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THEODOSIUS (c. 347395), Roman emperor (379395). In the worst disaster since the days of Hannibal the Roman army and the emperor Valens were wiped out near Hadrianopolis by the Goths in August 378. The senior surviving emperor, the young Gratian, summoned from his Spanish homeland a certain Theodosius who was elevated as emperor in January 379 at the age of 33. His first task was to come to terms with the barbarian invaders. He allowed them to settle and used them as federated troops. He dealt with the other military threat, Persia, by establishing a policy of coexistence that yielded a century of peace.

Since religious stability was accepted as the architectonic element through which the empire was held together, it occupied Theodosius's continuous attention. It is not easy to tell exactly how much of subsequent imperial policy was initiated by the emperor himself. It may be supposed that his influence on the laws was direct and strong; on the councils and church affairs generally it was indirect and deeply affected by practical politics as well as by those around him. These included women of the household, episcopal politicians, and court officials.

In 380 Theodosius was baptized (possibly in connection with a serious illness), despite the fact that people of his class ordinarily postponed baptism until they were beyond the occasions for sin inherent in public office. Accordingly, he was the first emperor brought up in a Christian family who was a fully initiated and believing Christian for the greatest part of a long reign. As a full member of the church, it was his duty to assist in church affairs. Further, the theory was beginning to take shape of the pious Christian monarch who, as persona ("personification") of the laity and of the body politic, prepared and made possible the oblation offered by the priests; he also, in some sense, represented the mind and heart of the body of Christ. (This idea was taken over not only by the Byzantine monarchies but may be detected in monarchical thinking in France, Britain, and Russia.)

In February 380, possibly even before his baptism, Theodosius issued an edict (Theodosian Code 16.1.2) commanding all people to walk in the way of the religion given by Peter to the Romans, and more recently exemplified by Damasus of Rome (d. 384) and Peter of Alexandria (d. 381). Those who hold the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one godhead in equal majesty are catholic Christians. Others are heretics who will be struck by the divine vengeance as well as by the imperial action undertaken according to heaven's arbitration. In January 381 Theodosius followed this up with a law stating that everywhere the name of the one supreme God was to be celebrated and the Nicene faith observed (16.5.6). A person of Nicene faith and a true catholic is one who confesses the omnipotent God, and Christ his son, God under one name, and who does not violate the Holy Spirit by denial. The law quotes parts of the creed promulgated by the Council of Nicaea (325) and then interprets it in accordance with the teachings of the Cappadocian fathers, one of whom, Gregory of Nazianzus, had been ratified in his position as bishop of Constantinople by Theodosius.

In May 381 a council of 150 bishops met at Constantinople. (A sister council met at Aquileia in Italy, but it is not possible to determine the exact interrelationship of the two.) The creed associated with Constantinople took up and reaffirmed the teaching of the Council of Nicaea with modifications in keeping with the teachings of Athanasius and other Fathers, who had upheld the Nicene faith during a half century of civil war inside the church. Without the filioque clause (which says that the Holy Spirit proceeds "also from the Son" and is a later Western addition), it remains one of the great central affirmations of faith acceptable to most Christians. The canons of the council give precedence to Rome as the see of Peter but insist that Constantinople, as the new Rome, must have appropriate standing. No doubt the decisions were made by the council itself, but the emperor and his ecclesiastical policymakers had largely determined who was to be present and what issues were on the agenda.

The beliefs adumbrated by the laws and the council had immediate implications. Trinitarian heretics, like the various followers of Arius, were cajoled and coerced. People who in the minds of the legislators insulted God by apostatizing from Christianity or following the teachings of Mani were fiercely attacked. A mere decade was to pass before pagans (a contemporary word designating followers of the old Greco-Roman ways of worship) also became the object of this zeal for conformity. During this reign the independent status of the Jews was maintained despite mob and demagogic attacks, but later they, too, met the Theodosian logic.

During these years of policy-making, Theodosius had made Constantinople the definitive capital of his empire and, since the murder in 383 of Gratian, his senior colleague, had permitted Maximus, a staunch Nicene Christian, to govern the far western end of the empire. Italy was nominally under the rule of the young Valentinian II, whose powerful mother, Justina, was friendly to the Arians and earned the title "Jezebel" from Ambrose. In 387, Maximus invaded Italy and Justina's family fled to Thessalonica. Theodosius, whose wife Flaccilla had died in 385, visited them there and married the daughter Galla, thereby absorbing the claims of the dynasty of Valentinian. Obviously, much else became subsumed in his ambition to found a lasting dynasty with control of the whole Roman world. In an easy victory, he defeated Maximus and sent his pagan barbarian general Arbogast over the Alps to govern the far west on behalf of Valentinian.

Late 388 found Theodosius in Italy, the last person to rule de facto from the Atlantic to the Euphrates. It was not long before he came into collision with Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. At Callinicum, on the Persian border, a Christian mob had destroyed a synagogue, and Theodosius, as became a Roman magistrate, ordered the bishop to rebuild it. Ambrose forced the emperor to rescind the order. Then, in the latter part of 390, Ambrose imposed excommunication and public penance on the emperor for ordering a blood bath at Thessalonica that had resulted in the deaths of ten to fifteen thousand people. During mass on Christmas Day 390, the emperor was reconciled.

These events had a tremendous effect on the emperor. He seems to have determined, as his laws express, to cooperate with zealous Christian leaders to prevent further insult to heaven by barring the pagan cults. Until now, legislation had not worsened the pagan position, and the commando raids by Christian monks and mobs had been kept in some check. In 391 and 392, Theodosius caused surviving pagan sacrifices at Alexandria and Rome to cease and proscribed domestic cults (16.10.1011). The world-renowned Temple of Serapis at Alexandria was destroyed by monks led on by the local bishop, while Roman officials stood by. Riots by the Christian mobs, fueled by the promise of spoils, spread like wildfire. Alarmed, the pagan aristocrats in the west looked for allies.

In May 392 Valentinian II died mysteriously. Arbogast elevated a certain Eugenius to the position of emperor and in 393 invaded Italy. The western pagans offered their help and were enthusiastically received. The struggle was likened by both sides to that of Jupiter and Hercules versus Christ. As Theodosius tried to enter Italy through the valley of the Frigidus River in September 394 his enemies gave battle. He was facing defeat when the bora, a violent Adriatic wind, sprang up from behind him. Both sides took this as showing that God was on Theodosius's side. The panic-stricken pagans died at their posts or fled.

At the time of his triumph in January 395, gout and death overtook Theodosius. He was survived by his son Arcadius in the East where the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire lived on until the Turks struck down the last Christian emperor in the gateway of Constantinople in 1453. In the West, his young and feeble son Honorius sat enthroned. The Goths sacked Rome in 410; within the century the Western Empire had collapsed and the medieval papacy had emerged.

Despite his title, Theodosius the Great was a mediocre man who completed the work of Diocletian and Constantine and put together a scheme of survival for the East Roman Empire. Behind its fortifications, Western civilization gained time to take shape. Thanks to the religious policy of Theodosius, his predecessors back to Constantine, and his successors down to his redoubtable granddaughter Pulcheria (399453), certain features of the Greek, Hellenistic, Roman, African, and ancient Near Eastern heritages that might otherwise have been excluded were decisively imbibed by Christianity. This process created and presented a face of Christianity that for centuries has obscured its innate affinity with the powerless, the underprivileged, and the non-Western, as well as its heritage of detestation of coercion, violence, and trium-phalism.


The text of the Theodosian Code can be found in Theodosiani Libri XVI, 3 vols. in 2, edited by Theodor Mommsen and Paul M. Meyer (Berlin, 1905), and translated into English by Clyde Pharr, in The Theodosian Code (Princeton, N.J., 1952). See also Jill Harries and Ian Wood, eds., The Theodosian Code (Ithaca, N.Y., 1993), and John F. Matthews, Laying Down the Law: A Study of the Theodosian Code (New Haven, Conn., 2000). On the Emperor himself, Adolf Lippold's Theodosius der Grosse, und seine Zeit, 2d ed., enl. (Munich, 1980), is a thoroughly researched study of most aspects of Theodosius's policies. See also Wilhelm Ensslin, Die Religionspolitik des Kaisers Theodosius d. Gr (Munich, 1953), and Stephen Williams and Gerrard Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (New Haven, Conn., 1995).

A monograph in English central to the question of Theodosius's role in Christianity is my The Emperor Theodosius and the Establishment of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1960). Jörg Ernesti's Princeps Christianus und Kaiser aller Römer: Theodosius der Grosse im Lichte zeitgenössischer Quellen (Schöningh, 1998) is a highly detailed and full discussion of the literature as a whole. Important related discussions can also be found in Kenneth G. Holum's Theodosian Empresses (Berkeley, Calif., 1982) and J. F. Matthew's Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court, A. D. 364425 (Oxford, 1975). Related themes are taken up in Tony Honoré, Law in the Crisis of Empire, 379455 AD: The Theodosian Dynasty and its Quaestors with a Palingenesia of Laws of the Dynasty (Oxford, 1998), and Bente Kiilerich, Late Fourth Century Classicism in the Plastic Arts: Studies in the So-Called Theodosian Renaissance (Oxford, 1993).

This reign saw the beginning of the effulgence of intellect, holiness and charity, associated with such names as the Cappadocians, the Bethlehem women and Jerome, the desert Mothers and Fathers, Augustine and Monica, Ambrose, the Priscillianists, Martin of Tours, and the Pelagians. Each has an extensive bibliography that interlinks with that of the Emperor. See also Incontro di studiosi dell'antichità cristiana, Vescovi e Pastori in Epoca Teodosiana (Rome, 1996). A good visual aid is also offered in the film "Trials and Triumphs in Rome: Christianity in the 3rd and 4th Centuries," directed by Bob Bee (Princeton, N. J., 1999).

Noel Q. King (1987 and 2005)


views updated Jun 08 2018


The Roman emperor Theodosius (ca. 346-395) was sometimes called "the Great" because of his solution of the Gothic problem and unification of the empire and because of his championship of orthodoxy, which earned for him the extravagant praise of Catholic writers.

Theodosius was the son of a famous general of the same name who had cleared Britain of northern invaders and then had quashed a Moorish rebellion. However, the general was falsely accused at court and summarily executed in 376. Theodosius had served ably under his father in Britain, and later, in an independent command in Moesia, he had saved the province from barbarian invasion. At his father's death, however, he gained permission to retire to his family estate in Spain.

In August 378 the Eastern Roman emperor, Valens, was overwhelmed and killed at Adrianople by invading Goths. The Western emperor, Gratian, thereupon recalled Theodosius from retirement and in January 379 made him joint emperor with command over the East. Instead of fighting the Goths directly with demoralized Roman troops, by diplomacy Theodosius fostered dissensions among them, won the friendship of the Visigoths by his courteous treatment of their king, and ultimately allowed the Visigoths to remain within the empire, though they retained their own political cohesion under native chieftains. They were called allies (foederati) rather than subjects; and this set the legal precedent for the ultimate partition of much of the empire among immigrant barbarians.

In 383 Magnus Maximus was proclaimed emperor by British troops, and Emperor Gratian was murdered. Theodosius at first accepted his new colleague and allowed him Britain and Gaul; but when, in 387, Maximus drove from Italy Gratian's young half brother Valentinian II, Theodosius (now the husband of Galla, Valentinian's sister) marched west, destroyed Maximus, and restored Valentinian. Theodosius remained in Italy for 3 years, leaving the administration of the East to his elder son, Arcadius, whom he had declared an augustus (coruler) in 383.

In 391 Valentinian was murdered by his Frankish military commander, Arbogast, who then raised one Eugenius to the throne. Theodosius again returned to the West and defeated the usurper in the autumn of 394. The empire was then briefly reunited under one ruler; but Theodosius himself died on Jan. 17, 395, leaving the East to Arcadius and the West to a younger son, Honorius, who had been proclaimed augustus in 393. This division of the empire became permanent.

A serious illness soon after his accession prompted Theodosius's early baptism, which Christian Roman emperors usually postponed till their deathbeds. This made him very susceptible to the pressures of the Church, and he came particularly under the influence of Ambrose, the strong-willed bishop of Milan, who repeatedly placed him under heavy penance when his justice was hotheaded or severe. Theodosius was a devoted persecutor of Christian heresies, and in 391 he officially closed all the empire's temples and forbade the practice of all pagan cults.

Further Reading

Noel Q. King, The Emperor Theodosius and the Establishing of Christianity (1960), discusses the important role of Theodosius in the triumph of orthodox Catholicism; and A. H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire (1964), covers the secular aspects of his reign.

Additional Sources

Williams, Stephen, Theodosius: the empire at bay, London: Batsford, 1994. □


views updated May 18 2018


THEODOSIUS , spokesman for the Samaritan community of *Alexandria in the second century b.c.e. During the reign of Ptolemy vi Philometor (180–145 b.c.e.) a dispute arose between the Jews and Samaritans of Alexandria. The quarrel centered around the respective temples in Jerusalem and Mount Gerizim, and appears to have been a continuation of an earlier dispute (Jos., Ant., 12:10). Whereas the Jews wished to send sacrifices to the Temple at Jerusalem, the Samaritans held that their temple on Mount Gerizim was the only legitimate one. Both sides agreed to bring the dispute before Ptolemy Philometor, and Theodosius was among those appointed to present the Samaritan case. The Jewish party, however, represented by one Andronicus the son of Messalamus, succeeded in persuading the king "that the Jerusalem Temple alone was built in accordance with the laws of Moses." As a result, Theodosius and the other Samaritan participants are said to have been put to death (Jos., Ant., 13:74–79).

[Isaiah Gafni]

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