Greater than the Emperor


In 390, the year after the first of the Theodosian Decrees was issued, he ran afoul of the church he was trying to make use of, and Ambrose excommunicated him—the first time that a monarch was ever punished by the Christian church for a political action.

The action was a fairly straightforward, if cruel, act of retaliation. Over in Pannonia, a Roman governor had run into troubles at a tavern; drinking late one night, he had “shamefully exposed” himself, and a charioteer sitting next to him at the bar had “attempted an outrage.”The routine drunken pass turned into an incident when the governor, embarrassed, arrested the charioteer and threw him in jail. Unfortunately, he was one of the most popular contestants in a chariot race to be run the next day, and when the governor refused to release him in time for him to compete, his fans rioted, stormed the governor’s headquarters, and murdered him.

Theodosius cracked down immediately and put to death everyone who had a hand in the riot—a purge that swept up a number of people who had simply been standing around watching. Ambrose was appalled by this injustice. When Theodosius next arrived in Milan to check on the affairs in the western part of his domain, Ambrose refused to allow him to enter the church either for prayer or for the celebration of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the rite that separated believers from unbelievers.

SThe Christian historians who record this merely say that Theodosius then confessed his sin, did penance, and was restored. But what passes almost as a footnote is the fact that it took Theodosius eight months to do so. Standing on the steps and looking at Ambrose’s unyielding face, Theodosius must have realized that his decrees were having an unintended consequence. The single, catholic church held his empire together because it was greater than the state, greater than any national loyalty, greater than any single man.

It was greater than the emperor.

Theodosius’s eight months of reflection were eight months in which, in all likelihood, the future of Christianity hung in the balance. Had Theodosius been able to think of any better strategy, he could simply have refused Ambrose’s demands. But in doing so he would have had either to turn his back on the Eucharist—which would have condemned his soul—or to deny Ambrose’s authority—which would have revealed that the Christian church was, in fact, not bigger than the emperor. “Educated as he had been in the sacred oracles,” concludes the Christian historian Theodoret, “Theodosius knew clearly what belonged to priests and what to emperors.”


  1. Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print. 69-70.

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Filed under History, Notes on History

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