Theodosius the Great and the triumph of Christianity. — During the reign of Julian’s successor, Jovian (363-64), a devoted follower of the Nicene Creed, Christianity was restored to its former position. This did not involve new persecutions of the pagans, however, whose fears on this account at the time of Jovian’s succession proved to be unfounded. Jovian intended to establish throughout the empire the order which had existed before Julian. He proclaimed complete religious toleration. He allowed the pagans to reopen their temples and continue the offering of sacrifices. In spite of his adherence to the Nicene doctrines, he undertook no compulsory legislation against the other ecclesiastical parties. Christian exiles of different sects returned from banishment. The labarum appeared again in the army. Jovian reigned only a few months, but his activity in the realm of ecclesiastical affairs made a strong impression on his contemporaries. The Christian historian of the fifth century, Philostorgius, an Arian, remarked: “The Emperor Jovian restored the churches to their original uses, and set them free from all the vexatious persecutions inflicted on them, by the Apostate.”
Jovian died suddenly in February, 364. He was succeeded by two brothers, Valentinian I (364-75) and Valens (364-78), who divided the rule of the Empire: Valentinian became the ruler of the western half of the Empire and Valens was authorized to govern the eastern half. The brothers differed greatly in their religious outlook. Valentinian followed the Nicene Creed; Valens was an Arian. But the Nicene allegiance of Valentinian did not make him intolerant of other creeds, and during his reign religious freedom was more secure and complete than before. At the beginning of his rule he issued a decree granting each man “the freedom of worshiping whatever his conscience dictated to him.” Paganism was freely tolerated. Yet Valentinian showed that he was a Christian emperor by a number of measures; one of them restored all the privileges granted the clergy by Constantine the Great. Valens followed an entirely different policy. Upon declaring himself a follower of Arianism, he became intolerant of all other Christian doctrines, and though his persecutions were neither severe nor systematic, people in the eastern part of the Empire did go through a period of great fear and anxiety during his reign.
In the matter of external affairs the brothers were forced to face a very severe struggle with the Germans. Valens died prematurely during his campaign with the Goths. Valentinian was succeeded in the West by his sons, Gratian (375-83) and the child Valentinian II (375-92). After the death of Valens (378), Gratian appointed Theodosius as Augustus of the East and Illyricum.
Disregarding the young and irresolute Valentinian II, an Arian adherent, who played no important role in the internal policies of the Empire, the government under Gratian and Theodosius quite definitely forsook the policy of religious toleration and manifested a decided inclination toward the Nicene Creed. Of particular significance in this respect was the policy of the eastern ruler, Theodosius, surnamed “The Great” (379-95), whose name is always associated with the triumph of Christianity. His decided preference for his chosen creed left no room for toleration of paganism.
The family of Theodosius came into the foreground in the second half of the century as a result of the efforts of the father of the Emperor, also named Theodosius, who was one of the brilliant army generals in the West during the reign of Valentinian I. Before his appointment to the high rank of Augustus, Theodosius was only slightly interested in Christian ideas; but in the year following his appointment he was baptized in Thessalonica by the bishop of the city, Ascholius, a Nicaean.
Theodosius has to face two difficult problems: (1) the establishment of unity within the Empire which was being torn asunder by the dissenting religious parties; and (2) the defense of the Empire against the steady advance of the German barbarians, the Goths, who at the time of Theodosius threatened the very existence of the Empire.
During the reign of Valens, Arianism played the dominant role. After the death of Valens, especially in the absence of a ruler during the short period preceding the election of Theodosius, religious disputes burst forth once more and at times assumed very crude forms. These disquieting movements were felt particularly in Constantinople. The disputes on dogma, passing beyond the limited circle of the clergy, were taken up by all classes of society and were discussed even by the crowds in the streets. The problem of the nature of the Son of God had aroused heated discussions everywhere since the middle of the fourth century: in the cathedrals and churches, in the imperial palace, in the huts of hermits, in the squares and markets. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, wrote, not without sarcasm, of the prevailing conditions in the second half of the fourth century: “Everything is full of those who are speaking of unintelligible things — streets, markets, squares, crossroads. I ask how many oboli I have to pay; in answer they are philosophizing on the born or unborn; I wish to know the price of bread; one answers: ‘The Father is greater than the Son;’ I inquire whether my bath is ready; one says, ‘The Son has been made out of nothing.’”
By the time of the succession of Theodosius conditions had changed. Upon arriving in Constantinople, he proposed to the Arian bishop that he renounce Arianism and join the creed of Nicaea. The bishop, however, refused and preferred to leave the capital and live outside the city gates, where he continued to hold Arian meetings. All the churches in Constantinople were turned over to the Nicaeans.
Theodosius was confronted with the questions of regulating his relations with the heretics and pagans. Even in Constantine’s time the Catholic (i.e. universal) church (ecclesia catholica) had been contrasted with the heretics (haeretici). During the reign of Theodosius the distinction between a Catholic and a heretic was definitely established by law: a Catholic was an adherent of the Nicene Creed; followers of other religious tendencies were heretics. The pagans (pagani) were considered in a separate category.
After Theodosius had openly declared himself a follower of the Nicene Creed, he began his long and obstinate struggle with the pagans and heretics, inflicting upon them penalties which grew more harsh as time went on. By the decree of 380 A.D. only those who believed in the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as preached by the apostolic writings and the Gospels, were considered Catholic Christians; all others, “the mad and insane” people, who adhered to “the infamy of heretic doctrine,” had no right to call their meeting places churches and were subject to severe punishment.” According to one historian, this decree shows clearly that Theodosius “was the first of the emperors to regulate for his own sake, and not for the sake of the church, the body of Christian doctrine obligatory on his subjects.” Theodosius issued several other decrees which definitely forbade the heretics to hold assemblies, either public or private; the right to assemble was reserved solely for the followers of the Nicene symbol, who were to take over all the churches in the capital and throughout the Empire. The civil rights of the heretics were greatly curtailed, especially those concerned with bequests and inheritance.
For all his partisanship, Theodosius was anxious to establish peace and harmony in the Christian church. For this purpose he convoked a council in the year 381 at Constantinople, in which only members of the eastern church participated. This council is known as the Second Ecumenical Council. Of no other ecumenical council is the information so inadequate. The proceedings (acts) of this one are unknown. For a while it was not even recognized as an ecumenical council; only in the year 451, at a later ecumenical council, was it officially sanctioned as such. The chief religious question discussed at the Second Ecumenical Council was the heresy of Macedonius, a semi-Arian who attempted to prove that the Holy Spirit was created. The council condemned the heresy of Macedonius, as well as a number of other heresies based upon Arianism; confirmed the declaration of the Nicene symbol about the Father and Son, adding to it the part about the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father; and adopted the teaching that the Holy Spirit is of one essence with the Father and the Son. Because information about this council is so inadequate, some western European scholars are dubious as to the creed of Constantinople, which became not only the dominant creed, but the official symbol as well, for all Christian denominations, in spite of their divergence as to dogma. Some scholars have affirmed that this new creed was not and could not be the work of the second council, that it was apocryphal; others have tried to prove that this symbol was composed either before or after the second council. The majority of scholars, however, especially the Russian church historians, agree that the creed of Constantinople was actually framed by the Fathers of the second council, though it became widespread only after the victory of orthodoxy at the Council of Chalcedon.
The second council also established the rank of patriarch of Constantinople in relation to the bishop of Rome, The third canon of the council declares: “The bishop of Constantinople shall rank next to the bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome,” because of the political pre-eminence of the city as the capital of the Empire. Patriarchs of older eastern sees objected to this exaltation of the patriarch of Constantinople.
The see of Constantinople was at that time occupied by Gregory of Nazianzus, the Theologian, who had played a very important role in the capital during the first years of the reign of Theodosius. He was unable to manage the numerous dissenting parties represented at the council and was later forced to withdraw from his see, leave the council, and depart from Constantinople. His place was taken by Nectarius, a man of the world, one of limited theological attainments, who knew how to keep on good terms with the Emperor. Nectarius became president of the council, which in the summer of the year 381 closed its sessions.
In his attitude toward the clergy at large, that is, the Catholic (Nicene) clergy, Theodosius was rather generous. He conserved and occasionally enlarged the privileges granted by some of his predecessors to the bishops and clergy, privileges regarding personal duties, court responsibilities, and the like. He took care, however, that all these privileges should not interfere with the interests of the government. Thus by one edict Theodosius imposed upon the church extraordinary government duties (extraordinaria munera). The availability of the church as a refuge for criminals prosecuted by the government was greatly limited because of the frequent abuses of this privilege. In particular, people indebted to the government were forbidden to seek protection in the temples against debt collectors, and the clergy were prohibited from hiding them.
Theodosius aimed to be the sole arbiter of the church affairs of the Empire, and on the whole he succeeded in this aim. In one instance, however, he came into serious conflict with one of the distinguished leaders of the western church, Ambrose, bishop of Mediolanum (Milan). Theodosius and Ambrose held diametrically opposed views on the relation between the church and the state: the former stood for the supremacy of the state over the church; the latter assumed that the church could not be subject to the temporal power.
The conflict centered about the massacres which took place in Thessalonica. In this rich and populous city a large number of Germanic troops were quartered, headed by a very tactless and inefficient commander who did nothing to prevent the violence of the soldiers. The city population, provoked by the German outrages, finally revolted and killed the commanding officers as well as many soldiers. The infuriated Theodosius, well disposed toward the Germans, who ranked high in his army, smote the citizens of Thessalonica with a bloody massacre, showing no mercy to sex or age; the Emperor’s orders were executed by the Germans. The horrible deed was not allowed to pass unpunished. Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius, who, in spite of his power, was forced publicly to acknowledge his own guilt and then to observe humbly the penance imposed by Ambrose, who forbade him to wear the imperial regalia during the period of atonement.
During the merciless struggle with the heretics, Theodosius took decisive steps also against the pagans. Several decrees prohibited the offering of sacrifices, the divinations by the entrails of animals, and the visiting of the temples. In effect this amounted to the closing of many pagan temples, some of which were then used for government purposes, while others were almost completely destroyed, and all their rich treasures of art demolished by the fanatical mob. The destruction of the famous temple of the god Serapis, the Serapeum, which still remained the center of pagan worship in the city of Alexandria, is particularly significant. The last decree against the pagans was issued by Theodosius in the year 392. It prohibited completely the offering of sacrifices, burning of incense, hanging of garlands, libations, divinations, and so forth. It also declared all who disobeyed these orders guilty of offense against the Emperor and religion and liable therefore to severe penalties. This decree referred to the old religion as “a pagan superstition” (gentilicia superstitio).
One historian called this edict of 392 “the funeral song of paganism.” It was the last step taken by Theodosius in his war upon paganism in the East. In the western part of the Empire a particularly well-known episode during the struggle of Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius against paganism centered about the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Roman Senate. The altar had been removed during Constantine’s reign, but had been restored by Julian the Apostate. The senators, who were still half pagan, viewed this forced removal of the altar as the final ruin of the former greatness of Rome. The famous pagan orator, Symmachus, was sent to the Emperor with a plea for the restoration of the statue to the Senate. Th. I. Uspensky spoke of this plea as “the last song of a dying paganism which timidly and mournfully begged mercy of the young Emperor (Valentinian II) for the faith to which his ancestors were indebted for their fame, and Rome for its greatness.” Symmachus did not succeed in his mission. The year 393 saw the last celebration of the Olympic games. Among other monuments of antiquity, the statue of Zeus, the work of Phidias, was transferred from Olympia to Constantinople.
The religious policy of Theodosius, therefore, differed greatly from that of his predecessors, who, while favoring some one Christian party or paganism (as did Julian), still followed to some extent a policy of toleration toward other religious groups; de jure parity of religious beliefs still persisted. But by designating the Nicene Creed as the only legal creed, Theodosius laid an absolute veto upon all other tendencies in the Christian fold, as well as upon paganism. Theodosius was one of those emperors who believed that their authority should encompass the church and the religious life of their subjects. The aim of his life was to create a single Nicene church; but in spite of his efforts he did not succeed. Religious disputes, far from ceasing, only multiplied and spread very rapidly, making religious life in the fifth century most stormy and passionate. Over paganism Theodosius attained a complete triumph. Deprived of opportunity to avow its faith openly, paganism ceased to exist as an organized whole. There were still pagans, of course; only as separate families or individuals did they cherish secretly the beloved past of their dying religion. The famous pagan school at Athens, however, was not affected by any of the decrees of Theodosius; it continued its work of spreading the knowledge of classical literature among its students.