(1883 portrait of the Emperor Honorius feeding his chickens while the Empire crumbles, taken from an anecdote from the sixth-century historian Procopius)
Since it is the anniversary of Valentinian III’s assassination today’s blog looks at three significant Roman political assassinations from the second half of the fifth century: Aetius’ (454) at the hands of Valentinian III (literally)…VIII (455) at the hands of Aetius’ supporters, an the eastern generalissimo Aspar’s and his sons’ at the hands of Leo I (471).
Fifth-century Eastern and Western Roman politics was marked by intense factional rivalries; we find in the sources from the period generalissimos both Roman and non-Roman struggling to carve a position for themselves in Rome’s and Constantinople’s halls of power.The fallout was often bloody and disastrous for the well-being of the Empire. As many historians have noted (see recently McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule) particularly in the West, the emperors were becoming increasingly marginalised. Real power was moving into the hands of military men, Roman and non-Roman. Emperors like Arcadius (ruled 383-408) and his brother Honorius (ruled 393-423) took on largely ceremonial and religious roles, while leaving military and political affairs in the hands of their advisors and generals. Child-emperors, once the exception, became the rule in the first half of the fifth century. Both modern and ancient historians have seen this weakening of the imperial position as one of the reasons behind the disasters of the fifth-century that saw the disappearance of nearly two thirds of the territories of the Western Empire. Yet to do so is to anticipate. Not all the blame need to be laid at the feet of these emperors. In fact, by the reign of Theodosius II the division of civilian and military roles had provided some stability in dangerous times. This helps to explain the long reigns of these early fifth-century emperors.
Another child-emperor Valentinian III (ruled 425-455) had managed to survive both the incursions of the Vandals and the invasion of Western Europe at the hands of Attila and his Huns. Despite threats to their rule, these emperors had managed to survive in an environment that saw the premature deaths of many of their “political mangers”. Indeed, Valentinian’s move in 454 to eliminate his manager and the military saviour of the West, Aetius, came at a time when the former child-emperor was trying to re-establish himself as both a military and political leader. Such a move was not unique. Another former child-emperor Gratian (ruled 367-383) had for a time tried to establish himself as an adult ruler by setting out to prove himself as a military leader. Rather than provide my own account of the assassination I will allow the Eastern historian Priscus who was looking back on this event to explain things from the Eastern viewpoint. It is important to note that Priscus was writing twenty years after the event at a time when the last Western Emperor had fallen. This excerpt comes from John of Antioch Fr. 201:
Maximus, a powerful noble, who had been twice consul, was hostile to Aetius, the general of the forces of Italy. Since he knew that Heraclius, a eunuch who carried very great weight with the Emperor (Valentinian III), was extremely hostile against Aetius for the same reason….since they both wished to replace his sway with their own. The made an arrangement and they persuaded the emperor that if he did not act first and kill Aetius, Aetius would kill him.
Since Valentinian was doomed to come to ruin by destroying the bulwark of his own sovereignty, he approved the suggestion of Maximus and Heraclius and prepared to kill Aetius in the palace when he was about to hold a planning meeting with the Emperor and was evaluating proposals to raise money. As Aetius was explaining the finances and calculating the tax revenues, with a shout Valentinian suddenly leaped up from his throne and cried out that he would no longer endure to be abused by such treacheries. He alleged that, by blaming him for the troubles, Aetius wished to deprive him of power in the West, as he had done in the East, insinuating that only because of what Aetius did he did not go to remove Marcian from his throne (VIII had refused to recognise Marcian, which offers proof in my mind that the Aspar was behind Marcian’s naming). While Aetius was stunned by this unexpected rage and was attempting to calm his irrational outburst, Valentinian drew his sword from his scabbard, and together with Heraclius, who was carrying a cleaver under his cloak…for he was head chamberlain, fell upon him. They both rained down blows on his head and killed him, a man who had performed so many brave actions against enemies both internal and external. Through an alliance with the barbarians he protected Valentinian’s mother and her son while he was a child. When Boniface (Roman general) crossed from Libya with a big army, he out generaled him (not true! Boniface had defeated Aetius, but later died of his wounds) so that he died of a disease as a result of his anxieties and Aetius gained possession of his wife and property (perhaps proof that wife and property were seen as one and the same). Felix, who was a fellow general vying for control by cunning when he learned that he was preparing to destroy him at Placida’s suggestion, he killed.
There is more bloodshed, but I will stop here. A few thoughts on the passage above. First, it is interesting that Priscus has no problems with Aetius killing other important Roman generals, but plainly sees it as wrong that an emperor had assassinated his most successful general, even a sixty-four year old one whose best days were surely behind him. Historians use examples like the one above as proof that Byzantine emperors like Leo I and Justinian had to be very careful when taking on or eliminating members of the elite. This flies in the face of the modern view of emperors like Justinian as all-powerful despots.
Back to the main story. According to Priscus things for Valentinian unravelled quickly. Probably due to the negative reaction concerning the assassination, Maximus turned on the emperor. Valentinian was unable to gain a foothold in an army still loyal to the memory of Aetius and not the promises of an untested emperor. Unfortunately we have a biased anti-Valentinian view on these events. Perhaps VIII deserves more credit or had supporters that we do not know of. The young emperor was obviously trying to earn the respect of the soldiers when was set upon while heading off to archery practice. Let us return to Priscus:
A few days later Valentinian decided to go riding on the Campus Martius with a few guardsmen and the followers of Optila and Thraustila (Huns loyal to Aetius). When he dismounted from his horse and was walking off to practice archery, Optilla and his followers mad for him and, drawing the swords at their sides, attacked him. Optila struck Valentinian across the side of his head and, when he turned to see who struck him, felled him with a second blow to the face. Thraustila cut down Heraclius, and both of them took of the Emperor’s diadem and horse and rode off to Maximus. Whether those present were stunned by the surprise of the attempt or frightened by the warlike reputation of the men, their attack brought no retaliation.
Note the contrast with the subsequent slaughter of the Alan Aspar and his sons by the Eastern Emperor Leo and his eunuchs inside the palace of Constantinople in 471. After this assassination, Aspar’s supporters almost succeeded in overwhelming the emperors’ personal guards. As McEvoy suggests this should serve as evidence to how far the prestige of child-emperors like VIII had declined. Priscus was writing after this Eastern event, so one might assume that he was influenced by this event that earned Leo the name the butcher. Leo, however, having gained the support of large members of martial Isaurians and other military factions lived to die a peaceful death: He had a nice funeral. Modern historians, in fact, see Leo’s assassination as the start of the rise of a revitalized Byzantine Empire.
The distaste found in Priscus over these types of assassinations is echoed in other contemporary sources. Assassinations could be seen as murders even when one was trying to eliminate formidable enemies like Attila. In fact, it should be pointed out that in comparison to earlier and later periods of Roman and Byzantine history they were exceptional events. This might explain the Romans surprise when the troops had the gumption to kill a Theodosian emperor. We can see that there was some sort of rules to be followed. One could not just go around slaying ones enemies at peaceful meetings. Though it seems if you had defeated a whole bunch of foreign enemies like Aetius you were given some leeway. We can also see the limits on imperial power. An emperor could not just kill anyone they chose. It is still strange that the murder of a reigning emperor does not elicit more sympathy from contemporary sources, which are almost unanimous in the justice of the deed.
The use of eunuchs as killers is also interesting. Our sources make it clear that as the emperors’ personal bedroom guards these “men” were taking on more military-like roles. This helps to explain the gradual rise of military eunuchs in the sixth century and beyond. Narses’ career followed a similar path: first serving as a cubicularis within the palace and then as an assassin and diplomat, next as a general, and lastly as the political and military ruler of Italy. Since these men owed their survival to the reigning emperor their loyalty could be counted on. Though as I pointed out in an earlier blog some eunuchs like the seventh-century exarch Eleutherios were not so loyal. As Priscus tells us their robes also were good hiding spots for cleavers!