Gibbon, Part 5: Attila and the End of the Western Empire

From last time, we saw that the reign of Honorius resulted with the loss of Britain and all of the territory beyond the Alps. For the first time in its history, Rome was besieged, defeated and sacked. Here we continue examining Gibbon’s narrative of the Eastern Empire under Arcadius and the Western Empire after the death of Honorius.

The Eastern Court Under Arcadius

In the East, the court was dominated by the rise of the eunuch Eutropius, who like Rufinus was extremely avaricious. He implemented a set of totalitarian laws that punished even any hint of opposition to him as opposing the emperor and punishable by death. A rebellion arose among the Ostrogoths under Tribigild, who managed to take over parts of Asia Minor before being halted by the people of Pamphylla. His armies continued the rebellion. Eutropius worried about the safety of the Empire and entrusted its defence to Gainas the Goth and Leo, who instead promoted the cause of the rebels. Eutropius was deposed by Arcadius after his attempts to stop the barbarians failed. Soon enough, Gainas joined forces with Tribigild and successfully negotiated a shameful truce with Constantinople. Gainas was elevated to master of the armies and his barbarian troops filled Constantinople. Friction started with the people and Imperial soldiers, which resulted in his troops being massacred and Gainas himself beheaded.

Arcadius himself soon died at the young age of 31. Shortly before his death, he entrusted the care of his seven-year-old son Theodosius to the Persian emperor Jezdegerd. Gibbon uses this example to show the width of the divide between the Eastern and Western empires, such that the Eastern emperor was more predisposed to trust a Persian monarch than his own brother in the West to guard his son. Initially, the prefect of Constantinople, Anthemius, served as regent of Theodosius’ reign. In 414 the 16-year-old Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius (and only two years older), was proclaimed Augusta. Gibbon praises the virtues of Pulcheria very highly – unsurprisingly those traits were the simplicity of her lifestyle, her intelligence, promptness, and maturity. He remarks that “she alone, among all the descendants of the great Theodosius, appears to have inherited any share of his manly spirit and abilities” (Chapter XXXII). Theodosius never managed to grow up into becoming an effective ruler in his own right, despite the excellent education he received. He was not avaricious or luxurious, but timid and superstitious without any courage, and for the next four decades the empire was effectively ruled by Pulcheria.

The Rise of Attila

Back in the Western Empire, after the death of Adolphus, his widow Placidia was wed to the great general Constantius. Within a short time she started to stir up a power struggle in the Imperial court, manipulating her husband into demanding the title of Augustus. Constantius’ sudden death only empowered her further, and she more involved with the government, culminating in a large quarrel with her emperor brother that forced her to retreat to Constantinople. However, Honorius died only a few months after she left. During the power vacancy, a rebellion led by a former secretary named John rose up in the West, and Placidia was sent back to Italy by the Eastern court together with the generals Aspar and Ardaburius to suppress it. After John was defeated and executed, Theodosius II in the East resolved to let give the Western throne to his infant cousin Valentinian, son of Placidia. The arrangement included that Valentinian would be wedded to his daughter Eudoxia as soon as he reached puberty.

Placidia was initially entrusted with the regency of her infant son, but she could not match the capabilities of her Eastern counterpart Pulcheria. Her two generals, Aetius and Boniface, are touted by Gibbon as “last of the Romans.” However they became embroiled in a major quarrel, as Aetius (who had previously supported the rebellion of John) manipulated Placidia to believe that the loyal Boniface was plotting against the throne in Africa. As Aetius besieged Boniface, the latter turned to help from the Vandals. Genseric, King of the Vandals, accepted the offer, although he had his own designs on the Roman empire, his ambition “was without bounds and without scruples.” Genseric defeated the Suevi in Spain and won over the persecuted Donatists in Africa. Although the misunderstanding between Placidia and Boniface was promptly corrected, it was too late to resist his growing power. Genseric besieged the city of Hippo (of which the famous Augustine was bishop, and died during the siege), and Boniface held out for 14 months before he was defeated and retreated back to Italy. Within eight years, the Vandals had reached and conquered Carthage.

In the East, Attila the Hun arose from the area of modern-day Hungary. Under the command of Attila’s uncle Rugilas, an army of 60,000 Huns had been invited by Aetius to assist the rebellion of John, and they had proceeded to take over Pannonia and threatened Roman provinces in the West. Theodosius II had wanted to negotiate a peace treaty with Rugilas, but after his premature death, Attila and his brother Bleda replaced him and they intimidated Constantinople to accept terms which were extremely advantageous to the Huns, including demanding a larger annual tribute, extradition of fugitives, and prohibiting any war against enemies of the Huns.

Attila then rose to become king of the entire barbarian world; Gibbon remarks that he was the only conqueror to ever successfully unite Germany and Scythia. Throughout his reign he was widely feared by barbarians and Romans alike, especially the Eastern court, whom he revisited several times to demand proper execution of the clauses of their humiliating agreement. Gibbon contrasts their powerless position to the bravery of a small Thracian town called Azumuntium, who bravely sallied forth and attacked the Huns several times, recovering their properties and fellow citizens. In time, Azumuntium was pressured to submit to Hunnic authority, but so singular was their attitude that Theodosius II could not claim any jurisdiction over them and Attila negotiated with the town independently. Gibbon remarks that “if the race of the Azimuntines had been encouraged and multiplied, the Barbarians would have ceased to trample on the majesty of the empire” (Chapter XXXIV).

Attila also had diplomatic relations with Genseric in Africa; when Constantinople had assembled a large force in Sicily in preparation for reconquering Africa, Genseric induced Attila to invade Eastern Europe, forcing the forces to be recalled to fight him. Attila decisively won three successive battles against them, conclusively dismantling the plans to recover Roman Africa.

Attila Invades Gaul

In the West, the abject rule of Placidia was degraded further by the forced restoration of the traitor general Aetius. After the end of his feud with fellow general Boniface, which ended with the latter’s death, he had taken refuge with the Huns. Leading back a barbarian army of tens of thousands, he came back to Ravenna, imploring the “mercy” of Placidia, who was powerless to reject him. He was promptly raised to the rank of patrician and the command of all the armies of the Western Empire. Unrepentant as ever, Aetius continued to maintain a good relationship with the Huns. Meanwhile, the Gothic kingdom in Gaul had a new king: Theodoric, a ruler who would in Gibbon’s own words, “appears to have deserved the love of his subjects, the confidence of his allies, and the esteem of mankind” (Chapter XXXV). Seizing the opportunity to enlarge their territory, the Visigoths besieged Narbonne in southern France. The city was relieved in time by the efforts of Litorius and an army of Huns. But Litorius foolishly tried to besiege Toulouse, the Gothic capital, resulting in a total annihilation.

Back in the East, after the death of Theodosius II from a horseback incident, Pulcheria was proclaimed as empress of the East, and for the first time the Empire was officially ruled by a woman. Conscious of the prejudice against her sex, she married an elderly senator named Marcian, who was then also elevated to emperor. Under the new leadership, the Eastern Empire resolved to take back some of its dignity by no longer calling their regular donation to the Huns as tribute but a reward for the friendship and good behavior of the Huns. While this new attitude enraged Attila, his designs were set on invading Gaul, not taking his revenge on Constantinople. Attila advanced with an army consisting of Huns, Ostrogoths, Rugians, Heruli, Thuringians, Franks, and Burgundians, among others. The defence of Gaul was undertaken by the combined efforts of the Roman empire and the Gothic kingdom, the latter inflamed by a desire to revenge the crimes that the Huns had done to their ancestors (as we recounted in part 2, the Huns were responsible for the Goth’s migration to the West).

The two forces met on the plains of Catalaunia, with both Aetius and Theodoric commanding two of the wings in person, and the center consisting of Alani cavalry. Theodoric’s son Torismund also commanded a section of the army. The Huns and Ostrogoths concentrated their attack on the right wing of the defenders, where Theodoric and his Visigoths were positioned. Theodoric received a mortal wound and was trampled to death, but the Visigoths managed to rally despite the rout of the Alani cavalry. Over a hundred thousand soldiers died, but Attila’s forces were repulsed. Torismund was promptly acclaimed as the new king of the Goths. The Goths were prepared to besiege Attila in his camp and completely extirpate the Huns, but Aetius was apprehensive of the possible dangers the Goths might face to Rome if the Huns were completely eliminated. He persuaded Torismund to return to Toulouse to secure his claim to the throne, and Attila’s forces withdrew beyond the Rhine.

Despite his failed invasion, Attila’s reputation survived mostly intact. Shortly after, he passed through the Alps and invaded Italy, under the pretext of demanding the hand of Princess Honoria and her dowry. Honoria was the sister of Valentinian III who had almost comically fallen in love with him from a distance. Attila besieged and destroyed the bustling city of Aquileia, then proceeded to march down, devastating and submitting major Italian cities along the way, including Milan. The Western court went into a panic. Pulcheria was dead. The Goths refused to defend Italy, and the Eastern empire was also unable to commit any meaningful support. In the end, Rome was reduced to pleading for mercy with Attila. Leo, the bishop of Rome, served as the Roman ambassador, approaching Attila’s tents with an offer of peace. The eloquence of Leo persuaded Attila to relent after being offered a large ransom. Superstitious fears prevented him from forcing his way to Rome. But Attila’s life was coming to an end; as he waited for the promised delivery of his bride Honoria, he married a different woman named Ildico, and a major artery suddenly burst during the wedding celebrations, killing him. After Attila’s death, the Hunnic empire quickly fell apart, with none of his sons or successors ever able to unite the barbarian nations in such a way ever again.

Shortly after, Aetius’ ambitious designs in the Western court caught up with him, and he was personally killed by Valentinian III himself, as he pressed him to marry his son to the emperor’s daughter Eudoxia. The savior of the Western empire was killed by his own emperor, and this immediately turned the people against Valentinian. Valentinian, “who had reached his thirty-fifth year without attaining the age of reason or courage,” then made the mistake of abducting and raping the wife of a wealthy and respected senator named Maximus. Maximus was bent on exacting his revenge. Shortly after, Valentinian was killed by two of his own guards who were former followers of Aetius. He was a weak and incapable king – like Theodosius II under Pulcheria, he never matured properly during the regency of his mother. His death marked the end of another pathetic era of the Western Roman Empire, an era in which

If all the Barbarian conquerors had been annihilated in the same hour, their total destruction would not have restored the empire of the West; and, if Rome still survived, she survived the loss of freedom, of virtue, and of honour.
(Chapter XXXV)

Genseric Sacks Rome

In the southern, former Roman provinces in Africa, Genseric had firmly established his empire of Vandals stretching from Tangier to Tripoli. After the death of Valentinian, Genseric embarked with an army of Moors and Vandals, landing at the mouth of the Tiber river in Italy. There, the wronged senator Maximus had seized power and proclaimed emperor, but he quickly realized he was out of his depth. His reign only lasted three months, in which he was powerless to make any preparations to defend against the upcoming Vandal invasion. His revenge against Valentinian went too far, as he forced the widowed empress Eudoxia to marry him. Eudoxia, bereft of any support, secretly encouraged Genseric in his invasion.

Maximus was shortly killed in the streets by an angry of soldiers and citizens. Genseric proceeded unopposed towards Rome, and Leo the Bishop once again saved Rome and her citizens from utter annihilation through his negotiation skills. But while he promised to spare the people, Genseric proceeded to sack Rome anyway, which lasted for two weeks. The entirety of the wealth of Rome was taken away, including countless treasures in both remaining pagan temples and the rich Christian churches. Eudoxia, who had eagerly sought the help of Genseric, was forcefully taken captive by him to Carthage.

In the aftermath of this chaos, Avitus, the Praetorian prefect of Gaul appointed by Maximus, was acclaimed the new Western Roman emperor by the support of the Gauls and the Goths under Theodoric II, the new king who had murdered his brother Torismund. His election was ratified by Marcian in the East. Theodoric II was a shrewd politician who pretended to be the servant of Rome but secretly was gaining power for himself. He took his army to defeat the Suevi, who were trying to invade and overtake the remaining Roman provinces in Spain. However, he privately intended to have the provinces for himself and his successors. Theodoric was successful, going as far as Portugal, before he was abruptly recalled by the capital. Avitus had lost a power struggle and had been compelled to abdicate his throne by Ricimer, a commander of the barbarian troops defending Italy.

Avitus was replaced by Majorian, the grandson of a famous military commander during the time of Theodosius I. Majorian became one of the best emperors in a long time, stemming the decay of the Western empire.

…his laws, remarkable for an original cast of thought and expression, faithfully represent the character of a sovereign who loved his people, who sympathized in their distress, who had studied the causes of the decline of the empire, and who was capable of applying (as far as such reformation was practicable) judicious and effectual remedies to the public disorders.
(Chapter XXXVI)

Majorian relieved the poor and provincials from oppressive magistrates, disciplined his government officials, and made laws that attempted to restore the chastity and virtues of the Romans. But his achievements would not be complete without the recovery of the African provinces. Unfortunately, like the recent emperors, Majorian was forced to rely on foreign auxiliaries instead of native Italian troops for the expedition. Still, the virtues and character of Majorian attracted numerous barbarians from many different nations to rally under his standard. They marched through the Alps led by the emperor in person. Genseric was under pressure, being doubtful of the abilities of his own soldiers, who had become softer after living in Africa for years. But he was saved by an accident, as some subjects of Majorian betrayed him, allowing Genseric to destroy all his ships built in preparation for the African invasion.

Majorian was thus forced to sign a temporary peace treaty. But Majorian’s failure damaged his reputation, and Ricimer moved to incite a mutiny which forced him to abdicate the throne. Libius Severus, a friend of Ricimer, was proclaimed as the new emperor, though he was really just a puppet for Ricimer. During Ricimer’s rule, the Western empire was constantly harassed by Vandal raids all along the coasts along the Mediterranean. He was eventually forced to ask for the help of the Eastern empire. As a result, the Western empire then had to consent to an emperor approved by Constantinople.

Attempts to Retake Africa, and the Rise of Odoacer

In Constantinople, after the death of Marcian, Leo had been recommended by the influential patrician Aspar to the throne of the Eastern empire. He appointed his colleague Anthemius to the Western throne. Together, the renewed unity of the two halves of the Roman empire was bent on defeating Genseric. An expedition was sent consisting of two armies, one led by Heraclius and landing in Tripoli, and another by Basiliscus, landing forty miles from Carthage itself. The two armies were to meet up at Carthage. At first, the imperial forces were successful, pressing Genseric, who implored for a truce of five days before he would submit to the emperor. Basiliscus fatally consented to the truce. In the middle of the night, Genseric launched a surprise attack using fire ships, which destroyed most of the Roman navy, forcing Basiliscus to escape and Heraclius to retreat. The expedition ended in complete failure, and Genseric was once again king of Carthage.

The optimistic peace which had been planned under Leo and Anthemius steadily became eroded. Despite his earlier promises, Ricimer persisted in undermining Anthemius’ power. With an army of Burgundians and Suevi, he marched to Rome and crowned his preferred emperor, the senator Olybrius. Rome was plunged into civil war between Anthemius and Ricimer, which ended with the death of the former. Ricimer shortly died as well from disease, giving over the reins of his army to his nephew Gundobald. Olybrius proceeded to reign for seven months. After his death, Leo appointed Julian Nepos to serve as emperor of the West, but he was shortly opposed by the barbarian forces under the command of their general Orestes. Emperor Nepos retreated to Ravenna and was assassinated after five years. Orestes’ son Augustulus was then crowned the new Western emperor.

However, Orestes’ barbarian mercenaries spiraled out of control, and his efforts to fight against their demands led to the rise of Odoacer, one of the barbarian soldiers in the army. Odoacer led the rogue barbarian army to besiege Orestes in the city of Pavia; it was overrun and Orestes was killed. Faced with no more options, Augustulus had no choice but to plead for mercy from Odoacer. While Odoacer spared his life, he was forced to abdicate the throne. Odoacer decided to do away forever with the throne of the Western Empire. This was communicated in a letter to emperor Zeno (the successor of Leo) in the East, where the Eastern emperor was touted as sufficient to rule both halves of the empire, and a request was made to officially appoint Odoacer to the rank of patrician and let him administer Italy. At first Zeno was enraged, as technically Nepos was still alive. But he eventually relented, and Odoacer became de facto King of Italy, the first ever barbarian to rule in Rome.

Odoacer’s rule was not a bad one, although Rome continued to decay, even physically: agriculture kept declining, and the surrounding towns and cities experienced sharp declines in population. After fourteen years, he died and was succeeded by Theodoric the Great (the third Theodoric we have encountered in this post so far), who would go on to become a great, oustanding king of the barbarians in Rome (we will cover him in the next post). But the Western Roman Empire had officially ended with the abdication of Augustulus. As we have seen, by that time Rome had been reduced to a historic and symbolic city of the past, with its Senate being ineffective and weak. The gradual influx of barbarians that Gibbon has warned of several times throughout the earlier chapters seems to have caught up with Rome. As more and more of the soldiers Rome depended on became composed of barbarians, the risk of the barbarians revolting against Rome became higher, which was exactly what happened in the case of Odoacer. The Western Empire, the place where it all began, was now a capital ruled by a non-Roman barbarian. The Western decline was complete; the Roman story was over, replaced by the story of the Kingdom of Italy, led by a barbarian, sometimes exceedingly well, as we shall see in the case of Theodoric.

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