Emperor of the
Western Roman Empire

Coin of Emperor Majorian
Reign April 1, 457 – August 2, 461
Coronation December 28, 457
Full name Iulius Valerius Maiorianus
Born 420 ca.
Died August 7, 461(461-08-07) (aged 40)
Place of death Tortona
Predecessor Avitus
Successor Libius Severus

Majorian (Latin: Flavius Julius Valerius Majorianus Augustus; ca. 420 – August 7, 461), was the Western Roman Emperor from 457 to 461.

A prominent general of the Late Roman army, Majorian deposed Emperor Avitus in 457 and succeeded him. Majorian was one of the last emperors to make a concerted effort to restore the Western Roman Empire. Possessing little more than Italy, Dalmatia, and some territory in northern Gaul, Majorian campaigned rigorously for three years against the Empire's enemies. After defeating a Vandal attack on Italy, Majorian launched a campaign against the Visigothic Kingdom in southern Gaul. Defeating king Theodoric II at the Battle of Arelate, Majorian forced the Goths to abandon their possessions in Septimania and Hispania and return to federate status immediately. Majorian then attacked the Burgundian Kingdom, defeating them at the Siege of Lugdunum, expelling them from the Rhone valley and reducing them to federate status.

In 460, Majorian left Gaul to consolidate his hold on Hispania. His generals launched a campaign against the Suebic Kingdom in northwest Hispania, defeating them at the battles of Lucus Augusti and Scallabis and reducing them to federate status as well. However, his fleet for his campaign to restore Africa to the empire from the Vandals was destroyed due to treachery. Majorian sought to reform the Imperial administration in order to make it more efficient and just. Unfortunately, the powerful general Ricimer deposed and killed Majorian, who had become unpopular with the senatorial aristocracy because of his reforms.

According to historian Edward Gibbon, Majorian "presents the welcome discovery of a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honor of the human species".[1]



The life of Majorian and his reign are better known than those of the other Western Emperors of the same period. The most important sources are the chronicles that cover the second half of the 5th century — those of Hydatius and Marcellinus Comes, as well as the fragments of Priscus and John of Antioch.

But besides these sources, which are useful also for the biographies of the other emperors, some peculiar sources are available that allow to know in some detail Majorian's life, both before and after his rise to the throne. The Gallo-Roman aristocrat and poet Sidonius Apollinaris was an acquaintance of the Emperor and composed a panegyric that is the major source for Majorian's life up to 459. As regards his policy, twelve laws of his have been preserved: the so-called Novellae Maioriani were included in the Breviarium that was compiled for the Visigothic king Alaric II in 506, and help to understand the problems that pressed Majorian's government.[2]

Early life

Majorian was born after 420 ca., as in 458 he is defined a iuvenis, a "young man". He belonged to the military aristocracy of the Roman Empire. His grandfather of the same name reached the rank of magister militum under Emperor Theodosius I and, as commander-in-chief of the Illyrian army, he was present at his coronation at Sirmium, in 379. The daughter of the magister militum then married an officer, probably called Donninus,[3] who administered the finances of Aetius, the powerful magister militum of the West. The couple gave the name Maiorianus to their child in honour of his influential grandfather.[2]

Placidia was the younger daughter of Emperor Valentinian III, who planned to marry her to Majorian (450 ca.). As the powerful magister militum Aetius realised that this marriage would weaken his position, he sent Majorian away from his staff to private life, thus hindering the marriage.

It was under the same Aetius that Majorian started his military career.[4] He followed Aetius in Gallia, where he met under Aetius' command two officers of barbarian origin who would have played an important role in Majorian's life: the Suevic-Visigoth Ricimer[5] and the Gaul Aegidius.[6] Majorian distinguished himself in the defence of the city of Turonensis (modern Tours) and in a battle against the Franks of king Clodio, near Vicus Helena[7] (447 or 448). In the latter, Majorian fought at the head of his cavalry on a bridge, while Aetius controlled the roads leading to the battlefield:[8]

There was a narrow passage at the junction of two ways, and a road crossed both the village of Helena... and the river. [Aëtius] was posted at the cross-roads while Majorian warred as a mounted man close to the bridge itself...
—Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.207–227. Anderson tr.

Around 450, Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III considered the possibility of having his daughter Placidia marry Majorian. Valentinian had two daughters and no sons, and therefore no heir to the throne. Having Majorian as son-in-law would have strengthened Valentinian in the face of other powerful generals and would have solved the problem of the succession. Furthermore, as Emperor, Majorian could have led the army by himself, thus freeing him from the dangerous bond with a powerful general, as Valentinian had been obliged to contract with Aetius. This plan was to avoid the possible succession of barbarian generals such as Huneric of Attila to Aetius, but contrasted with the plans of Aetius himself. The Roman general, in fact, planned to marry his own son Gaudentius to Placidia. He therefore opposed Valentinian's plan, and put an end to Majorian's military career, expelling him from his staff and sending him to his country estate.[9] According to the poet Sidonius Apollinaris, the cause of the fall of Majorian was the jealousy of Aetius' wife, who feared that Majorian could overshadow Aetius' prestige.[10]

Only in 454 Majorian could return to public life. In that year, in fact, Valentinian III killed Aetius with his own hands, but, fearing a revolt in Aetius' troops, he called Majorian back in office to quell them.[11] The following year, however, Valentinian III was killed by two former officers of Aetius' staff. A fight for the succession started, as no heir existed. Majorian played the role of the candidate for the throne of Licinia Eudoxia, Valentinian's widow, and of Ricimer, who reserved for himself a role similar to Aetius'.[12] In the end, the new Emperor was Petronius Maximus, a senator somehow involved in Valentinian's murder, who outmanoeuvred the other candidates. To strengthen his position, he obliged Licinia to marry him and promoted Majorian to the rank of comes domesticorum (commander-in-chief of the imperial guard).[13]

Petronius, however, ruled for just a few weeks, as he was killed during the Vandal sack of Rome (May 455). It is not known if Majorian expected to succeed him; the new Emperor was, in fact, the Gallic-Roman noble Avitus, who had the support of the Visigoths. Both Majorian, comes domesticorum, and Ricimer, comes, initially supported Avitus, but when the Emperor lost the loyalty of the Italian aristocracy, the two generals revolted against him. First Majorian and Ricimer killed Remistus, the magister militum entrusted by Avitus with the defence of the capital, Ravenna. Then Ricimer defeated Avitus' troops near Placentia, taking prisoner the Emperor himself, who was obliged to abdicate. Finally, Majorian caused Avitus' death, possibly starving him, in early 457.[14]

Rise to the throne

Avitus was dead and the Western throne without a pretender; the Eastern Roman Emperor was to choose the successor, but Marcian could not do anything, as he died on January 27, 457. His successor on the Eastern throne was the general Leo I, who, however, did not select a colleague for the West, possibly because he intended to reign alone[citation needed].[15] On the other hand, Leo rewarded both Majorian and Ricimer: the former was appointed magister militum, the latter patricius and magister militum (February 28, 457).[16]

While the situation was in a precarious equilibrium, 900 Alemanni invaded Italy. They moved from Raetia and penetrated the Italian territory down to Lake Maggiore. Here they were intercepted by the troops of comes Burco, sent by Majorian to stop the invaders, and were defeated:[17]

The savage Alaman had scaled the Alps and had emerged, plundering the Roman land; he had sent 900 foemen to scour for booty... By this time you were Master [of Soldiers], and you sent forth Burco with a band of followers... Fortune brought about a triumph not through numbers but through their love of you... You fought with the authority of a Master but the destiny of an Emperor
—Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.373–385. Anderson tr.

This victory was celebrated as Majorian's own, and the magister militum was acclaimed Emperor by the army on April 1, six miles outside Ravenna, in a place called ad Columellas, "at the Little Columns".[16] There were actually two magistri militum to choose between, Majorian and Ricimer, but the barbarian origin of the latter barred him from the throne. However, Ricimer could expect to exert a great influence on the new Western Emperor, because of their relationship, dating back to the time of their service under Aetius, and of his control on the army as magister militum.

In his panegyric to Majorian, the poet Sidonius Apollinaris tells that Majorian initially refused the election:[18]

The world trembled with alarm while you were loath to permit your victories to benefit you, and because, overly modest, you grieved because you deserved the throne and because you would not undertake to rule what you had deemed worth defending
—Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.9–12. Anderson tr.

However, modern historians think that it was Leo I who initially refused to recognise Majorian as his colleague. But the general chosen by the army was the only viable candidate to the throne: the Eastern court was not displeased with the deposition of Avitus, an Emperor chosen by the Visigoths; on the other side, the only other candidate, Olybrius, had a politically difficult relationship with the Vandal king Genseric, and no influence on the army.[citation needed] Despite this, the approval of the Eastern court to Majorian's election came late, as the new Emperor was actually crowned only on December 28.[19] Leo I and Majorian jointly assumed the consulate for the year 458; it was customary that a new Emperor took this magistracy on the first year started as Emperor.[2]

Foreign affairs

Defence of Italy

The first problems Majorian was to handle were the consolidation of his rule over Italy and the recovery of Gaul, after this province had rebelled to the deposition of the Gaul-Roman emperor Avitus. The recovery of the lost provinces of Hispania and Africa was a project that Majorian had to leave for later.

In Summer 458, a group of Vandals, led by the brother-in-law of Genseric, landed in Campania, at the mouth of the Liri or the Garigliano river, and started devastating and sacking the region. Majorian personally led the Roman army to a victory over the invaders near Sinuessa and followed the defeated Vandals, loaded by their booty, as far as their own ships, killing many of them including their commander.[20]

After this event, Majorian understood that he was to take the initiative, if he wanted to defend the hearth of his Empire, the only territory he actually controlled, and so he decided to strengthen its defences. First, he issued a law, the Novella Maioriani 8 known as De reddito iure armorum ("On the Return of the Right to Bear Arms"), about the personal right to bear arms; in 440 Valentinian III had already promulgated a law with the same name, Novella Valentiniani 9, after another attack of the Vandals. It is probably to this time that another law is to be dated, the Novella Maioriani 12 known as De aurigis et seditiosis ("Concerning Charioteers and Seditious Persons"), to quell the disorders that sprang up during the chariot races. Both these laws are now lost.[2] Then he strengthened the army, recruiting a large number of barbarian mercenaries, among whom Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugii, Burgundians, Huns, Bastarnae, Suebi, Scythians and Alans.[21] Finally, he rebuilt two fleets, probably those of Miseno and Ravenna, since the Vandals had a strong navy:[22]

Meanwhile you built on the two shores fleets for the upper and lower sea. Down into the water falls every forest of the Apennines
—Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.441–442. Anderson tr.

Re-conquest of Gaul

During his four year reign Majorian reconquered most of Hispania and southern Gaul, meanwhile reducing the Visigoths, Burgundians and Suevi to federate status.

After consolidating his position in Italy, Majorian concentrated on the recovery of Gaul. When the news of the deposition of the Gallic-Roman emperor Avitus arrived in Gaul, the province refused to recognise Majorian as his successor. A clue is an inscription found in Lugdunum (modern Lyon) and dating to 458: according to Roman custom, the inscriptions were dated reporting the name of the consuls in office, who that year were Leo I and Majorian; this inscription, instead, records only the name of Eastern Emperor, showing that Majorian was not recognised as lawful Emperor.[23] Another clue is the fact that at the death of Avitus, the citizens of Lugdunum had allowed the Burgundians of king Gondioc to occupy the city,[citation needed] and that they sent an envoy to Leo, and not to Majorian, to ask for a reduction of the taxation.[24] Finally, there is a record of a failed usurpation in Gaul, around this time.[25]

In late 458 Majorian entered in Gaul, with an army strengthened by the barbarian units.[26] The Emperor personally led the army, leaving Ricimer in Italy and choosing Aegidius and the magister militiae Nepotianus as collaborators. The imperial army defeated the Visigoths under king Theodoric II at the Battle of Arelate, forcing the Visigoths to abandon Septimania and withdraw west to Aquitania. The Roman victory was decisive: under the new treaty the Visigoths were to relinquish their vast conquests in Hispania and return to federate status. Majorian chose his trusted general Aegidius as the new magister militum per Gallias (military commander of Gaul) and sent an envoy in Hispania, to report the victory over the Visigoths and the new treaty with Theodoric II.[27]

With the help of his new foederati, Majorian entered in the Rhone Valley, conquering its populations "some by arms and some by diplomacy".[28] He defeated the Burgundians and besieged and conquered the city of Lugdunum: the rebel city was heavily fined, while the Bagaudae were forced to join the Empire.[2] Despite the fact that the Gallic-Roman aristocracy had sided with Avitus, however, Majorian wanted a reconciliation, not a punishment. With the intercession of Majorian' magister epistolarum Petrus, Sidonius Apollinaris, the son-in-law of Avitus, was allowed to deliver a panegyric[29] in honour of the Emperor (early January 459), receiving in reward the appointment to the rank of comes spectabilis. Much more effective was, however, the granting of the tax remission that the citizen of Lyon had requested from Leo I.[30]

Campaign of Hispania

In the wake of the Vandal sack of Rome (455), the Visigoths had conquered Hispania, formally in the name of the new Western Emperor Avitus, actually controlling the territory themselves. Majorian planned to reconquer Hispania and use it as the basis for the conquest of Africa: the richest province of the Western Empire, which provided for the very important grain supply to the city of Rome, was in fact under Vandal control.

According to the historian Procopius, Majorian, "who surpassed in every virtue all who have ever been emperors of the Romans", wanted to know personally the military readiness of the Vandals and how the local populations would have reacted to the Roman invasion. He dyed black his fair hair, for which he was famous, and went to Genseric claiming to be an envoy of the Western Emperor; Genseric tried to impress the enemy ambassador showing him the arms collected in the warehouses and sent him back.[31] This story is probably only a legend of the Italian folklore,[32] but it is a clue of the carefulness of the preparation of the expedition: Majorian collected informations on the enemy and gathered a fleet of three hundred ships to support the army in the reconquest of Hispania and in the invasion of Africa.[2]

It was probably during the preparation of this operation that Majorian sent the comes and patricius Occidentis Marcellinus to Sicily with an army of Huns, to take back the island from the Vandals. Marcellinus was the comes rei militaris (governor) of Illyricum, but he had become practically independent since the death of Aetius, non recognising the imperial authority; Majorian had convinced him to accept him as Emperor and even to collaborate with his troops with the military recovery of the Empire.[33]

The campaign started with an operation against the Suebi in North-Western Spain, lasted along the whole 459 and led by the magister militiae Nepotianus and the Gothic comes Sunieric. Majorian gathered the main part of the army in Liguria, then he entered in Aquitaine and Novempopulania coming from Theodoric's court in Toulouse (May 460). Genseric, fearing the Roman invasion, tried to negotiate a peace with Majorian, who rejected the proposal. The Vandal king then decided to devastate Mauretania, his own territory, because he thought that the Roman army would land there; moreover, he ordered his navy to prepare incursions in the waters near the probable invasion area.[28] In the meantime, Majorian was conquering Hispania: while Nepotianus and Sunieric defeated the Suebi at Lucus Augusti (modern Lugo) and conquered Scallabis in Lusitania (modern Santarém, Portugal), the Emperor passed through Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza), where he performed a formal imperial adventus.[34] Finally he reached Carthaginiensis, when his fleet, docked at Portus Illicitanus (near Elche), was destroyed by traitors paid for by the Vandals:[35]

While Majorian was campaigning in the province of Carthaginiensis the Vandals destroyed, through traitors, several ships that he was preparing for himself for a crossing against the Vandals from the shore of Carthaginiensis. Majorian, frustrated in this manner from his intention, returned to Italy.
—Hydatius, Chronicle, 200, s.a. 460.

Majorian, deprived of the fleet that was necessary for the invasion, cancelled the attack on the Vandals. He received the ambassadors of Genseric, with whom he agreed to conclude peace, which probably included the recognition of the de facto occupation of Mauretania by the Vandals. On his way back to Italy, the Emperor stopped at Arelate.[36]

Domestic policy

Majorian's domestic policy is known thanks to some of the laws he issued, the so-called Novellae Maioriani, that were included in a collection of Roman law entitled Breviarium, requested by the 6th-century Visigothic king Alaric II to some Gallic-Roman jurists in 506.[2][37]

The preserved laws are:

  • Novella Maioriani 1, De ortu imperii domini Majoriani Augusti, "The Beginning of the Reign of Our Lord Majorian Augustus", opening speech of his reign, addressed to the Roman Senate (given in Ravenna, on January 11, 458);
  • Novella Maioriani 2, De indulgentiis reliquorum, "On the Remission of Past-Due Accounts" (given in Ravenna, on March 11, 458, to Basilius, Praetorian prefect of Italy);
  • Novella Maioriani 3, De defensoribus civitatum, "The Defenders of the Municipalities", on the office of defensor civitatum (given in Ravenna, on May 8, 458, also in the name of Leo I);
  • Novella Maioriani 4, De aedificiis pubblicis, "Public Buildings", on the preservation of the monuments of Rome (given in Ravenna, on July 11, 458, to Aemilianus, praefectus urbi of Rome, also in the name of Leo I);
  • Novella Maioriani 5, De bonis caducis sive proscriptorum, "On Abandoned Property and That of Proscribed Persons" (given in Ravenna, on September 4, 458, to Ennodius,[38] comes privatae largitionis, also in the name of Leo I);
  • Novella Maioriani 6, De sanctimonialibus vel viduis et de successionibus earum, "Holy Maidens, Widows, and Their Succession" (given in Ravenna, on October 26, 458, to Basilius, Praetorian prefect of Italy, also in the name of Leo I);
  • Novella Maioriani 7, De curialibus et de agnatione vel distractione praediorum et de ceteris negotiis, "Decurions, Their Children and The Sale of Their Landed Estates" (given in Ravenna, on November 6, 458, to Basilius, Praetorian prefect of Italy, also in the name of Leo I);
  • Novella Maioriani 8, De reddito iure armorum, "On the Return of the Right to Bear Arms", whose text is lost;
  • Novella Maioriani 9, De adulteriis, "Adultery", confirming that the adulterers are to be put to death (given in Arelate, on April 17, 459, to Rogatianus, governor of Suburbicarian Tuscany, also in the name of Leo I);
  • Novella Maioriani 10, about the right of the Roman senators and of the Church to keep the goods received in a will, whose text is lost;
  • Novella Maioriani 11, De episcopali iudicio et ne quis invitus clericus ordinetur vel de ceteris negotiis, "Episcopal Courts; No Person Shall Be Ordained A Cleric Against His Will; Various Matters", (given in Arelate, on March 28, 460, to Ricimer, also in the name of Leo I);
  • Novella Maioriani 12, De aurigis et seditiosis, "Charioteers and Seditious Persons", whose text is lost.

Fiscal policy and coinage

Tremissis minted by a Visigothic king in the name of Majorian. These coins were minted in Arelate between 457 and 507 by the Visigoths, but they carried the portrait and the name of the Roman Emperor, corrupted in iviivs haiorianvs. Even if their style was close to the Roman originals, Visigothic coins contained less precious metal; it was probably for this reason that Majorian issued a law obliging the tax collectors to accept golden coins at their nominal value, with the exception of the "Gallic" coin, of lesser value.[39]

Majorian understood that he could reign effectively only with the support of the senatorial aristocracy, whom he wanted to return to its pristine political prominence. At the same time, he planned to reduce the abuses perpetrated by the senators, many of whom cultivated their local interests disregarding the imperial policies, even refusing paying taxes and keeping for themselves the taxes they had exacted. This fiscal evasion had a cascade effect that affected the small landowners, the citizens and the local civil magistrates. For example, the decurions were to personally compensate the imperial treasury of all the taxes not exacted; sometimes, oppressed by the debts collected in this way, the decurions abandoned their status, a problem already addressed by Emperor Julian (361–363). Majorian also cancelled the tax arrears, knowing that a rigorous fiscal policy could not be effective if the taxpayers were to pay also the great arrears accumulated.[2]

On March 11, 458, Majorian issued a law entitled De indulgentiis reliquorum, "On the Remission of Past-Due Accounts" (Novella Maioriani 2). This law remitted all the tax arrears of the landowners. This same law explicitly prohibited public administrators, who had a record of keeping the collected money for themselves, to collect taxes; this task was to be reserved to the governors alone. Another law issued to reorganise the tax system was issued on September 4 of the same year, and was entitled De bonis caducis sive proscriptorum, "On Abandoned Property and That of Proscribed Persons" (Novella Maioriani 5): the comes privatae largitionis Ennodius was to admonish the provincial judges against defrauding the imperial treasure, keeping for themselves a part of the money collected.[2]

The Emperor was also interested in repairing the backbone of the imperial administration. On May 8, 458, Majorian issued a law entitled De defensoribus civitatum, "The Defenders of the Municipalities" (Novella Maioriani 3), to re-establish the office of the defensor civitatis. This city magistrate represented the interests of the citizens in trials against the public administration, particularly in fiscal matters; this magistracy was still existent, but actually ineffective, since it was often held by the same officials who vexed the population. Another law was issued on November 6 to strengthen the magistracy of the decurions. De curialibus et de agnatione vel distractione praediorum et de ceteris negotiis, "Decurions, Their Children and The Sale of Their Landed Estates" (Novella Maioriani 7), was issued to forgive past abuses perpetrated by the decurions, but forbade them to leave their status, either going into hiding or marrying slave or tenant farmers, and to alienate their own properties.[2]

Majorian minted coins in gold, silver and bronze. Gold coinage was minted in great quantities. On these coins the Emperor is depicted, with few exceptions, with an combat helmet, a spear, a shield and a chi-rho, looking towards right; this typology was derived by a rare type minted in Ravenna for Honorius and used in great quantities only by Majorian, while it was dropped by his successors. The first series of solidi were minted probably in Ravenna, and bear at the obverse the joint portrait of Majorian and Leo I, thus celebrating the mutual recognition of the two Roman emperors. The mints of Ravenna and Milan issued both solidi and tremisses since the beginning of Majorian's reign. No series of semisses are attested for these two mints, probably because the semisses were typically minted by the mint of Rome and this mint was not active under Majorian, who never visited the ancient capital of his Empire during his four years of rule. The minting of solidi is attested for the mint of Arelate in 458, a fact compatible with the presence of Majorian in Gaul in that year. This mint was again active in 460, when the Emperor returned from his campaign in Spain. The Visigoths minted some reproductions of his solidi, modelled after the issues of the Arelate mint: as Arelate issued only solidi, the Visigoths used those designs also for the tremissis.[2][40]

Silver coinage was issued almost exclusively by the Gallic mints; it has been suggested that these series were not issued by Majorian, but by Aegidius after the Emperor's death, to mark the fact that he did not recognise his successor, Libius Severus. Majorian also produced great quantities of nummi of great weight, mostly minted at Ravenna and Milan, and some contorniates, mostly in Rome, but probably also in Ravenna.[2][40]

Social policies

The diffusion of Christianity in the Empire caused some social changes within the aristocrat families. In several wealthy families, daughters were obliged to take religious vows and never marry, so that the family wealth would not be dispersed in dowries. Majorian thought that this behaviour hurt the State, both because it reduced the number of Roman children, and because he believed that this prohibition caused the girls to start illicit affairs. On October 26, 458, the Emperor addressed a law, the Novella Maioriani 6, to the Praetorian prefect of Italy, Caecina Decius Basilius. This law, entitled De sanctimonialibus vel viduis et de successionibus earum ("Holy Maidens, Widows, and Their Succession"), imposed a minimum age to take vows of 40 years, considering that at this age the sexual drives of the initiated would be dormant; the law also granted to women who had been forced to take religious vows, and were subsequently disinherited, the same rights on the legacy of parents as their brothers and sisters.[41] In order to solve this same problem of the decline of the Roman population, in particular compared with the growth of the barbarians allocated within the imperial boundaries, Majorian addressed the problem of young women widowed and without children who never married because of the influence of religious clergy, to whom they destined their goods in their will: so the young widows were prohibited to take religious vows.[42]

By the same measure, departing in this from the policy of the Eastern Empire, Majorian insisted that a marriage without dowry and pre-wedding gifts trade (the first from the bride's family to the groom, the latter in the opposite direction) was invalid; simultaneously ended the practice of requesting pre-wedding gifts of a value considerably higher than the dowry.[43]

Relationship with the senatorial aristocracy

Avitus, the predecessor of Majorian on the imperial throne, had alienated the Roman senatorial aristocracy support appointing members of Gallo-Roman aristocracy, which he was part of, to the most important offices of the imperial administration. He was overthrown by Majorian, who did not repeat the same error and rotated the main offices between representatives of both aristocracies.

When Majorian took the power deposing Avitus, the province of Gaul, where Avitus' power was based, did not recognise the new Emperor. When, however, Majorian re-conquered the province, he chose to forgive this rebellion. The reason was that Majorian understood that one of the mistakes of his predecessor was to promote and trust only the senatorial aristocracy of Gaul, the region he come from, favouring it over the senatorial aristocracy of Italy. Majorian, instead, decided to gain the favour of the wealthy and noble families of the recovered province involving them in the administration of the power, together with the Italian aristocracy that, on the other side, had supported him since the beginning. A clue of this policy is the origin of the high civil servants of his administration, in particular of the consuls, whom the Emperor appointed jointly with his Eastern colleague. In first year (458) Majorian reserved the honour for himself, as the Emperors usually did in the first year they started as augusti, while in the second year he appointed his former colleague and powerful magister militum, Ricimer; then, for the year 460, he choose the Gallic senator Magnus, and for the next year the Italian senator Severinus. Magnus had been appointed Praetorian prefect of Gaul in 458, while the Praetorian prefect of Italy was Caecina Decius Basilius, who was the patron of the Gallic senator (and poet) Sidonius Apollinaris, while the comes privatae largitionis, Ennodius, was related to a family with interests in Arelate.[2][38]

He also showed great respect towards the Roman senate, as suggested by the message he addressed it on the eve of his crowning: he promised the senators he would not take into account the accusations of the informers, who were very feared as they were often instruments in the hands of the Emperors, used to cause the fall of influential figures.[44] And the promises were followed by facts, as told by Sidonius Apollinaris, who had been anonymously accused of the authorship of a pamphlet against some influential figures: during a dinner together, Majorian defused the risky situation with a witticism.[45]

Conservation of the monuments of Rome

Since the beginning of the 4th century, the monuments of Rome, and more generally all those buildings of some value that were in a state of neglect for various reasons, were increasingly used as quarries for valuable building materials. This practice, in fact, was cheaper and more convenient than the import from remote locations, sometimes rendered difficult or impossible by the control of the sea by the Vandals.[46] Roman officials conceded upon petition the use for construction of marble, stone and brick recovered from demolition of ancient monuments:

Hence the occasion now arises that also each and every person who is constructing a private edifice through the favoritism of the judges who are situated in the City, does not hesitate to take presumptuously and to transfer the necessary materials from the public places, although those things which belong to the splendor of the cities ought to be preserved by civic affection, even under the necessity of repair.
Novella Maioriani 4, Clyde Pharr (ed.), The Theodosian code: and Novels The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2001 ISBN 1584771461, pp. 553–4.

To cope with this phenomenon, Majorian promulgated a law Novella Maioriani 4, De aedificiis pubblicis ("Public Buildings"), promulgated in Ravenna on July 11, 459, and addressed to Aemilianus, praefectus urbi of Rome. The punishment for judges who had allowed the destruction of ancient public buildings was 50 pounds of gold, while their subordinates were whipped and would have had both hands amputated. Those who had removed materials from public buildings were to return it. The Senate had the power to decide whether there were extreme conditions that justified the demolition of an old building, and in the case it decided for the demolition, the Emperor had still the right to order that the resulting materials should be used to decorate other public buildings.

Fall and death

Coin of Majorian

The fate of Avitus had been marked by the betrayal of Ricimer and of Majorian and by the dismissal of his German guard, so the fate of Majorian himself was decided by the disbandment of his army and a plot organised by Ricimer. In fact, while the emperor was busy away from Italy, the barbarian patricius et magister militum had clotted around himself the aristocratic opposition to his former comrade with, just a few years earlier, he had cultivated dreams of power. Majorian's legislation had shown that he had intention to intervene decisively on the issues that plagued the empire, even at the cost of hitting the interests of influential aristocrats.[2][47]

After spending some time at Arelate, his base at the end of the operation against the Vandals in Spain,[36] Majorian disbanded his barbarian mercenaries, and, accompanied by some guards, set off to Rome, where he intended to carry out some reforms. Ricimer went to meet Majorian with a military detachment; the magister militum met the Emperor near Tortona (not far from Piacenza, where Avitus had been killed), and had him arrested and deposed (August 3).[36] The Emperor was deprived of his dress and diadem, beaten and tortured; after five days, Majorian was beheaded near the river Iria (August 7, 461):[48] he was about forty years old and had reigned for four. The city of Tortona now hosts, in the church of St. Matthew, a building traditionally identified as the "mausoleum of Majorian".[49]

After the death of Majorian, Ricimer waited for three months before putting someone on the imperial throne he believed he could manipulate. He finally chose Libius Severus, a senator of no political distinction but was probably selected to please the Italian senatorial aristocracy. The new emperor was not recognized by the Eastern Emperor Leo I, nor by any of the generals who had served under Majorian; not by Aegidius in Gaul, not by Marcellinus in Sicily and Illyria, and not by Nepotianus in Hispania.[33][50]


  1. ^ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XXXVI "Total Extinction Of The Western Empire"
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Mathisen.
  3. ^ This identification, based on a passage in the work of Priscus, is not universally accepted by the historians. See MacGeorge, p. 189, for a summary of the arguments in favour of the identification, and Arnold Hugh Martin Jones, John Robert Martindale, John Morris, "Domninus 3", Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 1992, ISBN 0521201594, p. 373, for the arguments against it.
  4. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.198–200.
  5. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.266–268.
  6. ^ Priscus, fragment 50.
  7. ^ The exact location of Vicus Helena is unknown, but it was in Northern France, probably near modern Arras (Jan Willem Drijvers, Helena Augusta, BRILL, ISBN 90-04-09435-0, p. 12).
  8. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.207–227.
  9. ^ O'Flynn, pp. 94–95.
  10. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.290–300.
  11. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.305–308.
  12. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.312–314; John of Antioch, fragment 201.6.
  13. ^ It is however possible that Majorian was appointed comes domesticorum by Valentinian when he was recalled back in service after Aetius' murder (Mathisen).
  14. ^ John of Antioch, fragment 202.
  15. ^ After the death of Libius Severus, in 465, Leo waited two years to select a new colleague, Anthemius.
  16. ^ a b Fasti vindobonenses priores, 583.
  17. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.373–385.
  18. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.9–12.
  19. ^ Auctarium Prosperi Hauniensis, s.a. 458.
  20. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.385–440 and A. Loyen, Recherches historiques sur les panégiriques de Sidonine Apollinaire, Paris 1942, pp. 76–77 and note 5. Cited in Savino, Eliodoro, Campania tardoantica (284–604 d.C.), Edipuglia, 2005, ISBN 88-7228-257-8, p. 84.
  21. ^ Gibbon.
  22. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.441–442.
  23. ^ CIL XIII, 2363, to be compared to CIL XIII, 2359.
  24. ^ Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Confessors 62. Cited in Mathisen.
  25. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris tells (Letters, I.11.6) that this usurpation regarded some Marcellus. The hypothesis that this Marcellus is to be identified with the semi-independent comes of Illyricum Marcellinus has been rejected, as this conspiracy was to put Avitus back on the throne, or to oppose a Gallic-Roman noble to Majorian.
  26. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.474–477.
  27. ^ Hydatius, 197, s.a. 459; Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum, II.11.
  28. ^ a b Priscus, fragment 27.
  29. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris' Carmen V.
  30. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, V.574–585.
  31. ^ Procopius, VII.4–13.
  32. ^ MacGeorge, p. 214.
  33. ^ a b Arnold Hugh Martin Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284–602, JHU Press, 1986, ISBN 0-8018-3353-1, p. 241. MacGeorge, however, maintains that Marcellinus' return under the Western Emperor's rule is not attested, and thinks that Marcellinus was in Sicily either to independently collaborate in the campaign against the Vandals or, by order of the Eastern Emperor, to put pressure on Geiseric for the restitution of Emperess Eudoxia and her daughters (pp. 46–48).
  34. ^ Roger Collins, Visigothic Spain, 409–711, Blackwell Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-631-18185-7, p. 32.
  35. ^ Chronica gallica anno 511, 634; Marius Aventicensis, s.a. 460; Hydatius, 200, s.a. 460.
  36. ^ a b c Chronica gallica anno 511.
  37. ^ Clyde Pharr, The Theodosian code and novels, and the Sirmondian constitutions, The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2001, ISBN 1584771461, pp. 551–561.
  38. ^ a b This Ennodius was a relative of the poet and bishop Magnus Felix Ennodius (474–521).
  39. ^ Novella Maioriani 7.14, November 6, 458, cited in Mathisen.
  40. ^ a b Vagi, David, Coinage and history of the Roman Empire, c. 82 B.C.--A.D. 480, Taylor & Francis, ISBN 1-57958-316-4, p. 567.
  41. ^ Novella Maioriani 6.1–3, cited in Grubbs, p. 110.
  42. ^ Novella Maioriani 6.5–8, cited in Grubbs, pp. 232–234.
  43. ^ Novella Maioriani 6.9–103, cited in Grubbs, p. 119.
  44. ^ Novella Maioriani 1, De ortu imperii domini Majoriani Augusti, "The Beginning of the Reign of Our Lord Majorian Augustus".
  45. ^ This event took place in 461, and is recorded in a letter (Letters, I.11.2–15) of Apollinaris to a friend (Mathisen).
  46. ^ Paolo Delogu, Le invasioni barbariche nel meridione dell'impero: Visigoti, Vandali, Ostrogoti, Rubettino, p. 336.
  47. ^ Hydatius, 210.
  48. ^ John of Antioch, fragment 203; Marcellinus, sa 461; Fasti vindobonenses priores, No 588. Procopius (VII.14–15) does not mention the Emperor's return from Spain and said that Majorian died of dysentery: it is possible that the news has been put about by Ricimer (Fik Meijer, Emperors Do not Die in Bed, Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-31201-9, p. 155). Victor of Tonnena erroneously claims that Majorian reached Rome and was killed there, and puts this event in 463 (Chronica, s.a. 463).
  49. ^ "Mausoleo di Maiorano (Sec. I a.C.)", Città di Tortona.
  50. ^ O'Flynn, p. 111.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

Further reading

  • Ralph W. Mathisen, "Resistance and Reconciliation: Majorian and the Gallic Aristocracy after the Fall of Avitus," Francia 7 (1979) pp. 597–627.
  • Gerald E. Max, "Political Intrigue during the Reigns of the Western Roman Emperors Avitus and Majorian," Historia 28 (1979) pp. 225–237.
  • Meyer, Helmut, "Der Regierungsantritt Kaiser Majorians," Byzantinische Zeitschrift 62 (1969) pp. 5–12.
  • Stewart I. Oost, "Aëtius and Majorian," Classical Philology 59 (1964) pp. 23–29.

External links

Media related to Majorian at Wikimedia Commons

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Western Roman Emperor
Succeeded by
Libius Severus
Preceded by
Flavius Constantinus,
Flavius Rufus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Flavius Valerius Leo Augustus
Succeeded by
Flavius Ricimerus,
Flavius Iulius Patricius

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