Was Flavius Aetius “Last of the Romans”?

Flavius Aetius was a Roman general, politician and statesman who ruled during the closing chapter of the Western Roman Empire.

Sep 27, 2023By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

was flavius aetius the last of-the romans


Flavius Aetius was one of the most fascinating characters in the Roman Empire’s history. A general, a politician and a statesman, Aetius struggled to defend the Roman West against numerous threats, external and internal. His most famous triumph was over no one other than Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons. No wonder many consider him the “Last of the Romans,” as the Western Roman Empire ceased to exist a few decades after Aetius’ assassination. Yet, unbeknownst to most, Aetius facilitated the fall of the Roman West and played a major role in eroding the power and prestige of the emperor and imperial dynasty.


A relief on the so-called “sarcophagus of Stilicho” believed to be either Stilicho or Aetius and their respective wife, the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan. Image by Richard Mortel
A relief on the so-called “sarcophagus of Stilicho” believed to be either Stilicho or Aetius and their respective wife, the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan. Image by Richard Mortel, https://www.flickr.com/photos/prof_richard/48807125573 


Flavius Aetius was born around 390 CE in the Roman frontier town of Durostorum, now Silistra, on the Bulgarian side of the Danube. Aetius’ father, Gaudentius, was a high-ranking officer under emperor Honorius. Almost nothing is known of Aetius’ youth except that the boy followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming an officer in the Roman army. This was usual for the period, as military service in the Late Roman Empire was hereditary duty, and it was the easiest way for an ambitious man to climb to the very top of the imperial hierarchy.

Aetius Was a Hostage During His Youth

The wooden relief showing the liberation of a besieged city, 5th century CE, Museum of Byzantine Art, Berlin


The early fifth century was a turbulent period for the Roman Empire. While the situation in the East was relatively stable, with the city of Constantinople serving as a formidable bastion against the barbarian threat, the imperial West was much more exposed to hostile attacks. Italy was particularly vulnerable, causing a shift of the capital to better protect Ravenna. To placate the would-be invaders, the Romans would send high-born hostages to the courts of barbarian kings. This is how Aetius found his way to the court of Alaric and, more importantly, to the court of the Huns. It was here, among the Huns, that Aetius learned the nomadic warriors’ language, culture and ways of war. Here, “Last of the Romans” met his ally and future adversary, the son of a king – Attila the Hun


The Huns Were Aetius’ Allies

hunnic empire map
The map showing the approximate position of the Hunnic Empire in the mid-5th century CE, via Thoughco.com


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The Huns, who arrived in the Carpathian basin in the 400s, soon turned into the major power in the region. Aetius, a skilled politician and general, recognized the importance of the Hunnic cavalry and made them part of his army. The Huns played a major role in Aetius’ campaigns in Gaul, where the Romans fought against numerous barbarians, including Franks, Visigoths, Burgundians and Alans. Another danger to imperial control came from the Bagadaue, the armed peasant insurgents who threatened the countryside. Aetius’ military successes brought him the much-desired command, and in 420, he was appointed magister militum, thus becoming one of the most influential people in the Roman West. 


He Also Used Huns Against Fellow Romans

bronze late roman horseman
Late Roman bronze horseman, ca. 4th century CE, via Museu de Guissona Eduard Camps i Cava


However, being a high-ranking imperial commander was not enough for a man harboring lofty ambitions. Flavius Aetius could not become the emperor, but in the waning years of the Western Roman Empire, the most important place was the one next to the emperor. To achieve this goal, Aetius did not hesitate to deploy his troops (including the Huns) against his rivals in the Roman army. In this, Aetius behaved more like a warlord than a Roman commander. Following Honorius’ death in 423, Aetius backed Joannes, eliminating supporters of legitimate Emperor Valentinian III. By doing this, he committed treason, an offence punishable by death. But the large Hunnic army gave him leverage, and Aetius retained his command. Most notably, the Hunnic forces played a crucial role in Aetius’ victory over another powerful Roman commander – Bonifatius.


Aetius Became the Most Powerful Man in the Roman West

roman commander soldiers mosaic
Detail from the ‘Great Hunt’ mosaic, showing the late Roman commander flanked by two soldiers, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, early 4th century CE, via flickr


Aetius’s defeat of Bonifatius at the Battle of Rimini in 432 was a fascinating affair, something unprecedented in the history of the Roman Empire. For the first time, both opponents were not fighting for the throne but for the coveted place of the magister utrisquae militiae – the commander of both armies. To rephrase it, to become the most powerful man in the Roman West. Emperor Valentinian III was only a child, and his mother, Galla Placidia, required a powerful ally to keep her son on the throne. Following the death of her favorite – Bonifatius – Placidia had no choice but to accept Aetius, granting him coveted rank and, with it, the supreme power. For the next decade, Aetius used all of his connections to solidify his position in the court. He also continued campaigns against barbarians in Gaul, keeping imperial control over the contested region.


The Battle of Chalons Was Aetius’ Major Triumph

visigoth cavarly ready charge
Artist’s impression of the Visigoth cavalry preparing for the charge during the Battle of Catalaunian Plains, via italiastoria.it


However, Aetius’ victory paled in comparison with his next major triumph (incidentally also in Gaul). In 451 CE, Aetius and his barbarian coalition halted the advance of the Hunnic army led by Attila the Hun. The Battle of Chalons, also known as the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, was the defining moment of Flavius Aetius’ career. While it was not a major victory (it was a draw), it was a clear display of Aetius’ tactical and diplomatic skills. Realizing that the imperial army was no match for a Hunnic force, Aetius formed a Roman-Germanic coalition. Aware that this was just a temporary measure since his new allies – Visigoths, Franks and Alans – were Rome’s erstwhile enemies, the shrewd general placed barbarian troops in the first line, so they suffered the most casualties. By doing this, Aetius not only forced Attila to retreat, weakening the barbarians. He also preserved the limited Roman manpower.


Aetius’ Triumph Was Followed by His Violent Death

valentinian iii kills aetius
The Assassination of Aetius, by Jarek Nocon, via artstation


One of the most notable casualties of the Battle at Chalons was Theodoric, the king of the Visigoths. His death caused chaos among the Goths, giving much-needed respite to the Romans in Gaul. While Attila the Hun invaded Italy a year later, in 452, and razed the major city of Aquileia, his death led to the rapid fragmentation and disappearance of the Hunnic Empire. Trying to capitalize on those victories, Aetius tried to marry his son, Gaudentius, to the emperor’s daughter. This was a step too far for Valentinian III, who spent his entire reign in the shadow of the powerful general. When on September 454, Aetius was summoned to Ravena, to a meeting with the emperor, he came alone and unarmed, following the protocol. It was Aetius’ biggest and last mistake. During a heated meeting, Valentinian himself drew his sword and killed Aetius.


However, Aetius’ removal did not restore the emperor’s power. A few months after the general’s death, Valentinian fell as a victim of assassination by the men loyal to Aetius. Aside from Emperor Majorian, who made the last but failed effort to reclaim the imperial territory, the Roman West lasted little more than twenty years.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.