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Bill Thayer

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Book III
Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a section 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 2

Book 3 (continued)

Vol. II
Note D

On the Character of Petronius Maximus

The account of the character and actions of this Emperor, given in the text, is drawn almost exclusively from the writings of his contemporaries — Apollinaris Sidonius (430‑488) and Prosper of Aquitaine (about 400‑460). In some respects it is less unfavourable than that which is usually given and which is derived from later authorities.

The chief difference is in the degree of culpability which has to be assigned to him for the death of his predecessor. Some suspicion undoubtedly rested upon him in the minds of his contemporaries, but I have endeavoured not to treat this suspicion as more of a certainty than it actually was. The obvious, patent cause of Valentinian's murder was the two barbarians' desire to revenge the death of Aetius; and, to a certain extent, the whole people and army of Rome, by witnessing it unmoved, made the crime their own. It was the extraordinary conduct of Maximus after the murder, in admitting the assassins to his most intimate counsels, which naturally raised a suspicion that he was their accomplice, but this suspicion does not appear ever to have reached the stage of proof. The following words of Prosper no doubt express all that the immediate contemporaries of the two emperors knew about the chief actors in the tragedy.

' As soon as this parricide' (the murder of Valentinian by the friends of Aetius) 'had been perpetrated, Maximus, a man who had twice filled the office of consul, and was of patrician rank, assumed the imperial dignity. It had been supposed that he would be in all ways serviceable to the imperilled commonwealth, but he very soon showed what disposition he was of, since he not only did not punish the murderers of Valentinian, but even received them into the circle of his friends, and moreover, forbidding the widowed Empress to mourn the loss of her  p207 lord, within a very few days he constrained her to contract a marriage with himself.'

This scandal of his precipitate marriage with the widow of his predecessor, and the ruin which resulted from it for Rome, made evidently a deep impression on the minds of contemporary and succeeding annalists, especially in the Eastern Empire, and disposed them to put the harshest construction on all his previous actions. It is curious to note how the suspicion which is but faintly marked in the pages of Prosper, and is not even alluded to in those of Sidonius, deepens and hardens in the later historians.

The Spanish ecclesiastic, Idatius (fl. about 400‑470) says that 'Maximus was racked by a disturbing fear of great commotions. Through desire of reigning he had contributed by his wicked advice to the deaths of the persons slain by Valentinian, and even to that of Valentinian himself.'

Marcellinus, a Count of the Eastern Empire (whose chronicle ends at 558), says, 'Valentinian the Prince, by the stratagem of Maximus the Patrician, by whose deceit Aetius also perished, was mangled in the Campus Martius by Optila and Traustila.'

But the anti-Maximian prejudice reaches its height in Procopius (fl. about 500‑560) who has unfortunately made the largest contribution to the history of this Emperor with the smallest claim to be regarded as a trustworthy authority. In the long and disagreeable romance with which he favours us, Valentinian is represented as winning the ring of Maximus from him at play, entrapping his wife to the palace by means of this ring, and then seducing her. The dishonour of his wife fills the mind of Maximus with thoughts of vengeance, in order to accomplish which he first of all induces Valentinian to assassinate Aetius, and then, 'without any trouble, he killed the Emperor and took the sovereignty.' He marries Eudoxia, and incautiously tells her one night that it was for love of her that he killed her late husband. As soon as day dawns she sends the fatal message to Gaiseric, knowing that she will receive no help from Byzantium.

It is not worth while to point out the internal improbabilities of this story, the jumble of different motives which it ascribes to the chief actors, the disparity of years between Valentinian the seducer and his victim (who was mother of a grown‑up son and  p208 wife to the elderly Maximus), and other points which might be remarked upon. The history into which it is inserted is thoroughly inaccurate in a chronological point of view (for instance, it represents the fall of Aquileia as succeeding the death of Aetius), and Procopius, even in reference to the events of his own time, is notoriously apt to let his history degenerate into a mere 'chronique scandaleuse,' inserting apparently many an unauthentic piece of gossip, simply because it is unsavoury. Gibbon truly remarks that 'Procopius is a fabulous writer for the events which precede his own memory.' Whatever judgment we may be disposed to pass on the alleged share of Maximus in the murder of his predecessor — and I am disposed to ask for a verdict of 'Not Proven' — at least let the fables of Procopius no longer pass current as History.

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