Valentinian I “the Great” is an extremely fascinating character.
A man mostly forgotten by history, Valentinian was a great military strategist and was prone to incredible bursts of anger. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, he was good looking, loved sober elegance, had good memory, was envious of other successful individuals, disliked the rich and the shy, being one himself and used to impose rigorous discipline on soldiers. However, underneath the harsh military exterior and the wrathful temper, he did have an extremely sensitive side, full of empathy and passion.
When he was acclaimed Emperor by the troops and the imperial Council on February 26th 364 AD, Valentinian was already an experienced military officer who had served both on the Rhine and in Mesopotamia, where he was promoted tribune of the elite Scutarii regiment. He was insecure, however, about the stability of his future reign, as immediately preceding him there had been a bloody civil conflict between the relatives of emperor Costantine. Therefore, to avoid further roman blood being shed and to impose his power on the imperial Council, he made his loyal younger brother Valens co-emperor in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, who disliked Valentinian, it was Germanic general Dagalaifus who pressured the emperor into choosing his brother Valens, despite him being inexperienced in civil and military matters. Though, according to the Late Roman historian, despite being greedy and quite lazy, Valens would turn out to be an excellent administrator. He was good looking and got a cataract in his eyes by the age of 50.
At Sirmium, in modern day Serbia, the two emperors divided their military personnel. The legions that were to serve Valentinian were dubbed Seniores while those under Valens were called Iuniores. Immediately, Valens’s power in the east was challenged by a usurper named Procopius, while Valentinian was occupied against the Alamanni tribe on the Rhine frontier. Valens was alone against Procopius, and as he had always been more of a follower than a leader, upon receiving news of the revolt, he faltered and even considered suicide. After this initial crisis of confidence, Valens strengthened his resolve to fight, ultimately managing to defeat Procopius in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) at the Battle of Thyatira. Procopius was captured and beheaded on the spot by Valens’s officers, and his head was sent to Valentinian as a trophy.
Meanwhile, Valens’s older brother was achieving victory after victory against the Alamanni in the West. An exceptional military man, Valentinian designed aggressive campaigns against the tribes living outside the Roman borders. One of these was the 368 AD expedition in which the Emperor gathered a massive army, including the Italian Comitatenses (professional troops) led by the Comes Italiae Sebastianus. He achieved a great victory at the Battle of Solicinium after which he then fortified the frontiers by building fortresses both inside and outside the established borders. Valentinian was the last western emperor to fortify the Roman frontiers and to lead an expedition outside the Roman Limes. By 370 AD, the empire seemed relatively stable after other successes against the Saxons.
According to Ammianus Marcellinus, death for Valentinian came in the form of a bursting blood vessels during one of his angry outbursts while negotiating with tribes on the Rhine (14 November 375 AD). This account is questionable.
Power in the west fell to Valentinian’s young son Gratian while the east remained under Valens. Valens had obtained victories over the Goths under Athanaric in the Balkans by the year 369 AD while Armenia was invaded by the powerful Persian King of Kings Shapur II. The bloody military encounters that followed ended in a stalemate in the East, with the persian armies kept at bay for the time being. In the year 376 AD, Valens was forced to rush to the Danube frontier, as the gothic tribe Tervingi had crossed the river and had defeated a roman force near Marcianople. After some initial success by the Roman general Sebastianus, the Goths, led by chieftain Fritigern, managed to defeat Valens’s imperial army at Adrianople, in Thrace.
Valens was among the dead, though his body was never found. Thus the Valentinian brothers came to an end, a period in history which has been undervalued to say the least, but was nevertheless rich of heroism, intrigue, imperial might and cruelty. This period is also proof of the Late Roman Empire’s military and civil might, charateristics that will be preserved in the Eastern half of the Empire and deteriorate over time in the West after the demise of Valentinian.
After the military reforms of Emperor Costantine the Great (306-337 AD), the traditional Roman army as we know it morphed into a more mobile and specialized force, able to deal quickly with foreign and domestic threats that arose throughout the empire. The new army of Costantine was composed of three main groups: the Comitatenses, the Limitanei or Riparienses and the Palatina legions.
The Comitatenses, heirs of the classical roman legionnaire, were the professional heavy soldiers armed with the long spatha and an oval shield. Their commanders were the Comes, a military figure who later gave birth to the medieval Count.
The Limitanei or Riparienses were paid less, had lower physical requirements but were still full-time professional soldiers who guarded the precarious roman borders, operating as an initial defensive line and an efficient scouting force. They only dealt with small-scale attacks and were usually withdrawn if the situation got extremely dangerous. Their commanders were the Duces, a word later used to indicate all kind of commands.
The Palatina legions, which included the Ioviani, were elite regiments of soldiers and guards associated with the emperor’s presence. Contrary to popular belief, these legions were extremely successful against enemy incursions because of their structure but were considerably drained by civil conflicts.
This new defensive model provided by the army of Costantine was called “in depth”, as it guaranteed different levels of protection.
As can be seen in the Battle of Strasbourg (357 AD), the late Romans, guided by Caesar Julian, were more than capable of forming disciplined and effective armies. Therefore, we cannot solely blame the army for the Fall of the Western Empire. In fact, the army remained a capable and efficient force almost until the last breath of the Roman West.
To further prove this, we can look at the Battle of Adrianople (378 AD), during which there were no morale or disciplinary failures by the army, with troops retreating only when the situation became hopeless. The late Roman army was not weaker than its predecessor, instead it had to face extremely precarious situations, often prevailing over insurmountable odds. Despite common belief, the considerable “barbarization” of the army did not cause it to decline in efficiency. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, the soldiers whose origins were outside the Roman Empire were extremely competent and reliable.
By the time of the official political “fall” of the western roman empire in 476 AD with the removal of teenage emperor Romulus Augustus by Germanic general Odoacer, western Europe was a mosaic of so-called successor states led by “barbarian” kings and leaders. In this essay, I will focus on the successors I consider the most successful. But first, we must clarify what is meant by the term ‘successful successor state’. As an Italian, I believe that success in late antique and the early middle ages is shown through: political stability, military might, the presence of a central authority with administrative and military branches, territorial control and expansion, achievements in the arts, as well as the willingness to adopt roman cultural traits as the base for further reforms and development.
We often consider the political disintegration of the western roman empire as the end of what we think to be the classical period. Most evidence points to the contrary however, as the so-called “barbarians” that took positions of power inside the imperial bureaucracy became heads of successor states and tried to perpetuate the western roman empire. Most probably, the average roman citizen after 476 AD would not have noticed any changes in his or her daily life, despite now being ruled by a “barbarian” king. Proof of this is the consular ivory diptych depicting Manlius Boethius, father of the famous philosopher Severinus Boethius, shown after 476 AD as a man of high social status who was able to remain in a position of power even after the fall of the western roman empire in 476 AD.
Among the many successor groups of the western roman empire, I believe the Goths were one of the most successful. Both the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, respectively western and eastern Goths, had military and commercial contacts with the Romans for centuries and seem to have had some level of admiration for their culture, as they were the most ‘romanized’ of the “barbarian” groups. This can be seen even today, as Theodoric’s capital, Ravenna, shows his attempt at reproducing late roman and classical forms of art and architecture. Ravenna was to be modeled after Constantinople, as Theodoric had been raised there. His city also took from Rome, in particular his mausoleum, which imitates the classical tombs of the emperors Augustus and Hadrian. Another example is the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in the city of Ravenna, the palatine chapel of king Theodoric, built on the model of the roman civil basilica. Its mosaics on a golden background emulate eastern roman styles.
During the 4th century AD, the Goths’ conversion to Arian Christianity, aided by Bishop Wulfila’s translation of the bible into Gothic, constituted a clear attempt of an immigrant group to better integrate into roman society, although Aryanism was later deemed a heresy at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Their adoption of Arian Christianity presented a great obstacle to the successful amalgamation of Nicene Romans and Arian Goths under the rule of Theodoric in Italy, which would have otherwise been entirely successful.
Theorodoric’s respect and admiration for senatorial elites as well as roman civilization and administration reflects itself in the Ostrogothic administration of his kingdom, which was modeled on its roman counterpart. While military power remained in the hands of the Goths, he left the administration to the senatorial elite, as a sign of admiration for their experience and political shrewdness. He also kept some positions of courtly bureaucracy and power that were directly inherited from the late roman state, such as the office of quaestor sacri palatii, held by Aurelius Cassiodorus and that of magister officiorum, held by Severinus Boethius, author of De consolatione philosophae. Based upon our earlier definition of what constitutes a successful successor state, it is clear the Goths should be seen as successful because they had the ability to adapt and integrate the imperial roman administrative machine to their tribal reality, turning gothic kings from purely military leaders into heads of state with authority over both the administrative and military branches of their reigns.
In terms of political stability however, the Goths lacked continuity as they were often on the move, first on the Danube frontier, then in Moesia, Aquitania Secunda, Italy and finally Spain. These repeated migrations is where their success becomes blighted.
The Goths were to also find success though in the realm of law. The reign of king Chindasuinth saw the compilation of the Liber Iudiciorum, later expanded by his son king Recceswinth in 654 AD, based on the work of past great legislators, such as emperor Justinian and Theodosius II. The main innovations of this code were that women were allowed to inherit land and title, and dispose of their properties independently from their husband’s consent. In his Etymologiae, a monumental collection of general knowledge and etymology, Saint Isidore of Sevilla, although not a Goth himself, shows that visigothic Spain was not a brutish and “barbaric” land, but a culturally flourishing one.
In the field of numismatics, Theodoric the Great, tried to heavily imitate late roman coinage and their characteristic abstract representations while introducing some Germanic elements such as the moustache. During the middle ages, the main Visigoth mints were located in Gaul and in the Iberian peninsula. Visigoths minted mostly solidii and tremissis, two coins which were popular during the late roman era.
The Vandals are another Germanic group that can be considered successful within our construct. Beginning in 429 AD, they were able to establish a relatively stable kingdom in North Africa thanks to the leadership of King Geiseric, a politically able and intrepid leader. Their military prowess showed in their victories against the multiple roman attempts at regaining North Africa, such as that of eastern roman general Basiliscus in 468 AD. The Vandals were successful in developing advanced military tactics, as demonstrated by their use of fireships against the Roman fleet in Cap Bon, Tunisia. They went as far as sacking Rome in 455 AD, when led by Geiseric, who did not burn the city or slaughter its inhabitants due to his promise to Pope Leo I.
Like the Goths, the Vandals also minted their own coinage which was heavily inspired by late roman numismatics.
The Vandals are usually disparaged because of their perceived brutality, of which little historical proof exists. Modern historians however consider them as perpetuators of roman values and culture. I believe the Vandals were not as successful as the Goths or the Franks as their kingdom was brief and ended when North Africa was regained in the 6th century by Belisarius, with very limited resources and manpower.
The transition from a tribal system to some form of centralized government was also a unique skill of the Franks, another Germanic people who were first reunited under King Clovis I and had significant exposure to the roman world.
In terms of territorial control, the Franks came to rule most of central Europe with their sphere of influence extending to northern Italy and the Iberian peninsula under Charlemagne. However, this large territory was divided among Charlemagne successors by the treaty of Vedun in 843 AD, reducing the opportunity for a centralized government and undermining Frankish political stability and unity.
Unlike the Goths who were Arians, the Franks converted to Nicene Christianity with the conversion of King Clovis I on December 24th 496 AD. The king’s conversion to Nicene Christianity and alliance with the church constituted an attempt to align himself with the great Christian emperors of Rome, and the future basis for the empire of Charlemagne. Frankish leaders allied themselves with the personnel of the catholic Church in order to better control their lands as well as influence the political and social spheres of the empire.
In fact, the Frankish kingdom under the Merovingian dynasty paved the way for the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, a Germanic attempt at reestablishing some level of universal authority over Western Europe. The Franks were also able to demonstrate significant military strength, defeating Islamic forces at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD thanks to the leadership of Charles Martell, mayor of the palace under the Merovingian dynasty.
Even more than under the Merovingian dynasty, the reign of Charlemagne brought about a period of flourishing cultural activity called “Carolingian Renaissance”. This cultural renaissance was characterized by the restoration, preservation and emulation of ancient and classical texts and artistic canons by scholars and clergymen of the time, pointing in the direction of the renovatio imperii that saw Charlemagne as the restorer of imperial roman authority in Western Europe. In particular, illuminated manuscripts made mostly by clergymen, such as the “Godescalc Gospels”, can be recognized as works of particular artistic and cultural significance. Another relevant cultural innovation was the introduction of the Carolingian minuscule, a clear script promoted by Charlemagne between the 8th and 9th century AD. This script provided a standardized writing style which facilitated reading and comprehension of medieval Latin throughout Europe. During his reign, Charlemagne also promoted better education for clergymen as they played a relevant role in the administration of the Carolingian empire. The reign of Clovis I, saw the compilation of the Frankish legal code around 500 AD. Unlike the Visigothic legal code, the Frankish one displayed little Roman influence. However, it nonetheless represents an important attempt to regulate life in the Frankish kingdom and, most importantly, constitutes a transition from early Germanic laws, which were oral compilations of custom, to written statutes.
In my opinion, the Goths can be considered as a worthy successor state to the western roman empire. Their close interaction with the Romans within the lands they occupied shows a strong willingness to amalgamate with them. This may have been related to the fact that they conquered coastal territories such as Italy and Spain which were the heart of the old roman world. Their conversion to Aryan Christianity was also a way to integrate themselves into the empire in the 4th century, as the empire was almost fully converted to Christianity, with the eastern roman empire having an Arian emperor, Valens. The Goths also had the cunning and perhaps the luck, to keep the roman senatorial elites in a position of power, taking advantage of their administrative skills and keeping them in line. Unlike the Goths, the Vandals did not experience the same cultural development, as their reign was relatively brief, despite occupying the most fertile lands of the old roman empire. The Franks however do rival the Goths as the most successful successor group of the western roman empire. While the Franks developed a form of centralized government under Clovis I, their interaction with the Roman world at that time was relatively marginal. In terms of religion, the Franks made a more forward looking decision than the Goths, as they converted immediately to Nicene Christianity bypassing all other heresies. As for political longevity, the Franks outlasted all other Germanic groups as they formed the nucleus of what was to become the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, the Franks were also able to demonstrate the greatest military proficiency of all of the successor states, through their halting of the Arab advance into western Europe and the defeat of the Lombards under Charlemagne, while the Visigothic kingdoms fell prey to the Arab push and Ostrogoth Italy became prey to the armies of Constantinople. Although the Franks appear to be the most successful state in terms of prowess, longevity, and cultural achievements, I nonetheless believe the Goths had a symbiotic relationship with the roman world that the Franks never had, and are thus a more direct successor state to the western roman empire.
In June of year 363 AD, near the city of Samarra in modern day Iraq,a large professional Roman army was in a state of total chaos. The Romans were led by Princeps Julian, a cultured and competent leader who had led the army to victory near the Persian capital of Ctesiphon a month earlier. Julian however failed tocapitalize on this important tactical victory, and did not siege the city as an incoming force led by the King of Kings Shapur II was closing in from the east. Near Samarra, Julian’s army of 35,000 was intercepted by skirmishing cavalry sent by Shapur. The Persians attacked the roman cohorts who were advancing in square formations to avoid encirclement. Julian, seeing his troops panicking in front of the suddenSassanid attack, rushed forward without his armor in order to encourage his men to fight on. He was however spotted by Sassanid officers who sent an arab regiment of auxiliary cavalry to assassinate him. Julian was hit on his back by a javelin and was immediately rushed to the rearguard. His doctor Oribasius couldn’t do anything, as the Emperor died a few hours later in his tent. The roman army, now without a leader, chose Jovian (Julian’s Comes Domesticorum) as the new emperor. Facing continuous raids from the Sassanids, the Romans were forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty with Shapur II. Shortly after the peace negotiations, emperor Jovian died in his tent in Anatolia (Dadastana) under mysterious circumstances.
In the spring of 327 BC, Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, had conquered most of the persian Achaemenid empire and defeated the King of Kings Darius III in numerous battles. Alexander had arrived in Central Asia, in a region known then as Sogdiana (modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and had encountered stiff resistance from the Iranic peoples that lived in the hereto unexplored region. One of the leaders of the resistance was Oxyartes, a persian nobleman who had a beautiful daughter named Roxanne. Roxanne was sent by her father to a fortified castle near the city of Maracanda (Samarkand). The castle was considered impregnable, as it was located on the top of a steep mountain and therefore nicknamed “The Sogdian Rock”. While Alexander was preparing the troops for the siege, the confident defenders told him that to take their castle he would need “men with wings”. Alexander took 300 volunteers experienced in rock climbing (Macedonia being a mountainous region, his men were skilled climbers)and sent them up the slopes of the mountain. When the men arrived on the top, Alexander sent messangers to tell the Persians that if they looked up on the walls, they would have seen their winged men. The Persians, astonished, surrendered to Alexander. After the siege Alexander married Oxyartes’s daughter Roxanne, who gave him a son, Alexander IV.
By the time teenage emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Germanic general Odoacer in 476 AD, the western Roman world was fragmented and governed by mostly “barbarian” rulers who led the so called “romano-barbarian” kingdoms. There was however a land in northern Gaul, near the city of Noviodunum (modern day Soissons), which still claimed to be part of the Roman Empire. The leader of the domain of Soissons was Afranius Syagrius, the son of the able Magister Militum per Gallias, Aegidius. He was referred to as “King of the Romans” by the Frankish nobles, and tried to maintain a successful Gaullic-Roman state in the middle of a mostly germanic ruled western Europe. Syagrius succeeded in pursuing his objective for about 25 years, but, in 486 AD, he was challenged by the ambitious king of the Franks, Clovis I. Syagrius confronted the armies of Clovis near Soissons, in the modern French department of Aisne. The Franks managed to crush the Roman forces, as Syagrius was forced to flee to the Visigothic court of Alaric II. Alaric, intimidated by the powerful Franks, handed Syagrius over to Clovis, who summarily executed him. Gregory of Tours wrote about the event, claiming that Syagrius was stabbed in secret. With the death of Syagrius, Roman rule in the West came to an end. This is not to say that Roman culture disappeared entirely, as the Eastern Roman Empire was still strong and the new germanic kingdoms viewed Rome as a model, which they copied extensively, from administrative posts to military tactics and ranks.
The Arcani or Areani were a Roman paramilitary group which acted as a secret police force for the state. Their name means “the hidden ones” or “the secret ones” in Latin, which in and of itself, suggest a role of secrecy. The lack of information about the Arcani is another confirmation of their secretive role. The Arcani were mostly tasked with reconnaissance duties and intelligence missions around the frontiers, giving detailed reports about enemy forces and leaders. The majority of them most likely had military experience, especially “field agents”, whose mission it was to infiltrate enemy territory. We don’t know much about their techniques of subterfuge, but most of their covert operations probably took place during diplomatic gatherings, military expeditions or hostage exchanges. During the late Roman period, they were probably responsible for multiple assassinations of foreign chieftains and kings. They may have worked alongside the Exploratores and Praeventores in supervising the frontier. According to late Roman author and military officer, Ammianus Marcellinus, by the second half of the 4th century AD, the Arcani had become an old and corrupt institution. After being accused of collaborating with the enemy, particularly in regards to the Great Conspiracy, a joint invasion of Britain which included the Attacotti, the Franks, the Saxons and the Picts, the Arcani were disbanded by Count Theodosius the elder, father of future emperor Theodosius I. The Arcani were, and continue to be, often subject of romanticized depictions and wild speculation, especially because very little is known about them. Perhaps the mystery surrounding the Arcani was meant from the beginning?
Carnuntum was one of the main roman forts on the Danube frontier, and, in particular, on the Limes Pannonicus, a section of the Danube Limes. Carnuntum is a center of celtic origin, its name deriving from from “kar” or “karn” which means rock in Celtic. During late roman times, the castrum was used by emperor Valentinian I as the main springboard for his aggressive campaigns against the Quadi tribes, germanic people. Carnuntum had a legionary fortress, an auxiliary fort and was home to the Pannonian river fleet. The auxiliary fort hosted the Ala I Thracum, a cavalry regiment, which, as the name suggests, came from the roman province of Thracia, in modern day Bulgaria. Ruins of a large amphitheater built around the second half of the 2nd century AD, which could host around 12.000 spectators, are still visible today.
Additionally, a civil center developed around the forts,most probably inhabited by the family of the soldiers. In 308 AD the city hosted the Carnuntum conference, a diplomatic gathering between the main leaders of Diocletian’s tetrarchy. Emperor Valentinian rebuilt the military forts which had been destroyed by the repeated incursions of the Jazigi, a Sarmatian (Iranian) tribal group. After the death of Valentinian in 375 AD at the fort of Brigetio, in modern day Hungary, the forts of Carnuntum went into disrepair. Today’s emblem of the cityis the so called Heidentor, a monumental archway erected next to the fort probably dedicated to the reunion of the tetrarchs under Diocletian or toValentinian’s victories against germanic tribes.
The so called “amber road”, which can still be walked on, ran through the legionary fort in Carnuntum leading to Aquileia, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Rome. Memories of roman times are still strong, as many streets and hotels are named after roman emperors. Carnuntum remains the most ancient roman fort on the Limes Pannonicus, a true stronghold against barbarian hordes.
Fritigern is one of the most famous Gothic rulers in history. Contrary to popular belief, Fritigern was not born into a primitive and barbarian society. On the contrary, he was part of a group of people, the Tervingi Goths, who had been in contact with the Roman world for years, as a result of trade and Roman attempts at converting the Goths to Christianity. The Romans were even partly successful, with the Goths partly embracing Arian Christianity thanks to the conversion campaign promoted by bishop Ulfilas, with Frigern being one of those converted. In the year 375 AD however, things changed drastically for the Goths as bellicose Hunnic tribes invaded from the North. In 376 AD, in response to the invasions of the Huns, the Goths began amassing on the northern banks of the Danube, in modern day Bulgaria. The river served as the northern boundary of the eastern Roman empire, which at the time was led by emperor Valens. The gothic leaders, including Fritigern, did not want to invade the empire, instead they wished to settle down within its borders and be protected from the Hunnic threat. The gothic chieftains sent ambassadors to the emperor, who was based in Antioch, in modern day Syria.
Valens, planning to enlist the gothic male population into the army, accepted their proposal. Therefore, the Goths crossed over the Danube under Roman supervision. The Roman provincial authorities however, were not able to deal with the immigration wave and, in the city of Marcianople, they slaughtered the gothic authorities. Fritigern was the only chieftain to survivethe carnage. He maintained his pro-Roman policy, facing Roman armies only when necessary. In 378 AD, near the city of Adrianople in Thrace, Fritigern tried to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict with the emperor. While Fritigern’s delegation (which included a priest) and Valens were discussing peace terms in the Roman camp, a battle started outside. The confrontation would end with a complete victory for the Goths and with the death of Valens on the battlefield. Fritigern however, would always remain open to negotiations with the Romans. In order to bring them to the negotiating table, Fritigern even tried to besiege Adrianople and Constantinople, failing in both attempts and saying: “I make peace with stone walls”. He then confronted the new eastern emperor, Theodosius I,in three years of guerrilla warfare. During this period, he disappeared from history, probably dead in battle or assassinated by his own men (with the aid of roman gold). Fritigern is arguably the first germanic leader to truly challenge Roman power. He did not want however to replace the Roman culture with that of the Goths, instead wanting cooperation between the two groups. Being the leader of a tribal society, he must have been a truly charismatic and competent character, demonstrating his military prowess in the battles of Marcianopolis, Ad Salices and Adrianople. After his mysterious death, Fritigern was succeeded by Athanaric, who finally managed to negotiate a peace treaty with Theodosius I.