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Allesandro Magnasco: Theodosius I Repulsed from the Church by Saint Ambrose.

Emperor Theodosius I: Religious Intolerance in Ancient Rome and The End of the Olympics

Theodosius I (also known as Theodosius the Great) lived during the 4th century AD. He was the last Roman emperor to rule over both the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire. It was during the reign of Theodosius I that Nicene Christianity became the official religion of the empire, suppressing paganism.

Who was Theodosius?

Theodosius I, whose full name was Flavius Theodosius, was born in 347 AD in Cauca, Gallaecia province (in what is today Spain). His father was also named Flavius Theodosius (referred to as Theodosius the Elder in order to avoid confusion), a senior military officer, whilst his mother’s name is lost to history.

When he was old enough, Theodosius took part in the various military campaigns of his father, fighting against the Picts , the Alemanni, and the Sarmatians. Around 375 AD, Theodosius the Elder was sentenced to death and executed as a result of political intrigues in the court of the Roman emperor. Soon after, his son retired to the family estates in Cauca.

Theodosius’ life as a provincial aristocrat would not last for long, as he was soon to be recalled to the imperial court. At that time, the Roman Empire was divided between Valentinian I, who ruled the western provinces, and his brother, Valens, who ruled the eastern provinces. Valentinian died in 375 AD, and was succeeded by his sons, Valentinian II and Gratian. At the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD, Valens was killed and Theodosius was summoned by Gratian, where he was appointed the successor of Valens. At this point of time, Valentinian II was only a seven-year-old boy, and hence would probably not have been the best candidate for the position of co-emperor.

Bust of Valens or Honorius. Marble, Roman artwork, ca. 400 AD. (Public Domain)

Bust of Valens or Honorius. Marble, Roman artwork, ca. 400 AD. ( Public Domain )

Emperor Theodosius

As emperor of the eastern provinces, Theodosius’ first task was to secure his realm against the barbarians. Although the emperor began to rebuild the army, he was also aware that brute force alone was no longer sufficient to deal with the problem. Therefore, he sought to co-exist with the barbarians peacefully. As a result of his efforts, a treaty of alliance was reached with the Visigoths under Athanaric in 382 AD. The Visigoths were allowed to settle in the region between the lower Danube and the Balkan mountains, and allowed to retain their autonomy. In return, they were to provide military assistance to the Romans.

Solidus coin of Theodosius I. 379-395 AD. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc/CC BY SA 2.5)

Solidus coin of Theodosius I. 379-395 AD. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc/ CC BY SA 2.5 )

After the death of Gratian in 383 AD, his half-brother, Valentinian II, became the sole ruler in the west. Valentinian II himself died in May 392 AD, and Theodosius became the ruler of both halves of the Roman Empire. However, a conflict with a pretender caused civil war to soon break out. Arbogast, a general and guardian of Valentinian II, had proclaimed Eugenius, a former rhetoric teacher, as the new Western emperor. In order to gain some time, Theodosius tolerated this new arrangement. But in January 393 AD, the eastern emperor elevated his son, Honorius, to the position of Augustus of the West, which was a clear sign that he no longer acknowledged Eugenius. As a consequence, civil war broke out.

Theodosius’ War for Christianity

This civil war had a religious significance as well. On the one hand, Theodosius was a staunch Christian, whilst Arbogast and Eugenius were attempting to revive the pagan ways of ancient Rome . Thus, the outcome of the civil war would not only decide the political fate of the Roman Empire, but also its religious one.

‘The Emperor bowing before Christ.’ (Ian Scott/CC BY SA 2.0) Mosaic above the inner entrance to the Church of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. Christ is depicted on the throne of the cosmos receiving worship from the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I.

‘The Emperor bowing before Christ.’ (Ian Scott/ CC BY SA 2.0 ) Mosaic above the inner entrance to the Church of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. Christ is depicted on the throne of the cosmos receiving worship from the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I.

It was during the reign of Theodosius, specifically in 380 AD, that Nicene Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. This led to the end of Arianism as a serious contender to Nicene Christianity.

Additionally, Theodosius took measures to suppress paganism in the Roman Empire. In 391 AD, an edict was issued against paganism, and in the same year, the Serapeum in Alexandria was destroyed. Finally, the Olympic Games were cancelled after the last one was held in 393 AD, as it was regarded by the emperor as a pagan practice.

A 1667 representation of Emperor Theodosius. (Public Domain)

A 1667 representation of Emperor Theodosius. ( Public Domain )

Following the Battle of Frigidus in September 394 AD, during which Arbogast and Eugenius were defeated, Theodosius was once more the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire. This was, however, Theodosius’ last victory, as he died soon after, in January 395 AD. The Roman Empire was split between his two sons, Arcadius (who inherited the eastern half) and Honorius (who inherited the western half). The split between the two halves of the Roman Empire was now permanent.

Top image: Allesandro Magnasco: Theodosius I Repulsed from the Church by Saint Ambrose. Source: Kent Baldner/ CC BY NC SA 2.0

By Wu Mingren

References

Christianity Today, 2018. Theodosius I. Available at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/rulers/theodosius-i.html

Fortescue, A., 1912. Theodosius I. Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14577d.htm

Gill, N., 2018. The Great Roman Emperor Theodosius I. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/roman-emperor-theodosius-i-121241

Lendering, J., 2018. Theodosius I. Available at: http://www.livius.org/articles/person/theodosius-i/

Lippold, A., 2016. Theodosius I.  Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Theodosius-I

New World Encyclopedia, 2015. Theodosius I. Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Theodosius_I

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