Life: AD c. 396 – 455
- Name: Flavius Petronius Maximus
- Born in AD ca. 396.
- Became emperor March AD 455.
- Died at Rome, 31 May AD 455.
Petronius Maximus was born in about AD 396, his birthplace being unknown.
Being of obscure origin, Petronius Maximus achieved remarkable career early on in his life.
He served as tribune and in AD 415 as notarius and already by AD 416 he had become finance minister, a post he held until about AD 419.
After this he became praetorian prefect for Italy two, perhaps even three times and was twice city prefect of Rome and twice consul. His career in AD 445 earned him promotion to the rank of patrician (patricius).
And by this time he had become exceedingly wealthy, even building a forum in Rome.
With the murder of Valentinian III in AD 455 there was no heir to the western throne.
The eastern emperor Marcian was not consulted, but his choice would most likely have been the military commander Majorian (who did in fact become emperor later).
Another contender was a certain Maximianus who had been a follower of Aetius.
However, it was Petronius Maximus who eventually was chosen. True, he had great experience in administration, through having held high offices earlier. And yet, it is largely believed that he used his extensive wealth to buy himself favour and hence literally bought himself the throne.
On taking up office as emperor, Maximus immediately married Licinia Eudoxia, the widow of Valentinian III. She only married him reluctantly, suspecting that he in fact had been involved in the murder of her late husband.
And indeed Maximus treated Valentinian III’s assassins with considerable favour.
Despairing, Licinia Eudoxia eventually appealed for help to the Vandal king Geiseric. Licinia Eudoxia of course already had contacts to the Vandal court as her daughter Eudocia had been betrothed to Geiseric’s son Huneric – before Petronius Maximus had cancelled the arrangement.
By May news reached Rome that Geiseric was sailing for Italy.
As the news spread, panic gripped the city and many of its people took to fleeing the place. The emperor too was not concerned with staging a defence but far more with organizing his escape, urging the senate to accompany him.
Though in the panic Petronius Maximus was completely abandoned, left to fend for himself by his bodyguard and entourage.
As he road out of the city on his own on 31 May AD 455, an angry mob set upon him and stoned him to death.
His body was mutilated and flung into the Tiber. He had reigned for only seventy one days.
On 2 June AD 455 Geiseric captured the city of Rome and thoroughly sacked it for two weeks. He left, carrying away a great amount of loot as well as the empress Licinia Eudoxia and her daughters Placidia and Eudocia. (Eudocia married Huneric in AD 456 as had been originally intended.)
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.