Who was Emperor Majorian and What Did He Do?

When Emperor Majorian came to power in the middle of the fifth century, the Western Roman Empire was on its knees. In a last-ditch attempt to save the ailing state, he created a navy, revitalised a disconsolate army, stabilised the economy and ensured Rome’s magnificent monuments still stand today. Here is the astonishing story of the man born Iulius Valerius Maiorianus.

History Rulers
3 April 2023

Majorian may just be the greatest Roman leader you’ve never heard of. Eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon said that he ‘presents the welcome discovery of a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honour of the human species.’

Emperor Majorian was a great ruler who was dealt a bad hand. He was blighted by time.

When he came to the throne, Rome was living in a dark shadow of its former glory. The empire was beset by in-fighting, invasions, a worthless currency, an ill-disciplined and unreliable army with no loyalty to Rome, and unprecedented political weakness.

Try as he might, and he tried very hard indeed, Roman emperor Majorian couldn’t restore the halcyon days of the Roman Empire.

Iulius Valerius Maiorianus - The Early Years

Depictions of Majorian (Photo: Photo 12 via Getty Images)

Majorian’s birthplace is unknown – possibly somewhere in Gaul, or modern-day France, Belgium or The Netherlands – as is the year of his birth, though it’s generally accepted he was born sometime between 420 and 425 AD.

The identities of his parents are equally obscure. However, his grandfather was a high-level military commander, or magister militum under Emperor Theodosius I. Iulius Valerius Maiorianus was named after him.

Majorian - The Soldier

Ricimer (Photo: DEA / ICAS94 via GettyImages)

Like most Roman emperors, his rise to power started in the army. In 447 AD he served under Flavius Aetius in Gaul, and during the Battle of Vicus Helena in northern France he was commended for bravery.

A contemporary poet named Sidonius Apollinaris wrote that Majorian ‘fought with the authority of a master but the destiny of an emperor.’

Not only was he a skilled warrior, he learned the logistical and operational skills required to manage a large field army. Around the same time he met Ricimer, a man who became known as The Kingmaker.

Unexpectedly for a soldier of such repute, in approximately 450 AD, Majorian was expelled from the army by Aetius. It was supposedly because Aetius’ wife was worried Majorian would overshadow her husband. He went home for four years.

In around 454 AD, the reigning emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Valentinian III, killed Aetius and recalled Majorian to suppress any military rebellion. Having served alongside many of Aetius’ soldiers, he was largely able to quell open revolt.

However, instability continued as Valentinian himself was killed soon after. The man behind the plot, Petronius Maximus, sat on the throne for just seventy-five days before being slain by a mob as he fled a Vandal attack. Next came Avitus who lasted just over a year before, it is said, being starved to death by Majorian.

After a successful battle against the Germanic Alemanni tribe by troops under his command, Majorian became the most powerful man in Rome. In 457 AD he was proclaimed emperor.

Majorian - Last of the Romans

A hoard of Roman coins (Photo: Robert Alexander via Getty Images)

Unusually for the emperors who presided over Rome’s death throes, Majorian facts are easy to come by. He is considered by many to be the last emperor recognised as the ruler of the whole western Roman Empire. This is one reason why he has been referred to as Majorian, last of the Romans, a moniker used to describe men who embodied the values and characteristics of ancient Roman civilisation.

But what made him such a great leader, despite the fact that the empire was crumbling?

For one, he was seen as a good man. He was thought to be a conscientious, able and honest ruler.

Another key reason for his succession was his military success. He was a soldier first and foremost, with the record to back it up. Upon taking the throne, his first challenge was the need to defend the beating heart of his empire. He started in Italy and moved out to Gaul and Hispania. To do this, Emperor Majorian built armies of mercenaries from Germanic tribes and from further afield. During this time he rebuilt two naval fleets. For an empire that was on the verge of bankruptcy, this was no mean undertaking.

At home he passed laws enabling the public to form organised militias to defend the cities, he stabilised the economy by minting coins with a consistent amount of gold, and he clamped down on abuses by tax collectors.

In an attempt to reverse the declining birth rate, Majorian also forbade any woman below the age of forty from taking religious vows. He also lowered wedding dowries to ensure marriage was a financially enticing proposition.

Majorian - The Monuments Man

Neglected buildings (Photo: Santiago Urquijo via Getty Images)

By the fifth century, Rome’s most precious monuments were in a sorry state of decay. The money so wilfully lavished on the most impressive buildings, arches and statues had long since dried up and the ones that remained were neglected.

Building materials became very expensive so the locals would take pieces of granite, limestone and marble for their own projects. These acts disgusted Majorian and he made it a crime punishable by flogging and amputation of the hands for anyone caught defacing Rome’s greatest treasures.

The Assassination of Majorian

Ricimer (Photo: DEA / ICAS94 via Getty Images)

Through his policies of reform and military strength, Roman emperor Majorian was carving out an increasingly successful rule. This didn’t please everyone though and his one-time ally, Ricimer – the Kingmaker – was getting increasingly frustrated with this success. With news of successful battles and conquests seeping through the streets of Rome, he watched as Majorian’s popularity with the people increased. Ricimer didn’t want to risk losing his own grip on power and decided to take action. He waited patiently and it was now time to strike.

Ricimer intercepted Majorian on the way back to Rome and arrested and deposed him. The emperor was stripped, tortured and eventually, after five long days, beheaded.

While Majorian has been working hard to rekindle the Roman flame, Ricimer, was plotting his downfall. Having deposed and killed his former friend, Ricimer was now firmly in control. It would prove to be a devastating last blow for the Empire in the West, one from which it would not recover. Sixteen years and six puppet emperors later, the Western Roman Empire was gone.


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