Marjorian’s Barbarian Campaigns (457-461)

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PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Marjorian’s Roman forces vs. the Vandals and Duke Ricimer

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Italy, Gaul, and Spain

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Marjorian sought to reconstitute the Western Empire of Rome and then to defeat the Vandals in their African homeland.

OUTCOME: Although Marjorian achieved his reunification objective, treachery destroyed his African invasion plans, and a revolt in Italy prompted his abdication.

Ricimer (d. 472), a Swabian-Visigothic duke, drove the Vandals out of Italy and became the major power there. He placed the Roman general Marjorianus-Emperor Marjorian (d. 461)-on the throne, with the intention that he serve as a puppet; however, Marjorian soon took matters of state in his own hands and began a series of vigorous campaigns against the Vandals. When a Vandal force raided near the mouth of the Liris River (the Garigliano), Marjorian easily defeated it. This victory made him ambitious to end the Vandal threat once and for all by taking action against the seat of Vandal power in Africa. However, before he could conduct a successful campaign against the Vandals in their homeland, Marjorian believed that he must reunite the Western Empire. Therefore, in 458, he invaded Gaul. Near Toulouse, he engaged the forces of Visigoth king Theodoric II (d. 466). Marjorian wisely concluded a generous peace with Theodoric, which renewed Roman sway over Gaul as well as Spain during 458-460.

With the Western Empire effectively made whole again, Marjorian set about building an invasion force at Cartagena, Spain, to attack Africa. The Vandal chieftain, Gaiseric (c. 390-477), was a jump ahead of Marjorian, however. Through the judicious application of bribery, he was able to persuade key Romans in Cartagena to turn traitor. Thanks to these “moles,” Gaiseric was able to sail a Vandal fleet against the fleet of Marjorian just before it was about to embark in 461. The Roman fleet was virtually destroyed.

Marjorian refused to accept defeat and immediately began rebuilding the fleet. At this point, however, Ricimer, exploiting Marjorian’s preoccupation with his African expedition, incited a revolt in Italy. Appalled by what he deemed the ingratitude and disloyalty of the Roman people, Marjorian abdicated. Ricimer, bent on ensuring that Majorian would not return to rise again, had him assassinated. Ricimer emerged as the uncrowned emperor of Italy-and the Western Empire never regained anything approaching its past glory.

MAJORIAN (Julius Valerius Majorianus) (d. 461 A. D.) Emperor of the West from 457 to 461; owed his throne to the good graces of a MAGISTER MILITUM, RICIMER. Majorian was of a good Roman family, his grandfather having been magister militum in the service of Theodosius I. He joined the army of the general AETIUS, and, although he acquired the reputation of a gifted military commander, Majorian was dismissed by Aetius, probably because he began to seem like a rival.

In 455, Valentinian III summoned Majorian following the death of Aetius (in 454). Valentinian needed advisors, and he granted Majorian the title of comes domesticorum. When the emperor was assassinated a short time later (March 16), Majorian was a leading candidate for the vacant throne, having the support of Valentinian’s widow, Licinia Eudoxia. He was passed over, however, for PETRONIUS MAXIMUS (455) and then AVITUS (455-456). Avitus was deposed in October 456, made a bishop and then probably murdered. There followed a period of six months, during which the West was without an emperor.

Majorian probably had a hand in the fall of Avitus, with the help of Ricimer, and now took steps to improve his own political standing. In February of 457 he became a magister militum in his own right, while Ricimer was made a patrician. LEO I, successor to MARCIAN as emperor of the East, was persuaded by Ricimer to support Majorian, and on April 1, 457, the ceremony of accession took place.

Facing Majorian were the tasks of pacifying the Gallic nobles, who had backed Avitus, and diminishing the influence of King GEISERIC and his powerful VANDALS in Africa. Majorian marched into Gaul (Lugdunum Princa) and reduced political opposition with the use of threats, promises and taxes. The VISIGOTHS of King Theoderic II were then defeated in battle by the general Aegidius and convinced to sign a peace agreement. Geiseric was not so easy. With considerable ambition, Majorian assembled a huge army and fleet with the aim of crushing the Vandal kingdom in Africa. In 460, his massive flotilla was discovered and burned by Geiseric at Carthago Nova in Spain. Majorian had to accept humiliating terms from Geiseric. The emperor was forced to abdicate on August 2, 461, and was probably beheaded the same day at Ricimer’s orders, though it was reported that he died of dysentery. He had reigned only four-and-a-half years. In that time he had shown flashes of considerable ability and was praised by Sidonius.

FLAVIUS RICIMER, (d. 472 A. D.) MAGISTER MILITUM from 456 to 472 and PATRICIAN from 457. Ricimer was the most pivotal imperial figure in the Western Empire during its final years. An Arian of mixed barbarian blood, he had a Suebian father and a Visigoth mother who was related to King Wallia of the Visigoths. His rise was typical of the gifted generals of the time, reflecting political power gained through his defeat of a Vandal fleet in 456. For this triumph he was promoted to magister milirum of the West. Once entrenched in this position he overthrew Emperor AVITUS in favor of his own candidate, MAJORIAN, crushing Avitus at Placentia in October of 456. By 457 he had the title of patridus, or patrician, presumably receiving it with the blessing of the Eastern court on February 28 of that year. Majorian became emperor with his help, but when the ruler outlived his usefulness, Ricimer deposed him in 461. After Majorian’s execution, he was replaced by LIBIUS SEVERUS. Unacceptable to Constantinople, Severus nevertheless remained on the throne from 461 to 465, solely because Ricimer wanted him there.

The magister militum spent the next years scheming against a rival, MARCELLINUS OF DALMATIA, while defending against attacks by GEISERIC, king of the Vandals and Alans, who invaded Italy unsuccessfully. In 465 he removed Severus (perhaps by poison) and administered the Empire for nearly two years, accepting a new emperor only in 467-ANTHEMIUS. To ensure his position in the new regime, Ricimer married Anthemius’ daughter Alypia in 467 at Rome. Despite his supremacy in the Empire he carefully avoided participation in the doomed expedition of 468 against the Vandals of Africa. This lack of concern for the expedition may have led to his rupture with Anthemius in 470. Temporarily reconciled in 472, another break took place.

Further reading: Arther Ferrill, The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1986); Peter Heather, ed., The Visigoths from the Migration Period to the Seventh Century (Rochester, N. Y.: Boydell Press, 1999); Thomas Hodkins, Huns, Vandals, and the Fate of the Roman Empire (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1996); E. A. Thompson, Romans and Barbarians: The Decline of the Western Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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