13. Flavius Aetius has been called the “last of the Romans” and, though he was never Emperor, he understood how power was wielded in the declining empire
He is often referred to by scholars of ancient history as “the last of the Romans”. True or not, what cannot be doubted is that, for almost 30 years, Flavius Aetius was the most powerful man in the whole of the Western Roman Empire. Though he was never Emperor, he was almost always the man pulling the strings. As well as being a skilled soldier and military tactician, he was also a shrewd diplomat and canny political operator and successfully managed to dictate events to suit both the Empire and his own personal ambitions.
Born to ‘barbarians’, Aetius learned how to ride and fight from a very early age. He also learned all about barbarian fighting styles and military tactics – knowledge that would serve him well when he embarked on a career in the Roman Army. Indeed, even when he was still a young man, Aetius established himself as the go-to man for advice on dealing with barbarians. From 433 onwards, he was in charge of dealing with defending the Western Roman Empire from outside attacks, a position which gave him substantial military power, something he was not afraid to use.
From 432 AD onwards, Aetius served as consul, a position usually reserved for a relative of the ruling Emperor. Since the Emperor, Valentinian III, was relatively young and naïve, Aetius often made decisions in his place. Before long, envoys from the provinces were reporting directly to Aetius himself rather than to the Emperor. This made him the most powerful man in all of the Western Roman Empire and allowed him to raise a huge army to defeat the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD. Aetius saved Rome from the invaders, even if it was only a temporary respite.
In the end, his ambition and lust for power caught up with him. In 453 AD, the Emperor Valentinian accused Aetius of wanting the crown for himself. In a blind rage, he teamed up with one of his bodyguards and killed Aetius in his Roman palace. According to the famous historian of Rome Edward Gibbon, the Emperor’s closest advisers told him “you have cut off your right hand with your left”. Before long, without the power behind the throne there to protect him, Valentinian himself was murdered.