« Gordianus, father of Pope Gregory the Great Gratianus, emperor Gregorius Thaumaturgus, bp. of Neocaesarea »

Gratianus, emperor

Gratianus (5) (Flavius Gratianus Augustus), emperor 375–383, son of Valentinian, was born at Sirmium in 359 while his father was still an officer in the army. When Valentinian was chosen emperor by the soldiers in 364, Gratian was not five years old. On Aug. 24, 367, Valentinian, at Amiens, declared him "Augustus."

When Valentinian died in 375, the infant child of his second wife Justina (Valentinian II.) was proclaimed Augustus by his principal officers (Amm. xxx. 10), in reliance upon the youth and good nature of Gratian, who was at Trèves, and who recognized his young brother almost immediately. Justina fixed her court at Sirmium; and the Western empire was perhaps nominally divided between the two brothers, Gratian having Gaul, Spain, and Britain, and Valentinian, Italy, Illyricum, and Africa (Zos. iv. 19). But this division must have been simply nominal, as Gratian constantly acted in the latter provinces (see Tillem. Emp. v. p. 140, and cf. the laws quoted infra). For the first years of his reign, till the death of his uncle Valens, Gratian resided chiefly at Trèves, whence most of his laws are dated. His first acts were to punish with death some of the prominent instruments of the cruelties committed in the name of justice and discipline, which had disgraced his father's later years, especially the hated Maximinus. Another act, doubtless at the beginning of his reign, shewed his determination to break with paganism more effectually than his predecessors had done. This was his refusal of the robe of pontifex maximus, when it was brought to him according to custom by the pontifices; thinking (as the heathen historian tells us) that it was unlawful for a Christian (Zos. iv. 36). The title appears indeed to some extent on coins and inscriptions, but it is not easy to fix their date.

The Eastern empire was, meanwhile, in the hands of the incompetent Valens, in great danger from Goths. In 378 the Alamanni Lentienses passed the Rhine in great force and threatened the Western empire, but were heavily defeated by Gratian at Argentaria, near Colmar (Amm. xxxi. 10). This set him free to move towards the East; and at Sirmium he heard of the defeat of his uncle at Adrianople, Aug. 7, and of his ignoble death (ib. 11, 6; 12, 10). The situation was extremely critical for an emperor not 20 years of age. The barbarians were in motion on all the frontiers. The internal condition of the West was insecure, from the tacit antagonism between the two courts, and the East was now suddenly thrown upon his hands, as Valens had left no children. Gratian shewed his judgment by sending for the younger Theodosius, son of the late count Theodosius and about 13 years older than himself, who after his father's execution was living in retirement upon his estates in Spain (Victor, Ep. 72, 74, etc.; cf. Themist. Orat. 14, p. 183 A). Theodosius, loyal and fearless like his father, was at once entrusted with command of the troops as magister militum. His successes over the barbarians (probably Sarmatians) encouraged Gratian to appoint him emperor of the East with general applause (Theod. v. 5, 6).

Gratian returned from Sirmium by way of Aquileia and Milan, at which places he passed some parts of July and Aug. 379. He had previously been brought into contact with St. Ambrose, and had received from him the two first books of his treatise de Fide, intended specially to preserve him against Arianism. This teaching had its due effect; and he now addressed a letter to the bp. of Milan (see infra). St. Ambrose sent him two more books of his treatise, and probably had personal intercourse with him. Gratian then went on to his usual residence at Trèves, but during the following years resided much more frequently at and near Milan, especially in winter; his intercourse with St. Ambrose resulting in his confirmation in the Catholic faith. There was, however, another side to this practical neglect of the Gallic provinces. The Western provincials—never very contented—felt the absence of the imperial court. If Gratian had continued to reside at Trèves, the rebellion of Magnus Maximus might never have taken place, and certainly would not have grown so formidable.

The influence of St. Ambrose is shewn by the ecclesiastical laws (see infra), and in the removal of the altar of Victory from the senate-house at Rome in a.d. 381 (St. Ambr. Ep. 17, 5; Symm. Ep. 61, ad init. et ad finem). The heathen senators, though in the 400minority, were accustomed to offer incense on this altar, and to touch it in taking solemn oaths (Ambr. Ep. 17, 9). It had been removed or covered up during the visit of Constantius, but was again restored under Julian, and Valentinian's policy had been against interference with such matters (Symm. l.c.). Its removal now caused great distress to the heathen party, who met in the senate-house and petitioned Gratian for its restoration. But the Christians, who had absented themselves from the curia, met privately, and sent a counter-petition through pope Damasus to Ambrose, who presented it to the emperor (Ambr. l.c.). The weight of this document enabled the advisers of Gratian to prevent his giving the heathen party a hearing. This blow was soon followed by another even more telling—the confiscation of the revenues of the temple of Victory, and the abolition of the privileges of the pontiffs and vestals, a measure extended to other heathen institutions (ib. 3–5; 18, 11 f.; Cod. Theod. xv. 10, 20).

These laws were followed by a famine in Italy, especially in Rome, which the pagans naturally ascribed to sacrilege (Symm. l.c.).

A much more serious danger was the revolt of Magnus Maximus, a former comrade of Theodosius in Britain, who was probably jealous of his honours, and was now put forward as emperor by the soldiers. [MAXIMUS (2).] This rising took place a.d. 383 in Britain, whence the usurper passed over to the mouth of the Rhine, gathering large bodies of men as he went. Gratian set out to meet him, with his two generals Balio and Merobaudes, the latter a Frank by birth. The two armies met near Paris, and Gratian was deserted by nearly all his troops (Zos. iv. 35; Ambr. in Ps. 61, 17). Only 300 horse remained faithful. With these he fled at full speed to Lyons. The governor received him with protestations of loyalty, and took a solemn oath on the Gospels not to hurt him. Gratian, deceived by his assurances, took his place in his imperial robes at a feast, during or soon after which he was basely assassinated (Aug. 25) at the age of 24, leaving no children. The traitor even denied his body burial (Ambr. l.c., and 23 f.; Marcell. sub anno).

Gratian was amiable and modest—in fact, too modest to be a good governor in these rough times. He was generous and kind-hearted, of an attractive disposition and beautiful person. His tutor Ausonius had taken pains to inspire him with tastes for rhetoric and versification. He was chaste and temperate, careful in religious conduct, and zealous for the faith. His great fault was a neglect of public business through devotion to sport, especially to shooting wild beasts with bow and arrows in his parks and preserves (Amm. l.c.; Victor, Ep. 73). He once killed a lion with a single arrow (Aus. Epig. 6); and St. Ambrose alludes to his prowess in the chase, adopting the language of David's elegy over Jonathan—"Gratiani sagitta non est reversa retro" (de Obitu Valent. 73; cf. the old Latin of II. Sam. i. 22).

The ecclesiastical policy of Gratian was more important than his civil or military government. His reign, coinciding with that of Theodosius, saw orthodox Christianity for the first time dominant throughout the empire. His measures in behalf of the church were often tainted with injustice towards the sects. But it is probable that the laws were very imperfectly carried out (see Richter, p. 327). His first general law against heretical sects is dated from Trèves, May 1, 376, and speaks of a previous law of the same kind (Cod. Theod. xvi. 5, 4), which may, however, be one of Valens (and Valentinian).

In 377, shortly before the death of Valens, he condemned rebaptism, and ordered the Donatist churches to be restored to the Catholics and their private meeting-houses confiscated (Cod. Theod. xvi. 6, 2). The death of Valens was naturally the signal for the disciple of St. Ambrose to restore the Catholics of the East to their possessions. He recalled all those whom his uncle had banished, and further issued an edict of toleration for all Christian sects, except the Eunomians (extreme Arians, see Soz. vi. 26), Photinians, and Manicheans (Socr. v. 2; Soz. vii. 1). Theodoret (v. 2) appears to confuse this with the later edict of Gratian and Theodosius. On the strong representations of Idacius of Merida, the Priscillianists, an enthusiastic sect of Gnostics numerous in Spain (Sulpicius Severus, Chron. ii. 47, 6), were also excepted.

On his return from Sirmium, Gratian wrote the following affectionate and interesting autograph (Ambr. Ep. 1, 3) letter to St. Ambrose: "I desire much to enjoy the bodily presence of him whose recollection I carry with me, and with whom I am present in spirit. Therefore, hasten to me, religious priest of God, to teach me the doctrine of the true faith. Not that I am anxious for argument, or wish to know God in words rather than in spirit; but that my heart may be opened more fully to receive the abiding revelation of the divinity. For He will teach me, Whom I do not deny, Whom I confess to be my God and my Lord, not raising as an objection against His divinity that He took upon Himself a created nature like my own [non ei obiciens, quam in me video, creaturam]. I confess that I can add nothing to the glory of Christ; but I should wish to commend myself to the Father in glorifying the Son. I will not fear a grudging spirit on the part of God. I shall not suppose myself such an encomiast as to increase His divinity by my praises. In my weakness and frailty I utter what I can, not what is adequate to His divinity. I desire you to send me a copy of the same treatise, which you sent before [de Fide, i. ii.], enlarging it by a faithful dissertation on the Holy Spirit: prove that He is God by arguments of Scripture and reason. May the Deity keep you for many years, my father, and worshipper of the eternal God, Jesus Christ, Whom we worship." St. Ambrose replies, excusing his non-attendance upon the emperor, praising the expressions of his faith, and sending two fresh books of his treatise. For the new book, de Spiritu Sancto, he asks time, knowing (as he says) what a critic will read them. The subject was at this moment being largely discussed in the Eastern church.

It is assumed by De Broglie that the bishop and the emperor did not meet at this time, but St. Ambrose writes in the letter just quoted, 401§ 7, "veniam plane et festinabo ut jubes," and two laws of Gratian's are dated from Milan in July and Aug. 379 (Cod. Just. vi. 32, 4, July 29, and Cod. Theod. xvi. 5, 5, Aug. 3, to Hesperius Pf. Praet. de haereticis), the second of which may shew the influence of St. Ambrose. It forbids the heresies against which former imperial edicts had been directed, and especially that of rebaptism (the Donatists), and revokes the recent tolerant edict of Sirmium.

About this time must be dated the occurrences mentioned by St. Ambrose in de Spiritu Sancto, i. §§ 19–21. The empress Justina, an Arian, had obtained from Gratian a basilica for the worship of her sect, to the great distress of the Catholics. He restored it, however, apparently of his own motion, to their equal surprise and delight, perhaps a.d. 380 (cf. Richter, n. 30, p. 692; de Spiritu Sancto, § 20, neque enim aliud possumus dicere, nisi sancti Spiritus hanc priore gratiam, quod ignorantibus omnibus subito Basilicam reddidisti). St. Ambrose also obtained another victory over the Arians in 380 in his journey to Sirmium, where Justina apparently also went. In spite of her vehement opposition, he succeeded in consecrating an orthodox bishop to the metropolitan see of Illyria, and thus laid the foundation for the suppression of heresy in that quarter of the empire (Paulinus, Vita Ambrosii, 11).

Gratian evidently agreed in the important edict issued by his colleague Theodosius on Feb. 27, 380, from Thessalonica to the people of Constantinople. This remarkable document declared the desire of the emperors that all their subjects should profess the religion given by St. Peter to the Romans and now held by the pontiff Damasus, and Peter, bp. of Alexandria—that is to say, should confess the one deity and equal majesty of the three persons of the Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and further, that they alone who hold this faith are to be called Catholics, and their places of meeting churches; while the rest are branded as heretics, and are threatened with an indefinite punishment (Cod. Theod. xvi. 1, 2; cf. the law of the next year, which mentions various Catholic bishops of the East, whose communion was to be the test of orthodoxy, including Nectarius of Constantinople—perhaps the reference to Damasus had given offence). De Broglie says of these laws, "It was impossible to abjure more decidedly the pretension of dogmatizing from the elevation of the throne, which had been since Constantine the mania of all the emperors and the scourge of the empire" (vol. v. p. 365). But correct dogmatism is still dogmatism, and the definition of truth by good emperors kept up the delusion that the right of perpetual interference with religion was inherent in their office.

In May 383, at Padua, Gratian issued a penal law against apostates, and those who try to make others apostatize from Christianity.

In 381 he summoned the council of Aquileia (which met on Sept. 5) to decide the cases of the Illyrian bishops Palladius and Secundianus, who were accused of Arianism. Their condemnation put an end to the official life of Arianism in that important district (Ambr. Ep. 9). The records of this council are preserved by St. Ambrose, (following his 8th epistle in the Benedictine ed.), who took the chief part in it, though he did not technically preside. The same council took up the case of pope Damasus and besought the emperor to interfere against the partisans of the antipope Ursinus (ib. 11). The relations of Gratian with the see of Rome are somewhat obscure, but some extension of its privileges and pretensions dates from this reign. According to the documents first published by Sirmond, a synod held in Rome soon after Gratian's accession made large demands for ecclesiastical jurisdiction and particularly asked that the bp. of Rome should only be judged by a council of bishops or by the emperor in person. Gratian in his rescript to Aquilinus the vicar (of Rome?) grants and confirms several privileges, but says nothing of the latter request. Some doubt hangs over the whole of these documents. (See Godefroy, Cod. Theod. vol. vi. appendix, pp. 17, 18; Baron. Annals, sub anno 381, §§ 1, 2; Tillem. Damase, arts. 10 and 11. Greenwood, Cathedra Petri, vol. i. pp. 239–242; Hefele, Councils, § 91, does not even hint at their existence.)

In consequence of the success of the council of Aquileia St. Ambrose was anxious to call together an oecumenical assembly at Rome to settle the dispute between Nectarius and Maximus, who both claimed the see of Constantinople, and pressed the emperor Theodosius on the point (Epp. 13 and 14), who, however, naturally viewed this interference with coldness (Theod. v. 8, 9). A council, nevertheless, met at Rome, but without doing much beyond condemning the Apollinarians.

Returning to Milan, St. Ambrose took leave of the young emperor for the last time. Their intercourse had always been tender and affectionate, and was the last thought of the emperor before his death.

We may here mention an instance of their relations, which may have been at this or at any other period of their friendship (de Broglie, to make a point, puts it here, vol. vi. p. 45, but neither Paulinus, § 37, nor Sozomen, vii. 25, gives any hint of date). A heathen of quality was condemned to death for abusing Gratian and calling him an unworthy son of Valentinian. As he was being led to execution, Ambrose hurried to the palace to intercede for him. One Macedonius, master of the offices, it would seem, ordered the servants to refuse him admittance, as Gratian was engaged in his favourite sport. Ambrose went round to the park gates, entered unperceived by the huntsmen, and never left Gratian till he had overcome his arguments and those of his courtiers and obtained remission of the sentence. "The time will come," he said to Macedonius, "when you will fly for asylum to the church, but the church doors will be shut against you." The anecdote of the criminal is told by Sozomen, l.c.; the words to Macedonius are given by Paulinus, u.s.


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