Iulius Valerius Maiorianus
28 December 457 – 7 August 461 CE
c. 420 CE
7 August 461 CE
Majorian was born around 420 CE in Gaul under the names Julius Valerius Majorian (Iulius Valerius Maiorianus). He was a West Roman emperor in 457-461 CE. He is considered the last non-marionette ruler of the western part of the Empire. He managed to restore power over most of Iberia and Gaul. One of the few Western Roman emperors who took vigorous and decisive action to save Rome from fall.
Many sources have been preserved about the life and reign of Majorian. We distinguish:
- Hydatius, Chronicles
- John of Antioch, Chronike History
- Jordanes, Getica
- Marcellinus Komes, Yearbooks
- Prisco, History
- Procopius of Caesarea, History of wars
- Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina
Thanks to the preserved notes, we know our biography better Majorian than any other ruler of the Western Roman Empire of this period.
Origin and Youth
Julius Valerius Majorian was probably born after 420 CE, as in 458 he was defined as iuvenis (“young man”). He came from a famous family of wealthy landowners with military traditions. His grandfather was the chief of troops (magister militum) at the Iliricum under Theodosius the Great; in addition, he attended his coronation in 379 CE. Majorian was named after an influential grandfather.
My grandfather’s daughter married a military man, possibly a Donnius. Majorian’s father was in charge of the military money during the time of Flavius Aetius. Majorian already in his teens, he fought under the orders of this outstanding commander, distinguishing himself during the battles with the Visigothic and Frankish tribes of King Clodian in Gaul. In the 1940s, the young Majorian, alongside Aetius, participated in the suppression of the Bagauda uprising. He then defended the endangered city of Turonensis (present-day Tours). He then made friends with the barbarian commander in the service of Rome, Flavius Ricimer and the later commander-in-chief of Roman troops in Gaul – Egidius. They were both barbaric and played a big part in Majorian’s life.
Around 450 Majorian gave up his military career and settled down in his Gallic lands. The reason for this decision was probably the intrigues of the reluctant wife of Aetius – Pelagia, who feared that the sympathetic and supported by Majorian’s superior would not take the place foreseen for Aetius’ son – Gaudentius.
The return to the world of military and great politics took place after Aetius was killed by Emperor Valentinian III himself in September 454 CE. The ruler, fearing the rebellion of Aétius’ soldiers, appointed Majorian a domestic comes (comes domesticorum), that is, the commander of the imperial troops.
The Emperor’s Widow – Eudoxia planned to make Majorian a ruler, who also had the support of Ricimer. He planned to take the role of the chief commander of the Empire – as it was during the reign of Valentinian III with Aetius. Eventually, however, Petronius Maximus, an influential senator who was involved in the emperor’s assassination, became the emperor. Maximus, in order to strengthen his position, forced Eudoxia to marry. After his reign of several dozen days (he died during the unfortunate conquest of Rome by the Vandals in May 455 CE), the purple was worn by Avitus (Flavius Eparchius Avitus), a representative of the noble class of Gaul, having the support of the Visigoths. The Majorian himself, in collaboration with the Ricimer, contributed to the fall of this emperor. Seeing that Avitus was losing the support of the Italian aristocracy, they decided to take armed action against him. The two rebel leaders first defeated the trusted magister militum emperor Remistus in Ravenna, then defeated Avitus’s army in the Battle of Placenta in October 456 CE, and took him captive. Eventually, Majorian starved Avitus at the beginning of 457 CE.
In the absence of a Western emperor, Eastern Emperor Leo I became the ruler automatically, on February 28, 457 appointed Ricimer as a patrician and Majorian as chief. both types of West Roman troops. Meanwhile, on April 1, the army gathered near Ravenna and proclaimed Majorian an emperor. He, however, did not accept the offered purple, content only with the position of chief of troops. He did not agree to take the highest power in the country until December 28, following the requests of the senate and the army. The new emperor stayed in Ravenna until November 458, issuing several edicts (the texts have survived).
Historian Edward Gibbon, summed up:
The successor of Avitus presents the welcome discovery of a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honor of the human species. The emperor Majorian has deserved the praises of his contemporaries, and of posterity; and these praises may be strongly expressed in the words of a judicious and disinterested historian: “That he was gentle to his subjects; that he was terrible to his enemies; and that he excelled, in every virtue, all his predecessors who had reigned over the Romans.”
Other edicts concerned, among others, the obligation to accept good-quality coins of barbarian tribes, write off overdue taxes, and protect against the devastation of historic buildings in Rome (although the emperor himself probably never was in it city). Especially the last problem was important from the point of view of the need to maintain the identity of Roman society. It was widely agreed to destroy ancient and important Roman buildings from which marble and other building materials were taken. Judges who agreed to the destruction of the ancient building were fined 50 pounds of gold, and their subordinates were flogged and cut off both hands. On the other hand, private persons who had stolen the material were obliged to return the material. So they tried to preserve the cultural heritage of their ancestors at all costs.
In those days, Rome’s most formidable enemy was the African Vandal’s state, ruled by a Genseric who had already conquered and plundered Rome once in 455. Majorian understood that the only option was to eliminate the barbaric state of Geenseric, which occupied the richest province of the Western empire. To this end, he set about organizing a gigantic fleet and an invasion army. When planning a future confrontation with the Vandals, he also enlisted the Huns and warriors of other barbarian tribes in the ranks of the Roman army.
Campaigns in Gaul and Spain
Initially, the emperor only controlled Italy. Even in the emperor’s home province, under the influence of separatist tendencies, they did not want to recognize the new ruler. Majorian’s old friend Aegidius was one of the few exceptions. The Franks, Visigoths and Burgundians joined the new Roman territories. The latter, even with the enthusiasm of the Roman population (a frequent phenomenon in the 5th century), occupied one of the largest local cities – Lugdunum (now Lyon). Breaking with the politics of previous emperors who did not take direct part in military campaigns, Majorian, in cooperation with his secretary Peter, recaptured the city in the winter of 458 and punished it with a triple tribute for favouring enemies. Soon, however, the ruler allowed himself to apologize and cancelled his punishment.
In the spring of the following year, Majorian set out to save the city of Arelate, in which his friend Aegidius was defending himself. Ultimately, it was possible to reach an agreement with the besieging Visigoths. Ultimately, in the course of victorious campaigns, the emperor largely restored Roman power in Spain and Gaul. After the situation in Gaul was under control, the emperor was ready to confront the Vandals. The chronicler Procopius claims that Majorian, wishing to see with his own eyes the enemy with whom he would be waging war, after assuming a fictitious name, set off to Genseric as his own envoy. The credibility of this message is doubtful, but it proves how highly the Romans assessed the courage and determination of this emperor.
Campaign against Vandals
In May 460 CE, Majorian set out with a large army for the city of New Carthage, which already had a fleet of 300 ships, and in Sicily, the Roman commander Marcellinus was preparing for a flanking strike. Threatened by both sides, Gaiseric used the scorched earth tactic in the place where he expected Majorian to land and finally asked for peace talks. Believing in the success of the Majorian landing, however, he refused. Determined, Geiseric bribed some of the crews stationed in the port of ships and seized or destroyed most of them. Majorian had to admit defeat and signed a peace treaty on conditions unfavourable to the Empire. Defeated, but not broken by failure, the emperor returned to Arelate, where he organized modest games on the occasion of the passing five years of his reign. In order to ease the treasury, on his way back to Rome, the emperor demobilized the army that was supposed to fight the Vandals, leaving only the closest adjutant troops with him.
Majorian was away from Italy, and Ricimer, the barbarian patricius et magister militum gathered opposition around him. After Majorian spent some time in Arelate, he travelled to Rome to carry out further state reforms. In Dertona, about halfway to Italy, the imperial retinue was replaced by the commander-in-chief, Ricimer, who took advantage of the dissatisfaction of the population caused by the ruler’s unsuccessful and costly expedition. The barbarian had with him forces far outnumbering the modest imperial troops. The emperor was taken prisoner.
On August 2, 461, Ricimer brutally deprived him of power (his imperial robes and tiara were torn off), and after 5 days of abuse and humiliation, on August 7, he had him beheaded near the river Iria (now Staffora). Earlier, however, Ricimer had spread a rumour that the former ruler had died of dysentery.
The body of Julius Valerius Majorian was laid to rest in a modest marble tomb, but the memory of the emperor remained especially among Byzantine historians. Majorian was practically the only one of a dozen Western Roman emperors who took vigorous, consistent and decisive steps to save Rome from collapse. Aleksander Krawczuk in the “Post of Roman Emperors” writes:
(…) the fall of Majorian was one more of the blows threatening the very existence of the Western Roman Empire at that time. For his figure deserves respect without reservation.
Ernest Stein, in turn, one of the most eminent experts in the history of the late empire, even claims that although Majorian’s efforts were in vain, he is worth admiring as the last truly great ruler in the history of the Roman West.
After Majorian’s death, Ricimer waited three months for a suitable person to be donned purple. The barbarian commander-in-chief was looking for a puppet ruler who would merely represent his interests. To this end, he chose Libius Sever, a man of the Italian aristocracy of little political importance. The new emperor was not recognized by Leo I from the east, nor by Majorian’s officers: Marcellinus of Sicily and Illyria, Egidius of Gaul or Nepotianus in Spain. The Western Empire was on the last path to collapse.