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The Original Godfather: Ricimer and the Fall of Rome

The Original Godfather: Ricimer and the Fall of Rome

By Max Flomen

Hirundo, the McGill Journal of Classical Studies, Vol.8 (2009-10)

Coin Issued under Ricimer. Photo by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. / Wikimedia Commons

Introduction: As the Western Roman Empire lurched towards collapse during the last quarter of the fifth century, no fewer than four men claimed the title of emperor between 456 and 472 C.E. Despite their lofty position, the authority of these rulers was largely nominal. In fact, posterity has given them the collective designation of ‘shadow emperors’ in recognition of the true ruler of the late Roman West, Flavius Ricimer. In his position as patrician and magister militum, Ricimer established himself as the “emperor-maker” of the Western Empire during its last decades. That Ricimer’s ‘reign’ so robbed the position of emperor of any real authority has made him a central figure in any examination of the Empire’s final collapse in the few years which followed his death. The intention of this paper is to engage two over-arching questions concerning Ricimer’s career: what were the motives behind his policies, and how did these policies influence the fall of the Western Empire?

The main obstacle to any such inquiry is the difficulty of the sources concerning Ricimer, which are underwhelming in both number and quality. The letters of Sidonius Apollinaris and his panegyrics to the emperors Majorian and Anthemius offer unique insight into the perspectives of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy, but remain fraught with the prejudices of their author. The histories of Hydatius, Priscus and John of Antioch, of which the latter two survive only in fragments, are important though incomplete sources, while John Malalas’ Chronicon is valuable in reconstructing Ricimer’s relationship with Anthemius and Leo I. Procopius’ History of the Wars discusses the reigns of both Majorian and Anthemius in relation to their expeditions against the Vandals, but certain events in his account are pure fiction. Finally, there is the Life of Epiphanius, a biography of the bishop of Ticinum (Pavia) written c. 500 by Epiphanius’ successor, Ennodius.

From these limited sources it is possible to reconstruct the basic narrative of Ricimer’s career. Modern scholars have not shied from providing their own assessments, which have included a multiplicity of views. In his study of Libius Severus, one of Ricimer’s puppet emperors, S. I. Oost has described the patrician as “a cold, calculating, sinister man who hesitated at no crime, no murder, no treason or perfidy to maintain himself securely in power.” Himself critical of Ricimer’s methods, J. B. Bury has noted that while Ricimer is “not an attractive figure” it is perhaps too easy to do him injustice. In offering a revisionist view of Ricimer, L. R. Scott has pointed to “an annoying readiness of the part of modern scholars to credit any treachery of unspecified authorship to Ricimer.” Ultimately, negative views of Ricimer are likely explained by the tendency of some historians to view the fall of the Roman Empire as disaster from which western civilization took centuries to recover.

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