Valentinian III
Golden coin depicting Valentinian III
Head portrait set in a modern bust, Louvre.[1][2]
Roman emperor in the West
Augustus23 October 425 – 16 March 455
SuccessorPetronius Maximus
Theodosius II (425–450)
Marcian (450–455)
Born2 July 419
Died16 March 455 (aged 35)
SpouseLicinia Eudoxia
Placidus Valentinianus[3]
Regnal name
Imperator Caesar Placidus Valentinianus Augustus
DynastyValentinian and Theodosian
FatherConstantius III
MotherGalla Placidia

Valentinian III (Latin: Placidus Valentinianus; 2 July 419 – 16 March 455) was Roman emperor in the West from 425 to 455. Made emperor in childhood, his reign over the Roman Empire was one of the longest, but was dominated by powerful generals vying for power amid civil wars and the invasions of Late antiquity's Migration Period, including the campaigns of Attila the Hun.

He was the son of Galla Placidia and Constantius III, and as the great-grandson of Valentinian I (r. 364–375) he was the last emperor of the Valentinianic dynasty. As a grandson of Theodosius I (r. 379–395), Valentinian was also a member of the Theodosian dynasty, to which his wife, Licinia Eudoxia, also belonged. A year before assuming the rank of augustus, Valentinian was given the imperial rank of caesar by his half-cousin and co-emperor Theodosius II (r. 402–450). The augusta Galla Placidia had great influence during her son's rule. During his early reign Aetius, Felix, and the comes africae, Bonifatius all competed for power within the western empire. Having defeated Felix and Bonifatius, Aetius went on to campaign against the many Germanic tribes invading the empire.

During Valentinian's reign the Huns invaded the Roman Empire. Eventually Aetius would defeat the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Once the Huns returned, Pope Leo I and two other senators convinced Attila to leave. Valentinian himself killed Aetius, and in response Aetius's bodyguards assassinated Valentinian. Valentinian's reign was marked by the ongoing collapse of the western empire.

Family and infancy

Valentinian was born in Ravenna, the capital of the Western Roman Empire, as the only son of Galla Placidia and Constantius III.[4] His mother was the younger half-sister of the western emperor Honorius (r. 393–423), while his father was at the time a patrician and the power behind the throne.[5]

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[citation needed]). 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.[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]

In either 421 or 423, Valentinian was given the title of nobilissimus by Honorius, although this title was not initially recognized in the eastern court of Theodosius II.[4] After the death of Constantius in 421, court intrigue forced Galla Placidia to flee from Honorius and move to Constantinople, where she, Valentinian and Honoria were taken in by Theodosius.[8]

Early reign (423–437)


A carved and gilded gemstone made by Flavius Romulus depicting the coronation of Valentinian III. C. 425 A.D.
A carved and gilded gemstone depicting the coronation of Valentinian III. c. 425 A.D.[9][10]

In 423, Emperor Honorius died, and his primicerius notariorum Joannes took power in Rome. To counter this threat to his power, Theodosius posthumously recognised Valentinian's father as augustus (emperor) and nominated the 5-year-old Valentinian caesar (heir-apparent) for the West in 23 October 424.[11] Theodosius also betrothed his daughter Licinia Eudoxia to Valentinian, who would eventually marry her in 437 when he was 18. On 23 October 425, after Joannes had been defeated in a combined naval and land campaign, Helion, the eastern patricius et magister officiorum, installed Valentinian as augustus in Rome.[8]


Given his minority, the new augustus ruled under the influence of his mother Galla Placidia, one of whose first acts was to install Felix as the magister utriusque militiae in the west.[12] This period was marked by 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 Aetius to Italy in support of Joannes. The Huns agreed to leave Italy, and to evacuate the province of Pannonia Valeria, which was returned to the empire.[13] This allowed Felix and the imperial government to restructure the defences along the Danubian provinces in 427 and 428.[14] In addition, there were significant victories over the Visigoths in Gaul in 426/7 and 430[15][16] and the Franks along the Rhine in 428 and 432.[17]

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, commenced an invasion of Mauretania Tingitana.[17] 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 impaired in consequence.[17]

The initial period of Valentinian's reign was further troubled by a power struggle among the three principal military leaders of the west – Felix, the senior magister militum praesentalis, Bonifatius, the magister militum per Africam and Aetius, the magister militum per Gallias.[15] In 427, Felix accused Bonifatius of treason and demanded that he return to Italy. Bonifatius refused and defeated an army sent by Felix to capture him. Weakened, Felix was unable to resist Aetius who, with the support of Galla Placidia, replaced him as magister militum praesentalis in 429, before having him killed in 430.[18][19]

Bonifatius, in the meantime, had been unable to defeat Sigisvultus, whom Galla Placidia had sent to deal with the rebel. Bonifatius, therefore, entered into an agreement with the Vandals to come to his aid and, in return, they would divide the African provinces between themselves.[20] Concerned by this turn of events and determined to hold onto the African provinces at all costs, the court at Ravenna sought reconciliation with Bonifatius, who agreed in 430 to affirm his allegiance to Valentinian III and stop the Vandal king Gaiseric.[21]

In 431, Bonifatius was crushed and fled to Italy, abandoning western North Africa. The imperial court, and especially Galla Placidia, worried about the power being wielded by Aetius, stripped him of his command and gave it to Bonifatius. In the civil war that followed, Bonifatius defeated Aetius at the Battle of Ravenna, but died of his wounds. Aetius 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.[22] 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,[23] while the Huns were granted new territory in Pannonia Savia to occupy.[13]

Galla Placidia's regency came to an end in 437[14] 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 Aetius.[24]

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 Aetius (437–455)

From 436 to 439, Aetius 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.[25] 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,[26] the same year Valentinian's daughter, Eudocia, was born.[27]

With Aetius occupied 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.[28] This was a major blow because taxes and foodstuffs from these wealthy provinces supported Rome.[29] By 440, Vandal fleets were ravaging Sicily and Aetius coordinated a joint response with the eastern court, with large numbers of Roman troops sent to defend the island from Gaiseric.[29] Hunnic invasions forced the government to abandon this defense and transfer the troops to the Danube.[29]

In 442, Aetius and Valentinian were compelled to acknowledge the Vandal conquests of Proconsular Africa, western Numidia, and Byzacena, in exchange for which Rome was returned the now devastated provinces of Tripolitana, Mauretania Sitifensis, Mauretania Caesariensis, and the remainder of Numidia.[30][31] Gaiseric soon disregarded this arrangement and retook Mauretania Sitifensis and Mauretania Caesariensis, as well as taking Sardinia and Corsica and conducting devastating raids on Sicily.[32]

Unable to pacify Gaiseric by military means, Aetius decided that 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. The idea came to nothing, since Huneric was already married to the daughter of the king of the Visigoths.[33]

The imperial presence in Hispania continued to diminish during the early-to-mid 440s as the Suebi extended their control. By 444, all Spanish provinces had been lost except Hispania Tarraconensis, itself under pressure due to continued Bagaudic uprisings.[34] This loss of territory caused severe financial problems, with the Roman state openly acknowledging that there was insufficient revenue to meet its military needs.[35][36]

The emperor issued a law on 14 July 444, ending bureaucrats' exemption from the recruitment tax.[35] 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 recruit and supply new troops.[36][35] 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.[36] Valentinian himself was not exempt, sacrificing part of his reduced personal income to help the State in its financial straits.[36]

Hunnic invasions

Solidus of Valentinian III marked:
d·n· pla· valentinianus p·f· aug·

In the 440s Valentinian made the Hunnic chieftain Attila honorary magister militum of the western empire, hoping thereby to reduce the threat the Huns posed to the Danubian provinces. To the relief of the western court, Attila concentrated on raiding the eastern empire's provinces in the Balkans from 441 through to 449.[37][38] In 449, Honoria wrote to Attila, offering him half the western empire if he would rescue her from an unwanted political marriage arranged by her brother Valentinian.[37]

Attila had been looking for a pretext to invade the West. In 450 he secured peace with the eastern court and entered the Gallic provinces, having allegedly been bribed by the Vandal king Gaiseric to attack Gaul's population of Visigoths.[37] Valentinian was furious over the invasion. The man who had carried Honoria's message to Attila was tortured to reveal all the details of the arrangement and then beheaded, and the emperor spared Honoria herself only after a great deal of persuasion from Galla Placidia.[39]

In early 451, Attila crossed the Rhine and entered the Belgic provinces, capturing Divodurum Mediomatricum (Metz) on 7 April. Aetius gathered together a coalition of forces, including Visigoths and Burgundians, and raced to prevent Attila from taking the city of Aurelianum (Orléans), successfully forcing the Huns to retreat.[40] The Roman-Germanic forces met Hunnic forces at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, resulting in a victory for Aetius, who sought to retain his position by allowing Attila and a significant number of his troops to escape.[41]

Attila regrouped, and, in 452, invaded Italy. He sacked and destroyed Aquileia and took Verona and Vincentia (Vicenza) as well.[42] Aetius 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 moved back to Rome as Attila approached.[43]

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.[44] The death of Attila in Pannonia in 453 and the power struggle that erupted between his sons ended the Hunnic threat to the empire.[45]


With the Hun invasion thwarted, Valentinian felt secure enough to begin plotting to have Aetius killed, egged on by Petronius Maximus, a high ranking senator who bore Aetius a personal grudge, and his chamberlain, the eunuch Heraclius.[46] Aetius, whose son had married Valentinian's youngest daughter, Placidia, was murdered by Valentinian on 21 September 454.[45] The ancient historian Priscus reported that Aetius 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 Aetius and struck him on the head, killing him on the spot. When Valentinian later boasted that he had done well to dispose of Aetius in such a way, a counsellor famously replied "Whether well or not, I do not know. But know that you have cut off your right hand with your left."[47]

On March 16 of the following year, the emperor himself was assassinated in Rome by two Scythian followers of Aetius: 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.[48] He may also have been taking revenge for the rape of his wife Lucina by Valentinian.[46] The assassination occurred as Valentinian rode his horse on the Campus Martius. As the emperor dismounted to practise 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.[49]

The day after the assassination Petronius Maximus had himself proclaimed emperor by the remnants of the Western Roman army after paying a large donative.[50] 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.[51] King Gaiseric and his Vandals captured Rome a few days later and sacked it for two weeks.[52]

Character and legacy

Valentinian portrayed by Claude Laydu in Attila

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 and devoted to religion, contributing to churches of Saint Lawrence in both Rome and Ravenna.[53]

He also gave 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 Saint 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 also had some minor accomplishments, such as advancing the Christianization of the Roman Army: during the 430s, he began expelling all Jews from the Roman army because he was fearful of their ability to corrupt the Christians they were serving with.[citation needed]

Some historians throughout 18th to 20th century, including Edward Gibbon and John Bagnall Bury, had unfavourable views of Valentinian III.[54][55]


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  2. ^ Lenaghan, J. ", LSA-591 (J. Lenaghan). Discussion: Portrait head of Emperor with diadem (Valentinian III?). From Rome or its environs. Mid-fifth century". Retrieved 4 May 2022.
  3. ^ PLRE II p. 1138
  4. ^ a b Martindale, p. 1138
  5. ^ Martindale, p. 323
  6. ^ Ralph W. Mathisen, "Galla Placidia"
  7. ^ Homs, George. "Placidus Valentinianus "Valentinian III Emperor of Rome" (419–455) » Stamboom Homs » Genealogy Online". Genealogy Online. Retrieved 24 April 2020.
  8. ^ a b Blockley, p. 136
  9. ^ Doyle, Chris (2018). Honorius: The Fight for the Roman West AD 395–423. Routledge. p. 189. ISBN 978-1-317-27807-8.
  10. ^ Lee, A. D. (2013). From Rome to Byzantium AD 363 to 565. Edinburgh University Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-0-7486-6835-9.
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  13. ^ a b Bury, p. 272
  14. ^ a b Bury, p. 240
  15. ^ a b Heather, p. 5
  16. ^ Bury, p. 242
  17. ^ a b c Heather, p. 7
  18. ^ Heather, pp. 5–6
  19. ^ Bury, p. 243
  20. ^ Bury, p. 245
  21. ^ Bury, p. 247
  22. ^ Bury, p. 248
  23. ^ Bury, p. 249
  24. ^ Bury, pp. 250–251
  25. ^ Heather, p. 8
  26. ^ Heather, p. 9
  27. ^ Bury, p. 251
  28. ^ Bury, p. 254
  29. ^ a b c Heather, p. 11
  30. ^ Heather, pp. 11–12
  31. ^ Bury, p. 255
  32. ^ Bury, p. 258
  33. ^ Bury, p. 256
  34. ^ Heather, p. 12
  35. ^ a b c Heather, p. 14
  36. ^ a b c d Bury, p. 253
  37. ^ a b c Heather, p. 15
  38. ^ Bury, pp. 273–276
  39. ^ Bury, p. 290
  40. ^ Bury, p. 292
  41. ^ Bury, p. 293
  42. ^ Bury, pp. 294–295
  43. ^ Gillett 2001, pp. 131–167.
  44. ^ Heather, pp. 17–18
  45. ^ a b Heather, p. 18
  46. ^ a b Bury, p. 299
  47. ^ Priscus of Panium 2015, pp. 125–127.
  48. ^ Priscus of Panium 2015, p. 128.
  49. ^ Priscus of Panium 2015, p. 129.
  50. ^ Bury, pp. 323–324
  51. ^ Bury, pp. 324–325
  52. ^ Bury, p. 325
  53. ^ Ralph W. Mathisen, "Valentinian III (425–455 A.D)"
  54. ^ Gibbon 1825, Ch. XXXV "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.".
  55. ^ Bury 1924, 418–419 "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.".

Primary sources

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Valentinian III Valentinianic dynastyBorn: 2 July 419 Died: 16 March 455 Regnal titles Preceded byHonorius Western Roman emperor 425–455 Succeeded byPetronius Maximus Political offices Preceded byCastinusVictor Roman consul 425–426with Theodosius Augustus Succeeded byHieriusArdabur Preceded byFlorentiusDionysius Roman consul II 430with Theodosius Augustus Succeeded byAnicius Auchenius BassusAntiochus Chuzon Preceded byAsparAreobindus Roman consul III 435with Theodosius Augustus Succeeded byAnthemius IsidorusSenator Preceded byTheodosius AugustusFestus Roman consul IV 440with Anatolius Succeeded byCyrus of Panopolis Preceded byTheodosius AugustusAlbinus Roman consul V 445with Nomus Succeeded byAetiusQ. Aurelius Symmachus Preceded byAstyriusFlorentius Romanus Protogenes Roman consul VI 450with Gennadius Avienus Succeeded byMarcian AugustusValerius Faltonius Adelfius Preceded byAetiusStudius Roman consul VII 455with Procopius Anthemius Succeeded byAvitus Augustus (West)Iohannes (East)Varanes (East)