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An Alternate History of the Roman Empire: Invasion of the Asylum Seekers

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-one articles this took us to 375. We join the story upon the coronation of Valentinian I and the aftermath of the Hunnic conquest of the Gothic Empire.

Marco Prins photo of the Damaged head of the Emperor Valentinian I. Shared under the CC0 licence.

Valentinian was a cautious man and too new a major figure in the Empire to have any confidence in upsetting either the pagan or the two major Christian factions (Catholic/Orthodox and Arian) by moving too quickly to support any particular religious creed. So for the moment he declared his general adherence to the policies of the House of Constantine of nominal tolerance as he entered his first consulship at Rome in January 376 and then moved to Mediolanum. He dispatched his son Gratian to Trier to rule the North Western lands of Gaul, Britain and the Rhineland with a large entourage. Most notable among this entourage was Gratian's new tutor in classical literature and philosophy, the learned Aquitaine aristocrat Gessius Ausonius from Burdigala, who acted as the new North West Roman regime’s poetic ‘cheerleader’. Most of Julian’s ministers were kept on and the senior general Severus was made ‘Magister Peditum’ in the West and Julian’s pagan Balkans protege Trajan was made ‘Magister Peditum’ in the East.

However Valentinian notably sidelined a number of Julian’s closest military advisers to shore up his own position despite their expertise being useful with a major Gothic tribal movement apparently immanent. Jovinus, Jovius, Arbetio, and Dagalaiphus were all retired and the expert Count Theodosius was packed off to Mauretania on a supposedly important but ‘out of view’ mission to drive back Berber raiders in the Atlas mountains and set up new Roman forts in crucial passes. Ironically this was to lead to more success long-term for Rome than Valentinian had planned as the initiative-seizing Count realized the potential of Sahara trade across the deserts by camel-caravan to the line of oases as far as the distant River Niger. He despatched a small but well-equipped Roman force along this route with local scouts to set up garrisons and lavish gifts on tribal chiefs in 376. This and the resultant Roman commercial alliance with the local Tuareg duly secured a useful and lucrative trade-route to the Niger and its emerging towns and cities. The dilemma long posed by Rome’s top geographers in Alexandria, namely that it would be too costly and time-consuming to send trading ships along the difficult West African coast to trade with the tribal kingdoms of the Malinke and Wolof peoples of the savannah up the Niger, was solved by merchants and officers from Rome running a new and shorter desert trade-route.

But for the immediate future this side-lining meant that Theodosius was out of the running for a major post in Rome, as Julian had recently hinted was coming, and so was his eponymous son the younger Theodosius – who took over the Mauretanian project and welcomed new entrepreneurs from Rome and Carthage to come South and try out the Saharan oases trade-route in 377 when his father fell ill and died. (Some said that Valentinian had had him poisoned out of jealousy.) In early 376 Valentinian followed up his initial ‘raft’ of cancellations of Julian’s banishment of assorted clerics from their sees, confiscations of Church property, and banning of Christians from teaching posts by reversing the oppressive tax-‘hikes’ on their clergy and this duly made him popular among all Christian sects, while his reduction of State grants to pagan priesthoods and temples was not so steep as to arouse alarm that he was irrevocably committed to resuming the Constantinian ‘drive’ for conversions and he cleverly blamed it all on the cost of the Gothic crisis.

However he could only delay some kind of religious trouble for so long. Valentinian had the problem that his wife Justina was funding Arian clerics and churches out of her own fortune and encouraging him to invite Arian as well as orthodox clerics to his court, and in 376 tension began to rise at the Mediolanum court as assorted pagan ministers and courtiers were removed. Valentinian invited the current leading Catholic theologian Basil of Caesarea, Julian’s old intellectual sparring partner from Athens ‘university’, to court to hold talks with other clerics about a new Church Council and statement of doctrine that would comprehend the Arians in the Church. The militant leader Athanasius of Alexandria had died in 375 shortly before Julian so there was no need to put him back in his see and it could be given to a moderate pro-government cleric from Syria, Palladius, who was used to obeying orders and avoided stirring up his excitable and anti-Arian congregation. In Mediolanum itself there was more opposition, the learned and well-liked Christian ‘moderate’ ex-‘corrector’ (regional sub-governor) Aurelius Ambrosius, who became Bishop in late 375 by popular demand though he was not even a deacon, was soon warning his congregation about their Arian rivals and how Justina was trying to get them given new churches and he and Justina became bitter enemies.

The priority for Rome in 376-7, however, was the Goths. The incoming horde of Huns had destroyed the Ostrogothic kingdom on the South Russian steppes in 375 and were now moving as far as the Dniester, burning Gothic settlements and taking the land for their huge flocks of sheep to graze on. Thousands of Goths fled South towards Roman territory seeking sanctuary, and in summer 376 up to 20,0000 of the Tervingi grouping (aka the ‘Visigoths’, West Goths) arrived at the lower Danube. Others under Athanaric threatened to invade Dacia via the Ostrava Gap if they were not admitted, but were blocked for the moment by Roman garrisons on the fortified ‘limes’ there and in the Beskid hills. Valentinian arrived in the middle Danube region with an army in July and received envoys from the Goths seeking peace but a large grant of lands. Valentinian saw in this crisis an opportunity to solve another problem and he set up his base at Carnuntum for negotiations. The Bactrian kingdom of the Persian Exile Ardashir was threatening to take over pro-Roman Hyrcania with a horde of Turkic mercenaries and had killed king Arsaces, and so the Emperor had the bold idea of sending a large force of refugee Gothic warriors off to Persia to stiffen his army there. his would mean he wouldn't need to use his valuable Rhine and Dacian/ Marcomannian troops or too much money in the east.

Eduard Bendemann's painting of Romans and Goths negotiating on the Danube.

The negotiations took many months as he had to allocate empty farms in his Danube territories for the non-combatant Goths and their womenfolk and children and see that the refugees were given adequate food and shelter, and while he was busy ,he neglectfully appointed inexperienced and arrogant but loyal officials to handle the parallel talks with the other horde of refugees on the lower Danube. More competent ex-protégés of Julian at court and in the Balkan army had been sacked or were left out of the project, including the recent potential Imperial candidate Januarius, probably out of fear of them getting too successful and seizing his throne. Valentinian's paranoia was shown as he now acted on garbled and alarmist reports of a ‘plot’ in Constantinople by his spies there and executed the Imperial secretary Theodore, one of the most senior figures at the Eastern court and a protégé of Julian, after he heard that that he and other senior officials had consulted prophecy on who would be the next Emperor. The result was that the new Emperor's name would apparently begin with “Theod” so Valemtinian assumed that this was a bid by the secretary for the throne.

All the participants were interrogated with torture, tried, and executed, and the informant Philippus made all sorts of allegations about widespread divination and astrological consultations by named offenders who were dealt with in a ‘witch-hunt’ on inadequate evidence. Moreover in a blow against the Pagans, divination was banned entirely. In another sign of his paranoid ruling style, Valentinian rewarded the arrogant and authoritarian new ‘Pro-Praefect’ of Rome, his fellow-Cilician and trusted ally Maximin, with the Praetorian Praefecture instead of sacking him from senior office after reports of his arbitrary arrests and exiles of ‘plotters’ later in 376. Though he did appoint the milder Ursicinus to take over in Rome in order to mollify critics. In the aftermath of this, Alavivus and Fritigern, commanders of the Visigoths in the lower Danube region, sent an embassy to Valentinian at Sirmium, his winter 376-7 headquarters, requesting permission to settle in the Empire with their people.

This was granted ,as the Emperor had now received full reports from the Balkans indicating where there were vacant farms to be occupied and the Goths crossed the Danube in April 377 on schedule , but the Emperor did not bother to visit the region to oversee the arrival. He instead went to Constantinople to prepare his campaign to retake Hyrcania and ordered his generals on the lower Danube to collect the required levy of Gothic menfolk of military age and send them to him ready to join his army and leave for Antioch in June. But the Goths were cheated over food-supplies by the corrupt and inefficient local governor Lupicinus and his officials, presented with useless and stale food to eat and inadequate shelter, and when they objected were told to shut up or they would be flogged for mutiny under Roman military law, and a Gothic s revolt against Lupicinus inevitably followed.

The Goths started ravaging lower Moesia and stealing food from towns which they burnt while the local garrisons hid in their forts, outnumbered as many troops had left for the East. When Roman reinforcements arrived from Sirmium and Dacia the Goths were blockaded by generals Trajan and Profutus in the Dobrudja at the mouth of the Danube. Thinking this only a minor mutiny, Valentinian did not bother to send in his main army from the Eastern capital but ordered his local commanders to punish the rioters’ leaders and send the rounded-up levies on to him as he set off for Antioch on schedule. This was a mistake, the revolt was worse than he had thought and it is probable that he only. ignored Trajan’s warnings about it as he feared the latter was trying to play it up in order to get popularity for suppressing it and then launch a coup. In the Emperor's defence however, as the Bactrians had now taken over all of Hyrcania he needed to get his army to Ctesiphon as soon as possible to counter-balance the forced despatch of most of the Roman garrisons there and at local towns to save Media.

Without this Eastern Army, Gothic reinforcements across the Danube would force Trajan and Profutus to withdraw, and the Goths moved South into Thrace to head for Anchialus on the coast. This would allow them to bypass the Roman garrisons in the Balkan range passes, including the well-fortified and defended Shipka Pass. The situation was getting out of control, and in August Valentinian had to admit that his Eastern campaign would have to wait and halted in Galatia before heading back to Constantinople. He arranged a truce with the rebel Bactrian Persians and accepted their occupation of Hyrcania to concentrate on the Goths. This infuriated his generals at Ctesiphon who were on the point of invading Hyrcania from Media and felt abandoned so had he lasted as Emperor a rebellion might have followed but events were to prove it wise. In early 378, with Valentinian back at Constantinople over the winter to assemble a huge army and his forces in Marcomannia and Dacia too busy keeping an eye on their own Gothic refugees to send many troops to the lower Danube, another advance West by the Huns sent a new wave of Goths fleeing into Wallachia.

Their warlords Alatheus and Saphrax led the “Gaethungi” tribal grouping over the lower Danube to reinforce Fritigern. The Imperial generals in Moesia, halted at Silistria, left adequate garrisons there and in other riverine fortresses and moved South East towards the Hebrus valley to await the Emperor’s arrival from Constantinople and the arrival of 40,000 veteran troops from the Rhine sent by Gratian. Count Sebastian, the new ‘Magister Peditum’, led the Imperial vanguard North to catch the main force of Goths camped outside Anchialus and blockade their camp. The Western forces under Count Richomer arrived via Illyria in the Hebrus (Maritza) river valley and headed East to join them but were a couple of weeks behind schedule. A contingent from the ‘comitatus’ at Mediolanum under Sabinian had however arrived (by sea to Thessalonica then marching North East) to join Valentinian himself soon after he left Constantinope with the Syrian- and Mesopotamian-reinforced main Eastern army. Also arrived were a contingent from North Africa under the late Count Theodosius’ son Theodosius, who further enriched his reputation by calmly fighting off an ambush by a large roving raiding-party of Goths on his troops in the hills South East of the Sredna Gore range as he marched to join the Marcomannian/Danube troops near Anchialus. Emboldened by Sebastian’s blockade of the main Gothic force in Anchialus, Valentinian refused to either wait for the remaining Western force under Richomer to join him or to listen to Fritigern’s peace-envoys. He advanced on the Gothic fortified camp near the city and on 9 June 378 attacked with an army which he confidently assumed was much larger and better-armed.

Anchialus in the modern day. Photo by Boby Dimitrov and shared under the CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

As a result the battle of Anchialus was a more ‘close-run thing’ than he expected and his arrogance was criticized by both the exasperated Trajan and by other former generals of Julian who had been used to that ruler’s methodical planning. The superior and better-armoured Roman cavalry reached the Gothic baggage-train and started to pillage it but was cut off by a surprise arrival for more Goths from the Northern side of the camp whose presence had eluded Trajan’s scouts so he had not told Valentinian to beware of reinforcements. Discipline held and the Romans rode back to safety with the main army, but the infantry had to hurry out from positions sooner than expected and drive back the immanent Gothic assault and if it had not been for their archers they would have been overwhelmed as the enemy vanguard was twice the size anticipated.

Valentinian tried to launch a diversion round one wing to tackle the enemy from a new angle, but was cut off and as Trajan and the Imperial army’s deputy commander Count Victor vainly tried to find the Batavian regiment to rescue him he disappeared in the melee. The Emperor either fell in the melee or, as later stories had it, collapsed with a seizure and was carried out of the fighting to a nearby farmhouse which the Goths surrounded and burn down not knowing who was inside, but he was definitely killed, aged 57. The Romans eventually had the victory and the surviving Goths broke out of their blockade and fled back to the lower Danube, but with the Emperor missing and soon assumed to be dead the leading generals, who had lost perhaps a third of their army, were too dazed – and too scared of more Goths turning up and attacking them – to pursue them. The battle was declared as a ‘victor’ and fortunately the enemy leader Fritigern, a former Roman hostage in the 360s and not ill-disposed to the Empire but just angry with its arrogant and crooked officials, had lost at least half his army and also had a train of escaping and starving women and children from the wrecked camp to protect. Fearing a Roman cavalry attack, he quickly sent envoys to the Romans asking for peace and a safe passage back to the Danube to settle his people temporarily on the river-bank below Silistria and Trajan and Victor agreed. He initially pretended that the Emperor was just wounded, but in practical terms they had to accept that the Empire had had a ‘near miss’ for a repeat of the disaster of 251 and with Valentinian dead the latter could be blamed for poor ‘command decisions’ and side-lining competent generals out of jealousy.

His son Gratian was blameless and had the Western army behind him so when he arrived at the main camp a fortnight after the battle he was accepted and hailed as Emperor of the East and West. His position was, however, precarious and if any of the House of Constantine had been alive they would probably have been raised to the throne as co-emperor as the generals and troops alike were abusing Valentinian’s memory as his son arrived. The late Emperor was not hailed as a hero as the equally brave but unfortunate Gordian II had been after being killed at Abrittus in 251; instead it was let out that he had been taken ill during the battle and had been trampled underfoot (which was one of the theories about what had actually happened). Needing to avoid a mutiny, Gratian had to accept this.

On 19 January 379 at Constantinople, Gratian raised the younger Theodosius (aged 31), son of the late Count Theodosius and hugely popular with the troops but less of a threat to him than senior generals like Trajan, Victor, or even his own backer Richomer, to the Emperorship of the East. ‘ Praetorian Praefect of Illyricum’ Olybrius took charge of the transfer of generals and men from the West to reinforce the Eastern army, and a few weeks later Gratian returned to the Rhine. He was probably looking to a number of former senior civil officials of his father’s regime who were close to Theodosius to cement their relationship and keep the latter tied to him as his client – eg Valentinian I’s former ‘quaestor’ (chief legal official) in 375-8, Claudius Antonius, a Catholic Spanish cousin of the new Emperor who now moved to the East with him, and Theodosius’ maternal uncle Flavius Eucherius, Valentinian’s ‘Count of the Sacred Largesses’ (finance minister) in 377-8, who also moved East to become a senior courtier in 380 and was consul in 381. Another of Valentinian’s close Christian noble supporters had been Marcus Syagrius, son of a rich Loire valley noble who had helped to fund Julian’s war in Gaul in the late 350s and then joined his court, who had backed the new Emperor’s candidature with family influence and cash in 375 and was a senior courtier to Gratian in the late 370s; he now moved East too but was his ex-ally Gratian’s nominee to be Eucherius’ fellow-consul in 381 and in the 387 crisis was to urge Theodosius successfully to back Valentinian II against Maximus. Syagrius was also to form a family marital link-up with the dynasty of Theodosius’ leading general Timasiu, consul in 389, and his son was to be governor of SE Gaul (the province centred at Arles) in the mid-390s. This Gallic-Spanish nexus probably helped to keep the two Emperors of 379-83 on good terms and to ensure that Theodosius would back Valentinian II in 387, and some of their clientage were to be in Valentinian II’s court elite in Gaul in 389-92.

(This is a version of the Battle of Adrianople that in real life was a Gothic Victory and a huge blow that the Romans arguably never entirely recovered from. In OTL Valentinian died in 375 after an 11-year reign in the West and his brother Valens was ruling the East during the Gothic crisis. In this version, the Romans are led by the competent Valentinian and not the less capable Valens in the battle with the Goths and so win rather than losing; but the Emperor is killed as in OTL. The accession of Theodosius, chosen by Gratian, is largely as in OTL but he faces a less difficult military inheritance – and a stronger politico-social ‘pagan’ elite to resist his Christianizing plans.)

This is the last of this series of Articles to go up on the website but not the end of the History of this stronger Roman Empire. After all there is still a religious struggle between Paganism,, Arianism and Catholicism to play out and threats from the likes of Alaric and Atilla to deal with. To find out what happened in the 5th and 6th centuries during this timeline, buy the Complete book by Tim Venning, which will be out soon. To wet your appetite further, there is a list of rulers in this timeline, below.


Marcus Aurelius 161-190

Pertinax 190-197 (and co-ruler, titular, Titus Aurelius 190-2)

Septimius Severus 197-218 (Caracalla, co-ruler 198-217)

Geta Severus, 218-228

Alexander Severus, 228-242

Gordianus I, 242-243.

Gordianus II, 243-251.

Gordianus III, 243-252.

Trebonius Gallus, 252-253.

Aemilius Aemilianus, 253.

Lucius Valerian(us), 253 -260.

Gallienus, 253-268.

Claudius II, 268-270.

(Gallic breakaway Empire: Postumus 264- 269, Victorinus 269-70, Tetricus 270-274.)

Aurelianus Restitutor Orbis’, 270 - 280.

Probus, 280-284.

Diocletian, 284-305.

Maximian, 286-305, 307-310.

(British breakaway empire: Carausius 287 – 293, Allectus 293 – 296.)

Constantius I ‘Chlorus : ‘Caesar’ (West) 293-305; ‘Augustus’ (West) 305- 306.

Galerius : ‘Caesar’ (East) 293 - 305: ‘Augustus’ (East) 305-311.

Constantine I ‘the Great’: Far West 306- 340: Centre West 312-340: East 324- 340.

Maxentius : Centre West 306-312

Severus: Centre West 306- 307.

Licinius: East 311 – 324.

Maximin(us): East 311 – 313.

Constantine II; Far West 340- 344.

Constans : Centre West 340-350, Far West 344-350.

(Magnentius, usurper, Far West/ Centre West 350 – 353)

Constantius II : East 340 – 361: Centre West 352-361, Far West 353 – 361.

Julian: Far West 360- 375: Centre West/East 361 – 375.

Valentinian I 375- 378

Gratian: Far West 375 – 383

Valentinian II: Centre West 378 – 387: Far West 389 – 392

Magnus Maximus: Far West 383 – 388: Centre West 387 – 388

Eugenius (usurper): Far West 392- 394.

Theodosius I ‘the Great: East 379 – 405: Centre West 388- 392, 394 – 405 : Far West 394 – 405

Arcadius: East 393 – 408

Honorius: West 395/ 405 - 423

(Constantine ‘III’, usurper in Far West, 408 – 410.)

Theodosius II: East 408 - 450

Pulcheria, ‘Augusta’: East 414 – 458

Constantius III: West 421 – 439

Valentinian III: West 423 – 455

Marcian: East 450 – 459

Gaudentius : West 455 – 469

Leo I: East 459 – 474

Majorian: West 469 – 488.

Leo II: East 474

Zeno: East 474 – 475, 476- 491

Basiliscus: East 475 - 476

Tiberius II Anthemius : West 488 – 496.

Anastasius I: East 491 - 518

Titus II ‘the Reunifier’: West 496 – 542: East 515 – 542.

Heraclius (brother) 542 – 551.

Anastasius II (son) 551- 559.

Nerva II (brother) 559 – 570.


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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