“I have a card for every occasion including one celebrating your execution”
“Blood is red, guts are blue, send me your liver..no..not there yet with that one”
Valentinian I (Latin: Valentinius Romanticus Kisskiss Lovey-Dovicus; 321 – 17 November 375), also known as Valentinian the Great, was Roman Emperor from 364 to 375. Romantic Roman Emperors had been in short supply since ..well the age of Augustus but in 364 A.D. an opportunity arose to rectify this deficiency.
Valentinian was in the right place to get this opportunity, a poet and emperor who would go soft and bendy at the knees if presented with a box of chocolates or the freshly severed head of an enemy. He would kiss them both and give thanks to God for making him one hell of a lucky bastard and then send them a card. It began a tradition that was followed by others, though the dark side of a 'Valentinian Message' got lost over time except in Italy with the Mafia.
At least flower sellers should honour this emperor every time their till trills with money on the 14th February. It was only later that the Church pretended that Valentine's day was named after some obscure saint who was supposed to have been martyred in a Chicago garage a century earlier.
West is the Best, East is the Least
Valentinian (or 'Val'} got his imperial opportunity when his predecessor Jovian had asked for writers to compose some topical jokes to keep his troops entertained as they marched against the Persians. Bringing along his less funnier brother Valens, the two men composed some over ripe couplets to add to messages sent to demoralise the enemy. As is related elsewhere, Jovian and his jokes died a real death. However instead of blaming the dodgy doggerel duo, the Roman Empire instead thought it would be a could funny joke to make Valentinian emperor. Valentinian knew there was no real choice because to refuse meant certain oblivion. It has always been a Roman tradition that anyone who had been offered the imperial job and had turned it down would always be under suspicion from the next emperor.
To the surprise of his army, Valentinian made his brother Valens co-ruler and the brothers decided to go their separate ways. Valentinian took Rome - the Latino West - whilst Valens turned Fat Greek and ran his half of the empire out of Constantinople. Valentinian also took most of the best jokes too as he liked to keep that going as a side hobby when his wife would bolt the bedroom door to prevent entry.
Stuff Rome. Go Milan
Arriving in Rome, Valentinian's elevation to his new role as Emperor didn't help with his family greeting card business, so he moved everything of importance to Milan. When his advisors asked what they should do with the ill dressed barbarians like the Goths, Vandals and Punks who were constantly harassing the Roman frontiers, Valentinian said he would get them angry and goad them into attacking the empire when the army was ready. The emperor had shrewdly seen a barbarian weak spot. They had no conception of humour.
So in Milan, Valentinian set up the Department of Imperial Security with the job of sending cards to Rome's enemies. Mixing love and retribution to really confuse them in roughly equal alliterative meter, the tactic worked - at least in the short term. For example to the Goths, Valentinian sent this card:-
- Gloomy Goth, Why Smell So Bad?,
- You Make a Clean Roman,
- Just Incredibly Sad,
- Scrub Up and Shave, New Smiley Guy,
- Stand by and Shudder,
- And Bloodily Die.
Chewing his stylus, Valentinian is said to have then sent this card to the Vandals:-
- I know this place, to smash and crack,
- So bring brushes and buckets to paint it black,
- We'll write messages of malice, of hate and lust,
- Then I will kill you and grind your bones to dust.
- There were these three Gaels from Hibernia,
- Who took ship and came over all girlier,
- Said one - Now I know this doesn't come easy,
- Said other - In fact I feel a might queasy,
- The third said nothing - he'd been skewered earlier.
When a brave slave complained about the poor standard of Valentinian's purple prose, the emperor showed his generosity of spirit by carefully listening to his critic. Then Valentinian ordered his bodyguards to take the wretch outside and have him pulled in four different directions by horses.
Valentinian tried to encourage his brother Valens to do the same card writing diplomacy tactic to all the troublemakers on his borders but his examples seemed to the Western emperor to be 'urinal and theological'. The Goths, Vandals and others had by now received their unsolicited Roman mail and crossed the border in a mixture of confusion and anger and a wish to stop all further junk Latin postings.
Valentinian's Last Campaign
It seemed the Roman tactic to baffle their enemies had succeeded but the barbarians then challenged Valentinian to a card writing contest. Going against the advice of his own generals, Valentinian took up 'that insolent challenge' and arranged a meeting.
As both armies stood ready and armed, a large table was set between the Romans and the Germanic tribes who had decided to turn up. A large pile of greetings cards and styluses were laid out in neat piles on Valentinian's side of the desk whilst a pile of tree bark, crayons and slates were stacked in a untidy heap where the Germans were to sit. Valentinian was convinced he would win, confident the barbarians would have trouble finding someone able to spell his own name - let alone take the emperor, sandaled toe to patent leather jackboot, in an even fight.
Valentinian strode out from his gathered troops and sat down at the table. After some delay, a German chief came out and joined him but refused to sit down. He was Quango from the Quadi, a smallish barbarian clan who liked everything to come in fours. Quango indicated to Valentinian that he had no need for paper or a writing instrument and asked to 'go first'. Valentinian agreed.
Quango cleared his throat, pulled down his leggings and loosened his bowels in front of the emperor.
- That Roman, is my reply and those of the tribes gathered here. Now it's your turn Valentinian.
The outraged leader of the Roman World, his face purple with rage (to match his imperial purple robes), angrily started to write this:-
- Quango, oh Quango, I bring flowers to your vase
- Sweet smelling roses, to shove right up your Ar..
But Valentinian failed to finish his line and dropped stone dead on the ground, a non-rhyming heart attack had cut him short. The Goths, Vandals and Quasi cheered so much and were so happy to have beaten the over wordy Romans, they left the field and disappeared into the forest.
Valentinian's sudden demise saw an outpouring of grief and card buying in Rome. Despite his failure, Romans in Milan (but not so many Romans in Rome) sent each other messages in the style of Valentinian. Though he had been a strange type of emperor, at least Valentinian had come up with a novel way to deal with Rome's foes. None of his successors in the Western half of the Roman Empire would show any of that skill in future.
- Nero wrote poetry but he wasn't romantic. Marcus Aurelius was the author of various books but didn't try his hand at verse.
- The link between flower shops and organised crime was first noticed in Chicago. Many Mafia dons were 'retired' in them.
- This joke will only work if you know how to say this word in British English and not American English.
Gratian and Valentinian II in the West