Ricimer and the fall of the Western Empire

HIST: Discussions about the last 4000 years of history, give or take a few days.

Moderator: K. A. Pital

Post Reply
User avatar
Maxentius
Padawan Learner
Posts: 298
Joined: 2008-05-16 04:12pm
Location: New York City
Contact:

Ricimer and the fall of the Western Empire

Post by Maxentius » 2008-09-11 02:24pm

Despite the fact that it will be at least a year before I am actually required to begin composing my thesis, I’ve recently been spending a lot of time pondering several potential topics. As my personal interest veers towards the Principate, and then the Eastern and subsequent Byzantine Empire, I have admittedly neglected the late, Western Roman Empire in my personal studies. Because of this, the possibility of focusing my dissertation on the Western Roman Empire has been an idea I’ve been seriously toying with.

Specifically, I was thinking of holding Ricimer fully accountable, or at least mostly responsible for the fall of the Western Roman Empire and deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476. The main point I was kicking around in my head is the contrast between Eastern and Western Empires during the late 5th century; the Eastern Empire was under the control of strong Emperors with central authority, namely Leo, Zeno, and subsequently Anastasius. Intrigue, revolts, and personal dispositions aside, these Emperors did much to stabilize the Eastern Empire, contributing to a subsequent flourishing of Eastern power. Given its position of eminence at the end of the 4th century, there is no obvious reason why the Western Empire could not have accomplished the same, given the right circumstances.

Contrarily, the Western Emperors proceeding Valentinian are mostly characterized by dissension, and a lack of central authority, notably Majorian*, Avitus, and Libius Severus. The noteworthy exception to this is Anthemius, widely considered the last ‘able’ Western Emperor in several of my sources, whom was deposed and executed by Ricimer in 472.

The question in my head is, simply put, could the decline of the Western Empire been averted wholly were there capable men in positions of power, intent on stabilizing an eroding institution? The presence of Ricimer is anathema to this very idea; he was the grey eminence of the Western Empire for much of the 5th century, blocking any attempts that Western Emperors may have launched to cement the position of the Western Empire, ostensibly viewing such actions as a threat to his power.

*I consider Majorian’s inclusion on this list somewhat dishonest; despite the fact that he was installed by Ricimer, he attempted to institute a number of noteworthy tax reforms, but was unfortunately deposed by a mutiny, which some sources advocate that Ricimer himself instigated.

There are posters who know far, far more about this subject than I do, and though I am attempting to research this specific period as thoroughly as I can, I work a full-time job and go to class in the evenings, which leaves me with a sad amount of time to devote fully to the advancement of my knowledge. To such gurus; is there any weight to this postulation?
Rome is an eternal thought in the mind of God... If there were no Rome, I'd dream of her.
--Marcus Licinius Crassus, Spartacus.


User avatar
Thanas
Magister
Magister
Posts: 30779
Joined: 2004-06-26 07:49pm

Re: Ricimer and the fall of the Western Empire

Post by Thanas » 2008-09-11 04:46pm

Maxentius wrote:Despite the fact that it will be at least a year before I am actually required to begin composing my thesis, I’ve recently been spending a lot of time pondering several potential topics. As my personal interest veers towards the Principate, and then the Eastern and subsequent Byzantine Empire, I have admittedly neglected the late, Western Roman Empire in my personal studies. Because of this, the possibility of focusing my dissertation on the Western Roman Empire has been an idea I’ve been seriously toying with.

Specifically, I was thinking of holding Ricimer fully accountable, or at least mostly responsible for the fall of the Western Roman Empire and deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476. The main point I was kicking around in my head is the contrast between Eastern and Western Empires during the late 5th century; the Eastern Empire was under the control of strong Emperors with central authority, namely Leo, Zeno, and subsequently Anastasius. Intrigue, revolts, and personal dispositions aside, these Emperors did much to stabilize the Eastern Empire, contributing to a subsequent flourishing of Eastern power. Given its position of eminence at the end of the 4th century, there is no obvious reason why the Western Empire could not have accomplished the same, given the right circumstances.

Contrarily, the Western Emperors proceeding Valentinian are mostly characterized by dissension, and a lack of central authority, notably Majorian*, Avitus, and Libius Severus. The noteworthy exception to this is Anthemius, widely considered the last ‘able’ Western Emperor in several of my sources, whom was deposed and executed by Ricimer in 472.

The question in my head is, simply put, could the decline of the Western Empire been averted wholly were there capable men in positions of power, intent on stabilizing an eroding institution? The presence of Ricimer is anathema to this very idea; he was the grey eminence of the Western Empire for much of the 5th century, blocking any attempts that Western Emperors may have launched to cement the position of the Western Empire, ostensibly viewing such actions as a threat to his power.

*I consider Majorian’s inclusion on this list somewhat dishonest; despite the fact that he was installed by Ricimer, he attempted to institute a number of noteworthy tax reforms, but was unfortunately deposed by a mutiny, which some sources advocate that Ricimer himself instigated.

There are posters who know far, far more about this subject than I do, and though I am attempting to research this specific period as thoroughly as I can, I work a full-time job and go to class in the evenings, which leaves me with a sad amount of time to devote fully to the advancement of my knowledge. To such gurus; is there any weight to this postulation?

Short answer: Yes. It is definitely a theory that is worth looking into. Theseare articles that give further sources in case you do not already know about them.

I personally do not really believe Ricimer was that much to blame for the fall, but the great thing about this period of history is that there is no single "right" theory. No matter which stance you take, you will always find people supporting you.

If you are up to it, here is a bit of opposition prep:

- Ricimer and his sources. For example, he is often blamed for the failure of the vandal expedition of 468. Is this a valid accusation? What did he have to gain from such a failure? Was Ricimer simply an easy scapegoat?
- What are the true accomplishments of Ricimer? He defeated the vandals at sea and at land and defended the empire against the Alani and Ostrogoths. How huge were those achievements?
- Were Ricimer's actions "legal" when he deposed Avitus? Remember that Avitus was never confirmed by the senate and had in fact been forced upon the Romans by the Visigoths. Was Ricimer the true defender of the empire, backed by the Senate?
- Ricimer and Aetius. What was their relationship?
- The biggest point: Biased sources. E.g.: Sidonius Apollinarius was the son-in-law of Avitus. How much can we trust his account?
- Did Ricimer squander the resources of the empire or did he make do with the best he had?
- Were his actions motivated by a desire to save himself? Stilicho's fate was still widely known in Rome and anti-german bias ran rampant.
- Was Ricimer trying to do what was best for the empire? He never tried to place a german upon the throne or surrender territory to the germans.
- What was the extent of his connections to Geiseric?


Most of those are probably impossible to answer, but those are the things I would look into.

The main point I was kicking around in my head is the contrast between Eastern and Western Empires during the late 5th century; the Eastern Empire was under the control of strong Emperors with central authority, namely Leo, Zeno, and subsequently Anastasius. Intrigue, revolts, and personal dispositions aside, these Emperors did much to stabilize the Eastern Empire, contributing to a subsequent flourishing of Eastern power. Given its position of eminence at the end of the 4th century, there is no obvious reason why the Western Empire could not have accomplished the same, given the right circumstances.
.

I would be very careful here. The Western Empire had lost its corn supply in northern africa and the province of Spain. In short, it had lost the most prosperous regions by then. Pannonia was already destroyed as well. The army was also completely destroyed - the last remnants of a professional indigenious roman army were Aetius forces at the Catalaunian fields and those were lost shortly thereafter.

When Ricimer took power, he found an empire with a crumbling economy (the only real taxpaying province was gaul, yes gaul which had been devestated already and was pretty much under visigothic control for large parts of it), no army to speak of (certainly not what we would consider as a roman army like the times of Julian), a squabbling senate and little political capital. Plus, the western roman empire fought a seven front war at that time. The eastern empire diverting barbarian aggressors to the western empire didn't help as well. If you really want to do such a comparison, the reigns of Honorius, Stilicho and Aetius are a better period of time. In fact, you should not start with Ricimer, but with the death of Theodosius.

Also, Leo did much to harm the empire - he systematically eliminated capable generals if they got too good at their job. The Vandal expeditions are one example of that.
The question in my head is, simply put, could the decline of the Western Empire been averted wholly were there capable men in positions of power, intent on stabilizing an eroding institution? The presence of Ricimer is anathema to this very idea; he was the grey eminence of the Western Empire for much of the 5th century, blocking any attempts that Western Emperors may have launched to cement the position of the Western Empire, ostensibly viewing such actions as a threat to his power.
If you want to do that, you also have to take the reigns of Stilicho and Aetius in account. Aetius did pretty much the same and even instituted a civil war in order to be the sole ruler. A war he won with the backing of the huns. Why is Ricimer to be blamed for similar behaviour? Isn't the real reason that Aetius is principally remembered for defeating Attila? Or that Ricimer was not a true Roman patrician? That would be a typical question you would get asked if you present such a thesis.

I would also contrast Ricimer's reign with the reign of Stilicho - both german officers fighting for Rome and both being blamed for intentionally failing to defeat barbarian enemies (their "cousins", as some romans said) i.e. Alarich (Stilicho) and Geiseric (Ricimer). Both were accused of conspiring with the barbarians. How much of that is a stereotype used to blame the barbarians, how much of that is fact?

Anyway, I hope this helps somewhat. I also would like to congratulate you on the choice of subject - it is easily the most confusing one in ancient history.
Whoever says "education does not matter" can try ignorance
------------
A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient, to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is 'survival as what'? A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! - Chief Judge Haywood
------------
My LPs

User avatar
Thanas
Magister
Magister
Posts: 30779
Joined: 2004-06-26 07:49pm

Post by Thanas » 2008-09-11 04:53pm

Ghetto edit:

If you want to know how crappy the western Roman empire really was during that period of time, I suggest you read the Vita Melaniae by Gerontius.
Whoever says "education does not matter" can try ignorance
------------
A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient, to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is 'survival as what'? A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! - Chief Judge Haywood
------------
My LPs

User avatar
Maxentius
Padawan Learner
Posts: 298
Joined: 2008-05-16 04:12pm
Location: New York City
Contact:

Re: Ricimer and the fall of the Western Empire

Post by Maxentius » 2008-09-16 12:07pm

Thank you very much for the response, Thanas. I don’t have time for a completely comprehensive reply, so I will jump around a fair bit, but I’ll try to touch on as much as I can, and address that which I gloss over or miss entirely at a later point.
Thanas wrote:
- Ricimer and his sources. For example, he is often blamed for the failure of the vandal expedition of 468. Is this a valid accusation? What did he have to gain from such a failure? Was Ricimer simply an easy scapegoat?
This is, I think, perhaps the only position of opposition that may have an easy answer. As far as I’ve discerned, Leo was never all that fond of Ricimer; it is entirely possible that a comprehensive defeat of the Vandals would have allowed Leo to turn his full attentions to the political situation in the West, something that may have very well doomed Ricimer. If a full-scale civil war was to have broken out between Leo in the East, and Ricimer in the West, I would put good money on Leo coming out on top. Further, the complete failure of the Vandal expedition resulted in a huge drain on both the Eastern Empire’s treasury and standing army; I’ve seen postulated numbers that state a loss of 600 ships out of ~11,000, and if the accompanying count of 100,000 men is true (this number is, admittedly, probably inflated), a loss of perhaps 50,000 men at most. If Leo ever did decide to directly intervene in the West, the massive drain on the Eastern Empire’s resources sustained during the Vandal expedition would have put a handy damper on such ambitions.
- What are the true accomplishments of Ricimer? He defeated the vandals at sea and at land and defended the empire against the Alani and Ostrogoths. How huge were those achievements?
Admittedly, quite huge for the time. However, in the larger picture, they did not wholly blunt the barbarian tide. Both the Vandals and Visigoths remained looming, potent threats. Nevertheless, Ricimer’s martial accomplishments in defending the borders of the Empire cannot be understated; rather, it would be his political actions that I focus the majority of my study on, even if the two are quite closely linked.
- Were Ricimer's actions "legal" when he deposed Avitus? Remember that Avitus was never confirmed by the senate and had in fact been forced upon the Romans by the Visigoths. Was Ricimer the true defender of the empire, backed by the Senate?
This is a tricky one, no matter how you play it. Avitus was proclaimed Emperor by his soldiers, and I believe a gathering of Gallo-Roman Senators, whom obviously do not compose the majority of the Senate. So, technically, yes; he was a usurper. However, if Avitus had won out in the end, I doubt that anyone would have immediately dared to paint him as such.

Constantine I was, for example, a usurper, having deposed my namesake (who was, I suppose a usurper as well—funny how that seems to go), but he was as far as I recall, acclaimed by the Senate proceeding his victory at the Milvian Bridge. While I cannot speculate with anywhere near certainty, it is possible that a complete, or at least tactically decisive victory by Avitus may have led to his acclamation.
- Ricimer and Aetius. What was their relationship?
Ricimer served under Aetius during the rein of Valentinian, and it was the power vacuum following the deaths of both of the later that led to his ascension as magister militum. I’ve had extreme difficulty locating any accounts that specify the details of his service with Aetius. If you know of any, that would be very, very helpful.
- The biggest point: Biased sources. E.g.: Sidonius Apollinarius was the son-in-law of Avitus. How much can we trust his account?
Probably not all that much, although Apollinarius’ accounts are something that must at least be considered, given their contemporary publication, and a frustrating dearth of other contemporary, primary sources. If anything, his writings can be compared to the letters of Ecdicius Avitus, Ennodius, and Ruricus to gain a larger, perhaps more comprehensive picture.

Personally, I think Apollinarius something of a sybarite, given that he seemed to shamelessly flatter the current Augustus, having written panegyrics for Majorian, Avitus and Anthemius.

I can touch upon my responses to the other points, as well as your general response in a day or two. However, you are correct in that we cannot examine Ricimer alone, but must look backwards to at least the deaths of Valentinian and Aetius; the reign of Theodosius would probably provided a firmer, more comprehensive starting date. The original premise of this proposed thesis was to identify the point when the Western Empire slipped too far into decay to return to prominence.

As I stated before, the later, Western Empire is probably the area of Roman history that I have neglected the most (pre-Republican Kingdom aside), and every insight gained into this tumultuous and complex period is both enlightening and frustrating, given the convoluted and confusing nature of the times. But we live and we learn.
Rome is an eternal thought in the mind of God... If there were no Rome, I'd dream of her.
--Marcus Licinius Crassus, Spartacus.


User avatar
Thanas
Magister
Magister
Posts: 30779
Joined: 2004-06-26 07:49pm

Re: Ricimer and the fall of the Western Empire

Post by Thanas » 2008-09-21 06:12pm

First off, forgive me for not answering sooner, I wanted to check up on some things first.

First off, are you able to read/write german? Because a lot of the late antiquity research is done in german. For example, there are three dissertations you definitely should look into. They are about Aetius and Stilicho respectively and cover, among other things, the question of how limited the resources of the empire were.
Maxentius wrote:Thank you very much for the response, Thanas. I don’t have time for a completely comprehensive reply, so I will jump around a fair bit, but I’ll try to touch on as much as I can, and address that which I gloss over or miss entirely at a later point.
Thanas wrote:
- Ricimer and his sources. For example, he is often blamed for the failure of the vandal expedition of 468. Is this a valid accusation? What did he have to gain from such a failure? Was Ricimer simply an easy scapegoat?
This is, I think, perhaps the only position of opposition that may have an easy answer. As far as I’ve discerned, Leo was never all that fond of Ricimer; it is entirely possible that a comprehensive defeat of the Vandals would have allowed Leo to turn his full attentions to the political situation in the West, something that may have very well doomed Ricimer. If a full-scale civil war was to have broken out between Leo in the East, and Ricimer in the West, I would put good money on Leo coming out on top. Further, the complete failure of the Vandal expedition resulted in a huge drain on both the Eastern Empire’s treasury and standing army; I’ve seen postulated numbers that state a loss of 600 ships out of ~11,000, and if the accompanying count of 100,000 men is true (this number is, admittedly, probably inflated), a loss of perhaps 50,000 men at most. If Leo ever did decide to directly intervene in the West, the massive drain on the Eastern Empire’s resources sustained during the Vandal expedition would have put a handy damper on such ambitions.
Your argument is sound I belive, however be advised that there is a theory floating around that the situation was a win-win for Leo - due to the failure he was able to remove several potential contenders for the purple, like the general who led the expedition.
- What are the true accomplishments of Ricimer? He defeated the vandals at sea and at land and defended the empire against the Alani and Ostrogoths. How huge were those achievements?
Admittedly, quite huge for the time. However, in the larger picture, they did not wholly blunt the barbarian tide. Both the Vandals and Visigoths remained looming, potent threats. Nevertheless, Ricimer’s martial accomplishments in defending the borders of the Empire cannot be understated; rather, it would be his political actions that I focus the majority of my study on, even if the two are quite closely linked.
Agreed.
- Were Ricimer's actions "legal" when he deposed Avitus? Remember that Avitus was never confirmed by the senate and had in fact been forced upon the Romans by the Visigoths. Was Ricimer the true defender of the empire, backed by the Senate?
This is a tricky one, no matter how you play it. Avitus was proclaimed Emperor by his soldiers, and I believe a gathering of Gallo-Roman Senators, whom obviously do not compose the majority of the Senate. So, technically, yes; he was a usurper. However, if Avitus had won out in the end, I doubt that anyone would have immediately dared to paint him as such.

Constantine I was, for example, a usurper, having deposed my namesake (who was, I suppose a usurper as well—funny how that seems to go), but he was as far as I recall, acclaimed by the Senate proceeding his victory at the Milvian Bridge. While I cannot speculate with anywhere near certainty, it is possible that a complete, or at least tactically decisive victory by Avitus may have led to his acclamation.
Í would in fact go that far - if Avitus had won, he definitely would have been confirmed IMO. However, wether the senate would have been complacent or even supportive is another question.
- Ricimer and Aetius. What was their relationship?
Ricimer served under Aetius during the rein of Valentinian, and it was the power vacuum following the deaths of both of the later that led to his ascension as magister militum. I’ve had extreme difficulty locating any accounts that specify the details of his service with Aetius. If you know of any, that would be very, very helpful.
I do not have any knowledge at hand, but if you are lucky I will have the relevant dissertation about Ricimer on my desk by Wednesday. For now I know that Ricimer was comes (rei militaricum?) according to Hydatius iirc.
I can touch upon my responses to the other points, as well as your general response in a day or two. However, you are correct in that we cannot examine Ricimer alone, but must look backwards to at least the deaths of Valentinian and Aetius; the reign of Theodosius would probably provided a firmer, more comprehensive starting date. The original premise of this proposed thesis was to identify the point when the Western Empire slipped too far into decay to return to prominence.
If you can read german, I have just the book for you. Dirk Henning, Periclitans res publics, is the most comprehensive detail.
Whoever says "education does not matter" can try ignorance
------------
A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient, to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is 'survival as what'? A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! - Chief Judge Haywood
------------
My LPs

Post Reply