Aëtius, one of the few Romans identified by Gildas Badonicus, is beseeched by the Britons to send aid to help drive away the barbarians, but his role in fifth-century British history can be extended by implication because he was a young associate of Constantius III, father of Ambrosius Aurelianus.
Flavius Aëtius, a Roman general, who became a major figure during the mid-fifth century as a Magister Utriusque Militiae (Master of both the Infantry and Cavalry) in the Western Roman Empire, might seem inconsequential in British history. Yet he had both direct and indirect connections with events surrounding the early-to-mid fifth-century period and Rome’s ties to Britain.
He was born in Bulgaria (Durostorum) at the turn of the fourth century, son of Gaudentius, a Scythian who became a Magister Equitum under Stilicho. He was married twice, and his second wife bore him a son whose name was also Gaudentius. In 410, after Alaric’s sack of Rome, Aëtius was taken as a worthy hostage because his father’s distinction would surely lead to a substantial future ransom. Galla Placidia, Emperor Honorius’s half-sister, and another young boy, Jason, whose father was a military Magister in Rome, were also taken as hostages, all of whom were in captivity for circa six years. During that period of time, Constantius III, who had also served under Stilicho and was close comrades with Gaudentius, Aëtius’s father, had become not only a Master of Both Services under Emperor Honorius, but also Praefect of Gaul and a Consulibus. It was also Constantius III who over the years had negotiated for the release of the three hostages. When Alaric was killed in a foray to commandeer Roman ships in an attempt to invade Carthage, Ataulphus became king but retained the hostages to negotiate another pact with the Romans. The conditions were that the new king and his tribe were granted Gaulish land at an abandoned hillfort called Karsac in Narbonensis. As paid foederati, the Visigoths were not to re-enter Italy, but were to protect the border at Hispania so that no barbarians would enter Gaul. Whenever a new negotiation was forged, the hostages were to be returned. During the hostages’ extensive captivity, Galla Placidia had willingly married Ataulphus and bore him a son. Shortly thereafter, the son mysteriously died and Ataulphus was killed by a Visigothic tribesman, who was in turn mutilated by the tribe.
After the sack of Rome, the Visigoth king, Alaric, was killed and Ataulphus became the new leader. Inheriting three hostages, Ataulphus was granted Karsac in Gaul as his tribal center. This was the location where Aëtius, Galla Placidia, and Jason spent most of their time in captivity.
In the first century the Romans fortified the hill as a lookout post; in the fourth century the Gallo-Romans constructed part of the inner wall; in the fifth century only about a third of the interior wall was still standing. In the early thirteenth century Blanche de Castille built the outer wall; in the late thirteenth century, Philippe III reconstructed of the inner Gallo-Roman wall.
Photo: Philippe Poux, APA-POUX © March 1996
The city underwent at least six name-changes: Karsac in the Gallic era to Carcasso and eventually to Carcassonne in the fifteenth century. In the fifth century, the Visigoths invaded the Roman Narbonnaise province and took the city which they occupied for three centuries. Constantius III’s base was in Arelate, and Narbonensis is where Placidia married Ataulphus
Following the release of the hostages, Galla Placidia reluctantly married Constantius, a political arrangement forged so that the Western Empire would have an heir to the throne. A girl, Honoria, was the first-born, followed by a son, Valentinian III. Like many sons of preeminent fathers, Aëtius returned to Rome to follow in his father’s footsteps.
After the deaths of Constantius III in 421 and Emperor Honorius in 423, Theodosius II, Emperor of the Eastern Empire, posthumously recognized Placidia’s second husband Constantius III as Co-emperor of West, then appointed Galla Placidia as Regent Augusta of the Western Empire because her Emperor son Valentinian III was not yet of age. Initially, Castinus, a ranking figure in civil government in the West, was recognized as an advisor, but in 430 it was Aëtius who had worked his way through the ranks and was appointed as Master of Both Services by Galla Placidia. However there was fierce rivalry between Felix and Aëtius, leading evidently to Aëtius stirring up a riot in Ravenna which led to the death of Felix and his wife Padusia. Although this act cast a shadow upon Aëtius’s morality, Galla Placidia retained him as leader of the West. From this time onward until the end of his life, he was the dominating force of the Western Empire. He was thrice the Consulibus and was granted the title of Patrician, pacifying and controlling Gaul for an extended number of years.
Borrowing material from Frigeridus, Gregory of Tours described Aëtius as “strong and courageous, comely in form, knowing nothing of infirmity or other like burden, keen in mind, active of body, a most ready horseman, well skilled with arrow or pike, marvellous in battle.”
Yet there was also discord between Boniface, another general of Placidia’s, and Aëtius. Although he was extolled by citizens and soldiers alike for his successes in Gaul, Aëtius had renewed an alliance with the Huns and restored land taken from them by Felix. In 432, displeased by her Magister, Placidia replaced the recalcitrant Aëtius with Boniface, but Aëtius immediately rebelled, attacking Boniface near Rimini. Each surrounded by their armies, the two met in in single combat, resulting in the death of Boniface. Fearing the Regent’s wrath, Aëtius fled to Pannonia for shelter among the Huns, whom Aëtius had befriended earlier when he had been their hostage.
Placidia replaced Aëtius with Sebastian, Boniface’s son-in-law, whose competence level was far inferior to Aëtius’s. Dismayed, the Regent felt she had no choice and recalled her paradoxical arch-enemy yet effective Magister. Upon his return, Aëtius’s first act was to exile Sebastian. In 434 he was granted the title Patrician, and by the year 437 Placidia’s regency had ended, and Valentinian, age eighteen, ascended to the throne. But the power behind the throne was still Placidia, and ultimately, Aëtius, who was awarded Consulship in that year and again in 446.
It is the year 446 which connects a gossamer thread to Britain. Gildas Badonicus records in Section 20 of the De Excidio
So the miserable remnants sent off a letter again, this time to the Roman commander Aëtius, in the
following terms: ‘To Aëtius, thrice consul: the groans of the British.’ Further on came this complaint:
‘The barbarians push us back to the sea, the sea pushes us back to the barbarians; between these two
kinds of death, we are either drowned or slaughtered.’ But they got no help in return. (See Aëtius in
Major Historical Characters of the novel section)
Eleanor Duckett, in her book Medieval Portraits From East and West quotes John of Antioch who best summarizes Aëtius’s deeds and achievements:
his protection of the Regent-Empress Placidia and her son; his final victory over Boniface; his slaying of
Felix who, he said, longed to murder him; his subduing of the Goths who invaded, of the Armoricans who
rebelled; his command of situations political and military, at home and abroad.
She then quotes Marcellinus who perhaps had deeper insight:
Aëtius was the strong salvation of the Empire in the West, and with him it fell dead.”
She cites another mark of interest from John of Antioch:
And when Aëtius lay murdered, the emperor [Valentinian III, who murdered Aëtius in a fit of jealous rage]
said to one who would understand his words: ‘The death of Aëtius was no happy thing for me.’ And the
man to whom he spoke replied: ‘Whether it was a happy thing or not I do not know. But I do know that
you have cut off your right hand with your left.’ ”
Aëtius’s close friend Petronius Maximus, with two other comrades sought revenge against Valentinian on March 16, 455, one year after the death of Aëtius. Duckett writes
With these same men [Petronius, Optila, and Thraustila] the Emperor rode out from Rome to the Field of
Mars, to watch the public games. He had left his horse and was walking toward the archers on the field,
when Optila ran forward and struck him twice, on the side of his head and on the face. Revenge had
done its work; the Emperor Valentinian III was dead. Thraustila also killed Heraclius. Seizing the Imperial
crown and Valentinian’s horse, the two murderers hurried away to find Petronius. Neither of them was
brought to punishment. All those present were stunned by the shock of the moment, and when they had
recovered from this they prudently decided to leave justice alone. Optila and Thraustila were bold and
Most of the historians consider this act as the end of the Western Empire. Petronius Maximus acquired the power for one year, followed by the ineffective rules of Avitus, Majorian, and Libius Severus. Anthemius, who ruled from 467 to 472, was the last glimmer of hope, but even with the help of Riothamus from across Ocean, he could not salvage the West.