Avitus - Roman Emperor: July 455- October 456 A.D.
Bronze AE4 11mm (1.35 grams) Struck circa 455-456 A.D.
Reference: RIC 2413
DNAVITVSPFAVG - Diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right.
VICTORIAAVGG Exe: S/RM - Victory advancing left, holding wreath and palm.
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Eparchius Avitus (c. 385 - after 17 October 456 or in 457) was Western Roman Emperor from July 8 or July 9, 455 to October 17, 456. A Gallic-Roman aristocrat, he was a senator and a high-ranking officer both in the civil and military administration, as well as Bishop of Piacenza.
A representative of the Gallic-Roman aristocracy, he opposed the reduction of the Western Roman Empire to Italy alone, both politically and from the administrative point of view. For this reason, as Emperor he introduced several Gallic senators in the imperial administration; this policy, however, was opposed by both the senatorial aristocracy and by the people of Rome, which had suffered because of the Vandalic sack of the city in 455. Avitus had a good relationship with the Visigoths, in particular with their king Theodoric II, who was a friend of his and who acclaimed Avitus Emperor, but the possibility of a strong and useful alliance between Visigoths and Romans ended when Theodoric invaded Roman Hispania and then refused to help Avitus against the rebel Roman generals who deposed him.
Origins and early career
Avitus was born in Clermont, in a noble family of the senatorial aristocracy of Gallic-Roman origin; his father was possibly Flavius Julius Agricola, consul in 421. He had at least two sons and a daughter: Agricola (440 – after 507, a vir inlustris), Ecdicius Avitus (later patricius and magister militum under Emperor Julius Nepos), and, clarissima femina (who married the praetorian prefect of Gaul Tonantius Ferreolus). He was also related to Magnus Felix and Priscus Valerianus. Agricola's daughter, also named Papianilla (490–530), married her relative Parthenius (485–548), a Patron in 542 and perhaps a great-grandson of Felix Ennodius.
Avitus followed a course of study typical for a young man of his rank: he studied law. Before 421 he was sent to the powerful patricius Flavius Constantius (shortly Emperor in 421), to ask for a tax reduction for his own country. This embassy was successful. A relative of his, Theodorus, was hostage at the court of the King of Visigoths, Theodoric I: in 425/426 Avitus went and met him, thus meeting the King, who let Avitus enter his own court. Here, around 439, Avitus met the son of Theodoric, Theodoric II, who later became King. Avitus inspired the young Theodoric to study Latin poets.
He then started a military career: he served under the magister militum Aetius in his campaign against the Juthungi and the Norics (430–431) and also against the Burgundians (436). In 437, after being elevated to the rank of vir inlustris, he returned to Alvernia, where he held a high office, probably magister militum per Gallias; in that same year he defeated near Clermont a group of Hunnic raiders and obliged Theodoric to lift the siege of Narbonne. In 439 he became Praetorian prefect of Gaul; in that same year he renewed the friendship treaty with the Visigoths.
Before the summer of 440, he retired to private life in his lands, called Avitacum, near Clermont. Here he lived until 451, when the Huns, led by Attila, invaded the Western Roman Empire; Avitus used his own influence over Theodoric to convince him to an alliance between Visigoths and Romans. Theodoric and Aetius defeated Attila in the Battle of Châlons, although Theodoric was killed there.
Rise to the throne
In the late spring of 455, Avitus was recalled to service by emperor Petronius Maximus and was elevated to the rank of magister militum, probably praesentalis; Maximus sent Avitus in an embassy to the court of Theodoric II, who had succeeded to his father, at Toulouse: this embassy probably confirmed the new King and his people the condition of foederati of the Empire and asked for their support to the new Emperor.
While Avitus was at Theodoric's court, news came of the death of Petronius Maximus (May 22) and of the sack of Rome by the Vandals of Gaiseric. Theodoric acclaimed Avitus Emperor in Toulouse, on July 9, the new Emperor was acclaimed by the Gallic chiefs gathered in Viernum, near Arelate, and later, around August 5, before Avitus reached Rome, he received the recognition of the Roman Senate.
Avitus stayed in Gaul for three months, to consolidate his power in the region that was the center of his support, and later went to Italy with a Gallic army, probably reinforced with a Gothic force. He probably travelled to Noricum to restore the imperial authority in that province, and then passed through Ravenna, where he left a Gothic force under the new patricius and magister militum Remistus, a Visigoth. On September 21, finally, he entered Rome.
Consolidation of power
The effective power of Avitus depended on the support of all the major players in the Western Roman Empire in the mid-5th century. The new Emperor needed the support of both the civil institutions, the Roman senate and the Eastern Roman Emperor Marcian, as well as that of the army and its commanders (the generals Majorian and Ricimer) and the Vandals of Gaiseric.
On January 1, 456, Avitus took the consulate, as traditionally the Emperors always held the consulate in the first year upon assuming the purple. However, his consulate sine collega (without a second Consul) was not recognised by the Eastern court, which nominated two consuls, Iohannes and Varanes: the fact that the two courts did not agree on a couple of consuls but each nominated its own means that, despite Avitus' actions to receive the recognition of the Eastern Emperor (Hydatius writes – Chronicle, 166, that Avitus sent some ambassadors to Marcian to discuss the separation of their spheres of influences, and later adds that the two Emperors ruled in agreement – Chronicle, 169), the relationship between the two halves was non optimal.
The problem posed by the Vandal incursions was so big that Marcian had already tried to obtain the interruption of the raids in the Italian coasts, with no success. Avitus reiterated this initiative, recalling the treaty subscribed by Gaiseric and Valentinian III in 442 and entrusting the defence of the Empire to the Roman army and its allies. The Vandal raids restarted after the winter truce in March 456, despite a further embassy by Marcian, with the destruction of Capua. Avitus sent Ricimer to defend Sicily, and the Romans defeated the Vandals twice, once in a land battle near Agrigento and another in a naval battle off Corsica.
During Avitus' reign, the Visigoths expanded into Hispania, nominally under Roman authorisation but actually for their own interests. In 455 Avitus had sent an ambassador, comes Fronto, to the Suebi and then to Theodoric II to ask them formally to recognise Roman rule. When the Suebi invaded the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis the Visigoths attacked and defeated them in the Battle of the Urbicus River (October 5, 456), occupying the province as foederati of the Empire, at least nominally.
In the meantime, the resentment of the Italic population against Avitus grew. The Gallic-Roman Emperor, in fact, had given to members of the Gallic-Roman aristocracy many key offices of the public administration. Furthermore the population of Rome, devastated by the Vandal sack, suffered a scarcity of food due to the Vandal naval supremacy that controlled the naval routes, a scarcity aggravated by the foreign troops which had arrived with Avitus. The imperial treasury was almost empty and, after disbanding his Visigoth guard because of popular pressure, Avitus was obliged to pay their huge wages by melting down and selling the bronze of some statues. All these events caused the Emperor to grow unpopular.
Counting on the popular discontent, on the disbandment of the imperial guard, and on the prestige gained through their victories, Ricimer and the comes domesticorum Majorian rebelled against Avitus; the Emperor was obliged to leave Rome in early autumn and to move north. Ricimer had the Roman Senate depose Avitus and ordered the murder of the magister militum Remistus at Ravenna, in the in Classis Palace, on September 17 456.
Avitus decided to react. First he chose Messianus, one of his collaborators in his embassy to the Visigoths ordered by Petronius Maximus, as the new magister militum; then he probably went to Gaul (Hydatius says to Arelate) to collect all the available forces, probably the Visigoth guard he had just disbanded; finally he led his forces against the troops of Ricimer, near Piacenza. The Emperor and his army entered the city and attacked the huge army led by Ricimer, but after a great massacre of his men, including Messianus, Avitus fled (October 17 or 18).
Ricimer and Majorian decided to spare the life of the defeated Emperor; they deposed Avitus and obliged him to become Bishop of Piacenza.
The events that led to Avitus' death, in 457, are still obscure. One major reason of danger for Avitus was the fact that in some areas of the Western Empire he was still considered the lawful Emperor: for example, the contemporary historian Hydatius, who lived in Spain, considered the year 457 the third of Avitus' reign; furthermore Sidonius Apollinaris tells about a failed coup d'etat in Gaul, organised by one Marcellus and probably aimed at bringing Avitus back on the throne.
Avitus was informed that the Roman Senate had condemned him to death, and tried to flee to Gaul, officially travelling there to bring donations to the basilica of Saint Julian in Alvernia, his homeland. According to Gregory of Tours, Avitus died during the journey; according to other sources, he was killed by Majorian and Ricimer, who had him strangled or starved to death.
He was buried at Brioude, next to Saint Julian's tomb.