Ancient History & Civilisation

Theodosius I

The death of a ruler inevitably provoked an imperial crisis, and that of an emperor on the battlefield, from which his body was not recovered, an acute one. Theodosius was the son of one of the most prominent military figures under Valentinian, and his father's achievements were crowned by the campaign during which he suppressed the dangerous revolt of Firmus in Mauretania. His son obtained his first major military command in Illyricum in 373/4 and won victories over the Sarmatians, but both men fell drastically from favor in the maneuverings that made Valentinian II Augustus in 375. The father was executed, the son dismissed from service. The later view of Theodosius' accession was that he had been called by Gratian from his home in Spain to rescue Rome from a devastating defeat by barbarians. He did so with such speed and effect that Gratian appointed him as his colleague (Theodoret, HE 5.5–6). In fact the chronology between the death of Valens at Adrianople on August 9, 378, and Theodosius becoming emperor on January 19, 379, rules out this sequence of events. A strong argument has been made to support the view that he was called back out of retirement to resume a military position in the middle Danube region in 377, thus being the strongest candidate for imperial promotion in the crisis of the following year.67

The central issue for the empire was how to deal with the Goths. Although they had been unable to capture the cities, Zosimus says that they occupied the whole of Thrace, and the city dwellers and garrisons were unable to leave the fortifications that protected them (Zosimus 4.25.2).

After the ending of Ammianus' history in 378 the historical record of the remainder of the fourth century becomes extremely fractured and hard to reconstruct. On January 19, 379, Theodosius was made Augustus by Gratian, and given charge of Dacia and Macedonia in eastern Illyricum. By autumn 380 Theodosius had withdrawn to Constantinople, but reinforced the garrisons of cities in Macedonia, which had hitherto been forced to supply food to the Goths (Zosimus 4.31.5–32.3). On January 11, 381, the Gothic leader Athanaric was driven out by a domestic conspiracy and took refuge with the Romans in Constantinople, where he was buried splendidly at his death two weeks later.68 This may have been connected with new thinking about how to tackle the Goths in Thrace, which placed more emphasis on accommodation, rather than outright military victory.69 In 381 troops sent by Gratian from the West, led by the barbarian generals Bauto and Arbogast, drove the Goths out of Macedonia and Thessaly and back to Thrace. The pressure was maintained in 382, and the Goths seem to have been expelled from Illyricum by September 382. An agreement was concluded on October 3, 382. Rome claimed that the Goths surrendered: “We have seen their leaders and chieftains, not making token concessions of a tattered banner, but giving up their weapons and swords with which up to that day they had held sway, and clinging to the knees of the emperor.” But the Goths were to be partners as well as subjects, “sharing their tables, military ventures and public duties.” Moreover, peaceful cooperation between Romans and Goths was not yet a reality but remained a hope for the future: “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” (Themistius, Or. 16, 302; trans. Errington).

As a result of the treaty of 382 the Tervingi and parts of the Greuthungi were allowed to settle on the south bank of the Danube in the provinces of Thracia and Dacia Ripiensis, retaining their own social structure and military organization. According to the Notitia Dignitatum of 394 the Roman army of the West included Gothic units of Visi and Tervingi. The disappearance of earlier leaders such as Fritigern, Sathrax, and Alatheus may be part of the price the Goths had paid, but essentially this was what the Tervingi had asked for in 376. The agreement which they reached with Theodosius was analogous to that struck between Constantine and the Goths in 332, with the essential difference that now the Goths were settled inside the empire. Why had Theodosius and Gratian agreed to this? Firstly, they had suffered a major defeat at Adrianople. Secondly, they had been unable to regain the upper hand decisively between 379–381. Thirdly, the line of defense along the Danube against Huns (Zosimus 4.34.6), and Alans (Ammianus 31.11), on the lower stretches of the river, and against Sarmatians (Ammianus 31.4) and Lentienses (Ammianus 31.10) in the middle Danubian region, was stretched very thin. Fourthly, and probably critically, it was a growing problem to recruit sufficient Roman manpower. Every soldier recruited into a fighting unit was one less tax-payer to the state, and one less colonus available to till the land.70 It was better to enlist the Goths to defend this frontier, than to have them as an enemy within.

There scarcely seems to be sufficient evidence to form a judgment about what legal status the Goths now held in the Roman Empire. On one view they should be regarded as dediticii, enemies who had surrendered and now operated under Roman patronage.71On a more traditional interpretation the deal of 382 was an epoch-making foedus, a full Roman treaty between notionally equal partners.72 In practice the position of the Goths was profoundly ambiguous. They were both subjects of the emperor on imperial soil and loyal subjects of their own tribal rulers. Where did they stand between obedience to Rome and autonomy?

Theodosius and his successors in general were more concerned with internal developments than with frontier defense. Conflicts between Romans and Goths now took place for the most part within the empire. Civil war recurred in the western part of the empire through the 380s and 390s. Internal matters were also dominated by religious issues, or, more precisely, by the determination of the emperors and certain bishops to establish orthodoxy at all costs. This led to them showing much higher levels of intolerance towards pagans, Jews, or heretical Christian sects (see pp. 267–70 and 310–12). Imperial power, interpreted in the narrow sense as the personal authority of the emperor, diminished. The youthful Gratian, the child Valentinian II, and the pious Theodosius were not active military figures, such as Valentinian or even Valens had been. Theodosius inevitably established himself as the dominating figure of the age, but with the appointment of his sons Arcadius, aged six in 383, and Honorius, aged eight in 393, as Augusti, he perpetuated the political precedent set by the promotion of Valentinian II (Plate 3.4). By placing the dynasty's hopes for the future in children, Theodosius acknowledged that senior and experienced political and military men held the reins of power.


Plate 3.4    The base which was set up by the emperor Theodosius I in the hippodrome at Constantinople in 389 to celebrate his victory over the usurper Magnus Maximus, and which supported an imperial trophy, an obelisk, brought from Egypt. The scene depicts the four key members of the imperial dynasty: Theodosius himself, Valentinian II to his left, and Theodosius' two sons, Arcadius and Honorius, who were to succeed him. Officials of the court, bearded in the fashion of the period, surround the imperial group. In the lower tier defeated barbarians offer tribute and supplicate the emperor's clemency (© 2013 White Images/Photo Scala, Florence)

In 383 Magnus Maximus, a senior military figure of Spanish origin who held a command in Britain, mounted a successful challenge to Gratian's rule in the western empire. As with the usurpation of Julian, the sources predictably hesitate between ascribing the initiative to him or to his soldiers.73 Gratian at any rate had allegedly caused resentment by showing favoritism to barbarian soldiers, notably to a group of Alans, at the expense of his Roman troops. Whatever the immediate causes of Maximus' coup, the main issue was surely Gratian's youth and incapacity to provide military leadership in the style which Valentinian had established for the western provinces. Moreover Maximus, as a Spaniard, might have expected to become an acceptable partner to his compatriot, Theodosius. Gratian's soldiers, led by his general Merobaudes, defected, and the emperor was killed at Lyon on August 25, 383. Maximus retained control of the western provinces north of the Alps until 387. He took up residence in Trier, as Valentinian had done, and began negotiations with Valentinian II in Milan, and more importantly with Theodosius in Constantinople, with a view to legitimizing his position. The dealings in the West involved the powerful bishop of Milan, Ambrose, who acted on behalf of Valentinian. Valentinian II effectively rejected Maximus' terms, which would have established the latter as by far the senior partner, as in the relationship of a father to a son (Ambrose, ep. 24). By the end of 384 the battle lines were drawn along the Alpine border. Meanwhile Theodosius was content to recognize Maximus as co-Augustus.

Maximus launched a successful invasion of northern Italy in 387, which displaced Valentinian, and sent the young emperor, his mother Justina, and sister Galla hurrying east to Thessalonica, the easternmost imperial residence in Illyricum, and readily accessible from Constantinople. This was the moment of choice for Theodosius. There were strong arguments for continuing the compact with Maximus. Valentinian was not only militarily weaker than Maximus, but his own family favored Arian Christianity and was in visible conflict with the religious orthodoxy which Theodosius had energetically promoted since the Council of Constantinople in 381. Maximus in contrast was powerful, orthodox, and from the same background as Theodosius. The latter's decision to support Valentinian, taken in the later months of 387, was thus a surprise. Zosimus provides an explanation, which persuaded Gibbon and should also persuade us. Justina offered Theodosius the prospect of marriage to her beautiful daughter Galla, to take the place of his first wife, Aelia Flacilla. Her family meanwhile would revert to Christian orthodoxy.74 Dynastic and religious solidarity could thus be achieved. The episode reveals the influence that women could exercise in the imperial court, a trend which was to become conspicuous and important through the first half of the fifth century.

Once the political and dynastic decision had been taken, Theodosius left his elder son Arcadius as Augustus in Constantinople, and marched swiftly west through Sirmium to Aquileia. Maximus was taken by surprise, seized, and executed. Theodosius continued to Milan, which remained his base until the middle of 391, when he returned to Constantinople. During these two years his clear priority was to restore order and stability to the western empire. The period is famous for his encounters with Ambrose in Milan, who attempted to assert moral and religious authority not only over the emperor but over imperial policy (see pp. 267–9), but Theodosius also reached an accommodation with the western senatorial aristocracy.75 The emperor's visit to Rome in 389 was the occasion for the delivery of Pacatus' Latin panegyric, one of the key sources for his reign.

Valentinian II was dispatched after the death of his mother Justina in 388 to Trier. He was under the control of Arbogast, the Frankish magister militum, who had certainly been appointed by Theodosius, and the relationship is vividly portrayed in an episode which occurred at Vienne, related both by the church historian Philostorgius and by Zosimus, when Arbogast simply ignored an attempt by the emperor to dismiss him from office.76

Theodosius treated Valentinian much as Constantius had the young Julian, expecting him to play the role of imperial figurehead, but entrusting real power to generals appointed by himself. As during the 350s, the policy led to a usurpation, not this time on the part of Valentinian, but a cultivated nobleman Eugenius, who made common cause with Arbogast. Valentinian probably committed suicide at Vienne in May 392, and after a short delay Eugenius was pronounced Augustus.77

Eugenius made every attempt, as Maximus had done, to win recognition from Theodosius, seeking the help of Ambrose as an intermediary and minting coins in the name of Theodosius and Arcadius. He also wooed the support of the senatorial aristocracy of Rome. This provided him with financial resources, but at the price that this came tinged with pagan associations. A year later Theodosius definitively rejected Eugenius' overtures by raising his own younger son Honorius to the rank of Augustus, and set out for the West in 394, as he had done against Magnus Maximus. In September 394 his largely barbarian troops, including twenty thousand Goths, overcame Eugenius' men, who were also mostly of Frankish or Germanic origin, at the battle of the river Frigidus on the road between Aquileia and Emona. Subsequent Christian propaganda made out that Eugenius' troops entrusted their fortunes to the pagan gods Hercules and Jupiter, while Theodosius' barbarians were protected by the labarum, the Christian talisman. Ten thousand Goths fell during the battle, and resentment that their sacrifice had not been justly rewarded by Theodosius and his successor Honorius was one of the chief spurs to Alaric's insubordination over the next fifteen years. The treaty established in 382 between Goths and Romans, which had held firm up to this point, now began to splinter.78 The victorious Theodosius returned to Milan, where he died on January 17, 395.

The reign of Theodosius saw the beginnings of a major shift in the role of the emperors themselves. After 380 it became increasingly unusual for emperors to reside in frontier areas. Theodosius stayed for most of his reign in Constantinople, leaving the city for prolonged periods only to suppress the usurpations of Maximus and Eugenius. Meanwhile his western counterparts also began to restrict their movements. Gratian's activities extended from Trier to northern Italy and to Viminacium on the Danube, corresponding to those of Valentinian I, but his assassination by the followers of Magnus Maximus at Lugdunum in August 383 forced a reappraisal of this pattern. The child emperor Valentinian II was confined to northern Italy, mostly to Milan or Aquileia, until he was driven to seek refuge at Thessalonica. He was reinstated to the Rhineland after the defeat of Maximus, but this was the last time a Roman emperor established a foothold so far north. After the death of Theodosius, Arcadius, who had been Augustus since 383, lived continuously at Constantinople, interrupted only by short summer visits to Ancyra in Galatia, while Honorius, Augustus since 393, was resident in Italy, initially at Milan and after 402 for the most part at Ravenna.

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