Open main menu

OrthodoxWiki β

Theodosius the Great (emperor)

For another saint called Theodosius the Great living in the fifth-sixth centuries, see Theodosius the Great (Cenobiarch).

The holy and right-believing Emperor Theodosius I, also called Theodosius the Great, was the last emperor who ruled over both the eastern and western portions of the Roman Empire. He ruled from 379 to 395. Theodosius I is also known for making Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. He was a strong defender of the Orthodox Christian faith and is a saint. His feast day is celebrated on January 17.


Flavius Theodosius was born on January 11, 347, in Cauca (modern Coca) in the Roman province of Spain, the son of Comes Theodosius (the elder) and Thermantia, who both were Orthodox Christians. He married Aelia Flacilla, by whom he had three children: two sons, Arcadius and Honorius (his future successors), and a daughter, Pulcheria. Aelia Flacilla (also Placilla or Plakilla) is commemorated as a saint on September 14. Both Aelia and Pulcheria died in 385. After Aelia's death, Theodosius married Galla, the daughter of Valentinian I, by whom he had a daughter, Galla Placidia, the mother of Valentinian III.

As the son of a senior Roman military officer, Flavius Theodosius accompanied his father to Britannia to quell the Great Conspiracy in 368. In 374, he became the military commander (Dux) of Moesia on the lower Danube River, where he distinguished himself in battles with the Sarmatians. At about the same time that his father suffered disgrace and was executed in 375, Theodosius retired to his estates in Spain, apparently fearing further persecution because of his family ties. But his reputation was not forgotten.

Two co-emperors, Valentinian I and Valens, governed the Roman Empire—Valentinian I in the West and Valens in the East—until the death of Valentinian I. After Valentinian I’s death on November 17, 375, his sons, Valantinian II and Gratian, succeeded him as rulers of the Western Roman Empire. Theodosius regained his commission, fought the Sarmatians again, and won the rank of magister militum per Illyricum in 376. In 378, Gratian appointed Theodosius co-augustus for the East after Valens was killed in the Battle of Adrianople. In 383, Gratian was also killed in a rebellion. Also in 383, Theodosius named his son Arcadius as co-augustus in the east. With the death of Valentinian II in 392, Theodosius became the ruler of the Roman Empire as the sole emperor; he was the last Roman emperor to do so.

Upon becoming emperor, Theodosius’ attention was called by the entrenched Goths in the Balkans, the solution to which occupied Theodosius for the first two years of his reign. On November 24, 380, Theodosius was finally able to enter Constantinople, and a settlement with the Gothic forces was finally achieved with the signing of treaties on October 3, 382. During the latter 380s, Theodosius was occupied with aiding Valentinian II in the West against the usurper Clemens Maximus. This episode was finally concluded when Theodosius’ army defeated Maximus in 388. The captured Maximus was then executed on August 28, 388.

With Valentinian II’s death, under questionable circumstances, Theodosius gave his son Honorius the full rank of Augustus of the West in January 393. In the meantime, the magister militum Arbogast, who had served under Valentinian II, elected Eugenius, a former teacher of rhetoric and a pagan, as emperor of the West. Armed force was needed to settle the usurpation. Aiding Honorius, Theodosius led the campaign against Eugenius, culminating in the two-day Battle of Frigidus on September 5 and 6, 394. The first day of the battle did not go well for Theodosius’ forces, but the battle turned on the second day after it was said that two “heavenly riders all in white” gave Theodosius courage, and a Bora (natural air current) arose with its cyclonic winds blowing directly into the face of Eugenius’ forces, disrupting his line of battle. Eugenius was captured and soon executed.

Trinitarian Christianity

While born into a Christian family, Theodosius was not baptized until 380, when a serious sickness in Thessalonica brought him to make the decision. He was baptized by the Orthodox bishop of Thessalonica, Ascholios, after assuring himself that the bishop was not an Arian. From the start of his reign, a considerable part of Theodosius’ activities were spent defending the Orthodox faith and suppressing Arianism. In February 380, he joined with Gratian in a edict declaring that all subjects of their domains should profess the Orthodox faith. Upon entering Constantinople, Theodosius began to expel the Arian party from their hold there. St. Gregory of Nazianzus was elected patriarch of Constantinople by the Second Ecumenical Council, which had been called into session in 381 to deal with a number of issues, including the Creed, various heretics, and the order of honor among the patriarchates.

During his reign Theodosius, while holding strictly to the Trinitarian position of the first two Ecumenical Councils, attempted to be conciliatory with the heretical parties but was not successful. In 388, against the remnants of the pagans, Theodosius took severe measures, sending prefects throughout the Middle East, destroying temples and disrupting pagan associations. In 391, Theodosius refused the restoration of the Altar of Victory in the Roman senate. He also put an end to the Olympic games.

With the rise of Eugenius, the pagan forces made an armed attempt to restore pagan rites. Eugenius set up pagan altars in Rome, including the Altar of Victory. Thus Theodosius' Christian armies met Eugenius near Aquileia on September 6, 394, once more the Christians triumphed over the banner of the ancient gods, and Theodosius entered Rome as the sole emperor of the now finally Christian empire.

Theodosius proclaimed his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius, augusti earlier during his life, and with his death Arcadius became emperor of the eastern half of the empire and Honorius emperor of the western half. Theodosius died in Milan on January 17, 395. St Ambrose, with whom Theodosius had a close relationship, preached his funeral oration ("De obitu Theodosii", P. L., XVI, 1385). With the division of the empire between his sons, his death was a milestone in history: The Roman world was never again to be united.

Succession box:
Theodosius the Great (emperor)
Preceded by:
Valentinian II
Roman Emperor
Succeeded by:
Arcadius eastern emperor
Honorius western emperor
Help with box

External links