Beginnings of the dismemberment of the Empire – The rise of usurpers and the invasion of barbarians

Alaric’s brother-in-law Athaulf (Adolphus) succeeded him (410), and the Visigoths remained in Italy for two years longer, spoiling the land. In 412 they came to an understanding with Honorius, and Athaulf engaged to suppress the tyrants who had risen up in Gaul. This leads us to record the events which had agitated the Gallic provinces during the preceding six years.

The noteworthy circumstance about the events of these years, which were decisive for the future of Gaul, Spain, and Britain, was that two series of phenomena were going on at the same time, to some extent side by side and without clashing, but mutually conditioning and limiting one another. These two series of events are the rise of usurpers and the invasion of barbarians; and it seems that the same conditions which favoured the dismemberment of the western provinces by the Teutons favoured also the enterprise of illegitimate aspirants to the purple.

Up to the year 406 the Rhine was maintained as the frontier of the Roman Empire against the numerous barbarian races and tribes that swarmed uneasily in central Europe. From the Flavian Emperors until the time of Probus (282), the great military line from Coblenz to Kehlheirn on the Danube had been really defended, though often overstepped and always a strain on the Romans, and thus a tract of territory (including
Baden and Würtemberg) on the east shore of the Upper Rhine, the titheland as it was called, belonged to the Empire. But in the fourth century it was as much as could be done to keep off the Alemanni and Franks who were threatening the provinces of Gaul. The victories of Julian and Valentinian produced only temporary effects. On the last day of December 406 a vast company of Vandals, Suevians, and Alans crossed the Rhine. The frontier was not really defended; a handful of Franks who professed to guard it for the Romans were easily swept aside, and the invaders desolated Gaul at pleasure for the three following years. Such is the bare fact which the chroniclers tell us, but this migration seems to have been preceded by considerable movements on a large scale along the whole Rhine frontier, and these movements may have agitated the inhabitants of Britain, and excited apprehensions there of approaching danger. Three tyrants had been recently elected by the legions in rapid succession; the first two, Marcus and Gratian, were slain, but the third Augustus, who bore the auspicious name of Constantine, was destined to play a considerable part for a year or two on the stage of the western world.


It seems almost certain that these two movements, the passage of the Germans across the Rhine and the rise of the tyrants in Britain, were not without causal connection; and it also seems certain that both events were connected with the general Stilicho. The tyrants were elevated in the course of the year 406, and it was at the end of the same year that the Vandals crossed the Rhine. Now the revolt of the legions in Britain was evidently aimed against Stilicho, as the revolt of Maximus had been aimed against Merobaudes; there was a Roman spirit alive in the northern island, which was jealous of the growth of German influence. There is direct contemporary evidence that it was by Stilicho’s invitation that the barbarians invaded Gaul; he thought that when they had done the work for which he designed them he would find no difficulty in crushing them or otherwise disposing of them. We can hardly avoid supposing that the work which he wished them to perform was to oppose the tyrant of Britain -Constantine, or Gratian, or Marcus, whoever was tyrant then; for it was quite certain that, like Maximus, he would pass into Gaul, where numerous Gallo-Roman adherents would flock to his standards. Stilicho died before Constantine was crushed, and the barbarians whom he had so lightly summoned were still in the land, harrying Gaul, destined soon to harry and occupy Spain and seize Africa. From a Roman point of view Stilicho had much to answer for in the dismemberment of the Empire; from a Teutonic point of view, he contributed largely to preparing the way for the foundation of the German kingdoms.

The first act of the tyrant Constantine was to cross with all his military forces into Gaul, which sorely needed a defender to expel the barbarians who were harrying it, or, failing that, to protect the Rhine frontier against new invaders. He inflicted a severe defeat on the intruders, though he did not expel them; and, according to Zosimus, he guarded the Rhine more securely than it had been guarded since the reign of Julian. The representatives of the rule of Honorius, the praetorian prefect Limenius and the general Chariobaudes, fled into Italy probably soon after the arrival of the usurper from Britain, and Constantine passed into the south-eastern provinces which had escaped the devastations of the barbarians. “For two years,” writes Mr. Freeman, “they and he both carry on operations in Gaul, each, it would seem, without any interruption from the other. And when the scene of action is moved from Gaul to Spain, each party carries on its operations there also with as little of mutual let or hindrance. It was most likely only by winking at the presence of the invaders and at their doings that Constantine obtained possession, so far as Roman troops and Roman administration were concerned, of all Gaul from the Channel to the Alps. Certain it is that at no very long time after his landing, before the end of the year 407, he was possessed of it. But at that moment no Roman prince could be possessed of much authority in central or western Gaul, where Vandals, Suevians, and Alans were ravaging at pleasure. The dominion of Constantine must have consisted of a long and narrow strip of eastern Gaul, from the Channel to the Mediterranean, which could not have differed very widely from the earliest and most extended of the many uses of the word Lotharingia. He held the imperial city on the Mosel, the home of Valentinian and the earlier Constantine.”


When Constantine obtained possession of Arelate, then the most prosperous city of Gaul, it was time for Honorius and his general to rouse themselves. Stilicho formed the design of assigning to Alaric the task of subduing the adventurer from Britain, who had conferred upon his two sons, Constans, a monk, and Julian, the titles of caesar and nobilissimus respectively. But this design was not carried out. A Goth indeed, and a
brave Goth, but not Alaric, crossed the Alps to recover the usurped provinces; and Sarus defeated the army which was sent by Constantine to oppose him. But he failed to take
Valentia, and was obliged to return to Italy without having accomplished his purpose (408).

The next movement of Constantine was to occupy Spain. It is not necessary for us to follow Mr. Freeman in his account of the difficult and obscure operations which were carried on between the kinsmen of Theodosius and the troops which the Caesar Constans and his lieutenant Gerontius led across the Pyrenees. It is sufficient to notice the main point, which Mr. Freeman has made out, that we are not justified in accepting the version of the story which states that the representatives of the Theodosian house were engaged in defending the northern frontier of the peninsula against the Vandals and their fellow-plunderers before Constantine attempted to occupy it. The defenders of Spain were overcome, and Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza) became the seat of the Roman Caesar. Thus in the realm of Constantine almost all the lands composing the Gallic prefecture were included; he might claim to be the lord of Britain, which he had left masterless; the province of Tingitana, beyond the Straits of Gades, was the only province that had obeyed Limenius and did not in theory obey Constantine.

Constans, however, was soon recalled to Gaul by his father, and elevated to the rank of Augustus. But Constantine himself meanwhile, possessing the power of an Emperor, was not wholly content; he desired also to be acknowledged as a colleague by the son of Theodosius, and become, as it were, legitimised. He sent an embassy for this purpose to
Ravenna, and Honorius, hampered at the time by the presence of Alaric, was too weak to refuse the pacific proposals. Thus Constantine was recognised as an Augustus and an imperial brother by the legitimate Emperor; but the fact that the recognition was extorted and soon repudiated, combined with the fact that he was never acknowledged by the other Augustus at New Rome, justifies history in refusing to recognise as the third Constantine the invader from Britain who ruled at Arelate. Some time afterwards another embassy, of whose purpose we are not informed, arrived at Ravenna, and Constantine promised to assist his colleague Honorius against Alaric, who was threatening Rome. Perhaps what Honorius was to do in return for the proffered assistance was to permit the sovereign of Gaul to assume the consulship. In any case it was suspected that Constantine aspired to add Italy to his realm as he had added Spain, and that the subjugation of Alaric was only a pretext for his entering Italy, as it might have been said that the subjugation of the Vandald and their fellow-invaders had been only a pretext for his entering Gaul. A high official, Allobich, master of the horse, was also suspected of favouring the designs of the usurper, and the suspicion, whether true or false, cost him his life; Honorius caused him to be assassinated. When this took place Constantine was already in Italy, and the fact that when the news reached him he immediately recrossed the mountains, strongly suggests that the suspicion was true, and that he depended on the treason of the master of horse for the success of his Italian designs.

Constans had left the general Gerontius in charge of Spain, and the error was committed -it is not clear whether through a want of judgment on the part of Gerontius or of Constans- of substituting barbarian mercenaries for the Spanish legions to defend the Pyrenees. This unwise act produced an insurrection of the legions; the barbarian soldiers indulged in unlawful plunder; and Constans was sent back to Spain to restore order. Blame seems to have been thrown on Gerontius, and the Augusti resolved to supersede him by the appointment of a certain Justus; but Gerontius was not of a spirit to submit tamely. He rose against the usurper whom he had supported, and, though he did not assume the purple himself, raised up a new Emperor -a tyrant against a tyrant- in the person of Maximus, who was perhaps his own son. For a while there were six Emperors, legitimate or illegitimate, ruling over parts of the Roman Empire, even as there had been one hundred years before. Besides Theodosius ruling at New Rome and Honorius at Ravenna, there were Constantine and his son Constans at Arelate; there was Attalus at Old Rome, who had been set up by Alaric; and Maximus at Tarragona, who had been set up by Gerontius.


This act of Gerontius, although both he and the Emperor he made soon vanished from the scene, led to important consequences. In order to hold out against the old usurper, the new usurper adopted the momentous course of inviting the Vandals, Suevians, and Alans, who for three years had been ravaging Gaul to pass into Spain. This act led to the loss of Spain; it led also to the loss of Africa. And thus we may say that it was the loss or abandonment of Britain in 407 that led to the further loss of Spain and Africa. Africa would not have been conquered by the Vandals if they had not passed into Spain; Spain would not have become the possession of Vandals and Suevians, to be afterwards the realm of the Visigoths, if Gerontius had not revolted and invited them to enter; the revolt of Gerontius and his presence in Spain were a direct consequence of the “tyranny” of Constantine; and the tyranny of Constantine in Gaul and Spain depended upon his abandoning Britain. It is really worthy of notice how the loss of the furthest outlying of the Roman conquests in the West was followed by this curious series of effects; and how when the Roman armies retired from the Britannic borders, the retreat did not cease even at the Pillars of Hercules.

It may be noticed here that Britain was not yet forgotten. We learn that Honorius, when Alaric retired from besieging Ravenna, wrote letters to the cities of Britain, bidding them
defend themselves, perhaps against Saxon enemies.

Constans soon fled before Gerontius and his new allies; and while Maximus reigned in state at Tarraco, his maker, if not his father, marched into Gaul against the father and son, who had been once his masters. Constans was speedily captured at Vienna and put to death; and the victor, marching down the Rhone, laid siege to Arelate.

Meanwhile Honorius had sent an army under the command of Constantius and Ulfilas to do what Sarus had failed to do before and win back “the Gauls.” Thus Constantine was menaced on the one hand by the general of a usurper and on the other hand by the general of the lawful Emperor. Before the representatives of legitimacy the blockading army fled, and Gerontius returned to Spain, to meet death there at the hands of his own
troops. The house in which he took refuge was set on fire; he and his Alan squire fought long and bravely against the besiegers; and at length in despair he slew his squire and his wife Nunechia, at their own request, and then stabbed himself.

Thus besiegers in the interest of Honorius replaced the besiegers in the interest of Maximus at Arelate, where Constantine and his second son Julian held out. For more than three months the siege wore on, and the hopes of the usurper depended upon the arrival of Edobich, his Frankish master of soldiers (it is to be presumed he held this title), who had been sent to engage barbarian reinforcements beyond the Rhine.

Edobich at length returned with a formidable army, and a battle was fought near the city, which resulted in a victory for the besiegers. Edobich was slain by the treachery of a friend in whose house he sought shelter, and Constantine, seeing that his crown was irrecoverably lost, thought only of saving his life. “He fled to a sanctuary, where he was ordained priest, and the victors gave a sworn guarantee for his personal safety. Then
the gates of the city were thrown open to the besiegers, and Constantine was sent with his son to Honorius. But that Emperor, cherishing resentment towards them for his cousins, whom Constantine had slain, violated the oaths and ordered them to be
put to death, thirty miles from Ravenna.” (September 411)

But Constantine and Constans were not the only adventurers who called themselves Emperors in Gaul in the year 411. While the army of Constantine was still blockading Arelate, Jovinns, a Gallo-Roman, was proclaimed at Moguntiacum (Mainz). Like Attalus, he was set up by barbarians, but by barbarians farther from the pale of civilisation than Alaric. Gundicar, the king of the Burgundians-prototype of the Gunther of the Nibelungen-and Goar, a chief of the Alans, were the makers of this Emperor, and his elevation was intimately connected with the occupation of the Middle Rhine by the Burgundians. We know not how it was that Constantius and Ulfilas, the victors of Arles, returned to Italy without striking a blow against the other tyrant who had arisen on the Rhine, ere he had yet gathered strength. But the subjugation of Jovinus was reserved, not for the Roman general, but for his rival in war and love, the Visigothic king.


[Source: the book “A history of the later Roman Empire – From Arcadius to Irene (395 AD – 800 AD)“, by J. B. Bury]

Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus


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