Aëtius

(d. 454)
   Called "the last of the Romans" by the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, Aëtius was the servant of the emperor Valentinian III, the rival of the empress Galla Placidia, and the military commander who preserved Roman control over Gaul but lost Africa. Like Stilicho before him and Orestes after, Aëtius was the power behind the throne; he maintained the integrity of Western Roman imperial authority in the face of the turmoil and tumult brought on by the Hunnish invasions and movement of various Germanic tribes. A contemporary chronicler called him "the great safety of the western republic," (Macellinus, Chronicle, quoted in Bury 1959, 300) and Aëtius's death was a grave misfortune for the Western Empire.
   Born in Lower Moesia, a Roman territory in the Balkans, to an Italian mother and to Gaudentius, a Roman military commander who served Theodosius, Aëtius was sent as a hostage to Alaric and also to the Huns. His family background and experiences among the Visigoths and Huns were to be of great importance for his future. He learned important military techniques from the barbarians and found an ally in the Huns, who helped him gain and hold power once he was an adult. According to Gregory of Tours, Aëtius was described by one contemporary in a panegyric as being of "middle height, of manly condition, well shaped, so that his body was neither too weak nor too weighty, active in mind, vigorous in limb" (Gregory of Tours 1974, 119). The panegyrist notes that he was a skilled horseman and deadly with both an arrow and spear. An "excellent warrior and famous in the arts of peace" (119), Aëtius, our panegyrist continues, was hardworking, able to endure the hardships of the military life, free from greed, and intellectually gifted. Even though it was intended to praise Aëtius, the panegyric offers a good assessment of the Roman leader, as his career would prove.
   Aëtius first came to prominence in the 420s during the usurpation of the imperial throne in Ravenna by the civil servant John.
   At the death of the emperor Honorius in 423, John was elevated to the throne but was opposed by the emperor in Constantinople, Theodosius II, as well as by the widow and son of Honorius, Galla Placidia, and Valentinian III. Aëtius, a rising soldier, recognized the authority of John and went to recruit an army from the Huns to support John. The pretender, however, was captured and executed before Aëtius could return with an army numbering 60,000 Hunnish soldiers. The army was an important bargaining chip for Aëtius, who was able to avoid the fate of John and demand a position of authority. Reluctantly, Galla Placidia came to terms with Aëtius and his army. Aëtius was pardoned by the empress and given the title of count and military command in Gaul.
   Although he rose to prominence in an act of rebellion against the Western Empire, Aëtius spent much of his career defending the empire against its various barbarian foes. His command in Gaul brought him great prestige, and the continued enmity of Galla Placidia and her allies. Aëtius's prestige came from his great success in Gaul against the barbarian armies that threatened the empire's hold on the province. He fought a series of successful battles against the Franks, including one in 428 against one of the first known kings of the Franks, Chlodio. He also engaged the Visigoths during his time in Gaul and prevented them from taking the important city of Arles, often using both Frankish and Hunnish allies against the Visigoths. His success brought Aëtius the enthusiastic support of the Roman nobility in Gaul and promotion to the high rank of Master of Both Services (magister utriusque militum).
   Aëtius's success also brought him the increasing hostility of Galla Placidia, especially after he orchestrated the deposition of her favorite Felix. With her support, Boniface, the military commander of Africa and count, challenged Aëtius in a great battle in Ariminum in 432. Although Aëtius lost the battle and returned to his allies the Huns, he won the war because Boniface died shortly after the battle, possibly from wounds he received in the battle. Once again with support from the Huns, Aëtius was able to reestablish his authority in 433 and remained the most important figure in the Western Empire until his death in 454. The empress now resigned herself to the success of Aëtius, who had defeated her favorites, held important military and civilian rank, and gained great influence over her son Valentinian.
   As the real power in the Western Empire, Aëtius took charge of its defense and waged a series of successful and unsuccessful struggles with various barbarian peoples. One of his greatest failures was the loss of Africa to Gaiseric and the Vandals in the early 430s. The loss of Africa occurred for several reasons: Aëtius's distaste for the region as the base of power of his vanquished rival Boniface, his lack of an adequate fleet to defeat the Vandals, and his strategic decision to put his efforts toward preserving control of Gaul, an area equally under pressure from barbarian armies. In 436, Aëtius sent an army of Huns against the Burgundian kingdom of Worms. In an event celebrated in the German medieval epic poem the Nibelungenlied, the kingdom was destroyed, and as many as 20,000 Burgundians were killed, including the king Gundahar. But the Burgundians themselves were not wiped out and were resettled near modern Geneva, where they remained important allies of the empire. Aëtius also continued his struggle against the Visigoths, who sought to extend their influence into Gaul. In the late 430s he stopped them at Toulouse, preserving the imperial hold on southern Gaul.
   Perhaps his most disappointing struggle with a barbarian people was his war with his long-time allies the Huns and their new king Attila. The invasion of Attila forced Aëtius to respond in the 440s and 450s. Attila's drive into the Western Empire was of great concern to Aëtius, who needed to find new allies to stop his old allies. Somewhat surprised by the Hunnish king's assault, Aëtius mobilized an army of Franks, Burgundians, and Romans and negotiated an alliance with his former enemies, the Visigoths. It was this mixed army that stopped Attila at Orléans and limited his success at Troyes. It was also this army that Aëtius led against Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (somewhere between Châlons and Troyes, France). This bloody battle was a near disaster for Attila, who prepared for his own suicide during the fight. Although he defeated them, Aëtius allowed the Huns to leave the battlefield without destroying them because of their important service as his allies. Aëtius was less successful at stopping Attila when he invaded Italy, but the death of the king of the Huns ended their threat to the empire and allowed Aëtius to turn his attention to other problems.
   Aëtius, however, had little time to attend to the remaining problems of the empire. Although he faithfully defended the Western Empire and its emperor, Aëtius fell under the suspicion of that emperor, Valentinian III. Perhaps angered by Aëtius's success and attempt to marry his family into the imperial line or influenced by one of Aëtius's rivals, Valentinian ordered the murder of his faithful general. Whatever the case, Aëtius fell to imperial treachery on September 24, 454, when Valentinian accused him of treason and had him killed immediately. After the murder a contemporary is supposed to have said to the emperor, "You have caught off your right hand with your left" (Bury 1959, 299). In fact, the emperor signed his own death warrant, for the following March, loyal followers of Aëtius murdered the emperor. These murders left the Western Empire without a legitimate successor to the throne and, perhaps even worse, without one of its greatest defenders and one who deserved the title of "last of the Romans," at a time when his talents were needed more than ever.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. Vol. 1. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.
 ♦ Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.
 ♦ Lot, Ferdinand. The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.
 ♦ Randers-Pehrson, Justine Davis. Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, a.d. 400-700. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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