The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 63

The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. This week we focus on Emperors Anthemius and Olybrius.

Emperors Anthemius and Olybrius


Anthemius was born in Galatia, and came from a wealthy and distinguished and highly influential family in the eastern empire, a recent ancestor of his, Procopius, having been declared Augustus at Constantinople in the brief rebellion against Valen’s rule in 365, and his father, also called Procopius, being of patrician rank and having held the post of ‘Master of Soldiers.’

Anthemius himself held military command in Thrace and became ‘Master of Soldiers’ in 454-67. He also was appointed consul and granted the rank of patrician in 455.

At Marcian’s death, Anthemius was understood to be the most likely man to succeed him to the throne of the eastern empire, except that Aspar, the powerful ‘Master of Soldiers,’ preferred to see one of his own men on the throne. Hence the choice fell upon Leo instead.

Anthemius though was not the kind of man to hold a grudge against Leo and went on to serve him well, winning military victories for his emperor. To further cement the relationship between the two men, Anthemius married Leo’s daughter Euphemia.

With the western throne having fallen vacant with the death of Libius Severus in 465, and the Vandals proposing Olybrius as their candidate, Leo now saw it necessary to invest his own candidate, if only to prevent a western ruler with allegiances toward the Vandals. With Anthemius having shown such loyal service and being of distinguished descent, he was the ideal candidate. So, in 467 Leo nominated Anthemius as western emperor.

Anthemius’ arrival in Rome was greeted by the support of the people, the allegiance of the barbarian federates and the support of the senate.

Anthemius, being a champion of the east, he brought about the end of the hostilities between the eastern and western empire. And both empires soon after embarked on another giant effort to overcome the Vandals. Yet suddenly in Gaul a new threat arose as Euric murdered his brother Theodoric II and took over the rule of the Visigoths, and set out on an attempt to bring entire Gaul under his control.

Anthemius’ attempt to put a stop to Euric’s ambitions ended in a crushing defeat in a battle on the western bank of the river Rhine, in which the emperor’s son Anthemiolus and three leading Roman generals lost their lives.

After this setback, relations between Anthemius and his ‘Master of Soldiers,’ Ricimer, deteriorated sharply. So bad did relations between the emperor and his ‘Master of Soldiers’ grow that Italy was virtually divided in two; Ricimer ruling his part from Mediolanum and Anthemius ruling his from Rome. In 470 the bishop of Ticinum managed to reconcile them, but the peace was not to last for long.

Already by 472 Ricimer marched south at the head of his army to depose Anthemius and in his place put Olybrius, the candidate favored by the Vandals. Backed up by a Visigoth force, Anthemius held out against the siege for three months, until eventually Ricimer’s troops managed to force their way across the Pons Aelius (Ponte Sant’Angelo) and into Rome. Anthemius disguised himself as a beggar in an attempt to flee. But he was betrayed and by order of Ricimer’s nephew Gundobad Anthemius was beheaded in 472.

Olybrius was a member of the highly distinguished family of the Anicii which enjoyed excellent connections. One of Olybrius’ ancestors had been Sextus Petronius Probus, a powerful ministerial figure during the reign of Valentinian I. Meanwhile Olybrius himself was married to Valentinian III’s daughter Placidia the younger. But most important of all were his connections to the Vandal court. Olybrius enjoyed good relations with king Geiseric whose son Huneric was married to Placidia’s sister Eudocia.

In 465 Geiseric proposed Olybrius as emperor, hoping to increase his influence over the western empire. Though Leo, the emperor of the east, instead saw to it that in 467 his nominee, Anthemius, took the throne.

When alas the powerful ‘Master of Soldiers’ Ricimer fell out with Anthemius, Leo sent Olybrius to Italy to try and bring the two parties back together peaceably. But as Olybrius arrived in Italy early in 472, Ricimer was already besieging Rome to see Anthemius killed. Their relationship was indeed irreconcilable.

However, Olybrius’ arrival in Italy was welcomed by Ricimer, for it provided him with a credible candidate to succeed his opponent Anthemius. Leo realizing the danger of an emperor on the western throne who was a friend of the Vandals, sent a letter to Anthemius, urging him to see to it that Olybrius was assassinated. But Ricimer intercepted the message.

In any case Anthemius was most likely no longer in a situation to act. Shortly after, Rome fell and Anthemius was beheaded. This left the way clear for Olybrius to succeed to the throne, although Leo naturally refused to recognize his accession.

Only 40 days after his conquest of Rome, Ricimer died a gruesome death, vomiting blood. He was succeeded as ‘Master of Soldiers’ by his nephew Gundobad. But Olybrius was not to spend much time on the throne. Only five or six months after the death of Ricimer he too died from illness.

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