“You beastly barbarians. I am going to tell mummy.”
“I am your brother-in-law but I can't put it any simpler. You're a brick.”
It's not to hard to feel a little bit sorry for Roman Emperor Valentinian II (371-392). A kid-emperor from the age of 5 and the subject of a brutal education row between his mother and a bishop about what type of Christian he ought to be (a wimpish one as it turned out). Valentinian wasn't really imperial gold, more like a highly polished Roman penny whistle.
Valentinian was born in 371. His father was emperor Valentinian I. There wasn't much time for bonding with junior as old Val as he was dead four years later, the result of overstressing his ticker after an argument about a seating plan with a delegation of hairy trousered Germans. Valentinian's elder half brother Gratian then became emperor in the Western Roman Empire but barely a few weeks later, he received a vote of no confidence from some of the legions who then dragged young Valentinian out his play pen and proclaimed him co-emperor.
This would normally be the cue for some serious blood letting but a peace was brokered and instead the brothers sub divided their half of the Roman empire (an uncle Valens controlled the Eastern half of the empire and had stayed out the struggle). Valentinian II was emperor of Italy, North Africa and boring bit of the Balkans. Since Valentinian was still an irritating child with a runny nose, his mother Justina ruled in his name. Young Valentinian was allowed to play with his three sisters dolls a bit more. To say Valentinian lacked a natural father figure was obvious so what he needed was another man in a dress:St.Ambrose of Milan - aka 'Dug Knuckles' offered his services.
Tussle and Strife
Ambrose, Bishop of Milan had already worked on Gratian to become a good Catholic emperor, now turned to 'Kid Val'. Justina however had brought her boy up as a good Arian Christian. Catholics and Arians hated each other, convinced neither had a friend in Jesus. Since Justina was the de facto ruler in Milan, she tried to have Ambrose defrocked as a imperial kiddy fiddler but other matters came into play. Gratian was dead and now a usurper Magnus Maximus was in control of Britain, Gaul and Spain.
Gratian's sudden end (deserted and murdered, usual fate for a Roman loser) in the hands of Magnus's men left Valentinian as the only male left in his family. Maximus hoped to reduce that further and claimed Valentinian was 'a rotten Arian' and vowed to burn the boy and his mother if he got to Milan. Justina persuaded Ambrose to go north and parley with Maximus and also sent a message to emperor Theodosius the Great for some urgent assistance. Meantime she posted more troops along the Alpine passes to prevent Maximus breaking through.
The meeting between Maximus and Ambrose went well. The soldier said he was a Good Catholic and offered to show proof of his devotion by executing Bishop Priscillian of Avila as a heretic. Priscillian wasn't an Arian but a hair shirt ascetic with radical ideas about the priesthood (celibate equality for men and women) and that virginity started at 40. The latter idea suggested that it was ok to sow wild oats before and Priscillian was accused of being an orgy organiser. Priscillian's doctrines were already condemned by his religious colleagues, Maximus just made the condemnation more permanent. Ambrose complained about state interference but saw the logic in Maximus's actions.
Making a Run for It
Empress Justina's response was naturally different. If the Catholics could do this to each other, what mercy could her Arians expect? She persuaded her son to issue an edict giving equality to Arians and tried to replace Ambrose as Bishop of Milan. Ambrose barricaded himself inside his church. Maximus heard the news and this time declared war on the Arian emperor and his mother by invading Italy in 387.
Justina had shrewdly made a provision for getting away from Italy if her ideas went 'tits up' and fled with her son and daughters to emperor Theodosius. He welcomed the refugees and agreed to help them if he could marry Valentinian's sister Galla. Theodosius's wife had died recently, leaving him with two future Roman emperors - the unimpressive Arcadius and the certifiable Honorius - as the crab apples of his imperial loins. Justina agreed to the match and delivered Galla to Theodosius's bedroom. The couple went on to to have one surviving daughter, Galla Placidia.
Theodosius marched west and with a short campaign, captured and executed Maximus. At around the same time Justina 'died', a happy coincidence for Theodosius. He also brought along Honorius (aged 5) and, somewhere at the back, Valentinian. Ambrose welcomed the returnees and whipped out any lingering Arianism from Valentinian. Even Theodosius was scared of this Onward Christian soldier.
Arbogast the Frank
For the next few years Valentinian to let his brother-in-law run his half of the empire. What Valentinian did with his spare time isn't recorded and nor did him see much inclined to marry either. Growing up in a palace with a dominating mother, a brutal bishop and a staff of eunuchs had damaged Valentinian's self confidence.
In 391, Theodosius returned East and left Valentinian 'in control'. Considering he had already paraded Honorius about with the evident intention of making his son emperor in the west one day, Valentinian was living on borrowed time. This is perhaps more obvious with the man Theodosius left to run the West in his absence, - 'Arbogast the Frank'. Since Arbogast was born outside the Roman empire, he was - like any foreigner wanting to become President of the United States - judged legally ineligible for the top post.
To get away from Ambrose, Valentinian moved the imperial court to Vienne in Gaul. It was an unwise decision and within months Arbogast indicated his contempt for his nominal boss by cracking rude jokes about Valentinian in his presence. As a Frank (i.e. a proto Frenchman), Arbogast was convinced of his own superiority and ridiculed Valentinian as a 'Milanese milkshake' without even any nominal military experience. This incessant bullying had a bad effect on Valentinian, a constant stream of letters to Theodosius came back with the reply 'Be a Man Val or Die a Slave'.
The constant humiliation for Valentinian ended in May 392 when it was reported (by Arbogast) that the emperor was dead. The official story was that he had been rehanging his bedroom curtains when something wrong had happened and Valentinian had hung himself by mistake or on purpose. Arbogast said it didn't matter and had found a replacement, a pagan relic called Eugenius. Theodosius was more put out by the timing than the deed (see above as regards Honorius) but Valentinian's spunkier sister Galla demanded retaliation.
As for Valentinian, he was buried and quickly forgotten. Perhaps he should have stayed in Milan.
Theodosius the Great