Theodosius I

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Theodosius I
Disco de Teodosio.jpg
Emperor of the Roman Empire
Reign19 January 379 – 15 May 392 (emperor in the East);
15 May 392 – 17 January 395 (whole empire)
Predecessor Valens in the East
Gratian in the West
Valentinian II in the West
Successor Arcadius in the East;
Honorius in the West
Co-emperors Gratian (Western Emperor, 379–383)
Valentinian II (Western Emperor, 379–392)
Magnus Maximus (Western Emperor, 384–388)
Flavius Victor (Western Emperor, 384–388)
Arcadius (383–395)
Honorius (393–395)
Born11 January 347
Coca or Italica, modern Spain
Died(395-01-17)17 January 395 (aged 48)
Mediolanum, modern Italy
Spouse1) Aelia Flaccilla (?–385)
2) Galla (?–394)
Issue Arcadius
Galla Placidia
Full name
Flavius Theodosius
Regnal name
Imperator Caesar Flavius Theodosius Augustus
Dynasty Theodosian
Father Theodosius the Elder
Religion Nicene Christianity

Theodosius I (Flavius Theodosius Augustus; [1] Greek : Θεοδόσιος Αʹ; 11 January 347 – 17 January 395), also known as Theodosius the Great, was a Roman Emperor from 379 to 395. On accepting his elevation, he campaigned against Goths and other barbarians who had invaded the Empire. His resources were not sufficient to destroy them or drive them out, which had been Roman policy for centuries in dealing with invaders. By treaty, which followed his indecisive victory at the end of the Gothic War, they were established as foederati , autonomous allies of the Empire, south of the Danube, in Illyricum, within the Empire's borders. They were given lands and allowed to remain under their own leaders, a grave departure from Roman hegemonic ways. This turn away from traditional policies was accommodationist and had enormous consequences for the Western Empire from the beginning of the fifth century, as the Romans found themselves with the impossible task of defending the borders and dealing with unruly federates within. Theodosius I was obliged to fight two destructive civil wars, successively defeating the usurpers Magnus Maximus in 387–388 and Eugenius in 394, though not without material cost to the power of the Empire.


He issued decrees that effectively made Nicene Christianity the official state church of the Roman Empire. [2] [3] He neither prevented nor punished the destruction of prominent Hellenistic temples of classical antiquity, including the Temple of Apollo in Delphi and the Serapeum in Alexandria. He dissolved the Order of the Vestal Virgins in Rome. In 393, he banned the pagan rituals of the Olympics in Ancient Greece. After his death, Theodosius's young sons Arcadius and Honorius inherited the east and west halves of the empire respectively, effectively partitioning the Roman Empire in two for the next 80 years.

Theodosius is considered a saint by the Armenian Apostolic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, [4] and his feast day is on January 17. [5]


Flavius Theodosius was born in Cauca, Carthaginensis, Hispania (according to Hydatius and Zosimus) [6] or in Italica, Baetica, Hispania (according to Themistius, Claudius Claudianus, or Marcellinus Comes), [7] to a senior military officer, Theodosius the Elder [8] and his wife Thermantia. Theodosius learned his military lessons by campaigning on his father's staff in Britannia where he went to help quell the Great Conspiracy in 368.

In about 373, Theodosius was given the title dux Moesiae Primae (military governor of Upper Moesia) replacing his father who was sent to put down a revolt in Africa. [9] In 374, the Quadi and their allies the Sarmatians overran the province of Valeria in Illyricum. [10] Theodosius drove the Sarmatians out of the Roman territory and then defeated the Quadi. [11] [12] He is reported to have defended his province with marked ability and success. [11]

The death of emperor Valentinian I in 375 created political pandemonium. The sudden disgrace and execution of Theodosius' father, Theodosius the Elder, in 376 remains unexplained. At about the same time Theodosius abruptly retired to his family estates in the province of Gallaecia (present day Galicia, Spain and northern Portugal) where he adopted the life of a provincial aristocrat. The reason for his retirement, and the relationship (if any) between it and his father's death is uncertain, though probable.

Nummus of Theodosius I Nummus of Theodosius I (YORYM 2001 12133) obverse.jpg
Nummus of Theodosius I

From 364 to 375, the Roman Empire had been governed by two co-emperors, the brothers Valentinian I and Valens; when Valentinian died in 375, his sons, Valentinian II and Gratian, succeeded him as rulers of the Western Roman Empire. In 378, after the disastrous Battle of Adrianople where Valens was killed, Gratian invited Theodosius to take command of the Illyrian army. As Valens had no successor, Gratian's appointment of Theodosius amounted to a de facto invitation for Theodosius to become co-Augustus of the eastern half of the Empire. After Gratian was killed in a rebellion in 383, Theodosius appointed his own elder son, Arcadius, to be his co-ruler in the East.

His management of the Empire was marked by heavy tax exactions, by the compulsory establishment of Christianity, by a court in which "everything was for sale" [13] , and by victories in two disastrous civil wars. After the death in 392 of Valentinian II, whom Theodosius had supported against a variety of usurpations, Theodosius ruled as sole Emperor, appointing his younger son Honorius Augustus as his co-ruler of the West (in Milan, on 23 January 393) and by defeating the usurper Eugenius on 6 September 394, at the Battle of the Frigidus (Vipava river, modern Slovenia) he restored peace. A few months later he died, leaving the Empire nominally in the hands of his two incapable sons.


By his first wife, the probably Spanish Aelia Flaccilla Augusta, he had two sons, Arcadius and Honorius, and a daughter, Aelia Pulcheria; Arcadius was his heir in the East and Honorius in the West. Both Aelia Flaccilla and Pulcheria died in 385.

His second wife (but never declared Augusta) was Galla, daughter of the emperor Valentinian I and his second wife Justina. Theodosius and Galla had a son, Gratian, born in 388 and who died young, and a daughter, Aelia Galla Placidia (392–450). Placidia was the only child who survived to adulthood and later became an Empress.

Temporary settlement of the Gothic War (379–382)

The Goths and their allies (Vandals, Taifals, Bastarnae and the native Carpians) entrenched in the provinces of Dacia and eastern Pannonia Inferior consumed Theodosius's attention. The Gothic crisis was so dire that his co-Emperor Gratian relinquished control of the Illyrian provinces and retired to Trier in Gaul to let Theodosius operate without hindrance. A major weakness in the Roman position after the defeat at Adrianople was the recruiting of barbarians to fight against other barbarians. In order to reconstruct the Roman Army of the East, Theodosius needed to find able bodied soldiers and so he turned to the most capable men readily at hand: the barbarians recently settled in the Empire. This caused many difficulties in the battle against barbarians since the newly recruited fighters had little or no loyalty to Theodosius. It did not help that Theodosius himself was dangerously ill during many months after his elevation, being confined to his bed in Thessalonica during much of 379. [14]

Roman provinces along the Ister (Danube), showing Dacia, Moesia and Thrace, with Sarmatia to the north and Germania to the northwest. Roman provinces of Illyricum, Macedonia, Dacia, Moesia, Pannonia and Thracia.jpg
Roman provinces along the Ister (Danube), showing Dacia, Moesia and Thrace, with Sarmatia to the north and Germania to the northwest.
Federico Barocci, Saint Ambrose forces Emperor Theodosius I to make penance for the Thessaloniki massacre (1603), left-side nave, Saint Ambrose Altar, Milan Cathedral. 3814 - Milano, Duomo - Federico Barocci (1603) - Ambrogio impone penitenza a Teodosio - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto - 9-July-2007.jpg
Federico Barocci, Saint Ambrose forces Emperor Theodosius I to make penance for the Thessaloniki massacre (1603), left-side nave, Saint Ambrose Altar, Milan Cathedral.

Gratian suppressed the incursions into dioceses of Illyria (Pannonia and Dalmatia) by Alathaeus and Saphrax in 380. [15] He succeeded in convincing both to agree to a treaty and be settled in Pannonia. [16] Theodosius was able finally to enter Constantinople in November 380, after two seasons in the field, having ultimately prevailed by offering highly favorable terms to the Gothic chiefs. [15] His task was rendered much easier when Athanaric, an aged and cautious leader, accepted Theodosius's invitation to a conference in the capital, Constantinople, and the splendor of the imperial city reportedly awed him and his fellow-chiefs into accepting Theodosius' offers. [17] Athanaric himself died soon after, but his followers were impressed by the honorable funeral arranged for him by Theodosius, and agreed to defending the border of the empire. [17] The final treaties with the remaining Gothic forces, signed 3 October 382, permitted large contingents of barbarians, primarily Thervingian Goths, to settle in Thrace south of the Danube frontier. [18] The Goths now settled within the Empire would largely fight for the Romans as a national contingent, as opposed to being fully integrated into the Roman forces. [18]

In 390 the population of Thessalonica rioted in complaint against the presence of the local Gothic garrison. The garrison commander was killed in the violence, so Theodosius ordered the Goths to kill all the spectators in the circus as retaliation; Theodoret, a contemporary witness to these events, reports:

... the anger of the Emperor rose to the highest pitch, and he gratified his vindictive desire for vengeance by unsheathing the sword most unjustly and tyrannically against all, slaying the innocent and guilty alike. It is said seven thousand perished without any forms of law, and without even having judicial sentence passed upon them; but that, like ears of wheat in the time of harvest, they were alike cut down. [19]

Theodosius was excommunicated by the bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose, for the massacre. [20] Ambrose told Theodosius to imitate David in his repentance as he had imitated him in guilt; Ambrose readmitted the emperor to the Eucharist only after several months of penance.

In the last years of Theodosius's reign, one of the emerging leaders of the Goths, named Alaric, participated in Theodosius's campaign against Eugenius in 394, only to resume his rebellious behavior against Theodosius's son and eastern successor, Arcadius, shortly after Theodosius' death.

Civil wars in the Empire (383–394)

The administrative divisions of the Roman Empire in 395, under Theodosius I. Roman empire 395.jpg
The administrative divisions of the Roman Empire in 395, under Theodosius I.

In 383, the usurper Magnus Maximus had deposed and executed Gratian, proclaiming himself emperor of the west. Theodosius, unable to do much about Maximus due to his still inadequate military capability, opened negotiations with the Sasanid Emperor Shapur III. [21] In an attempt to curb Maximus's ambitions, Theodosius appointed Flavius Neoterius as Praetorian Prefect of Italy. [22]

The armies of Theodosius and Maximus fought at the Battle of the Save in 388, which saw Maximus defeated. On 28 August 388 Maximus was executed. [23] Now the de facto ruler of the Western empire as well, Theodosius celebrated his victory in Rome on June 13, 389 and stayed in Milan until 391, installing his own loyalists in senior positions including the new magister militum of the West, the Frankish general Arbogast. [23]

Trouble arose again, after Valentinian quarreled publicly with Arbogast, and was found hanging in his room. Arbogast announced that this had been a suicide. Arbogast, unable to assume the role of Emperor because of his non-Roman background, elected his creature Eugenius, a former teacher of rhetoric whom he had made Valentinian's master of offices. Eugenius made some limited concessions to the Roman religion; like Maximus he sought Theodosius's recognition in vain. In January 393, Theodosius gave his son Honorius the full rank of "Augustus" in the West, citing Eugenius' illegitimacy. [24]

Theodosius gathered a large army, including the Goths whom he had settled in the Eastern empire as Foederati, as well as Caucasian and Saracen auxiliaries, and marched against Eugenius. The two armies faced at the Battle of Frigidus in September 394. [25] The battle began on 5 September 394, with Theodosius' full frontal assault on Eugenius's forces. Theodosius was repulsed on the first day, and Eugenius thought the battle to be all but over. In Theodosius's camp, the loss of the day decreased morale. It is said that Theodosius was visited by two "heavenly riders all in white" who gave him courage. The next day, the battle began again and Theodosius's forces were aided by a natural phenomenon known as the Bora, which produces cyclonic winds. [26] The Bora blew directly against the forces of Eugenius and disrupted the line.

Eugenius's camp was stormed; Arbogast committed suicide and Eugenius was captured and soon after executed. [26] Thus Theodosius became sole Emperor.

Art patronage

Theodosius offers a laurel wreath to the victor, on the marble base of the Obelisk of Thutmosis III at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Theodosius colum, Istanbul.jpg
Theodosius offers a laurel wreath to the victor, on the marble base of the Obelisk of Thutmosis III at the Hippodrome of Constantinople.

Theodosius oversaw the removal in 390 of an Egyptian obelisk from Alexandria to Constantinople. [27] It is now known as the obelisk of Theodosius and still stands in the Hippodrome, [27] the long racetrack that was the center of Constantinople's public life and scene of political turmoil. Re-erecting the monolith was a challenge for the technology that had been honed in the construction of siege engines. The obelisk, still recognizably a solar symbol, had been moved from Karnak to Alexandria with what is now the Lateran obelisk by Constantius II.

The Lateran obelisk was shipped to Rome soon afterwards, but the other one then spent a generation lying at the docks due to the difficulty involved in attempting to ship it to Constantinople. Eventually, the obelisk was cracked in transit. The white marble base is entirely covered with bas-reliefs documenting the imperial household and the engineering feat of removing it to Constantinople. Theodosius and the imperial family are separated from the nobles among the spectators in the imperial box, with a cover over them as a mark of their status. The naturalism of traditional Roman art in such scenes gave way in these reliefs to conceptual art: the idea of order, decorum and respective ranking, expressed in serried ranks of faces. This is seen as evidence of formal themes beginning to oust the transitory details of mundane life, celebrated in Roman portraiture.

The Forum Tauri in Constantinople was renamed and redecorated as the Forum of Theodosius, including a column and a triumphal arch in his honour. [28]

Nicene Christianity becomes the state religion


In 325, Constantine I convened the Council of Nicaea, which affirmed the doctrine that Jesus, the Son, was equal to God the Father and "of one substance" with the Father ( homoousios in Greek). The Council condemned the teachings of Arius, who believed Jesus to be inferior to the Father.

Despite the council's ruling, controversy continued for decades, with several christological alternatives to the Nicene Creed being brought forth. Theologians attempted to bypass the Christological debate by saying that Jesus was merely like (homoios in Greek) God the father, without speaking of substance (ousia). These non-Nicenes were frequently labeled as Arians (i.e., followers of Arius) by their opponents, though not all would necessarily have identified themselves as such. [29]

The Emperor Valens had favored the group who used the homoios formula; this theology was prominent in much of the East and had under Constantius II gained a foothold in the West, being ratified by the Council of Ariminum, though it was later abjured by a majority of the western bishops (after Constantius II's death in 361). The death of Valens damaged the standing of the Homoian faction, especially since his successor Theodosius steadfastly held to the Nicene Creed which was the interpretation that predominated in the West and was held by the important Alexandrian church.

Definition of orthodoxy

On 27 February 380, together with Gratian and Valentinian II, Theodosius issued the decree "Cunctos populos", the so-called Edict of Thessalonica, recorded in the Codex Theodosianus xvi.1.2. This declared the Nicene Trinitarian Christianity to be the only legitimate imperial religion and the only one entitled to call itself Catholic; but the other religions or those who did not support the Trinity, he described as "foolish madmen". [30] He also ended official state support for the traditional polytheist religions and customs. [31]

On 26 November 380, two days after he had arrived in Constantinople, Theodosius expelled the Homoian bishop, Demophilus of Constantinople, and appointed Meletius patriarch of Antioch, and Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the Cappadocian Fathers from Cappadocia (today in Turkey), patriarch of Constantinople. Theodosius had just been baptized, by bishop Ascholius of Thessalonica, during a severe illness.[ citation needed ]

In May 381, Theodosius summoned a new ecumenical council at Constantinople to repair the schism between East and West on the basis of Nicene orthodoxy. [32] The council went on to define orthodoxy, including the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, as equal to the Father and 'proceeding' from Him, whereas the Son was 'begotten' of Him. [33] The council also "condemned the Apollonarian and Macedonian heresies, clarified jurisdictions of the bishops according to the civil boundaries of dioceses and ruled that Constantinople was second in precedence to Rome." [33]

Proscription of pagan religion

Saint Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, Anthony van Dyck, c. 1620 Anthonis van Dyck 005.jpg
Saint Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, Anthony van Dyck, c. 1620

The persecution of pagans under Theodosius I began in 381, after the first couple of years of his reign in the Eastern Roman Empire. In the 380s, Theodosius I reiterated Constantine's ban on some practices of Roman religion, prohibited haruspicy on pain of death, decreed magistrates who did not enforce laws against polytheism were subject to criminal prosecution, broke up some pagan associations and tolerated attacks on Roman temples.

Between 389–392 he promulgated the Theodosian decrees [34] (instituting a major change in his religious policies), [35] :116 which removed non-Nicene Christians from church office and abolished the last remaining expressions of Roman religion by making its holidays into workdays, banning blood sacrifices, closing Roman temples, confiscating Temple endowments and disbanding the Vestal Virgins. [36] The practices of taking auspices and witchcraft were punished. Theodosius refused to restore the Altar of Victory in the Senate House, as asked by non-Christian senators. [35] :115

In 392 he became sole emperor. From this moment till the end of his reign in 395, while non-Christians continued to request toleration, [37] [38] he ordered, authorized, or at least failed to punish, the closure or destruction of many temples, holy sites, images and objects of piety throughout the empire. [39] [40] [41] [42] [43]

In 393 he issued a comprehensive law that prohibited any public non-Christian religious customs, [44] and was particularly oppressive to Manicheans. [45] He is likely to have discontinued the ancient Olympic Games, whose last record of celebration was in 393, though archeological evidence indicates that some games were still held after this date. [46]

Death and legacy

Theodosius died, after suffering from a disease involving severe edema, in Milan on 17 January 395. Ambrose delivered a panegyric titled De Obitu Theodosii [47] before Stilicho and Honorius in which Ambrose praised the suppression of paganism by Theodosius. Theodosius was finally buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople on 8 November 395, [48] in a porphyry sarcophagus that was described in the 10th century by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in the De Ceremoniis . [49]

Theodosius's army rapidly dissolved after his death, with Gothic contingents raiding as far as Constantinople. As his heir in the Eastern Roman Empire he left Arcadius, who was about eighteen years old, [50] and in the Western Roman Empire Honorius, who was ten. [51] Neither ever showed any sign of fitness to rule, and their reigns were marked by a series of disasters. As their guardians Theodosius left Stilicho, who ruled in the name of Honorius in the Western Empire, and Flavius Rufinus who was the actual power behind the throne in the East. Several historians mark the day of Theodosius' death as the beginning of the Middle Ages. [52]

See also

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  1. In Classical Latin, Theodosius' name would be inscribed as FLAVIVS THEODOSIVS AVGVSTVS.
  2. Cf. decree, infra.
  3. "Edict of Thessalonica": See Codex Theodosianus XVI.1.2
  6. Hydatius Chronicon, year 379, II.
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  50. "Arcadius".
  51. "Honorius – Roman emperor".
  52. Norwich, John Julius (1996). Byzantium (First American ed.). New York: Knopf. p. 120. ISBN   0394537785. OCLC   18164817.


Further reading

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Roman Emperor
Served alongside: Gratian, Valentinian II, Arcadius and Honorius
Succeeded by
Arcadius and Honorius
Political offices
Preceded by
Quintus Clodius Hermogenianus Olybrius
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Gratian
Succeeded by
Flavius Syagrius,
Flavius Eucherius
Preceded by
Valentinian II,
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Maternus Cynegius and Magnus Maximus
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Eugenius and Abundantius
Succeeded by
Imp. Caesar Arcadius Augustus III,
Imp. Caesar Honorius Augustus II,
Virius Nicomachus Flavianus