Priscus Attalus was a prominent Roman senator and it is probably this fact that saved him from a death that he so richly deserved. Both Alaric and his brother Athaulf occupied Rome during the early Fifth Century but, neither one could actually ascend the throne. Though Alaric had taken the city of Rome, he would need the support or at least the acquiescence of the Roman citizens living there to actually govern. Whereas they would never accept a ruler of Visigothic descent they would allow a puppet ruler set up by a Visigoth to occupy the throne. Because he was of Roman blood and from an old senatorial family, Attalus could be on the throne while a Gothic chieftain held the real governing power.
In A. D. 409, Priscus Attalus was appointed Count of the Sacred largesse (COMES SACRARVM LARGITONVM) and City Prefect (PRAEFECTVS VRBIS) by Honorius. Honorius was safely in residence behind the stout walls of Ravenna and thus not able to provide any assistance to Rome, which was under siege by Alaric at that time. Facing the prospect of mass starvation in the city, Attalus came to terms with Alaric and agreed to be placed on the throne as a rebel emperor in exchange for a promise of help from Alaric.
Soon, Alaric and Attalus had a disagreement and Alaric made a treaty with Honorius under the terms of which Attalus was deposed. Because he did not wish to alienate the powerful Roman senators, Honorius pardoned Attalus whereas a usurper of lesser rank would have been executed on the spot (See the article on Constantine III).
Though pardoned by Honorius, Attalus was still Alaric's prisoner, who took Attalus with him after he sacked Rome on August 24, A. D. 410 and left the city, making their way down the Italian coast. Alaric died soon afterward and his brother Athaulf became King of the Visigoths.
Athaulf raised Priscus Attalus to the purple a second time in A. D. 414, in what was probably a move to get Honorius to negotiate terms for the settlement of the Visigoths on Roman territory as federated troops. When the expected negotiations failed to materialize, Attalus was abandoned by the Goths and soon captured by Honorius' able general Constantius. Again, Attalus' life was spared. However, Attalus had boasted earlier that he would cut off Honorius' right thumb and forefinger when he caught him, and this same punishment was inflicted on Priscus Attalus. Attalus was also exiled to the island of Lipari. Evidently the symbolism of cutting off forefinger and thumb was to render the victim unable to draw a bow. In an age that highly valued the military arts, such a mutilation would be considered an insult on a par with emasculation and was done more to bring shame than injury to the victim.
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