“I'm top of the world”
“I am a Petron Head”
Petronius Maximus deserves an award. Change that. Many awards. His brief reign as Roman emperor in 455 was not quite the shortest on record but in a reign of barely 10 weeks he managed to piss off nearly everyone who mattered. These included emperor Marcian (his nominal imperial colleague in Constantinople), the family of recently dead emperor Valentinian III and the Vandals. Petronius also had the charisma of a cabbage past its sell-by date.
The Roman Empire had already seen many mad men, sex maniacs, idiots and donkeys get to the very top. Why Petronius wanted this particular job, with an empire (at least in the West) that was rapidly falling apart each year isn't clear. Was it for 'glory', sitting in the best seats in the Colosseum or access to the extensive imperial wine cellar? Petronius had no time to write his memoirs and no one felt to record his 'achievements' when he was gone.
Petronius Maximus was born in 397 to a well stocked silver spoon dynasty. What his family actually did is obscure but was evidently profitable. Petronius belonged to the Roman senatorial class. This essentially involved membership of the Roman Senate, a place where you could play pretend politics and evade the wife.
His progress was hardly stellar but he managed to stay out of danger from marauding Goths and hordes of revolting Huns. A succession of jobs as governor an consul at least showed Petronius was reasonably competent. More importantly, he became buddies of both Emperor Valentinian, his mother Galla Placidia and Rome's supreme master commander Aëtius. Petronius thoroughly debased himself to gain imperial favour and - what he was doing all the crawling for - a well upholstered daughter of Valentinian for his son Palladius, a juggler, entertainer and dancer at the Roman Palladium.
Emperor Valentinian wasn't so sure. Palladius just didn't seem right even to this depraved ruler. He didn't want to offend Aetius or his Hun buddies. Petronius realised he would need to do more to make his case. Aëtius would be painted the darkest Nubian black.
Taking out the middle manEdit
Valentinian fell for the subversive patter and in 454 summoned Aëtius to explain supposed accounting irregularity. In a 'full and frank' exchange of views between Aëtius and Valentinian. Petronius had already forced Aëtius to remove his anti-stab vest and knife before entering into the chamber for a private discussion. A few minutes later, Valentinian personally opened the doors to reveal a dying Aëtius on the floor. Petronius congratulated the emperor for his survival and they rounded off the evening by having all members of Aëtius's family killed or imprisoned.
Petronius was now the 'second man in the empire but felt his success could be stripped off him if Valentinian turned on him He again applied to have his son marry one of the imperial princesses. Valentinian turned it down and instead talked about inviting the Vandals over to discuss a possible marriage proposal. They had promised not to smash or deface anything this time.
Though we know Petronius had a son, there is no mention of a 'Mrs Maximus' in the records of that time. What happened to her? Even her name is lost, yet according to one legend the reason why Petronius decided to rub out Valentinian was because the emperor had 'outraged her' (a term that means rape) and she had died/taken her own life. Or perhaps she never existed. In the event, Petronius encouraged two others to kill the emperor for him. Their names are recorded as Optila and Thraustila. They speared Valentinian at an archery competition in Rome and then promptly disappeared from the historical records as well.
The news that Valentinian was dead got conveyed to the Roman senate. When imperial vacancies had occurred before, the senate had claimed they had the right to appoint a new emperor if there were no other viable candidates. Petronius Maximus was a senator, an ex-governor and had been a tireless political networker for 30 years. He was proclaimed emperor and took legal claim on Valentinian's widowed wife the dowager empress Licinia Eudoxia and her daughters Eudocia (she spelt it that way) and Placidia. Whether he knew Eudocia had already been promised to the son of the King of Vandals should have been clear when this letter was found:
Hail Valentinian Caesar Augustus, the Third of that Name From Genseric, King of the Vandals, Alans, Dereks and Trevors, Resident of Carthage.
Greetings! I am just checking on the wedding arrangements for the marriage of my son Huneric (a little Hun-tling) and the imperial princess Eudocia. I trust you have made all the necessary arrangements. It will be an Arian-Catholic mixed marriage ceremony. I know Pope Leo isn't keen on this but his a Trinitarian bigot. We can leave that bastard out of this. I hope enough tents will be provided for my Vandals. I am bringing over 50,000 to celebrate the wedding.
See you on 24th May 455.
Genseric (or Gaiseric, I am illiterate barbarian) so I am relying on my secretary-slave Hooliganus to translate this message correctly. CODA. Any change to the wedding plans will be treated as an act of war.
Petronius Maximus sent his friend and fixer Avitus to go on a diplomatic recognition mission and perhaps a hope to prevent the Vandals making good their visiting promise. Avitus's first mission was to go to Spain and break bread (and guzzle wine) with the Visigoths. Petronius knew that they and the Vandals were blood-enemies after a marriage alliance went south between these two barbarian hordes when the Vandals had mutilated a Gothic princess in an argument over the wedding gifts. At the same time an embassy was dispatched to Constantinople to see if the East Roman Empire would support its political twin. Emperor Marcian turned them away and refused to recognise Petronius as nothing more than a two bit murderer.
Undeterred, Petronius went ahead with the marriage of his son Palladius and Eudocia. The big surprise was when he announced that in addition, the imperial Widow Licinia Eudocia was going to marry him as well. She had objected - and with the backing of Pope Leo - said that officially she was still in mourning for her late husband (that no one else was didn't bother her). Petronius refused to back off and the couple were married. This gave Licinia Eudoxia the opportunity to sneak a message to the Vandals. It read in effect RESCUE ME!!.
How ironic. Only a few years earlier Lucinia Eudoxia had verbally attacked her sister-in-law Justa Grata Honoria for trying to marry Attila the Hun after a family hissing fit. Now it was her turn to look for a barbarian Prince Charming. Genseric received the not-so-diplomatic green light. The Vandals were on their way.
Death and no gloryEdit
The news that the Vandals were at sea and coming to Rome was treated with maximum panic by the population. They hoped Pope Leo would save the day again as he had did against Attila. Petronius Maximus was quickly deserted by everyone and tried to do an 'imperial runner'. He was recognised, abused, slain and then chopped up like dog food by a Burgundian heavy called Ricimer. A similar treatment was inflicted on Palladius. Neither Lucina Eudoxia or Eudocia intervened to save their respective husbands, being good Christian ladies and all.
Two days later Genseric and the Vandal army appeared outside the gates. The Roman senate made no move to appoint a new emperor. Genseric for his part asked to be let inside Rome with his 'mates' and all would be fine. So the Vandals entered Rome and - well look they were Vandals after all, did their very best to live up to their name. What they couldn't loot, they destroyed. So much for the trusting Romans and the idiot usurper Petronius.
- ↑ Nero
- ↑ Caligula
- ↑ Constantine II
- ↑ Honorius
- ↑ They claimed they were related to emperor Magnus Maximus, a back stabber rebel in the 380s.
- ↑ Bribes for barbarians
- ↑ Ricimer's career start as a Roman Empire mob boss
- ↑ Strictly speaking, this meant the Empire was now 'one' again with Marcian and united as one territory
Avitus (in the West)