Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous chapter]
Book I
Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a section 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!


[image ALT: link to next chapter]
Book I
Chapter 12

Book 1 (continued)

Vol. I
Note F

On the Death of Valentinian II

While agreeing with the general verdict of historians that the death of Valentinian II was probably a murder, I do not think that the hypothesis of suicide is altogether excluded by the evidence.

1. Our best witness is Epiphanius (Bishop of Salamis, died 403), who in his treatise 'On Weights and Measures' says: 'Forty‑six years are numbered from the death of Constantine to the consul­ship of Arcadius (for the second time) and Rufinus, under whom died Valentinian the younger, son of the great Valentinian, being found suddenly suffocated in the palace — so it is said​1 on the Ides [15th] of May, a day before Pentecost, on the Sabbath‑day; and on the very day of Pentecost he was carried forth, seventeen days before the Kalends of June [16th May].' This fixes the date accurately, and is an absolutely contemporary notice of the event, though not penned by one who was near to the scene of Valentinian's death.

2. Orosius, who wrote in Spain, in the year 418, says: 'Valentinian the younger, being restored to his kingdom, passed over into Gaul, where, while he was living in peace, the commonwealth being tranquil, he was (as they say) strangled by the craft of his Count, Arbogast, and hung by a rope that he might be thought to have contrived his own death.'

3. St. Augustine, in his De Civitate Dei (V.26), written between 413 and 426, uses this very guarded phrase: 'Valentinian having soon after perished, whether by treachery or in some other way or chance' ('eoque sive per insidias, sive quo alio pacto vel casu proxime exstincto').

4. Prosper, who lived in the south of Gaul, and is therefore a better witness than some others, and who probably wrote this  p591 part of his chronicle about 433, says: 'Valentinian being driven to weariness of life by the too great severity of Arbogast, the master of the soldiery, perished by a rope at Vienne.' ('Val. ad vitae fastidium nimia Arbogastis magistri militum austeritate perductus laqueo apud Viennam periit.') As if to emphasis his belief in the innocence of Arbogast, Prosper continues: 'Arbogastes . . . mortuo Valentiniano, cujus exitu gravabatur, Eugenium in Galliis imperare facit.' But one of the MSS. reads 'exercitu,' which, if intelligible at all, puts a different meaning into the sentence.

These are our best contemporary witnesses, and they show that the death of the young Emperor was apparently wrought by his own hands, and that there were some who continued to believe that it had really been so wrought; but that, considering the character and relations of the actors in the tragedy, murder instigated by Arbogast was the more generally accepted hypothesis. Other historians have added some details which are inconsistent with the notice in Epiphanius, and which I think we may pronounce to be certainly false.

Thus Philostorgius (writing probably about 430, but known to us only through the abstract of Photius) says that 'one day at Vienne after dinner, Arbogast, seeing Valentinian with some low buffoons lying down and dipping his lips into the river, sent some of his attendants to attack him. These laid violent hands upon him, and savagely strangled him in the absence of his servants, who had gone to take their dinner. To avoid enquiry for the authors of the deed they tied his handkerchief like a noose around his neck and hung him up with it to a tree that he might seem to have voluntarily hung himself.'

Zosimus (writing perhaps about a generation later than Philostorgius) says that 'Arbogast fell upon Valentinian while he was engaged in games outside the walls of Vienne with certain of the soldiers, and not suspecting any such design, and striking him a fatal blow, thus destroyed him.' Neither of these accounts fits with the absolutely contemporary testimony of Epiphanius, 'he was suddenly suffocated in the palace.'

Of the two great ecclesiastical historians, Socrates (circa 440) says unhesitatingly that Arbogast and Eugenius 'agreed to murder the Emperor Valentinian, and having corrupted the eunuchs of the Imperial bed‑chamber by the most tempting  p592 promises of promotion, induced them to strangle the Emperor in his sleep.' On the other hand, his contemporary and rival, Sozomen, says​a that some relate that he was put to death by the eunuchs at the solicitation of Arbogast and an opposition party of courtiers, and others that he wrought the fatal deed with his own hands because he was hindered by those about him from obeying the impetuous passions of youth and acting according to his own caprice.

Thus it is clear that the opinions of men were long divided as to the real nature of the tragedy at Vienne. If we enquire as to the circumstantial evidence, we shall find that also to be in a wavering balance, though on the whole the scale of murder preponderates. Arbogast had much to fear from the prolongation of his master's life, and something to hope from his death. Valentinian appears to have feared danger to his life, and to have besought for this reason the intervention first of Theodosius and then of Ambrose. He had also, with the religious notions of the age, great reason for desiring not to die unbaptized.

On the other hand, Arbogast does not appear to have had his plans in readiness for the decease of Valentinian, since an interval of three months elapses before the elevation of Eugenius to the throne. The ungovernable rages of Valentinian the father seem to point to the existence of a strain of madness in his nature which may have been transmitted to his son; the feverish anxiety for the arrival of Ambrose, long before it was possible for the Silentiarius to have reached Milan, looks like a disordered intellect, and according to the story of Philostorgius, Valentinian did talk about suicide when he was prevented by his attendants from rushing upon Arbogast. Also, as Arbogast's was eventually the unsuccessful cause, and Valentinian's niece ruled the empire for a generation, we are likely to hear that version of the story which is most unfavourable to the general and most favourable to the Emperor.

It may excite surprise that in my enumeration of authorities I have not included the great sermon of Ambrose, 'De Obitu Valentiniani.' Having read this sermon carefully through with an especial view to the solution of this question, I cannot extract from it any decided utterance on either side. Much of what the Bishop says would have been suitable to a natural but premature  p593 death. There are certainly two or three expressions which harmonise with the theory of murder, but they are almost always balanced by a sentence which suggests the thought of suicide. Upon the whole the sermon leaves upon my mind the impression that Ambrose was in the same state of suspended judgment which Sozomen describes, suspecting, but not fully convinced, that his young disciple had fallen by the hands of assassins.

The Author's Note:

1 Εὑρεθεὶς ἄφνω ἐν τῶν παλατίῳ πεπνιγημένος (ὡς λόγος).

Thayer's Note:

a VII.22. Greek English

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 12 Aug 20