Calling a Roman Emperor a possible father of the West is problematic enough, but one from the late Empire is especially problematic.
Since the time of Diocletian peasants, the great majority of Roman citizens, had not been allowed to leave their farms – as it was feared they might be trying to dodge taxes by doing so. And since the time of Constantine it was “legal” to put peasants in chains if they were suspected of planing to leave.
And, of course, anyone below the rank of Senator was open to flogging and torture if Imperial officials felt such treatment was needed to get a confession for a crime or just to inspire greater tax revenue. Technically a town councillor could not be treated in this way, but such old fashioned legal technicalities were largely a dead letter in the late Empire. And even Senators could be flogged, tortured and murdered if the Emperor felt like it – because his will was law. In a way that baffled some barbarian tribesmen – who were used to a tribal chief not being able to change the basic laws of the tribe whenever he felt like it.
Roman legal practice (both due to the arbitary will of Emperors and the degenerate thinking of scholars) had long become infested with notions like the “just price” (of which there are traces even under the Republic) – defined not as a price freely arrived at by buyer and seller (an interpretation of the “just price” that one can see in one tradition of Roman law going from Classical times up through such things as Bavarian law in the 8th century, right to our own times) but as some “correct price” for bread (and other products), laid down by the arbitrary will of the ruler – in a way such tyrants as Charles the Great of the Franks (Charlemagne) and his pet scholars would have approved of centuries later.
Nor was Valentinian himself a gentle man – for example the punishment he brought in for trying to avoid conscription was to be burnt alive. Nor did Valentinian think of removing the ban on the private ownership, and training with, weapons – which under the Republic was just as much the mark of a free man, as it was among the Saxons or other such tribes.
Valentinian is also attacked for his “old fashioned” concentration on the frontier – building forts and other such, and stationing his best troops in the frontier areas (and leading them himself till he dropped dead of the strain of command). Rather than the enlightened “defence in depth” conception favoured by Emperors like Constantine.
The attack on Valentinian military policy is, however, wrong headed. At the time when men either marched or rode on horseback to war modern “defence in depth” ideas were not really an option. The main armies had to be on the frontiers or invasions would destroy whole provinces before “strategic reserves” could come up. After all just sending message for help could take weeks.
Nor was Constantine really thinking about “defence in depth”. He created an elite army (with the best troops and equipment) and positioned them round himself in his new capital (Constantinople) to guard against frontier commanders doing what he himself had done – leading a military revolt against the Emperor. His plan was a political, not a military, one.
But just being correct on the military question would not make Valentinian a father of the West – after all the Roman Empire fell and (given the degenerate nature of the late Empire) probably had to fall for the West to be born. So Valentinian was, in the end, a failure and we should not be sad that only a few years after his death the Visigoths sacked Rome. Although this “in the long term it was for the best” thinking does leave aside the horror of the barbarian invasions themselves – and the fact that much of civilization was lost. For example Roman notions of sanitation (not a small point) only really returned to Europe in the mid 19th century.
And lastly I can not even claim that Valentinian did not add some statist ideas of his own. For example he set up a free medical service – and although it was only 12 doctors servicing the poor of the city of Rome (itself only a small percentage of the population of the Empire) this was yet another expense the Empire could have done without. And yet another betrayal of the old, pre “bread and games”, Republic of independent families and voluntary association – at least the voluntary association of citizens.
So why the claim that Valentinian may have been one of the fathers of the West?
There are two reasons… The first is land ownership.
Valentinian forbad slaves on the land being sold apart from the land they cultivated – a small point perhaps to a person in chains being flogged to work harder. “Rejoice, the Emperor has prevented you becoming just a thing that can be carried off at will” – but it did reinforce the idea that a person on the land (whether a coloni adscipticii or a formal slave) could not just be traded like a commodity, and it laid down a tradition that later people would work on far into the future. For example Hadrian IV (the only English Pope) ruleing, in the far off 12th century, that an estate owner could neither prevent his serfs marrying or break up their unions.
However, it is more than this.
For many years, indeed centuries, the Emperors had been confiscating land from “traitors” and other such. Land under state management did not produce the same level of produce over the long term as land under private ownership (for reasons which the Marxists and neo-Marxists, who have come to have such influence over classical studies in recent decades, seem unable to understand). So various Emperors tried to sell land – both to gain current income, and to increase the long term revenue of the land tax.
However, the Emperors tended to sell the land on leases – supposedly perpetual or emphyteuic leases (much like those granted in China since 1978), but leases still. So that the land could be confiscated again without the need to formally frame someone for “treason” or other serious crime. The confiscated land could then either be managed by the state, or sold on to someone else.
This system did not work very well, but Valentinian seems to have been the first Emperor to understand that. Hence the policy of granting land holding on the basis of ius privatum salvo canone – this was private ownership. Even failure to pay taxes (or what the Imperial officials claimed was failure to pay taxes – a standard dodge to confiscate land) did not, under the new system, give any right to confiscate the land itself.
Thus the idea was planted that whilst the government might claim ownership of the land in some sense it could not normally confiscate it or prevent familes passing it on to their children.
The various barbarian rulers (Ostrogothic, Visigothic or Frankish) indeed committed terrible crimes at times – but the idea that land was not just the plaything of the ruler did not die.
One can see this in such things as the Edict of Quierzy of 877 forbidding a King from confiscating a fief or preventing it being passed on to the next generation. This was not presented as a new restriction on Royal power (much though such tryants as Charles the Great might not have followed it their day), but as the defence of an ancient right.
The other claim to favour that Valentinian has is over religion:
Valentinian was a sincere Christian. This does not mean he was a nice man (see his burnings and so on), but it proved to be important for history.
Valentinian had not only been an open Christian under the pagan Emperor Julian (when being a Christian placed his prospects under a clowd), but he also seems to have the same “Catholic” opinions as the majority of Christians of his time. Unlike his brother Valens, who the Church later condemed as an “Arian” heretic who persecuted the true Christians.
I say “seems to have had” – for this brings me to the central point.
Valentinian refused to bring the power of the state into religious disputes.
Pagan Emperors had traditionally favoured Pagans – and Christian Emperors had not only favoured Christians but had favoured Christians of one or other of the many sects of Christian, persecuting all the others.
And when Valentinian died such persecution started up again – with the Emperor Theodosius (who came to power a few years later – first in the East and the in the West) persecuting not only pagans, but Jews and also any Christian who did not agree with him (and his faction of the Church) on every point.
But the memory of Valentinian’s position did not die.
For centuries monks continued to write out Valentinian’s reply to demands that he use the power of the state to decide religious matters and persecute dissent.
Rather than Constantine’s position “What higher duty have I in virtue of my imperial office and policy than to dissipate errors and and redress rash indiscretions, as so to cause all to offer to Almighty God true religion, honest concord and due worship”.
We have Valentinians’ position “It is not right for me as a layman to meddle in such things. Let the Bishops whose business it is meet by themselves wherever they like”.
Certainly the old Roman laws against eastern magic remained and there was even some action against the Manichees. But the general position was that religion was nothing to do with the magistrates – the civil power would not lend its arm for persecution.
This is a devstating position for persecutors – as right from the time of Augustine onwards they have tended to rely on the civil power to do their dirty work. Even if they, like the Spanish Inquisition of centuries later, dishonestly plea for mercy for the heretics when they hand them over to be executed (dishonestly as any magistrate who took the Spanish Inquisition at their word and showed mercy, would soon have a visit from the “Holy Office” themselves).
Whether the Church set up the persecuting organization itself (as with the centuries later Roman Inquisition) or the state creates the organization (as with the Spanish Inquisition) without armed men an Inquisition is of no importance.
And it was armed force that Valentinian was denying the persecutors.
In the centuries that followed Valentinian’s interpretation of the position of the state tended to lose out.
As stated above Theodosius persecuted widely. Although, hypocritically, he did not try and impose his opinions (or perhaps those of his spiritual guide Ambrose of Milan) on the Visigoths – instead he made an alliance with them for the conquest of the Western Empire. An alliance that made itself felt at the terrible battle of the Frigid River in 394 when the Western army was broken by the alliance of the East and the barbarians.
Theodosius allowed the Visigoth barbarians to live inside the Empire on wide lands – untaxed. Which is libertarian in a way (if one ignores the fact that the lands in question were already settled) – but was a policy born of fear. Persecuting helpless Roman citizens was fine but armed Visigoths were quite another matter.
So it was in the Western Empire – more and more land was given or taken by the barbarian “federates” (normally heretics or pagans) and the Empire went down to collapse.
Meanwhile in the East persecution continued – till (in the 7th century) heretic Christian Arabs allied with new invaders who they hoped might treat them better than the Imperial government.
Thus the Empire of Islam was born.
However, the position of Valentinian was not forgotten.
Ever afterwards (thanks to the efforts of the monks of the Church itself) whenever someone wished to oppose persecution there was the example of respected ruler to be pointed to – and in centuries past every educated person knew of Valentinian and his position. And this Classical example eventually became one of the basic principles of the West.