Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Sixteen

The Consequences of Theodosius

Theodosius I, made emperor in 379 in such an unexpected fashion, proved to be only a moderately successful commander in the field, though he was a good organizing commander-in-chief; on the other hand, he was a capable politician, able to seize his opportunities, as indeed he had shown in his rise to imperial power. In 383, when Gratian was killed at the behest of the British rebel Magnus Maximus, Theodosius promoted his eldest son Arcadius as a new Augustus, and in 387, when Valentinian II had been driven out of Italy to take refuge with Theodosius in Constantinople, he seized the opportunity to marry Galla, daughter of Valentinian I and Justina, so establishing himself firmly within the family of Valentinian and, through Justina’s ancestry, with that of Constantine as well; as a result it is possible to consider the two families of Valentinian and Theodosius as a single dynasty (see Genealogical Table XIX). Finally, in 392–394 Theodosius took advantage of the suicide of Valentinian II and his own victory over the usurper Eugenius to promote his second son Honorius as a second Augustus.

He did have to surmount two serious challenges to his power and position, however, before he and his family were secure, as well as enfolding the surviving descendants of Valentinian I into his dynastic embrace. Two serious attempts to take over at least the Western part of the Empire were made. The first of these, by Magnus Maximus, was the most formidable. He was of a Spanish family, and is said to have been distantly related to Theodosius himself; he had certainly been an officer in the armies led by Theodosius’ father in Britain and Africa; it has also been suggested that he may have been involved in the crisis of 378–379 at the court and so a witness to Theodosius’ rise. In 383 Magnus was governor of Britannia when he rebelled against Gratian, who was ruling the West from Trier. Like Constans a generation before, Gratian was chased through Gaul, caught and then killed. Magnus quickly, like Magnentius, Postumus and Constantine, gained control of the armies of Germany; once Gratian was dead, he was acknowledged as emperor in Britain, Gaul and Spain.1


He held this position for five years, but his insecurity was such that he asked to be recognized by Theodosius. This was provided but not until 386, and only on condition that Maximus remain where he was in the West and accept the seniority of the child emperor Valentinian II, whose government controlled Italy. This put Maximus fourth in the imperial rankings of the moment, behind Theodosius, Arcadius and Valentinian. For a man whose motives for seizing power included a grievance that he had not been promoted highly enough, this could not be tolerated for long.

Magnus’ position in 386, however, was not unlike that of Constantine. Possibly the history of that emperor was in his mind; he faced an even weaker government in Italy than that of Maxentius and Theodosius’ power was scarcely well-grounded in the East. Probably Magnus’ major mistake was in having Gratian killed, for that emperor had proved to be very pliable and had clearly been reluctant to accept Theodosius as his imperial colleague. If Magnus had been at the court in 378–379 when Theodosius mounted his successful intrigue, it might be that he had determined to make the same sort of moves for the same purpose. It has even been suggested that he might have been a candidate for the Eastern command at the time, which, if so, would set him on all the stronger.2

Magnus’ process of elevation is not clear, in part because the exact nature of his British post is in itself not clear. There was no question of an election, though some sources indicate that he was promoted by the will of the army he commanded after victorious campaigns against the Picts and the Scots. Ambitious he certainly was, as well as capable, and he would certainly need acceptance by the army in Britain. Perhaps he rose through a mixture of personal ambition and army enthusiasm, with the story of any resistance to him being a version of the traditional reluctance new emperors were supposed to exhibit.3

Magnus invaded Italy in 387 but failed to catch Valentinian II, who escaped to the East with his mother. Magnus did, however, manage to gain control of the whole peninsula, thereby breaking his agreement with Theodosius of the previous year. Theodosius replied by attacking him by sea and land the following year. Magnus was defeated and captured at Aquileia and was then executed after the usual tortures.4 His imperial career is in many ways remarkably similar to that of Magnentius. Both failed, despite considerable military success, because they were unable to extract serious and permanent recognition from the senior Augustus.

The other usurper faced by Theodosius was challenging in a different way. This was an official of the Palace called Eugenius, who was in fact the figurehead for an attempt by Arbogast, the magister militum of Valentinian II, to regain power. Valentinian had been restored as Augustus of the West by Theodosius, with Arbogast in effect ruling for him. However, Valentinian by 392 – he had been emperor since 375 – was impatient to exercise power in his own person, while Arbogast refused to make way for him. After yet another refusal, Valentinian killed himself.5

This did succeed in depriving Arbogast of his post, of course, though it was up to Theodosius to decide on his future employment or on his punishment. After some months, it became clear that Theodosius had decided on punishment, and the official story of Valentinian’s death was now that he was murdered by Arbogast. In reply, Arbogast pushed Eugenius forward as an emperor. A further complication was the hopes and assumptions of the pagans among the Roman aristocracy that Eugenius might restore pagan worship or at least allow it. However, both the pagans and Arbogast are side issues. Eugenius, like Magnus and Magnentius, could only succeed if he was accorded recognition and acceptance by Theodosius. Yet the involvement of Arbogast and the hopes of the pagans were exactly the factors that would compel Theodosius to refuse any recognition. The support of Arbogast’s army and the hopes of many of the senators of Rome were not enough to prevail against Theodosius and his Eastern army.

Eugenius made many of the usual moves: issuing coins recognizing Theodosius, suggesting that they share the consulship and sending conciliatory embassies. All this, together with Theodosius’ naval and military preparations, delayed retribution for a year and more, but it was not enough. The rival armies met in battle in northern Italy at the River Frigidus in 394, and Eugenius and Arbogast were beaten; the former died and the latter escaped, but then committed suicide.6

Eugenius’ rule had clearly been almost as formidable a challenge to Theodosius as that of Magnus Maximus, though he worked from a smaller territorial base. The episode is also noteworthy for the first appearance of a powerful magister militum who could manipulate the figurehead emperors. Arbogast was not the first barbarian general to rise to a powerful governmental position but he was the first to be so dominant. No doubt it was partly his barbarian origin – he was a Frank – that recommended him to Theodosius as regent for the child Valentinian II, since a barbarian could not aspire to the throne (as both Magnus Maximus and Theodosius himself had done), but it did not stop such generals aiming at imperial power without the outward trappings.

Theodosius I, by surmounting these usurpations, had therefore succeeded in establishing his dynasty. When he died in 395, he left two sons who had both been made Augusti: Honorius in the West and Arcadius in the East. The latter was just about adult, 17 years of age, but Honorius was only 10 years old. They were scarcely capable of ruling, partly due to their youth but also their extraordinarily sheltered upbringing.

The great weakness of imperial rule in the 380s had been the preoccupation of Theodosius with the East and that Valentinian II was a child. This condition was to be perpetuated into the 390s, after Theodosius’ death. Here was the unfortunate part of the dynastic succession, which is just as liable to produce children or incompetents as it is competent men or even the occasional genius. Yet there is also something very strange about the situation between 380 and 410. Imperial children had been brought up in palaces before. They might turn out to be vicious or incompetent – Gaius, Nero and Commodus – but this was the first time that the inheritance had gone to lazy incompetents who were all too easily swayed by insinuating favourites. Gratian had been shaping up well, even if he was perhaps excessively cautious, until he was murdered; Valentinian II was clearly unbalanced and incompetent. With the children of Theodosius, the favourites became the dominating people at court and the effective rulers.

This pattern had in part been set by Gratian’s minority – he became sole emperor in the West at the age of 16 – and by Valentinian II, who was the senior Augustus at the age of 8. Valentinian had been dominated at first by his mother Justina, then by his magister militum, the Frank Arbogast. The arrival of the emperor at adulthood, therefore, proved to be the real danger point, for in theory the favourite should then gracefully retire to a subordinate role. Arbogast did not intend to, and when he had found that Arbogast refused to obey his orders, Valentinian had hung himself.

This, therefore, was part of the legacy of Theodosius: first, he had acquired the throne by compelling Gratian to promote him; second, he left children as emperors, apparently untrained, and they grew to be incompetent as rulers; and third, he insinuated the practice of employing over-powerful generals, often of barbarian origin, who ruled in place of the incompetent emperors. This combination was one of the main reasons that the Western Empire fell apart. Theodosius, the last emperor to rule the whole Empire (but only for a year), was one of the prime causes of the fall of the Western Empire.

Theodosius died in 395, the year after he suppressed Eugenius and Arbogast, leaving his two sons as joint emperors. Another barbarian general, Stilicho, now came forward to report that he had it privately from Theodosius on his deathbed that he should be the guardian of his two sons.7 Stilicho was the son of a Vandal father and a Roman mother. He had worked his way up the court ladder, on the way marrying Theodosius’ niece Serena; in 394, he became Arbogast’s successor. So Theodosius – always assuming, of course, that the deathbed conversation really happened – was organizing the succession in a version of what several previous emperors had done, with the regent to be in place until the child emperor was old enough to rule alone. The precedent came from Augustus, with his plan to make Agrippa emperor-guardian for Gaius and Lucius and then Tiberius for Germanicus. Antoninus Pius had been selected explicitly by Hadrian to be the emperor-guardian for Marcus. Very respectable precedents therefore existed for Stilicho’s (and Arbogast’s) position. Closer in time Valens had in a sense been emperor-guardian for Gratian, and Gratian had taken the child Valentinian II into his household. So the position of Stilicho (or Arbogast, for that matter) was not wholly unknown to Roman succession practice; if he had been fully Roman by parentage, he could have been emperor, but he was a Vandal, not a Roman, and could not be emperor.

It would not be reasonable to claim that all these precedents were in the minds of the dynastic and imperial organizers when they were making their constitutional and administrative arrangements, but the pattern had been repeated often enough over the previous four centuries that it had become one of the possible arrangements of imperial power for any emperor or regent seeking for a way of coping with incompetent or under-age emperors.

Stilicho remained as governor for Honorius until 408, when the emperor finally ordered his execution. Partly as a result there came the successful invasion of Italy by the Goths under Alaric, the first barbarian occupation of Rome and a rash of opposing imperial nominations in Italy and Gaul. Honorius, moreover, although married twice, had no children. Both of his wives were daughters of Stilicho, and it may be Honorius’ distaste for his father-in-law that reduced his appetite for intercourse or, as some contemporaries had it, increased his impotence or even chastity. Whatever the reason, it appeared for a long time as though his brother in Constantinople would be his heir. As it happened this was not to be so, for Arcadius died in the same year that Stilicho was killed.

During the reigns of Theodosius’ two sons the Eastern and Western parts of the Empire seriously and, as it turned out, permanently diverged. This was not a new phenomenon of course, for there had been several occasions when two rulers had controlled the East and the West – Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, Valens and Valentinian I are obvious cases – and once more the first example was Augustus, who at one point placed Agrippa as Eastern ruler for several years. This time, however, the division proved to be lasting and attempts to rejoin the two separated sections were much feebler than in the past.

The partnership of Honorius and Stilicho ended with the quasi-judicial murder of the general, which was preceded, accompanied and followed by disasters all over the West. Honorius, having murdered one general, was then constrained to find another, for he was as unmilitary as his brother and his nephew in the East. The man of the hour was Constantius, a capable commander from Pannonia, who was kept busy suppressing rebels and usurpers for several years.

The rebellions came in two groups: one from Britain, the other in Italy and Narbonese Gaul; needless to say, these also overlap (see Table V). The first cases came in Britain, where officials were not unmindful, no doubt, of the previous examples of Magnentius, Magnus Maximus and Constantine. On the last day of 406, a great barbarian invasion came across the frozen Rhine and bands of raiders spread across Gaul and even into Spain. The Roman army in Germany disintegrated and Honorius’ authority vanished. In Britain power had already been seized by a man called Marcus, whose other names are not known but who seems to have had some official position, perhaps as commander of one of the forces in Britain, or possibly as the governor of one of the five British provinces. His coup had come before the Rhine crossing, but may have been carried out in anticipation of it. Information about him is thin, other than that he had himself proclaimed as emperor.

Table V: Unsuccessful Emperors, 379–425.


Marcus did not last long, being replaced by a man called Gratian, described as a municeps and tyrannos, which might suggest a local man, perhaps a major landowner able to command authority. He in turn lasted only a short time and, still in 407, he was replaced by an army officer, Flavius Claudius Constantinus, who was supported in part because of his name (this was possibly a source of support for Gratian also) and in part because he proposed to take vigorous military action to recover Gaul for the Empire and so end the isolation of Britain from the Continent. The implication is that this was not part of the programme of either Marcus or Gratian, and that these two were content, like Carausius, to rule in Britain alone. The further implication is that there was a dispute in Britannia over what to do in the face of the German invasion. Constantine was therefore an imperial loyalist in the pattern of Magnus Maximus and virtually all earlier ‘usurpers’.8

Constantine was only fairly successful in his expedition, but he reestablished an imperial authority in much of Gaul and collected together the remnants of the Roman army in Germany. He was perhaps assisted by local resisters and by the fact that many of the barbarians would have headed home with their loot by the time he was able to take action. Some of them, however, settled down in Gaul and Spain. Having done much of the job he had crossed into Gaul to do, of course, Constantine was compelled to seek recognition for his position from the Western Emperor Honorius, so ending up in much the same situation as Magnentius and Magnus Maximus.

Meanwhile, Honorius himself was beset by the invasion of Italy by Alaric and the Visigoths. Alaric, unable to bring Honorius to any agreement that the emperor would keep, selected a senator called Priscus Attalus as his own candidate as emperor. Attalus was a notable orator and a member of the Senate, an Asian, very rich and a man who had been selected by the Senate itself in the past as its envoy to treat with the emperor over legislation. Alaric, therefore, was not choosing a mere puppet. Attalus made a series of appointments, including Alaric himself as magister militum (and therefore as successor to Arbogast and Stilicho). This was all generally pleasing to the Senate and, by implication, to Alaric, but also highly displeasing to Honorius.9

Alaric’s justification was that he had been quite unable to bring Honorius to an acceptable agreement and therefore he had elevated to the imperial throne someone with whom he could do business. This had been his persistent demand all along since he became leader of the Visigoths, and so he therefore demonstrated yet again that he and his people were members of the Empire and wished to be treated as such. There was an armed group who wished to be permitted to settle inside the Empire; because of this, they were important politically and, like other armed groups that constituted the Roman army – at this point, notably the army in Britain – they claimed the right to nominate or to take part in the nomination of Roman emperors.

When Alaric and Attalus took an army to attack Honorius in Ravenna, Honorius seriously considered co-opting his rival as co-emperor. It would, after all, have been only a rather more blatant example of the way Honorius’ own father had become emperor. Events of various sorts intervened, however, and Alaric tired of the game. He wanted an official appointment for himself and to be given pay and land for his people, and only Honorius could provide those. The Emperor Attalus did not collect a wide enough set of supporters to be a serious rival, so when even the threat of a rival emperor failed to bring Honorius to terms, Alaric discarded his emperor and marched on Rome once more. Honorius had retained the loyalty of enough of Italy to undermine Attalus decisively. Honorius was, therefore, regarded as ‘legitimate’ by the majority of those in Italy who had influence or political power; it was a triumph above all for the dynastic inheritance over Honorius’ proven incompetence, treachery and double-dealing.

Attalus was therefore revealed as a puppet after all. He pretended to imperial authority and claimed to make governmental appointments, but he could not carry it off without the armed support of Alaric. His basis of support was thus far too narrow, as with so many brief emperors supported only by an armed force. Having been deposed, he had no option but to stay with the Goths as they marched around Italy and on into Gaul.

Meanwhile Constantine, the British emperor (‘Constantine III’) had gained a brief recognition from Honorius during that emperor’s time of extreme stress, but this was withdrawn as soon as the pressure of Alaric and Attalus on him was reduced. Constantine himself suffered from a rebellion when his general Gerontius in Spain promoted his own son Maximus as a rival emperor during 409, at the same time as Attalus was being elevated by Alaric. The reason Gerontius acted this way is said to have been personal pique, but it was also just at this time that Constantine III’s imperial structure was crumbling; Britain, his original base, defected and asked for assistance from Honorius – though none was provided – and in addition the Rhine frontier was under attack once more. Spain was restless after its conquest, occupied in parts by irremovable barbarian groups. Constantine succumbed to his various enemies during 411. The victors, commanded by Honorius’ general, the magister militum Constantius, went on to Spain, where Gerontius committed suicide rather than be captured. Maximus took refuge with one of the barbarian bands that had taken over parts of Spain as a result of the recent events.10

Perhaps as a reaction to the end of Constantine, two of the barbarian kings who had moved into Gaul and had not been removed – Goar, king of the Alans, and Gundarius of the Burgundians – took a leaf out of Alaric’s book and persuaded a Gallic noble, Jovinus, to have himself proclaimed emperor at Moguntiacum in 412. This was clearly an attempt to preserve the separation of Gaul from Italy which Constantine had achieved for a time, and which Honorius had ordered for Britain by this time as well in another move to undercut Constantine’s authority. Jovinus raised his brother Sebastianus to be his colleague almost at once.11

Unfortunately for all these men, Honorius had found in the Pannonian Constantius a general capable of beating his enemies. He had already captured Constantine III and his son Julian and had driven Gerontius to suicide, now first Sebastianus and then Jovinus were caught and executed as well. Meanwhile both Maximus (in Spain) and Priscus Attalus (with the Visigoths) survived, but did so only because they did not attempt to exercise any imperial authority and had taken refuge with barbarian groups. Attalus stayed with the Visigoths and even pronounced an oration at the wedding of the Gothic King Athaulf and the Imperial Princess Galla Placidia, Honorius’ half-sister. She was returned to Honorius after her husband’s early death and then was married to Constantius.12 This was another pattern that became standard: the magister militum joined the imperial family by marriage. Theodosius I had done so by marrying Galla, the daughter of Valentinian I, and Stilicho had married Theodosius’ niece and had given his two daughters in marriage to Honorius.

Attalus was re-proclaimed as emperor later in that year (415), but was then abandoned once again by the Goths; he was mutilated and then exiled by Honorius.13 Had he not been a rich and important senator he would surely have suffered the fate of Jovinus, Sebastianus, Constantine, Julian and possibly Gerontius: execution after torture.

The settlement of the Goths (formerly led by Alaric) in Aquitania by a treaty with Honorius in 418 largely calmed Gaul, though areas had been taken over by other barbarian groups by that time. (The Visigoths, received thereby into the Empire, were then used as imperial troops against their fellow barbarians.) One of those groups who had settled in Spain in about 420 re-elevated Gerontius’ son Maximus as emperor. He had first been proclaimed in 409, making this unimportant Briton the longest-serving rebel emperor in Roman history. His re-emergence led to his swift suppression and execution.14

While all this continued in the West, the Eastern part of the Empire had gone through a different succession process that soon had its effect on the West as well. Arcadius had married the daughter of a half-barbarian general who had been brought up in Constantinople. They had five children: a son Theodosius, who succeeded to the throne by hereditary succession in 408, and four daughters. Theodosius II was only 7 years old when his father died and therefore required a regent-guardian. In Constantinople, unlike the West, the regency was largely civilian. The first regent for Theodosius was the Praetorian Prefect Anthemius, and later his own eldest sister Pulcheria. There appears to have been no question but that Theodosius should succeed: he had been Augustus since he was only 1 year old.

The situation in Constantinople was thus superficially similar to that at Ravenna. A child was emperor and a powerful guardian was ruling for him. Furthermore, Anthemius was a member of a family with at least three generations of prominent service in government, and this would continue into the future. The difference was that Anthemius was succeeded as regent for Theodosius II by the emperor’s strong-willed sister Pulcheria. The need for a powerful general was staved off in the East for some time by this means. This was therefore a key moment in the divergence of East and West.

Honorius’ general, Constantius, had married Galla Placidia in 417, and was promoted as joint-Augustus (‘Constantius III’) four years later. He then died after a reign of only seven months. He had been a successful subordinate, recovering Gaul and Spain from Constantine III and Africa from another rebel, but he seems to have chafed under the restrictions of his position as emperor. Despite Honorius’ decision to raise him to the throne jointly with him, he failed to gain a similar recognition from the government of Theodosius II in Constantinople. How important this was is not clear for Honorius was the senior emperor, but it did have some bearing on the situation.

Constantius was thus emperor for only a brief period, but he and Galla Placidia had been married long enough to have two children: a daughter Honoria and a son Valentinian. Honorius drove Galla Placidia away soon after Constantius’ death, and she took her children with her for refuge at Constantinople with Theodosius. When Honorius died in 423, therefore, no member of the imperial family remained in the West. It seems characteristic of the hapless, indecisive and faithless Honorius that not only did he have no children, but he had apparently made no provision for the succession. Constantius’ place as the soldier holding up the government had been taken by Castinus, one of Constantius’ officers. He was ideally placed to impose his own candidate, and after a pause for thought and to consider his options, he chose a palace official called John as his candidate for the Western throne.15

This procedure was not so very different from that which had seen the emergence of Jovian and Valentinian in 363 and 364 or the elevation of Valentinian II in 375, but in the event it was actually seen as closer to the action of Arbogast in promoting Eugenius in 392. The essential basis was that the new emperor was chosen by the army, in the person of Castinus. There is some evidence that Castinus for a time had been in communication with Theodosius II, but John’s promotion was not acceptable in Constantinople. It seems likely that Castinus put up his man as an act of desperation, and then, having done so, and being in control, he tried again to gain the recognition of the senior emperor. This was as necessary for John as it had been for the Western upstarts ten years before. An embassy was sent to Constantinople.

It seems that Theodosius II, by now more or less in control of his own government, had been pondering the idea of reuniting the West with the East, but the news of John’s elevation, as well as the disturbed condition of the Western provinces, demonstrated the difficulty of that notion. John and Castinus between them represented the military and civilian elements of the Western government, which by now had little or no connection with those elements in the East. To establish control in the West it would be necessary for the emperor to be there in person, and to campaign for probably several years; but he needed also to be in Constantinople. That is to say, the two halves of the Roman government had solidified into separation, and two emperors were now required. So, if Theodosius II could not do both jobs himself, he had to find a substitute, and if John with Castinus was unacceptable, he had to appoint a man of his own. He appears to have decided right away that John was not suitable, no doubt in particular because he was not of the royal family but also because Castinus would be the real ruler. Instead he sent an expedition under Ardaburius, the magister militum in the East, with the mission of removing John (and Castinus), which was achieved, and then of installing his nephew Valentinian III, the son of Constantius III and Galla Placidia, on the throne in Honorius’ place. Suddenly Constantius III had become acceptable, especially now that he was dead.

Valentinian III was only 6 years old at the time and had to have someone ruling for him. At first this was his mother, Galla Placidia, and then, eventually, a senior general, Aetius. Once again the pattern reasserted itself, and this time it lasted more than two decades. Valentinian became emperor in large part because of his heredity and in part because of his emplacement and recognition by the senior emperor in the East. The process of the imperial succession in the West, therefore, had not been formalized as it was soon to be in the East, presumably because it had not been possible to create a firm foundation for a clear inauguration process in the absence of a clear hereditary line. One of the reasons for this was that Honorius had not lived at Rome but at Ravenna for much of his reign, but Ravenna was not an imperial capital of long standing. One of John’s strengths in Italy may have been the fact that he was living in the old capital.

Valentinian III was appointed Caesar by Theodosius in October 424 at Constantinople and was taken, along with his mother, with the army on the expedition against John and Castinus. The victory had led to his acclamation as imperator in the old way, but this was never taken to be the date of his official elevation and installation.16 This, it appears, could only be done by the authority of Theodosius. Valentinian was installed at Rome, thus trumping John’s move of residing in the city, but he was not officially pronounced Augustus until a representative of Theodosius arrived in the city. Theodosius had intended to do this himself, but he fell ill on the journey and left it to an official.17 It was therefore demonstrated all too clearly that it was by the will of Theodosius that the child emperor was created, which was no doubt the intention. The Senate in Rome was not involved, nor was the army, despite the proclamation as imperator. Valentinian’s accession was being emphasized as due to his hereditary claims and to his appointment by the senior ruler. The boy was also betrothed to Licinia Eudoxia, Theodosius’ daughter. The marriage took place eventually in 437 in Constantinople. Running true to form in the family, they had two daughters but no son.

The legacy of the seizure of power by Theodosius I was therefore ambiguous, to put it no stronger. He had shown how a military man could push his way to the position of emperor, an example followed by Constantius III, and in effect also by the barbarian generals. These men in turn had shown that it was equally possible for them to exercise imperial power without the purple robes on their shoulders, simply by dominating the emperor, especially if he was a child, or, just as well, if he was incompetent, timid or lazy.

That this arrangement could work well enough was shown by the successful survival of the Empire in the East, but there it also depended on a clear line of hereditary imperial succession. This did not exist in the West, which gave much greater scope for the intrusive generals, though, as Arbogast and Stilicho had discovered, they were always in a very precarious situation. Their authority depended in large part on their command of the army, which was by this time largely composed of barbarian recruits; Aetius’ position under Valentinian III was strong because he was able to command these men. Such an army was different from that of the classical Roman army; among other changes its men fought for pay and for loyalty to a commander, not as Roman subjects, who were increasingly reluctant to be enlisted. Meanwhile senators in the West insisted on their continuing status as being exempt from service and taxation. Only if they chose to did they take up government posts.

The alternative emperors of the years 406–414 had been the product of the confusion of governmental authority in the West, of Honorius’ weakness and of the barbarian invasions. Their claims to authority lay in their command of armies and their ability to win victories. There was little difference between the Visigothic army of Alaric that promoted Priscus Attalus, the army that supported the British Emperor Constantine III and that which was commanded by the magister militum Constantius and supported him to an imperial marriage and the Western throne. This was therefore one route to the throne – command of an army – although if the general was barbarian-born he was ineligible and had to be content with the power without the robes. The success of Constantius, brief though it was, and the destruction of the others, highlighted the further requirement: besides command of a loyal army, pretenders needed to be accepted and recognized by an emperor in place. Without such recognition they failed.

The establishment of Valentinian III on the throne in Italy kept Theodosius’ dynasty in power, of a sort, for another generation. In the event, the final crisis of the dynasty came first in the East, in 450, when Theodosius II died. He had been surrounded all his reign by women: his sisters, his wife, his daughter; even many of those who were his advisers were eunuchs. As an emperor, like his father and his uncle, he was thoroughly unmilitary; a characteristic for which he was criticized for it was now expected that an emperor should command in the field. One of the contributions of the dynasty to future history was to end that tradition.18 This did not affect his relative longevity, but the absence of a male heir was just as serious. His son and one of his daughters both died young, and his other daughter, Licinia Eudoxia, was sent to marry her cousin the Western Emperor Valentinian III; in all, not an unfamiliar situation. Theodosius was emperor for forty-two years, so that when he died, after a riding accident, there should have been mechanisms in place to find a new man. It is not clear that this had actually been done, but a clear dynastic process was certainly used to find a successor.

The emperor’s eldest sister Pulcheria, one of those who had done much of the ruling for him, selected an officer on the staff of the general Aspar, a man called Marcian, had him proclaimed emperor and then married him.19 The order of these events was clearly important. Aspar was one of a succession of barbarian generals employed by the Eastern emperors. He was the son of Ardaburius, who had commanded the expedition to remove John and Castinus, and was of Alan descent. By promoting a man from the staff of Aspar the army could believe it was involved; no doubt Aspar really was consulted. Once Marcian was installed, Aspar was clearly in a very powerful position, one that was analogous to that of Stilicho or Aetius in the West. By making Marcian emperor before he was married to the empress, he was clearly being enthroned not because he was Pulcheria’s husband but by the will of those who were (at least superficially) involved in the process: the army, the Palace officials and the Senate of Constantinople, even though it seems to have been Pulcheria who was really in charge. Marcian was then presented to the people, who acclaimed him, thereby in theory at least accepting him and ratifying the process of selection. Only then did he marry the empress. By all accounts he was made to promise to respect her virginity; since they were both now well over 50 the matter was perhaps moot in any case.

Marcian was well-connected even before his promotion. His career had been as a follower of Ardaburius, but his daughter (he had been married before) was married to Anthemius, who was the grandson of the former regent for Theodosius II of the same name. In other words, Marcian was in much the same position as Constantius III in the West. (See Genealogical Table XX.)

The elaborate and public aspects of Marcian’s selection, coronation and marriage were clearly intended to persuade all that the new emperor was installed by the strictest legal and constitutional formulae. The situation was new. There was no possibility of hereditary succession – note that a ruling empress was not acceptable – and a process like that following the death of Valentinian I in 375 was not available either. The nearest parallel might be the selection and promotion of Theodosius I in 378/379, though that was close to being a coup by Theodosius. It was, no doubt, to avoid a coup that the process of Marcian’s accession was devised. It was only because Marcian had no hereditary right that he had to be so widely and publicly proclaimed and accepted. (It is noticeable that Valentinian III, by 450 the only emperor once Theodosius was dead, was not consulted, nor was he involved in the process.)

The sequence of events in this selection became important when Pulcheria died only three years later in 453; her husband was able to continue as emperor without any question over his legitimacy for the post. It was, of course, a sleight of hand; everyone knew that Pulcheria’s voice had been decisive and that he was her choice, but the constitutional proprieties were respected, insofar as there were any; perhaps ‘invented’ would be more accurate. Yet the choice was eccentric and unhelpful. Marcian, though he had been married before, had no son, only a daughter. He was even older than Theodosius and could not have been expected to live long. When he died, the succession problem would recur even more acutely and there would be no more imperial daughters available who could fudge the issue.


Theodosius I’s insistence on being appointed emperor in 378/379 had therefore resulted in the establishment of his family on the Roman imperial throne for nearly eight decades, despite the incompetence displayed by many of the emperors of the family. In the history of the Empire this was fairly good going: only the Julio-Claudians and the Antonines lasted longer. It might be objected that these were scarcely dynasties in the accepted sense of a sequence of blood relations, though they certainly were in Roman eyes; yet the Julio-Claudians, the Antonines and the Severi scarcely can be counted as real dynasties. Then the family of Theodosius also had its own dynastic oddities and the succession of emperors in the West was hardly dynastic: Honorius inherited from his father but his successor was his nephew, and in the East it was only by the marriage of Pulcheria and Marcian that the dynasty can be said to have lasted until 457. (In fact by including Marcian we can also extend the dynasty for another fifteen years by counting Marcian’s son-in-law Anthemius, Valentinian III’s widow’s second husband Petronius Maximus, and her daughter’s husband Olybrius, so taking it down to 472. The dynasty that resulted is no stranger than earlier versions. See Genealogical Tables XX and XXI.)

It cannot be said that Theodosius’ method of elevating himself to the position of emperor and his policies thereafter had been good for the Empire. His progeny were a set of the weakest emperors the Empire ever had, his use of regent-generals proved to be deeply unsettling and his own example was a constant temptation to ambitious generals and bureaucrats alike. He was successful in the sense that his family provided emperors for three generations, but the Empire required more than just a series of incompetents and children backed up by unstable generals. When the direct line of the dynasty ended, which it did in both East and West rather suddenly and almost simultaneously in 457 and 455 respectively, the methods used to cope with the resulting crises were also his legacy; the different aspects emphasized in East and West are signals, once again, of the different fates of the two halves of the Empire.

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