Last triumph of theodosius

Andrew Marr pointed out recently, that in the fourth century the Roman and Chinese empires were very similar.  They had roughly the same level of technology, had much the same form of government and were about the same size.  They were vaguely aware of each other, and traded through third parties.  They also had exactly the same enemies on the steppes of Russia.  If they could have communicated with each other and co-ordinated their tactics, maybe they could have had more success in resisting them.  But I digress.

It seems quite likely that both the Chinese and Roman empires had reached some kind of natural maximum size for the times they were living in. It is certainly quite surprising to look back on the period we have been covering in this book review so far and note that for all the fighting and battles we have described the empire is still remarkably similar in size to the one that Augustus ruled.

Dacia had been conquered and subsequently given up.  Britain had been added but was on the point of slipping away.  The eastern border was a bit less far to the east.  But it was still pretty inconceivable that the empire would at any point cease to exist.  The thing most to be feared was civil war.  And this problem had recurred continually and always from much the same circumstances. The empire was just too big for one emperor, but more than one emperor could only co-exist if they got on extremely well on a personal level or had very evenly balanced military forces.  Any emperor who found himself in a weak position relative to his colleague was more or less bound to try and even things up or die in the attempt.

This was exactly the position Maximus found himself in.  With only the relatively undeveloped provinces of Britain, Gaul and Spain under his control, he could be displaced at any time by a determined attack from the rest of the empire.  To even things up, he seized Italy.  The deposed infant emperor Valentian II and his forceful mother, Justina, fled to the protection of Theodosius.

Theodosius hesitated.  A civil war was no light matter.  His half of the empire was still recovering from the efforts to deal with the Goths.  Religious strife of various flavours was absorbing time, attention and money.  The chances of battle are always risky, as an effective and experienced general like Theodosius would know better than most.  The embassies from Maximus seeking recognition were initially accepted – a form of recognition in itself.  But the reality was that if Maximus was allowed to absorb his new prize, in all likelihood he would soon be after more.  And if war could not be postponed indefinitely, it was better to strike sooner rather than later.  Nonetheless decisiveness can be combined with prudence.  Theodosius was diligent in his preparations.  In particular he adopted some new tactics.  The force he eventually led against Maximus was particularly strong in horse archers.  Some of these were Alans and Huns from the steppes to whom this was a natural way to fight.  Goths and other barbarian recruits were trained to use the bow from the horse.

Maximus had up until now seemed up to the job of leading an army, but he was no match for Theodosius in the field.  It took just one major engagement to destroy his capabilities completely.  The engagement took place on the river Save and the superior horsemanship of Theodosius’s forces wiped out the Gauls and Germans they were up against.  Maximus escaped to nearby Aquileia, so hardly pursued that he only got the gate closed behind him in the nick of time. He might as well have left it open.  What happened next was by now well rehearsed. The defenders made the calculation.  The winning side was obvious, and joining it was imperative.  Maximus was handed over to Theodosius almost immediately.

Theodosius had made quick work of the campaign.  But this was the result of the pains he had taken to make victory as likely and easy as it was possible to do in advance.   This was very much his style.  He was no gambler or chancer, and when he undertook something he was patient in its execution.  He was a very moderate man.  He was a faithful husband and seems to have been untroubled by the passions and conflicts of the age he lived in, even when he was participating in them.  His actions against Maximus may have been motivated by reasons a bit deeper than simple politics.  The arrival of Justina in his protection introduced him to her beautiful daughter, Galla.  Theodosius was a widower, and was attracted to Galla and subsequently married her.

As the daughter of one emperor, and the niece of another it isn’t hard to come up with a cynical explanation for this match.  But contemporary reports treat it as genuine love match.  Gibbon is rarely a softy in these issues, but goes along with this explanation.  Who knows, but sometimes the motivations of the great and powerful must coincide with more ordinary people.  If so the campaign against Maximus was also a family motivated grudge match to restore Theodosius’ now bother in law.   And with victory, that was exactly what he did.  Valentinian II was established as the emperor of the whole of the western half of the empire.  Justina returned to see the triumph of her family, with the effective guarantee of the man who was now her son in law.

She died a few months later, but that was probably just as well.  Valentinian found that he was only nominally in charge. All the power was in the hands of a Frankish general called Arbogast.  Valentinian found the situation humiliating and frustrating.  On top of that Ambrose manipulated him as well, blocking his plans to reach out to the pagans – who were still in the majority at this stage.  The young man was later found hanged.  This was universally interpreted as a murder carried out by Arbogast.  This was the opinion of contemporary historians.  Gibbon goes along with the murder idea, but thinks it was a behind the scenes plot rather than Arbogast himself.  This actually makes more sense.  Arbogast actually had nothing to gain from the death of Valentinian since he was already in control.  Killing the relation of Theodosius was not remotely in his interests since it was almost certain to lead to an attack.  It seems much more likely that it was suicide – which is exactly what Arbogast said it was.

But Arbogast could not bring Valentinian back to life and so had to face the consequences.  He found another puppet.  This was a rhetorician by the name of Eugenius.  He was a senator and the Senate elected him as the new emperor.  It was a long time since that had happened!  They then did what they could to handle the wrath of Theodosius as he approached with his army.  Arbogast’s plan was to concede the territory to the east of the Alps, and confront Theodosius in the mountain passes where his cavalry would be less of an advantage.

It was a good plan, and probably the best that could be contrived in the situation.  Theodosius emerged from a pass in the mountains by a cold river called the Frigidus to confront the entire enemy camp. He attacked instantly, but with little success. By the end of the day he had failed to dislodge his opponents and was facing defeat. But the next day the weather changed allowing a breakthrough to be made.  Arbogast and Eugenius were decisively defeated and were soon dead.  Arbogast killed himself – Eugenius was behead by Theodosius.

Thanks to the battle of Frigidus Theodosius was now in sole charge of the entire Roman world.  He appointed his sons as junior emperors.  Arcadius was given the east and Honorius the west.  He would be the last Roman emperor to rule an empire that was recognisable as THE Roman Empire geographically.  But politically it was already totally transformed from the pseudo-republic that Augustus artfully maintained by a combination of smoke, mirrors and guile. It was now a theocracy that imposed religious conformity on its subjects and derived its legitimacy from God.  This was illustrated beyond any doubt by the worst episode in the reign of Theodosius, and the biggest stain on his character.

Theodosius had for a long time been based in Thessalonika, and there was still a military base there.  It was in the charge of a barbarian general called Botheric. He had among his slaves a particularly attractive boy.  This boy was seduced by a popular charioteer, and the outraged Botheric had the charioteer thrown into prison.  When the story got out that the chariot races were going to be spoiled by has absence, a riot ensued.  Those guys took their sport seroiusly.  The riot got out of hand and Botheric was killed.

Theodosius was so enraged that he ordered a massacre.  The inhabitants were invited to a chariot race, but on arrival a prescribed number of them were simply massacred.  The number is disputed but it was in the thousands.  Not good.  It caused outrage.  The bloodshed was bad enough, but add in the lack of legal proceedings and the element of deception and it becomes really gruesome. On top of which this was the location – a city where Theodosius had spent a great deal of time and so must have known at least some of the victims.

Roman emperors weren’t cuddly, and it isn’t too hard to find behaviour this bad in previous incumbents, though this was certainly on the bloodthirsty end of the scale.  The novel feature was the reaction of Ambrose.  Spotting a golden opportunity, Ambrose condemned the behaviour of the emperor.  He threatened him with excommunication if he didn’t repent of his sins.  Well, well.  And Theodosius did in fact repent. Ambrose was intent that the church would be an equal partner in running the empire, and this was the first fruit of it.  From now on, nobody could ignore the influence of organised religion.

A couple of years later Theodosius died.  Despite coming close to excommunicating him, Ambrose gave a warm send off full of praise for his piety particularly in the matter of his robust policies against the pagans.  He has got a good press from the church ever since.


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