The sources for the downfall of Majorian

The emperor Majorian was the last effective Roman emperor of the west.  He ruled from 457 to 461. 

At that period the rule of the empire was actually in the hands of the sinister Ricimer, who appointed and killed a series of emperors to act as figureheads.  Majorian was one of these, but speedily proved too competent for the liking of his supposed prime minister.  There is an excellent article on Majorian’s life and rule at the DIR here.

I remember transcribing the letters of Sidonius Apollinaris.  He went to dinner with Majorian in Gaul, when the emperor was there rallying support.  He describes how the Gallic dignitaries fawned over the emperor, seeking honours that the dying empire was soon to render of no significance whatever.  Majorian must have wondered what kind of fools could worry about such things at such a time.  Sidonius also wrote a Panegyric for Majorian, to be among his verse works.

Majorian’s downfall came at the hands of Ricimer.  While returning from Gaul to Italy without his army, he was assassinated.

The sources for Majorian’s reign are very scanty.  A fragment of John of Antioch gives the bare details:

While he was still on the way to Italy, Ricimer plotted his death. When Majorian had dismissed the allies after their return and was going home to Rome with his attendants, Ricimer and his party arrested him, stripped him of his purple robe and diadem, beat him, and beheaded him. Thus ended Majorian’s life. (fr.203; Gordon trans, p.117).

I wasn’t clear what the “Gordon” translation was; is it perhaps C. D. Gordon, The Age of Attila, 1966?  A new critical edition of the remains of John of Antioch, with an Italian translation, has recently appeared, edited by Umberto Roberto, Ioannis Antiocheni Fragmenta Ex Historia Chronica. (Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, 2005).

The Gallic Chronicle of 511 — another continuation of Jerome’s Chronicle, no doubt — has a laconic entry giving more details:

Moreover, having set out from Arles for Italy, he was killed by the patrician Ricimer at Tortona.

The Chronicle of Hydatius (210) tells us:

Ricimer, aroused by envy and supported by the counsel of jealous persons, surrounded and treacherously killed Majorian while he was returning from Gaul to Rome and was in the process of arranging things that were necessary for the Roman name and empire.

And the Chronicle of Marcellinus for 461 AD:

The Emperor Majorian was killed at Tortona, near the river that is called Ilyra.

All these Chronicles are continuations of Jerome, and have only a sentence or two against each year.

A little more information comes from the Fasti vindobonenses priores (?) no. 588:

During this consulate the Emperor Majorian was deposed by the patrician Ricimer at Tortona on 3 August and killed at the Ira River on 7 August.

Finally Procopius rather later reports (Bellum Vandalicum 7.14-15: Dewing trans., p.69).:

But meantime Majorian was attacked by the disease of dysentery and died, a man who had shown himself moderate toward his subjects, and an object of fear to his enemies.

Note the accolade, that Majorian was “moderate towards his subjects”.  Taxation is what is meant, of course.

And that’s it.  There are a few more splinters, but that is all the information we have.

2 Responses to “The sources for the downfall of Majorian”


  1. Nick Nicholas

    There’s duelling editions of John of Antioch: we also have Sergei Mariev (ed.), Ioannis Antiocheni fragmenta quae supersunt. Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae 47. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. (So two De Gruyters within two years!) The controversy is whether the extant fragments represent one author or two. See http://www.bmcreview.org/2009/12/20091206.html for discussion, under the review of the Mariev edition.

  2. Nick Nicholas

    And oh yeah. Mariev has an English parallel translation.



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