The Roman Dominate: The "Puppet Emperors"
by: P. Dionysius Mus
PARS I | PARS II | PARS III | PARS IV | PARS V | PARS VI | PARS VII | PARS VIII | PARS IX | PARS X
Honorius: The younger son of Theodosius I (emperor 379-395) and Aelia Flacilla, Honorius was elevated to the rank of Augustus by Theodosius on Jan. 23, 393, and became sole ruler of the West at age 10, upon his fatherís death (Jan. 17, 395). His brother Arcadius was the Eastern emperor.
Honorius was one of the weakest of the Roman emperors. When he did intervene in politics, his actions were usually disastrous; thus, if he had been less obstinate in rejecting terms offered by Alaric before 410, Rome might have been spared the Gothic occupation. During the first half of Honoriusí reign, power was exercised by his Master of Soldiers, Flavius Stilicho. In 398 the emperor married Stilichoís daughter Maria. When Maria died he married her younger sister, Thermantia, but terminated the union after Stilicho was executed on suspicion of treason in August 408.
During this early period of Honoriusí reign, the Vandals, Alani, and Suebi plundered Gaul (406) and then crossed into Spain. Imperial defenses deteriorated to such an extent that in 409 Honorius notified the cities of Britain that they could not rely on Rome for reinforcements against tribal incursions. In August 410 the Visigoths, under Alaric, occupied Rome, and Honorius fled to Ravenna. He watched from there while loyal generals overthrew usurpers and rebels, including Priscus Attalus, Maximus, and Jovinus. In 411 the rival emperor Constantinus III of Gaul and Britain was crushed by Constantius, Honoriusí Master of Soldiers. Constantius died late in 421, only a few months after Honorius had proclaimed him co-emperor. Constantiusí son, Valentinian III, succeeded Honorius as emperor of the West.
Valentinianus III: At no time in his long reign were the affairs of state personally managed by Valentinianus. He was the son of the patrician Flavius Constantius (who ruled as Constantius III in 421) and Galla Placidia. When his uncle, the emperor Honorius, died in 423, the usurper Iohannes ruled for two years before he was deposed. Then Placidia controlled the West in her young sonís name until 437, although the powerful patrician Aetius became the effective ruler toward the end of this regency.
The most important political event of these years was the landing of the Vandals in Africa in 429; 10 years later they threw off the overlordship of Valentinianusí government. On Oct. 29, 437, Valentinianus married Licinia Eudoxia, the daughter of Theodosius II (Eastern emperor, 408-450) and Eudocia. Little is known of Valentinianus in the years after his marriage. He spent his life in the pursuit of pleasure while Aetius controlled the government. In 444 Valentinianus, acting in conjunction with Pope Leo I the Great, issued the famous Novel 17, which assigned to the bishop of Rome supremacy over the provincial churches.
The most important political events of the closing years of his reign were the Hun invasions of Gaul (451) and of northern Italy (452), but it is not known whether Valentinianus personally played any significant part in meeting these crises. As a result of false information that made him doubt Aetiusí loyalty, the great patrician was murdered at Valentinianus' own hands in the imperial palace at Rome on Sept. 21, 454. The following year, two barbarians, Optila and Thraustila, who had been retainers of Aetius, avenged their master by murdering the Emperor in the Campus Martius.
Petronius Maximus: He was not recognized as emperor by the Eastern empire. Maximus was prefect of Rome in 420 and twice served as consul. In 454 he and the eunuch Heraclius engineered the assassination of the powerful patrician Aetius. Proclaimed emperor the day after the emperor Valentinianus III was murdered, Maximus immediately forced Valentinianusí widow, Eudoxia, to marry him. At the same time, a Vandal fleet, perhaps invited by Eudoxia, was approaching Rome; Maximus tried to escape but was caught by the enraged Roman populace and torn limb from limb.
Avitus and the Puppet Emperors: Born of a distinguished Gaulish family, Avitus was a son-in-law of the Christian writer Sidonius Apollinaris. By taking advantage of his great influence with the Visigoths who were settled at Toulouse, Avitus was able in 451 to persuade their king, Theodoric I, to join the Roman general Aetius in repelling the invasion of Gaul by the Huns under Attila. Avitus was appointed magister utriusque militiae ("Master of Both Services", soldiers and cavalry) by the Western emperor Petronius Maximus (reigned 455).
When Maximus was killed, the Goths proclaimed Avitus emperor at Toulouse, and this claim was upheld by the Gallo-Romans at Arles. The new emperor proceeded to Rome but was forced by the general Ricimer to abdicate (Oct. 17, 456) and to become bishop of Placentia. Ricimer was a general who acted as kingmaker in the Western Roman Empire from 456 to 472. Ricimerís father was a chief of the Suebi, a Germanic people, and his mother was a Visigothic princess. Early in his military career he befriended the future emperor Maiorianus. After turning back an attempted Vandal invasion of Sicily at Agrigentum (modern Agrigento) in 456, Ricimer was appointed Master of Soldiers. On October 17 of the same year he deposed the Western emperor Avitus after defeating him at Placentia (now Piacenza), Italy.
Appointed patrician (the highest military title) on Feb. 28, 457, Ricimer elevated Maiorianus to the Western throne. Appointed Master of Soldiers in 457, Maiorianus quickly defeated the Alemannic invaders at Bellinzona (in present Switzerland). He was proclaimed emperor, with Ricimerís support, on April 1 and set about conscientiously administering his realm. He stopped abuses in tax collection and attempted to protect the provincials from other forms of oppression. In 458 Maiorianus began to build the fleet with which he hoped to recover Africa from the Vandals. After securing the support of Gaul, where a movement toward independent rule was in progress, he crossed into Spain in May 460. Most of Maiorianusís fleet of 300 ships was captured in the Bay of Alicante when the Vandal fleet under Geiseric made a sudden strike on the Spanish coast. The emperor was subjected to a humiliating peace. On his return to Italy he fell into Ricimerís hands (Aug. 2, 461) and was compelled to abdicate. Five days later he was executed.
On Nov. 19, 461, Ricimer appointed Libius Severus as Western emperor. During the next several years Ricimer maintained his power despite serious threats to his position from the general Aegidius and from Marcellinus, who ruled a virtually independent state in Dalmatia (in modern Croatia). On Aug. 15, 465, Severus died; almost two years passed before the son-in-law of the Eastern emperor Marcian, Anthemius, was appointed to his office by Marcianís successor, Leo I, who wanted help in attacking the Vandals in North Africa. The powerful patrician Ricimer, kingmaker of the Western Empire, accepted Anthemius with the stipulation that his daughter, Alypia, marry Ricimer. Anthemiusí popularity in Italy suffered, however, because as a Greek and a philosopher he was suspected of wanting to restore paganism.
The vast expedition against the Vandals ended in utter defeat for the Romans. Ricimer and Anthemius quarrelled, and, in 472, the patrician besieged the Emperor in Rome. Anthemiusí forces were defeated; he was found disguised as a beggar and beheaded. Hence, in April 472, Ricimer elevated Olybrius to the throne, but died soon afterward. His puppet king Olybrius lived only until November. Leo never recognized Olybrius as a legitimate ruler. As an Arian Christian and a barbarian, Ricimer could not hope to have himself recognized as emperor. Instead he sought to rule through puppet emperors. He was successful throughout his ascendancy in defending Italy against the Vandals and the provinces against the Ostrogoths and the Alani.
Glycerius: Glycerius was made emperor on March 5, 473, by Gundobad, the nephew and successor of the powerful Western general and kingmaker Ricimer (who died in 472). At the time of his appointment, four months had lapsed since the death of his predecessor, the emperor Olybrius (ruled April-November 472). Glycerius was not recognized as a legitimate ruler by the Eastern emperor, Leo I, who sent a fleet commanded by Julius Nepos against him. Nepos landed near Rome and proclaimed himself emperor. Glycerius surrendered without a struggle and was appointed bishop of Salonae (near modern Split, Croatia), but in 480 he helped engineer the assassination of Nepos. The most important achievement of Glyceriusí reign was the diversion to Gaul of a threatened Ostrogothic invasion of Italy.
Iulius Nepos: Born of a distinguished family, Iulius Nepos was sent by the Eastern ruler Leo I to govern Italy as Augustus (emperor). He at once deposed the Western emperor, Glycerius, whom Leo regarded as a usurper. Nepos proclaimed himself emperor in June 474. A year later he was obliged to recognize the independence of the Visigothic kingdom centred near present Toulouse, France.
Later that year the patrician Orestes rose against Nepos and forced him to flee to Dalmatia (August 475). Nepos lived at Salonae (near modern Split, Croatia) for five years, recognized in the East as emperor, though Orestes had proclaimed his young son, Romulus Augustulus, as emperor in the West. Nepos was eventually murdered by friends of Glycerius.
Romulus Augustulus: Romulus Augustulus was the son of the Western empireís Master of Soldiers, Orestes. His original surname was Augustus, but it was changed to the diminutive because he was still a child when his father, after driving the Western emperor Julius Nepos from Italy, elevated him to the throne on Oct. 31, 475. For about 12 months Orestes ruled Italy in his sonís name, but eventually his troops mutinied and found a leader in the German warrior Odoacer.
Odoacerís forces captured and executed Orestes on Aug. 28, 476. Romulus, however, was spared because of his youth; Odoacer gave him a pension and sent him to live with his relatives in Campania, a province in southern Italy. His subsequent fate is unknown.