Flavius ​​Aëtius

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Flavius ​​Aëtius (* around 390 in Durostorum, today Silistra in Bulgaria ; † September 21 or 22, 454 in Rome ) was a Western Roman army master and politician during the late ancient migration period . He lived for years as a hostage at the Hunnish court and made political contacts there, from which he later profited to a great extent. Aëtius exercised significant influence on the conduct of imperial affairs in the Western Empire for three decades from the 420s and was consul three times (432, 437 and 446). Together with Visigoths and parts of other Germanic gentes , he was able to deny in GaulFend off Huns attack by 451/2.


Origin and advancement

Flavius ​​Aëtius was born in Durostorum on the Danube in the Roman province of Lower Moesia . His mother tongue was Latin and he was a Roman citizen from birth. His father Flavius ​​Gaudentius was already an army master (magister militum) , his mother came from a rich and aristocratic Italian family. Gaudentius was killed by soldiers in Gaul at an unclear point in time (425 at the latest). Aëtius joined the imperial guard early and became the son-in-law of comes domesticorum Carpilio.

He had spent part of his youth hostage with the Visigoths (probably from 405 to 408) and later with the Huns (probably from 411 to 414). During this time he must have established good contacts with Hunnic groups, because when Johannes seized power after the death of Emperor Honorius 423 , he commissioned Aëtius, who was now a curopalatus , to bring Hunnian auxiliary troops to him. When Aëtius appeared in Italy with a very strong Hunnish army in May 425 , the usurpation of John had already failed, but three days after his beheading, Aëtius fought a bloody battle with Eastern Roman troops under Aspar (whose further life has astonishing parallels to his own should have). The battle ended without a winner. Nevertheless, the presence of the Huns enabled Aëtius to rise politically to the top of the empire: He came to an understanding with the mother of the new emperor Valentinian III, who was born in 419 . , the influential Galla Placidia . Aëtius was made comes and made the Huns withdraw.

Soon afterwards he fought at the head of Western Roman troops against the Visigoths in southern Gaul and was also able to record some successes against the Franks . In 429 he was appointed magister militum per Gallias ; After the murder of his greatest competitor, the army master Flavius ​​Felix , in 430 Aëtius rose to become one of the most powerful men in the western empire. In Gaul he again took action against Visigoths and Franks; he was able to consolidate his position through victories and was appointed consul for 432. However, Galla Placidia tried to counteract the growing influence of Aëtius by promoting Boniface . Boniface commanded the troops in the province of Africa and was also considered a talented general. He had been discredited some time before (allegedly through an intrigue of Aëtius), but was now again in the favor of the imperial court and was intended to counterbalance the Gaulish army master. He was finally called to Italy in 432 to replace Aëtius. But the latter refused to give up his position without a fight, and so there was a military confrontation between the two strong men of the western empire. Boniface was able to defeat his rival in a battle at Ariminum , but he succumbed to his injuries a little later.

De facto ruler of the west

After the defeat, Aëtius fled to his old friends, the Huns under Ruga , who supported him militarily. With their help, he returned in 433, was able to assert himself in the civil war and was confirmed in his old dignity. After he had eliminated Sebastianus, Boniface's son-in-law, there was simply no other alternative: he got Pelagia, the Gothic widow of his dead opponent, as his wife and thus also got access to the enormous inheritance and the military following of his competitor . In addition, he was awarded the title of patricius on September 5, 435 , which (in Westrom) in connection with the office of army master since Constantius III. was in fact synonymous with the position of head of government. He held the consulate a total of three times and now basically ran the official business of the western empire.

In the period that followed, he was able to record a number of military successes, which at least temporarily stabilized the western empire. One of his most important achievements was the defense of the Roman province of Gaul during this phase of the so-called Great Migration . While the western empire increasingly lacked the means to maintain its own regular troops, Aëtius was able to create a certain balance thanks to his good relationships with various non-Roman groups. He mainly focused on Gaul. With the help of Hunnic auxiliaries, he destroyed the Burgundy empire in the Worms region in 436 - the historical core of the Nibelung saga - and was also responsible for the settlement of the remaining Burgundians in the Rhone Valley , where they probably served as a buffer against the Alemanni and Visigoths from 443 onwards should. Likewise, the Alans who had broken into were resettled in central Gaul after they had put down the rebelling Bagauden under Tibatto in 437 on Aëtius' orders . On the other hand, they suffered a heavy defeat against the Visigoths, so that in 439 a new foedus had to be closed to favor this warrior association. At about the same time, the Vandal King Geiseric marched into Carthage in breach of previous agreements , which meant a considerable threat to Italy. Since attempts to defeat Geiseric militarily failed, a foedus had to be concluded with him in 442 , which in fact confirmed his rule in North Africa. Aëtius also interfered at least partially in church politics, whereby his main concern was the avoidance of religious unrest. Since his dominant position was de facto lacking in legitimacy, he had to endeavor to keep resistance low.

Despite the good contacts that Aëtius had for a long time with the Huns, these invaded Gaul in 451 under Ruga's successor, Attila , after the Eastern Roman Emperor Markian had denied them the annual tribute payments in 450. Since the Eastern Roman Danube area was already devastated, but crossing the Bosporus was impossible for the Huns, Attila, who was dependent on success and booty, had to turn to the west. In addition, Honoria , Valentinian III's sister, who had got into a conflict with her brother, called Attila to help and allegedly even promised him marriage.

“Somebody reported that Attila was preparing an attack on the imperial court in Rome because Honoria, Valentinian's sister, had called him to help. Because Honoria, who herself had been endowed with the badge of imperial dignity, had been caught in a secret affair with a certain Eugenius, the curator domus Augustae , who was executed for his outrage while she was losing her imperial rank and was married to Herculanus, a consular whose character was so mild that he was not trusted to strive for empire or plan an overthrow. Since she found her situation unbearable and a terrible disaster, she sent the eunuch Hyacinthus to Attila to offer him money so that he could avenge her marriage. She also sent her ring to the barbarian as a pledge. The latter made himself ready to move against the western empire and planned how he could seize Aëtius first, since he assumed that he would not be able to achieve his goal without turning it off. "

Whether Attila's attack is to be understood more as an attack on the Roman Empire or rather, similar to 433, as an intervention in an internal Roman conflict is controversial. In any case, Aëtius succeeded in forming a coalition of various federations based in Gaul ; even the Visigoths, who were bad at him, joined the alliance after Attila had allied himself with their mortal enemy Geiseric . In addition, there were regular Western Roman associations that were drawn together from all parts of the area still controlled by Ravenna. In the battle on the Catalaunian fields near Châlons-en-Champagne , Aëtius was able to oppose Attila with the help of this mixed Roman-Germanic army and bring his advance to a standstill. It was not a decisive victory, and success came at the price of immense losses; but it was enough that Attila had to withdraw from Gaul. A year later, however, the Huns invaded Italy and sacked several cities, including Aquileia , but Attila finally had to withdraw; with his death in 453 the Huns broke apart. It is noticeable, however, that Aëtius 452 apparently no longer had sufficient troops available to defend Italy; It was only when Eastern Europe intervened and epidemics began to force the Huns to turn back. This suggests that the losses of the Ravenna units on the Catalaunian fields were extremely high.

Assassination and Consequences

The strength of the army masters was symptomatic of the weakness of the Western Roman Empire; as early as the late 4th century, military men such as Arbogast , Stilicho and Flavius ​​Constantius had increasingly dominated the civil apparatus and the emperors; Aëtius belongs just as much to this series of overpowering generals as Ricimer after him : It was Aëtius who concluded treaties with the barbarian peoples, for example with the Huns, to whom he had ceded parts of Pannonia years earlier . These peoples did not feel obliged to the emperor, but to his most powerful army master and patricius . Now, after Attila's death, Aëtius felt safe enough to enforce his family's marriage to the imperial family: Aëtius had finally received a promise from the emperor that his son Gaudentius could marry the younger daughter of Valentinian III, Pulcheria. However, this seems to have taken this as an opportunity to rebel against the overpowering general. In fact, a kinship between Aëtius and the imperial family would have meant a threat to Valentinian that could hardly be overestimated, just as his uncle Honorius had felt threatened by Stilicho decades earlier (a very similar constellation was to be fatal to Aspar a few years later in Ostrom ). However, the powerless emperor could not dare a dismissal or even an open trial against Aëtius; In addition, as long as the army master remained loyal to the outside world and did not openly reach for the imperial crown himself, he was legally unassailable. Petronius Maximus , a respected aristocrat who had previously held high offices in the administration, was now allegedly intriguing against the army master; in the opinion of most researchers, however, Maximus was in fact a supporter of the general. Other reports are more credible, according to which the praepositus Heraclius was the driving force.

Since he had no legitimate means of eliminating the overpowering but demonstratively loyal army master, the emperor finally saw murder as the only way out: In September 454, Aëtius was in Rome during an audience with Valentinian III. slain by hand with the sword:

“As Aëtius was explaining the financial situation and calculating the tax receipts, Valentinian suddenly jumped from his throne with a scream and shouted that he would no longer bear to be offended by such frauds. He claimed that Aëtius wanted to deprive him of power in the west by blaming him for the problems, as he had already done with the east; because it was only because of Aëtius that he had renounced at that time to remove Marcian from his throne there. While Aëtius stood there paralyzed in the face of this outbreak and only tried to dampen this unreasonable attack, Valentinian was already pulling his sword out of its scabbard and falling together with Heraclius, who had an ax hidden under his cloak (because he was the supreme praepositus ) , on him […]. After slaughtering Aëtius, Valentinian also killed Prefect Boethius, who had been highly favored by Aëtius. He had their corpses thrown unburied on the forum and immediately summoned the Senate, where he made serious charges against both men, as he feared a revolt might break out over Aëtius. "

The emperor probably had the corpses of Aëtius and Boethius thrown down the Gemonische Stairway at the Roman Forum ; this was the customary punishment for high treasoners for centuries. Nevertheless, literary tradition almost unanimously condemns the murder of the army master. Especially in Gaul, where Aëtius had been active for a long time, his memory seems to have been cherished. The probably contemporary historian Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus has also dealt with Aëtius in his histories . The work is lost, but an excerpt with a very advantageous character sketch of Aëtius has been preserved in the history of Gregory of Tours .

A direct consequence of the assassination of Aëtius was the detachment of Dalmatia , where Marcellinus , a former high officer of Aëtius, created an empire that was effectively independent from Ravenna, as well as the assassination of Valentinian in March 455 by Aëtius' followers. With the death of the ruler, the attempt to restore freedom of action to the western empire had failed catastrophically; the loss of reputation proved irreparable. Now the Western Roman military leaders - "Romans" as well as "barbarians" - finally seized control of the state, and some of them gradually developed from Roman generals into de facto independent territorial lords.

The murder of Aëtius was followed by the slow but now definitive loss of imperial control over Gaul, although it must be emphasized that areas such as Provence or Auvergne could be held until the 1970s and later turned into Northern Gaul was able to hold the Gallo-Roman Empire of the rex Romanorum Syagrius until 486. At that time, Roman rule over Hispania was already only very limited and of a highly regional nature. It remains to be said that no army master, not even the thoroughly capable Aegidius , should succeed in building on Aëtius' position in Gaul, because Aëtius seems to have been the last Western Roman ruler who still had a real interest in the cohesion of the western part of the empire. This was not least possible because he was able to invoke the authority of Valentinian III, who was dynastically very well legitimized - later army masters were no longer able to do this. Even Ricimer, who succeeded him from 456 as a strong man behind the emperors, therefore seems to have necessarily concentrated on Italy.



  1. Demandt, Magister militum , Col. 654–656.
  2. See Jordanes , Getica , 224.
  3. Priskos , frg. 17 [Blockley]. See Henning Börm: Westrom. From Honorius to Justinian . Stuttgart 2013, p. 81ff.
  4. John B. Bury, however, relativized the importance of battle in his History of the Later Roman Empire : Bury, Vol. 1, p. 293f.
  5. Priskos , frg. 30.1 (Blockley). Translation after Henning Börm: Westrom. From Honorius to Justinian . Stuttgart 2013, pp. 90f.
  6. ^ Gregor, Historiae , 2,8, based on the 12th book of the Historien des Frigeridus.