Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Theodosius I., the Great
Theodosius (2) I., the Great, born A.D. 346 at Cauca, a Spanish town upon a small tributary of the Douro; died Jan. 17, 395. His father, an eminent general serving under Valentinian and Valens, was treacherously executed in 376 For the secular history of Theodosius see D. of G. and R. Biogr. We shall here set forth his ecclesiastical polity and his powerful influence on the fortunes of the church. His accession was the turning-point which secured the triumph of Trinitarian orthodoxy over the Arianism dominant in the East for at least the previous 40 years. Theodosius turned what seemed in many places an obscure and conquered sect into a triumphant church, whose orthodoxy, on this point at least, never afterwards wavered. In 378 the Roman empire was in great danger. Valens, the emperor of the East, had been defeated and put to death by the Goths on Aug. 9 in the fatal battle of Hadrianople, and the whole empire was depending on the young Gratian, then less than 20 years old. Gratian perceived that the crisis demanded the ablest general the empire possessed; he boldly summoned the deeply-injured Theodosius from his retirement, and invested him with the imperial purple, Jan. 19, 379, allotting him the government of the East with Illyricum in Europe. Theodosius fixed his residence at Thessalonica, skilfully selected as the headquarters of his operations against the Goths. Constantinople was just then the centre of the conflict between the Catholics and Arians. About July 379 Gregory of Nazianzus, coming there, assumed the care of its one orthodox church, the Arians having possession of the see and all the other churches. Meanwhile at Thessalonica, during the winter of 379–380, Theodosius had a severe illness which led to his baptism by Ascolius, the local bishop, a devoted adherent of the orthodox party. This was followed by his first edict about religion, issued at Thessalonica, Feb. 28, 380, and addressed to the people of Constantinople. It orders that the religion which St. Peter taught the Romans and which Damasus of Rome and Peter of Alexandria profess, should be believed by all nations; that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost should be equally adored; that the adherent of this doctrine should be called Catholic Christians, while all others were to be designated heretics, their places of assembly refused the name of churches, and their souls threatened with divine punishment.
On Nov. 24, 380, Theodosius made his formal entry into Constantinople, and at once took action against the unorthodox. He turned the Arian bp. Demophilus out of the churches, and personally installed Gregory in the great church. But he does not seem to have satisfied the orthodox zeal of Gregory, who in his Carmen de Vita Sua, 1279–1395, speaks very slightingly of him, finding fault with his toleration, and complaining that he made no attempt to heal the wounds and avenge the wrongs of the Catholics. Theodosius, however, soon improved under Gregory's tuition, direct or indirect. Gregory's tenure of the bishopric of Constantinople was only for 7 months. He retired about the end of June 381, yet continued to exercise a most active influence over the emperor through his successor Nectarius. Gregory in the East and Ambrose in the West must be largely credited with the intolerant ecclesiastical legislation of the Theodosian Code, lib. xvi. We may take the ecclesiastical legislation under two heads: (1) against heretics; (2) against pagans. Theodosius's first laws against heretics were issued immediately after the council of Constantinople, and rapidly increased in severity. In June or July, 381, he issued a law which must have been directly inspired by the council (Cod. Theod. lib. xvi. tit. v. leg. 6), prohibiting all assemblies of Arians, Photinians, and Eunomians, and ordering the surrender of all churches to the orthodox. A few weeks later two edicts (ib. tit. i. leg. 3, and tit. v. leg. 8) prohibited Arians, Eunomians and Aetians from building churches to replace those taken from them. In law ix., Mar. 382, first appeared the word inquisitor in connexion with religious controversy, officers being appointed to detect and punish the Manicheans. Law xi. of July 383 prohibited any kind of heretical worship, while in Sept. law xii. prohibited heretical assemblies for worship, building of churches and ordinations of clergy, and confiscated to the fiscus places where they met. Evidently the heretics had many official supporters, and many magistrates were lax in proceeding against them, as stern penalties were threatened against such. Yet the heretics maintained their ground. So in Feb. 384, law xiii. was directed against the Eunomian, Macedonian, Arian, and Apollinarian clergy who had ventured back again and were concealed in Constantinople. The Apollinarians especially erected a regular church organization and established an episcopal succession. Gregory of Nazianzus, much troubled by the Apollinarian party, addressed Ep. 77 to the prefect, telling how they took advantage of his absence at the hot baths at Xanxaris to ordain a bishop at Nazianzus. He calls on the prefect to punish them for disobeying the edict, but requests a light penalty. His influence, too, seems to have caused the original issue of this edict of Feb. 384, for in Orat. 46, addressed to Nectarius, patriarch of Constantinople, he calls for it as necessary, and in his Ep. to Olympius praises it, apologizing for his own toleration which had led the heretics to act with increased boldness.
Nectarius, Ambrose, and Ascolius of Thessalonica, who baptized Theodosius, also urged persecution (cf. esp. Ep. x. of St. Ambrose, written in the name of the council of Aquileia, demanding the suppression by force of heretical assemblies and ordinations (Opp. Ambros. in Migne's Patr. Lat. xvi. 940) ). In Mar. 388, when marching against the usurper Maximus, he issued for the East, and in June caused the younger Valentinian to issue for the West, a still more stringent edict, specially directed against the Apollinarians (Cod. Theod. xvi. tit. v. 14 and 15), and against clergy and laity alike. It banishes all Apollinarians, deposes and degrades their bishops, forbids new consecrations, and denies them all approach to the emperors. Even this does not seem to have satisfied his advisers or to have stopped the progress of heresy. The Eunomians were very troublesome at Constantinople, where Eunomius himself had long lived, and whence Theodosius had banished him. Theodosius, in May 389, issued a law rendering him and his followers incapable of making bequests and confiscating to the public treasury all bequests made to them.
Theodosius sought to suppress paganism also. The ruins of many temples, statues, and fountains maybe traced to his legislation, which went far beyond that of his predecessor. Cod. Theod. xvi. tit. x. "de Paganis, Sacrificiis et Templis," enables us to trace accurately his progress. The policy of Constantine and his sons may be said to have abolished sacrifices as madness and essentially connected with immorality and crime, specially those celebrated at night, while at the same time protecting the temples. Constantius was the severest legislator in this respect. The temples were closed, but preserved as public monuments and caretakers appointed at the public expense. Had this policy continued, the world would have been now much richer in artistic treasures. It continued, with the short interval of Julian's reigns, till the accession of Theodosius. Even he retained the appearance of it. He issued no decree for the destruction of the temples. But a new force, the monks, had now become a power throughout the East. They began the destruction in the very teeth of imperial edicts, trusting for protection to the influence of Ambrose, Nectarius, and other bishops with the emperor. In 382 Theodosius issued a rescript to Palladius, dux of the province of Osrhoene, which was marked by a wise and tolerant spirit. There was a magnificent temple in Edessa, useful for popular assemblies, festivals, elections, and other public meetings. Theodosius seems to have been specially anxious to use such temples for his provincial councils, a form of local government he largely developed and strengthened (cf. Cod. Theod. xii. tit. xii. legg. 12, 13). The local bp. Eulogius wished, however, to shut up the temple completely. He pleaded that the law was clear. All access to temples was long since forbidden, and this one was specially dangerous, being richly furnished with idols of rare beauty. The advocates of toleration for once gained the upper hand. All sacrifices were strictly forbidden, but the building was to be used for public purposes, and the statues retained as ornaments and public curiosities. Five years, however, elapsed. The emperor was taking sterner measures against Oriental paganism, and had just sent Cynegius as his deputy into Egypt and the East to see that his orders were strictly carried out; whereupon the monks, as Libanius expressly states, rose up and utterly destroyed the temple. The rage for destruction spread. The mob in another part of the same province, headed by the bishop, attacked and burned a Jewish synagogue and a Valentinian meeting-house. Theodosius was contemplating their punishment when Ambrose intervened, addressing a letter (Ep. xl.), which frightened the emperor from his purpose. He issued, however, a decree in 393 to the count of the East, prohibiting all interference with Judaism and specially forbidding attacks on their synagogues; but he significantly omitted all such protective measures as regards pagan temples. Destruction and confiscation raged on every side, and the destroyers found perfect impunity. The most notorious acts of destruction were in Egypt, and specially at Alexandria, as described by Socrates (H. E. v, 16, 17) when the celebrated Serapeum was destroyed. Socrates asserts, indeed, that this destruction took place at the imperial order, a special decree having been issued at the desire of the patriarch Theophilus, but of this there is no trace in the code. At Rome the same policy was pursued, either directly or indirectly, by Theodosius. In 382 Gratian issued an order abolishing the altar of Victory, as hitherto retained in the senate house, and the other traces of paganism which still remained. He confiscated the property of the vestal virgins, and probably seized their college. In 383 an effort to rescind this order was defeated by the vigorous action of pope Damasus. Symmachus renewed the attempt in 384 and appealed to the young emperor Valentinian. Ambrose, replying with extreme intolerance, warned Valentinian to consult Theodosius before complying with the senate's prayer. For this letter of Ambrose and the Relatio of Symmachus, see St. Ambros. Ep. Classis i. Epp. xvii., xviii. The protest of Ambrose was successful. The usurper Eugenius restored the pagan emblems and ritual, but Theodosius, on his victory, again abolished them, and adopted sterner measures against the vestal college.
Theodosius was a positive as well as a negative legislator. His legislation about the clergy and the internal state of the church was minute and far-reaching. He issued, in 386, a stringent edict for the observance of the Lord's Day, suspending all public business and branding as sacrilegious any one violating its sanctity (Cod. Theod. viii. tit. viii. leg. 3). Another edict, A.D. 380, prescribed among the annual holidays the 7 days before and after Easter (ib. ii. tit. viii. leg. 2), (cf. "Lord's Day" in D. C. A. p. 1047), and another (ib. xvi. ii. 27) lays down most minute rules for deaconesses; while the previous law exempted guardians of churches and holy places from public duties. Cod. xi. xxxix. 10 exempted bishops and presbyters from torture when giving evidence, but left the inferior clergy subject to it. Theodosius was appealed to on all kinds of subjects by the bishops, and we find decrees dealing with all manner of topics. If, e.g., religious controversy burst forth with special violence in Egypt or Antioch, the bishop applied for edicts imposing perpetual silence on the opposite factions (cf. Cod. xvi. iv. 2 and 3).
Theodosius was devout to superstition, passionate to an extreme. Two incidents, the insurrection of Antioch upon the destruction of the imperial statues, and the massacre of Thessalonica, illustrate his character in many respects. [AMBROSIUS; CHRYSOSTOM.]