(Flavius Theodosius)


Theodosius was the last emperor who ever ruled both the eastern and the western empires, and even he only assumed control of the West inadvertently. He was elevated to rule the eastern empire in 378 A.D., by Gratian, after the previous emperor of the East died in battle. Theodosius effectively repelled barbarian invasions in the East, and was in alliance with Gratian, the western emperor, until he was murdered in 383. For the next decade the western empire was ruled by a series of usurpers, and Theodosius had to turn his attention from fighting barbarians, to putting down uprisings in the West. Finally, in 394 Theodosius defeated the usurpers Eugenius and Arboast and claimed the western empire for his own.

Theodosius is best known in history for his relationship with the Christian church. He was baptized as a Christian in 380 A.D. and shortly thereafter convened the Council of Constantinople, the second council of the Christian church. He strongly opposed the Arian heresy, and passed an edict which discouraged the practice of the pagan religion. Although he passed several laws that favored the institutions of the church, his most significant contribution, and the one he is most famous for, was his humble submission to a penance dictated by Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. In 390 A.D. the inhabitants of Thessalonica revolted, and in anger Theodosius ordered all men, women, and children in the town to be slaughtered. He later repented of this deed, and confessed his sins to Ambrose, but Ambrose required that he do public penance before being readmitted to the church. The idea that even emperors were subject to the laws of God was a radically new idea, especially for a civilization such as Rome, that had a history of deifying their emperors.

When Theodosius died he left the eastern empire to his son Arcadius, and the throne stayed in that family for sixty years. He left the western empire to his son Honorius who presided over the western empire, as it was overrun by the barbarian hordes.

Key events during the life of Theodosius:

Military governor of Moesia.
Withdrew to Spain after his father was murdered.
Valens, emperor of the East, killed in battle.
Elevated to co-emperor of the East by Gratian (Emperor of the West).
Battled Visigoths in the Balkans. Theodosius is baptized as a Christian.
Made peace with the Ostrogoths. Called First Council of Constantinople.
Gratian murdered—Maximus usurps western empire.
Eldest son Arcadius is named co-ruler with Theodosius in the East.
Marched against Maximus, and returned the western throne to Valentinian II.
Excommunicated by Ambrose due to the massacre of thousands of Thessalonians.
Passed edicts discouraging the practices of paganism.
Valentinian II murdered by one of his generals. Eugenius is installed on the western throne.
Defeated Eugenius; and raised his younger son Honorius to the western throne.
Died, leaving the empire divided between his sons.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Emperor's Penance  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
End of the Western Empire in  Famous Men of Rome  by  John H. Haaren & A. B. Poland
Breaking the Frontier  in  The Story of the Middle Ages  by  Samuel B. Harding
Ambrose  in  The Early Church, from Ignatius to Augustine  by  George Hodges
The Crime of Theodosius  in  Red Book of Heroes  by  Mrs. Andrew Lang

Image Links

Gold medal of Theodosius
 in Famous Men of Rome

Ambrose rebukes Theodosius, Fugel
 in Famous Men of Rome

Ambrose Barring Theodosius from the Church
 in Greatest Nations - Rome

Ambrose Rebukes Theodosius
 in Back Matter

Go back', he said.
 in Red Book of Heroes

Let him die.', he said.
 in Red Book of Heroes

Short Biography
Ambrose Bishop of Milan. Resisted Arian heresy, advised emperors, advocated for Church interests.
Gratian Emperor in West; raised Theodosius to the throne in the East.
Valentinian II Rightful heir to the western throne, driven by usurpers to flee to Theodosius.
Maximus Usurper of the western throne.
Arcadius Son of Theodosius; succeeded his father in the East.
Honorius Western Emperor during the Visigoth raids of Alaric. Moved capital to Ravenna. Murdered Stilicho.