|A fanciful later European engraving of Ricimer. Though he |
ruled from behind the throne of the Western Empire for
16 years, his likeness was never preserved.
A barbarian of noble birth, half Visigothic and half Suevian, Ricimer first appears in history as a soldier in the Western Roman army under the command of Flavius Aetius. It is in this capacity that he became allied with Majorian, another follower of Aetius. Both men, it seems, participated in the campaigns of Aetius against the Franks, though Majorian later had a falling out with the great commander prior to his famous victory over Attila.
After the assassination of Aetius and Valentinian III in AD 454-5 and the subsequent sack of Rome by the Vandals, Ricimer and Majorian would rise to power together, overthrowing the weak emperor, Avitus. The following brief passage may be found in the Fragmentary History of Priscus:
“Now that they were free from their fear of the Goths, both Majorian and Ricimer openly revolted. Avitus, disquieted partly by the domestic turmoil, partly by the Vandalic wars, retreated from Rome and held fast to the road to Gaul. Majorian and Ricimer attacked him on the road and forced him to flee to a sacred precinct, where he abdicated his rule and removed his imperial attire. No sooner had Majorian’s men lifted the siege than Avitus’s life ended in starvation, after eight months on the throne. Others say that he was strangled.” [Given, Fragmentary History of Priscus, p. 133]Avitus was the first in a line of emperors who would be dominated and undone by the efforts of Ricimer who soon became invested as Magister Militum, attaining supreme military power in the West. He was not, however, able to take the throne himself due to his clear non-Roman lineage. His Roman colleague Majorian was made emperor in AD 457, but after four years of rule, he was deposed by Ricimer, who viewed him as a threat to his power, and later beheaded. Ricimer then put the more pliable Libius Severus on the throne to serve as a puppet. When Severus died of natural causes four years later (though Cassiodorus claims that Ricimer had him poisoned), Ricimer took full control of the Western Empire during a two-year interregnum.
At the height of his power, Ricimer was called “the unconquerable” by the late Roman poet Sidonius Apollinaris and it was said that he never once lost a battle. Sidonius says further:
“If the Norican is restraining the Ostrogoth, it is that Ricimer is feared. If Gaul ties down the armed might of the Rhine, it is he that inspires dread. And because the Vandal foe plundered me [Italy] while the Alan, his kinsman, swept off what remained, this man took vengeance by the force of his own arms.” [Anderson, Sidonius: Poems and Letters, Volume 1, p. 41]At this point, the Eastern Roman emperor Leo I intervened, naming Anthemius, a general in Illyricum, as Western Emperor. Ricimer accepted this and soon after married Alypia, the daughter of Anthemius, to solidify his position. Not willing to depend on his powerful new son-in-law as his sole military support, Anthemius appointed his Illyrian colleague Marcellinus to command his army as counter-balance to Ricimer. But if Anthemius thought that Ricimer would meekly surrender his authority in the West, he was sorely mistaken.
When Leo and Anthemius put together a vast armada to destroy the Vandal menace in north Africa in AD 468, Ricimer joined the cause, but under the nominal command of Marcellinus. The great campaign, which emptied the coffers of both the Eastern and Western empires, ended up a complete disaster for the Romans, but a boon for the scheming Ricimer. The Roman fleet was destroyed and the army captured by the Vandals. Both halves of the empire found themselves devoid of troops and bankrupt as a result of the catastrophic defeat. Ricimer, however, had remained on the sidelines, losing none of his soldiers, and many blamed him for not fully supporting the effort and secretly wanting it to fail. Further enhancing Ricimer's position, Marcellinus was later assassinated in Sicily, and some suspected a conspiracy hatched by Ricimer had been responsible for his rival's death.
Following this debacle, Ricimer decided that he’d had enough of Anthemius. Priscus explains what happened next:
Following Ricimer’s death in AD 472, the expiring Western Empire passed through the hands of several weak emperors and warlords until the above-mentioned Odoacer was able to consolidate his power, shrug off attempts of the East to assert authority, and rule in his own right as a barbarian King over Italy.
Ricimer began a conflict between himself and the Western emperor Anthemius, and moreover, although he was betrothed to Anthemius’s daughter Alypia, he instigated a civil war in the city [of Rome] that lasted for five months. The magistrates and the people fought for Anthemius, the mass of domestic barbarians for Ricimer. Also present was Odoacer, a man of the Skirian race….
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Anthemius lived in the palace, but Ricimer barricaded the locations near the Tiber and plagued those inside with hunger. During an engagement fought by the two sides, much of Anthemius’s party fell. Ricimer deceitfully concluded a treaty with the remaining men and then introduced Olybrius as emperor. For five months altogether, a civil war controlled Rome until Anthemius’s supporters surrendered to the barbarians and left the emperor naked. Anthemius joined the crowd of beggars and placed himself under the protection of the martyr Chrysogonos. There he was beheaded by Gondoubandos, Ricimer’s brother [actually, his nephew], after a reign of five years, three months, and eighteen days.
Ricimer thought Anthemius worthy of a royal burial, while he introduced Olybrius into the royal court. Within thirty days after Olybrius succeeded to the Roman throne in the way described, Ricimer lost his life by vomiting most of his blood. Then Olybrius died of edema. [Given, Fragmentary History of Priscus, p. 170]