A short history of Byzantium

A short history of Byzantium: No. 25 Emperor Valens: A reign under siege!

Valens was beset by serious problems from the moment he was first appointed by his older brother Valentinian, to rule over the eastern half of the Roman Empire. It can be argued that his lack of experience and supporter base undermined his ability to rule. His political opponents and the corruption that had plagued the empire would also do more harm than good. He did try hard to tackle corruption and he even tried to reduce taxes that had risen to levels that bordered on fiscal and military ruin.

To his credit early initiatives like this, which included important public works, such as the reconstruction of the great (Valens) aqueduct, that supplied the imperial city with water, helped demonstrate a gesture of goodwill. However, as hard as he tried, he was not liked very much by his subjects. He reacted in arguably the worst possible way by persecuting those around him who maintained the Nicene faith. He closed their churches and sent bishops who protested against his measures into exile. Valens, unlike his older brother, was a religious diehard who followed the teachings of Arius. However his religious policies only undermined his authority further alienating his Catholic or Orthodox subjects. Standing up to fight against the anti-Nicene policies of the emperor and his Arian clergy were Nicene bishops like Athanasius of Alexandra and Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Eventually even when Valens was forced to reverse his decisions, his tarnished image could not be repaired.

In other matters of serious importance, it is probably fair to say that the Goths and Emperor Valens, didn’t like each other from the very beginning of his reign. The less than welcoming attitude of Valens and his older brother Valentinian had a lot to do with it. When the Goths stipends and subsides they received under Constantine and his family suddenly stopped under the rule of the two brothers, they felt angry and betrayed. Furthermore they didn’t like Valens or his brother because they had no hereditary claim to the throne. It probably didn’t come as a surprise that the Goths would support the usurper Procopius’ (a relative of Emperor Julian) claims to the throne. In 365, during Valens absence from Constantinople, while on campaign in the east, Procopius staged a coup. He bribed two legions, gaining their support and was shortly after acclaimed emperor. For many months it looked as though Procopius would unseat Valens as he gained control of Thrace and Bithynia and the support of many more units of Valens army. To add more insult to injury, Valens desperate appeal to his own brother for help was turned down. (Emperor Valentinian was dissuaded by his advisors not to help his brother because Gaul was in danger of being overrun by the Alamanni.) When the Goths beyond the Danube had heard about what had happened, they sent warriors to support Procopius. However, by the time they arrived, Procopius had been defeated and beheaded by Valens.

After eight nervous months and not without the intervention of Arbitio, a member of Constantius’ elite guard, whose personal authority convinced many in Procopius camp to desert back to Valens, would the emperor regain full control of his domains. Quite shaken by the major revolt, he subdued and put to death Procopius’ co-conspirators and imprisoned all the Gothic warriors who dared to oppose them. As he negotiated with the Goths beyond the Danube to extract a ransom for their warriors return, 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. For three years, Valens besieged the Goths, until they eventually came begging to him for peace in the year 369, after being reduced to hunger.


Roman gold medal of Emperor Valens, circa 375-78 AD. 

In the immediate aftermath of Valens’ first Gothic wars, he struck a peace accord with the Gothic King Athanarich, which was in the short-term favourable to Valens, but ultimately in the long-term disastrous for the empire. As part of his fatal accord, Valens punished the Goths, by stripping them of their stipends and subsidies, which included provisions of grain. This he hoped would teach them to be more compliant in the future. To add to the Goths misery, Valens restricted their ability to engage with Roman traders. All of this contributed in the long run to a decline in the standard of living across the Danube. (As a consequence many Gothic families were forced to sell their children to survive.)

The ancient sources would like us to believe that Valens totally annihilated the Goths. Athanaric and his people were, of course, defeated, but Athanaric would never have agreed to a total surrender. In truth, Valens came to an agreement with King Athanaric because he needed to end the Gothic wars so he could deal with the developing crisis in the east. Valens had to meet Athanaric on a boat in the middle of the Danube, where both men could pretend to be equals for peace sake. The peace of 369 was nonetheless harsh and effectively a statement to the Goths that they were not welcome in the empire. The only way that Goths would still be allowed to become a part of the empire was, as had always been done in the past, as mercenary soldiers or slaves. The value of Gothic soldiers, in particular, as “cannon fodder” for the empire, would go a long way to address the shortage of frontier soldiers, especially along the border with the Persians. It is from here on end that Valens hoped to pool all his resources in overturning the shameful treaty agreed to by Jovian with the great Sharpur II of Persia.

The Romans might have given up their right to Armenia, but it did not stop them from secretly interfering in affairs, in the region in the years between 363 and 370. During this period, Sharpur laid waste to Armenia, persecuted the Christians and tightened his grip on Armenia, both politically and culturally. But having regained his confidence and peace with the Goths (that would last until 376), Valens hurried to the east and reached Antioch by late April in 370, to stop Sharpur from attacking the eastern frontier. For the better part of eight years, Valens chose to winter in Antioch and from there traveled east for the summer, to campaign from Hierapolis, Edessa and occasionally Caesarea, with the explicit aim to deter Sharpur’s ambition in Mesopotamia. Valens believed that so as long as he remained along the eastern frontier, the empire would retain control of Armenia, and obviously in clear violation of the 363 treaty. It was in spite of Sharpur’s protests that Valens managed to temporarily regain Armenia and half of Iberia. Strategically, with the help of the Armenians, Valens also recaptured the strongholds of Arzanene and Corduene. By 377, Valens prepared for a larger invasion of Persia, when unfortunately word reached him that his northern neighbours the Goths were once more causing trouble. When a full-scale revolt broke out soon afterwards, it was inevitable that the emperor would be needed in eastern Thrace. It meant that he would have to withdraw his forces from the east, abandoning his gains in Armenia and Iberia. With new enemies on the northern borders again, little did Valens know that he would tragically become the leading character in the story of the Battle of Adrianople.

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.
Ian Hughes, Imperial Brothers: Valentinian, Valens and the Disaster at Adrianople, Pen & Sword, 2013.
N.Lenski, Failure of Empire: Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D., Berkeley, 2002.
David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180-395, 2nd Edition, Rouledge, 2014.
Solomon’s History Ecclesiastica, 6.6-21, 39-40, is arguably the principal source on Valens’ religious policies.
Photo Credits: The Roman gold medal of Emperor Valens is licensed and used under the Creative Commons Atrribution 3.0 license.

2 comments on “A short history of Byzantium: No. 25 Emperor Valens: A reign under siege!

  1. Amazing! Good read! 🙂

  2. Interesting to note the intensity of the conflict between the different schools of Christianity. Polytheism served the early Romans well. Conquered peoples were expected to worship Roman gods but were still free to worship their own local deities.
    Despite their belief in one God Christians have splintered into many schools of doctrine. Most of the cults have disappeared now but there are still major divisions between the various churches.
    Can a case be made therefore that man is polytheistic by nature?

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