Honorius (emperor)

Flavius Honorius (9 September 384 – 15 August 423) was Roman emperor from 393 to 423. He was the younger son of emperor Theodosius I and his first wife Aelia Flaccilla, and brother of Arcadius, who ruled the eastern half of the empire from 395, when their father died, until his death in 408. In 410, during Honorius's reign over the western Roman Empire, Rome was sacked for the first time in almost 800 years.[2]

Golden coin depicting man with diadem facing right
Solidus of Honorius
Roman emperor
Reign23 January 393 – 15 August 423 (alone from 17 Jan. 395)
PredecessorTheodosius I
SuccessorJoannes and Valentinian III
Co-emperorsTheodosius I (393–395)
Constantine III (409–411)
Constans II (409–411)
Constantius III (421)
Arcadius (393–408, Eastern Emperor, 395–408)
Theodosius II (Eastern Emperor, 408–423)
Born9 September 384
Died15 August 423 (aged 38)
Ravenna, Italy
SpouseMaria (398–407; her death)
Thermantia (408, divorce)
Full name
Flavius Honorius
Regnal name
Dominus Noster Flavius Honorius Augustus[1]
FatherTheodosius I
MotherAelia Flaccilla
ReligionNicene Christianity

Even by the standards of the rapidly declining Western Empire, Honorius's reign was precarious and chaotic. His reign was supported by his principal general, 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 in 408, the western Roman Empire moved closer to collapse.


Early reignEdit

The Western Roman Emperor Honorius, Jean-Paul Laurens (1880). Honorius became Augustus on 23 January 393, at the age of eight.

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.[3] When Theodosius died, in January 395, Honorius and Arcadius divided the Empire, so that Honorius became Western Roman Emperor at the age of ten.[4]

During the early part of his reign Honorius depended on the military leadership of the general Stilicho, who had been appointed by Theodosius[5] and was of mixed Vandal and Roman ancestry.[citation needed] To strengthen his bonds with the young emperor, Stilicho married his daughter Maria to him.[6] The epithalamion written for the occasion by Stilicho's court poet Claudian survives.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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. It was significant 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.[9]

Stilicho and the defense of ItalyEdit

Inscription honouring Honorius, as florentissimo invictissimoque, the most excellent and invincible, 417–418, Forum Romanum

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).[10] It was eventually subdued by Stilicho, under the local command of Mascezel, the very brother of Gildo.[11]

The next crisis was the Visigothic 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 through the Julian Alps and entered Italy.[12]

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.[13] 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.[9] Then, in 405/6, a tribal confedration, composed of Suevians, Vandals, Alans and Goths 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.[14] By 410, Britain was effectively told to look after its own affairs and expect no aid from Rome.[15]

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,[14] 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[16] making Honorius the last Western Roman Emperor to have multiple wives. 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.[17]

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 during the transition from Arcadius to Theodosius II.[18] Summoned 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 him.[19]

On his return to Ravenna, Honorius ordered the arrest and execution of Stilicho. With Stilicho's fall, Honorius 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.[20] The purge also massacred the families of Stilicho's foederati troops, and they defected en masse to Alaric.

In 409, Alaric returned to Italy to claim more gold and land to settle in, as feudatory vassals of the Empire, which Stilicho had promised him. Honorius refused to fulfill his former general's promises and Alaric marched on Rome,[21] which bought him off after a short siege with Rome on the verge of famine.

A palace revolution in Honorius' court led meanwhile to a change of ministers, and those hostile to the Goths were replaced by officers favorable to Alaric, who began peace negotiations. While the embassy was absent, a new change occurred at Ravenna, and Honorius disclaimed the peace which was on the verge of being concluded.[22] The enraged Alaric returned to Rome and forced the Senate to elect Priscus Attalus as emperor, who ratified Alaric's former treaty with Stilicho.[23]

In 410, the Eastern Roman Empire sent six legions (6,000 men; due to changes in tactics, legions of this period were about 1,000 soldiers, down from the 6,000-soldier legions of the Republic and early Empire periods)[24] from Ravenna to aid Honorius, but Alaric ambushed the legions on the way, and only a handful of them reached Rome.[25] To counter Attalus, Honorius tried to negotiate with Alaric in addition to restricting grain shipments to Rome from North Africa. Attalus dispatched an army to conquer Africa and restore the grain supply to Rome, but the governor, Heraclian, who was loyal to Honorius, wiped out this force as soon as it landed on the coast.[26] As Rome was dependent on North African grain for sustenance, the populace was faced with the prospect of famine, and they blamed Attalus for the impending calamity. Growing desperate, Attalus searched for means of pacifying the people, but found himself, in consequence of conciliatory expenditures, incapable of satisfying his debt to Alaric, and thus alienated both Romans and Goths. In turn he came out to be exploited in political terms.

Confronted with the increasing unpopularity and truculence of Attalus, Alaric dethroned him in 410 and proposed to renew negotiations with Honorius.[27] Honorius, overconfident at Attalus' fall and the victory of his general Heraclian over Attalus' African expeditionary force, refused negotiation, and declared Alaric the eternal enemy of the Republic.[28] The infuriated Alaric turned on the defenseless Rome and sacked the city.

Constantius and the beginning of erosion of the Western EmpireEdit

Christian pendant of Empress Maria, daughter of Stilicho, and wife of Honorius. The pendant reads, around a central cross (clockwise):
Latin and Greek characters were intermingled in this one. The letters form a Christogram.
Louvre, Paris.

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.[29] 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's troops had returned to Italy, Jovinus revolted in northern Gaul, with the support of Alans, Burgundians, and the nobility of Gallic descent.[30] 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.[31] At the same time, Heraclianus raised the standard of revolt in North Africa, but failed during an invasion of Italy. Defeated, he fled back to Carthage and was killed.[31]

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 once again. 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 with which Attalus had threatened Honorius. 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.[32]

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.[33] 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.[34]

In 417, Constantius married Honorius's sister, Galla Placidia, much against her will.[32] In 421, Honorius recognized him as co-emperor Constantius III;[35] 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 it, he died early in 422.[36]

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 Gaul had been ravaged by barbarians.[37] 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.[38]


Honorius died of edema on 15 August 423, leaving no heir.[16] In the subsequent interregnum Joannes was nominated Emperor. The following year, however, the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II installed his cousin Valentinian III, son of Galla Placidia and Constantius III, as Emperor.

The Mausoleum of Honorius was located on the Vatican Hill, accessed from the transept of the Old Saint Peter's Basilica. It was first used for Maria. Probably Thermantia and Honorius's sister Galla Placidia, and perhaps other imperial family members, were later buried there. In the 8th century it was transformed into a church, the Chapel of St Petronilla, which held the relics of the saint and was . The mausoleum was demolished when the New St Peter's was erected.[39][40]

Sack of RomeEdit

The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius, by John William Waterhouse, 1883

The most notable event of his reign was the assault and Sack of Rome on 24 August 410 by the Visigoths under Alaric.

The city had been under Visigothic siege since shortly after Stilicho's deposition and execution in the summer of 408.[41] Lacking a strong general to control the by-now mostly Germanic Roman army, Honorius could do little to attack Alaric's forces directly, and apparently adopted the only strategy he could in the situation: wait passively for the Visigoths to grow weary and spend the time marshalling what forces he could. Unfortunately, this course of action appeared to be the product of Honorius' indecisive character and he suffered much criticism for it both from contemporaries and later historians.

Whether this plan could have worked is perhaps debatable. In any case, it was overtaken by events. Stricken by starvation, somebody opened Rome's defenses to Alaric and the Goths poured in. The city had not been under the control of a foreign force since an invasion of Gauls some eight centuries before. The sack itself was notably mild as sacks go. For example, churches and religious statuary went unharmed.[42] The psychological blow to the contemporary Roman world was considerably more painful. The shock of this event reverberated from Britain to Jerusalem, and inspired Augustine to write his magnum opus, The City of God.

The year 410 also saw Honorius reply to a British plea for assistance against local barbarian incursions, called the Rescript of Honorius. Preoccupied with the Visigoths, Honorius lacked any military capability to assist the distant province. According to the sixth century Byzantine scholar Zosimus, "Honorius wrote letters to the cities in Britain, bidding them to guard themselves."[43] This sentence is located randomly in the middle of a discussion of southern Italy; no further mention of Britain is made, which has led some modern academics to suggest that the rescript does not apply to Britain, but to Bruttium in Italy.[44][45][46]


Solidus of emperor Honorius minted at Ravenna

In his History of the Wars, Procopius mentions a story (which Edward Gibbon disbelieved) where, on hearing the news that Rome had "perished", Honorius was initially shocked; thinking the news was in reference to a favourite chicken he had named "Roma".

"At that time they say that the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna received the message from one of the eunuchs, evidently a keeper of the poultry, that Rome had perished. And he cried out and said, 'And yet it has just eaten from my hands!' For he had a very large cock, Rome by name; and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Rome which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: 'But I thought that my fowl Rome had perished.' So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed."
—Procopius, The Vandalic War (III.2.25–26)

Summarising his account of Honorius's reign, the historian J.B. Bury wrote:

"His name would be forgotten among the obscurest occupants of the Imperial throne were it not that his reign coincided with the fatal period in which it was decided that western Europe was to pass from the Roman to the Teuton."[47]

After listing the disasters of those 28 years, Bury concluded:

"[Honorius] himself did nothing of note against the enemies who infested his realm, but personally he was extraordinarily fortunate in occupying the throne till he died a natural death and witnessing the destruction of the multitude of tyrants who rose up against him."[47]

Honorius issued a decree during his reign, prohibiting men from wearing trousers in Rome.[48] The last known gladiatoral games took place during the reign of Honorius,[49] who banned the practice in 399 and again in 404, reportedly due to the martyrdom of a Christian monk named Telemachus while he was protesting a gladiator fight.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Cooley, Alison E. (2012). The Cambridge Manual of Latin Epigraphy. Cambridge University Press. p. 506. ISBN 978-0-521-84026-2.
  2. ^ Doyle, Chris (2018). Honorius: The Fight for the Roman West AD 395-423. Routledge Roman Imperial Biographies series.
  3. ^ Williams, Stephen and Gerard Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, Yale University Press, 1994, pg. 129
  4. ^ Victor, 48:19
  5. ^ Zosimus, 4:59:1
  6. ^ Zosimus, 5:3:1
  7. ^ Bury, pg. 77
  8. ^ Bury, pg. 105
  9. ^ a b c Bury, pg. 110
  10. ^ Bury, pg. 76
  11. ^ Zosimus, Book 5
  12. ^ Bury, pg. 108
  13. ^ Bury, pg. 109
  14. ^ a b Bury, pg. 111
  15. ^ Zosimus, 10:2
  16. ^ a b Jones, pg. 442
  17. ^ J. Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 131
  18. ^ Bury, pg. 112
  19. ^ Bury, pg. 113
  20. ^ Zosimus, 5:44
  21. ^ Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (The Modern Library, 1932), ch. XXXI., p. 1,088, 1,089
  22. ^ Gibbon, pp. 1,112-14
  23. ^ Gibbon, pp. 1,114-16
  24. ^ J. Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 136
  25. ^ Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West: The Slow Death of the Roman Superpower, paperback edition published in 2010 by Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books Ltd, London, p.310
  26. ^ Gibbon, p. 1,118
  27. ^ Gibbon, p. 1,118
  28. ^ Gibbon, p. 1,119
  29. ^ Bury, pg. 142
  30. ^ Bury, pg. 145
  31. ^ a b Bury, pg. 146
  32. ^ a b Bury, pg. 150
  33. ^ Bury, pg. 153
  34. ^ Bury, pg. 154
  35. ^ Bury, pg. 151
  36. ^ Bury, pg. 155
  37. ^ Bury, p. 211
  38. ^ Bury, pg. 156
  39. ^ The Roman Imperial Mausoleum in Late Antiquity
  40. ^ Roger Pearse (16 May 2014). "Old St Peters, the Circus of Caligula and the Phrygianum". Roger Pearse's blog. Retrieved 1 December 2015.
  41. ^ Bury, p. 174-75
  42. ^ Bury, p. 183-84
  43. ^ Zosimus, vi.10.2
  44. ^ Birley, Anthony Richard; OUP Oxford (29 September 2005); ISBN 978-0-19-925237-4 The Roman Government of Britain, pp. 461-63
  45. ^ Halsall, Guy Barbarian migrations and the Roman West, 376–568 Cambridge University Press; illustrated edition (20 December 2007) ISBN 978-0-521-43491-1 pp.217–218
  46. ^ Discussion in Martin Millett, The Romanization of Britain, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) and in Philip Bartholomew 'Fifth-Century Facts' Britannia vol. 13, 1982 p. 260
  47. ^ a b John Bagnall Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire, 1923 (New York: Dover, 1958), p. 213
  48. ^ Codex Theodosianus 14.10.2–3, tr. C. Pharr, "The Theodosian Code," p. 415.
  49. ^ "The Reign of Honorius – Telemachus and the End of the Gladiators" by Linda Alchin, "Honorius", March 05, 2015, retrieved October 12, 2016


Primary sources
Secondary sources

External linksEdit

  Media related to Flavius Augustus Honorius at Wikimedia Commons

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Theodosius I
Western Roman emperor
with Constantius III (421)
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by
Flavius Bauto
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Flavius Euodius
Succeeded by
Valentinian II,
Preceded by
Theodosius I,
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Virius Nicomachus Flavianus and Arcadius
Succeeded by
Anicius Hermogenianus Olybrius,
Anicius Probinus
Preceded by
Anicius Hermogenianus Olybrius,
Anicius Probinus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Arcadius
Succeeded by
Nonius Atticus
Preceded by
Nonius Atticus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Eutychianus
Succeeded by
Mallius Theodorus
Preceded by
Flavius Vincentius
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Arcadius
Succeeded by
Theodosius II,
Flavius Rumoridus
Preceded by
Theodosius II,
Flavius Rumoridus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Aristaenetus
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Anicius Petronius Probus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Theodosius II
Succeeded by
Anicius Auchenius Bassus,
Flavius Philippus
Preceded by
Anicius Auchenius Bassus,
Flavius Philippus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Theodosius II and Constantine III
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Theodosius II without colleague
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Theodosius II
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Constantius III,
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Theodosius II
Succeeded by
Theodosius II,
Junius Quartus Palladius
Preceded by
Theodosius II,
Junius Quartus Palladius
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Constantius III and Theodosius II
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Theodosius II
Succeeded by
Avitus Marinianus,
Flavius Asclepiodotus