The reign of Honorius was eventful, but his actual life settled into a fairly sedate business at the centre of his court. He didn’t travel much or indeed do very much. His sister on the other hand had as varied a career as any woman in Roman history. She was taken from Rome when it was sacked and became a Gothic queen. With the death of her husband, Placidia was finally returned to her brother in exchange for a large stock of grain. But her position made settling down difficult, and her personality made it impossible. She was forced to marry the successful general Constantius. Although she objected to it in advance she resigned herself to it once it happened and made the best of it. They had two children, Valentinian and Honoria. Constantius may have found his wife stoking his ambition, because some years into the marriage he was appointed as co-emperor. This was unlikely to have been an idea that Honorius came up with. It was much more plausibly the work behind the scenes of Placidia.
Constantius did not get to enjoy his Augustus status for long, dying seven months later. Now Placidia really started to assert her authority over Honorius and persuaded him that she should become an Augusta. But Placidia’s hold over her brother didn’t last. In fact they fell out and the argument became more serious. In the end Placidia fled and pitched up in Constantinople along with her children. The state of play with politics at the point she arrived was that the emperor’s sister Pulcheria and wife Eudocia were still on good terms running the show via their hold on the easy going Theodosius II. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the room when the three of them met together for the first time.
Placidia certainly managed to make her mark in this company, and it was agreed that her very young son Valentinian was to be married to the daughter of Theodosius II. This made Valetinian the son of an emperor, the nephew of another emperor and the son in law of a third emperor. On top of that he was the grandson of the first Theodosius, the last actually impressively successful emperor. It was pretty clear that he was emperor material. And it wasn’t long before a vacancy arose.
Honorius died. He had presided over the loss of huge swathes of territory and had conceded the end of the western defensive line that had protected the empire since the time of Augustus. Under his watch Rome had been sacked. Italy had been pillaged. His own sister had been carried off by a gang of Goths. Quite apart from these big headline disasters, Roman society changed a lot while Honorius was at the helm. The aristocratic families of Rome lost a lot of their property outside Italy disrupting the economy and their place within it. The last gladiatorial games under imperial supervision had taken place. The empire he handed on to his successor was a very different one from the one he inherited from his father.
But one thing hadn’t changed, and that was the succession was rarely a smooth affair. Honorius was initially replaced by a usurper called John. The days when the key to the throne was control of the legions were over. The legions no longer existed. The trick now was to line up some barbarian allies. John was in alliance with the Huns and so was in a good position to hold on. That he had not a drop of imperial blood didn’t matter.
But forces from the Eastern empire managed to depose John before he got settled in. They didn’t have huge resources and they didn’t have much luck initially either. A two pronged attack via cavalry on land combined with an amphibious infantry attack was blunted when bad weather sunk the fleet. But legitimacy did have some benefits. The commander of the mission was captured and taken prisoner to Ravenna. Rather bizarrely he was given the run of the town, which he used to win over the garrison to the rightful heir. You have to wonder what arguments he used to support this, given the recent example of Honorius for just how bad a rightful emperor could be. But nonetheless he got enough support to enable the land based attack to be allowed in. John ended up being taken to Aquileia where he was mutilated, humiliated and finally decapitated. Roman history is not for the faint hearted, either as a reader or as a participant.
Placidia now returned this time as regent for six year old Valentinian. She was to effectively rule the western empire for the next two decades. But the empire was no longer recognisable from its previous form. Italy was still intact and the Romans still held Africa. Most of Spain was now back in the fold as well, though that was pretty much down to the fact that internal conflicts between the barbarians were distracting them from conquering it. In Gual the empire held a few outposts and managed some kind of influence by relying on its prestige. The Byzantines had taken over the opposite shore of the Adriatic from Italy. The empire now had to continually fight for its existence against enemies in every direction and without any good defensive lines.
Two generals Aëtius and Boniface were in charge of the empire’s defence but also devoted considerable energy to fighting each other. One might have thought that there were quite enough external enemies to be getting on with. The rivalry between these two men may well have been the final straw that set in train the western empire’s actual death in a few decades time.
They were rather different personalities. Boniface comes across as a bit of a stuffed shirt. He was a deeply religious man. At one point he had considered joining the church. His piety was very much on public display. Once he had a complaint from a husband that one of Boniface’s Gothic troops was having an affair with his wife. Boniface turned up at the next assignation and cut the romantic trooper’s head off.
This story comes across a bit differently today to how it would have done at the time, but even then it must have been questionable whether a top commander should have been spending time on trivia. But his performance on the field was exemplary. He was appointed to the command of Africa which he ran from Carthage.
Aetius was very much a man of the world. He had been a hostage in the camps of the Huns as a young man and knew them well. He had maintained good relations with many of them and could count Attila as a personal friend. This made it easy for him to strike deals with them and it turns out he was the broker of the deal by which the upstart John had got the Huns into alliance with him. If that had come off Aetius would have been in a very comfortable place in the new regime. But as it was he found himself in a must uncomfortable place. It would have been quite easy for his behaviour to have been interpreted as treason, if for no other reason than that it clearly was. Somehow he managed to talk his way out of this sticky situation and to retain his top job in the military.
We hardly need to inquire as to what the cause of his argument with Boniface was. Devious chancers do not get on with people who might stand in their way. Aetius must have been aware that although he was off the hook for now, Boniface had both a reputation for honesty and a solid track record of supporting the imperial family during the crisis. So he hatched the most incredible plot.
He used his charm and guile to persuade Placidia to withdraw Boniface from Aftica. At the same time he warned Boniface that he would be in great danger if he obeyed the summons to Rome.
It is hard to say what is more surprising. That Aetius believed he might actually get away with it, or that it very nearly worked. Boniface receiving the warning just before the summons assumed the worst and came out in open rebellion. His military position was precarious so he invited the Vandals in Spain to his aid. It would be a fateful decision.
But in fairness to Boniface the Vandals must have seemed like suitable allies. They weren’t a particularly powerful group. They had fallen out with the much stronger Goths and been pushed to the west of Spain. Having got there they were in a prolonged conflict with the Suevi. So when Boniface contacted Gonderic, the Vandal king, it was quite a reasonable judgement. The Vandals provided him with some effective foot soldiers, but were not strong enough to become a threat in their own right. All in all, it was Roman military handbook stuff. What he couldn’t have known was that Gonderic was about to die and be replaced by a man whose entire life was to be devoted to not doing the obvious. This was Genseric, who was one of the three barbarians who did most to destroy the western empire. Only Alaric and Attila can lay a claim to have had a bigger impact, but in many ways the sustained activity of Genseric did more long term harm than either of them.