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The Emperor Valentinian: A father of the West?

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.

25 comments to The Emperor Valentinian: A father of the West?

  • Brian

    Nice history lesson. Thanks!

  • Valuable lesson indeed. I wish you could do this more often, Paul.

  • Dale Amon

    If you enjoy the history of this era, or just after the fall rather, I highly recommend an historical novel, “The Column of Phocas” by Sean Gabb of our very own UK Libertarian Alliance.

    I also hope he is beavering away at a sequel!

  • Valentinian is no more the father of the West than Trajan the father of Romania.

  • Dale Amon

    Mr. Clausewitzian: If you believe you have a case, then present it and defend it. An isolated sound bite is not enough to convince anyone.

  • Laird

    Whether or not Valentinian is “a father” of the west is a matter of opinion (and definition), but in any case the history lesson is fascinating. Keep it up, Paul!

  • Drew

    This is great Paul, thanks!

  • joel

    I highly recommend Gibbon’s History of Rome, in its 6 volume unabridged version, for anybody who likes history.

    Thank you for this reminder that our situation today has resulted in part from the actions of individuals.

  • veryretired

    The 1st Amendment in the Bill of Rights was written by classical scholars who would have been familiar with much of what Paul has written about.

    It was no accident that freedom of expression and the denial of state power to any religion were part of the very first of the most important rights delineated.

    And it is also no accident that these principles are both the targets of a concerted attack by the collectivist/islamicist alliance around the world.

    The disgraceful “human rights” conference recently held in Switzerland is only the most current, and most visible, example of this campaign to abridge these two critical and interwoven concepts.

  • permanentexpat

    Thanks Paul Marks for filling an enormous gap in my knowledge.

  • hovis

    An interesting article. Have you read Tom Holland’s latest book Millennium in which he suggest the meeting at Canossa between the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory was significant in splitting secular power from the religious in the west.

    As an aside Holland is excellent in is previous books Republic and Persian Fire, classical periods where he is more naturally at home.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Paul, first class sir. Very interesting read, thanks.

  • Thanks for that Paul.
    I shall be doing some research into the things you’ve said – it’s something my knowledge is a bit low on.

    Ah! The good old days… Friendly lot, the Romans.

    Topically (today, with the potential flu pandemic), wasn’t it during the time of Diocletian that the Roman Empire nearly collapsed due to a plague, now thought to be measles? Big diseases can also alter society, like the Black Death liberated peasants from serfdom in England. Maybe Diocletian made his ‘tying’ law for peasants to prevent the mass exodus from the land that England later saw?

  • Not sure about the reference to Julian. The policy of the Apostate was to reestablish some balance between the new power of Christianity and the recently downgraded pagans.

    My understanding was that Christianity under him wasn’t an impediment; it just wasn’t the advantage it had been under Constantine.

  • Robert Speirs

    Rodney Stark has a number of books bearing on these points, such as

    The Victory of Reason


    The Rise of Christianity

    . He makes the point that the loss of the writings of classical authors, if it occurred, was a good thing for Northern Europe. Adherence to Classicism doomed Spain and the Islamic world to poverty and underdevelopment.

    It sticks in my Objectivist craw to admit that Christianity could have been a force for good, leading to the rise of individualism, but Stark makes a great argument to that effect.

  • I can tell that there is not a great deal of familiarity with the Roman Empire around here. This is not an impressive article, and the thesis is nonsense.

    It’s very remarkable: what it takes to impress some people.

  • Hugo


    “The Column of Phocas” was republished as “Conspiracies of Rome”. It has a sequel, “The Terror of Constantinople”.

  • Gabriel

    Erudite and thought-provoking, but I take issue with three points.


    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.

    This is an enormously tendentious way of putting it. Eugenius was a usurper, appointed on the instigation of Arbogast; Theodosius was appointed by Valentinian’s son Gratian, partly to sort out endemic rebellions on the part of self-serving generals. There’s no question of the east conquering the west, because the empire hadn’t been divided yet. If one wants to take a neutral position (and I’m no fan of Theodosius), then one claimant to the purple used barbarian troops to defeat another claimant to the purple, who was also using barbarian troops.


    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.

    I don’t understand how someone writing about the origins of the West can dismiss Augustine with such easy contempt. This isn’t an Origen or Chrysostom we’re talking about: writing off Augustine is one step off writing off Paul. More specifically, Augustine’s political theology didn’t ally Christianity with the civil power, rather it decoupled Christianity from the imperium without embracing otherworldliness, a sort of midpoint between Eusebius and Anthony Abbot. While we’re talking about fathers of the West, I think Augustine has as good a claim as anyone in late antiquity to that title. (Another good candidate is Charlemagne, a man born a savage who became a Roman Emperor … and repelled the Saracen).

    3) Finally, I’m not sure Valentinian’s position on religious co-ercion can be that strongly distinguished from Constantine’s or Theodosius’. Leaving bishops to make up their own mind is what Constantine did over the Donatist schism, Christological disputes or the dating of Easter. Theodosius also gave the bishops freedom of action, that’s why they liked him so much. This is a far cry from religious liberty per se.
    Myself I’m pretty anti-erastian, but I wouldn’t say that letting prelates get up to whatever suits them is a surefire recipe for success. It certainly places you full square against the whig tradition (not necessarily a bad thing).

  • kentuckyliz

    So why is there a Church of England?

    Perhaps we should celebrate Valentinian with a holiday every February 14.

  • Paul Marks

    For good or ill Trajan is the “father of Romania”.

    One can think that the slaughter of so many of the population of Dacia was a wicked thing (and I agree it was) – but it is the case that not just the name, but the culture and language of Romania are from Rome.

    From Trajan – and from the centuries of Roman rule (and unflux of people from various parts of the Roman empire), even after Roman rule collapsed – these things did not end.

    Was there a great plague at the time of Diocletian?

    Not as far as I know – the last great plague had been in the time of Marcus Aurelius (long before).

    I should also have mentioned that the interpretation of the just price to mean government mandated price (as opposed to a price arrived at by the civil, peaceful, interaction of buyer and seller) had got a “great leap forward” (reference half intended) under the would be eastern despot Diocletian (he not just of price controls but of state arms factories and support for hereditory occupations).

    Although I am biased against the man because he seems so unRoman – with (for example) his instance that people grovel on the floor when they came into his presense (in the manner of eastern despots).

  • Paul Marks

    Of course what Clauswitzian may have meant was that Valentinian was no more an INTENTIAL father of the Wet than Trajan was an intential father of Romania.

    Indeed that indepenent nations (although how independent these nations are with the rise of the Eurepean Union is a different question) is the opposite of what these two Roman Emperors intended.

    I agree – and I apologize for my slowness of mind in working out what Clauswitzian meant.

    Another point (before I forget) is that a game could (in the old days) have been played by with my posting “how much is A.H.P. Jones and how much is non Jones or anti Jones”

    I will not go into these matters here – but I must make the nod to those people who will be thinking this.


    I do not deny the historical points you make – well some of them anyway.

    Charles the Great did not “repell the Saricen” – the main fighting (both by the Franks and, before, by the mixed peoples of the area of Toulouse, what had been once the Visigothic kingdom of this area) had been done long before his time.

    It is true that he launched raids on the Muslims from time to time – but he gave more attention to attacking the Saxons (for which he had a religious excuse I know) and Fresians, and taking over Bavaria (for which he had no religious excuse at all).

    Did I dissmiss Augustine?

    My attack was on Theodosius – and I stick to it (although I do not deny the legal points you made – including the formal one that no matter how many times the Empire had been divided there was still legally only one Roman Empire).

    However, although I greatly respect Pope Benedict XVI (a leading scholar on Augustine), I can not claim any great regard for Augustine himself.

    Predistination has attracted the work of great minds from Augustine’s day to our own – and their work has many subtle details that my own crude brain would not be capable of.

    However, my crude mind is capable of noting something that their superior minds do not note (perhaps because they are so involved in the difficult work that I am not capable of).

    Predestination is a load of dingo’s kidneys.

    It utterly contradicts the basis of Christianity (and the Jewish faith) that human beings have a choice about whether they do certain evil things – that there is such thing as agency (free will).

    And a million fine scholars finding wonderful ways to show that predestination does not contradict this does not alter the basic crude fact that it does.

    Any more than vast numbers of brillent mathematicians (each one with vastly greater ability with numbers than someone like me) saying that 1 + 1 does not = 2, does not alter the fact that 1 + 1 does = 2.

    When one starts to talk of God predetermining (from the begining of time) who is to be saved and who is not – then one has left the path of good sense (period).

    Nor is it just this:

    There are also such things as Augustine’s teaching that those scholars who argued the world was very old (which it is) should have their work suppressed – because their work contradicts (his view of) the Bible and was, therefore, wrong.

    So it is not just a matter of his support of religous persecution.

    It is also his support for wrong headed (although, no doubt, incredibly learned) theology, and his opposition to basic science (it its conclusions were not in accordence with his interpretation of the bible).

    None of the above should be taken to mean that I do not accept that Augustine did not make postive contributions that were both brillent and true (different things of course).

    However, you were correct in smelling out that I can not stand the man.

    As for the basic point about Valentinian not having a fundementally different view of the role of the state in religion than that of Constantine and so on.

    Actually I find myself on the side of Augustine there.

    He understood that the two opinions were widly different.

    It is true that he agonized deeply on the choice between them – before comming down on (what I hold to be) the wrong side.

    It is also quite true that Augustine held that the state had no right to persecute the true Church.

    However, opinions of what is the “true Church” is vary.

    After all (as Jones was fond of pointing out) Valens (the brother of Valentinian) sought the best theological advice he could.

    And it is most likely ture that this “Arian persecutor of the Church” was supported by many Bishops in the East (indeed it was the religous authorities who suggested his position to him – not the other way round).

    So “uphold the true church and only persecute heretics” is a false position (no matter how clever and learned it may be).

    Lastly on the Visigoths:

    They are a complicated topic.

    They have a good side as well as a bad side – and it is a good side that does not end with the collapse of Visigothic Spain.

    I am not qualified to write on them – but then I am not qualified to write on Valentinian either (as I can read neither Latin or Greek).

    I am also “conflicted” on the Visigoths as I love Rome (inspite of all its degeneracy) yet I feel more positively towards the Visigoths than any other people who invaded the Roman Empire (in spite of the Visigoths being the first sackers of Rome).

    But in these degenerate days some alternative to the void must be offered.

    If no one else writes on the Visigoths I may revisit the topic.

  • Paul Marks

    One of the odd things about Augustine (that I have been told – it may not be true) was that he could not read Greek.

    Even Roger Bacon (in 12th century England) could read Greek, for a fifth century Roman theologian to not be able to do so is weird.

    Of course I can not either – but I am a barbarian.

  • Paul Marks

    That should have been “13th century England” (the 1200’s) – do not get old people, one’s brain turns to Swiss cheese.

  • veryretired

    Ah, Paul, each year I find I prefer swiss cheese more and more to the alternative….