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Roman Emperor Theodosius "The Great"

           Theodosius byname  Theodosius The Great,  in full  Flavius Theodosius  Roman emperor of the East (379–392) and then sole emperor of both East and West (392–395), who, in vigorous suppression of paganism and Arianism, established the creed of the Council of Nicaea (325) as the universal norm for Christian orthodoxy and directed the convening of the second general council at Constantinople (381) to clarify the formula. (O'Toole, G. Barry Ed Jeske-Choinski 1936)

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           Theodosius was born in the province of Gallaecia in northwestern Spain. His father was to become the general Flavius Theodosius; his mother's name is unknown. His grandparents, like his parents, were probably already Christians. Theodosius, who grew up in Spain, did not receive an extensive education but was intellectually open-minded and acquired a special interest in the study of history. While on his father's staff, he participated in his campaigns against the Picts and Scots in Britain in 368–369, against the Alemanni in Gaul in 370, and against the Sarmatians in the Balkans in 372–373. As a military commander in Moesia, a Roman province on the lower Danube, he defeated the Sarmatians in 374. When his father was sentenced to death and executed as a result of political intrigues by enemies at court, Theodosius withdrew to his Spanish estates. At the end of 376, he married Aelia Flacilla, also a Spaniard. His first son, the future emperor Arcadius, was born in 377 and his daughter Pulcheria in 378.

            Immediately after the catastrophic defeat of the emperor Valens, who perished at the hands of the Visigoths and other barbarians on Aug. 9, 378, near Adrianople, the emperor Gratian unexpectedly summoned Theodosius to his court (Duckett, E 1972). When Theodosius had once again proved his military ability by a victory over the Sarmatians, Gratian proclaimed him co-emperor on Jan. 19, 379. His dominion was to be the eastern part of the empire, including the provinces of Dacia (present-day Romania) and Macedonia, which had been especially infiltrated by barbarians in the preceding few years.

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            In 379 and 380 Theodosius resided chiefly in Thessalonica. He sought first to rebuild the army, the discipline of which was considerably impaired, and to consolidate Rome's position on the Balkan Peninsula. Military unpreparedness could not be overcome by conscription alone, which applied only to certain classes. Theodosius therefore directed that large numbers of Teutons, who had been barred from military service, be accepted by the army. By 379, however, when foreigners had already intermingled extensively with the rest of the army, both among the troops and in all ranks of the officer corps, Theodosius did no more than many of his predecessors to encourage this process. In contrast to the West, in Theodosius' provinces both Romans and Teutons were among the leading generals. (Stephen Williams 1995) Recognizing that the barbarians, who had invaded the provinces as early as 375, could no longer be expelled by force and that he could count on Gratian for only limited assistance, Theodosius sought new possibilities for coexistence. This resulted in the friendly reception of the Visigoth Athanaric in 381 and the conclusion of a treaty of alliance, or foedus, with the main body of the Visigoths in the fall of 382. The Goths, who pledged themselves to lending military assistance, were assigned territory for settlement between the lower Danube and the Balkan mountains. Under this novel arrangement, an entire people were settled on imperial soil while retaining its autonomy. Theodosius may have hoped that the Goths would become integrated, as had a group of Goths who in c. 350 had settled near Nicopolis in Moesia; their leader, Bishop Ulfilas, undertook missionary work among the parties to the foedus of 382.

           Some historians have regarded Theodosius as biassed in favour of the Goths. He has even been accused of having contributed decisively, through the treaty of 382, to the downfall of Rome. Yet, it should be noted that the policy of that treaty, which was undertaken in the justified expectation of raising Roman military strength and recultivating tracts of wasteland, by no means became customary (Stephen Williams 1995). Instead, the Emperor took strict measures against further invasions by Teutonic bands and did not permit any doubts to arise as to Roman claims of superiority over the barbarians.

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           Theodosius' situation was complicated by the sharp antagonism that arose around 379 between disciples of the Nicene Creed (according to which Jesus Christ is of the same substance as God the Father) and several other Christian groups in his part of the empire. Theodosius himself, the first emperor who did not assume the title of pontifex maximus (supreme guardian of the old Roman cults), believed in the Nicene Creed, despite his Baptism only after a serious illness in the fall of 380. (G. Barry Ed Jeske-Choinski 1936)

           Out of political as well as religious motives, he energetically undertook to bring about unity of faith within the empire. His position was improved by the fact that during 379 the followers of the Nicene Creed gained ground, whereupon Theodosius on Feb. 28, 380, without consulting the ecclesiastical authorities, issued an edict prescribing a creed that was to be binding on all subjects. Only persons who believed in the consubstantiality of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were henceforth to be considered Catholic Christians, a designation that here appears for the first time in a document. (Duckett, E 1972)

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           Theodosius was a strong champion of orthodox Christianity; he persecuted the Arians and discouraged the practice of the old Roman pagan religion. In 390, however, he ordered the massacre of 7000 insurgent citizens of Thessaloníki, Greece, and was excommunicated by Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who demanded public penance before lifting the ban. In 392 Valentinian was murdered by his general Arbogast, who set up Eugenius as puppet ruler in his place. Theodosius again marched to Italy, where he defeated Arbogast and Eugenius in September 394. During the following four months he was the ruler of both East and West. After his death at Milan on January 17, 395, he was succeeded by his sons Arcadius in the East and Flavius Honorius in the West. (Fergus Millar 2007)

            A new conflict arose in 390 when, following the murder of one of his generals in Thessalonica, Theodosius issued an order for brutal retaliation. It was rescinded too late, so that a horrible massacre resulted among the population there. Ambrose had the Emperor's action condemned in a church council and bade him do public penance. After a prolonged hesitation, Theodosius complied with the order and was readmitted to communion at Christmas 390.

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           His penance should not be construed as a victory of the church over the Emperor but only as a demonstration of the power of atonement over the penitent sinner. The claims that arose in future centuries that the church had been placed above the temporal power derived not from Theodosius' act of penance but only from the myth generated by it. While maintaining an entirely friendly attitude toward the church, Theodosius still took care in his legislation to see that the material interests of the state were sacrificed only to a very limited extent to church or clergy (Stephen Williams 1995). In addition, Theodosius decided to enforce more strongly against the pagans the religious policy he had pursued since 379. In February 391 he prohibited sacrifices and the visiting of temples. Up to that time, he had basically tolerated the pagans and had entrusted adherents of the old cults with the highest offices.

           Quarrels between his second wife, Galla, and his son Arcadius, as well as his own view of the eastern capital as the centre of the empire, prompted Theodosius to move his residence back to Constantinople, where he arrived in November 391. A new crisis arose for Theodosius three months after Valentinian's death on May 15, 392 (Fergus Millar 2007). Arbogast treacherously proclaimed as emperor of the West a former rhetoric teacher, Eugenius, who had close connections with the pagan aristocracy of the Senate. Theodosius, who did not yet dare to risk a civil war, delayed reception of a legation requesting recognition of Arbogast's puppet.

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            The now inevitable struggle for power was thus at the same time a struggle that would decide whether pagan religions would once again be tolerated within the empire alongside Christianity. Theodosius did not set out from Constantinople until May 394. As in 388, he made his way toward the Danube and then the Sava with his powerful army. His force consisted largely of barbarians and their allies, one of whose leaders was Stilicho, a Vandal who had been married since 384 to the Emperor's niece Serena. Theodosius' sons Arcadius and Honorius stayed behind in the capital. Arcadius, who had been given the right to promulgate laws independently, was supposed to direct the government in the East. (King, Q. N 1960)

           Theodosius first met the enemy at the Frigidus River on the eastern border of Italy. Although Theodosius' advance guard, composed almost entirely of Visigoths, suffered heavy losses during an attempted breakthrough on Sept. 5, 394, the emperor ventured to attack the following day and was victorious. Later Christian tradition, emphasizing Theodosius' piety and trust in God, essentially interpreted the victory as a divine judgment: the god of the Christians had triumphed over the old Roman gods. Following the deaths of Eugenius, Arbogast, and Nicomachus Flavianus, Theodosius showed him lenient and strove to achieve the settlement between opposing forces that was necessary to strengthen imperial unity.

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          Probably as a result of the exertion of the campaign, Theodosius fell ill. He went to Milan, where he summoned Honorius in order to present him formally as Augustus of the West. Because Theodosius had appeared to recover, his death in January 395 was generally unexpected. On his deathbed he had entrusted Stilicho, promoted to generalissimo after the victory at the Frigidus, with the care of his two sons. From Ambrose's funeral oration, filled with praise of the Christian ruler, it is evident that contemporaries had no doubt as to the continuing unity of the empire, for the question of succession seemed to have been settled in the best possible way (Fergus Millar 2007). Yet, all too soon it was to become apparent that Theodosius had not chosen his advisers with sufficient care and that the men who were guiding the sickly Arcadius were unwilling to cooperate with Stilicho, who remained loyal to the dynasty. After his death, Theodosius' body was borne in state to Constantinople and interred in the mausoleum erected by Constantius II.

Works Cited

The Last Romans: A Tale of the Times of Theodosius the Great "Ostatni Rzymianie" by Theodore  O'Toole, G. Barry Ed Jeske-Choinski, B&w Illus; Publisher: Pittsburgher Printing & Publishing Co (1936); ASIN: B000NPVZ88.

Theodosius: The Empire at Bay by Stephen Williams, Gerard Frielal; Publisher: Yale University Press (February 22, 1995); ISBN-10: 0300061730.

A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II by Fergus Millar; Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (August 1, 2007); ISBN-10: 0520253914.

Medieval portraits from east and west by Duckett, E; Publisher: The University of Michigan Press 1972.

The emperor Theodosius and the establishment of Christianity by King, Q. N; Publisher: The Westminster Press, Philadelphia 1960.

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