mangling dogs in Bacchic frenzy

I’m high, and listening to some good tunes, and thinking about how life is full of all kinds of ups and downs and how that is superbly exemplified in the life of Flavius Valentinianus who, despite the humiliation of being discharged from the army for incompetence by Emperor Julian, upon rising to the purple restored Christianity’s status as state religion of the Roman Empire, and finally shat himself to death while screaming at a barbarian envoy.

Panta chorei, as Herakleitos said. (“Everything dances.”)

Despite the whole making Christianity the state religion again thing you don’t hear a lot about Emperor Valentinian these days, which is too bad as he was a pretty interesting guy. He was frequently at odds with the clergy, denouncing their venality and political aspirations while they decried his generally tolerant, hands off approach to religion and in particular his refusal to allow them to use the apparatus of the imperium to persecute Pagans, Jews and Christian heretics. The bastard! This laissez-faire attitude was shared by his brother and Co-Emperor in the East Valens, who provoked the ire of the Christian historian Theodoret:

At Antioch Valens spent considerable time, and gave complete license to all who under cover of the Christian name, Pagans, Jews, and the rest preached doctrines contrary to those of the Gospel. The slaves of this error even went so far as to perform Pagan rites, and thus the deceitful fire which after Julian had been quenched by Jovian, was now rekindled by permission of Valens. The rites of the Jews, of Dionysos and Demeter were no longer performed in a corner as they would have been in a pious reign, but by revellers running wild in the forum. Valens was a foe to none but to them that held the apostolic doctrine. Against the champions of the apostolic decrees alone he persisted in waging war. Accordingly, during the whole period of his reign the altar fire was lit, libations and sacrifices were offered to idols, public feasts were celebrated in the forum, and votaries initiated in the orgies of Dionysos ran about in goatskins, mangling dogs in Bacchic frenzy. (Ecclesiastical History 4.21; 5.20)

There was also a lot of “up and down” in Valentinian’s life because of the changes he introduced into the Roman legal code regarding marriages:

Justina became known to Marina Severa, wife of the emperor Valentinian, and had frequent dialogue with the empress, until their intimacy at length grew to such an extent that they were accustomed to bathe together. When Severa saw Justina in the bath she was greatly struck with the beauty of the virgin, and spoke of her to the emperor; saying that the daughter of Justus was so lovely a creature, and possessed of such symmetry of form, that she herself, though a woman, was altogether charmed with her. The emperor, treasuring this description by his wife in his own mind, considered with himself how he could espouse Justina, without repudiating Severa, as she had borne him Gratian, whom he had created Augustus a little while before. He accordingly framed a law, and caused it to be published throughout all the cities, by which any man was permitted to have two lawful wives. The law was promulgated and he married Justina, by whom he had Valentinian the younger. (Socrates Scholasticus, Historia Ecclesiastica IV.31)

Unless Socrates is slandering the Emperor — there’s certainly no trace of this in Roman jurisprudence or the other biographical sources on Valentinian, plus Justina was a fervent Arian, so she might have been the target of the Constantinopolitan’s inky barbs. But I want to believe that it’s true.

3 thoughts on “mangling dogs in Bacchic frenzy

  1. Very interesting post. I don’t know much about the Roman Emperors. Very cool that Flavius Valentinianus didn’t want to persecute the Pagans. I assumed that Julian’s successor would be gunning for the Pagans.


    1. Julian’s immediate successor Jovian did have that agenda, but thankfully didn’t live long enough to implement it. Unfortunately after Valentinian and Valens – and the actual last Pagan Roman Emperor* Eugenios – it’s pretty much all downhill until the Turks conquer Constantinople.

      * Although his rule was never formally recognized, he had the backing of the military and at that time it was the army who made emperors. Of course his eventual defeat rendered the whole issue a moot point, but he’s always been one of my favorite figures from the period.


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