4 – Valentinian III (425-455)
He was just 4 years old when Honorius died and was emperor at the age of 6 when the usurper Joannes was defeated. His mother Galla Patricia acted as regent until 437 when Valentinian III came of age. By then, Flavius Aetius had emerged as the man in charge of managing imperial policy in the Western empire.
Like other weak emperors, Valentinian was happy to let others do the hard work of governing the empire for him. The biggest threat to the empire at this point was the Huns who were led by the legendary Attila. Time and again, Aetius managed to prevent the Huns from completely destroying the Empire and achieved a decisive victory at Chalon in 451. However, Attila invaded again and soon had Rome at his mercy. There are a few possible reasons why he didn’t finish the job.
First, it is suggested that Pope Leo I persuaded him to turn back. Another suggestion is that the recent famine in Italy caused him to turn back. He needed supplies to take Rome (perhaps he had run out) and the lack of crops available would have made it tough to finish the invasion so it was a better idea to return home. Finally, Alaric had died soon after sacking Rome so superstition amongst his men may have led to the decision to return home. Attila died soon afterwards anyway and his empire fell apart within 16 years of his death in 453.
Rather than allowing Aetius to continue dealing with the affairs of the empire in the West, Valentinian grew jealous of the military leader’s success and murdered him with the help of his chamberlain Heraclius in 454. When he asked a counsellor whether he had done the right thing, he was told that he had cut off his right hand with his left.
With Aetius dead, Valentinian’s complete lack of ability was exposed and a powerful individual called Petronius Maximus had the emperor assassinated in 455 after having his own dreams of power dashed. Two followers of Aetius did the deed and Heraclius was also murdered. Maximus proclaimed himself emperor but his âreign’ lasted less than three months and he was also killed; a mob stoned him to death!
Although the Western empire was already in dire straits by the time Valentinian III took over, it was virtually dismembered by the end of his reign. In his 30 years on the throne, Rome lost most of Gaul, all of western Spain and practically all of North Africa. As was the case with Honorius, the only time Valentinian III took action was when he killed the person keeping things together.