Search This Blog

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Majorian- the last hope for the Western Roman Empire

Or what could make for a really great campaign setting for AD&D.
A coin of the Emperor Majorian
As I discussed here I'm going to look at another idea for a campaign world, but this time through the prism of our real world history. This time out I'm going to discuss the last great Roman Emperor in the West, Majorian.

As is my wont, before we delve into the AD&D aspects of this lets review a few basics of the historical Majorian to set the stage. I'm also going to delve into counter factual history as from there its a great place to set a campaign.

Much has been written about the other areas of the Empire during the decline of the 4th and 5th centuries. A good example is Jack Whyte's excellent Camloud Chronicles which starts around the time Roman Britannia is crumbling, the Groan of the Britons, et all. To set a campaign there use the excellent resources for Heroic Britain from Dragon, namely Dragon #257 and #263. To my knowledge however not much has been written about the last Roman who had a chance to save the Western Empire, Majorian. Certainly not in a gaming sense.

Majorian or more properly Flavius Julius Valerius Majorianus Augustus, lived circa 420 – August 7, 461. He reigned as Emperor in the West from 457 to 461 while Leo I was Emperor in the East. At this time the west was in a deep state of decline and the Eastern Emperor held far more power. It's ironic that Majorian's rise to the imperial office was in that typical Roman fashion: the unresolved chaos of Imperial succession. Rome never properly established a unified method of succession and attempts throughout the preceding two centuries resulted in varying degrees of disaster and success.

At the time of Majorian's rise, the true power in the West was the Ricimer, a Romanized Germanic barbarian. Ricimer was able to overthrow the Emperor Avitus with the help of Majorian and the tacit complicity of the Eastern Roman Emperor Marcian. He initially wanted to replace the office of Emperor fully, but the Senate and Roman aristocracy balked. With the overthrow of Avitus he and Majorian were the two most figures in the west. Ricimer who was friends with Majorian apparently thought he could bide his time with no leader in the west with the tacit approval of the eastern Emperor, but eventually Majorian is elected Emperor by his armies. No matter Ricimer thought he could control Majorian. unfortunately for him Majorian showed himself to be a very effective ruler. 

Its also to note the condition of the Western Empire at this time. Through any number of factors the West was disintegrating or near non-existent.
  • The West was in dire straights by this time; The Western Empire had lost most of the main provinces: Mesopotamia, Hispania, Gaul and Britannia had been overrun by barbarians and the legions withdrawn resulting the the Groan of the Britons. Barbarians are pressing everywhere. 
  • Rome is sacked in 410 by Alaric and 455 by Genseric.
  • The late period Roman Legions: The Roman legions were a shadow of themselves and were being pulled from the frontiers often to fight dynastic struggles.
  • Most importantly the West's lands by 455/456 is a few provinces in Gaul and the Italian peninsula. This has the practical effects of reducing taxation to a fraction of even a few decades prior.
  • Little aid was flowing from the more prosperous Eastern portion of the Empire.  Little cooperation was talking place further hampering efforts.
Thus the stage is set for the Emperor; Majorian begins to rollback the barbarians to the point of having retaken large swathes of the the traditional Western Roman Empire in a relatively short period of time. In this Ricimer becomes more concerned as Majorian is breaking the cycle of weak: puppet Emperors in the West that have been on the throne for decades and thus easy to control.

Now we arrive at that crucial counter-factual crossroads: what if the Vandals don't get wind of the plans of Majorian, Majorian acts against Ricimer before he does or both? Its a tantalizing one that begs a lot of questions and makes for a great campaign world (more on that later). It is Majorian who seizes the initiative and has Ricimer silenced. With this a cowed the Senate falls into line.

What then? The Vandals don't get wind of the immanent invasion of Byzacena (area and province around Carthage) perhaps it is reclaimed. This is not entirely unreasonable. Majorian was already showing signs of greatness and pluck, The Vandals who have only recently taken over the area don't as of yet have a firm hold on the territory. So it is that Majorian's enterprise to Africa bears fruit and with the riches and grain shipments of the area secured, the western Empire is back on solid footing, or at least on better footing then before. As an aside Britain is going to be a lost cause for some time, but is more of an outlier of the Empire anyways.

Looking further afield the Eastern Emperor is in his 50s, Majorian in his 30s. Majorian is a dynamic Theodosius did. This is entirely plausible as Leo I was succeeded by Leo II who ruled for only 10 months and then Zeno, neither of which were exceptional and barbarian lineage in the case of Zeno hampered him to a great degree. Majorian is a Roman through and through and a capable one. Perhaps Majorian is skilled enough at the political game to have Leo the Thracian overthrown by the time Majorian is say 40.  Now free of the threat of Ricimer,  Majorian has the at least opportunity to combine the Empire into one again.

So it is with these assumptions that we have a period ripe for a AD&D campaign: lots of intrigue, political infighting, small scale and large wars/raids. economic chaos and so on. Who wants to adventure in the boring, sedate lands of Cormyr??? The late Roman period offers a wealth of opportunities that a good DM can have a field day with. 

One of the few Roman inspired 1st ed images.
In the D&D sense the Roman Empire certainly got the short end of the stick. While the Greeks with their corresponding pantheon in Deities and Demigods have enjoyed support throughout the run of 1st edition and probably earlier, the Romans have been largely not represented. Sure there are a few Dragon magazine articles here and there (like #133) but not much else*. I think in most of the campaigns I played in from 1982-1987 the Greek of the Norse pantheons were utilized but again not in the Roman sense.This changed with 2nd edition for at least we have HR5- The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook. Some do not like the historical series, but I think they are one of the better products released during 2nd Edition; certainly suitable for game play.

 (* Yes I know the Roman gods are largely/mostly based on the Greek but that's not the point I'm trying to make here).

In terms of wizardry and magic a fantasy Roman campaign will be lower powered and certainly not high magic. Superstitions abound and magical could be a powerful force especially in the hands of NPCs but unlikely for the PCs properly played. Likewise, the campaign is going to be very human centric with next to no demi-human PCs or even NPCs for that matter. Most likely any demi-humans will be thought of as barbarians from the mist filled woods of Germania or Hibernia.

To add a fantasy aspect the barbarians at the gates can be swapped for another race. Instead of the Huns, how about hobgoblins as Huns? From the sea instead of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes sweeping through present day Holland and Belgium on their way to England, how about sahuagin? Don't want to go the Roman route? Have the PCs barbarians on the other side of the Rhine.

Chapter 6 of the Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook gives great examples of monsters suitable for a fantasy inspired Roman campaign. With the Empire bordering the wilds of Africa its entirely possible to have any number of magical beasts along with the steppes of Russia and the wild barbarian haunts of Germania. After all it was said by Aristotle in ancient times: "There is always something new coming out of Africa".  The oceans are often thought to hold unimaginable horrors for further sources of monsters.
A 5th century legionnaire.

Of special note the Imperial Navy will not be as great of a force as they were in the proceeding centuries so piratical raids are a problem in addition to the a fore mentioned monsters. The Imperial Legions and the army as a whole are far different as well. They are no longer what one thinks of in terms of the "classic legion" but more infused with barbarian recruits who have been at least partially "Romanized. They are effective but again a different fighting force then the proceeding  centuries. More so then in most any other campaign the article from Dragon #154 "For King and Country" would work exceptionally well with the PCs are part of the Roman Legions.

Need further inspiration on a military based Roman campaign? While set in earlier times movies such as Spartacus, Ben Hur and other "sword and sandal" epics can whet the appetite. For closer to the period, King Arthur or The Eagle will work, but is more applicable to Heroic Britain campaigns. On the book front the previous mentioned series by Jack Whyte and others like "Eagle of the Ninth" can be drawn on for further inspiration.
5th century legionaries fighting barbarians.

So, tired of the same old traditionally inspired pseudo Europe circa 1300 campaign? Consider the Late Roman period. In this case it doesn't quiet become the Dark Ages, but certainly can be harsh. Just because Majorian might meld the Empire back together it doesn't have to be a smooth or pleasant process. Conflict is going to be ever present, political intrigue and backbiting , double crossing is at its height particularity in the Western Empire.

To close if you are  looking for a different campaign setting you could do worse, a world under Majorian offers of wealth of possibilities and is certainly going to be action packed and deadly. A dash of counter factual history, some logical inferences and some imagination and you off and running.


  1. There you go again, teasing me with ideas for campaigns you're never going to run ;-)

  2. Look at it as ideas for your next campaign;)

  3. cool stuff, and yeah, it makes for a cool campaign for those not stuck in permanent Tolkinesque kitchen sink standard D&D mode

  4. Yeah I was surprised how much he's glossed over as he was the last, best chance to save the western empire, if it could be saved. I think a campaign using the sources I listed set in the borders would be great, or even in Heroic Age England.

    Personally I'd have it in modern day northern Italy or the frontier on the Rhine.

  5. Excelent and wonderful article. And if you need more munition read my new novel: stertores (D&D-based and real history-based). And follow FB-page Rome not Byzantium : a new hitory of roman empire 31Bc-1453AD.