31 May 455: Emperor Maximus is killed fleeing the city of Rome

As the Vandals approach Rome, the city’s populace turn on the emperor and throw his body into the Tiber


The last day of May 455 found the people of the city of Rome in a febrile mood. Just days before, news had reached the city that Genseric, the king of the Vandals, had sailed from north Africa along with thousands of soldiers.

With no serious prospect of resisting a Vandal attack, many richer citizens of Rome had already fled the city. And now the emperor, Petronius Maximus, fearing for his life, was preparing to follow suit.

At the age of almost 60, Petronius Maximus had been on the imperial throne for only two and a half months. His origins are obscure but as a relatively young man he had held a succession of senior political posts. He was clearly a man in possession of a handsome fortune, and with some impressive connections, too. Earlier in the year, he had probably been instrumental in organising a coup against the previous emperor, Valentinian III (whose reign had begun in 425), who was murdered by two military veterans. But, after a reign of just 77 days, Maximus’s luck had run out.

According to later historians, Maximus’s bid to escape from the city collapsed almost as soon as he had set off. Abandoned by his officials and his bodyguards, the emperor rode alone towards the city gates, only to be accosted by an angry mob.

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One account has him stoned to death by the crowd; another suggests that the final blow was delivered by a soldier nicknamed Ursus (‘Bear’). Afterwards, the emperor’s body was mutilated and thrown into the Tiber. Three days later, Genseric’s troops arrived at the city. The Vandal sack of Rome had begun. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

31 May 1578

The Roman Catacombs are said to have been rediscovered by accident when some workmen digging for pozzolana earth (excellent for building purposes) uncover a burial chamber.

31 May 1669: Samuel Pepys pens his final diary entry

The famous diarist’s failing eyesight forces him to stop writing

On the last day of May 1669, Samuel Pepys was a busy man. He rose early to go over his accounts, a task “which the ill condition of my eyes, and my neglect for a year or two, hath kept me behindhand in, and so as to render it very difficult now, and troublesome to my mind to do it”.

Pepys dined at home, then left for Whitehall, pausing en route to visit his occasional mistress Betty Michell. “And here je did baiser elle, but had not opportunity para hazer some with her as I would have offered if je had had it,” he added in the code he used for his sexual encounters. Then there was a meeting with the Duke of York, a walk in the park with his wife and some friends, drinks in the World’s End pub, “and so home late”.

And then, for readers of Pepys’s famous diary, comes the twist. The 36-year-old writer’s eyes had been troubling him for a long time, and he’d finally had enough. This would be the last entry, he wrote, “I being not able to do it any longer, having done now so long as to undo my eyes almost every time that I take a pen in my hand; and, therefore, whatever comes of it, I must forbear.”

So ended what is surely one of the most engrossing of all historical documents. “And so I betake myself to that course, which is almost as much as to see myself go into my grave,” Pepys concluded sadly, “for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me!” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

31 May 1809

Austrian composer Joseph Hayden dies in Vienna, aged 77. He has often been described as the father of the symphony and the string quartet.

31 May 1837

British clown Joseph Grimaldi dies in Islington at the age of 58.

31 May 1910

The Union of South Africa came into being as a Dominion with the unification of the former Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State with the British colonies of Natal and the Cape.

31 May 1911

The RMS Titanic was launched at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. She was completed in March 1912 and began her doomed maiden voyage on 10 April.


31 May 1962

After being found guilty by an Israeli court of 15 charges, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, Nazi Holocaust administrator Adolf Eichmann was hanged in a prison at Ramla.

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