Today the Church commemorates our father among the saints Theodosius, emperor of the Romans.
He was born in Spain in A.D. 347, the son of an army officer of high rank, also named Theodosius. As a young man he campaigned with his father in Britain, Gaul and North Africa. He was a devout Christian and was married to Flacilla, who is also commemorated as a saint, her feast on 14 September. When his father died in 375, Theodosius already held high rank in the army.
Up to the year 378, Gratian was Augustus in the West and his uncle Valens was Augustus in the East. On 8 August 378, Valens was killed in battle against the Goths at Adrianople and Gratian thus became emperor of the whole empire. Gratian appointed Theodosius Magister Equitum, commanding the Roman forces on the Danube frontier. This made Theodosius de facto ruler in the East, and Gratian raised him formally to Augustus on 19 January 379, with residence in Constantinople. Theodosius, firmly orthodox, was the first emperor to refuse the title of Pontifex Maximus. Gratian now followed his example and renounced the title.
The West was devoted to Nicene orthodoxy while the Arian heresy, promoted by Valens, was rife in the East. To establish orthodoxy throughout the empire and to suppress the Arian heresy, Gratian and Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica on 27 February 380. This edict is often cited as making Christianity the ‘official religion’ of the empire, but this is an anachronism. See my blog entry for 27 February 2013 for more on this subject.
Theodosius also ended the pagan cults at last. They had been withering away in the Roman empire for several centuries. Legal prohibition of private sacrifices for purposes of divination or magic went back to pagan times and was continued by the Christian emperors. From about 350 public sacrifices for the purpose of divination were forbidden but not the sacrifices for honouring the gods or associated with festivals. Then in 382 sacrifices were forbidden but not other honours paid to the gods. About the year 380 state funding of pagan cults ended.
Theodosius brought paganism definitively to an end by two decrees issued on 24 February and 16 June 391, forbidding all pagan practices, public or private. (Codex Theodosianus, 16.10.10 and 11) However, it was not unlawful merely to be a pagan, and pagans, unlike heretics, did not forfeit their civil rights.
After his appointment as co-emperor, Theodosius arrived in Constantinople on 24 November 380. He summoned the 2nd Œcumenical Council to heal the Arian schism and confirm St Gregory the Theologian as Patriarch of Constantinople. The council met in Constantinople from mid-May to 9 July 381, reaffirming the teaching of the Creed of Nicæa that the Son of God is of the same essence and coeternal with God the Father, and declaring that the Holy Spirit is an equal Person of the Trinity with the Father and the Son.
Gratian died on 24 August 383. His younger brother became Augustus in the West as Valentinian II, but, as he was still a minor, Theodosius was effective ruler of the Roman world. When Magnus Maximus rebelled in the West in 383, Theodosius moved to Milan to suppress the revolt.
While in Milan, Theodosius came under the influence of St Ambrose, the bishop of the city. Theodosius, like all human beings, was a sinner, and his besetting sin was wrath. This led to an atrocious act when he was provoked by the murder of a magistrate by a mob in Thessalonica, as the Synaxarion recounts: ‘… in 390 when, having secured control of the Western Empire and moved his court to Milan, he decided to visit severe punishment on the city of Thessalonica for its rebellion and, despite the remonstrances of Saint Ambrose, ordered the massacre of several thousand innocent people in the stadium there.’ (Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion, Ormylia, Chalkidike, 2001, III, p. 184.)
Ambrose forbade the emperor to receive the sacraments and imposed a heavy penance on him. In his funeral oration for Theodosius, Ambrose recounts what happened then: ‘I have loved a man who esteemed a reprover more than a flatterer. He threw on the ground all the royal attire that he was wearing. He wept publicly in church for his sin, which had stolen upon him through the deceit of others. He prayed for pardon with groans and with tears. What private citizens are ashamed to do, the emperor was not ashamed to do, namely, to perform penance publicly, nor did a day pass thereafter on which he did not bemoan that fault of his.’ (‘On the Death of Emperor Theodosius,’ para. 34, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, Fathers of the Church, Vol. 22, New York, 1953.)
Ambrose was the mentor of St Augustine and among the most eminent of the churchmen of his time. While implacable in condemning sin, he was just as capable of seeing into the heart of the sinner, and delivered this final judgement on Theodosius: ‘I have loved a merciful man, humble in power, endowed with a pure heart and a gentle disposition, a man such as God is accustomed to love, saying: ‘Upon whom shall I rest, unless upon the humble and gentle?’ … I have loved a man who in his dying hour kept asking for me with his last breath. I have loved a man who, when he was already being released from the body, was more concerned about the condition of the Church than about his own trials. I have loved him, therefore, I confess, and for that reason I have suffered my sorrow in the depths of my heart, and thought to be consoled by the delivery of a lengthy discourse. I have loved, and I presume upon the Lord that He will receive the voice of my prayer, with which I accompany this pious soul.’ (Op. cit., paras. 33, 35.)
St Theodosius was perfected on this day in the year 397 in Milan. After the funeral oration that St Ambrose delivered before his two sons on his fortieth day, his remains were carried to Constantinople for burial.
Occasional comments by a convert to Orthodoxy.