1600 Years Ago, in the Year 412 AD, or 1156 Ab Urbe Condita (since the founding of Rome) …

In 412, the Western Roman Emperor Honorius (full name Flavius Honorius Augustus), the son of Theodosius I.,  teamed up with the Visigoth king Ataulf (also: Atawulf, the 'father of wolves') against the usurper Jovinus.

Jovinus had unilaterally proclaimed himself Augustus and made his brother Sebastianus his co-emperor, taking control of Northern Gaul with the help of the Gallic nobility as well as King Gundahar of the Burgundians and King Goar of the Alans. The Burgundians used the opportunity to establish themselves on the Roman side of the Rhine, founding a new kingdom there with Worms as the capital.

Ataulf marched from Italy to Gaul, with ex-emperor Priscus Attalus and Honorius' half-sister Galla Placidia in tow as hostages, ostensibly to join Jovinus.  While on the way, Ataulf crossed paths with another Visigoth chieftain named Sarus, who was supposed to help Jovinus militarily. Ataulf evidently wanted to be the only Visigoth of importance in Gaul and without further ado decided to attack and kill Sarus.

 

It was at this point that a slightly miffed Jovinus appointed his brother Sebastianus co-emperor, without consulting Ataulf on the matter. Ataulf was incensed at this perceived slight and thereupon allied himself with Honorius. He then swiftly conquered Southern Gaul, captured Sebastianus and handed him over to Honorius' praetorian governor in Gaul, the prefect Caius Posthumus Dardanus. Shortly thereafter Ataulf also captured the fleeing Jovinus at Valentia after a brief siege and handed him over as well.

Dardanus in turn sent the heads of Jovinus and Sebastianus  to Honorius at his court in Ravenna, where they arrived in 413, slightly the worse for the wear and somewhat smelly. Nevertheless, the heads were mounted on the walls of Ravenna, so as to serve as a reminder that crossing Honorious could be decidedly unhealthy. Later on, presumably in a state of advanced decay, the heads were transferred to Carthage to be put on permanent display with those of four other would-be usurpers.

And so the question 'can you trust a Visigoth?' was answered in the affirmative for Honorius: yes, you can at times (this is to say, you could in 412. In 414, Ataulf would proclaim Priscus Attalus emperor again, the guy he had tagging along as a hostage. Honorius eventually got his revenge on both of them though). It was different for Jovinus, who found out that it can be a deadly mistake to trust a Visigoth.

 


 

   Siliqua_Jovinus-RSC_0004

A siliqua of Jovinus, celebrating the 'victories of the emperor'. His two year reign lasted just long enough to get a few coins with his face stamped on them into circulation. He shouldn't have trusted the Visigoth Ataulf.

 


 

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Visigoth chief Ataulf, who brought down the usurpers Jovinus and Sebastianus

 


 

The interesting thing is that Honorius' general Stilicho had previously battled  the Visigoth king Alaric on several occasions when Alaric tried to invade Italy in the years 401 to 408. Stilicho eventually persuaded Alaric to leave Rome alone by paying him a ransom of 4,000 gold pounds of gold, reluctantly released by the Senate. This of course didn't keep Alaric from sacking Rome in 410. And yet, Honorious had no problem forming an alliance with another Visigoth when it suited him.

As it were, good old Honorius really had his hands full in 412. Just as Jovinus tried to make himself the new emperor based in Gaul, another underling tried his hand at revolt as well.  Heraclianus, the governor of North Africa,  proclaimed himself Augustus too in 412. As a gesture of ill will, he cut off the grain supply to Rome. Honorius condemned him to death with an edict, and Heraclianus, who didn't have enough troops to support his claim to rule, was eventually killed when trying to flee to Carthage.

 


 

Solidus_Honorius_402_76001657

A Roman solidus depicting Honorius

 


 

Honorius' reign was remarkable for two reasons: for one thing, it coincided with the collapse of the Western Roman empire. The loss of Britain and the sack of Rome both happened on his watch. For another, he actually died of natural causes in 423 (an edema is suspected), the by far rarest cause of death for Roman emperors at the time. His empire crumbled, but he survived. His contemporaries were appropriately awed by this feat and left the following inscription in his honor:

 


 

450px-DN_Honorio_Florentissimo

Inscription in honor of Honorius, the “most excellent and invincible”.

 


 

Historians generally hold unkind views of Honorius in spite of his admirable personal longevity, because of his inability to keep the Teutonic tribes at bay and hold the empire together. Moreover, it has been reported by Procopius of Caesarea (a historian who lived from 500 AD to 565 AD) that Honorius, upon being apprised of the sack of Rome, was initially in hysterics because he wrongly believed his favorite chicken (which he had also named 'Roma') had died. When the error was pointed out to him, he was allegedly greatly relieved.

According to Procopius:

 

"At that time they say that the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna received the message from one of the eunuchs, evidently a keeper of the poultry, that Rome had perished. And he cried out and said, 'And yet it has just eaten from my hands!' For he had a very large cock, Rome by name; and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Rome which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: 'But I thought that my fowl Rome had perished.' So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed."

 

This little anecdote has inspired John William Waterhouse to paint Honorius together with his favorites:

 


 

John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Favorites_of_the_Emperor_Honorius_-_1883

“The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius” by John William Waterhouse, 1883

 


 

As an aside, while Honorius battled the usurpers Jovinus and Heraclianus in 412, Augustine was already ensconced in Hippo (North Africa) for 15 years and had become its bishop  – reportedly the most fiscally prudent bishop yet seen there. A fiery orator and proselytizer as well as a hard worker,  he was presumably well on his way to sainthood by then. However, even Hippo was overrun by the Vandals seven years after Honorius' death.

 

Happy Holidays

We wish all our readers a Merry Christmas, respectively Happy Holidays. The blog will be on a brief hiatus during the holidays.

 

 

Images : Wikimedia Commons


 

 

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