Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Puppet Emperors of Rome

After the catastrophic military defeat of Adrianople in 378 (see page 42) the prestige of the emperors among the soldiers was seriously undermined. The soldiers preferred to trust the commander on the spot, not an emperor a distance away.

In 455 the army appointed Petronius Maximus to be emperor and the Senate, as usual, agreed to pass the usual motion conferring power and wealth on him. It was almost the last time that army and Senate bothered with such action.

When Petronius Maximus was killed fighting the Vandals three months later the Visigothic King Theodoric II announced that he wanted his friend, the Roman Senator Avitus to be emperor. Nobody objected.

Avitus did not even make the effort of going to Rome. He stayed at the court of Theodoric in southern Gaul and issued his instructions from there.

After just a year, Avitus was told by the Germanic army commander, Ricimer, that he was no longer emperor. Theodoric did not want war, so Avitus was made Bishop of Placentia.

Ricimer knew that the eastern emperor, Leo would not tolerate a German as western emperor, so he did not take the title for himself. Instead he appointed the noble and respected Roman senator, Majorian, to be emperor.

In 461 Ricimer killed Majorian when the emperor refused to do as he was told. Ricimer chose as the next emperor another senator, Libius Severus, who wisely did exactly what the German army commander told him to do. Severus died of old age in 465.

The next two emperors were chosen by Ricimer to be his puppets. By this date the emperor had power only in Italy. All other areas had fallen to barbarian kings who ignored any orders from Rome.

Ricimer died in 472 and his position as commander of the German troops that by now comprised the army of the western empire was taken by Gundobad. The new military hard man appointed a new emperor, but both were ousted by an army coup in 475.

The new commander, Orestes, put his own son in position as emperor. By this time, however, the western empire no longer had access to enough tax money to pay the German soldiers. Orestes was killed by mutinous troops and the last emperor abdicated.

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