Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 17, 2014

Random Art Blogging: The Emperor Honorius

John William Waterhouse - The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius - 1883

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

Currently hanging in the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Some context for the scene: Honorius was Emperor of the Western Roman Empire from 395 until his death in 423 — a period of time when the Western Empire was well into its long, slow decline. He was ten years old when he became Emperor, and he died at 38. The Western Empire was already on a downward slope, but Honorius helped grease the skids. Toward the beginning of his reign, he was guided and served by Stilicho, one of the last competent generals in Roman history; Honorius had Stilicho executed in 408, which did not help the overall military situation, what with the German barbarians streaming across the borders. It was on Honorius’s watch that the Visigoths under Alaric sacked Rome in 410. It was also on his watch that the Romans abandoned Britain.

The scene shown above draws upon an episode reported by the Byzantine historian Procopius, writing about a century after the time of Honorius:

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.

FWIW, Gibbon was apparently skeptical of this story.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.


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