Emperors, Kings and Warlords

`Since the Roman state is now either dead or at the very least dying in those areas where it still seems alive.' - Salvian, middle of the fifth century.'

Salvian's view was deeply pessimistic and part of a work condemning the wickedness, greed and corruption of Roman society. This sinfulness was all the worse because the Romans were now Christians and ought to have known better. Many churchmen expressed much the same idea. Expectation of Jesus' Second Coming had always been strong amongst Christians. To many the disasters suffered especially by the Western Empire in the fifth century seemed clear signs of the coming Apocalypse. There was a long tradition in classical literature of understanding events in moral terms. For Christians this was even stronger. Salvian claimed that the barbarian invaders were being used by God to punish the sinful Romans. Inevitably, such beliefs encouraged him to paint a very bleak picture of life in the empire. We need to be very cautious in using such sources, but also should note that his attitude was shaped by real experiences. In 418 Salvian had witnessed the Frankish sack of Trier. For some three decades up to his death he was presbyter at Massilia (Marseilles), not far away from the Gothic kingdom established in Aquitania. Just a few years after Salvian's death the last emperor to rule in Italy would be deposed.

The house of Theodosius the Great had already failed in both empires around the middle of the fifth century. Theodosius II died in 450, and his cousin Valentinian III was murdered just five years later. Neither left a son to succeed him or, indeed, had made any clear effort to mark out a successor. Some link with the imperial family was provided in the east when Marcian married the emperor's sister Pulcheria. Yet she was now well into middle age and even if she renounced her long-held vow of chastity in more than just name, there was never any prospect of the couple producing children. It would in fact be some time before an emperor was succeeded by his son. Instead, the choice of new emperors - and indeed the disposal of the current incumbent - usually had more to do with the decisions of powerful generals and other figures at court.

The Western Empire very quickly relapsed into the familiar pattern of usurpation and civil war. Petronius Maximus had encouraged the killing of Aetius and then arranged the murder of Valentinian I 11. Others were also eager for imperial power, but he was the most determined and best organised in the immediate aftermath of the assassination and was able to proclaim himself emperor. He married Valentinian's daughter Eudocia - the same girl betrothed some years before to the son of King Geiseric of the Vandals. It is not clear whether this was the provocation that sparked the subsequent Vandal attack on Italy. Some eastern sources alleged that the girl's mother Eudoxia actually appealed to Geiseric for assistance. On the other hand, a naval expedition on such a large scale needed considerable preparation, making it more than likely that the Vandal king was already contemplating some form of attack before this occurred. With Aetius dead, the armies of the Western Empire had yet to find another strong leader. Italy was easy for the Vandals to reach and highly vulnerable, at least in the immediate future.'

The Vandals arrived outside Rome itself in May 455. Petronius Maximus was there, but had neither the forces loyal to him nor the spirit to mount a defence. He fled, along with many others, and was killed during the confusion. One story says that he was knocked from his horse by a stone flung by one of his own soldiers and then finished off by a mob. His reign lasted less than three months. Shortly afterwards the Vandal army was admitted to the city - no one made any effort to defend its walls - and for two weeks it thoroughly plundered Rome. Like Alaric's Goths the Vandals were Arian Christians and they responded to the appeal of the pope to treat the churches with respect. Yet their plundering of Rome lasted far longer and gives every impression of having been more systematic than the sack of 410. Geiseric and his men had considerable experience of piracy and looting since they had established themselves in Africa and taken to the seas as raiders. It made practical sense to maintain a level of order and control during the pillaging, rather than simply killing, destroying and stealing at the will of each individual. Such activities were likely to waste much of the spoils and reduce the profits for all. The inhabitants of the city were less likely to resist if they could see this, in the hope that the enemy would refrain from more random and concerted brutality. For them it was simply a question of surviving as best they could. Amongst the treasures carried off were the remnants of the plunder taken by Titus from the Temple in Jerusalem when it was destroyed in 70. Apart from gold, the Vandals also took with them Valentinian's widow Eudoxia and her two daughters. They were not the only captives, and the prospect of those taken simply as slaves was not pleasant. The bishop of Carthage sold church plate to buy the freedom of many of these prisoners. Others may have been less fortunate.3

Petronius Maximus had not been recognised by Constantinople and, indeed, his rule was only in the process of being acknowledged throughout the Western Empire when he was killed. Representatives had been sent to key figures throughout the provinces to ensure their support. Petronius had chosen a senior ally by the name of Avitus to go to the Gothic kingdom in Aquitania, currently ruled by Theodoric II. The Goths had helped Aetius repulse the Huns just a few years ago. The Gothic kings were more often than not loyal allies of the empire. There were periods of friction, but they were certainly far less consistently hostile than the Vandals. Nevertheless, their goodwill and support could not be taken for granted by any emperor. As the most powerful of all the tribal kingdoms established within the provinces, they were a major factor in determining the balance of power and hence the success or failure of a regime.

While Avitus was still at Toulouse the news arrived of the death of Petronius. The ambassador promptly persuaded the Goths to proclaim him emperor. Only later did Avitus receive backing from a more unambiguously `Roman' source, when a gathering of leading men from the Gallic provinces acknowledged his rule at Arelate (modern Arles) in July. There was no matching support from the army and civilian leaders in Italy. For more than a generation the posts in both Gaul and Italy had tended to be filled almost exclusively by local men. The aristocracies in each area were becoming more regional and so reluctant to accept rule by `outsiders'. The troops in Italy- mainly mercenary and allied contingents, although it is possible some regular units survived if only in name - were commanded by Ricimer and Majorian. These men adamantly refused to accept the new emperor. Constantinople also refrained from giving its seal of approval to Avitus.4

In 456 Avitus led an army into Italy, but was defeated in the Po Valley outside Placentia (modern Piacenza). Giving up power, he retired to become a bishop, but died within a matter of months. There were rumours of foul play. After concerted negotiation with the eastern court, Majorian was made Augustus of the Western Empire at the very end of 457 with the full backing of his colleague in Constantinople. Marcian had died in January and a relatively obscure army officer called Leo was made emperor in his place. Leo's acclamation was elaborate and protracted even by the standards of imperial ceremony, and suggests a conscious effort to establish the legitimacy of his rule. For the moment the eastern imperial court remained dominated by the senior commander Aspar and his family. Leo was his choice, and it would be some time before the new emperor was able to break free from the influence of his senior general. In the east the contest was mainly over who could control the emperor. In the west competition for power was less focused and more often openly violent.'

Power Lost and Found

The Gothic kingdom was the single greatest power block within the Western Empire, simply because it was able to field the strongest army. No other group - including the remnants of the Roman army - was on its own capable of matching the force wielded by the Gothic king. There were other powers, such as the Burgundian kingdom settled in eastern Gaul by Aetius, and the Franks, now firmly established west of the Rhine. In Spain the Suevi had never fully been under Roman control, while North Africa had long since been lost to the Vandals. In some ways these different groups held each other in check and the Romans continued to employ one barbarian group against another. Avitus sent the Goths, as well as contingents of Franks and Burgundians, to attack the Suevi. Majorian continued to employ the Goths to fight in Spain, in spite of a brief conflict with them in Gaul. They were too valuable as allies and too dangerous as enemies to risk prolonged confrontation. It was simply far more attractive to employ their aggressive tendencies against other threats. In a relatively short time, the Suevi were confined permanently to the extreme north-west of the Iberian Peninsula. Their kingdom would survive in that region for centuries, but never again became more than a limited local threat. It is doubtful whether the Goths' successes ever genuinely brought territory back under direct imperial control. This was blatantly true after 466, when Theodoric II was murdered and replaced by his younger brother Euric. The new king openly expanded his own realm in Gaul and Spain.'

Unlike the Suevi, the Vandals were harder to reach and could not be dealt with simply by persuading another barbarian group to attack them. Reaching Africa required a fleet large enough to carry a sizeable army over to North Africa as well as the supplies needed to keep it there. Even with substantial resources, such an operation was inevitably complex and risky. In 46o Majorian prepared to invade from bases in Spain, but before the invasion could be launched he lost the bulk of his fleet to a sudden attack by Geiseric. The project had to be abandoned since no replacement ships were available in the foreseeable future. Roman prestige in Spain, such as it was, suffered a serious blow. Even worse was the damage to Majorian's own reputation. When he returned to Italy in 461 Ricimer had him deposed and executed. The general - like most senior officers a man of barbarian, in his case Suevic, ancestry - may have disliked having an emperor who was clearly determined to act on his own initiative. The failure of the North African expedition offered a good opportunity for disposing of him. A few months later Ricimer had the much weaker Libius Severus proclaimed emperor. This time there was no recognition from Constantinople.7

For some time the rule of the new emperor was scarcely acknowledged outside Italy itself. In Gaul the commander of the troops in the region was in rebellion against Ricimer, but was too busy trying to control the Goths to mount a serious offensive. Another general broke away in Dalmatia, declaring loyalty to the eastern emperor Leo, but refusing to accept the rule of Libius Severus in Ravenna. This was an extreme although not unprecedented situation. The Western Empire had been steadily losing more and more of its territory and revenue throughout the fifth century. Each settlement of a barbarian group, whether it was made under the authority of the emperor and his representatives or independently through blatant force, further reduced the imperial resources. Each region occupied in this way ceased to pay tax into the imperial coffers.

In 395 the Western Empire was the less prosperous of the two halves into which Theodosius' empire was divided. Since then it had suffered successive blows as Britain, Spain, North Africa and much of Gaul ceased to be under its direct control and to yield revenue. Stilicho, Constantius and Aetius had enjoyed prolonged periods of dominance, but had always lacked the resources of money, food and men to do much more than juggle the various threats and problems. They were able to keep them from becoming fatal, without ever winning more permanent victories. The settlement of groups of barbarians within the provinces was often attractive in the short term. Yet it inevitably meant another area removed from the imperial taxation system. The income of the Western Empire continued to shrink. Those regions not permanently lost were not necessarily fully under control, and many areas had suffered from raiding and civil wars. All of the barbarian groups established within the provinces at times chose to attack or try to conquer the neighbouring communities. Thus threats increased and were established within the heartland of the empire at the same time as the resources to deal with them dwindled s away.

The greatest single blow to the fortunes of the Western Empire was the loss of Africa to the Vandals. Italy had long relied on African grain to supply its needs and, more generally, it was one of the most productive areas of the entire Roman world when it came to tax and resources. Majorian's attempt to recapture North Africa made considerable sense. In 468 there was another effort, this time with the massive participation of the Eastern Empire, which sent troops and a fleet of more than a thousand vessels - many of them doubtless small transport ships. Relations between the eastern and western courts had improved following the death by natural causes of Libius Severus in 465. It took almost two years of negotiation before Ricimer agreed to accept a new emperor nominated by Leo. During this time there was no emperor in the west, although it is doubtful if this made much difference to life there. The new emperor was called Anthemius and Ricimer married his daughter to seal their alliance. For all the massive preparation and pooling of resources - substantial numbers of troops supplied by the western government were also involved - the second expedition also ended in disaster. This time the great fleet reached the African coast, but its commander then hesitated, halted operations and began to negotiate. A few days later, Geiseric seized the opportunity offered by a favourable wind to break up the invasion fleet with fire-ships and then attacked the scattered and already panicking remnants.'

After this second humiliating failure the Vandals were not attacked again until the sixth century. It took the Eastern Empire many years to recover from the massive and wasted cost of Leo's expedition in 468. The Western Empire continued to do without the revenues from North Africa, and in the following years the aggressive example of King Euric was followed by other leaders established within and alongside the remaining provinces. The already small resources at the disposal of the Western Empire continued to decline. In parts of Gaul there were risings by groups dubbed Bagaudae, first encountered in the late third century (see page 159). Dismissed as little better than bandits in our sources, the reality was probably much more complicated. At this and other times there are signs that some of their leaders were educated and had at least started life as members of the local aristocracy.'0

In many regions powerful landowners maintained considerable bands of followers on their estates. Some of these men were effectively mercenaries and, like the bulk of the troops who fought for the western emperors, they were usually of barbarian origin. Scholars these days tend to refer to such local forces as `self-help groups', implying a broadly benevolent and defensive role. They are seen as an indication that local communities had to look to their own devices to protect themselves in an increasingly dangerous world. This may have been the case in some instances, but other interpretations are equally possible. The local landowner with his gang of hired thugs may genuinely have been willing to use this force to protect his tenants and neighbours from bandits and raiding barbarians. Possession of such a force may equally have allowed a man to dominate the lands around, using threats or force itself to bully his neighbours. As in any period the lines between an informal police force, a group of vigilantes and a paramilitary/criminal gang controlling and `protecting' its own patch are narrow and often unclear."

The trend in the fifth-century west was for power to become more local. An extreme example was Britain after the end of formal government. Northern parts of Gaul similarly seem to have fragmented into many separate units at a quite early stage. In contrast, by the end of Euric's reign the Goths controlled an area larger than several Roman provinces, although his realm did not neatly follow the old administrative boundaries. Other barbarian leaders controlled less territory than the Goths at this stage. Then there were the smaller, much more local powers, whether city leaders, major landlords or smaller chieftains able to dominate a small area and take by force or extort what they needed to support their followers.

The degree of independence enjoyed by all of these figures from kings to landowners and bandit leaders varied. Some may have acknowledged the principle of imperial control, even if they ignored the emperors with impunity on a day-to-day basis. By no stretch of the imagination were they part of a clear hierarchy of imperial administration. No emperor could simply replace, or even bring to trial, one of the tribal kings. Stopping even minor infractions could only be done by the threat, and usually the actual use of force. Yet the imperial power no longer possessed a clear and decisive dominance when it came to the use of force. The rise of numerous regional powers was the key development in the west during the fifth century. The most powerful were all direct results of barbarian settlement. Each marked another stage in the decay of the Western Empire, which in the end would lead to the disappearance of emperors ruling from Italy. Yet they were from the start consequences of imperial weakness. They were not its root cause. Successive governments had more or less willingly agreed to, or at least accepted, the creation of kingdoms within the provinces. That this was felt unavoidable, or at best the most attractive of available options, demonstrates just how weak the empire was in the first place.

There were other signs of the steady seepage of power away from the emperors. We have already observed that even in the fourth century it was often extremely difficult for the emperor to control imperial officials and army commanders. In the fifth century powerful generals and senior court figures more often dominated emperors than the other way round. The general Aspar was exceptionally powerful in the Eastern Empire for decades, relying in part on the promotion of his relatives to key posts and the continued loyalty of mainly Gothic troops within the army. Emperor Leo recruited very heavily from the Isaurian highlanders of Asia Minor to provide himself with a force to counter this power block. These men came from within the empire, but the region had a long history of banditry and rebellion and they were seen as effectively barbarians and bandits. In the end, he felt able to have Aspar murdered in 471. It is notable, as with Aetius, that an emperor preferred informal killing to dismissal or trial. That these were not safe options was promptly demonstrated by the rebellion of Aspar's supporters. Peace was only achieved after granting considerable concessions."

Another sign of the decay of central authority was the growing prominence of bishops as leaders in local affairs. To some extent this was a result of the type of wealthy, well-educated and connected men attracted to the Church. It is probably mistaken to lament that such men did not instead seek imperial service. The imperial administration was not any more notably efficient before this trend became pronounced. In addition, those who went into the Church often displayed as much enthusiasm for intrigue and fierce competition as those who took posts in the imperial bureaucracy. On several occasions the election of a bishop, including the pope, was contested by mobs willing to fight for their favoured candidate. There were also disputes over the supremacy of the major metropolitan sees, Alexandria in particular proving itself unwilling to submit to the authority of the much newer church at Constantinople, even though the latter was the imperial capital and centre of secular government. Politics and the individual ambition often coloured the theological disputes that continued to divide the Church. The nature of the Trinity was no longer controversial and, instead, disputes concerned the precise definition of Christ's nature during his incarnation, and whether or not distinct human and divine natures had existed simultaneously."

Early in the fifth century the potential abuse of a bishop's power and position was well illustrated by the career of Cyril, bishop of Alexandria from 412. It was significant that his predecessor was his own uncle, which shows that his family was already prominent. Cyril made frequent use of bands of monks to intimidate not only other bishops, but also the provincial governor. In successive attacks on pagans, Jews and Christian heretics he went far beyond imperial legislation and in the process flexed his muscles. At the same time he was careful to send regular `gifts' to powerful figures at court. In 415 his followers murdered in spectacularly brutal fashion the famous Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia, who was the rarest of things in classical history - a woman holding a post at one of the most famous universities in the world. Although pagan, we know that she included prominent Christians amongst her circle of friends, including priests and the governor Orestes. The latter had already come into conflict and even been attacked by Cyril's monks. The bishop even tried to portray the governor as a secret pagan. In many ways Hypatia was killed simply so that Cyril's men could demonstrate their power. Afterwards they were only briefly dispersed and in due course the bishop would call on similar support in his other projects. Willing to make free use of intimidation and violence, Cyril was also a skilful operator in Church politics. He was willing to appeal to the pope in Rome when in dispute with the bishop in Constantinople. For all his use of violence, he remained highly respected as a theologian and played a key role in several church councils. During these he also demonstrated his skill as a politician, making concessions when necessary to preserve his prominence.14

Cyril was not an attractive figure and it would be easy to see the rise of men like him as a direct consequence of the abasement of Theodosius before Bishop Ambrose of Milan. It is impossible to imagine Constantine permitting such licence in a bishop. Yet this was not simply a case of the Church as an organisation independent of the imperial hierarchy steadily increasing its power at the expense of the state. Instead, it expanded into a vacuum already created by the decay of central authority. It would have required major and united effort on the part of the provincial and imperial authorities to control a man like Cyril. The imperial bureaucracy had long since ceased to be united in purpose and Cyril was a shrewd enough politician to win or buy favour from enough influential senior officials to protect himself. Time after time the authorities decided that it was not worth the effort of controlling him. Ambitious bishops of this sort - rather like the barbarian kings in the western provinces - knew that they could not simply act as they wanted. There were limits, but they also understood that the power of the central authorities was weaker than it once had been. They could get away with a great deal, especially if they waited for a suitable opportunity when the authorities were preoccupied with other problems. Cyril's talent for politics, high reputation as a theologian and the current weakness of imperial authority allowed him to succeed. Other bishops, including his successors, were not always so fortunate and sometimes suffered deposition or exile when they incurred imperial displeasure.

The Changing World

Bishops appear in a less negative light as leaders rallying the local population to defend themselves against attack. St Germanus was credited by his biographer with leading a scratch force of Britons to defeat a raiding army. A less spectacular and ultimately unsuccessful role was performed by Sidonius Apollinaris, the bishop of Clermont, in opposing the aggression of Euric's Goths. A member of the Gallic provincial aristocracy, Sidonius had entered the Church comparatively late in life. By both education and inclination deeply traditional, his writings tell us a good deal about how the leading provincials adapted to the new reality of barbarian kings living beside and amongst them. Sidonius left a very detailed and generally flattering portrait of the Gothic king, Theodoric II:

His figure is well proportioned, he is shorter than the very tall, taller and more commanding than the average man. The top of his hair is round, and on it his curled hair retreats gently from his even forehead.... His chin, throat, and neck support not fat, but fullness; the skin is milk white."

Describing the king's routine, including before dawn attending an Arian service where `he worships with great earnestness, though between ourselves one can see that this devotion is a matter of routine rather than conviction'. Afterwards he devoted himself to administration, receiving deputations, before breaking fora visit to his treasury or stables.'6

The description is far from the well-established stereotype of a barbarian. Even the claim that petitioners were more likely to be successful if they let Theodoric win at board or dice games only in part approaches such cliche. In many respects Sidonius could as easily have been describing the daily routine of an early third-century emperor. He and other Gallic aristocrats felt able to deal with such a man, without themselves becoming in any way less Roman.'7

Living the sophisticated, leisurely and highly literate life of a Roman aristocrat was important to Sidonius and his contemporaries. One of his letters describes in great and, after the fashion of the day, hugely overblown terms the bath house at a friend's villa in Gaul. Another describes a much more primitive bathing experience, because he claims the hosts had yet to complete the construction of their bath. Instead, their servants hastily dug a trench `close to a spring or river'. A pile of heated stones was poured into the flooded trench and `while the ditch was heating it was roofed over with a dome constructed of pliant hazel twigs turned into a hemispherical shape'. The guests got in and `here we while away the hours with no lack of witty and humorous conversation'. Men like Sidonius were determined to be `Roman' regardless of the limited facilities at the disposal even of aristocrats in fifth-century Gaul."

Sidonius was one of those who felt that Romans could not accept the aggression that became characteristic of the Goths in Euric's day. Other members of the provincial aristocracy were more favourably inclined towards the Gothic leader or perhaps simply pragmatic. As bishop, Sidonius defended his city against a concerted Gothic siege. The fighting seems to have been very small scale - we read of a party of fewer than twenty horsemen who were able to fight their way through the enemy blockade. Yet there was little real help from outside and eventually the emperor in Ravenna decided to give Clermont and other border towns to the Goths as the price of peace and to secure more important cities, including Arelate (modern Arles) and Massilia (modern Marseilles). Euric was fairly moderate in victory and Sidonius was only imprisoned for a few months. During his captivity he was able to study and write, but complained about two elderly and inebriated Gothic women who kept him awake by talking throughout the night outside his room."

Sidonius had witnessed the acclamation of Avitus, who was his fatherin-law, and came into contact with several other emperors and their courts, seeking favour and office. His writings never give the impression that any of the emperors or their representatives were especially powerful in Gaul itself. There is no trace of the regular army that had once existed. Sidonius' father had been praetorian prefect of the Gallic diocese around the middle of the century, but it is hard to say just how much control such a senior official actually had in this area by that period. All of Sidonius' writings demonstrate the need for tact when speaking of Gothic and other barbarian leaders.

Even less sense of central government is given by The Life of St Severinus, a biography of a holy man - he does not seem actually to have been a priest - active in Noricum (modern Austria) on the Danube from just after the middle of the fifth century. A few small units of limitanei appear. One tribune - interestingly, the man later became a bishop - pleaded his inability to confront a group of barbarian raiders, because his soldiers were very few in number and virtually unarmed. Encouraged by Severinus, he and his men chased the raiders, surprising and routing them. A few prisoners were taken, but allowed to go free after Severinus had warned them not to return."

More generally we are told that:

At the time when the Roman Empire was still in existence, the soldiers of many towns were supported by public money for their watch on the wall. When this arrangement ceased, the military formations were dissolved and, at the same time, the wall was allowed to break down. The garrison at Batavis, however, held out. Some of these had gone to Italy to fetch for their comrades the last payment, but on their way had been routed by the barbarians."

The bodies of the dead men eventually floated back down the river and were discovered. The impression is of the last remnants of the frontier army simply vanishing when the pay, supplies and other support stopped arriving. At least one community hired a group of barbarians to protect them, but the garrison thus introduced to the walled town was soon seen as a burden. In the confusion caused by an earthquake the barbarians were driven from the town, some even killing each other in the confusion."

Life was dangerous in Noricum during these years, but there was no single enemy. A range of tribal groups appear, including the Rugi, Heruli, Goths and Alamanni, as do a number of chieftains or kings. All of these raided into the province, usually on a fairly small scale. The aim was to take plunder and captives. Occasionally, whole communities were destroyed, usually after ignoring Severinus' warnings. Some chieftains, notably King Feva of the Rugi, seem to have established themselves permanently within the province and subjected some of the provincial population to their rule. Severinus was able at times to moderate the actions of some of these leaders. However, even his successes were always temporary. The general trend was to the destruction or abandonment of community after community and a withdrawal of the population away from the Danube. Eventually, a large part of the surviving population abandoned the province altogether, taking with them the remains of St Severinus who had died in 482."

The world of The Life of St Severinus is more obviously gloomy and dangerous than that conjured up in Sidonius Apollinaris' letters. Noricum appears as a considerably bleaker place than Gaul, the only encouraging notes coming from the faith and power of Severinus. Each reveals life at a time when the Western Empire was weaker than it had been even a generation before. The professional army had disappeared, as had the allied and mercenary forces with which Constantius and Aetius had held things together for a while. Central government lacked the capacity to intervene in local affairs as a matter of course. In contrast, there were various leaders of barbarian origin, either established within the provinces or able to attack them. These were not invariably hostile, nor were they irredeemably and implacably savage, but they were foreign. They were also facts of life. There was no force capable of destroying them - even defeats over the smaller groups were generally limited and short term. Circumstances varied from area to area and individual to individual, but there was little choice but to come to terms with these new powers.

The Last Emperor

In the Western Empire relations between Anthemius and Ricimer soured over time, and in 472 open war broke out between the emperor and his general. Anthemius employed the services of an army of Goths from the Danube - part of the wider group now conveniently known as Ostrogoths or `East Goths', as distinct from the Visigoths or `West Goths' established in Gaul. (The terms themselves did not appear until the sixth century and at this stage the Ostrogoths remained divided into a number of distinct groups.) This Gothic aid proved insufficient and the emperor was defeated and executed in July. Ricimer replaced him with one of the few men left with even the vaguest connection to the house of Theodosius. This was a Roman aristocrat named Olybrius, who was married to Valentinian III's younger daughter Placidia. Diplomacy had secured the couple's return from captivity amongst the Vandals some years before. The new regime was short-lived. Ricimer and Olybrius both died of disease within a few weeks of each other in the autumn of 472.14

Command of the army in Italy now passed to Ricimer's nephew Gundobad. In 473 he created a new emperor, choosing a court official named Glycerius. Emperor Leo refused to acknowledge this appointment. Gundobad was a Burgundian prince as well as a Roman officer, and at some point he seems to have decided that his best prospects for power and success lay amongst his own people. He left Italy to pursue other ambitions and never returned. In 474 the Eastern Empire backed an invasion of Italy led by the general Julius Nepos. Glycerius was deposed, but his life was spared and he retired to become a bishop. Julius Nepos was proclaimed emperor. Like that of his immediate predecessors, his rule was scarcely acknowledged outside Italy, even though he was accepted by Constantinople. It was one of his decisions that surrendered Clermont to the Visigoths, much to the disgust of Sidonius Apollinaris.

Nepos' power was not unchallenged, even in Italy itself. The troops there - all apparently contingents from the Germanic tribes, including significant numbers of Rugi and Heruli from the Danubian frontier - were commanded by Orestes. Even more than Gundobad, this man illustrated the confused loyalties and career patterns of the fifth century. Decades before, he had served Attila the Hun as a secretary and ambassador. In 475 he rebelled against Nepos, who fled from Italy and returned to his old base in Dalmatia. Constantinople protested, but did nothing tangible to assist him. Leo had died in 474. He was succeeded jointly by his son-in-law Zeno and the latter's son and his grandson, the sevenyear-old Leo II. The boy died within a year, leaving his father as sole ruler. Zeno - his original name was Tarasicodissa - was an Isaurian nobleman promoted to senior rank and married to the emperor's daughter. His rise was one of the more spectacular consequences of Leo's favouring of the Isaurians to create a military force loyal to him over senior generals like Aspar. In 475 the new emperor faced a serious challenge from the usurper Basiliscus. Zeno fled from Constantinople, which until late in the next year remained under the control of his rival. In the end Zeno prevailed, and he would go on to survive further challenges to his rule, but the struggle within the Eastern Empire ensured that there was no prospect of major intervention in the west during these years.15

Orestes named his young son as emperor in 475. The boy was called Romulus, but swiftly acquired the nickname Augustulus or `the Little Augustus'. He was the most obvious puppet ruler in a succession of weak emperors created by the commanders of the forces in Italy. The importance of these generals depended on the loyalty of their troops. In 476 Orestes lost this to another officer named Odoacer. There was discontent amongst the soldiers because the new government had refused their demands for land - or perhaps the tax revenue derived from it. Orestes was killed, his son merely deposed and allowed to live out his life in comfortable seclusion. He was not worth the trouble of killing. Nor did Odoacer feel that it was worth creating a new emperor to replace him. Instead, the imperial regalia was formally sent to Constantinople. Officially the empire was united again, with Zeno and his successors ruling as sole emperors from Constantinople. In practice, the lands of the former Western Empire would go their own way, as a number of separate kingdoms.26

Odoacer was a Scirian, and evidently did not consider it possible or wise to seek imperial rule himself. Perhaps under pressure from his followers, he proclaimed himself as king and ruled Italy in this rank rather than simply as the head of the army there. As far as possible he preserved the existing regional and local administrative structures. The Senate still met and there continued to be city prefects and other magistrates at Rome. Major repairs were conducted on the Colosseum in 484. The absence of an emperor in the west may not have been immediately obvious to many living in Italy, let alone the other provinces. Imperial power had long since become so weak as to make the western emperors almost irrelevant. With hindsight, many in the Eastern Empire saw the year 476 as significant. Nepos lived on in exile in the Eastern Empire until his death in 480, but no effort was made to restore him to power. Odoacer minted coins with Nepos' name on them in spite of his refusal to acknowledge his rule.'

Yet few can have ignored the simple fact that ultimate power rested now with an essentially foreign army simply because it possessed superior military might. Odoacer was in his turn supplanted by a stronger war leader, King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths who invaded Italy in 489. The struggle between the two kings took several years, during which time Odoacer was able to hold out in Ravenna for a considerable period. In the end the two leaders negotiated a peace settlement by which they would share power. Shortly afterwards Theodoric had Odoacer murdered and ruled alone.z8

The people of Italy had no say in these events. This was as true of the fabulously wealthy senator as much as the slave or peasant. Continuity of culture and institutions should not hide the basic truth that the creation of the kingdoms in the west was a consequence of the blatant military power of the leaders involved. The tribal leaders did not batter down and invade a still formidable Roman Empire. They certainly used force to achieve their ends, and the settlement was at times an extremely violent and brutal process, but it was made possible by the decay of central power. The only people capable of defeating the major barbarian armies - and, indeed, many of the small warbands - were other tribal leaders. The story of the fifth century was one of the exploitation of imperial weakness. Thus the Western Empire died. Each of the new kingdoms was another serious blow to already diminishing power and resources. They were important stages in a gradual process already long underway.

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