Book Review: Theodosius and the Limits of Empire


by Mark Hebblewhite

New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. xiv, 188. Illus., maps, chron., appends., notes, biblio., index. $160.00. ISBN: 1138102989

The Problem of Empire in the Age of Theodosius “The Great”

“Depending on what source you read he was either a forgiving, benevolent, charitable, energetic, and courageous emperor who was diligent in his duties or a wrathful, indolent, and cruel tyrant, who was easily misled by those around him.” (p. 3)

The Roman Emperor Theodosius I, who ruled from 379 to 395 CE, is often labeled as “the Great,” to distinguish him from his long-reigning but ineffectual grandson, Theodosius II (402-450.) He is remembered mainly as a pious champion of Christian orthodoxy and a ferocious foe of classical paganism. By about the year 350, a majority of Romans professed at least nominal allegiance to some form of Christianity. After the death of the last pagan emperor Julian “the Apostate” in 363, Christianity was the de-facto state religion. But the fourth century was a time of bitter sectarian conflict over precisely what this new religion meant. Theologically, the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Empire and the Latin-speaking western half were evolving in different directions.

Theodosius was born on January 11, 347 in Spain to an elite family. His father, a successful general, was arrested and executed in 376 as a result of palace intrigue. Yet just a few years later, at the age of 32, Theodosius was elevated to the imperial throne.

“How could a man, whose father was executed under the watch of the Valentinian regime, and who was forced into obscurity, now be raised to the rank of Augustus? Our sources are not particularly helpful in trying to unravel this mystery.” (p. 19)

Hebblewhite suggests that the 20 year-old emperor Gratian chose Theodosius as co-emperor because the pool of candidates was limited, and he urgently needed a capable military commander in the East. At the battle of Adrianople (Aug. 9, 378) the Roman army in the East had been crushed by the Goths and Gratian’s uncle Valens, his co-emperor in the east, had been killed. For the first three years of his reign, Theodosius struggled to rebuild the demoralized army and restore the defenses of the Danube frontier.

To solidify his control over the church, Theodosius appointed a distinguished theologian and future Saint, Gregory of Nazianzus (c.329-390), as bishop of Constantinople, and convened the Second Ecumenical Council in 381. In 383 he made his six year-old son Arcadius co-emperor, securing the succession to the imperial throne.

In 388 Theodosius defeated and executed a rival Western usurper, Magnus Maximus.

Early in 390, a local army commander was murdered by a mob in the important city of Thessaloniki. Enraged, Theodosius ordered a brutal reprisal against the townsfolk, described in some sources as a “massacre.” Ambrose, the influential bishop of Milan (at that time the imperial capital in the West) denounced the emperor, who was forced to perform a humiliating public penance.

In 392 Theodosius issued laws prohibiting pagan ritual sacrifices. An uprising by Eugenius, a Roman aristocrat sympathetic to paganism was firmly suppressed. Shortly before his sudden death in 395 Theodosius made the fateful decision to divide the empire between his two young sons, Arcadius (18) in the East, and Honorius (11) in the West.

“Even as adults, Honorius and Arcadius remained to all intents and purpose child emperors. Their inability to exercise any real independence after their fathers death is symbolic of a deep malaise in Theodosius’ dynastic planning.” (p. 154)

The split would become permanent, despite Justinian’s attempt to put the pieces back together in the early sixth century.

The narrative style of this book is easy to follow and pleasant to read. The meticulously thorough footnotes at the end of each chapter are not overly intrusive.

As a numismatist, this reviewer was delighted to see a number of well-chosen and correctly captioned coin photographs used to illustrate the book. There is also an excellent photograph of the most famous Theodosian artifact: the “Missorium” a magnificent silver platter 74 cm in diameter (now in a museum in Madrid) depicting the emperor enthroned, flanked by colleagues and palace guards.

Theodosius and the Limits of Empire is a useful contribution to our understanding of a difficult period in late Roman history. Unfortunately, like most academic publications these days, its exceptionally high cost will limit its availability to only a narrow elite of scholars with access to a very well-funded university library.


Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWorld and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews include, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, The Emperor in the Byzantine World, and The Politics of Roman Memory: From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Age of Justinian.




Note: Theodosius and the Limits of Empire is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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