During this time, when the bolts of our frontiers were unfastened, bands of armed barbarians were pouring forth like glowing ashes from Mount Etna.
Brothers in Arms: Valentinian and Valens
The response to Jovian’s death in 364 was not instantaneous. Several possible candidates were considered and rejected, before, by ‘divine inspiration’,2 the choice fell on a Pannonian soldier from a humble background whom we know as Valentinian I. Rome was Emperor-less for over a week until the chosen one was able to join the army at Nicaea, where they acclaimed him as Augustus. They had installed an energetic and decisive disciplinarian who was noted for his religious tolerance, even though he could be cruel, greedy, envious and grasping. Less than a month later, Valentinian I had appointed his rather indecisive, boorish, visually impaired, bow-legged, Arian-fundamentalist brother Valens as co-Emperor.
As winter turned to spring, the two brothers moved to Naïssus, where they came to an arrangement to divide the military commanders, troops and court officials between them. They then made a highly symbolic parting:
Valentinian departed to Mediolanum, Valens to Constantinople.3
This was a key moment. Now, for the first time, the two parts of the Roman Empire were truly separate, although Valentinian could pull rank if he needed to. They took the consular robes on 1 January 365, which was the normal protocol at the beginning of a new reign.
Valens was immediately confronted by a serious challenge to his position. As ever, anyone who could garner the support of a sufficiently powerful or venal group of army officers could orchestrate a coup, and Julian’s pagan relative Procopius did just that. Yet although he played the dynastic card, personally carrying Constantius II’s little daughter in his arms, it turned out to be a real shambles:
No purple robe was available, and he was dressed in a gold-spangled tunic like a court official, though from the waist downwards he looked like a page. He wore purple shoes and carried a spear, with a shred of purple cloth in his hand. Altogether he was a grotesque object such as might suddenly appear on the stage in a satirical farce.4
Yet Procopius won enough backing to secure the control of Constantinople and make inroads into the provinces of Bithynia and Hellespont. In the end defections by his own officers and men caused his defeat in battles at Thyatira in Lycia and Nacolia in Phrygia in 366. Procopius was captured and beheaded, but the whole sorry affair proved that the new Valentinian dynasty could take nothing for granted.
Reprisals followed, and as time went on Valens acquired quite a reputation for savagery. There were vicious persecutions of pagans at Antioch, and on the pretext of eradicating sorcery Valens managed to exterminate practically all the best-known non-Christian philosophers in the Eastern part of the Empire, including Maximus of Ephesus, the man who had turned Julian onto theurgy. One interesting example of the use of magic that Valens so feared was the case of Patricius and Hilarius, who had used a divining device similar to one found in excavations at Pergamon. Amidst prayers and incense they constructed a tripod out of laurel twigs and covered it with a round metal dish engraved with the letters of the Greek alphabet. A ring suspended by a thread was set swinging from it, and would jump to indicate the answer to whatever question was asked. When the consultants enquired who would be the next Emperor, it indicated ΘEO (THEO), which was taken to refer to a Gaulish official called Theodorus. When Valens heard about this the result was torture and beheadings, yet it wasn’t just pagans who suffered. The Arian Valens also directed his venom onto Nicaean bishops, and Rome’s Eastern flank ended up riven by incessant religious intrigue.
Over in the West, Valentinian was being lauded for his statesmanlike qualities:
Even his harshest critic cannot find fault with his unfailing shrewdness in matters of state, especially if he bears in mind that it was a greater service to keep the barbarians in check by frontier barriers than to defeat them in battle.5
Such a policy entailed recruiting barbarians and provincials in Gaul to ensure that Rome’s armies were at full strength, alongside the construction and/or refurbishment of forts, lookout stations and bridgeheads along the Rhine. However, it was never easy for Valentinian to keep tabs on all the goings-on in his Empire, and devious local factions or officials could make the most of this, which is precisely what Romanus, the Comes of Africa, did in 363–4. When a tribe called the Austoriani raided Lepcis Magna, he responded with military assistance, but then demanded 4 000 camels from the hapless locals. They refused. So he abandoned them to the Austoriani. The citizens of Lepcis complained to Valentinian I; Romanus was defended by his own supporters; Valentinian could not decide between the two sides, and promised an inquiry; the Austoriani kept attacking Lepcis; Romanus still did nothing; Valentinian I dispatched a tribune called Pal ladius to pay the African army and report back; Romanus threatened to frame Palladius for embezzling the money; Palladius told the Emperor that the citizens of Lepcis had nothing to complain about; Valentinian I swallowed the whole story; and Romanus got away with it.
In Italy itself Valentinian I developed a life-threatening illness in 367. Various schemes were hatched to find a successor, but he duly made a full recovery and immediately made his eight-year-old son Gratian Augustus (with the approval of the troops). He was the first of the ‘Child Emperors’, and Ammianus Marcellinus was quick to acknowledge the significance of this:
No one before had taken a colleague with power equal to his own except the Emperor Marcus [Aurelius], who made his adopted brother Verus his partner without any inferiority of status as an Emperor.6
There were also ever-increasing tensions between the Emperor and the Senate, which came to a head in a reign of terror orchestrated particularly by the Pannonians Maximinus of Sopianae and his friend Leo. They conducted a series of trials and executions of men and women of mainly senatorial rank who were accused of magic or sex crimes. Valentinian equated these ‘offences’ with treasonable activity, and allowed the use of torture even against those who were hitherto exempt from it: Ammianus Marcellinus’ catalogue of the atrocities committed is both comprehensive and distressing.
It may have been that Valentinian I’s actions at Rome were driven by fears of conspiracy. However rational or otherwise these may have been, in 367 he had to face the very real Barbarica Conspiratio (‘Barbarian Conspiracy’) in Britain, although the term itself is something of a misnomer, since there was never any inclusive sense of Germanic or Celtic identity among the various barbarian tribes. In the far north of Britain were people that the Romans called Picti (‘Picts’). However, Picti is not the name of an ethnic group. It means ‘the Painted Men’, and was a general name by which the Romans, in a typical piece of ‘barbarian stereotyping’, referred to all the tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall. How the Picts differed from neighbouring British tribes, if at all, is unclear, although they appear to have spoken a P-Celtic language like the Britons. However, because they left no written records, we have no idea what they called themselves, although Irish sources refer to them as ‘Cruithne’, which is a Q-Celtic version of a P-Celtic word like Pritani – Britons (Britanni in Latin). Ammianus Marcellinus says that two Pictish tribes, the Dicalydones and Venturiones, had banded together with the warlike Attacotti and the Scotti from Ireland, and had overrun Hadrian’s Wall. Meanwhile, Saxons and Franks had killed the Count of the Saxon Shore and overwhelmed Full-ofaudes, the Duke of Britain. However, these barbarians were not attempting, or even contemplating, conquest of the Empire, and in any case Valentinian I’s Comes Rei Militaris, Theodosius the Elder, quashed the revolt, as well as dealing with another uprising by a chieftain named Firmus in Africa.
Back in the East, meanwhile, Valens had a score to settle with the Goths, 3 000 of whom had supported Procopius in 365. He invaded their territory from Marcianopolis (modern Devnya in Bulgaria) in Lower Moesia, and after building a fort at Daphne, bridging the Danube, harassing the Greuthungi and forcing Athanaric, the Iudex (‘Judge’, i.e., Head of the Royal Clan) of the Tervingi to flee, he made them sue for peace.7 It was actually the disruption of their trade, rather than military defeat, that hit the Goths hardest, and having conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the conflict, both sides were ready to negotiate. In 369 Athanaric and Valens met on boats in the middle of the Danube and agreed that the Goths should be allowed to trade at just two crossing points on the river, and that Gothic chieftains would no longer be subsidized by Rome:
No one saw gold coin counted out for the barbarians, countless talents of silver, ships freighted with fabrics or any of the things we were in the habit of tolerating before, enjoying the fruits of peace and quiet that was more burdensome than the incursions, and paying yearly tribute, which we were not ashamed to do, although we refused to call it by that name.8
Subsequently there was internal warfare among the Goths as a chieftain called Fritigern challenged the humiliated and presumably discredited Athanaric with the support of Roman limitanei.
Valentinian I was somewhat less sanguine in his dealings with the barbarians. He campaigned successfully against the Alemanni, Sarmatians and Quadi, but in the end it was the barbarian ‘attitude problem’ that killed him. In 375 some envoys of the Quadi approached him seeking peace, and on the advice of his Magister Militum Equitius, they were allowed to make their case. They initially blamed foreign brigands for their hostile behaviour, but then they referred to a ‘wrongful and untimely’ attempt by the Romans to build a fort across the Danube. Valentinian I was so livid about this that he suffered a seizure and collapsed:
He tried to speak or give some order; this was clear from the gasps that racked his sides, and from the way in which he ground his teeth and made movements with his arms as if he were boxing. Finally, he could do no more. His body was covered with livid spots, and after a long struggle he breathed his last.9
The succession issue needed to be settled quickly, and the power of the generals as ‘Emperor-makers’ was made clear when Equitius and the Frankish Merobaudes, the main generals of the Western armies, summoned Valentinian I’s ambitious Arian widow Justina and her four-year-old boy to Aquincum (modern Budapest), where the latter was declared Augustus as Valentinian II (see Genealogy Table 6). Neither Valentinian II’s teenaged half-brother Gratian in the West nor Valens in the East was consulted about this – they just had to accept it as a fait accompli. The child ‘governed’ Illyricum under Gratian’s guardianship, Merobaudes’ military expertise and his mother’s influence, and this arrangement seemed to keep everyone grudgingly content. Valentinian I’s advisers, including his old Magister Equitum Count Theodosius the Elder, were eliminated, while Gratian, basing himself at Mediolanum, installed his tutor, the witty, original and occasionally mildly erotic poet D. Magnus Ausonius as Praefectus Praetorio, and also fell under the influence of St Ambrose, the recently appointed Bishop of Mediolanum.
The Huns and the Goths
Over in the East, Valens had been making some reasonably successful interventions in Armenia when, from the Roman perspective, all hell broke loose on the Danube. However, from the trans-Danubian viewpoint, hell came in the shape of nomadic horsemen of debatable, but probably central Asian, origin: the Hunni (‘Huns’).
The very moment they are born, they make deep cuts in their children’s cheeks, so that, when hair appears in the course of time, its vigour might be checked by these furrowed scars [. . .] They have squat bodies, strong limbs, and thick necks, and are so prodigiously ugly and bent that they might be two-legged animals, or the figures crudely carved from stumps which are seen on the parapets of bridges [. . .] They live on the roots of wild plants and the half-raw flesh of any sort of animal, which they warm by placing it between their thighs and the backs of their horses [. . .] They wear clothes made out of linen or the skins of field mice sewn together; and, once they have put on some shabby shirt, they will not take it off again or change it until it has rotted away [. . .] On their heads they wear round hats made of skins, and goatskins on their hairy legs [. . .] They are virtually joined onto their horses, which are tough but deformed [. . .] Whatever they do by day or night, buying or selling, eating or drinking, they do on horseback, even leaning over their horses’ narrow necks to sleep [. . .] They are totally ignorant of the difference between right and wrong, their speech is shifty and obscure, and they are under no constraint from religion or superstition.10
Their fanaticism and unorthodox battle tactics made them even more frightening:
They are lightly armed and so fast and unpredictable that they will scatter suddenly and gallop here and there chaotically, inflicting untold slaughter [. . .] They can fire missiles from far off, arrows tipped not with the usual arrowheads but with sharp splintered bones, which they attach onto the shafts with extraordinary skill. They fight close-to without any fear for their own lives; and while the enemy is busy watching out for sword-thrusts, they catch him with lassoes made out of plaited cloth, so that his limbs get all entangled and he cannot walk or ride.11
Much of this is classic Roman stereotyping: the further removed from the Mediterranean a people was, the weirder and wilder it was thought to be: out to the north-east were the Vidini and Geloni who clothed themselves with the skins of their dead enemies; the Aga thyrsi who painted themselves blue; the cannibal Melanchlaenae (‘Black-cloaks’) and Anthropophagoi (‘Man-eaters’); the Amazons; and worst of all the Huns, who the sixth-century historian Jordanes says were descended from Gothic witches.12 As Guy Halsall has cogently argued,
Roman depictions of barbarians are not part of a dialogue between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (‘we are like this whereas you are like that’) but between ‘us’ and ‘us’, between Romans (‘we are [or, more often, ought to be] like this because they are like that’).13
A similar process can be seen in the derogatory use of ‘the Hun’ for the Germans in British propaganda during the First World War, which has its origin in an address made on 27 July 1900 by Kaiser Wilhelm II to German soldiers bound for China:
Just as a thousand year ago, the Huns under their King Attila gained a good reputation that lives on in the historical tradition, so may the name of Germany become known in such a way in China that no Chinaman will ever again dare to cast even a sideways glance at a German.14
Why the Huns were on the move is not known. Writers at the time painted a picture of them driving other peoples before them, but the reality may not be quite so clear-cut, and it could have been that changing economic conditions in the area between the rivers Tanais (Don) and the Danastius (Dniester) were a factor. Nevertheless, the ancient accounts say that they caused various tribes to flinch away from them in the direction of the Roman Empire as they moved south-eastwards from the steppes, displaced the Alani, who were themselves no pushover, from north of the Caucasus, vanquished the Ostrogoth realm of Ermanaric, and smashed Athanaric’s Visigoth army as they kept on coming across the river valleys of the Tanais, Borysthenes (Dnieper) and Danastius (see Map 8). The various displaced populations started to encroach closer to the Danube and the Rhine. The Goths’ powers of resistance had not been helped by the prior defeats of Athanaric and the Greuthungi by Valens, and when they were now assaulted by the Huns, the ‘greater part of the people’ (Ammianus Marcellinus is vague about who exactly they were) deserted Athanaric and, under Alavivus and Fritigern, fled to the Danube, where in 376 the people whom Ammianus Marcellinus calls the Tervingi begged Valens to grant them safe haven within the Empire.
How many people there were, and what sort of threat they really posed, are questions that we cannot answer definitively. The Romans certainly regarded them as an innumerable horde, and Ammianus Marcellinus quotes Virgil to make his point:
If you wish to know their number, go and tot up the grains
Of sand that are whirled around by a sand-storm in the Sahara.15
Most modern scholarly analysis rejects this, and current guesses average out at about 15 000 to 20 000 warriors plus their dependants. This ought not to have been an insuperable force for Rome’s armies to deal with, but Valens, who was still campaigning against the Sasanians, played his hand differently: he granted their request. Ever since its earliest days, Rome had welcomed immigrants – one of the Roman Empire’s key strengths had always been an ability to assimilate outsiders – and Valens’ hope was that they would provide an important military resource, cultivate the land, and increase his tax revenue. So they were to be allowed into Thrace.
The Romans even helped to ferry the Goths across; Ammianus Marcellinus saw the consequences with 20/20 hindsight:
Diligent care was taken that no future destroyer of the Roman state be left behind, even if he were smitten with a fatal disease.16
The crossing was a chaotic fiasco, and if the immigrants were supposed to be disarmed on the other side, the job was not well done. To make matters worse, the Roman commanders Lupicinus and Maximus treated them disgracefully. Things reached their nadir when, entirely predictably, food started to become scarce, and the rate of exchange became one dead Roman dog for one Gothic slave. Around the same time, the Greuthungi crossed the Danube without Roman authorization, and the two Gothic contingents came together at Marcianopolis, which is where the Roman commanders were based. Here Lupicinus invited Fritigern and Alavivus to a lavish dinner and noisy floorshow, but refused to allow the starving masses into the city to purchase food; when fighting broke out, the Romans had Fritigern and Alavivus’ bodyguard butchered; Fritigern was allowed to return to his people to calm them down; instead he hurried away to ‘set in motion the various incitements that lead to wars’.17 The Romans had missed a golden opportunity: as allies, the Goths could have been the source of strength that Valens had hoped for; as enemies, they would ultimately bring Rome down.
The Goths now lived up to their ‘stereotypical barbarian’ image: they burned and pillaged; they defeated Lupicinus; they received reinforcements from Gothic contingents in the Roman army; they ravaged Rome’s Balkan provinces; they got penned in north of the Haemus mountains, but repelled a Roman attack by forming their wagons into a laager at Ad Salices (in the modern Dobruja) in 377; they broke out again aided by some Huns and Alani; and the storm of destruction resumed, ‘as if the Furies were putting everything in motion’.18
Valens had to respond, and he needed help. He sent Gratian, but he was preoccupied with tribal movements in the West, and in February 378 he had to engage with a large force of Alemanni who crossed the Rhine on the ice, and although he drove them back over the river and restored order in his sphere of influence, the operations cost valuable time.
Having disentangled himself and his comitatenses from the conflict with the Sasanians, Valens moved westwards to Adrianople (see Map 8). Here he was the victim of erroneous intelligence: there were far more Goths there than he had been led to believe. But Valens was irked by, and jealous of, the reports of his nephew’s military success, and so he decided to engage without waiting for Gratian to arrive. However, before he could do this, Fritigern sent a deputation led by a Christian priest, which proposed peace in exchange for a Gothic homeland in Thrace. ‘Loyalty for land’ would become a Gothic mantra over the next decades, but the Roman response would always be the same: outright rejection.
Valens would be the last Roman Emperor personally to lead his men into battle for two centuries. He did so on a hot sunny day in August 378, and made his men march 8 Roman miles to get at the enemy. Fritigern’s warriors had set light to the surrounding countryside, formed their wagons into the customary circle, and were raising their uncanny war cry. As the Romans deployed for battle, another Gothic peace mission was rejected because Valens felt the envoys were of too low rank. The delays were suiting Fritigern anyway, since he was waiting for reinforcements led by Alatheus and Saphrax, and he sent yet another envoy who proposed an exchange of hostages and a personal parley with Valens. This seemed reasonable to the Romans, but as their chosen emissary headed for the Gothic ramparts, Fate intervened.
Some Roman soldiers launched an unauthorized attack; the Goths, having now been joined by Alatheus, Saphrax and some Alani, struck back with a devastating cavalry charge; the Romans rallied; the main battle lines collided; the Roman left wing drove the Goths back to their laager, but became isolated and ‘collapsed like a broken dyke’; the Roman infantry became so compacted that they could not wield their swords effectively; the dust cloud that was thrown up meant that no one could see or avoid incoming missiles; the Goths overwhelmed the Roman baggage trains; and in the end the Romans could not organize an orderly retreat. Ammianus Marcellinus called it the biggest military defeat in Roman history since Hannibal had won the Battle of Cannae nearly 600 years before. Casualty estimates vary between 10 000 and 20 000, and Valens’ body was never recovered. Various accounts of his death became current. In one he was simply killed outright by an arrow, in another he did not die instantly, but was taken to a fortified farmhouse, which was surrounded by Goths who burned the house and everyone in it.
The Goths continued to indulge their appetite for plunder, although they were denied the richest of rewards when they were repulsed from the walls of Adrianople. Roman Emperors generally travelled with large amounts of gold bullion in their baggage-trains, but on this occasion Valens had left the treasure inside the city. A Gothic sortie against Constantinople was also beaten back. The Goths were overawed, partly by the city’s mighty fortifications and the cultural splendours inside them, and partly by Rome’s Saracen allies, one of whom, clad only in a loincloth, hurled himself into the midst of the Gothic forces, slit a man’s throat, put his lips to the wound and sucked out the gushing blood. Such barbarity even appalled Rome’s barbarian foes. However, Fritigern’s Goths did occupy Thrace and Illyricum, driving a wedge between the Roman Empire’s Eastern and Western halves.
Ammianus Marcellinus concluded his history by describing how a large number of Goths who had enrolled in the Roman army were treacherously massacred in order to protect the Eastern provinces. Thereafter, events become quite difficult to piece together, but it is clear that Gratian responded decisively to the disaster at Adrianople. If that defeat had been Imperial Rome’s Cannae, she now needed a latter-day Scipio Africanus, and Gratian’s choice to fulfil this role was the thirty-two-year-old son of the recently deceased Count Theodosius the Elder – Theodosius I. He was of proven military competence, and, like Gratian, embraced the Nicene Creed. He acceded to the purple as co-Augustus on 19 January 379 and took charge of Rome’s Eastern end, along with the dioceses of Dacia and Macedonia.
Theodosius I was fortunate that the death of King Sapor II in 379 inaugurated a period of internal instability in Persia that kept the two powers from fighting one another for some time. In 386 they signed a treaty dividing Armenia between them, although when this was depicted on the base of the obelisk of Theodosius I, which still stands in the Hippodrome in Istanbul, it shows a Roman military victory. Peace with Persia freed Theodosius I to concentrate on the Goths, who might not have had the ability to capture cities, but were still able to take over the whole of Thrace, make incursions into Greece, and create an environment where city dwellers and garrisons were terrified of leaving fortified areas. They also devastated Pannonia, where, in 380, Gratian agreed to let some of them settle on vacant lands under their own chiefs.
On 11 January 381 Athanaric showed up in Constantinople, having been expelled in a dispute among his own tribespeople, although he died a fortnight later. The tide now started to turn Rome’s way. Gratian’s barbarian generals Bauto and Arbogastes (‘Arbogast’) expelled the Goths from Macedonia and Thessaly, and Illyricum was cleared by September 382, paving the way for an accord to be reached in October. At the beginning of 383 Theodosius I celebrated his victory and Themistius delivered a speech to his court, A Thanksgiving for the Peace:
We have seen their leaders and chiefs, not making a show of surrendering a tattered standard, but giving up the weapons and swords with which up to that day they had held power, and clinging to the [emperor Theodosius I’s] knees [. . .] At present their offences are still fresh, but in the not too distant future we shall have them sharing our religious ceremonies, joining our banquets, serving along with us in the army and paying taxes with us.19
Many modern works refer to a foedus (‘treaty’) of 382, and regard it as a watershed in Roman history, the first time a semiindependent non-Roman group had been settled on Roman territory. Yet it has been pointed out that no source prior to Jordanes in the mid-sixth-century ever mentions afoedus with the Goths: rather, the Romans had narrowly prevailed in a difficult war, knew how vulnerable their Danube defences were, and so were prepared to grant the Tervingi land in exchange for peace. Theodosius I and Gratian allowed the Tervingi and some of the Greuthungi to settle as a group on the Empire side of the Danube in the provinces of Thracia and Dacia Ripiensis. It was, at least superficially, a win-win situation.
Religious and Political Divisions
Theodosius I and Gratian also had some spiritual battles that they wanted to win. Contracting a potentially life-threatening illness had prompted Theodosius I to get baptized at an early point in his reign, and on 27 February 380 he issued an Edict to the people of Constantinople:
It is our will that all peoples ruled by our Clemency shall practise that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans [. . .] We shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity. We order that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom we judge de mented and insane, shall [. . .] be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of our hostility, which we shall assume in accordance with divine judgment.20
To help secure this orthodox dominance, Theodosius I fired Constantinople’s Arian bishop Demophilus, and replaced him with the pro-Nicene Gregory of Nazianzus, who was influential when over 200 Eastern bishops convened for the ‘First Council of Constantinople’ in 381. This became recognized as the Second Ecumenical Council, and it formally proscribed Arianism:
No place for celebrating their mysteries, no oppor tunity for practising the madness of their excessively obstinate minds shall be available to the heretics [. . .] The name of the One and Supreme God shall be celebrated everywhere; the observance, destined to remain forever, of the Nicene faith [. . .] shall be maintained. The poison of the Arian sacri lege [. . .] shall be abolished even from the hearing of men.21
All non-adherents to the Nicene Creed were to be banned from entering churches or holding assemblies in towns. They were to be ‘driven away from the very walls of the cities, in order that the Catholic churches throughout the whole world may be restored to all orthodox bishops who hold the Nicene faith’.22 However, the one area where these measures could not penetrate was among the Goths. Bishop Ulfila (‘Little Wolf’), who produced a Gothic translation of the Bible, had been important in their conversion, but his translation has homoiousian traits (he renders the Greek ‘identical to God’ as ‘similar to God’). The Goths duly passed this on to various other Germanic peoples: the sackers of Rome would, in the end, be Arians.
The Edicts from Constantinople were issued in the joint names of Theodosius I, Valentinian II and Gratian, the latter of whom allowed Pope Damasus and his chief adviser Bishop Ambrose to take a hard line against the Arians, while he himself became very proactive in repressing paganism. Gratian cancelled the privileges of the pagan priests and the Vestal Virgins, and had the Altar of Victory removed from the Senate House at Rome again.23 The Senators, notably the Praefectus Urbis Q. Aurelius Symmachus, protested and reminded him that as Pontifex Maximus he had a duty of care to pagan rites, whereupon Ambrose wrote to him in no uncertain terms:
Since, then, most Christian Emperor, you should bear witness of your faith to the true God, along with enthusiasm for that faith, care and devotion, I am surprised that certain people have come to harbour expectations that by imperial edict you might restore their altars to the pagan gods and also provide funds for the celebration of pagan sacrifices.24
Gratian’s riposte to the Senate was to renounce his office on the grounds that it was wrong for a Christian to hold it.
Gratian’s uncompromising stance towards Arians and pagans alienated a large constituency of people who were very tenacious in their beliefs. To make matters worse, although he had a decent military track record, he was still quite young and had an ‘innate tendency to play the fool’,25 while his passion for hunting invited comparisons with Commodus. Neither did the fact that he appeared in public dressed in full Gothic costume shortly after the Battle of Hadrianople endear him to his troops. Allegations of favouritism towards barbarian troops further fanned the flames of discontent, and when he moved the Western court from Treveri to Mediolanum in 380, he effectively loosened his control over Gaul. To make matters worse, when Theodosius I proclaimed his son Flavius Arcadius co-Augustus early in 383 without asking Gratian’s permission, it looked like he was being sidelined by the East. Usurpation was on the cards.
In 383 the inevitable happened. The Roman army in Britain, which was manfully fighting off barbarian attacks from the north, rebelled and elevated Magnus Maximus (‘Great the Greatest’), who was probably the Dux Britanniarum, to the purple. In later times he entered Welsh legend in the story of Mabinogion, and The Dream of Macsen Wledig, and prior to his departure for mainland Europe he seems to have minted coins at Londinium, which depicted a winged Victory hovering over the two Emperors (of which he was going to be the Western one). When he crossed into Gaul, Gratian was deserted by his troops (led by his general Merobaudes) at Paris (recently named as such after the Gallic Parisii tribe) and fled to Lugdunum. There he was betrayed by the governor and killed on 25 August.
Magnus Maximus and Theodosius I had some things in common: both were Spaniards, and both were highly orthodox. Magnus Maximus assumed control over Britain, Gaul and Spain from his capital at Treveri for the next five years, and began negotiating with Theodosius I and Valentinian II, who was currently in Mediolanum, to try to get them to recognize him as their colleague. Theodosius I did acknowledge Magnus Maximus as co-Augustus, but Valentinian II, or more correctly Bishop Ambrose, who was acting on Valentinian II’s behalf, dug his heels in. Magnus Maximus’ terms would have relegated Valentinian II to the junior side of a father/son relationship (he was just twelve years old), and the arrangement was clearly unacceptable to his advisers. The only solution would be a military one.
In 387 Magnus Maximus invaded northern Italy. His success forced Valentinian II, accompanied by his mother Justina and sister Galla, to head east to Thessalonica. This presented Theodosius I with a dilemma he could not shirk. Should he keep faith with Magnus Maximus, who was stronger than Valentinian II, Nicene and Spanish; or should he support his family, despite the fact that Valentinian II was very much under the thumb of Justina, who was not just an Arian, but also even prepared to court pagans and African Donatists to bolster her son’s position? To some surprise, he chose the family option. Zosimus explained why:26 Theodosius I had recently lost his first wife Aelia Flacilla, who had been a model of Christian piety and charity. Justina now offered him her daughter Galla, who was extremely attractive on two counts: (1) she was stunningly beautiful; (2) she was (convolutedly) related to Constantine the Great. Her double allure was too much for Theodosius I, particularly when Justina promised that her family would become orthodox. So he marched against Magnus Maximus. His onslaught was so unexpectedly swift that he caught Magnus Maximus completely unprepared. Having won victories in the Balkans, he descended on Aquileia, where Magnus Maximus was captured and executed in 27 August 388.
Theodosius I, who now ruled both East and West, installed himself at Mediolanum until mid-391. Maximus’ family and close associates were duly put to the sword, but the defeated soldiers were integrated into Theodosius I’s armies. The obelisk of Theodosius I now in the Hippodrome at Istanbul partly celebrates his victory over Magnus Maximus, and its base has relief carvings showing him, Valentinian II, and his two sons Arcadius and Honorius. For now, Arcadius represented him as Augustus of the East, while Valentinian II was reinstated at Treveri under the watchful eye of the Frankish Magister Militum Arbogast.
From here on in, Theodosius I’s battles would be for the soul of the Roman Empire, and his main sparring partner would be Bishop Ambrose. An early trial of strength came in late 388 when a mob led by the Bishop of Callinicum in Mesopotamia (modern al-Rakka in Syria) burned down the local synagogue. Ambrose was outraged when the Emperor ordered it be reconstructed at the incendiaries’ expense: how, he asked, can a Christian Bishop build a ‘home of perfidy, a home of impiety, in which Christ is daily blasphemed’, without violating his faith?27 Theodosius revoked his decision. A more serious dispute between the Bishop and the Augustus broke out in 390. Butheric, the Gothic garrison commander at Thessalonica, had imprisoned a celebrity charioteer for an attempted homosexual rape. This sparked a riot in which Butheric was killed, followed by retaliation by Theodosius I’s troops. The church historian Theodoret reports that seven thousand people lost their lives in lawless and indiscriminate acts of murder, cut down like ears of wheat at harvest time.28
Although Theodosius I had backtracked on his initial vengeful decision, his messengers arrived too late to prevent the massacre. A Roman Emperor ordering Goths to slaughter Roman citizens was a shocking new development, and Ambrose refused to give Theodosius I Holy Communion until he had done some eight months of penance – the so-called penance of Milan.
All this may have influenced Theodosius I’s decision to issue an Edict against pagan sacrifice and cult on 24 February 391:
No-one shall pollute himself with sacrificial offerings; no-one shall slaughter an innocent victim; no person shall approach the sanctuaries, shall wander all over the temples, or revere images created by mortal labour, lest he become guilty by divine and human laws.29
A second decree in July30 extended these provisions to Egypt, and on 8 November 392 his much longer third and final decree went further:
No person at all, of any class or order whatsoever [. . .] shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless statues in any place at all or in any city. He shall not, through more secret wickedness, venerate his household god with fire, his genius with wine, his Penates with fragrant essences [. . .] If any one should dare to immolate a victim for the purpose of sacrifice, or to consult the entrails, he shall be reported in accordance with the example of a person guilty of high treason.31
This hit the Senate particularly hard. They came from a centuries-old tradition where pagan priesthoods and public offices were inseparable, so conversion to Christianity would entail abandoning their cultural heritage. For them, Christianity was about much more than faith.
The year 392 saw another curious event. Valentinian II was found hanged at Vienna (modern Vienne in France). Arbogast said it was suicide, but others suspected foul play. Certainly the swift appointment of a Christian but pagan-sympathetic rhetorician called Flavius Eugenius as his successor has a whiff of conspiracy about it, and the new Augustus had the backing of many Senators. Theodosius I knew that this was not only a threat to him, but, by association, to Christianity itself. He rejected all of Eugenius’ efforts to secure his recognition, and made the situation clear by elevating his younger son Honorius to the rank of Augustus, before mobilizing a formidable army to take on the usurper in 394.
Theodosius I included large numbers of Goths in his army, and not just in the rank and file. Among his commanders was a talented, loyal and brave fighter by the name of Alaric (‘Lord of All’). The armies came together at the River Frigidus (modern Vipava in Slovenia) on 5 September 394. Each side made its religious affiliations clear: Eugenius set up a statue of Jupiter, and images of Hercules adorned his banners; Theodosius led his troops under the Christian labarum. Unusually for an ancient battle, the fighting lasted two days. During the intervening night Theodosius I supposedly prayed for a storm, and had his prayers granted:
Such a fierce wind arose as to turn the weapons of the enemy back on those who hurled them. When the wind persisted with great force and every missile launched by the enemy was foiled, their spirit gave way, or rather it was shattered by the divine power.32
Eugenius was captured and executed; Arbogast escaped but committed suicide; but Christian historians felt that the most high-profile casualty was paganism itself.
Theodosius I had little time to enjoy the fruits of victory: he died at Mediolanum in January 395, leaving his elder son Arcadius as Augustus in the East, and his Magister Utriusque Militiae (‘General in Command of Cavalry and Infantry’) Flavius Stilicho as regent for Honorius in the West. His death marks the moment when the Roman Empire irrevocably split in two.
1 Ammianus Marcellinus, 31.4.9, tr. Kershaw, S.
2 Ibid. 26.1.4.
3 Ibid. 26.5.4.
4 Ibid. 26.6.15, tr. Hamilton, W., op. cit.
5 Ibid. 29.4.1.
6 Ibid. 27.6.16.
7 The Greuthungi and Tervingi are both Gothic peoples, the former variously spelled Grauthingi, Greothingi, Greothyngi, Gruthungi or Grouthingoi, and also called Ostrogothi or Austrogoti by ancient writers; the Tervingi, whose name could be derived from the Gothic triu (= ‘tree’), can also be referred to as Thervingi or Visi.
8 Themistius, Oration 10.135, tr. Moncur, D., in Heather, P. J. and Matthews, J. F., The Goths in the Fourth Century. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1991, p. 40.
9 Ammianus Marcellinus, 30.6.6, tr. Hamilton, W., op. cit.
10 Ibid. 31.2.2 f., tr. in Moorhead, S. and Stuttard, D., op. cit, p. 54 f.
11 Ibid. 31.2.7 f.
12 Jordanes, Getica 24.121–2.
13 Halsall, G., Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376–568, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, reprinted with corrections, 2009, p. 56.
14 Weser-Zeitung, July 28, 1900, second morning edition, p. 1, tr. Kershaw, S.
15 Virgil, Georgics 2.105 f., tr. Day Lewis, C., op. cit.
16 Ammianus Marcellinus, 31.4.5, tr. Rolfe, J. C., Ammianus Marcellinus with An English Translation, vol. 3, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1940.
17 Ibid. 31.5.7.
18 Ibid. 31.10.1, tr. Kershaw, S.
19 Themistius, Orations 16, 210b-c, tr. in Heather, P. J. and Moncur, D., Politics, Philosophy and Empire in the Fourth Century: Themistius’ Select Orations, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001.
20 Theodosian Code 16.1.2 (380 CE), tr. in Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (eds), op. cit., p. 614 f.
21 Theodosian Code 16.5.6 (381 CE), tr. in Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (eds), op. cit., p. 615.
23 Julian had put it back after Constantius II had removed it. See above, p. 328.
24 Ambrose, Epistula 17.3, tr. Croke, B. and Harries, J., Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome, Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1982, p. 30.
25 Ammianus Marcellinus, 31.10.19.
26 Zosimus, New History 4.34.
27 Ambrose, Epistolae 60.16.1101 ff.
28 Theodoret, Church History 5.17.3.
29 Theodosian Code, 16.10.10, tr. Kershaw, S.
30 Ibid. 16.10.11.
31 Ibid. 16.10.12. tr. in Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (eds), op. cit., p. 612.
32 Rufinus, Historia Eremitica 9.33, tr. Cameron, A., op. cit. p. 76.