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“You beastly barbarians. I am going to tell mummy.”
“I am your brother-in-law but I can't put it any simpler. You're a brick.”
It's not to hard to feel a little bit sorry for Roman Emperor Valentinian II (371-392). Fatherless at an early age, emperor at an age when he didn't know what day it was and the subject of a brutal education row between his mother and a bishop, Valentinian grew up to be a wimp in the later years of the Roman empire. Probably none to bright, scared of stories about hell and damnation, Valentinian wasn't cut out to be a successor of Augustus or Trajan.
Valentinian was born in 371. His father was emperor Valentinian I but there wasn't much time for bonding as he was dead in 375. Valentinian's elder half brother Gratian then became emperor when the elder Valentinian suddenly died in a road chariot rage incident with some insolent Germans. However rival legions looked for an emperor of their own and proclaimed Valentinian II co-emperor. His mother Justina appears to have encouraged this rebellion and now as before, a war between rivals seemed certain.
But a peace was brokered and instead the brothers sub divided their half of the Roman empire (an uncle Valens controlled the eastern half of the empire). Valentinian II was emperor of Italy, North Africa and boring bit of the Balkans. Since Valentinian was still an irritating kid, his mother Justina ruled in his name. Young Valentinian was allowed to play with his three sisters dolls a bit more. To say Valentinian lacked a natural father figure was obvious so what he needed was another man in a dress:St.Ambrose of Milan.
edit Tussle and Strife
Ambrose, Bishop of Milan had already worked on Gratian to become a good Catholic emperor, now turned to 'Kid Val'. Justina however had brought her boy up as a good Arian Christian. Catholics and Arians hated each other, convinced neither had a friend in Jesus. Since Justina was the de facto ruler in Milan, she tried to have Ambrose defrocked as a imperial kiddy fiddler but other matters came into play. Gratian was dead and now a usurper Magnus Maximus was in control of Britain, Gaul and Spain.
Gratian's sudden end (deserted and murdered, usual fate for a Roman loser) in the hands of Magnus's men left Valentinian as the only male left in his family. Maximus hoped to reduce that further and claimed Valentinian was 'a rotten Arian' and vowed to burn the boy and his mother if he got to Milan. Justina persuaded Ambrose to go north and parley with Maximus and also sent a message to emperor Theodosius the Great for some urgent assistance. Meantime she posted more troops along the Alpine passes to prevent Maximus breaking through.
The meeting between Maximus and Ambrose went well. The soldier said he was a Good Catholic and offered to show proof of his devotion by executing Bishop Priscillian of Avila as a heretic. Priscillian wasn't an Arian but a hair shirt ascetic with radical ideas about the priesthood (celibate equality for men and women) and that virginity started at 40. The latter idea suggested that it was ok to sow wild oats before and Priscillian was accused of being an orgy organiser. Priscillian's doctrines were already condemned by his religious colleagues, Maximus just made the condemnation more permanent. Ambrose complained about state interference but saw the logic in Maximus's actions.
edit Making a Run for It
Empress Justina's response was naturally different. If the Catholics could do this too each other, what mercy could her Arians expect. She persuaded her son to issue an edict giving equality to Arians and tried to replace Ambrose as Bishop of Milan. Ambrose barricaded himself inside his church. Maximus heard the news and this time declared war on the Arian emperor and his mother by invading Italy in 387.
Justina had shrewdly made a provision for getting away from Italy if her ideas went 'tits up' and fled with her son and daughters to emperor Theodosius. He welcomed the refugees and agreed to help them if he could marry Valentinian's sister Galla. Theodosius's wife had died recently (leaving him with two future Roman emperors - the unimpressive Arcadius and the certifiable Honorius). Justina agreed with great reluctance but she had no option.
Theodosius marched west and with a short campaign, captured and executed Maximus. At around the same time Justina 'died', a happy coincidence for Theodosius. He also brought along Honorius (aged 5) and, somewhere at the back, Valentinian. Ambrose welcomed the returnees and whipped out any lingering Arianism from Valentinian. Even Theodosius was scared of this Onward Christian soldier.
edit Arbogast the Frank
For the next few years had to let his brother-in-law run his half of the empire. In a time when all Roman emperors married young - and often died young - a lack of bride for Valentinian is distinctly odd. An earlier Christian emperor Constans I had likewise avoided the ladies so perhaps Valentinain buttered his bread on the other side. Since Valentinian had grown up with women, celibate priests and palace eunuchs, his lack of interest in women can be explained.
In 391, Theodosius returned East and left Valentinain in control. Considering he had already paraded Honorius about with the evident intention of making his son emperor in the west one day, Valentinian was living on borrowed time. This is perhaps more obvious with the man Theodosius left to run the West in his absence, a man called 'Arbogast the Frank'. Since Arbogast was born outside the Roman empire, he was - like any foreigner wanting to become President of the United States - judged legally ineligible for the top post.
To get away from Ambrose, Valentinian moved the imperial court to Vienne in Gaul. It was an unwise decision and within months Arbogast indicated his contempt for his nominal boss by cracking rude jokes about Valentinian in his presence. As a Frank (i.e. a proto Frenchman), Arbogast was convinced of his own superiority and ridiculed Valentinian as a 'Milanese milkshake' without even any nominal military experience. This incessant bullying had a bad effect on Valentinian, a constant stream of letters to Theodosius came back with the reply 'Be a Man Val or Die a Slave'.
The constant humiliation for Valentinian ended in May 392 when it was reported (by Arbogast) that the emperor was dead. The official story was that he had been rehanging his bedroom curtains when something wrong had happened and Valentinian had hung himself by mistake or on purpose. Arbogast said it didn't matter and had found a replacement, a pagan relic called Eugenius. Theodosius was more put out by the timing than the deed (see above as regards Honorius) but Valentinian's spunkier sister Galla demanded retaliation.
As for Valentinian, he was buried and quickly forgotten. Perhaps he should have stayed in Milan.
Theodosius the Great