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Book I
Chapter 6

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
Note D

Book 1 (continued)

Vol. I
Chapter VII

The Fall of Gratian


Sources: —

Besides the sources enumerated in the previous chapters (the chief of whom, now that we have lost the help of Ammianus Marcellinus, is the unsatisfactory Zosimus), we get some assistance for the reign of Gratian from the work which often goes by the name of Sextus Aurelius Victor 'De Vita et Moribus Imperatorum Romanorum,' but which is more safely quoted as 'Epitoma de Vita et Moribus Imperatorum,' its connection with Victor being doubtful. Victor was governor of Pannonia Secunda under Constantius, and Prefect of Rome under Theodosius. If the Epitoma does not come from his hand, it is nevertheless pretty clearly the work of a contemporary, and its notices though scanty are valuable.

A good deal of information as to the reign of Gratian is derived from the writings of Ausonius (Consul, 379), whose position at the Court is described in the following chapter, and from the sermons and letters of Ambrose.

Gratian's capital, Trier. Barbarian invasion and religious controversy have compelled us to devote a large share of attention to the fortunes of the Eastern Empire. The scene now shifts from Thrace to Gaul, from the sea which flowed like a river past the churches and palaces of Constantinople, to the river which widened into lakes under the vine-clad hills of Gallia Belgica. Here, on the banks of the beautiful Moselle, stands the 'August city of the  p378 Treveri,'​1 now called by its German possessors, Trier, by its French neighbours, Trêves; a city which claims to have been founded by Assyrian emigrants at the time of the Call of Abraham, but which has more substantial titles to the veneration of the archaeologist, as possessing undoubtedly finer remnants of Roman architecture than any other city north of the Alps.​a Here the traveller can still see the massive buttresses which once supported the Roman bridge over the Moselle, — the Amphitheatre in which the young Constantine made the Frankish kings, his captives, fight with the lions of Libya, — the massive walls of the building​2 which was once probably the Palace of the Praetorian Prefect, perhaps of the Emperor himself, when he resided at Augusta Treverorum. Here is the Basilica or Hall of Judgment of Constantine, now used as a Protestant Church, and here is another Basilica, begun probably by Valentinian and completed by Gratian himself, whose four gigantic columns, with the vast arches springing from them, formed the nucleus round which the cathedral of the Prince-Bishops of Trier has strangely crystallised. But beyond all other wonders of this most wonderful city is the huge mass of the Porta Nigra, a fortress-gateway, far surpassing in size any structure of the same kind at Rome itself, and probably built by Valentinian or by one of his immediate predecessors. This mighty pile, the lower stories of which were throughout the Middle Ages choked with rubbish, while its upper part was turned into a church, or rather into two churches, has now by the Prussian Government  p379 been cleared of all these incongruous additions, and frowns down on the breweries and the gas‑works as it frowned down on the Court, the Camp, and the Basilica in the days of Gratian.3

Augusta Treverorum appears to have become the regular official residence of the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul towards the end of the third century. Constantine enriched it with many fine buildings, often abode in its palace, and as has been said, celebrated the games in its Amphitheatre. His son, Constantine II, Valentinian, and Gratian, all treated it as their chief capital city. Here then Gratian dwelt for the greater part of his seven years' reign, except when his presence was needed at Sirmium to direct the operations of his generals against the Goths during the sickness of Theodosius, or at Milan to guide the counsels of his impulsive step-mother, Justina. The beginning of his reign was full of promise. Besides the successes which his arms achieved against the Lentienses and the Visigoths, successes the glory of which of course rested chiefly with his generals, he had the more personal merit of mitigating the harshness of his father's policy and of punishing some of the chief instruments of his cruelty. Thus, as has been already said,​4 both Maximin and his assessor Simplicius were, apparently at the outset of the reign of Gratian, handed over to the sword of the executioner.

Gratian's Counsellors. Merobaudes. Much of the credit of Gratian's early popularity is doubtless due to the two wise counsellors by whom his policy was chiefly guided. The first of these was  p380 Merobaudes the Frank, who for his surpassing military talents had been made Master of the Soldiery by Valentinian,​5 and who had protected the interests of the family of the deceased Emperor in the stormy debates which followed that Emperor's death. He shared the honours of the consul­ship with Gratian in 377, was probably his chief adviser in all military matters during the eight years of his reign.​6 Notwithstanding a passage in one of the chroniclers​7 which throws a doubt on his fidelity, there is reason to believe that the old general remained true to the house of Valentinian to the end, and perished because of that fidelity.

Ausonius. A very different character from that of the martial Frank was borne by the other chief counsellor of the young prince, once his tutor, now his minister, Decimus Magnus Ausonius. This man's history was a good illustration of the way in which the profession of rhetoric might even under so autocratic a system of government as the Roman Empire, lead a person of modest birth and fortune to the most brilliant prizes of the civil service.

Ausonius was born at Bordeaux in the early years of the fourth century, and was the son of an eminent physician named Julius Ausonius. Decimus Ausonius studied rhetoric, taught grammar, (Between 364 and 367) and in middle life was appointed tutor to the young Gratian. The pupil seems to have truly loved his preceptor, who describes  p381 himself as 'tranquil, indulgent, mild of eye, of voice, of countenance:'​8 and the stern Valentinian respected him. Hence honours and emoluments flowed in upon himself and his family. His aged father was made Prefect of Illyricum: he himself was successively count, quaestor, and Praetorian Prefect, ruling in the latter capacity Gaul, Illyricum, and Italy. Prefectures and proconsulates were also bestowed on a son, a son-in‑law, and a nephew of the favoured tutor, and in the year 379 he himself was raised to the supreme, the almost overwhelming honour of the consul­ship.

Poetry of Ausonius. To subsequent generations Ausonius has been chiefly interesting as representing the late autumn of Roman poetry. It is true that he cannot be classed above the third-rate poets, that many of his works are mere metrical conceits, of no literary value, that he has no striking thoughts nor especially melodious diction: but there is in this 'tranquil and indulgent man with his mild voice and eye' a certain gentle susceptibility to the beauties of Nature which makes him a not altogether unworthy successor of Virgil, a not entirely futile forerunner of our modern school of poetry. His most celebrated poem is an 'Idyll,' in which he sings the praises of the Moselle. The vine-covered hills above, reminding him of his native Garonne, the villas which lined both sides of the valley, the happy labourers at their harvest toil, the stream itself 'like the sea bearing mighty ships, like a river rushing along with whirling waters,' the white pebbles of its bed clearly seen through its transparent tide, and the grassy mounds reflected in its pools: all these are described, if with rather too obvious a desire to imitate  p382 Virgil, still by one whose eye was open to behold the beauties of Nature. It must be admitted, however, that there is much vapid mythological allusion, even in this short poem, and that when the bard enumerates the various kinds of fish that might be caught in the Moselle, and the different streams that helped to swell its waters, he does not rise much above the level of a catalogue in verse.

A poem of more personal interest, but one of which we unfortunately possess only the beginning, is the Ephemeris, or shire of a day in the author's life. The poet begins in soft Sapphics, calling his lazy slave Parmeno to awake:

'Now the bright-eyed Morn re‑illumes the window;

Now the wakeful swift in her nest is chirping;

You, my slave! as though it were scarcely midnight,

Parmeno! sleep still.

Dormice sleep, 'tis true for a livelong winter;

Sleep, but feed not. You, like a lazy glutton,

Drink deep drafts before you lie down to slumber;

Therefore you snore still.

Therefore voice of mine cannot pierce those ear‑flaps.

Therefore slumber reigns in your vacant mind-place,

Therefore Light's bright beams with a vanity endeavour

Play on your eye‑lids.

Bards have told the tale of a youth whose slumbers

Lasted on, unbroken, a mortal twelvemonth,

Nights and days alike, while the Moon above him

Smiled on his sleeping.

Rise! you dawdler; rise! or this rod corrects you.

Rise! lest deeper sleep, when you least expect it,

Wrap your soul:​9 your limbs from that couch of softness,

Parmeno! lift now.


Ah! Perhaps my gentle harmonious Sapphics

Soothe his brain and make but his sleep the sweeter.

Drop we then the lesbian strain, and try the

Sharper Iambus.

Here: boy! Arise! My sandals bring

And fetch me water from the spring,

That I may wash hands, eyes and face;

And bring my muslin robe apace;

And any dress that's fit to wear

Bring quick, for I abroad would fare.

Then deck the chapel, where anon

I'll pay my morning orison.

No need of great equipments there,

But harmless thoughts and pious prayer:

No frankincense I need to burn;

The honeyed pastry-cake I spurn.

The altar of the living sod

I leave to others, while to God

The Father with coëqual Son

And Spirit, linked in unison,

I pray in this my morning hour.

I think upon the present Power;

My spirit trembles. He is here,

Yet what have Hope and Faith to fear?'

Then follows a prayer consisting chiefly of 'an anxiously orthodox invocation of the Trinity,'​10 but with something more than mere orthodoxy in its closing sentences. The poet desires to be kept in goodness and purity, to be neither truly accused nor falsely suspected of crime, to have the use of his faculties and the love of his friends preserved to him, and when the last hour comes, neither to fear death nor yet to long for it.

Here unfortunately the best part of the poem ends.  p384 Ausonius has asked five guests to dine with him, and gives some directions to the cook as to the preparation of the repast: but the dinner itself, the talk of the guests, the siesta, the games which might have followed it — all these are absent from this record of a day: and after a long break we have only a humorous description of the nightmare dreams which follow the too luxurious banquet. Knowing what caused the ruin of the poet's Imperial pupil, Gratian, we notice with some interest that one of the worst of these dreams is that in which Ausonius sees himself dragged away, helpless and unarmed, among bands of captive Alans.11

Religious position of Ausonius. At an epoch of transition such as that which we are studying, we look attentively to see what was the mental attitude of the chief writers of the day towards the religious questions with stirred the minds of the multitude and evoked the edicts of emperors. The general tone of Ausonius' poetry seems to have monotheistic but Pagan. He corresponds on intimate terms with Symmachus, the great supporter of Paganism at Rome: and the Professors of Rhetoric at Bordeaux, Toulouse, and other cities of Southern Gaul, whose fame he commemorates in a poem specially dedicated to their honour, seem to have been for the most part followers of the old religion. On the other hand, as we have seen, he is anxious to show himself not only a Christian, but an orthodox Trinitarian, in his Ephemeris. Probably the fact is that he was sprung from a family which was either heathen, or indifferent to religious controversy, that in his profession as a rhetorician he was brought into contact chiefly with the votaries of  p385 the Olympian gods, but that in middle life he professed, and perhaps possessed, a sufficient amount of faith in Christianity to make it not unsuitable that he should be appointed tutor to a Christian Augustus. The important point to notice, and that which justifies us for having spent a few pages on the character and career of this third-rate poet, is that what is now called Culture was still for the most part loyal to the old gods of Greece and Rome. Christianity, such as it was, had conquered in the forum, in the army, and in the council-chamber; but it had not yet succeeded in establishing its dominion in the author's study or the professor's lecture-room.

St. Ambrose. Very different from Ausonius in character, in mental fibre, and in his influence on his own and succeeding ages, was another adviser who, though not a minister of state like Merobaudes or Ausonius, still did much to mould the mind of Gratian. This was the far‑famed bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. Sprung from one of the great official families of the Empire, Ambrose passed the years of infancy in the palace of the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, for that was the high office (carrying with it dominion over Britain, Gaul, and Spain), which was wielded by his father and namesake. Circa 340. We are not informed where the elder Ambrose was dwelling when his son was born to him; but it is at least a plausible conjecture that it was at Augusta Treverorum; and if so the ruined pile on the outskirts of Trier, which went till lately by the name of the 'Roman Baths,' is probably the building in which the child, who was to be one day the greatest theologian of the West, first saw the light, and through the open windows of which, according to his biographer's story, the swarm  p386 of bees came flying, which crept in and out of the open mouth of the slumbering infant — a presage of his future sweet and golden eloquence.

Like his father, Ambrose seemed destined to be a great Imperial official. He pleaded as an advocate in the Court of the Praetorian Prefect of Italy,​12 and (probably about the 30th year of his age) was advanced to the dignity of Clarissimus Consularis Liguriae et Aemiliae.​13 Here while he was discharging the duties of his office with impartial industry, and thus winning the esteem of the provincials to whom a just governor was not one of the ordinary blessings of life, 374 he was one day summoned to the great Basilica of Mediolanum in order to quell what seemed likely to be a bloody tumult arising out of a disputed episcopal election. Auxentius, the just deceased Bishop, had been an Arian. A strong and clamorous party wished to give him an Arian successor; but other voices, probably more numerous, shouted for the election of one who would uphold the creed of Nicaea. While Ambrose, surrounded by his guards, was addressing the excited multitude, and seeking to persuade or awe them into stillness, suddenly a voice was heard — the voice of a little child said the poetic imagination of those who had afterwards  p387 to tell the story — clear and distinct, through the eloquent speech of the young Consular: 'Ambrose is Bishop.' The voice was hailed as an omen from heaven. Probably as Ambrose was still but a catechumen, each party hoped that he might be persuaded to enlist under its banner. The determination of the people to have Ambrose for their Bishop was only increased by the strange and repulsive expedients to which he resorted in order to give force to what was perhaps in his case a genuine ut 'Nolo episcopari.' After an attempted flight he surrendered himself to the will of the people, was baptised as a Christian, and on the eighth day sat in the marble chair of the Basilica, a consecrated Bishop.

Orthodoxy of Ambrose. Not for long were the two parties left in doubt which of them Ambrose would join. He soon showed himself an earnest, an eloquent, and a somewhat high-handed votary of the faith of Nicaea, to the final victory of which creed he contributed as effectually in the West as Basil and Gregory had done in the East. It was he who in the year 381 procured the assembling of a Council at Aquileia for the deposition of Palladius and Secundianus, two aged semi-Arian Bishops. He conducted the bitter cross-examination which preceded their condemnation, refusing their appeals to a General Council, taking them point by point through all the heresies of Arius, and calling upon them either to anathematise, or to prove the theses of the arch-heretic.​14 Finally it was Ambrose who, reciting the 'blasphemies' of the two defendants, obtained the unanimous anathemas of the Bishops (collected chiefly from the cities of Northern Italy, and Gaul) who were assembled  p388 in the Aquileian Basilica, and it was Ambrose who drew up the report of the Council addressed to the Emperors, praying that the deposed prelates might be kept from entering the churches, and that holy men might be appointed in their places.15

Treatise De Fide. Upon the young and ardent mind of Gratian, St. Ambrose, in the fervour of his zeal for Nicene orthodoxy, and with that wealth of experience which he had collected both from his political and his ecclesiastical career, seems to have exercised an extraordinary influence. When the Emperor was moving his troops eastward to help his ill‑fated uncle against the Goths, he besought the Bishop of Milan to give him some treatise concerning the Catholic Faith, by which he might strengthen his heart for the combat. Probably Gratian was thinking of the apparently inevitable discussions with the Arian Valens and the Bishops who surrounded him, but Ambrose understood him to allude to the battle with the Goths, and in the treatise De Fide which he composed in answer to the request, remarked that victory was often won rather by the faith of the general than by the valour of the soldiers. 'Abraham with only 318 trained servants had conquered an innumerable multitude of his enemies [in his pursuit of Chedorlaomer]: and as the same number of prelates, the 318 fathers of Nicaea, had erected an eternal monument of divine truth, it should be his business  p389 to set up the trophy thus erected in the mind of his Imperial disciple.

These then were the manifold influences that had helped to form the character of the young Augustus of the West, for whom both friends and flatterers might not unreasonably anticipate a long and brilliant tenure of 'the rule of the universe.' In order to see him thus in the splendour of his prime, it may be worth our while to accompany two of his professed panegyrists into his presence and listen to their praises, fulsome indeed, but not devoid of some traces of truthful portraiture.

Panegyric of Themistius. It was perhaps in the early part of 376​16 that the orator Themistius, who had been despatched by Valens on an embassy to his nephew, and who had visited his court in Gaul, returning with him as far as Rome, pronounced there a solemn panegyric in presence of the Emperor and the Senate. The title of the oration was 'A Love-speech, concerning the Beauty of the Emperor.' Striking the key‑note by a reference to the discussion on Love in the 'Banquet' of Plato, Themistius declares that he never could understand, aforetime, Socrates' description of the pleasing torments endured by the lover; but all is now made plain to him, now in his old age, since he has fallen in love with the beauty of Gratian.

'Oh! so rare a being do I behold before me: a fair mind in a fair body, and a promise of greater loveliness to come. I sought my ideal of beauty and virtue in the dwellings of the poor, and found it not. Then I turned again to the "Phaedrus" of Plato, and learned from it that beauty has in it something  p390 divine, and I bethought me that it was to be looked for amongst kings and emperors who are likest gods on earth. So I went, in my quest of beauty, to the palaces of the Augusti. Constantius was beautiful, and beautiful too was Julian; but neither of them entirely satisfied my longings. But now I am come to see thee, oh boy‑emperor, boy‑father, boy who surpassest hoary virtue; oh blessed prize of my long pilgrimage from one end of the earth to the other; and all my heart rejoices.'

Mindful of the jealous master whom he serves, Themistius here inserts a little laudation of Valens who has wedded Philosophy to Power, and has made barbarians civilised: he praises his care for the supply of the Eastern capital with corn,º and the labour with which he had constructed the aqueduct which from a distance of 120 miles brought water over hill and dale to Constantinople.​17 Then he touches on a more delicate theme of praise, the contrast between Gratian and his father.

'It was not indeed my fortune ever to behold the savage beauty of Valentinian, but I now see it softened and made loveable in the heavenly face of his son. The evil that was done by the harsh counsellors of his father, Gratian cannot entirely undo, for he cannot raise the dead, but — an almost greater marvel — he repays the sums unjustly exacted by their oppressions. The Treasury was formerly a very lion's den, with all the footsteps pointing towards the home of the king of beasts, and none emerging from it: but now, far more splendid because more righteous, are the marks of the gold that issues from the Treasury than of that  p391 which enters it. Titus thought that day lost in which he had done good to no one. Gratian misses not one hour from his benevolent labours. Entering into his secretum at the beginning of the day he asks himself, "Whom to‑day shall I rescue from death? To whom shall I grant a pardon? To whom can I preserve his paternal abode?"

'The character of the Prince transmits itself through all the ranks of his subordinates. As the satraps of Alexander the Great imitated the slight deformity of his person (his neck inclining somewhat more to the left shoulder than to the right), so the Prefects of Gratian have their minds turned to noble deeds by the example of their lord. Groans are no longer heard in the court-house. The rack, unused, is falling to pieces with age. Those calculators of ruin, those sleuth-hounds of the Treasury who hunted up its long-forgotten claims, have all disappeared, and the records which they left behind them, the fire has destroyed.'

Themistius then proceeds to praise the young Emperor's love of peace and his power of fascinating the barbarians.

Not philosophers only but barbarians love this beautiful Emperor; they gladly bow their heads before him, vanquished by his genius. Not the horse and his rider covered with complete mail ever fought so powerfully for Rome against the barbarians, as the beauty of Gratian and his symmetry of soul. Those who used to ravage our fields are now crossing the Rhine in multitudes, only to sue for his favour. They bring gifts who used to plunder, and their fierce spirit melts away under the magic charm of this young man's attractiveness.'

After some more compliments of this kind to the  p392 Emperor, the orator, reverting to his first thought, declares that his quest of beauty ends in that vast, that infinite sea of beauty, Rome. With some words of real eloquence he praises her Senate, her effigies of the gods, her nation of sculptured heroes, and with no obscure allusion to the ascendency of the heathen party in Rome he declares,

'To you we owe it, oh ye happiest of men, that the gods have not yet left this world of ours. It is you who have till now successfully resisted the attempt to sever the human nature from the divine. Let us then rejoice in white garments on this whitest of days. Come, oh Senators! invite your young warriors to return from their tents. Let not Rhine, or Tigris, or Euphrates delay their homeward march. Rome delights in the return of her sons, bearing gory spoils, but bearing also the holier, bloodless trophies of gentleness and love of man. May the father of gods and men, Jupiter founder and preserver of Rome, and may Minerva our mother, and Quirinus the divine guardian of the Roman dominion, grant to me and mine ever to love this sacred City, and to be loved by her in return.'

Consulship of Ausonius. Such was the panegyric pronounced by the Byzantine orator upon the young Emperor of the West, in the Senate-house at Rome. End of 379 Nearly four years later, when Valens had lain for more than a year in his undistinguished Thracian grave, and when Gratian was holding the first place in the Imperial partner­ship, his old tutor, Ausonius, stood before him in the palace at Trier to express his thanks for an honour (still the highest which any but an emperor could hold), the consul­ship which he had received at the hands of his Imperial pupil. About a twelvemonth before, when  p393 Gratian was at Sirmium, anxiously watching the movements of the triumphant Goths, and arranging for the association of Theodosius in the Imperial dignity, he still found leisure to remember his former preceptor by the banks of the Moselle, to ordain that he should be Consul for the year, first in dignity of the two,​18 and to send him, in order to lend glory to his installation, the very same robe, adorned with embroidered palm-branches, which Constantine the Great had worn when he bore the office of Consul.​19 With the same courteous condescension to the wishes, we may perhaps say to the vanity of his elderly preceptor, Gratian arranged to return by forced marches from Thrace to Gaul, in order to hear the oration which he uttered on divesting himself of the much-prized dignity. With a droll mixture of abject veneration for his Imperial pupil and delight in having attained the supreme honour of a consul­ship, Ausonius tells over again the story of Gratian's epistle, in which he announced that 'he was  p394 going to pay a long‑due debt and still remain a debtor.' 'Thus you wrote, "When I was revolving in my mind, alone, the question of the creation of consuls for the year, according to my usual custom, with which you are acquainted, I asked counsel of God, and following his guidance I have designated and declared you as consul, and have announced you as foremost in rank." ' These words are commented upon by the grateful poet through a whole paragraph of adoring adulation. But we may pass over these painful self-prostrations and need not follow Ausonius in the comparison which he institutes between himself and other Imperial tutors​20 who had been honoured with consul­ships. It is more to our purpose to equation what hints the orator lets fall of the character of him whom, with a natural play upon the words, he delights to call the 'gracious,' the 'grateful,' and the 'gratitude-inspiring' Gratian. Ausonius, like Themistius, contrasts the rule of the son with that of the father. 'The Palace,' says he, 'which you received so terrible, you have rendered loveable. . . . You, the son of Valentinian, whose goodness was so exalted, whose affability so ready' (this sounds almost like satire), 'whose severity so restrained; you, having established the welfare of the State, have understood that it is possible to be most gentle without any injury to discipline.' Ausonius commemorates the destruction of the taxing-registers, 'those trees of ancient fraud, those seeds of future injustice.'​21 He too, like the Eastern orator, reminds his hearers of the celebrated saying of Titus about his 'lost day,' and declares that  p395 every moment of Gratian's time is devoted to alleviating the pressure on his subjects. In words which recall the opening of his own Ephemeris he sketches the daily life of the young sovereign, who from his boyhood has never begun the day without a prayer to Almighty God, and then with cleansed hands and a pure heart has gone forth to his business or his pleasure. 'Whose gait was ever seen more modest than yours? Whose familiar intercourse with his friends more condescending, or whose attitude on parade more erect? In athletics who ever showed himself so swift a runner, so lithe a wrestler, so lofty a leaper? No one has hurled the javelin further, or showered his darts more thickly or more certainly reached his mark.' 'We have seen you like the Numidian cavalry, at the same time stretching the bow and relaxing the reins of your steed, with one and the same blow urging on the lazy horse and correcting the restless one. But then what restraint you exercise over yourself! At the table what priest is more abstinent? In the use of wine what gray-beard is more sparing? Your chamber is as holy as the altar of Vesta, your couch is chaste as the couch of a Pontifex.' 'We have heard much of the affability of Trajan who was wont to visit his friends in sickness. You not only visit but heal: you procure nurses, you make ready the food, you administer the fomentations, you pay for the drugs, you comfort those who are stricken, you rejoice with those who are convalescent. Often, if anything untoward had happened in war, I have seen you going round the tents of a whole legion, asking each man how he fared,​22 examining the soldiers' wounds and urging the prompt and  p396 continuous application of the proper remedies. I have seen some who had no appetite for food take it when you commended it to them. I have heard you utter the words which gave courage for recovery. I have seen you conveying this man's baggage by the mules of the court, giving that one a horse for his special accommodation; making up to one for the services of a missing horse‑boy, filling at your own charges the empty purse of another, or covering his nakedness with raiment. All was done kindly and unweariedly with the greatest sympathy, but with no ostentation. You gave up everything to the sick: you never reproached with your benefits those who had recovered.' 'In discharge of an Emperor's duty you gave easy access to your person to those who invoked your aid: but you did more than this, for you never even complained of the interruption.'

Declining popularity of Gratian. The picture which is drawn by the two orators of the young and brilliant Emperor, beautiful in person, affable in manners, generous with his purse and excelling in all manly exercises, is one which has certainly many lines of truth; but there were other elements in Gratian's character, other causes tending to overcloud the early brightness of his popularity, which we can learn from no panegyric and only dimly infer from the tragedy of his fall.

Strength of the heathen party at Rome. At Rome, which though it had ceased to be the main residence of the Emperors could yet exercise some influence on their fate, Gratian's uncompromising Christianity lost him the favour of many powerful citizens. Heathenism died hard under the shadow of the Capitol. Intertwined as it was with all the traditions of the world-conquering City from Numa to  p397 Augustus, it seemed to many a Roman patriot that the preservation of the worship of Jupiter and Mars, of Rhea and Vesta and Ceres, was absolutely essential to the safety of the State. While the Pagans were at this time a small and discredited remnant in the new Christian city​23 by the Bosphorus, they were probably an actual majority in the Senate of Old Rome: at any rate they were numerous enough to make a formidable resistance to the policy of suppression, which Gratian, admonished by Ambrose and fired by the example of Theodosius, was eager to apply to the ancient religion.

Altar of Victory in the Senate-house. A striking proof of the ascendency of Ambrose was afforded by the young Emperor's action in reference to the Altar of Victory. After the battle of Actium, Augustus, now sole master of the Roman world, erected in the Senate-house an altar, above which stood a statue brought originally from Tarentum, representing Victory in her usual attitude of eager forth-reaching speed, standing on a globe. On this altar, for nearly four hundred years, the senators had been wont, before commencing their deliberations, to burn incense to the goddess whose faithful companion­ship had borne the standards of the legions from the little city by the Tiber to the Atlantic and the Euphrates. 357 Constantius, an Arian, but strong in his zeal against heathenism, removed the altar on the occasion of his visit to Rome. Julian, of course, replaced it; and the tolerant Valentinian appears to have suffered it to remain. Fresh from his communings with Ambrose and with the treatise De Fide accompanying him on his journeys, the young Gratian ordered the removal of the idolatrous  p398 altar.​24 A further proof of his zeal for Christianity was afforded by an edict which appeared in the year 382, forbidding the people to contribute to the expenses of the heathen sacrifices and confiscating to the use of the Imperial treasury the rich revenues which were appropriated to the service of the temples, and even to the support of the noble maidens, whose duty it was to tend the sacred fire of Vesta.25

These successive blows aimed at the ancient religion, roused the indignation of the Roman senators. A deputation, headed by the orator Symmachus, set forth to wait upon the Emperor and remonstrate against the recent edicts. Pope Damasus of Rome, however, sent a counter-petition, which professed to utter the sentiments of many Christian senators and innumerable other private citizens, and which disavowed the prayer of the heathen remonstrants. This counter-petition, backed by the powerful word of Ambrose of Milan, attained its end, and the young Emperor sent away unheard the members of the ancient nobility of Rome who had travelled from the Tiber to the Moselle for the sake of an audience.26

Title 'Pontifex Maximus.' This rebuff to the heathen senators may perhaps  p399 have occurred about the same time with an equally conspicuous proof of Gratian's zeal for Christianity, given to the College of Priests. The emperors of the family of Constantine, though presiding in the councils of Bishops and settling disputed points of Christian doctrine, had yet on some occasions 'bowed themselves in the house of Rimmon' and had humoured the heathenism of Old Rome by accepting some of the titles, and perhaps even performing some of the sacrifices which marked the semi-religious character of the Pagan emperors. Not so, however, the young and enthusiastic Gratian. He had never donned the pontifical robe, nor had he ever, since he assumed the reins of power, allowed himself to be described as Pontifex Maximus.​27 It was perhaps with a faint hope of indu­cing him to reconsider his decision against Paganism that the College of Pontifices now​28 appeared before him, beseeching him to accept from their hands the long white linen robe with purple border which belonged to him of right, and like one of the old Caesars of conquering Rome, to appear before the people as the greatest of the priestly order, the Pontifex Maximus. Their prayers were vain: Gratian utterly refused to receive the robe, saying emphatically that it was unlawful for a Christian to wear such a garment. The priests retired, but he who first in rank among them was heard to mutter, 'If the Emperor does not  p400 choose to be called Pontifex, there will nevertheless very speedily be a Pontifex, Maximus.' There was perhaps a pause between the last two words, and men not long after thought they discovered in them somewhat of the nature of a prophecy.29

Other causes of unpopularity. The discontent of the fossil Pagan Conservatives of Rome would perhaps not have greatly endangered the throne of Gratian had his administrative qualities and his popularity with the army fulfilled the promise of the earlier years of his reign. Unfortunately this was not the case. There are signs that the counsellors that surrounded him, and who had advised the punishment of the ministers of Valentinian, were themselves wanting in firmness, perhaps in integrity, and that under their lax rule the exchequer was becoming exhausted and the judgment-seat corrupt. Gratian himself, with all his amiable and admirable qualities, with his personal beauty, his eloquence, and even his poetical gifts, his courage, his frugality, and his unspotted chastity, lacked the one virtue indispensable to the ruler of an autocratic empire, diligence. Men saw him with dismay at a time when the defence of the tottering realm would  p401 have well-nigh over-taxed the industry of Marcus Aurelius, imitating instead the athletic frivolities, — certainly not the cruelty of the unworthy son of Aurelius, Commodus. His vast game preserves (vivaria), rather than the camp or the judgment-hall, were the almost constant resort of the young Augustus. Night and day his thoughts were engrossed with splendid shots, made or to be made, and his success herein seemed to him sometimes to be the result of divine assistance.​30 The statesmen in his councils may have mourned over this degeneration of an able commander into a skilful marksman; but a more powerful cause of unpopularity with the rank and file of his army existed in the favour with which he viewed the barbarians, formerly his enemies, now his allies. Doubtless he saw that both in stature, in valour, and in loyalty, the Teutonic antagonists of Rome were superior to her effete offspring; and surrounding himself with a guard selected from the nation of the Alani, whose prowess he had tested as an enemy in his Pannonian campaign of 380, he bestowed on them rich presents, entrusted to them confidential commands, and even condescended to imitate the barbarous magnificence of their attire.

 p402  Discontent of soldiers in Britain. The preference of 'these few Alani to the so‑called Roman soldiery' (themselves perhaps, if the truth were known, the sons and grandsons of barbarians) alienated from the Emperor the hearts of his old comrades. The fire of discontent went smouldering through the army of Gaul, and at length reached the legions of Britain, who, doubtless in a state of chronic discontent at their exile to a misty and savage island, where the sun warmed them not nor could wine be purchased out of the pay of a legionary, surrounded also by that abiding atmosphere of anarchy, in which it is the delight of a Celtic population to live, were always ready on the slightest provocation to forswear the oaths which bound them to the reigning Augustus and proclaim a new Imperator, under whose standards they might march to pleasure and the South.

Maximus the Spaniard. The aspiring officer who made the discontent of the army the lever of his own ambition, was a certain Maximus, a Spaniard, like Theodosius, variously represented to us as the comrade​31 and as the butler​32 of that Emperor. It has been already said that certain detachments of Spanish troops were regularly detailed for service in Britain: for instance, the camps of Cendercum and Cilurnum in Northumberland were garrisoned by the first and second 'ala' of the Asturians respectively. It is possible that Maximus may have originally entered the island as a private soldier in one of these detachments; may have held so inconspicuous place in the military household of the elder Theodosius, and having recommended himself to that  p403 general by some deed of daring, may have been promoted by him to the place of tribune or centurion. However this may be, he appears at the time of the mutiny to have borne the reputation of an able and trustworthy officer. By repeating and magnifying the calumnies against Gratian, and by the adroit use of hints which were perhaps not quite unfounded, that Theodosius had not forgiven the house of Valentinian for his father's death, and would behold its downfall and his fellow-countryman's elevation with pleasure, he seems to have persuaded the mutinous soldiers to invest him with the Imperial purple. There was, however, some show of reluctance on his part, and it is possible that he was rather the instrument than the author of the mutiny.33

Maximus enters Gaul. Maximus, at the head of his army, consisting probably of the greater part of three legions stationed in Britain, crossed over into Gaul, and landed at the mouth of the Rhine. Gratian, who was engaged in hostile operations against the Alamanni,​34 found on his return to headquarters that many of his soldiers had gone over to the standards of his rival. He had still however a considerable army, and his veteran counsellor and general, Merobaudes, remained faithful, as did another loyal and brave barbarian officer, Count Vallio. The armies met in the neighbourhood of Paris, but there was no pitched battle. For five days there  p404 were slight and indecisive skirmishes, but during all this time Maximus and his right-hand man Andragathius, the commander of his cavalry, were tampering with the fidelity of Gratian's troops, recounting, doubtless, and aggravating the grievances of the Roman soldiers, postponed as they were to the pampered Alani, magnifying the frivolity and the incapacity of the new Commodus, and insisting that this young Emperor of barbarians must be displaced to make way for one who was loyal to the genius of Rome.

Gratian deserted by his soldiers. Too late the unhappy Gratian found that his soldiers' fidelity was a broken reed, that battle with the enemy was out of the question, and that his only safety lay in flight. This fatal termination of the struggle was partly due to his own generosity and improvidence, which had so exhausted the Imperial treasury that he had no power of winning back the lost affections of the soldiery by a lavish donative. When he saw the Mauritanian cavalry crossing the plain with loud shouts of acclamation to 'Maximus Augustus,' and other legions and squadrons preparing to follow their example, he knew that the game was lost, and with three hundred horsemen he hurried from the field.

Gratian's flight. Andragathius pursued the Imperial fugitive with a picked body of horsemen. Gratian hurried southward, hoping to reach the friendly shelter of his brother's court at Milan. No city would open her gates to the hunted wayfarer, who but yesterday was 'lord of the universe.' We have a pathetic picture of his journey from the hand of Ambrose, the friend whose name was constantly on his lips in these melancholy days, and  p405 the thought of whose grief for him made his own grief more bitter.​35 Deserted by all those on whose devotion he had a hereditary claim, with no friend to share the dangers of the way, the splendours of the Imperial table replaced by the hardships of actual hunger and thirst, Gratian still found comfort and support in that Christian faith, the reality of which in him was far more powerfully attested by the help which he drew from it in his hour of ruin, than by all the edicts for the repression of heresy which he had launched in the day of his prosperity.​36 'Surely,' said he, 'my soul waiteth upon God. My enemies can slay my body, but they cannot extinguish the life of my soul.' His flight was at length arrested by a cruel stratagem. As he drew near to Lyons he perceived a litter being borne, apparently by unarmed domestics, along the opposite bank of the Rhone. It was reported that the litter contained his newly-wedded wife,​37 and the eager husband hastened across the river to welcome her. Forth from the litter stepped, not the longed‑for wife, but the traitor Andragathius, who carried Gratian a prisoner within the walls of Lyons. Some show of outward respect was paid to the unhappy captive, who was even pressed to resume the Imperial purple, and was invited to a sumptuous banquet. Death of Gratian. His apprehensions of danger were soothed by a solemn oath that no harm should happen to him; and then, apparently in the midst of the feasting, the purple-robed Emperor was  p406 struck down by the hand of an assassin. With his last breath the victim called upon Ambrose.38

The Author's Notes:

1 Augusta Treverorum.

2 Formerly called the Roman Baths, but almost certainly a Palace.

Thayer's Note: Two Roman baths are extant in Trier today; the "Imperial Baths", being much the larger, are likely the ones meant here. In his page on them, which includes a map and several photos, historian Jona Lendering has them being used as barracks rather than as a palace.

3 The best description of Augusta Treverorum that we possess in English is contained in Freeman's Historical Essays, 3rd Series.

4 See p213.

5 Zosimus, IV.17.

6 It seems to me far more probable that the 'two Nestors' to whom Themistius refers in his 13th Oration (p173, ed. Paris) are Merobaudes and Ausonius than Ausonius and Ambrose, as suggested in a note of Hardouin's.

7 Prosper: see below.

8 'Tranquillus, clemens, oculis, voce, ore serenus' (Idyll. II.43).


'Surge ne longus tibi somnus unde

Non times detur.'

(Taken over from Horace, Carm. III.11.)

10 I borrow this phrase from Mr. Simcox's History of Latin Literature (vol. II.356),º to which I refer the reader who desires fuller information as to the poetry of Ausonius.


'Cerno, triumphantes inter, me plaudere: rursum

Inter captivos trahor exarmatus Alanos.'

12 Probus, the same whom we have seen presiding, not very successfully, over the Prefecture of Illyricum.

13 'Liguria' at this time was the official designation of the province on the left bank of the upper course of the Padus, corresponding to Northern Piedmont, and part of Western Lombardy, and Aemilia marked the rest of the course of the river on its southern bank. The junction of these two seems to make a somewhat awkward and straggling province to be allotted to one governor. 'Consular' was the title of the ordinary Governor of a province and had no reference to his tenure of a Consulship.

14 'Aut damna hodie Arium aut defende.'

15 The acts of the Council of Aquileia are included among the letters of St. Ambrose (787‑810, vol. II part I.915‑944, ed. Migne). They are especially important because our best account of Ulfilas is contained in some angry comments upon these Acta from the hand of some Arian sympathiser, apparently a certain Bishop Maximin. See Waitz, 'Ueber das Leben und die Lehre des Ulfila.'

16 According to the Theodosian Code, Gratian would seem to have been in Rome on the 16th April, 376.

17 Part of this aqueduct is yet visible and is one of the finest bits of Roman Constantinople still in existence.

Thayer's Note: See the page at Livius.Org, and for several good photos, Roberto Piperno's page on Roman monuments still visible in Istanbul.

18 The words of Gratian, in conferring the office, were 'te consulem designavi et declaravi et priorem nuncupavi.' As Gratian was at this time Emperor both of East and West, and as both Ausonius and Olybrius his colleague were Western officials, it was necessary that the Emperor should settle the question of precedence between them. The general rule at this time seems to have been that one Consul should be nominated by the Eastern and one by the Western Augustus, and that each should have precedence in the Fasti of his own half of the Empire.

19 'Namque iste habitus, [palmata vestis] ut in pace consulis est, sic in victoria triumphantis. Parum est, si qualis ad me trabea mittatur, interroges, te coram promi jubes. Nec satis habes ut largitionum ministri ex more fungantur. Eligis ipse de multis, et cum elegeris, munera tua verborum honore persequeris. "Palmatam," inquis, "tibi misi in qua divus Constantinus parens noster intextus est." ' It was Gratian's marriage to the daughter of Constantius which entitled him to speak of relation­ship with Constantine.

20 Seneca, Quintilian, Titianus, Fronto.

21 A similar conflagration by order of Trajan is depicted on a bas-relief in the Roman Forum.

Thayer's Note: Or possibly another one by Hadrian. For details and citations, see A. S. Jenkins, "The 'Trajan-Reliefs' in the Roman Forum", pp65 ff.; and a photograph, p61.

22 'Satin' salve quaerere,' = asking them 'Are you pretty well?'

Thayer's Note: Updating Hodgkin's nice translation of the colloquial Latin, "Are you doing OK?" or even, "You hanging in there?"

23 'Constantinopolim immo vero Christianopolim' (Maximin apud Waitz, 'Ueber das Leben und die Lehre des Ulfila,' p16).

24 Gothofred makes the date of this order of Gratian 376, but Seeck with more probability assigns it to 382.

25 This decree is not in the Theodosian Code, but it is quoted by Honorius (Cod. Theod. XVI.10.20), and we get the date (approximately) from Ambrose, Epist. I.17.10, 'Nam et ante biennium ferme,' etc. This letter was written in 384.

26 It is perhaps doubtful whether the abortive embassy of the Senate went as far as Trier. The words of Ambrose, 'Nunc libellum ego [Gratiano] direxi,' seem to imply that Gratian was not at Milan; but the Theodosian Code shows that he was in the middle of August, 382, at Verona, and that is not an unlikely place for the deputation to have visited.

27 Mommsen (Römisches Staatsrecht, II.762 and 1054) notices one inscription in which Gratian bears the title P. M., but it dates from 370, five years before the death of his father.

28 We have really no authority for pla­cing this story of the rejection of the robe at so late a period of Gratian's reign. But it seems to fit in well with the other events of 382.

29 The Pope as Pontifex Maximus. Zosimus, IV.36. This priestly pun or prophecy had a meaning which reached further on into the future than the author himself knew. It was true indeed that if the Emperor refused the mysterious title of Greatest Pontifex, with its accumulated sanctity of ages, that title would not be lost. Another race of men, another dynasty, one of priests, even now emerging from persecution through popularity into power was ready to assume the dropped dignity. Theodosius apparently never called himself Pontifex Maximus, but in the year 417 (if the letter be authentic) Zosimus (the pope, not the historian) already speaks of himself quite naturally as Summus Pontifex. (Epistolae Romanorum Pontificum, pp938, 971; ed. Constant. Paris, 1721.) When the change from Summus back to the more familiar Maximus was made does not seem to be clearly ascertained.

30 Ammianus Marcellinus, XXXI.10.18‑19. Epitoma de Vita et Moribus Imperatorum, XLVII. The latter author says that Gratian 'Cunctis fuisset plenus bonis, si ad cognoscendam Reipublicae gerendae scientiam animum intendisset, a quâ prope alienus non modo ingenio sed etiam exercitio fuit.' It is interesting to observe the complete accordance as to Gratian's character of two independent sources like Ammianus and the Epitomist, and their confirmation both by the speech and by the silence of the Panegyrists. Eunapius, as we might expect, tends towards a harsh judgment, and says that 'being young and having been bred in the purple, he had never learned what it is to rule, and what to be ruled' (Frag. 48, p84, ed. Bonn).

31 Θεοδοσίῳ τῷ βασιλεῖ . . . συστρατευσάμενος (Zosimus, IV.35).

32 'Ille quondam domus tuae [Theodosie] negligentissimus vernula, mensularumque servilium statarius lixa' (Pacatus, Panegyric, XXXI).

33 One has to speak thus doubtfully because of the strong assertion of Orosius, 'Maximus, vir quidem strenuus et probus, atque Augusto dignus nisi contra sacramenti fidem per tyrannidem emersisset, in Britannioº invitus propemodum ab exercitu imperator creatus' (Hist. VII.34).

34 So says Socrates, H. E. VI.11.

35 'Tu me inter tua pericula requirebas, tu in tuis extremis me appellabas, meum de te plus dolebas dolorem' (De Obitu Valentiniani Consolatio, 79).

36 This thought is admirably expressed by Richter (p573).

37 Laeta, his second wife, Constantia having died some years before.

38 For the details of Gratian's murder we are chiefly indebted to St. Ambrose, an unimpeachable authority, but whose account is rendered somewhat obscure by being thrown into the shape of a Commentary on the 61st (in our Version 62nd) Psalm, and by the parallel which the preacher seeks to draw between the sufferings of Gratian and those of Christ. (In Psalm. lxi Enarratio.) The story of the litter rests on the authority of Socrates (VI.11) and Sozomen (VII.13), Greek Englishand may perhaps be reconciled with that of Ambrose in the manner suggested above, especially as Jerome (Ep. ad Praesidium) speaks of 'foeda captivitas' as preceding 'miserabilis interitus' ('Necdum annus completus est, quo principem Gratianum procedente exercitu suo, ante foeda captivitas, dehinc miserabiliter oppressit interitus'). This shows that Sozomen is wrong in making the murder follow immediately on his capture by Andragathius. Zosimus apparently has confused Lugdunum (Lyons) and Singidunum (Belgrade), and goes wildly astray in his geography in consequence.

Thayer's Note:

a Livius has an excellent section on Roman Trier: 15 webpages, most of them devoted to various monuments, with dozens of photographs, maps, and good text.

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Page updated: 12 Aug 20