The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Monday, December 12, 2005

Rome's last half-decade


I'm on page 379 of Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire. Heather considers Avitus's elevation to the Imperial purple in 455 AD to be a "revolution" that "needs to be underlined". I think I'll pause here and note some other turning points of the previous five years:

As of 450 AD, as everyone knows, the Roman Empire had already split into a western half and an eastern half, both under scions of the Theodosian dynasty. But it wasn't really split. In reality the East was under a united Byzantine imperium, well-protected against threats from further east; and the West was being held together under Eastern persuasion. Theodosius II in the East had planted his cousin Valentinian III in the West, and recognised his "authority" - while the general Aetius, loyal to the Roman ideal, did the actual ruling of the West as Valentinian's regent and as Theodosius's proxy. With the exception of Geiseric's Vandals in Carthage; the various political factions in Italy, the barbarian kinglets scattered about the West, and the generals of the Roman legions all accepted this arrangement. There were plans afoot to bring even the Vandals back to heel.

However there was another faction that had sprung up in the interim. To the north of both halves of the Empire was a vast majority-German empire led by Attila the Hun. Attila wrought such chaos in the East that there could be no question of retaking Africa. So that set up one problem of the 450s: The Vandals were left alone.

Then, in 28 July 450, that klutz Theodosius fell off his horse and died. Valentinian figured that as a Theodosian, he had a shot at becoming the real (Eastern) Emperor, but Aetius recognised that Valentinian was a spoiled brat who hadn't a chance. Over in the East, Theodosius II's sister Queen Pulcheria chose the staff officer Marcian as her husband. This proved a wise move for Byzantine interests, but it still led to another problem: The Western Emperor rejected Eastern influence.

In 451 and 452, Attila ransacked Gaul and northern Italy. Aetius and the Visigoths kicked the Huns out of Gaul; then Marcian helped Aetius boot the Huns out of Italy. But both campaigns, particularly the second campaign, incurred a lot of damage. The native Gallo-Roman and Italian forces were depleted.

In 453, Attila died. Heather does not refer to Michael A Babcock's The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun; but that book put forth the hypothesis, based primarily on Germanic philology, that Marcian had engineered an assassination. This did not end the Hunnish or for that matter German threat to the East; but it sharply weakened it, and ended it for the West. Beforehand, Valentinian envied Aetius and Marcian but preferred both to losing his head to Attila. This no longer applied: The common threat of the Huns was no more.

As of 454, the Western Empire was weakened and less united, and the Vandals sure weren't any weaker for their part.

Which is not to say all was hopeless. Valentinian had no sons; but he did have two daughters, and either one could have served as a bride for a child of Aetius, Marcian, or even a pro-Roman Visigoth. The Vandals had uses as a common enemy of this Catholic empire. And Marcian, an underrated genius if ever there was one, was available if given a few years to rebuild.

But instead, in 22 September Valentinian gave in to his petulance and paranoia and personally cut Aetius down with the sword. The senator Petronius Maximus soon assassinated Valentinian and took over. At that moment the Vandals struck at Rome. In 31 May 455 Petronius tried to flee, and his own citizens tore him apart in their contempt. When the Vandals actually entered Rome, their outrages earned them a name of infamy still pungent after sixteen centuries.

Avitus's revolution was not to declare himself emperor "elsewhere than in Rome"; this was a "secret" long exploded even before Tacitus's time (120 AD) and, for that matter, Marius's time (100 BC). Avitus declared himself emperor at a Gothic court, that of the Visigothic king Theodoric II. As Heather points out, he had little alternative. His propagandists, like Sidonius, had to play along. So instead of Romans leading Visigothic armies to quell revolts in Spain, as had happened before; now Avitus had to endorse a Visigothic army which acted on its own in Spain - which meant pillage for Theodoric and no new tax revenues for Rome. Roman hegemony was over. (And this set the stage for two decades of papier-mache emperors and the introduction of Gary Jennings's Raptor; which is quite another rant.)

Thus ended Rome's last chance at preserving romania as an imperial concern west of the Balkans and Libya. As I see it, most of that can be laid at the feet of Valentinian III, a selfish and immature little brat to the end.

I am sure that Marcian and Pulcheria received the news of Avitus's "triumphal" entry into Rome from their vantage point in Constantinople. What I can't imagine is what they thought of the event. Marcian died in 457 AD; it may have been from a broken heart.


posted by Zimri on 19:38 | link | 0 comments

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