Theodosius’s Edicts Promote Christian Orthodoxy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Theodosius’s edicts promoted Christian orthodoxy by establishing Nicene Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire.

Summary of Event

In the late fourth century c.e., government policies made one form of Christianity a mainstay of a troubled Roman Empire. The reign of Theodosius the Great brought to a close the turbulent controversy over the nature of the Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost). Basically the question revolved around the issue of relationships within the trio. Arius had said that the Son and the Holy Ghost, because not fully spirit and eternal, were inferior to the Father, whereas the bishops assembled in the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 had affirmed the equality of the Son and the Father. In succeeding years, many of these bishops also agreed that the Holy Ghost shared essential deity with the Father and the Son. Argument raged throughout the empire for years, aggravated by religious splits among the successors of Constantine the Great. Theodosius the Great Gratian Ambrose, Saint Damasus I

After the death of Jovian in 364 c.e., the Roman Empire became divided politically between Valentinian (364-375) in the Western Roman Empire and his brother Valens (364-378) in the Eastern Roman Empire. The western emperor was little inclined toward interfering in Church affairs, but in the east, Valens adopted a modified form of Arianism and harassed Christians who adhered to the Nicene formula. Gratian, succeeding his father Valentinian, refused to become pontifex maximus, an imperial title since 12 b.c.e., and in 382 c.e. ordered that the statue of Victory be removed from the Senate House in Rome, the citadel of conservatism and paganism. In general, he supported the Nicene faith and began to place both heretics and pagans under civil penalties. In 382 and 384, delegations of senators pleaded for the traditional freedom to allow all people to seek “the Divine Mystery” (in the words of Symmachus) in their own way. Damasus I and Saint Ambrose opposed the petitions, and the government remained firm.

Saint Ambrose bars Theodosius the Great from entering the Church.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

When Valens was killed by the invading Goths at Adrianople in 378 c.e., Gratian appointed Theodosius (later the Great) to succeed him. Theodosius, of Iberian family origin and whose father (comes, or Count, Theodosius) had been a distinguished general, was a devout adherent of the Nicene views espoused by most western bishops. At the same time, a Nicene group was emerging in the east, and Theodosius evidently felt the time was ripe for his own vigorous participation in the controversy among the Christians. He issued his edict of February 27, 380 c.e., from Thessalonica (Salonika), one month after baptism at the hands of the Nicene bishop of the city and recovery from illness. It has come to be known as Cunctos Populos from its opening words. The text of the edict is translated as follows:

It is our pleasure that all the nations which are governed by our clemency and moderation should steadfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by Saint Peter to the Romans; which faithful tradition has preserved; and which is now professed by the pontiff Damasus I and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness.

In accordance with the teaching of the Gospel and of the early apostles, Theodosius enjoined belief in the sole deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, “under an equal majesty and a pious Trinity.” Only followers of this doctrine could assume the title of “Catholic Christians”; all others were judged extravagant madmen and were branded with the “infamous title of heretics.” Under the Theodosian Code 16.1.2, their conventicles would no longer be called churches, and they could expect to suffer the penalties that the emperor, under divine guidance, would deem justifiable. By imperial edict, orthodox (“correct”) Christianity was established, and deviationists were threatened with penalties. In 381, the government convened the second ecumenical council at Constantinople. It reissued the Nicene Creed, and the emperor gave the force of civil law to the council’s canons.

Arianism faded away inside the empire, but missionaries spread it among the Germans. After 400 c.e., Visigoths settled in southern Gaul and Spain, Ostrogoths in Italy, and Vandals in North Africa. Religious hostility exacerbated the tensions between the heretical invaders and the mostly Nicene natives.

Although Theodosius took a rigid attitude toward Christian heretics, he allowed considerable latitude to non-Christians during the first twelve years of his reign. In 391 c.e., however, two edicts were issued against the pagans, and the following year, a more comprehensive law was promulgated. In this decree, which came to be known as Nullus Omnino, he ordered that no one was to kill innocent victims in the worship of idols, nor was anyone henceforth permitted to venerate lares, genii, or penates. The reading of entrails was likewise forbidden, and he encouraged informers to reveal infractions of the law. Idol worship was ridiculed as a violation of true religion. Houses in which pagan rites were conducted were to be confiscated, and a fine of twenty-five pounds in gold was to be imposed on all who sacrificed to idols or circumvented the law. The edict concluded with threats against officials who might be lax in enforcing this law (Theodosian Code 16.10.12).





Theodosius’s solicitude for Christianity was not confined to the promulgation of these two edicts. By Nullus Haereticis in 381 c.e., he ordered that there be “no place left to the heretics for celebrating the mysteries of their faith,” and he went on to assign the name Catholic only to those who believed in the Trinity. Heretics were forbidden to conduct assemblies within the limits of towns. During the next two years, the emperor set aside wills of apostate Christians, and he denied them the rights of inheritance. Likewise, his attitude toward pagans resulted in the laws of 391, which prohibited sacrifices and the visiting of shrines. Possibly as a result of these laws, the great temple to Serapis in Alexandria was destroyed about 391.

The pretender Magnus Maximus eliminated Gratian in 383 c.e., but Theodosius took revenge. While in Italy from 388 to 391, he had several disputes with Saint Ambrose, the west’s most prominent bishop. In 390, Saint Ambrose refused to allow the emperor to receive communion until he accepted responsibility and did penance for the massacre of civilians at Thessalonica by imperial troops. Theodosius also ended the pagan Olympic Games (considered immoral because participants competed naked); those held in 392 were the last to be staged until the modern Olympic Games were revived in 1896. Valentinian II, brother of Gratian, was murdered or committed suicide in 392, but Theodosius eliminated the pretender Eugenius and the Frankish general Arbogast. Theodosius was the last emperor to rule the entire Roman Empire.


Theodosius’s policies went beyond those of Constantine, who had been content to legalize Christianity and endow the Church with wealth, buildings, and legal privileges. Damasus I and Saint Ambrose convinced Gratian and Theodosius that diversity in belief was wrong now that the truth was known. Theodosius ended Rome’s traditional religious toleration when he decreed the Nicene-Catholic form of Christianity to be the official religion of the state and made liable to the harsh penalties of the law all who did not accept it. This established two enduring principles: religious persecution and the state church. Temples of the old gods were reconsecrated to the Christian God or fell into disrepair; Christian mobs destroyed others in riots their bishops encouraged and the government permitted. Imperial religious processions, occasions of display to the people, were henceforth only to Christian basilicas. For centuries, Europe regarded diversity as synonymous with disunity. Accepting the proposition that political and social unity required religious uniformity, governments enforced such uniformity through a state church. The policy began to break down with the Edict of Nantes in France in 1598, but the constitutional separation of church and state established in the United States two centuries later constituted the clearest rejection of the Theodosian policy.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnes, T. D. “Religion and Society in the Age of Theodosius.” In Grace, Politics and Desire: Essays on Augustine, edited by H. A. Maynell. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1990. Judicious, traditional scholarship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, P. Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Toward a Christian Empire. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992. Bishops, some with access to the emperors, became the elite of society as Christianity superseded paganism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cochrane, C. N. Christianity and Classical Culture. Rev. ed. 1944. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957. An older study that contains a masterful summary of the topic. Chapters 5-9 argue that Theodosius completed the revolution begun by Constantine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLynn, N. B. Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Chapters 3 and 7 analyze the Altar of Victory controversy, the relationship between Saint Ambrose (as Nathan) and Theodosius (as David), and reinterpret the events of 390-391.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Saint Ambrose; Theodosius the Great. Christianity;state religion of Roman Empire Roman Empire;Christianity and

Categories: History