“Could the fall of the Roman Empire have been avoided?”
“Could the fall of the Roman Empire have been avoided?”
The story of the last days of the Western Roman Empire is a tale of two men: Emperor Majorian and his advisor, Ricimer.
Majorian was a brave and determined leader who inherited a realm in chaos. He spent his reign fighting to restore the empire to its former glory.
Ricimer, was a power-hungry opportunist who saw disorder as an opportunity to seize control.
As the empire crumbled beneath them, only one would be left standing.
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It's the fifth century AD. Through the icy wastes of central Poland, an enormous group of refugees trudge west. Tens of thousands of men, women, children and pack animals walk as far as they can by day and huddle in makeshift camps by night. They live on whatever they can find. Once their animals die, they pick the countryside, bear and turn to banditry. They were a desperate, broken people who might call themselves The Wanđilaz. Vandals to our modern tongue, and they walked towards nothing but an idea, one of safety and security for them and their families.
The Vandals were not delicate people. The blond haired blue eyed warriors had long been sought as mercenaries in battles all across Europe. But the people, the things they were fleeing from, were like nothing anyone had ever seen. The Huns. Few who saw them live to tell, but those that did spoke of monstrously, ugly creatures, scarcely human, who spoke only in other worldly grunts. They had no culture and no mercy. Stunted men who fought on horseback with such mastery it was as if beast and man were one. Their leader, Atilla, cared nothing for ruling plunder and death was all he lived for.
And so the Vandals marched towards the Roman Empire, the last bastion of safety from the apocalyptic hordes that pursued them. Among the band was a teenage boy, scarcely old enough to swing a sword. He was short, with blue eyes and long blonde hair, perhaps tied in a tight knot at one side. As was accustomed, walking was difficult for him and he moved with a limp due to a fall from a horse. His name was Gaiseric .
Gaiseric had watched family and friends fall throughout the journey, either by sword, by disease, or by the elements. He had been forced to grow up to man up before his time.
But once he and his family reached the hallowed borders of the empire, it was swarmed with others like him, vagrants from all across Central Europe, trying to force their way into the safety of the empire. The border crossing, too, was undermanned. The sentries were overwhelmed! They'd never before seen so many people massed in one place. Gaiseric and his people decided to run the gauntlet. Sword in hand, he and the others storm one of the guard posts and stampede through. The elderly and the sick who fall behind are shown no mercy by the Romans. Their pleas fallen deaf ears as they butchered like cattle.
Trudging onwards they walked for what seemed like an eternity and camped for a few days in France before again being set upon by a local tribe. These men were not Romans, but they were not like them either. Unwilling to share their land, these foreigners set upon them with as much fury as the Romans. Thousands die, including the king. As a group flees south through Spain, they try again to settle. But the soldiers of Rome finally catch up to them and they are merciless. The empire takes no prisoners. Determined to eradicate these people, this cancer from their empire, they are almost completely wiped out. And Geisaric, now in his 30s, takes command.
He directs the last of his people across the strait of Gibraltar into the foreign land of Africa, where the people are dark and the climate is scorching. Far away from their homeland, they become hardened and bitter. Gaiseric tells them they will dish out exactly what the world gave them. From now on, they will run no further. Their family, their friends, their possession, their dignity, all of it had been stolen from them. It was time to start taking. Carving a path of destruction across Roman controlled north Africa. Gaiseric and his vandals spared no one. Just as no one spared them. Cities fall to him, and to ensure their loyalty, he tears down the walls and promises he'll be back if they dare betray him.
Entire settlements are butchered. Women, children, the sick, the elderly, all cut down. Even priests and nuns are not spared. By the time the group has reached the provincial capital of Carthage, he and his people were wealthy, battle hardened, and fearless.
Life was cheap, and the only way to survive it was to be more brutal than your enemy. Soon, all of north Africa was his. And Gaiseric, the boy that had once cowered before the armies of Rome, now held the empire by the throat. Grain deliveries, the lifeline for the empire came from north Africa, and with each year, the vandal king charged more and more money to keep the deliveries coming. With the money, he built boats. Tons and tons of boats.
And any time the emperor defied him, or just when he needed some cash, he raided its cities with impunity. How the tables had turned…..
Welcome back to Anthology of heroes, the podcast sharing stories of defiance and heroism from across the ages. Anthology of heroes is part of the evergreen podcast network. I'm your host, Eliot Gates, and this right here is a conclusion to the reign of one of Rome's last real leaders emperors: Majorian.
In part one, we followed the piecemeal collapse of the western Roman empire. We spoke about all the barbarian kingpins, like Gaiseric, who circled a dying empire, using it as an ATM whenever they needed cash.
Starting with the chicken obsessed Honorius. We observed the quality of emperors get worse and worse with each succession. No longer would you find an emperor commanding troops in the front lines, shoulder to shoulder with allegiance. He now passed the time mindlessly bickering with the senate occasionally, and not much else. Filling the position he left behind was the Magister Militum, the supreme commander of the army, a position that had begun to overtake many of the responsibilities that used to belong to the emperor.
We tracked the rise of Majorian and Ricimer, two of the most talented military men in the western Roman empire, and watched them navigate through the cutthroat politics of the fifth century empire. I'd really advise listening to part one first, because without context, it might be a little confusing. To be fair, everyone was killing everyone, so it's probably worth mentioning the main characters again. The ones still alive are:
The last episode ended with Majorian and Ricimer killing the unpopular Western Roman emperor and taking command of the government. Still with me? All right, let's get into it: Last Of The Romans: Part 2: twilight of an empire.
If Ricimer and Majorian were to lay a map out of the empire they now ruled, here's what they'd see:
Apart from that, all other territory had been lost. Previous empress had either consented to giving it away or, more likely, they just weren't strong enough to defend them all.
It was a bleak picture. The barbarians had dug in at their new home. Some had been there for decades now!
The Roman world had been reduced to boundaries not seen since the conquests of Caesar 500 odd years ago. How on earth did it come to this, you might ask?
Well, imagine you owned an apartment block, and what an apartment block it was! The walls were lined with marble, all the light fittings were made from gold, and statues lined all the hallways. You personally lived in the penthouse at the top. And all other apartment buildings were occupied by people who gave you a little bow when they passed you in the hallway.
They called you Sir. They paid their rent on time, and they agreed to join your security force to keep the lock safe. Every so often, someone would knock at the door and ask if they could move in. And if you had a room, you'd agree. You'd tell the new guy, ‘you can stay here, only if you agree to these rules: you leave your guns at the door, you pay your rent on time, you show me respect, and you join the security force.’
This goes on for years and things are going great. But soon some of your tenants begin to die off and others start to fall behind on their rent… Soon a bunch of shady looking blokes start lurking around the entrance. One day, one of them comes to the door and says ‘hey, I want to move in’ And you say ‘okay, well, the rules are you need to leave-’ and before you even finish your sentence, he says ‘yeah, yeah,yeah’ and just brushes you off and walks inside with a few of his buddies. You think to yourself, geez, I don't really like the look of them. But truth be told, you do need a few more bodies for the security forces, and you've got loads of spare rooms…
Soon, more of these guys start showing up and they're just hanging out in the lobby. They pulled down some of your nice gold light fittings and they're making a mess, pushing around your other tenants. When you approach them and tell them to get out, they say ‘make me’ And all of a sudden you notice how many of them there are…
Your security forces are strong enough to keep them out and they're not paying rent anymore. Instead, they're saying to you, you need to pay them! More and more arrive and the vacant units are now filled, so they start smashing down the doors of your other tenants and kicking them out! For the first time you're in a lot of financial trouble. You can't afford the upkeep on the place anymore. Your security force is now using crappy old gear, and you need to start selling off some of your old statues.
The new tenants practically own your block now and all of your tenants are too destitute to pay you. With your back to the door of your penthouse, you close your eyes and just pray that they leave. But soon they're banging on your door, demanding that you the owner of the whole block, and over your stuff too! After they've taken all your belongings and all your money, you leave your penthouse.
You have no choice. It had too many windows, too many entrances, too difficult to protect. So you move into a one bedroom flat in the corner of the building. It's dark and dirty with no windows, but it's hard to find. Every night, you can hear the sounds of brawling from the hotel entrance. Another, much larger gang is now trying to get in. And all you can do now is hope the squatters defend your ruined home…
Now, that metaphor was a long way of describing what had happened over the last few decades. Over and over, emperors had traded long term stability for short term peace. Every emperor knew that these unassimilated tribal groups within the borders were going to come back to haunt them. But whenever one of them showed up and crossed into Roman lands, the Empire was always dealing with another, more pressing crisis. So the Emperor would say ‘fine, whatever, let them in and we'll sort that out once everything calms down’. But that day never came. They didn't know it, but the Empire was never again to have prosperity like it had centuries ago. This chaotic, lawless mess was the new normal, and now it was up to the Emperor to make it work.
With the old emperor dead, the Western Empire drifted rudderless for six months. Officially, there was no emperor. But in the background, Majorian and Ricimer were working to set things up properly. The two men weren't trying to pretend that nothing had changed and they were just the next two stooges off the assembly line. They were drawing a line in the sand and saying, right, there's going to be some changes around here.
In fact, all across the Roman world, there was a changing of the guard. In the east, too, a new emperor had ascended to the throne. His name was Leo. It's hard to know for sure, but it seems like Emperor Leo gave his blessing to Majorian and Ricimer's rule. This was a big deal for Majorian. The last two Western Roman Emperors failed to get the little blue approval tick and things fell apart for them very quickly. But for Ricimer, it was even better. Because he, as Magister Militum, had been raised beside Majorian. Majorian didn't pick him.
So the ranks of these two men were pretty much equal. At least, that's how Ricimer interpreted it.
From the beginning of their reign, it was clear that these two will be charting their own course. But how is it going to work? Even Majorian's own set of laws didn't separate out the duties of the two roles: quote
“Military matters will be the watchful concern of both yourself and our parent and patrician Ricimer.
We shall, by the grace of God, protect the position of the Roman world, which we liberated, by our joint vigilance, from the foreign enemy and from internal disaster.”
Even from the start of their reign, the finer points of their rule were… awkward, but that was a problem for the future. For the time being, the empire, for the first time in a long time, was ruled by two competent military minds. Sidonius, one of the few contemporary sources for Majorian's life, describes the emperor's coronation. His description, though embellished, is the best clue we have on how Majorian wanted others to see him. And this quote I've altered to make it more understandable, as the original language is really archaic: quote
“Now a consul holds the imperial power, a man who is as comfortable in chainmail, as he is in the imperial robe. A man who has earnt the crown, not through vain parade but through lawful power.”
Majorian enthusiastically got to work pending a bunch of reforms designed to help the empire recover and defend itself.
And he went further. Well aware of the corrupt tax offender squeezing the public, he cancelled the repayments of most debtors across the empire. Some of these debts were decades old. They were never going to be paid and existed only to enrich the corrupt tax official.
After all, how could his government tax a farmer if the farmer was already 20 payments behind schedule? Numerous other laws were put in place to cut out unnecessary bureaucratic red tape and empower local officials to simplify the running of the state. These reforms had Majorian treading dangerously close to the Senate's interest. Because their farms took up most of the countryside, a new emperor wanting to strengthen the central government and extend its reach into the provinces could mean less money for them.
Majorian was not some great reformer like Diocletian or Vespasian. He didn't have the money or authority to reshape the empire from the ground up. Instead, he pushed the boundaries as far as he thought he could without painting a target on his back.
Reforms, changes, are essential for any entity to adapt to the current playing field. Remember, this is a 600 year old empire.
For comparison, the British Empire was around 400 years old, and the USA is around 250 years old. Imagine if the two of these refused to make any changes or adaptations.
They'd fade away, wouldn't they? But he wasn't done yet. Majorian had watched the hatred brew against the last emperor that had marched his army of foreigners through the streets of Italy.
His power base was Gaul. All his networks were there, and it was there he had many could trust. But he knew the senate wouldn't accept them. They were old money and only Italian blood was good enough for them. So he shrewdly walked the middle ground, stacking his government with men of Gaul with family ties to Italy. Senators may grumble that these men were not true Romans, but at least they had some Roman blood. One of these people was a man named Aegidius. Aegidius would take on the role of Magister Militum for the area of Gaul. Like so many others from this period, we know very little about him, but clearly Majorian and he shared a special bond. They'd probably campaigned together in the old days. Aegidius would go on to be Majorians right hand man.
As the Emperor shuffled things around in Rome, Ricimer marched south.
Gaiseric had put his nephew in command of the fleet, and during one of their raids, as they disembarked from the ships and began pilaging, Ricimer and his men sprung up from the shadows.
And Sidonius tells us, quote:
one gashed by a harpoon,
another by a lance falls headlong from his horse
yet another, flung down by a flying shaft, lies there,
some of them, with the thigh-sinews severed, live on to envy death;
again, a warrior sweeps off part of a foeman’s brain and part of his helmet together,
cleaving the hapless skull with two-edged sword wielded by a strong arm.
Gaiseric had been put on notice. Rome was no longer open for plunder.
Even though Majorian and Ricimer pursued their own agendas, they were both aligned to the idea that it was Italy that it needed protecting, at least initially. Ricimer, from the start, seems to have made up his mind that Italy, and only Italy, was worth holding on to.
The other territories. Gaul, Spain, North Africa, in Ricimer's mind, these were already lost. The empire shouldn't waste money trying to cling on to them. Where possible, the people living there should be exploited and spent for the betterment of Italy. In his mind, the old Roman Empire was gone. Dead and buried. And he wanted to focus their very limited resources on the defence of Italy. Majorian didn't feel this way.
His family was from outside Italy, so maybe that had something to do with it. Or perhaps it was the responsibility that came from assuming such an ancient title. Augustus, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius. He had stepped into the mantle of great men, men who had built Rome into what it is… or what it was…
Was it right? Could he forgive himself for just letting it all go? At the very least, he had to try. With the rural population saved from ravenous tax collectors, a trickle of revenue began to make its way into the imperial treasury. Gaiseric's raids were more cautious. And although we have precious little information about what was happening on the ground, we do have a correspondence written between two bishops who mentioned that the situation around Rome had improved recently in northern Italy. Either Majorian or one of his generals beat back a thousand man raid from the Swiss Alps. But the biggest threat was, and always would be from Africa. Even if Gaiseric was out of the picture, almost all of Italy's richest cities were coastal. When Rome controlled all of the Mediterranean sea, this was not a problem.
But with North Africa now controlled by the Vandals, times had changed. The empire could never be safe unless it could protect its coastline. So there was only one thing to do. Majorian was going to rebuild the Roman fleet. The decision to spend the empire's minuscule budget on a navy is an interesting one. Majorian was taking a huge gamble with this. If it worked, Rome could again rule the seas. It could project power back to its old coastal settlements around the Mediterranean. Trade would recover while Geisreach and his barbarian cousins would be forced in land. But those were some big. Ifs the Western Roman empire had not been a serious power on the sea in 150 years. The rigging of ships and fighting at sea required a dedicated crew. Roman soldiers were hard to find these days, but sailors? I mean, good luck. Not only that, but even the cost of maintaining the boats would be a big chunk of the empire's budget.
As Majorian headed to Gaul to search for potential backers for his project, Ricimer and the Senate may have met to discuss this concerning development. Despite Ricimer’s barbarian heritage, the Senate had always liked him. From their perspective, the man knew where he stood. He knew he would never be emperor, and he safeguarded their interests prioritizing Italy above anything else. They were half right. Ricimer did know that he would never be emperor, but he didn't need to be.
The powers bestowed on him meant that the role he had was almost better. Majorian was the face of the empire, the guy the baker or the soldier saw on the coins he was paid in. But this left Ricimer to operate with impunity from the shadows. It was like the godfather. He had connections everywhere, and working from his smoky backroom office, he plotted the course of the empire based on his own design. No one would dare disagree with him. And if anything went wrong, the blame would fall on Majorian.
Ricimer and the senators may have disagreed with Majorian using state funds for an offensive war, but they had to admit that the realm had stabilised since he become emperor.
For the senators, however they felt about Majorian, he was the emperor. They couldn't outright defy him. All they could do now was wait and see.
As Majoran winned and died in the elite of Gaul, little by little, he secured his funding. In the south of Spain, lumber began arriving at the docks, and the fleet began to take shape. The order for the fleet to be assembled in Spain was another calculated gamble by Majorian. I mean, why not have the boats constructed in Italy? Spain was pretty lawless. The empire's hold on it was pretty shaky. But that was precisely the point. Majorian planned to march from Italy and taking the long route he could pick up recruits as he went and liberate the occupied Roman cities on the way there!
His army would slowly grow and by the time he reached Spain, he would have a huge force behind him! Every one of Majorian's decisions paints a picture of an emperor with two goals: recovery and stability. After all, he was not the king of Italy, he was the leader of the Roman Empire. These barbarian kingdoms that for too long had sucked his empire dry were about to feel the wrath of a reinvigorated Rome.
As another one of Gaiseric's raiding parties was destroyed by Ricimer, Majorian set off north with the imperial army. And in the south of France he met his first challenge. Under the previous emperor, Avitus, the Visigoths had been permitted to extend their kingdom from a little state in southern France all the way into southern Spain.
Avitus had few other options but to agree, as it was them who kept him in power. But times had changed. The Roman army caught the Visigoth king completely off guard. A Roman emperor leading the army in person was like something out of the history books! What was he doing here? Sidonius tells us of the army's bravery:
“death may overwhelm them, but not fear. Unconquerable, they stand their ground and their courage well nigh outlives their lives.”
Majorian forces crushed the unprepared Visigothic army and the emperor reduced their territory back to its original borders. The emperor then forced the king to accept Federate status. Being a Federator of the empire meant that you promised to provide troops for its army in future campaigns.
With the treaty sealed, Majorian took a contingent of defeated Visigoths with him. With his ranks bolstered, he marched onwards.
To the north lay the kingdom of the Bugundians. Centred around Switzerland, this tribe had taken advantage of the collapsing empire to annex Roman territory. Marching through their lands, the emperor accepted the submission of many smaller tribes. He imposed no penalty for their disloyalty, but insisted that they provide troops for this campaign. When he finally reached the tribal capital, the Bugundian king could not believe the empire was able to field an army like this.
A battle ensued and according to Sidonius, Majorian was right there in the thick of combat.
‘Time after time his helmet rang with blows, and his hauberk with its protecting scales kept off the thrust of spears, until the enemy was forced to turn and flee’
Just like the Visigoths, the Burgundian lines collapsed and buckled. Again Majorian was lenient. The city was fined, its territory reduced and its king was compelled to provide troops resting for a time at their capital in modern day Lyon, France, Majorian became acquainted with his unlikely biographer. Sidonius Apollinaris, who I've quoted several times throughout this episode, was a bishop of the city. He was also the son in law of Avitus, the preceding emperor who Majorian and Ricimer had murdered to take the throne. In what must have been a very uncomfortable first meeting, the emperor met the bishop and apparently won him over. Sidonius would go on to become the only real primary source for the life of Majorian that has survived over the ages.
Within the space of a year, Majorian had mopped up two threats to the empire, and all this was just a prequel. Down in Carthage, Gaiseric was starting to realize that this new emperor meant business. The man coming for him was nothing like the empire had churned out since the time he'd been alive. The Vandal had been used to snivelling palace emperors who came begging for truces, men who traded everything and anything to save their own skin. An invasion of his new kingdom wasn't something he'd planned for. Aside from his capital, Carthage, no other city he commanded in North Africa was in any state to hold out. He had ordered all the city walls torn down so no Roman sympathizers could resist him. The shoe was on the other foot now. His cruelty had made him few friends in this foreign land, and it was only his reputation for victory that kept him safe on the throne.
An unfamiliar feeling of fear rippled through the vandal king…
After quelling a minor mutiny in his ranks, Majorian marched south into Spain, where the final touches on his fleet were being made. Perhaps wishing to rid himself of troublemakers among his ranks, the emperor split his forces and sent the Visigoths to the northwest of Spain, the homeland of the Suevi people. This region again fell quickly, and with this victory, Majorian was theoretically in control of all of Spain again. As his army neared the coast, Procopius, writing about 100 years later, tells us this fascinating story:
Wishing to know more about the size of the forces Gaiseric possessed. Majorian sent an envoy across to Africa to meet the vandal king. The two men meet, and Gaiseric does everything he can to try and intimidate and alle the envoy.
But even with all the threats and bravado, the envoy remains unmoved. Because the envoy was actually Majorian himself!
With his golden hair dyed black, he dressed himself up as a diplomat to see with his own eyes what kind of firepower he would soon be facing. So Gaiseric brings Majorian into this enormous armory, weapons lining the walls, and kind of says ‘yeah, we've got all this. Not bad, eh?’ And as Majorian approaches the weapons to take a look in the presence of such a great warrior, the weapons start to shake and they begin to hum and sing!
The room shakes a little, and the vandal king freaks out. He runs outside and asks the guards if they felt that earthquake, but none did…
Procopius is always good for stories like this. But there was some truth in the fear the Vandal King had for Majorian, because for the first time since he had conquered his kingdom, Gaiseric, the man who had sacked Rome and refused any offer of peace treaty, sent an offering to the Emperor. We don't know what the offer was, but we do know Majorian rejected it. His invasion force was right there. They were ready to go. Only the gods knew when he could gather this many barbarian groups together again.
Besides, what good was the word of Gaiseric? The man broke treaties whenever it suited him. The empire would never be safe while he still lived. With his offer of peace rejected, Gaiseric goes nuclear. He tears down a ton of settlements around the coast, his own cities and villages torched just to make sure Majorian found no allies or food from the civilian population. He scrambled, and with every scrap of money he had hoarded over the years, he bribed spies, merchants, soldiers, traders, anyone with a lead that could help him get his head out of the noose. And at the 11th hour, he found someone…
It had been two long years since Majorian had departed Italy with the unwavering goal of ousting Gaiseric and restoring Roman rule to North Africa. He had reconquered almost all of Europe. His navy had been a costly gamble, but his men reported the ships already and awaiting his command. But as the Emperor and his army arrived, it was clear something was very wrong. Smoke billowed over the town and townsfolk rushed to put out spot fires across the port. We don't know how it happened, but it seems like at the last minute, Gaiseric had got in contact with some of the merchants who traveled regularly between Africa and Spain. These merchants knew the docks well and with their pockets lined with gold, told guys exactly where Majorian ships would be docked.
The men guarding them were bribed to look the other way. And in the dead of night, the Vandal King had pulled in at the docks, stole the ships, and whatever he couldn't take was burnt. Half of Majorian's precious navy lay at the bottom of the harbor. The other half was back in Carthage…
Three years of preparation and an untold amount of money lost in a single day.
Majorian had no way of reaching Carthage. The invasion was off.
Perhaps once the smoke subsided, the Emperor could have made out the shores of Africa. On the horizon, a mere 14 kilometres, 8 miles of water was all that stood between him and his dream of reconquest.
We know nothing about the treaty that Gaiseric sent to Majorian after this. A later Roman historian gives us just one word: shameful. It's highly likely that Majorian formerly ceded the Roman provinces of Africa to Gaiseric. Perhaps he also had to pay him off. In return, he might have received the worthless promise from the Vandal King that he would stop raiding Italy. Majorian's career had been spin after spin on Roulette and finally he had landed on Black.
The emperor disbanded his army. The barbarian groups were sent back home and reminded of the oaths that they had taken. His old friend Aegidius was also sent back to Gaul. His loyalty was never in question. The anticlimactic campaign was a disaster. Procopius, a big fan of Majorian, trie to pretend that the Emperor actually died of disease and that's why it was called off. But other sources prove this wasn't true.
How did Majorian feel as he trudged back to Italy? Since he became emperor, his focus had been on defeating Gaiseric and retaking Carthage. And now, at the last second, when he was so close, he'd fallen short. In spite of all this, Majorian had subdued Europe again. Despite the setback, the realm was significantly more stable than it had been when he departed. But in the two years he'd been gone, things had changed back in Rome. We don't know much about what Ricimer had been up to during the campaign, but it's clear that he built up his power base even more. And as Majorian reached the little commune of Tortona in northern Italy, he was ambushed.
With his army dismissed, the Emperor was vulnerable, but clearly he didn't think he was in any danger. Another mistake. And one that would prove to be his last. Majorian's handful of personal guards were easily outnumbered. He was abducted and forced to abdicate his position. A couple of days later, some say after being subjected to torture, emperor Flavius Julius Valerius Majorianus was marched down to the river Staffora and beheaded.
He was 41 years old and had ruled the collapsing empire for just under four years.
Sources described the murder differently, but almost all agree that the order came from his old friend Ricimer. But why? An old theory thrown around is that Ricimer wanted a puppet emperor and when Majorian began to march to his own drum, Ricimer had him murdered. But Majoran was always determined and headstrong with his own agenda. This wasn't something new. Ricimer knew what he was getting into himself partnering with Majorian. In fact, with Majorian defeated and returning to Italy with no army, Ricimer was perfectly positioned to impose his will over Majorian. The Magister Militum’s flawless record meant the army stood behind him and his closeness to the Senate meant that he also had law on his side. So this doesn't seem likely. There's a few that even finger Ricimer and not Gaiseric for the disaster with the fleet.
With so few primary sources surviving from this period, we'll probably never know for sure. But as they say, the simplest explanation is often the correct one. I think it's likely that Ricimer had always intended to do away with Majorian and that from the time the two were raised up together, Ricimer had always viewed the partnership as temporary.
He left Majorian alone to undertake these risky ventures outside Italy. While he kept close to the real power, the senate and the army. Then once the African invasion fell apart, he just seized the moment. While Majorian was motivated by genuine desire to restore the Roman Empire, Ricimer was motivated by self preservation. It was not a matter of if these two men came into conflict, but when. With the emperor dead, the west fell back into its ever predictable doom spiral. But this time there was no one to pull it back out.
At long last, the ancient empire had run out of steam. There were no more Vespasians, no more Aurelians… no more Majorians. Ricimer allowed his old friend to be buried in a modest tomb. A little plaque was placed above it with a poem that sung the Emperor's praises. The exact location of the tomb seems to have been lost.
The church of St. Matthew in the modern city of Tortona, Italy, seems to have been where the structure once stood. But when I visited to search for it, I couldn't find anything.
With the emperor dead, most of the provinces outside Italy again broke away, many for the last time. In most cases, the rules of these kingdoms just took the opportunity to slip off the radar quietly. But one man made his outrage at Ricimer heard. Aegidius, Majorian’s closest ally, not only refused to recognize Ricimer's rule, but even threatened to invade Italy and avenge the betrayal of his friend. Ricimer brushed us off, though, knowing Aegidius had his hands full defending his kingdom from his neighbours, he was in no state to start a war.
Ricimer doubled down on his Italo-centric kingdom and made no serious efforts to regain old territory outside the mainland. He waited around three months before raising himself a true puppet emperor who would follow his orders without question. Severus III ruled for about four years before dying, either from natural causes or because Ricimer got bored of him. After him came Anthemius. Raised by the eastern emperor, Anthemius rebuffed Ricimer and the two men fought openly. But even with the support of the powerful eastern court, Ricimer was too entrenched in the system.
He was the western Roman empire. And when Anthemius wouldn't take any of his crap, he called in his barbarian buddies and soon another emperor lay dead at the hand of Ricimer. The grizzled barbarian fought zealously to keep himself in power at any costs. And there were costs. Gaiseric proved just how much his word was worth by breaking the treaty he had made with Majorian and again raiding Italy. Soon Dalmatia, modern Croatia, ruled by an old ally of Majorian, broke away.
Towards the end of his reign, Ricimer's ego seems to have grown. Though evidence from this period is scarce, a few bronze weights used for changing money have been dug up bearing Ricimers monogram. There's also some very rough coins that seem to show Ricimers face on one side with the puppet emperor on the back. If these coins are what they appear to be, it would mean the Magister Militum had given up the ruse of subservience. He was now outright telling the public, ‘I run things here with my little pet’.
Ricimer would not live to see the death of the empire he had driven into the ground. Six weeks after killing Anthemius, he died of a hemorrhage at around 54 years of age. A shaky dynasty was established where his nephew, a full blooded barbarian called Gundabad, took his place, elevating two or three more puppet emperors before another barbarian swept in and saw no need to carry on the charade.
Odoacer abolished the position of emperor and became king of Italy in 476AD. Up in Gaul, Aegidius would keep the dream alive. His little enclave would continue the struggle. A satellite state of the Roman Empire in a sea of German tribes. It lingered on for a generation or two, but eventually it too was conquered.
The Western Roman Empire was no more.
History has not been kind to Majorian. Too often he's grouped in with all these other puppet emperors credited as just another one of Ricimer's lackeys. If you've ever seen the History Channel miniseries Barbarians Rising, it's a show about the last days of Rome. And Majorian isn't even a minor character. And Gaiseric is!
I mean, how can you talk about Gaiseric, without Majorian? When I started my research for this episode, I had this image of Majorian in my mind as this kind of tragic hero who inherited a realm with no chance of survival. But the more I read, the more I realised this was not the case. We're conditioned to believe that the fall of Rome was this gradual and inevitable thing.
But for Majorian, Aegidius and those who lived alongside them, they didn't see it this way…
The Roman Empire's greatest strength had always been adapting to change, even though the time of a fully Romanised army was gone. If Majorian had managed to retake Africa, the prestige it would have bought may have allowed him to sideline the importance of the Magister Militum.
This is exactly what happened in the eastern half of the empire. Emperor Leo had been elevated by a barbarian general who hoped he would become his puppet. But Leo was capable and determined and eventually got rid of him. So while the west was in bad need of reform, its decline was not terminal. With the empire no longer breathing down their necks, the barbarian kingdoms of Europe began to shape their own identity. They began to cultivate and settle the land that they had occupied. The elite who spoke Latin mingled with the locals, and over centuries, new languages emerged. French, Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, Italian. All of them are based on the Latin that the Empire left behind. Meanwhile, over in Britain, the first traces of nationalism started to emerge, with legends like those of King Arthur taking shape around this time.
But while the lights had gone out in Rome, the eastern Roman empire was still thriving. Protected by its enormous walls, Constantinople burned bright, a beacon of learning, arts and of course, military might.
Barely 50 years later, an illiterate pig farmer would take the throne with a full treasury and one of the greatest generals of all time by his side, he would look with longing to the west and dream of reconquest….
And it's his story that I'm so excited to cover in our next Last of the Romans series.
This has been anthology of heroes.
I'd like to shout out to my Justinian Tier patrons: Claudia, Seth and Tom. Thanks for your support guys and to everyone else, thanks for listening and take care.