Theodosius the Great



Roman Army at Adrianople




That so many – presumably quite innocent – Goths should have been done away with in this fashion emphasizes as nothing else can the scale of the dangers, and also the scale of the confusion. For us, looking back dispassionately and trying to work out what happened, it is easy to forget how hopeless of repair the whole situation must have seemed. But we can only explain the failure of Gratian and his generals to coordinate a systematic response if we remember the depth of the shock that Adrianople caused. Rather than system or coordination, survivors switched to habitual, automatic responses to deal with the crisis. We have seen this already with the response of Julius and, presumably, other eastern officials as well. Most of them carried on doing what they normally did, the state continuing to function without any clear notion of what it was continuing for. Gratian’s immediate reaction was a similarly conditioned response: with the Balkans in chaos and the Goths running riot, he turned not to the immediate problem, but rather to the Alamanni, a foe that was always worth fighting and against whom he had a reasonable chance of success. As we saw, some Alamanni had attacked Gaul the minute they heard that Gratian intended to march east. Given Valens’ catastrophic failure, Gratian must have felt it necessary to hurry back to the West lest equivalent disaster strike there.

Into this vacuum stepped Theodosius, a thirty-three-year-old Spanish aristocrat and the son of one of Valentinian I’s great generals, also named Theodosius. The younger Theodosius would go on to become augustus and, as with all emperors, our sources are coloured by retrospective judgements. Just as Valens was indelibly marked by the catastrophe of Adrianople, so Theodosius was forever after associated with the defence of Nicene orthodoxy and the suppression of paganism. In the ecclesiastical histories of the fifth century, Theodosius became Theodosius the Great, a name which he still bears in the casual usage of modern historians. The appellation was bestowed more for his pliability in theological matters than for any signal achievements in public policy, but the image of greatness seeped into every other corner of his reign as well. Thus a recent biography of Theodosius is subtitled ‘the empire at bay’, conjuring the image of a wounded empire, turning with its last strength to savage the attackers besetting it on all sides. However compelling that image might be as theatre, it is hardly in accord with the reality of an emperor who never won a major battle under his own command and who rarely campaigned at all after 381. However easy it is to let later ecclesiastical authors colour our impression of Theodosius’ greatness, the difficulties of his early reign are suggested by the darkness that shrouds his accession to the purple.

Theodosius had in the early 370s stood on the verge of a prominent military career: he was dux Moesiae, a rather senior post for so young a man, no doubt secured for him by his father’s influence. In 374, as dux, he had won a victory over the Sarmatians. In 376, however, the elder Theodosius fell victim to the palace intrigues that followed Valentinian’s death. His eponymous son chose prudent retirement to family estates in Spain, lest he too die by the hand of an executioner. Isolated in his Spanish exile, Theodosius was abandoned by most of his former friends, a man irrevocably damaged by his father’s disgrace, or so it seemed. It is thus very hard for us to imagine why Gratian should have chosen to call him out of retirement in this moment of crisis and send him to deal with the Balkan emergency. In fact, only one source – the ecclesiastical history of Theoderet of Cyrrhus – records this summons of Theodosius by Gratian, and its accuracy has correctly been impugned. Theoderet wrote his ecclesiastical history in the later fifth century, when the legend of Theodosius’ greatness and orthodoxy were firmly established as true. Part of his story of Theodosius’ accession is palpably fictionalized. Far more significant is the silence of nearly contemporary sources, particularly the orators Themistius and Pacatus, on the route by which Theodosius climbed to power. Had that path been clean and simple, both panegyrists – and particularly the propagandizing Themistius – would have trumpeted its details in full. Instead, they veil in a deep silence the relationship of Gratian and Theodosius in the immediate aftermath of Adrianople. A more plausible scenario, which makes good sense in light of the period’s confusion, has recently been suggested. Already in 378, when the extent of the Balkan violence and Gratian’s plan to march east were generally known, Theodosius and his remaining friends at court spotted an ideal opportunity to engineer his return to favour. Making much of his Balkan experience and his now-distant success as dux Moesiae, they secured his reappointment to that post either shortly before or immediately after Adrianople. Theodosius probably campaigned in the eastern Balkans during late 378, but achieved nothing decisive before his proclamation as augustus on 19 January 379.

Although that was only four months after Adrianople, it would take another two years before Theodosius gained control of the Balkans. Why the reconquest took so long is a matter of controversy, but it might be explained if Theodosius’ proclamation had not initially been intended. In fact, there are some grounds for thinking that his accession was the result of a quiet coup by the surviving Illyrian generals who wanted nothing to do with the regime of Gratian. Earlier successes of Theodosius could provide the necessary excuse, and might be magnified in the propaganda if that would make the point. Theodosius duly became augustus, but Gratian need neither have appreciated the move nor had anything at all to do with it. Rather than brand Theodosius a usurper and thereby worsen further the crisis in the eastern provinces, he decided to acquiesce. He received Theodosius’ imperial portrait with full respect and began to issue laws in their joint names. But he had no great cause to welcome his new colleague and never did much to help him. Instead, he consigned the Balkans to Theodosius as an insoluble mess, happy enough if the burden of inevitable failure fell squarely on the new emperor’s shoulders. The evident absence of western aid certainly helps account for the slowness with which Theodosius brought the Balkans back under imperial control.

Theodosius’ Gothic Campaigns

In the year and a half that followed his imperial accession, Theodosius made his base at Thessalonica. He did not enter Constantinople, the city he would transform from an occasional imperial residence into the capital of the Roman East, until November 380, nearly two years after his appointment as augustus. That in itself tells us a great deal about the continuing Gothic problem: Thessalonica had good access to the Balkan interior, but could if necessary be supplied entirely by sea. The city was therefore almost impervious to disturbances inland, and could serve as an imperial residence even when the interior was completely occupied by the Goths. The eastern army had been shattered by Adrianople. Sixteen whole units were wiped out without a trace and never reconstituted. One of Theodosius’ first concerns was therefore to provide himself with troops. Many of the army units known from the Notitia Dignitatum, a thorough but chronologically composite listing of the imperial bureaucracy that describes the eastern army as it existed in mid-394, were first raised by Theodosius between 379 and 380. Several imperial laws from the same years address recruiting problems, and the Syrian rhetor Libanius describes the calling up of farmers. Zosimus tells us that some of the new recruits were hired in from across the Danube, although they soon proved every bit as ineffectual as those raised locally. The new emperor also needed victories. In the decade after Adrianople, we have evidence for nearly half as many victory celebrations as are attested in the seven previous decades combined. That is a formidable statistic. It illustrates how desperately Theodosius needed to be seen to be dealing with the Gothic problem.

Our only real source for reconstructing the campaigns of 379–382 is the summary of Eunapius that survives in Zosimus’ New History. We have referred to Zosimus on more than one occasion in the course of our narrative, but his defects are particularly apparent here, where the abridgement of Eunapius is severe and nonetheless still includes confusing doublets. So far as we can tell, in 379, Theodosius and his generals concentrated on clearing Thrace itself and eliminating the immediate threat to Constantinople and Adrianople. The general Modares, himself a Goth in imperial service, won some sort of victory in Thrace before the end of the campaigning season, though its significance may not have been too great. By 380, the different Gothic groups had been driven westwards into Illyricum, but whether that constituted an improvement for anyone but the inhabitants of Thrace is debateable. In that same year, Theodosius suffered a severe setback. Some Goths, perhaps led by Fritigern, marched into Macedonia and confronted the emperor at the head of his new recruits. These promptly failed in their first combat, the barbarians amongst them going over to the victorious enemy, the others deserting en masse – no surprise, then, that Theodosius soon had to issue laws on desertion. With this signal success, the Goths were able to impose tribute on the cities of Macedonia and Thessaly, which is to say northern Greece and the southwestern Balkans. A failed Gothic attack on Pannonia even brought Gratian back east in the summer of 380, when we find him at Sirmium, making no effort at all to confer with Theodosius. By the end of the year, he had returned to Gaul, and Theodosius felt able to make his way to Constantinople for the first time in his reign. In 381, Gratian’s generals Bauto and Arbogast drove the Goths away from the frontiers of the West and back into Thrace. It must by now have been obvious to Theodosius that his western colleague, far from helping solve the Gothic problem, would do no more than bar the western provinces to the Goths while leaving the eastern Balkans to suffer.

The Peace of 382

Theodosius thus bowed to the inevitable. Seeing no point in throwing still more troops into what was clearly a losing battle, he opened peace negotiations that were finally concluded on 3 October 382. The fact that this peace might well have seemed disappointing, especially after four years of confidently predicted triumphs, was anticipated by such mouthpieces of the imperial court as Themistius. Already in 382, Themistius was arguing that it was better to fill Thrace with Gothic farmers than with Gothic dead, and that because of the peace, the Goths themselves gained so much that they could celebrate a victory won over themselves. He hammered the same point at inordinate length a year later in his thirty-fourth oration: this masterpiece of political spin rewrites the history of the previous half-decade in order to absolve Theodosius of any imputations of incompetence in failing to wipe the Goths out altogether.

Despite Themistius’ grandiloquence, actual evidence for the treaty is minimal. Synesius claims that the Goths were given lands, Themistius echoes the classic topos of swords being beaten into ploughshares and locates his Gothic ploughmen in Thrace, Pacatus claims that the Goths became farmers. This sort of rhetoric was routine in describing any agreement with barbarians, and permits no conjecture as to the mechanisms or location of the settlement. Perhaps the Goths paid, or were meant to pay, taxes: Themistius is studiedly ambiguous. Perhaps the Goths continued to live by their tribal customs: Synesius tells us as much twenty years later, but embedded in a hysterical diatribe against the imperial employment of barbarians, his assertion proves next to nothing. Theodosius surely welcomed the disappearance of the whole generation of Gothic leaders that had won the battle of Adrianople: after 380, neither Fritigern, nor Alatheus and Saphrax, nor Videric are ever heard from again. But that does not imply a deliberate policy to sideline or eliminate them, a task that was, moreover, beyond imperial abilities. All of which is to say that – unfortunately for the modern historian in search of answers and just as with Constantine’s treaty of 332 – we cannot work backwards from later events and assume that what did happen was intended to happen in 382. What little we know for certain can be summed up very simply: in 382, the Goths who had terrorized the Balkans since Adrianople ceased to do so, while Roman contemporaries all agreed that the Gothic threat was over.

In the decade that followed, many Goths were called up into regular units of the eastern field army. Others served as auxiliaries in the campaigns that Theodosius led against the western usurpers Magnus Maximus (r. 383–388) and Eugenius (r. 392–394). Many, though not necessarily all, of these Goths were survivors of the group that had won the towering victory at Adrianople and then led Theodosius on a merry chase round the Balkans for nearly three years. For the most part, however, we have little solid evidence for any of the Goths inside the empire until the immediate aftermath of the Eugenius campaign and Theodosius’ premature and entirely unexpected death in January 395. Beginning in that year, the young Gothic leader Alaric raised a rebellion that lasted for fifteen years and culminated in the sack of Rome.

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