A Tale of Two Roman Emperors (An op-ed)

by Mike Kimel

A Tale of Two Roman Emperors

It has been about 1,975 years since the death of the Roman emperor Caligula, but his name is still associated with horrors. If contemporary accounts are within a mile of being reliable, he was an insane megalomaniac with delusions of divinity. He was also into large buildings, and he picked up the habit of accusing people of treason. Physically, he was described as being a tall man with noteworthy hair issues. Reputedly, he required very little sleep and had incestuous relations with his sister. Despite all his blustering, Caligula also was one of the few Roman emperors not to get himself embroiled in wars, whether foreign or domestic. Nevertheless, his lack of self-control, his recklessness with the public purse and his apparent lack of basic economic skills caused a lot of damage to Rome’s finances. By then, however, Caligula had alienated pretty much everyone and most Romans were pleased when he was assassinated. Valens, who lived a few hundred years later, was a much less remembered and certainly less hated emperor. (Hopefully I got the details below mostly right.) Valens was appointed co-emperor by hisolder brother, the emperor Valentinian. Valentinian sent Valens to deal with troubles in the Eastern half of the Empire. And Valens had one way of dealing with issues: militarily. He started out by putting down the mutiny of a usurper. Then he crossed the Danube and fought the Goths. After that there was trouble with the Armenians, and the Persians. At about that time, Valentinian died, leaving Valens as the senior Roman Emperor, with Valentinian’s son as his junior partner.

Meanwhile, further away from Rome’s borders, the Huns were on a reign of terror. Several Gothic tribes, pressed hard by the Huns, sought out the protection of the Roman Empire. One of the tribes, the Thuringians, had been allied with Rome in a few small wars, and Valens granted them asylum and land. In exchange, the Thuringians were to give up their arms, and provide military-aged men to participate in the defense of the Empire. The rest, Valens thought, would take up farming like good Romans. Somewhere along the line, something went wrong. A lot of somethings, actually. It seems that the troops available for controlling the border where the Thuringians were to cross were few in number and it is alleged that most of the Thuringians never did give up their weapons. Not long after the Thuringians were admitted, there were complaints from locals that the Goths were raiding and pillaging
within Roman territory. On the other hand, it seems that the Romans were slow in allocating land to the Thuringians. Making matters worse, other Goth tribes crossed into Rome en masse and without permission as they were more afraid of the Huns than they were of the Romans.

Soon there were an awful lot of Goths in one place, far more than the Romans had anticipated. Far fewer of those Goths than the Romans had expected had the makings of good farmers. That led to a famine among the Goths inside the Empire, and with both sides accusing each other of not living up to the treaty, Rome refused to help. The now
starving mass of Goths rebelled. This rebellion at an unimportant edge of the Empire occasionally tookmthe form of small battles when the Goths attacked a military outpost or an enthusiastic local Roman commander forced a fight. For the most part, however, hordes of Goths would descend upon unfortified civilian towns and villages, plundering, destroying, massacring and dragging the survivors away to slavery. Eventually, Valens himself got involved. His involvement amounted to getting himself killed and his army destroyed at the Battle of Adrianople. That only served to inflame the fear of the Goths within the Empire. Even Goths who had had emigrated and integrated successfully decades earlier found themselves under suspicion, as did those serving in the legions.
There were massacres by both sides.

Eventually, Valens’ successor, Theodosius, signed another peace treaty with the Goths under terms far less favorable to Rome. Integration was no longer a goal; the Goths were granted territories within the
Roman Empire and subject to their own laws. Theodosius, like Valens before him, was under the delusion that the Goths would focus their energies on becoming farmers, and he sold the treaty to Rome that way. Needless to say, this was a period of uneasy cooperation and mutual suspicion between the Roman Empire and the Goths. Over time, the Goths came to be viewed as constituting two major groups: the Ostrogoths in the East (mostly the Balkans) and the Visigoths in the West (mostly France and the Iberian peninsula). When Theodosius died, many Goth tribes decided that their treaties with Rome no longer applied. The Visigoths would go on to ravage them Italian Peninsula and sack Rome in 410. The concept of the Roman Empire still carried a bit of weight, so the Western Roman Empire would sputter on, in name at least, for a few more decades. The Eastern Roman Empire dragged itself along for longer, though it too was a shadow of its former self.

The differences between the Caligula and Valens couldn’t be starker. Caligula was lurid, vicious and unpredictable. By all accounts, he was a monster. Valens was more conventional, and more civilized. When the Goths were threatened by the Huns, he was simultaneously humanitarian and pragmatic. He assumed that Goths who had previously allied themselves with Rome would assimilate and become good Romans as so many nations had before. Caligula, of course, gave the benefit of the doubt to no-one. But the bigger difference between the two
emperors was this: the Roman Empire survived Caligula. For practical
purposes, it did not survive Valens.

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