Flavius Aetius was the third of the major “Generalissimos” that dominated the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD leading to the extinction of the Empire in 476. The emperors in this period were a succession of children or weak puppets, leaving true power in the hands of a senior official – the magister militum.
Stilicho, a general of Vandal extraction and thus unacceptable as emperor was the first of these warlords. He was placed in charge by the dying Emperor Theodosius in 395 to watch over his young son, Honorius. This he did, although the stresses of the revolt of Alaric the Goth and the invasion of Gaul by tribes fleeing the onset of the Huns made matters difficult. The alternative to a general like Stilicho was made plain when court intrigue led to his execution in 408.
Not only was the army leaderless, but a pogrom against the families of Gothic soldiers in the Empire’s service led to these troops deserting to Alaric in a body. The result was complete impotence that in the end led to the first sack of Rome by the Goths in 410.
The second warlord, Constantius, used the 410-420 period to begin a recovery. The usupers and brigands in Gaul were suppressed. The Goths were ‘hired’ to help contain the Vandals in Spain, and given part of Aquitaine as a homeland. Things appeared to be on the mend, when both Constantius and the Emperor Honorius died in the early 420s.
This led to some confusion, as both the emperor-ship and warlord-ship were up for grabs. Valentinian, the only blood relative of Honorius, was off in the Eastern Empire. A general, Castinius, set up an emperor, John. The easterners did not like this, and prepared for war.
Aetius, who had been living with the Huns as a hostage for years, was sent to them to gather support for John. He showed up in Italy with the army, but the Eastern Empire had sent their army first and toppled John and his general. Aetius cut a deal with Galla Placidia, the emperor’s mother and is given command of Gaul. The Huns are sent home.
It is now 425, and with the Romans busy elsewhere things have started to slip in Gaul and Spain. The Goths and Franks are advancing in Gaul, and the Vandals are expanding their region of Spain. Aetius makes progress in Gaul, restoring the situation there and earning further titles and influence.
The Vandals in Spain, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, took the respite given as Gaul was pacified to cross from Spain into Africa. The general there, Boniface, was unable to defeat them.
Africa was a wealthy province that provided grain to feed Rome and taxes to support the Empire. Now, when a unified front to defeat the Vandals would have been useful, we come to another power struggle. Boniface, Aetius, and Felix were the three “co-warlords” at this time and were bitter rivals. The early 430s were to be wasted in settling the matter. Aetius eliminated Felix, but was defeated by Boniface. However, Boniface was wounded and soon died, leaving Aetius as sole warlord.
But now with five years of inattention, Gaul and Spain were in trouble again. The Goths were given land in Africa, and Aetius went back to Gaul to settle it and Spain. In 439, the Vandals took Carthage and with it the Roman Province of Africa. This put the West in a severe strait.
The plan, such as it was, was for the East Empire to try to eject the Vandals while Aetius holds the line in Gaul. The invasion failed, and a new, ominous threat arose – the Huns under Atilla.
Ironically, the Huns had been a bulwark of support for Aetius and the West for years. Their troops had formed the core of forces used to drive back the other barbarians in Gaul. But now, Atilla was forming an Empire of his own and extending his influence to the Rhine. In 451, he invaded Gaul.
Luckily for Rome, Aetius was an accomplished negotiator with the other tribes in the path of the invasion, having made treaties with them all at one time or another. He managed to raise a combined force and meet Atilla at the battle of the Catalunian Plains, driving them off and saving Gaul from Hunnic domination.
Sadly, this victory made him dispensable to Valentinian, who assassinated him in 454. The emperor was soon killed himself, and the ensuing disruption led to the second sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455. While the last warlord, Ricimer, made some attempts and recovering the situation, in the end the West was too weak to survive and went to pieces.
This is an excellent view into a period usually glossed over in the last pages of a larger history.
- Can You Trust a Visigoth? (sgtreport.com)
- #61 Honorius: Emperors of Rome (adrianmurdoch.typepad.com)