Ancient History & Civilisation

Part V


Valentinian III and His Successors


Valentinian III (425–455).


Petronius Maximus (455). (CNG Coins via Wikimedia Commons)


Avitus (455–456). (NAC via Wikimedia Commons)


Majorian (457–261). (Sailko via Wikimedia Commons)

Eastern Emperors After the Theodosians


Marcian (450–457).


Leo I (457–474). (Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons)


Zeno (474–475, 476–491). (CNG Coins via Wikimedia Commons)


Basiliscus (475–476). (CNG Coins via Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter Seventeen

The Crises of 455–457

Between March 455 and January 457 four emperors died: three in the West, all murdered, and one at Constantinople, in his bed, of old age. The crisis occasioned by the deaths brought the two parts of the Roman Empire to the fatal breaking-point. The actual break took two decades to work through, and had been heralded for a century beforehand. For a polity that had existed in one form or another for almost seven centuries the break was inevitably slow and reluctant. It was the failure of one part of the Empire to produce emperors that marked the end. That is, the processes of choosing emperors finally failed in the West, but in the East the process continued and adapted to events, so the Eastern half really was the Roman Empire’s continuation.

The new succession crises began in September 454, when Valentinian III finally reached the stage of homicidal anger with his magister militum Aetius, the latest in a line of such over-powerful military ministers. The emperor and his magister militum had been at enmity for years, but the break seems to have come with a dispute over the succession. Aetius wished his son Gaudentius to be betrothed to the emperor’s younger daughter Placidia; Valentinian had earlier hoped to betroth her to one of Aetius’ officers, Majorian. Aetius had reacted by banishing Majorian to his home estate, but it seems that Valentinian maintained his intention, which was, of course, a means of breaking Aetius’ power over him. That power had partly been based on his ability to call on Hun troops as reinforcements; men who were his to command and so were a separate force from the army that was loyal to the emperor. The Roman-Hun war in 451–453 had, however, severed that link as the Hun Empire collapsed after the death of the Hun King Attila. The combination of Aetius’ imperial ambition, the loss of the Hun alliance and Valentinian’s wish to rule alone brought the emperor to the pitch of action.

At the beginning of an audience in the Imperial Palace in Rome that day, the emperor personally killed his great minister.1 It seems that the emperor had been persuaded that Aetius intended to kill him, which may not have surprised him and may or may not have been true, and he decided to strike first. The intrigue involved Heraclius, one of the officials of the Palace, and a member of the Roman aristocracy, Petronius Maximus, who had been a prominent minister himself for more than thirty years and was a grandson of Petronius Probus, who had been the leader of the coup of 375.

Petronius was a member of an aristocratic network that had branches in Italy and Gaul. Besides being descended from Petronius Probus, he was also the grandson of Magnus Maximus, the Western emperor of 383–388, through his mother; on his father’s side he was descended from a long line of consuls. He had himself been twice consul, twice Praetorian Prefect and twice City Prefect. He was thus a very distinguished man, and one who was at the heart of Aetius’ and Valentinian’s government; at the same time he was an active member of the Italian/Gallic senatorial aristocracy. Presumably as a result of this heredity and these offices (some of them largely honorary by this time and awarded to him because of that heredity), he had developed a very inflated idea of his worth and ability. He was certainly a most persuasive intriguer. His success in getting others to remove Aetius led him to assume he would be able to be the new general of the West, but Valentinian refused to appoint him, intending to rule himself without the intervention of any over-mighty general. Petronius responded with another intrigue by which he encompassed the murder, again by other hands, of the emperor himself.

This time he suborned two of the emperor’s guards, ‘Scythians’ called Optila and Thraustila, who had been dismayed and angered by the killing of Aetius. He promised them revenge and rewards, and they took the opportunity of Valentinian’s attendance at a military exercise in the Campus Martius to kill him. The emperor was apparently attended by only a small bodyguard at the time, and they were either in on the plot or were too slow to react. The two assassins also killed Heraclius, who was present as well. Then they ran off to report to Petronius.2

There was much uncertainty in Rome as the news of the murder spread. Three men emerged as candidates for emperor: Petronius Maximus, whose role in the killing of the former emperor only slowly became known; a man called Maximian, who had been Aetius’ steward and was said to be the son of an Egyptian merchant, though what qualities he brought to his candidature and what support he had is not clear; and Majorian, who had been reinstated by Valentinian and was still presumed to be betrothed to Placidia. Majorian was the candidate supported by Valentinian’s widow, Licinia Eudoxia, the daughter of Theodosius II.

The decision regarding who should be the next emperor was taken by a small circle of influential people, and without delay. Besides the empress, these would include Petronius Maximus, the imperial bodyguard, or at least the Guard commander, and the officials of the Palace. There is no suggestion in any of the sources – there are several for these events – that either the Senate or the Roman populace was involved, though Petronius might be considered to be the senatorial candidate.

We may therefore assume that the discussions on the new emperor took place within this small circle and that the three candidates who emerged had different sources of support. Petronius presumably had the Guard’s support, and might expect support from the Senate. He won over the Palace officials by bribery and so gained control of Eudoxia herself, compelling her to marry him. This all took place very quickly, for within a day of Valentinian’s murder Petronius was installed as emperor. He had clearly seized control of the Palace – where he could ‘bribe’ the officials and control the empress – and this was decisive. His marriage to the Augusta will have taken place later, thus going through the same sequence as with the accession of Marcian in Constantinople only five years earlier, probably not at all accidentally: the death of the emperor, the installation of the new man, then his marriage to the Augusta, which would give him an independent legitimacy, and finally the ratification by popular acclamation. He appointed his son by an earlier marriage, Palladius, as his joint emperor, and Palladius was then betrothed, or perhaps married, to the empress’s daughter Placidia; father and son were thus united, or to be united, with mother and daughter.3

We may therefore identify the elements in Rome that were considered to be decisive in determining the succession where a dispute existed as the Guard, the imperial family and the high military and Palace officials. The discussions lasted only a single day. It may perhaps be assumed that Petronius was not the first choice of any of these groups – except perhaps some of the Guard – for his seizure of power clearly had elements of force involved.

Petronius’ marriage to Licinia Eudoxia was intended to provide him with the legitimacy that marriage to an Augusta had come to imply. If this was to be the source of Petronius’ position, then it was just as necessary to annex Placidia, for her husband would have an equal claim to the throne with that of Petronius himself, and it seems to have worked. Petronius was emperor for only three months, but in that time he was unchallenged. We are not told what Majorian’s reaction was to being sidelined from his betrothed yet again.

On the other hand, Petronius’ time as emperor was turbulent, according to one source, and if he had to reward the Guard it is quite likely that they took advantage and indulged in ‘tumults of soldiers, tumults of allies’, which would no doubt be answered by the ‘popular tumults’.4 These do not, however, necessarily imply challenges to the new emperor’s position. What he really needed was some sign of recognition from Constantinople. The marriages were a signal that he expected this from Marcian, but he was not in office long enough for that signal to be received. He did not have time, either, to appoint men to offices in Gaul, or no doubt in Italy as well. It is very likely that Marcian would have refused recognition, but certainty on the point is not possible. The issue soon became moot, for the Vandals intervened first.

The Vandal King Geiseric brought an expedition to Rome to gain revenge. He had earlier negotiated the betrothal of his son to Valentinian III’s eldest daughter Eudocia, so Geiseric was in the position of an interested relative, for it seems that Petronius may now have refused to allow the match. There is also a story, repeated in several sources, though its authenticity is doubtful, that Licinia Eudoxia was so disgusted at these enforced marriages that she summoned Geiseric to her assistance. We may accept the disgust without necessarily accepting the summons. Geiseric was surely very annoyed at the news without needing to be summoned. He was on his way with the fleet and a full muster of his warriors by April; this news arrived in Rome by May and the Vandal army was camped outside the city by late that month. The Emperor Petronius fled as the Vandals arrived, for the city was virtually ungarrisoned. He was killed by the Romans as he did so, not a great surprise. Then the Vandals took the city, by agreement with the bishop, and looted it at their leisure, finishing the work by also carrying off the members of the imperial family and several other carefully selected hostages; Eudocia was then married to her Vandal prince.5

After this there could be no question of finding a new emperor in Rome, for the effect of the Vandal sack seems to have paralysed every interested authority. No doubt those who comprised the groups who had interested themselves in Petronius’ elevation – the Guards, the Senate, the army and the Palace officials – were either dead or scattered. Nor does it seem that the Emperor Marcian in Constantinople was able to intervene in the crisis that followed the death of Valentinian III. Valentinian had not been consulted on the choice of Marcian as Theodosius II’s successor in 450, though as sole Augustus after Theodosius died he should have been; relations between the two courts were thus already strained somewhat before the new crisis in Rome erupted. However, events moved so quickly in Rome that Marcian scarcely had time to react before another item of news of a new event arrived that had to be factored into his considerations.

There was therefore for a few weeks no imperial authority in Italy. The void was filled from Gaul, where the local magister militum of Gaul, M. Macilius Flavius Eparcius Avitus, was proclaimed emperor by the Visigothic King Theoderic at Tolosa. He was then acclaimed, or perhaps accepted, or even elected, at a gathering of Gallo-Roman nobles meeting at Beaucaire (on the Rhône near Arles). He moved to Arelate (Arles) where some sort of installation ceremony took place. All this took some time, about five weeks after Petronius’ death. Avitus did not hurry to Rome, eventually arriving in the city with an escort of Gallic soldiers and Visigothic troops around October.6

Avitus was a Gallic noble of high descent, who had been active in political affairs for at least two decades already. He had been an associate of Aetius in Gallic affairs and was a former tutor to the Visigothic king. He was at Tolosa on a diplomatic mission on behalf of the Emperor Petronius when he heard of Petronius’ death. He was urged to put himself forward as emperor by Theoderic, who, as a federate king within the Empire, ranked high in the Roman command structure and clearly had a right to take part in the nomination process. The obvious precedent, if one was sought, would be Crocus, the Alamannic king who acted in the same way at the acclamation of Constantine but also, more relevantly, that of Attalus, promoted by Alaric.

The failure of the Italians, the Palace officials, the Romans or the army in Italy to do anything about finding a replacement for Petronius for several weeks is curious. It is possible that it was due to shock at the sack of Rome, but it seems unlikely that active politicians would succumb to that for more than a day or two at most. Similarly Marcian apparently did nothing, though he did send an embassy to Africa to try to liberate Eudoxia and her daughter. The explanation may well lie in the fact that Avitus was related by marriage to Petronius. It has been suggested, in fact, that Petronius’ first wife (the mother of Petronius’ son Palladius, now presumably dead) was Avitus’ sister. (See Genealogical Table XXI.) This in turn would make Avitus a relative of the very powerful Anicius family, of which Petronius had been a senior member.7 Avitus’ proclamation at Tolosa happened early in July, whereas the sack of Rome by the Vandals had ended only about three weeks earlier. The news of Petronius’ death is unlikely to have travelled much faster than that in the circumstances. So Theoderic’s suggestion and proclamation were made almost as soon as the news arrived at Tolosa. The lack of action in Italy and the East therefore may well be due to the uncertainty created by the sack – the list of eminent and royal casualties may have taken some time to be compiled – or to the expectation that Marcian might suggest a candidate and then by the news of Avitus’ elevation.

The process of Avitus’ elevation is therefore perhaps unusual, but it did contain the normal elements: the acclamation by Theoderic was the equivalent of Avitus being put forward by a section of the Roman army; the gathering of Gallo-Romans at Beaucaire was a meeting of men of senatorial rank; the installation at Arelate was as legal a coronation as those at any of the other cities that had been used as an imperial capital in the previous century, such as Milan, Ravenna, Trier, Cologne, even Arles itself and back to York for Constantine. The only element missing was recognition by the senior Augustus, Marcian.

It was, however, not quite as simple and straightforward as that, if ‘simple’ is a correct description. The aristocracies of Gaul and Italy may have been linked by marriage, descent and ownership of property, but they were still distinct; the Senate at Rome still had a much greater institutional prestige than any assembly of rich men and senators outside Rome; the Roman army in Italy was also distinct from that of anywhere else, and at this time was a good deal more effective militarily than anything in Gaul (except Theoderic’s Visigoths). It would still be necessary for Avitus to conciliate these groups.

Avitus, for the first time in sixty years, was an emperor who was more than a Palace-dwelling figurehead. His previous history would have prepared people for that. After appointing commanders for his forces in Italy, he returned to Gaul, whose security was clearly vital, though he could be accused of favouring it over Italy. This was not much to the liking of the Romans, who had had little to say in the matter so far, but it was also not to the liking of Ricimer, another of Aetius’ former commanders, or of Majorian, who had been passed over for emperor at the death of Valentinian and now again by the advent of Avitus. Between them these two were the commanders of the main Italian forces. Taking advantage both of a victory he had won and of the emperor’s absence in Gaul, Ricimer joined with Majorian and they seized power in Italy. Then they defeated Avitus himself in northern Italy and forcibly consecrated him as a bishop, which disbarred him from exercising secular power. He died soon after.8


There followed an episode in Gaul which is referred to as the Marcellan conspiracy. This was headed by a man called Paeonius, who seized the post of Praetorian Prefect. The conspiracy, however, bore the name of another man, presumably called Marcellus. Neither of these men is known otherwise, though attempts have been made to identify Marcellus, none convincingly.9 Exactly what was intended is unclear, though the elevation of Marcellus as emperor seems likely, and it all happened as a result of Avitus’ defeat and death. His career and then his death enlarged the estrangement between Italy and Gaul.

Neither Petronius nor Avitus had received the approbation of Marcian, though he could have supplied it had he chosen to. (If Avitus claimed the throne in part because of his relationship with Petronius, then Constantinople’s disregard of Petronius would clearly be extended to him; there was also disagreement over policy towards the Vandals.) The Petronius/Avitus episode is also a moment when the Western emperors were tending towards a greater activism, a change that began with the last months of the reign of Valentinian III. This was not to the liking of the army commanders, whose aspirations, now that Aetius was dead, were to take his place as regent.

Ricimer and Majorian, in charge in Italy, were both former subordinates of Aetius. Ricimer was of high aristocratic barbarian ancestry, the son of a noble of the Sueves and the daughter of the Visigothic king; his non-Roman ancestry, of course, ruled him out as a candidate for emperor. Majorian had a good claim to have been Valentinian’s chosen successor and that of the emperor’s widow, and he was of aristocratic Italian descent. He was therefore probably the best imperial candidate to replace Avitus.

The situation was, however, confused. In Gaul, the destruction of Avitus had provoked the Marcellan conspiracy, but that had got nowhere. In Italy, Ricimer and Majorian chose to wait for acceptance by Constantinople before taking irrevocable steps. The final illness of Emperor Marcian no doubt slowed things down, but on 28 February 457 they received their official appointments: Ricimer as Patrician, and Majorian as magister militum. The implication was that no emperor would be appointed, but this did not suit them. A month later on 1 April, Majorian was acclaimed by the army as emperor. This was followed, or so it must be assumed, by a formal approval from Constantinople. Finally on 28 December 456, Majorian was installed as emperor by the Senate at Ravenna.10

This long-drawn-out process is partly the result of the previous confusion over Petronius and Avitus, and partly the result of changes that took place in the East, where Marcian died early in February 457 and was succeeded by Leo I almost at once (and so at about the time Ricimer and Majorian received their credentials from Marcian). It was also an unusually careful and deliberate process, undoubtedly undergone for good public and political reasons. The deaths of Valentinian and Marcian had ended the direct (and even the indirect) hereditary line from Valentinian I and Theodosius I. Majorian had no hereditary claims on the throne. One complication may have been the problem of the fate of the princesses taken to Africa. The elder was now married to Geiseric’s son, but the younger had been promised to Gaudentius, then to Majorian, married to Palladius, and then promised to Olybrius, another aristocrat.11 During 456 it seems that Olybrius had been sent to Africa to marry Placidia; this removed her from the succession issue (the other suitors were now dead; but Majorian may have been hoping for her release).

The more convincing explanation, if not actually the only one, is the need to see the new emperor installed in the most official, public and ceremonial way possible, so as to ensure that his position and authority – and therefore that of Ricimer as well – should not be questioned. The informality of the accession of Petronius and Avitus and the aspirations of Palladius and Marcellus were to be avoided. This would emphasize Majorian’s greater legitimacy than either Petronius or Avitus in the eyes of Italy. It was, therefore, a Western version of the elaborate ceremony that had been staged for Marcian in 450. The army, the emperor in Constantinople and the Senate were all involved in Majorian’s installation. There could be no questioning his legitimacy as there could have been with Avitus, and as there certainly was with Petronius. The participants and the ceremonies were clearly designed to legitimize Majorian’s assumption of power after the recent uncertainties.

The decisive elements in the process were the approval of the emperor in Constantinople and the acclamation of the army, which meant that in effect the new emperor had been chosen by the high command in Italy, and as Ricimer expanded his authority in the wake of the events of 455–457 he became the high command personified. The whole process was a clear attempt to bolster the authority of the new emperor with a view to restoring the Western Empire itself.

Installation by a ceremony in the Senate did not mean that the Senate as a body had had any say in the matter, but the involvement of the Senate was still significant. The previous emperors Petronius and Avitus, whether or not they had been approved by the Eastern emperor, had been senators. Apart from barbarian nominees like Priscus Attalus forty years earlier, this was the first overt participation of the Senate and senators in the installation of an emperor since the usurpation of Maxentius a century and a half before. It is perhaps a sign of the weakness of the imperial power, at least in Rome, if not in Constantinople, that the Senate in Rome was apparently reviving, though it may be another part of the programme of reviving the Western Empire. The Senate’s role had always been more confirmatory than initiatory, but it was a body of extremely rich men and as the scope of political affairs shrank with the detachment of Britain, Africa and parts of Gaul and Spain from the authority of the emperors, the Senate’s influence, whose members were still largely Italian-based, would inevitably increase. In the final decades of the Western Empire, the Senate once more became a political player that had to be reckoned with.

The problem of the succession in the Eastern half of the Empire in 457 was slightly different in that only one change of emperor took place. There were no murders, but a dynastically-approved emperor was replaced by one unconnected to that dynasty, as happened in the West. When Marcian died in January 457 he had not named a successor. His own ‘right’ to the throne had been tenuous, and his second wife, the Empress Pulcheria who had provided the imperial validation, had died in 453. So his failure, or refusal, to name an heir was perhaps due to the acknowledgement of the need for the next emperor to be chosen in a far more public and transparent way, and therefore with wider public acceptance. The matter was therefore theoretically left to the constitutional authorities – the army, the Constantinopolitan Senate, the officials and the people – who had been involved in his own elevation.

In fact the decisive voice was that of Aspar, the magister militum, who had also been Marcian’s sponsor. He selected another of his tribunes, Leo, who had formerly been the agent for Aspar himself and had the rank of count (comes). It is striking that Aspar ignored Marcian’s own son-in-law Anthemius (he had been married earlier, before Pulcheria), who was the grandson of the Anthemius who had been regent for Theodosius II fifty years earlier. Anthemius might be thought to have a tenuous dynastic claim and he certainly had some supporters, but Aspar’s control of the army was the decisive factor. Aspar’s power in the state clearly depended in part on there being no clear dynastic succession that would prevent him from exercising a choice.

By now, perhaps because of the absence of a dynastic succession, a ritual of inauguration had been developed. It had first appeared, in a different form, with Marcian’s accession; previously, the accessions of Arcadius and Theodosius too had been private affairs, mere public announcements, but now, first Marcian and then Leo were enthroned publicly. It was a version of the process by which Tiberius had been installed as successor to Augustus over four centuries earlier.

The ceremony took place in the hippodrome of Constantinople, the biggest open space in the city, where the new emperor was displayed to his subjects in the imperial box, which was connected to the Palace by a tunnel. In Leo’s case he was dressed in the usual purple cloak, a torque was put on his head, he was raised on a shield and the imperial diadem was placed around his head. There then followed a sequence of announcements in Leo’s name, each of which was answered by the assembled officials and soldiers by pre-arranged and possibly rehearsed chants in unison.

This was an eclectic set of elements gathered from a variety of royal traditions. The torque and the shield-raising reflect the fact that much of the army was composed mainly of Germans; the diadem was an inheritance from the Hellenistic past; the purple cloak from the dress of the earlier Roman emperors and before that of the Etruscan and Roman kings; and the chants were a formalized version of the oath-taking that had accompanied Tiberius’ accession in AD 14. Note that there was nothing particularly religious here, though the patriarch of the city was present. For later coronations the ceremony was moved to a church, perhaps reflecting Constantinople’s self-image as a holy city, or perhaps because it was easier to control the crowd in such a building.12

The point about such coronations, however, is that they have to be done in public, preferably before as large an audience as can be assembled. It was both an obvious necessity and an inheritance, once again, from the process of installing an emperor when the Senate and people of Rome were the ratifying agents. These, of course, were not especially Roman processes and the development of a much clearer dynastic succession would convert them into formalities, as had been the case when Arcadius and Theodosius II became sole rulers, but the installations of Marcian and Leo had to be accomplished in a public way, just because they had no dynastic right. This was also the case in the same year with Majorian in Italy, with some popular and senatorial participation to give the clear impression that the popular and legal choice had in fact been made.

The events of 455–457 in both parts of the Empire revealed that the participation of the army in the choice of emperor had evolved further. In 363 and 364 the senior officers had selected new emperors in the emergency of the sudden deaths of others, and again in 375 it had been possible for a group of senior commanders to select an emperor and impose him on the senior Augustus. In a way, this is also what happened with the imposition of Theodosius I on Gratian four years later. There had then followed a series of dynastic successions until the 450s, modified here and there by the co-option of auxiliary emperors such as Constantine III, Constantius III and Marcian. In the meantime, however, there had also emerged, in both parts of the Empire, very powerful military commanders, often of barbarian origin, who could command the loyalty of the army. The army itself was now also largely composed of soldiers of barbarian origin and these men were apparently not loyal to either the Empire or the emperors. So the great barbarian generals – Ricimer and Aspar in this particular crisis, but there were others – were able to dictate the choice of emperor because they controlled the army. In the East, Aspar was sufficiently sensible of the local atmosphere to know that the elaborate open-air coronation brought to the process some participation by the population, though the army was the basis of the choice.

This was, in fact, a new situation with regard to the succession. No earlier successions had taken place with such a man looming over the proceedings, though Arbogast and Castinus had aspired to such a role. Indeed, although such men are often depicted as being characteristic of the West in the fifth century, it was in the East, in the situations of Marcian in 450 and of Leo in February 457, that the power of the barbarian general was first displayed so blatantly in the choice of new emperors. In the West, Ricimer and Majorian seem to have operated as allies, but Ricimer soon developed his power to a similar potency to that of Aspar, and it is these men who became the decision-makers in the next phase of the imperial succession.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!