A 4th Century Tragedy, Part III


To understand the death of Valentinian II in 392 A.D. we have to look at the events leading up to the pivotal year of 387. Remember that Gratian, Valentinian’s older brother, had elevated Theodosius to Augustus of the eastern empire in 379 in order to quell the Gothic rebellion in Thrace. Theodosius restored order quickly by providing the disenchanted Goths with food, shelter and land within the borders of the empire. By November of 380 vast numbers of Goths were also being recruited into Theodosius’ legions.

Gratian showed favoritism toward the barbarian element in his armies as well, going so far as to hand pick his personal guard from members of the Alani tribes. Openly favoring these barbarians at the expense of his Roman colleagues lay behind a crisis that emerged in 383 when an imperial general serving in Britain by the name of Magnus Maximus was suddenly acclaimed Augustus by his fed up legions. Maximus promptly landed his troops in Gaul and defeated Gratian near Paris. Gratian was captured and murdered. Nothing stood between the 12 year old Valentinian and Maximus’ invading army.

With Theodosius occupied with the Persians in the east, it was fortunate for the boy that Maximus was content to be acknowledged as co-emperor of the West for the time being. Too bad Valentinian’s mother, Justina, hadn’t brought up her son in the accepted state religion. Sixty years earlier Constantine the Great had assembled a large group of bishops to Nicaea to come to an agreement on the nature of God and the Christ. Through this assembly the branch of christianity known as Arianism was declared heresy and what became known as the Nicene creed was proclaimed the official Roman religious belief system.

In 387, after repeated failures by the bishop Ambrose to convert the young emperor to the Nicene faith (failures due largely to the efforts of Justina), Maximus crossed the Alps to deliver the Empire from heresy. Justina and Valentinian fled to Thessalonica where they were joined by Theodosius who by this time was free of the Persian threat. In June of 388 Theodosius and Valentinian (now a man of 17) pursued Maximus to Aquileia where he was forced to surrender and put to death.

The appointment of the Frankish general Arbogast to govern Gaul during the interim of Valentinian’s return to Milan was the final nail in the young emperor’s coffin. Theodosius and Valentinian traveled to Rome and then on to Milan. Early in 391 Theodosius returned to Constantinople and Valentinian traveled to Vienne to accept the transference of power in Gaul from Arbogast, the barbarian Frankish general. When it became clear that Arbogast had no intention of relinquishing power, Valentinian asserted his authority by issuing a written order demanding Arbogast’s immediate resignation. Arbogast refused, war was declared, and just days later Valentinian was found dead in his apartment.

This ends the story of one of the most tragic figures in Roman history. Valentinian’s coinage, however, offers great variety despite his brief reign. His coinage and the coinage of Theodosius are the last bronze issues before artistry and legibility pass into miserable shadows of what Roman coinage once was. Take advantage of the affordability of these fascinating relics that predate the fall of Rome by only a few years.

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