He who has tasted of the Fountain of living water, what else can he desire? What kingdoms? What powers? What riches? Perceiving how miserable even in this world is the condition of kings, how mutable the imperial state, how short the span of this life, what slavery sovereigns themselves endure, seeing that they live not according to their own will but by the will of others.
St Ambrose, Epistles, xxix, 18
Finding itself on Julian's death not only without an Emperor but also -still more important at so critical a moment - without a leader, the Roman army assembled en masse early the following morning to nominate his successor. Their first choice was Sallustius Secundus, the Praetorian Prefect of the East, but he declined absolutely, pleading age and infirmity. Then what seems to have been a relatively small group of soldiers started shouting the name of Jovian, the commander of the imperial guard. Jovian was thirty-two, a bluff, genial soldier, popular with his men; he was also, perhaps significantly, a Christian - a persuasion which in no way diminished his well-known penchant for wine and women. But he was in no sense distinguished, and certainly not of imperial calibre. Why therefore he should have been proposed remains a mystery; and more surprising still is the fact that the cry should then have been taken up by the entire Roman army - so surprising, indeed, that Ammianus Marcel-linus (who was, once again, almost certainly an eye-witness) maintains that the whole thing was a mistake and that most of those present understood the cry to be not 'Jovianus!'but 'Julianus!' and concluded that their former Emperor had unexpectedly recovered and resumed his rank and title. It was only when the tall, prematurely stooping figure of Jovian was paraded before them that 'they realized what had happened, and gave themselves up to tears and lamentations'.
And so, under a new and deeply uninspiring leader, the sad and weary retreat continued along the east bank of the Tigris, still under constant harassment from the Persians, who had been informed by a deserter of Julian's death and hoped to take advantage of any consequent confusion. Within a few days, however, it was noted that they were avoiding pitched battles; and at the beginning of July, after the Roman army had succeeded in making a forced crossing of the river despite all that he could do to prevent it, Shapur decided to offer terms. These were humiliating in the extreme, but Jovian accepted them. The resulting treaty provided for thirty years of peace, together with the restitution to Persia of five frontier provinces conquered by Diocletian and of eighteen important fortresses - including the two key strongholds of Nisibis (Nusaybin) and Singara (Sinjar). Further, the Romans bound themselves not to assist King Arsaces of Armenia against Persian attack - a promise tantamount to renouncing all their claims over that country.
Jovian had made a disastrous beginning to his reign. 'We should have fought ten battles,' explodes Ammianus, 'rather than give up a single one of those fortresses'; and there must have been many in the army who enthusiastically agreed with him. He goes on to suggest that, since the negotiations had taken place only a hundred miles from Roman territory, the army could easily have fought its way to safety without this wholesale capitulation, and that Jovian was interested only in getting home as soon as possible, in order to consolidate his hold upon the throne. Whether this charge is justified or not - and it is only fair to point, out in his defence that a hundred miles through desert terrain is a long way for an army under constant attack and already running dangerously short of food - one could argue that Jovian, in return for all that he had conceded, might at least have been entitled to ask the Persian King for provisions enough to see his men safely back into imperial territory; but his requests, if they were ever made, were refused. During the next section of the march, which led the army westward from the Tigris through Hatra to Nisibis, they had to pass through seventy miles of merciless desert, during which they were forced to kill all their camels and pack-mules; even then, they barely survived. When they finally reached Nisibis, the Emperor refused to enter a city which he had just surrendered, preferring to pitch his camp outside the walls; and the following day, on the arrival of a representative of Shapur to hoist the Persian standard, he ordered a mass evacuation of the populace, so that not a single citizen should be left to receive the conquerors. In vain the inhabitants begged to be allowed to remain, and to defend their city on their own account; Jovian would not break his bond. Ammianus paints an affecting picture of the scene:
The whole city was a place of mourning and lamentation, and in every quarter nothing was heard but one universal wail, matrons tearing their hair when about to be driven from the homes in which they had been born and brought up, the mother who had lost her children, or the wife the husband, about to be torn from the place rendered sacred by their shades, clinging to their doorposts, embracing their thresholds and pouring forth floods of tears.
Every road was crowded, with everyone straggling away as best they could. Many, too, loaded themselves with as much of their property as they thought that they could carry, while leaving behind them abundant and costly furniture, which they could not remove for want of beasts of burden.
At Nisibis Julian's embalmed body - which had been carried by the soldiers all the way from the place where he fell - was entrusted to his old friend and remote kinsman Procopius - whom some said that he had secretly appointed to succeed him - for burial at Tarsus, where he had intended to establish his court after his victorious return. As for Jovian, he led the army on to Antioch, the holy labarum being borne once again before it as in the days of Constantine and his sons. On his arrival there he immediately issued an edict of general religious toleration, restoring full rights and privileges to the Christians throughout the Empire. That his own sympathies lay with the orthodox Nicene faith, rather than with the Arians formerly favoured by Constantius, was made abundantly clear by the deep reverence which he showed to old Athanasius of Alexandria - now restored to the see from which Julian had removed him - who had travelled at once to Antioch to congratulate the new Emperor on his accession. Doubtless encouraged by the assurances of the splendid old patriarch that his re-establishment of the true faith would be rewarded by a long and peaceful reign, Jovian left Antioch in mid-October, moving with his army in easy stages through Anatolia. He was acclaimed with obvious enthusiasm in all the towns (largely Christian) through which he passed; only at Ancyra - the modern Ankara - where on 1 January 364 he assumed the Consulship with his infant son Var-ronianus, did the deafening howls of the latter during the ceremony of induction lead the more credulous of those present, despite Athanasius's predications, to fear an evil omen.
As well they might have. A few days later, on 16 February 364 - by which time he had progressed as far as the little town of Dadastana, about half-way between Ancyra and Nicaea - he was found dead in his bedroom. 'By some,' writes Gibbon, his death 'was ascribed to the consequences of an indigestion, occasioned either by the quantity of the wine or the quality of the mushrooms which he had swallowed in the evening.
According to others, he was suffocated in his sleep by the vapour of charcoal, which extracted from the walls of the apartment the unwholesome moisture of the fresh plaster.' Surprisingly enough, foul play was not suspected.
The choice of Jovian as Emperor had marked the restitution of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, but it had also signalled something else: the end of a dynasty which had dominated it for more than half a century. The male line of Constantius Chlorus was now extinct; the diadem was once again a prize open to all. And there could be no clearer indication of this changed state of affairs than the virtual unanimity with which the army, some ten days after Jovian's death, acclaimed Valentinian as his successor. At first sight the new Emperor might have seemed still more unfitted to the purple. Uncouth of manner, almost illiterate and possessed of a furious and quite uncontrollable temper, he was the son of a Pannonian rope-maker who had himself risen from the ranks to positions of high authority in both Africa and Britain. Like his father before him, Valentinian made no attempt to conceal his peasant origins; but at forty-two he still boasted a magnificent physique and a commanding - some said forbidding - presence. He was a devout Christian and a superb soldier, though capable of unspeakable cruelty when the mood took him. When, after his acclamation, he was pressed to nominate a co-Augustus, he refused to be hurried: only after the army finally reached Constantinople on 28 March did he name - to the general dismay - his younger brother Valens.
It was a curious choice. Valens was an Arian and, in appearance, little short of grotesque - bandy-legged and pot-bellied, with a ferocious squint into the bargain. Seven years younger than his brother, he possessed none of his courage or toughness and very little of his ability, equalling him only in his reputation for brutality. He was, however, precisely what Valentinian wanted: a faithful lieutenant who freely acknowledged his brother's superiority and could be trusted to provoke no difficulties or quarrels. Valens, the Emperor rather surprisingly announced, would be responsible for the East while he, Valentinian, would rule the West from his capital at Milan.
Would he, one wonders, have reversed the two roles had he foreseen the crisis that his brother would have to face within a year of installing himself in Constantinople? Early in the spring of 365, a few days after he had left for Syria - where, in defiance of the treaty signed less than two years before, trouble was again brewing along the Persian frontier -
Valens was recalled with the news that Procopius, that distant cousin of the Emperor Julian who had been responsible for his burial arrangements, had raised the standard of revolt. Playing on the old loyalties to the house of Constantine - to which he claimed, rather unconvincingly, to belong - Procopius had quickly gained the support of the army in the capital; Thrace and Bithynia soon followed. Valens, panic-stricken, fled to Ancyra, his despair growing still deeper when he heard that no help could be expected from his brother, already fully extended with the barbarian tribes in Gaul. 'Procopius,' Valentinian had characteristically remarked as he turned down the appeal for assistance, 'is enemy only to my brother and myself; the Alemanni are the foes of the whole Roman world.'
Fortunately for the two emperors, however, the rebel soon overreached himself, antagonizing several influential men who, having previously declared themselves in his favour, now transferred their support to Valens. Their example led to further widespread defections, and by the end of May the revolt was at an end. Procopius himself was captured at Philippopolis in Thrace - now Plovdiv - and decapitated, his severed head being dispatched as a trophy to Valentinian in Gaul. Meanwhile Valens instituted a programme of appalling retribution on all those whose loyalties had even briefly wavered, ordering throughout the affected provinces tortures and executions, burnings and banishments on such a scale as to earn for himself a degree of fear and hatred among his subjects that not even a twenty-five per cent reduction of taxes in the following year was altogether able to remove.
For the next decade we find the two Emperors almost constantly caught up in their respective struggles: Valens engaged first with the Gothic tribes along the Danubian frontier, building forts and establishing garrisons over its entire length, and then in 371 setting out on his long-delayed journey to the East, where Shapur had taken King Arsaces prisoner, driven him to suicide and reduced Armenia to the status of a Persian satellite; Valentinian dealing with the repeated incursions of the barbarians into Gaul and, after 367,faced with a serious upheaval in Britain, the result of invasions by the Picts and Scots. Being himself pinned down in Europe, he entrusted this latter crisis to a certain Theodosius, one of his finest generals, who moved in with spectacular success and left the island in 370 happier and more peaceful than it had been for a generation or more. Only three years later still could the Emperor leave Gaul in safety; almost immediately, however, new troubles broke out - this time with a normally quiet and law-abiding tribe, the Quadi, who lived just across the Danube from his own Pannonian homeland. Resenting the way in which imperial forts had been built on what they held to be their side of the river, and believing, moreover, that the Romans had been responsible for the recent murder of their King, they had invaded imperial territory in protest and laid waste a certain amount of land along the frontier. They had then sent an embassy to Valentinian, explaining why they had thus taken the law into their own hands and claiming that the real aggressors were the Romans themselves.
On the face of it, the Quadi seem to have had a case; but to Valentinian this was unpardonable presumption, an insult to Rome. The anger welled up within him as he listened, his normally rubicund face turning a deeper and deeper purple until he suddenly fell forward in a fit of apoplexy and died, at Bregetio in Valeria, on 17 November 375. In his eleven-year reign he had worked, as few Emperors had ever worked, for the good of the Empire and, above all, the integrity of its frontiers. As an orthodox Christian, he had shown tolerance for those who did not share his own strongly-held Nicene faith; he had, for example, refused to replace such Arian bishops as he found still in possession of their sees. As a ruler he had set up schools and medical services, and had dispensed justice with a fair, impartial hand; and if his punishments were often severe - even cruel - at least they were visited on the guilty and not the innocent. None the less, his harshness and austerity had won him little love from his subjects; and few of them were heartbroken to see him go.
Already as early as 367, after a serious illness during which he had worried greatly about the succession, Valentinian had persuaded his troops to recognize his seven-year-old son Gratian as his co-Augustus. As he lay on his deathbed, however, knowing that Gratian was far away at Trier and Valens a good deal further still at Antioch, he sent for his son by his second marriage, also called Valentinian and still only four, and had him proclaimed co-Emperor with his stepbrother. On his death, therefore, the Empire theoretically had three rulers to carry on the government; a malformed, middle-aged sadist utterly devoid of wisdom or judgement, a delightful boy of sixteen and a child scarcely out of its cradle. On those three the future of the Empire now depended, and at one of the most critical moments of its history; for only a year after Valentinian's death it found itself confronting a new wave of invaders, infinitely more formidable than any it had so far encountered: the Huns.
Nowadays we tend to think of all these barbarian tribes that swarmed southward and westward into Europe during the fourth and fifth centuries as being very much the same, but we are wrong: by the time of which we are speaking the Goths were a relatively civilized people, the majority of them Arian Christians. Although the western branch, the Visigoths, was still ruled by local chieftains, the Ostrogoths of the east had already evolved into a united and prosperous kingdom. The Huns, on the other hand, were savages - a vast, undisciplined, heathen horde, Mongolian in origin, who had swept down from the Central Asian steppe, destroying and laying waste everything in their path. In 376 they flung themselves on the Goths with unprecedented fury. King Ermanaric, after several courageous stands against them, finally took his own life; his successor was killed a short time later in yet another hopeless battle. The Ostrogoths' resistance was now at an end; and although one venerable old Visigothic chieftain, Athanaric, did his best to rally his people and withdrew, undefeated, to the mountains of Transylvania, the greater number sought permission from Valens to settle within the Empire, on the plains of Thrace.
Their request was granted, the Emperor giving express orders to his local representatives to provide the refugees with food and shelter while they established themselves in their new homes. Alas, his instructions were ignored: the local authorities, led by Lupicinus, Count of Thrace, saw in the new arrivals only opportunities for exploitation and extortion, robbing them of virtually everything that they possessed and reducing them to the brink of starvation. By the summer of 377 the settlers, now desperate, were driven to active resistance. Advancing en masse to Marcianople - the capital of the imperial province of Lower Moesia, some twenty miles inland from the modern port of Varna, in Bulgaria - they demanded to see Lupicinus, who refused to receive them. A day or two later he emerged with an army, intending to teach them a lesson; in fact he was soundly defeated, narrowly escaping with his life. Within days, all the Goths of Thrace were up in arms, to be joined by the Visigoths and even the Huns in a full-scale barbarian attack on the Roman Empire.
The war raged throughout the winter, despite the arrival of heavy reinforcements from both the eastern and the western Emperors. At last, in the spring of 378, Valens headed in person for the Balkans, encouraged by a promise from Gratian to come quickly to his aid. Having defeated a sizeable Gothic force on the Maritsa river to the north-west of Adria-nople, he was advancing towards Philippopolis on his way to meet his nephew when news of an attempt to cut him off from his capital forced him to retire. Back again in Adrianople, he received word from Gratian asking him to delay any major confrontation until reinforcements could be sent; but these were still many miles away and the Gothic army, according to the most reliable information, was a small one - only some 10,000men in all. His general, Sebastian, favoured an immediate attack, and Valens allowed himself to be persuaded. It was the greatest mistake of his life - and also the last. The battle that followed, fought on 9 August 378, was a debacle. The Emperor was killed by an arrow, Sebastian and his second-in-command Trajan fell at his side, and two-thirds of the Roman army perished with them.
Everything now depended on Gratian, still only nineteen. Despite a magnificent victory that he had gained the previous February over yet another barbarian tribe, the Lentienses, at Argentaria in Alsace, he himself could not yet leave the West; instead, he turned to Theodosius, the son of that other Theodosius who had scored such signal successes in Britain ten years before. Sadly, in 376, the father had been disgraced and executed by Valens as the result of some court intrigue, since when his son had retired to the family estates in Spanish Galicia; now, however, he willingly responded to the Emperor's call, and within a few months had proved himself a leader of such distinction that, in January 379, Gratian raised him to be his co-Augustus. Establishing his headquarters at Thessalonica, he devoted the next two years to restoring order in Thrace and confidence among the Goths, vast numbers of whom were recruited into the legions.
None of this, to be sure, was achieved without sacrifice: the Goths were granted complete autonomy, exemption from taxation and an exceptionally high rate of pay for their military services, either as treaty-bound allies (foederati) or directly subordinate to the Emperor. This in turn meant increased financial burdens, and proportionately higher taxes for those ordinary citizens who were not exempt. It also led to continued resentment against the barbarians as a whole, and fears that the Germanic element in the army was now becoming dangerously strong. If, on the other hand, this was the price of retaining the Eastern Empire, Theodosius was happy enough to pay it. By the summer of 380, thanks to his quiet, patient diplomacy, the Goths were happily settled in their new homes and Thrace was once again at peace; on 24 November he made his formal entry into Constantinople, and on 11 January 381 welcomed old Athanaric to the capital, receiving him outside the walls and personally escorting him to his place of residence. The excitements of the splendid city and the lavishness of the entertainment he received obviously proved too much for the old man, who died a fortnight later; but he was given a sumptuous funeral, the Emperor himself accompanying his body to the grave. Such consideration for their former leader deeply gratified the Goths, disposing them still further towards a lasting reconciliation; the Romans, too, welcomed the new accord. 'Now that the wounds of strife are healed,' declared the court orator Themistius, 'Rome's most courageous enemies will become her truest and most loyal friends.'
Gratian's elevation of Theodosius to the supreme power was perhaps the most lasting benefit that he conferred on the Empire. And yet, ironically, that very year - 383 - that saw the conclusion of the final peace treaty with the Goths also witnessed the Emperor's downfall. Few had ever shown greater promise. In the course of his short life, his piety and purity of heart had never left him. As a fervent Nicene Christian, he had been the first Emperor to refuse the title and insignia of Pontifex Maximus; in Rome, he had swept away the altar and statue of Victory that Julian had restored to the Senate House, and had expropriated the immense wealth of the Temple of Vesta and its chosen virgins for the benefit of the imperial treasury. But he had other interests besides religion. His tutor, Ausonius, proudly described him as possessing a mens aurea, a golden mind: he was remarkably well read and, if reports are true, a very passable poet. He was also a superb athlete and a magnificent horseman, while his skill as a hunter was - according once again to Ausonius - almost supernatural: he could kill a lion with a single arrow. Finally, he remained all his life an inspired leader in the field. But, at the age of twenty-four, he was already growing lazy. The pleasures of the chase and the excitements of the amphitheatre were taking up more and more of his time. More dangerous still, he no longer attempted to conceal the predilection he felt for the barbarian element in the army (and particularly for his own personal guard of tall, blond Alani) whom he openly favoured at the expense - and to the increasing resentment - of their Roman colleagues. Matters came to a head when one of the imperial generals serving in Britain, Magnus Clemens Maximus, was suddenly acclaimed Augustus by his men; a few days later he landed in Gaul, where his army met Gratian's just outside Paris. After some inconclusive skirmishing the Emperor would probably have won the day had not his Moorish cavalry suddenly and unexpectedly defected to Maximus. He fled, but was taken prisoner soon afterwards at Lyons and there, on 25 August, was murdered while attending a banquet - under a promise of safe conduct - with his captors.
In Constantinople, Theodosius received the news with horror. For the moment, however, he was powerless. The Persian King Ardashir II -who had succeeded his brother Shapur four years before - had just been deposed in favour of his nephew Shapur III, an unknown quantity who needed watching; meanwhile the Huns were still causing trouble along the northern frontier. This was no time to embark on a long punitive expedition against Maximus. Reluctantly, Emperor acknowledged usurper - as did most of the provinces of the West.
Except Italy. Thither Gratian's co-Emperor Valentinian II, now twelve years old, hastily moved his court from Sirmium, and there in Milan he maintained, somewhat precariously, his authority - ruling largely through his Sicilian mother,1 the redoubtable Justina, and under the guidance of the still more formidable Bishop Ambrose, who actually travelled to Trier in the winter of 383-4 in an attempt to reach an understanding with Maximus. The young Emperor's life cannot have been made happier by the machinations of his fanatically Arian mother, who feared the bishop's growing influence over her son and was forever intriguing against him; but Ambrose - who does not hesitate to compare her in his writings with Jezebel and Herodias — gave as good as he got, and out-manoeuvred her every time. His only failure was in his attempts to wean the boy from his mother's heretical persuasion; only after Justina's death was he eventually to persuade Valentinian to accept the Nicene faith, and by then it was too late: Maximus had been given the excuse he needed.
In 387 the pretender crossed the Alps into Italy, ostensibly to deliver the Empire from the taint of heresy. Justina and Valentinian fled, first to Aquileia and thence to Thessalonica, where Theodosius was able to join them. The past year had not been easy for the Emperor of the East. In January he had had to contend with serious disturbances at Antioch, where the populace had rioted in protest against a special tax laid upon the city in connection with his forthcoming decennalia, wrecked the public baths and smashed the statues of himself and his family. The local authorities had over-reacted, and the resulting massacre - graphically described, with its consequences, by St John Chrysostom, who was there - had
1 Zosimus (iv, 19, 43) claims that Justina had been the wife of the usurper Magnentius before her marriage to Valentinian: possible, but hardly likely.
included many women and children among its victims. It was Easter before order was restored by the Emperor's emissaries, and one of the proudest cities of Asia received the imperial pardon by which it regained its former rights and privileges. Then there had been the usual difficulties with the Persians. The new King had formally notified him of his accession by means of an embassy laden with magnificent presents -including, incidentally, elephants - but in subsequent diplomatic negotiations had showed that he could strike just as hard a bargain as his father. From the partition of Armenia that finally resulted in 387, the Empire emerged with only one-fifth of the country under its control, four-fifths having been appropriated by Shapur.
But peace, at least, had been assured. The long-planned expedition against Maximus was finally a possibility. Theodosius spent the winter at Thessalonica with Valentinian and Justina - now his mother-in-law, since his recent marriage en secondes noces to her daughter Galla1 - actively preparing for war. Only in June 388 was he ready, with Valentinian, to march; but once started he moved fast, pressing up through the mountain passes of Macedonia and Bosnia (successfully foiling a plot to assassinate him on the way) and eventually meeting Maximus at Siscia - the modern Sisak - on the Sava. Despite the fatigue of their long march, his troops plunged, fully armed, into the river, swam to the opposite bank and put the rebels to flight. One or two more battles followed, but thenceforth the campaign was largely a matter of pursuit until Maximus was finally driven to surrender at Aquileia. Brought before Theodosius, he confessed to him that he had claimed to have his approval when he usurped the throne; and for a moment it looked as if the Emperor was about to spare the life of his old colleague. But the soldiers dragged their prisoner away before he could do so. They knew Theodosius's reputation for clemency, and preferred to take no chances.
Appointing the Frankish general Arbogast as Comes - and thus effective Governor - of Gaul, Theodosius and Valentinian spent the winter in Milan and in the following year moved on with the former's four-year-old son Honorius to Rome where, on 13 June 389,they made their solemn entry into the city. The senior Emperor's energetic efforts to weaken the hold of paganism cannot have endeared him to the local members of the old regime; but his easy approachability and charm of
1 Zosimus believes (iv, 44) that Thcodosius was at first reluctant to take arms against Maximus, and agreed to do so only after Justina, knowing of his recent widowhood and his extreme susceptibility to attractive women, sent Galla to plead with him. The Emperor, he suggests, was not only persuaded but besotted: and Galla's efforts resulted not only in war but in marriage.
manner won him a personal popularity such as no predecessor of his had enjoyed for a century or more. The two Augusti then returned to Milan, remaining there all through the following year - the year of that famous confrontation between Theodosius and Ambrose for which both of them, perhaps unfairly, are best remembered.
The incident that set the two on a collision course was one at which neither was personally present: the murder, at Thessalonica, of the captain of the imperial garrison. For some years already, resentment had been building up among the citizens over the billeting of troops: Roman soldiers, they pointed out, had been bad enough in the past, but these new barbarian ones were a good deal worse. Flash-point was reached when the captain - himself a Goth, by the name of Botheric - ignoring all their protests, imprisoned the city's most popular charioteer on charges of gross immorality. Suddenly and, it seemed, spontaneously, the mob attacked the garrison headquarters, smashed their way into the building and cut down Botheric where he stood. When the incident was reported to Theodosius in Milan, he flew into an ungovernable rage. In vain Ambrose pleaded with him not to take vengeance on the many for the crimes of a few; he ordered the troops in the city to show it no mercy, and to reassert their authority in whatever way they saw fit. A short while afterwards he repented and countermanded the order, but too late. It had already been received, and the soldiers were only too eager to obey. They deliberately waited until the people were all gathered in the Hippodrome for the games; then, at a given signal, they fell on them with unbridled brutality. Seven thousand were dead by nightfall.
Reports of the massacre at Thessalonica spread rapidly through the Empire - losing, we may be sure, nothing in the telling. The disturbances at Antioch three years before had been insignificant in comparison. On that occasion, in any case, the responsibility had rested with the local authorities; this time the guilt fell on the Emperor himself - an Emperor, moreover, who had always enjoyed a reputation for humanity and justice. A crime on such a scale could not be overlooked; certainly, Ambrose was not the man to overlook it.
At this time, it must be remembered, Ambrose was the most influential churchman in Christendom - more so by far than the Pope in Rome, by reason not only of the greater importance of Milan as a political capital but also of his own background. Member of one of the most ancient Christian families of the Roman aristocracy, son of a Praetorian Prefect of Gaul and himself formerly a consularis, or governor, of Liguria and Aemilia, he had never intended to enter the priesthood; but on the death in 374 of the previous bishop, the Arian Auxentius, an acrimonious dispute had arisen between the orthodox and Arian factions in the city over which he, as governor, was obliged to arbitrate. Only when it finally emerged that he alone possessed sufficient prestige to make him equally acceptable to both parties did he reluctantly allow his name to go forward. In a single week he was successively a layman, catechumen, priest and bishop.
Once enthroned, Ambrose had started as he intended to go on, distributing his entire personal fortune among the poor and adopting an extreme asceticism in his private life. Since first hearing of the murder of Botheric he had done everything in his power to urge Theodosius towards moderation; when he saw that he had failed, he withdrew from the city rather than meet the Emperor and then wrote him a letter in his own hand, telling him that, despite his continuing high regard, he must regretfully withhold communion from him until he should perform public penance for his crime.
And Theodosius submitted - less, we may be sure, for reasons of political expediency than for those of genuine remorse. His handling of the affair had been not only unworthy of him; it had also been uncharacteristic. Almost certainly, he had allowed himself to be persuaded by his military entourage. At all events it seems to have been an immense relief to his spirit when, bare-headed and dressed in sackcloth, he presented himself in the cathedral of Milan to acknowledge his misdeeds and humbly beg forgiveness. But it was also something more. It was a turning-point in the history of Christendom - the first time that a minister of the Gospel had had the courage to assert the rights of the spiritual power over the temporal, and the first time that a Christian prince had publicly submitted to judgement, condemnation and punishment by an authority which he recognized as higher than his own.
Early in 391 the two Emperors left Milan - Theodosius to return to Constantinople, Valentinian to accept the transference of power in Gaul, where Arbogast the Frank had been ruling as Comes in his absence. On his arrival at Vienne, however, it soon became clear to him that Arbogast had no intention of handing over the reins as he was morally obliged to do. Instead, he was governing just as he always had, ignoring the Emperor completely and not even making a show of consulting him on important issues. Determined to assert his authority, Valentinian one day handed the Frank a written order, demanding his immediate resignation. Arbogast looked at it for a moment and then, slowly and contemptuously, tore it to pieces. At that moment war between the two was declared; and a few days later, on 15 May 392, the young Emperor, now just twenty-one, was found dead in his apartment. Much trouble was taken to suggest that his death was the result of suicide, and indeed foul play was never conclusively proved: Valentinian may well have taken his own life in the despairing knowledge that if he did not do so, someone else unquestionably would. Neither was murder hinted at by Ambrose in his subsequent funeral oration - unless some inference can be drawn from the bishop's assurances to the sorrowing princesses that their brother's soul had been carried up instantly to heaven, a reward not in theory accorded to those who had died by their own hand.1
Arbogast - a non-Roman and, incidentally, a pagan - knew that he could not assume the diadem himself; but he was perfectly content with the role of kingmaker. He therefore named his henchman Eugenius, a middle-aged Christian grammarian who had formerly served as head of the imperial chancery, as the new Augustus. Eugenius is unlikely to have had much appetite for the honour, but he was in no position to refuse. Ambassadors were dispatched to Theodosius, informing him of his brother-in-law's unfortunate demise and notifying him of the unanimous acclamation of Eugenius as his successor. But Theodosius would have none of it. The right of designating his fellow-Emperor belonged to him, and to him alone. Nine years before, receiving a similar embassy on behalf of Maximus, he had been forced to temporize (though he had dealt with Maximus later, all the same); this time he felt stronger, knowing that for the moment at any rate both his northern and eastern frontiers were secure. He sent an evasive reply and began to make his preparations.
All through the year 393 those preparations continued, while Arbogast succeeded, despite the vehement opposition of Ambrose, in having his protege acclaimed in Italy also. For his principal support he relied on the pagan old guard in Rome and the other ancient cities; though they knew Eugenius to be a Christian, they were happy to welcome an Emperor who proclaimed universal toleration and who willingly permitted the re-erection of the ancient altars. By the middle of the year, Rome was undergoing a full-scale pagan revival. The sky above the newly restored temples was cloudy with the smoke of sacrifice, while in their dark recesses aged augurs peered anxiously into the entrails of the still-steaming victims. Garlanded processions once more threaded their way through the streets; matrons and maidens were terrorized as of old
1 Ambrose, De Obitu Valentiniani; Optra, Vol. vii.
by the frenzied devotees of the Floralia, Lupercalia and Saturnalia. Thus, when in the early summer of 394 Theodosius marched for the second time against an upstart pretender, he was aware that he was fighting not just for legitimacy but also for his faith. He was well equipped to do so since, apart from the Roman legionaries, his army contained some 20,000 Goths - many of them serving under their own chieftains, among whom there was included a brilliant young leader named Alaric. As second-in-command he had appointed a Vandal, Sti-licho, who had recently married his niece Serena. But however sanguine he may have felt over the outcome of the campaign, his heart was heavy within him: on the eve of his departure his beloved second wife, Galla, had died, probably in childbirth. She had been the love of his life, and the few years they had spent together had been idyllically happy. Fortunately, they already had one child of their own, a daughter, whom they had called Galla Placidia and on whom he doted; we shall hear more of her as the story goes on.
The army of Arbogast and Eugenius was roughly similar in strength when it set out from Lombardy in late July. Eugenius in particular was troubled; for Ambrose, who had pointedly absented himself from Milan during the pseudo-Emperor's stay, had openly condemned him as a betrayer of his faith, ordering the local clergy to refuse communion to him and all his Christian followers. As they rode out of the city, Arbogast vowed that on his victorious return he would stable his horses in the basilica; and it may have been as much as a gesture of defiance as anything else that the army carried before it as it marched not the holy labarum of the Christian Emperor but a crude representation of Hercules Invictus.
The two forces met on 5 September a little north of Trieste, on the little tributary of the Isonzo known then as the Frigidus but now as the Wipbach or Vipacco. The first day ended in near-disaster, with the slaughter of at least half the Goths and the disorderly withdrawal of the remainder of the army; but the following morning began somewhat more auspiciously, with the arrival of a sizeable detachment whom Arbogast had sent to cut off the Emperor's retreat but who now declared themselves prepared, for a price, to transfer their loyalties. The battle was rejoined with a new optimism; and further confirmation of divine benevolence was afforded when a violent tempest blew up from the east, accompanied by winds of hurricane force. Theodosius and his men had these winds behind them; the soldiers of Arbogast and Eugenius, on the other hand, found themselves blinded by clouds of dust and battered with such violence that they could barely stand upright; the throwing of spears, even the loosing of arrows, was out of the question. The gods, it seemed, were against them after all. Exhausted and demoralized, they soon surrendered. Eugenius was beheaded as he grovelled at the Emperor's feet; Arbogast escaped, but after a few days' wandering in the hills found the old Roman solution for his troubles and fell on his sword.
The triumphant Theodosius passed on to Milan, where his first action was to pardon all the surviving adherents of Eugenius. He then turned his mind to the question of the succession. Valentinian having died unmarried and childless, the obvious course was to divide the Empire between his own two sons, giving to the elder, Arcadius, the East and to the younger, Honorius, the West. Both were at the time in Constantinople, but instructions were sent to Honorius to come at once to Milan. By the time the imperial envoys delivered their message, winter had set in; and it was mid-January before the ten-year-old prince -escorted by his cousin Serena, the wife of Stilicho - could make his way through the snows to Milan. Once there, he was horrified to find that his father had fallen seriously ill. Theodosius's joy at seeing his son acted on him briefly like a tonic: he was actually able to attend the start of the games in the Hippodrome which he had ordered in celebration of the boy's safe arrival. Half-way through, however, he suddenly collapsed; and the following night - that of 17 January 395 - he died in his fiftieth year. For forty days his embalmed body lay in state on its purple-covered bier in the atrium of the Palace; on 25 February it was brought to the Cathedral, where High Mass was sung and Bishop Ambrose delivered his funeral oration - the text of which still survives. Only then did the cortege set off, under heavy escort, on the long homeward journey to Constantinople.
The reign of Theodosius had been, on the face of it, unspectacular. He had made no major conquests, had instigated no radical or far-reaching reforms. In all the years that he had wielded the supreme power, he had never impressed his Empire - as Julian had done in a fraction of the time - with the stamp of a huge and dominating personality. On the contrary, he had been quiet, cautious almost to a fault, and totally without flamboyance. Readers of this brief account of his career may well find themselves wondering, not so much whether he deserved the title of 'the Great' as how he ever came to acquire it in the first place. If so, however, they may also like to ask themselves another question: what would have been the fate of the Empire if, at that critical moment in its history after the battle of Adrianople, young Gratian had not called him from his Spanish estates and put the future of the East into his hands?
Such questions, of course, can never be satisfactorily answered. It is conceivable that some other leader might have emerged, possessed of that same remarkable combination of generalship and diplomacy required to transform the Goths, in little more than two years, from an implacable enemy into a peaceful, even valuable, community within the Empire. But it is unlikely - and unlikelier still that he could have achieved his result with the same smoothness and sureness of touch. Had such a figure failed to appear, the probability is that the whole Empire of the East would have been lost, swallowed up in a revived Gothic kingdom, with effects on world history that defy speculation. At best, the Goths would have become to the East what the Alemanni had long been - and what they themselves were soon to become - to the West: a perpetual threat to imperial security, a steady drain on manpower and a brake on progress, forever holding down the Emperor and his army when their presence was required elsewhere.
Here, surely, was Theodosius's most important single legacy to the Empire. But it was not the only one. So far in these pages we have seen him only when on campaign, or visiting Milan or Rome; it is easy to forget that, of the sixteen years of his reign, well over half were spent in Constantinople, working tirelessly in the twin causes of good government and religious orthodoxy. In his civil legislation he showed, again and again, a consideration for the humblest of his subjects that was rare indeed among rulers of the fourth century. What other prince would have decreed that any criminal, sentenced to execution, imprisonment or exile, must first be allowed thirty days' grace to put his affairs in order? Or that a specified part of his worldly goods must go to his children, upon whom their father's crimes must on no account be visited? Or that no farmer should be obliged to sell his produce to the State at a price lower than he would receive on the open market?
Where religious matters were concerned, Theodosius's interest had showed itself as early as February 380, only thirteen months after his elevation, while he was still based at Thessalonica. We know that he fell seriously ill at that time and, in the belief that he was dying, had himself baptised. It may well have been this that prompted him, even before his complete recovery, to issue on the last day of the month an edict proclaiming that only those who professed the consubstantiality of the Trinity (in other words the Nicene Creed) could be considered Catholic Christians - a designation that appears here for the first time. 'All others,' the edict continues, 'we pronounce to be mad and foolish, and we order that they shall bear the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to bestow on their conventicles the title of churches: these are to be visited first by the divine vengeance, and secondly by the stroke of our own authority, which we have received in accordance with the will of heaven.' Further confirmation was given in the following year by the first Council of Constantinople, at which some 150 bishops from Thrace, Egypt and Asia Minor, meeting in the Church of St Irene, formally condemned the Arian heresy and its related sects - decreeing, inter alia, that the see of Constantinople should thenceforth come second in honour and dignity only to that of Rome itself. At this time, too, the Arians were expressly forbidden to congregate in cities, while all church buildings were ordered to be returned immediately to the orthodox faith. As for the pagans, they also found the Emperor's attitude hardening against them. In 385 he strengthened the existing legislation against sacrifices; in 391 he forbade all non-Christian ceremonies in Rome and Egypt; and in 392 he outlawed every form of pagan worship, public and private, throughout the Empire.
This steadily increasing religious intolerance has not, over the years, enhanced Theodosius's reputation. But we must remember that he was fighting, every moment of his reign, to keep the Empire strong and united against the barbarian menace; and that in those anxious times, when religion was as constant a preoccupation in men's lives as politics might be today, it could prove a uniquely powerful force for unification or division. And even Theodosius never attempted to change his subjects' convictions: never were they required to recant, or to abjure their faith. Nor did he ever sink to persecution. His chief fault was that ferocious temper of his - a temper that he tried, but all too frequently failed, to govern, and that led him time and again to words and actions which he later bitterly regretted; but once the fit was past, he was always quick to apologize, to remit or reduce punishments hastily ordered or even, when the occasion demanded, to do public penance.
Had he earned his title? Not, perhaps, in the way that Constantine had done or as Justinian was to do. But, if not ultimately great himself, he had surely come very close to greatness; and had he reigned as long as they did his achievements might well have equalled theirs. He might even have saved the Western Empire. One thing only is certain: it would be nearly a century and a half before the Romans would look upon his like again.