Friday 11 November 2022

The Petronius Maximus Guide to Plotting Your Way to Power Without Getting Your Sandals Bloody. By L.J. Trafford

Coin of Petronius Maximus. Credit; Wikicomms/ Classical Numismatic Group,

    I’ve spent the last year writing a book entitled Ancient Rome’s Worst Emperors. It has been quite an education in how rulers can comprehensively eff up the whole ruling thing and has given me comfort that the current politically tumultuous situation of the UK could be worse, a whole lot worse. Yes, we may be on our third Prime Minister of 2022 but of the previous two incumbents of the position neither has been forced into suicide nor decapitated in Parliament square, unlike Otho and Galba who were both (briefly) emperors in 69 CE, a year that became known as the year of the four emperors. No matter how confusing and chaotic the British political scene currently is, it is positively staid and boring compared to ancient Rome.

    Of all the emperors I have spent the past year researching and writing about there is one who really stands out for me, a man whose story interested me more than any other. It’s an emperor you’ve likely never heard of, which is not surprising given he was only emperor for two months in the year 455 CE. During this short rule he displayed none of the sexual excesses, megalomania and all out bonkers behaviour that many of the other emperors I cover in my book do. Yes, Caligula and Commodus I do mean you. But his story is fascinating because it stands as a case study, nay a warning for all those that seek power. 
    Prepare yourself for one hell of a tale. Enter Pertonius Maximus

The Man Who Had Everything

    A good five years after Petronius Maximus had briefly been emperor of Rome, a man named Sidonius Apollinaris received a letter that annoyed him no end. It was from his friend Senanus, (although after Apollinaris’ reply that friendship may well be at an end) who had written a very long letter the contents of which Sidonius Apollinaris hotly disputed:

‘The consecrated words of greeting over, you give all the rest of your space, no trifling amount, to laudation of Petronius Maximus, your imperial patron. With more persistence (or shall I call it amiability?) than truth and justice, you style him 'the most fortunate', because, after holding all the most honourable offices of state, he at last attained the diadem.’

    As the youth of today would say (probably, I'm far too middle aged to know), burn! I have some sympathy for Senanus whose roasting by Sidonius has been preserved for two thousand years, but not a lot. Because like Sidonius before me I find it jaw dropping that Senanus could look at the story of Petronius Maximus and conclude he was ‘most fortunate’. As Sidonius writes back to Senanus:

 ‘Personally, I shall always refuse to call that man fortunate who is poised on the precipitous and slippery peak of office.’

Enter the Master of Plots  

    Petronius Maximus was a very successful man.

He had scaled with intrepidity the prefectorian, the patrician, the consular citadels; with an unsated appetite for office, he took for a second term posts which he had already held.’ 
Sidonius Apollinaris

He was enormously wealthy but also cultured: 
'With his conspicuous way of life, his banquets, his lavish expense, his retinues, his literary pursuits, his official rank, his estates, his extensive patronage.’ 
Sidonisus Apollinaris

He was, in short the full package of Roman manhood. 

    But for Petronius Maximus having it all was not enough. He wanted more. He wanted a dollop of caviar added to his full monty breakfast. He wanted to be emperor. ‘His head swam beneath the diadem at sight of that enormous power.’ as Sidonius puts it.

    Petronius Maximus might have been the full package of Roman manhood but there were two other Roman packages in the way of him achieving what he thought was his right, the job of emperor. The first was the emperor himself, Valentinian III who at 36 years old didn’t look like he was going to conveniently drop dead anytime soon and free up the position. The second was Flavius Aetius.

    Aetius was a man whose package was so much bigger than Petronius Maximus’ that it required an extra line of postage stamps. Aetius was Rome’s most successful general, one who had repelled no less a foe than Attila the Hun, alongside the numerous other barbarian types who were continually harassing the empire in this era. This is well and truly a time when you needed good generals and Aetius was the best there was. He was so good that Imperial favour was lavished all over him and his son was betrothed to the emperor’s daughter. He was a formidable man, one who would uncover any plot forged against the emperor quicker than you can say Gaiseric King of the Vandals (on whom more later).

    But Petronius Maximus was a clever man, and he went about removing the two impediments to his ambitions; Aetius and Valentinian III in a very clever way.

Removing the General
    First up on his hit list: Aetius. The assassination of Flavius Aetius, the most successful Roman general of his era, is unique. It’s unique because it’s not carried out by Petronius Maximus nor any henchman paid by Petronius Maximus, Flavius Aetius was killed by Emperor Valentinian III himself.

    It occurred on the 21st September 454 CE during what Aetius had assumed was a standard planning meeting and it was until the any other business section when:

 The emperor suddenly jumped up and declared that he, ‘could no longer bear being the victim of so many drunken depravities’. 
John of Antioch

    Given that immediately prior to this Aetius had been explaining the projected tax revenues, I think we can all agree Aetius was fully entitled to be stunned and just a bit terrified. However, Aetius had faced off Attila the Hun so he’s made of sterner stuff than you or I, instead his reaction was to marvel, ‘at this unexpected outburst.’
An image thought to be Flavius Aetius. Credit: Wikicomms/Tataryn

Unfortunately, Aetius didn’t have much time to marvel because, 

‘Valentinian drew his sword from his scabbard, and together with Heraclius, who was carrying a cleaver under his cloak…for he was head chamberlain, fell upon him. They both rained down blows on his head and killed him, a man who had performed so many brave actions against enemies both internal and external.’John of Antioch

    Jeepers, is all I can say, and much like Flavius Aetius briefly thought before being stabbed to death by his boss, what the hell is going on? What drunken depravities? And no doubt something around the tax revenues not being that bad.

    Behind this extraordinary event there was our pal Petronius Maximus. He was in league with Heraclius, the eunuch who’d handily been standing by with that cleaver under his cloak to help the emperor in his murdering.

Impediment number 1 had been disposed of. Next up the Emperor himself.

Murdering the Boss

    Valentinian III’s murder of the very popular Flavius Aetius meant that Petronius Maximus didn’t have to try very hard to find two new people to do his dirty work for him again. Their names were Optelas and Thraustelas who, as pals to Aetius, were easily persuaded that the emperor’s brutal killing of their friend determined retribution:

‘They would reap the greatest rewards, he said, if with justice they exacted revenge when the opportunity arouse.’ John of Antioch. 

    Note again, as with Aetius’ death, that Petronius Maximus is playing no part in the gruesome bit of the plot, he’s staying well away from any blood splatter to his, no doubt expensive, sandals.

    A few days later the emperor set off on an outing to the Field of Ares accompanied by Optelas and Thraustelas.

‘When he dismounted from his horse and was walking off to practice archery, Optelas and his followers made for him and, drawing the swords at their sides, attacked him. Optelas struck Valentinian across the side of his head and, when he turned to see who struck him, felled him with a second blow to the face’
John of Antioch

    Ouch. After Valentinian was well and truly dead, ‘a swarm of bees appeared and drew up the blood flowing from his body into the earth. They sucked up all of it.
Which I’m mentioning for no other reason than it’s a bit weird.

    So that’s the empire’s greatest general and the emperor out of the way, and standing ready in the wings is the man who has engineered the entire situation, Petronius Maximus. God he’s good, isn’t he? He’s removed the two most powerful people in the empire without getting his hands bloody at all. This is genius level of plotting.

    Petronius Maximus sat in the palace that night. ‘rue-ing his own success.’as well he might. He had schemed his way to obtaining the one title missing from his CV, that of emperor.

Being Emperor

So there was Petronius Maximus, he had achieved the ultimate; he was emperor. But being emperor was a bigger step up than the endlessly successful Maximus had imagined. 

‘He soon discovered that the business of empire and a senatorial ease are inconsistent with each other’. Sidonius Apollinaris

He’d led such a charmed life, one that he’d been so effortlessly successful at that he just assumed he’d be a successful emperor. He wasn’t. 

 ‘His rule of it was from the first tempestuous, with popular tumults, tumults of soldiery, tumults of allies.’ Sidonius Apollinairs

It was pretty much on day one of Petronius Maximus’ reign as emperor that he made the decision that would bring his rule crashing down. He announced his intention to marry Valentinian III’s widow, Eudoxia. You can sort of see why he thought this was a good idea, it would link him to the previous dynasty strengthening his right to be emperor. What he hadn’t factored into this clever piece of politicking was how Eudoxia might feel about this. Very unhappy is the answer,
The Empress Eudoxia. Credit: Wikicomms/Otto Nickl

Something else that Petronius hadn’t thought about during his path to the top job was how the deaths of Aetius and Valentintian III might be seen in the rest of the empire. Why would he when he was so consumed with his own success and so sure of his own abilities?

Whilst Petronius Maximus had been living his best life, Aetius and Valentinian III had been negotiating a peace deal with Gaiseric, the ruler of the fearsome Vandals. It was a peace deal that had been cemented with an engagement between Valentinian III’s daughter Eudocia to Gaiseric’s son, Huneric. The murder of Valentinian III was therefore for Gaiseric a family matter, or at the very least a useful pretext for having a go at those Romans again, as is neatly summarised by John of Antioch, 

‘Gaiseric the ruler of the Vandals learned of the murders of Aetius and Valentinian and decided it was time to attack Italy seeing the peace was void now those who had made the treaty were dead and the man coming into power did not have a noteworthy force.’ 

 Because the man coming to power had murdered the general who had created a noteworthy force to rival the Vandals.

A further incentive for rampaging was handed to Gaiseric by Euxodia who it was said begged him to invade Rome and rescue her from being forced to marry Petronius Maximus. Gaiseric set his Vandals on the road to Rome.

Facing Down the Threat 
Starting a war with an enemy of Rome that had been subdued after decades of war and careful negotiations was not a great start to the reign of Petronius Maximus. But he’s an experienced politician and as we’ve previously established, a very clever man, no doubt he has a heap of ideas and schemes and plans to deal with this unexpected turn of events.

‘When Maximus learned that Gaiseric’s army was positioned at Azestos (this was a place near Rome) he became very fearful. He mounted his horse and fled. The Imperial bodyguard and the freedmen who he used to trust the most deserted him; when they saw him riding away, they mocked and berated his cowardice. Just as he was about to leave the city, someone threw at stone at the side of his head and killed him.’ John of Antioch.

I don’t know about you but I’m proper disappointed in Petronius Maximus, as disappointed as those imperial bodyguards and freedmen were. Facing his first real test as emperor he completely loses his nerve and does a runner. It makes us look back at those assassinations he was behind with new eyes; perhaps it wasn’t him being clever getting other people doing his dirty work, perhaps Petronius Maximus’ was a cringing coward reliant on others to do what he himself did not dare to do.
Coin of Valentinian III. Credit Wikicomms/Classical Numismatic Group


Coward or not, Petronius Maximus quickly learnt that being emperor was very different to how he imagined it would be. ‘

The future did not deceive his sad forebodings; it was no help to him to have traversed all other offices of the court in the fairest of fair weather.’ Sidonius Apollonaris

Petronius had steered his Imperial ship straight into a tsunami as the realities of being emperor were starkly revealed to him; it was making decisions that you alone would face the consequences of.
Sidonius has a neat analogy for this discovery of Petronius Maximus:

 ‘Behold a bare sword, swinging from the ceiling right over his purple-mantled shoulders, as if every instant it must fall and pierce his throat.’

Petronius Maximus had uncovered the secret, that to be emperor did not necessarily make you happy, it was far more likely to make you unhappy. Not least because of the target it painted on your forehead for your poor decision making or because of a foolish notion that another would make a better emperor. As Sidonius put it better, that bare sword swinging from the ceiling above your head at all times (and also in your face should you be Valentinian III.)

Petronius Maximus’ tale is one of hubris, of a man so confident of his abilities that he believed it was perfectly acceptable to murder his way to the job he felt should be his. It was that very confidence, that assurance of his own brilliance that brought Petronius Maximus crashing down and exposed him for what he truly was; a man not up to the job. Perhaps it was this crushing realisation that led to that attempted flight from the folly of his own ambition.

But his legacy is even worse than as a woeful example of misplaced confidence and pride because Geiseric didn’t turn around his Vandal army after Petronius Maximus was stoned to death by his disbelieving and disgusted subjects, no they kept going and sacked the city. 

It’s hard to think of a greater consequence for Rome of having an emperor in post who was so very not up to the job. Nor a man least worthy of the title 'most fortunate'. I think we are all likely sharing Sidonius levels of crossness with Senanus for such a misplaced description of Petronius Maximus.

L.J. Trafford is the author of two non fiction books; Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome and How to Survive in Ancient Rome. As well as the fictional Four Emperors series set in that year of the Four Emperors, 69 CE.
Ancient Rome's Worst Emperors will be released in 2023.


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