home | 1000 BCE to 500 CE


previous | next

The Last Emperor in the West and Ostrogoth Rule


A Roman coin honoring Honoria. She regarded her brother, Emperor Valentinian III, as weak and indolent. She was sent to a convent from which she tried numerous times to escape. And her offer of marriage to Attila the Hun did not work out. She would be played by Sophia Loren in the film Attila.

In the western half of the empire, Emperor Valentinian III denied his strong-willed sister, Honoria, the marriage she wished, and she plotted with her lover to overthrow him. The plot was discovered, Honoria's lover was executed, and Honoria faced being forced to marry someone who could control her. She appealed to a power greater than Valentinian: the Hun leader, Attila. She sent him her ring. Attila took it as a proposal of marriage. He claimed Honoria as his, and he claimed the western half of the empire as her dowry.

Attila allied himself with the Franks and Vandals, and in 451 he crossed the Rhine into Gaul with his army. He sacked cities and devastated lands along the channel coast. Rome's General Aetius and the Visigoths joined forces against Attila, and in one of history's great battles in Gaul they served Attila his first defeat. Attila lost an estimated 175,000 to 300,000 of his warriors killed, and he retreated east of the Rhine River.

In 452, after partially recovering from his defeat, Attila invaded Italy. He overran Milan and other cities and drove an Italian people called Veneti to seek refuge on a group of islands that were to become the city of Venice. Valentinian fled from his palace in Ravenna to Rome, and he sent the Bishop of Rome – Pope Leo I – and two Roman senators to meet with Attila. Christian legend has it that the Pope's presence awed Attila and that the ghosts of Peter and Paul appeared to Attila and terrified him. A more likely reason for Attila's withdrawal was that plague had broken out among his men, his supply of food was running out and military help for Valentinian was arriving from the eastern half of the empire. Attila returned to what is today Hungary, and the following year, 453, he died there, reportedly as the result of a burst artery. And without Attila's leadership, the collection of peoples that had made up his empire became disunited.

The western half of the empire was still on its feet, but the emperor there, Valentinian III, was to help it fall. He was involved in palace intrigue. Rome's great military leader, Aetius, was the victim of rumors. Valentinian was told that if he did not strike at Aetius first, Aetius would destroy him. When Aetius appeared before Valentinian to claim the emperor's daughter for his son, Valentinian accused him of treason, jumped from his throne and killed the defenseless man with his sword. Six months later, in 455, two men who had been Aetius' retainers retaliated by assassinating Valentinian.

Valentinian had fathered no son, and a scheming aristocrat of Senatorial rank, Petronius Maximus, seized the throne. Within a few months, as invading Vandals from North Africa were again in Italy and approaching Rome, a mob in Rome killed the new emperor. The emperor in the east, Marcian, refused to help defend Rome from the Vandals. Rome in 455 was plundered for the second time in 45 years, and after nineteen days the Vandals sailed away with thousands of prisoners, including Valentinian's widow and his two daughters.

Power in the western half of the empire fell to the commander of what was left of west's armies. This was Ricimer, a German and an Aryan Christian, who, according to Roman law, could not become emperor. Ricimer became a hero by defeating the Vandals in a sea battle near Corsica. He also defeated the Vandals on land near Agrigentum in Sicily. Ricimer became defacto emperor until his death in 472.

More political conflict was now to give the western half of the empire its final blow. The emperor of the eastern half of the empire sent a nephew, Julius Nepos, into the western half of the empire behind an army. A military commander in the west drove Nepos across the Adriatic to Illyricum and appointed his son, Romulus Augustus,14, as emperor. He was to be the last emperor in the western half of the empire. Nepos sent an Ostrogothic commander, Odoacer, and his army to the west. Odoacer overthrew Romulus and declared himself King of Italy in 476. Romulus was the last of Rome's emperors seated in the western half of the empire.

territories in 523 of the Vandals, Ostrogoths and Visigoths

Germanic kingdoms by the year 523.

Meanwhile, the emperor in the east since 474, Flavius Zeno, was troubled by an Ostrogoth tribal chief, Theodoric, and he rid himself of Theodoric by sending him and his army to Italy against Theodoric's fellow Ostrogoth, Odoacer. Theodoric's army confronted Odoacer's army – Arian Christians against Arian Christians. Tribal cohesion was stronger among Theodoric's people than among Odoacer's, and during four years of fighting Theodoric wore down Odoacer's forces. During a truce the two leaders met. Odoacer and Theodoric agreed to divide the rule of Italy between them. It was another sharing of power that was not to succeed. At a banquet at the emperor's palace, Theodoric killed Odoacer, and Theodoric's troops killed all of Odoacer's relatives and cut down Odoacer's troops wherever they could find them.

Theodoric established himself as King of Italy – not as Rome's emperor. The family line of emperors in the western half of the empire had come to an end. The west was now to be dominated by Germans. Emperors in the east still ruled over Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, to be known as the Byzantine empire – Byzantium the former name of the city of Constantinople. The emperors at Constantinople saw themselves as the rightful heirs of a rule that dated back to Augustus Caesar. They saw themselves as the sole and legitimate rulers of the Roman Empire.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.