Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Eighteen

The Consequences of Ricimer and Aspar

After a reign of four years, the Emperor Majorian was murdered by his colleague and magister militum Ricimer. This act resolved the differences that had (obviously) arisen between them, and hoisted Ricimer to the supreme political position in the Western Empire, which he occupied for the next thirteen years until his death. He did not act, however, either alone or without advice, for it is noted by one contemporary historian that he was advised in the killing by his council.1 Whatever the reasons for their differences, it is obvious that future emperors, who were theoretically superior to Ricimer, would scarcely be able to assert themselves in the face of his disapproval.

A replacement emperor was eventually chosen, this time by Ricimer himself. He was a senator from Lucania called Libius Severus. He is almost completely unknown to us, but was a man who was clearly known both to Ricimer and the Senate. More than three months elapsed between Majorian’s killing and the proclamation and installation of Severus.2 This delay might suggest that Ricimer hoped to rule without an emperor, or it may be that he spent the time negotiating, particularly with the Emperor Leo in Constantinople, for a candidate acceptable to both of them. He may also have had to negotiate with the aristocrats and officials in Gaul who had liked Majorian and who had earlier put forward Avitus, and with the Senate in Italy whose role in the succession process had re-emerged recently.

Most such negotiations, if they took place, clearly failed, for Ricimer’s candidate was not accorded any recognition from the East, and he was also repudiated by the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, Aegidius, who had been appointed by Majorian. Libius Severus was so obviously a creature of Ricimer’s that Aegidius could apparently not bear to acknowledge him, yet Aegidius did not put up an emperor of his own in competition. The selection of a senator does imply that Ricimer had found support in the Senate, and his choice of a senator may have further enhanced the Senate’s new importance. It was a display of mutual esteem, made necessary by the isolation of both parties.

Libius Severus was installed with all due ceremony, including the rituals of acclamation by the army and installation in a formal ceremony in the Senate, just as Majorian had been.3 The elaboration may be taken as a gesture of defiance directed at those who refused to acknowledge him. Neither of these institutions had had any obvious say in the selection of Severus – who was chosen by Ricimer, not by the Senate – but armies had to be presented with a candidate of reasonable accomplishments and presence and the Senate would have known Severus well. His reign lasted for four years (461–465) but he seems to have had little independent authority and to have been generally inactive. He died either naturally or by the hand of Ricimer, but the general was so unpopular that he would be suspected of murder even if Libius Severus’ death was natural.

Severus was never accepted by the Emperor Leo in Constantinople as Ricimer must have hoped. On the other hand, it is likely that Leo’s recognition of Majorian had been only very reluctant. When Severus died, therefore, Ricimer had been in power or ruling the West for nine years through the reigns of two Western emperors and without any support from the Emperor Leo. The result had been pretty disastrous: not only was Vandal-occupied Africa unrecovered, but Gaul had in effect seceded, at least the part that had not been taken over by Franks, Visigoths, Alans and Burgundians, while Spain was largely isolated and partly occupied by other barbarians. Majorian’s attempt to assert his authority there had been only briefly successful. Ricimer, in effect, controlled only Italy and the nearby islands, all of which were being repeatedly raided by the Vandals.

After Severus died, there was a delay of a year and a half before the next Western emperor was installed. This repeated the gaps in time that followed the deposition of Avitus and the death of Majorian, and was presumably due to the same cause: the need of Ricimer to locate a suitable candidate and to negotiate his elevation with the emperor in Constantinople. His last two appointments having lasted only four years each and the second never having received acceptance at Constantinople, the support of the army in Italy and of the Senate in Rome was clearly only enough for a temporary emperor. Ricimer was constrained to look to the Emperor Leo for a candidate. This was all the more necessary since the territory under his control had shrunk drastically. The failure of the Gauls to elevate their own emperor when refusing to recognize Libius Severus implied that they recognized only Leo; the Vandals were as active and threatening as ever, so to be at enmity with Leo was a burden Ricimer could well do without. Accepting an emperor sent from Constantinople would mark an alliance between Leo and Ricimer and so would bolster Ricimer’s own position, and that of Leo for that matter.

Leo had at least two available candidates with family connections back to the Theodosian dynasty. One was Olybrius, the husband of Valentinian III’s daughter Placidia; the other was the husband of the daughter of Marcian, Anthemius. (See Genealogical Table XX.) These connections meant that they might well be seen by Leo as threats to his own position as emperor in Constantinople. So for Leo the question was whether it was more dangerous to keep them in the city where he could supervise them or to send them West to establish an independent power base in Italy where, if really ambitious, they might become a threat. Anthemius was the better qualified, genealogically speaking, and he was persuaded to go.

Anthemius was the grandson of the distinguished politician of Theodosius II’s reign and the son-in-law of the Emperor Marcian. He could also trace his ancestry back to the pretender Procopius, not perhaps the best of omens but this was also a distant connection with the house of Constantine. He was an experienced soldier and a former consul, and he arrived in Italy accompanied by the near-independent ruler of Dalmatia, Marcellinus, and an Eastern army.4

One element of the agreement that elevated Anthemius was that his daughter Alypia should marry Ricimer; the wedding took place a few months after his arrival. Ricimer no doubt hoped this would persuade the new emperor to co-operate with him, and that his children might hope for access to the throne; after all, Anthemius had arrived at the throne by that same route. It also duplicated the method used in the past by Stilicho and Constantius III, and indeed by Marcian.

Anthemius, like all the more recent emperors (except perhaps Majorian), lived in Rome, which comfortably separated him from Ricimer, who was normally resident in Milan. Once again there was a public ceremony of installation. The embassy sent by Ricimer to Constantinople to negotiate for the new emperor had in fact gone technically in the Senate’s name, but there seems not to have been any further senatorial involvement. Anthemius was proclaimed emperor several miles outside the city at a place called Brontotas, possibly a military camp. He then sent a messenger, Heliokrates, to Constantinople with the news, and received a final recognition from Leo. The sequence is enlightening: nomination by the senior emperor and then acclamation and proclamation near Rome, possibly with military involvement, though this is only an assumption – but he was accompanied to Rome by his own army – brought recognition by the senior emperor. On the surface, Ricimer was not involved. However, the Senate certainly had been involved, with the embassy operating in its name, the previous emperor having come from its ranks and the new emperor living in the city. The Senate’s influence was thus continuing.5

Anthemius had several advantages over both Severus and Majorian: he had both the approval of the Eastern emperor and control of a military force independent of that under Ricimer’s command. If he had hoped to establish an independent policy, however, he was generally unsuccessful; indeed, separate armies were more a recipe for paralysis than dynamism. Also Anthemius personally seems to have been ineffective and on closer acquaintance he was disliked by Ricimer and by many of the Romans. He attempted, rather futilely, to develop his own policy in competition with that of Ricimer, but he was never in a strong enough position to succeed. He was undoubtedly a capable man as his earlier career shows, so his ineffectuality in Rome must be due to the failure of the local powers – Ricimer and the Senate – to pay any attention to him, and his inability to assert himself. The army he arrived with was clearly not sufficient to give him real independence.

Anthemius had an adult son, Anthemiolus, which could have indicated the beginning of a new dynasty. However, Anthemiolus was killed in an ill-fated attempt by Anthemius’ forces (not, it seems, supported by Ricimer) to recover control of southern Gaul.6 This was a necessary first step, geographically, towards a revival of the Western Empire, and as a properly-appointed Emperor Anthemius might have expected those in Gaul who had rejected Libius Severus (and Ricimer) to accept him, but Gallic conditions had changed, above all in the Visigothic kingdom. Anthemiolus and his forces were defeated by the Visigoths under King Euric, the most competent and ruthless of the Visigothic rulers.

Next year the enmity between Anthemius and Ricimer, evidenced in their failure to work together in the Gallic invasion, descended into civil war and Ricimer besieged Rome. The siege began as a blockade, but after the defeat of the relieving force, Ricimer’s men broke into the city and another sack took place, apparently rather more destructive than those of either Alaric or Geiseric.7

Into this situation came Anicius Olybrius, the husband of Valentinian III’s daughter, Placidia. Olybrius was thus very highly-connected. Through his wife he was emperor material, just as Anthemius had been, and he had been the obvious alternative to Anthemius as Western emperor in 467. However, whether he was sent from Constantinople to replace Anthemius or to reconcile Ricimer and Anthemius, or even perhaps to replace Ricimer, is not clear. He dated his reign from April or May 472, at which time Anthemius was still alive and reigning in besieged Rome so, whatever the original intention, Olybrius had been persuaded by Ricimer on his arrival in Italy to take the throne. Anthemius was killed when Ricimer’s forces took the city in July.8

Olybrius was the first emperor since Libius Severus to have been installed by Ricimer, though it could be argued that he had in effect been nominated by Leo. With his genealogical connections, he could thus be seen as a legitimate emperor, and with support from both Ricimer and Leo he should have been a unifying figure. The circumstances of his entering Rome, however, probably precluded any ceremony in the Senate, which had also not been needed by Anthemius. It seems clear that the Senate’s participation, even after its apparent revival earlier, could still be dispensed with, at least in the short term.

Ricimer brought his nephew, Gundobad, a member of the Burgundian royal family (the Burgundian king was married to Ricimer’s sister), to assist him during the conflict with Anthemius. When Ricimer died in August 472, Gundobad succeeded to his position without conflict. Then the Emperor Olybrius also died, in November of that year. All three men involved in the conflict had thus died within six months.9

This put Gundobad in a difficult position, particularly as he had been credited, if that is the word, with personally killing Anthemius. It also left Leo in difficulties, since both of his eligible candidates for the Western throne had now rapidly expired. Yet Olybrius had lived long enough to confirm Gundobad in Ricimer’s position, so the possibility of future successful negotiations existed.

The situation in the West had now once more diverged significantly from that in the East. Leo had been promoted as emperor, as had his predecessor Marcian, by the magister militum Aspar, and Aspar had retained his powerful position, as had Ricimer; again like Ricimer, he aimed to marry into the royal family and his son Patricius was betrothed to Leo’s daughter Leontia. The other daughter, Ariadne, was married to an Isaurian chieftain, Zeno, who recruited an imperial bodyguard as a counter to Aspar’s Germans. (See Genealogical Table XXII.) In about 470 Patricius had been promoted to Caesar, implying his eventual succession to the throne. This was distinctly unpopular in the city of Constantinople, for Patricius was not only of barbarian descent but he was also attached to the Arian brand of Christianity.


Leo, however, was laying a trail to enable him to break free of Aspar’s power. When all was in place, when Patricius was seen to be unpopular, when Aspar’s son Ardaburius was involved in a sedition and when Leo was certain of his Isaurian Guard, he turned on Aspar and his family, just as Valentinian III had turned on Aetius and just as Anthemius had been about to break with Ricimer. Aspar and Ardaburius died but Patricius survived, as did a third son.10

This was the background in Constantinople to the emergence of Gundobad as military leader in Italy the following year. It is hardly surprising in the circumstances that Gundobad, despite his appointment by Olybrius, was viewed askance by Leo. Four months after the death of Olybrius, presumably after attempting negotiations with Leo without success, Gundobad appointed his own emperor, choosing a count of the Palace, Glycerius; once again, this replicated a known pattern: John and Castinus, Ricimer and Severus. The sources are quite explicit that the decision was Gundobad’s and his alone.11 He would no doubt have preferred Leo’s approval, but Gundobad was only newly in power and he clearly felt that it was better to have the emperor in whose name he acted owe loyalty to him rather than have one that he could not trust foisted on him. There is no sign of the Senate being involved; indeed, the installation took place at Ravenna, and it may be that Glycerius never went to Rome as emperor.

Leo not only did not approve, he actively disapproved. He had sent Anthemius escorted by an army to take up his post by arrangement with Ricimer; he had sent Olybrius, escorted by another army, to either assist or replace Anthemius; now he sent yet another emperor with an army to displace the unwanted Glycerius. Leo must have been fully convinced of the weakness of the positions of both Gundobad and Glycerius to take the risk, and he was proved right. However, by the time the expedition was under way, Leo himself was dead. Another pair of complex succession crises in East and West had arrived simultaneously.

Anthemius, like Majorian and Avitus, had been too energetic for Ricimer to control properly; Libius Severus and Olybrius were so innocuous as to bring only contempt, and parts of Gaul and perhaps of Spain refused to obey them. Ricimer’s problem was insoluble, and he was scarcely helped by the varying policy, or lack of it, of the Eastern emperors. Failure to support an emperor in the West soon led to that emperor’s death; sending a man from the East could only damage Ricimer, who had to react to the threat by eliminating the Easterner. It was a situation that had no solution other than a massive Eastern expedition into Italy, which was beyond the strength of the East at the present, and the repeated gaps left between the death of one emperor and the appointment of the next indicate clearly the puzzlement that must have been felt. The simultaneous crisis in East and West that began in 474 proved at last to be fatal.

Imperial Puppets of Ricimer


Libius Severus (461–465). (CNG Coins via Wikimedia Commons)


Anthemius (467–472). (CNG Coins via Wikimedia Commons)


Olybrius (472). (NAC via Wikimedia Commons)

The Last Emperors


Glycerius (473). (Auktionshaus H. D. Rauch GmbH via Wikimedia Commons)


Julius Nepos (473–480). (CNG Coins via Wikimedia Commons)


Romulus ‘Augustulus’ (475–476). (CNG Coins via Wikimedia Commons)

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