Theodosius Augustus

Gregory DiPippo

A few days ago, we noted the anniversary of the granting of the title “Augustus” to the first Roman Emperor. On this day in 379, it was granted to one of the most important figures in late antiquity, the emperor Theodosius I. By this time, the Roman Empire had already been divided into two parts, East and West, and reunited more than once; Theodosius would be the last man to hold the title as ruler of both.

He was born in Spain around 347 to a lower-ranked aristocratic family; very little is known of his ancestry or the first years of his life. In his early twenties, he accompanied his father, also named Theodosius, the head of a military expedition to Britain, and then received his own command on the Danube frontier in the Balkans. In circumstances that remain unclear to modern historians, his father fell from imperial grace and was executed in 374, compelling the son to retire to the family’s estates in Spain. But another shift in the game of imperial politics overthrew those who had conspired against his father, and he was restored to his command about three years later.

In August of 378, while fighting against the invading Goths, the eastern Roman Emperor Valens was killed at the disastrous battle of Adrianople, along with many other prominent members of the Roman political and military hierarchy. This paved the way for Theodosius to be chosen by the Western emperor, Gratian, to take his place. Within a few years, he managed to bring peace with the Goths by settling them in the Roman lands south of the Danube, and recruiting them into the army. A year later, Gratian died, and although Theodosius still had various rivals and usurpers to contend with, he was now effectively sole emperor. He would eventually reinstitute the division of the empire into two halves, originally made by Diocletian, and leave one to each of his sons. From this point until the fall of the Western empire in 476, the division would remain.

In the mid-6th century, the historian Jordanes, himself a Goth, gave the following summary of Theodosius’ career in his work “On the Origin and Deeds of the Goths.” (De Origine Actibusque Getarum, 27-29 excerpta.)

“Sed Theodosio ab Spania Gratianus imperator electo et in orientali principatu loco Valentis patrui subrogato, militaremque disciplinam mox in meliori statu, reposita ignavia priorum principum et desidia exclusa, Gothus ut sensit, pertimuit. Nam inperator acri omnino ingenii virtuteque et consilio clarus dum praeceptorum saeveritate et liberalitate blanditiaque sua remissum exercitum ad fortia provocaret. At vero ubi milites principe meliore mutato fiduciam acceperunt, Gothos impetere temptant eosque Thraciae finibus pellunt. Sed Theodosio principe pene tunc usque ad disperationem egrotanti datur iterum Gothis audacia…Vbi vero post haec Theodosius convaluit imperator repperitque cum Gothis et Romanis Gratiano imperatore pepigisse quod ipse optaverat, admodum grato animo ferens et ipse in hac pace consensit, Aithanaricoque rege… datis sibi muneribus sociavit moribusque suis benignissimis ad se eum in Constantinopolim accedere invitavit. … Defuncto ergo Aithanarico cunctus eius exercitus in servitio Theodosii imperatoris perdurans Romano se imperio subdens cum milite velut unum corpus effecit… Postquam vero Theodosius amator pacis generisque Gothorum rebus excessit humanis coeperunt(que) eius filii utramque rem publicam … adnihilare…

(A gold solidus minted early in the reign of Thedosius; image from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5)

But when Theodosius the Spaniard had been elected emperor in the Eastern Empire in place of his uncle Valens, the Emperor Gratian, when the Goths realized that military discipline was soon restored to a better level, and the cowardice and sloth of former princes was ended, they became afraid. For the Emperor was famed everywhere for acuteness and intelligence, while by the sternness of his commands, and by generosity and kindness, he encouraged a demoralized army to mighty deeds. But when the soldiers, who had gotten a better leader by the change, gained new confidence, they sought to attack the Goths and drive them from the borders of Thrace. But as the Emperor Theodosius fell so sick at this time that his life was almost despaired of, the Goths were again inspired with courage. But when the Emperor Theodosius afterwards recovered and found that the Emperor Gratian had made a compact between the Goths and the Romans, as he had himself desired, he took it very graciously and gave his assent. He gave gifts to King Athanaric… who made an alliance with him and in the most gracious manner invited him to visit him in Constantinople. … Now when Athanaric was dead, his whole army continued in the service of the Emperor Theodosius and submitted to the rule of Rome, forming as it were one body with the imperial soldiery. … But after Theodosius, the lover of peace and of the Gothic race, had passed from human affairs, his sons began to destroy both empires …”

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