Valentinian III

Valentinian III
Emperor of the Western Roman Empire

Solidus of Emperor Valentinian III.
Reign Caesar in the west: 423–425
Emperor in the West
23 October 425 – 16 March 455
Predecessor Honorius
Successor Petronius Maximus
Born (419-07-02)2 July 419
Died 16 March 455(455-03-16) (aged 35)
Issue Eudocia and Placidia
Full name
Flavius Placidius Valentinianus
Dynasty Theodosian
Father Constantius III
Mother Galla Placidia

Valentinian III (Latin: Flavius Placidius Valentinianus Augustus;[1] 2 July 419 – 16 March 455) was Western Roman Emperor from 425 to 455. His reign was marked by the ongoing dismemberment of the Western Empire.


Valentinian was born in the western capital of Ravenna, the only son of Galla Placidia and Flavius Constantius.[2] His mother was the younger half-sister of the western emperor Honorius, while his father was at the time a Patrician and the power behind the throne.[3]

Through his mother, Valentinian was a descendant both of Theodosius I, who was his maternal grandfather, and of Valentinian I, who was the father of his maternal grandmother. It was also through his mother's side of the family that he was the nephew of Honorius and first cousin to Theodosius II (the son of Honorius' brother Arcadius), who was eastern emperor for most of Valentinian's life. Valentinian had a full sister, Justa Grata Honoria, who was probably born in 417 or 418 (the history of Paul the Deacon mentions her first when mentioning the children of the marriage, suggesting she was the eldest[4]). His mother had previously been married to Ataulf of the Visigoths, and had borne a son, Theodosius, in Barcelona in 414; but the child had died early in the following year, thus eliminating an opportunity for a Romano-Visigothic line.[5][6]

When Valentinian was less than two years old, Honorius appointed Constantius co-emperor, a position he would hold until his death seven months later. As a result of all these family ties, Valentinian was the son, grandson, great-grandson, cousin, and nephew (twice over) of Roman Emperors.[7]

Infancy and regency of Galla Placidia (421–437)

In either 421 or 423, Valentinian was given the title of Nobilissimus by Honorius, but which was not initially recognized in the eastern court of Theodosius II.[2] After the death of his father in 421, Valentinian followed his mother and his sister (Justa Grata Honoria) to Constantinople, when court intrigue saw Galla Placidia forced to flee from her half-brother, Emperor Honorius, and the young Valentinian went to live at the court of his cousin Theodosius II.[8]

In 423, Honorius died, and the usurper Joannes took the power in Rome. To counter this threat to his power, Theodosius belatedly recognised Valentinian’s father as Augustus and nominated Valentinian Caesar of the West in October 23, 424.[9] Theodosius also betrothed him to his own daughter Licinia Eudoxia (whom Valentinian would eventually marry in 437 when he came of age). It was only in the following year, after Joannes had been defeated in a combined naval and land campaign, that Valentinian was installed by the eastern patricius et magister officiorum Helion as Western Emperor in Rome, on October 23, 425, at the age of six.[8]

Given his minority status, the new Augustus ruled under the regency of his mother Galla Placidia, one of whose first acts was to install Felix as the Magister utriusque militiae in the west.[10] Her regency lasted until 437, and, for the duration, Theodosius II gave her his full support.[11] This period was marked with a vigorous imperial policy and an attempt to stabilize the western provinces as far as the stretched resources of the empire could manage.

In 425, the court at Ravenna negotiated with the Huns who had accompanied Flavius Aëtius to Italy in support of Joannes. They agreed to leave Italy, and to evacuate the province of Pannonia Valeria, which was returned to the empire.[12] This allowed Felix and the imperial government to restructure the defences along the Danubian provinces in 427 and 428.[11] In addition, there were significant victories over the Visigoths in Gaul in 426/7 and 430[13][14] and the Franks along the Rhine in 428 and 432.[15]

Nevertheless, there were significant problems that threatened the viability of the Roman state in the west. The Visigoths were a constant presence in south-eastern Gaul and could not be dislodged. The Vandals in Hispania continued their incursions, and, in 429, they commenced their invasion of Mauretania Tingitana.[15] The loss of these territories seriously impacted the state’s ability to function. The burden of taxation became more and more intolerable as Rome's power decreased, and the loyalty of its remaining provinces was seriously impaired in consequence.[15]

In addition, the initial period of Valentinian’s reign was dominated by the struggle between the leaders of the three principal army groups of the west – Flavius Felix, the senior Magister militum praesentalis, Bonifacius, the Magister militum per Africam and Flavius Aëtius, the Magister militum per Gallias.[13] In 427, Felix accused Bonifacius of being a traitor and demanded that he return to Italy. Bonifacius refused and defeated an army sent by Felix to capture him. Weakened, Felix was unable to resist Aëtius who, with the support of Galla Placidia, replaced him as Magister militum praesentalis in 429, before having him killed in 430.[16]

Bonifacius, in the meantime, had been unable to defeat Sigisvultus, whom Galla Placidia had sent to deal with the rebel. Bonifacius, therefore, entered into an agreement with the Vandals to come to his aid and, in return, they would divide the African provinces between themselves.[17] Concerned by these turn of events and determined to hold onto the African provinces at all cost, the court at Ravenna sought reconciliation with Bonifacius, who agreed in 430 to affirm his allegiance to Valentinian III and stop the Vandal king Gaiseric.[18]

In 431, Bonifacius was crushed and fled to Italy; abandoning western North Africa. The imperial court, and especially Galla Placidia, worried about the power being wielded by Aëtius, stripped Aëtius of his command and gave it to Bonifacius. In the civil war that followed, Bonifacius defeated Aëtius at the Battle of Ravenna, but died of his wounds. Aëtius fled to the Huns and with their help, was able to persuade the court to reinstate him to his old position of Magister militum praesentalis in 434.[19] As a consequence, in 435, Valentinian was forced to conclude a peace with Gaiseric, whereby the Vandals kept all their possessions in North Africa in return for a payment of tribute to the empire,[20] while the Huns were granted new territory in Pannonia Savia to occupy.[12]

Galla Placidia’s regency came to an end in 437 when Valentinian travelled to Constantinople to marry his fiancée, Licinia Eudoxia. On his return to Rome, he was nominally the emperor, but in truth the management of imperial policy in the west was in the hands of Aëtius.[21]

Solidus minted in Thessalonica to celebrate Valentinian III's marriage to Licinia Eudoxia, daughter of the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. On the reverse, the three of them in their wedding costume.

Ascendancy of Aëtius (437–455)

From 436 to 439, Aëtius was focused on the situation in Gaul. Serious Gothic defeats in 437 and 438 were undone by a Roman defeat in 439, which saw the status quo restored through a new truce.[22] He also enjoyed initial success against the Franks and the Burgundians, as well as putting down a revolt by the Bagaudae by 437. In 438, peace was also achieved with the Suebi in Spain,[23] the same year Valentinian’s daughter, Eudocia, was born.[24]

With Aëtius completely occupied with events in Gaul, Valentinian was unable to do anything to prevent the Vandals completely overrunning the remaining western African provinces, culminating in the fall of Carthage on 19 October 439.[25] This was a major blow because taxes and foodstuffs from these wealthy provinces supported Rome.[26] By 440, Vandal fleets were ravaging Sicily and Aëtius coordinated a joint response with the eastern court, which saw large numbers of troops arriving in Sicily, with the intent of attacking Gaiseric.[26]

These plans were abandoned when pressure from the Huns forced the transfer of these troops to the Danube to repulse the Hunnic invasions.[26] Therefore, in 442, Aëtius and Valentinian were forced to acknowledge the Vandal conquests of Proconsular Africa, Byzacena, and western Numidia, in exchange for which Rome was returned the now devastated provinces of Tripolitana, Mauretania Sitifensis, Mauretania Caesariensis, and part of Numidia.[27] Regardless, however, Gaiseric had soon retaken Mauretania Sitifensis and Mauretania Caesariensis, as well as taking Sardinia and Corsica, and conducting devastating raids on Sicily.[28]

Therefore, Aëtius was determined that, if they could not prevent Gaiseric wreaking havoc by military means, that perhaps linking him to the imperial dynasty would be the next best thing. Consequently, sometime before 446, he convinced Valentinian to agree to a marriage between his eldest daughter, Eudocia, and Gaiseric's son, Huneric. Unfortunately, Huneric was already married to the daughter of the king of the Visigoths, so the idea was abandoned.[29]

Spain as well continued to slip away from imperial control during the early to mid 440s as the Suebi extended their control. By 444, all the Spanish provinces bar Hispania Tarraconensis had been lost to the Germanic tribe and even Tarraconensis was under pressure due to continued Bagaudic uprisings.[30] As a consequence of these territorial losses, by the mid 440’s the state was experiencing severe financial problems, with the government openly acknowledging that there was insufficient revenue to meet the military needs of the Roman state.[31] The emperor issued a law on 14 July 444, stripping the bureaucrats of their exemptions from the recruitment tax.[32]

In that year, two additional taxes were issued in Valentinian’s name, one a sales tax of around four percent and another on the senatorial class, specifically to raise new troops as well feeding and clothing them.[33] Senators of illustrious rank were required to contribute the money for maintaining three soldiers, senators of the second class money for one soldier, and senators of the third class one-third the cost of maintaining a soldier.[34] Even Valentinian himself was not exempt and he was forced to sacrifice a portion of his income and use the reduced contents of his personal income to help the State in its financial straits.[34]

Hunnic invasions

The Huns continued to pressure the Danubian provinces in the 440s. Sometime before 449, Valentinian granted the honorary title of Magister militum of the western empire upon their chieftain, Attila the Hun, and the western court was relieved when he concentrated on raiding the eastern empire’s provinces in the Balkans from 441 through to 449.[35][36] In 449, Attila received a message from Honoria, Valentinian III’s sister, offering him half the western empire if he would rescue her from an unwanted marriage that her brother was forcing her into.[35]

Attila had been looking for a pretext for invading the West and was allegedly bribed by the Vandal king Gaiseric to attack the Visigoths in Gaul. In 450, he invaded the Gallic provinces, after securing peace with the eastern court.[35] Valentinian was furious over the invasion. The man Honoria sent to Attila with the offer was tortured to reveal all the details of the arrangement and then beheaded. It took a great deal of persuading for Valentinian’s mother to get her son to agree to sparing his sister's life.[37]

In early 451, Attila crossed the Rhine and entered the Belgic provinces, capturing Divodurum Mediomatricum on April 7, 451, Aëtius gathered together a coalition of forces, including Visigoths and Burgundians, and raced to prevent Attila taking the city of Aurelianum, successfully forcing the Huns to beat a hasty retreat.[38] The Roman-Germanic forces met Hunnic forces at the Battle of Châlons, resulting in a victory for Aëtius, who sought to retain his position by allowing Attila and a significant number of his troops to escape.[39]

This allowed Attila to regroup, and, in 452, Attila invaded Italy. He sacked and destroyed Aquileia and took Verona and Vincentia as well.[40] Aëtius was shadowing the Huns but did not have the troops to attack, so the road to Rome was open. Although Ravenna was Valentinian's usual residence, he and the court eventually moved back to Rome, where he was as Attila approached.[41]

Valentinian sent Pope Leo I and two leading senators to negotiate with Attila. This embassy, combined with a plague among Attila's troops, the threat of famine, and news that the Eastern Emperor Marcian had launched an attack on Hun homelands along the Danube, forced Attila to turn around and leave Italy.[42] The death of Attila in Pannonia in 453 and the power struggle that erupted between his sons ended the Hunnic threat to the empire.[43]


With the Hun invasion thwarted, Valentinian felt secure enough to begin plotting to have Aëtius killed, egged on by Petronius Maximus, a high ranking senator who bore Aëtius a personal grudge and his chamberlain, the eunuch Heraclius.[44] Aëtius, whose son had married Valentinian’s youngest daughter, Placidia, was murdered by Valentinian on 21 September 454.[43] The ancient historian Priscus reported that Aëtius was presenting a financial statement before the Emperor when Valentinian suddenly leapt from his throne and accused him of drunken depravity. He held him responsible for the empire's tribulations and accused him of plotting to take the empire away from him. Valentinian then drew his sword and together with Heraclius, rushed at the weaponless Aëtius and struck him on the head, killing him on the spot. When Valentinian later boasted that he had done well to dispose of Aëtius in such a way, a counselor famously replied “Whether well or not, I do not know. But know that you have cut off your right hand with your left.”[45]

On March 16 of the following year, however, the emperor himself was assassinated in Rome by two Scythian followers of Aëtius; Optelas and Thraustelas. According to Priscus, these men were put up to it by Petronius Maximus, whose aims of political advancement were thwarted by Heraclius.[46] He may also have been taking revenge for the rape of his wife Lucina by Valentinian.[44] The assassination occurred as Valentinian rode his horse on the Campus Martius. As the emperor dismounted to practice archery, the conspirators attacked. Optelas struck Valentinian on the side of the head, and when he turned to see who had hit him, Optelas delivered the death-blow. Meanwhile, Thraustelas slew Heraclius. Priscus reports a curious occurrence: as the emperor lay dead, a swarm of bees appeared and sucked up his blood.[47]

The day after the assassination Petronius Maximus had himself proclaimed emperor by the remnants of the Western Roman army after paying a large donative.[48] He was not as prepared as he thought to take over and stabilize the depleted empire, however; after a reign of only 11 weeks, Maximus was stoned to death by a Roman mob.[49] King Gaiseric and his Vandals captured Rome a few days later and sacked it for two weeks.[50]

Character and legacy

Valentinian's reign is marked by the dismemberment of the Western Empire; by the time of his death, virtually all of North Africa, all of western Spain, and the majority of Gaul had passed out of Roman hands. He is described as spoiled, pleasure-loving, and heavily influenced by sorcerers and astrologers. Valentinian was devoted to religion, contributing to churches of St. Laurence in both Rome and Ravenna.[51]

He also handed over greater authority to the Papacy. On 6 June 445, he issued a decree which recognized the primacy of the bishop of Rome based on the merits of Peter, the dignity of the city, and the Nicene Creed (in their interpolated form); ordained that any opposition to his rulings, which were to have the force of ecclesiastical law, should be treated as treason; and provided for the forcible extradition by provincial governors of anyone who refused to answer a summons to Rome. Valentinian was also consumed by trivialities: during the 430s, he began expelling all Jews from the Roman army because he was fearful of their supposed ability to corrupt the Christians they were serving with.[52]

According to Edward Gibbon, Valentinian III was a poor emperor:

He faithfully imitated the hereditary weakness of his cousin and his two uncles, without inheriting the gentleness, the purity, the innocence, which alleviate in their characters the want of spirit and ability. Valentinian was less excusable, since he had passions without virtues: even his religion was questionable; and though he never deviated into the paths of heresy, he scandalised the pious Christians by his attachment to the profane arts of magic and divination.[53]

John Bagnall Bury was equally scathing:

Though he had ruled for thirty years, Valentinian had influenced the destinies of his empire even less than his uncle Honorius. He only flashed once into action, when, piqued by the presumption of Aetius in aspiring to connect himself with the imperial family, he struck him down. He thought he had slain his master; he found that he had slain his protector: and he fell a helpless victim to the first conspiracy which was hatched against his throne.[54]

The opinion of most modern historians is that Valentinian not only lacked the ability to govern the empire in a time of crisis but aggravated its dangers by his self-indulgence and vindictiveness.

In literature

Valentinian III's life was dramatized by John Fletcher in his play Valentinian, c. 1612 (published 1647).

He also appears in Metastasio's opera libretto Ezio, set by Handel for his 1731 opera, by Gluck for his 1750 opera, and by a number of other composers.

In 1790 his life was again dramatized in the play "The Sack of Rome" by Mercy Otis Warren.

The story of Valentinian and Aëtius was recounted in the pages of Hal Foster's Prince Valiant

Roman Emperor in the Italian sword and sandal film Revenge of the Gladiators (La vendetta dei gladiatori), 1964.

Valentinian III was played by Reg Rogers in the 2001 miniseries Attila.

Valentinian III was portrayed by Alexander Vlahos in the 2016 History Channel docudrama miniseries Barbarians Rising.


See also


  1. In Classical Latin, Valentinian's name would be inscribed as FLAVIVS PLACIDIVS VALENTINIANVS AVGVSTVS.
  2. 1 2 Martindale, pg. 1138
  3. Martindale, pg. 323
  4. Cawley, Charles, Profile of Constantius III, Medieval Lands database, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy,
  5. Cawley, Charles, Profile of Ataulf, Medieval Lands database, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy,
  6. Ralph W. Mathisen, "Galla Placidia"
  7. Canduci, pgs. 158–159
  8. 1 2 Blockley, pg. 136
  9. Martindale, pg. 1139
  10. Blockley, pg. 137
  11. 1 2 Bury, pg. 240
  12. 1 2 Bury, pg. 272
  13. 1 2 Heather, pg. 5
  14. Bury, pg. 242
  15. 1 2 3 Heather, pg. 7
  16. Heather, pgs. 5–6; Bury, pg. 243
  17. Bury, pg. 245
  18. Bury, pg. 247
  19. Bury, pg. 248
  20. Bury, pg. 249
  21. Bury, pgs. 250–251; Canduci, pg. 159
  22. Heather, pg. 8
  23. Heather, pg. 9
  24. Bury, pg. 251
  25. Bury, pg. 254
  26. 1 2 3 Heather, pg. 11
  27. Heather, pgs. 11–12; Bury, pg. 255
  28. Bury, pg. 258
  29. Bury, pg. 256
  30. Heather, pg. 12
  31. Heather, pg. 14; Bury, pg. 253
  32. Heather, pg. 14
  33. Bury, pg. 253; Heather, pg. 14
  34. 1 2 Bury, pg. 253
  35. 1 2 3 Heather, pg. 15
  36. Bury, pgs. 273–276
  37. Bury, pg. 290
  38. Bury, pg. 292
  39. Bury, pg. 293
  40. Bury, pgs. 294–295
  41. "Rome, Ravenna, and the Last Western Emperors", Papers of the British School at Rome (Oxford) 69 (2001) 131–167
  42. Heather, pgs. 17–18; Canduci, pgs. 160–161
  43. 1 2 Heather, pg. 18
  44. 1 2 Bury, pg. 299
  45. John Given, The Fragmentary History of Priscus (2014) Evolution Publishing, Merchantville, NJ ISBN 978-1-935228-14-1, p. 125-127
  46. Given (2014) The Fragmentary History of Priscus p. 128
  47. Given (2014) The Fragmentary History of Priscus p. 129
  48. Bury, pgs. 323–324
  49. Bury, pgs. 324–325; Canduci, pg. 161
  50. Bury, pg. 325
  51. Ralph W. Mathisen, "Valentinian III (425–455 A.D)"
  52. Canduci, pg. 160
  53. Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 35.
  54. Bury, J. B., The Cambridge Medieval History Vol. I (1924), pgs. 418–419

Primary sources

Secondary sources

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Valentinian III.
Valentinian III
Born: 2 July 419 Died: 16 March 455
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Western Roman Emperor
Succeeded by
Petronius Maximus
Political offices
Preceded by
Flavius Castinus,
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Ioannes Augustus and Flavius Theodosius Augustus
Succeeded by
Flavius Hierius,
Flavius Ardabur
Preceded by
Flavius Florentius,
Flavius Dionysius
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Flavius Theodosius Augustus
Succeeded by
Anicius Auchenius Bassus,
Antiochus Chuzon
Preceded by
Flavius Ardabur Aspar,
Flavius Areobindus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Flavius Theodosius Augustus
Succeeded by
Flavius Anthemius Isidorus,
Flavius Senator
Preceded by
Flavius Theodosius Augustus,
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Flavius Anatolius
Succeeded by
Cyrus of Panopolis without co-consul
Preceded by
Flavius Theodosius Augustus,
Caecina Decius Aginatius Albinus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Flavius Nomus
Succeeded by
Flavius Aetius,
Quintus Aurelius Symmachus
Preceded by
Florentius Romanus Protogenes
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Gennadius Avienus
Succeeded by
Flavius Marcianus Augustus,
Valerius Faltonius Adelfius
Preceded by
Flavius Aetius,
Flavius Studius
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Procopius Anthemius
Succeeded by
Eparchius Avitus Augustus (alone in the West),
Iohannes (East),
Varanes (East)
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