The Emperor Honorius |
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Latin Text

The Emperor Honorius

The long reign of the Emperor Honorius (395-423 A.D.) saw the beginning of the dismemberment of the Western provinces of the Roam Empire, that process which has both intrigued and haunted the minds of men. Almost exactly in the middle of this reign there occurred an event, which most contemporaries and generations of Romans before then had believed impossible. In 410 the ‘Eternal City’ of Rome, the ‘Mistress of the whole world’, was captured and then sacked by the Visigoths under Alaric. This in itself, had it been an isolated event would not have been, the spiritual shock to the State apart, such a disastrous occurrence. In fact, it was the inevitable culmination of decades of increasing barbarian attacks on the northern frontier of the Empire, and renegade activities of those federate tribes settled within its boundaries. By 400 the military position of the Western part of the Empire had become critical. In the years to come much would depend on the quality of the emperors’ leadership if the Roman empire was to survive in Western Europe.

In 476, when the last emperor of the West was deposed, the Imperial power had already become fictional, and the incapacity of the emperors had contributed to this debacle. Of all the unhappy emperors who presided over the fortunes of Rome in these last turbulent years, none has incurred the contempt of historians more than Honorius. Of him, Edward Gibbon wrote: ‘He passed the slumber of his life a captive in his palace, a stranger in his country, and the patient, almost the indifferent spectator of the ruin of the Western Empire’. Another distinguished historian of the Later Roman Empire, J.B. Bury, wrote this epitaph on Honorius: ‘His name would be forgotten among the obscurest occupants of the Imperial throne were it not that his reign coincided with the fatal period in which it was decided that Western Europe was to pass from the Roman to the Teuton’. At this point, however, we should do well not to let indignation get the better of us, for the the circumstances of his life, if sympathetically investigated, tell us much about the Imperial authority in the last century of Roman rule in Western Europe.

The most important thing about Honorius was his family, the Theodosian House. A Christian family, hailing from Spain, they had succeeded in two generations in rising to the pinnacle of rank in the Roman state. Honorius grandfather, Count Theodosius, in the course of a distinguished military career under the Emperor Valentinian I, restored the defences of Britain and put down the revolt of the Moorish prince, Firmus, in North Africa. His father, Theodosius the Great, was elevated to the purple in 379, the year after the terrible defeat at Adrianople, when the Visigoths, made desperate by hunger, had ridden down the legions of the emperor Valens. The Emperor Theodosius was one of the ‘Titans’ of the later Empire. In an eventful reign of sixteen years, he subdued the Visigoths, suppressed two usurpations in the West, and established the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed at the Oecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381, which he followed by a very Spanish persecution of heretics and pagans. This, then, was the legacy inherited by Honorius, and a very impressive one it was. He enjoyed the loyalty of the Catholic Church, now beginning to realise to the full the advantages of cooperating with the secular power, the devotion of the army, always the keenest defender of dynastic claims, and, above all, the luck of the Theodosian House, which in a superstitious age was such a priceless asset. In spite, however, of these advantages, the reign of Honorius was not destined to be a distinguished one.

Flavius Honorius was born ‘in the purple’ at the Eastern capital of Constantinople on September 9th, 384, when his father had been emperor for over five years. His mother Aelia Flaccilla, was a timid, retiring woman who lived in awe of her passionate husband’s sudden rages. Honorius had an elder brother, Arcadius, born in 377 and created Augustus in 384. Their mother died the year after Honorius’ birth, and the dominant feminine influence in his early life was that of Serena, Theodosius’ favourite niece and adopted daughter. In 387, his father was married again to Galla, the daughter of Valentinian I. From this second union of Theodosius was born a daughter, Galla Placidia, whose long life was to shed a certain lustre over the twilight of the Western Empire. These, then, were the closest relatives of Honorius.

Of his early years, we know very little. They were mostly spent in the secluded atmoshere of the Imperial court at Constantinople, although in 389 he visited Rome with his father. In 393 he was raised from the rank of Caesar to that of Augustus, as an act of defiance to the pro-pagan usurper Eugenius, who had seized power in Italy. In 394 Theodosius moved against Eugenius, whom he defeated in the the terrible two-day battle of the River Frigidus, thanks, according to our sources. to the timely intervention of the God of the Christians, who blinded the usurper’s troops with a well-directed dust-storm. Immediately afterwards, Theodosius sent for Honorius, who, accompanied by Serena, reached Mediolanum (Milan) towards the end of the year. Here, he found his father seriously ill. On January 17th 395, having designated the East and West to Arcadius and Honorius respectively, the great emperor died, at the relatively early age of thirty-nine, amidst the lamentations of his court and his soldiers. Honorius was required to attend the funeral of his father in the great basilica of Milan. Here St. Ambrose delivered his funeral address, packed with rhetorical device and biblical allusion, to a congregation of soldiers standing stiffly to attention. It is small wonder that the ten-year old emperor found the emotionally charged atmosphere, the martial pomp, and the sonorous tones of the great bishop overwhelming, and Ambrose ends his address by seeking to console Honorius, who is weeping bitterly because he cannot go with his father’s body to Constantinople for burial, and by exhorting the soldiers to pledge their loyalty to him.

At the beginning of his reign the young Honorius could count on this loyalty. Soldiers, when they lose their paymaster, are usually disposed to follow his son. Though many of the troops of Honorius as Emperor of the West were those of the defeated Eugenius, their very defeat at the Frigidus had persuaded them of the good fortune that attended the Theodosian dynasty. However, such loyalty was by its nature fickle, and it was necessary that the young emperor’s domain should be well protected. To ensure this, Theodosius had commended his son to the care of his senior general, Stilicho. For thirteen years, from 395 to 408, Stilicho exercised the dominant influence over the fortunes of the Western Empire. As Master of Soldiers and as husband of Serena, he had a double claim to be guardian of Honorius. Though of Vandal descent, his military abilities and his powerful personality had combined to win for him this position of pre-eminence. For thirteen years, Stilicho strove to ward off the successive waves of barbarian invaders that threatened to engulf the Western Empire. An account of his often inconclusive campaigns and his quarrels with the court of Arcadius at Constantinople are beyond the scope of this article. Estimates of Stilicho’s achievements varied considerably in his own time and have varied equally since. However, a balanced assessment might reasonably conclude that he played what few cards he held in his hand with considerable skill; that his frequent reluctance to commit what troops he had under his command to the hazard of open battle was based on a realistic appreciation of his lack of reserves; and that his conflict with the court at Constantinople was based on his understandable desire to gain control of Illyricum, traditionally the most fertile area of the Empire for the recruitment of soldiers. Furthermore, the parlous state into which the Western Empire declined in the years immediately following his fall is some testimony to to his relative achievements as a statesman and general.

Honorius, shielded from the cares of government, passed from childhood to early manhood, under the tutelage of Stilicho and his cousin Serena, at the court of Milan. Of his education we have no specific details, but it would certainly have consisted of the usual classical studies, in which Virgil and Livy would have predominated. His religious education as a Christian would not have been neglected in the city of St. Ambrose. However, in general, the circumstances of his life in the Imperial court can hardly have been conducive to healthy development. Passing much of his time in the recesses of his palace, surrounded from childhood by adoring and sycophantic courtiers, and ministered to by a staff of eunuchs, Honorius would have had no opportunity to learn about the real world outside. One of the characteristics of the decadent court life of late antiquity was the extent and the fulsomeness of flattery. As a child, Honorius would have been hailed with the appellations of ‘Great Caesar’ and ‘Augustus”. These were purely formal titles, but the world of flattery extended further. The panegyrics of the poet Claudian give us some indication of what this flattery would have been like. Three panegyrics to the young Honorius survive in his works. These would have been delivered in the presence of the Emperor in celebration of his entering the consulship. Evidently, the Emperor as a boy had made some progress in riding and javelin-throwing. However, it is difficult to believe that the standard attained by the sluggish Honorius could have warranted this extravagant eulogy, written in 398, when the Emperor was thirteen: ‘When, mounted on your horse, you take part in martial exercises, who is quicker to wheel smoothly in flight or to throw the spear, who is better able to sweep round in swift return? The Massagetae cannot equal you, nor the people of Thessaly, well-practised on the plain, nor the very Centaurs themselves’. Panegyric was a literary form alien to modern culture, and we are not meant to take its content at face value, but the very fact that stylised flattery was so admired as a literary form indicates the extent to which obsequiousness had become commonplace at the Imperial court. Furthermore, most of it would have lacked the elegant refinement of Claudian. The effect of all this on the mind of the boy can readily be imagined. Complacency and a total lack of ambition to improve himself, understandable in such an enervating moral atmosphere fit well with what we know of Honorius.

In the same year of 398, Honorius was married to his cousin Maria, the daughter of Stilicho and Serena. The wedding was held in February at Milan, and Claudian was commissioned to write an epithalamium to celebrate the occasion. He also wrote some profaner verses, proclaiming the amorousness of Honorius. In fact, nothing was further from the truth. Honorius was not yet fourteen and Maria even younger. No children ever came of the marriage, which was almost certainly never consummated. The pagan historian Zosimus hints at the cause of this in an anecdote worth recounting, for it exemplifies how scandalous gossip could worm its way into the mainstream of antique history: ‘When Maria was about to be wedded to Honorius, her mother, seeing that the girl was too young for a husband, but being unwilling to defer the marriage, though thinking that to let a man lie with a maid of such tender years was to offer injustice to nature, chanced upon a certain woman who knew how to attend to such matters, and by her means contrived that her daughter should live with the Emperor and share his bed, but that he neither should nor could do the family duty by her’. Another of our sources asserts that Stilicho gave Honorius ‘a potion for the purpose of preventing him from becoming a parent’. This calumny cannot be taken seriously. The sources on which we rely can only be read profitably after their prejudices have been detected. In this case, the purpose was to blacken the memories of Stilicho and his wife, while accounting for the debility of Honorius, the only clear fact that emerges from the accusation.

A more serious criticism that can be levelled at Stilicho is that he failed to induce the young emperor to take a more active part in the the governing of his realm. While Honorius was content to remain aloof and isolated in his palace at Milan, Stilicho was equally content to keep the effective power in his own hands. But Honorius’ carefree existence was rudely shattered in January 402, when the Visigoths under their king, Alaric, invaded Northern Italy. Milan, where Honorius minded to flee to Gaul, had been nerved by Stilicho to remain, suffered the indignity of an investment. The siege was abandoned on the appearance of Stilicho with an army, and, after some desperate fighting, the Visigoths were forced to withdraw temporarily from Italy. It was probably in the summer of 402 that Honorius decided to move the Imperial court from Milan, which after the shock of its siege by the Visigoths no longer seemed the haven of security that it had formerly been. Instead, the court was installed at Ravenna, a coastal town near the mouth of the River Po, a town which for four centuries had been the headquarters of the Roman Adriatic fleet. Rather as Venice is today, its buildings stood upon islands rising from water-channels. Honorius chose Ravenna on account of its strong natural fortifications. From the landward side, the town was connected by a long causeway through the marshes. From the seaward side, it was defended by islands and lagoons, which made navigation almost impossible to those unfamiliar with the course of the deep sea-channels. The town was then three miles from the sea, but was connected to its harbour, called Classis (Fleet), by an extension of the causeway.

Ravenna cannot have been a very pleasant place, even after it had become the Inperial residence. We have a near contemporary description of it from the correspondence of Sidonius Apollinaris later in the Fifth Century. In one letter he describes Ravenna as a place ‘where your ears are pierced by the mosquitoes of the Po, and where a croaking crowd of your fellow-townsmen, the frogs, surround you on all sides’. In a more serious and informative letter, Sidonius dwells at greater length on the merits and disadvantages of the place. He mentions its natural fortifications and its suitability for trade, but also the flood-tides, the muddy river, and above all, the serious lack of fresh water, which made life in Ravenna rather harassing. However, it served its primary purpose, that of security, very well, and was to remain not only the capital of the Western emperors, but later of the Ostrogothic kings and the Byzantine exarchs down to the middle of the Eighth Century. In the process it became a centre of ecclesistical art that was to make it a Constantinople in cameo.

By the end of 402, with Italy now free of the Visigoths, Honorius was able to emerge from Ravenna to celebrate a triumph in Rome. The Eternal City had long ceased to be an administrative city of much importance. Its pagan and republican past made it an unsuitable residence for the emperor, but it was still unquestionably the largest and most magnificent city in the world. Its population numbered around a million, and the quality and the quantity of its buildings amazed all visitors to the city. The triumph must have been a great occasion for Honorius, whose only previous visit to Rome had been fifteen years earlier as a child of five. Now he was able to make a triumphal entry into the city, reside in the palace of the Caesars on the Palatine Hill, and to enter upon his sixth consulship in the traditional manner before the Senate and people of Rome. Claudian in his last poem could dwell on the glories of Rome and the valour of its emperor. This poem, however, was Rome’s swansong, for within five years it had been sacked by the Visigoths.

Before this happened the long domination of Stilicho was at an end. Hated by the Romans for his German descent, the rapidly worsening military situation discredited his rule. At the end of 405 a horde of Goths led by Radagaisus burst into Italy and for the first half of 406 ravaged much of the countryside, and, although Radagaisus was eventually defeated and executed by Stilicho in August 406, on the last day of the year a large body of Vandals, Suevians and Alans crossed over the frozen River Rhine and throughout 407 devastated Gaul. According to a minim of St. Orientius, ‘All Gaul smoked in one funeral pyre’. Meanwhile, in 407 the army in Britain had elevated a common soldier to the purple. His name was Constantine and for that reason only was he chosen. Calling himself Constantine III, the usurper crossed into Gaul to press his imperial claim, and civil war was added to the miseries of the unhappy province. Stilicho had been planning to annex eastern Illyricum for the Western Empire with the help and support of Alaric, who had moved his Visigoths into the Balkans to await the operations, but the news of Constantine III’s usurpation had forced Stilicho to delay. As a result Alaric, desperate to satisfy the expectations of his followers, occcupied Noricum, which was under the rule of the Western Empire, at the beginning of 408, and sent an embassy to Rome demanding four thousand pounds of gold as compensation for the trouble he had taken on behalf of the West. Reluctantly, the Senate accepted Stilicho’s advice to pay this sum, and Alaric remained available for use against the East and perhaps against Constantine III, but many senators suspected Stilicho of being in league with Alaric. In the spring of 408, Honorius, was once more in Rome, where he was married to Stilicho’s younger daughter, Aemilia Materna Thermantia, Maria having died sometime previously. Stilicho must have hoped that he had secured a continued hold upon Honorius. On his way back to Ravenna, Honorius received news from Constantinople that his brother Arcadius had died, leaving his throne to the seven year old Theodosius II. Honorius contemplated going to Constantinople to make arrangements for the regency of his nephew. In view of the usurpation of Constantine III, Stilicho dissuaded Honorius from this course and advised him to go to Ticinum (Pavia) to ascertain the loyalties of the garrison there for the forthcoming struggle with the usurper, indicating that he, himself, would go to Constantinople. On the journey to Ticinum, a palace official, called Olympius, excited Honorius’ anxieties by suggesting that Stilicho was planning to supplant the child emperor of the East with his own son, Eucherius. Olympius also made the same suggestion to the garrison at Ticinum. The result was the revolurion of August 13th 408, in which almost all the chief dignitaries of the Western Empire were murdered before the eyes of the terrified emperor. Honorius, now under the influence of Olympius, and sensitive to the dynastic rights of his family, ordered the execution of Stilicho at Ravenna on September 22nd. Eucherius was also put to death, and Thermantia, matrimonially as unfortunate as her sister, was returned to her mother still a virgin.

The break with Stilicho proved to be a serious mistake. Honorius, unable to take over the reins of government himself, relied on a succession of officials who won his favour, but lacked competence. The fall of Stilicho triggered off the racial tensions that had long been smouldering, and the Roman soldiers massacred the families of the German auxiliaries serving in Italy, including no doubt some of the defeated army of Radagaisus. They immediately deserted to join the forces of Alaric, who, greatly strengthened, invaded Italy once more in the autumn of 408. Poorly advised by his new ministers, Honorius refused to come to terms with Alaric, but could do nothing to protect his subjects. Safe in his stronghold at Ravenna, he swore to war with Alaric to the death, but the inhabitants of Rome, having bought off one siege in 408, had no stomach for another, and in 409 they accepted Alaric’s nominee, Priscus Attalus, as emperor in place of Honorius. Jovius, the Praetorian Prefect of Italy, who had replaced Olympius as Honorius’ chief adviser early in 409, then switched his allegiance to Attalus, and sent Honorius a scornful letter in which he said that Attalus was going to mutilate him and exile him to a small island.

The fortunes of Honorius had now reached their nadir; shivering with fear, he was preparing to take ship from Ravenna to shelter at his nephew’s court in Constantinople, when at the end of 409, the arrival of four thousand crack troops sent from Constantinople by Anthemius, the Praetorian Prefect of the East, gave him fresh courage. The position of Attalus in Rome rapidly became untenable as Africa, the main source of the city’s corn supply remained loyal to Honorius, and its governor, Count Heraclian, stopped the corn ships and defeated the army sent by Attalus against him. In the summer of 410 Alaric deposed his puppet and attempted to negotiate with the rightful emperor. Near Ravenna, Honorius and Alaric met for the only time, in July, but the meeting was broken up by Sarus, a renegade Goth, who attacked Alaric’s camp. Infuriated and frustrated, Alaric besieged Rome for a third time. On August 24th the Visigoths broke through the Salarian Gate into the city, which for three days was given up to looting, burning, murder and rape. A great quantity of booty was taken, and numerous captives led off, including Galla Placidia, the Emperor’s sister. Italy was not rid of the Visigoths until 412, when leaving a devastated countryside in their wake, they crossed the Alps into Gaul.

The Italians had little reason to thank their emperor for their deliverance. Refusing to come to terms, he had failed to make adequate arrangements for resistance. Safe behind the lagoons of Ravenna, it was not difficult to disregard the perils of his subjects. The resentment that this attitude may have caused can be traced in a curious anecdote, retailed by the Sixth Century historian Procopius of Caesarea, in which we learn of Honorius’ fondness for poultry: ‘At that time, they say that the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna, received a message from one of his eunuchs, apparently the poultry-keeper, that Rome had perished. And he cried out and said “And yet it has only just eaten at my hands!” For he had an exceedingly large cockerel called Rome, and the eunuch realising what he meant, said that it was the city of Rome that had perished at the hands of Alaric. Sighing with relief, the Emperor retorted, “But I thought you were referring to my fowl”. So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed.’ The story is probably apocryphal, but we may find in it an authentic echo of Honorius’ character.

The year 410 is also significant because it is sometimes seen as the year when Roman rule in Britain effectively ceased. It is likely that the Roman forces in Britain were reduced by Stilicho in order to increase the size of the field army in Italy, needed to oppose Alaric and later Radagaisus, and that most, if not all, of what was left was taken by the usurper Constantine III when he left Britain for Gaul in 408. The historian Zosimus states that in 410 a group of Britons, who had rebelled against Constantine III, believing that he had abandoned them to pursue his imperial ambitions, sent a letter to Honorius appealing for help against the Saxons and swearing to remain loyal to him if he did so. According to Zosimus, Honorius replied from Ravenna urging the Britons ‘to fend for themselves’ as he could spare no troops to assist them. It is possible that this letter does mark the end of Roman rule in Britain, although there is some evidence that Roman control of Britain was restored for a time soon afterwards, and that Roman control was only finally ended in the reign of Valentinian III.

Although he had played such an undistinguished part in the events of 410, we can detect a gradual improvement in the fortunes of Honorius, following the sack of Rome. One cause of this was the emergence of an energetic general, Constantius, who suppressed Constantine III and a number of other usurpers in the years after 410. This done, the main concern of Honorius was to settle the problem of the Visigoths and to recover Galla Placidia, who had been married to Athaulf, the successor of Alaric in 414. Two years later, Athaulf having died, the Visigoths, starved into submission in southern Spain by Constantius, came to terms with the Empire. Having attacked and virtually annihilated the Siling Vandals and the Alans in Spain on behalf of the Empire, they were settled as federates in the province of Aquitania Secunda. At the same time, Galla Placidia was restored to her brother, and on January 1st 417, apparently against her will she was married to Constantius, who had long sought her hand. Later that year Honorius celebrated his second triumph in Rome, entering the city with the fallen usurper, Attalus, at the wheels of his chariot.

The remaining years of his life Honorius spent at Ravenna, much occupied, we may imagine, in tending the imperial poultry. In 421 he agreed to associate his brother-in-law in the Empire, but Constantius III, as he was called, died shortly afterwards. His wife, who had borne him two children, a girl Justa Grata Honoria, and a boy Flavius Placidus Valentinianus, later the Emperor Valentinian III, remained at first on the best of terms with her brother. Indeed, the marks of affection which the Emperor displayed for his sister in public, led to scandalous gossip. But this fondness was quickly soured, and the deteriorating relationship led to riots in Ravenna between the rival factions of the Emperor and his sister. In 423 Honorius banished Galla Placidia and her children to Constantinople, but his feeble constitution was probably overcome by this domestic discord, and he died of dropsy shortly afterwards on August 13th, like his father at the early age of thirty-nine.

Of the positive aspects of Honorius’ personality we can say very little. He was content for most of his reign to be little more than a figurehead, largely apathetic in the face of events, save when driven to act by some strong emotion or desire to gain some specific thing he wanted. He placed the security of the Western Emperor very high on his list of priorities, and his isolation of himself at Ravenna was not the action of a courageous leader. But, if he had no great virtues, he had no great vices either. He was not indifferent to the fate of his subjects. The Theodosian Code (438) is full of his constitutions, seeking to remedy abuses and to relieve the sufferings of his people. Totally lacking from his character was the bloodthirsty passion that led his father to massacre seven thousand people at Thessalonica (390). Indeed, one of our sources tells us that in 404 he banned on his own initiative the gladiatorial contests in the Circus Maximus at Rome, when the monk Telemachus, seeking to separate two combatants, was stoned to death by the infuriated mob. Honorius was a very pious Christian, and an impeccably orthodox one. He threw the whole weight of his authority into the fight against heretics, passing laws against the Donatists in Africa (405) and the Pelagians (418) at the behest of the great St. Augustine of Hippo. His sexual frigidity, which has won him the contempt of historians of a later age, was admired by Christians of his own time, obsessed by the need for continence. Indeed, it was to the Emperor’s piety and purity that our Christian sources attribute his success in weathering the many storms he encountered. But this very exaltation of the merits and piety of Honorius reflects a very interesting development.

The emperor has become the tool of the Church. Honorius with his compliant personality was well fitted for the role, but the change is an indication of the growing weakness of Imperial authority. The struggle against the Donatist heretics of Africa was more than just a religious dispute. It was, in fact, a crisis of authority in general. It is clear who was the senior partner in this joint operation of Church and State. The emperor has become the rubber-stamp of the Church, a distant source of terror, but one which increasingly relies upon the local bishop for enforcing obedience to its edicts.

The consequence of the long and ineffectual reign of Honorius was that the Western Emperor became a cipher, and, as the Fifth Century progressed, increasingly irrelevant. In ecclesiastical affairs the emperor had ceased to be the arbiter of Church disputes and had become a loyal son of the Roman Church. In military matters he was almost ignored by the warlords that dominate the period: Stilicho, Constantius, Aetius, Ricimer. The passivity of Honorius had contributed to this situation, and the long reign of the futile Valentinian III (425-455) did nothing to reverse the trend. All that was left to these last of the Theodosians was the strange oriental ritual of the Imperial court at Ravenna. Here they passed their quiet lives, far from the dust and clamour of a changing world, where the last Roman legions struggled in vain to stem the barbarian tide.

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