Desperate Lesser-Known Emperors Facing A Disintegrating Western Roman Empire: 455-476 AD

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Pope Leo the Great attempts to persuade Gaiseric, prince of Vandals, to abstain from sacking Rome, by Maïtre François (c. 1475) (Public Domain)

Desperate Lesser-Known Emperors Facing A Disintegrating Western Roman Empire: 455-476 AD

The assassination of Emperor Valentinian III in March 455 AD, heralded the last phase of the Western Roman Empire’s political existence. By then, large parts of its territory were either occupied by untrustworthy federated Germanic ‘allies’ or illegitimately conquered by invaders. With the loss of Africa to the Vandals, the Western Empire lost its last important source of revenue and main source of grain. The army, tried and weakened by decades of repeated military campaigns, had no possibility of regenerating itself. The lack of integration of the new Germanic recruits, enlisted in large numbers to compensate for the loss of interest of Roman citizens to serve in the army, further weakened the army’s cohesion and battle vigor. As a result, it was no longer able to decisively subjugate invaders established on the soil of the Empire or to adequately defend its borders. Within a period of 20 years lesser-known Emperors would ultimately be compelled to defend the last Roman stronghold of the Western Roman Empire, the imperial province of Italy, in a context of political intrigue, treachery and mutiny.

Solidus of Emperor Petronius Maximus (Classical Numismatic Group / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Solidus of Emperor Petronius Maximus (Classical Numismatic Group / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Petronius Maximus (455)

Notary tribune around 415, Petronius was minister of imperial finance around 418. A very wealthy man, he was Praetorian prefect in Italy and then prefect of Rome as consul. Using his personal fortune, he financed the construction of buildings in the Roman forum. Petronius entered the high political sphere in an infamous way, as he was the instigator of the murder of the generalissimo Aetius and then of the western Emperor Valentinian III. When the latter died in 455, opinions were divided over his succession. Valentinian III had no sons and there was no predominant general capable or popular enough in the West to assume the role of Emperor. An influential group supported a certain Maximianus, a former collaborator of Aetius. Another group, which included the Emperor of the East, Marcian, and Licinia Eudoxia, the widow of Valentinian III, supported a man called Majorian, who was later to become Emperor, but in 455 it was Petronius who inherited the purple cloak.


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