Who was Roman Emperor Honorius and what did he do?

Weak. Ineffective. Chaotic. Just some of the adjectives describing the thirty-year reign of Honorius Augustus. Politically incompetent, militarily inept, timid and passive, he faced constant bombardment from barbarian marauders, and during his reign Rome was sacked for the first time in eight hundred years. Here’s the story of Roman emperor Honorius.

History Rulers
13 May 2023

Emperor Honorius, a ruler thrust into power at the tender age of ten, presided over the Western Roman Empire during its darkest days. His reign, plagued by political turmoil and barbarian invasions, bore witness to the catastrophic Sack of Rome, an event that heralded the empire’s impending doom.

By the time emperor Honorius came to the throne, the Roman Empire was in a state of terminal decline. Following the death of his father Theodosius I – who ruled over a unified empire – the Roman world was again divided into the eastern half and the western half.

At the time, the Western Roman Empire was vulnerable. Internally, there were social and economic problems, including high taxes, inflation, and declining agricultural production. The military was also overstretched and often unable to repel barbarian invasions, which were becoming more frequent and better organised. There was also political in-fighting with various factions vying for power and influence.

Externally, the empire faced enemies, including the Visigoths, Huns, and other nomadic tribes from the east. These groups were attracted by the wealth and resources of Rome, and they launched repeated and successful attacks on its borders, culminating in the Sack of Rome in 410 AD.

And all this happened under the watch of a child emperor who ascended to the throne when he was only ten years old. Discover the astonishing life and times of Roman emperor Honorius and we’ll also answer the question, ‘how did Honorius die?’

The Early Life of Honorius, Emperor of Rome

Italy: 'The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius', oil on canvas painting by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), 1883, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. (Photo by: Pictures from History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Honorius was born in Constantinople – modern-day Istanbul – in September 384 AD. He was the youngest son of emperor Theodosius I and Aelia Flaccilla.

Aged two he was made a consul; at eight his father declared him augustus and, when his father died in January 395 AD, he became the Western Roman emperor Honorius. He was just ten years old. At the same time, his brother Arcadius, who was about seventeen, became the Eastern Roman emperor.

Emperor Honorius & General Stilicho

Flavius Stilicho (Photo by: Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Because Honorius, emperor of Rome, was too young to rule, he was put under the care of General Stilicho, one of Rome’s great military commanders. In a move viewed as largely political, Honorius married Stilicho’s eldest daughter, Maria, in around 398 AD. When she died in 407 AD, Emperor Honorius married Thermantia, her younger sister soon after.

During the early years of his reign, the empire was continually besieged by barbarian forces in Gaul, Hispania, and within Italy itself. Honorius, or rather Stilicho, overcame a revolt in Northern Africa concerning the supply of grain to Rome. In 402 AD, the Visigoths, led by King Alaric I, invaded Italy. These invasions – from the Goths, Vandals, Suebi and Alans – continued unabated through the early 400s and the Western Empire under Honorius Augustus was stretched to its military and financial limits.

Indeed it was said in the Rescript of Honorius issued in 410 AD, that Britain while under Roman rule was told to look after itself and not expect any support from Rome; though this has subsequently been disputed as a matter of conjecture.

In 408 AD, Honorius’ brother Arcadius, emperor in the East, died. In the same year on trumped-up charges of treason, Stilicho was arrested and executed in Ravenna. Honorius was on his own.

For a short period around 409 AD, Honorius and Gothic king Alaric co-existed in Italy and a peace treaty was on the verge of being concluded, but the indecisive emperor called it off at the last minute. Alaric was incensed.

The Sack of Rome

Sack of Rome led by Alaric I in 410 (Photo by Ipsumpix/Corbis via Getty Images)

In 410 AD, Alaric’s Gothic army sacked Rome. After several attempts, the Visigoths managed to breach the city’s walls and ransacked the once-great empire’s capital for three days. This event marked the first time in eight hundred years that Rome had fallen to foreign invaders, signifying the decline of the Western Roman Empire. The Sack of Rome had a profound psychological impact on the people of the empire from Britain to Jerusalem. It shook their faith in the empire’s invincibility and foreshadowed its eventual collapse in 476 AD.

During the devastation, Emperor Honorius, for which he was roundly criticised at the time and by later scholars, took no action waiting for the Goths to tire. Saint Jerome wrote, ‘the city which had taken the whole world was itself taken.

The Chaotic Empire

Coin minted under the reign of Jovinus (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

After the catastrophic Sack of Rome, the Western Roman Empire was in complete disarray. A number of emperors were proclaimed across the fractured empire including Constantine III, the two-time usurper Priscus Attalus, Constantius, and Jovinus who claimed to be emperor in 411 AD.

Emperor Honorius lost his grip on power, if indeed he ever had a grip on power, and by the early 420s, Gaul, Spain and Britain had been ravaged by barbarian invaders. Empire-wide territory and influence was being eroded and there were constant political battles with the Eastern Roman Empire.

Death & Legacy

Portrait of Honorius (384-423), Roman emperor. (Photo by Icas94 / De Agostini via Getty Images)

Roman emperor Honorius died in August 423 AD. He left no heir to the throne so a largely unknown emperor named Johannes was proclaimed. Unrecognised in the east, he was killed within two years by an army from the Eastern Roman Empire.

Honorius isn’t remembered with any great fondness. He was seen as feeble, obstinate and lacklustre and, while his successors somehow managed to maintain the unity of the west for a few more decades, it was his inaction that hastened the decline of the Western Roman Empire.


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