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Book I
Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

2nd edition
Oxford University Press
London, 1892

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book I
Chapter 11

Book 1 (continued)

Vol. I
Chapter X

Theodosius in Italy and the Massacre of Thessalonica


Sources: —

The materials for this chapter are chiefly derived from the letters of St. Ambrose, and the Church historians, especially Sozomen and Theodoret. It is singular that Zosimus, the bitter enemy of Theodosius, makes no allusion to the greatest blot on his character, his share in the massacre of Thessalonica.

Ammianus Marcellinus is our chief, almost our sole authority for the social condition of Rome towards the end of the fourth century.

Theodosius and Ambrose. The chief interest for us of Theodosius' residence at Milan consists in the relation into which he was thus brought with the Bishop of that city, the eloquent and domineering Ambrose. These two men, the Emperor and the Bishop, were unquestionably the foremost figures of their age. They met now probably for the first time: they were destined to spend about three years in near neighbourhood with one another. A shrewd observer of character might perhaps have prognosticated that, earnest upholders as both were of Nicene orthodoxy, there would hardly be unbroken peace between two such lordly natures constrained to dwell in such close proximity.

Religious troubles at Callinicum. In fact a cause of difference presented itself almost at the beginning of the Emperor's residence in Italy.  p511 The court of the East had sent a report to Theodosius as to certain disturbances which had taken place at Callinicum, a city on the Euphrates. The Christians had burned to the ground a richly-adorned synagogue of the Jews; and some orthodox monks who were celebrating (on the 1st of August) the festival of the Maccabean martyrs under Antiochus, had become engaged in a quarrel with the Gnostic heretics who bore the name of Valentinians, and had destroyed their 'temple' also by fire. Theodosius orders the orthodox to make restitution. On the receipt of this information Theodosius despatched a rescript to the effect that the Bishop of Callinicum should rebuild the Jewish synagogue at his own cost, and that punishment — we are not told of what kind — should be inflicted by the Eastern Count on the disorderly monks. The sentence appears, as far as we are able to judge of it, to have been a just one, and to have been dictated by a laudable spirit of impartiality. There was no doubt that a word from the Bishop would have checked the proceedings of the rioters; but, more than that, the nature of the defence set up for him by his most earnest advocate makes it probable that he had actually hounded them on to the work of destruction. The case was one which was entirely and absolutely within the province of the civil governor; no ecclesiastical right was involved in it; it was simply a question of the kind and degree of punishment which ought to be exacted from the disturbers of the public peace. The Bishop of Milan had no claim to express an opinion on the transaction, one way or the other, but, if he spoke at all, he, as a former Roman governor, who knew how by Law all things hang together in a well-ordered state, might have been expected to give a word of praise to the righteous  p512 Emperor, who even against men of his own creed, upheld the claim of all peaceable citizens to live under the equal protection of the laws.

Ambrose disapproves of the edict. Unfortunately for his fame, this was not the view of the matter taken by Ambrose. His was a bold and combative spirit; he had become inured to battle against the great ones of the earth in his disputes with Justina and with Maximus; and from the day of his consecration he had thrown himself into the defence of the Church's rights, real or imaginary, with an ardour such as in after ages burned in a Becket or a Hildebrand. Being absent at Aquileia when the news of the Imperial rescript first reached him, he wrote to Theodosius a letter almost as arrogant in its tone as those which he had formerly addressed to the trembling Valentinian. In this letter he hardly so much entreats as commands the Emperor to recall the fatal edict and to desist from all further proceedings against the destroyers of a mere synagogue, 'the haunt of infidels, the home of the impious, the hiding-place of madmen, which was under the damnation of God Himself.' With proud humility he claims his right to offer counsel to his sovereign. 'The Emperor must not deny liberty of speech, nor the priest refrain from saying what he thinks.' He declares that the Bishop of Callinicum will be a traitor to his office if he obeys the Imperial decree and rebuilds the synagogue, and he anticipates that he will prefer martyrdom to such a betrayal. 'Why do you pronounce sentence on the absent? I am here present before you​1 and confess my guilt. I proclaim that I would have burned the synagogue: I would have given charge to my flock  p513 that there must not be a house left standing in which Christ was denied. If you asked me why I have not already burned the synagogue here, I answer that its destruction had been already begun by the judgment of God;​2 and to tell the truth, I was the more tardy in doing such a deed because I did not know that you would punish it. Why should I perform an act for which there would, as I supposed, be no avenger and therefore no reward of martyrdom?'

He preaches against the Emperor. This strangely defiant epistle seems to have been met by Theodosius with dignified silence; but shortly afterwards Ambrose, having come back to Milan, returned to the charge in a sermon which he preached before the Emperor. He reproduces this sermon and describes the occasion and consequences of its delivery in a long letter to his sister, whom, in accordance with the unctuous unnatural tone assumed by the saints of that age, he addresses as 'your holiness.' The sermon preached on this occasion in the Basilica of Milan, though not wanting in eloquence of a certain kind, consisted chiefly of a long and, according to our notions, a tedious commentary on the story of the woman in Simon's house who bathed the Saviour's feet with her tears. The exegesis is of that barrenly fanciful kind by which anything can be made out of anything; allegorical interpretation pushed to the verge of absurdity, and texts from the Canticles, from Exodus and Isaiah piled one upon another without any attempt to understand the thoughts which the original writers sought to convey through them. But at the end of this wearisome prelection the situation suddenly becomes dramatic. The preacher, with Theodosius  p514 full in front of him, draws a covert parallel between his life and that of King David, selecting the moment when the prophet Nathan stood before him to rebuke him for his crime against Uriah. 'Chosen when thou wert little in Israel and anointed to the kingship; that former king who was troubled by an evil spirit and who persecuted the priests of the Lord,​3 cut off that thou mightest be exalted; with one of thy seed exalted to be partner of thy throne; the strangers made subject unto thee and they who warred upon thee made thy servants; wilt thou now hand over God's soldiers into the power of their enemies? wilt thou brand thyself with shame and give the adversaries occasion to triumph by taking away that which belongs to one of the servants of the Lord?' It had come then to this, that a Roman Emperor, struggling against his own inclinations to protect an unpopular class of his subjects from mob‑violence and priestly intolerance, could be told, in a crowded church in one of the chief cities of his empire, that he was imitating the crimes of David in the darkest passage of his life, his adultery with Bathsheba, his unutterably mean as well as wicked murder of Uriah the Hittite.

The preacher then turned round and looked Theodosius full in the face. 'Therefore, oh Emperor, that I may now not speak only about thee but address my words unto thee, do thou also as the woman in Simon's house did unto Christ; cherish the Church, wash her feet, anoint them with precious ointment, that the whole house may be filled with the odour of it, that angels may exult in thy relaxation of the punishment  p515 of her members, that apostles may rejoice and prophets may be made glad.'

Theodosius yields. When Ambrose descended from the pulpit Theodosius met him and said, 'You have been preaching about Us.' Ambrose replied, 'I chose a subject which pertained to your welfare.' Theodosius: 'I was certainly too hard in my decision as to the Bishop's rebuilding of the synagogue; but that is now put straight. The monks commit many crimes.'​4 Timasius, general-in‑chief of the forces,​5 echoed his master's words, and began to inveigh vehemently against the monks; but Ambrose brusquely interrupted him. 'I speak, as in duty bound, to the Emperor, who has the fear of God in his heart. I shall take some day a different course with thee, whose lips utter such hard things.' There then followed some undignified bargaining between the Emperor and the Bishop as to the issue of the edict of revocation. Ambrose twice said, 'I trust to your honour' [that it will be issued], and then Ambrose went to the altar and offered, as he says with an unusual feeling of the Divine acceptance, the Sacrifice which he would have persistently refused to offer for Theodosius had he not first received this pledge. Already the Christian hierarchy were beginning to feel and to use the tremendous power which the sacrificial theory of the Supper of the Lord placed in their hands. But Ambrose's easy victory was partly due to the peculiar temperament of Theodosius. That  p516 Emperor, so prone to sudden and violent paroxysms of rage, was easily moved to pity and forgiveness when wrath had had its way, and it was just in such a moment of recoil that the Bishop's sermon met him and drew from him the confession — unjust to himself as our age deems it — that 'he had been too hard in insisting on the rebuilding of the synagogue.'

The Altar of Victory again. It was perhaps in the following year (389)​6 that an embassy was sent by the Senate, in the forlorn hope of inducing Theodosius to consent to the restoration of the Altar of Victory. The chief orator was again Symmachus, who had fallen into disgrace on account of a panegyric which he had pronounced on the usurper Maximus, but having taken refuge at the altar of a Christian Church​7 had addressed an oration of praise and apology to the triumphant Emperor and had obtained forgiveness. Strangely enough the majesty of the Roman Senate seems to have made even the zealous Theodosius waver. There were some days during which the messengers had hopes of receiving an affirmative answer to their request; but the sternly averted face of Ambrose, who, during these days of doubt, refused to show himself in the presence-chamber of the Emperor, proved in the end mightier than the silver speech of Symmachus. Theodosius drove the heathen orator from his presence with the strange command that he should forthwith mount an uncovered chariot and put one hundred miles between himself and the Imperial Court.8


Visit of Theodosius to Rome. In the summer of 398 occurred one of those rare events, the visit of a Roman Emperor to the City, which nominally gave him the right to rule over the fairest portion of the habitable globe. On the 13th of June Theodosius entered in solemn pomp the Eternal City. By his side sat his young colleague Valentinian, on his lap his little son Honorius, a child of five years old.​9 The people received him with shouts of welcome, which he repaid with a liberal largesse.​10 With that stately affability, which he knew so well how to display without imperilling his dignity, he exchanged good-humoured banter with the crowd, and after the procession was over, entered, with friendly condescension, the houses of many of the nobles​11 and even some of the private citizens.

Panegyric of Pacatus. It was probably a few days after his entry into the City that Theodosius visited the Senate House and  p518 there heard the Gaulish orator, Latinus Pacatus Drepanius, recite, with real or feigned timidity, that florid panegyric on the Emperor and bitter invective of the fallen usurper, to which we have been already indebted for several facts in the history of both. In his peroration Pacatus imagines himself on his return to his native Gaul the centre of an admiring and envying crowd, because it will be in his power to say 'I have seen Rome; I have seen Theodosius; I have seen the father of Honorius, the avenger of Gratian, the restorer of Valentinian.' 'Distant cities will flock to me and take down from my lips the story of the triumph. Poets will derive from me the argument of their epics; on the faith of my words history will recount the past.' This last prediction has been curiously verified. History has used the oration of Pacatus as one of the foundations of her edifice, but she has done so from sheer necessity, and not from any confidence that she can put in an inflated and passionate panegyric.

Social condition of Rome at this time. We are fortunate in possessing a contemporary picture by a master-hand, which enables us in some degree to figure to ourselves the social life of the Roman nobles and citizens who welcomed the Imperial partners on their entrance into the City. Ammianus Marcellinus, writing possibly in this very year 389, twice​12 describes in some detail the manners of the Roman aristocracy and populace. True, his pen is dipped in gall, and almost all the characters that he portrays in these sketches are either odious or contemptible, but this is the well-known license of the satirist, and especially of that most bitter of satirists, a foreigner visiting a great city and finding himself — as we suspect was the  p519 case with Ammianus — treated with somewhat less respect than he deems himself entitled to by his rank or his achievements.

Fitful hospitality of the nobles. The Roman aristocracy, we are told, made a great parade of their hospitality. Even sending commissioners down to Ostia to meet the arriving vessels and press the strangers on board to visit the palaces of their lords;​13 but the hospitality was tendered with a selfish motive and the interest in the stranger's welfare was short-lived. The great object of each Roman noble was to make his list of clients as long as possible, and for this purpose were uttered these words of eager welcome which at first made the visitor feel that Rome was the most delightful place in all the world, and that he had wasted his opportunities by not visiting it ten years before. But the stranger, once secured, ceased to be an object of interest; next day the gracious host had nearly forgotten all about him; whether he visited his patron daily or remained absent for years seemed to be a matter of perfect indifference.​a

Roman dandies. Through the streets walked these great nobles, ruffling it in brilliant tunics adorned with figures of animals, and over these a multitude of thin gauzy mantles to which they were for ever calling attention by waving their left hands backwards and forwards and by all sorts of affected gestures. Sometimes you met one of these aristocrats driving through the streets with his long train of slaves, looking like a little army scientifically marshalled by their wand-bearing stewards. On either side of the lofty chariot marched the spinners and weavers of the lordly wardrobe, then the sooty  p520 ministers of the kitchen, then the promiscuous crowd of slaves mingled with the rabble of poor neighbours, and, last of all, with pale, repulsive countenances, the eunuchs, beginning with the old men and ending with the boys.

When such a nobleman met one of his equals in the street, like a butting bull he thrust forward his head to be kissed; when he met one of his parasites, he offered in a similar way his hand or his knee, with a gesture which seemed to say that the honour thus conferred was alone enough to make life happy. When have entered the baths (for instance, those glorious halls whose ruins we still admire, which bear the name of Caracalla): 'Where are my people?' shouted the self-important master in a voice that was meant to strike terror into all who heard it. Fifty busy servants thronged around him intent on their ministrations. When the bath was over he was dried with towels of finest linen; bright robes sufficient to clothe a dozen men were respectfully submitted to his gaze; he made the great decision and then received from a slave the rings which he had taken off that they might not be injured by the water, and stuck them on his fingers till these looked like graduated measuring-sticks.

The banquets. At length the stranger would receive the invitation to supper, so eagerly sighed for by the parasite who assiduously courted the favour of the nomenclator14 in order to obtain it, who nevertheless could hardly refuse it without mortally offending his patron. He must gaze with upturned eyes at the lofty-pillared entrance, he  p521 must admire the mosaic pictures on the walls, he must affect to consider the noble entertainer as raised almost above our mortal state. Then followed the repast, the long and wearisome repast, in which there was no conversation about books or thought or any worthy topic of discourse, for these Roman nobles were so ignorant that they scarcely knew the names of their own ancestors. The talk was chiefly about eating and drinking; and often the scales would be sent for and the weight of the viands tested. The turbots, the capons, the very dormice which figured in the menu of a Roman voluptuary would be weighed and the weights solemnly recorded by a band of obsequious clerks, who stood round with their tablets and their pencils. There would be so much writing and ciphering about these childish experiments that the banquet only required a pedagogue to make it resemble a school.

Art and literature. Books (as has been said) were held in little esteem by the Roman nobility: neither philosophy nor history being cultivated by them; but from this general neglect the satires of Juvenal and the lives of the Emperors by Marius Maximus were excepted, probably because both books ministered to the love of scandal engendered by their lazy lives.

Music, dancing and comedy were the only arts that were held in much esteem. The houses which had once been devoted to serious and noble studies were now filled with burlesque performers or echoed to the strains of voluptuous music. Where the philosopher had sat now stood the barytone singer; for the orator you met the comedian. The libraries, closed from year's end to year's end, seemed like gloomy caves, except when sometimes the manufacture of hydraulic organs, or lyres  p522 as large as chariots, resounded through their gloomy recesses. Roman matrons, or damsels old enough to have been matrons had they married, with daintily curled locks, were to be seen in all the places of public resort, perpetually sweeping the pavement with their whirling garments while they imitated to utter weariness the last dance which they had seen performed on the stage of the theatre.

All sense of moral proportion seemed to have vanished from the minds of this class of people. If a slave was somewhat slow in bringing the hot water, the order would go forth that he should be beaten with three hundred stripes: but if he had deliberately killed a man, to any demand for his punishment the master would reply, 'Poor fellow! he must have been out of his mind. I will tell him if he does it again he shall certainly be punished.' If these aristocrats undertook a journey to their estates in the country, they seemed to themselves to be rivalling the Indian expedition of Alexander; if they sailed in hot weather on the Avernian lake, and if a mosquito found its way through the silken curtains of the gilded barge, or a sunbeam pierced through an unnoticed hole, they would begin to beat their breasts and bewail their hard fate that they had not been born in Cimmerian cold and darkness.

Gamblers. The only men among the Roman nobility who were capable of forming strong friendships were the gamblers, and these, from the remembrance of common dangers undergone, perhaps of common campaigns against the young men of fortune who were their victims, seemed to be bound together by indissoluble bonds.

Superstition. Superstition and infidelity went, as they so often go, hand in hand.​b You might meet with men who denied  p523 that there was any Supreme Ruler of the Universe, and yet who would neither go out into the street nor sit down to dinner — hardly even wash their hands — till they had consulted an almanack to ascertain the precise position of the planet Mercury, or to see whether the moon had entered the constellation Cancer.

Legacy-hunting. Lastly, in his sketch of the lives and manners of the Roman aristocracy, Ammianus insists on the degrading eagerness of their legacy-hunting, a practice on which Horace, and Juvenal before him, had poured out the vials of their scorn, but which in a rich, corrupt, and idle community was sure to engross the energies of many of its members. Not only the unmarried and the childless were assailed by the assiduity of the legacy-hunter. Sometimes even the father of a family would be induced by a fawning parasite, who had accommodated himself to his weaknesses, to make liberal provision for him in his will; and in these cases the making of the will was often followed by a death of surprising suddenness. Husbands and wives, too, displayed the same ignoble eagerness for wealth to which death gave the key. The wife wearied the husband to make her his sole legatee. Then the husband persisted that his wife should return the compliment. Soothsayers would be privately consulted as to the time when the desired event would happen which would prevent all chance of the will being revoked: and sometimes, if soothsayers were not sufficient, some other help might be used to hasten the day, in which case the sorrowing survivor honoured the departed wife or husband with a funeral of surpassing splendour. In short, the judgment of Ammianus concerning most of the Roman nobles whom he had met, might be summed up in the words of  p524 Cicero, 'In human affairs, their only test of goodness is profit: and men love their friends as a sheep-master loves his sheep, calculating all the while which will bring him in the heaviest gains.'​c

The Roman commonalty. This gloomy and of course over-charged picture of the Roman aristocracy is followed by a few contemptuous words as to their humbler fellow-citizens, the men who had not got a pair of whole shoes to wear, but who had to give themselves grand and fine-sounding names. These were they whose days were passed in gambling and drinking, and worse debauchery, and their nights on the floor of the wine-shop or under the curtains of the theatre. How they threw the dice with a kind of pugnacious eagerness and snorted defiance when the luck seemed going against them: how they crowded into the Circus Maximus, spending the livelong day, in blazing heat or pouring rain, scrutinising the points of the horses and the equipments of the charioteers: how on the day of a great race, long before dawn, they would throng the approaches to the hippodrome, swearing by the gods of the stable​15 that it would be all over with the State if the horse which they fancied did not first reach the goal: how they hissed the dramatic performers who had not bought their favour with coppers: the foul words which they used, and the senseless slang​16 which was for ever on their lips: all these incidents of  p525 plebeian life at Rome are sketched, with angry contempt, by the proud Syrian nobleman who came to the City on the Tiber, half-hoping that he might still find in her some trace of the Rome of the Catos and the Fabricii, but who found her dead to the memory of all her past nobleness, sunk in frivolous and degrading vices.

The Christian aristocracy. We must not forget, however, that there was another side to the life of the Roman aristocracy, of which Ammianus remained in perhaps voluntary ignorance. While the nobles whom he visited were compassing sea and land to obtain some fresh gratification for their sensual appetites, there were Roman matrons, heirs of some of the greatest names of the Republic, who, in their palaces on the lonely Aventine, were living a life wholly apart from that of the wicked and frivolous City, a life in which 'high thinking' and the plainest of 'plain living' went hand in hand. 340 The visit of Athanasius to Rome half a century before the date which we have now reached, and the earnest pleadings of the Egyptian monks, his companions, on behalf of a monastic life, had borne fruit in these austerely noble souls. There, on the Aventine was Marcella, the descendant of the great Marcellus, Fabiola the child of the Fabii, Furia who traced up her lineage to the great Camillus. With these had once been joined Paula, descended on her mother's side from Paulus Aemilius, on her father's from Agamemnon, king of men: but Paula and her favourite daughter were now inhabitants of a narrow cell by the cradle of Christ at Bethlehem, and the great teacher of the Church, St. Jerome, who had preached the monastic life with such success in the palaces of Rome, was the sharer of their exile and their seclusion. All these devout and honourable women  p526 lived a life of the strictest self-denial, devoting themselves to study and the service of the poor, spending their days in the reading of the Scriptures in Greek and Hebrew, and making the nights melodious with their pious psalmody.

Chariot-races. But it is not with monastic Aventine that we must now concern ourselves. We turn from those high and pure, if somewhat narrow, souls, to the coarse and brutal mob who are filling the Circus Maximus below with their senseless clamour. Already the Chariot-race was becoming the central event in the lives of a multitude of Roman citizens. Already we may conjecture the two colours blue and green, which denoted the most popular training-stables, had attracted to themselves that wild fervour of party feeling which 140 years later was to lay Constantinople in ashes. 'The green charioteer flashes by, a great part of the inhabitants are in despair. The blue gets a lead: yet more are in misery. They cheer frantically when they have gained nothing: they are cut to the heart when they have sustained no loss: they plunge with as much eagerness into these empty contests as if the welfare of the whole country were at stake.'​17 So keen was the competition and of such immense importance to a popular chariot-driver did his success appear, Bewitched charioteers. that the magicians and the poisoners were freely resorted to, that by their unhallowed arts a dangerous rival might be rendered incapable of victory. This was a matter of such common occurrence that magic or poison was as naturally associated  p527 with the name of a favourite auriga as foul play of other kinds in our days with the under-strappers of a racing-stable. Before Theodosius left Rome he issued a law​18 denouncing capital punishment on any charioteer who should take private vengeance on even an avowed magician from whose arts he had suffered. 'If he has bewitched you,' says the Imperial legislator, 'he is the enemy of the general safety, and should be brought forth in public, and examined under the eyes of the judges. By dealing the deadly blow to him in secret, you incur a twofold suspicion; first, that you yourself CHECK: had had recourse to his services for a similar purpose, and, secondly, that you are punishing a private enemy under pretence of zeal for the public good.'19

Theodosius returns to Milan. 389 After leaving Rome Theodosius visited several cities in Northern Italy, and returned to Milan before the end of November. He spent the whole of the year 390, and the first half of 391, in that city in the near neighbourhood of the great Bishop, whose presence awed and yet fascinated him. Here, probably in the month of April, 390, he heard the tidings of an event which in its consequences brought the names of Theodosius and Ambrose into ever memorable relation with each other. This event (closely connected with that very passion for the chariot-race which we have just been considering) was the sedition of Thessalonica.

Outbreak at Thessalonica. The cause of this sedition is so connected with the unnatural vices of the Graeco-Roman population of that period that it can be but vaguely hinted at by a modern historian. It is sufficient to say that Botheric, master of  p528 the soldiery in Illyricum, and evidently a man of Teutonic extraction, had with righteous indignation committed to prison a certain charioteer who was guilty of an abominable crime.​20d In the second act of the drama we find the populace mad with the frenzy of the arena, perhaps also smarting under the feeling of their inferiority to the barbarians quartered upon them, fiercely shouting for the liberation of their favourite. When cries and menaces did not avail to shake the Goth's stern purpose of punishment, they rose in armed rebellion, slew Botheric and some of the other Imperial officers, and dragged their bodies in triumph through the city. The rage of Theodosius, when he heard of this insult to his authority, was indescribable, and hurried him into a revenge the stupidity of which was equal to its wickedness. Punished by an indiscriminate massacre. Without any attempt at a judicial enquiry to ascertain who were the authors of the rebellion, he sent his soldiers (many of them probably the countrymen of the murdered Botheric) to the city, with orders to bring back a certain number of heads.​21 One historian​22 places the number at 7000; another,​23 probably exaggerating, fixes it at 15,000. But whatever may have been the number ordered, the peculiar atrocity of the mandate, its perfect indifference to the guilt or innocence of the victims, is admitted by  p529 all. There is something Oriental rather than Roman in this absolute contempt for even the semblance of justice, and it may be doubted if any, even among the most brutal of the wearers of the purple, is stained with a more utterly unkingly crime than this. Moreover, as Gibbon has well observed, Thessalonica had been one of the favourite abodes of the Emperor, and the enormity of his guilt seems intensified by the fact that he must have known by heart the look of the place which his soldiers were to fill with ghastly corpses, and that the citizens who, innocent of any crime, were to fall beneath the sword of his satellites, were men with many of whose faces he must have been familiar, men with whom perchance he had himself exchanged a friendly Salve on his way to the bath or the circus. Thessalonica was the scene of his dangerous illness, of his slow convalescence, of the baptism which was meant to mark his rising up to a purer and holier life. Strange! that no softening remembrance came across his mind to prevent his indiscriminate slaughter of her sons. Yet scenes of which the following is a type must have been common during the massacre. Sozomen, VII.25
Greek English
A certain merchant (possibly one of these acquaintances of the Imperial murderer) had the misery of finding that his two sons were selected as victims. He entreated to be allowed to substitute himself for one of them: his tears, his gold, were almost effectual in obtaining this melancholy favour from the soldiery. But then the question arose, 'Which was to be the rescued one?' He looked from one face to another, both so dear, in an agony of indecision; and while he hesitated the brutal soldiers shouted out 'There is no time to lose, the number must be completed,' and slew both the young men before his eyes. While another  p530 citizen was being led to the shambles he was met by a devoted slave who with pathetic fidelity offered his own life to the executioners as a ransom for his master's, and apparently the offer was accepted.

Such was the crime of the massacre at Thessalonica, a crime which may have been atoned for in the sight of Heaven by the sincerity of the Emperor's after penitence, but which in the judgment of history must stamp with indelible reprobation, not his character only but the constitution of the State under which such deeds were possible.

Indignation of Ambrose. Ambrose, when he heard of the market, was stirred with honest anger at the brutal crime, a crime against which the law‑revering instincts of the old Roman official protested as loudly as the humane instincts of the Christian Bishop. Moreover there was an element of offended dignity added to his righteous wrath. Theodosius throughout his residence at Milan had taken him less into his counsels than so orthodox an Emperor might have been expected to do; but in this affair he had promised Ambrose that he would deal leniently with the guilty city. Afterwards, however, other counsellors, obtaining access to his person, had rekindled the half-extinguished fire of his resentment and had effaced the remembrance of the Bishop's soothing words and his own Imperial promise. Ambrose now studiously avoided the presence of his sovereign, and in a letter full of manly dignity told him that he was doing this intentionally though he pleaded to the world the excuse of sickness, because his conscience would not permit him to condone the unrepented crime of the Emperor. 'I do not dare to offer the Sacrifice while you are standing by. If the blood of  p531 even one man disqualifies the murderer from the Communion, how much more that of thousands! Moreover in a dream of the night, when I was on the point of starting for Milan, I saw you entering the Church, and an intimation from God Himself forbade me to offer the Sacrifice before you.'

Theodosius repulsed from the Church; What reply Theodosius may have made to this letter we know not, but he apparently presented himself soon after in the church of Milan, intending there to take his usual part in the worship of the congregation. Theodoret, V.18. He was met, however, on the threshold by the Bishop who, in temperate but weighty words, forbade him to enter. 'The magnitude of the Empire, and the intoxicating influence of absolute power, might have prevented him from discerning as yet the enormity of his crime: but robed as he was in the Imperial purple, he was still but a man whose body would crumble into dust, whose spirit would return to God Who gave it. What account would he then be able to give of this dreadful massacre of his subjects? His subjects truly, but also his fellow-servants, men whose souls were as precious in God's sight as his own. and placed under an interdict. How could one whose hands were still soiled with that innocent blood, acceptably join in the worship of Almighty God. Let him depart, and in seclusion from the rest of the faithful, let him practise penitence and prayer till the time should come when he might fitly be absolved from his great transgression.'

Theodosius, 'who was well instructed in Scripture, and who well knew the respective limits of the ecclesiastical and temporal power,' received this rebuke with patience, obeyed the interdict, and returned sadly to the Imperial palace. More than eight months after, he made another attempt to obtain reconciliation with  p532 the Church; Rufinus mediates without success. but with a strange want of tact, or of remembrance, he permitted the office of mediator to be assumed by Rufinus. Rufinus, a native of an obscure town in Gascony, had made his way to the court of Byzantium, and there, with nothing to recommend him either as statesman or as general, had climbed up, by dint of flattery, intrigue, and calumny of his competitors, into the place of Praetorian Prefect, the highest position under the Emperor. His rapacity had made him the wealthiest and the most hated of all the ministers of Theodosius, and, scenting no doubt some plunder in the crime, he had (at least according to the belief of the people) been the chief instigator of the Thessalonican massacre. Such was the man whose officious servility proposed to the depressed Emperor an attempt to procure a removal of the interdict, and actually prompted him to offer his own good offices in the negotiation. Rufinus found Theodosius in tears and asked the cause. 'You may be mirthful, oh Rufinus!' said the sighing Emperor, 'but I must be sad. It is now Christmas, the time of the Church's gladness; but though beggars and slaves may enter the house of the Lord, its doors are closed to me.' Reluctantly and without hope Theodosius permitted Rufinus to intercede for him with Ambrose. But the Bishop, as soon as he saw the Praetorian Prefect, addressed him with burning words: 'You are as shameless as a dog, oh Rufinus! It was you who advised this cruel massacre, yet you come to me without a word of penitence or remorse for the outrage you have committed on the images of the Most High.' Rufinus cringed, but hinted that the Emperor would insist on coming to the Church. Ambrose replied, 'He shall slay me first.  p533 If he will change his emperor­ship into tyrant­ship, I cannot hinder him, but with my consent he comes not within these walls.'

Theodosius repents, Hearing of the ill‑success of his messenger, the Emperor resolved to drink the cup of humiliation to the dregs, and went not to the Church, but to the house of Ambrose, exclaiming, 'I will go and receive the censure which I deserve.' Ambrose again remonstrated with him for his tyranny: 'I repent of it,' said Theodosius. 'Repentance should be openly manifested, and should be accompanied by some precaution against the repetition of the offence.' 'What precaution can I take? Show me the remedy and I will adopt it.' 'Since passion was the cause of thy fall, oh Emperor, prepare a law which shall henceforth interpose an interval of thirty days between the signing of any capital sentence or decree of proscription and its execution. If in these thirty days, if passion, not justice, dictated the decree, there will be a chance for reason to be heard, and for the decree to be modified or revoked.'

Theodosius gladly accepted this wise and statesmanlike suggestion, and is absolved. 25 Dec. 390 and having signed the new law was released from the interdict and permitted to enter the Church. Prostrate on the floor he repeated the words of the 119th Psalm, 'My soul cleaveth unto the dust, quicken thou me according to Thy word,' and by sighs and tears, by smiting upon his forehead, and tearing his hair, he manifested to the assembled multitude the agony of his remorse.

After the service was ended, the weeping penitent laid his gift upon the table, and then remained within the altar-railings waiting to receive the bread and wine. Ambrose sent him a message by a deacon commanding  p534 him to withdraw from that sacred enclosure which was reserved for priests only: 'The Emperor must worship with the rest of the laity outside the rails. The purple robe makes Emperors only, not priests.' Theodosius humbly obeyed the mandate, merely observing that he had not intentionally erred, but had followed the usage of Constantinople, which gave that place to the Emperor. (Already then, even before the separation of the two Empires, the Italian priest held his head higher in the presence of Caesar than the Byzantine.) On his return to Constantinople Theodosius refused to occupy his old place of honour by the altar, saying to the wondering Bishop, 'With difficulty have I learned the difference between an Emperor and a priest. It is hard for a ruler to meet with one willing to tell him the truth. Ambrose is the only man whom I consider worthy of the name of Bishop.'

Thus did Theodosius, the proto­type in so many other respects of the great 'Roman' Emperors of a later age, anticipate in his own person that humiliation of the Caesar before the successor of Peter, which was so often enacted in the Middle Ages, and which was most vividly exemplified in the courtyard of Canossa. But Theodosius, with all his faults, was a nobler antagonist than the Emperor Henry IV, and St. Ambrose, fighting for the inalienable rights of humanity, was the champion of a nobler cause than those ecclesiastical claims which kindled the zeal of Hildebrand.

The Author's Notes:

1 This is, of course, only a figure of speech.

2 Had the Jewish synagogue at Milan been struck by lightning?

3 Valens? or Julian?

4 Apparently, therefore, it was only the monkish destruction of the Valentinian chapel that was now in question: Theodosius having retreated from the position which he had taken up regarding the synagogue.

5 Magister equitum et peditum.

6 Seeck (de Vita Symmachi lviii.) puts this embassy in the year of Symmachus' consul­ship (391).

7 Belonging to the dissenting sect of the Novatians.

8 'Quem statim a suis aspectibus pulsum in centesimo lapide raedae non stratae impositum eâ die manere praecepit' (Prosper De Promiss. Dei III.38.2: quoted by Seeck).

9 Dr. Güldenpenning (p174) suggests that the reason for Theodosius thus solemnly exhibiting Honorius to the Roman people was that, in the eventual partition of the Empire, he destined Italy and Africa for this his younger son, the East for Arcadius, the Gauls (Gratian's portion of the Empire) for Valentinian. The conjecture seems plausible, but it must be remembered that it is but a conjecture, supported by no hint from a contemporary authority.

10 'Et congiarium dedit populo Romano' (Fasti Idatiani). The congiarium (from congius, a measure holding about six pints) was originally a distribution of wine or oil, but was probably now generally commuted into a money payment.


'Cum se melioribus addens

Exemplis, civem gereret, terrore remoto

Alternos cum plebe jocos, dilectaque passus

Jurgia, patriciasque domos, privataque passim

Visere deposito dignatus limina fastu.'

Claudian, De VI Cons. Honor. 58‑62.

12 XIV.6; XXVIII.4.

13 This curious custom is mentioned by Lydus (De Magistratibus I.20).

14 The remembrancer of guests: an animated Debrett or Court Directory.

15 'Per Janos et Eponam clamitant': an interesting passage, because on the line of the Roman Wall in England, as well as on the German Pfahlgraben, we have altars and images in honour of Epona, the goddess of stables.

16 A favourite piece of slang, which Ammianus says no one could explain, was shouted apparently to a favoured performer, 'per te ille discat.' 'Ille' was, I suppose, the unpopular competitor.

Thayer's Note: Literally, "Let him learn from you." More idiomatically, "You show him!"

17 Cassiodorus, Variae III.51. This letter was written in the early part of the sixth century, but the allusions of Ammianus show that the state of public feeling a hundred and fifty years earlier is correctly described by it.

18 Cod. Theod. IX.16.11. The date of the law is 16 Aug. 389.

19 I owe the reference to this law (very fully explained and illustrated by Gothofred in loc.) to Dr. Güldenpenning, p179.

20 There had been also for some time a smouldering quarrel between the citizens and the soldiery (who were probably Gothic foederati) about billeting. This is mentioned by Cedrenus and Theophanes. The affair of the imprisoned charioteer perhaps brought the quarrel to a crisis.

21 According to one account (that given by Rufinus, II.18) the citizens were, with grim irony, invited to assemble in the Circus to witness the games, and there the soldiers were let loose upon them.

22 Theodoret, V.17.

23 Theophanes, p62, (Paris ed. 1655.)

Thayer's Notes:

a The parallel with Twitter or Facebook "followers" leaps to mind.

b "Infidelity" is meant here in its etymological sense = lack of [religious] faith. The intimate connection of superstition and atheism, which seems surprising at first, is explored in some detail by Plutarch in his essay On Superstition.

c de Natura Deorum, I.44(122); but it's not quite what Cicero says.

d Fast-forward a hundred and twenty years, and the modern historian no longer needs to hint. The story — such as it is: a single sentence in Sozomen VII.25 (Migne, LXVII.1493) Greek English — is rather banal, and offers a perfect example how something could be made by the Victorians much more salacious and titillating to the imagination by expurgating it than by a straightforward account:

Βουθερίκου τοῦ ἡγουμένου τότε τῶν παρ’ Ἰλλυριοῖς στρατιωτῶν ἡνίοχος τὸν οἰνοχόον αἰσχρῶς ἰδὼν, ἐπείρασε.

When Butheric was commander of the soldiers in Illyria (i.e.magister militum per Illyricum), a charioteer saw a cupbearer naked and tried [to have his way with] him.

(my translation)

When heterosexual, such occurrences are routinely mentioned and discussed by our author (VII.203, VIII.108, etc.), and without any particular characterization.

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