May 15, 2016, by Will Leveritt

On this day in AD392 the Roman emperor Valentinian II was found dead in Vienna

Text by Juliet O’Brien

Valentinian II was born to Valentinian I, the western Roman emperor (r. 364-375), and his second wife Justina in 371. His birth name was Flavius Valentinianus. The elder Valentinian died in late 375 during a campaign in Pannonia against the Quadi.


Despite being the younger son (Valentinian I had an elder son, Gratian, by his first wife) Valentinian II was proclaimed emperor by his father’s generals on 22 November, 375. He was just four years old at the time.

As Valentinian’s eldest son, Gratian should have succeeded him as ruler of the western half of the empire and had already been junior emperor under his father. The generals had elevated Valentinian II without sending word either to Gratian or Valentinian’s uncle, Valens (the eastern emperor).

Gratian was obliged to come to terms with the general’s decision and divided the western empire in two. Gratian ruled the westernmost portion (Britain, Gaul, and Spain) whilst Valentinian II, as junior emperor to his brother, was given Africa, part of Illyricum (i.e. the Balkans), and Italy. Valentinian ruled from Milan with his mother Justina acting as regent.

Later, after the death of their uncle Valens in 378 at the Battle of Adrianople, the two brothers briefly took over the whole empire but the next year Theodosius, the general Gratian had sent to rule the east on their behalf was made the legitimate eastern emperor. Gratian and Valentinian once again took the west.

In 383, the governor of Britain, Magnus Maximus launched a rebellion. He defeated Gratian in battle and sent men to hunt him down. Gratian was murdered in August 383. Maximus then negotiated a settlement with Valentinian II and Theodosius, with Ambrose, the Catholic bishop of Milan acting as mediator. The Western empire was split between Valentinian and Maximus.

However within four years Maximus was dissatisfied with his sphere of rule. He attempted to take over all the Western empire, crossing into the Po valley in northern Italy and forcing Valentinian and Justina to flee to Thessalonica and seek aid from Theodosius.

There Theodosius granted them protection, marrying Valentinian’s sister Galla and raising an army to oppose Maximus. This army marched west and after defeat at the Battle of the Save Maximus was forced to withdraw to Aquileia, where his followers betrayed him and handed him over to Theodosius.

Maximus was executed and Valentinian took control of the whole Western Empire. However, by defeating Maximus, Theodosius had in effect placed himself above Valentinian, who was still only 17 and was the de facto ruler of the whole empire. He appointed many western officials, and installed his trusted ally, Arbogast as Valentinian’s right-hand man.

Valentinian, now ruling from Vienna in Gaul, grew increasingly frustrated at the influence of Arbogast who placed a number of his supporters in Valentian’s court, inhibiting his freedom of action. Consequently in a public clash Valentinian sacked Arbogast but his notice was disdainfully thrown to the ground. Valentinian later had to be restrained from drawing a sword against the Arbogast.

A few days later Valentinian was found hanged in his residence. Some sources say it was suicide, others that Arbogast had ordered his murder. He was just 21 years old. Subsequently, Theodosius took control of the whole Roman Empire and established his own dynasty.

Image kindly courtesy Heinz-Joachim Krenzer; public domain, wikimedia commons. 
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