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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

published by the Clarendon Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3

Book 1: Introduction (continued)

Thayer's Note: This page is from the first edition of the book, which Hodgkin considerably expanded into a much more detailed second edition, often refining or even outright changing his conclusions and opinions. That second edition is onsite in full; the serious student will take advantage of it.

Vol. I
Chapter II

The Dynasty of Valentinian

Our chief authority for the reign of Valentinian in his brother Valens is Ammianus Marcellinus. He wrote probably between the years 380‑390. His history concludes thus: 'These things have I as an old soldier and a Greek set forth to the best of my ability. 96‑378 Beginning with the sovereignty of Nerva and concluding with the death of Valens, my work professes to be truthful, and I have never intentionally deceived either by silence or by misrepresentation. Let others younger and more learned than I am write about subsequent events [the reign of Theodosius], but I must warn them that if they do so they will have to train their tongues to a higher style of eloquence than mine.'

In calling himself Graecus, Ammianus no doubt means that he was born in the Greek-speaking provinces of the Empire. He was perhaps a native of Syria, and he first appears in public life under the auspices of Ursicinus governor of Nisibis, a general of whose qualities he speaks in terms of high praise, and whose fortunes he followed for some years. He was of noble birth and probably of handsome person, being one of the protectores domestici who as Procopius says (Hist. Arc. c. 24), were generally selected on account of their beauty and good family. He himself tells us, in describing one of his narrow escapes from his Persian pursuers that he soon found himself 'overcome by the weariness of the march, as being a Noble unaccustomed to such toil' (XIX.8, 6).

Of the thirty-one books of his history the first thirteen are most unfortunately lost. Few writers could have given us so valuable an insight as Ammianus into the terrible  p26 convulsions of the third century, the principles of Diocletian's reorganisation of the State, and the manner in which the change of the national religion was brought about by Constantine. Though he was apparently a Pagan he speaks without bitterness, and sometimes almost with respect, of Christianity.

The eighteen books which have been preserved, contain the history of twenty-five years (353‑378) and often describe events actually witnessed by the author, especially in connection with Julian's Persian campaign. Ammianus as an officer of the household troops was probably himself present at the death-bed of Julian.

His style has been much and justly blamed. It is laboured, pompous, often obscure, and it contains some of the longest and oddest words to be found in any Latin author. But in fairness it ought to be remembered that Latin was not his native tongue, that he had spent more than half of his life in Greek-speaking countries, and that he had received the training not of a rhetorician but of a soldier. Of course, also, the best Latin authors of his time would have compared very unfavourably with those of the first or even the second century.

But the student who goes to Ammianus not for style but for thought will certainly not be disappointed. He has great power of describing character and a quick eye for social characteristics; in fact some of his pictures of Roman manners are worthy to have been painted by Juvenal himself. He speaks of natural phenomena and of the wonders of foreign lands with something of the naïf wonder of Herodotus. Above all he shows everywhere a hearty admiration for all honest men and a genuine hatred of oppression. No one has travelled far under the guidance of Ammianus without feeling that he may be safely trusted to tell the whole truth as far as he knows it.

 p28  Jovian. 363‑364 The immediate successor of Julian, the Emperor Jovian, was a Christian by profession but an ignoble sensualist in practice. He lived just long enough to reverse his predecessor's religious policy, to conclude a treaty with Sapor, King of Persia, which abandoned five provinces to the enemy, and to lead back the humiliated army into Asia Minor. There, on the frontiers of Bithynia, he died suddenly. Some said that the cause of death was his own gluttony, others talked about the unwholesome smell of fresh plaster on the walls of the imperial bedchamber, or the fumes of an overheated fire.​a The strange thing was that, though an Emperor was unexpectedly found dead in his bed, no one suggested that his death had been other than a natural one.

Valentinian I. 364‑375 Valentinian, who was chosen in the room of Jovian, was a man of very different temper. He was an able officer, the son of the sturdy Gratian, a native of Pannonia (Western Hungary), who by strength and courage had raised himself to a high place in the Imperial service. From the same region of Illyricum, which was the country of Valentinian, had come already Claudius, Aurelian, Diocletian, and many of the great restorers of the Empire; and in some qualities Valentinian was worthy of his Illyrian predecessors. He thoroughly comprehended the hard work that had to be done in those evil days by any ruler of the Roman world and set himself to do it. Old fortresses were raised from the dust; mutinous pretensions  p29 of the soldiery were repressed; the Alamanni, a German tribe, who were threatening the frontiers of the Empire, from Lake Constance to the city of Maintz, were warded off in a series of successful campaigns; in Britain, in Africa, on the Danube, the able generals selected by the Emperor led well-disciplined armies to almost invariable success. He was hard, exacting, almost rapacious, in the fiscal administration of his Empire,​1 but the most discontented of his subjects felt that the money which was wrung from the provincials was being devoted to the defence and improvement of their territory, and was not wasted upon the idle luxury of the Court.

Family favouritism of Valentinian. But the considerable merits of Valentinian as a ruler were almost neutralised by one fault, family favouritism, and two great vices, suspiciousness and cruelty. When he was first proclaimed Augustus, a murmur arose from the army, drawn up in its centuries and its maniples, calling upon him to secure the safety of the Commonwealth by naming a partner of his dignity. So deeply had the principle of associated empire sunk into the minds of all Roman subjects, a principle which probably recommended itself to the soldiery by the practice of the associated Emperors presenting  p30 them with a second 'donative.' For the time Valentinian, with dignified firmness, refused to allow the army to dictate to him upon such a topic, but the suggestion had not fallen on barren ground, and attentive observers soon perceived what manner of fruit it was likely to bear. Dagalaiphus, general of the cavalry, a loyal and capable soldier, when the Emperor asked counsel of his officers whom he should nominate as his colleague, fearlessly replied, 'If thou lovest thy own kindred, most excellent Emperor, thou hast a brother; if the Commonwealth, seek some one else around whose shoulders to hang the purple.' Unfortunately, Valentinian accepted the former alternative, 364 and nominated his brother Valens to preside over the Eastern half of the Empire, a man utterly unfit for supreme rule, who, during their joint tenure of power, leant in trustful incapacity upon the strong arm of his elder brother, but whose helpless blundering when that brother was no longer at the helm hastened the ruin of Rome. 367 Three years later Valentinian again announced to the assembled soldiery that he was about to introduce to them a new Emperor. This time it was his son Gratian, a lad of eighteen, with many noble qualities of body and mind, gentler and more highly cultured than his father, one who in more peaceful times might have won the honour and love of all his subjects; but even he was scarcely fitted to take a man's share of the hard rough work of government, and defence of the  p31 labouring Empire. It is true that the harmony of the Augusti,​2 so often falsely commemorated upon imperial coins, was in fact secured, but at a somewhat heavy price of inefficiency and misgovernment.

Suspiciousness of Valentinian and Valens. The suspiciousness of Valentinian, in which he was only too faithfully copied by Valens, recalled the gloomy jealousy of Tiberius, but it had also some features peculiar to itself and to the time. He was a man of pure morals, and through the strange and dreary catalogue of his oppressions contained in the pages of Ammianus there may be discerned some desire to chastise the dissoluteness of the Roman aristocracy, something of that same spirit which made the Pannonian oppressors of Italy in our own day represent themselves, not altogether without reason, as possessing a higher moral standard than the race whom they were keeping down. But after all, the one question of most intense interest to the brother Emperors and to the millions of their subjects, and the one master-key to all their internal policy, was 'How long shall we be Emperors, and who will succeed us?' Nor will the intense nervous interest both of governors and governed in this question seem unnatural, when we remember that the Emperor was the source of all promotion and of all legislation, a Prime Minister, as it were, appointed for life, unchecked by Parliament, and with a chance, but not a certainty, of transmitting his power to  p32 his son. Or, to go across the Atlantic for an analogy to his position, if the quadriennial election of the President of the United States raises to fever-pitch all the passions of all the army of office-holders, past, present, and to come, much more would the dark possibilities and the dramatic surprises of a change in the Imperial dynasty stir the hopes or rouse the fears of a population, among whom office of one kind or another was rapidly becoming the only barrier which separated the happy from the destitute.

Prevalence of magical arts. This feverish anxiety with reference to the occupants of the throne linked itself in an extraordinary way with the practice of magical arts. Whether men's minds were in an unusually excited state on religious questions, owing to the recent duel between Heathenism and Christianity,​3 — whether Neo-Platonism, with its tendency to dabble in spells and incantations, had infected the minds of many of the upper classes, — whatever the reason may have been, it is clear that there was during this period an epidemic of witchcraft and poisoning on the one hand, and a yet fiercer epidemic of suspicion of these practices on the other. For instance, an advocate named Marinus was accused of having attempted 'by wicked arts' — magic — to bring about his marriage with a lady named Hispanilla. The proof offered  p33 was of the slenderest kind, but he was condemned to death. Hymetius, proconsul of Africa, a man of specially honourable character, was charged with having induced a celebrated soothsayer named Amantius to perform some unholy sacrifice for him. The soothsayer was tortured, but denied the accusation. In some secret place, however, in his house was found a letter in the writing of Hymetius begging him to perform some strange rites, whereby the gods might be prevailed upon to soften the hearts of the Emperors towards him. The end of the letter, so it was said, stigmatised Valentinian as a bloody and rapacious tyrant. Upon the production of this letter, and the establishment of some other accusations against him, Amantius the soothsayer was condemned to death. Hymetius the proconsul was near meeting the same fate, but escaped by a well-hazarded appeal to the Emperor. Lollianus, the son of a prefect, and a youth who had the first down of manhood on his cheeks, was convicted of having copied out a book of incantations. He, too, appealed to the Emperor, but in his case the appeal only ensured his condemnation, and he died by the hand of the executioner.​4 Thus lawlessly did law rage in the West. In the East, men's blood was shed on quite as ridiculous pretences. The Proconsul of Asia, Festinus,​5 called in the  p34 services of a simple old woman to cure his daughter of intermittent fever, by a soft charm-like song which she was wont to sing.​b The spell succeeded, and the monster put the poor old creature to death, as a witch. A philosopher, named Coeranius, writing to his wife, had added a postscript in Greek, 'Take care and crown the gate with flowers.' This expression was generally used when some great event was about to happen. Coeranius evidently, in the judgment of the proconsul, was expecting a change in the government. He too must be put to death. In our concluding instance the horrible and the ludicrous meet together. A young man in the public baths was seen to be pressing his fingers alternately on the marble of the bath and his own chest, muttering each time one of the seven vowels in the Greek alphabet. The poor youth's real motive for this performance was that he imagined it would cure a pain in his stomach. Nevertheless he was haled away to the judgment-seat of Festinus, put to the torture, and slain by the sword of the executioner.6

Cruelty of Valentinian. But besides this all-pervading atmosphere of suspicion, which affected princes and subjects alike, and which made some parts of the reign of Valentinian  p35 resemble the period dof the 'Popish Plot' in England, or Reign of Terror in France, there was something in Valentinian's nature which partook of the mere animal cruelty of a bullying schoolboy. Thus, we are assured, on the unimpeachable testimony of Ammianus,​7 that he used to keep in dens near his bed-chamber two savage bears, whom he named, with grim jocosity, 'The Golden Darling'​8 and 'Innocence,' that there were keepers whose regular business it was to see that these creatures were kept up to a proper pitch of savagery, and that after the Emperor had with his own eyes seen Innocence mangle the corpses of many of his subjects, he dismissed her into the woods, saying 'Innocence has won her freedom.'9  p36 A page of Valentinian's let slip too soon upon the game a Spartan hound that sprang up and bit him. The enraged Emperor ordered him to be beaten to death with clubs upon the spot. A foreman in the imperial workshops brought for the Emperor's acceptance a beautifully polished steel breastplate, which he had made to order. It wanted a little of the stipulated weight, and the too clever craftsman, instead of receiving even a diminished payment, was ordered off to instant execution.​10 A day or two before the Emperor's death, his horse happened to rear as he was in the act of mounting it. In the struggle a hand of the groom who held it came somewhat roughly in contact with the Imperial person. He at once ordered that offending hand to be chopped off, and would have proceeded even to take the innocent lad's life, if the officer in charge of the stables had not interfered and obtained for him a fortunate reprieve.

Death of Valentinian. Such was the life of this hard, laborious, cruel Emperor, and his death corresponded with his life. The Quadi, a tribe of barbarians, possibly of Sclavonic origin,​11 aggrieved at the erection of a Roman fortress on their side of the Danube, had burst into the Empire, and cruelly ravaged the province of Pannonia, Valentinian's own native land. In the following year (A.D. 375) the Emperor  p37 marched against them with a powerful host, and the Quadi, desirous to deprecate his wrath, sent a humble embassy to meet him at the town of Bregetio, on the Danube, about one hundred miles below Vienna. The contrast was a striking one between the Emperor of the Romans,​12 tall, erect, with limbs of admirable symmetry, with steel cuirass, and helmet adorned with gold and gems, a stern gleam in his blue-gray eyes, but 'looking every inch an emperor,' and over against him the squalid forms of the ambassadors of the Quadi, with their breastplates of horn sewn upon linen jackets, so that the pieces overlapped one another like the feathers of a bird, shrinking, bending, seeking by every motion of their bodies to appease the anger of the terrible Augustus. 'They had not intended to declare war against the empire. No assembly of the chiefs had been convened. Nothing had been done by the regular council of the nation. A few robber-hordes close to the river had done deeds which they regretted, and for which they must not be held responsible. But indeed that fortress should not have been built upon their territory, and it stirred the clownish hearts of their people to frenzy to behold it.' At the mention of the fortress the Emperor struck in with terrible voice, upbraiding the barbarians with ingratitude for all the benefits of Rome. They continued to endeavour to soothe him. His voice faltered, but not from softened  p38 feeling. His attendants saw that he was about to fall, wrapped his purple about him, and bore him to an inner room, that the barbarians might not look upon the weakness of an Emperor. In the full torrent of his rage he had been seized with some sudden malady, probably apoplexy,​13 and after a terrible struggle with death the strong tempestuous-souled man died, apparently before nightfall. He had lived fifty-four years, and reigned twelve.

Fresh division of the Empire. At the time of the death of Valentinian his eldest son, Gratian, was sixteen years of age. By a second wife, Justina, the deceased Emperor had left a boy named after him (Valentinian II), who was now four years old, and who was raised to the throne, his mother governing as regent. In the division of the Empire, Gratian had 'the Gauls,' that is, Britain, France and the Netherlands, and Spain. Justina and her son took Italy, Illyricum, and Africa. Valens, as before, held 'the East,' that is, the countries of Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor, with the eastern half of European Turkey. Thus the result of the principle of association, as practised by Valentinian, had been to hand over the Roman world to the sovereignty of a boy, a woman, and a man whose abilities were below mediocrity. It is no marvel that the outcome was disastrous.

Character of Valens. Both physically and mentally Valens was a man  p39 of meaner mould than the brother upon whom during his life he constantly leaned for support. He had one virtue as a ruler, frugality, and he was thereby enabled considerably to lighten the burden of taxation, but he did not, according to the stereotyped official phrase 'combine economy with efficiency.' Unlike his brother, who was a staunch upholder of religious toleration, Valens was a fanatical and persecuting Arian. His acts of oppression have no doubt been somewhat magnified by the party which in the end successfully asserted its right to the name of Orthodox, but there can be no doubt that the whole influence of the East Court was thrown, with bitter violence, upon the side of those who rejected the Nicene Creed. It is most important to remember that thus, during the whole of the period of forty-one years which elapsed between the accession of Constantius and the death of Valens (337‑378), except the short interval caused by the reigns of Julian and Jovian, Arianism was the state-religion of all the Eastern provinces of the Empire.

In person, Valens was of moderate stature, with crooked legs and somewhat protruding stomach, swarthy visage, and something like a squint, which was not, however, observable at a distance. He was passionate, suspicious, covetous, with neither courage nor skill in war, and it is easy to see that he was continually haunted with a feeling of his own unfitness for the exalted position  p40 in which Fortune had placed him, and with the thought that his subjects were commenting upon that unfitness.

His share in the persecution of those who practised unlawful arts was even larger than that of his brother in the West. This persecution raged furiously in the province of Asia and its capital Ephesus, where 'those which used curious arts' were compelled to 'bring their books together' by an influence very different from the persuasive teaching of the Apostle Paul, at the bidding of a fierce proconsul named Festus, Zosimus IV.15 who slew and banished relentlessly those suspected of such dark practisings with the infernal powers. There is reason to fear that not only there, but over the whole Roman world, many books which would now be of priceless value, as illustrating the philosophy and theology of the classical nations, perished at this time. The story of the origin of this particular spasm of superstitious anger illustrates the jealous and timid nature of Valens, and at the same time unexpectedly brings us face to face with the practices of modern Spiritualism.

Zosimus IV.13 Theodorus and the Fortune-tellers. 'A young man named Theodorus (at Antioch), one of the Imperial notaries, well born and bred, fell into the hands of flatterers, who perverted his honest nature, and persuaded him to consult with that class of persons who say they have the power of divining future events. The enquiry being put, who should be the next emperor after Valens,  p41 they placed a tripod in the midst, which in some mysterious manner was to indicate the reply.' XXIX.1 Ammianus explains more minutely that the tripod, made of laurel-wood, consecrated with mystical incantations, and perfumed with Arabian spices, was set in the middle of the house, having upon it a round dish, on the rim of which were inscribed the twenty-four letters of the alphabet. Thereupon entered a person clad in linen, and with linen socks upon his feet, who shook to and fro a curtain to which a ring was hung with a very fine thread. As the curtain fell the ring touched successively letter after letter, and thus for ordinary inquirers composed prophetic verses in heroic measure. But in this case 'the letters indicated upon the tripod were first Θ, then Ε, then Ο, then Δ' (Theod-), which were at once accepted by the bystanders as an assurance that Theodorus should be the successor of Valens. Instead of this, however, an information was laid against him, and the jealous Emperor caused him to be put to death, and not him only, but, Socrates Scholasticus IV.19 according to one authority, many other innocent men whose names began with the dreaded letters, such as Theodorus, Theodotus, Theodosius, Theodulus, and so forth. And from this cause proceeded that impetuous onslaught on all the professors of divination at Ephesus which has just been described.

After all, however, the disastrous end of the reign and life of Valens came neither from domestic conspiracy nor from Persian conquest, from  p42 which quarter he seems to have apprehended most danger to his Empire. It came from battle with the Goths, to whose history we now turn, gladly escaping from the close air of suspicious and blood-stained courts to the vast plains of central Europe, in which for centuries had wandered that great Gothic tribe which was to send forth two conquerors of Italy, and to found one European state which exists till the present day.

The Author's Notes:

1 Ammianus is not quite consistent with himself as to the fiscal administration of Valentinian, 'In provinciales admodum parcus, tributorum ubique molliens sarcinas' (XXX.9.1) seems high praise, but is not easily reconciled with 'Aviditas plus habendi sine honesti pravique differentiâ, et indagandi questus varios per alienae vitae naufragia exundavit in hoc principe flagrantius adulescens' (XXX.8.8).

2 Concordia auggg[ustorum]' the number of final g's corresponding to that of the harmonious emperors.

3 May not the morbid condition of the public mind in England under the Stuarts with reference to witches be similarly referred to the then recent controversies of the Reformation?

4 Ammianus XXVIII.1.

5 This Festinus came from Trient (in the Tyrol). Maximin, another and yet more cruel prefect under Valentinian, was born in the diocese of Valeria (south of Buda on the right bank of the Danube). Simplicius, one of his successors, was originally a schoolmaster at Aemona (Laybach).º One perceives a tendency on the part of these Illyrian Emperors to employ functionaries from the Northern side of the Alps.

6 Ammianus XXIX.2.22‑28.

7 Ammianus XXIX.3.9.

8 A conjectural translation of Mica Aurea.

Thayer's Note: Properly, "Golden Crumb". I've known at least one Italian dog named Crumb (Briciolo), and I'm told it's not an uncommon name. Hodgkin's translation seems on target to me.

9 It must be admitted that in the pages of any writer less trustworthy or more distant in time than Ammianus, this story about the bears would be properly rejected as quite incredible. Had Ammianus been a younger man one might have supposed that he had taken too literally some half-jesting gossip of the camp about the severity of the Emperor. But with an old soldier this explanation seems untenable. It is true that Lactantius (De Mortibus Persecutorum, cap. XXI) tells, with even more circumstantial details, a similar story concerning Galerius, but Valentinian's profession of Christianity, however little it availed to ensure holiness of life, might at least have been expected to make such an open outrage upon humanity impossible. Ammianus's rather turgid sentence ('Innocentiam denique post multas, quas ejus laniatu cadaverum viderat sepulturas . . . dimisit') may perhaps mean that the dead bodies [of criminals already executed in due course of law] were thrown to the bear for food. But I do not pretend to be able to explain, to believe, or to reject this strange story.

10 Ammianus XXIX.3.

11 They are generally mentioned in conjunction with Sarmatae, to whom they were 'similar in manners and mode of warfare.'

12 Ammianus XXX.9.6; XXIX.3.4; XXVII.10.11; XVII.12.2.

13 Ammianus's description seems to waver between apoplexy and hemorrhage from the lungs.

Thayer's Notes:

a The suggestion seems to be that Jovian might have been poisoned: say, carbon monoxide poisoning from an ill-regulated fire. The fresh plaster could have been that of a window — in those days and climes, a plain opening in the wall, we mustn't think of glass or even shutters (reminding me of places in rural Africa I've lived in or visited) — plastered over to make sure the room would stay unventilated. I find online a tantalizing if inconclusive conjunction of stove malfunction and fresh plaster, in The People of the State of New York v. Jackie Owens, Jr. (Records and Briefs New York State Appellate Division, pp. S14‑S15).

b Soft Kitty, Warm Kitty. Well, probably not, but it's insane what the Romans felt to be magic when they got going; tooth powder, for example.

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