Who was Emperor Valens and what did he do?

Emperor Valens wielded the sceptre of power with a blend of administrative acumen and concern for his people, yet was shackled by the chains of his own shortcomings and military inadequacy. His reign, marred by an ignominious demise in the throes of a catastrophic defeat, resonates with a haunting gravity. Behold the saga of Flavius Valens, emperor of Rome.

History Rulers
13 May 2023

Thrust into the imperial spotlight by his brother’s ambitions, the enigmatic Flavius Valens found himself navigating an empire fraught with political unrest and external threats. Driven by a relentless desire and desperation for legitimacy, he unwittingly steered the Roman Empire towards a calamitous turning point that would echo through the ages.

In 364 AD, brothers Valentinian I and Valens became co-emperors, the former in the west and the latter in the east. Despite managing to maintain stability and control over both halves of the empire in the face of ongoing invasions from barbarian marauders, the Roman Empire was on a path of slow, painful decline. Nothing demonstrated this fact more than Emperor Valens’ abject humiliation at the Battle of Adrianople, one of the most embarrassing and disastrous military defeats in Roman history.

This is the story of Flavius Valens and we’ll answer the question that has perplexed historians for centuries: how did Valens die?

The Early Years of Flavius Valens

Valens, brother of Valentinian (Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Flavius Valens was born in the modern-day Croatian town of Vinkovci in 328 AD. His brother Valentinian was born seven years earlier.

Their father, called Gratianus, was an officer in the Roman army. Very little is known about their early life and upbringing but it’s believed both brothers joined the army. Valens, like his brother, served in the protectores domestici, an elite corps of bodyguards responsible for the personal protection of emperors Julian and Jovian. When the latter died in 364, Valentinian was pronounced emperor.

Realising that the empire was too big and complex for one man to rule effectively, he was quick to appoint his brother Valens as co-emperor. Valentinian, perhaps wary of his brother’s limitations, chose to rule the less prosperous and more politically unstable west. with Flavius Valens ruling over the east.

The Early Challenges of Flavius Valens

Aqueduct of the Emperor Valens (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The first challenge Emperor Valens faced was familial, after marrying Domnica. Her father, Petronius, was hated in the east for his avarice and cruelty. This led to a revolt against Valens by a retired soldier named Procopius who usurped the throne and was emperor for eight months.

It was said that Valens’ first reaction was to consider abdication or even suicide, but better heads prevailed and he dispatched an army to Constantinople to see off the threat. Eight months later, Procopius and his forces were eventually defeated in the Battle of Thyatira and at Nacoleia, after his own commanders deserted him. Procopius was executed in May 366 AD.

The next challenge for Valens, emperor of Rome, was to face down the Gothic king Ermanaric, who had promised troops for Procopius during the conflict. The Gothic ruler pillaged farms and vineyards across Thrace, parts of modern-day Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, but surrounded by the Roman army of Flavius Valens, they surrendered.

The war against the Goths continued over the next two years. After repeated attacks, the Romans were eventually victorious and a peace treaty was declared.

The Later Reign of Emperor Valens

Sassanid Period, 5thC BC. Believed to be Shapur II (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images)

Although facts are scarce, it’s believed that in or around 371 or 372 AD, Valens suppressed a conspiracy to depose him by a notary named Theodorus. The conspirators were convicted of treason and executed in Antioch in southern Turkey.

A year or so later, there was a brief period of tension between the Romans and the Persians. Valens had attempted to strengthen Roman control over Armenia, but this put him at odds with the Sassanid Persian King Shapur II. The specific details of this conflict are limited, and it did not escalate into a full-scale war.

In November 375 AD, Valens’ brother Valentinian died, supposedly from a stroke after aggressively yelling at a group of envoys. The years following Valentinian’s death were largely taken up with wars against the Goths, culminating in what many scholars believe to be one of the most disastrous defeats in the long and complex history of Rome, and one from which the great empire would never fully recover.

The Battle of Adrianople

Gold medal of the Emperor Flavius Julius Valens (328-378). Roman civilisation, 4th century. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum Of Fine Arts) (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In 376, displaced by the Huns, Gothic tribes led by Alavivus and Fritigern settled in the Eastern Roman Empire as allies, but revolted due to Roman provincial commanders’ dishonesty. In 378, after Valentinian’s death, his son Gratian and Emperor Valens prepared to face the Goths. Valens, eager for victory, ignored advice to wait for Gratian’s reinforcements and underestimated the Gothic forces. Despite Fritigern’s peace offer, Valens rejected it, confident in his supposed numerical advantage.

Upon hearing of a large-scale revolt deep into Roman territory, the Goths were joined by the Alans, a nomadic Iranian people, but despite superior numbers, the Roman army were tactically inept and strategically outwitted.

On 9 August, Valens marched from Adrianople and arrived at the Gothic camp, where they defended their wagon circle. Fritigern aimed to delay the Romans until the Gothic cavalry returned. The impatient Romans initiated battle without orders, but were quickly pushed back. The Gothic cavalry arrived, surrounded the disorganised Roman troops, and a rout ensued. Valens was abandoned by his guards, and his ultimate fate is unknown.

What Happened to Valens?

A bronze coin depicting Flavius Valens, 4th century. (Credit: blue sky in my pocket via Getty Images)

Emperor Valens was the fall guy for the catastrophic defeat but part of the blame must be laid at the door of his battlefield commanders. The disastrous combination of impatience and overconfidence, a lack of reconnaissance and communication and the mismanagement and poor deployment of troops resulted in a rout. Indeed it’s said that some of Valens’ men began the battle without orders. But how did Valens die?

In a final ignominy, Valens, Emperor of Rome, was said to have been abandoned by his bodyguards. The circumstances surrounding his death remain subject to conjecture and his body was never found. Some say he died anonymously on the field of battle, others say he may have escaped to a nearby cottage which was set ablaze by Goths.

The Legacy of Emperor Valens

Hebdomon Palace, originally built by Valens in the 4th century (Credit: Nastasic via Getty Images)

The Battle of Adrianople was a devastating loss for the Roman Empire, not only resulting in the death of Emperor Valens but also severely weakening the empire’s military strength. The defeat exposed the vulnerability of the Roman Empire and signalled the beginning of the end for Roman supremacy.

Valens, Roman emperor, remains a controversial figure in history. Some historians argue that his poor decisions directly contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, while others maintain that the decline was inevitable due to larger systemic issues.

Valens’ reign serves as a reminder of the challenges and complexities that faced the Roman Empire during its final centuries.


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