Who was Honorius?

Honorius Honorius (384 – 423), was Western Roman Emperor from 395 to 423. He was the younger son of emperor Theodosius I and his first wife Aelia Flaccilla, and brother of Arcadius, who was the Byzantine Emperor from 395 until his death in 408.

Even by the standards of the rapidly declining Western Empire, Honorius' reign was precarious and chaotic. His reign was supported by his principal general, Flavius Stilicho, who was successively Honorius's guardian (during his childhood) and his father-in-law (after the emperor became an adult). Stilicho's generalship helped preserve some level of stability, but with his execution, the Western Roman Empire moved closer to collapse.

Early reign

After holding the consulate at the age of two, Honorius was declared Augustus by his father Theodosius I, and thus co-ruler, on 23 January 393 after the death of Valentinian II and the usurpation of Eugenius. When Theodosius died, in January 395, Honorius and Arcadius divided the Empire, so that Honorius became Western Roman Emperor at the age of ten.

During the first part of his reign Honorius depended on the military leadership of the general Stilicho, who had been appointed by Theodosius and was of mixed Vandal and Roman ancestry. To strengthen his bonds with the young emperor, Stilicho married his daughter Maria to him.

Honorius was also greatly influenced by the Popes of Rome, who sought to extend their influence through his youth and weak character. So it was that Pope Innocent I contrived to have Honorius write to his brother, condemning the deposition of John Chrysostom in 407.

At first Honorius based his capital in Milan, but when the Visigoths under King Alaric I entered Italy in 401 he moved his capital to the coastal city of Ravenna, which was protected by a ring of marshes and strong fortifications.

While the new capital was easier to defend, it was poorly situated to allow Roman forces to protect central Italy from the increasingly regular threat of barbarian incursions. Significant was that the Emperor's residence remained in Ravenna until the overthrow of the last western Roman Emperor in 476. That was probably the reason why Ravenna was chosen not only as the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy, but also for the seat of the Byzantine exarchs as well.

Stilicho and the defence of Italy

Honorius' reign was plagued by almost constant barbarian incursions into Gaul, Italy and Hispania. At the same time, a host of usurpers rose up due to the apparent inability of the Emperor to see to the Empire's defences.

The first crisis faced by Honorius was a revolt led by Gildo, the Comes Africae and Magister utriusque militiae per Africam, in Northern Africa, which lasted for two years (397–398). It was eventually subdued by Stilicho, under the local command of Mascezel, the brother of Gildo.

The next crisis was the Visigoth invasion of Italy in 402 under the formidable command of their king, Alaric. Stilicho was absent in Raetia in the latter months of 401, when Alaric, who was also the eastern empire's magister militum in Illyricum, suddenly marched with a large army to the Julian Alps and entered Italy.

Stilicho hurried back to protect Honorius and the legions of Gaul and Britain were summoned to defend Italy. Honorius, slumbering at Milan was caught unaware and quickly fled to Asti, only to be pursued by Alaric, who marched into Liguria. Stilicho defeated Alaric at Pollentia, on the river Tanarus on Easter Day (6 April 402) Alaric retreated to Verona, where Stilicho attacked him again. The Visigoths, weakened, were allowed to retreat back to Illyricum.

In 405 Stilicho met an invasion of Italy led across the Danube by Radagaisus. They brought devastation to the heart of the Empire, until Stilicho defeated them in 406 and recruited most of them into his forces. Then, in 405/6, an enormous barbarian horde, composed of Ostrogoths, Alans, Vandals and Quadi, crossed the frozen Rhine and invaded Gaul.

The situation in Britain was even more difficult. The British provinces were isolated, lacking support from the Empire, and the soldiers supported the revolts of Marcus (406–407), Gratian (407), and Constantine III. Constantine invaded Gaul in 407, occupying Arles, and while Constantine was in Gaul, his son Constans ruled over Britain. By 410, Britain was effectively told to look after its own affairs and expect no aid from Rome.

There was good reason for this as the western empire was effectively overstretched due to the massive invasion of Alans, Suebi and Vandals who although they had been repulsed from Italy in 406, moved into Gaul on 31 December 406, and arrived in Hispania in 409.

In early 408, Stilicho attempted to strengthen his position at court by marrying his second daughter, Thermantia, to Honorius after the death of the empress Maria in 407 Another invasion by Alaric was prevented in 408 by Stilicho when he forced the Roman Senate to pay 4,000 pounds of gold to persuade the Goths to leave Italy.

Honorius, in the meantime, was at Bononia, on his way from Ravenna to Ticinum, when the news reached him of his brother's death in May 408. He at first was planning to go to Constantinople to help set up the court in the wake of the accession of Theodosius II.

Summoning Stilicho from Ravenna for advice, Stilicho advised Honorius not to go, and proceeded to go himself. In Stilicho’s absence, a minister named Olympius gained the confidence of Honorius. He convinced the emperor that his Arian father-in-law was conspiring with the barbarians to overthrow Honorius.

On his return to Ravenna, Honorius ordered the arrest and execution of Stilicho. With Stilicho’s fall, Olympius moved against all of his former father-in-law’s allies, killing and torturing key individuals and ordering the confiscation of the property of anyone who had borne any office while Stilicho was in command.

Honorius's wife Thermantia, daughter of Stilicho, was taken from the imperial throne and given over to her mother; Eucherius, the son of Stilicho, was put to death. The conspiracy also massacred the families of Stilicho's federate troops, and the troops defected en masse to Alaric.
In 409, Alaric returned to Italy, finding little effective opposition in the field. With the agreement of the Senate he supported the usurpation of Priscus Attalus.

In 410, the Eastern Roman Empire sent six Legions (6,000 men; due to changes in tactics, legions of this period were about 1000 soldiers, down from the 6000-soldier legions of the Republic and early Empire periods) to aid Honorius. To counter Attalus, Honorius tried to negotiate with Alaric. Alaric withdrew his support for Attalus in 410, but the negotiations with Honorius broke down. Alaric again entered Italy in 410 and sacked Rome.

Constantius and the erosion of the Western Empire

Christian pendant of Empress Maria, daughter of Stilicho, and wife of Honorius. Musée du Louvre. The pendant reads, around a central cross (clockwise):
The letters form a Christogram

The revolt of Constantine III in the west continued through this period. In 409, Gerontius, Constantine III's general in Hispania, rebelled against him, proclaimed Maximus Emperor, and besieged Constantine at Arles. Honorius now found himself an able commander, Constantius, who defeated Maximus and Gerontius, and then Constantine, in 411.

Gaul was again a source of troubles for Honorius: just after Constantius' troops had returned to Italy, Jovinus revolted in northern Gaul, with the support of Alans, Burgundians, and the Gallic nobility. Jovinus tried to negotiate with the invading Goths of Ataulf (412), but his proclamation of his brother Sebastianus as Augustus made Ataulf seek alliance with Honorius. Honorius had Ataulf defeat and execute Jovinus in 413. At the same time, Heraclianus raised the standard of revolt in North Africa, but failed to launch an invasion of Italy. Defeated he fled back to Carthage and was killed.

In 414, Constantius attacked Ataulf, who proclaimed Priscus Attalus emperor again. Constantius drove Ataulf into Hispania, and Attalus, having again lost Visigoth support, was captured and deposed. In the eleventh consulship of Honorius and the second of Constantius, the Emperor entered Rome in triumph, with Attalus at the wheels of his chariot.

Honorius punished Attalus by cutting off his right finger and thumb, inflicting the same fate that Attalus threatened Honorius with. Remembering how Attalus had suggested that Honorius should retire to some small island, he returned the favor by banishing Attalus to the island of Lipara.

Northeastern Gaul became subject to even greater Frankish influence, while a treaty signed in 418 granted to the Visigoths southwestern Gaul, the former Gallia Aquitania. Under the influence of Constantius, Honorius issued the Edict of 418, which was designed to enable the Empire to retain a hold on the lands which were to be surrendered to the Goths.

This edict relaxed the administrative bonds that connected all the Seven Provinces (The Maritime Alps, Narbonensis Prima, Narbonensis Secunda, Novempopulania, Aquitania Prima, Aquitania Secunda and Viennensis) with the central government. It removed the imperial governors and allowed the inhabitants, as a dependent federation, to conduct their own affairs, for which purpose representatives of all the towns were to meet every year in Arles.

In 417, Constantius married Honorius' sister, Galla Placidia, much against her will. In 421, Honorius recognized him as co-emperor Constantius III; however, when the announcement of his elevation was sent to Constantinople, Theodosius refused to recognise him. Constantius, enraged, began preparations for a military conflict with the eastern empire but before he could commence the planned intervention, he died early in 422.

In 420–422, another Maximus (or perhaps the same) gained and lost power in Hispania. By the time of Honorius’s death in 423, Britain, Spain and large parts of Gaul had effectively passed into barbarian control. In his final years, Honorius reportedly developed a physical attraction to his half sister, and in order to escape his unwelcome attentions, Galla Placidia and her children, the future emperor Valentinian III and his sister, Honoria, fled to Constantinople.


Honorius died of edema on 15 August 423, leaving no heir. In the subsequent interregnum Joannes was nominated Emperor. The following year, however, the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II elected his cousin Valentinian III, son of Galla Placidia and Constantius III, as Emperor.


  1. "Honorius." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (with minor edits), under GFDL.