13 Christian Emperors who ruined the world

By Kenneth Humphreys | 22 November 2011
Jesus Never Existed

Constantine I was the first emperor to accept Christianity. Before his seminal Battle of the Milvian Bridge, legend tells us that Constantine saw the image of the cross. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Age at Accession and Death [BOLD]

House of Constantine – Scramble for Power

Constantine I (307 – 337) – 34 (west) 52 (whole empire). With less than five per cent of his subjects professing to be Christian, Constantine endorsed Christianity as the most favoured religion. Though his Council of Nicaea was ever after hailed as the lodestone of Catholic orthodoxy, he died an Arian (at 65).

Constantine II (337 – 340) – 21. On accession in Gaul, freed the fiery “Trinitarian” Bishop Athanasius from exile and allowed him to return to Alexandria, causing problems for his brother Constantius II, an Arian. He was killed at 24 in battle with brother Constans, trying to seize more territory.

Constans I (337 – 350) – 17. Under influence of Athanasius, banned pagan sacrifice and waged a campaign against the Donatists in North Africa. Called Council of Serdica to deal with Arianism. He sold government posts to the highest bidder and was murdered by his army chief at 30.

Constantius II (337 – 361) – 20. On accession, he murdered many of his own family. Early in life influenced by presbyter Arius and his supporters.

“Vain & stupid… he bankrupted the courier service by frequent calls for Church Councils.” (Ammianus).

Terrified of sorcery, Constantius persecuted “soothsayers and Hellenists.” However, shortly before his death at the age of 44, Christian monks were exempted from all public obligations.

Julian the Apostate (360 – 363) – 29. As a boy, escaped the murder of his family at the hands of his cousin Constantius. Instructed by bishops but, in secret, rejected Christianity. Made Caesar in 355, Augustus in 360. In vain, Julian attempted to restore religious tolerance and the ‘old gods.’ Assassinated at 32.

House of Valentinian – Retreat into “Piety”

Valentinian I (364 – 375) – 43. With Julian’s murder (and the death of Jovian), this stolid soldier made emperor. Issued edict forbidding pagan officers to command Christian soldiers. He was impressed by Ambrose, whom he made praetorian prefect of Italy, governor of Milan and bishop. Little interested in religion but hostile to the old pagan aristocracy, which cleared the way for Christian ascendancy. Died in a fit of anger, at 54.

Valentinian’s biggest mistake was making his obtuse brother Valens (364 – 378) co-ruler in the east (at 36). A zealous Arian, Valens ordered mass book-burning and persecution of non-Christians throughout the Eastern Empire. His arrogance led him to defeat and death at the hands of the Goths in 378 (aged 50).

Gratian (367 -383) – 8. Elder son of Valentinian. Tutored by Ausonius, a Christian poet from Gaul. No interest in the rigours of military life; withdrew his capital from Trier to the relative safety of Milan; held in contempt by army; murdered at 24 by Magnus Maximus (usurper emperor of the western provinces). Catspaw of Ambrose while he lived (abolished Vestal Virgins, removed Altar of Victory). Preferred hunting to ruling.

Valentinian II (375 -392) – 4. (Regent: Empress Justina). This child prince, the younger son of Valentinian I, relied on Ambrose to negotiate with Maximus and remained a pawn in the power struggle between the Catholic bishop and his Arian mother. Intervention by Theodosius saved his throne, only to leave him under the thumb of generalissimo Arbogastes. Refused appeal to restore Altar of Victory. Murdered (suicide?) at 19.

House of Theodosius – Dissolute and Dissolution

Theodosius I (379 – 395) – 32. Sacked from the army by Valentinian I for cowardice; his seniority led a desperate 19-year-old Gratian to appoint him co-ruler for the east after death of his uncle Valens at Adrianople. After a near-death experience at 34, he emerged as Catholic fanatic. Manipulated by Ambrose he issued draconian anti-pagan laws (any disagreement with Christian dogma was declared “insane”). Libraries looted and burned. Temples closed and burned. Appointed general Stilicho as ‘governor’ in the west for his younger son Honorius. Died at 49. Disastrous legacy.

Arcadius (395 – 408) – 18. Elder son of Theodosius ruled ineffectually under praetorian prefects Tatian, Rufinus and Anthemius, chamberlain Eutropius (who appointed John Chrysostom patriarch) and forceful wife Eudoxia (who deposed Chrysostom). ‘Withdrew’ on her death, rarely leaving palace. Urged the Goths to invade Italy to save his own skin. Compensated for weak character with pious acts of religious intolerance (ordered that paganism be treated as “high treason” and any remaining temples be demolished); died at 31.

Honorius (395 – 423) – 10. Younger son of Theodosius murdered his protector, the brilliant general Stilicho, in 408, out of petulance and envy, paving the way for capitulation to German tribes migrating into Spain, Visigoths into southwest Gaul, and the loss of Britain. The feckless and timid youth abandoned Milan and Italy to the Goths while he cowed in Ravenna. Stirred himself to call a synod of bishops and rule in favour of Boniface against rival pope Eulalius and tried to get Theodosius to return Illyricum sees to papal authority. A synod in Carthage declared the study of pagan books prohibited and issued an approved “canon” of the Church. Honorius died at 38.

Theodosius II (408 – 450) – 7. (Regent: Empress Pulcheria) Early life of the only son of Arcadius was dominated by his resolute and pious sisters, his ambitious and pious wife Eudoxia (whom he married in 421), and the prefect Anthemius (who built the walls of Constantinople). Many edicts of intolerance were issued in his name.

While the young Theodosius pondered the nature of Christ, his eldest sister, the Empress Pulcheria, did much to advance the cult of “imperial mystique”, and in her brother’s name banned pagans from public and military posts, and ordered destruction of synagogues and temples. She also deposed Nestorius and returned the bones of John Chrysostom to Constantinople. In June 423 Pulcheria declared that the religion of the pagans was nothing more than “demon worship” and ordered all those who persisted in practicing it to be punished by imprisonment and torture. Her emerging rival, the emperor’s wife Eudoxia (ironically, daughter of a pagan philosopher) not to be outflanked in piety, went off to the Holy Land in 439 and returned with “important relics” to boost her own prestige. Eudoxia was eventually forced into exile in Jerusalem, where, in a new tactic, she embraced the cause of “monophysitism” later adopted by Theodosius II. When Theodosius finally escaped female fetters, he disastrously gave in to demands from the Huns for ever more gold and conceded to the Vandals a fully independent kingdom in North Africa.

Concentrating on really important matters, Theodosius convened the Council at Ephesus in 449 (“The Robber Council”) and declared for the monophysitic position that “Christ had only one nature and it was divine” – alienating Pope Leo I. This infamous book-burner died at 49 – falling from his horse! The Codex Theodosianus preserved his name. His scheming sister, Pulcheria, married his successor, Marcian.

Valentinian III (425 – 455) – 6 (Regent: his mother Empress Galla Placidia). Owed his throne to intervention of Theodosius II in western politics. A religious fanatic, under the influence of astrologers, he was subservient in turns to his mother, generalissimo Aetius and Pope Leo I. Lost the provinces of Africa, part of Spain, much of Gaul. He murdered Aetius, the last able general in the west, and was himself murdered at 36.

The last Western Emperors barely ruled Italy itself.

Kenneth Humphreys holds a Master’s degree from the University of Essex in history and social sciences, a post-graduate pedagogic certificate from the University of Leicester, and a higher national certificate in business studies. He taught for many years in the UK and abroad. Religion, and in particular the claims of Christianity, have been a life-long interest. His book Jesus Never Existed, published in 2005 by Iconoclast Press, currently ships to 30 countries. His website receives more than a million visitors a year. He is now fully occupied as a writer, radio broadcaster, and public speaker, and campaigns energetically against the tide of resurgent superstition and unreason.

Jesus Never Existed – Kenneth Humphreys

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