Wednesday, May 15, 2019

"Noble in person and excellent in royal manners" ~ Baptism of Desire and the suspicious death of Valentinian II

Potrait of Valentinian II from a statue originally found in Aphrodisias. 
On May 15, anno domini 392, the young Western Roman Emperor Valentinian II was found dead in the imperial residence at Vienne in southern Gaul. It is said he was hanged using his own handkerchief.

Son of the great warrior emperor, Valentinian I, the younger Valentinian had been declared emperor when he was only four years old upon the premature death of is father in AD 375, even though his half-brother, Gratian, already ruled as co-emperor in the West. Under the regency of his mother, the forceful Empress Justina, and the protection of the army, Valentinian II came to an uneasy accommodation with his brother, Gratian. An Arian, Justina dominated the early years of her son's reign while he was still a small child, and is most commonly remembered today as a bitter opponent of Saint Ambrose, archbishop of Milan.

Just as Valentinian II was coming of age, however, a rebellion arose in Britain and the usurper Maximus defeated and killed Gratian. By AD 387, Valentinian II and Justina were forced to flee to the East and seek the protection of the emperor Theodosius in Constantinople. A year later, Theodosius invaded the West and put down the rebellion, re-establishing the now 18 year old Valentinian II on the Western throne and providing him with a powerful guardian — Arbogast.

A Frankish general, Arbogast had little loyalty to Valentinian II and viewed him as an impediment to his own ambitions. The two soon came into conflict and Valentinian, to his chagrin, discovered who truly held the power in the West when his magister militum treated him contemptuously in public and refused to obey orders. The early 6th century pagan historian Zosimus provides a dramatic description of one such incident between the two men:
At length Valentinian, no longer able to submit to his correction, when Arbogastes was approaching him as he sat on the imperial throne, looked sternly upon him, and presented him with a writing, by which he dismissed him from his command. Arbogastes, having read it, replied, "You neither gave me the command, nor can deprive me of it;" and having said this, tore the writing to pieces, threw it down, and retired. From that period their hatred was no longer kept to themselves, but appeared in public. [Zosimus, New History, Book IV]
Such a situation could not long endure without a violent break. Writing about fifty years after the fact, the historian Hermias Sozomen provides the following summary of the events surrounding Valentinian’s death:
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While Theodosius was thus occupied in the wise and peaceful government of his subjects in the East, and in the service of God, intelligence was brought that Valentinian had been strangled. Some say that he was put to death by the eunuchs of the bedchamber, at the solicitation of Arbogastes, a military chief, and of certain courtiers, who were displeased because the young prince had begun to walk in the footsteps of his father, concerning the government, and contrary to the opinions approved by them. Others assert, however, that Valentinian committed the fatal deed with his own hands, because he found himself impeded in attempting deeds which are not lawful in one of his years; and on this account he did not deem it worth while to live; for although an emperor, he was not allowed to do what he wished. [Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VII, Chapter 22]
Socrates Scholasticus, writing at about the same time, provides similar testimony [see Book V, Chapter 25].

Valentinian’s death was deeply lamented by his former opponent, Ambrose, the great champion of orthodoxy at Milan. This was because Valentinian had recently corresponded with the bishop and declared himself willing to throw off Arianism and accept baptism at his hands. Ambrose was preparing to journey to Vienne to accomplish this theological coup when news arrived that Valentinian was dead. Ambrose has left at least two testimonials of his grief in the form of a letter to Theodosius and a funeral oration which he offered in honor of the deceased young emperor. In his letter to the emperor, Ambrose writes:
I am filled, I confess, with bitter grief, not only because the death of Valentinian has been premature, but also because, having been trained in the faith and moulded by your teaching, he had conceived such devotion towards our God, and was so tenderly attached to myself, as to love one whom he had before persecuted, and to esteem as his father the man whom he had before repulsed as his enemy. [Ambrose of Milan, Letter 51]
Sozomen’s account also includes praise of the young emperor’s character as follows:
It is said that the boy was noble in person, and excellent in royal manners; and that, had he lived to the age of manhood, he would have shown himself worthy of holding the reins of empire, and would have surpassed his father in magnanimity and justice. But though endowed with these promising qualities, he died in the manner above related. [Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VII, Chapter 22]
But perhaps most interesting aspect is Ambrose’s funeral oration for Valentinian II and the role it has played over the succeeding centuries in forming Catholic doctrine on the concept known as Baptism of Desire. This notion, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, means that those who perish prior to baptism, like Valentinian II, may receive the efficacy of the sacrament if they profess an explicit desire to receive it together with penitence for their sins and charity. In his funeral oration in honor of Valentinian II, Saint Ambrose says:
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But I hear that you grieve because he did not receive the sacrament of baptism. Tell me: What else is in your power other than the desire, the request? But he even had this desire for a long time, that, when he should come into Italy, he would be initiated, and recently he signified a desire to be baptized by me, and for this reason above all others he thought that I ought to be summoned. Has he not, then, the grace which he desired; has he not the grace which he requested? And because he asked, he received, and therefore is it said: 'By whatsover death the just man shall be overtaken, his soul shall be at rest.’ (Wisdom 4:7) [Taken from Deferrari: "On Emperor Valentinian" in Funeral Orations by Saint Gregory Nazianzen and Saint Ambrose of Milan]
Though accepted as a dogma of the Catholic Church, the concept of Baptism of Desire remains controversial among Christians to this day. Thus we may see the relevance of Valentinian II’s death reflected in theological debates that carry on even to the present time.

Arbogast would eventually get his comeuppance at the hands of Theodosius at the Battle of the River Frigidus a mere two years later.

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