Ancient History & Civilisation

The Reign of Theodosius II

The eastern court of Theodosius II in Constantinople has not impressed modern historians. Gibbon was responsible for drawing a picture of an indolent and ineffective emperor, dominated by women and eunuchs.3 A. H. M. Jones' epigrammatic judgment of the era was that the successors of Theodosius I reigned rather than ruled the empire.4 Yet, judged by normal criteria, they did so with outstanding success. The regime was stable. Reigns were long, and rulers died, in most cases, in their beds. Paradoxically, the very fact that emperors came to the throne in their childhood led to long and secure terms of office.5 Theodosius II, the seven-year-old boy who succeeded his father Arcadius in 408, was unchallenged emperor of the East until he died after a riding accident in 450. In the West Arcadius' younger brother Honorius lived until 423. His half-sister, Galla Placidia, daughter of Theodosius I by his first marriage, married Flavius Constantius, whom Honorius named as co-Augustus in 421. Constantius died within months of this elevation, but she lived on as Augusta until 450. Their son Valentinian III, born in 419, was installed as western emperor in 425, and ruled until 455. The imperial women more than matched the longevity of their men folk. Pulcheria, Theodosius II's elder sister, was named Augusta in 414, outlived her brother, and married and thereby legitimized the position of his successor Marcian, before she died in 453. She organized Theodosius' marriage in 421 to an Athenian noblewoman, Athenais, who was renamed Aelia Eudocia, became Augusta in 423, and lived until 460. Their daughter, Licinia Eudoxia, was betrothed as a child to Valentinian III, and married him in 437. She too outlived her husband (Diagram 4.1).6


Diagram 4.1    The Theodosian dynasty (from K. W. Holum, Theodosian Empresses [Berkeley 1982], 133)

The style of the fifth-century court in Constantinople was radically different from that of the pre-Theodosian age. As emperors were confined to the palace and the city, the intricacies of political life become an arcanum imperii. While this fact inevitably generated much speculation about tensions and power-struggles within the court, which are duly reflected in our sources,7 there are few indications of how emperors actually operated at work, or of how policy was formed in the palace. We need, however, to be cautious in accepting ev­­erything that we are told. The picture of the Theodosian age, as re-interpreted in due course by Gibbon, Jones, and other modern writers, derives from fifth-century sources. Priscus of Panion said of Theodosius that he was “unwarlike, lived a cowardly life and obtained peace by money payments not by force of arms, while all his actions were under the influence of eunuchs” (Priscus fr. 3). The ninth-century chronicle of Theophanes judged him to be indecisive and swayed by every breath of wind (Theophanes, Chron. 5941, 101 de Boor). However, Priscus' judgment is evidently affected by the fact that he himself had taken part in an embassy to Attila the Hun on Theodosius' behalf. At that moment in the late 440s he had witnessed Hunnish power at its height and observed how Attila cynically and ruthlessly exploited his position to maximum Roman disadvantage. Moreover Priscus was actually writing when the policy of buying the barbarians off with subsidies, which were the hallmark of Theodosius' strategy, had been reversed by Marcian in the 450s, but at a period when Attila was no longer a threat. Moreover, the dominant political force of Theodosius' final years had been the eunuch Chrysaphius, and Priscus reflected the post mortem denigration that Chrysaphius suffered, as his religious policies were overturned.8

The record for Theodosius' foreign policy as a whole shows an effective grasp of strategic realities, and suggests caution but not inertia.9 The greatest threat inevitably came from the barbarian groups in Illyricum and Thrace, in particular from the domination of Attila. A fragment from Priscus' history sets out Theodosian policy:

The Romans complied with all Attila's instructions, and treated them as the command of their master. For not only were they taking precautions not to engage in a war against him, but they also were afraid that the Persians were preparing war, and that the Vandals were disturbing the peace at sea, and that the Isaurians were inclined to engage in brigandage, and the Saracens were mounting raids into their eastern empire, and that the tribes of Ethiopia were in rebellion. For this reason they swallowed their pride and obeyed Attila, but tried to prepare for military action against the other peoples, gathering their forces and appointing commanders. (Priscus fr. 10)

Peace was maintained on the eastern frontier with the Persians, apart from hostilities in 421–2 when Roman forces intervened to support a Christian group that was in conflict with Zoroastrian fire-worshippers (Theodoret 5.37 and 39; Socrates 7.8.18 and 20). The emperor, of course, did not take part in the campaign, but he is credited with supporting it to the fullest effect (Socrates 7.18.37). Forces were sent to the western empire on three occasions: in 424 to depose the usurper John, who threatened the succession of Valentinian III, and in 431 and 441, when fleets were sent, without success, to challenge the Vandal domination of Africa. There were no major offensives in the Balkans or Illyricum, and thus scope was left for the growth of Hunnic power, but archaeological evidence shows that Roman defenses were maintained along the lower Danube, which could be provisioned from the sea, and a military presence was maintained there (Priscus fr. 9.2). Above all, Theodosius' praetorian prefect Anthemius took the crucial decision to build the powerful outer ring of land walls around Constantinople, securing the city from barbarian threats (Socrates 7.1.2). Cyrus of Panopolis, the protégé of the empress Eudocia, who was the most powerful politician at Constantinople between 439 and 442, added the city's sea walls,10 and further repairs were made to the land walls after an earthquake in 447 by the praetorian prefect Constantine, at the time of an urgent threat from the Huns.11 There is a strong likelihood that the long walls built some sixty-five kilometers west of Constantinople, stretching across Thrace from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, were also Theodosian in origin, for their existence is implied by the Ostrogothic campaigns of the 470s.12 Victories were commemorated in inscriptions and monuments as they had been before. In the early 420s a new column was erected in the Hebdomon square, already adorned with similar monuments from the time of Theodosius I, with an inscription identifying the imperial statue:

Our Lord Theodosius, pious and fortunate Augustus, Emperor and most mighty triumphant conqueror of barbarian races, eternal and universal victor, in accordance with the prayers of his sisters, rejoices on high.13

The reference in the inscription to the emperor's sisters is a remarkable acknowledgment of their importance to the regime, which the sources make no attempt to conceal. Arcadius' wife, Aelia Eudoxia, had borne her husband four daughters during the nine years of their marriage from 395 to 404. The eldest, Flaccilla, died in infancy, but the others, Pulcheria, Arcadia, and Marina, survived with their brother. Pulcheria, in particular, became a dominating figure. The importance of this formidable female presence in Constantinople needs to be emphasized. As members of the imperial family, they were enormously wealthy and maintained huge households in the city. Between them the three surviving sisters owned five palaces, each with retinues of dependents. Quarters of the city were named after Marina and Pulcheria, and a branch of the imperial civil service was created for the latter after she established a separate household following Theodosius' marriage.14 On this basis, as well as thanks to the strength of her personality, Pulcheria exercised enormous influence over the court.

The most detailed overall picture of this influence and of the character of the reign of Theodosius comes from the church historians Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret, who all wrote during the emperor's lifetime.15 Their accounts of the period pay much attention to imperial piety. Socrates emphasized that the emperor's sheltered origins did not prevent him from developing good sense, resolution, and the ability to endure hardship, qualities which he had obtained from Christian self-discipline rather than from military training (Socrates 7.22.2):

He made the palace into nothing so much as a monastery (asketerion). He and his sisters used to rise at dawn and sing antiphonal hymns to the divinity. He knew the holy books by heart and could carry on discussions of the sacred texts with the bishops he met like a long established priest. He collected the holy books and commentaries on them even more enthusiastically than Ptolemy Philadelphus [had collected books for the library at Alexandria]. (Socrates 7.22.4)

The ruler's devotional character was not merely a private matter. On one occasion he led the crowd in community hymn-singing in the hippodrome as a means of stopping a winter snowstorm. Socrates sums up the effect of such occasions in a comment which typifies his understanding of the Constanti­­nople of Theodosius: the whole city became a church. It was characteristic of the age to project this fusion of imperial piety and public policy (Socrates 7.22.15–18).

Pulcheria, who had taken a vow of perpetual virginity which was not to be broken until she contracted a political marriage with Marcian in 450, was evidently the main instigator of this religious development. Women in the political culture of the ancient world had usually achieved influence through their marriages or their children. Sozomen shrewdly observed that Pulcheria exercised her influence through her virginity. He explained that

not yet fifteen years old, she adopted a most wise and divine resolution. From the first she dedicated her virginity to God and instructed her sisters to adopt the same way of life, so that they should not introduce another man into the palace and remove every basis for jealousy and plotting. (Sozomen 9.1.3)

Sozomen implies that she was mainly an influence on Theodosius while he was still too young to manage his own affairs (Sozomen 9.1.2), but this understates her role. In any case it is certainly misleading to suppose that he, as a minor, remained under her tutela, until he reached adulthood. There were only two years between them in age. Her authority was due to strength of character not to legal niceties, and events were to show that her influence endured and became stronger in his later years. The most hostile picture that survives of Pulcheria comes from the pen of the militant pagan Eunapius, who included a long digression on her baneful influence on public life, even though the scope of his own history did not extend chronologically beyond the fall of Rome to Alaric in 410. It was during Pulcheria's reign that provincial governorships and the higher posts of vicarii of the dioceses were openly put up for sale, and court judgments were settled in favor of the one who could pay most (Eunapius fr. 72.1). The force of the criticism is much diminished not only by Eunapius' rabidly anti-Christian prejudice, but also because the selling of offices was an intrinsic feature of the system of government.16

Pulcheria and her sisters inevitably became major players in the bitter religious controversies of the period and the ecclesiastical politics behind the great councils of Ephesus in 431 and 449, leading up to Chalcedon in 451. As well as working behind the scenes, Pulcheria took part in the official correspondence of the councils, thus adding further complexity to the lines that entangled the church and the state in these matters.17 Pulcheria was closely associated with the emergence of the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, opposed by Cyril of Alexandria, which emerged as the accepted theological position after the first Council of Ephesus in 431 and led to the deposition and exile of Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople. In his Address to the Pious Emperor Theodosius on the Correct Faith of 431 Cyril described Pulcheria as “she who takes part in the care and administration of your empire.” He deliberately contrasted her with Eudocia, in whom the hopes for the dynasty resided.18 Specifically Pulcheria and her sisters promoted the cult of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God (Theotokos) on a large scale, leading to the dedication of several Marian churches in Constantinople and the adoption of Marian theology as a central part of Christian belief. It is likely enough that enthusiasm for the cult of Mary had been widespread at an earlier period, especially among women, but the influence and patronage of the Theodosian empresses gave it a major new impetus and high public prominence.19 The spiritual and practical alliance between charismatic ecclesiastical leaders and wealthy and influential women was nothing new in the recent history of Christian society. St Jerome had attracted the total commitment of some of the wealthiest aristocratic women of Rome, taking several of them into exile with him to Bethlehem after 386. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, had forged an alliance with Olympias in opposition to Arcadius' wife the empress Eudoxia at the beginning of the fifth century. Similar alignments were maintained at an imperial level by Pulcheria during the 430s.

Pulcheria is credited with selecting her brother's bride, Athenais, the cultivated daughter of the sophist Leontius, who was a leading figure in the philosophical school in Athens. Athenais was baptized, renamed Eudocia, and raised to the rank of Augusta in 423, two years after the marriage. She inevitably came into conflict with Pulcheria, and their rivalry infected the political atmosphere of the 420s and 430s. Her sophisticated cultural outlook and literary connections aggravated the rivalry and led in 437 to her being sent by Theodosius on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This re-established her pious credentials, although her renewed influence when she returned to the court probably owed at least as much to the fact that her daughter, Licinia Eudoxia, had married the western emperor Valentinian III in 437. She had thus also accomplished her main dynastic role.20

The imperial women did not achieve power on their own. Theodosius depended throughout his reign on powerful men: Anthemius who was praetorian prefect of the East from 405 until he was dismissed by Pulcheria in 414, Helion, master of offices from 414 to 427, and Cyrus of Panopolis, who combined the post of praetorian prefect and prefect of the city from 439 to 442. At the beginning of the 440s, the last of these was responsible for building Constantinople's sea walls to strengthen the land defenses built by Anthemius, and earned dangerous popularity with the people for introducing other facilities, including street lighting.21 He was eclipsed by Chrysaphius, whose status as a eunuch and position within the court earned him greater revilement from subsequent historians. It is evident that the influence of these men lay in their individual qualities and their personal standing with the emperor, rather than in the different offices that they held. The record tends to paint these ministers as sinister and corrupting figures. The truth is that they were indispensable, as powerful advisors are to any regime.22 Military authority was monopolized by a series of generals of Alemannic–Gothic origin, Plintha, Ardaburius, and the latter's son Aspar, who was to play the role of kingmaker in the succession both of Marcian in 450 and Leo in 457.

For posterity the outstanding achievement of the Theodosian empire was the codification of the Roman law of the post-Constantinian period and its publication in the Codex Theodosianus. The result of this extraordinary enterprise was a handbook of Roman public law, designed for the practical guidance of magistrates and judges, which complemented the compilations of the tetrarchic period. The work was completed in 437, shortly before Theodosius' daughter married Valentinian III, and a year later an official copy was presented to the Roman Senate, where it was received, as it had been in Constantinople, by acclamation (see p. 167). As its contents, composed in the ornate and rhetorical Latin of legal judgments, were drawn from eastern and western provinces alike, the publication of the code is the clearest reminder that no one in high office thought of the Roman Empire as divided between East and West. Roman law was to remain the foundation and chief symbol of imperial unity throughout late antiquity.23

Socrates, in his unassuming, clear-thinking style, presented the age of Theodosius as eirenic and tolerant, reflecting the emperor's own character.24 Church and state were in harmony; imperial success was grounded not in military might but in piety; conflict was resolved by discussion; violence was under control. The emperor achieved his successes “without warfare and struggle” (Socrates 7.22). Of course neither this nor Sozomen's very similar judgment was impartial; both offered a view of the reign that Theodosius wished to promote. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the first half of the fifth century the Roman Empire, at least in the East, was more harmonious and at ease with itself than at any time since the second century AD.

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