Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Theodosius I from Collins English Dictionary


1 called the Great. ?346–395 ad, Roman emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (379–95) and of the Western Roman Empire (392–95)

Summary Article: Theodosius I
From The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

The birthplace of Flavius Theodosius, born in 347, is uncertain. The Galician bishop Hydatius (fifth century) mentions Cauca, near Segovia in central Spain, but the pagan historian Zosimus (sixth century) places it in Italica, close to Seville in southern Spain. Of the two, the first author seems to be the more reliable. Not only does the name Theodosius provide proof of a Christian background, the Gentilicium Flavius indicates an acquired status in imperial service. Indeed, ever since Constantine's rule, imperial authorities had been bestowing it upon high-ranking civil or military officials. His paternal grandfather was a local landowner and his homonymous father a general. Theodosius the Elder defended the northern frontiers and suppressed a revolt in Africa. However, he eventually fell victim to a plot and, after being arrested and tried, was beheaded in 376. His son, the military commander of a Danubian province, went back to live on his family estate, marrying Aelia Flacilla, a Spanish Christian aristocrat, who gave birth to Arcadius, Honoris, and a daughter who apparently died in childhood. After the disaster of Adrianople (see Adrianople, battle of) and the subsequent death of the emperor Valens, Gratian took over the reins of power on behalf of his younger half-brother Valentinian II.

In August 378, he appointed Theodosius general of the cavalry, probably because he needed an obedient veteran to cope with the Gothic invasion of the Balkans. In January 379, Gratian proclaimed him emperor. He signed a peace treaty (October 382) with some Germanic tribes, allowing them to settle within Roman territory. The tribes received subsidies and military responsibilities, retaining their internal organization in exchange for military service. Instead of waging continual war on the barbarians (see Barbarians, barbaroi), Theodosius decided to promote collaboration and therefore tacitly accepted the new balance of power between Rome and her invaders. This pragmatic policy of tolerance caused some xenophobic reactions, especially in Thessalonike, where a mob slew Gothic officers in 390. The revolt was quelled with bloodshed, and later Theodosius was required to seek a public penance from Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. This event revealed the growing influence of the church on the Christian state, a phenomenon which became increasingly common, and between 381 and 382 Theodosius chose to legally endorse the orthodox faith and politically eradicate the heretics.

From 391 to 394, he went one step further, promulgating laws that banned pagan cults and closed pagan temples. The forcible Christianization of the Eastern Empire was extended to the Western Empire with the progressive reunification of both. After Gratian's murder, in August 383, Theodosius permitted the usurper Magnus Maximus to share the Western Empire with Valentinian II. In 387, Theodosius had Maximus killed, made Valentinian II his subordinate and, when the latter was assassinated in 392, became sole emperor. Theodosius I was the last ruler of a unified empire. When he died, in 395, his possessions were divided between his sons. Because of his religious concerns, his gradual reclusion in Constantinople, his prolific law-making, and his subtle use of diplomacy, Theodosius represented a prototype for all future Byzantine emperors.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Leppin, H. (2003) Theodosius der Große. Auf dem Weg zum christlichen Imperium. Darmstadt.
  • Piganiol, A. (1972) L'Empire chrétien (325-395), 2nd ed. Paris.
  • Stein, E. (1949) Histoire du Bas-Empire romain, 1. De l'État romain à l'État byzantin: 284-476. Paris.
  • Williams, S.; Friell, G. (1994) Theodosius. The empire at bay. London.
  • Sylvain Destephen
    Wiley ©2012

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Theodosius I
    Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

    (born Jan. 11, 347, Cauca, Gallaecia [Spain]—died Jan. 17, 395, Mediolanum) Roman emperor of the East (379–392) and of East and West (392–395). Bor

    Full text Article Gratian
    Chambers Biographical Dictionary

    properly Flavius Augustus Gratianus AD359-83 Roman emperor The son of the Emperor Valentinian I, he was born in Sirinium, Pannonia, and in AD367 his

    Full text Article Ambrose
    Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World

    As a provincial governor and the son of a praetorian prefect, Ambrose unexpectedly became bishop of Milan when he intervened in a riotous...

    See more from Credo