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Flavius Aetius or simply Aetius, (circa 396 - 454), was a Roman general of the closing period of the Western Roman Empire. He is often called, sometimes along with Count Boniface, "the last of the Romans". His victory over Attila the Hun, guarantees him, as Gibbon says, immortality for as long as men remember Rome.
Aetius was born at Dorostolus in Moesia, late in the 4th century. He was the son of an Italian mother named Auraelia and of Gaudentius , who, many historians point out, was possibly of a Germanic family. He rose in the service of the Western empire to be master of the horse, and later count of Africa. Aetius passed some years as hostage, first with Alaric and the Goths, and later in the camp of Rugila, king of the Huns, acquiring in this way the knowledge which enabled him afterwards to defeat them.
Aetius, Boniface and Placidia
In 425, Aetius led into Italy an army of 60,000 Huns, which he employed first to support Joannes, who had proclaimed himself emperor. However, he arrived in Ravenna three days after Joannes' defeat and execution. With his large force of Huns, Aetius was able to secure a pardon and obtain the office of Magister militum per Gallias (or Master of Soldiers in Gaul) from Galla Placidia, the empress-mother and regent for Valentinian III.
In Gaul, Aetius defeated the Visigoths at Arles, forcing them to return to Aquitaine. He then proceeded to reinforce the Rhine frontier, and also defended Noricum against German attacks. Meanwhile, in Africa, Count Boniface fell into disfavour with Placidia, perhaps partly due to the intrigues of Aetius and other Roman generals.
Boniface was eventually returned to favour by Placidia (but not before revolting in Africa and calling in the Vandals), and in 432 was recalled to Italy and given the rank of patrician. Aetius, believing that Placidia had decided to get rid of him, marched against Boniface and fought against him in a battle near Rimini. Boniface won the battle tactically but was mortally wounded and died a few months later. Aetius escaped to Dalmatia, and, with the help of the Huns (for which they were rewarded with territory in Pannonia) was restored to power by Placidia in 433.
The ascendency of Aetius
From 433 to 450, Aetius was the dominating personality in the Western empire. He continued to devote his attention to Gaul after his restoration to power. In 436 the Burgundians tried to take advantage of disturbances caused by Bagaudae, bands of lawless brigands , to seize more territory. Aetius responded by calling in the Huns to intervene, and 20,000 Burgundians were killed. This slaughter is the basis of the Niebelungenlied, a German epic. In 443 Aetius settled the remaining Burgundians in Savoy, south of Lake Geneva. In the 440s Aetius was mainly occupied with problems in Gaul and Spain, mainly with the Bagaudae. He settled Alans around Valence and Orleans to control unrest around Brittany.
In 451 a large army of Huns, led by Attila, invaded Gaul and captured several cities, and proceeded towards Orleans. When the Alans living in the region were ready to defect to Attila, Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric moved in to relieve the city. The Huns abandoned the siege and retreated to open country, where, on September 20, 451, they and their allies battled the Romans and Visigoths, along with their Alan, Frank, and Burgundian allies, on the Catalunian Plains near Chalons. Although tactically the outcome of the Battle of Chalons was indecisive, it was a great triumph for Aetius and the Romans. Attila was forced to retreat beyond the Rhine and never threatened Gaul again.
Although in 453 Aetius had been able to betroth his son Gaudentius to Valentinian's daughter Placidia, Valentinian felt intimidated by Aetius, who had once supported Joannes against him and whom Valentinian believed wanted to place his son upon the imperial throne. Roman senator Petronius Maximus and the chamberlain Heraclius were therefore able to enlist Valentinian in a plot to assassinate Aetius. On September 21, 454, when Aetius was at court in Ravenna delivering a financial account, Valentinian slew Aetius with his own hand. A witness supposedly General Florentius writes, "The Emperor has cut off his right hand with his left."
Maximus expected to be made patrician in place of Aetius, but was blocked by Heraclius. Seeking revenge, Maximus arranged with two friends of Aetius, Optila and Thraustila, both Huns, to assassinate both Valentinian III and Heraclius. On March 16, 455, Optila stabbed the emperor in the temple as he dismounted in the Campus Martius and prepared for a session of archery practice. As the stunned emperor turned to see who had struck him, Optila finished him off with another thrust of his blade. Meanwhile, Thraustila stepped forward and killed Heraclius. Most of the soldiers standing close by had been faithful followers of Aetius and none lifted a hand to save the emperor.
- Ferrill, Arther, The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation. Thames and Hudson, London, 1986.
- Jones, A.H.M., The Later Roman Empire 284-602. Oxford Press, Cambridge, 1964.
- Oost, Stewart I., Galla Placidia Augusta. Chicago, 1968.
- Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum ii.8, gives a condensed version of Aetius' character and career, using a lost history of Renatus Frigeridus.
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