In this crisis the Empire did not cease to produce able rulers. On Jovian’s death the army and Senate had passed the crown to Valentinian, a blunt and Greekless soldier recalling Vespasian. With the consent of the Senate he had appointed his younger brother Valens as Augustus and Emperor in the East, while he himself chose the apparently more dangerous West. He refortified the frontiers of Italy and Gaul, built up the army to strength and discipline, and again drove the encroaching Germans back across the Rhine. From his capital at Milan he issued enlightened legislation forbidding infanticide, founding colleges, extending state medicine in Rome, reducing taxes, reforming a debased coinage, checking political corruption, and proclaiming freedom of creed and worship for all. He had his faults and his weaknesses; he was capable of cold cruelties to enemies; and if we may believe the historian Socrates, he legalized bigamy to sanction his marriage with Justina,11 whose beauty had been too generously described to him by his wife. Nevertheless, it was a tragedy for Rome that he died so soon (375). His son Gratian succeeded to his power in the West, lived up to his father for a year or two, then abandoned himself to amusements and the chase, and left the government to corrupt officials who put every office and judgment up for sale. The general Maximus overthrew him and invaded Italy in an effort to displace Gratian’s successor and half brother Valentinian II; but the new Emperor of the East, Theodosius I the Great, marched westward, defeated the usurper, and set the young Valentinian firmly on his Milan throne (388).
Theodosius was a Spaniard. He had distinguished himself as a general in Spain, Britain, and Thrace; he had persuaded the victorious Goths to join his army instead of fighting it; he had ruled the Eastern provinces with every wisdom except tolerance; and half the world looked in awe at his astonishing assemblage of handsome features and majestic presence, ready anger and readier mercy, humane legislation and sternly orthodox theology. While he was wintering at Milan a disturbance characteristic of the times broke out in Thessalonica. The imperial governor there, Botheric, had imprisoned for scandalous immorality a charioteer popular with the citizens. They demanded his release; Botheric refused; the crowd overcame his garrison, killed him and his aides, tore their bodies to pieces, and paraded the streets displaying the severed limbs as emblems of victory. The news of this outburst stirred Theodosius to fury. He sent secret orders that the entire population of Thessalonica should be punished. The people were invited into the hippodrome for games; hidden soldiery fell upon them there, and massacred 7000 men, women, and children (390),12 Theodosius sent a second order mitigating the first, but it came too late.
The Roman world was shocked by this savage retaliation, and Ambrose, who administered with stoic Christianity the see of Milan, wrote to the Emperor that he, the Bishop, could not again celebrate Mass in the imperial presence until Theodosius should have atoned before all the people for his crime. Though privately remorseful, the Emperor was reluctant to lower the prestige of his office by so public a humiliation. He tried to enter the cathedral, but Ambrose himself barred the way. After weeks of vain efforts Theodosius yielded, stripped himself of all the insignia of empire, entered the cathedral as a humble penitent, and begged heaven to forgive his sins (390). It was an historic triumph and defeat in the war between Church and state.
When Theodosius returned to Constantinople, Valentinian II, a lad of twenty, proved inadequate to the problems that enmeshed him. His aides deceived him, and took power into their venal hands; his master of the militia, the pagan Frank, Arbogast, assumed imperial authority in Gaul; and when Valentinian went to Vienne to assert his sovereignty he was assassinated (392). Arbogast, inaugurating a long line of barbarian kingmakers, raised to the throne of the West a mild and manageable scholar. Eugenius was a Christian, but so intimate with the pagan parties in Italy that Ambrose feared him as another Julian. Theodosius marched westward again, to restore legitimacy and orthodoxy with an army of Goths, Alani, Caucasians, Iberians, and Huns; among its generals were the Goth Gainas who would seize Constantinople, the Vandal Stilicho who would defend Rome, and the Goth Alaric who would sack it. In a two-day battle near Aquileia, Arbogast and Eugenius were defeated (394); Eugenius was surrendered by his soldiers and slain; Arbogast died by his own hand. Theodosius summoned his elevenyear-old son Honorius to be Emperor of the West, and named his eighteenyear-old son Arcadius as co-Emperor of the East. Then, exhausted by his campaigns, he died at Milan (395), in the fiftieth year of his age. The Empire that he had repeatedly united was again divided, and except briefly under Justinian it would never be united again.
Theodosius’ sons were effeminate weaklings nursed in an enfeebling security. Though their morals were almost as excellent as their intentions, they were not made to be pilots in a storm; they soon lost hold of affairs, and surrendered administration and policy to their ministers: in the East to the corrupt and avaricious Rufinus, in the West to the able but unscrupulous Stilicho. In 398 this noble Vandal arranged the marriage of his daughter Maria to Honorius, hoping to be the grandfather as well as the father-in-law of an emperor. But Honorius proved to be as free of passion as of intellect; he spent his time feeding the imperial poultry with tender affection, and Maria died a virgin after having been for ten years a wife.13
Theodosius had kept the Goths at peace by employing them in war, and by paying them an annual subsidy as allies. His successor refused to continue this subsidy, and Stilicho dismissed his Gothic troops. The idle warriors craved money and adventure, and their new leader, Alaric, provided both with a skill that outplayed the Romans in diplomacy as well as war. Why, he asked his followers, should the proud and virile Goth submit to be a hireling of effete Romans or Greeks, instead of using his courage and his arms to cut out from the dying Empire a kingdom of his own? In the very year of Theodosius’ death, Alaric led almost the whole mass of Thracian Goths into Greece, marched unhindered through the pass of Thermopylae, massacred en route all men of military age, enslaved the women, ravaged the Peloponnesus, destroyed the temple of Demeter at Eleusis, and spared Athens only on receiving a ransom that absorbed most of the city’s movable wealth (396). Stilicho went to the rescue, but too late; he maneuvered the Goths into an indefensible position, but made truce with them when a revolution in Africa called him back to the West. Alaric signed an alliance with Arcadius, who allowed him to settle his Goths in Epirus. For four years the Empire was at peace.
It was during those years that Synesius of Cyrene, half Christian bishop and half pagan philosopher, in an address before Arcadius’ luxury-loving court at Constantinople, described with clarity and force the alternatives that faced Greece and Rome. How could the Empire survive if its citizens continued to shirk military service, and to entrust its defense to mercenaries recruited from the very nations that threatened it? He proposed an end to luxury and ease and the enlistment or conscription of a citizen army aroused to fight for country and freedom; and he called upon Arcadius and Honorius to rise and smite the insolent barbarian hosts within the Empire, and to drive them back to their lairs behind the Black Sea, the Danube, and the Rhine. The court applauded Synesius’ address as an elegant oratorical exercise, and returned to its feasts.14 Meanwhile Alaric compelled the armorers of Epirus to make for his Goths a full supply of pikes, swords, helmets, and shields.
In 401 he invaded Italy, plundering as he came. Thousands of refugees poured into Milan and Ravenna, and then fled to Rome; farmers took shelter within the walled towns, while the rich gathered whatever of their wealth they could move, and frantically sought passage to Corsica, Sardinia, or Sicily. Stilicho denuded the provinces of their garrisons to raise an army capable of stemming the Gothic flood; and at Pollentia, on Easter morning of 402, he pounced upon the Goths, who had interrupted pillage for prayer. The battle was indecisive; Alaric retreated, but ominously toward unprotected Rome; and only a massive bribe from Honorius persuaded him to leave Italy.
The timid Emperor, on Alaric’s approach to Milan, had thought of transferring his capital to Gaul. Now he cast about for some safer place, and found it in Ravenna, whose marshes and lagoons made it impregnable by land, and its shoals by sea. But the new capital trembled like the old when the barbarian Radagaisus led a host of 200,000 Alani, Quadi, Ostrogoths, and Vandals over the Alps, and attacked the growing city of Florentia. Stilicho once more proved his generalship, defeated the motley horde with a relatively small army, and brought Radagaisus to Honorius in chains. Italy breathed again, and the imperial court of patricians, princesses, bishops, eunuchs, poultry, and generals resumed its routine of luxury, corruption, and intrigue.
Olympius, the chancellor, envied and distrusted Stilicho; he resented the great general’s apparent connivance at Alaric’s repeated escapes, and thought he detected in him the secret sympathy of a German with German invaders. He protested against the bribes that on Stilicho’s prompting had been paid or pledged to Alaric. Honorius hesitated to depose the man who for twenty three years had led Rome’s armies to victory and had saved the West; but when Olympius persuaded him that Stilicho was plotting to put his son on the throne, the timid youth consented to his general’s death. Olympius at once sent a squad of soldiers to carry out the decree. Stilicho’s friends wished to resist; he forbade them, and offered his neck to the sword (408).
A few months later Alaric re-entered Italy.