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3. Valens |
A disaster foreshadows the last man to govern both east and west

Valens is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 80, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

With Valens’s huge army demolished at Adrianople a desperate empire turns to the devout Theodosius, who affirms the creed and sustains the frontier

Valens - A disaster foreshadows the last man to govern both east and west

Valens - A disaster foreshadows the last man to govern both east and west
In flight from the Huns pressing into their territory, the Visigoth chief Fritigern and his warriors cross the Danube to take refuge inside the frontier of imperial Rome. Two years later, the emperor Valens would pay–with his life–for granting them entrance. (Illustration from The History of France by Francois Guizot, late-nineteenth century.)

Put that man in chains!” shouted Valens Augustus, emperor of the east. “And keep him there! I’ll see he’s properly punished when I return.” Immediately, the soldiers seized the old monk where he stood, hurling his prophecy at the Arian emperor. “Give back the churches you grabbed from those who maintain the Nicene doctrines,” he had cried, “and victory will be yours!”

A chill silence had fallen upon the crowd, writes the historian Sozomen, and people stared anxiously at Isaac the monk, a man known for great virtue and fearless holiness. The legion columns had halted. The drums had fallen silent. All had waited uneasily. Would Isaac now issue the other half, the dire corollary, of that prophecy? Would he dare say what would happen if the emperor refused to give back the churches? He would indeed. “Unless you restore the churches,” came his ringing voice, “you will not be returning at all.” The soldiers hustled the monk away, and the legions moved on, Valens at their head, drummers pounding the march.

Valens didn’t need such an omen, delivered with prophetic authority in full view of the very people he sought so earnestly to impress. He didn’t need it at all. It was the summer of 378. Nine years earlier, he had been an acclaimed hero. He had thrashed the Visigoths, terrors of the frontier, to their knees. But led by their crafty chieftain Fritigern, they had risen again, spreading havoc for a full year across the northern provinces, and raiding right to the gate of Constantinople itself.

So Valens was no longer a hero. The brazen mobs of Constantinople had taken to jeering him in the streets as a spineless coward. But at last, he had decided, his army was sufficiently large and experienced to repeat the victory of 369. Cohort after cohort, it was marching through the capital city. He, Valens, was about to bring peace to his provinces, and incidentally show his cocky young nephew, the western emperor Gratian, what a really seasoned commander could do.

His troops did not have far to travel. Fritigern’s Visigoths and some of their barbarian allies were about a week’s march away, ranging near the city of Adrianople in Thrace, 140 miles to the west on the old highway, the Via Egnatia. At Adrianople, Valens’s troops met up with a small force commanded by the experienced German general Richomer, sent by Gratian, who, much to Valens’s disgust, was the senior emperor. Gratian himself was said to be on his way to join them with a substantial army. While Valens’s men set up a fortified camp outside the walls of Adrianople, he pondered his options. Should he attack right away, or wait for Gratian?

His scouts reported that Fritigern’s host was eight miles from the city. It was relatively small, probably no more than ten thousand fighting men, with the usual barbarian entourage of women, children, household baggage, captured slaves and loot. Valens had every reason for confidence. His army probably numbered thirty thousand. Why share the victory with Gratian? Richomer demurred. He wanted to wait for the western legions. But Valens’s own chief general, Sebastianus, an old campaigner with a distinguished career, advised prompt action. That did it. On August 9, Valens resolved to attack immediately.

Then came the unexpected, a deputation from the enemy, headed by a minor Christian cleric. They had a proposition. If the emperor would give the Visigoths most of Thrace as a homeland, Fritigern would guarantee (with perhaps the aid of an occasional show of Roman might) to keep his countrymen law-abiding. It may have been a bona fide offer, notes the fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus, but more probably Fritigern was buying time so that his scattered and various allies could assemble, something they were in fact doing.

Valens, suspicious and determined to fight anyway, refused to give an answer. The deputation departed, and the emperor marched his army to the point where they could see the Goth wagons drawn up in their customary carrago, their circular defense formation. In mid-morning, there again came emissaries from Fritigern, seeking a truce. Wavering the other way this time, Valens parleyed. He agreed to send the Goths a high-ranking hostage. Richomer volunteered to go. Meanwhile, the Roman legions, having marched eight miles in full armor, were sweltering under the blazing August sun and choking on the smoke from burning crops, which the Goths had deliberately set afire.

Then, suddenly, there erupted shouts and a clash of arms near the front ranks. As Ammianus describes events, some Roman light cavalry skirted too close to a contingent of Goths, and fighting unexpectedly broke out. In the confusion, Valens’s infantry charged without orders. Assuming the attack underway, half his cavalry drove forward as well, broke through the Goth lines, and then, to their horror, discovered themselves cut off.

At the same time, Fritigern’s reinforcements began arriving, and plunged immediately into the fray. Contingents of Ostrogoths (or East Goths, ethnic cousins of the Visigoths, or West Goths), along with bands of allied Alan horsemen, charged down upon the Roman flanks. Fritigern’s main force rushed in with a frontal attack.

“Our left wing had advanced actually up to the wagons,” Ammianus recounts, “with the intent to push on still further if they were properly supported; but they were deserted by the rest of the cavalry, and so pressed upon by the superior numbers of the enemy that they were overwhelmed and beaten down.” Finally, amid thick clouds of dust and hideous cries, with the enemy pushing so hard against them that they could scarcely move, the infantrymen “at last began to despise death, and again took to their swords and slew all they encountered . . . then might you see the barbarian, his right hand cut off sword and all, or his side transfixed, and still, in the last gasp of life, casting round him defiant glances.”

For hours, the two armies fought on, but exhaustion and confusion eventually began to tell on the Roman ranks. Their infantry first fell back, the barbarians hard upon them. Then the Romans appeared to panic. Some began to flee the scene. At last, the whole bulk of the Roman infantry broke and ran.

About then, Ammianus writes, the emperor Valens was seen riding frantically over heaps of corpses, seemingly abandoned even by his bodyguard. One of his generals, Trajanus, may have died in an attempt to save him. Another commander, Victor, tried to rally the reserve auxiliary units about the emperor, but failed. At length, “a dark and moonless night put an end to the irremediable disaster that cost the Roman state so dear.” The Thracian plain was soaked in blood and covered with the dead and wounded, the roads choked by corpses of men and horses.

Somewhere in that horrific melee, Valens Augustus vanished. Some participants suggested that late in the day, he had been mortally wounded by an arrow and died on the spot, but neither body nor imperial accoutrements were ever found. Others claimed that a picked body of soldiers carried the wounded emperor to refuge in a small tower nearby, where they all perished when the barbarians set fire to it.

However that might be, with him there also perished that day two-thirds of the army of the eastern empire–some twenty thousand soldiers, and many of their best commanders. It was disaster indeed. To find a Roman defeat of comparable magnitude Ammianus had to reach back to Cannae, in 216 b.c., when the Carthaginians wiped out the last Roman army in Italy.1

Next morning the Visigoths launched a determined attack on Adrianople, where they correctly believed the imperial regalia and war chest had been stored. After great slaughter, they gave up, conclusively demonstrating that the barbarians could not take a walled city. “I do not fight stone walls,” Fritigern bitterly concluded. Unconvinced, dissident bands of Goths proceeded to attempt an assault on the capital itself, and failed. Nevertheless, the eastern empire now lay leaderless, prostrate before the Visigoths–or any other invader.

Hearing the calamitous news, Gratian drew back to Sirmium, the fate of the whole empire now in his hands. He was only nineteen, but no neophyte. Since the age of eight, he had accompanied his father Valentinian I on campaign; in his mid-teens, he had commanded legions. Like much of the empire, he had watched uneasily ever since that April day two years before when Valens had, in effect, opened the dikes to the barbarian horde (as described in the closing pages of a previous volume in this series, By This Sign, chapter 10).

It was then that Fritigern’s Visigoths, fleeing in their thousands from fearsome Hun invaders, reached the Danube frontier and pleaded for permission from the Roman guards to cross the river. Their panic was understandable. While the Goths were themselves ferocious enough, they paled beside the Hunnic horsemen who swept out of the Asian Steppes in the early 370s, demolished the considerable empire the Ostrogoths had established in Scythia (modern Ukraine), and were now at the backs of the Visigoths.

The Huns were not human, their terrorized victims said. They were thick, squat, crooked creatures without necks, who seemed to live on horseback, gnawing on herbs and raw meat, and who rode shrieking into battles they never lost. Some of the Visigoths had been driven into the Transylvanian Mountains, but most had followed Fritigern to the Danube River.

Valens, not knowing the fate awaiting him two years hence, had had good reason to allow them to enter. Otherwise, refugee Ostrogoths might combine with the Visigoths and actually invade, and he could divert no troops from his imperiled Persian front to meet a major Danube threat. Besides, barbarian groups had been admitted into the empire before, although on a smaller scale, and under careful military supervision. Now these Visigoths poured across the river like lava from a volcano. Ammianus describes the scene:

They crossed the stream day and night, embarking in troops on board ships and rafts, and canoes made of the hollow trunks of trees, in which enterprise, as the Danube is the most difficult of rivers to navigate, and was at that time swollen with continual rains, a great many were drowned, who because they were too numerous for the vessels, tried to swim across, and in spite of all their exertions, were swept away by the stream.

Estimates vary, but some one hundred thousand Visigoths, far more than Valens probably expected, are thought to have crossed the Danube that day. Worse still, at least a fifth of them must have been warriors, most of whom retained their weapons. This was a crucial violation of the agreed-upon conditions which Lupicinus, the Roman comes (or count) of Thrace, was under orders to enforce. He had also been told to help the Visigoths cross the river, to immediately provision them from state supplies, and to allot them land. Instead, writes the fifth-century Greek historian Zosimus, Lupicinus’s officials merely crossed the river to the Visigoth camps, “selected good-looking women, pursued mature boys for disgraceful purposes and seized slaves and farmers.”

Ammianus portrays Lupicinus as corrupt to the core. He delayed moving the Visigoths to the promised settlements, and issued them such meager rations they came close to starvation. Then he allowed his minions to charge them exorbitant prices for almost inedible food, such as dog meat obtained by killing every hound for miles around.

The enraged warriors, reduced to selling their children as slaves to maintain bare existence, wanted to fight then and there, but Fritigern counseled patience. He had dealt with Rome before; it was not yet time to attack. The time came in the summer of 377, after Lupicinus finally decided to escort the Goths to their settlements. In a stop at Marcianople, fighting broke out with the escorting troops, while Lupicinus was entertaining the Visigothic leaders at a banquet (preparatory, Ammianus suspects, to having them murdered).

When Lupicinus, possibly drunk by then, was informed of the rebellion, he ordered his barbarian guests killed. Kill us, Fritigern warned him, and things will get a lot worse. Either credulous or cowed, Lupicinus let them go. Fritigern returned to his men and gave the signal for battle. Joyfully they slaughtered the hated Roman guards and began a rampage through the provinces, soon reinforced by the Ostrogoths, wandering Germans, and a few Hun tribes as well. Lupicinus fled the battle, and vanished from history, too. The Visigoths were hungry no more, and when they trounced Valens the following year at Adrianople, the whole Roman world seemed theirs for the taking.

Of all this, Gratian was painfully aware. He knew also that while he could manage the west, the death of Valens had left a huge void in the east. Who could fill it? He knew of only one possible candidate, a gifted officer named Flavius Theodosius, who had served under Gratian’s father and had retired, still in his thirties, to his family estate in Spain. The imperial couriers dashed across Gaul and over the Pyrenees with Gratian’s offer: supreme military command in the east, and by implication the imperial purple. Thus does Theodosius I enter history where he will be known as the last Roman emperor to rule both east and west.

Theodosius’s acceptance of the offer was not a foregone conclusion. His father had served Valentinian I loyally and with distinction, but then had fallen victim to court intrigue and been executed. That was why the son retired early to their provincial estate, where he married Aelia Flacilla, daughter of a noble Spanish family; already they had produced two children, a daughter Pulcheria, and a son Arcadius.2 He was apparently well-enough informed of court politics, however, to conclude that his father’s enemies were now either dead or departed. So he accepted, and beat back an invasion of Sarmatians on the Danube with such celerity that Gratian knew he had the right man. He made Theodosius augustus in the east.

Events swiftly vindicated the decision. With the whole lower Danube region now wide open to the barbarians, and communication cut off between Constantinople and Italy, Theodosius set up a temporary capital at Thessalonica on the Aegean, that could be easily supplied by sea. Then he started creating a new army out of the survivors of Adrianople, plus whatever barbarians he could recruit and whatever Roman citizens he could draft. Since he could not yet defend the countryside, he garrisoned the walled towns instead and used them as refugee centers, confident that Fritigern still would not “fight stone walls.” As soon as his troops were ready for battle, he began harrying the Gothic marauders, conducting raids, as it were, on the raiders, so that their supplies began running short.

However, in 380, there came a frightening setback. Theodosius fell gravely ill, and was thought to be dying. Bishop Acholius of Thessalonica was summoned to baptize him, thus purging him of sin and preparing him for death. But in a few months the emperor recovered, thoroughly convinced that he had been saved by the grace of baptism, the prayers of his people and the favor of God. Furthermore, by fall, he had sufficient military control of the east to make a grand ceremonial entry into his true capital of Constantinople.

A major opportunity followed in January 381. Fritigern, an Arian Christian, had an old rival for the Visigothic leadership: Athanaric, the venerable high chief who had insisted on standing by his pagan gods and on fighting the Huns.3 Aging and ill, Athanaric now led his weary and dwindling followers back out of Transylvania and besought Theodosius to accommodate them too, within the empire.

It was a chance for the kind of magnanimous gesture for which Theodosius would become noted, and his response must have pleased the old Goth not a little. The emperor rode out to greet him and conduct him as an honored guest into Constantinople, to gratifying effect. Athanaric was dazzled by its magnificent buildings, splendidly accoutred ceremonial troops, thronging populace and crowded harbor. “Truly the emperor of Rome is a god on earth,” the old man declared, “and whoever lifts a hand against him is asking for death!” Scarcely ten days later he died (of natural causes, historians agree), and Theodosius gave him a full-scale royal funeral, inviting as many Visigoths as he could, and heading the procession himself.

Athanaric’s warriors proved happy to fight for the Roman army rather than against it, and were especially helpful on the frontier, where in 381, another Hun onslaught had to be defeated. Meanwhile, Fritigern was still spreading havoc. The city of Nicopolis (near modern Pleven, Bulgaria) had fallen to him in 380, when its citizens simply gave up. Even some garrisoned towns were paying him “protection” money. Still, Fritigern was not leading an army but a people, numbering in the tens of thousands. To keep them consistently supplied through raiding was a daunting task, and Theodosius obviously knew this.

Probably, therefore, he was not surprised in the fall of 382 that Fritigern, hard-pressed, was ready to negotiate. He and Theodosius agreed that his Visigoths would occupy much of lower Moesia (modern Bulgaria), almost entirely under their own governance, creating in effect a sovereign Visigothic nation within the empire. They were to receive subsidies, and to fight for Rome when required, as separate units under their own leaders.

But no sooner was the east settled than calamity struck in the west, where Gratian had ruled for eight years in seemingly exemplary fashion. In 383, the legions in Britain conferred the title augustus upon their extremely popular general, Magnus Maximus. When Maximus confronted Gratian in Gaul, the bulk of Gratian’s army deserted to the usurper. Fleeing south with just one cavalry detachment, Gratian was intercepted at Lyon by agents of Maximus, and was killed there on August 25, 383. He was twenty-four.

Maximus established his court at Trier, as Gratian had, and sent a brusque message to the guardians of Valentinian II at Milan (which had now superseded the city of Rome as administrative center for the empire of the west and location of the imperial court). Twelve-year-old Valentinian, Gratian’s half brother and legitimate heir, Maximus instructed them, must be sent north right away to be under his personal tutelage.

Maximus’s message to the eastern emperor was equally peremptory. Was it to be peace, or war? Neither one appealed to Theodosius. His eastern army was not yet ready for a major war, but neither was he willing to make peace with the usurper, nor grant official recognition to the killer of his co-emperor. So he dismissed Maximus’s emissaries without an answer.

Meanwhile, Bishop Ambrose of Milan, guardian of the young Valentinian, did likewise. The bishop traveled to Trier to explain why the boy could not possibly make such a journey in winter, while troops loyal to Valentinian blocked Maximus’s entry to Italy. Thus, for the next several years, an uneasy three-way truce was obtained. Maximus was effectively, if not officially, ruler of Britain and the Gallic provinces. Young Valentinian remained nominal ruler of Italy, the western Danube region and Africa. Theodosius continued to consolidate his control of the east.

Theodosius used this interval to formally terminate the Arian heresy within the empire. By now, Nicene Christianity predominated as far east as Macedonia. The time had come, he decided, to make it the state religion, despite the fact that Arians installed by Valens held most senior ecclesiastical offices in the east. Even before he left Thessalonica, Theodosius issued the first of eighteen penal laws against heresy. All his subjects, he ordered, were to embrace forthwith the Nicene Christian definition of the Holy Trinity, “the religion followed by Bishop Damasus [of Rome] and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity.”

Arriving in Constantinople, the emperor informed the city’s Arian bishop, Demophilus, that he must accept the Creed of Nicea. Demophilus declined, and peacefully departed. His flock, mostly Arian, was not so acquiescent, and Nicene clergy had to be installed in the capital’s churches under armed guard. To succeed Demophilus, Theodosius chose Gregory of Nazianzus and personally accompanied him in solemn procession to the Church of the Apostles–along with a military guard to hold off the shouting, weeping mobs. Gregory, a gentle soul with little stomach for internal ecclesiastical conflict, ruefully described these proceedings, with himself shuffling along among the emperor and his soldiers, as more like the entry of a hostile army into a defeated city than any Christian ceremony.4

By the following spring, Christian bishops were still seriously at odds, however. The emperor, therefore, summoned them to a council in Constantinople (in May 381), to confront and resolve these persistent problems, and thus to complete the work of the Council of Nicea. Theodosius saw very clearly that if Christianity was to function as Rome’s new state religion, its warring components must–by favor or by force–be reconciled. Thus occurred what became known to Christian history as the Second Ecumenical Council.

Unlike the first, Nicea, or those that would follow, it was a relatively uncontroversial assemblage, attended by one hundred and fifty bishops committed to uphold Nicea, and thirty-six opposed to it. To such diminished numbers had Arianism dwindled.

In the sphere of church government, Theodosius’s efforts proved similarly effective. As the emperor’s Spanish co-religionists and other Nicene Christians were appointed to important secular positions, Arianism began to fade in government circles and in the upper levels of Constantinople society. Among the populace, meanwhile, it was notably discouraged both by social disapproval and by a continuing barrage of anti-heresy laws. Before very long, Arianism would linger chiefly among the Germanic tribes and in the heavily Germanic army.

Some contemporary sources claim that Theodosius would have preferred persuasion to coercion, but that state necessity required him to use stern measures. He is also said to have disapproved of the mob action that constantly erupted against both heretical Christian sects and other religions. However, one undoubted effect of his legislation was to embolden zealots for Nicene Christianity to commit acts of extreme violence against their opponents in religion, frequently with ecclesiastical approval–and whether or not Theodosius approved, he hardly ever condemned them.

Against paganism, he proceeded much more gently at first. The Roman pantheon of gods and goddesses, revered as guarantors of the glory of the illustrious empire, was still too close to the hearts of the old Roman families for brutal extermination. Maintaining the city’s various cults was an honor and responsibility they deeply cherished. These rituals were still the focus of Roman patriotism, and pagan mythology was practically inextricable from Greek and Latin culture. That pagan scholars should be excluded from the education of the young, for example, was in court circles unthinkable. The eloquent, classical, pagan philosopher Themistius, for example, was tutor to the emperor’s elder son, Arcadius, and such arrangements would long continue.

Perhaps Theodosius hoped that Christianity would gradually and gently eclipse the Olympian gods. In any case, he seemed not to see them as a threat to the true faith. Their temple buildings, he suggested, should be put to other civic purposes, and their statues admired as works of art.

Before long, however, he began to legislate against paganism as well. Christian bishops emphatically disapproved the gentle approach; they generally wanted the old gods eradicated root and branch, both spiritually and physically. Anti-pagan laws were also popular among the common people, writes the historian W. H. C. Frend in The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1984) either on account of their fervent Christian faith, or because they “provided a pretext to pay off old scores against the former pagan ruling classes.”

In the east, the great temples at Edessa and Apamea were totally demolished, the latter by troops under the command of the local governor, and quite possibly on the orders of Maternus Cynegius, praetorian prefect of the east and one of the Spanish Christians appointed by Theodosius. Many lesser temples were also destroyed by troops of fanatic monks and spontaneous mob action.

In the west, such tendencies were less pronounced, although they had one especially powerful advocate. No one was more determined to destroy paganism than Ambrose, bishop of Milan, a major influence upon both Gratian and Valentinian II. (See sidebar page 94.) In 381, almost certainly in obedience to Ambrose, Gratian had removed from the Senate in Rome the Altar of Victory with its winged statue, installed there by Augustus after the crucial Battle of Actium. Before it, since time out of mind, the senators had taken oaths and regularly offered libations and incense.5

Gratian further repudiated paganism by refusing to assume as emperor the title and sacramental role of Pontifex Maximus, high priest of the state cult, and by ending state grants for the vestal virgins and other pagan foundations. After Gratian’s death, the greatly respected Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, prefect of Rome, eloquently petitioned Valentinian II to restore the Altar of Victory at least. How could mere humans, was his reasonable and dignified argument, completely comprehend the infinite truth of divinity? Surely all men need not come to that truth by the same road. The gods of the Romans had for centuries served them well. In a climactic finale, Symmachus spoke eloquently in the persona of Roma herself, the tutelary spirit of the city:

Excellent princes, fathers of your country, respect my years to which these rites have brought me. Let me use the ancestral ceremonies, for I do not repent of them. Let me live after my own fashion, for I am free. This worship subdued the world to my laws. These sacred rites repelled Hannibal from the walls, and the Gauls from the Capitol. Have I survived so long that in my old age I should be blamed? . . . May there be a return to the religious policy that preserved the empire for your highness’s divine parent, and furnished that blessed prince with lawful heirs!

Ambrose countered by warning Valentinian that any such action would bring excommunication upon him. He also composed a detailed and equally impassioned rebuttal, dealing point by point with Symmachus’s arguments, for the boy emperor to deliver. This was accompanied by a powerful exhortation to that young person himself.

“Ambrose, bishop, to the most blessed prince and most Christian emperor Valentinian,” he wrote. “Just as all men who live under Roman rule serve in the armies under you, the emperors and princes of the world, so too do you serve as soldiers of almighty God and of our holy faith. For there is no sureness of salvation unless everyone worships in truth the true God, that is, the God of the Christians, under whose sway are all things. For he alone is the true God, who is to be worshiped from the bottom of the heart, ‘for the gods of the heathen,’ as Scripture says, ‘are devils.’”

Such hostile treatment of the old religion predisposed Symmachus and other Roman aristocrats toward the claims of Maximus, the usurper at Trier. When, after three years of de facto truce, Maximus made his first move, the result was dramatic. He proclaimed his infant son Victor as augustus, left the child at Trier, and forced open the mountain passes into Italy, perhaps with the help of some treachery. All resistance from the forces of Valentinian II collapsed instantly, and the emperor and his court fled to Thessalonica via Aquileia.

By now, however, Theodosius’s army was ready for Maximus. Augmented by the Hun and Alan cavalry, and supported by a fleet on the Adriatic, he moved west. It was a short war.6 At a stubborn and bloody battle at Poetovio, in northwestern Illyricum, the forces of Maximus were badly beaten. He retreated to Aquileia, hoping to make a stand, but his army had disintegrated. On August 28, 388–five years and three days after the execution of Gratian–Maximus was beheaded. Theodosius also sent a small force to kill his son, Victor. He himself headed for Milan to exercise his talent for magnanimity and conciliation. He was resolved to remain for some time at Milan with his co-augustus, Valentinian II, now seventeen and still noted for weak character and inexperience.

Residence in Italy put Theodosius into close contact with Ambrose, who, with the backing of his large and vociferous Milan congregation, was accustomed to act as God’s premier spokesman on earth to anyone, including emperors. As things turned out, the redoubtable bishop had no difficulty whipping Theodosius into line, tough campaigner though he was. The bishop had powerful weapons, chief among them the emperor’s sensitive Christian conscience and his lively fear of eternal damnation.

Their first clash occurred when a disorderly band of monks (the holy men of the monasteries were accumulating an unholy reputation for such activity) robbed and burned down a Jewish synagogue at Callinicum on the Euphrates River. This was illegal, since Jews were specifically exempted from anti-heresy laws. The emperor ordered the monks punished, and ordered the local bishop (who had urged them on) to pay for restoration of any stolen property and rebuilding the synagogue. But Ambrose severely admonished Theodosius. If he persisted in protecting Jews like this, God would no longer grant him victory, but would smite his armies just as the Jews had been smitten throughout their history.

The emperor had already decided to make the town, not the bishop, financially responsible, but Ambrose was not mollified. He regarded Jews as enemies of Christ, undeserving of legal protection, and in his view, their synagogue should not be replaced at all. Getting no satisfaction from Theodosius, the bishop took to his pulpit and stirred up his congregation. Finally, with Theodosius still stubborn, Ambrose announced that he would not again celebrate the holy Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, until the Callinicum reparation order was canceled. At that point, to the astonishment of his court, the emperor gave in.

Nevertheless, Theodosius’s authority and popularity easily survived this public humiliation. On his triumphal entry to Rome in June 389, both plebeians and patricians were captivated by his courtesy, dignity, urbanity and generosity. He provided lavish public games. He paid personal visits to individual aristocrats. He presented to the assembled senators as future ruler his younger son, five-year-old Flavius Honorius. (Arcadius, his elder son, who already held the title augustus, remained at home in Constantinople.) He honored and promoted many prominent Roman pagans, whether or not they had flirted with Maximus.

Theodosius even forgave the apprehensive Symmachus, who had rashly delivered a public panegyric to the usurper. Furthermore, in the Senate ceremonies Theodosius so complacently accepted a markedly pagan endorsement, that Symmachus was emboldened to ask once again for reinstatement of the Altar of Victory. But the emperor would not go quite that far.

However, as emissary of the new religion, he appears to have achieved a monumental evangelistic success. The fourth-century Latin poet and hymn writer Aurelius Clemens Prudentius records that hundreds of members of Roman patrician families–the Probi, the Anicii, the Paulini, the Bassi and the Gracchi–sought baptism at the time of Theodosius’s visit to the old capital. In A History of the Church to A.D. 461, historian B. J. Kidd attributes this to admiration for the emperor (and possibly also to “the recent influence of St. Jerome with the great ladies of the capital”).

Nevertheless, in 390, there came an incident that imperiled the emperor’s prestige and put him incontrovertibly into the power of Bishop Ambrose. In Thessalonica, where enthusiasm for the chariot races in the city’s huge Hippodrome bordered on hysteria, a particularly popular charioteer was imprisoned for a sexual crime, possibly homosexual rape. The historian Sozomen says the charioteer had “made a declaration of obscene passion” to the Germanic commander of Thessalonica’s barbarian garrison. Other sources say the charioteer was enamored of one of the commander’s more attractive slaves.

In any event, the citizenry demanded the release of their star. The commander, doubtless sharing the common barbarian contempt for what they called “the Greek vice,” refused. A riot ensued, the rioters rampaging through the city, killing the commander and several other officers, and dragging their mutilated corpses through the streets. The citizenry, without doubt, had no great fondness for the barbarians, the same folk who not many years before had inflicted such terrible suffering upon the Roman towns.

More terrible still, however, was Theodosius’s infuriated reaction. With neither investigation nor trial, he reportedly dispatched a new Gothic garrison to Thessalonica, with shocking instructions. When the usual throng assembled for the races, the soldiers at a given signal barred the gate and embarked on indiscriminate slaughter. Sozomen puts the death toll at seven thousand. In Theodosius’s defense, it was said that he soon cooled off and countermanded his fatal order, but was too late to stop it. Moreover, it was so uncharacteristically ferocious, and its execution so speedy, that some saw in it the hand of Rufinus, the emperor’s devious and unscrupulous master of offices.7

Theodosius’s defenders point to another incident three years earlier, when mobs in Antioch, protesting brutally heavy taxation, threatened to kill the governor. Further, they burned down the home of a leading citizen, and–most heinous of all–dragged through the streets the ceremonial bronze images of the imperial family. The enraged Theodosius ordered the mob leaders executed, and the city (third biggest in the empire) deprived of its civic status and rank and of its corn subsidy. Theaters, the circus, and baths were to be closed. But Antioch’s venerable Bishop Flavian begged for mercy, and Theodosius relented. The imperial pardon was read on Palm Sunday. Jubilant citizens held banquets in the streets. Moreover, historian Kidd notes, here as in Rome the emperor’s clemency was followed by many conversions to Christianity.

The Thessalonica massacre had quite the reverse effect. It shocked everyone, Christian and otherwise. Bishop Ambrose’s response, while calmer than in the synagogue affair, since this was not a direct challenge to the church, was actually more devastating. He did not publicly challenge the emperor. Instead, he composed a private letter, not dictated to a secretary but written in his own hand, expressing his sorrow that a monarch so renowned for piety and mercy should have sinned so grievously. His violent temper had terribly betrayed him, Ambrose wrote, but there must be expiation. Like the biblical King David, Theodosius must truly and publicly repent before the Lord God–as an example to his horrified subjects and for the sake of his own soul.

Ambrose knew his man. Theodosius must have been suffering agonies of moral guilt and fear. That summer, he promulgated a law establishing a thirty-day lapse between any death sentence and its execution. If he meant this as expiation, however, it was not enough. Consulting Ambrose, he was no doubt reminded that the church regularly imposed public penance upon Christians guilty of adultery, idolatry or homicide.

And thus it happened that Flavius Theodosius Augustus, his imperial regalia cast aside and exchanged for the garb of a humble penitent, was for several months to be seen prostrate on the floor of the Milan cathedral, weeping over the massacre at Thessalonica and reciting Psalm 119:25: “My soul clings to the dust.” At Christmas, the bishop finally readmitted him to the Eucharist.

The spectacle of the all-powerful emperor abasing himself before God Almighty must have been deeply edifying for Christians–but what pious pagans saw was their all-powerful emperor abasing himself before a bishop. It is also noteworthy, as Williams and Friell observe (Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, London, 1994), that Ambrose in his momentous letter never once mentioned such traditional Roman virtues as clemency, humanity, justice and prudence, or even the bedrock principle that a ruler must be bound by his own laws. His admonition was phrased entirely in Judeo-Christian terms. What brought Theodosius to his knees was fear of the Lord God Almighty and hope in the compassion of Jesus Christ. Just how far, thoughtful Romans wondered, would the emperor take his unswerving conviction to his religion?

Very far, they soon discovered. Within six months, the pagan state ceremonies in the Senate at Rome were for the first time forbidden by law. So were the rites observed at Alexandria since time immemorial to ensure the annual rising of the Nile, and the consequent fertilization of the land. Nor must anyone approach a shrine, reverence the statue of a god, or enter a temple, said this law of 391. Apostasy from Christianity was to be punished by loss of testamentary rights, the civic right to bequeath or inherit property, or testify as a witness. This law, contends N. Q. King in The Emperor Theodosius and the Establishment of Christianity (London, 1960), clearly demonstrates that Theodosius, by then regarded Christianity and Roman citizenship as one and the same. Of course, it may also owe something to Bishop Ambrose’s new and powerful hold over Theodosius. The timing seems significant.

Further attacks on temples naturally followed, and although many such buildings survived even this period, many did not. Among the casualties was the magnificent and many-columned Temple of Serapis in Alexandria, which housed the mammoth statue of this Graeco-Egyptian god, and also the Nile Cubit, the measure of the river’s yearly rise. The destruction began with Christian versus pagan riots, as chronicled by the fourth-century Christian historian Rufinus of Aquileia (not to be confused with Rufinus, Theodosius’s ill-reputed master of offices). The pagans ended up besieged inside the temple and holding Christian hostages, some of whom they killed. At that stage, says Rufinus, the emperor was consulted, and responded with a puzzling, oracular-style pronouncement. First, the slaughtered Christians were holy martyrs. Second, there should be no reprisal against the killers. Third, the cause of the trouble must be eliminated.

The Christians, perhaps taking this last as imperial approval to demolish the temple and its pagan images, set about doing so. Even with help from civic and military authorities, the massive temple resisted their best efforts. They fared better with the great statue, although at first they were afraid to attack it. When their bishop, Theophilus, bravely struck the first blow and suffered no untoward consequences, however, his flock finished the job. (Another version claims that a soldier struck the first blow.) They also looted or destroyed whatever precious objects they could find, and probably the books in the adjoining library as well. But the Nile reportedly rose as usual that year, presumably to the gratification of Alexandrian Christians and the discomfiture of the pagans.

Like the Christians before them, beleaguered pagans had by now resorted to meeting in their homes to propitiate the divinities of their ancestral faith, and in 392 Theodosius promulgated laws still more oppressive. These ordered the death penalty for any sort of divination or sacrifice, and confiscation of any house in which a pagan symbol–from an altar or a lamp to a votive wreath or garland–was found. Informers were encouraged. Such bans on private observation can hardly have been strictly enforced, it is thought, but they must have bitterly disappointed the group of Roman aristocrats still hopefully promoting a pagan revival.

The emperor, meanwhile, was much preoccupied with the balancing of power, loyalty and dynastic ambition in the governance of his sprawling empire. Valentinian II, at nineteen, was bitterly unhappy as puppet emperor at Milan. In Constantinople, fourteen-year-old Arcadius was at odds with his youthful stepmother, Galla, who had just borne Theodosius a baby daughter, Galla Placidia. Theodosius reached a solution that must have seemed reasonable enough at the time.

He dispatched Valentinian II to the north, to establish his own court at Trier and rule the Gallic provinces from there. Theodosius’s accomplished and loyal Frankish general Arbogast, as Magister Militum for Valentinian, could be counted on to defend the Rhine frontier, besides essentially functioning as regent. The trusted pagan senator Nicomachus Flavianus was made responsible for Italy, Illyricum and Africa, as prefect of all three and directly responsible to Theodosius.

The eastern emperor thereupon ended his three-year sojourn in Italy and set out for Constantinople. In some respects, his plan for the west proved workable. Arbogast performed brilliantly in holding the northern frontier against the Franks, his own people, and efficiently governed the realm assigned to Valentinian II. But the general’s dealings with the young augustus were much less satisfactory.

Perhaps his job as de facto regent was an impossible one. Valentinian, now twenty-one years old, moved his court from Trier to Vienne on the Rhone River, but became more and more discontented over his lack of real authority. He sorrowfully complained to Ambrose in Milan and to Theodosius in Constantinople that he felt like a prisoner. Exactly what happened next has been much disputed. In Saint Ambrose, His Life and Times (Oxford, 1935) however, historian Angelo Paredi suggests that matters came to a head in the spring of 392, because Arbogast killed a friend of the young emperor, causing Valentinian to publicly fire him. Arbogast tore up the dismissal, retorting that he took his orders from Theodosius.

Responding to the crisis, Bishop Ambrose hastened to Vienne to mediate between Valentinian and Arbogast. Before he arrived, on May 15, 392, the nominal emperor of the west was found hanged in his imperial apartments. Arbogast announced the death as suicide, proclaimed his own grief and his loyalty to the house of Theodosius, and sent the body to Milan for a state funeral. Was it indeed suicide? Some contemporaries suspected that Arbogast had had Valentinian murdered. The most telling argument against this theory, however, is that Valentinian’s death was more a problem than an advantage to Arbogast, who as a barbarian could not himself aspire to the purple.8

Response from Constantinople was curiously slow in coming. Perhaps Theodosius was suspicious or uncertain. Perhaps, it has been alleged, he was simply so indolent about routine administration that he preferred to leave everything to the dubious Rufinus, then at the peak of his power in Constantinople.

For three months, Arbogast tried to carry on as usual, issuing coinage inscribed to Theodosius and Arcadius, but his position became increasingly precarious. In late August, he had Flavius Eugenius, a teacher of rhetoric and formerly chief secretary to Valentinian II, proclaimed emperor of the west. Eugenius was not an impressive choice, but as a Roman and a moderate Christian he was not unsuitable. He sent embassies to Constantinople; Theodosius dismissed them with ambiguous replies, and in January 393 proclaimed his younger son Honorius, then eight, augustus for the west.

With this act, Theodosius openly repudiated Eugenius as western emperor, yet seemingly took no further action either to avoid or prepare for the costly civil war that would surely follow. In April 394, Arbogast and Eugenius marched into Italy. The senators, smarting from Theodosius’s last and toughest anti-pagan laws, welcomed Eugenius and petitioned him to reinstate the Altar of Victory. After a brief hesitation, he agreed.

When Eugenius also confirmed the appointment of the pagan Nicomachus Flavianus as prefect of Italy, pagan joy and optimism knew no bounds. Under the direction of Flavianus and his namesake son, the senatorial party sponsored the reopening and rededication of temples, along with restoration of ceremonies and festivals of every kind. The elder Flavianus himself drove the chariot, drawn by two lions, which carried Cybele’s sacred effigy triumphantly through Rome. This time, Symmachus remained quietly in the background. He was delighted to marry his daughter to Nicomachus the younger, however, in a splendid ceremony invoking Jupiter and Cybele, the Magna Mater (Great Mother).

War was now inevitable, and a holy war at that. Theodosius readied his army, significantly bulked up by the Visigoth federates, who were now led by a new chief, Alaric. With fasting, prayer and processions, the churches made supplication to God for a timely victory. Theodosius consulted a holy hermit, John of Lycopolis, who told him his army would be victorious after much slaughter, but he himself would die in Italy. More daunting yet, on the eve of his departure, his beloved Galla died in childbirth along with their baby. The emperor allowed himself just one day to mourn. Then he prayed at the church that he had erected to St. John the Baptist, and set out with his army under the Christian banner.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the senators were invoking the gods of Rome with all due ceremony. Flavianus, consulting the sacred entrails, announced that the auguries were favorable. Moreover, 394 marked the beginning of another “Great Year” and a new epoch in human destiny.9 Victory for Eugenius and Arbogast was certain, Flavianus proclaimed, as their army marched forth under the standards of Jupiter and Hercules Invictus. On his return, he vowed, he would draft monks as soldiers and turn churches into stables.

Theodosius soon had good cause to fear just such an outcome. When he reached the mountain passes west of Aquileia, he found Arbogast strongly entrenched near the river Frigidus, with his flanks adroitly protected, and commanding the pass. On September 5, Theodosius launched a frontal attack and fought all day long to no advantage, while several thousand of the Goths who formed his vanguard were slain. That night, Arbogast’s troops rested, confident of imminent victory. Theodosius is said to have spent it in fervent prayer, and to have been vouchsafed a heavenly visit (by two white-clad heavenly riders, thought to be St. John and St. Philip), the historian Theodoret says.

But next day the outlook remained grim as the stalemate continued–until suddenly there arose a mighty wind that blew straight against the faces and shields of Arbogast’s soldiers, deflecting their javelin blows, forcing them backwards, throwing their enemies down upon them. The physical effects were devastating, the psychological effects worse still. The army of Eugenius and Arbogast broke. Eugenius was captured, executed, and his head impaled on a spear. Flavianus killed himself in the classic Roman fashion, falling on his sword. Arbogast, who initially escaped into the mountains, followed suit a few days later.

But what of this miraculous wind? There was, and is, a well-known phenomenon of the Adriatic region of Italy, called the Bora (from boreas, Greek for the north wind). It blows from the northeast when cold air crosses the mountains from the east and descends on the coast too rapidly to warm up; the change in barometric pressure produces gales as high as sixty miles per hour, sufficiently powerful to overturn a heavy vehicle. It is also true the Bora usually occurs in winter. However, whether or not its appearance on September 6, 394, was indeed miraculous, it could not fail to be seen as such by both sides. The Christian God had on that fateful day clearly defeated the heathen army and discredited their idols.

Soberly and thankfully, the emperor Theodosius again entered Italy. The usually implacable Ambrose met him at Aquileia, to kneel before him and ask clemency for the vanquished and for their sympathizers. The emperor raised the bishop to his feet and knelt in his turn, acknowledging the efficacy of Ambrose’s prayers in the victory of the Frigidus River.

Another precedent occurred in storied Rome. The victory was celebrated with a Christian liturgy of solemn celebration, not the traditional procession through the triumphal arch. There, too, Theodosius proceeded to mete out amnesty all around. At the behest of Symmachus, he even exempted from penalty the old pagan’s son-in-law, Nicomachus Flavianus the younger. The full range of anti-pagan laws was promptly reinstated, however, and demolition or conversion of temples resumed.

Paganism was in effect finished, although among the Italian aristocracy, pagan belief and tradition discreetly and stubbornly continued for some time. This was evidenced in such practices as posthumously erecting statues to notable pagan officials. Years after the Frigidus, the Christian court at Milan, letting bygones be very much bygone, even commissioned a statue honoring the stalwart Nicomachus Flavianus the elder.

In Gaul, Spain and the eastern empire, the upper classes were already for the most part Christian, and Italy eventually came around, especially after the church allowed mixed marriages in noble families. Devout Christian wives often converted stubbornly pagan husbands. “After three generations of opposition to their husbands’ religion, the Roman matronae had their way,” writes historian Frend. Pagan traditions became mere ghosts of the past, nostalgic wisps. That day at the Frigidus, when the Bora blew away the proud Olympian standards of Arbogast’s army, it also blew away the last faint hope of a pagan revival.

To the victorious emperor Theodosius, the future must have looked quite satisfactory. Having eliminated the latest imperial challenger, he was again sole ruler of the entire empire. His viceroy in the east was the prefect Rufinus, his longtime colleague. Rufinus had by now become preoccupied with acquiring holy relics and building a monastery, complete with imported Egyptian monks, but he certainly had not lost his talent for politics and power.

In the west, Theodosius could count on his supreme military commander, Flavius Stilicho. Ten years earlier, he had allowed Stilicho to marry his beloved niece (and adopted daughter) Serena, thus incorporating the half-Vandal, half-Roman general into the imperial family. He had also taken thought for the succession, entrusting to Stilicho the guardianship of both his young heirs (or so it would later be averred), confident that the respected general would honor this trust, literally to the death.

But that necessity, Theodosius must have thought, was still in the future. He himself, after all, was not yet fifty. He may have hoped to use this relatively peaceful period to stabilize his immense domain. Perhaps he might even have turned his attention to the alarming state of taxation and trade in the west, and to the pitiable poverty of most of his western subjects. It is quite possible, of course, that Theodosius actually had no real notion how bad things were. A late fourth-century Roman emperor, writes British historian F. Homes Dudden in The Life and Times of St. Ambrose (Oxford, 1935) was so divorced from anything resembling the life of ordinary people as to be completely dependent for information on the swarm of ministers and courtiers who made up his extensive court.

Whatever the emperor’s intentions, he was to have no opportunity to fulfill them. Ailing for some time, he was stricken that winter with vascular disease. Anxious courtiers summoned Honorius from Constantinople. Theodosius was well enough to preside only briefly at the customary games held to celebrate their meeting; then his son had to take his place. The man who would be known to history as Theodosius the Great died on January 17, 395.

As the body lay in state at the cathedral in Milan, Bishop Ambrose delivered the funeral oration. He dwelt little on the emperor’s military triumphs, impressive though they were, and much on his lifelong service to Jesus Christ. Even the great victory over Eugenius at the Frigidus, he proclaimed, demonstrated that it is faith, far more than military might, which brings victory. The pious emperor had prayed, and God sent the wind to scatter his enemies.

“He is victorious who hopes for the Grace of God, not he who presumes on his own strength,” declared Ambrose, who would himself follow the emperor in death two years later. “Theodosius is now in heaven with the crown of saintliness, and he is now a true king in the company of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The church has never seen fit to canonize Theodosius, who never did evince pretensions to sainthood. But he did honestly seem to try to act on his faith, and often succeeded, and occasionally suffered for it. Ambrose’s funeral oration would turn out to be right about his wayward disciple and sometime antagonist. The lasting legacy of Theodosius lay not so much in his efforts to safeguard the empire, for half the empire was already at the point of death. His endeavors for the Christian faith, however, would prove lasting indeed.

Unlike his predecessors from Constantine onward, Theodosius never did try to bend the church to his own will (except to unite it). Rather, he tried to serve both church and state to their mutual benefit. Nor was he a Diocletian in reverse. Apart from the catastrophe at Thessalonica, he shed relatively little blood, either heretical or pagan. By the standards of his time, his use of force was unusually minimal. Theodosian legislation, observes historian King, was generally more ferocious than its enforcement, and even in enforcement the seeming intent was to intimidate people into conversion, or at least thwart them in what he saw as their errors, rather than kill them.

Finally, for better or for worse, Theodosius founded the orthodox Christian nation by effectively integrating Christian church and Roman state. “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Jesus had said, “and unto God the things that are God’s.” Theodosius sought to give Caesar himself unto God. To what degree he succeeded, history would soon begin to disclose. Meanwhile, other events superseded the ecclesiastical. The unimaginable was about to occur.

This is the end of the Valens category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 80, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Valens from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at