Monday, March 10, 2014


Meaghan A. McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 367. ISBN 9780199664818. $160.00.

Reviewed by Jan Willem Drijvers, University of Groningen (

Version at BMCR home site


Most of the scholarly studies in the field of Late Antiquity that have appeared over the last forty years or so focus on social, cultural or religious history, while political, administrative and institutional history has received considerably less attention. In 1999 Andrea Giardina called for more attention to be paid to these aspects of the history of the late Roman empire1 and some progress has been made since then, but the late antique institutions and their transformations are still understudied. This applies in particular to the emperor and the transformation of the imperial office, which have never really been a key theme of research. Although there are excellent studies on the reigns of individual late-antique emperors – Constantine beats them all – for many fourth- and fifth-century emperors detailed scholarly research is still lacking. In spite of the centrality of the emperor there is no late-antique equivalent to Fergus Millar's The Emperor in the Roman World (1977), which discusses the imperial office between 31 BC and 337 AD. This hiatus is now partly filled by McEvoy's monograph on late-antique child-emperors in the western part of the late Roman empire.

This study falls into three parts. The first part discusses the reigns of Gratian (367-383) and Valentinian II (375-392), the second Honorius (395-423) and the third Valentinian III (425-455). Part one consists of four chapters and the other two parts three chapters each. The book opens with an introduction that discusses child-emperors before 367 and the available primary sources for the reconstruction and analysis of the reigns of child-emperors. McEvoy is mainly interested in questions such as how rule by child-emperor came about in the fourth century, how it functioned and why it was accepted. For McEvoy there is more to the reigns of child-emperors than just cleaving to the dynastic principle, as most scholarly literature has suggested. Her overall interest is in the fundamental transformation of late Roman imperial governance as a consequence of the rule by child-emperors.

The first chapter of Part I reviews the traditional expectations and virtues of an emperor as well as his functions in the late-antique Roman empire. This analysis is predominantly based on panegyrics, which follow the principles set out in the Basilikos Logos of Menander Rhetor and Ammianus Marcellinus. General qualities such as family background, youth and education are reviewed as well as military prowess, justice, wisdom, temperance and the emperor's religious role and the divine favour that manifested itself through military victories, general prosperity and closeness to God. The subsequent chapters of this part of the book deal with the accessions of Gratian and Valentinian II, their regime building and the military and political history of their reigns. Their accessions as Augusti at such a young age were, according to McEvoy, unexpected and novel events. Moreover their reigns offered the opportunity to experiment with child-emperor rule and they helped to shape western governance by boys for the coming decades. McEvoy rightly emphasizes the difference between the reigns of Gratian and Valentinian. The first was appointed by Valentinian I for dynastic reasons at the age of eight and ruled together with his father for more than eight years, while the latter was proclaimed emperor at the age of four shortly after the death of Valentinian I by a clique of military and civilian officials with the aim of using the infant emperor for their own political purposes and promoting their own interests. Unlike the rule of his half-brother Gratian, Valentinian's rule was mainly ceremonial. Military affairs were dealt with by men behind the throne such as Arbogast. This makes Valentinian II basically the first representative of the infantilization of the emperorship, since the reigns of Honorius and Valentinian III were likewise predominantly characterized by ceremony and passivity. These emperors did not deal with military affairs, which they left to their magistri militum. The last chapter of this part of the book deals with the question of whether Gratian and Valentinian II could have fulfilled the expectations and virtues of the emperor's function on the basis of Ausonius' Gratio actiarum, delivered less than six months after the battle of Adrianople (9 August 378) in honour of Gratian, and Ambrose's De obitu Valentiniani (392). Although both speeches present a very complimentary picture of the young emperors, it is evident that this image does not correspond with reality. In particular, in the military realm Valentinian played no role whatsoever and his power was mainly ceremonial. While the discussion of the reigns of Gratian and Valentinian in Part I is chiefly thematic, Parts II and III, which deal with the reigns of Honorius and Valentinian III, are chronological in nature and do not refer to imperial virtues, as Part I would lead us to expect.

Honorius became sole emperor over the west in 395 when he was ten years of age; he ruled for twenty-eight years until 423. His reign has received little scholarly attention. McEvoy's central question concerning his time in power is what happens when a child-emperor grows up and becomes an adult. Honorius' long reign was dominated by Stilicho, until his death in 408, and then by Constantius; both took care of military affairs as magistri utriusque militiae. Chapters 6 and 7 are therefore rightfully dedicated to these two men who ruled in partnership with Honorius. Stilicho as well as Constantius not only had great influence over the emperor, but also managed to become part of the imperial family by becoming father-in-law and brother-in-law of the emperor respectively. Constantius even became Augustus in 421. Of importance is that when Honorius grew up and became an adult, he remained a ceremonial emperor and left the military affairs to his guardians. Nor did he interfere with the in-fighting at court between the factions trying to establish their power behind the throne. So Honorius never made the transition from child- to adult emperor; he remained ceremonial and passive. According to McEvoy this is an important development that "transformed the political culture in the Roman west and created the acceptance of child-emperor and figure-head emperor as a viable option where it had not been before" (p. 220).

Part III discusses the thirty-year reign of Valentinian III, who became emperor in 425 at the age of six. Valentinian has been dismissed as a weak and worthless emperor, but McEvoy's study presents another picture, in spite of the fact that his reign, like Honorius', was dominated by a chief power-player behind the throne, namely Aetius (Ch. 9). McEvoy makes a convincing case against the more or less widely accepted assumption that Galla Placidia, the emperor's mother, dominated her son and exercised power as his regent. Aetius exercised the greatest influence on the young emperor and conducted the emperor's military campaigns. However, unlike Stilicho and Constantius under Honorius, Aetius could not fulfill the same role as his predecessors because of the influence of the eastern court in Constantinople. Valentinian had come to the throne through the influence of Theodosius II, he had married the latter's daughter Eudoxia and he was regularly supported by eastern armies. In short, the eastern court had committed itself to Valentinian, which curtailed the possibility of Aetius' allying himself to the imperial dynasty through marital ties as Stilicho and Constantius had managed to do. The collaboration between the two courts is a clear indication, as McEvoy emphasizes, that there was no question of divisio regni, which historians traditionally date to 395. As McEvoy describes in chapter 10, in the 440s Valentinian seems to have developed into a more active ruler and made a cautious transformation from child-emperor to adult emperor. McEvoy observes a more personal 'voice' in the emperor's legislation; also his regular presence in the city of Rome and his church building activities in the eternal city are indications of a more independent role. When Theodosius II died in 450 and eastern influence on the western regime diminished rapidly, Valentinian made attempts to free himself from Aetius. This ultimately led in 454 to the emperor's assassinating the most powerful man behind the throne with his own hands. However, while the emperor was seeking to build his own regime with the senatorial aristocracy and the military powers, he was himself assassinated only six months later.

McEvoy's study is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the transformation of the imperial office in the western half of the Roman empire. Apart from discussing in detail the political and military events and developments during the reigns of the various child-emperors, she makes a very persuasive case that there is far more to the infantilization of the imperial office than just the dynastic principle. As she discusses in her long concluding chapter, it was not only a result of inter alia the professionalization of the late imperial bureaucracy and judicial system, but also and perhaps foremost the opportunities that the rule of a child-emperor offered to individuals behind the throne to exercise power and serve their own interests by ruling in partnership with the emperor and taking over imperial responsibilities: the emperor concerned himself with the ceremonial and religious aspects of his rule, while men like Stilicho and Aetius took care of military affairs. This divorce of the emperor from his military leadership would be permanent and the emperor as a ceremonial ruler would become the accepted model of imperial leadership in the west. The passive emperor would become entirely acceptable, as McEvoy clearly demonstrates in the case of Honorius. However, as soon as a boy-emperor became an adult and tried to acquire actual instead of only ceremonial power, he ceased to be acceptable as an emperor, as the reign of Valentinian III demonstrates. Evidently the long periods of rule by child-emperors limited the functions of the emperor and turned him into little more than a ceremonial figurehead.


1.   A. Giardina, 'Esplosione di tardoantico', Studi storici 40 (1999), 157-180.

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