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Book III
Note F

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

2nd edition
Oxford University Press
London, 1892

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!


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Book III
Chapter 6

Book 3 (continued)

Vol. II
Chapter V

Supremacy of Ricimer. Majorian.


Sources: —

It will be seen that our chief information as to this reign is again drawn from the Poems and still more from the Letters of Sidonius.

Of the Annalists Idatius is perhaps the least meagre, and as the turning-point of Majorian's career was in Spain, this Spanish bishop may be quoted with some confidence for that event.

The Anonymus Cuspiniani, as usual, supplies us with dates and Procopius with romance.

Analogy between the fall of the Roman and that of the Ottoman Empire. There is danger in endeavouring to illustrate the history of a long-past age by the vivid light of modern politics; danger from the incompleteness of our knowledge of the present, and danger from the heat of controversy with which every topic debated by men struggling for place and power in the world of action around us, must necessarily be environed.

But the correspondence between the position of Old Rome at the point of her history which we have now reached, and that of 'New Rome,' or Constantinople, at the present day, is in some respects so close that we are almost compelled to notice it. The obvious differences between the conditions of the two Empires are many, but the resemblances are more, and more striking. The Roman, like the Turk, having been the terror of the world, had become its pity. He had lost,  p397 like the Turk, his once pre‑eminent faculty of founding Empires; he had lost the faculty of general­ship, and, unlike the Turk, he had lost the mere animal courage of the common soldier. A world of new and alien nationalities was seething round him, nationalities which had a prophetic instinct that to them and not to him belonged the Future of Europe; nationalities whose gentlest and most friendly touch meant ruin to the old order of things, yet nationalities which, strange to say, did not, with one exception, wish to destroy his Empire if by any means the breath of life could still be preserved in it. What 'the Frank' is to the Ottoman of to‑day, the Barbarian was to the subjects of Honorius and Valentinian.

I have said that there was one exception. The Vandal, during the last quarter of a century of the independent life of Rome, was her one implacable enemy. He had had his hour of triumph in 455; intent on pillage rather than on conquest he had not then sought permanently to annex Italy to his Empire, but remained watching her death-struggles, gloating over her feeble misery, and perhaps speculating on the day when she would fall without effort into his hands, and Rome be ruled as a dependency from Carthage.

Barbarian adventurers at the Roman Court. We have seen some reasons for supposing that this result was dreaded by the other Teutonic nations in the West of Europe, and that political combinations, rude and well-nigh forgotten, were formed in order to keep Rome for the Romans, even as they have been formed in our own day to keep Stamboul for the Turks. But a more undoubted point of resemblance is the career of the many Teutonic adventurers who brought their knowledge of war, their energy, their courage, and  p398 sometimes their unscrupulousness to the service of the dying Empire. Merobaudes and Bauto, Arbogast and Gainas, were the proto­types of the German and English officers who in our own day have reorganised the armies or commanded the fleets of the Sultan, and led the expeditions of the Khedive. Not more strange to us probably is the affix of Pacha to an English surname than were, in the ears of the men of that generation, the titles of Consul or Patrician when borne by a full-blooded Barbarian. And these alien administrators of the State and Army of Rome resembled those 'Frankish' admirals and generals employed by the Ottoman Porte, in the knowledge that, however great the actual power they might possess, the appearance of sovereignty would always be denied to them. As none but a lineal descendant of Othman can sit on the throne of Soliman, so, even in the most degenerate days of Rome, public opinion, if not positive law, forbade that any one who was the son of a barbarian father and a barbarian mother should be robed in the Imperial purple.

Ricimer. Such a Romanised Teuton was Ricimer,​1 the man  p399 who for sixteen years after the deposition of Avitus was virtually head of the Roman commonwealth. It is worth while to notice how intimately he was connected with two if not three of the ruling barbarian families. His family He was the son of a Suevic father, who probably enough was sprung from the royal family of his nation. His mother was the daughter of Walia, king of the Visigoths, the successor and avenger of Ataulfus; and his sister was married to Gundiok, king of the Burgundians. A man thus connected, and concentrating in his hand whatever yet remained of the forces and the treasure of Rome, was well placed for repelling that storm of Vandal invasion which was the most pressing danger of the Empire.

and character. Historians are unanimous in condemning the character of Ricimer, and, as we shall see, not without reason. He raised his unhappy puppets one after another to the Imperial throne, and one by one, as he grew tired of their subservience or was irritated by their opposition, was cast aside and broken by his hand. There is not a word in the Chroniclers, not a line in the venal panegyrics of Sidonius, to suggest that he had a heart accessible to any generous or tender emotion. A cold, self-seeking player with men as with counters he appears from first to last. But let us endeavour to understand what he was and why Rome bore with him. There can be little doubt that as a general he was the greatest whom the Empire could produce. That destruction of the Vandal fleet off Corsica,​2 of which the Chroniclers give us such scanty details, was probably a great achievement, and one which liberated Italy and Gaul for years from the fear of another regular invasion.  p400 He thus succeeded, as it were of right, to that great position in the State which had been held before him by Stilicho and Aetius. But both these generals had served the Emperors only too well for their own safety. The feeble Honorius had compassed the death of Stilicho; the dissolute Valentinian had planned the assassination of Aetius. Ricimer resolved that his life should not be at the mercy of any similar palace intrigue, and as soon as any of the retainers, whom he permitted to use the name of Caesar, showed signs of acquiring an independent authority in the State which might be dangerous to his authority and life, he gave the word to some trusty barbarian henchman, and the purple robe was found to be enveloping a corpse. There is only one thing to be said in mitigation of our abhorrence for this man; and that is that he does seem to have been faithful to Rome. We do not find any trace of that disposition to make a separate bargain for himself, which so often comes out in the lives of the statesmen of a collapsing monarchy. Rome seems to have understood this, to have accepted him, with all his odious qualities, as 'the necessary man' for the situation, and she may have owed it to this acquiescence in his rule that the Vandal invasion, often threatened, never actually arrived during the sixteen years of his domination.

Ricimer​3 was probably already a man in middle life  p401 when he thus came to the helm of the Roman State. He was simply Count Ricimer when he achieved his Corsican victory. That exploit it was, in all likelihood, which earned for him the office of Master General of the Soldiery. A pause ensued upon the deposition of Avitus, perhaps in order to allow time for communications with Byzantium, but during this interval there can be no doubt that the Master of the Forces wielded the whole powers of the State. In four months' time (on the 28th February, 457) Ricimer abandoned his office of Master of the Soldiery in favour of a young general named Majorian, while he himself assumed the proud title of Patrician.​4 This title carried with it the right to be called the father of the Emperor (as soon as an Emperor should be declared) and practically a life-tenure of the office of Prime Minister.

Office of the Patrician. The extraordinary development of the power of 'the Patrician' is one of the unexplained changes in the constitutional history of the last days of the Empire. The caste of Patricians had, as every one knows, lost their exclusive civil privileges long before the close of the Republic. Under the Empire most of the still surviving Patrician families perished by slow decay, or fell victims to the terrible trade of the delator (informer). The Emperor Constantine revived the name, not now as an hereditary order in the State, but as a personal dignity, conferring high honour on the wearer but probably no power. The words of Zosimus (the only  p402 historian apparently who describes this innovation) are these:​5 'The dignity of Patrician was first introduced by Constantine, who passed a law that those who were honoured by it should take precedence of the Praetorian Prefects.' This enactment is lost. Only one law in the whole Theodosian Code,​6 which decrees that 'even the splendour of the Patriciate' is to be considered subordinate in rank to the Consular office, mentions the name of the new dignity, which moreover does not occur from beginning to end of the 'Notitia Dignitatum.' Evidently 'the Patrician' of the fifth century, like 'the Premier' and 'the Cabinet' of our own day, was a term more familiar to the mouths of ordinary men than to the written documents of the constitution.

For the last twenty years of his life the great Aetius wore the name of Patrician; and we may perhaps conjecture that it was during that time that men, seeing him ever the foremost figure in the state, of which he was the real ruler, came to look upon the new designation as something more than a mere title of courtesy, and upon the holder of it as an irremovable depositary of power above the moving, changing throng of Consuls and Praetorian Prefects. The words of a contemporary chronicler, describing the deposition of Avitus, 'And  p403 his Patrician Messianus was killed,'​7 seem to imply an especial connection between the Patrician and the Emperor, just as we should say 'a Colonel and his Major,' but not 'a Colonel and his Captain.' But howsoever and whensoever the peculiar pre‑eminence of the Patrician began, there can be no doubt that it existed during the period which we are now considering, and that citizens of Rome must have spoken of the Patrician with at least as much awe as the citizens of Constantinople speak of the Grand Vizir, or the subjects of Louis XIII spoke of the Cardinal.

Elevation of Majorian to the Empire. 457 The official 'Father of the Emperor' was not long in providing himself with a son. His young comrade, Majorian, 'was raised to the Empire on the 1st of August in the camp at Columellae, at the sixth milestone' no doubt from Ravenna.​8 The Emperor Leo, who, two months before, upon the death of the brave old Marcian, had been in a somewhat similar manner raised by his barbarian patron Aspar to the Eastern throne, approved the choice, and the two Emperors, between whose characters there was no little resemblance, reigned together with more harmony and more unity of purpose than had often marked the counsels of Ravenna and Constantinople.

Previous history of Majorian. The new Emperor, Julius Valerius Majorianus, came of an official stock. His maternal grandfather, Majorian, was Master General of the Soldiery in 379 when Theodosius was raised to the Empire. The elevation of that  p404 Emperor took place at Sirmium (not far from Belgrade), and Majorian's head-quarters were then at Acincus,º well-known to us under its modern name of Buda as the western half of the capital of Hungary. The son-in‑law of the elder, and father of the younger, Majorian was a faithful comrade of Aetius, and reached the 'respectable' office of Quaestor. The future Emperor served his apprentice­ship to arms under his father's friend, and was rising high in the service when suddenly Aetius dismissed him from his military employments. No reason was assigned for this harsh step, but the young officer and his friends maintained that it was solely due to the envy of the Patrician's wife, who feared that the fame of her husband and son would suffer eclipse by Majorian's growing reputation.​9 He retired for the time to his estate, and to the pursuits of agriculture, but when Aetius himself fell under the dagger of the assassin, his fortunes naturally revived, and Valentinian III called him forth from his seclusion to bestow upon him one of the highest posts in the army. In this position he probably co‑operated with Ricimer in the overthrow of Avitus.​10 What is more certain is that, as already related, he was raised on the last day of February, 457, to the dignity of Master of the Soldiery, and on the 1st of April in the same year was saluted as Augustus.

At once a flash of something like the old defiant spirit  p405 of Rome showed her enemies that she had again a soldier for Emperor. Campaign against the Alamanni In the short interval between February and April, Majorian had sent an expedition which successfully repelled an inroad of 900 Alamanni, who had forced their way over the Rhaetian Alps to the northern shore of Lake Maggiore. and the Vandals. He was next summoned to Campania, to whose rich plains Gaiseric had this year directed his piratical fleet. The lordly Vandal, fat with luxurious living, sat lazily in his galley while the Mauretanian peasant, himself a slave, ravaged the country, dragging off captives, cattle, spoil, everything that could be carried away, and swept them into the holds of the Vandal war‑ships. Such was the picture of arrogant and indolent rapacity when the troops of Majorian appeared on the scene. In an instant all was changed; horses were landed, suits of mail were donned, poisoned arrows were fitted to the string, and fiery darts were brandished in the hand. On both sides the trumpets sounded, and the dragon ensigns floated sinuously to the breeze. Then came the clash of opposing squadrons, soon followed by the flight of the Vandals. Horses and men crowded into the water in an agony of fear, and only the strongest swimmers succeeded in reaching the ships. When the fight was over, Majorian roamed over the battle-field examining the bodies of the slain. Among them was a well-known corpse, that of the husband of Gaiseric's sister. All the wounds of the Roman soldiers were in front; all those of the Vandals in back. Such is the account which Sidonius gives of the encounter. After making every deduction for rhetorical amplification, we are bound to believe that the Vandal was worsted in a skirmish, and retired from the shores of Campania.

 p406  A campaign in Pannonia apparently followed; the obscure details of which need not be given here. But it may be observed that among the subject nations who are represented as following the standards of Majorian are mentioned the Rugian and the Ostrogoth.​11 So invariable was the course of barbarian movement into Italy. The tribes who were to be the next conquerors of Rome always first figured as her stipendiaries.

Majorian Consul. The second year of Majorian's reign was signalised by his accepting the office of Consul in conjunction with his Byzantine colleague, Leo. Scarcely since the palmy days of the Republic had two men so worthy of that famous dignity ridden behind the Lictors and Fasces and given their names to the year. His letter to the Senate. Novellae Majoriani, Tit. III. The address of Majorian to the Senate, written at Ravenna and preserved among his laws, makes a show of moderation and deference for that ancient body, which though it was probably understood by all concerned to be only a piece of acting, was yet gracious and dignified acting. He says that having been elected by the free choice of the Senate, and by the will of his valiant army, he consents to assume a dignity for which he has himself no desire, in order that he may not be accused of ingratitude to the Commonwealth, nor seem to wish to live only to himself. He implores the favour of Heaven, and asks  p407 for their co‑operation with the Emperor of their choice.

'Let them take heart as to their own fortunes. As a private man he always condemned the infamy of informers, and he is not going to encourage them now that he is Emperor. The military affairs of the State shall receive the ceaseless attention of himself and his father and Patrician Ricimer. They two together by hard service in the field have freed the State of the Roman world from foreign foes and civil broil, and with the help of Providence they will yet preserve it.'

'Fare ye well, Conscript Fathers of the most venerable order.'

Transactions in Gaul. The years 458 and 459 were probably spent in war with the Visigothic king, naturally indignant at the overthrow of his candidate for Empire. It would necessarily be waged in Gaul, but we know nothing concerning it but the result, a glorious one for Majorian. In the year 459 'Ambassadors were sent to the Gallicians by Nepotian, Master of the Soldiery, and Sunieric the Count, announcing that Majorian the Augustus, and Theodoric the King, have ratified with one another the firmest bonds of peace, the Goths having been overcome in a certain conflict.'12

Majorian and Sidonius. But though we know nothing else of these campaigns in Gaul, they have a certain interest for us as having been the means of bringing Majorian within the orbit of the universal panegyrist, Sidonius. That unfortunate courtier must have seen with deep chagrin all his hopes of official advancement blasted by the dethronement  p408 of his father-in‑law. Apparently he did not accept the triumph of the party of Ricimer without a struggle. Did he actually join himself to the Visigoths, and fight under their banners against Rome? Did he stir up revolt among the Gaulish provincials, and strive to maintain the cause of some other claimant to the purple? Did the city of Lyons join the revolt, and was she only reduced to obedience by the motley army of Majorian after a stubborn resistance? Such are some of the conclusions drawn by commentators from a few obscure passages​13 in the works of Sidonius, who naturally describes the conversations of the Olympian deities with much greater minuteness than his own exertions on behalf of an unsuccessful cause.  p409 The provoking silence of the chroniclers prevents us from either affirming or denying these conclusions. One can only say that it is extraordinary that a civil war, and the reduction by force of so important a city of the empire as Lyons (if these events really occurred) should have been left altogether unnoticed by the historians.

Sidonius atones for his treason by a panegyric. However this may have been, there is no doubt that Sidonius was in disgrace, that the triumphant Emperor was at Lyons, and that a hint was given that a panegyric would be the price of the poet's restoration to favour. The broker in this transaction was the Emperor's secretary, Petrus, himself a man of letters and a distinguished diplomatist. The panegyric was accordingly composed and recited, no doubt in the Emperor's hearing, amidst the applause of the courtiers. It was a hard task for the son-in‑law of Avitus to bring his flowing rhetoric to glorify his rival, perhaps the executioner of his relative. But the instinct of reverence for success carried Sidonius safely through his perilous undertaking. In 603 lines (one more than he had given to his father-in‑law) he sang the joy of Rome in the triumphs of Majorian, and the very difficulty of the enterprise invigorated his Muse. The personifications are decidedly less tedious, the imagery more imaginative, the flow of declamation more animated, in this work than in the panegyric on Avitus.14

 p410  Plan of the poem. This is the plan of the poem. Rome sits on her throne, and receives the homage and the appropriate presents of the nations from India to Spain. To her enters Africa, 'the third part of the world,' her black cheeks scarred, and the ears of corn which crowned her bending forehead all broken. She complains that she is made miserable by the insolent happiness of one man (Gaiseric), the robber, the maid-servant's son, who has insinuated himself into her home, and made himself master of her resources. She calls on Rome to deliver her from this hateful vassalage; on Rome, now able to strike by the strong arm of Majorian, whose parentage and past exploits she recounts at considerable length. That Rome may not think the exploit beyond her strength, she informs her that Gaiseric is now sodden and enervated by the life of vicious luxury which he has been leading. His pale cheeks and bilious habit show that his endless banquets have at last begun to tell upon his health. What Capua was to Hannibal, the cook-shops of Carthage have been to the Vandal.

Rome, in a few dignified words, assures Africa of coming succour. Gaul, which for nearly eighty years has been left unvisited by Emperors, has now been visited by Majorian, who has corrected the disorders caused by that long absence, and who is now coming 'through these wars to thy war. Why waste we our time in speaking? He will arrive: he will conquer.'

Here ends the allegorical part of the poem. Then, in his own person, and with some poetic fire, Sidonius recounts the later exploits of the Emperor; the fight  p411 by Maggiore, the defeat of the Vandal pirates, the passage of the Alps by his motley armament.

Description of Majorian crossing the Alps. 'Twas Winter. Through the marble-shining Alps

The rocks affronting Heaven, the cliffs whose brows

Threaten incessantly the wayfarer

With the dry deluge of the avalanche,​15

Through these thy foot first passes: thou the first

Dost plant thy pole upon the slippery slopes.

And now the host has reached the midmost pass:

Their limbs begin to stiffen with the cold;

Blocked in the narrow windings of the way,

To walk, or e'en to creep incapable,

So great the glassy smoothness of the ground.

Murmurs of his barbarian followers. Then one, by chance, from out that straggling file,

Whose wheel the frozen Danube once had worn,

Exclaims, "I choose instead the gory sword

And the chill awfulness of quiet death.

A rigid torpor binds my stiffening limbs,

With fire of frost my parchèd frame consumes.​16

We follow one who labours without end,

Our stripling leader.​17 Now the bravest brave,

Monarch or people, safe are housed in camp,

And, e'en in camp, lie under shaggy hides.

But we — we change the order of the year.

What he commands transcends e'en Nature's laws.

He bends not ever from his ruthless schemes

And grudges Victory to the angry sky.

Oh, where and of what nation was he born

Whom I, the Scythian, cannot cope with? Where,

Under what rock Hyrcanian did he grow,

Sucking the milk of tigers? To this pitch


What drearier clime than mine has hardened him?

Lo, where he stands upon that topmost peak,

Urges his shivering ranks, and laughs at cold,

Hot with his spirit's ardour. When I heard,

Long since, the bugles of a Northern king,

They told me the Imperial arms of Rome

And Caesar's household dwelt in soft repose,

Lapped in perennial luxury. For me

Nought boots it to have changed my former lords

If this be Roman kingship."

His proud answer. More had he said,

But from thy cliff thou hurlest thy words of scorn,

"Whoe'er thou art whom daunts the difficult way,

Cut with thine axe the hanging water's hide,​18

And make thee steps out of the frozen wave.

Stop those unmanly murmurs. Sloth is cold,

But work will warm you. Soldiers! look on me!

Hath Nature given me the Centaur's limbs;

The wings of Pegasus; the plumèd heels

Of Zetes or of Calaïs! Yet I crunch

E'en now the snowy summit of the Pass.

You groan beneath a winter in the Alps.

I promise you a soldier's recompense —

A summer 'neath the sun of Africa."

Thus with thy voice thou cheerest the fainting ranks;

Thus thine example stirs them. Every toil

By thee ordained is first by thee endured.

The crowd with eagerness obey thy laws,

Seeing their author is their promptest slave.'

Passing on from the story of Majorian's campaigns, the poet here interweaves a little skilful panegyric on his friend Petrus, and then comes to the practical part of his effusion. 'Look upon the ruined estate of our city of Lyons, and lessen her load of taxation.'

'And since to these o'erwearied hearts of ours,

Our only Hope, thou comést, help our fall:


And while thou passest turn a pitying eye

On this thy city, Lyons' Conqueror!

Broken with toil, she looks to thee for rest.

Peace hast thou given: give hope for days to come.

The ox, after short respite from the plough,

Better resumes his struggle with the soil.

Our Lyons sees herself bereft of all,

Oxen and corn,º the serf, the citizen.

While still she stood she felt not all her bliss:

Captive, she knows her past prosperity.

Oh Emperor! when Delight is ours once more,

'Tis sweet to muse on vanished Misery.

Though sack, though fire have laid our glories low,

Thy coming pays for all. Ruin herself

Shall please us if she make thy triumph more.'

The word triumph suggests the thought of the Emperor's car climbing the Capitolian slope, of the mural and civic crowns encircling his forehead, of all the spoils of the defeated Vandal borne proudly before him. 'I will go before thee through the struggling crowds. I will make my feeble note heard through all their noisy shoutings. I will say that thou hast conquered seas and mountains, the Alps, the Syrtes, and the Libyan hordes; but I will say that before and beyond all these victories, thou hast conquered my heart by thy clemency.'

Sidonius, received into favour by the Emperor, petitions for a reduction of his assessment. Who could resist such energy of praise? Not Majorian, whose frank and hearty nature accepted the flattery with all goodwill, and who appears to have not merely pardoned the poet, but received him into the circle of his friends. Emboldened by the success of his first petition, Sidonius essayed another of a more personal kind than that which he had already preferred on behalf of his fellow-citizens. He himself individually was groaning under the weight of a heavy assessment,  p414 perhaps imposed upon him as a penalty for some insurrectionary movements after the downfall of Avitus. We are not able to ascertain the precise mode of this assessment, but it is clear that it was denoted by heads (capita), and that a wealthy or obnoxious citizen paid taxes upon so many more capita than his poorer or more loyal neighbours. Sidonius considered that he had at least three capita too many; that is, probably, that his taxes were fourfold what they ought to be. In a short epigrammatic poem he reminds the Emperor of a certain fortunate hunting expedition of his, in which he had killed three animals on one day — a stag, a boar, and a serpent,​19 and hints that another day's sport of the same kind would now be acceptable. Hercules killed the three-headed monster Geryon; let Majorian, the new Hercules, knock the three capita from the poet's taxability, and give him a chance of unharassed life. The answer to this curious petition is not stated, but it was probably favourable, since the author included the epigram in the list of his published poems.

The banquet at Arles, and the lampoons of Sidonius. Majorian's war with the Visigoths detained him for more than a year in Gaul, which he afterwards revisited, and Sidonius had frequent access to the Imperial presence. To the end of his life but slight solicitation was needed to draw from him the story of the high doings which he witnessed 'in the times of Augustus Majorian.' One of these anecdotes, though trifling in itself, may serve to introduce us into the private life of a Roman Emperor of the last days. The scene is laid at Arles,  p415 the capital of Roman Gaul; the time is the year 461.​20 There had suddenly appeared in the city a copy of anonymous verses, bitterly satirising some of the chief persons in the Imperial Court, cleverly hitting off the favourite vices of each, and all but mentioning their names. The nobles were furious, and none more so than a certain Paeonius, a demagogue turned courtier, a man who had played a little with revolutionary intrigue and then sold himself for office, a slave to money-getting till the time came when he saw an opportunity of bartering money for position, and purchasing a highly-placed husband for his only daughter by a lavish and unusual dowry. This was the person who, born in obscurity though not in poverty, had clambered up, no one exactly knew how, during the troubles and anarchy at Rome, to the distinguished position of Prefect of the Gauls. This was he who, having been among the courtiers most severely lashed by the anonymous satirist, was the keenest in his endeavours to find out and punish the author. That author, there can be little doubt, was Sidonius himself. He affects to consider it a great injustice that the piece should have been fathered upon him; but in the letter​21 (written several years later) in which he tells the story, he nowhere expressly repeats his denial, and the impression left on our minds is that though, as a nobleman and a bishop, he deemed it decorous to disavow the lampoon, as an author he was very proud of the excitement which it had occasioned.

 p416  At the time when the satire appeared, Sidonius was still at his country-house in Auvergne; but public opinion, guided by Paeonius, tried him for the author­ship, and found him guilty, in his absence. When he appeared at Arles shortly afterwards, and, having paid his respects to the Emperor, descended into the Forum, what unaccountable change had come over his former friends? One came up to salute him, bowed profoundly, so as almost to touch his knees, and passed on; another, with gloomy face, stalked past him without uttering a word; the greater number skulked behind a column or a statue, so as to avoid the disagreeable necessity of either saluting or ignoring him. Sidonius professes to have been utterly bewildered by this strange conduct, till at length one of the number, deputed by the rest, approached and saluted him. 'Do you see those men?' said he. 'Yes, I see them, and view their odd conduct with wonder, but certainly not with admiration.' 'They know that you have written a lampoon, and all either detect or fear you in consequence.' 'Who? What? Where? When? Why?' Sidonius asked in well-simulated wrath. Then, with greater composure and with a smile on his face, 'Be good enough to ask those angry gentlemen whether the base informer who dares to accuse me of such an offence pretends to have seen the lampoon in my handwriting. If he does not, they will do well to retract their charge, and behave a little less offensively.' With this equivocal denial, the courtiers were, or professed themselves to be, satisfied, and they came forward promptly and in a body to clasp his hand and kiss him on the cheek.

The next day the Emperor gave a banquet in connection with the games of the amphitheatre. Among the  p417 invited guests were the consul of the year, two ex‑consuls, two other men of high rank, and Paeonius and Sidonius, whose black looks at one another no doubt caused much secret amusement to their fellow-guests and to the Emperor himself. Host and guests, eight in all, reclined upon the triclinium (triple couch) with the table in the midst. It is interesting to observe the order of precedence. The most distinguished guest, Severinus (the consul for the year), reclined at the end (or 'horn,' as it was called) of the left-hand couch. Opposite to him, at the first seat of the right-hand couch, reclined the Imperial host. The other guests lay according to their order of precedence, counting from the seat of Severinus; and so it came to pass that Paeonius, as ex‑prefect of Gaul, reclined in the fourth place, at the middle couch, and that Sidonius, who as yet had no official rank, was the lowest placed among the guests, but by that very inferiority was brought into the closest contact with the Emperor.

When the banquet was nearly ended, Majorian began to talk. First, in few words, to the Consul Severinus. Then ensued a more lively dialogue on literary subjects with the consular who lay next him. Camillus came next, a consular, and nephew of a consul. 'Brother Camillus,' said the Emperor, 'you had an uncle, for whose sake I think I may congratulate myself on having given you a consul­ship.' 'Do not say a consul­ship, Lord Augustus! Call it a first consul­ship.' This clever hint, that further favours of this kind would be welcome, was received with a tumult of applause, notwithstanding the Emperor's presence. Then passing Paeonius by unnoticed, the Imperial host put some question to Athenius, the fifth in order of the  p418 guests. Paeonius rudely interposed a reply. The Emperor noticed the discourtesy, and the peculiar smile which played upon his face (for he greatly enjoyed a joke, and had a happy way of sharing in it without compromising his dignity) amply avenged Athenius.​22 The latter, who was a wily old fellow, and who already had a grudge against Paeonius for taking precedence of him at the banquet, slily said, 'I don't wonder, Emperor, that my neighbour has stolen my place, since he is not ashamed to take the words out of your mouth.' 'A fine opening this for satirists!' said the sixth guest, whose turn in the conversation was now come. Thereupon the Emperor turned his head round to his next-door neighbour and said, 'I hear, Count Sidonius, that you are a writer of satires.' 'I hear it, too,' he answered.

Majorian (laughing). 'Spare ourselves at any rate.

Sidonius. 'In refraining from forbidden jests I spare myself.'

Majorian. 'And what shall we do to those who molest you?'

Sidonius. 'My lord Emperor! let my accuser accuse me in public. If he makes good his charge, I am ready to pay the penalty: but if, as probable, I succeed in refuting it, let me have the leave of your Clemency to write what I like against him.'

The Emperor glanced at Paeonius, to see if he consented to the conditions; but the ex‑prefect sat silent, with a blush of anger and shame upon his face. 'I will grant your request,' said Majorian, 'if you will this  p419 moment put it into verse.' 'Agreed,' answered Sidonius. He turned round and looked at the servant as if asking for water to dip his fingers in. There was an instant's pause while the nimble slave ran round the triclinium. Then said the Emperor, 'The verses are to be improvised, remember:'

'Who says I write Satires? Dread sovereign! I cry,

Let him prove his indictment, or pay for his lie;'​23

was the immediate repartee of Sidonius. There was again a tumult of applause, and the Emperor, in a tone perhaps of mock solemnity, called God and the Commonwealth to witness that the poet should henceforth write whatever he chose, adding that he considered it to be the duty of the wearer of the purple to repress this kind of vague and unproven accusation, brought by malice against innocent members of the nobility. Sidonius bowed his head and modestly uttered his thanks; Paeonius turned pale, dejection succeeded to rage, and he looked like a criminal on his way to execution. Soon after, the guests rose up. When they had donned their cloaks (chlamydes) and gone a few steps from the Imperial presence, the consul fell on the neck of the favoured courtier, the two consulars​24 kissed his hand, and Paeonius, with fawning and pitiable gestures, implored pardon. On the intercession of the other members of the party, Sidonius consented to grant it, and to promise that he would leave Paeonius unlashed by his satires if he would take warning by the miserable  p420 success of this attempt to blacken his character and cease to molest him for the future.

Social deference still paid to the Emperor. The story of this banquet at Arles is no doubt trivial enough, and may seem hardly worth the telling, but it illustrates the immense social deference which was still paid to the name of Augustus, and the glamour of his purple robe. When we are reading the history of far‑distant times, we are sometimes disposed to marvel how men could be found willing to take prominent positions in the world, when the state of affairs was so hopeless that they must inevitably become either the pity or the laughing-stock of the universe. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in the fact that so long as Power commands the reverence of the few score of persons with whom it comes into daily contact, it will have irresistible attractions for mankind. Further than its own immediate environment it need not and will not look: least of all will it trouble itself about the sort of figure that it will make in History. Here was Julius Majorianus, struggling bravely it is true, but almost desperately, for the last tatters of the Roman inheritance that were left to him by the Rhone and the Ebro; yet his favour still gave life, a harsh word from his lips or a frown on his brow sent the unhappy object of his displeasure out of the Imperial presence, pale, trembling, half-choked with terror; the courtiers still contended for the smile of the 'Purple-wearer' as eagerly as when he was the master of sixty legions, and when none could escape his wrath or stay his hand, from Cheviot to Caucasus.

Legislation of Majorian. The short reign of Majorian was a time of considerable legislative activity. Especially was the year of his consul­ship (during which his head-quarters seem  p421 to have been the palace in Ravenna) marked by his additions ('Novellae') to the Theodosian code. But the laws all tell one tale; all speak, in one relation or another, of the desperate misery which was engulfing the inhabitants of Italy. Laws against celibacy. Novellae Majorian, Tit. VII. Population was decreasing so fast that the Emperor, notwithstanding the strong feeling of the Church in favour of virginity, and against second marriage, found himself compelled to forbid women to take the veil under forty years of age, and to command all childless widows to marry a second husband within five years of the death of the first, or else to forfeit half their property to their relatives or to the exchequer. Tit. II. The cost of maintaining a family was so great, the rivalry for the paternal inheritance so keen, that in many instances an unpopular son or brother was forced into the ranks of the clergy and actually ordained Priest against his will. Where such an offence was proved to have been committed, the unjust parents were condemned to forfeit a third of their property to the unwillingly consecrated son, a forced ordination having no binding power. The Archdeacon who might have wittingly co‑operated in the offence, was liable to a fine of ten pounds of gold (£400). A curious provision that if a Bishop had been consecrated without his consent the ordination could not be impugned, is perhaps a concession to the harmless comedy of the Nolo episcopari, which was so commonly played in those days. Or possibly it may have proceeded from an uneasy consciousness of the Legislator's own share in the forced consecration of his predecessor at Placentia.

Against rapacious tax-collectors.

Nov. Maj. Tit. IV.
Majorian's laws are remarkably outspoken as to the rapacity of the tax‑collectors, especially those who were  p422 clothed with military authority, whose extortions he denounces in the strongest terms. 'Raging against the bowels of the unhappy Provincials, they are safe from punishment, for none cares to accuse them before a provincial judge, too often supine and cowardly and ready to cringe and fawn at the mere sight of an officer's belt, while the expense and vexation of an appeal to the Imperial court is so great that most men will submit to any injustice rather than resort to it.' A change in administration, bringing fiscal questions under the more immediate notice of the Governor of the Province, was meant to remedy this evil, which may have been partly relieved by another short but emphatic edict concerning The Defensor. Tit. V. the election of the Defensor, that singular official of whose functions some account has been already given​25 and who was perhaps the only functionary whom Power has ever avowedly created as a safeguard against its own exorbitances. The harassed citizens were daily leaving the towns, to pick up a precarious subsistence in the remote country districts, where they were at least safe from the hated presence of the Apparitor26 and the Canonicarius.​27 In order to check this process of depletion, Majorian ordained that in accordance with ancient usage, the magistracy and people of each considerable town should assemble and choose a Defensor, who, when confirmed in his office by the Emperor, might avail to keep the insolence of the revenue officers in check and tempt back the scattered citizens to their homes.

Laws about the Currency. Nov. Maj. Tit. I. The exactions of the tax‑gatherers, themselves very likely (as is the custom in decaying States) often  p423 defrauded of their lawful salaries, were sometimes so extravagant as to be almost amusing. Thus continual objection was made to taking the Imperial Solidus (twelve shilling piece), even though it was of full weight; and some strange tricks, the nature of which we can but faintly conjecture, were played upon the popular partiality for gold pieces with the head of Faustina,​28 coins which, if they represented the pure undepreciated currency of the Antonine period before the terrible debasements of the coinage in the third century, were not undeserving of a high place in public favour. All this elaborate machinery of injustice was destroyed, as far as mere decrees could destroy it, by Majorian, and the officers of the Tribute were ordered to take all coins alike which were of full weight, except those minted of Gaulish gold, which was admitted to be of an inferior quality.

Illegal exactions. Nov. Maj. Tit. I. Some other unwarranted importunities of the official hierarchy were repressed by the same series of decrees. Servants of the Governors asking for New‑Year's Gifts,​29 Presents on the first day of the month,​30 or Drink-money​31 (literally Dust-money, an indemnification for the dust which the messenger had contracted on his journey), all these were punished by a fine of £40 for each offence. Governors of Provinces were not  p424 to be at liberty to half-ruin a city by taking up their quarters therein for an indefinite time, and calling upon the inhabitants to bring a constant supply of rare and costly delicacies to their table. Three days' provisions for himself and suite, on a scale of expense to be settled by the Prefect, were all that the Governor might require annually from each city.

Tit. IV. These enactments, together with a remission of arrears of tribute of more than eleven years' standing, seemed to show a generous consideration for the poverty of the exhausted people. Tit. I. They were however to some extent counterbalanced by a little clause in the longest edict, which stated that now that the cultivator was relieved from so many presents to governors and other illegal exactions, he could not think it burdensome if his land‑tax,​32 which now stood at two per thousand on capital (equivalent perhaps to two per cent on income),​33 was increased by one quarter so as to stand thenceforward at two‑and-a‑half per thousand.​a

Destruction of public buildings. One more law must be noticed, since it shows the disintegrating influences which were already at work upon the buildings of old Rome, influences internal and domestic, which, far more than the transitory visits of Goth or Vandal, have brought about her present desolation.

Nov. Maj. Tit. VI. 'We, as Rulers of the Republic, are determined to remedy the detestable process which has long been going on, whereby the face of the venerable city [of Rome] is disfigured. For it is too plain that the public edifices, in which all the adornment of the city  p425 consists, are being everywhere pulled to pieces at the suggestion of the city officials, on the pretence that stones are wanted for the public works. Thus the stately piles of our old buildings are being frittered away, and great constructions are ruined in order to effect some trifling repair. Hence, too, it arises that private individuals engaged in house-building, who are in a position to curry favour with the city judges, do not hesitate to supply themselves with materials from the public buildings, although these which have so much to do with the splendour of the city ought to be regarded with civic affection, and repaired rather than destroyed.

'We therefore decree that no buildings or ancient monuments raised by our fathers for use or beauty, shall be destroyed by any man; that the judge who orders their destruction shall pay a fine of fifty pounds of gold [£2000]; and that the clerks and other subordinates who have fulfilled his orders shall be beaten with clubs and have their hands struck off — those hands that have defiled the ancient monuments which they ought to have preserved.

'The buildings which are altogether past repair shall be transferred, to adorn some other edifice of a not less public character.'

It is interesting to observe that this decree, so purely Roman and local in its character, was like the others issued from Ravenna (10th July, 458).

Majorian a warrior. But it was not for legislation, nor for administrative reform, but for war that Julius Majorianus had been robed in the mantle of the Caesars. To him all the Roman world looked with hope, to exorcise the cruel  p426 and mocking fiend that had entered the corpse of Carthage. If the Vandals could be subdued, he was surely the man to do it. He had felled the forests of the Apennines, and filled the harbours of the Upper and Lower Sea with Roman triremes. His campaign in Gaul had been successful, and the haughty Visigoth was now his submissive ally. It might have been expected that he would repeat the exploit of Scipio Africanus, transport his troops to the Libyan shore, and fight another Zama within a week's march of Carthage. For some reason not clearly explained to us, possibly because he knew of disaffection among the Mauretanian and Numidian allies of Gaiseric, he adopted a different course. He determined to make Spain his base of operations, and to assemble his navy, consisting of 300 ships,​34 in that magnificent bay, one of the finest natural harbours in the Mediterranean, which we call Carthagena, and which then still bore the name of 'the New Carthage.' It seemed as if history was about to repeat itself, and as if Spain might play the same part now, in the thirteenth century of Rome, which she had played in the sixth century, when the Hasdrubals and the Scipios fought there. But while all Europe was watching the movements of the Roman triremes in that spacious bay, suddenly the enterprise collapsed. Gaiseric first laid waste with fire and sword to the provinces of Mauretania which Majorian meant to make his base of operations, and poisoned the wells along his expected line of march. Then by some stratagem, of which we know nothing, the Vandals, 'warned by traitors,' carried off the ships from out of the Bay of Carthagena. One chronicler​35 places the  p427 scene of this mysterious event not at Carthagena itself, but at Elice (now Elche), a sea‑side town about forty miles north of Carthagena, often visited by modern travellers who wish to see the forests of palm-trees which impart to it a thoroughly Oriental aspect, and have earned for it the name of 'the Palmyra of Europe.' 'No Palm of Victory for me,' may have been the thought of Majorian as he sadly turned his face northwards — the preparations of three years wasted, and vengeance on the Vandal indefinitely postponed.

Deposition and death of Majorian. This happened in May, 460. On the second of August in the following year he was dethroned and put to death near the city of Tortona (in the southeast corner of the modern Duchy of Piedmont). No cause is assigned by any of the chroniclers for his fall, except 'the jealousy of Ricimer, acted upon by the counsels of envious men;' nor is anything told us of the circumstances of his death. Probably enough, the early successes of Majorian were the real cause of his ruin, for which his final disaster furnished the pretext.

The Majorian-Saga of the Vandals as told by Procopius. The high estimate usually formed by historians of the character of Majorian, and of what, under happier auspices, he might have accomplished for the restoration of the fortunes of Rome, is justified by nothing so much as by the impression which he produced on his most unwearied enemies, the Vandals. The Byzantine historian, Procopius, writing a century after these events, and describing the overthrow of the Vandal Empire by Justinian, gives us the following paragraph about Majorian, which must surely have been derived from Vandal sources, and may possibly have formed a part of some song or Saga about Gaiseric. Scarcely a  p428 detail in the picture is historically true, and the chief event recorded — the visit to Carthage — is almost certainly fictitious, but the portrait, taken as a whole, and especially if drawn by enemies, is undoubtedly the likeness of a hero.

De Bello Vandalico, I.7. 'I ought also to make mention of Majorian,​36 who some time before [Anthemius] occupied the Western Throne. For this Majorian, who surpassed all that had been emperors of Rome in every virtue, could not tamely endure the misery of Africa, but collected in Liguria a most potent armament against the Vandals, and determined to head the expedition himself, being a man eager to take his full share in every hardship, and especially in every danger.

'Now, thinking it would be expedient to ascertain previously the forces of the Vandals, the temper of Gaiseric, and the good or bad dispositions towards him of the Libyans and Moors, he took this duty upon himself. He therefore sent himself as his own ambassador, under a feigned name, to the court of Gaiseric; and, fearing lest he might be discovered, and so ruin both himself and his enterprise, he hit upon this plan. As all men knew that his hair was so yellow as to be likened to pure gold, he applied to it a wash invented expressly for the purpose, and was able within the appointed time to turn it into a bluish black.

'Now, when he came into the presence of Gaiseric, among other devices of that king to strike terror into the soul of the supposed ambassador, he was led as a friend into the arsenal where all the weapons were collected, which were many and extremely wonderful. At his entrance, say they, all these arms stirred of  p429 their own accord, and made such a clash and uproar that Gaiseric thought an earthquake was happening. But when he came forth and enquired about the earthquake, and could meet with no one who knew anything about it, great fear fell upon him, though he was still far from conjecturing who had been the cause of this portent.

'Majorian then, having accomplished all that he intended, departed to Liguria, and leading his army by land, marched to the Pillars of Hercules, intending to cross by those straits, and so conduct his troops from thence to Carthage. Now when Gaiseric heard this, and perceived that he had been imposed upon in the matter of the embassy, great fear fell upon him, and he set everything in readiness for war. The Romans, on the other hand, relying on the proved valour of Majorian, were in good hopes that they should win back Africa for the Empire. But all these hopes were foiled by the death of Majorian, who was attacked by dysentery. He was a man in all things gentle to his subjects, but terrible to his enemies.'

The Author's Notes:

1 Family Connections of Ricimer

2 See p389.

3 The name is, perhaps, the same as that of Count Richomer who fought in the battles of Ad Salices and Hadrianople (see vol. I pp261 and 269). The beginning seems to be the Gothic reiks, which terminates Alaric, Theodoric, Childeric, and many other Teutonic names. The ending syllable is that which we find in the Ostrogothic Wala‑mir, the Frankish Sigis‑mer, &c., and probably means 'famous' (compare the Gothic 'vaila-merjan,' to proclaim glad-tidings: 'meri‑tha,' fame). Thus Ricimer = 'famous ruler.'

4 'Constantino et Rufo Coss. Ricimer Mag. Mil. Patricius factus est prid. Kl. Marcias. Et factus est Majorianus Mag. Mil. ipso die' (Anon. Cuspiniani).

5 II.40.

6 Lib. IV tit. 6. The order of precedence established by Gratian in this enactment still prevailed 150 years later, when Cassiodorus compiled his 'Formulae.' The gradation was still (i) Consul, (ii) Patrician, (iii) Praetorian Prefect. 'The great distinction of the Patriciate' (King Theodoric is made to say) 'is that it is a rank held for life, like that of the priesthood from which it sprang. The Patrician takes precedence of Prefects and of all other dignities except the Consulship, and that is one which we ourselves sometimes assume.'

7 'Et occisus est Messiam (sic) Patricius ejus XVI Kal. Nov.' Anon. Cuspiniani, s. a. 456.

8 Anon. Cuspiniani. Rubeus, the historian of Ravenna, does not throw any light on the position of Columellae, though he unhesitatingly places it at six miles from Ravenna.

9 This is probably the prosaic kernel of Sidonius' declamation. Through 131 angry hexameters he makes the wife of Aetius rave on, recounting the exploits of the young Majorian, and urging her husband to slay both him and Ricimer, who are both too illustrious not to arrive at supreme power.

10 As we are informed by the chronicler Marius, 'Dejectus est Avitus Imperator a Majoriano et Ricimere Placentiâ.'

11 Here is the list from Sidonius, to be taken for what it is worth. Strict ethnological accuracy is not to be looked for from so declamatory a writer —

'Bastarna, Suevus,

Pannonius, Neurus, Chunus, Geta, Dacus, Alanus,

Bellonothus, Rugus, Burgundio, Vesus, Alites,

Bisalta, Ostrogothus, Procrustes, Sarmata, Moschus,

Post aquilas venere tuas.'

(Sidonius, Carm. V.474‑478.)

12 Idatius (sub anno). Observe the interesting Gothic name SuniericSunja-reiks, the king of truth. So in Ulfilas' translation of John xviii.38, 'Thanuk quth imma Peilatus, "Wa ist so sunja?" ' 'Then quoth Pilate to him, "What is the truth?" '

13 Evidence that Sidonius resisted the Ricimer-Majorian party with the sword —

'Sic mihi diverso nuper sub Marte cadenti

Jussisti erecto, victor, ut essem animo.'

(Carm. IV.11‑12, addressed to Majorian.)

Hint of a conspiracy (date uncertain) —

'Quum de capessendo diademate conjuratio Marcelliana coqueretur.'

(Ep. I.11.)

Evidence that Lyons had suffered in war, possibly civil war —

'Bove, fruge, colono

Civibus exhausta est [Lugdunus]; stantis fortuna latebat;

Dum capitur vae quanta fuit! . . . .

Restituis; fuimus vestri quia causa triumphi

Ipsa ruina placet.'

(Carm. V.580‑6.)

These last words are generally interpreted as a piece of abject flattery, addressed to Majorian by the leader of a revolt which he had quelled. But they would be equally suitable and less base if Lyons had fallen into the hands of the Burgundians or Visigoths, and had been recaptured by Majorian after an obstinate siege. The passage

'Nostrae de moenibus urbis

Visceribus miseris insertum depulit ensem.'

(Ib. 572‑3.)

seems to me rather to favour the latter conjecture.

14 The poem is prefaced by two dedications, one to Petrus and one to the Emperor, in which a natural comparison is made between the author's position and that of Virgil and Horace. Majorian is obviously another Augustus, Petrus another Maecenas. There is some literary interest in these dedications, if it be true, as stated by M. Monfalcon (quoted by Grégoire), that they are our sole authority for the universally received tradition that it was the good offices of Maecenas, that procured the pardon of Horace after the battle of Philippi.


'Siccamque minantes

Per scopulos pluviam.'


'Quodam mihi corpus adustum

Frigoris igne perit.'

So Milton —

'The parching air

Burns frore, and cold performs the effect of fire.'

17 The picture of the young Napoleon crossing the Alps on his way to Marengo will suggest itself to every reader.


'Frange cutem pendentis aquae, scalptoque fluento

Sit tibi lympha gradus.'

19 This feat is also referred to in the Panegyric —

'Tribus hunc tremuere sagittis

Anguis, cervus, aper.'


20 Clinton's date 461 is put beyond a doubt by the mention of Severinus as Consul Ordinarius. The year of his Consulship was 461.

21 Ep. I.11.

22 'Subrisit Augustus, ut erat auctoritate servatâ, cum se communioni dedisset joci plenus, per quem cachinnum non minus obtigit Athenio vindictae, quam contigisset injuriae.'


'Scribere me Satyram qui culpat, maxime princeps,

Hanc rogo decernas aut probet aut timeat.'

24 Literally the ex‑prefects, but they were consulars too, and Paeonius was not.

25 See vol. I, pp626‑628.

26 Magistrate's officer.

27 Tax‑collector.

28 'Illis quoque fraudibus obviandum est, quas in varietate ponderum exactorum calliditas facere consuevit, qui vetustis caliginibus abutentes Faustinae aliorumque nominum nescientibus faciant mentionem.' Ritter in his note understands this passage as relating to Faustina, the third wife of Constantius II; but surely the two Faustinae, the wives of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, whose coins we possess in such abundance, are far more likely to be meant.

29 Strenae (the lineal ancestor of the French Étrennes).

30 Kalendae.

31 Pulveraticum.

32 'Canon.'

33 Taking the average rate of interest at 10 per cent.

34 So Priscus, fr. 13 (ed. Bonn).

35 Marius.

36 The form of the name adopted by Procopius is 'Majorinus.'

Thayer's Note:

a Would that we were so fortunate as to be subjected to such low taxes in our time! Many other ancient sources complain about what to them was extortionate taxation, to us would be a blessed relief: you can find my running collection of citations and links in my footnote to Plutarch's Life of Antony.

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