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Roman Emperor: Theodosius I

Updated on August 22, 2009

346 AD - 395 AD

Theodosius the Great was a brilliant Spanish-born general, before being appointed ruler of the east by the Emperor Gratian in 379. He successfully campaigned against the Visigoths in the Balkans, and made peace with them.

A pious Christian and adherent of the Nicene creed, he dealt severely with heretics, ordering the death penalty from some extreme sects.

Theodosius warred successfully against the Goths, and by skillful diplomacy enlisted them as his allies (382). In 388 he defeated the usurper Maximus at Aquileia, and secured the Western throne for Valentinian II, brother of Gratian.

After the murder of Gratian in 383, however, Theodosius was drawn more and more into the politics of the western empire. He marched to support the rightful emperor, Valentinian, against the usurper, Magnus Maximus, in 388, but was forced to return to the west again after Valentinian's murder in 392.

After Valentinian's death Theodosius defeated another usurper, Eugenius (394), at the Battle of the Frigidus river in Italy, and assumed total control of the entire empire.

A few months later, however, he died, and the Empire was divided between his two sons, Arcadius in the East, and Honorius in the West. Theodosius's most important acts were the adoption of the Nicene definition of Christianity as the state religion, and the prohibition of other heretical doctrines and paganism (380, 391). He was also responsible for the bloody massacre at Thessalonica for which St Ambrose made him do public penance (390).

A Divided Empire After Theodosius

It was during the reign of Honorius that the final decline of the Western Empire was proceeding most rapidly, with its culmination in the sack of the Eternal City by the West Goths in the year 410. Theodosius, father of Honorius, had united the whole Empire for the last time, but at his death in 395 it was cut into two again, and the two parts divided between his sons Honorius and Arcadius. Unfortunately Honorius, to whom the Western Empire was bequeathed, was a feeble-minded boy of 11, who remained feeble-minded to his death, interested mainly in the breeding of pigeons, at a time when the Western Empire needed the finest leadership possible if the impending doom were to be averted.

The dying Theodosius had placed his best general, a Vandal named Stilicho, who had been in the Roman service for a long period, in command of the Western Empire, and for many years Stilicho served the Empire well. In the meantime Honorius lived in his palace at Ravenna, a city almost impregnable among marshes and lagoons at the head of the Adriatic (Today the coast has receded some five miles from the site of Ravenna and the lagoons and marshes have been drained). While Honorius was playing with his pigeons the West Goths under Alaric crossed the Danube and marched ravaging through the Balkan peninsula, eventually reaching Rome herself in 410, two years after Honorius had had Stilicho put to death.

With the capture of Rome by Alaric and the West Goths in 410, the Dark Ages first threw their shadow over the city. On the night of August 23. as the historian Gibbon has described it, "the crime and folly of the court of Ravenna was expiated by the calamities of Rome. At the hour of midnight the Salarian gate was silently opened, and the inhabitants were awakened by the tremendous sound of the Gothic trumpet; 1163 years after the foundation of Rome, the Imperial City, which had subdued and civilized so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia."

For three days Goths and slaves sacked and plundered, with immense slaughter and destruction, although the Christian churches seem to have been spared. The West Goths then withdrew and continued their march southwards through Italy, their wagons piled high with the silks, gold, silver and jewels of Roman senators.

Alaric himself did not live long to enjoy the plunder of Rome. It was his intention to cross from Southern Italy to conquer Africa, and he was collecting ships for the voyage when he met his death. His body was buried in the bed of the river Busento, which was first diverted from its course by a number of slaves. After the burial the slaves were put to death so that the site of the grave would be unknown. The West Goths abandoned the plan for the conquest of Africa, retraced their steps through Italy and passed to Spain, where they settled in 414.

Meanwhile, other barbarian armies were on the march through the Empire. In the mid-winter of 407, a host of Vandals, Sueves and Alans crossed the Rhine into Gaul and turned that province into what has been called "one vast smoking funeral pyre". The Vandals wandered through Gaul, Spain and Africa, finally crossing to Rome in 455. On June 2 their leader Gaiseric was received by Pope Leo, who persuaded him to confine the plunder to portable goods in the palaces and temples.

For a fortnight this looting went on. The whole of the Western Empire was now dissolving in ruin. By 450 another barbarian people, the Huns, had set up a great empire extending from southern Russia to the Rhine. But the West Goths, who by this time had long been settled in the Empire, joined with the Emperor in a great battle against the Huns under their leader Attila, known as the "Scourge of God", in the year 451.

In 476 the last of the Roman Emperors in the West, the boy Romulus Augustulus, was captured at Ravenna and deposed by the Goths. It is a strange irony that the founder of Rome herself had been called Romulus, and the founder of the Roman Empire had been called Augustus, while the deposition of the boy who bore both names marks the end of the Roman Empire of the West.


  • The New International Illustrated Encyclopaedia, Volume 1, 1954. Page 241.
  • New Age Encyclopaedia, Seventh Edition edited by D. A. Girling, Bay Books, 1983. Volume 28, Page 118.
  • Dictionary of World History, 1993, Helicon Publishing. Page 564.
  • The New International Illustrated Encyclopaedia, Volume 2, 1954. Page 356.
  • Library of Essential Knowledge, Volume 2, Readers Digest, 1980. Page 625.


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