We march along with another commander Rome Across Europe thought was among the best in ancient Rome. You can find the entire list here, along with biographies of #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, and #6. We now present to you…
7: Flavius Aetius (391 – 454 AD)
In around 391 AD Roman General Flavius Gaudentius, of Scythian or possibly Gothic origin, became a father. Born in Durostorum, Moesia Inferior, was Flavius Aetius. His mother, whose name is unknown, was a wealthy aristocratic woman of Italian ancestry.
As a boy Aetius was at the service of the Imperial Court. First enrolled in the military unit of the Protectores Domestici and then elevated to the position of tribuni praetoriani partis militaris, literally Tribunes of the Praetorian Military, Aetius was set up for future political eligibility.
Between the years 405 and 408 AD, Flavius Aetius was kept as hostage at the court of King Alaric I of the Visigoths. In 408 BC, Aetius was then sent to the court of Uldin, King of the Huns where he would stay through much of the reign of Uldin’s successor, Charaton.
These experiences around clans that were constantly thriving in war largely contributed to Flavius’ military success in later years. His upbringing amongst militaristic peoples gave him a martial vigor not common in Roman generals, or any other military leader, of the time.
In 423 AD the Western Emperor Honorius died leaving Joannes, a high-ranking officer that was not part of the Theodosian Dynasty, as his successor. The Eastern Emperor Theodosius II organized a military expedition westward to put the young Valentinian III on the western throne.
Aetius entered the service of Joannes as cura palatii and was sent to ask the Huns for assistance. Joannes was killed in the summer of 425 in his capital of Ravenna. Shortly afterwards, Aetius returned to Italy with a large force of Huns to find that power in the West was now in the hands of Valentinian III and his mother Galla Placidia.
After fighting against the Eastern Empire’s Army, Aetius managed to compromise with Galla Placidia. He sent back his Huns and in return obtained the rank of comes et magister militum per Gallias, the Commander in Chief of the Roman Army in Gaul.
In 426, Aetius arrived in southern Gaul and took command of the field army. At that time the important city of Arelate was under siege from the Visigoths, led by their King Theodoric I. In 427 AD Flavius defeated Theodoric, lifted the Siege of Arelate, and kept driving the Visigoths back to their holdings in Aquitania.
Returning to Gaul in 431, Flavius received Hydatius, Bishop of Aquae Flaviae, who complained about the attacks of the Suebi. Aetius then defeated the Franks, recapturing Tournacum and Cambriacum, and adding more land to his territory. He then sent back Hydatius to the Suebi in Hispania.
In 432 Aetius held the Consul, but was stripped of his military command by Bonifacius. Believing his fall now imminent, Aetius marched against Bonifacius and fought him at the Battle of Rimini. Bonifacius won the battle but was mortally wounded, dying a few months later.
Aetius escaped to Pannonia and traveled to the court of his friend, King Rugila of the Huns. With the help of the Huns, Flavius returned to power, receiving the title of comes et magister utriusque militiae. Aetius then bought the properties of Bonifacius, and married his widow Pelagia.
From 433 to 450, Aetius was the dominant personality in the Western Empire, obtaining the rank of magnificus vir parens patriusque noster, and playing the role of protector of Galla Placidia and Valentinian III while the Emperor was still young.
In 436, the Burgundians of King Gundacar were defeated and obliged to accept peace by Aetius and Avitus; however, the following year the Huns were sent to destroy the Burgundians. At the Battle of Mons Colubrarius in 438 AD, King Anaolsus and the Visigoths again attacked Arelate but were again defeated by Aetius.
In May of the same year Aetius then became the highest ranking amongst the magister militiae, even if he had not yet been granted the title of patricius or the Senior Command. On his return to Italy, Aetius was honored with a statue erected by the Senate and the People of Rome by order of the Emperor.
Before 449, Aetius had signed an agreement with the Huns allowing some of them to settle in Pannonia, along the Sava River. He then sent King Attila of the Huns, a man called Constantius as a secretary.
In 449, Attila was thirsty for a large conquest to fuel his ambitions, and was also angered by an alleged theft of a golden plate. Attila wanted to attack Gaul while Flavius was still stationed there.
Aetius sent Attila an embassy under Romulus to calm him. Attila, as a present, sent Flavius a dwarf, Zerco, whom Aetius gave back to his original owner.
The negations and gift giving seemed to smooth things over, but eventually Attila invaded Gaul. Flavius convinced his old Visigoth enemy Theodoric I to partner up with Rome to take out the common threat of Attila and his Huns.
Then the joint Roman and Visigothic army moved to relieve the besieged city of Aurelianum, forcing the Huns to abandon the siege and retreat to open country.
On 20 June 451, Aetius and Theodoric defeated Attila and his allies at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. This would become the battle in which Flavius was made most famous and which he is best remembered for today.
Over the course of the battle, both sides suffered heavy losses. Both Flavius and Theodoric I participated in the long battle, with Theodoric I being killed by falling of his horse and being trampled to death or by being hit by an arrow.
Regardless, Flavius emerged as the victor and Attila’s Hunnic army was forced to withdraw. Feats like these have earned Flavius the common title of “the last true Roman”. Edward Gibbon refers to him as “the man universally celebrated as the terror of Barbarians and the support of the Republic” for his victory at the Catalaunian Plains.
Attila returned in 452 but Aetius was unable to block Attila’s advance through the Julian Alps. Attila invaded and ravaged Italy, sacking numerous cities. Aquileia was destroyed completely with Attila leaving no trace of it behind.
Valentinian III fled from Ravenna to Rome while Aetius remained in the field. Lacking the strength to offer battle, it is said that Aetius showed his greatness by harassing Attila’s slow advance with only a shadow force.
Attila finally halted at the Po meeting a Roman Embassy including the prefect Trigetius, the ex-consul Gennadius Avienus, and Pope Leo I. After the meeting Attila turned his army back with no true accomplishment to show.
Ancient and medieval historians tended to give Pope Leo and supernatural forces credit for halting Attila, but a number of practical factors may have also induced Attila to retreat.
For instance, Attila’s army was unable to obtain sufficient food and was suffering from disease; Aetius’ army had been reinforced by troops sent from the Eastern Empire, and Eastern Emperor Marcian sent forces north of the Danube to attack the homelands of the Huns.
Things could not remain quiet for long. Valentinian felt intimidated by Aetius, who had once supported Joannes against him, and developed a plot to assassinate Aetius in 453.
The ancient historian Priscus of Panium reports that on 21 September 454, while Aetius was at court delivering a financial account, Valentinian leaped from his seat and declared that he would no longer be the victim of Aetius’s drunken depravities.
Valentinian held Aetius responsible for the entire Empire’s troubles and accused Aetius of trying to steal the Empire from him. Together with Heraclius, Valentinian drew their swords and struck Aetius on the head, thus killing him.
Later, when Valentinian boasted that he had done well in disposing of Aetius, someone at court responded, “Whether well or not, I do not know. But know that you have cut off your right hand with your left.”
Aetius is generally viewed as a great military commander, indeed he was held in such high esteem by the Eastern Roman Empire, that he became known as the last true Roman of the West. Most historians also consider the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains as decisively important, crippling Attila by destroying his aura of invincibility.
It has been suggested that Flavius’ victory against the Huns at the Battle of Nedao, 3 years later, was of more significance than the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. The claim is because the victory at Nedao determined that there would be no long-term Hunnic Empire in Europe.
The Empire had witnessed the quick rise and fall of several military leaders over the course of the past decade. One can say that without Flavius Aetius Western Rome would have experienced its collapse much sooner.
Thank you for stopping by. Please come back next week as we find out more about Rome Across Europe‘s #8 Top Commander. Until then, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!