Emperor Majorian

Life: AD ? – 461

Julius Valerius Majorianus - "Majorian"
  • Name: Julius Valerius Majorianus
  • Became emperor 1 April AD 457.
  • Died on 7 August AD 461 at Dertona.

Early Life

Little is known of Majorian’s beginnings, although he undoubtedly came from a high-standing family. His maternal grandfather had served Theodosius I as ‘Master of Soldiers,’ and his father had been treasurer to Aetius. No doubt aided by such connections, Majorian made a military career and served as an officer to Aetius. But he was eventually dismissed by Aetius due to his wife’s dislike of him.

He retired to his country house but was then recalled to high-ranking military command by Valentinian III in AD 455, Aetius having died in AD 454. After the assassination of Valentinian III in AD 455, he did appear to be a likely candidate to succeed to the Western throne, particularly as he enjoyed the support of Marcian, the emperor of the East. But the throne fell to Petronius Maximus and, after his death, to Avitus. (There are some suggestions that Majorian might have played a part in the death of Avitus.)

The Ruling of Marcian

With Avitus gone in AD 456, the empire witnessed six months during which there was no emperor in the West, with Marcian being the sole emperor of the Roman empire. But this was more a theoretical re-unification of the empire rather than an actual one. But coins were issued in the West, celebrating Marcian as the new emperor in the West.

Then, in early AD 457, Marcian died. It was either Marcian in his last days or his successor Leo within his first days in power who elevated Majorian to the rank of patrician (patricius), who had by then become ‘Master of Soldiers’ for Gaul and was at the time campaigning against the Marcomanni. Leo, most likely on the advice of the powerful Western military figure Ricimer, then nominated Majorian as the Western Emperor.

Dealing with Enemies

On 1 April AD 457, he was then duly acclaimed Western Augustus, though it is unlikely he actually took up office until late December AD 457. His first problem as emperor arose in Gaul, where there was considerable resistance against him after Avitus, whom the people of Gaul had seen as one of their own, had been deposed.

Emperor Majorian
Source: National Archaeological Museum, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Burgundians even placed a garrison in the city of Lugdunum (Lyons) against which Majorian needed to lead an army into Gaul and lay siege. So, too, did the Visigoths, under Theodoric II, a personal friend of Avitus, lead a rebellion against the new emperor. They besieged Arelate (Arles) but were eventually beaten off by Aegidius, the ‘Master of Soldiers’ in Gaul. His territories were under control again, and he was left to deal with Geiseric and his Vandals, who still controlled at least the Western Mediterranean from their hold in North Africa.

The Myths about Majorian

Majorian is said to have been a very impressive character. Historians appear to lose any restraint in their praise for Majorian. One hence can conclude that he must have been an outstanding person. Some of the tales about him must rather be seen as myths. One such report, for example, tells of Majorian having traveled to Carthage (with his hair dyed to disguise him) in order to view the Vandal realm with his own eyes. He was also a substantial lawmaker, seeking to curb abuses of power, even reviving the position of ‘Defender of the People’ in the cities.

Troubles with Vandals

First, a Vandal raiding force was driven out of Campania in Italy, then Majorian began to assemble a massive invasion force with which to invade North Africa, and, in AD 460, he marched the army impressive army to Carthago Nova (Cartagena) in Spain. But Geiseric received information from his many spies about this undertaking and launched a surprise attack on Majorian’s fleet, which was being prepared in the bay of Lucentum (Alicante).

Emperor Majorian
Source: Sailko, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With his fleet smashed, there was no way for Majorian to set his troops across to North Africa, and he was forced to come to terms with Geiseric, recognizing him as king of Mauretania and Tripolitania. Though Ricimer, still the all-powerful head of the military, saw Majorian’s failure in dealing with Geiseric as a shameful stain on the emperor’s honor. Ricimer sought not to be associated with failure. No longer understanding Majorian as a viable emperor, he therefore simply sought to depose him.

Death of Emperor Majorian

On 2 August AD 461, a mutiny broke out in Dertona (Tortona) as the emperor passed through it on his return journey back to Italy from Spain. Caught up in the mutiny, Majorian was forced by the soldiers to abdicate. It is very likely the mutiny was organized from afar by Ricimer. In any case, five days later, it was reported that Majorian had died from illness. Though it clearly appears more likely that he was simply murdered.

People Also Ask:

What happened to Emperor Majorian?

However, Ricimer intercepted him in Dertona (not far from Piacenza, where Avitus had been killed) on 2 August and had him arrested and deposed. The Emperor was deprived of his dress and diadem, beaten, and tortured. After five days, on 7 August, Majorian was beheaded near the river Iria.

How long did Majorian rule?

During his four-year-long reign from 457 to 461, Majorian restored Western Roman authority in Hispania and most of Gaul. Despite his accomplishments, Roman rule in the West would last less than two more decades.

Which Roman emperor died the worst?

Other conspirators, including many of his chamber staff, then burst in, hacking the 45-year-old emperor to death and bringing his 15-year reign to an end. Domitian was one of Rome’s worst emperors, and so, earned one of the worst Roman emperor deaths.

What was Majorian known for?

Majorian was a Western Roman emperor from 1 April 457 – 2 August 461. Majorian was a skilled general and was probably the last hope for the survival of the crumbling Western Roman Empire, as he was able to reconquer much of southern Gaul and much of Hispania back under Roman Control.

How did Majorian become emperor?

Appointed master of the soldiers in 457, Majorian quickly defeated the Alemannic invaders at Bellinzona (in present Switzerland). He was proclaimed emperor, with Ricimer’s support, on April 1 and set about conscientiously administering his realm.

How did Romans choose an emperor?

The first answer is simple: hereditary rule. For most of this period, emperors were not chosen on the basis of their ability or honesty but simply because they were born in the right family. For every great leader, such as Augustus, there was a tyrant like Caligula.