Skip to comments.The Nine Greatest Rulers of the Christian Roman Empire
Posted on 11/16/2019 8:41:57 PM PST by Antoninus
The 4th through 7th centuries are often considered periods of decay and decline for the Roman Empire. I view them, however, as times of crisis and regeneration, as the previously pagan Empire was transformed into an amazingly resilient Christian Empire which persisted for another millennium despite attacks on all sides and myriad convulsions from within.
Who were the most effective rulers during this period? Opinions vary, but here are my choices. Portraits of all, taken from antiquity, may be found in the above image:
Constantine the Great (AD 306-337). Constantine may be considered the founder of the Christian Roman Empire. The story of his life is one of the great tales of triumph (at Rome and at Chyrsopolis) and tragedy, hinging on an episode of divine intervention which literally changed the course of human historyhis vision of a Cross in the sky. By embracing Christianity and moving the imperial capital to Byzantium, Constantine created a solid foundation for a renewed Roman Empire which would endure for centuries to come. On his deathbed, he became the first Roman emperor to be baptized a Christian.
Constantius II (AD 337-361). Of the sons of Constantine the Great, Constantius proved to be the most effective. Though his methods left much to be desired, Constantius managed to protect and defend the empire from Persian aggression in the east, and from barbarian invasions in the west. He also crushed a major rebellion in the west under the usurper Magnus Magnentius who had previously slain his brother, Constans. A complicated man with a tendency toward brutality, Constantius swayed toward Arianism and caused the Church a great deal of theological and political upset.
Valentinian I (AD 364-375). Called a good man and capable of holding the reins of the empire by Hermias Sozomen, Valentinian rose through the ranks of the Roman military to become the leader of the elite Jovian and Herculean divisions. A steadfast Christian, he endured the hostility of the emperor Julian the Apostate and was elected emperor by the soldiers upon the death of Jovian in AD 364. He spent most of his reign effectively defending the imperial frontiers in the west and perished from a stroke after an angry confrontation with some barbarian ambassadors.
Theodosius I (AD 379-395). A Spaniard by birth, Theodosius was elevated to the imperial throne in the aftermath of the catastrophic Battle of Adrianople where the Roman field army was annihilated and the emperor Valens was killed. He faced the task of rebuilding the army and dealt admirably with the Gothic menace, putting the empire back on a sound footing. He also beat back a dangerous rebellion under Eugenius and Arbogast, and was the last man to rule a unified Eastern and Western Roman Empire. A devout Christian, Theodosius obeyed the command of Saint Ambrose of Milan to offer public repentance for his slaughter of innocent citizens in Thessalonika.
Pulcheria (AD 414-453). The daughter of the Eastern Emperor Arcadius, Pulcheria ruled as regent for her brother, the child-emperor Theodosius II, for many years. Having taken a vow of virginity, she governed the Roman empire excellently and with great orderliness, according to her contemporary, Hermias Sozomen. Her reign straddled the disastrous years of the barbarian invasions in both West and East, and under her guidance, the East was able to weather this storm successfully. She was also a driving force behind the Council of Chalcedon which helped unify the Christian Church which was rent with theological disputes.
Majorian (AD 457-461). Considered the last effective Western Roman Emperor, Majorian rose to power along with the barbarian Ricimer. Both men served under the powerful general Aetius, and together they navigated the chaotic political and military situation of mid-5th century Gaul. The two were strong enough to gain the imperial throne for Majorian in AD 457. Using a mixture of armed force and diplomacy, Majorian was able to reconstitute imperial authority in much of Gaul and Spain, and planned to re-conquer Vandal Africa. Ultimately, he was thwarted when his fleet was captured by the Vandals. Following this defeat, his one-time ally Ricimer had Majorian assassinated.
Justinian I (AD 527-565). After Constantine, Justinian is probably the best known of the Christian Roman Emperors. Having inherited the eastern Empire from his uncle, Justin I, Justinian conceived a grand plan for revitalizing the Roman Empire. Starting with the law, he successfully reformed and made clear over 1,000 years of Roman legal code. Though nearly toppled in a fiery rebellion early in his reign, Justinian used the opportunity to rebuild Constantinople and crown her with his great church, Hagia Sophia. Via his brilliant general, Belisarius, he re-conquered vast regions of the west that had been lost during the previous century. His efforts to bring harmony to the Church were less successful, however, and ultimately his efforts over-extended the resources of the empire, leaving it weaker though considerably larger upon his death.
Maurice (AD 582-602). Maurice was described by his contemporary Evagrius Scholasticus as a prudent and shrewd man, very precise in all matters and unperturbed. He rose through the court in Constantinople and won fame as Magister Militum of the East. He would later write a military manual which would come down to us as the Strategikon of Maurice. Upon acceding to the throne, Maurice inherited an empty treasury and aggressive enemies on all sides. He nonetheless managed to secure the frontiers, even pushing the Avars out of the Balkan provinces and campaigning on the far side of the Danube. His caution with the imperial finances, however, was scorned by the soldiers, who eventually rose up, deposed and killed Maurice and his family, initiating the disastrous reign of the tyrant, Phocas.
Heraclius (AD 610-641). Heraclius rose to power as the son of the exarch of Carthage during the calamitous reign of Phocas. Along with his father, Heraclius rose in rebellion in AD 608 and captured Constantinople two years later, deposing and beheading Phocas. By that time, however, much of the empire had been overrun by the Persians in the east, and the Avars in the north. Heraclius spent practically all of his reign painstakingly reconquering the lost regions, achieving a final decisive victory over the Persians in AD 630. Sadly, his herculean efforts had utterly exhausted the Roman Empire. At the Battle of Yarmuk in AD 636, Heracliuss army was crushed by the invading Arabs, leading to the conquest of Roman Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Mesopotamia by the forces of Islam.
After the death of Heraclius in AD 641, the Empire carried on, but it would never again regain the size, power or hegemony that it had originally possessed. It would, however, continue to transmit its wealth of culture, learning, religious heritage and history far into the future.
Basil 1st. He came later, but the Byzantines never considered themselves anything other than Romans. Basil helped to beat back the Islamic threat and strengthen the empire so it acted as a bulwark that enabled Constantinople to check the spread of Islam until 1492.
Julian the Apostate? returned to paganism.
Not sure Heraclius, who lost Jerusalem and Syria to the Muslim Arabs belongs on that list.
Leo III and Constantine IV, who held off the Muslims in the late seventh and early eighth centuries certainly deserve honorable mention.
Thanks for posting a stimulating interest peek into Roman history.
Thanks for posting a stimulating interest peek into Roman history.
I disagree. His previous 30 years of success entitles Heraclius to honorable mention. Without him, the empire might have succumbed completely to Persia.
I think its an omission when listing Justinian I, not to include his wife and by some accounts, coregent Theodora and her influence. She was according to contemporary accounts, responsible for persuading Justinian not to flee the city during the Nica Riots thus saving his rule.
Theodora participated in Justinian’s legal and spiritual reforms, and her involvement in the increase of the rights of women was substantial. She had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution “and was known for buying girls who had been sold into prostitution, freeing them, and providing for their future.” She closed brothels and made pimping a criminal offense. She created a convent on the Asian side of the Dardanelles called the Metanoia (Repentance), where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves. She also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, instituted the death penalty for rape, forbade exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery. Procopius wrote that she was naturally inclined to assist women in misfortune. After Theodora’s death, “little effective legislation was passed by Justinian.”
I think Theodora did more harm than good, honestly. She seemed to work behind the scenes to further her own agenda, often at the expense of her husband’s. Her vendetta against John of Cappadocia was ultimately counter-productive, as was her interfering with the career of Belisarius — all to protect her own power.
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