Valens – Emperor Against the World Part 2

A prophecy: Emperor Valens would burn


As mentioned in part 1, though Emperor Valens ruled the eastern Roman Empire, his strangeness led to a paranoia that the world was against him. He had more in common with his enemies the Goths (especially the shared Arian religion) than with his own people. As a result, many Catholics predicted that he would burn.

What led to the burning?

Valens made two mistakes.

Actually, they are one—underestimating.

Planning to recruit Goths into the army, Valens allowed the Tervingi clan (one of the two largest Gothic peoples) to immigrate. Though sources differ on exactly how many Goths crossed the Danube to live in the empire, they all agree that Rome was not prepared. Some guesses are as high as a hundred thousand people. Valens must have underestimated their number, for the empire could not provide to feed them all, let alone give them land. The Goths were placed in what we would now call concentration camps, holding areas where they were cheated and abused. The price of meat? They could purchase a dog carcass by selling a child into slavery.

Perhaps, had Valens prepared for their arrival, the Goths would have served as faithful soldiers of Rome instead of a nation-turned-bandit. (This view is supported by the later treaty made by Emperor Theodosius, in which the Goths were to be provided food and land in exchange for paying taxes and service in the army. In addition, after his time many of the Goths did actually make their livelihood as soldiers of Rome.)

Due to this “misunderstanding,” the Goths became enemies of Rome within the empire. No longer fighting on the border, they raided the countryside and defeated all the armies sent against them. Valens requested help from his nephew Gratian, emperor in the west. (Remember, the Roman empire had two halves, each with an emperor at this time.)

Knowing that the world—most of all, the Roman world—was against him, Valens set out to prove himself against the Goths. It is not clear if he engaged the combined Goths at Adrianople because they were all together and thus could be wiped out at one time, or if he changed his mind about waiting for Emperor Gratians’s army, thinking that he would receive all the glory if he fought alone, but none if his nephew joined him.

Estimates of his forces are 20,000-25,000, plenty to fight the 10,000 Goths his scouts reported. But after a breakfast-less march to Adrianople, the insufferable August heat began to take its toll on the Roman soldiers. They waited as the Goths sought to avoid battle by sending a priest to make a treaty. But Valens’ restless forces began skirmishing with the enemy before he had fully deployed them. Then the Goth’s mounted allies arrived, doubling their force as they smashed into the Roman flank.

In one of the worst defeats ever, the Romans were surrounded by the Goths and cut down, packed together so that they could not even move their swords. Valens was wounded.

Two stories of his death exist. The first is that he died in the battle, but was never identified. The second is that he was taken to a nearby farmhouse, which was burned by the Goths, who only later learned that their enemy leader was inside. Perhaps the prophecy was right, that Valens the heretic would be burned.

Or perhaps we learn that no man, not even an emperor of Rome, can survive when the world is turned against him.


Read “Alaric, Child of the Goths” for more on this unlucky emperor and his part in the fall of Rome

Alaric cover pic

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.

– Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum John C. Rolfe, Ph.D., Litt.D., Ed.


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