A short history of Byzantium

A short history of Byzantium: No. 24 Brothers in power, migration and pending disaster!

The events of the second half of the fourth century are some of the most dramatic in the annals of late Roman/early Byzantine history. The events that would take shape during this period would determine the fate of the Roman world. In a short recap of events beginning in 363, Emperor Julian had launched an invasion of Persia with tragic consequences. He was killed in a skirmish and replaced by Jovian, who was left to pick up the pieces after a disastrous retreat, by concluding a shameful peace with the Sassanid king Sharpur II. Jovian would unfortunately only rule the empire for eight short months. He would be discovered dead in his bedroom. His death was probably accidental, but importantly it highlighted the need to sensibly choose the next emperor, particularly because the events of the last year had shaken the empire and demanded stability. Nine days after the death of Jovian, as the commanders debated on the best possible candidate, they settle on a Pannonian with a peasant background. The forty-three year old Valentinian was proclaimed as Augustus on 26th February 364 and immediately pressed by the command to appoint a co-emperor. Taken aback Valentinian is forced to ask whom they believe would make an appropriate appointment? Bravely a senior officer offers his own advice – ‘Your highness, if you love your kin you have a brother, but if you love the state look carefully for a man to invest with the purple.’ Possessing a fearsome temper, it is a wonder Valentinian was able to bite his tongue, refusing to be rushed on the matter. But only a month after his appointment as emperor, Valentinian predictably chose his younger brother, Valens as co-emperor in Constantinople. 

It was clear from the start who was in charge of the empire, as Valens happily acknowledged his brother’s superiority as senior Augustus. In saying that, Valentinian and Valens would truly prove to be partners, rather than at each others throats. For so long civil strife, bureaucratic corruption and war had disabled the running of the empire and the security of its military frontiers. The rule of these two brothers offered stability in the empire, however the brothers came to power at a time when the empire had to deal with the reverberations of new barbarian migration at levels never seen before. Its impact would be telling for a number of reason, one at least being the composition of all Roman legions with its Germanic character would continue to grow over time; and another being the fact that the west would be eventually overrun by migrants helping facilitate its collapse.

When the brothers had sorted out their affairs, with Valentinian choosing the west and Milan as his headquarters, and Valens given the east to control from Constantinople, the first problem to arise was an outbreak of hostilities on the northern border with the Alamanni, who were furious because Valentinian refused to supply them with an annual tribute to keep the peace. In response, the Alamanni decided to test the new emperor and invaded Gaul in 365. At the same time Valentinian was preparing to confront the Alamanni, he received the news that an usurper named Procopius had revolted staging a coup in Constantinople. Valentinian feared that his brother was in danger, even worse dead, not knowing that his brother was actually on his way to Syria. Procopius would cause Valens significant heartburn and he would desperately appeal to his brother for help. Valentinian though, who was concerned enough to consider helping his brother, was ultimately dissuaded by his advisers that Gaul first and foremost needed his attention more. Valentinian was later heard to remark that ‘Procopius was his own and his brother’s enemy, while the Alamanni were the foes of the entire Roman world.’  Valens would eventually defeat Procopius, after eight nervous months, when his officers handed him over to Valens and he was beheaded.


The 3rd century saw some of the worst Roman and barbarian conflicts in its history. This is the Great Ludovisi sarcophagus depicting a battle between Goths and Roman most probably in the 250’s AD.

The ramifications of renewed hostilities along the northern borders in Gaul (and areas around the Danube basin and Thrace) was troubling. This, of course, was nothing new, far worse conflict between Romans and barbarians had occurred, especially in the third century. The fourth century on the other hand remained relatively peaceful due to the endeavours notably of Constantine the Great, Constantius II and Julian.  Though In just a few short years after Julian’s death, all of this hard work to keep the tribes at bay had come undone because Valentinian and this brother Valens, refused to ‘play ball’ with the northern tribes. It’s probably not fair to lay blame entirely on Valentinian, but his brutal and bad-tempered attitude didn’t help? You see the northern tribes had come accustomed to receiving payment for maintaining the peace by previous emperors. The less than welcoming attitude of Emperors Valentinian and Valens towards them really got under their skin. Furthermore, many of the tribes especially the Goths, didn’t recognise the new authority of the two brothers because their allegiances or obligations lay with Constantine and his family.

During Constantine’s reign, he made it a point to regularly beat the tribes of the north into submission, during his many punitive expeditions beyond the bounds of the empire. As a result he yielded good results which favoured the empire, especially against the Goths. After the Goths had signed peace treaties with Constantine in 332, they were pretty much forced into sharing good relations with the empire. It wasn’t a bad thing, in fact, they began to receive regular free grain and importantly the enlistment of their Gothic warriors into the Roman army made them wealthy, so they could trade with Roman merchants for the things they needed. However the Goths became somewhat complacent and dependent on the empire to survive, so imagine their surprise when the stipends and subsidies were abruptly suspended. Any chance of returning to these ‘good old days’ presented itself when Procopius, the last member of the Constantine clan, made his attempt to usurp the throne from Valens, and the Goths attempted to seize their chance by throwing their support behind him. Unfortunately for the Goths, Procopius was killed and Valens arrested and imprisoned all the Gothic warriors. As he negotiated with the Goths to extract a ransom for their warriors, the Goths soon realised they were in no position to haggle. Talks broke down, and with Valens in no mood to be generous, sold them all into slavery. He then decided to teach them a lesson by evoking a scorched-earth policy, which in the short-term was favourably to Valens, but in the long-term disastrous for the empire. Most of this will be covered over the next few instalments, as Valens tragically becomes the leading character in the story of the battle of Adrianople.

Valens was not the only one to pursue an aggressive strategy of keeping the barbarians at bay, his older brother Valentinian also spent much of his energy addressing the empire’s problems along the length of the frontier. The Alamanni, as previously mentioned, had ready fired a shot over the bow by ravaging Gaul and Raetia beginning in 364 in Valentinian’s domain. Soon other tribes transformed by generations of contact with the empire also made their presence felt. These were the Sarmatians and Quadi who decided to run riot in Pannonia (area around modern Hungary) and across the Mediterranean Sea, the Austoriani, a federation of Libyan tribes, were creating havoc in Africa. The crisis was arguably indicative of the problems beset by the empire when the Saxons, the Picts and Scots invaded Britain. In time, Valentinian would restore order in Britain and suppress the rebellion of the Libyan tribes in Africa. His greatest military achievements would also see the Alamanni and various northern tribes submit to him. While he was alive he would construct and restore an impressive line of forts and watch-posts across the Rhine and Pannonian frontier. He did this almost exclusively during his eleven year reign, until his anger at the Quadi eventually caused his death in 375. Had he lived long enough, he might have been able to help his brother’s growing concerns with the Goths in Thrace and Moesia? It may have come to no good anyway? With resources stretched and no way of knowing that more Goths would spill into the Roman empire than at any other time in its history, the onset of the disintegration of the empire was only a matter of time?

Notes and Further Reading:
Thomas S. Burns, Rome and the Barbarians 100 B.C.-A.D.400, John Hopkins University Press, 2009.
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
“Your highness, if you love your kin…”, Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire: AD 354-378, Penquin Classic, 1995, p.317.
David Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180-395, 2nd Edition, Rouledge, 2014
Photo credit: The header image  is the reverse of a solidus minted by Valens, which depicts Valens and his older brother Valentinian, seated on the throne and holding a globe between them, a symbol of power. Behind them stands Victory with her outspread wings. The gold coin was struck between 367 and 375.

1 comment on “A short history of Byzantium: No. 24 Brothers in power, migration and pending disaster!

  1. Very interesting. I only know Roman and Germanic history as it pertains to Christianity (which is a lot) but the intricacies of the relationships between Valentinan and Valens and how they dealt with their enemies. Thanks for expanding my knowledge!

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