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An Alternate History of the Roman Empire: End of a Dynasty

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

By Tim Venning

This long Series of Articles discusses a hypothetical history of the Roman Empire wherein Marcus Aurelius lives longer and so it's more stable. In the first twenty articles this took us to 370. We join the story in the last days of the pagan Emperor Julian, conqueror of Persia.

Julian performing a sacrifice. National Archaeological Museum, Florence. Photo by Francesco Bini and shared under the CC BY 3.0 licence.

The British campaign established Count Theodosius as an Imperial favourite and from 373-6 he was to serve as military governor (‘dux’) of western Mauretania to drive back local desert brigands and set up a new chain of fortresses there too. He was aided by his eponymous son, the future Emperor Theodosius, who had served on Julian’s military staff of young officers (‘Protectores’) in the late 360s and was another of the ambitious and competent younger officers who the Emperor kept an eye on. Julian decided reluctantly that it would be too expensive and time-consuming to spend his resources on conquering Ireland in revenge for the Irish raids. Ireland did not even have towns or major trade and its resources were not spoken of highly by traders who he questioned, so he abandoned the idea.

Later in 371 he returned to Gaul for a winter at Trier and proceeded to the Lower Rhine to revitalize his network of subordinate allied Frankish kings as far as the Elbe and bring in a regular ‘presence’ of armed Roman contractors each year to cut down forests and export the timber along the extant, Roman-built roads to the Rhine to build ships. The Franks were paid in coins and Roman trade-goods for helping this work with their own men and Julian planned this co-operation as a way to ‘Romanise’ the participating local nobles and turn them into semi-Roman aristocrats. He hoped they would learn that you had more success and earned more riches by helping Rome than fighting her. Meanwhile restless young warriors were brought into the Roman army on the Rhine each year and landless peasants could apply to move into Belgica as farmers.

Though back in Gaul and in smart urban circles in Italy snobs sneered that these uncouth Germans had been the ones who burnt and emptied the farms in the first place, back in the 350s, the policy was a great success. It gave a ‘safety valve’ for landless Germans on the plains and in the forests of North West Germany to move into the Empire peacefully rather than forcing their way in as raiders and it also reduced the number of warriors available to would-be raiding warlords. In 372, after a winter at Lugdunum, Julian proceeded to start to send in Roman mining-contractors further South in the Taunus and Harz mountains to search for rumoured precious metals and open new mines to extract silver for coins. The Emperor’s plan was to proceed next to the lands of the Alemanni later in 372 to open those up for Roman contractors too and thus secure a full network of Roman client-kings as far as the Elbe and extend the effective Roman border to that river for its full length from the North Sea to the Carpathian passes.

This did not happen because as he arrived in Argentorate and his first envoys reached the nearer Alemannic kings, some the sons of the men he had defeated and made vassals in the late 350s, he received news that made him turn back. His cousin and effective deputy in the East, Procopius (Praefect of Constantinople in 366-9 and since 371 and in between his two terms Praefect of Antioch in 369-71) warned him that there had been a major revolt by pro-Roman client warlords of the Goths against their new over-king Ermaneric, a former officer in the Roman army in the Balkans in the 350s and an Arian ex-client of Constantius who had set himself up as king of the ‘Ostrogoths’ (East Goths) in the Ukraine after his patron’s death led to him leaving the Empire in a hurry.

Having learned Roman tactics, recruited other ex-Roman officers of Gothic birth and acquired cartloads of Roman artillery from dodgy border salesmen, Ermaneric had set up a new and very large kingdom well away from the Roman border. He was now bold enough to be forcing kings nearer the border into his expanding ‘empire’, so there'd been a revolt secretly backed by the Roman commanders in the lower Danube region. It had however failed to dislodge him and its leaders were fleeing South West with several score thousand followers. Julian had to decide whether or not to admit them to the Empire. Ermaneric would count it a hostile act but if Julian did not rescue them these Roman clients would be massacred and the betrayal of faith would put other Germans off trusting Rome.

The problem of Ermaneric illustrates the way in which the German peoples had been allowed during Rome's distractions due to civil wars and Persia to coalesce into much larger states, which the more vigorous 1st Century Rome had prevented by disruptive campaigns. The fear was that these new Kingdoms would form into a Persia like Peer of Rome which could take and hold territory the way the less organised Alemanni could not. Julian's plans for Germany were built about organising a buffer of client kings that would both disrupt such an enemy and extend his own reach. Supporting Roman clients in the region was thus seen as massively important. Julian had not destroyed one Rival Empire just to allow another to form.

So he ended up hurrying to the lower Danube himself in autumn 372 to ensure that the Germans (women and children included) were not only admitted but treated well and his rigidly honest officers, knowing what the philosopher-Emperor expected of them, showed politeness and fair dealing and executed several contractors who tried to sell the Goths bad food for inflated prices. This secured thousands more farmers for the lower Danube region and troops for the army and, to be on the safe side, as soon as the latter were fully trained Julian sent them to Mesopotamia and Armenia well away from the temptations of linking up with other Germans in Dacia and revolting. Though he prepared for possible war with Ermaneric over his hospitality he was saved from that threat as the Ostrogothic warlord was distracted by the arrival of more ‘barbarians’, this time highly mobile Hunnic horsemen from an Asiatic tribal confederation so far unknown to Rome, on his Eastern frontier on the River Don.

(The coalescence of the German tribes into major Kingdoms among Roman lines with Roman tactics and laws borrowed wholesale was arguably the largest reason for Rome's collapse in our timeline. Ermaneric was a major leader of the Goths in the time before the Hunnic invasion, though the size of his Empire is disputed)

The OTL Ermaneric was a major figure in Germanic folklore. Title page of the first printing of Ermenrichs Tod, by an unknown author. Shared under the CC BY 3.0 licence.

That threat to their Eastern lands was to keep the Goths busy for the rest of Julian’s reign and indeed concluded with Ermaneric being defeated and killed in 376 as the Huns crossed the Don to destroy his army and ravage his kingdom. Julian however was, unusually, inattentive to this ‘minor’ war on the steppes and paid it little heed. In 373 he left the matters of the far North East alone and proceeded to Greece to fulfil a long-held plan by revisiting Athens and inaugurating a major new building programme there to restore this fading second-rate city, now smaller and less important commercially than Corinth, to its old role as the cultural leader of Greece. The ‘Agora’ (main commercial area) was restored, gifts were lavished on the Parthenon and Julian promised to return its great statue of Athena from Constantinople (though due to later events, this didn't happen), and the old annual ‘Dionysia’ theatrical festival was graced with his own presence as guest of honour and judge for several prizes.

After his ceremony-loaded visit to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi to reorganise and refund the priesthood he went on a subsequent tour of the Peloponnese that saw him visiting all the major cities, towns and shrines with Pausanias’ 2nd Century guidebook in hand and ordering the restoration of all former historic sites that had fallen into disrepair. Visits to a school for bringing up boys in the ancient Spartan traditions, nude sport included, at Sparta – which was largely rebuilt as it was falling into decline – and restoration of the ancient shrines at Argos, Tiryns, and Corinth was accompanied by sightseeing at places such as Mycenae. Julian also gave tax-breaks to those who would come back to Greece and farm to offset the decline in population in recent centuries, and after an autumn tour of Thessaly and Macedonia and an emotional visit to Alexander’s birthplace at Pella (now a small market town long past its days of glory) the Emperor proceeded to Constantinople for the winter with his cousin Procopius. A further planned historic tour and local cultural renovation plan for Asia Minor in 374 had to wait as the exiled king Shapur of Persia had invaded his old kingdom from Bactria with an army of Turks and his replacement Hormisdas had appealed to Rome for aid. As Julian hastened East with a crack force of guardsmen from his ‘Comitatus’ to join in an Eastern army rendezvous at Antioch in May 374 he was informed that the ‘men on the spot’ in Mesopotamia, led by his veteran generals Nevitta and Jovinus, had coped with the crisis and Shapur had been ambushed and defeated and was in flight to the Oxus.

This was the Emperor's cue to decide that the time had come for another major Persian war and his completion of the unfulfilled plans of Trajan as well as to emulate Alexander, but this met resistance from most of his senior staff at Antioch. Famously his blunt (and Christian) but highly capable and appreciated general Valentinian, ‘dux’ of Lowe Moesia in 366-8, Dacia in 368-70, and Pontus in 371-4, told him that he should be content with what he had achieved and use Rome’s resources wisely like Augustus and Hadrian had done rather than endlessly seeing out glory. At this juncture the Emperor’s cousin, contemporary, and presumed heir Procopius died suddenly shortly after his arrival in Alexandria to be Praefect there at the end of his service in Constantinople, so with no heir handy if he should die on campaign - as he had refused numerous requests to divorce his, childless but loyal and wise, wife Helena – Julian gave up his plans for an immediate war and returned West to Italy by sea to consider his future. He duly decided to solve the problem of the probable extinction of the House of Constantine in the male line by selecting an heir from among his most suitable and competent senior generals and civilian officials with formal advice from the Senate. He wanted to make sure that the choice was a committed as well as nominal pagan, and the successful candidate was to be required to marry his only surviving relative in the younger generation, Constantius II’s daughter, Constantia (born 360), or if the age-gap was too great to marry off his son and heir to her.

The Emperor was however in no hurry to name an heir and he proceeded to consult widely during his winter in Italy in 374-5, based in Rome and Baiae, and then on his extensive tour of North Africa from Carthage West to Tingis (Tangier) and up into Spain and Lusitania (Portugal) in April to August 375. He then headed by sea from Gades (Cadiz) back to Liguria due to the news that the Huns were invading the Ostrogothic realm and it looked as if the entire realm might fall to a massive horde of ferocious Asiatic horsemen and set off a wave of refugees towards the lower Danube. In the event he was not to face this crisis as on 15 November 375, aged 44, he was killed in a freak hunting accident near Mediolanum while out chasing boar with a group of his senior courtiers and officers.

The sudden death of the Emperor after a reign of fifteen years in the West and fourteen in the East, without any named heir, was a major shock to his elite and to the Empire. Many Christians rejoiced and there were rumours for years that some secretly Christian officers had arranged the ‘accident’ with clerical support to be rid of the ‘Antichrist’ but for the majority this was seen as a grievous loss. With the Huns looking likely to be a major threat, a new Emperor had to be found quickly.

The senior aristocratic general Sallust, a pagan but sympathetic to the Catholic cause and their theology provided that there was no persecution of Arians, was offered the throne but refused it. Equitius, veteran commander of the leading regiment of the ‘Scutarii’ guards, was rejected as too uncouth and the hugely popular and capable Januarius, former ‘dux’ of Lower Germany in the late 360s and a confidante of Julian, was rejected as he was serving too far away (as ‘dux’ of Illyricum) to be able to take over quickly. Several civilian minsters were rejected as not having the confidence of the generals that they would keep up Julian’s expensive military plans, and senior Italian pagan nobles currently serving in the administration at Mediolanum and the City Praefect were rejected as being too hostile to the increasing numbers of Germans in senior military ranks and so likely to purge them and stir up resentment from their colleagues.

(Sallust, Equitius and Januarius were all considered as successors to OTL Jovian, Julian's OTL successor but were discounted for the same reasons they are here)

Eventually the 369-73 military commander of Pannonia, Count Valentinian, son of Count Gratian and recently made commander of the second regiment of ‘Scutarii’, was elected (aged 54) as a compromise despite him being a Christian and was summoned from his post with his guards-regiment at the nearby city. He arrived the next day to accept the offer and to assume the throne, was hailed as Emperor on the parade-ground, and asked his officers’ opinion about appointing a co-ruler. He was told by Dagalaiphus that if he loved his family he would appoint his brother Valens, a competent but unimaginative guards-officer on the Imperial staff a few years his junior, but if he loved the State he would look more carefully. He decided on doing the latter, and ended up choosing his 16-year-old elder son Gratian as is nominal co-ruler and marrying him off to Julian’s young cousin Constantia to add to his legitimacy by a link to the House of Constantine. Valentinian had remarried in 370 to the late rebel Magenentius’ widow Justina so the latter now had a second term as Empress which was unprecedented; her son by Valentinian, the younger Valentinian (II), was aged only four so he was too young to be even nominal co-emperor but was promised the rule of Italy when he was adult.

(In OTL Valentinian I came into power earlier due to Julian's earlier death and did pick his brother as co-ruler. Here, because it's a later date, his son is older and more capable of service.)


Timothy Venning is a respected Historian who won the London University History Prize in 1979 and whose latest straight history book is Cromwell's Failed State. He has also written multiple books of counter factual essays including Caesars of the Bosphorus, Eternal Caesars, King Charles or King Oliver and King Henry IX, all published by Sea Lion Press, and If Rome Hadn't Fallen.


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