Carrying the Torch and Extinguishing the Flame
In the year 363, the last pagan Emperor of Rome, Julian the Apostate, died of a wound in a tactically insignificant battle with the Persians. He was succeeded by Jovian, whose similarly insignificant reign lasted eight months. In 364, Jovian was succeeded by Flavius Valentinianus, a general who had served under the previous two Emperors. Valentinian, as he was known, realized at once that the Empire was too large to govern by himself and named his brother Flavius Julius Valens to rule the Eastern portion of the Empire while he remained in the West. The brothers were immediately confronted with a revolt by Procopius, a cousin of the late Julian and the last surviving (though distant) member of the Constantinian Dynasty. Valens was left in the lurch by his brother who had the perennial threat of Germanic invasions to contend with and feared for his position -- and with good reason. The first legions that Valens sent to fight Procopius defected away from him as soon as they took the field. There was a feeling in many circles that Procopius was the legitimate claimant to the throne, given his blood relation to Julian and his position as Julian's field commander in Armenia. The fact that the first city to give itself over to Procopius was the Imperial capital Constantinople didn't add to Valens' confidence, and he evidently considered suicide. By 366, however, Procopius was revealed to be a paper tiger when Valens managed to get his entire army to defect away from him and the cities and provinces that had previously supported him also turned their backs on the formerly much-vaunted heir of Julian. Eventually, Valens captured Procopius and executed him. He then sent his head to his brother Valentinian as if to say "I've done it and I didn't need your help, not that you offered any to begin with." Valens' position was thus legitimized and he suffered no further major revolts against his rule for the remainder of his reign.
The two brothers could not have been more different. Valentinian was a military man and most of his life before the purple (and indeed after) was a series of battles and wars on the Germanic frontier. Valens had previously had little military experience, only getting in on the action when he and his brother had been sent to Persia by Julian. Although both were Christians, Valentinian was Orthodox and Valens was an Arian. Valentinian was largely tolerant of the surviving vestiges of paganism, only really banning certain types of sacrifices that he found offensive as well as the practice of magic and witchcraft. That said, if anyone broke his laws, he punished them swiftly and without mercy. Valens was less concerned with these sorts of displays, fearful as he was of again alienating the legions who had been so willing to desert him in the initial months of his reign (as most of the enlisted men of the army at this point were Germanic pagans). That's not to say, however, that Valens didn't do his own share of anti-pagan persecutions, though he seems to have been more restrained than his brother, especially with regards to the army. Valentinian wasn't really concerned with learning or public works while Valens commissioned a history of the Roman Empire up to that point for educational purposes and completed the Valens Aqueduct, which was one of the largest aqueduct structures ever built up to that point (completed in 368). The system was over 150 kilometers in length, which is significant when you consider that it travels through mountains and forests and still maintains a consistent decline in angle for a ridiculously long distance, not to mention the fact that it brought water into Constantinople well into the Ottoman period.
In 367, Valens went on a punitive expedition against the Goths. They had supported Procopius and he was in the mood for revenge. Unfortuantely, the campaign was largely a disaster because the Goths steadfastly refused to engage him, running away and thus making his army travel even further out to confront them. Valens eventually prevailed, but on bad terms, depriving the Easterm army of the Gothic manpower upon which it had increasingly come to rely. He then marched against the Persians who had been harassing Roman client states since Julian's death. Things weren't going very well for Valentinian either: he was busy with the Germans in the North and the West and Africa revolted against him. He sent his future son-in-law, Flavius Theodosius, to deal with it.
Valentinian's defining moment came in 375. In that year, he traveled to Pannonia (modern Hungary) to deal with the Quadi, a Germanic tribe who were evidently angry at the fact that Valentinian had stationed men on their soil without permission. Valentinian was already in a bad mood, because he had been subjected to a public haranguing by Roman citizens in the area who were angry about the harsh taxes that they had been subjected to. When meeting with a Quadi peace delegation, the negotiations quickly turned into a heated shouting match. Valentinian was famous for his temper, and this is indeed the thing that near-contemporary sources mention about him. In the course of the meeting, Valentinian began screaming at the delegates and suffered an aneurysm, earning him the distinction of being the only Roman Emperor to scream himself to death. However, Valentinian didn't die immediately: he was waylaid for half a year and finally died in November. It seems in the meantime, day-to-day administration of the Western Empire fell upon his ministers and his brother. After Valentinian's death, Valens named his nephews Flavius Gratianus and Flavius Valentinianus the Younger as his brother's successors in the Western Empire. This was strange because Valentinian II was at the time of his accession about four years old. Obviously, the real power lay in Gratian's hands, but the army clamored for the younger brother (who had been born to the purple) to be his sole successor. Valens was able to strike a compromise, giving Valentinian nominal control over Italy and Africa while Gratian took Gaul and Britannia. Gratian wasn't thrilled with the arrangement, but he accepted it, knowing that he would really be the one calling the shots.
Valens didn't have much time to reflect on this because at the beginning of 376, the Goths were driven from their home and begged Valens for a chance to settle in Dacia (Rumania). He allowed only a few select allies to come in while denying entry to the others. This didn't really matter since within a year, hundreds of thousands of Goths poured into the Empire. Hostilities broke out in 377 and they would not cease within Valens' life time. Gratian, meanwhile, had annihilated the Germans in Gaul and was riding high on his success. Before long, the Gothic rebellion turned into a full-scale barbarian invasion, with various tribes allying against Valens. Seeing that his uncle was in trouble, Gratian volunteered to come with his legions to the East to assist in the sruggle. Valens' sense of honour was offended and said that he would deal with the barbarians himself. He settled in Adrianople, which had been founded in Thrace two centuries earlier by the Emperor Hadrian. Valens believed he could take the barbarians, which turned out to be a fallacious notion: in 378, he was killed at the Battle of Adrianople.
Gratian was at this point not even 20 years old while his brother was still only 7. He did a good job as a junior partner to his older and more experienced uncle, and though he had clearly demonstrated his great potential, he was wholly unprepared to deal with being solely responsible for the administration of both the Western and Eastern Empire. As a result of this, he named the above mentioned Theodosius as his co-ruler in the East. By 382, Gratian and Theodosius had put down the barbarians and avenged their uncle.
Both men were committed Christians. Gratian, for his part, banned paganism altogether in the city of Rome and finally ended the practice of Christian Emperors becoming the Chief Priest (Pontifex Maximus) of the Roman state religion (which was still pagan in nature at this point). Gratian also seemed to throw away much of the early potential that he had demonstrated; since he had been campaigning for much of his reign, administration of the Western Empire fell into the hands of a group of favorites and ministers that were not in vogue with the rest of high Roman society. When not at war, then, he was of the belief that holding the throne entitled him to a life of idle luxury (since there were other people who could deal with the banality of running a government), which he pursued after the end of the Gothic campaign in the Balkans. The field commander in Britannia, Magnus Maximus (which almost doesn't even seem like a real name) rebelled against him and launched an invasion of Gaul. Gratian's men deserted him and he was killed in Lyon. Bizarrely, despite enacting the harshest anti-pagan measures so far, Gratian was still deified after his death. Valentinian, still only 12, ran to Constantinople and was received by Theodosius. During this time, Theodosius' wife died and he married the elder Valentinian's daughter, cementing the ties between the two dynasties. Theodosius marched against Magnus and finally defeated him in 388. Theodosius reinstalled his cousin, the now adult Valentinian, as Western Roman Emperor in that year.
Everything was going well in the West, though he (like his late brother) was dependent upon various ministers and advisers for the daily administration of the state. He also relied very heavily on his mother, Justina Valentinia, for political advice. She had unfortunately died in Constantinople of natural causes before his restoration, so he didn't have her considerable knowledge of the Roman political scene at his disposal any longer. His chief minister became a Frankish military man named Arbogast, whom he increasingly grew to distrust. In 392, the 20 year old Valentinian was found hanged in his apartment. Theodosius flew into a rage, accusing Arbogast of killing him. Arbogast, for his part, maintained that Valentinian had committed suicide. The real story will never be known, but whether it was murder or suicide, it's clear that Arbogast was in some way responsible: Valentinian had long complained to Theodosius of Arbogast's overbearing nature and his intentional marginalization of the rightful Emperor. If it was a suicide, it seems likely to have occurred as a result of Valentinian's depression at being dominated by one of his subservient officers. Arbogast named Eugenius, a virtual unknown, to succeed his former ward as Western Roman Emperor. Theodosius pretended to accept the nomination, but as soon as Arbogast's men had left, he named his son Honorius Western Roman Emperor and invaded Italy. Theodosius prevailed and the usurper and his patron died.
The Valentinian Dynasty is best viewed as either a post-script to the Constantinian Dynasty or as a prelude to the era of the Theodosians. I haven't gone into much discussion about Theodosius because that's a subject for another write-up. Overall, the Valentinian Dynasty just wasn't all that awesome; the founders were competent but irrational, which led ultimately to their downfalls. The second and final generation was doomed from the beginning because of the circumstances of the age as well as the youth and inexperience of both Gratian and Valentinian II. A few important things did happen under the Valentinians, however: Orthodox Christianity became the officially tolerated variant of the faith and the Empire became irrevocably split into two halves. The fourth century was the last century of effective Roman rule in the West as it would completly disintegrate in the fifth and pave the way for the birth of Medieval Europe and the rise of the Byzantine Empire.
Constantinian Dynasty | Valentinian Dynasty | House of Theodosius