The Western Roman Emperors: from 410 AD until the Fall of the Roman Empire | History Hit

The Western Roman Emperors: from 410 AD until the Fall of the Roman Empire

Tom Ames

22 Sep 2021
The Vandals sacking Rome.

The Western Roman Empire struggled on for 66 years after the Sack of Rome in 410. A shadow of its former self, its disloyal armies were composed of barbarian mercenaries and its rebellious provinces were divided up among foreign invaders.

Some of its emperors fought to regain Rome’s former glory, but many simply oversaw the continual collapse of the ‘eternal city’ and its empire. From opportunist generals to little boys, these men presided over one of the most important events in western history: the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

Here are the Western Roman Emperors from the Sack of Rome to the Fall of the Western Roman Empire.

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Honorius (23 January 393 – 25 August 423)

Honorius was appointed Western Roman Emperor as a child. In his early reign he was protected by his father-in-law Stilicho, a bold general who kept the barbarians threatening Rome at bay. The great historian of the late Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, called Stilicho ‘the last of the Romans’ on account of his virtue.

In 408 Honorius, fearing Stilicho’s power, executed him. Rome was now exposed to barbarian forces, particularly King Alaric and the Visigoths. Alaric besieged Rome in 410 and, when Honorius did not agree to his demands, sacked the city.

The Sack of Rome sent shockwaves around both halves of the Roman Empire. It was the first time the ‘eternal city’ had been taken by a foreign foe in 800 years. It marked a turning point in the collapse of the Western Roman empire, exposing the vulnerability of its emperors and their militaries to the world.

Honorius was less concerned about the incident. He was only surprised at the news because he initially thought the messenger was informing him of the death of his pet chicken, Roma. Honorius died of natural causes over a decade later.

The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths. Image Credit: Public Domain

Valentinian III (23 October 425 – 16 March 455)

After the death of Honorius, Valentinian III was appointed emperor at the age of just six. His unstable empire was at first controlled by his mother, Galla Placidia, then protected by his powerful general, Flavius Aetius.

Aetius’ two decades in command of the Roman army saw some of their rare victories in this period. They even managed to repel Attila the Hun. However, like Honorius before him, Valentinian became wary of his general’s power. He was turned against Aetius by a powerful aristocrat named Petronius Maximus, and in 454 he took drastic action and assassinated his protector.

Valentinian was himself killed within months of murdering Aetius.

Coin depicting Galla Placidia, regent of Valentinian III. Image Credit: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc / CC

Petronius Maximus (17 March 455 – 31 May 455)

Petronius Maximus was instrumental in the deaths of both Aetius and Valentinian III, but the scheming politician held power less than three months. Maximus was killed by an angry mob when word reached Rome than the Vandals were sailing to attack the city. They stoned him to death then threw his body into the Tiber.

Shortly after Maximus’ death, the Vandals arrived and sacked Rome for a second time. They ravaged the city for two whole weeks; their savagery and violence during this period gives us the word ‘vandalism’.

The Roman Empire c. 457. Image Credit: Wojwoj / CC

Avitus (9 July 455 – 17 October 456)

Avitus was a general of Petronius Maximus who took power after his death. Originally from Gaul, he proposed including more Gallic noblemen in the Roman Senate. This move was unpopular with the conservative Senators and he was viewed as a foreigner by the Romans, still suffering after the Vandals’ attack on their city.

Eventually this discontent led two of his commanders, Majorian and Ricimer, to depose him.

Coin depicting Avitus. Image Credit: Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG / CC.

Majorian (April 1 457 – August 2 461)

Majorian made the last great attempt to restore the Western Roman Empire. His valiant efforts against Rome’s enemies led Edward Gibbon to call him ‘a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honour of the human species’.

Majorian was victorious against the Visigoths, Burgundians and Suebi. He did much to restore Roman control in Italy, Gaul and Spain before planning a series of major reforms to overcome the empire’s social and economic difficulties. He was eventually betrayed and assassinated by his colleague, Ricimer, who conspired with Roman aristocrats opposed to his reforms.

The Roman Empire after the conquests of Majorian. Image Credit: Tataryn77 / CC

Libius Severus (19 November 461 – 15 August 465)

Following the death of Majorian, the remaining Western Roman Emperors were mostly puppets of powerful generals with the title magister militum (Master of the Soldiers). These generals could not become emperors as they were of barbarian descent, but had worked their way up the ranks and now controlled the remnants of the empire’s military.

Ricimer, the warlord who had deposed Majorian and Avitus, placed Libius Severus on the throne and ruled through him. As a result, several important governors and the Eastern Roman Emperor refused to recognise Severus as ruler in the west. Meanwhile Majorian’s conquests were lost, as barbarians retook Rome’s provinces.

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Anthemius (12 April 467 – 11 July 472)

Anthemius was chosen by both Ricimer and the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I to replace Libius Severus after he died from natural causes. Anthemius was a capable general who led campaigns against the Vandals in North Africa and the Visigoths in southern Gaul.

He was ultimately unsuccessful and eventually he quarrelled with Ricimer. Anthemius, the Senate and the People of Rome tried to take on Ricimer’s barbarian armies, but were besieged in the city. Anthemius was killed by Ricimer’s men while sheltering in St Peter’s Basilica.

The Old St Peter’s Basilica, final refuge of Anthemius. Image Credit: Public Domain

Olybrius (11 July 472 – 2 November 472)

Olybrius was a Roman aristocrat who was related to the King of the Vandals by marriage. Ricimer placed him on the throne as he was in a good position to obtain peace with the Vandals, who still were raiding Italy from their new home in North Africa.

Ricimer and Olybrius ruled together for only a few months before they both died of natural causes. When Ricimer died, his nephew Gundobad inherited his barbarian armies, and his influence in the remnants of the Roman military with the title magister militum.

Coin depicting Olybrius. Image Credit: Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG / CC

Glycerius (3 March 473 – 24 June 474)

After a brief interregnum, Glycerius was placed on the throne by Gundobad, the nephew of Ricimer. Gundobad ruled the Burgundians, a powerful barbarian tribe who propped up the Roman military. Under Glycerius and Gundobad the Western Roman Empire managed to repel invasions by the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths.

Despite these achievements the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I refused to accept Glycerius’ rule. He thought the Western Empire should be under the sway of his Eastern Empire, not a barbarian leader. As a result, Leo I sent his general Julius Nepos to depose Glycerius.

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Julius Nepos (24 June 474 – 28 August 475)

Julius Nepos was Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I’s candidate to become Western Roman Emperor. He arrived in Italy and forced Glycerius to abdicate, sparing his life and appointing him as a bishop. After a short rule he was ousted by a powerful Roman general, Orestes, who placed his son Romulus Augustus on the throne.

After being deposed, Julius Nepos ‘ruled’ in exile from Dalmatia, in modern Croatia. Some historians consider Nepos the last Western Roman Emperor as he was the final ruler to be recognised by the eastern half of the empire. He lived in Dalmatia until he was assassinated in 480.

Portrait of Julius Nepos. Image Credit: CC

Romulus Augustulus (31 October 475 – 4 September 476)

Flavius Romulus was only 15 years old when his father, Orestes, made him Rome’s last emperor. Orestes was a Roman aristocrat and commander who had once served as secretary to Attila the Hun himself. Orestes had been placed in command of foederati barbarian troops in the Roman army and used them to depose Julius Nepos.

Before long, Orestes was killed by Odoacer, the leader of these barbarian mercenaries. Odoacer then marched against Romulus, who was sheltering in Ravenna, and crushed the loyal remnants of the Roman army protecting the city. Odoacer forced Romulus to abdicate the throne, handing over power to the barbarian.

Romulus Augustus abdicates to Odoacer. Image Credit: Public Domain

When his father crowned Romulus, he was given the title ‘Augustus’ like all emperors. It is often noted that the final emperor had both the name of Rome’s legendary founder, Romulus, and Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. A fitting title for its final ruler. Many historians call him by the diminutive form of Augustus, Augustulus, because he was both weak and young when he was emperor.

Romulus’ abdication marked the conclusion of the Western Roman Empire. His life was spared owing to his youth, but he did not return to power. After 1,200 years of Roman rule, Italy now had a barbarian as its king. The Eastern Roman Empire, however, would live on for nearly 1,000 years, in the form of the Byzantine Empire.

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Tom Ames