Your RDA of Irony

Profiles in Futility

Julius Valerius Majorian was the last capable Roman emperor, at a time when it no longer mattered. By 457, Rome had already been sacked twice, and the Vandals had left nothing to steal (unless you work for the Getty Museum–and don’t mind some scuffed statues). The western half of the Empire was disintegrating; the patrician classes of Iberia and Gallia were now paying homage to whichever Germanic chieftain was in the neighborhood. If the Empire was not completely defenseless, it was hostage to the dubious loyalty of its army. The Roman army was no longer Roman; the Empire was reduced to hiring barbarians to fight barbarians. Even the generals were now barbarians, and one of them was the de facto ruler of the Remnant Empire. His name was Ricimer. It never occurred to him to seize the throne–he was a barbarian with etiquette–but he was content to select malleable Patricians to reign for him. From 456 to 472, Ricimer picked, deposed and replaced five Emperors.

In most cases, Ricimer had a discerning judgment in hapless mediocrities. Ironically, his first puppet proved to be anything but. Majorian was a conscientious administrator and an excellent general in his own right. Ricimer might have forgiven or ignored Majorian’s domestic reforms and but not an independent foreign policy or military initiatives. It was one thing for Majorian to defeat the Visigoths; Ricimer did not like them. However, Majorian now threatened the Vandals, and they had a good working relationship with Ricimer. Majorian’s expedition against the Vandals was sabotaged; for some reason, the Roman fleet was left unguarded and the Vandals somehow had been informed of that. Then, someone stirred up the troops to mutiny; and Majorian four-year reign ended brutally on this day in 461.

Majorian at least earned the highest regard of Edward Gibbon. The great curmudgeon generally disapproved of everyone, but he respected Majorian: “the welcome discovery of a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honour of the human species.”

Ricimer died of natural causes in 472. None of Ricimer’s puppet emperors did.

  1. Michael says:

    Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Finerman?

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