Thursday, March 16, 2017

March 16 ~ Anniversary of the Assassination of Valentinian III in AD 455

Gold solidus showing Valentinian III
March 16 marks the anniversary of the assassination of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III in AD 455.

Though he reigned for thirty years, Valentinian III presided over the slow but steady dismemberment of the Western Empire and was considered a weak and vacillating emperor. He had risen to the throne at the age of six or seven and was therefore under the thumb of powerful figures at court for most of his reign. Fortunately for him, one of these figures was the capable general Aetius who successfully defended the empire from the potentially cataclysmic invasion of Attila and his Huns in AD 451.

After Attila's death in AD 453, Valentinian felt secure enough to consider dispensing with Aetius, whom others at court considered a threat and a roadblock to their own ambitions. In a dramatic scene, Valentinian confronted Aetius while the latter was reviewing imperial finances with him. The emperor accused Aetius of being a drunk and of trying to take the empire from him. Then, without warning, he and his eunuch chamberlain, Herakleios, drew swords and slew Aetius where he stood. Later, when the emperor boasted of how well he had done in removing Aetius, one of his counselors replied famously:
“Whether well or not, I do not know. But know that you have cut off your right hand with your left.”
Not long after this foolhardy act, Valentinian was himself struck down. Another courtier, Petronius Maximus, sought to obtain the honors previously held by Aetius. He was blocked in this ambition by Herakleios who felt that the emperor would not do well to exchange one powerful general for another. What happened next is recorded in the History of Priscus:
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"Maximus grew angry because of his failure to obtain both ranks [consul and patrician]. He summoned Optelas and Thraustelas, Scythian men who were excellent in war, who had fought alongside Aetius and who kept company with Valentinian. After discussing the situation and exchanging pledges with them, he blamed the emperor for murdering Aetius and explained why it was a good idea to stalk him...

"Not many days later, Valentinian decided to ride his horse on the Field of Ares together with a few bodyguards and Optelas’s and Thraustelas’s men. As soon as he dismounted and was preparing to practice archery, Optelas and his men attacked. Drawing the swords hanging at their sides, they advanced. Optelas struck Valentinian on the side of the head and, as Valentinian turned to see who had assaulted him, Optelas struck a second blow, and felled him. Thraustelas took down Herakleios. Taking the emperor’s diadem and horse, both men ran off to Maximus. Their attack proved innocuous to them, either due to their unexpected boldness, or perhaps because the others present were terrified at their reputation in war."
Priscus also records something truly bizarre in the aftermath of the attack:
"Something divine happened at the death of Valentinian. A swarm of bees appeared and drew up the blood flowing from his body into the earth. They sucked up all of it. And so Valentinian died at the age of thirty-seven."
The immediate result of this assassination was the further weakening of the already tottering Western Empire. Petronius Maximus took the throne, but could not gain the support of the Eastern court or the people in Rome. Within two months, a huge army of Vandals led by their king, Gaiseric, arrived at Rome from north Africa, bent on pillage. Unable to defend the city, Maximus was stoned to death by the people. Three days later, Gaiseric entered Rome and sacked the Eternal City for two weeks.

Much of our knowledge of these events was obtained from the History of Priscus which has come down to us from antiquity in fragmentary form. If you enjoy reading about this period of history, I highly recommend it!

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