Pax, Piety and Victorious Conflict in the Age of Theodosius II


I try to post something here at least once a month. So this month I have taken it down to the wire. I have as usual been very busy with four kids and now two jobs. Yes plural since I am teaching a class on the Age of Crusades at Queensland University in early 2016. Since it is a new class, I will need to come up with 13 lectures worth of material. Luckily I love the topic and coincidentally was in the midst of reviewing Philippe Buc’s Holy War, Martrydom, and Terror for a journal, so it already had some juices bubbling on the era of the crusades, surely one of the few if not only medieval events that still provokes a visceral response in the general public; indeed, everyone thinks that they know something about the crusades!

On the writing front, I finished the proofs for three forth-coming articles that will all be out sometime in the next few months. Lastly, and most importantly, for today’s post I have been finishing my manuscript for my book that will be published next year. In it I have expanded a short section from the original dissertation on the Emperor Theodosius II into a stand-alone chapter. It has kept me very busy.

Theodosius has undergone some recent good press amongst revisionist historians, who note that his half of the Empire faired pretty well considering all of the threats that it faced. I support this view with some reservations. The chapter takes on the view that Theodosius only cared about piety and religious affairs. Indeed, there is a general and continuing trend  to see the Byzantines as the ‘hippy’ irenic Christian version of the pagan martial Romans, happy to defend their borders, but primarily religious and unwarlike especially compared to their Muslim and European neighbours. Sure we will fight if we have to, but we would much rather plot our rivals downfalls, lead religious processions whilst burning incense and listen to our chanting eunuchs. Okay I am joking, kind of. It is of course much more complicated than that, but I believe we should understand that Buc is  correct to  point out that Christianity had always balanced the Ying and the Yang of militarism and pacifism. Indeed, he notes wisely, in early Christian rhetoric, ‘peace, pax, did not mean the absence of conflict but victorious conflict leading to right order and justice, iustitia’. 

So here is a short excerpt (unedited draft) from the new chapter

Due to the loss of much of the secular literature from the fifth century, our portrait of Theodosius II derives necessarily from the relatively abundant extant religious sources. This skewed ratio has probably tilted our view towards the pious Theodosius II somewhat.[1]Yet not all of the emperor’s contemporaries would have regarded piety as highly as these ecclesiastical historians. Anthony Kaldellis has recently remarked cogently that ‘Some Byzantines thought piety was a more important virtue for their rulers to have, others less’.[2] This appears to be the case with Theodosius II. For ecclesiastical writers piety naturally represented a defining feature of his reign. We have evidence that later critics of Theodosius regime, sought to turn this pious portrait on its head. For its negative representation of Theodosius II’s court, the sixth-century chronicle of John Malalas utilised a late fifth-century source that concentrated heavily on the regime’s ‘sexual politics’. [3] In his chronicle, Malalas asserted scurrilously that Theodosius’ passionate love for his handsome cubicularius Chrysaphios had led the emperor to allow the eunuch to run roughshod over imperial affairs.[4] Whether there was any fire beneath the smoke of this and other accusations against the Theodosians is difficult to say. Regardless of its accuracy, however, what better way to undermine an emperor whose reputation was based primarily upon his devout and pious life than to link him romantically to his key eunuch advisor. As we have seen in the case of Eudoxia, exposing the Theodosians’ alleged transgressions had long been a favourite tactic for the family’s opponents.[5]

Censuring the Theodosians for their lack of martial virtues represented another avenue of attack for the regimes critics. While secular Byzantine historians unquestionably recognized the power of piety and Providence in determining outcomes in battle, in their histories, soldiers’ virtues, armament, tactics and strategy tend to be the primary reasons behind a victory or a defeat.[6] Priscus, one of the few fifth-century secular historians besides Olympiodorus to provide us with some details on Theodosius II’s reign—albeit in a negative fashion—says very little in the fragments that survive about the emperor’s piety, and nothing about the imperial regime’s Christological views. Instead, he voiced his concerns that Theodosius’ cowardice and lack of martial virtues had caused him to prefer to pay off the Eastern Roman’s enemies instead of facing them in battle.[7] As explained in chapter three, Priscus crafted a portrait of Theodosius II and his ministers as unmanly fops. In his history, probably composed during the second reign of the soldier-emperor Zeno, the younger Theodosius’ unmanly vices had almost allowed the Empire to fall prey to the andreios Attila and his martial Huns.[8] Though we lack around two thirds of the text, it appears that the career diplomat had constructed the conventional binary contrast comparing the unmanly vices of Theodosius II and his generals and eunuch advisors with the more typically martial and masculine ideals displayed by the soldier-emperor Marcian’s (ruled 450-457) military background and his strong diplomatic stance against the Huns.[9]

Such a gendered view of the Western Roman’s fifth-century failures was common in sixth-century Western and Eastern sources. Procopius followed contemporary Justinianic and, indeed, Ostrogothic propaganda that placed primary responsibility for the losses of the Empire’s Western provinces on a combination of non-martial and effeminate fifth-century Theodosian emperors and what the historian described as an increasingly demilitarised Italian populace.[10] The Prologue to Vandalic War theorised that Valentinian III had failed in his essential masculine task as the guardian of the State and of his family, and consequently both of his wards fell captive to the barbarians:

Placida, his mother, had reared this emperor and educated him in an altogether effeminate manner, and in consequence he was filled with wickedness from childhood. For he associated mostly with sorcerers and those who busy themselves with the stars, and, being an extraordinary zealous pursuer of love affairs with other men’s wives he conducted himself in a most indecent manner, although he was married to a woman of exceptional beauty. And not only was this true, but he also failed to recover anything of what had been wrested from it before, and he both lost Libya in addition to the territory previously lost and was himself destroyed. And when he perished, it fell to the lot of his wife and his children to become captives.[11]

Writing in early 550s Constantinople, the self-proclaimed Goth Jordanes elaborated further on this gendered theme, claiming that the naming of Marcian as Eastern emperor in 450 had brought about the end of sixty years of ‘effeminate rule’ [delicati decessores] for the Empire.[12] In the sixth-century west, the Italo-Roman writer Cassiodorus (c. 490-c. 583) wove a similar tale whereby the slack militarism of an unmanly regime brought about a decline in the Western Roman army’s manly vigour. Cassiodorus proclaimed that Placida, who had served as Valentinian III’s regent from 423 to 437, had ‘effeminised the soldiery through too much peace’. [13] This passive and emasculated Western Roman rule stood in stark contrast with Cassiodorus’ depiction of the ‘manly’ martial rule of Amalasuintha (ruled 525-c.534) and her Goths.[14] Such critiques nicely demonstrate how many contemporaries rejected the notion that an emperor could ‘abandon’ his martial role as the state’s manly protector.

Moreover, the fact that the fifth century produced at least five other secular histories should serve as an important reminder, that in contrast to the West, historical writing continued to be a viable literary genre in the East. And indeed, judging from their fragments and their sixth-century successors, these works appear to have focussed on military affairs and the manliness of war. We are told, for instance, that Candidus’ lost history focused heavily on the future emperor Basiliakos’ military ‘successes and failures’ in Africa.[15] Malchus’ history also seems to have concentrated on the military reigns of Leo I, Zeno, and Basiliakos.[16]

Fifth-century secular historiography portrayed military setbacks, not as acts of Divine retribution, but primarily as tactical and/or moral failures. Priscus, for instance, blamed Leo I’s failed campaign to recapture North Africa from the Vandals in 468 largely on its commander the future ‘usurper’ Basiliakos. According to Priscus, Basiliakos — through a combination of stupidity, treachery and cowardice—failed to act decisively, and therefore allowed the noble and valiant Roman soldiers to suffer a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Vandals.[17]

I do not mean to suggest that Christian values such as piety and Providence did not play a crucial role in fifth-century imperial self-presentation and/or state war ideology. Idealised men and emperors needed to juxtapose their roles in both religious and the military spheres. As we shall see in the next chapter, the soldier-emperors who came after Theodosius II frequently sought to emphasise their own orthodoxy and Christian virtues as an aspect of their civilised Romanitas and right to rule. These soldier-emperors preyed, fought, and ruled. By the fifth century, romanitas and christianitas had unquestionably fused to become an essential marker of Byzantine identity.[18] I would only submit that the disappearance of much of the secular historiography from the fifth century should always be remembered when we try to determine the extent of this era’s focus on Christian virtues or a larger societal rejection of martial virtues and traditional masculine ideologies. After all, imagine our view of the sixth century if the complete accounts we have from Procopius, Agathias, and Theophylact had disappeared or come down to us only in fragments like all of their fifth-century counterparts. The balance of the surviving sources is such as to give a false impression of a dramatic shift in the fifth century away from an imperial, as well as a larger societal, ideology of masculine Romanitas based on martial virtues.

In fact, the emperors Valentinian III and Majorian had died trying to re-establish their right to martial hegemony. In his recreation of Valentinian III’s infamous assassination of Aëtius in 454 at a financial meeting in Ravenna, Priscus luridly captured the disastrous consequences when a child-emperor grew wise enough to understand that he functioned merely as a puppet. Attempting to break free from these restraints, the historian depicted the thirty-six year old emperor jumping from his throne and thundering at a dumfounded Aëtius:

That he would no longer be abused by such treacheries. He alleged that, by blaming him for his troubles, Aëtius wished to deprive him of power in the West, as he had done in the East, insinuating that only because of Aëtius did he not go and remove Marcian from his throne.

Catching the old general off guard, the emperor then struck the astonished Aëtius with his sword, while simultaneously his grand chamberlain Heraclius attacked with a cleaver he had hidden under his robes. [19] Having slain the celebrated ‘conqueror’ of Attila, neither Valentinian nor Heraclius had much time to bask in their victory, and Aëtius’ supporters murdered the pair whilst the emperor was going to practice archery on the Campus Martius. Valentinian’s assassination of a war hero and reliance on his eunuch advisor to help him perform the deed provoked an almost universally hostile response, and is no coincidence that Sidonius Apollinaris, writing in the years shortly after the infamous assassination, described the emperor as a ‘mad eunuch’ (semivir amens).[20] Hence Valentinian’s example reveals to us just how far power had shifted away from the emperor and into the hands of their generalissimos, at least in the West. Yet, I would suggest, despite the disastrous outcome, Valentinian’s attempt to take out his rival and effort to take on a more martial role suggests that he knew that true power lay in the man who could drape himself in manly martial virtues.

The majority of Valentinian III’s successors appeared to have learned this lesson. Military prowess represented the primary characteristic for the long line of non-dynastic emperors who made up the majority of fifth-century emperors in the West and the East after Aëtius’ vengeful supporters assassinated the last Theodosian emperor Valentinian III in 455. Alarmed by the inroads made by the ‘barbarians’ on all corners of the twin regimes, by the mid-fifth century, Romans from the East and the West appeared to have tired of the long line of non-martial Theodosian emperors dominated by their martial ‘managers’.[21] The Gaul Sidonius Apollinaris (430-c. 480-90), whose letters and speeches provide a vivid commentary on the state of the mid-fifth-century Western Roman Empire, captured this mood in his panegyric delivered at the opening of 458 to the soldier-emperor Majorian :

Ever since Theodosius (I) restored a joint authority to his patron’s exiled brother (Emperor Gratian, ruled 375-83), whose neck was broken by a hand destined to be turned against itself, my land of Gaul has even until now been ignored by the lords of the world, and has languished in slavery unheeded. Since that time much has been destroyed, for with the emperor, whomever he may be, closely confined, it has been a constant lot of the distant parts of the world to be laid to waste. . . . Now our princepes (Majorian) is amending all of this, and he advances to your wars by way of other wars, adding fresh forces from diverse peoples, for it is the going, not the fighting, that is the hardest. But why do we waste time in words? He comes, he conquers.[22]

The point is unmistakable: in a violent age, the time had come to embrace an active manly martial emperor once more.

Majorian fit the bill; a former comes domesticorum and magister militum under Aëtius, Majorian’s aristocratic and martial background had made him an acceptable choice for Western elites, including those in Gaul, like Sidonius who were still reeling after the overthrow of his father-in-law the Gallo-Roman aristocrat Avitus at the hands of Majorian and Ricimer in October of 456. [23] Writing during a time when central Roman control over Gaul was receding, Sidonius’ propaganda rejected the Theodosians’ non-martial rule, which had seen the Visigoths rise to dominance in his homeland. Speeches like the one above were, of course, meant to be flattering and over-the-top. Indeed, as the close relative of the former emperor we may rightly suspect Sidonius’ sincerity in praising a man who had played a key role in Avitus’ downfall. As in most panegyrics, Sidonius’ silences say as much as statements.[24]

Yet, despite the vacuous nature of its genre, Sidonius based his speech on Majorian’s past, present, and future policies. Before Sidonius had delivered his panegyric, Majorian had been taking a keen interest in returning Gaul to the imperial fold. This policy had seen one potential Gallo-Roman usurper arrested and an imperial army besieging Lyon. Following his successes in Gaul, Majorian signed a truce with the Visigothic King, Theoderic II; he then turned his eyes to Spain and began planning his doomed campaign to retake Vandalic North Africa.[25]

Whatever Sidonius’ true views concerning Majorian, I see his criticisms of the passive non-martial Theodosians as heartfelt and indicative of the hopes of many Romans that only an active soldier-emperor could rouse a moribund Western Roman Empire. Such critiques of non-martial emperors demonstrate the limitations of non-martial and/or Christian virtues as the dominate aspect of imperial self-definition, and Romanitas in the fifth century. Spiritual warfare and an emperor’s piety could only take an emperor and his realm so far.

[1] Hence Millar’s masterful account of the reign relies heavily on the Church historians and the Acta of the oecumenical councils held during Theodosius II’s reign.

[2] Kaldellis, Byzantine Republic, p. 193.

[3] P. Wood, ‘Multiple Voices in Chronicle Sources: The Reign of Leo I (457-474) in Book Fourteen of Malalas’, Journal of Late Antiquity 4. 2 (2011), 299.

[4]Malalas, Chronicle 14.18 (363). By successfully marginalising Pulcheria and the Empress Eudocia, the spatharius Chrysaphius (PLRE 2: 295-7) rose to dominance over Theodosius political and ecclesiastical affais in the 440s. Soon after Theodosius’ death, Pulcheria had him executed (Marcellinus, Chronicle s.a. 450).

[5]Malalas (Chronicle 14.68, 356.17-358.4), in another sensationalised passage, accused Theodosius II’s wife of adultery with the emperor’s childhood friend Paulinius, who was subsequently executed. Eudocia, who retained her imperial title, had ‘retired’ to Jerusalem in 441, where she would remain until her death in 460. For a full discussion of the factional rivalries and sexual innuendo that plagued Theodosius’ court in the 440s, see Cameron,

[6] See, e.g., Procopius (Wars 8.29.8-10; 8.30.1; 8.32.22-30) on the battle of Taginae in 552. The Church Father’s position on the role of Providence in the world was never simple. Late Roman and early Byzantine Christians held divided positions on the providential meaning behind secular history. Augustine, while recognizing that God controlled events in the secular world, famously rejected in De civatate Dei (e.g. 18.52.1, 20.11), the idea that a Divine plan guided the worldly destiny of the civitas terrena. In a position that would gain the upper-hand in the Byzantine world, intellectuals like Eusebius (HE 4.26.7-8) and Orosius (Seven Books of History against the Pagans, 7.27) promoted the idea that a virtuous land could be become a New Jerusalem and thus receive God’s protection. A full discussion of this issue is found in R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge, 1989).

[7] This paradigm was observed long ago by E. A. Thompson, who revealed that Priscus approved of anyone or group of peoples who took bold stands against barbarian peoples. E.A. Thompson, A History of Attila and the Huns (Oxford, 1948), p. 189.

[8] Priscus had, indeed, famously provides an account of his dealings with Attila, praising him as a stern yet just leader. He went on to suggest (frag 11) that ‘Although a lover of war, he was not prone to violence’.

[9] Priscus, frag. 5.18-20. He also appreciated (frag. 53) Leo I’s tough position against the Vandals, an attitude that Procopius shared in his narrative on Leo’s regime.

  1. For Justinian’s attitudes towards his predecessors failures in the West, CJ, 30.11.12, of April 535, eds P. Krüger – T. Mommsen, vol. 2 CIC (Berlin 1929)

[11] Add Greek: Procopius, Wars 3.3.10-13:

[12]Jordanes, Romana 332; Cf. Jordanes, Getica 172.

[13] Cassiodorus (Variae 11.1.10, trans. Barnish): ‘qui provida dispositione libratus nec assiduis bellis adteritur nec iterum longa pace mollitur’. I have changed the translator Barnish’s ‘weakened’ for mollitur to ‘effeminised’.

[14] A vision of a ‘manly’ and ‘sagacious’ Amalasuintha that is very similar to that of Procopius (e.g. Wars, 5.2.3-4, Secret History, 16.1).

[15]Candidus, frag. 1, ed and trans. R. C. Blockley, The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, Malchus, and Candidus, vol. 2 (Liverpool, 1983).

[16]Malchus, frags. Contra Barry Baldwin’s claim (‘Malchus of Philadelphia’, in Dumbarton Oaks Papers 31 [1977], 89, 91-107) that Malchus’ history sought to criticize the rampant militarism of Leo and Zeno’s reigns, although critical of these reigns, far too little remains of his history remains to make such a sweeping conclusion. It seems peculiar, if Baldwin’s thesis is correct, that Malchus would have made such an effort to portray Zeno as unwarlike and cowardly (e.g. frag 5).

[17] Priscus, frags. 43, 53.1.

[18]C. Rapp, ‘Hellenic Identity, Romanitas, and Christianity’, in Hellenisms: Culture, Identity, and Ethnicity from Antiquity to Modernity, ed. K. Zacharia (Burlington, VT, 2008), p. 144.

[19] Priscus, frag. 30 (trans. Blockley).

[20] Sidonius, Carmina 7.359 (trans. Anderson). Interestingly after describing Aëtius’ craven murder, Priscus hypocritically praised Aëtius’ for cleverly arranging the assassination of his rival the magister militum Felix in 430.

[21] This attitude might help to explain the lack of sympathy found in contemporary sources when describing the brutal assassination of the last Theodosian emperor at the hands of barbarian Huns. See, e.g.,

[22] Sidonius, Panegyric to Majorian, 353-67: ex quo Theudosius communia iura fagato reddidt auctoris fratri, cui guttural fregit post in se vertenda manus, mea Gallia rerum ignoratur adhuc dominis ignaraque servit ex illo multum periit, quia principi clauso, quisquis erat, misiri diversis partibus orbis vastari sollemne fuit. Quae vita placeret, cum rector moderandus erat? Contemptsa tot annos nobilitas iacult: pretium respublica forti rettulit invidiam. Princeps haec omnia noster corriget atque tuum vires gentibus addends ad bellum per bella venit; nam maximus isse est, non pugnasse labor. Terminus cu tempora verbis? Pervinit et vincet’, For Sidonius’ conviction that ‘proven military valour’ represented a potential emperor’s most important quality, see Arnold, Roman Imperial Restoration, 152 n. 42.

[23]On Majorian still see, S. P. Oost, ‘Aetius and Majorian’, CP 59.1 (1964), 23-9.

[24] For possible cryptic criticisms of Majorian in speech, see P. Rousseau, ‘Sidonius and Majorian: The Censure in “Carmen” V’, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 49. 2 (2000), 251-7.

[25] Despite Majorian’s military failures, Procopius praised (Wars 3.7.4 trans. Kaldellis) his martial qualities and, indeed, he proclaimed hyperbolically ‘that he surpassed in every virtue all who ever were emperor of the Romans’.


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