Theodosius the Great

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Theodosius the Great. Maximus Hooterus.

“I piss on pagans”

“I want to keep the Roman Empire in my family”

The appellation 'The Great' has been given to various historical figures (always male). Best known are Alexander the Great, Constantine the Great, Alfred the Great, Charlemagne and later Frederick the Great of Prussia. But who has heard of the Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great (347-395)? What did he do?? Who did he kill and was it with an inflated sense of grandeur??? Yes - and he also stopped a lot of buff nudists running around in Greece going under the cover name of 'The Olympic Games'.

This isn't funny, whoever wrote this article? Shame on you.

So why did this Spanish born general, with a reputation for running away from bigger bullies than him later get this surname 'The Great' attached to his name? Here is a clue: Christianity.

For those without comedic tastes, the self-proclaimed experts at Wikipedia think they have an article about Theodosius the Great.

War and Treason[edit]

'What's that bit about We Don't Serve Picts again?'

The future emperor was born in the Roman playground of Spain. His father Theodosius the Elder was a Roman general and it was natural for young 'Theo' to follow that tradition. The elder Theodosius had become a friend of future emperors Valentinian I and Valens, so prospered when his mates became emperors. Though at this time quite a few Roman soldiers were still into Mithraism, Theodosius senior was probably a lip service christian - though of what brand remains unclear. Perhaps he didn't know himself.

Likewise at this time Theodosius Junior's religious affiliations were equally hazy. Certainly years later when ever the name of emperor Julian the Apostate's name came up, Theodosius would denounce the memory of last pagan emperor in an outburst of Tourettes-like intensity and chisel lumps out his predecessor's statues.

Father and son were sent to Britain where the soft, cosy cushion-loving Southerners were facing an invasion from across Hadrian's Wall by the blue-faced Picts and the red- faced Irish. The local Britons cowered in their houses as their UnRomanised neighbours went on the rampage and got smashed on looted beer and wine. This made the 'clean up' a lot easier in the hands of 'Theodosi '. Those invaders who failed to get up off the floor and get out in time were either killed or dragged back in chains to Rome. Theodosius the Elder and Younger got their campaign medals and garlands and invites to the most exclusive chariot racing clubs in Rome.

As ever, the closer to power you get, the greater danger lurks in the shadows. Malicious word got to Emperor Valentinian that Theodosius the Elder had inferred he was a better looking emperor-in-waiting and that he would found a new imperial dynasty[1]. Valentinian ordered his execution for treason and exiled Theodosius the Younger to an eternity of peeling grapes back home in Spain.

That should have been the end of the younger Theodosius's career but he had made friends with Valentinian's eldest son Gratian some time before. So when Valentinian died and Gratian became emperor, he recalled Theodosius from Spain. Gratian said 'Let Bygones Be Bygones' and promoted his old friend to Commander of the Rhine Frontier with a mission to whack a few Germans if they got too close to smell the cooking.

Being in the Right Place[edit]

'Do we change ends at half time?' The once mighty Roman army appears to have become unsure what warfare is really about.

Theodosius's prospects didn't look good promising, for Romans fighting barbarians ranked lower on the skill level than going up against the Persians - or another Roman army. But then news came that the Goths had crossed the Danube frontier and were causing chaos in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. Gratian decided to help - and share in the glory - by marching his legions to join those of his uncle Valens. Theodosius got the call to join and took his soldiers along.

However Valens had decided not to wait for his nephew's army and threw his army against the despised Germanic mob. By the time Gratian and Theodosius arrived, the Roman army of the East was carrion and Valens quality purple mincemeat. There was a Situation Vacant and since the only other emperor around was Gratian's kid brother Valentinian II back in Rome, Theodosius found himself promoted in January 379. It been a rapid turnaround for Theodosius but he started off with no army, a pack of Goths on the loose and an empire that for the last 14 years run by an Arian Christian and his friends. It could be a very short posting if stuff got ugly.


Theodosius's first job as emperor was to deal with the Goths. He also had to do this without Gratian as his imperial colleague decided to go back to Rome (with his army) as there was 'trouble in Gaul/Britannia/Spain/Err...' Since Theodosius was not in a position to argue, he watched Gratian march away.

The Goths in comparison appeared to be a lot stronger but they weren't united and minor bickering about 'Gothiness' led a big split in their ranks. One group, who wore the blackest of eyeliner and the tightest of leather trousers and boots re-crossed the Danube. They got to be called the Ostrogoths. Those who stayed took on the name Visigoths. They liked roaming around the Balkans and with no army to bash them down, would stay in bed for days and help themselves to anyone's food larder that came their way.

Theodosius now came up with a solution. He would offer Rome's new military migrants an interesting offer. They could join the Roman Army but would be allowed to keep wearing their own clothes. Not all of the Visigoths liked this deal but enough did and at least on paper, the Eastern Roman Empire had an army again. For Theodosius this could be construed as a triumph and now went to Constantinople to take possession of his allocated Dominate.[2]

Toleration is for Tossers[edit]

Old style Olympians take to the water for a final time before the ban.

Theodosius arrived in his capital in 380. For the previous two years the rival Nicene (Catholic) Christians and Arian Christians had tried to be civil and had kept their mutual hatred for each other by indulging in spitting and broom fights. The arrival of Theodosius changed this. He then nailed his colours to a font by receiving a baptism from a Catholic bishop.

His first big decision was to re-issue and reaffirm the Nicene creed. The only problem was that all the files relating to this event back in 325 had been lost or eaten so a new edition was issued Nicene Creed 2: Persecute with Imperial Sanction. A church council was held in Constantinople but only those who agreed with the emperor and his theologians were allowed to attend. Arian christianity was subsequently banned and proscribed, though inconveniently (as Theodosius knew) many of his Goth-Roman soldiers were Arians. They got an exemption.

Some pagans resisted to the end

For those who were still worshipping the old pagan gods, this decision about the Arians - or indeed any other of the 'Jesus Cult religions' - didn't seem relevant. What had been Constantine's Act of Toleration for All Religions (though Christians got special rights) now became Intoleration for everyone else. Theodosius was praised by the Nicene religious press for his work and then demanded he close down all the remaining pagan establishments. It was also a chance for the emperor to get his hands on some money too to pay the Goths who were asking for more money to fight and incentives not to plunder. To make sure this 'War on Paganism' was universal within the Roman Empire, Gratian in the West agreed to follow the same policy.

The result was widespread destruction. For Christians this was revenge on the old empire that had executed Jesus and had persecuted them for the previous centuries. Nor was the change only in religion but also in the realm of the Olympic Games. Theodosius had them banned. The Roman Empire would be strictly a 'no nudity' regime from now on.

A Magnus Problem[edit]

Magnus Maximus with his middle distance, imperious glower.

Theodosius now claimed he had the Eastern Roman Empire under control, though in his half of the Balkans, the Goths were still refusing to pay their taxes and doing their own thing. One Visigoth particular refused to show respect to the Romans. His name was Alaric. Though then a minor Goth fashion victim, Alaric was upset that the local Romanised population will still hanging signs outside their shops that read No Dogs, No Goths and refusing to book tables at the best restaurants.

In the Western half of the Roman Empire there was more of a problem. Gratian had tried to fire a Roman general in Britannia for fiddling his war expenses. However this rebel, Magnus Maximus (translates as Mr Big Big) who was Spanish and claimed to be Theodosius' cousin, took offence and stuffed his receipts in a large hole cut out of Gratian. Theodosius heard the news without emotion, remembering how Gratian had left him in the shit earlier. However he warned Magnus not to march towards Rome and leave Valentinian alone with his playstation. When a few years later Magnus had another go at removing the 'runt in the middle', Theodosius returned to Italy and executed Magnus.

Theodosius could have replaced Valentinian II but had no wish to make another Roman general his imperial colleague and face a more dangerous rival. So Valentinian stayed put, even though teenage emperor was 'leaning Arian' under the influence of mother Justina. To cement their renewed vows of friendship, Valentinian suggested his sister Galla as Theodosius's new wife (his first wife and mother of his two sons later emperors - Arcadius and Honorius - had just recently pegged it). A daughter was born from this marriage, Galla Placidia who would go on to prove that what 'balls' the Theodosian family inherited who come via her and not her two brothers who would go on to be perhaps the stupidest duo to be put in control of the Roman Empire.

An emperor gets Ambrosed[edit]

Bishop Ambrose prevents the excommunicated Theodosius from even using the urinal inside the church.'You are outside God's Grace. Your confession programme hasn't finished.

If Valentinian wasn't a rival to challenge Theodosius, he had more of a problem with the Catholic church. This was ironic considering how much he had helped them gain power and persecute the Arians. Of course for the Catholic Christians all of Theodosius's actions (and assumed successes) was because he belonged to the right church.

The crisis was sparked when in Thessalonica where some of Theodosius's Goth soldiers insisted in changing the music in a local taverna by throwing a singer off stage and replacing it with some heavy Goth racket. In the ensuring riots, many people were killed but the Goths won and celebrated their victory by executing many citizens. Since they were officially part of the Roman army, Theodosius did nothing. But Bishop Ambrose of Milan was outraged, he had long hated the Goths and their music. He then produced a new policy to scare the pants off any Christian true believer. Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius. The emperor was barred from all church functions and told he had to make full apology to God for what his soldiers had done. Theodosius agreed and spent the next three months in Milan inside a confession box with Ambrose on the other side of the grill listing the emperor's various sins and using a marking quill to pick out the best sexual fantasies. St.Augustine of Hippo later 'borrowed' a lot of these to flesh out his own pathetic list of fornicatory habits to have published in Confessions a few years later.

Now to Bugger Up the Roman Empire for Good[edit]

'Call me a saint now. I earnt it'.

Following his humiliation in Milan, Theodosius returned to Constantinople. Since it seemed even an emperor was scared of the Christians, more pagan temples went up in flames. Also destroyed at time were works by all authors who expressed a dislike of Christians or whose views no longer fitted the Catholic christian viewpoint. This was more or less the entire Alexandrian Library where for 700 years a huge archive of documents, books, erotica, fish and chip paper had been collected and filed for students. All of that went up in a fire, though years later the destruction was blamed on the Arabs when they took Egypt for Islam in 640.

In the West Valentinian II soon proved that he was a definite number two (in both senses) and got himself bullied again, this time by his chief minister/military advisor Arbogast. Unable to face his nominal inferior at breakfast, Valentinian topped himself by tying his school scarf to a bed post.

Arbogast claimed it was an accident but as he was a barbarian, unable to pass the citizenship test to become emperor. So he found a doddering old school teacher Eugenius and promoted him emperor. Though Theodosius had no wish to return west, his wife and letter from Ambrose threatening eternal roasting of the imperial testicles for 'backsliding', Theodosius returned. He met Arbogast and Eugenius's armies at a placed called Frigidum, a city with a name that suggests it was a very cold place. This time Theodosius's Goth-Romans defeated the Western Roman army. Eugenius's grey head was stuck on a pole and staked outside Theodosius's tent. Arbogast borrowed one of Theodosius's purple scarves and hung himself.


For the first time since 364 the Roman world was one again. But Theodosius felt knackered. His wife Galla was dead and didn't fancy confessing anymore to Ambrose or any other Christian bishop. Theodosius died a few months later in January 395.

When the will was read - Theodosius in a move of dubious generosity to the Roman people - confirmed he had made his eldest son Arcadius Roman Emperor (Eastern Greek Conference Division) and his younger squirt brother Honorius Roman Emperor (Western Latin Conference Division) the supposed joint rulers of the empire. Both were under 20 which was about the level of their I.Q. too. Theodosius didn't mind, he was expecting full filial piety from his boys. Which is where 'the Great' bit comes in. That accolade came from the Catholic church for Theodosius's religious bullying and later, he was to be elevated to sainthood too by the Orthodox Church, sharing that honour with Constantine the Great. Saint or not, Theodosius was the last classical Roman Emperor to rule as well as reign.

See Also[edit]

First Council of Constantinople


  1. The other explanation is Theodosius the Younger had led his legions in a mad scramble to get away from a barbarian army of Sarmatians. This story later got misfiled and lost when Theodosius became emperor
  2. Since emperor Diocletian the Roman Empire was under the Dominate Political system. What this meant in practise was that a Roman emperor was above the law but below God. If he erred, a Dominatrix would be called in to administer the appropriate pleasure punishment.
Preceded by:
Roman Emperor
Succeeded by:
Honorius (in the West) and Arcadius (in the East)