substantial Hunnish army was discovered marching into lower Italy, but the Gauls and Germans who had defended their possessions in Gallia Provincia had no interest to spill their blood in the preservation of their titular Roman overlords, and no aid against Attila issued from Gaul.

Invasion of the Barbarians or The Huns approaching Rome

The Huns’ eventual appearance in the Po valley, hardly threescore leagues from Ravenna [AD 452], finally alerted the Imperial person. Valentinian’s life would have been safe in the fortress, but his timidity found expression in an urgent embassy to Rome, where he hoped to confiscate sufficiently luxurious and expensive items as might be suitable to deflect Attila’s attention from the conquest of the Italian heartland. In the old capital, he collected not only such valuable things as the owners would freely contribute to the Imperial cause, but resorted to expropriation as well, in the alleviation of his own generosity.
The senator Avienus was chosen, with his colleague Trigetus and Leo, bishop of Rome, to undertake an expedition to the King of the Huns, who reposed at the famous Lago di Garda, the Garda Lake in the Southern Alps, only a few miles west of Verona, the town made immortal by Dietrich von Bern and Romeo and Julia. The deputation was not only carrying goods of secular value: with a huge dowry, a painting of the princess Honoria was delivered, whose hand was promised to the King of the Huns for his moderation. While those financial and amorous offerings may have belonged to diplomacy as usual, it was the keen mind of Leo who had thought of a different approach.

Huns plundering a Roman Villa

The respect that the Huns extended to matters of superstition and divination was well known in the Empire, and Leo recognized their potential usefulness: he guided the attention of the king and his nobles to the recognition of the horrible fates that destiny had imposed on the enemies of the eternal city.
Romulus’s bane lay over the town, the priest explained: no conqueror would live to reign over her but for a year. King Brennus, Leo pointed out, after seizing Rome in 387 BC, had died soon later [nobody had an idea when], and had not Alaric himself, the great king of the Visigoths, failed to survive the end of the year that saw his entry into Rome? Hannibal, Leo further elucidated, the greatest general Rome ever faced, had never even tried to actually take the city, well aware of the curse. Even Gaius Marius had not survived his own conquest of the city in the civil war more than a few weeks; if history punished Rome’s own sons so harshly, what could a stranger expect?

The priest’s arguments were well-chosen, but there was an additional factor which mitigated the Huns’ resolves to destroy the Empire; the fact that the barbarians had begun to cherish the temptations of civilization. The rough sons of the steppe, whose diet had been, for centuries, raw flesh and, perhaps, some fermented goat’s milk, were introduced to the Imperial Roman cuisine; to the taste of condiments and spices; the tender meat of suckling pigs and calves; the multitudes of vegetables and the sweet sensation of honey: they could not resist.
Their tents did not favourably compare to Roman buildings, whose heated floors and concrete foundations were able to withstand the winter’s frost or the whims of floods. But it was wine in particular that tended to undermine their earlier resolves and replaced thoughts of the ravages of war with the contemplation of a sunset drink with friends on the terrace of a villa, perhaps in the company of a few light-skirted nymphs.
Attila eventually granted peace but reminded the Roman delegation that the delivery of the annual financial contribution and the royal bride Honoria was to occur the very same year, to prevent his army’s return to Italy in a more adversarial mood. Thus spoken, the king retired to his eastern possessions and prepared for the royal encounter with Honoria.

Attila at his wooden palace in Pannonnia

Yet, in the meanwhile, Attila relieved his tender anxiety by adding a beautiful maid, whose name was Ildico, to the list of his innumerable wives. Their marriage was celebrated with Barbaric pomp and festivity at his wooden palace beyond the Danube; and the monarch, oppressed with wine and sleep, retired at a late hour from the banquet to the nuptial bed. His attendants continued to respect his pleasures, or his repose, the greatest part of the ensuing day, till the unusual silence alarmed their fears and suspicions; and after attempting to awaken Attila by loud and repeated cries, they at length broke into the royal apartment.

They found the trembling bride sitting by the bedside, hiding her face with her veil and lamenting her own danger as well as the death of the king, who had expired during the night [AD 453]. An artery had suddenly burst; and as Attila lay in a supine posture, he was suffocated by a torrent of blood which, instead of finding a passage through the nostrils, regurgitated into the lungs and stomach. (31)


The simple social order of the Huns ensured that Attila’s realm fell apart the very minute that the news of the king’s death reached the various hordes. The aspirations of a dozen subaltern leaders and the hopes of numerous bastard sons converged in one great conflagration, which removed the traces of the realm of the Huns from the continent, and history in general, in a matter of days. The tribes returned to their homelands in the Asian steppe, and neighbouring tribes found the fields north and east of the Danube empty. The Avares were the first people to inundate the former Hunnish plains and mountains, whence they soon came into contact with the Empire.
The disappearance of the Huns, however, also undermined Aetius’ design to provoke enmity between them and the Goths in Gaul, by which he hoped to have the menaces destroy each other. But now little military power remained available to him in the case of a Gothic invasion, and if the situation had not been bad enough to start with, the emperor himself partook in the acceleration of the realm’s demise by the murder of his general. “From the instinct of a base and jealous mind, he [Valentinian] hated the man who was universally celebrated as the terror of the Barbarians and the support of the republic.” (32)

Constant insinuations of eunuchs and courtiers urged the emperor to be aware of the danger a virtuous man might pose to the throne. The general’s presence was requested for some court business in Ravenna, and in perhaps the sole action history can reliably ascribe to the emperor’s person, the monarch drew his sword and buried it in Aetius’ breast; the breast that had, whatever the general’s moral shortcomings, at various occasions preserved the Empire and the West. The elite of the court assisted the emperor with their own daggers, and as soon as the general had expired, counselled the monarch that the victim’s friends must share his fate, for the good of the realm and to deter revenge. The cabal attracted Aetius’ friends, foremost Boethius, the praetorian prefect, to visit the Imperial Palace on the fabrication of some urgent business, where they were murdered wholesale [AD 454].

The court issued an edict that a conspiracy against the Empire and the monarch had been unveiled and, luckily, averted. Not a single of the emperor’s subjects, who were well aware of Aetius’ mistakes but also his merits, believed the gospel, and what had been public contempt for the feeble emperor was replaced, in Edward Gibbon’s phrase, by “universal abhorrence“. (33)

Consequently, the people were not surprised when Valentinian, after adding to the number and quality of his misdeeds a variety of illicit erotic affairs, which peaked at his rape of the wife of senator Maximus, was assassinated by two officers on the occasion of a military parade on the Field of Mars, outside the city [March 16, AD 455]. Valentinian had barely expired when Maximus, having observed his revenge fulfilled, was hailed as the new emperor by the express consent and salutations of the attending officers and domestics.
The murders of Aetius and Valentinian mark the beginning of the final disintegration of the Western Empire. What might have transpired had Maximus managed to exert any effective governance over his titular possessions no one can say: the sudden appearance of a Vandal war fleet under Geiseric’s command at the port of Ostia, only a dozen miles from
Rome swiftly concluded the reign of Maximus: when he appeared in public, flight on his mind, a furious multitude stoned him to death.

Three days after the emperor’s demise, Genseric led his troops upon the former capital of the known world, and the patience, wisdom and diplomacy of Bishop Leo became the instruments of a second negotiation. At length, Genseric promised to direct certain limitations upon the enthusiasm and the liberties of his army, but the rapacious reality of the second sack of the town within forty-five years broke the city’s vitality, and the catastrophe inflicted upon the eternal city a millennium of political insignificance and economic pauperism.

Genseric – The Sack of Rome

It took over 1,200 years until the mayor of Rome could again tally the same number of inhabitants as had dwelled there in the early fifth century AD. The Vandals’ vessels not only transported away everything of material value, copper and bronze being pilfered just as silver and gold: the empress Eudonia and her two daughters were compelled to share the ride, accompanied by thousands of Romans that were designated to the slave markets of Africa.


The decline of the geostrategic importance of Italy had long since become obvious by the labours of the generals and legions from Gaul, for this was where the action was: the Franks and Alemanni that had crossed the Rhine a century earlier had by now advanced deeply into Gaul, until they encountered the dominions of the Visigoths, who, for the moment, blocked further expansion south- and westward. The south-eastern corner of Gaul was settled by Burgundians, who had been placed there by Aetius himself, but it was the Franks and the Goths that played the main roles in the wake of Maximus’ death. Before his ignominious demise, the emperor had promoted a local Gallic nobleman named Avitus to the post of master-general of Gaul. The promotee considered himself, unlike his military colleagues, an educated man; the embassy sent by the emperor reached him while he was reposing in a precious villa near Clermont. Accepting the lofty rank, Avitus assumed the command of the local troops, which consisted mainly of Visigoths, with a sprinkle of other Germans thrown in. In deference to the factual holder of power, Avitus embarked on a journey to Theodoric II, the king of the Visigoths [r.AD 453-466]. He had barely reached his host when the sudden news of Genseric’s assault on Rome and Maximus’ death was delivered.

Whatever his original designs may have been, on the occasion of the unexpected message Theodoric convinced him to “claim the imperial office” [AD 455]. (34) The new emperor soon appeared in Rome, where, for the sincerity of his motives, he accepted the consulship; yet in a time when the office of the Augustus meant predominantly “toil and danger, [Avitus] indulged himself in the pleasantries of Italian luxury: age had not extinguished his amorous inclinations; and he is accused of insulting, with indiscreet and ungenerous raillery, the husbands whose wives he had seduced or violated.” (35)
The new emperor’s principal armoured support, the Visigoths, was temporarily unable to stabilize Avitus’ tenuous regency, because of their urgent business of fighting the Suebi, the former adversaries of the Vandals, for the dominion of northern Spain. When Count Ricimer, one of the captains of Rome’s few remaining battle-worthy legions, succeeded in annihilating a Vandal war fleet of sixty ships that had felt too secure in its harbour, he was applauded as the deliverer of the nation; and was able to convince Avitus to abdicate after a reign of fourteen months and many seductions of cooks and chambermaids.

After an interregnum of half a year, Ricimer installed his own favourite, Majorian, in the highest office of the West, who arrived in the capital with the news of a great victory he had inflicted upon the Alemanni and was subsequently installed as Augustus in Ravenna [AD 457]. The Alemanni had never heard of him. But it appeared that Majorian showed too much independence for Ricimer’s taste, and thus the magister militum had the emperor quickly assassinated and then ruled “until his death in 472, through a succession of mostly puppet emperors ….” (36) The successor of Majorian was one Livius Severus, of whom history has recorded no worthwhile activities; Ricimer managed the government: declining the purple and the diadem, he organized the treasury, trained the military and performed diplomacy.
Now Genseric reappeared on the radar. The Vandals had been busy rebuilding the fleet they had lost to Ricimer, and southern Italy quickly suffered the renewed and repeated visitations of his hordes. Of an advanced age, the king still commanded the raids. His rapines he explained with the failure of the Imperial court to respectfully entrust him with those parts of the realm that he was entitled to by the rights of inheritance and possession. This right the king claimed on behalf of the recent marriage of his elder son Hunneric to Eudocia, the dowager empress Eudonia’s daughter. The proud father-in-law accordingly considered himself qualified to pre-inherit a substantial portion of the Empire, for his family now represented the last bough of Theodosius’s family tree.

Before long, the Eastern Emperor Leo condescended to bestow an annual financial donation upon the Vandal’s treasury, to ensure the inviolability of his shores. As a consequence of Leo’s liberality, Genseric and his men concentrated their efforts upon the Italian coastline. Confronted with the easy manoeuvrability the enemy enjoyed by its ships, Ricimer, having none,
was at a loss how to counter the raids, and saw no other remedy than to apply to Constantinople in a quest for naval assistance. He addressed the Eastern Augustus Leo with the request to install a person of the emperor’s choice upon the throne of the West, which, luckily, was vacant, for Libius Severus had had the decency to expire at the most appropriate moment. The successful candidate should then be supported with men and ships and sent against the Vandals. Leo selected Anthemius, a court favourite, to fill the vacancy, and announced in a message to the world that after the destruction of the Vandal plague and the recovery of Africa Provincia, he and Anthemius were to govern the realm in philadelphial dedication. An earnest attempt was made to raise and train a new army, and, more important, a new navy: the treasury was considerably depleted and two corps of troops, on two separate fleets, were dispatched to invade Africa in a two-pronged invasion, in the hope to catch the enemy between the pincers and thus end the barbarian affront and Genseric’s hubris [AD 468].

Alas, the operation “was not only a failure but an extremely expensive one.” (37) A good part of the Roman fleet was attacked while still on the open sea, before they could unload their precious cargo, the legions, on the beaches: with the sinking ships much of the infantry found a watery grave. The rest of the force was blown by the winds all over the Syrte and lost contact. The Vandals had no big problem to eliminate the survivors piecemeal wherever they made landfall. The sorry outcome of the campaign resulted in a fall-out between Anthemius and Ricimer; the latter left Africa, gave up Rome and Ravenna, and re-established himself in Milan. He had devised a plan to invest another puppet on the Imperial throne, that is, as soon as Anthemius was gone, and to this end, collected an army of chiefly Burgundian and Suebian mercenaries, which he subsequently led upon Rome. He camped on the Field of Mars outside the town and waited for the arrival of his new Imperial candidate, a fellow named Olybrius.
Nobody had ever accused Olybrius of valour or other virtues, but what he did possess, and represent, in a way, was a most impressive pedigree: he had married Placidia, the younger daughter of Eudonia, the dowager empress still
detained in Africa, and thus was able to present, as his qualification for the office of Augustus of the West, an “illustrious name and a royal alliance.” (38) With the exception of a year’s service as (honorary) consul, the candidate did not profess to possess any education or experience in the business of administering an empire, but, with Leo’s consent, accepted the honours and set out to Italy to enjoy his new possessions.

A protracted siege followed Olybrius’ arrival near the eternal town, which was defended by a troop of Gothic mercenaries in Anthemius’ employment. In due time an assault on the Castle and Bridge of Hadrian found a weak spot in
the defence, whose exploitation resulted in the subsequent slaughter of the defenders, including their leader Gilimer [July 11, AD 472]. The town was sacked again; Anthemius summarily executed and whatever the Vandals might have overlooked seventeen years ago was now picked up by Ricimer’s acquisitive mercenaries.
Before long, however, the mysterious curse of Romulus struck again: the year AD 472, which had observed the town’s third sack in sixty-two years also beheld the demise of the main creators of the present calamity: Ricimer died only forty days after his success, and his Imperial marionette Olybrius followed him in October of the same year. Any semblance of order in Italy disintegrated.

In Constantinople, Leo needed to find a successor to the husband of Placidia, and after a few extended name-dropping sessions, it was remembered, fortunately, that the empress Verina had recently given the hand of one of her nieces to one Julius Nepos, who was, at the moment, the administrator of Dalmatia. This man, the court divined, might be persuaded to accept the glorious promotion.

The wheels of the court, alas, moved so ponderously that before a proper embassy, with a military guard, could be sent to Dalmatia, the Burgundian prince Gundobald – who had inherited the command of Ricimer’s mercenaries in Rome – had already elevated a minor official named Glycerius to the Imperial dignity. Advised of the error, Gundobald corrected his prematurity swiftly and Glycerius found himself demoted to the bishopric of Salona, on the Dalmatian coast. Italy saluted Julius Nepos.

Nepos was quite unaware of the condition of his empire, and, as Edward Gibbon observed, “the treaty of peace which ceded Auvergne to the Visigoths is the only event of his short and inglorious reign.” (39) It did not take very long
until the new emperor was confronted by a mutiny of the legions of Gaul under a general Orestes, and thought it safest to return to Dalmatia, where, five years later, he was “assassinated at Salona by the ungrateful Glycerius, who was translated, perhaps as the reward of his crime, to the archbishopric of Milan.” (40) It was a post apparently suited to Glycerius’ modest talents.
The new strong man was aforementioned Orestes, who had been born in Pannonia and learned the trade of a soldier in the service of Attila. His faculties had propelled him to the lofty position of secretary to the great king, and Attila had not only sought his military opinions but also entrusted him with diplomatic missions to Constantinople and Ravenna. His oath of fealty had expired with his master’s death, and he translated himself to the Imperial service in Italy. He advanced rapidly through the ranks until, at the occasion of Julius Nepos’s investiture, he was promoted to master-general of the
Western Empire, that is, of whatever was left of it.

Orestes was a bona fide hero, a soldiers’ soldier, in contrast to the Imperial domestics and retainers, who were acquainted with the use of daggers solely from banquets. It is reported that he was able to confer, or at least to make himself understood, with the Goths, Suebis and Burgundians who constituted the main part of his troops, but also with those tribes that had only recently presented themselves at the Imperial frontiers: the Heruli, Seyri, Alani, Rugi and Turcilinghi.
After Nepos’s retreat to Dalmatia, Orestes found himself essentially the only figure left in the game and wondered why he not might as well govern himself. Yet in remembrance of his predecessor Ricimer’s modus operandi, he chose to remain the power behind the throne and presented to the gathering of his subalterns as his choice of emperor his son Romulus, who was called “Augustulus” [diminutive of Augustus, i.e. “little Augustus”, ¶]. The young man was installed on the throne of the Occident and supplied with a number of concubines and a monthly allowance to occupy his time, while his father conducted the business of the Empire of the West.

Romulus Augustulus and Odoacer

Orestes had barely reigned a year when he faced another sedition of the legions. It seems that the Italian units demanded benefits equal to those which their colleagues in Gaul and Spain enjoyed, that is, the provision of land at the conclusion of their service. They felt defrauded of this reasonable reward and petitioned Orestes with the proposition to immediately reserve, and swiftly allocate, one-third of Italy’s fertile soil to the use of his supporters.
Sometimes a man is allowed but a single mistake, and so it came to pass in the case of Orestes. His refusal of the modest suggestion immediately effected the ascension of a new favourite of the legions, who promised that should the
men unite under his banner, the delivery of their desires was to occur immediately.

Odovacar, or Od0acer. which was the officer’s name, had been a military tribune and perceived clearly that the demands of the mob could not be gainsaid without provoking an instant mutiny. What he privately thought of the land deal is not known, but the word of his affirmative message spread like the wind and from all duty stations prospective heroes flocked to his standard. The expanse and speed of the insurrection surprised Orestes outside of Ravenna and forced him to retreat to the closest fortified town, Pavia, which was, unfortunately, neither equipped for war nor for a siege. The town was besieged at once and duly taken; Orestes executed for treason, and Romulus arrested [AD 476]. But then Odovacar deviated from the examples of Aetius and Ricimer, as Chris Wickham relates:

Odovacar, the next effective military supremo in Italy (476-93), did not bother to appoint any emperor of the West, but instead got the Roman senate to petition the eastern emperor Zeno that only one emperor was by now needed; Odovacar then governed Italy in Zeno’s name, as “patricius”, i.e. patrician, a title used by both Aetius and Ricimer, although inside Italy Odovacar called himself “rex“, king. (41)


After some hesitation, Zeno granted the supplication and Odovacar, now invested with legal authority, could afford to show leniency toward Romulus. Edward Gibbon applauds:

The life of this inoffensive youth was spared by the generous clemency of Odoacer; who dismissed him, with his whole family, from the Imperial palace, fixed his annual allowance at six thousand pieces of gold, and assigned the castle of Lucullus, in Campania, for the place of his exile or retirement. (42)

Odoacer’s Domain, AD 480

It is this year AD 476, which is commonly cited as the “end” of the Roman Empire, a custom which seems to overlook the fact that the eastern part of it survived for another thousand years. But one could take any of the neighbouring decades and claim an “end” all the same; indeed, it is a mistake to see Roman and Barbarians as either/or, when in reality the cultures mingled; in the words of Chris Wickham, “Crisis and Continuity” were both present between AD 400 and 550. (43) The perhaps most significant change was the end of the centralization of politics, economy and culture that the great empire had provided; particularism set in.

The end of political unity was not a trivial shift; the whole structure of politics had to change as a result. The ruling classes of the provinces were all still (mostly) Roman, but they were diverging fast. The East was moving away from the West, too.
It was becoming much more Greek in its official culture, for a start. Leo I was the first emperor to legislate in Greek; under a century later, Justinian (527-565) may have been the last emperor to speak Latin as a first language. But it is above all in the West that we find a growing provincialization in the late fifth century, both a consequence and a cause of the breakdown of central government. …
Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalized, exchange became more localized. The fiscal system, the judicial system, and the density of Roman administrative activity in general, all began to simplify as well. (44)


The decisive challenge, and indeed the most “taxing” matter, for any community that would endeavour to follow the Roman example, was how to pay for a standing army, which had been the instrument of Rome’s expansion and maintenance. It is true that in ancient Rome the farmer was expected to perform military service if the need arose, quite like in ancient Gaul or beyond the Rhine. But that had changed at the latest with Marius’s army reform around 100 BC. The Imperial decline and the decrease in political stability six hundred years later resulted in a corresponding shrinking of manufacture and commerce, which, at length, destroyed the Imperial tax base. It seems that the change from a paid to a landed army occurred in the West at the same time as Emperor Justinian I in the East embarked on his Imperial Reconquista (which depleted his treasury, too), that is, at the time of Theoderic’s Ostrogoths reign in Italy.

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