Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.44

Noel Lenski, Failure of Empire: Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2002.  Pp. xix, 454.  ISBN 0-520-23332-8.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Raymond Van Dam, University of Michigan (

During the third century a grammarian at Beirut wrote a book about shrimp. Since he had already composed multiple volumes on Greek grammar and dialects, the culmination of his career was to be this large tome about a small topic. From the beginning to the end of his outstanding book about the Roman empire in the later fourth century Noel Lenski thinks of the emperor Valens in the same diminutive dimensions: "a person of unremarkable talents" (p. 1), "not a great soldier" (p. 51), "an undereducated emperor" (p. 93), "less than stellar intellect" (p. 231), "something of a failure" (p. 373). As the orators who came to praise him soon discovered, "Valens simply did not have much to recommend him" (p. 86). Seemingly inadequate for the task of governing the eastern empire, Valens was clearly a small-fry emperor.

Lenski offers a comprehensive overview of the reigns of Valens and his brother Valentinian that is now the best synthetic analysis of events on the Balkan and eastern frontiers. The focus is on political and military history, much like the narrative of Ammianus, which is in fact a distant preview of, and inspiration for, Lenski's account. But Lenski adds chapters on subjects that did not much interest Ammianus, such as Christianity and the economy, supports all of his arguments through a thorough familiarity with ancient texts and modern scholarship, and presents all of this material very clearly. Valens' own contemporaries would never have imagined that such a peewee emperor could have inspired such an excellent study.

Chapter 1 analyzes the proclamation of Valentinian and Valens after Jovian's unexpected demise in 364. As an experienced military officer Valentinian had qualities that recommended his promotion. His brother did not. Since he seems to have stayed behind to manage the family's estate, he was not a professional soldier. Nor, with his pot-belly and bowed legs, did he have much physical presence. But the one clear qualification that Valens did possess was his sense of subordination: "What Valentinian needed was a junior partner, someone ... whom he could control" (p. 24). Even though panegyrists subsequently proclaimed the harmony between the brothers, Valentinian consistently had a different perspective. "Valentinian broadcast his brother's inferiority with subtle hints in his numismatic propaganda" (p. 33). According to Lenski, Valens did not mind his inferior position. In fact, in his administration of the eastern empire he was also prepared to rely upon the service of Greek notables. The outcome of this sort of characterization is to define a Valens who was adrift in his first years as emperor.

The revolt of Procopius in 365 soon exposed the fundamental weaknesses of Valens' position. Procopius' claim to emperorship in the East rested upon his family relationship to Julian, and in Chapter 2 Lenski stresses his uncanny skill at presenting himself as the legitimate successor to the Constantinian emperors. But Valens did seem to be a dynastic interloper. He had no son of his own to offer as the continuation of a new imperial dynasty, and Valentinian declined to send assistance. "Valens was left to fend for himself" (p. 76). While Procopius broadcast himself as a continuation of the Constantinian emperors, Valens could not get the support of his own big brother. Rather surprisingly, he nevertheless adapted, by promoting some of Julian's former supporters, by relaxing his fiscal policies, and by retaining the support of most troops. Valens may have had little formal education, but he could still learn how to survive as emperor.

After defeating his rival Valens could take his revenge. His retaliatory campaigns against the Goths in the Balkans are the subject of Chapter 3. Along the Danube frontier the Goths had been relatively peaceful for thirty-five years. Valens now attacked them, for several reasons. He was angry because in accordance with the terms of the treaty agreed upon with Constantine the Goths had sent auxiliary troops to help Procopius as the legitimate heir to the Constantinian dynasty. He was pressured by Valentinian, who was seemingly obsessed with suppressing barbarians across the Rhine and the upper Danube. He needed to acquire his own reputation for military successes. According to Lenski, the frontier policies of both emperors were recklessly aggressive, so antagonistic that they "escalated the tensions they were supposed to extinguish" (p. 146).

In the end Valens had to settle for another treaty with the Goths. This treaty freed him to move to Antioch for much of the 370s. Chapter 4 surveys Valens' activities on the eastern frontier, where both the Persians and the Romans tried to influence and dominate the kingdom of Armenia. Through the military successes of his generals Valens was surprisingly effective in controlling the kingdom of Armenia until he was forced to withdraw troops to send back to the Balkans. The best section of Lenski's discussion in this chapter focuses on the use of historical propaganda. With his limited formal education Valens certainly needed lessons in Roman history. But the brief narrative surveys by Eutropius and Festus both had a very specific purpose that far exceeded merely providing a retrospective of the greatest hits of Roman history: "to employ historical discourse as a practical instrument to prepare for and justify a way against Persia" (p. 188). Eutropius and Festus supported Valens' aggressive military policy with "the rhetoric of aggression, expansion, and realpolitik" (p. 195).

Valens' aggressiveness showed up again in his interactions with religion, the subject of Chapter 5. "Valens was, without question, a religious persecutor" (p. 213). For a Christian emperor, his overall attitude toward pagan cults was rather nonchalant. But when some conspirators resorted to sorcery and astrology to learn the name of his successor, Valens interpreted their dabbling in magic as treason and sanctioned gruesome prosecutions at Antioch. Lenski suggests that these plotters were lesser bureaucrats, "a group of imperial officials, dissatisfied with their rough and bumbling emperor" (p. 230). Valens seems to have been equally indifferent, and equally paranoid, about the controversies over Christian doctrines. He himself supported an Arianizing version of Christianity, and he occasionally attacked ascetics for their "idleness." But he was also able to work with Basil, the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia who supported a neo-Nicene version of Christianity, because Basil might be able to advance his influence over the kingdom of Armenia. Valens was pragmatic enough to subordinate religious concerns to military and diplomatic demands.

In terms of administrative policies, discussed in Chapter 6, Valens usually followed Valentinian's lead. "This implies a sophisticated system of communication between the two courts and a willingness on the part of Valens to bend to his brother's will" (p. 272). Lenski's synthesis of the policies of the brothers with regard to corruption within the imperial hierarchy, the administration of cities, the provisioning of large cities like Rome and Constantinople, the welfare of ordinary people, and the efficiency of agriculture is outstanding. Equally good is his discussion of their fiscal policies. After Procopius' revolt Valens cut taxes and reformed the procedures for paying and collecting taxes. These generous policies backfired. "The end results were wonderful for the empire's subjects but disastrous for the empire" (p. 303). As a consequence, when Valens faced difficulties with recruiting more soldiers, he thought again about the Goths. By letting them settle in Thrace, he had "the chance to build a barbarian base for recruitment" (p. 319).

But Valens' earlier campaigns had interrupted the traditional interactions between Romans and Goths along the Danube. The Goths were already on the move anyway, terrorized by the oncoming Huns, and their unstructured migration soon turned into an invasion. Chapter 7 discusses Valens' final confrontation with the Goths. He quickly returned from Antioch to Constantinople. Again his relatives let him down, since Gratian and Valentinian II, his nephews who were now the western emperors, were reluctant to help. Valens faced the Goths alone and was killed. "His end at Adrianople would be the most significant event of his career ... It guaranteed that history would view Valens with a jaundiced eye" (p. 341). The nature of his death makes it easy to blame Valens for the failure of the Roman empire.

For all its virtues, Lenski's comprehensive history of Valens does not escape the consequences of its own intense focus on and deprecatory characterization of the emperor. In the introduction Lenski describes his approach as Kaisergeschichte, "emperor history" (p. 2). As a result, while Valens fills the frame, his empire gets lost in the background. In this book the empire seems to consist only of the Balkans and the eastern frontier, the two regions where Valens spent almost all of his reign, as well as occasionally the Rhine and upper Danube frontiers, where Valentinian reigned. The entire western and southern half of the empire, from southern Gaul through Spain, Africa, and Egypt to Palestine, barely appears. Even in the Greek East of Valens' empire so much else was happening during the 360s and 370s: the rise of the new capital at Constantinople, the increasing importance of bishops, nonstop doctrinal disputes, the reassertion of Greek culture promoted by Libanius at Antioch and other teachers elsewhere. Valens' role in these trends rarely appears. Since this Kaiser was so concerned with military campaigns and frontier diplomacy, Lenski's account of Valens focuses on the political and military history of the northern and eastern frontiers at the expense of culture and religion.

A second consequence of Kaisergeschichte is an unintentionally ironic conclusion. In the epilogue Lenski lists the perfect storm of problems that Valens faced: a new ideology of imperial rulership, a usurpation, aggression on the northern and eastern frontiers, disputes over Christianity, limited resources for administration and army, and the settlement of Goths inside the empire. According to Lenski, Valens should be classified among those emperors who "failed ... for want of the proper resources, both internal and external, to make themselves look like winners" (p. 370). Yet, on Lenski's own showing, Valens had had his notable successes. He was "the last Roman emperor to regain suzerainty over an independent Armenian kingdom" (p. 185); he, "rather than his brother, ... was often the leader in economic reform" (p. 287). The empire may have had deep structural problems by the later fourth century, but Valens in fact seems to have coped. He was apparently an active, involved, and devoted emperor. Hindsight also works to Valens' advantage. It was the western half of the empire ruled by his older brother that collapsed a century later and was replaced by barbarian kingdoms. The part of the empire where Valens spent his reign, from the Balkans to Syria, survived for centuries as the eastern Roman empire.

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