ARTICLE NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 26.2
We are now rapidly approaching the end of Tom Lee's exploration of the first 500 years of Christianity. Today's extract from his manuscript looks at the period leading up to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. As we continue to witness today in the collapse of any political structure we witness corruption, backstabbing and much instability before the end actually comes. For the Church it ushered in a period of relative frugal stability in Italy.
Papal Bravery and German Domination Part 26.2
Attila: destiny outstrips his ego...
Less than two years after his confrontation with Leo, Attila, not content with his existing harem, and impatient at the non-arrival of Honoria, married a pretty young girl named Ildico. The ceremony was celebrated with barbaric splendor at the aging monarch's wooden palace, beyond the Danube. Even then, need permitted old men to ravish young bodies, most often not for sexual fulfillment, but as an attribute of their wealth and power.
Overtired and very drunk Attila stumbled late to his nuptial couch. Outside the chamber his attendants respectfully waited most of the following day until the unusual silence alarmed them. When they burst in they found the trembling bride almost catatonic with fear beside Attila's corpse. Destiny had outstripped his ego. He had died in the night of a massive hemorrhage. None of his sons ever came near to rivaling his exploits and within a couple of generations they had largely returned to the desolate fastnesses of Mongolia from whence they came.
In Britain, isolated from the empire apart from desultory contact with Gaul, a chieftain known to us as King Arthur mounted resistance to Saxon invasion. Referred to in most surviving documentation as Riothamus, or High King, Arthur began his reign in 454. Following some years fighting at home, he had some dealings with General Aetius in northern Gaul. He campaigned against Childeric, the father of Clovis in Gaul 469-70 and departed for Avalon, never to be seen again, in 470. Avalon, far from the mythic place portrayed in the Mort d'Arthur, was a real place in Burgundy.
For two decades General Aetius had been either fighting or negotiating favorable terms with invaders of the west. His son Gaudentius was betrothed to the emperor Valentinian's daughter. But Valentinian was of a fundamentally malicious and suspicious disposition and easily persuaded that Aetius had designs on his throne. Aetius didn't help matters by maintaining a haughty demeanor with the monarch whose character he despised, though he had saved him on many occasions.
Valentinian, following the withdrawal of Attila, spent much more time at Rome, and that was where Aetius came to urge the finalization of the marriage of his son. The paranoid Valentinian drew his sword — possibly the first sword he had ever drawn — and plunged it into Aetius' breast. His sycophantic courtiers and eunuchs, thinking to ensure their own favor with their master, followed suit. Aetius, pierced with numerous wounds, fell dead at his royal master's feet. This was by no means the last or the least of Valentinian's crimes.
Valentinian was a savage but inept player of the power game. Blind to the growing dissatisfaction of the Senate, and despite an attractive and faithful wife, he was dominated by his need to feed his libido with continuous variety. He was an almost routine neurotic villain, so highly charged with lust that he couldn't die until it was satisfied. No doubt to some he bestowed sex like teacher rewarding good behavior, realizing that of the Seven Deadlies, lust has the best potential for keeping minions in line. But willing partners were not enough. With brutality masking itself as sincerity he persuaded the virtuous wife of a wealthy senator, Petronius Maximus, to visit the palace; she believed, to attend the Empress Eudoxia and settle a gambling debt of her husband's. Gambling was a major occupation of the underworked aristocracy. The emperor's minions conveyed her to a remote bedroom, where Valentinian brutally raped her. His malicious satisfaction did not last long.
The tender and vulnerable victim, mourning her purity, conscience-stricken, and believing her husband to have been a party to her violation, reproached him. It was not difficult for Petronius to find disaffected accomplices at Court. Seemingly thinking himself impervious to attack, Valentinian had retained some of Aetius' Gothic domestics and supporters in his service. When the emperor attended a display of martial exercises at the Field of Mars, just six months after the murder of Aetius, the Goths swiftly skewered Valentinian and the eunuch Heraclius. A moment of shrieking agony and it was over, as the pusillanimous courtiers, anxious to secure their own safety, applauded. Valentinian, for all his randy athletics, left no heir. He was the last of the Theodosian dynasty.
Leo called to defend Rome again...
The wronged husband, Petronius Maximus was elected emperor, but within three months of Valentinian's death the Vandal Gaeseric, already master of Spain and much of North Africa, arrived with a fleet at Ostia, Rome's port, and found the city undefended. There were no troops to man the Aurelian wall, the civil authorities were impotent, and the ineffectual Petronius Maximus was killed by one of his own men. Rome's only protector was, once more, its bishop. It was only three years since Leo's fateful confrontation with Attila.
Gaiseric was nominally a Christian, but of the Arian persuasion. He had made Carthage his capital. His fleet, manned by Moors as well as Goths, had sacked Sicily and controlled the sea-lanes of the central Mediterranean. They raided Corsica and Sardinia, and cut off all supplies of grain and other food to the Italian mainland. Wherever the Vandals had control, Catholic bishops had been driven from their Sees and replaced by Arians.
Probably a little more stooped, but just as dignified and stoic, Pope Leo parlayed with Gaeseric at the gates of Rome. The invader agreed to spare the populace and the buildings, but he stayed two weeks and took everything of value that Rome had ever amassed, and that Alaric had been unable to carry off forty-five years before. The imperial palace was stripped to furnish Gaeseric's palace in Carthage. The Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus was stripped of half of its gilded roof. Among the plundered treasure were the vessels and candelabra of the Jerusalem Temple, captured by Titus. Rome was despoiled of treasure as if it were a field consumed by a plague of locusts.
As security against reprisals, Gaiseric took as hostage the widowed Roman Empress Eudoxia and her two daughters, and married Eudoxia to his eldest son. By his conquests he proved that no Mediterranean ruler could feel safe unless he had control of the sea. Gaiseric would dominate it until his death in 477.
Leo was again the hero. He capitalized on his success by proclaiming a primacy of the Church in worldly as well as religious matters. Where Augustine, fifty years before had divided the world into two cities: the City of God and the City of Mammon, Leo claimed that Christian authority extended to both worlds. In twice fearlessly confronting invaders and saving the populace from slaughter he had won the right to his opinion and no one dared to contradict it. With its wealth gone and food in short supply, the populace was dependent on church charities, which replaced a non-functioning government. In 461 Leo died quietly in his bed.
Leo was succeeded by a Sardinian, Hilary, who attempted, during the seven years of his reign, and despite the continuous warfare there, to tighten his ecclesiastical control of southern Gaul and Spain. His only notable declaration was that Popes and bishops should not nominate their successors.
On the death of eastern emperor Marcian at Constantinople in 457, Emperor Leo I became the first to be crowned by a bishop of Constantinople. A Thracian, elevated to the Byzantine throne by a German general, Leo saved the eastern empire from the German soldiery by calling in troops from Asia Minor; and their commander, Leo's son-in-law Zeno, became his successor.
The dominant person at the disintegrating western court at Ravenna was the supreme military commander Ricimer. A German, he was for fifteen years the power behind the throne. With supreme indifference, like a real-life puppet master, he set up emperor after emperor, and repeatedly unmade them as well. His most able protege was Majorian whom he elevated in 457. Majorian fought bravely at the head of his army in Gaul and Spain. But when he suffered a naval reverse at the hands of Gaiseric, Ricimer had him executed in 461. The string-puller ruled Italy for the next ten years, in fact if not in name. After disagreement with the emperor Anthemius, Ricimer sacked Rome, but his mortality caught up with him soon thereafter.
Romulus Augustus — the last Western Emperor...
Pope Hilary was followed by Simplicius in 468. His fifteen-year reign would witness the end of the western empire and a renewal of Monophysite hysteria in the east. During three more transient imperial reigns, the western empire lost the last loyal remnant of Gaul to the Visigoths, and, in 476, a new military commander gave the Ravenna throne to his own son, Romulus Augustus. Generally known by the diminutive Augustulus, he was the last western emperor. His reign was short.
A German general, Odoacer, commander of a force of Danubian troops in the north of Italy requested federate status for his people within Italy, as other German groups had done throughout the empire. When the Romans refused, his own people elected him their king, and seizing Ravenna, Odoacer declared Romulus Augustus deposed, and with rough good humor, charitably sent him into pensioned retirement. It is not surprising that people suspected a sort of divine irony in that the last western emperor bore the names of both the founder of ancient Rome and of the first emperor.
Effectively the controller of Italy, Odoacer declined to be called emperor and requested the toothless Roman Senate to send the imperial insignia to Emperor Zeno at Constantinople. Zeno was in no position to take any action against Odoacer. An attempt by him to attack Gaeseric in North Africa proved abortive. He could only accept that the western empire was now a grouping of German kingdoms, all other races being subject to them. But the natives of Italy were not all so passive. Bands of guerrilla mercenaries roved the countryside, relishing the freedom to attack and pillage the invaders, or anyone else if hunger necessitated, whenever an opportunity presented itself.
In 478 the emperor Zeno accorded the right to the Archbishop of the Church in Cyprus, to sign his name in red ink. This did not mean that the emperor was prepared to make good the bishop's debts.
Life in the Italian cities, though frugal, continued unmolested. The Arian invaders did not try to interfere with the Catholic Church. Visigoths ruled the southwest of Gaul as well as Spain, while the Burgundians controlled southeastern Gaul. Both these tribes were Arian. But the Franks who had established themselves in the north of the country, led by their pagan chief, the founder of the Merovingian dynasty, Clovis of Tournai, soon embraced the Catholic brand of Christianity.
ARTICLE NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 26.2
IMAGE CREDITS: The headline image is adapted from the front page image on the book "The End of the Western Roman Empire — an archeological investigation" by Ellen Swift available from Amazon.
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©2009 Tom Lee