Valentinian II

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Valentinian II
Statue of emperor Valentinian II.JPG
Marble statue found in Aphrodisias, usually identified as Valentinian II [1]
Roman emperor
(in the West)
Reign22 November 375 – 15 May 392 (senior from 28 August 388)
Predecessor Valentinian I
Successor Eugenius and Theodosius I
Treveri, Gallia Belgica, Western Roman Empire
Died15 May 392 (aged 21)
Vienne, Viennensis, Western Roman Empire
Regnal name
Imperator Caesar Flavius Valentinianus Augustus
Dynasty Valentinian
Father Valentinian I
Mother Justina
ReligionArian Christianity

Valentinian II (Latin : Valentinianus; 371 15 May 392) was a Roman emperor in the western part of the Roman empire between AD 375 and 392. He was at first junior co-ruler of his half-brother, then was sidelined by a usurper, and finally became sole ruler after 388, albeit with limited de facto powers.


A son of emperor Valentinian I and empress Justina, he was raised to the imperial office at the age of 4 by military commanders upon his father's death. Until 383, Valentinian II remained a junior partner to his older half-brother Gratian in ruling the Western empire, while the East was governed by his uncle Valens until 378 and Theodosius I from 379. When Gratian was killed by the usurper emperor Magnus Maximus in 383, the court of Valentinian in Milan became the center of Italy where several religious debates took place. In 387, Maximus invaded Italy, spurring Valentinian and his family to escape to Thessalonica where they successfully sought Theodosius' aid. Theodosius defeated Maximus in battle and re-installed Valentinian in the West, under the supervision of the general Arbogast. In 392, after repeated conflicts with Arbogast, Valentinian was discovered hanged in his room under unknown circumstances.

Early life and accession (371–375)

Valentinianus was born to Emperor Valentinian I and his second wife, Justina. He was the half-brother of Valentinian's other son, Gratian, who had shared the imperial title with his father since 367. He had three sisters: Galla, Grata and Justa. The elder Valentinian died on campaign in Pannonia in 375. Neither Gratian (then in Trier) nor his uncle Valens (emperor for the East) were consulted by the army commanders on the scene. Instead of merely acknowledging Gratian as his father's successor, Valentinian I's leading generals and officials, including Merobaudes, Petronius Probus, and Cerealis, Valentinian II's maternal uncle and Justina's brother, acclaimed the four-year-old Valentinian augustus on 22 November 375 at Aquincum. The army, and its Frankish general Merobaudes, may have been uneasy about Gratian's lack of military ability, and to prevent a split of the army, so raised a boy who would not immediately aspire to military command. [2] [3] Also, he may have wanted to prevent more successful military commanders and officials, such as Sebastianus and Count Theodosius, from becoming emperors or gaining independent power, as Sebastianus was removed to a distant posting and Theodosius was executed within a year of Valentinian's elevation. [4]

Reign from Milan (375–387)

Solidus of Valentinian II INC-2965-a Solid. Valentinian II. Ok. 388--392 gg. (avers).png
Solidus of Valentinian II

Gratian was forced to accommodate the generals who supported his half-brother into his realm, though he purportedly took a liking to educating his brother. [5] According to Zosimus, Gratian governed the trans-alpine provinces (including Gaul, Hispania, and Britain), while Italy, part of Illyricum, and North Africa were under the rule of Valentinian. However, Gratian and his court was essentially in charge of the whole Western empire, including Illyricum, and Valentinian did not issue any laws and was marginalized in textual sources. [6] [7] [8] In 378, their uncle, the Emperor Valens, was killed in battle with the Goths at Adrianople, and Gratian invited the general Theodosius to be emperor in the East. As a child, Valentinian II was under the pro-Arian influence of his mother, empress Justina, and the courtiers at Milan, an influence contested by the Nicene bishop of Milan, Ambrose. [9] [10] [2]

In 383, Magnus Maximus, commander of the armies in Britain, declared himself Emperor and established himself in Gaul and Hispania. Gratian was killed while fleeing him. As a lesser partner to Gratian in the West, Valentinian and his court in Milan had remained ineffectual and obscure until his brother's tragedy finally brought them to the forefront. [7] For a time the court of Valentinian, through the mediation of Ambrose, came to an accommodation with the usurper, and Theodosius recognized Maximus as co-emperor of the West. [11]

Valentinian tried to restrain the despoiling of pagan temples in Rome. Buoyed by this instruction, the pagan senators, led by Aurelius Symmachus, the Prefect of Rome, petitioned in 384 for the restoration of the Altar of Victory in the Senate House, which had been removed by Gratian in 382. Valentinian refused the request and, in so doing, rejected the traditions and rituals of pagan Rome to which Symmachus had appealed. [12] While Ambrose participated in the campaign against the reinstatement of Altar of Victory, [13] he admitted he was not the cause of the decision to remove the altar in the first place. [14]

In 385 Ambrose refused an imperial request to hand over the Portian basilica for the celebration of Easter by the Imperial court, angering Justina, Valentinian, high-ranking officials, and other Arians at the court, including Goths. [12] Ambrose argued in his letter that Justina used her influence over her young son to oppose the Nicean party which was championed by Ambrose, framing her motivation as selfish. [15] However, not only Justina, but the wider imperial court also opposed Ambrose's claim, since the praetorian prefect and the emperor's counsellors met him and demanded that he turn over the basilica. [15] [16] When Ambrose was summoned to be punished to the Imperial palace, the orthodox populace rioted, and Gothic troops were prevented by the arch-bishop himself, standing in the doorway, from entering the Basilica. Rufinus, influenced by Ambrose's writing, claimed that when Ambrose was found to have determinedly infracted the new laws, Justina persuaded Valentinian to have him banished, and Ambrose was forced to barricade himself, with the enthusiastic backing of the people, within the walls of the Basilica. Rufinus continues that the imperial troops besieged him, but Ambrose held on, reinforcing the resolution of his followers by allegedly unearthing, beneath the foundations of the church, the bodies of two ancient martyrs. Later, Magnus Maximus was purported to have used the emperor's heterodoxy against him. [17] Maximus indeed wrote a scathing letter attacking Valentinian for plotting against God. [18]

In 386 to 387, Maximus crossed the Alps into the Po valley and threatened Milan. Valentinian II and Justina fled to Theodosius in Thessalonica. The latter came to an agreement, cemented by his marriage to Valentinian's sister Galla, to restore the young emperor in the West. [9] [19] In 388, Theodosius marched west and defeated Maximus. [20] [21] [22]

Reign from Vienne (388–392)

A solidus minted by Valentinian II in AD 390. On the reverse, both Valentinian and Theodosius I are celebrated as victorious. Solidus of Valentinian II, AD 390.png
A solidus minted by Valentinian II in AD 390. On the reverse, both Valentinian and Theodosius I are celebrated as victorious.

After the defeat of Maximus, Valentinian took no part in Theodosius's triumphal celebrations over Maximus. [23] He and his court were installed at Vienne in Gaul. [24] Justina had already died, and Vienne was far away from the influence of Ambrose. In a panegyric for Theodosius, the orator Pacatus asserted that the empire belonged to his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius, while barely mentioning the newly restored Valentinian. [23] Theodosius remained in Milan until 391, appointing his supporters to important offices in the West. [24] [25] On the Eastern emperor’s coinage, Valentinian continued to be represented with the “unbroken” legend like Arcadius, depicting both of them as Theodosius’ junior colleagues. [26] [27] [2] Modern scholars, observing Theodosius’ actions, suspect that he had no intention of allowing Valentinian to rule, due to his plan for his sons to succeed him. [28] [29] [30]

When Theodosius decided to return to the East, his trusted general, the Frank Arbogast, was appointed magister militum for the Western provinces (bar Africa) and guardian of Valentinian. [31] Acting in the name of Valentinian, Arbogast was actually subordinate only to Theodosius. [32] While the general campaigned successfully on the Rhine, the young emperor remained confined at Vienne, [31] [29] in contrast to his warrior father and his older brother, who had campaigned at his age. [32] Arbogast's domination over the emperor was to the point where, in a report that Hebblewhite characterized as “admittedly outlandish,” the general is described as murdering Harmonius, a friend of Valentinian suspected of taking bribes, in the emperor's presence. [33] [34] Valentinian wrote to Theodosius and Ambrose complaining of his subordination to his general. [2] [32] In explicit rejection of his earlier Arianism, he invited Ambrose to come to Vienne to baptize him. [35]

The crisis reached a peak when Arbogast prohibited the emperor from leading the Gallic armies into Italy to oppose a barbarian threat. [36] Valentinian, in response, formally dismissed Arbogast. The latter ignored the order, publicly tearing it up and arguing that Valentinian had not appointed him in the first place. The reality of where the power lay was openly displayed. [37]


Valentinian II on the Missorium of Theodosius I; AD 388. Disc of Theodosius (Valentinian II).png
Valentinian II on the Missorium of Theodosius I; AD 388.

On 15 May 392, Valentinian was found hanged in his residence in Vienne. Arbogast maintained that the emperor's death was suicide. [37] Many sources believe, however, that the general had him murdered; ancient authorities were divided in their opinion. Some modern scholars lean toward suicide. [38] McEvoy, Williams and Friell asserted that Arbogast had little reason to change his situation, [39] [37] while McLynn observed how no one benefitted from the emperor’s death. [35] Ambrose's eulogy is the only contemporary Western source for Valentinian's death. [40] It is ambiguous on the question of the emperor's death, which is not surprising, as Ambrose represents him as a model of Christian virtue. Suicide, not murder, would make the bishop dissemble on this key question. [41]

The young man's body was conveyed in ceremony to Milan for burial by Ambrose, mourned by his sisters Justa and Grata. [37] [42] He was laid in a porphyry sarcophagus next to his brother Gratian, most probably in the Chapel of Sant'Aquilino attached to San Lorenzo. [lower-alpha 1] He was deified with the consecratio: Divae Memoriae Valentinianus, lit.'Valentinian of Divine Memory'. [43]

At first Arbogast recognized Theodosius's son Arcadius as emperor in the West, seemingly surprised by his charge's death. [44] After three months, during which he had no communication from Theodosius, Arbogast selected an imperial official, Eugenius, as emperor. Theodosius initially tolerated this regime but, in January 393, elevated the eight-year-old Honorius as augustus to succeed Valentinian II. Civil war ensued and, in 394, Theodosius defeated Eugenius and Arbogast at the Battle of the Frigidus. [25]


Valentinian himself seems to have exercised no real authority, and was a figurehead for various powerful interests: his mother, his co-emperors, and powerful generals. Since the Crisis of the Third Century the empire had been ruled by powerful generals, a situation formalised by Diocletian and his collegiate system which collapsed a year after his abdication in 305. Constantine I and his sons, strong military figures, re-established the practice of hereditary succession, a system that Valentinian I continued to maintain. The obvious flaw in these two competing requirements came in the reign of Valentinian II, a child. [45] His reign was a harbinger of the fifth century, when children or nonentities, reigning as emperors, were controlled by powerful generals and officials in the West and in the East until mid-century.[ citation needed ]

See also


  1. The bottom of the sarcophagus may be identical to a porphyry tub (labrum) now in the Duomo of Milan. [42]

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  14. Ambrose Epistolae 57.2
  15. 1 2 Ambrose, Epistolae 20
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  17. Rufinus, Ecclesiastical History 11.15–16
  18. Collectio Avellana 39
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  23. 1 2 McEvoy 2013, p. 92.
  24. 1 2 Croke 1976, p. 236.
  25. 1 2 Roberts, Walter E., Eugenius (392–394 A.D.)
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  30. Williams & Friell 1994, p. 66.
  31. 1 2 McEvoy 2013, p. 95.
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  34. Hebblewhite, Mark (2020). Theodosius and the Limits of Empire. Routledge. ISBN   978-1-351-59476-9.
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  36. McEvoy 2013, p. 113.
  37. 1 2 3 4 Williams & Friell 1994, p. 127.
  38. Croke 1976, p. 244.
  39. McEvoy 2013, p. 97.
  40. De obitu Valentiniani consolatio
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  42. 1 2 Johnson 1991, p. 503.
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  44. Croke 1976, p. 244; Hebblewhite 2020, pp. 230–235.
  45. Williams & Friell 1994, p. 42.


Valentinian II
Born: 371 Died: 15 May 392
Regnal titles
Preceded by Roman emperor
With: Valens, Gratian and Theodosius I
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Roman consul
with Valens
Succeeded by
Preceded by Roman consul
with Valens
Succeeded by
Preceded by Roman consul
with Eutropius
Succeeded by
Preceded by Roman consul
with Neoterius
Succeeded by