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Arcadius (395-408 A.D.)

Geoffrey S. Nathan

University of California at Los Angeles

coin of Arcadius (c)1998 Princeton Economic Institute

Introduction and Early Life

The ineffectual life and reign of Flavius Arcadius are of considerably less importance than the quite significant developments that occurred during his reign. Born either in 377 or 378 to then general Theodosius and Aelia Flavia Flacilla, he and his younger brother, Honorius, ruled the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire respectively from 395.

Shortly after his birth, his father was raised to the imperial purple in 379. Events in Illyricum with the massive influx of Ostrogothic and Visigothic peoples had resulted in the defeat of the Roman army and the death of the emperor, Valens. Theodosius' first task was to confront the Visigoths who had been ravaging the Balkans. Perhaps in the wake of this difficult and almost insurmountable task, the emperor wanted to insure that his infant son would bear some legitimacy should he die on campaign. Whatever the reason, Arcadius was proclaimed Augustus in January of 383 at the age of five or six. In the following year, his younger brother was born and it seems as if Theodosius initially had been interested in preserving the theoretical position of his elder son. While Arcadius enjoyed the status of Augustus, Honorius only achieved the office of consul posterior in 386. Perhaps the eastern emperor had wanted to avoid the possible conflicts that arose earlier in the century with the family of Constantine. Recent events in the west with the assassination of Gratian by Magnus Maximus may have also played a part: Theodosius initially had to leave the murder of his imperial colleague unavenged and leave the boy- emperor, Valentinian II, largely undefended. The profusion of emperors may well have been seen by Theodosius as kindling for civil war. His own autocratic tendencies may have also meant that he saw only one possible successor for himself.

Nevertheless, Theodosius gave Arcadius very little independence in early life. When he went to campaign against Magnus in the late 380's, he placed his son under the Praetorian Prefect of the East, Tatian, who was the de facto emperor in Theodosius' absence. This began a long series of regencies for Arcadius. The strength of Tatian's position with the eastern governing class made the office of Praetorian Prefect all the more powerful in Constantinople, which in turn made it easier to dominate future emperors. When Theodosius replaced Tatian with the more malleable and more ambitious Rufinus in 392, he had appointed a minister who would centralize even greater authority under the prefecture.

By 393, the emperor's situation had changed radically. When events in the west demanded his attention again, Theodosius was in a much stronger position. The ascendancy of the general, Arbogast, and his own puppet emperor, Eugenius, in the west provided Theodosius an opportunity and, indeed, the obligation to take full control of the Empire. The chance for having his own two sons ruling both halves of Rome not only seemed practical and feasible, but such an arrangement would establish himself as the head of a new dynasty. With thoughts in that direction, Honorius was made Augustus in 393 and accompanied his father west in the summer of 394. Arcadius, although near his majority, was nevertheless placed again under the guardianship (epitropos) of the Prefect of the East. In January of 395, Theodosius the Great died and his two sons took theoretical control of the two halves of the Roman Empire.

Early Reign and the Dominance of Rufinus and Eutropius (395-399)

Arcadius was eighteen when he assumed the throne in the east. We do not know whether or not he was ready for the responsibilities. During the mid-380's, the young emperor had been educated in part by Themistius, a famous pagan statesman, philosopher, and speaker. In what way he affected Arcadius is impossible to say, but surely his teachings must have included statecraft. Perhaps because of this influence, the new emperor's attempt to establish himself as an independent force can be seen in a series of laws passed at his accession. In contrast to trying to create a military image for himself, which would not be allowed either by Rufinus or by the eastern court, he attempted to portray himself as a pious Christian emperor. He enacted several comprehensive laws against heresy and paganism.

This was not necessarily an ineffectual strategy. By celebrating his religious piety, he expressed his power in the only way available to an emperor largely controlled by his ministers. He also perhaps sought to gain support and power from the local governing and religious hierarchies in Constantinople. Arcadius also perhaps thought that he was carrying on in the tradition of his father and so, by extension, might share in some of his glory. Rufinus in contrast wanted to tie himself to the emperor through a marriage connection to his daughter. But in April of 395, Arcadius had taken advantage of the Prefect's temporary absence to marry Aelia Eudoxia, whose guardian, the general, Promotus, had been a bitter enemy of Rufinus. Arcadius had been aided in this move by his own grand chamberlain (praepositus sacri cubiculi), Eutropius, and it perhaps indicated the degree to which he wanted to be free of any regent.

But in reality, Arcadius gained little if any power. Rufinus assumed full control of the east, and the Vandal Stilicho, Theodosius' closest advisor and general, took control of Honorius in the west. The tension between east and west quickly grew when Stilicho, in command of all the eastern and western armies, tried to press his guardianship over Arcadius as well. Moreover, there was considerable resentment against Rufinus in the east for using his office to greatly enrich himself and perhaps, too, because he was a westerner. Rufinus, understanding the perils around him, acted quickly. He had Arcadius demand the return of the eastern armies at once. Stilicho acquiesced, perhaps because the general was basing his claim of guardianship on his own legitimacy: to have taken control of the east and Arcadius by force would have undermined his position there and perhaps in the west. The soldiers returned under the command of the Gothic general, Gainas. With the control of the field army, it seemed as if Rufinus was going to be more thoroughly in control of the east and over Arcadius.

He did not long enjoy his victory. When Arcadius and Rufinus came to greet the armies at Hebdoman near Constantinople in November of 395, the soldiers turned on the Praetorian Prefect and cut him down in front of the emperor. Whether Stilicho instigated the assassination is a matter of some debate, but if he did, he received no benefit from it. The armies remained and Arcadius soon fell under the sway of other ministers. Nevertheless, despite the shock and fear Arcadius may have felt at witnessing such a brutal murder, he probably missed Rufinus' presence not at all and even thought it might provide an opportunity to assert his own authority. For the bureaucracy, the death meant that maintaining civilian control over the army was paramount to their own survival.

Soon thereafter, Eutropius assumed Rufinus' place in dominating Arcadius. Since the grand chamberlain could control access to the emperor and commanded the powerful palace bureaucracy, he was well-placed to dictate what and whom the emperor saw and heard. Military officers--frequently Germanic--who dominated the western government, were held suspect by fearful and jealous civil administrators in Constantinople. Eutropius used that fear to his advantage and froze out any access they may have had to the circles of power. His decision to effectively eliminate the military's input in decision-making would eventually lead to his demise.

It is difficult to determine how popular Eutropius was either with Arcadius or with the wider population. As a eunuch and a former slave, the sources generally portray him very negatively. He nevertheless seems to have enjoyed some support from the emperor, likely aided by Eudoxia with whom the grand chamberlain had close ties. The emperor happily took annual vacations in Galatia, apparently upon the Eutropius' suggestion. Moreover, the chamberlain showed great personal courage and talent in leading a campaign against invading Huns in 397/8, for which he won the consulship and the rank of patrician in the following year of 399. He also seems to have gained considerable support from the local clergy by procuring the patriarchate of Constantinople in 398 for John Chrysostom.

Despite Eutropius' rise to power, however, eastern policy changed little. The religious policies of Theodosius and Arcadius continued, including the forced closure of pagan temples in Gaza. More significantly, tension between the two halves of the empire persisted as Stilicho continued to press for his position as guardian. Although Stilicho led periodic raids into Greece and Thrace to attack the new Visigothic king, Alaric, his victories were incomplete and were more likely meant to keep the Germanic people out of western territory. This meant, among other things, that the Visigoths were an enduring problem for the east. Eutropius in turn supported the revolt of the Count Gildo in Africa, which was under western control, in an attempt to destabilize Stilicho's control and further eastern domains.

The failure of the revolt in 398 was the first step in Eutropius' downfall. The decision to exclude the military men of the period, particularly among the growing importance of Germanic officers, created a dangerous situation. By 399, the dissatisfaction with east-west affairs and the Gildo fiasco resulted in a revolt by the Gothic count, Tribigild. He was apparently in collusion with Gainas, who had taken advantage of the crisis to be named chief general in the east (magister utriusque militiae). Gainas quickly reached an agreement with the rebel and part of the settlement was the dismissal of Eutropius, to which Arcadius--at Eudoxia's urging--agreed. The chamberlain took refuge in the Hagia Sophia, and was exiled to Cyprus. But shortly thereafter, in the autumn of 399, Eutropius was recalled, tried and executed in Chalcedon.

The Age of Eudoxia (400-404)

The death of Eutropius precipitated a serious crisis. Gainas, who had wanted high office for years, now tried to force the hand of Arcadius. Having come to a quick resolution with Tribigild, he moved from Thrace towards Constantinople in 400. With the Germanic troops supporting him, Gainas tried for six months to initiate his own primacy-- including seizing the imperial palace--but which failed. He was forced to withdraw personally from the city to regroup and planned to use his troops remaining there to seize the entire city. But they were slaughtered by the inhabitiants and he fled first to Thrace and then to Asia. Eventually Gainas was killed by the Huns later in that year. His attempted coup ensured that Germanic officers would never again be trusted by the eastern government and would forever be kept out of any important decision-making roles.

The likely successor to Eutropius had been the anti-Germanic leader, Aurelianus, who had succeeded to the Prefecture of the East in 399. But Gainas had exiled him, having forced Arcadius to hand him over, and although Aurelianus returned triumphantly after Gainas' departure, he appears to have lost his hold over the emperor. In the meantime, Aelia Eudoxia had done much to forward her own place in the government. In January of 400, she had been named Augusta, a singular distinction offered to only three other women in the previous century. Her position thus gained a semi-official legitimacy afforded to very few Roman empresses. It has been assumed that because of her beauty, her intelligence, and her fecundity (she bore Arcadius five children), she was able to assert her influence to a point where she was the new power behind the throne.

That assessment, while held by many scholars, is not entirely accurate. While there were several events in which she played a crucial part, they were not terribly important moments during Arcadius' reign. But because Eudoxia was enormously wealthy, because she delivered a male heir in 401, and because she was involved in a highly publicized and drawn out political fight with John Chrysostom, this belief that there was an assumption of power is based more on the notoriety of her acts than on actual control. The fact that there was no one clearly dominating the government nor the emperor during this time implies perhaps that Arcadius had more power during these five years of his reign than at any other time.

There are several indications that he did try to improve and assert his own position. The emperor and his court immediately came to some understanding with the west. The east at the very least gave Honorius and Stilicho moral support in their increasing problems with Alaric. In 402, the feeling of goodwill was sealed by a joint consulship between Arcadius and his brother. The emperor also sought to establish his own military prowess and Christian piety with the erection of a column set up in the Hippodrome of Constantinople in 402/3. The column depicted his military victory over Gainas, crowned with a capital emblazoned with the Greek letters chi-rho, symbolizing his devotion to Christ. Arcadius' son, Theodosius II, was born in 401, and was quickly made Augustus at the age of eight months. The eastern ruler was thus interested in assuring his own dynasty.

In all these things, the emperor was largely successful, but they were largely overshadowed by the feud between his empress and the bishop of Constantinople. Eudoxia had already shown herself able in pushing her interests during the baptism of her son. The Bishop of Constantinople, however, was a much tougher opponent than her husband. John Chrysostom, a strong believer in social justice, had boorishly attacked Eudoxia and many of her friends for the conspicuous luxury in which they lived and displayed themselves. At the height of these attacks, John compared the empress to Jezebel. Eudoxia in turn used her considerable influence to inflame hostility among the clergy against the bishop. Working through Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria, in 403 Chrysostom was deposed and forced into exile at a Church council convened by the emperor (the Synod of the Oak at Chalcedon). However, there was soon such turmoil and uproar in the imperial city that the bishop was recalled a few days later. But the public feuding between Eudoxia and Chrysostom continued until at last she had him banished again in 404, this time permanently. Among other things, it caused a breach between Arcadius and his brother, who had, with Pope Innocent I, tried to support Chrysostom.

Eudoxia's victory was short-lived, however. In October of 404, the Augusta died of a miscarriage. Her death was seen by some as retribution for dismissing John. Whatever the reason, her end also signaled a complete retreat into the background by the emperor and no further initiatives seem to have been pushed by the 27-year-old Augustus.

The Final Years: Anthemius and Death (404-408)

The last years of Arcadius' reign were completely dominated by his Praetorian Prefect of the East, Anthemius. It was perhaps fitting that when the emperor seems to have been most retiring, the most able and energetic of his high ministers came to power. Anthemius worked hard to solve a series of governmental abuses, continue to push for Christianization, and secure the east from attack.

Anthemius first seems to have tried to reconcile with the west, so much so that there was a joint consulship between Anthemius and Stilicho in 405. This might have also been meant to symbolize the Prefect's new dominance, however. Additionally, a number of new laws were passed, curtailing paganism, Judaism and heresy. He tried to make use of the continuing problem of incoming Germanic peoples to combat the Isaurian tribes which had been plaguing Asia Minor since 403. While it failed to halt either group's incursions, it was nevertheless a practical and intelligent strategy. As a means of protecting the imperial capital, Anthemius also strengthened the walls around Constantinople. Our records for the last years of Arcadius' rule are quite spotty, but the emperor himself seems to have completely vanished, even symbolically, from the political scene.

In May of 408, Flavius Arcadius died at the age of 31 of unknown causes. Our only physical description of Arcadius is heavily influenced by the generally low regard in which he was held. The emperor was supposedly short, thin and dark-complected. A more kindly correspondent described him as good-natured and temperate. His son succeeded him without any controversy and the government remained unchanged. Arcadius thus left the world much as he entered it: without much significance and overshadowed by more powerful forces.


Despite the ineffectual nature of Arcadius and his rule, a number of significant changes occurred during his stewardship of the eastern empire. His inability to forcefully or at least effectively govern meant that there were few consistent or long-range goals of his administration. With the exception of trying to emphasize the emperor's piety, an important development in the history of the Byzantine monarchy, Arcadius and his ministers were for the most part simply reacting to events.

The emperor became an even more remote figure to the general public. Even in the capital city itself, he was rarely seen: we read in one account that people came running to see the emperor for the first time when he happened to be praying in a local church. A series of "orientalizing" court practices no doubt continued in order to emphasize the symbolic separation of the emperor from the rest of society. The hieratic, almost semi- divine nature of the imperial person, also became a feature of the eastern ruler.

Perhaps of greatest importance was the political and cultural split between east and west. With the death of Theodosius, the two halves of the Roman Empire increasingly went their separate ways. For the most part, the west was thrown back upon its own resources, unable to deal with the problems of the fifth century. The east proved more compact and more resilient: it largely weathered the political storms from without and within.

Moreover, Constantinople fully became the imperial capital of the east, a Roma nova. The emperor rarely left the city and the palace officials became more influential than many of the more theoretically important ministers outside the city. Constantinople was also made an archepiscopate and Chrysostom and others started to push strongly for its primacy in the east. Both public and private building projects beautified and enlarged the city. Under Arcadius' reign, it truly became the second city of the Roman Empire.

Finally, the hard stance against Germanic officers in Roman government became a central feature in the east. While the reasons for this development were inspired largely out of fear and perhaps racism, the eastern Roman Empire did manage to avoid the largely detrimental succession of Germanic generalissimos who controlled the west in the fifth century. It also encouraged the eastern rulers in the following century to take hard lines against other peoples, including the Isaurians, the Huns and the Persians. Taken in all, the era of Arcadius was far more important than Arcadius himself. He perhaps had his father's pretensions, but none of the skills or powers necessary to leave his mark on the Empire.

Sources and Bibliography

There are a number of sources that treat the age of Arcadius. The historians Zosimus (New History), Socrates (Ecclesiastical History) and Sozomon (Ecclesiastical History) offer the most complete accounts. Additionally, Bishop Synesius of Cyrene in letters and other works (On the Kingship and On Providence) specifically addresses a number of the problems and issues going on in Constantinople and the imperial court at that time. The letters and homilies of John Chrysostom are also of enormous value and tell us more about the social history of the capital than any other source. Minor accounts include the Chronicon Paschale and the Chronicle of Marcellinus Comes. Several important saints' lives, including the Life of Porphyry, provide valuable information about events outside the capital. Finally, for the military and political organization of the Roman Empire, the Notitia Dignitatum offers a static look at the early fifth century.

Cameron, Alan, and Long, Jacqueline (1993) Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius (Berkeley).

Demougeot, Emilienne (1951), De l'unité la division de l'empire romain, 395-410: Essai sur la government impérial (Paris).

Holum, Kenneth (1982), Theodosian Empresses (Berkeley).

Jones, A.H.M. et al. (1970), The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 1 (Cambridge).

Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G. (1991), Barbarians and Bishops. Army, Church, and State in the Age of Arcadius and Chrysostom (Oxford).

Martindale, J.R. (1980), The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 2 (Cambridge).

Seeck, Otto (1896), "Arcadius," in RE, v. 2 (Berlin), 1137-53.

Van Ommeslaeghe, F. (1979) "Jean Chrysostome en conflit avec l'impératrice Eudoxie," Analecta Bollandiana 97, 131-59.

Copyright (C) 1998, Geoffrey S. Nathan. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Geoffrey S. Nathan

Updated: 24 August 1998

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