Valentinian I: The last of the triumphant Roman emperors in the west.


Valentinian is sometimes described as a brooding and violent man.  Ammianus Marcellinus, in particular, does not mince his words describing Valentinian’s famous anger, ‘His very voice and expression, his gait and his complexion changed when he was in a rage.’ Ammianus doesn’t stop there finding other significant faults in his character particularly his strictness and cruelty. (For instance, Valentinian dealt harshly with members of the senatorial class who broke the law, in particular, in areas relating to the use of torture and magic and adultery.) Fortunately his faults, which we can add his volatile temper to the list, did not impair him from becoming a resilient and energetic soldier, who rose through the ranks of the Roman army. He had various posts and served under Emperor Constantius II, as a military commander and tribune, before his career was briefly stalled by Emperor Julian. Many sources give different versions of the events that led to his exile to Egyptian Thebes in 362 by Julian. The most reliable account reports that he struck a pagan priest and /or refused to sacrifice in pagan worship. His exile was fortunately short-lived, when he was recalled by Julian’s successor, Jovian.

With so much uncertainty clouding the empire following the shameful peace concluded by Jovian with Sharpur II, Valentinian was immediately welcomed back and promoted to a command position in Ancyra. Eight short months later, upon the untimely death of Jovian, the senior generals and ministers of the empire were again left to debate amongst themselves who to choose as a worthy successor. Fortunately for Valentinian, he was in the right place at the right time, when they named him Jovian’s successor. But if they thought that they would be able to influence or choose his co-emperor, they were sadly mistaken. It was against the advice of his counsel that Valentinian elevated his younger brother Valens, as his co-emperor.

Dividing the empire between himself and his brother Valens, it is surprising that Valentinian as the senior Augustus did not choose to take control of the recently troubled east. Surely Sharpur II was arguably the empires greatest threat in the 360’s? But the winds of change now blew in from the north and Valentinian decision to take command of the western provinces was probably correct. Immediately he found himself in conflict with various tribes. He travelled across the western provinces campaigning against the Alamanni from 365, the Picts, Scots and Saxons in Britain in 367 and 369 and the Quadi in the 370’s for the entirety of his reign.

In his relentless pursuit to subdue the tribes of the north, he embarked on an impressive building project of forts and watch-posts across the Rhine and Pannonian frontier. To pay for these installations, Valentinian had to reluctantly raise taxes, in what was already an over-taxed and inflationary environment. Importantly through administrative reform, he made tax collection in most instances, easier and more reliable, to achieve his aims. Valentinian also set about making changes to army conscription and gave military commanders equal ranking with civil officials and Senators. (His elevation of military men was hated and feared by the Senate.) He, of course, didn’t forget the needs of his citizens, especially the poor, who were often taken advantage of by Roman officials. The poor, for instances, were given defensores plebis, or civitatis (public defenders) in every city of the empire to protect them from extortion and oppression. This charitable measure extended across to Valentinian’s toleration of paganism, even despite the fact he detested pagan rites. (Emperor Julian tried to force him to participate in pagan sacrifice. He refused and resigned his post and/or was removed by Julian, forcing him into exile.) Surprisingly, as a Nicene Christian, unlike Constantine I, he declined from interfering in Church doctrinal controversy. The Church historian Sozomen said that Valentinian was shy of getting involved in matters of faith and gave this account of Valentinian’s reply to the Church council: 

“It is not right that I, a layman, should meddle in such matters. The bishops, whose business it is, may meet of their own accord if they wish.” – Valentinian I.

Valentinian’s life and reign is interesting, but he will be always remembered for his barbarian wars, violent temper and compulsions to make hasty decisions. Mike Duncan, from ‘The history of Rome’ podcast fame, says that Valentinian’s ‘mismanagement’ of the situation in the north instigated much resentment amongst the tribes. For instance, the construction of Roman forts on the Rhine was an understandable response to keeping the Alamanni in check, but Duncan argues that Valentinian went too far when he began building a fort on the far side of the river in Alamanni territory. Hasty decisions like these only infuriated the Alamanni therefore resulting in further conflict. Similarly, in 372, Valentinian ordered the construction of forts in Quadi territory, in the upper Danube region with similar effects. Despite some of these controversial decisions, Valentinian stood tall against the barbarians. Not only was he successful on the Rhine and Upper Danube, he liberated and restored order in Britain and North Africa.

In 375, in the last year of Valentinian’s reign, he was confronted once again with trouble with the Quadi. Valentinian, as usual, inflict swift punishment upon them, which in turn saw the Quadi beg for peace yet again. When peace envoys of various tribes asked for personal meetings with Valentinian, he usually refused to meet with them, handing over negoiations to his most trusted officials. But this time Valentinian decided to meet with them and listen to their grievances. Unfortunately his infamous temper got the best of him, when he became infuriated by their protests of erecting a Roman fort on their side of the Danube, causing him to suffer a stroke.

The last of the triumphant Roman emperors in the west died shortly after in his bed, leaving the west in the hands of his two sons. His eldest son Gratian and infant brother, Valentinian II, would be left to deal with the problems of the empire. Very soon, the western provinces would be overrun by new migrants, spelling the end of imperial rule a century later. We cannot be sure how Valentinian would have responded to the northern hordes that crossed over into the empire? His brother Valens attempt to deal with them head on, failed miserably leading to his death. We will always be left to wonder, if Valentinian had not died, would his reputation as a dogged militarists saved the empire? If anything, we know he would not have gone down without a fight.

The header image of the colossal bronze statue is believed to represent Emperor Valentinian, but its identification cannot be pinpointed with certainty. It is currently located in Barletta, Italy.

Notes and Further Reading 

Averil Cameron, The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430, Cambridge, 1993.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edited, Abridged and with a Critical Foreword by Hans-Friedrich Mueller, The Modern Library, 2013.

Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 2009

“It is not right that I, a layman…”, A.H.M. Jones, The Decline of the Ancient World, Routledge, 1966, p. 64.

Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire: AD 354-378, Penquin Classic, 1995.