|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.
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:
Petronius Maximus was a very successful man.
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:
|An image thought to be Flavius Aetius. Credit: Wikicomms/Tataryn|
Unfortunately, Aetius didn’t have much time to marvel because,
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:
A few days later the emperor set off on an outing to the Field of Ares accompanied by Optelas and Thraustelas.
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.
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.
|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,
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.
|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. ‘
Sidonius has a neat analogy for this discovery of Petronius Maximus:
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.