The reign of Constantine III was a precarious business. With the legions no longer holding the frontier of the Rhine and the Roman navy no longer in existence, the world was now one dominated by anyone who could pull together some effective mobile forces. The rule of the Caesars had been replaced by the rule of petty warlords. Constantine never had any solid power base he could draw from and was continually juggling alliances, bribes and trying to avoid being overrun by barbarians or killed by the representatives of the official Roman empire. You might have thought that nobody would want a job like that. But you’d be wrong, he had to face at least two major rebellions by people who wanted to replace him.
The rebellion of Gerontius took place in Spain. Gerontius was probably British, based purely on the evidence of his name which is the latinised form of a British one current at the time and which still exists today in Wales. It has now evolved into the form Geraint. We don’t know why he rebelled. It may have been because Constantine had just appointed his son Constans as co-emperor. Or possibly Constans was appointed in response to the rebellion of Gerontius. We don’t have a precise enough chronology to know which way round it was. Indeed the two facts could be unrelated. They are simply the only facts we have so there is an almost irresistible temptation to thread them together into some kind of a story. Gerontius, for equally obscure reasons, chose not to claim the throne in his own name but to appoint a man called Maximus to the role instead.
The new imperial pretenders attacked Gaul, surrounded the unfortunate Constans at Vienne near the foothills of the Alps. They captured and then killed him. They then marched to Arles and besieged Constantine himself. This is where it all gets a bit recursive. While the two rival pretenders were fighting each other, an actual Roman army turned up. It wasled by a general called Constantius, who unusually for the times was himself a native Roman. Gerontius ran away and Constantine was captured. The provinces of Gaul were overrun with Goths, Alemanni, Franks and Seuvi. But the Romans were fighting each other.
Gerontius was pursued by some imperial troops and ended up holed up in a house in Spain. In desperation he killed himself with a dagger after first killing his last supporters and wife. His nominal emperor, Maximus, was so insignificant a figure that he wasn’t even considered worth killing.
Honorius was probably unaware of the risk he was taking in deploying Constantinius for this mission against Constantine III. Being an actual Roman general in charge of significant forces was enough to make him a contender for the empire. But he didn’t play this hand, and instead he settled down to besiege Constantine at Arles. A barbarian ally arrived to try to extricate Constantine. But Constantius was proving himself an able commander. In a clever manoeuvre he surrounded the attacker and defeated him. Constantine observed all this from the walls and realised that his bid for power was over. He abdicated, and in one of the most optimistic acts of mendacity I can think of he got himself ordained as a priest. Did he think that this change of career would lead to forgiveness? Well it didn’t. He was dispatched to Ravenna along with his son. They were both killed before they got there.
Another pretender arose in Maintz on the Rhine. It is a bit hard to work out who he was rebelling against by this stage. His name was Jovinus, and just as the Romans were happy to use barbarians in their internal conflicts so the barbarians would use Romans as figureheads when it suited them. In this case Jovinus had been put up to it by some tribes of the Burgundians and the Alanni.
The nominally Roman emperor marched south equally nominally at the head of a large army of barbarians. Constantius retreated quickly before them. It might have been expected that a successful general heading recently victorious troops might have put up a bit more of a fight, but his position was suddenly very perilous. Adolphus and his Goths offered an alliance to Jovinus. This would have produced a truly overwhelming block of the main barbarian players. But for some reason Jovinus did not take up what looked like a great offer and instead joined forces with Salus – the arch enemy of Adolphus.
Adolphus switched back to being an ally with Honorius and attacked Jovinus. This was sort of where he should have been all along given that Honorius was the official emperor and was also his brother in law. Salus was killed and Jovinus deposed. The Goths made easy meat of Jovinus and nominally restored Gaul to the empire. I keep using that word ‘nominally’. The Goths were in fact running the show. But in a rare for the time display of imperial assertiveness Constantius attacked them. Adolphus responded by proclaiming his pet Roman Attalus as emperor, the same Attalus who had previously been the Goth’s puppet emperor in Rome. There had been very few reigns more pathetic than that of Attalus in Rome, but he does at least have the unique distinction of managing to have a second run at the job that was even more cringeworthy than the first one. The war didn’t go well for the Goths and they retreated to Spain.
A stalemate ensued; the two sides negotiated and as part of the peace deal Attalus was once again deposed.
Attalus was allowed to go by the Goths and made his way to Spain. He found a ship and set off in search presumably of further gigs in the role of either a musician or a monarch. Whatever his plans, they came to nothing. He was caught mid voyage by agents of Honorius and dragged before him. Two fingers were cut off and he was banished to end his days as a prisoner on the Lipari islands, the exact fate he had once offered to the son of Theodosius. The loss of his digits must have been a cruel blow to an accomplished musician. But his prison was situated in the Mediterranean not too far from Sicily. It doesn’t sound like too bad a place to end your life in.
Adolphus meanwhile had a son with Placidia who was auspiciously named Theodosius after his grandfather. It is fascinating to consider what might have happened had this half Gothic half Roman child who was the offspring of the leading families of both might have achieved had he lived into adulthood. But he died in infancy. Adolphus himself died shortly afterwards in a palace coup that seems to have been the result of the long running internal Gothic blood feud between Salus and the house of Alaric.
Nothing illustrates the decline in Roman power better than the fate of Placidia. The thug who usurped the Gothic throne was not interested in her and she ended up in a group of non-descript prisoners being led around on foot. This could not have ever been considered a possibility when she was growing up in the court of her father Theodosius, the ruler of one of the largest and most sophisticated empires in history.
This was a mercifully brief interlude for Placidia. The throne quickly reverted to a member of the royal house in the shape of an able chieftain called Wallia. His precise relationship to Alaric and Adolphus hasn’t been recorded, but his ability was in the same league. He was hardly a good friend to the Romans. He seriously contemplated reviving Alaric’s plan for an invasion of Africa. And given that he now had bases in Spain this was a lot more practical a project. But bad weather hampered his preparations and in an age of superstition this was enough to put him off. He also entered into a war with a rival Gothic faction which distracted him from other projects.
He quickly negotiated a peace with Honorius and returned Placidia to him. The Romans might have been able to turn the disunion of the Goths to their advantage, but were not much more than spectators. The imperial reach was not what it used to be. It did give them a respite to gather their strength though. The crass stupidity of his earlier reign was replaced by this time by supine apathy, which was at least progress in the right direction.
But the overall judgement on the Honorius era has to be that it was the major failure of the Roman Empire in the West. Britain had been lost. The border defences were gone. Gaul was no longer a province. The only man who even tried to keep it in the Roman sphere of influence was Constantine and the court at Ravenna had killed him. Spain was overrun by barbarians. Only Italy and Africa were in the hands of the Romans. It was a spectacular record of failure and disaster quite apart from the supreme humiliation of having the capital sacked. No emperor did more than Honorius to bring about the fall of the Roman Empire.