Monthly Archives: December 2013

Child Emperor Rule in the Later Roman Empire

I am lucky enough to have a kind sister who can once and while help me purchase books that normally are out of my budget range. She has given me a copy of ($160.00) Meaghan McEvoy’s Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367- 455 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). What follows are some initial thoughts on this thought-provoking study.

This fine study is based on McEvoy’s 2009 Oxford dissertation. Sometimes dissertations turned into monographs can be a hard slog for the scholarly and the non-scholarly reader. Happily this is not the case here. Immaculately researched, excitingly paced, and well-written, I found myself racing through chapters to find her views on a period, the fifth century, that has only recently received some much needed attention.

McEvoy traces the increasing prevalence of child-emperors from the accession of Gratian in 367 to the assassination of the Western emperor Valentinian III in 455. A real life Game of Thrones, the narrative comes to life under McEvoy’s (from now on M) skilled guidance. I can only applaud her engagement with the newer revisionist studies. Her views constantly interact with this recent scholarship, but this discussion is left largely to the footnotes for those who are interested. Her adept use of narrative (a method out of favour amongst many scholars, but employed adroitly here) allows her to both keep the reader engaged, and help those not familiar with the period to understand the complex rivalries that marked the age. This is quite an achievement considering that in comparison to the fourth and the sixth, the fifth-century sources left to us are often incomplete or untrustworthy.

M explains in the introduction why the traditional scholarly description of these “regimes” as regencies is flawed. She points out that the ancient Romans had never used the concept in the modern legal sense, suggesting, I believe correctly, that we should see the leading generalissimos from the fifth century like Stilicho as “guardians” or “managers.” M, as well, rightly adheres to the prevailing view found in recent scholarship that sees the internal rivalries that beset both halves of the Empire in the fourth and the fifth centuries, as largely factional, rather than ethnic disputes between Romans and non-Romans.

Chapter one sets out the traditional role of the emperor as both a political and a military ruler. M finds that the deeply rooted Hellenic virtues of courage in battle, justice in politics and calm majesty in the face of defeat helped to define notions of ideal rulership.  Following concepts found in Plato’s descriptions of the ideal philosopher-king, a model Late Roman emperor needed to be both a lover of reason and a lover of war. Efficiently juxtaposing these expected political and military virtues allowed the emperor to become an exemplar of ideal rulership.

In chapter 2, M looks at the political circumstances surrounding the accessions of the child-emperors Gratian and Valentinian II. After Valentinian I’s sudden death in November 375, political circumstance caused men like the Frankish general Merobaudes (she is unsure whether Merobaudes non-Roman lineage prevented him from taking the purple himself ) to throw their support behind the young child-emperors. To borrow M’s words, “the original accessions of Gratian and Valentinian II were the result of the activity of others, rather than their own efforts (55).” Despite their determination, and Gratian’s apparent martial capabilities as he grew into adulthood, these original fourth-century child-emperors, in M’s mind, remained pawns of fourth-century political players from the West and the East.

The next chapter describes Gratian’s attempts to break-free of the limitations of child-rule. Gratian’s military campaigns reveal that he was trying to stick to the traditional path of a martial emperor. Gallic interests and Gratian’s attempts to establish his own Alan military supporters, in M’s telling, caused his powerful advisors to turn against him. M writes: this importing and favouring of foreign soldiers also revealed Gratian’s lack of understanding of how to maintain the support of existing power-players within his military.” This led to the usurpation of Magnus Maximus and Gratian’s death during a futile attempt to destroy the usurper. The death of Gratian led to his support flowing to the even weaker Valentinian II. Once again, M asserts that self-interest motivated many of the boy-emperors supporters. Whilst recognising Valentinian II in his struggle against Magnus Maximus, the Eastern emperor, Theodosius I at first left his Western counterpart to try and sort out his own affairs. As M points out, the Eastern emperor had his own troubles trying to help the Eastern half of the Empire recover after disastrous defeat at the hands of the Goths in 378. Theodosius saw Valentinian II as more of a nuisance than a threat. While he saw benefits in playing the two Western emperors off each-other, he made it clear that he was the “true” emperor. As M explains (93), “Theodosius’ marginalization of Valentinian left the young emperor appearing weak, isolated, and ultimately venerable-Magnus Maximus would not be the last opportunist to take advantage of the situation.” Ultimately marginalized to the point of despair, Valentinian killed himself, rather than take the bullying of his barbarian henchman Arbogast.

Chapter four explores how the imperial image was adjusted to best suit child-emperors. As M explains, the increasing emphasis on the ceremonial and religious role of emperors in the increasingly Christian Roman Empire of the later fourth and fifth centuries played a part in creating an emperor who largely eschewed military affairs. These duties were left to those best able to command, their loyal generalissimos. Separating these vital and time-consuming civilian and military roles thus made some sense. Indeed, between Theodosius I at the close of the fourth century and Heraclius in the seventh century, no Roman emperor led his army into battle personally, though I must point out that the soldier emperors of the fifth and sixth centuries played a more active role in military planning than these child-emperors.[1] Following the well-trodden path of Kenneth Holum, M suggests that non-martial emperors naturaly emphasized non-martial virtues like piety as imperial virtues.[2] Though I would add, and indeed M points out in Ch. 8, Theodosius II presented himself as the face of Roman victory, a role that the non-campaigning Justinian would master in the next century. Furthermore, recent examinations of the literary and visual sources that have survived from the reign of Constantius II (ruled 337-361) reveal that an imperial reliance on Christian virtues and imagery as an essential aspect of imperial propaganda an emperor’s self-presentation was not a Theodosian innovation. As Michael Whitby has recently argued, Constantius II deftly balanced his military role with Christian engagement.[3]

The second half of the study is the strongest. M’s retelling (chapters 5-10) of Honorius’ crucial reign and detailed revisionist account of Valentinian III’s regime— especially this emperor’s shifting relationship with the generalissimo Aetius— were highlights for me. M’s portrayal of Valentinian vainly trying to assert his right to rule in his own right as an adult emperor is sympathetic and convincing.

Less satisfying, however, is the fact that M does not make more of the contrast with the Eastern emperor Leo I’s successful assassination of his own mentor-generalissimo Aspar in 471.While I recognise that her study was focused primarily on the West, more needed to be said about an emperor from the East who destroyed his mentor. Leo’s success in eliminating his puppet-master Aspar has been explained by A.D. Lee this way. He suggests that Stilicho’s decision at the opening of the fifth century to name a supreme commander of the Western Roman army stood in contrast to the East where five generals served to balance each other was one important factor. Leo’s wisely manoeuvred to gain a powerful ally in the Isaurian Zeno, a strongman who could protect him in the dangerous aftermath of the assassination. Valentinian III had not taken similar precautions. So too had he eliminated a “Roman” general, who had famously defeated Attila. The swift retaliation against such a “murder” is understandable. [4]  Nearly a century after his death, Procopius famously described Aetius as one of the last “true” Romans (Wars 3.3.14). Leo had an easier time explaining his elimination of a man he painted as a traitorous barbarian, who had tried to betray the Romans to the Persians and the Vandals.[5] So perhaps no amount of preparation would have allowed Valentinian to break the shackles of child-emperor rule.

I would agree with M, however, that the fifth century saw an increase in both the danger and the allure of successful soldiers. Interesting contrasts can be made with Myles McDonnell’s recent study on virtus in the Roman Republic and Early Empire, where McDonnell shows how the republican Roman aristocracy, and then the early Roman Emperors sought to contain the martial manliness, and more specifically, the manly virtus of their generalissimos.[6] Much like the era of the republic (e.g. Marius, Sulla), new men (e.g. Aetius, Boniface, Aspar, Ricimer) in the fifth century garbed in manly martial virtues could be perceived as both saviours and threats to the State. Whilst, as McDonnell suggests, the early emperors had taken steps to curb this threat, M’s study shows that it became a problem once again for the twin regimes of the fifth century.

Recent scholarship has tried to answer the vexing question of why even soldier- emperors were so willing to give up their important military role.  Some reasons have been provided: the circumstances of succession, the threat of death on campaign as experienced by Valens and Julian in the fourth century, internal court politics, and the age of the soldier- emperors when they obtained the purple.[7] As M points out, there was a certain amount of safety for these non-campaigning child-emperors. It is probably no coincidence that Honorius (ruled 395-423), Theodosius II (ruled 408-50), and Valentinian III (ruled 425-455) were some of the longest serving emperors. Moreover, military defeats could be blamed on a campaign’s general, whilst as the Probus diptych reveals, an emperor could continue to bask in the glory of a victory.

As M shows so vividly throughout the study, powerful generalissimos like Stilicho, Boniface, Felix, and Aetius had all been consumed by the incessant rivalries that marked the age; so being a magister militum was more dangerous than being an emperor (193). So why did these generalissimos not just take the purple? M discounts the traditional notion that “a strong feeling for dynastic loyalty” motivated these generals (217). She suggests, reasonably enough that they appreciated the power they held under child-emperors (249).Certainly, men like Stilicho, Ricimer, Aetius, and Aspar in the East, seemed pretty happy ruling behind the scenes, though Stilicho and Aetius appeared to have had hopes for their sons to become emperors. Moreover, if Olympiodorus is to be believed, Constantius III had only grudgingly taken on the role as partner to Honorius. Unquestionably the position seems to have lost some of its allure, at least in the West.   Perhaps giving up direct command of Roman forces on the ground also played a role? So too as M asserts, did  these men have a genuine desire to avoid civil wars that tended to be disastrous for the Empire, and in turn, these men’s interests (314).

The power held by these generalissimos, as M explains (e.g., 312), was never absolute. Theodosius II’s continuing interest in Western affairs tended to curb these military men’s influence. These men needed to be wary of rivals within the Western military as well. As M wisely highlights it is interesting and important to note, that the “non-martial” VIII commits the murder himself. M rightly credits the grown up Valentinian for taking matters into his own hands, pun intended. As I suggested above, her revisionist view of VIII is one of the most important parts of her work.

I would suggest that she sums up her study with her assertion about fifth-century Theodosian emperors that “as long as the emperor remained passive-content, effectively, to remain a child-it did function. “But when a child emperor like VIII tried to establish himself as an adult ruler (301), **** hit the fan (my own words). The example of Theodosius II, however, upsets her model somewhat. Her Theodosius, indeed, is a much more powerful figure than I have seen in any other modern literature. More needed to be said about this seminal, albeit Eastern child-emperor.

Moreover, her closing contention that child-emperors were “to become common in the following centuries” in the Byzantine Empire is not true at the end of the fifth to the early seventh centuries. A closer look at the evidence provides a rather different conclusion. After the assassination of Valentinian III a long series of adult-emperors took on the purple in the West: Maximus, Avitus, Majorian, Severus Anthemios, Olybrius, and Nepos. While famously the last Western emperor Romulus Augustus was a child emperor, as we can see from the list above, he represents the exception rather than the rule. Moreover fifth-century Eastern emperors, Marcian, Leo (Leo II died as a child), Zeno, and Basiliskos were all soldiers, while Anastasios was an obscure palace official. In the sixth and the seventh centuries, Justin, Justinian, Maurice, Phocas, and Heraclius had all begun their rise to the purple as soldiers.  So we can see clearly that these Theodosian child-emperors were not setting as influential a long-term precedent as M suggests (e.g. 327). Non-child emperors are certainly far more prevalent in Byzantine history.  A chapter that dealt with the East and the West shortly after the Theodosian rulers would have added to the study and to the overall thesis. So I remain unconvinced that there was a long-term shift in the imperial system in favour of child-emperors. Dynastic sentiment, and, indeed, historical accident still present a more attractive explanation for the number of child-emperors from 367-455. Dynastic considerations certainly were at play when the Eastern emperor Marcian (ruled 450-57) married Theodosius II’s sister Aelia Pulcheria.[8] Once this sentiment faded it became easier for Aspar to do away with the Theodosian line when he then chose the soldier Leo I as Marcian’s replacement. Yet despite remaining unconvinced of her overriding thesis, this remains an important book. Her work offers much needed reflection on this vital and underappreciated period of Roman history. I predict that it will be the general survey to introduce the complex politics of the Theodosian age to graduate students on many a campus.


[1] Walter Kaegi, Heraclius: Emperor of Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 68-69.

[2] Kenneth Holum, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Dominion in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982), 50. For piety as an essential imperial virtue from the reign of Augustus, however, see Colleen Conway, Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 45-6, 51, 59.

[3] See e.g., Michael Whitby, “Images of Constantius”, in The Late Roman World and its Historian: Interpreting Ammianus Marcellinus, ed. Jan Willem Drijvers, David Hunt (New York: Routledge, 1999), 77-92.

[4] A.D. Lee, From Rome to Byzantium, ad 363 to 565: The Transformation of the Ancient Roman World (Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 2013), 98-101.

[5] Though it is important to note that Leo’s nickname “the butcher” was cultivated by his detractors as result of this assassination, which was not supported in all quarters, see Malchus frag. 3.

[6] Myles McDonnell, Roman Manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2007).

[7] A.D. Lee, War in Late Antiquity, A Social History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 35.

[8] For this view of Leo’s ascension see R.W. Burgess, “The accession of Marcian in the light of Chalcedonian Apologetic and Monophysite Polemic”, BZ 86/7 (1993): 47-68.

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