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Valentinian III

Western Roman emperor A. D. 425 - 455

Valentinian III was really not a very remarkable emperor. The enigmatic Galla Placidia, a woman about whom much legend and folklore had appeared over the years, was Valentinian III's mother and ruled as his regent during his youth. She also maintained tight control over him after he became of age to ascend the throne to rule in his own right. It is only because Placidia and several other legendary people lived in the Western Roman Empire during the reign of Valentinian III that we know much more about him at all.

Valentinian III was born in 419 and was made Roman Emperor of the West in 425. He was neither a strong ruler nor a fine general, but the two important people in his life took were well provided with these talents, so needed during this period of crisis when the Roman Empire was struggling for its very life against barbarian warlords who would break it into separate pieces to be ruled as petty kingdoms.

His mother fulfilled the role of strong ruler, and Flavius Aetius, Valentinian's Master General was the strong military leader who would rescue the empire from the brink of destruction time after time. With a weak emperor and two strong individuals in key positions of power, there was bound to be trouble. Aetius had become so powerful that Galla Placidia became jealous. She appointed Boniface, Count of Africa to arrest Aetius but when their forces clashed, Boniface received wounds from which he would later die. Placidia now realized that she could not do away with the powerful general so she decided to cooperate with him. As time went on, Aetius became the strong arm and protector of both Galla Placidia and Valentinian. Ironically, it was the struggle between Boniface and Aetius that brought about the loss of Africa, one of Rome's richest provinces and for centuries the source of grain for most of the empire. Because of rumors started at court by those who wished to do away with both Aetius and Boniface because they were both very powerful men, Boniface had been alternately considered a loyal supporter of and mortal enemy of Galla Placidia. The count never really knew where he stood at court, and consequently made a deal with Gaiseric, the new King of the Vandals. Gaiseric had become king in 428, and was a brilliant general and a ruthless and crafty conqueror. After the battle which resulted in the death of Boniface, Gaiseric helped himself to Africa and there was nothing any Roman emperor, Eastern or Western, strong or weak, could do about the Vandal occupation until Belisarius kicked them out one hundred years later. Because those in power feared and distrusted each other, Rome’s strategic grain reserves in Africa were lost to the Western empire forever. With Africa went the sole remaining source of the empire’s economic strength, and it may be said that when the Vandals invaded Africa in 429 the Western Roman Empire was reduced from a world class power to a small struggling kingdom in Italy and Gaul.

Valentinian lived a life of luxury and turned out to be lazy and a woman chaser. Though his wife Licinia Eudoxia was one of the most beautiful women at his court, Valentinian routinely seduced other men's wives. While Valentinian III frittered away his time in luxury and his talents on his own pleasures, the Roman Empire he should have been actively protecting was being dismembered chunk by chunk. At the beginning of his reign, the West was almost totally intact except for the kingdom of Toulouse that had been set up by Visigoths in France By the end of his reign, barely Italy remained and a small portion of Gaul remained out of the vast Western empire

Valentinian lived a life of luxury and turned out to be lazy and a woman chaser. Though his wife Licinia Eudoxia was one of the most beautiful women at his court, Valentinian routinely seduced other men’s wives. While Valentinian III frittered away his time in luxury and his talents on his own pleasures, the Roman Empire he should have been actively protecting was being dismembered chunk by chunk. At the beginning of his reign, the West was almost totally intact except for the kingdom of Toulouse that had been set up by Visigoths in France By the end of his reign, barely Italy remained and a small portion of Gaul remained out of the vast Western empire.

It is an amazing paradox that four men who were so utterly unfit to do so sat on the throne of the Roman Empire in its time of desperate crisis should have some of the longest reigns in the history. Another phenomenon of the Fifth Century is that the governing of both halves of the empire fell into the hands of strong women for long periods of time. Valentinian III, his uncles Honorius and Arcadius, and his cousin Theodosius II did little more than occupy space and show up in magnificent robes and jewelry for state occasions and civic holidays. It was left up to the powerful women in these men’s’ lives to handle the tasks of government. Valentinian III had his mother Galla Placidia to rely upon, Arcadius was married to Eudoxia, a woman of considerable political genius, and the government of Theodosius II was left mainly in the hands of his sister Pulcheria.

In A. D. 454, Valentinian did a very stupid thing and murdered his faithful general and protector. Aetius was the only person standing between Rome and the Vandals, a tribe of barbarians ruled by the powerful chieftain Gaiseric. Evidently, Valentinian suspected Aetius of wanting to do away with him and to take the throne for himself. If that had been Aetius' goal, he could have accomplished it long before A. D. 454. The confrontation between Valentinian III and Aetius evidently took place right in the throne room of Valentinian's palace. Without warning, Valentinian drew his sword and slew his unsuspecting general.

Aetius had been very popular amongst the soldiers. In the spring of 455, one of Aetius’ former retainers, a Hun warrior by the name of Optila avenged the murder of his commander. Valentinian had come to the Campus Martius to practice archery and Optila struck him with his sword as he was getting down off his horse. When Valentinian turned to see who had attacked him, Optila struck again, killing the emperor. Though Valentinian was surrounded by imperial troops, no one lifted a finger to defend the cowardly emperor who was getting the justice he deserved.

A few months later, the vandals were in Rome, not just for a three-day stay but a three week spree of looting, burning and rape. The Vandals left nothing of value behind that could not be carried off. The wealthy people were ruined and even the common people faced starvation.

The image at top right is of one of the tiny, crude bronze coins struck during the reign of Valentinian III. This image is eight times life size, with the original coin being about 12mm in diameter. The quality of art and workmanship had fallen to such depths in the West by the second quarter of the Fifth Century that this is actually a very nice specimen by comparison to coins of other Fifth Century Western emperors.


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