Failure of Empire: Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D.

Failure of Empire: Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D.

by Noel Lenski

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Failure of Empire is the first comprehensive biography of the Roman emperor Valens and his troubled reign (a.d. 364-78). Valens will always be remembered for his spectacular defeat and death at the hands of the Goths in the Battle of Adrianople. This singular misfortune won him a front-row seat among history's great losers. By the time he was killed, his empire had been coming unglued for several years: the Goths had overrun the Balkans; Persians, Isaurians, and Saracens were threatening the east; the economy was in disarray; and pagans and Christians alike had been exiled, tortured, and executed in his religious persecutions. Valens had not, however, entirely failed in his job as emperor. He was an admirable administrator, a committed defender of the frontiers, and a ruler who showed remarkable sympathy for the needs of his subjects.

In lively style and rich detail, Lenski incorporates a broad range of new material, from archaeology to Gothic and Armenian sources, in a study that illuminates the social, cultural, religious, economic, administrative, and military complexities of Valens's realm. Failure of Empire offers a nuanced reconsideration of Valens the man and shows both how he applied his strengths to meet the expectations of his world and how he ultimately failed in his efforts to match limited capacities to limitless demands.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283893
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/26/2014
Series: Transformation of the Classical Heritage , #34
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 470
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Noel Lenski is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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Failure of Empire

Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D.

By Noel Lenski


Copyright © 2002 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92853-4


The Pannonian Emperors


On the afternoon of June 26, 363, the emperor Julian was pierced through the side with a spear in combat. His troops carried him back to his camp, where later that night he died. There was no time to waste in grieving. Julian had been leading his army in retreat north along the Tigris after his grandiose expedition into Persia had gone totally wrong. Roman supplies were dangerously low, and the Persians had been threatening the faltering Roman lines with constant attacks. On the morning of June 27, the coterie that had assembled around Julian's deathbed the previous evening convened to choose a successor. The sources agree that these electors consisted of the top military commanders and civilian bureaucrats, the consistorium. Ammianus offers the most detail. He informs us that the group was split along party lines: the generals Arinthaeus and Victorled a group of easterners, former subordinates of Constantius, who, less than two years earlier, had marched against Julian and his Gallic army; opposed to them were the representatives of that army, headed by two commanders from Gaul, Nevitta and Dagalaifus. In the face of the present danger, the two groups united to offer the empire to the revered bureaucrat Saturninius Secundus Sallustius, a Gaul placed above partisanship by his equal distinction in east and west and by his unimpeachable equanimity. Pleading old age, however, Sallustius declined.

As the consistorium continued to debate, Jovian, a primicerius domesticorum, or lieutenant in the corps of the imperial guards—the Protectores Domestici—was promoted from outside their circle. Ammianus writes of the event in disparaging terms: "During these delays, which were slight considering the importance of the matter, before the various judgments had been weighed, a few rabble-rousers [tumultuantibus paucis]—as often happens in extreme crises—chose an emperor in the person of Jovianus, a commander of the household troops." Later, Ammianus refers to the same men as a "an excited throng of camp-followers," a phrase that drives home the point: Jovian was foisted onto the consistorium by a small clique of subordinate soldiers. Unfortunately, Ammianus is not entirely clear on precisely which group of soldiers this was. A closer look at the new emperor's connections can, however, give us some indication. A number of sources report that Jovian was promoted above all because of the reputation of his father, Varronian, who had held the post of comes domesticorum —or commander of the Protectores Domestici—up until 361. Themistius actually said as much to Jovian's face: "[T]he kingship was owed to you even before because of your father's virtue ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])." Jovian's father-in-law, Lucillianus, had also served ascomes domesticorum in the early 350s.

The most obvious group to have been aware of Varronian's virtues—and thus Jovian's—were, then, the Protectores Domestici. It is thus entirely reasonable to assume that they nominated the new emperor. This conjecture gains credibility when we consider that the Protectores Domestici had ample motives for promoting one of their own. Together with theScholae Palatinae, they formed a sizeable body of elite guardsmen,—by the mid fourth century, their combined total reached several thousand men—and both divisions were commanded by the comes domesticorum. Because the Protectores Domestici had been heavily involved in the plot that resulted in the execution of Julian's half-brother Gallus in 354 under Constantius II, however, Julian reduced their ranks to a mere rump when he became Augustus. This would have been devastating to these ambitious climbers, for normally a posting to the guards led to important promotions within five years. Moreover, Jovian's family had suffered directly from Julian's wrath. His father-in-law Lucillianus, who as comes domesticorum had been implicated in Gallus's execution, was forced into retirement. And his father Varronian, who had subsequently been Constantius's comes domesticorum, also saw his career cut short by Julian. It is thus reasonable to assume that Julian's cuts provoked a response among the remaining or former guards that led them to agitate for their corps after the emperor's death. It was apparently they who foisted Jovian—the poster boy for their plight—on the consistorium.

Jovian was hardly the first protector to ascend the throne:Diocletian, Constantius I, Maximin Daia, and the mid-fourth-century pretenders Magnentius and Marcellus had all served as protectores as well. Indeed, prior to the rise of Constantine the pattern of selecting guardsmen for emperor had been quite pronounced. With the death of the last Constantinian dynast in 363, the pattern was once again resumed when the upper tiers of the imperial apparatus gave way, leaving the imperial guards to fill the throne. Nor do the similarities with late-third-century patterns of imperial election stop here. Jovian was not just an imperial guardsman, he was an Illyrian, from Singidunum(Belgrade) in Moesia Superior. Since the mid third century, Illyricum had been the prime cradle of emperorship; even the house of Constantine, which had become international with the assumption of empire, originated in this region. Moreover, it can be said that Illyrians and guardsmen were in many ways synonymous. Illyrians constituted far and away the most common ethnic group from which protectores were drawn through the third and fourth centuries. Thus, when the consistorium was presented with a guardsman and an Illyrian in Jovian, they must have recognized that in some sense they were faced with an inevitability.

There was no time to celebrate Jovian's proclamation. He and his army trudged north along the Tigris and, after further skirmishes and four days of marching without supplies, came to a place called Dura. There, faced with exhaustion and the prospect of annihilation, Jovian was forced to agree to a devastating treaty that ceded to Persia much of Roman Mesopotamia, including the impregnable city of Nisibis. This agreement brought to an end the military nightmare that Julian's expedition had become. Jovian's men scuttled across the Tigris and began a very slow retreat to Antioch, which they first reached only in October of 363. Jovian was aware that his position as emperor was far from secure and that under the circumstances, propaganda was extremely important to his success. Already at Ur, shortly after crossing the Tigris, the new emperor had sent forth a legation to announce his election in the west. Ammianus tells us that they were commanded to test support for the new emperor and to put the best light on the disastrous treaty with which he had inaugurated his reign. Their success is apparent in the milestones we find proclaiming Jovian VICTOR AC TRIUMFATOR as far afield as Africa. We also find Jovian's coins produced in most of the mints of the empire, proclaiming SECURITAS REIPUBLICAE and VICTORIA ROMANORUM(figs. 1 and 2).

The dissonance between propaganda and reality was not lost on the Antiochenes, with whom Jovian spent the last days of October. These lampooned the new emperor and his army with insults, graffiti, and famosi —nameless bills circulated against him. Hecklers are reported to have posted notices like the following paraphrase of Odysseus's insult to the lowborn Thersytes:

So help me if I don't take you and strip off your dear clothing, your mantle and tunic that cover the bits of which you are ashamed, and send you straight back to the Persians howling!

This eastern disdain of the upstart Illyrian would reecho in similar bills posted against his Illyrian successor Valens just two years later. The animosity it reflected was not, however, a simple matter of prejudice but above all of fear. The memory of the Persian attacks on Antioch in the third century was still very much alive. By amputating half of the Roman defenses in the east, Jovian had rekindled anxieties and violated the prime mandate of all fourth-century emperors, the maintenance of territorial security. The anger this generated in Antioch became so fevered that Jovian is reported to have ordered the burning of the library recently established there by Julian. Further pandemonium was on the verge of breaking out when Jovian's prefect Sallustius, the boon companion of Julian, intervened and reminded Jovian how crucial it was for him to continue west in order to secure his shaky hold on the throne. After only a month in Antioch, in the midst of blustery November weather, Jovian left the city. He hoped to reach Constantinople with his army and then continue to his native Illyricum, which he no doubt planned to mine to fill the ranks of his administration and army with friends.

By late December, he had reached Galatian Ancyra (Ankara). There, on January 1, Themistius met him and delivered a speech on the occasion of his first consulship. Jovian shared the honor with his son, a boy named after his grandfather Varronian. The younger Varronian, still an infant, put up a rather unpropitious fuss when he was forced to sit on a curule chair in keeping with the solemnity of the ceremony. The consulship was probably a preparation for the child's proclamation as co-emperor, which would have helped secure the fragile new dynasty. Before this could take place, however, Jovian was dead. He had continued on from Ancyra despite the winter weather. When he reached the road station of Dadastana, about 100 miles to the west, the emperor went to bed and never reawakened. Although a few contemporaries speculate about conspiracy, it seems likely that he suffocated in the night when a smoky brazier leached toxic fumes from the newly painted walls of his bedchamber.

For the second time in less than a year, the empire was without an emperor, although not quite without a dynasty. When the next emperors came to power, they granted the title divus to their predecessor and buried his body in Constantine's imperial mausoleum in Constantinople, the church of Holy Apostles. Nevertheless, while paying their respects to their fellow Illyrian, Valentinian and Valens carefully disposed of any possible threat posed by the minor remnants of dynasty Jovian had left behind. Jovian's father, Varronian, apparently died before he could reach his son to congratulate him on his accession. Jovian's wife, Charito, survived into the reign of Theodosius, but John Chrysostom tells us that she lived in constant fear for her own life and the life of her son. Her fears were not groundless, for although the boy Varronian was spared, his eye was gouged out to ensure he could never assume the throne. The budding imperial family was thus pruned back to harmless sterility.

Jovian's death fell on February 17, 364. The following day, the army advanced from the tiny statio of Dadastana to the metropolis of Nicaea. Once there, the top commanders and civilian officials met once again to choose a successor. This time not only were the circumstances not so volatile, but also, it would seem, the consistory was better prepared to satisfy the ranks of the guards. A number of candidates were debated, most of them with qualifications remarkably similar to those of Jovian. Sallustius was once again offered the throne and once again declined. Three more candidates came up in turn, all of them, like Jovian, Illyrians, and two of them junior commanders in the imperial guards. The first of these, Aequitius, was then serving as tribune of the Prima Schola Scutariorum, a unit of the Scholares. When he was rejected as too boorish, an in-law of Jovian's named Ianuarius was proposed. He too was quickly passed over, because he was then in Illyricum, too far to summon quickly. Finally, they settled on Valentinian, a native of Cibalae in Pannonia. Like Jovian, Valentinian caught people's attention as the son of a distinguished Illyrian commander and former protector domesticus. Also like Jovian, Valentinian was himself serving in the imperial guard, as tribune of the Secunda Schola Scutariorum.

Valentinian had joined Jovian's father-in-law on his mission into Gaul and had, remarkably, survived the mutiny of Julian's supporters there. This good fortune had won him his tribuneship from Jovian and no doubt numbered among his qualifications for empire. Like Jovian, Valentinian represented the middle ranks of the soldiers. He was a man with considerable military experience, but he had not yet advanced far enough to pose a threat to either of the factions bickering over Julian's successor. Several sources, following Eunapius, report that Valentinian won special recommendation from his rival candidate the praetorian prefect Sallustius, and Philostorgius indicates that the patrician Datianus, a close ally of Jovian's, and the generals Arinthaeusand Dagalaifus supported him as well. All probably realized that, as in Jovian's case, the election of an Illyrian and a guardsman was something of an inevitability. Valentinian was chosen as a man remarkably like his predecessor, although, unlike his predecessor, he was promoted by the consistorium rather than the guards themselves.

Valentinian was an ideal candidate, but for the fact that he was at Ancyra, some 160 kilometers from the imperial entourage. After the consistorium had made its choice, a messenger was quickly dispatched to fetch him, and a group of fellow Pannonians went to work enlisting support among the ranks in the days before he arrived. Within a week, Valentinian had reached Nicaea, as it happened on the bisextile day—leap year—an inauspicious time for such beginnings. There was no hurry, as there had been the summer before, and Valentinian wisely postponed his proclamation. The following day, February 25, a tribunal was erected and Valentinian ascended it and received the purple robe and diadem. In keeping with the protocols of late antique ceremony, he was acclaimed unanimously by the assembled troops and, at some point, was probably raised on a shield by some of them. Following the custom, the event culminated in his delivery of a prepared adlocutio, during which he promised the usual accession donative of one solidus and a pound of silver to each of the soldiers. Such were the formalities of imperial proclamation.

In this case, however, when the new emperor began to speak, the soldiers grew restless and demanded that he appoint a co-Augustus. The fourth-century empire was large and dangerous, too much so to be governed by one man. The troops knew this well. In a period of less than a year, Julian's foolhardy charge to his death and Jovian's freak suffocation had taught them how fragile a thing an emperor could be. Prior to that, they had witnessed, not to say sanctioned, a phenomenon that had recurred time and again since the third century: usurpation. Julian's unsanctioned assumption of full power as Augustus in the west while Constantius was occupied in the east had brought the two halves of the empire to the brink of mutual annihilation. If properly engineered, however, shared power could stave off similar conflicts in the future. Moreover, by 364, shared rule had been common for over a century, some would say two. Only the three-year period under Julian and Jovian had significantly interrupted this pattern in the past seventy years. The troops thus insisted that Valentinian appoint a co-ruler. Ammianus records his response:

The task that was placed in your hands before a fashioner of empire was chosen, you carried out expediently and gloriously. Now I ask you to listen calmly while I explain in simple words what I think is best for us all. That to meet all chances, necessity demands the choice of a colleague with common powers ... I neither doubt nor dispute.... But with all our strength we must strive for concord ... and this will easily be attained, if your forebearance, combined with fairness, willingly allows me what belongs to my position.

Nothing better illustrates the power of the military in influencing the creation of fourth-century emperors. Although the decision rested with Valentinian, he could not refuse the request. Nor did he try.

On the same day he was proclaimed, Valentinian assembled his chief marshals and ministers to consult on the issue. Most were reluctant to speak, but Dagalaifus, the comes domesticorum, broke the silence with gnomic frankness: "If you love your relatives, most excellent emperor, you have a brother; if it is the state that you love, seek out another man to invest." Valentinian had to restrain his anger at this insult to his only sibling, Valens. Moreover, it became clear immediately that he did not intend to follow Dagalaifus's advice. The day after his election, Valentinian moved the army to Nicomedia, where hepromoted Valens to the post of tribunus stabuli—tribune of the imperial stable—on March 1. This post put Valens close to the emperor while he waited in the wings to be appointed. Valentinian must have known that his own election represented a compromise. The factions formed around the courts of Julian and Constantius had used him as a candidate who, as a soldier would satisfy the ranks, but as a junior officer would pose little threat to rivals in the highest echelons. Valentinian knew better than to upset this precarious balance once he was emperor by choosing a colleague from one faction or another. What Valentinian needed was a junior partner, someone whom he could trust with power and, above all, whom he could control. Valens would fit the bill perfectly.


Excerpted from Failure of Empire by Noel Lenski. Copyright © 2002 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1. The Pannonian Emperors
Chapter 2. The Revolt of Procopius
Chapter 3. Valen's First Gothic War
Chapter 4. Valens and the Eastern Frontier
Chapter 5. Religion under the Valentiniani
Chapter 6. Administration and Finance under Valentinian and Valens
Chapter 7. The Disaster at Adrianople

Appendix A
Appendix B
Appendix C
Appendix D

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