Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.35

Hartmut Leppin, Theodosius der Große: auf dem Weg zum christlichen Imperium.   Darmstadt:  Primus Verlag, 2003.  Pp. 280.  ISBN 3-89678-471-4.  €29.90.  

Reviewed by Chris Epplett, History, University of Lethbridge (

Hartmut Leppin's work on Theodosius the Great is part of the series, Gestalten der Antike, published by Primus Verlag. In the book's forward, Leppin states that, in accordance with the series' biographical scope, he will not be able to discuss every single historical problem or relevant piece of literature pertaining to Theodosius' reign (p. 11). Nonetheless, the author certainly does not neglect important issues or sources of the period in his biography. One of the questions in particular that Leppin addresses in the book is whether or not Theodosius deserved the title of 'the Great' granted to him by posterity.

Leppin's work, apart from a brief prologue, is divided into eight major sections. The work also includes endnotes, a glossary of terms, a bibliography of relevant works, an index, and a key to illustrations. Twenty-seven maps and illustrations in total are scattered throughout the text.

In the first section of the book, 'An Empire of Variety' (pp. 15-28), Leppin describes the condition of the empire in the late fourth century, and many of the problems that would dictate the policies followed by Theodosius during his reign. One issue of overriding importance is the military: the Roman government was forced to spend large sums of money, and enact various legislative measures, in order to ensure that there were enough soldiers guarding the lengthy frontiers of the empire. One of the consequences of this preoccupation with the army was that emperors, in order to preserve their forces as much as possible, were sometimes more willing to negotiate with opponents than seek a decisive (and potentially costly) battle (pp. 16-18). Another problem is the apparent weakness of the central government. As Leppin states, the fact that laws attempting to stabilize the state's food supply and income from taxation were constantly reiterated by various emperors suggests that they were not obeyed by many subjects and were therefore not very effective in curbing the problems they were designed to combat (pp. 19-24).

In the next section of his work, 'The Youth of a Soldier' (pp. 29-33), Leppin discusses Theodosius' career prior to becoming emperor. Theodosius, although from a prominent family in Spain, certainly was not a likely candidate for the imperial throne. The progress of Theodosius' career, which included being made dux Moesiae in 374, owed much to the illustrious military service of his father, the elder Theodosius. When the latter was executed in 376 for alleged high treason, however, the younger Theodosius' future career prospects appeared decidedly bleak (pp. 29-33).

In the third section of the book, 'The First Years: A Foreign Emperor in the East (379-82)' (pp. 35-86), the author analyzes the dramatic events which led to Theodosius' accession, as well as the initial steps which the new emperor took to solidify his rule in the East. Leppin discusses in particular the reasons why Gratian chose an unlikely candidate like Theodosius to replace Valens as emperor in the East after the disastrous battle of Adrianople. The possible reasons put forward by the author include the youth of Gratian and his brother Valentinian II, which perhaps made them unsuitable to take over the eastern empire, as well as the presence of Theodosius' relatives, Eucherius and Syagrius, at Gratian's court. According to Leppin, Gratian was perhaps influenced to choose Theodosius as eastern emperor by their recommendation. Another factor in Gratian's decision may have been Theodosius' previous military reputation, perhaps enhanced by some minor victories over the Goths in the aftermath of Adrianople. As the author points out, however, sources such as Theodoret and Pacatus are unclear as to whether or not Theodosius achieved these successes before or after he became emperor. The author also notes the flaws in the claim that Theodosius' elevation was sanctioned by God: in particular, Leppin points out that the bishop Meletius' supposed involvement in Theodosius' becoming emperor, as reported by Theodoret, was a fiction (pp. 40-44).

The most important task of Theodosius upon becoming emperor was to stabilize the military situation in the East after Adrianople. As Leppin notes, Theodosius' major victory over the Goths at this time was diplomatic rather than military. The treaty in question, concluded between Theodosius and the Goths in 382, has often been criticized, by ancient and modern scholars alike, as one of the major factors leading to the downfall of the Roman Empire. Yet, as Leppin states, Theodosius should perhaps not be judged too harshly for this agreement. The emperor was forced to make the best of a difficult situation, and the treaty did succeed (at least for the short term) in pacifying the Goths and increasing the number of troops available to the eastern empire. Themistius could even claim that Theodosius had displayed his philanthropia by concluding a treaty with the Goths instead of utterly destroying them (pp. 45-54).1

As Leppin notes, Theodosius' deliberately cultivated image of philanthropia and friendliness towards his subjects, a contrast to earlier harsh emperors like Valens, was one of the ways in which the emperor sought to win over his new subjects in the East (p. 55). Yet Theodosius did not overly endear himself to the civil administration early in his reign. One of the first acts of the emperor upon arriving in the East was to assert control over government officials who had seemingly acted in an independent manner after the death of Valens. One of the primary ways in which Theodosius asserted his control was by appointing his own favourites, many of whom were westerners like the emperor himself, to important civil and military posts. Such a policy, of course, contributed to a continuing tension between Theodosius and the aristocracy in Constantinople (pp. 55-63)

As well as discussing various pieces of secular legislation passed by Theodosius in the early part of his reign, such as measures designed to improve the state's finances, Leppin analyzes the emperor's religious policies. One might have expected, given the animosity between the different sects of Christianity at the time, that Theodosius would have steered clear of the debate, so as to avoid any more potential problems in consolidating his rule. Theodosius, however, chose to come out firmly on the side of orthodoxy (the Nicene creed), in opposition to the Arian faction in the East. Although some ancient sources suggest that the emperor's stance was dictated by his strong personal piety, Leppin points out that there were a number of political or tactical reasons for it. For example, orthodox Christians in the East had traditionally looked to the western empire, where Arianism was not nearly so strong, for assistance, and there was the chance that they would call upon Gratian to intervene in the East if Theodosius did not support their cause (pp. 66-74). The author is careful to note, however, in his discussion of Theodosius' policies in the period between 379 and 382, that the emperor did not pursue his religious convictions to the exclusion of all other interests. Theodosius' policies did not result in persecutions of pagans or heretical Christians, and during this period, despite his orthodox stance, Theodosius was generally more tolerant of Arianism than Gratian, at least partly because of his new alliance with the Arian Goths (pp. 73, 81). Leppin also notes that the emperor's legislation did not avoid putting secular or secular interests ahead of religion, as exemplified by a law preventing the evasion of taxation through joining the priesthood (p. 66).

In the next section of his work, 'Consolidation of Achievements' (pp. 87-133), Leppin discusses the further development of Theodosius' policies in the East, as well as his involvement with the worsening political situation in the western empire. The author first of all discusses the events leading up to the usurpation of Maximus and the death of Gratian in 383. As Leppin notes, there is no firm evidence that Theodosius and Maximus had conspired against Gratian, but the usurpation of the latter had at least one positive benefit for the emperor: Theodosius was now, in practice if not by the letter of the law, the most powerful emperor within Roman territory (pp. 87-91). Certainly, Maximus and Theodosius appear to have initially been on cordial terms with one another, as shown in 386, for example, when both recognized the consuls appointed by the other. At the same time, Valentinian II (technically the senior emperor) was increasingly treated as a nonentity by the senatorial faction in Rome, which sought to win Theodosius' favour by inter alia erecting statues of the elder Theodosius (pp. 96-97).

Leppin provides a good discussion of the evolving political situation in the West that eventually persuaded Theodosius to take the field against Maximus in 388. In particular, the author analyzes the complicated diplomatic maneuverings that took place between Maximus and Valentinian II after the former's usurpation. As Leppin notes, it might at first glance appear surprising that Ambrose of Milan chose to support the pro-Arian Valentinian II, rather than the Catholic Maximus, but Ambrose's actions (like those of Theodosius) were not always exclusively dictated by religion (p. 97). Ultimately, after Maximus decided to invade Italy in 387, Theodosius was able to extract some important concessions from Valentinian II in return for military assistance against Maximus. Perhaps the most important concession was the hand of Valentinian's sister Galla. A number of ancient sources claim that Theodosius was captivated by Galla's beauty, but, as Leppin points out, the real attraction for the marriage from Theodosius' perspective may well have been the formal link it provided to the house of Valentinian, thereby strengthening the emperor's position within the imperial hierarchy.2

As the author notes, the emperor was able to win a further propaganda victory in the aftermath of Maximus' defeat and death in 388. First of all, contemporary panegyric claimed that Theodosius might have spared his opponent if his soldiers had not lynched him first. Such a claim was a useful way to spare the pious Theodosius from having the blood of Maximus on his hands. In addition, Theodosius, in line with his philanthropic image, was careful not to embark upon a witch-hunt after his opponent's defeat. Many of Maximus' former troops were pardoned and incorporated into Theodosius' army (a measure which was practical as well as humane), and a number of Maximus' former supporters, such as Symmachus, were pardoned as well (pp. 114-15).

As well as from discussing the political and military developments during the period of Maximus' usurpation, Leppin analyzes the domestic policies of Theodosius at this time. In addition to continuing his previous policies of strengthening the army and gaining more revenues for the state, Theodosius attempted to integrate as many different elements of society as possible under his rule, without, however, abandoning orthodox Christians. After 383, the emperor appears to have been more willing to allow those outside of his immediate circle, including pagans, to hold high office: for example, the pagan orator Themistius became city prefect of Constantinople in 384 (pp. 115-18). In Leppin's opinion, the most severe (and unpopular) of Theodosius' laws from this period involved finances and taxation rather than religion. The author adds that Theodosius, in his legislation of the period, certainly did not sanction the destruction of pagan temples: although such acts did of course occur, they can perhaps be attributed more to Theodosius' praetorian prefect Cynegius than the emperor himself (pp. 115-27).

In the fifth section of his work, 'The Strangeness of the Familiar: Theodosius in the West (388-91)' (pp. 135-67), Leppin discusses Theodosius' attempts to stabilize the empire after the defeat of Maximus. In particular, the emperor adopted a number of measures to win over the senatorial aristocracy in Rome. These measures included inter alia naming Aurelius Victor city prefect of Rome in 389 and awarding Nichomachus Flavianus with the praetorian prefecture of Italy, Africa, and Illyria in 391. As Leppin notes, the honours given to these two prominent pagans showed that Theodosius, at least on occasion, was willing to put political interests ahead of his own religious sympathies (pp. 143-47). In a similar vein, the single piece of 'Christian legislation' from this period, a ban on pagan cult in Rome aimed in particular at upper-class officials, was not merely passed for reasons of religion: the law in question was one of the measures Theodosius implemented in an attempt to curb the independent spirit of the aristocracy in Rome (pp. 164-66).

Much of Leppin's discussion in this section of his work concerns the relationship between Theodosius and Ambrose of Milan and their reaction to various events of this period, most notably the massacre at Thessalonica. Various outbreaks of unrest occurred in the East while Theodosius was in Italy, the most serious (and famous) of which was an uprising of Thessalonica's populace in 390, followed by a massacre of some 7000 civilians by the Gothic troops stationed in the city. Although Theodosius, during earlier instances of unrest, threatened harsh punishment before offering mercy (another way to demonstrate his philanthropia and clemency), he was unable to do so on this occasion: the soldiers in Thessalonica carried out the emperor's original decree that at least some of the populace should be executed for their uprising before Theodosius had a chance to rescind it. Therefore, as Leppin notes, Theodosius should not be directly blamed for the massacre, as in fact many ancient writers did (pp. 149-55).

The events at Thessalonica, besides being an embarrassment for Theodosius, were also, as Leppin discusses, problematic for Ambrose of Milan, who had earlier claimed to be a moderating influence upon the emperor. The massacre led to a falling-out between Ambrose and Theodosius, which was only resolved when the emperor agreed to receive the sacrament from Ambrose in Milan, as a show of penitence. This ceremony, perhaps the most famous event of Theodosius' reign, was certainly taken to be of fundamental importance by a number of contemporary Christian writers. Nonetheless, the author emphasizes that the episode at Milan should not be seen as a victory of church over state or as a defeat for Theodosius, as many commentators have in fact done.3 The dispute occasioned by the massacre at Thessalonica was a personal one between Ambrose and Theodosius, not between the organizations they represented. In addition, Theodosius had sound political reasons for his act of penitence: after carrying out this act, the emperor could once more claim to be a mild emperor and a good Christian (pp. 155-61).

In the sixth section of his work, 'Return to Constantinople (391-94)' (pp. 169-204), Leppin discusses Theodosius' last sojourn in the East after his attempts to remedy the ills of the western empire. One of the most serious crises he faced was unrest between pagans and Christians. Incidents discussed by Leppin include the destruction of the Serapeion in Alexandria and the murder of bishop Marcellus by a pagan mob for trying to destroy a rural shrine near Apamea. Once again, the author shows how Theodosius, in order to placate as many involved parties as possible, compromised in his response to such acts. For example, contrary to what one might have expected, Theodosius did not in fact punish those who had burnt Marcellus to death, on the grounds that they had thereby guaranteed Marcellus a place in heaven by making him a martyr (pp. 169-75).

As Leppin notes, the legislation put forward by Theodosius during his final stay in the East contained a substantially higher number of religious laws than his earlier legislation. A number of important measures in particular were passed at this time against pagans and heretical Christians. According to the author, one of the main purposes behind such laws may have been to promote public order and lessen the amount of violence between different religious groups in the eastern empire. Theodosius may also have wished to contrast himself, a conscientious Christian ruler, with the 'pagan-friendly' regime of Arbogast and Eugenius that had in the meantime seized the western empire. It is important to note, nonetheless, that the emperor once again, despite his religious convictions, did not allow his legislation to interfere with the business of running the state, in particular tax collection and the judicial process: for example, one of Theodosius' laws explicitly forbids debtors from seeking asylum in churches (pp. 175-80).

Unfortunately, Theodosius did not have a great deal of time in Constantinople between his expeditions to Italy. In the next section of his book, 'Again in the West' (pp. 205-228), Leppin discusses the revolt of Arbogast and Eugenius in the West, as well as its aftermath, One important difference between this usurpation in 392, and the earlier one of Maximus, was that Theodosius quickly made his hostile attitude towards Arbogast and Eugenius quite clear, in contrast to his earlier vacillating attitude towards Maximus. In 393, Theodosius elevated his youngest son Honorius to Augustus, clearly meant as a replacement for the deceased Valentinian II in the West (pp. 208f.). The pagan-tolerant attitude of Arbogast and Eugenius, which allowed them to attract prominent supporters like Nichomachus Flavianus, permitted Theodosius in turn to characterize the impending struggle as solely one between paganism and Christianity. This antithesis, as Leppin notes, was adopted by contemporary Christian writers in their description of Theodosius' decisive victory over Arbogast and Eugenius at the River Frigidus in 394. Some even went so far as to downplay the deaths of large numbers of Theodosius' Gothic troops in the battle on the grounds that they were not orthodox Christians (pp. 209-19).

Theodosius, for one last time, had the opportunity to display his clemency in the aftermath of the battle: the surviving forces of Arbogast and Eugenius were ultimately amalgamated with the troops that Theodosius had brought with him from the East. As the author points out, however, this act should not simply be explained as an act of mercy on the part of Theodosius: the small number of troops in the Roman army, particularly after the bloody battle on the Frigidus, left Theodosius no other option but to spare the survivors of the opposing army (pp. 219-20). Unfortunately for Theodosius (and perhaps the empire as a whole), he was not long to survive his victory. The emperor died in January of 395, leaving behind a number of unresolved issues which, as Leppin discusses, were to cause severe difficulties for Theodosius' successors in future (pp. 220-28).

In the final section of his book (pp. 229-39), Leppin discusses the overall rule of Theodosius. Rather than being a real innovator, Theodosius tended instead to merely react to events as best he could. The one real innovation of Theodosius' reign, in Leppin's opinion, was his use of Christianity to support his rule, as exemplified by his 'alliance' with orthodox Christianity in the East (p. 238). The various actions of the emperor cannot, in any case, solely be explained on the grounds of his religious piety, as some scholars have done. The primary aim of Theodosius was, according to the author, to integrate the disparate groups within the empire as much as possible, a policy that sometimes overrode purely religious considerations (pp. 232f.).

According to Leppin, Theodosius' religious policy presented a decided contradiction. First of all, the emperor did not let his adherence to orthodox Christianity interfere with such practical matters as tax collection. In addition, there was often a marked difference between the harsh penalties threatened against heretical religious groups in Theodosius' legislation and the toleration he showed to many in actual practice. When outbreaks of religious violence did occur during Theodosius' reign, he generally avoided cruel punishments for those involved. In Leppin's view, the leniency of the emperor on such occasions may have been one of the reasons why the cause of orthodox Christianity appears to have advanced so much during Theodosius' reign (pp. 225-28).

The reviewer only has one general criticism of Leppin' work, In the introductory section of his work, the author states that, in discussing the religious groups of the period, he will attempt to use neutral terminology as much as possible. Therefore, Leppin does not use the terms 'Catholic' or 'Orthodox' to refer to the dominant group of Christians in the period under discussion, but instead refers to this group as 'Nizäner' (reflecting the fact that this group followed the tenets of the Council of Nicaea). In addition, Leppin does not use the term 'Arian' in his work, since, as he points out, Niceaen Christians attacked a number of different beliefs under the collective term of 'Arianism'. Instead, Leppin generally uses the term 'Homöer' (those following the doctrine of Homoiousion) to refer to groups opposed to the Nicene brand of Christianity. Although Leppin's desire to use more exact terminology in his discussion of religion is understandable, the terminology he introduces does not appear, in the reviewer's opinion at least, to be a great improvement upon the terms widely used in other works on late antiquity. In particular, the general term 'Homöer' does not seem to really be much more specific than the term of 'Arianism' rejected by the author.

Despite this criticism, however, Leppin's book is a very useful study of the reign of Theodosius. Although the author makes it clear at the beginning of his work that he will not be able to discuss every single aspect of Theodosius' reign, he does nonetheless provide a detailed survey. In particular, Leppin uses a wide variety of sources to illustrate Theodosius' reign and support his arguments. His work includes not only discussions of relevant written and legal sources, but also an analysis of some of the important visual monuments of the period.4 Theodosius, in Leppin's account, comes across as a more nuanced individual than his common image as a pious and unquestioning servant of the Church would suggest.


1.   Cf. S. Williams and G. Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (New Haven 1995), pp. 33-35.
2.   Williams and Friell, by contrast, suggest (pp. 61-2) that Theodosius' marriage to Galla was not a prerequisite for his decision to march against Maximus.
3.   'If it [the ceremony at Milan] was a victory for humanity and decency, it was every bit as much a victory for the prestige of Church against State', Williams and Friell, p. 70.
4.   For example, Leppin discusses the propaganda message of the famous Missorium of Theodosius (pp. 106-11), Theodosius' building program in Constantinople, and his role in making the city the most important one in the eastern empire (pp. 188-201).

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