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This webpage reproduces an article in the
English Historical Review
Vol. 1 (1886), pp507‑509

The text is in the public domain:
J. B. Bury died in 1927.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p507 A Note on the Emperor Olybrius

In his account of the reigns of Leo I and Zeno and of the last years of the Western Empire, Gibbon strangely neglected the chronicler, John Malalas. In one place he mentions in a note 'Theophanes, Zonaras, and Cedrenus' as our second-hand authorities (for the reigns of Marcian, Leo, and Zeno), supplementing the scanty fragments which remain of contemporary authors, to which he might have added the 'Chronicon Paschale,' quoted by him elsewhere in the same chapter. But he seems to have quite forgotten Malalas. This author, whose incomplete history breaks off in the reign of Justinian, wrote probably in the ninth century, and it is indeed surprising that any one could have supposed him a contemporary of Prokopios or Agathias, for his style, his vocabulary, his mode of thought may be all said redolere seculum nonum.

But we cannot afford to disregard his statements, though he was a ninth-century historian, redolent of its faults, and he has as much or as little right to credence as Theophanes. If he places Majorian after Anthemius and Olybrius, Theophanes is guilty of the same mistake.

Now Malalas furnishes us with a curious statement, generally ignored by historians, in regard to the relations of Olybrius with the emperor Leo. Olybrius, husband of Placidia (daughter of Valentinian), and thereby brother-in‑law of the wife of Genseric's son, arrived in Italy from Constantinople when Rikimer's army was besieging Anthemius in Rome in the year 472, and was proclaimed emperor by Rikimer. He was also supported by Genseric, who had always upheld that he was the lawful successor to the throne of the West. The question arises, in what relations did Olybrius stand to Leo? On the one hand, Anthemius was the chosen nominee of Leo; and is it to be supposed that he would have wished to supersede him? and if he had wished to introduce a new element of disturbance into the already boiling vessel of Western politics, would he have chosen the friend of Genseric? On the other hand, Olybrius came to Italy direct from Constantinople, and we are expressly told that he was sent by Leo. Theophanes, the 'Paschal Chronicle,' and Paullus Diaconus all agree that Leo sent him to Rome, but Theophanes is the only writer who states that Leo proclaimed him Augustus. Theophanes (ed. Bonn, p183): τὸ τηνικαῦτα Λέων διὰ τοὺς ἔτι συνεστῶτας ἐν Ῥώμῃ θορύβους Ὀλύβριον τὸν τῆς Πλακιδίας σύζυγον ἐκπέμπει τῇ Ῥώμῃ καὶ ἀναγορεύει τοῦτον αὐτοκράτορα. Gibbon says that Olybrius, 'with the secret connivance of the Eastern emperor Leo, accepted the Italian purple,' and adds p508that 'the secret connivance of Leo is acknowledged by Theophanes and the Paschal Chronicle.' The latter statement is not true. The passage of Theophanes contains no mention of secret connivance, for the open acknowledgment (ἀναγορεύει) may have been yielded afterwards by Leo without any previous partisanship. The 'Paschal Chronicle' is as far from stating any secret connivance (Ὀλύβριος πεμφθεὶς ἐν Ῥώμῃ ὑπὸ Λέοντος βασιλέως καὶ βιασθεὶς ὑπὸ τῶν ἐκεῖσε Ῥωμαίων χειροτονεῖται βασιλεύς), though such a meaning may, by twisting the Greek construction, be read into the words. As I translate them, ὑπὸ Λ. β. goes with πεμφθεὶς only, not with χειροτονεῖται: he was sent to Rome by Leo, and when he arrived 'those of old Rome,' that is, Rikimer and the army, compelling the senate and people to acquiesce, proclaimed him emperor against his will. (Βιασθεὶς is curious, and is confirmed by the fact that we nowhere find any mention of Olybrius himself as being ambitious for power.) The words of Paullus Diaconus are: Inter haec Olibrius a Leone Augusto missus ad urbem venit, vivoque adhuc Anthemio regiam adeptus est potestatem.

Thus there is no direct authority for any wish on Leo's part to crown Olybrius, much less for his 'secret connivance;' and such a supposition could only rest on the bad argument — 'What other reason can we assign for Leo's sending Olybrius to Italy?' On the other hand, the facts that Anthemius was Leo's chosen candidate, his filius, and that Olybrius was the friend of his foe Genseric, are a strong counter-argument. But we have only to turn to John Malalas (ed. Bonn, p373), and we find a curious, circumstantial, and probable explanation of Olybrius' mission. 'When the emperor Leo learned that Rikimer had shut up Anthemius in Rome, he sent thither the Roman patrician Olybrius, nominally to reconcile the emperor Anthemius and Rikimer, his son-in‑law, as being both Roman senators; and he gave him directions, when he had reconciled them, to leave Rome and go to the Vandal Genseric, king of Africa, with whom he was on terms of intimacy, as Genseric's son was married to the sister of Olybrius' wife, Placidia, and to persuade him (Genseric) to enter upon friendly relations with himself (Leo). Now Leo really supposed that Olybrius was a partisan of Genseric, and attached to his interests, and was therefore on his guard, lest, in case Genseric made war on him, he (Olybrius) should betray Constantinople to Genseric, to whom he stood in relations of affinity, and reign himself in Constantinople. So when Olybrius set out for Rome, leaving his wife and daughter behind, Leo sent a letter to Anthemius, by a magistrianos, to this effect: "I put to death Aspar and Ardabourios, to prevent any one opposing my commands; do you also put to death your son-in‑law Rikimer, to prevent him from having the upper hand (lit. commanding over your head). I send you Olybrius the patrician; put him also to death, and reign as one exercising, not submitting to, authority." Now Rikimer had posted Gothic guards at every gate of Rome and in the harbour, and no one was allowed to enter until he was searched. So when Modestus, the magistrianos who had been sent by Leo to the emperor Anthemius, arrived in Rome and was searched, the imperial letter was taken from him and delivered to Rikimer, and he showed it to Olybrius,' &c.

It seems to me that we are justified in accepting as genuine this detailed account of a curious piece of scheming, even though it rests p509on the unsupported authority of Malalas; for it is quite in accordance with what we know of the relations of the persons concerned. It is just possible that Leo may have afterwards acknowledged Olybrius, but hardly likely,1 and I feel confident that Theophanes' ἀναγορεύει is a blunder. In the second volume of his 'Invaders of Italy,' Mr. Hodgkin touches on this matter, and seems to think that Leo may have supported Placidia's husband, but he does not commit himself. P484: 'Paullus Diaconus makes Leo himself send Olybrius to Rome to wrest the crown from Anthemius; but his authority is not good. Perhaps, however, the concurring testimonies of Theophanes and the "Paschal Chronicle" may be accepted as showing that this was the version of the story at Constantinople.' As I have shown, these two authorities concur as to Leo sending Olybrius to Italy, but do not hint that the object of the mission was 'to wrest the crown from Anthemius.' Mr. Hodgkin, perhaps, took the references from Gibbon's note without verifying them. P488, he speaks of Olybrius as 'on good terms with the Eastern Augustus, perhaps openly supported by him.' He was not aware of the passage in Malalas.

Apart from Malalas' direct evidence, there is a consideration (in addition to those touched upon above) which renders the assumption of Leo's connivance exceedingly improbable: namely, if Leo recognised Olybrius' claims to imperial power in the West, as the husband of Valentinian's daughter Placidia, he would be implicitly recognising the claim of Huneric (Genseric's son), the husband of Valentinian's other daughter Eudokia, to a share in the imperial dominion, a claim put forward by his father Genseric; and he would, to a certain extent, be casting a doubt on his own position as legitimate emperor of the East. This fact, combined with Leo's hostility to Genseric and his friendship with Anthemius, whom he had elevated, would make us indisposed to imagine that Leo supported Olybrius; but the passage quoted from John Malalas surely justifies us in rejecting the supposition entirely.

J. B. Bury.


The Author's Note:

1 John of Antioch merely says that Rikimer made Olybrius emperor; βασιλέα τὸν Ὀλύβριον ἀποδείκνυσιν, and ἐπὶ τὴν βασιλείαν ἀνήγαγεν (Frag. Hist. Gr. IV, p617).


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