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.