Theodosius II, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire, did so for 42 years, which made him the longest ruling emperor throughout the Empire’s history.
Theodosius was born in April 401, the son of Emperor Arcadius and his formidable wife Aelia Eudoxia, who had been the real power behind the throne and had even had herself declared Augusta.
However, Eudoxia died from a miscarriage when Theodosius was aged only three and his father died in 408, meaning that parentless Theodosius became emperor at the age of seven. This might have been thought a recipe for chaos but that was not to be, thanks to efforts of Anthemius, the Praetorian Prefect, who proved to be an extremely able administrator.
One of Anthemius’s lasting contributions was to strengthen the defences of Constantinople by building a substantial wall across the peninsula on which the city was built. This wall served to protect Constantinople from invasion for the next 800 years and portions of it have survived to the present day.
Theodosius had an older sister, Aelia Pulcheria, who was proclaimed regent in 414, despite being only 15 years old, and she promptly had Anthemius replaced due to her personal dislike of him.
Pulcheria refused to marry but became intensely religious. It was due to her that the Church adopted the cult of the Virgin Mary, but she was also responsible for anti-semitic acts such as the burning of synagogues. Her influence on her brother meant that the empire and the Church became inextricably linked.
Theodosius married Aelia Eudocia in 421, she being Pulcheria’s choice for his bride, but the two strong-willed women soon became rivals. The palace intrigues were encouraged by the ambitious eunuch and chamberlain Chrysaphius Zstommas, with the result that Pulcheria was forced to retire from public life, leaving Eudocia as the main influence on Theodosius.
However, Zstommas’s attention then turned towards Eudocia, who was eventually forced into exile in 441 after a charge of adultery was brought against her. She ended her days in Jerusalem. Zstommas was now the most powerful adviser at court.
But what of Theodosius himself, who seems to have taken a back seat in the affairs of state? The truth is that he much prefered to deal with matters of the intellect, such as founding a university in Constantinople and codifying the laws. The latter effort led to the Codex Theodosianus, completed in 438, comprising 16 books of decrees and enactments that preserved the nature of Roman law.
Theodosius did have to deal with foreign affairs eventually, for example by negotiating a peace treaty with the Persian Empire that stayed in effect for more than a century. He was less successful when keeping the Huns at bay, with the initial policy – promoted by Zstommas – being to buy them off with huge subsidies that nearly bankrupted the treasury. Towards the end of Theodosius’s reign much of the Danube region was ravaged by barbarians, led by the formidable Attila.
Relations between the two halves of the empire improved with the placing of Valentinian III (son of Honorius) on the western throne in 425. Theodosius travelled to Ravenna to crown Valentinian and in 437 he gave his daughter Licinia Eudoxia to Valentinian as his wife.
Zstommas`s failed policy of buying off the Huns at vast expense led to a revolt by the army generals, who overthrew him early in 450, with Pulcheria returning to a position of power.
Theodosius died in July 450 after falling from his horse. He had already stated that a general named Marcian was his preferred heir and, in order to retain her position, Pulcheria promptly married him while still maintaining her vow of chastity.