Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous chapter]
Book I
Chapter 19

This webpage reproduces a section of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

published by the Clarendon Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

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!


[image ALT: link to next chapter]
Book I
Note M

Book 1 (continued)

Vol. I
Note L

Bonifacius and Aetius

I shall give in this note a summary of the conclusions to which I am brought by a study of the important article on this subject contributed by Professor Freeman to the Historical Review. 'The Procopian legend' of the feud between Placidia's two chief counsellors, and the curious addition from Marcellinus about the single combat in which it ended, have been given in the text. Professor Freeman throws suspicion on almost every part of the story, chiefly because of the contradiction which he finds to exist between it and the notices in Prosper's chronicle. It must be emphatically stated that for all this part of the history, from 425‑441 (Olympiodorus to Priscus) we have no contemporary historian to guide us. Procopius is an invaluable historian for his own time, but he lived a hundred years after the events with which we are now dealing, and he is often strangely misinformed as to matters which lay so far behind him. (For instance, he says that Joannes the Notary-Emperor kept his usurped power for five years, whereas in reality only about two years intervened between his elevation and his deposition.) For contemporary information we must go to the annalists, and of these incomparably the most important and trustworthy is Prosper. I will quote here all the entries in Prosper which bear on our present subject, requesting the reader to watch especially for the names of four men, each of whom at one time or another held the office of Magister Militum, Castinus, Felix, Bonifacius, and Aetius.

422. Honorius for the 13th time, and the Theodosius for the 10th time, Consuls.

At this time an army was sent to Spain against the Vandals, under the command of Castinus, who, by a foolish and insulting order, excluded Bonifacius, though a man renowned for his skill in  p890 war, from companion­ship in his expedition. The latter, deeming it to be both dangerous and degrading to follow a leader whom he had found to be both quarrelsome and arrogant, rushed hastily to the City's harbour (Portus?), and thence to Africa. This was the beginning of many sorrows to the Commonwealth.

423. Marinus and Asclepiodotus Consuls.

Honorius dies, and Joannes seizes his throne, with the connivance, as was supposed, of Castinus, who commanded the army as Magister Militum.

424. Castinus and Victor, Consuls.

Theodosius makes his aunt's son Valentinian, Caesar, and sends him with his August mother to receive the kingdom, at a time when Joannes was weakened for purposes of defence by his endeavour to reconquer Africa which Bonifacius was holding.

425. Theodosius for the 11th time and Valentinian, Consuls.

Placidia Augusta and Valentinianus Caesar, by marvellous good luck, cut off the usurper Joannes. Aetius is pardoned because the Huns whom Joannes had sent for through his intervention were, also by his good offices, induced to return home. Castinus, however, was driven into exile, because it appeared that Joannes could not have assumed the Imperial dignity without his connivance.

Arles, a noble city of the Gauls, was attacked by the Goths with a large army, until, on the imminent approach of Aetius, they retired, not unpunished.

426. Theodosius for the 12th time and Valentinian for the 2nd time, Consuls.

Patroclus, Bishop of Arles, is slain, being mangled with many wounds by a certain barbarian Tribune, which crime was referred to the secret orders of Felix, Master of the Soldiery, to whose instigation also was attributed the murder of Titus the Deacon, a holy man who was engaged in distributing money to the poor of Rome.

427. Hierius and Ardabures [Ardaburius], Consuls.

At the bidding of Felix, war in the name of the State was declared on Bonifacius (whose influence and glory in Africa were increasing) because he had refused to come to Italy (Bonifacio, cujus potentia gloriaque in Africâ augebatur, bellum ad arbitrium Felicis, quia​1 ad Italiam venire abnuerat, publico nomine illatum est). The leaders of the expedition were Mavortius, Galbio, and Sinox. By  p891 the treachery of Sinox, Mavortius and Galbio were slain while they were besieging Bonifacius, and presently he himself, being detected by Bonifacius in deceitful practices, was put to death. Thereafter the sea was made a thoroughfare to the [barbarous] nations which were ignorant of the management of ships, their aid being invoked by the combatants. [Exinde gentibus quae uti navibus nesciebant, dum a concertantibus in auxilium vocantur, mare pervium factum est]: and the care of the war which had been begun against Bonifacius was transferred to Count Sigisvult. The nation of the Vandals crossed over from Spain to Africa.

428. Felix and Taurus, Consuls.

Part of Gaul bordering on the Rhine, which the Franks had appropriated for their own possession, was recovered by the arms of Count Aetius.

429. Florentius and Dionysius, Consuls.

Felix was advanced to the Patrician dignity, and Aetius was made Master of the Soldiery.

430. Theodosius for the 13th time and Valentinian for the 3rd time, Consuls.

Aetius, having been forewarned that Felix, with his wife Padusia and the deacon Grunnitus, were laying snares against him, slew them. The Bishop Augustine, a man in all ways most excellent, dies on the 28th August being engaged at the very end of his life, and amid the rush of the besieging Vandals, in replying to the books of Julian, and gloriously persevering in the defence of Christian grace.

432. Aetius and Valerius, Consuls.

Bonifacius came from Africa through the city [Rome? or Carthage?] to Italy, having received the dignity of Master of the Soldiery. Having overcome in battle Aetius, who was resisting him, he died of disease a few days after. But Aetius, when, having laid aside his power, he was living on his own land, was attacked by a certain enemy of his, who endeavoured to cut him off by a sudden onslaught, and fleeing to the city, and thence to Dalmatia, finally arrived at Pannonia and the dwellings of the Huns, whose friendship and help he used to obtain peace from the sovereign, and the right to resume the power which he had lost: [quorum amicitiâ auxilioque usus pacem principum et jus interpolatae potestatis obtinuit.]

Idatius, for the year 422, gives us this information: —

'Castinus, Master of the Soldiery, with a great force and with  p892 Gothic auxiliaries, wages war in Baetica against the Vandals. Whom, when he had reduced by blockade to such extremities that they were already preparing to surrender, he rashly engaged with them in a pitched battle, was deceived by the bad faith of his auxiliaries, and fled to Tarragona, a beaten man.

Bonifacius, deserting the palace, intrudes on Africa [Africam invadit].

We must now make a few extracts from the Pseudo-Prosper, though he darkens counsel by his terrible confusion of dates.

424. First year of Theodosius II (after the death of Honorius).

Placidia sends to Theodosius to pray for help. Sigisvuldus hastened to Africa against Bonifacius.

425. Aetius, son of Count Gaudentius, who was slain by the soldiers in Gaul, enters Italy with the Huns to bring help to Joannes.

427. Arles is delivered from the Goths by Aetius.

431. About 20,000 soldiers of those who are warring in Spain against the Vandals are cut to pieces. The Vandals, crossing over the straits to Africa, caused great slaughter among the Romans, harrying the whole province.

432. Aetius, having celebrated his entry on the Consulship, desires to avoid Bonifacius, who on the summons of the Empress [Regina] had arrived from Africa, and accordingly ascends to more fortified places [ad munitiora conscendit].

The sharpness of the excessive cold proved fatal even to the life of a great many people. Bonifacius being wounded in a combat which he had against Aetius, departed conqueror indeed, but about to die.

433. When Aetius betook himself after the battle to the nation of the Huns, over which Rugila then presided, he obtained help and returned to the Roman soil. The Goths were invited by the Romans to bring them aid.

434. Aetius is received into favour. Rugila, king of the Huns, with whom peace is confirmed, dies, and is succeeded by Bleda.

We must add one extract from Marcellinus Comes (circa 530‑560).

Fifteenth Indiction: Valerius and Aetius, Consuls [432].

'By the instigation [instinctu] of Placidia, the mother of the Emperor Valentinian, a great war was waged between Bonifacius and Aetius, Patrician. Aetius, having the day before prepared for himself a longer spear than that of Bonifacius, wounded Bonifacius  p893 in the mêlée [congredientem], being himself unhurt: and in the third month Bonifacius died of the wound which he had received, exhorting Pelagia, his wife, a very wealthy woman, to marry no one else unless it were Aetius.'

Let us gather up the fragments of information here afforded us and see wherein they differ from the Procopian narrative.

1. As to Castinus. He is a person as to whom a real historian of the time would evidently have had much to say. After the death of Constantius he is apparently the chief military counsellor at the Court of Ravenna, succeeding to the same position which Stilicho and Constantius had held before him. He thwarts and represses the brave and aspiring Bonifacius, and will not give him his proper place in the expedition which he prepares against the Vandals of Spain (422). He throws away a victory by his bad general­ship, flies to Tarragona and apparently returns to Ravenna just in time to take part in the events of 423, when on the death of Honorius he puts the notary Joannes upon the throne. In 424 he receives the honour of a Consulship, and we may perhaps conjecture that he commands the troops which are sent into Africa to wrest that province from Bonifacius who has zealously espoused the cause of Placidia. Of his operations in Africa we hear nothing, but he seems to be absent from the scene when Ardaburius and Aspar conduct their campaign against Ravenna. He falls with the fall of his Imperial puppet, is driven into exile and disappears from history.

All this supplements, but does not contradict, the information given by Procopius.

2. Felix, Master of the Soldiery from 426‑429, and Patrician 429‑430. He too is a great official of whom we should know nothing but for the annalists, and he is one against whom, on account of his violent and sanguinary interference in ecclesiastical affairs, Prosper has a strong feeling of antagonism. He is generally suspected of having caused the murder of Patroclus, Bishop of Arles, and of the saintly deacon Titus who was at the very time of his murder engaged in relieving the distress of the proletarians of Rome. He is higher in nominal rank than Aetius, for when Felix gets a step in promotion Aetius takes the place which he had vacated: and in fact we may probably consider him as chief adviser, and what we should call Prime Minister of Placidia during the first five years of her reign.  p894 But Aetius though nominally second in command is evidently the more powerful character: possibly his mysterious barbarian connections give to his action a stringency which makes it almost equivalent to a command. At any rate when Felix, his wife, and the family chaplain are proved, or suspected to be conspiring against him, Aetius appears to have no difficulty in procuring the execution of all three.

The important point for our present purpose is that Prosper expressly tells us that it was at the will ('arbitrium') of Felix that war was in 427 declared against Count Bonifacius. Professor Freeman dwells with just emphasis on this entry, so unlike what we should have expected from 'the Procopian legend,' and suggests that Aetius had really nothing to do at this time with the disgrace of Bonifacius, but that his name has been introduced here by Procopius owing to a confusion between the events of 427 and 432, at the latter of which dates there was undoubted enmity between Aetius and Bonifacius. On the other hand, if Aetius was the master-spirit and Felix the nominal head of Placidia's consistorium (which I suspect to have been the case) the intrigue against Bonifacius might justly be attributed to either (just as we might say that the disgrace of Marlborough was the work either of Harley or of St. John): and in this way both Prosper and Procopius may possibly be right.

3. Bonifacius, as we learn from the interesting and beautiful letter addressed to him by St. Augustine,​2 had once, when only Tribune, done good service against the barbarian (probably Moorish) invaders of Africa, though he had only a small band of foederati at his disposal. This may have been after 422 when in 'Africam invasit,' but is much more likely to have been before. He seems to have been sincerely loyal to Placidia,​3 and the diversion which he effected in her favour was an important factor in Valentinian's restoration. After the death of his first wife (we know not the date of this event) he was thinking of retiring from public life and devoting himself to 'sacred leisure,' and only the thought of the duty which he owed to the State and the desire to protect the Churches of Christ from the  p895 molestations of the barbarians retained him in office.

'Thou the while' says Augustine in the above-mentioned letter 'wast to seek from this world nothing but what was needed for the mere support of life for thee and thine, being girt with the belt of chastest continence, and, under the armour of a Roman soldier, being yet more safely, yet more strongly fortified by the panoply of God.'

'While I believed, and rejoiced to believe, that thou wast still firm in this purpose, thou madest a voyage, thou marriedst a [second] wife. The voyage was part of that obedience which, according to the Apostle, is owing to the higher powers. But the wife thou wouldst not have married unless thou hadst been conquered by concupiscence, and therefore broken thy vow of chastity.'

And this second wife was a heretic and Bonifacius' own daughter had been baptized by heretical priests. As to this visit across the seas, we really know nothing. Baronius conjectures a visit to the Vandal king at the command of Placidia, and a marriage with one of his kindred: but this is mere guess-work. A visit to Ravenna to take part in the rejoicings at the accession of Valentinian III, and to receive the thanks of Placidia, seems to me much more probable.

Augustine goes on to remonstrate with Bonifacius on the rapine already perpetrated, and the further rapine which he feared would be perpetrated by his followers, 'that multitude of armed men, loving the world with fierce lust, whose desires thou wilt have to flatter, whose ferocity thou wilt have to fear.' 'But what can I say as to the ravage of Africa, which the African barbarians are carrying on unresisted by any man, while thou art so engrossed by thy own schemes of self-defence that thou art not taking any measures for averting so great a calamity.'

Professor Freeman points out that this passage has nothing to do with the Vandal invasion, but relates to the outrages committed by the 'African barbarians,' those wild Mauritanians whose guerilla warfare Bonifacius had withstood long ago when only a Tribune with his foederati. In this he is clearly right, but I hesitate to follow him in his conclusion that 'Bonifacius, as his saintly friend witnesses, had grossly neglected his duty and he was called on to account for it.' All Augustine's reproofs seem to me consistent with the theory that Bonifacius, though he had declined from his previous high standard of religion,  p896 and perhaps of morality, in his private life, had dealt faithfully and loyally by Placidia, until by the intrigues of her counsellors he was compelled to busy himself in 'schemes of self-defence.'

The story of the Imperial campaign against Bonifacius is obscure and uninteresting. Three generals in joint command, with the strange names Mavortius, Galbio, and Sinox, are sent against him. Sinox betrays his two colleagues to Bonifacius, then shows himself a double-dyed traitor, and is himself put to death by Bonifacius. Count Sigisvult, apparently a Gothic captain of foederati, receives the chief command of the expedition, but we hear absolutely nothing of the war which may have followed between him and Bonifacius: only, at this very time, perhaps even before Sigisvult has arrived, we hear of the coming of the Vandals.

As to this, the central event of the whole history, Professor Freeman shows how slight is the support given by Prosper to the story of Procopius. 'The sea,' we are told, 'was made a thoroughfare to the nations which were ignorant of the management of ships, their aid being invoked by the combatants.' We can just discern that this is meant as a description of the passage of the Vandals into Africa. But who made that passage possible? 'The combatants' [concertantes]. That is a very curious way of describing Bonifacius whom both in the preceding sentence and in the following clause, is mentioned by name. Can we suppose that Placidia's generals were mad enough to invoke Vandal aid against the rebel governor? That seems improbable to the last degree. I do not profess to be able to explain this strange entry of Prosper's, which does not indeed contradict the narrative of Procopius, but shoots across it with a strange and perplexing light. I would only suggest: (1) that it is possible that the double traitor Sinox, when he found himself falling, may have opened negotiations with the Vandal hosts who were mustering round Calpe, and that these negotiations may have gone on side by side with those of Bonifacius; and, (2) that Prosper, who is evidently an admirer, we might almost say a partisan of Bonifacius, possibly uses this vague word 'concertantes' in order to veil as much as possible his hero's share in the fatal invitation. It must not be forgotten that even Prosper in his entry for the year 422, where he first brings Bonifacius on the scene, remarks that his government of Africa was the cause  p897 of great disasters to the State [idque reipublicae multorum laborum initium fuit].

As to the rest of Bonifacius' African career there is practically no difference of opinion. I therefore pass on to the closing scene of his life, which we may consider in connection with his rival.

4. Aetius, whatever may have been the former relations between them, is undoubtedly in 432 the one great antagonist of Bonifacius. Felix has been for two years in his bloody grave with his wife and their favourite deacon beside him: and there is no one at the Imperial Court to rival the might of Aetius. But at this time (for what reason we know not, but the Procopian narrative would furnish a motive) Placidia ventures to summon her old champion Bonifacius to her side and he comes, in the curious phrase of Prosper 'ab Africâ ad Italiam per Urbem,' having received from the Augusta the dignity of Magister Militum, of which Aetius had been presumably deprived. Aetius meets him in arms: and here Professor Freeman usefully reminds us that it was a regular pitched battle that followed — a drama of real Civil War though in one act only — and that it was fought, according to one trustworthy witness,​4 five miles from Rimini. Professor Freeman justly derides the notion that the fight was in the nature of a duel, something like the feudal 'wager of battle' in order to decide between the two rivals, and that the great place of Master of the Soldiery was meant to be the prize of victory. For all this there is no authority, and the thoughts here hinted at all belong to a later age. But undoubtedly Marcellinus does speak of a single hand-to‑hand encounter between the two chiefs, nor does there seem any difficulty in combining this with the words of the other chroniclers which describe the movements of armies. There was a battle in which the army of Placidia, commanded by Bonifacius, got the victory: but in that battle there was a single combat in which he was mortally wounded by his opponent's longer spear. He died, not on the field of battle, but either 'a few days' or 'in the third month' after, his wound having possibly gangrened. If we like to believe Marcellinus he gave to the weeping wife, who was about to become a widow, the advice not to remarry unless she could do so with Aetius.

 p898  Aetius himself, though Consul for the year, has entirely fallen from power. He seeks to live in retirement on his own land, is hunted out by some private enemy whose hostility he had doubtless provoked in the years of his supremacy, flees to Rome, thence to Dalmatia, thence to the plains of the middle Danube, and after dwelling for some time (we know not how long) in the homes of the Huns is at length restored to the favour of Placidia, by the good offices of these squalid allies, whom he was one day so gloriously to withstand.

In reviewing the whole question I would point out two facts which seem to me of some importance: —

(1) that Procopius, who accompanied Belisarius on his great expedition into Africa (533), expressly says that he got his information as to the passage of Gaiseric into that province from the Vandals themselves.​5 He may therefore be fairly supposed to have heard from the lips of the grandsons of the invaders so important and so memorable a fact as the name of the rebel governor by whom they were invited into Africa.

(2) Johannes Antiochenus​6 tells briefly the same story as Procopius with reference to the intrigues of Aetius against Bonifacius, but he does not tell it in the same words. Now Joannes, though a comparatively late author (he probably lived in the seventh century) and though he certainly used Procopius freely in his compilation, had also some good contemporary authorities before him, especially Priscus, and there seems some probability, though I would not state it more strongly than this, that he may have found the story in one of these as well as in Procopius.

Upon the whole it seems to me that 'the Procopian legend' has still a reasonable claim to be accepted as history. Professor Freeman's battering‑ram has undoubtedly made some serious breaches in the walls, but I do not think the garrison are yet reduced to the necessity of surrendering at discretion.

The Author's Notes:

1 Most MSS. read 'qui,' but there can be no doubt that 'quia' is the right reading.

2 Letter 220, translated at full length in the first edition of this book.

3 This is emphatically asserted by Olympiodorus (Fr. 40): Καὶ μόνος αὐτῇ (sc. Πλακιδίᾳ) Βονηφάτιος τὰ πιστὰ φυλάττων, ἀπὸ τῆς Ἀφρικῆς ἧς ἦρχε. Καὶ χρήματα ὡς ἐδύνατο ἔπεμπε. Καὶ πρὸς τὴν ἄλλην αὐτὸς ἔσπευδε θεραπείαν· ὕστερον δὲ καὶ εἰς τὴν τῆς βασιλείας ἀνάληψιν ἅπαντα συνεβάλετο.

4 Prosperi Codex Havniensis.

5 Ταῦτα μὲν δὴ οὔτω πρὸς Βανδίλων ἀκήκοα (De Bello Vand. I.3).

6 Fr. 196 (Müller, IV.613).

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 4 May 20