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  • Death of Roman Emperor Valentinian II, May 15, 392.

    Beatriz Camino

    Death of Roman Emperor Valentinian II, May 15, 392.

    Valentinian II, born Valentinianus in 371, reigned as a Roman emperor in the Western Empire from 375 until his death in 392. Raised to power at the age of 4, his reign was marked by political turmoil and religious debates, culminating in his mysterious death.

    Early Life

    Valentinian, born in 371, was the son of Emperor Valentinian I and his second wife Justina. His half-brother, Gratian, had been sharing imperial authority with their father since 367. Following Valentinian I’s death on campaign in Pannonia in 375, the army commanders, including Merobaudes, Petronius Probus and Cerealis (Valentinian II’s maternal uncle and Justina’s brother), did not consider naming Gratian as his father’s successor. Instead, they proclaimed the four-year-old Valentinian Augustus on 22 November 375 at Aquincum, bypassing consultation with Gratian or Valens, the emperor of the East. This decision may have stemmed from concerns about Gratian’s military capabilities and a desire to prevent other ambitious military commanders like Sebastianus and Count Theodosius from seizing power.


    Gratian, though initially reluctant, had to accommodate the generals supporting his half-brother Valentinian II. He 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, he essentially controlled the entire Western empire, while Valentinian’s authority was nominal. In 378, their uncle, Emperor Valens, was killed in battle at Adrianople, and Gratian invited the general Theodosius to be emperor in the East.

    In 383, Magnus Maximus, the commander of Britain’s armies, declared himself Emperor and seized control of Gaul and Hispania. Soon afterwards, Gratian was killed while attempting to flee from him. Following this event, Valentinian rose to prominence alongside his court in Milan. During this period, through the mediation of the Nicene bishop of Milan, Ambrose, he brokered an arrangement with Maximus, leading Theodosius to acknowledge Maximus as co-emperor of the West.

    Valentinian then endeavoured to halt the pillaging of pagan sanctuaries in Rome. This directive emboldened pagan senators, led by Aurelius Symmachus, to petition for the restoration of the Altar of Victory in the Senate House in 384, removed by Gratian in 382. The emperor refused this request, thereby rejecting the pagan traditions.

    In 385, Ambrose defied an imperial request to surrender the Portian basilica for Easter celebrations, provoking the ire of Justina, Valentinian, and other Arians in the court. When the bishop was summoned to the Imperial palace for punishment, a riot erupted among the orthodox populace, leading to a confrontation where Ambrose barricaded himself within the basilica. Later, Magnus Maximus wrote a condemning letter accusing Valentinian of plotting against God.

    From 386 to 387, Maximus advanced into the Po valley, forcing Valentinian and Justina to seek refuge with Theodosius in Thessalonica. Through diplomatic measures, including Theodosius’ marriage to Valentinian’s sister Galla, an agreement was reached to reinstate the young emperor. In 388, Theodosius marched westward and triumphed over Maximus, restoring Valentinian’s authority.

    Following Maximus’s defeat, Valentinian relocated with his court to Vienne in Gaul, while Theodosius remained in Milan until 391, appointing his allies to key positions in the Western provinces. Valentinian continued to be depicted alongside Theodosius’ son Arcadius on Eastern coinage, suggesting a symbolic partnership, although modern scholars speculate that Theodosius harboured no intention of Valentinian assuming true power, favouring his own sons for succession.

    Upon Theodosius’ departure to the East, his trusted general, the Frank Arbogast, became magister militum for the Western provinces, excluding Africa, and Valentinian’s guardian. While Arbogast achieved military successes on the Rhine, the emperor remained confined at Vienne. Frustrated by his subordinate role, he appealed to Theodosius and Ambrose, expressing his grievances and seeking baptism from Ambrose in an explicit rejection of his former Arian beliefs. Tensions escalated when Arbogast barred Valentinian from leading Gallic armies into Italy to counter a barbarian threat. In response, the emperor formally dismissed Arbogast, only to have his authority openly challenged as he publicly tore up the decree, arguing that Valentinian lacked the authority to appoint him in the first place.


    On May 15, 392, Valentinian was discovered hanged in his residence in Vienne. Arbogast asserted that the emperor’s death was a result of suicide, though opinions among ancient sources are divided, with some suggesting his involvement in the emperor’s death. His body was ceremoniously transported to Milan for burial and was interred in a porphyry sarcophagus, likely alongside Gratian, in the Chapel of Sant'Aquilino attached to San Lorenzo. Posthumously, he was deified with the consecration Divae Memoriae Valentinianus, signifying “Valentinian of Divine Memory”.

    Initially, Arbogast acknowledged Theodosius’ son Arcadius as emperor in the West, seemingly caught off guard by Valentinian’s death. However, after three months of no communication from Theodosius, he designated an imperial official, Eugenius, as emperor. Theodosius initially tolerated this regime but eventually installed the eight-year-old Honorius as Augustus in January 393, sparking a civil war. The conflict culminated in Theodosius’ victory over Eugenius and Arbogast at the Battle of the Frigidus in 394.

    Valentinian’s reign epitomised the era where emperors often served as mere figureheads, manipulated by various influential factions such as their mothers, co-emperors, and powerful generals. His rule underscored the challenges of balancing hereditary succession with the dominance of military figures, a predicament that persisted into the fifth century, where child emperors or figureheads were controlled by generals and officials in both the Western and Eastern empires.


    WESTERN ROMAN EMPIRE, Valentinian II (375-392 AD), Gold Solidus, graded MS by NGCValentinian II. 375-392 AD. Thessaloniki. AR Solidus Roman Empire Valentinian II AV Solidus (Mediolanum, AD 380-382)

    VALENTINIAN II 375-392 AR SILIQUAVALENTINIAN II. AD 375-392 , Aquileia mint - RIC IX 32c. RareValentinian II AE2 GLORIA ROMANORVM Emperor on Ship Nicomedia RIC 25b Rare


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