Emperor Theodosius I

Life: AD 347 – 395

Flavius Theodosius - "Theodosius I" or "Theodosius the Great"
Bust believed to be of Theodosius I
  • Name: Flavius Theodosius
  • Born in AD 347 at Cauca in Spain.
  • Became emperor on 19 January in AD 379.
  • Wives: (1) Aelia Flavia Flaccilla (two sons; Arcadius; Honorius); (2) Galla (one daughter; Galla Placidia).
  • Died in Mediolanum (Milan), January AD 395.

Early Life

‘Theodosius the Great’ was born in Cauca in the Spanish province of Tarraconensis in AD 347. His father was Theodosius the elder, who became ‘Master of Horse’ under Valentinian.

Theodosius himself also served in the army as a member of his father’s staff when fighting in Britain in AD 368 and, afterward, against the Alemanni.

In about AD 373, he became governor of Upper Moesia and oversaw hostilities against the Sarmatians. However, in AD 375, his father was convicted of treason and put to death, while he went into exile in Spain.

Coming Back from Exile

But after the disastrous battle of Hadrianopolis, which saw the eastern emperor Valen and his army slaughtered by the Visigoths in AD 378, emperor Gratian recalled Theodosius from exile in order to deal with the disastrous circumstances in the east. He achieved remarkable success at dealing with what was a desperate situation along the Danube. As a reward for his troubles, Gratian elevated Theodosius to the rank of Augustus of the East on 19 January AD 379.

Fighting with Barbarians

In the immediate first years of his reign, he battled against the Visigoth forces and the barbarian settlers streaming across the Danube. But he soon realized the task was an impossible one, and, in AD 382, he agreed on a treaty with them, making allies within the imperial borders. The treaty allowed the Visigoths to live in Thrace on their own land, with their own laws and their own chiefs. Though, as part of the empire, they would be required to provide soldiers to the empire.

Emperor Theodosius I

Terms of the treaty

Also part of the treaty was the fact that he was required to make annual payments to the chieftains of these Visigothic tribes to pay for troops they continued to command on his behalf. The barbarian tribes included in this treaty were by no way exclusively Visigothic. Other Germans and even some Huns were part of this agreement as well.

Barbarians in the Army

In a time of a desperate shortage of manpower in the army, the barbarians provided Theodosius with a ready source of fierce and skilled fighters, which not only enlarged his force but also gave him a decisive edge in his struggles with western usurpers to the Roman throne.

However, this enlarged army consumed enormous amounts of money. Theodosius showed even greater determination than Valentinian to increase the amounts he could obtain by taxation. He was determined that no one should own any property without having to pay tax for it. The laws which were passed to enforce this were so stringent that they led to widespread oppression.

Emperor Theodosius I
Emperor Theodosius I

Theodosius’ Relationship with Gratian

Theodosius’ relationship with his fellow emperor Gratian in the West was a strained one, largely on religious grounds, but the fact that Theodosius’ father had been executed under Gratian will surely not have made for friendly relations.

But when Magnus Maximus usurped the Western throne in AD 383, he only reluctantly granted him recognition. Largely, this recognition was only due to worries about Maximus’ ambitions against Gratian’s young co-Augustus Valentinian II in Italy. By acknowledging Maximus, Theodosius managed to persuade the usurper to recognize Valentinian II. Meanwhile, Theodosius promoted his own son, Arcadius, to co-Augustus of the east in AD 383.

Maximus Invasion of Italy

When, in AD 387, Maximus invaded Italy in order to dispose of Valentinian II, he led an army against him. The eastern emperor’s German and Hun troops helped him defeat Maximus at Siscia and then at Poetovio. Maximus was beheaded in Aquileia (AD 387). After that, Theodosius stayed in Italy until AD 391, effectively acting as sole emperor despite reinstalling Valentinian II as Western Augustus.

Being stern on matters of law and taxation, then on religious grounds, too, Theodosius became seen as a hardliner. Christian heretics were repressed with a series of new laws, and at a time, even actual religious discussion itself was outlawed.

Theodosius Excommunication

Though Theodosius himself, at times, did not fare well himself in religious matters. In AD 390, he was excommunicated by the notorious bishop Ambrose of Mediolanum (Milan) for the massacre of people in Thessalonica who had lynched his ‘Master of Soldiers.’ Only after Theodosius had done penance was he allowed back into the church.

Emperor Theodosius I

The excommunication was a truly historic event, as it showed the sheer power the church had gained by then. For now, the authority of the bishops was such that they could even enforce their will on the emperor. Had the emperor been determined in his religious policy right from the beginning, then what followed was an enforced Christianization of the empire. In AD 391, pagan temples were closed, and all of their worship was forbidden by threat of harsh punishment.

As he returned to Constantinople, he left behind his ‘Master of Soldiers’ to assist Valentinian II in his rule of the West. But his faith in Arbogast proved a dire misjudgment of character. The overbearing Arbogast soon saw to it that Valentinian II was killed and created his own puppet emperor in Flavius Eugenius, who was a minister at the Western court.

The Death of Theodosius

In AD 393, Theodosius promoted his second son, Honorius, to be the third Augustus in the East. Afterward, once again, he needed to embark on a campaign to remove a usurper in the West (AD 394). On the river Frigidus, he defeated Arbogast in AD 394 and, after the battle, had Eugenius executed. Theodosius had, in effect, involuntarily reunited the two halves of the empire, though it was to be for a brief spell only. For already in January AD 395, he died at Mediolanum (Milan).

Emperor Theodosius I

People Also Ask:

What is Emperor Theodosius famous for?

Theodosius was a strong adherent of the Christian doctrine of consubstantiality and an opponent of Arianism. He convened a council of bishops at Constantinople in 381, which confirmed the former as orthodoxy and the latter as a heresy.

What did Theodosius do to Christianity?

In 380 CE, the emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which made Christianity, specifically Nicene Christianity, the official religion of the Roman Empire. Most other Christian sects were deemed heretical, lost their legal status, and had their properties confiscated by the Roman state.

Was Theodosius a Catholic?

Reigned 379 to 395, ended the Arian dispute, and established Catholicism as the religion of the empire. Called from his native Spain after the Roman defeat at Adrianople in 378, he became the general and then imperial colleague of Emperor Gratian.

Did Theodosius convert to Christianity?

Early in his reign, Theodosius contracted an illness that almost carried him off. He subsequently underwent Christian baptism and declared himself a Christian of the Nicene Creed. Not since Constantine had the Empire seen a serious Christian emperor.

Which Roman emperor banned paganism?

Theodosius followed this by prohibition of all pagan sacrifices, and when he was established as sole Emperor (following Gratian’s murder by his own troops), a series of edicts were issued in 391 AD and 392 AD, abolishing all pagan cults and ceremonies – including, for instance, the Olympic Games.