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The Rise and Fall of Majorian | Part 1: House of Cards

September 26, 2022

The Rise and Fall of Majorian | Part 1: House of Cards
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"A great and heroic character in a degenerate age"


By the mid fifth century, The Roman Empire was a shadow of its former self.

 Decades of weak leadership had left the realm fragmented, broke and leaderless.

 

The world was moving on.but not everyone was willing to call it.

 

In an age of hedonistic Emperors and corrupt senators one man would crawl through the filth and rise to the top.

In the realms final years he'd show the world that Rome still had some fight left.

 

The story of Emperor Majorian, Rome's Last Hope.

Sources:

 

Attributions:

  • A big thanks to my generous Patrons!
    • Malcolm G
    • Tom G 
    • Claudia K 
    • Roel A
    • Alex G - Great job on the voiceovers! 
  • All images are public domain unless stated otherwise.
  • Paid Artlist.io license for 'Anthology Of Heroes Podcast' utilised for numerous sounds/music
  • 'The Ice Giants' by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under Creative Commons

 

Corrections:

  • According to Sidonius, Majorian’s homeland was Pannonia (East Austria/West Hungary) not Gaul.
Transcript

By the year 450 Ad, the Western Roman Empire had disappeared in all but name. Decades of weak leadership had left the ancient superpower hanging on by a thread. The baths and circuses of Britain had long been abandoned as cash strapped emperors looked for ways to shrink their borders. Within the boundaries of the Empire, independent kingdoms had sprung up like mushrooms after the rain. Ruled by warlords with no recollection of the might of Rome in its glory days, they had no fear of the Empire and showed it no respect. And why should they? The old Roman legions were a rare sight these days. Greedy senators had halted what little wealth the Empire still retained. Would-be-soldiers were instead working the fields on some politicians farm. 

In the same way you would amputate an necrotic limb, the eastern provinces of the Empire had broken away and distanced themselves from the collapsing realm. 

 

The world was moving on.

 

 But not everyone was willing to call it….

 

In an age characterized by sluggish hedonistic emperors and corrupt senators, one man would crawl through the filth and muck and rise to the top in the realm's final years. As the ancient institutions of the great state finally gave way, he would show the world that Rome still had some fight left in it and give everything he had for one last shot, one last flicker of resistance before the Empire disappeared for good.

 

Once more into the breach… Once more….for Rome.

 

Salve fellow citizens! You've just tuned into Anthology of Heroes, the podcast sharing stories of heroism and defiance from across the ages. Anthology of Heroes is part of the Evergreen Podcast Network. Today's episode is a special episode, the second in our last of the Roman mini series. Each of these episodes focuses on the life of someone who has a claim to being called the Last Roman. So what does it mean to be the last Roman? The last emperor…? Maybe. But the emperor of what? The Western Roman Empire? The Eastern Roman Empire? The Holy Roman Empire? Perhaps you'd say it was the last Emperor who promoted Latin as a main language, or the last Emperor to exhibit Roman values, or the last person to worship the old gods already. That's a lot of people, isn't it?

 

So this series follows a different person in each one of these episodes. They're all very exciting stories, well within the scope of an Anthology of Heroes episode. Except instead of centering the story around a country, it's around the Roman Empire. Our last one in this series was way back in season three, I think, following the reign of Emperor Aurelian, a guy who set the Empire back on track after a long string of disasters in the third century. 

Each episode is completely independent, so no need to go back and listen to that one first. You can just jump right in. So forward. Let's get going. The story of Majorian. Rome's last hope.

 

Our story today begins in the year 410 Ad. In Ravenna, capital of the Western Roman Empire. That one sentence alone might give you a clue that things were not really going that well for the Roman Empire, because you're thinking, hey, wasn't the capital of the Roman Empire, I don't know Rome? Well, raids from North Africa had gotten so bad in southern Italy that Rome itself was now too hard to protect. The Empire had relocated its capital to the little city of Ravenna, located in northern Italy near Venice. Ravenna was chosen for its swampy surroundings, which meant it was much harder to assault in large numbers.


The move made sense, but if an empire couldn't even defend the city where it was founded, it was a sure sign that things were not going well within the royal courts. On a gilded throne sat the 25 year old Emperor Honorius. Baby faced and listless, the young man looked and acted much younger than he was, very little excited, Honorius. He showed no interest in reading, writing, ruling, fighting women or men. The only thing he did seem to enjoy was the time he spent with his chickens and geese. As a court scribe presented yet another report of doom and gloom to the Emperor, he absent mindedly scattered seeds across the marble floors of the imperial throne room, his birds pecking and scratching at the grains. 

 

He loved these birds, and he had named each one of them after a city in his empire. Suddenly, the doors flung open, and a messenger paced quickly towards the Emperor. He bought with him grave news. Rome, the Eternal City, had been destroyed. Sacked by barbarians for the first time in almost a thousand years. Bowing, the messenger informed the Emperor that Rome had perished. Alarmed, Honorius sat straight in his throne “and yet it has just eaten from my hands!” The courtiers quiet for a moment and looked at each other, confused. One of them then clarified to the panicked Emperor that Rome, the city, had perished. Rome, his chicken was fine. With a sigh of relief, the Emperor exhaled “but I thought my foul Rome had perished!”.

 

This story comes to us from a scholar who wrote about 100 years after the event, so who knows if it actually went down like this. But this kind of lethargy and general disinterest with the Empire was characteristic of both Emperor Honorius and his brother. Emperor Arcadius, the father of these two men, had divided the Roman Empire in halves. Each of his dullard children received one half. Honorius ruled the west, and Arcadeus ruled the east. The split was probably not intended to be permanent, but these men were so meek and easily manipulated that their courtiers just began to roll through them. You couldn't simply kill these drop kicks because of their blood. Legitimacy was important, so instead, they became symbolic rulers, while the real power, the real decision making, came from two or three courtiers who ruled from the shadows.

In the past centuries, emperors built reputation and prestige by campaigning with the army. Like modern day politicians traveling to swing states, the emperors needed to get their faces seen by people. Ideally, they needed to take the legions into battle. That last part was important because if you're a foot soldier and there's a civil war, who are you likely to throw your support behind? The Emperor, who was right there on the Rhine border with you ten years ago, or some faceless senator you've never heard of?

 

That's how it used to be. But from the late fourth century onwards, starting with Honorius and Arcadius, emperors effectively sat in their palaces and rarely, if ever, saw the front lines. So who was leading the army then? Well, a lot of the time was a kind of local strongman, a warlord that was either partially or full blooded barbarian. The prestige and fame that once went to the Emperor now went to this guy. Eventually, he would rise to the top and if he played his cards right, he'd end up in the Emperor's inner circle. Once he was at the capitol, he would persuade, bully or threaten the powerless Emperor into doing his bidding. In Japanese history, this kind of supreme military adviser was called a ‘Shogun’. But in the constitution of the Roman Empire, the closest thing to it is ‘Magister militum’ which was Latin for something like master of soldiers, a term I'll use going forward. That word again, Magister militum

 

Once these men were at the top, their job had only just begun. Over the centuries, there were a stack of barbarian tribes that had not been assimilated into the Roman way of life. 200 or so years ago, when these tribes crossed into Roman lands, they would have been disarmed and split into small groups without their old tribal hierarchy and command structure. In a generation or two, they would have taken to the Roman way of life. They would have spoke Latin, dressed, lived and served in allegiance as Romans.


But the reason Rome could force groups to split like this was because the Empire was strong, now it was weak. Over the last 100 or so years, many tribal chieftains had pried open the golden gates of the Empire and picked out a nice green patch of land to settle down on. They spoke their own language, they lived their own way. And sure, they'd serve in the legions… but it's going to cost you.

So now the Roman Empire was just teeming with these kingdoms. The army had now become a mix of different ethnicities who spoke different languages and had varying levels of loyalty and respect for the imperial throne. Can you even imagine how difficult it would be to command a rabble like this? Even if you get them to the battlefield, there was no guarantee they would stick around, follow orders, and if the enemy offered them a good deal to switch sides, then see you later. So when an emperor needed to go to war to face a serious external threat, like, oh, I don't know, Attila the Hun. 

 

All of these little kingdoms had their hands out or their ears open, I should say. Ready to hear the Majesty militant's offer. And magic still occasionally happened. In the year 451, the Magister militum, a man named Aetius, defeated the greatest threat the Empire had ever faced Attila the Hun, the so called Scourge of God. So the Empire could still theoretically call upon a large number of men. But getting them to show up was now much more complicated than it had been 200 or so years earlier.

Take the example above with Atila the Hun. In that battle Aetius needed to call upon:

  • the Visigoths
  • the Northern Franks
  • the Southern Franks
  • the Burgundians
  • the Saxons
  • the  Armoricans
  • the Alans 
  • and the Olibrones.


All of them, big or small, had to be placated. And you can bet your ass lot of them didn't like each other or the Emperor. 

 

And compounding this problem with the senators, the finest men in Rome, responsible for Roman greatness since time memorial, right? Well, not anymore. It had been hundreds of years since senators had any real hand in governing. By the mid fifth century,they there were nothing but a gaggle of wealthy men who only cared for their personal interests. But because they were so wealthy, they were powerful, so they too needed to be kept happy. They rejected any reforms that threatened their interests, even reforms that would so clearly strengthen the Empire.
And they were especially touchy about their farming estates. Enormous acres of the most fertile countryside that they'd inherited from their father, who inherited from his, and so on. All these fields needed to be worked by strong, healthy, and preferably Italian men, men who otherwise would have found work in the army. I was trying to think of an analogy for these fifth century senators, but I found this perfect one in Penny Macgeorge’s fantastic book, Late Roman Warlords:
”The image that comes to mind is of a once great family. It's mansion shabby and leaking, the family silverware long gone, the bills unpaid, the few servants incompetent, the bailiff circling, yet still arrogant and proud, giving formal dinners as the roof falls in”.

 

Finally, the cherry on top of this ungovernable pie was the Eastern Roman Emperor. While the west was withering, the east had cut itself off from its runt brother and thrived. The Eastern Emperor, ruling from his lavish palace in Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, still insisted on giving his imperial tick of approval for anyone wanting to take on the mantle of Emperor in the west. And if the new man didn't get this little verified blue tick, he could face any number of problems, from schemes to outright invasions. Becoming ruler of the Western Empire really was a poisoned chalice. It was a thankless role where you walked a tightrope above a gorge while juggling all the different interest groups you need to keep happy. A single moment of weakness was all it took for that rope to be cut and for the Emperor to go tumbling down.

Before we go on, it's only fair to let you know that this period of Roman history is very murky. There's only a few primary sources, so there's a little more interpretation on my part for this story. As with all Anthology of Heroes episodes, if this subject interests you, I encourage you to do your own research. As a reminder, you can find the sources are used to construct my narrative on our website anthologyofherospodcast.com.

On the 20 June 451 Ad, the combined Roman barbarian forces managed to do the impossible. Somewhere around the area of modern day Champagne in northern France, the demonic hordes of Atila the Hun were turned back. It was not an overwhelming victory. The Scourge of God had escaped with tens of thousands of his men.

But a victory was a victory. The biggest threat to the Western Empire had been quitene temporarily. And it was all thanks to a man named Flavius Aetius , the Magister militum of the Western Roman Empire. Remember that's supreme commander or something like that. 

 

Aetius had managed to shape eight different barbarian kingdoms into a cohesive fighting unit, and he should have been returning back to the capital in glory. But he wasn't, because waiting for him was the sour faced Emperor he served, Valentinian III. Valentinian had enjoyed an unusually long reign for this point of time, becoming Emperor as a child, he had enjoyed over 25 years of sitting on the Imperial throne. 

 

And when I say sitting, I say it on purpose, because he wasn't doing much else. Like his uncle Honorius (you remember Honorius: the fellow with the chickens from earlier) Well, like him, he was a spoilt, hedonistic palace emperor. As a young man, his mother ruled through him. And as an adult, his generals took over. With Aetius away defending his Empire, a slimy creature had slithered his way into his court.

 

His name was Petronius Maximus. Maximus was a wealthy senator with a brain for scheming and a mouth for gossiping. Over time, he poisoned the Emperor against Aetius. Subtly at first, he began to point out that decades ago, Aetius had supported another candidate for the throne. He told Valentinian that Aetius was scheming against him. When Aetius tried to marry his son to the Emperor's daughter, the Emperor made up his mind that His Magister militum needed to die. So a few weeks later, as Aetius stood to attention, reading aloud a report of the Empire's finances, Valentinian leapt up from his throne. The 30 year old Emperor bellowed at Aetius that all the faults of the Empire were due to him! That he refused to be a victim of his drunken depravities any longer!

As the unarmed Magister militum attempted to defend himself from these accusations, Valentinian drew a sword and a palace eunuch snuck up from behind. Both men then stabbed to death the man responsible for one of Rome's last great victories.

Make no mistake, Aetius was no choir boy. He probably did have a few schemes in the pipeline, but the man had been running the world's most complicated machine. By murdering him, valentinian had yanked out the foundation pillar that his house of cards was built on. Later that day, as the emperor bragged about the murder, it's recorded that a court bishop told the Emperor ‘you have cut off your right hand with your left’. Fury erupted throughout the Empire as soldiers learnt of the shameful death the Magister militum had suffered.

 

Remember, to the army, Aetius was the man. Their man. Valentinian, despite being emperor, meant nothing to them. First, the men from Aetius's homeland rebelled against the emperor. Letters were probably shot back between different legion camps, discussing what they should do and if they should throw their support behind the regional commander. The two names that would have come at the most were Ricimer and Majorian. The two men, likely friends or at least colleagues, were the most experienced generals in the west.

They were, in their 30s, veterans of numerous campaigns that were Aetius' best men. Hell, perhaps they'd even been there on the bloody day that Atila The Hun was defeated.

Majorian was probably born somewhere in Gaul, modern day France. Much like Aetius, this was where his power base sat. He was from old Roman stock, born into a long line of successful field commanders, but by this point in time, he'd retired from military life and now passed his days peacefully on his farm in Gaul. As he was only in his mid thirties, it's fair to assume that he probably wasn't short on cash when Emperor Valentinian recalled him to lead his household guard. So strapping on the old breastplate, Majorian, and made his way to the capital, Ravenna. 

 

Immediately he was thrust into the limelight. Now in command of the most elite troops in the Empire, he became a very familiar face. His ear was privy to all the secrets that only the emperor should hear, and his guidance on military affairs would have been regularly sought quickly. He had gone from retired provincial commander with an impressive military career to one of the highest ranking men in the empire. So that was Majorian. But Ricimer was more of a mystery. He was probably born somewhere around modern Spain, but likely had spent a good deal of his adult life around Italy. The two men were very similar, but where they differed was blood. Majorian's home, Gaul, had long been part of the Roman world.

 

The people who lived there were almost as Romanised as someone from Italy. And Majorian, with his long line of ancestors, was pedigree stock, you could say. Ricimer was not. Ricimer was a full blooded barbarian. His parents were probably born somewhere beyond the borders of the Roman world. He had a bit of visigoth in him, a bit of Suevi, a dash of something else and topping it off, he was probably an Aryan Christian. Aryans held a differing view to mainstream Roman Catholicism. They believed that as Jesus was the son of God, that meant there was a time that he did not exist. Therefore, Jesus Christ was not equal to God.

 

If this doesn't sound important to you, go back 1500 years and say it in front of a Catholic priest. He'd faint. And once he'd come around, he'd have you burn at the stake. To the Roman Senate, Ricimer foreign blood and muddled up interpretation of their religion made him the equivalent of a mutt from the local animal shelter. Sure, men like him had their uses, particularly in battle, but at the end of the day, if you weren't Roman, you weren't much. In truth, Ricimer's origins are pretty interesting. He probably had a bit of royal barbarian blood. If you're a long time listener, maybe you remember when we spoke about Alaric, the terrible and legendary Visigoth king who sacked Roman in 410AD. Well, at least a few sources mentioned Ricimer being his great nephew or something like that, he may have also been related to Aetius, which would explain how someone of his social standing managed to climb the ranks so quickly.

 

Perhaps because of the disadvantage he had coursing through his veins he developed a reputation for total ruthlessness. Skilled in battle and terribly brave, to cross Ricimer was a death sentence, and God help anyone that got between him and whatever he desired. Majorian and Ricimer watched the all too familiar chain reaction that followed an assassination. The fragile veneer of unity Aetius had wrapped around the empire was shredded as province after province declared independence. It was a big middle finger to Valentinian.

You kill our man? Good luck. We're out.

 

Petronius Maximus, the weaseling senator who convinced the emperor to murder Aetius realized he was in big trouble. Valentinian was now almost universally despised. Rumors of assassination attempts spread through the capital. And you can guess what Maximus, loyal servant of the emperor, did, can't you?

Well, pointed them right to him, of course! Less than a year after murdering Asius, Emperor Valentinian was heading out to the country for an archery lesson. As he dismounted his horse and waited to be handed his bow, one of his guards clubbed him across the head. As the spoiled palace emperor turned to see who had dared assault him, another guard drew his dagger and stabbed him to death. Oddly enough, according to one account, a swarm of bees then landed on the emperor's corpse and sucked his blood. Nature right?  Both Emperor and Magister militum were now dead and the power vacuum that followed. Can you guess who stepped in?

 

Of course, Petronius Maximus! Perhaps this had been his plan all along. Or perhaps he just took advantage of being in the right place at the right time. However he got there, now no one was happy.

Wait, who was The Emperor now? Some senator or something?... Okay?
Quickly, in an effort to establish some legitimacy, he married Valentinian’s widow, who, one can guess, probably didn't have much say in the decision.

 

He then sent diplomats to the barbarian kingdoms to double check they were still going to honor the oath of loyalty they had given to Emperor Valentinian.
Spoiler? They won't.
Watching this predictable series of events transpire was the Eastern Roman Emperor. Remember, the Eastern Roman Empire was, in comparison to the west, wealthy and stable.

 

Did you ever go to a family event as a kid when you had that little cousin who was just running amok?

He's getting in fights, he's got food all over his face, his hands were always sticky. That was the Western Roman Empire.

So the Emperor of the east says with a sigh, look, cut the crap. I don't know who this guy is that you've slapped a purple cloak on. He's certainly not an emperor, so go back and try again.
The Eastern Emperor, refusing to recognize Maximus, was a death blow to his reign. But as he tried to smooth all this over in the background, he needed to actually govern. Putting aside the plethora of issues plaguing the Western Empire, there were two urgent red light flashing problems that needed to be dealt with right now. The first was Atila The Hun. With the only Roman capable of stopping him now murdered, his marauding huns were back at it, destroying cities throughout the countryside. That was bad. But yet somehow there was still something worse. Down in modern day Libya, one man had carved out a kingdom for himself. His name was Geiseric or Genseric. Geiseric  was the king of a group of people known as the Vandals, another one of the barbarian tribes that had set up shop on Roman land.

 

Before Geiseric had come to power, The Vandals had been a slight thorn in Rome's side. A puny tribe barely even worth mentioning. But this king had turned them into a major power around the Mediterranean Sea. And now they were one of the greatest threats to the empire. Here's how Jordannes, a biographer, writing about 100 years after the event, described the king

 

“He was a man of deep thought and few words, holding luxury and disdain, furious in his anger, greedy for gain, shrewd in winning over barbarians, and skilled in sowing the seeds of dissension to arouse enmity.”

 


While another source, a bishop who lived during his lifetime, is much less flattering:

“his cheeks are bloodless, a drunkard's heaviness afflicts him, pallid flabbiness possesses him, and his stomach, loaded from continual gluttony, cannot rid itself of the sour wind”


Flatulent or not, Geiseric and his boys constantly sniped at the fragile empire. He raided their coast, enslaved the population and stole anything that wasn't tied down. He had set himself up in Rome and North Africa. The old seaport of Carthage. That, almost 600 years ago, was the seat of ancient Rome's mortal enemy. And now again, it was bustling with activity. Because Geiseric was building a fleet.

 

The Vandal King knew the empire was in the middle of another succession crisis. And as his ship sailed out, perhaps he guessed that Rome could be an easy source of plunder. But I bet he didn't think it would be this easy. On word of the approaching fleet, Emperor Maximus freaked out.
He didn't know what to do! It was a miracle he'd even got this far in his plan! He'd sent away all his advisers as diplomats to try and secure loyalty to different provinces. So at the capital, it was just him. With whatever gold he could carry, the spineless emperor tiptoed out of his palace. He was so disliked that he didn't even have one bodyguard with him. Creeping through the night, he made his way towards the city gate. But someone had tipped off the townsfolk. And as he crept through the back streets, an angry mob found him first. Correctly, they blamed the Emperor for the fate they were all about to suffer. As the crowd grew angrier, some individuals began to throw stones. The 60 year old senator begged and pleaded feebly, holding up his arm to protect himself from the blows.

 

But the rage of the public couldn't be contained. Once his bloody corpse had stopped twitching, the mob cut off his head and his limbs and threw the parts into the Tiber River. Thus ended the 75 day reign of Petronius Maximus. Rome was now well and truly screwed.

Geiseric and his fleet docked and found a completely defenseless city. Whoever had money and means had already left, packed up and gone. The citizens left behind were impoverished, poor and cowering. Rome was not the city it once was. It had already been sacked 40 years ago. So much of its age old wealth had been looted. Whatever was left in the imperial treasury was loaded up onto the Vandal ships. There were precious few statues to melt down. But then the Vandal King's gaze fell upon the ancient Temple of Jupiter, thought to be the oldest and one of the most sacred buildings in Rome. Geiseric spied the gleaming bronze tiles that lined its sacred walls. The order was given and his men pried the tiles off, adding them on top of the pile of loot.

 

It's believed that this specific act, and the sack itself, is where the modern definition of vandal, meaning a person who deliberately destroys or damages property belonging to others originates from. With a wink, a wave and a see you next year, Geiseric and his men left for Africa, carrying off all the wealth the city had left, along with the Emperor's widow.



Eparchius Avitus was a Roman statesman. Prior to the death of Emperor Maximus, he had been tasked with a diplomatic mission. It was to travel to the court of the Visigoths in southern France and ensure their loyalty was still holding true. Avitus, not to be confused with Aetius (who was now dead) had been chosen for this mission, especially because he was born in Gaul.

And truth be told, he made a lot of good progress! The Visigoth King seemed to be on board, but as the two men clinked a goblet to, the continuing friendship between their two  nations. Word reached them that Maximus was now dead. So what was he to do now? Well, the Visigothic King had an idea. They had agreed to remain loyal to a Roman emperor. And as there was currently no Roman Emperor, would it not make sense for he, Avitus to step into this role? And so  Avitus, marching at the head of a Visigothic army, began the journey back to Rome. The third Emperor in a six month period, he arrived to a bleak, barren and starving city. Gaiseric’s sacking had left the Queen of Cities a shadow of its former self.

 

Skinny dogs and beggars lined the streets, and his Visigothic army quickly ate through whatever meager rations the city had left. The Emperor knew a crisis when he saw one. What the Empire needed most was breathing room. They had bounded from crisis to crisis, emperor to emperor for what seemed like decades. The Eastern Roman Emperor again refused to recognize him, but he agreed to a truce. With his biggest supporters in Gaul, that area was stable for the time being. All that remained now was Gaiseric. He was sure to return this time next year after the easy plunder he scored on his last visit.

Predictably, the Vandal King refused to a truce and then set sail with a fleet of 60 ships making for the Italian mainland.

According to one of the sources, Procopius (who loves a tall story) when the captain of Gaiseric’s fleet asked him who they were launching raids against today, The Vandal King looked him in the eye and responded “against those whom God is angry” Avitus scrambled an army and by hook or by crook, managed to convince Ricimer to lead it. 

 

Proving that Rome still had some bite left, Ricimer sent the Vandal King packing twice, pushing the Vandals into the sea. We get tantalizingly little information about how he managed this. A source only mentions that he tricked them.

 

As the Western Empire had virtually no navy, a sea battle was pretty much impossible. Ricimer and his troops may have just laid in wait, let Gaiseric murder the townsfolk, steal their stuff and then ambush them once they were weighed down with loot. As I said, ruthless.

These were the first defeats the Roman Empire, east or west had inflicted upon the sneaky Vandal King. But Ricimer couldn't be everywhere at once. And as the Vandal fleet limped back to Africa, they stopped off at the wealthy city of Capua, subjecting it to the same fate they delivered to Rome last year.

Meanwhile, the Visigothic King, acting as the muscle behind Avitus’ rule requested; or told more likely that their kingdom would be expanding into Roman controlled Spain. Avitus knew he had virtually no choice. Without his Visigoths he was done. So he agreed.

 

And with that, Roman Spain was lost. In reality, the Empire had little control over Spain, but signing it over to another nation was another step into the grave. The old idea that Rome was just allowing these barbarian kingdoms to settle on their lands was becoming more and more ridiculous. The Empire was now like a landlord that had once owned an entire apartment block, but now occupied a single dilapidated room in the back.

 

With no formal backing from the Eastern Emperor, Avitus knew he was living on borrowed time. The senators had begun to scheme and commoners looked on with hatred at the Emperor and his foreign troops, who ate their food and pushed them around. In a desperate attempt to please the public, the Emperor agreed to send his Visigothic army home. 

He told them: “thanks, guys, job well done. I'm the emperor now. You can head home. Thanks again “And they looked at him like  “what do you think this is, mate? You don't tell us where to go, you're just the means to an end. We came here for money and we're not leaving until we get it.” So, in desperation,Avitus was forced to melt down whatever statues were still left in the temples and scraped the last few coins off the floor of the empty treasury to send the men away. This was the last straw. The bankrupt empire was again starving and significantly poorer than they had been before Avitus came along, Ricimer decided enough was enough. He let the senators know that he and Majorian were coming in and he expected them to denounce the Emperor. They were only too happy to oblige. 

 

Defenseless in a hostile city,  Avitus urgently sent out riders to tell the very men he just dismissed to return at once. But they didn't. And why would they? The man was finished and they’d already taken all the money they could from him.

In northern Italy, the few men still loyal to Avitus took a stand against the combined forces of Ricimer and Majorian. Tribesmen fought Tribesmen. Romans fought Romans. As the state weakened itself with yet another pointless war. Avitus gave all he could and the casualties were high on both sides. But at the end of the bloody day, Ricimer and Majorian stood victorious. Avitus was allowed to become Bishop of the city, which was pretty unusual. But as he was quietly murdered by the duo soon after this, it's likely that Ricimer and Majorian allowed this to try and placate his supporters.

 

So what now? The royal bloodline had gone extinct with Valentinian III. Ricimer was probably the most senior figure in the Empire, but he knew that neither the senators nor the Eastern Roman Emperor would accept him because of his bloodline.

 

So, as the two men had probably planned in advance Majorian stepped up and donned the blood stained purple robe of the Emperor. There was little to celebrate. The two men had inherited a broken realm, both Monetarily and geographically. Outside of the Italian mainland, there was a spot of land in northern France that was still clinging on in a sea of Gothic tribes. Modern Austria still had a few men left that so far had remained loyal to the Emperor. A few islands and the coastline of southern France had also managed to weather the storm. That was it. That was the imperial army. That was all that remained of the Western Roman Empire.

 

Rome itself was a ghost town. The ruins of marketplaces and baths that were once at the center of a thriving, powerful empire stood like shambling monsters against the empty metropolis. Traders, artisans and merchants were long gone. The vagabonds and beggars left behind scurried around prying sheets of marble from public buildings. The forum where learned men had once written law that governed all of Europe, was now filled only with greedy, immoral senators who bickered and argued at how best to siphon even more money from the husk of a state.

 

Only a fool or a madman would step into this role voluntarily.

 

 And that is where we call it for today. Edward Gibbons, the grandfather of Roman history, said the Majorian was “the welcome discovery of a great and heroic character such as sometimes arise in a degenerate age to vindicate the honor of the human species”. So join me again in two weeks as Majorian rages against the dying light of the empire and gives all he can to keep the fire burning. 

 

This has been an Anthology of Heroes. If you've enjoyed this episode, please take 10 seconds to review the show on Spotify. Thanks for listening.