Barbarians in the north. Persians in the east. Catholics within. With enemies everywhere, it was no surprise to find a paranoid emperor.
Valens, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire from 364—378, was far from the specimen of nobility you would expect. When you think of a Roman emperor, you might picture a man with arms upheld in victory, leading a procession of soldiers and slaves through the city of Rome. Or perhaps you picture Commodus from “Gladiator,” a naïve youth whose desire to help the commoners is clouded by his fascination with his sister. But you do not picture a man with a squint—squints are for Popeye. Or a man with bowed legs—those are for cowboys. Yet, Valens (CAESAR·FLAVIVS·IVLIVS·VALENS·AVGVSTVS) was just that. Not even his paranoia could save him.
Although Valens gets a bad rap because of his eventual end, he was a powerful leader. Facing both the Persian nation on the eastern front and the Goths who raided in the north, he did not fear to face them. He led his army north of the Danube River (the northern border) to force the Goths to make peace. Did you hear that? He led them. Like Julius Caesar. He forced peace by defeating his long time enemy Athanaric, the closest thing to a king of the Goths .
But as an emperor could never spend too long on one front, he campaigned against the Persians and defeated them (for the time). But while there, he learned of an assassination attempt on him. According to certain pagans using the magical arts, the name of his successor began with THEOD, a common enough prefix. In an attempt to keep his power, he put to death many with that name. Gillian Bradshaw describes this well in the beginning of her “Beacon at Alexandria.” (Interestingly, Theodosius was the emperor who replaced him. Perhaps the paranoid have a better grasp of reality than we credit them.)
Then an event changed everything in the western world: the arrival of the Huns. Though little is known of these people, their armies rode their ponies through barbarian tribes of the north, wreaking havoc with their composite bows, an eastern weapon never before encountered. The Huns also used lassos for up close fighting, an immensely intimidating weapon as they could yank their enemy down by the neck and drag them. The Goths attempted to hold their own, but were forced to flee… into the Roman empire.
The Goths came… by the thousands. Roman officials had to stop keeping record! Valens had to sue for a peace treaty with the Persians, which apparently was not in favor of the Romans.
Many of the Goths received permission to enter the empire for safety. (Interestingly, Athanaric did not, but would come to live in the empire under the next emperor.)
Why did Valens allow his enemy to enter the empire? He planned to use the Goths against the Persians, as had been done before. It was common for barbarians to fight alongside and even in the Roman legions. And Valens could charge them taxes, to lessen the load on his citizens. (Valens was one of the few leaders ever to actually lower taxes—by 25%!)
The problem for Valens came when not only Athanaric’s Goths (called the Tervingi) came to cross. But another nation of Goths, the Greuthungi, made the plunge into the empire.
Could the empire hold them all?
Next week—the Gothic emigration
Read “Alaric, Child of the Goths” for more on this unlucky emperor and his part in the fall of Rome.
For more information, here are two amazing resources on the Goths and fall of Rome:
– A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology William Smith, Ed. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0104