Roman Emperor Avitus (9 July 455–17 October 456)

Italy was ripe for the taking, but Avitus, the Visigoths, and the Gallic Field Army did not march straight into Rome, because, according to Sidonius (Pan.Av. 589–90), Avitus recovered the two Pannonias for the Empire at the very beginning of his rule. This means that Avitus advanced first against the territories held by the Ostrogoths on behalf of East Rome (see the reign of Marcian). Avitus was basically reacting to the settlement of foederati by the East Romans that had taken place in the previous year, 454, in which Marcian had effectively taken control of West Roman territory by settling the Ostrogoths in Pannonia. It is very unlikely that there would have been any fighting involved between the armies when Avitus reached Pannonia. Avitus had been chosen as Emperor by the Visigoths and Gauls and was accompanied by a Visigothic army and Visigothic bodyguards. This would have made him the ideal ruler also for the Ostrogoths. Therefore it is clear that the Ostrogoths were glad to become Avitus’s foederati and to recognize him as their Emperor, but we should not forget that they did this while still receiving payments from Marcian in return for being his foederati. This was to become one of the causes of quarrel between the Ostrogoths and the Eastern Empire. See the reigns of Marcian and Leo.

There was another question that needed to be taken care before advancing into Italy, which was referred to by Sidonius in the context of Maximus’ last days. The Burgundians needed to be pacified. It is probably in this context that we should see the referral in the so-called Auctar.Prosp.Haun (MGH AA Chron. Min. 1, p.304, a.455), which states that the Gepids attacked the Burgundians in 455. Katalin Escher (71–72) has suggested that the Gepids did this as allies of Rome, and this is indeed the likeliest reason. Avitus would have used the Gepids so that he could himself march with his Gallic army strengthened by the Visigoths first to Pannonia and from there to Italy. It is possible or even probable that Avitus stayed in Gaul until the Gepid attack had convinced the Burgundians to make a peace with him, but one cannot entirely rule out the possibility that he used the Gepid campaign as a diversion which allowed him to lead his forces to Pannonia while the attack against the Burgundians was still ongoing.

Even though there is no certainty regarding the dating of the appointment of Aegidius as MVM per Gallias I would suggest that Avitus kept Agrippinus as MVM per Gallias and that Aegidius was appointed as his successor by Majorian. See later. Avitus’s Mag. Ped. was Remistus who was probably a Visigoth and his Mag.Eq. was Ricimer. It was the latter who was destined to become Aetius’s successor as the power behind the throne. However, unlike Aetius, Ricimer was a pure-bred barbarian who was closely linked to three Germanic royal families. His father belonged to the royal family of the Suevi, his mother a Visigoth (daughter of Vallia) and his sister had married the Burgundian king Gundioc. In addition to this, he had had a long and distinguished military career under Aetius in the course of which he had befriended Majorian.

After having been confirmed as Emperor by the Roman people (i.e. the Senate), Avitus sent ambassadors to Constantinople to seek their acceptance. It is not known whether this was successful, but most historians think that the Eastern government did not recognize Avitus; but the fact that both halves of the Empire appear to have coordinated their actions towards the Vandals seems to contradict this. Similarly, it is possible to see Sidonius’s statement (Pan. 589–90) that Avitus recovered the two Pannonias merely with a march either as a sign of cooperation between the empires to subject the Ostrogoths under Roman rule, or as Avitus’s way to put pressure on the eastern empire by subjecting the Ostrogoths under his rule. The latter is actually more likely because we find the East Romans denying payments to the Ostrogoths after this. So there is no certainty about this, but in light of the presence of Marcian’s fleet close to Corsica (see below) I would suggest that it is more likely that the Eastern Empire did indeed lend its support, even if it was more modest than before. Avitus’s position was also precarious because the Italian nobility was very apprehensive of being ruled by a Gaul who brought with him his own supporters from Gaul, a Visigothic army and Visigothic bodyguards. In addition to this, Avitus had to prove himself a successful defender of Italy against the Vandals who had just sacked Rome. It was the Eastern Emperor who dispatched the first ambassador to Gaiseric with the demand that he was to stop his raids against Italy (this implies some cooperation between the courts) and to hand over the Empress and her daughters. This produced no results. It was then that Avitus dispatched his own envoys which reminded Gaiseric of his agreements; Avitus threatened to use his own army and allies if Gaiseric failed to abide by the treaty. Gaiseric’s response was to send his fleet to ravage Sicily and the areas (presumably Bruttium) close to it (Priscus).

Avitus dispatched Ricimer to Sicily with an army where Ricimer inflicted a crushing defeat on the Vandals on the plain of Agrigentum (Agrigento). The sources do not provide any details, but it seems probable that Ricimer cleared Bruttium of the Vandals before shipping his army across to Sicily at the Straits of Messina. Even though Sidonius refers only to the victorious land battle on the plains of Agrigentum, it is still probable that Ricimer would have used his fleet to transport supplies and simultaneously to attack the anchored Vandal fleet from the sea. The Roman war effort would have been aided by the fact that Agrigentum was one of the metropolises of the ancient world and on top of that well-fortified. According to modern estimates it had a population of 200,000–600,000, while Laertius claimed that it had a population of 800,000. Its urban area covered 456 hectares and the walls were 12.9 km long with nine gates. The city also had natural defences in the form of hills, gorges and hollows. In short, it is clear that the Vandals would have needed a huge army to besiege the place and even then they would have faced serious troubles.

It is no wonder that at this time both West and East Romans took the Vandal threat very seriously. They had not only sacked Rome, but Sidonius’s list of tribes (Pan.Maj. 335ff.) subjected by Gaiseric proves that the Vandals had conquered Mauretania Tingitana (Autololi), Mauretania Caesariensis, Numidia (Numidians, Gaetuli) and Tripolitania (Garamantes, Arzuges, Psylli, Nasamones, Marmaridae) by about 456/8. The last two (Nasamones and Marmaridae) suggest the possibility that the Vandals may have also invaded East Roman territory just south of Cyrenican Pentapolis. It is no wonder that even the Alexandrians felt threatened!

According to Hydatius (a.456), Avitus sent a message to Theoderic in Spain that Ricimer had destroyed through stratagem/encirclement/ambush a Vandal naval detachment consisting of sixty ships in Italy which had been advancing towards Gaul. The next sentence suggests that it was actually destroyed off Corsica because it states that a multitude of Vandals had died in Corsica at a time when Avitus had moved from Italy to Arles in Gaul. It is possible, however, that the Vandals had actually been destroyed by the East Roman fleet (or marines?) serving under Ricimer, because it was the Easterners who arrived in ships at Hispalis and reported a bloody victory by Marcian’s army. Still another possibility is that these are two separate incidents, so that in the former case Ricimer had destroyed sixty Vandal ships in Italy (possibly at Agrigento in Sicily), while in the latter case the East Romans had killed a multitude of Vandals at a time when Avitus had fled to Arles. This would have been the first example of Marcian’s changing attitude to the Vandals towards the end of his rule. The latter is true and that we are here dealing with two separate defeats suffered by the Vandals. MacGeorge notes that the vocabulary used by Hydatius doesn’t necessarily mean that the encounter was a naval battle. In her opinion, the Vandals could have been ambushed after they had embarked their forces. Considering that the news included the number of ships and the word meaning encirclement/ambush this is a distinct possibility,  that it is still very probable that the action included also the use of a Roman fleet, so that Roman ships were either able to surprise the Vandal ships at anchor or were able to encircle them from the seaside so that the Vandals had land behind them. These victories naturally strengthened Ricimer’s standing among the military.

In the meantime, the Suevi under their king Rechiarius had continued their ravaging of the Roman territory with the result that Avitus sent the comes Fronto and Mansuetus as his envoy to demand the immediate evacuation of the territories invaded at the same time as Theoderic II dispatched his own envoys to the Suevi for the same purpose (Hyd a.456.; Jord Get. 230ff.). The Suevi responded by invading Tarraconensis. Their attack met with success and they were able to take large numbers of captives and booty back to their own territory in Gallaecia. Avitus dispatched the angered Theoderic II to Spain.

Theoderic’s forces consisted of his own men and of the Burgundians under their kings Gundioc and Hilperic. The Burgundians had been promised Lyon and other territories in Gaul in return for their assistance.5 Rechiarius’s army opposed the allies at the River Urbicus/Ulbius twelve miles from the city of Asturica (Astorga) on Friday, 5 October 456. The deployment of the forces in defensive position behind a river was typical for those who feared the Gothic cavalry charge. The Burgundians were deployed on the left and the Visigoths on the right. The Visigoths crushed their opposition and annihilated almost the entire enemy force. Rechiarius was wounded by a javelin but still managed to flee via Bracara to Portus Cale (Oporto). The Visigoths were admitted into Bracara without opposition, but the Visigoths paid this kindness back by sacking it on Sunday, 28 October 456. Since Avitus had been overthrown on 17 October (see below), it is just possible that the sack of the city resulted from this if the news of this had been brought by relays of fast-moving horsemen to Theoderic. However, since Hydatius (a.457) states that Theoderic was in or close to Emerita (Merita) when he received the news of the death, it seems likelier that Theoderic just rewarded his men by allowing them to pillage. The Visigoths took many Roman captives from Bracara including nuns and children. The churches were turned into stables.

After this, the Visigoths continued their pursuit of the defeated foe and caught him at Portus Cale. Rechiarius had attempted to flee in a ship before the arrival of the Visigoths, but then unluckily for him the adverse wind forced his ship back into the harbour. Theoderic executed Rechiarius in December 456 and then continued his march to Lusitania with the result that Aiolfus deserted the Visigoths intending to become king of the Suevi in Gallaecia. But the Suevi of Gallaecia chose Maldras (or Masdra) as their new king. This resulted in a chaos which was exploited by some bandits who pillaged part of the assizes (conventus) of Bracara.

Ricimer knew that his opportunity to overthrow Avitus had come when Avitus’s supporters, the Visigoths, were preoccupied with the Suevic war. Avitus’s position in Italy was very weak because he had not been able to gather enough support for his cause among the Italian upper classes and among the field army posted there. In fact Avitus had managed to do the exact opposite, so he became even more hated. Avitus had appointed his Gallic supporters to high positions; the populace blamed him for the hunger they were facing thanks to the Vandalic war; he had been forced to strip the metal (mainly bronze) from public buildings to reward his Visigothic supporters and Visigothic bodyguards, which angered the senators in particular. The Italian senators demanded that Avitus send these Visigoths back to Gaul and when he did this after he had cashiered them with money, he sealed his own fate.

According to Gregory of Tours 2.11 and Fredegar 3.7, Avitus was overthrown by the senators because he was a libidinous debaucher of women. According to the latter, Avitus had raped senator Lucius’s wife with the result that Lucius betrayed his native city of Trier to the Franks. Fredegar’s account is not among the most reliable sources for this period, but if the account of the sack of Cologne and Trier by the Franks in the LHF 8 is dated to 456/7 then it is possible that Trier could have been betrayed by this Lucius as claimed by Fredegar. However, it is likelier that this actually occurred in 465 because the LHF connects this account with events of that year (see later) or even as early as 411 as suggested by Hodgkin (3.393–5) so that Fredegar would have mistaken Iovinus for Avitus. Nevertheless, it is by no means impossible that Gregory and Fredegar are right.

When Avitus could no longer hope to obtain help from the Visigoths, Ricimer decided to act. Two explanations have been put forth for the revolt of Ricimer. Firstly, it is possible that the principal reason for Ricimer’s revolts was his lust for power and that he intended from the start to make his friend Majorian emperor, because as a barbarian he could not become one. Since Majorian belonged to the Italian nobility and was supported by the former soldiers of Aetius this was a wise choice. The second of the reasons put forth by Ian Hughes (2015, 63–64) is that Ricimer and Majorian both acted because the hostility of the Roman senators of Italian origin was just too great towards Avitus and that both men just acted in the interest of the Italian nobility. The two men were indeed acting on behalf of the Roman Senate in this case. Furthermore, the fact that Avitus was not in the East Roman ‘good books’ after his Pannonian campaign, which is proven by the refusal of Marcian to recognize the West Roman consul, meant that both men could also expect to be rewarded by the East Roman emperor Marcian for their great services to the Roman Republic.

When the two men declared their revolt, Ricimer marched to Ravenna where he murdered Remistus and anyone else who supported Avitus. There are several different versions of what happened next. John of Antioch (fr. 202) states that the rebels attacked Avitus near Placentia when he was attempting to reach Gaul, but according to the more credible account of Hydatius (a.456), Avitus managed to flee to Arles from which he dispatched tribune Hesychius with gifts to ask Theoderic’s help. This same embassy brought the news of the naval victory off the coast of Corsica. The Visigoths were apparently unable to provide any assistance even if it appears likely that they sought to end their war with the Suevi immediately with the result that Avitus was forced to rely on the forces available to him near the city of Arles. These must have consisted primarily of the regular units posted in the cities and of the Alans settled nearby. Avitus appointed Messianus as MVM Praes. and marched his forces into Italy. The armies fought a decisive battle near Placentia on 17 October 456, which Ricimer and Majorian won. Messianus was killed while Avitus fled inside Placentia. Avitus was allowed to retire as Bishop of Placentia, but was then killed by Majorian’s men. According to Gregory of Tours’s version (2.11), when Avitus learnt that the ‘Senate’ still wanted to kill him, he decided to flee to the church of St.Julian in Clermont, but died en route. As noted by Ian Hughes, the truth of the matter must be that Avitus was attempting to flee to Clermont to raise a revolt against the usurpers and that Majorian’s forces caught up with him and then killed him.

The defeat of Avitus at Placentia brought with it a series of new troubles, not least of which was the fact that large numbers of regulars and Alans that had previously protected south-east Gaul had now been killed. The loss of these forces was very costly for the West Roman Empire when the Burgundians and Visigoths started to advance into this area, and the overthrow of Avitus naturally caused them to revolt.