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Petrus Marcellinus Felix Liberius (c. 465 – c. 554) was a Late Roman aristocrat and official, whose career spanned seven decades in the highest offices of both the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire.


Origins and family

The exact origin of Liberius is unknown, but it is speculated that he came from Liguria.[1] His family certainly did not belong to the upper senatorial class of Italy. He was married to Agretia, and had several sons and a daughter. Almost nothing is known of them, except that one of his sons, Venantius, was appointed consul in 507 and held the ceremonial office of comes domesticorum vacans some time later.[1]

Career under the Goths


Prefect of Italy

After the deposition of the last Western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, by Odoacer in 476, the Roman administrative apparatus in Italy continued to function under the new regime. It continued to be staffed exclusively by Romans, and adhering to the pretense that Italy was still nominally a part of the Empire. Several senatorial families continued to serve in high administrative posts, and the young Liberius followed this tradition. Despite his youth he seems to have distinguished himself, for in 493, after Odoacer's murder, the new master of Italy, the Ostrogoth Theodoric the Great, appointed him to the highest civil office of praetorian prefect of Italy. He continued to serve in this capacity until 500, when he was retired and given the rank of patricius. His tenure was a success, as he proved capable in dealing with financial matters and in handling the sensitive issue of Gothic settlement, something reflected in the lavish praise he received from his contemporaries, Ennodius and Cassiodorus.[1]

Prefect of Gaul

In 508, Theodoric conquered the territory of Provence in southern Gaul, and in 510 decided to re-establish the defunct Praetorian prefecture of Gaul to administer the territory, with seat at Arelatum. Theodoric selected Liberius for the post, a sign of the king's trust in both his ability and his loyalty. Liberius served in that capacity until 536, when he returned to Italy, the longest such period on record for such a high office.[1] Liberius' prime responsibility seems to have been the pacification of the new and war-torn province, a task he appears to have accomplished. In this he had the assistance of the local bishop, Caesarius. Sometime in the mid-520s, Liberius suffered a heavy wound by a Visigoth raid, and lay near death. The arrival of the bishop "miraculously" cured him, and a similar episode is recounted concerning his wife. Possibly in a gesture of gratitude for his salvation, he built a new cathedral in Orange, where in 529 the Second Council of Orange was held. Upon the death of Theodoric in 526, he was given the title of patricius praesentalis, which made him one of the very few Romans to be entrusted with a military command during Ostrogothic rule.[1] Some time in 533-534, however, Liberius was recalled to Italy.

Embassy to Constantinople

At that time, the Ostrogothic Kingdom faced a succession dispute. After Theodoric's death, his grandson, Athalaric was crowned king. As he was only an infant, his mother, Amalasuntha, assumed the regency. Her close relations to the Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian, however, made her unpopular. The young king, in the meanwhile, indulged in pleasures, which weakened his constitution, resulting in a premature death in October 534.[2] Amalasuntha, trying to strengthen her position, appointed her cousin Theodahad as king. Theodahad however quickly deposed and imprisoned Amalasuntha, and executed her closest associates. Liberius, together with fellow senator Opilio, was dispatched by Theodahad to Constantinople to inform Justinian, and carrying with them letters portraying a more mild version of events. However, upon reaching the port of Avlona, the two envoys met the emperor's own envoy, Peter, and told him what had really transpired. The news of Amalasuntha's captivity, followed by her subsequent murder, provided Justinian with a pretext for launching a campaign against the Goths in Italy, beginning the long and devastating Gothic War. Liberius was received with honour in Constantinople, and did not return to Italy.[1]

In Imperial service

Prefect of Egypt

Despite his advanced age, Liberius, due to his impeccably orthodox credentials, was chosen as the new Augustal Prefect of Egypt ca. 538, with the prime task of suppressing the local Monophysites, together with an ecclesiastical commission under the future Pope Pelagius. According to the information provided by Procopius in his Anecdota, his tenure in Egypt was troubled, both because of his lack of acquaintance with the local realities and because of interference from the Imperial court, including a dispute with his successor, John. On his return to Constantinople, in 542, Liberius faced a senatorial inquiry, but managed to defend his actions with success.[1]

Role in the Gothic War

In Italy, the situation was deteriorating rapidly for the Empire. The Goths under Totila had recaptured most of the Italian peninsula and were threatening Sicily. In 550, after much vacillation on Justinian's behalf, Liberius was sent with an army to the island. He managed to enter the besieged city of Syracuse, but his military inexperience did not allow him to conduct any operations of significance against the Goths. Instead, he left the city with his army, and headed to Palermo, where in 551 he was replaced by the Armenian general Artabanes.[1]

Expedition to Hispania

During that time, a civil war had broken out in Visigoth Kingdom of Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula, comprising modern Spain and Portugal), between the supporters of Athanagild and Agila. Athanagild asked Justinian for help, and the emperor sent a small army of 2,000 men to Hispania, and Liberius, now in his mid or late eighties, is mentioned by Jordanes as its commander. Despite the small size of the force, it achieved great success, and several cities fell. Finally, with Roman aid, Athanagild prevailed, and in 554 was crowned King of the Visigoths. The Romans kept most of their possessions, roughly equal to the old province of Baetica, now the province of Spania, and the Visigoths acknowledged the suzerainty of the Empire.[3]

Final years

Liberius returned to Constantinople, where he took part in the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, and tried to persuade Pope Vigilius to attend the council and accept the Emperor's positions. His long and distinguished service to the Empire was rewarded by Justinian in his Sanctio Pragmatica of 554, where he was granted extensive estates in Italy, which had been finally subdued. Probably in the same year, he died, and was buried in Ariminum.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Liberius the Patrician
  2. ^ Bury (1923), Vol. II, pp. 163-4
  3. ^ Bury (1923), Vol. II, pp. 286-7


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