Last Emperors of the West – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 36 Part 2

Last Emperors in the westMaximus had achieved almost nothing in his short reign.  And certainly, setting up the most humiliating sack of Rome itself earns him pretty much the uncontested medal for the most unsuccessful holder of the purple.  But his foreign policy did bear one fruit.  He had sent the seasoned veteran politician Avitus to negotiate with the Visigoths.  The negotiations went well and Avitus got the support of the Visigothic king Theoderic.

Had Rome not been overrun by Vandals, this would have been a useful prop for the regime of Maximus.  But of course he had been stoned to death, so never really got the benefit of it.  In fact when Avitus heard the astonishing news that Maximus was dead and Rome had been sacked, he instantly turned the situation very much to his own advantage.  With the backing of the Visigoths, he could now declare himself the emperor.  And the Visigoths could look forward to having a Roman emperor entirely dependent on them.  So Avitus returned to become emperor of a wrecked city.

Avitus has left us a very good account of day to day life in the court of Theodoric, and of the character of Theodoric himself.  The Visigoth kingdom had developed into the major power of post Roman Gaul.  Theodoric himself was the son of the Theodoric who had fallen in battle with Attila at Chalons.  He had murdered Thorismund – the son of Theodoric who had taken over from the former king at the battle itself.  But despite this initial brutality he sounds like a man who was very much closer to a medieval king than a tribal warlord.  The Visigoth elite had taken to getting their children educated in Roman ways as well as more standard warlike activities.  Lets pause and have a look at the life of these upwardly mobile barbarians.

The Visigothic court at Toulouse sounds a sight healthier place than the one at Ravenna.  They only ate food that was different to the general population once a week.  Theodoric himself despite his murderous background comes across as an amiable character.  He enjoyed gambling with his courtiers and friends.  He was very sporting when he lost.  He was easy-going with his subjects and was friendly with them on a day-to-day basis.  But he didn’t neglect is official duties.  He set aside a chunk of the day to deal with them.

Meanwhile Avitus didn’t get much of a run at being an emperor.  He was deposed in short order and became a bishop instead.  He didn’t last long at that.

He had been deposed by a barbarian chieftain called Ricimer, who was appointed the count of Italy by the Eastern emperor.  Ricimer was loyal enough  but certainly had his own ambitions.  He was in the process of marrying his son into the royal family. 

His choice for emperor of the West was Majorian.  Majorian had had an impressive military career working for Aetius, and may have had give it up because  his successes were making his boss jealous.  He certainly comes across as a breath of fresh air at this point in Roman history.  He was sympathetic to the excessive tax demands being placed on ordinary citizens.  He brought in some very original laws and seems to have harked back to the days of the republic.  He protected ancient ruins from the depredations of builders who found the looting of the masonry from ancient buildings to be both cheaper and more convenient than quarrying fresh stone.  Well I say protected.  He enacted a law that allowed for magistrates who gave permission to remove stone from public buildings and monuments to  have their hands cut off.

The vision this conjures up of the late empire is rather pitiful.  An emperor is enacting ferocious legislation to try and prevent his own officials from selling off the very fabric of the empire.  And it is easy to suppose that the excessive penalty was an indication that Majorian was struggling to impose this rule. But it does at least  remind us that most of the destruction of the physical culture of the empire was not down to barbarian incursions or religious intolerance but was simply the workings of market forces.  Without a strong central authority to maintain public spaces they rapidly ended up privatised.  But the empire was not just incapable of protecting its tangible assets.  Its stock was so low that nobody was willing to accept its coinage.  In fact, it was not willing to accept its own coinage.  Taxes were only accepted from coins minted in reigns from over a hundred years before when the metal content was still respectable.

This business with the currency has incidentally became something of a folk tale amongst economists of a certain stripe in the twentieth century.  There is a school of economics called Austrian which puts a lot of emphasis on the use of gold to back up currencies.  They often quote the story of the Roman Empire’s monetary difficulties to illustrate issues they have with the management of paper currencies – the implication being that modern governments are repeating mistakes made by the Romans, and look what happened to the Romans!   I don’t know enough about economics to judge how valid the Austrians’ arguments are, though they do seem to be a fair way outside the mainstream of economic thought.  It is interesting though that they seem to base the story on this bit of Gibbon rather than going back to the primary sources.  Gibbon himself with his usual diligence quotes the code of Majorian to indicate where he got it from, and further quotes some research on monetary values to explain why the earlier coins were more desirable.  To be fair to the Austrians, the story does broadly seem to confirm the gist of what they are saying and they do have a lot more data on which their ideas are based.  It isn’t as if their intellectual world stands or falls by this particular anecdote.  But they seem to have built quite a large structure on quite flimsy evidence when they talk about what the late empire teaches us about money.  But that is the way with Gibbon.  Although he usually justifies what he says, and qualifies it where he should, the picture he paints is so vivid it is hard not to go away thinking what he has written is what happened rather than one man’s interpretation.

But whatever the economists make of it the empire was in bad shape on the ground. Many local officials, who were held accountable for unpaid taxes in their regions had simply fled. Fleeing the empire was a much more straight forward business now.  Its borders had retreated to the extent that outside Italy itself there were hardly any large areas of imperial authority left.  The tax base had shrunk considerably, so it is perhaps unsurprising that what was left of it was taxed so heavily and indiscriminately.  But to no avail.  Majorian attempted to reform this by relieving the officials of their personal responsibility.  He also commanded them to return to their posts.  How effective these measures were we don’t know, but at least an attempt was being made at reform.  But in the circumstances it isn’t hard to see why Majorian seems to have been nostalgic for an earlier time.  But Majorian did what he could to restore Rome to its former glory.  One issue that concerned him was the decline in the numbers of the Romans himself.  Governments are at their most cack handed when it comes to social policy, but he pulled what levers he could.  Adultery was made an offence.  Widows were obliged to remarry within a year.  It had to be a long term project, so full marks to Majorian for thinking ahead.  The Romans didn’t manage to breed themselves back to greatness, but at least it was an attempt to change the game back in their favour.

Majorian had a an armful of long term and short term problems to deal with, and it is to his credit that he had a go at tackling all of them.  But there was one issue that quite rightly eclipsed all others for urgency.  Genseric’s Vandals had not been satisfied with simply looting Rome itself.  They continued their piracy.  Anywhere in Italy close to the coast was in danger from their raids.  And that is quite a lot of Italy.

Majorian would have known well the history of the last time Rome had fought with Carthage.  The two cities were natural rivals for control of the Mediterranean.  And there were two lessons.  In the long run the superior resources of Italy would always win out.  The Romans had won their previous war with Carthage despite the huge talents of the Carthaginian general Hannibal.  In the short run, control of the sea was the key.  Whichever city ruled the waves would have the initiative.  In the first century BC the Romans had astonished their enemies and the world by constructing a fleet of 160 ships in 60 days.  Majorian exceeded that feat and set to sea to challenge the Vandals with 300 vessels. Genseric desperately sued for peace.

He might well have done so.  He was in a weak position despite all his apparent success. But he had a stroke of luck. He somehow discovered the location of the fleet and was able to destroy it at anchor. There was a suggestion that treachery was involved. The trouble with being a reformer is that there are always going to be people who are benefiting from the abuses which you are reforming.  Majorian might have impressed future historians, but  on the ground he was creating enemies.  Returning to Rome in defeat, the people who weren’t happy had their opportunity to get rid of him.  The Senate called for him to resign.  And he did.  In the event he died 5 days later anyway, so it probably made very little difference.  But it was a sad end to the only reign in this period that really justifies the name.  And sad too, was the symbolism.  This was the fate that any emperor who tried to do something about the decline of the empire could expect.

Majorian had owed his appointment to Count Ricimer, the viceroy of the Eastern Empire.  Ricimer had perhaps realised he had made a mistake by selecting an emperor who was intent on ruling and, you know doing things.  It suited the wiley barbarian’s ambitions much better to appoint a non-entity.  And that was exactly what he did next in the form of a man called Severus.  We don’t know much about his background or what he was like.  Or what is policies were, or what he did.   In this, we may be in the same boat as his nominal subjects.  His reign of six years did not make any impression on history.  He was basically an instrument in the hands of Ricimer who ruled Italy as its king in all but name.

But Ricimer did not have everything his own way.  Two generals refused to accept the authority of his puppet emperor.  You can see their point, but the last thing the rump of the empire needed was further fragmentation.  Marcellinus had been an associate of Aetius who had rebelled, or rather been forced to rebel, during the purge that followed the murder of Aetius by Valentinian.   Marcellinus had been in charge of Dalmatia at the time.   He had retained the loyalty of the troops there and so could declare independence.  He was liked by his troops obviously but he also seems to have been popular with the people under his jurisdiction.  He was a pagan and a friend of the philosopher Salustus.  It is a shame we don’t know more about him.  It is tempting to imagine him as a lover of Rome’s ancient traditions and motivated by some kind of honourable sense of duty to the long dead republic.  That he freely acknowledged the authority of Majorian fits in with this.  He and his forces were a key part of the planned assault on the Vandals in Africa.  This was a dangerous thing for a rebel to be doing and suggests that his reconciliation with the main body of the empire was sincere.  So when the death of Majorian was announced, Marcellinus found himself in Sicily, which he instantly annexed to his territory. Or as he would probably see it, liberated from the control of the barbarian Ricimer.

Aegidius was the chief military officer of his friend Majorian in Gaul.  His reaction to the death of his friend was to instantly rebel.  He established an alternative empire in northern Gaul.  If Marcellinus consciously harked back to a golden age of Roman greatness, Aegidius was following another Roman tradition of breakaway emperors.  But the situation was very different now.  A Roman emperor could only operate by putting together support amongst the barbarian tribes.   The Visogoths had thrown their lot in with Ricimer and effectively blocked Aegidius from marching on Italy.   But Aegidius countered this with an alliance with the Franks.  In fact at one point he was elected their king – a curious job title for a Roman.  In fact it is probably a mistake to think of it as anything other than a nominal Roman empire at all.  Aegidius was from a fairly Roman background and used the prestige of the empire as the basis of his authority.  But he was in reality a barbarian leader in practice maintaining his position the same way as the barbarian leaders he dealt with on a daily basis.

So to summarise – Italy looks a lot like a kingdom with a barbarian king, Ricimer, but claims to be the empire.  Dalmatia is run by Marcellinus, someone who looks like a Roman emperor but is technically a rebel.  Northern Gaul is run by Aegidius claiming to be a Roman emperor but who moonlights as a barbarian king.  In terms of actual relationship to an established dynasty the front runner was Hunneric, the Vandal son of Genseric.  He was married to Eudocia.  Eudocia was the daughter of Eudoxia, the last surviving descendent of the great Theodosius.  It was hardly a match made in heaven.  Eudocia was not a willing bride.  Hunneric probably wasn’t a willing groom.  But as his calculating father had worked out – he was despite all this strictly speaking the legitimate emperor of the western empire.  That had to be worth something.  In fact it turned out to be worth quite a bit.  Genseric simply made contact with the East and negotiated.  He threw in a non-aggression pact with the return of the royal family and got a huge pile of treasure in return.  Genseric was basically an odious human being, but there is something you can’t help but admire in his ability to translate outrageous violence into hard cash.  But he wasn’t satisfied yet and renewed the intensity of his raids on the western empire to compensate for lost hunting grounds in the east.

Vandal raids were rapacious but they were well organised and efficient. They weren’t like Viking raids – they were planned by Genseric himself who had the resources of a state behind him.  Targets were selected – at the last minute for security reasons – and flotillas of vessels descended on the chosen area.  Cavalry were included to sweep areas quite deep inland.  This must have meant that the ships were quite big, so presumably they had plenty of storage space for the loot.

Ricimer found himself under extreme pressure.  Even in a non-democratic state the legitimacy of the government does have some importance, and an inability to protect citizens’ lives and property undermined him considerably.  He had no fleet of his own.  The Eastern fleet was now neutral and the fleet of Marcellinus was positively hostile.  Ricimer had further enraged him by bribing the troops on Sicily to return to imperial control. So something needed to be done.  Luckily for Ricimer, the situation in the Eastern Empire changed. A new emperor was in charge called Leo the Great.  Gibbon notes that the recent Greek experience of emperors had given them a fairly modest baseline from which to reach their assessment of Leo’s greatness.  But nonetheless he was pursuing an active foreign policy and wanted changes in Italy.

The separation of the two halves of the Roman empire had never been as formal or official as it appears from history – it was much more of a personal arrangement amongst the ruling classes.  So it was never really clear what the relationship between the two emperors was supposed to be.  In the circumstances that the Eastern Empire was still intact and powerful and the Western one was weak and divided it was perhaps natural to assume that the East was the senior party.  Certainly there was little that anyone in the west could do to assert their independence had they wished, but nobody seemed to wish to anyway.

So when Leo reorganised his policy in the West everyone fitted in and reinforced the perception that the Eastern empire was basically in charge.   Leo’s changes were far ranging and aimed at putting the west back onto some kind of reasonable footing. First off there was reconciliation with Marcellinus.  To get him back on board it was necessary to get rid of the puppet Severus.  This was done in the most convenient fashion, which was death. A new emperor, Anthemius,  was installed, sourced from Constantinople.  Most significantly huge resources were allocated to the long overdue project of recovering Africa from the Vandals.  Finally somebody seemed to be taking seriously re-establishing the power of Rome in the West.

So the reign of Anthemius opened with great optimism.  Anthemius himself was an attractive character. He was liberal minded and although an orthodox Christian himself he was notably tolerant of heretics and of the last remnants of paganism. These were now a tiny minority.  The statues of the gods had been destroyed by the Vandals and the long closed temples had had the last of their holy items removed.  But there still remained one last great pagan festival that had not been totally extinguished.  And it was one of the oldest, if not the oldest.  In February the city still resounded to the raucous celebration of the Lupercalia.  This rite might well have preceded the founding of the city.  It was certainly a bucolic affair, presided over by Faunus, who is better known by his Greek name of Pan.

It was centred on the grove on the Palantine hill where Romulus and Remus were supposed to have been suckled by the she-wolf.  A goat and a dog were sacrificed and their skins were made into leather thongs.  The votaries of Pan wearing only goat skins would run about whipping women who lined up to take advantage of a practice that was supposed to enhance their fertility and reduce the pain of childbirth.  It was public spirited as well since it also promoted the fertility of that year’s crops.  You can see why it was popular.  But it was not to last much longer.  The popes needless to say disapproved of even this venerable and age old custom and succeeded in getting it banned a few decades after the reign of Anthemius.


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