Fading Legions:
Rage of a Privileged Class

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
July 2016

From the start of their joint reign Roman Emperors Valens (ruler of the East) and his elder brother Valentinian (ruler of the West) found themselves short of cash. Julian the Apostate had spent heavily to found a war of conquest against Sassanid Persia and failed miserably, dying from wounds in 363 AD. His successor, Jovian, promised a huge donative (essentially, a bribe to the troops) to the army upon his taking the purple robes, but found that Julian had already emptied the war chest through extra payments to the unhappy troops to keep them marching eastward. Jovian died before paying the soldiers, leaving Valens and Valentinian on the hook for not only their own donative to the soldiers, but Jovian’s as well. With the army shattered and barbarian threats increasing, when the brothers took the throne in 364 they needed a great deal money.

We’ve looked at the disastrous tax cut pursued by Valens in a hopeless quest for increased revenue through supply-side economics. And also the confiscation of property belonging to those convicted of using magic, and the sale of state property.

Late Imperial Rome suffered from enormous wealth inequality, and this would be a major, if not the major, element in the Western Empire’s destruction a century after the brothers’ reign. The wealthy senatorial families controlled massive latifundia, farms worked by slaves, and even fielded private armies to defend these estates. They enjoyed huge incomes and had little wish to share their money with the Roman state. Yet Valens needed their money.

Valens knew from his time as an estate manager that many wealthy families ignored their taxes while the collectors rigorously exacted the money owed from those less well-connected. In his first move to garner some of this cash, Valens appointed his father-in-law, Petronius, to seek out back taxes and other debts owed by the wealthy to the state.

Petronius, a hard-bitten old soldier, operated in the Eastern capital of Constantinople and earned few friends, ferreting out debts and collecting them by force of arms when necessary. Ammianus Marcellinus described Petronius as “inexorable, cruel and fearlessly hard-hearted.” Ammianus, a cultured Greek pagan from Antioch, despised Valens and his family as backward Christian rubes from the wilds of Pannonia. And apparently, so did many others of his social class.

A gold solidus struck by Procopius. That face on the coinage spelled legitimacy.

Valens, like Valentinian, lacked the classical education of Julian, Rome’s last pagan emperor and a hero to Ammianus. He knew little of philosophy or rhetoric, and did not even speak Greek, rendering him incapable of communicating directly with the Eastern senatorial class. His rustic Latin worked fine with Roman soldiers and traders, but not with those who declared themselves the best people. When a potential savior appeared, the best people therefore quickly rallied around him.

Procopius had commanded the reserve of Julian’s army during the Persian expedition. After the army proclaimed Jovian as the Empire’s next ruler, Jovian sent Procopius to Tarsus with Julian’s corpse so it could be buried there with the appropriate honors. And then Procopius resigned his positions and apparently went into hiding. At some point either Jovian or his successors Valens and Valentinian (Jovian having died unexpectedly after a very brief reign) issued orders for Procopius’ arrest.

By September 365 Procopius had come to the outskirts of Constantinople, hiding out on the nearby estates of friends. Sneaking into the city, he met with potential supporters, most importantly the eunuch Eugenius who promised to raise enough money from the oppressed rich to suborn Valens’ armies. Applying the gold supplied by Eugenius, Procopius paid off two regiments passing through on their way to the Balkans – Constantinople had no garrison – and they proclaimed him Emperor.

Procopius was everything Valens was not. A maternal cousin of Julian, he therefore staked a tenuous claim to the Constantinian dynasty and Procopius’ supporters spread the tale that Julian had named him as his successor should the Emperor fall in battle. He was apparently well educated and skilled in Greek rhetoric – the exact opposite of the country bumpkin Valens. Unusual for a usurper of this time period, he had little military experience beyond his command of Julian’s reserve, rising up through the ranks of the Imperial bureaucracy. The army would not follow him through loyalty, but Procopius and his supporters apparently hoped they would for enough cash. And unlike Valens, Procopius had gold available and a will to spend it.

Moving to consolidate power in and around Constantinople, Procopius arrested Valens’ officials and lured the commander in Thrace to the capital, where he was also imprisoned and his troops bribed into joining the usurper’s ranks. The naval squadron stationed in Constantinople joined Procopius, and he began to steadily seize the Eastern empire’s mints, thereby easing the financial commitment of his supporters (who apparently preferred to buy their revolution with other peoples’ money).

The usurper also deployed another of his advantages: his fine education, with its emphasis on argument and persuasion. A propaganda campaign, spread by handbills pasted on walls (a death-penalty offense under Valens), by speeches and by a concerted campaign of face-to-face discussions, emphasized Valens’ uncouth nature and rustic origins. Where Procopius was an aristocrat and a sophisticated man of letters, Valens had been born of a simple soldier and his peasant wife, and had even dirtied his hands with actual physical labor. Valens was labeled a “Pannonian degenerate” and, in the ultimate insult, a sabaiarius (a beer drinker – real Romans drank wine).

A silver coin of Procopius.

Valens had little more military experience than Procopius, and that at a lower level of responsibility. When word arrived of the revolt he became distraught, telling his staff he would give up the throne; none of the ancient sources directly state that he contemplated suicide. Most of his army had already marched into Syria to confront the Persians. His officers talked him out of his funk, and Valens dispatched an advance force to engage Procopius when he crossed from Constantinople into Asia.

The regiments sent to confront Procopius promptly joined him instead, probably responding to more gold. Procopius expanded his forces, levying slaves and urban poor into new units; though since every losing usurper faced this charge – the very idea of arming the rabble horrified the Best People – it may be a charge levied after the fact. What is clear is that Procopius also called on the Goths to provide 3,000 troops to his cause, citing a 332 treaty requiring their assistance when called that had been signed by Constantine. The Goths duly sent the warriors, but they did not reach Procopius until the usurper had already lost his head.

Generals loyal to Procopius won a series of small victories in Asia, nearly capturing Valens in the process. Valentinian, meanwhile, had marched into Gaul to meet an invasion of the Alamanni and contented himself with sealing the passes leading from Thrace westward to the rest of the Empire. Things were going well for Procopius. And then he got greedy.

Not all of the wealthy supported Procopius with their gold, and many of those who had pitched in felt that they’d given enough once the new Emperor had control of the capital and the mints. But the rebellion had been expensive so far, and the usurper did not have an endless supply of cash. If it ran out, it would take away the advantage that had allowed all of his successes to date. And so Procopius began to pressure cities and wealthy aristocrats to contribute to his cause. Those who donated, he promised, would prosper under his reign. And those who did not had their estates confiscated.

Among the properties seized was an estate belonging to Arbitio, Arbitio had served Constantine the great as a general, and then his son Constantius II as military commander-in-chief. When Julian overthrew Constantius, Arbitio quickly adapted to the new reality and oversaw the kangaroo courts that condemned many of Constantius’ supporters. He retired soon afterwards, and when he refused to join Procopius or give him money, the usurper took his lands.

That drove Arbitio straight into Valens’ camp near Ancyra, the modern Ankara, and gave the Emperor’s side the experienced senior leadership that both armies lacked. Arbitio rallied Valens’ dispirited troops, while reinforcements arrived from the army sent ahead to Syria. In May 366 Valens marched against Procopius, missing the usurper but meeting his general Gomoarius and about half of Procopius’ forces at Thyateira in southwestern Anatolia. The armies arrayed themselves for battle, but Arbitio convinced Gomoarius to not only desert but to hand over Procopius’ marching orders. Valens and Arbitio then intercepted Procopius at Nacoleia, and once again the usurper’s army deserted rather than fight. Two of Procopius’ servants tied him up and presented him to Valens’ men; Valens had Procopius beheaded and executed the servants as well.

Procopius, one of the few Eastern-based usurpers to attempt to seize the Imperial robes, had come close to success not tanks to military strength or skill, but to an abundance of gold. And had the gold held out, he might still have won. Valens, quickly gaining the education he had been denied as a youth, learned two lessons well: First, that he could not remain Emperor – or alive – without gold. Second, that the Goths had joined an attempt at his overthrow and could not be left unpunished.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold denies the validity of supply-side economics.