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Marcian (450-457 A.D.)

Geoffrey S. Nathan

University of California- Los Angeles

coin of Marcian (c)1998 Princeton Economic Institute

Early Life and Accession

Relatively little is known about Marcian before his accession to the throne. He was most probably an Illyrian by birth, although one source claims that he was a Thracian. Born in 392, he, like many other public men from that region, made his career in the military. His father had been a soldier and Marcian first served in the city of Philippopolis in Thrace. From there, Marcian as a tribune went with his unit to fight the Persians in 421-2, but he apparently became ill in Lycia and never saw action in the campaign.

From this relatively inauspicious beginning, he served as personal assistant (domesticus) to the emperor's commander-in-chief (magister utriusque militiae), Aspar. This placed Marcian in the highest military circles, but certainly did not provide him with any singular distinction. In the early 430's, he served with Aspar in Africa and was apparently captured by the Vandals. In one fanciful story, no doubt a creation of later writers, Marcian supposedly met the Vandal king, Gaiseric, who predicted that he would one day be emperor. After his capture, we know no more of his career before his accession to the throne in 450.

With the death of Theodosius II under somewhat mysterious circumstances, the imperial succession was thrown open to question for the first time in over 60 years. Theodosius had left no available heir: his one surviving child, Licinia Eudoxia, had married Valentinian III. According to a seventh century source, the emperor on his deathbed willed Marcian to be his heir, but this story was almost assuredly a product of propaganda after the event. Whatever the case, Aspar engineered his candidacy with the agreement of Theodosius' sister, Pulcheria Augusta, who married the former tribune. With the support of the last representative of the Theodosian house in the east and the head general, Marcian received the support of the Senate and the armies. On August 25, 450, Pulcheria herself gave him the imperial diadem, an unique event implying that an Augusta shared in the imperial power. In return, Marcian swore to respect her virginity and be a staunch champion of religious orthodoxy. That Pulcheria's virginity remained intact indicates the political nature of this marriage. Quickly thereafter, he had his only daughter, Aelia Marcia Euphemia, marry the future western emperor, Anthemius.

Religious Policies

Shortly after his accession, Marcian called the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon, held in late 451. Bishops and their representatives wrestled with the religious controversies surrounding the beliefs of Nestorius, Eutyches and other monophysite thinkers who questioned the nature of Christ. The assembled orthodox clerics condemned monophysitism outright, holding to the belief that Christ had one nature, both human and divine. Marcian had pushed to the fore the views of Pope Leo (from the so-called Tome of Leo), no doubt hoping that the bishop of Rome would in turn support his reign with Valentinian III (Valentinian gave only lukewarm recognition to his imperial colleague). Whatever the rationale behind his support, the western--that is, papal--position was forwarded and declared orthodox by the council.

Nor was the emperor afraid to back up the council's decision. When Palestinian monks rose in revolt in 453, Marcian sent troops on a regular campaign to quell the insurrection. He also insured the installation of the new archbishop, Proterius, in Alexandria after similar violence in that city.

The council at Chalcedon was also important because it more clearly outlined the increasing split between east and west. Pope Leo's legates had been the only western representatives at a supposedly ecumenical council, signifying the degree to which the west was distracted by its own religious and political concerns. The council had also passed a canon over the objections of Leo which gave the archbishop at Constantinople official oversight over the whole east. This would prove a key sticking point in later years and helped to separate the two halves of Christendom.

In addition to the Fourth Ecumenical Council, Marcian also supported his wife's extensive building projects until her death in July of 453. Unsurprisingly, they were all churches and Pulcheria did much to further the mother of God (theotokos) cult.

Political and Military Policies

Marcian's reign began with an immediate change in policy toward Attila and the Huns. In the last years of Theodosius II, the chamberlain and guardian (spatharius), Chrysaphius, had largely been the architect of appeasement in regards to the Hunnic confederation, paying out huge indemnities as safeguards against potential attack. Shortly after Marcian's coronation, Chrysaphius was either murdered or executed, and the new emperor refused to pay any more subsidies.

Marcian's decision had been ill-conceived, but as it turned out, it was enormously successful. The senatorial aristocracy, which had been strongly opposed to treating with barbarians, heartily supported this action. More importantly, Attila became too absorbed in western imperial politics to deal with the recalcitrant Marcian, although the Huns may have also thought that the western court was an easier target to bully and extort money from. And before Attila could refocus his attention on the east, he died and his empire disintegrated. The emperor quickly formed alliances with those peoples previously under Hunnic domination, especially the Ostrogoths, to thwart their re-emergence. Indeed, the emperor even permitted these peoples to settle as federates in Pannonia, Thrace and Illyricum. Marcian's policy also resulted in saving the imperial treasury enormous sums: at the end of his reign, Marcian left his successor 100,000 pounds of gold.

Little other military action happened during his tenure, although there were some campaigns against Saracens in Syria and against the Blemmyes in Egypt. The lack of any long-term, large-scale wars with the Persians, Huns or others also meant that the emperor was able to amass more funds than might otherwise have occurred. But it seems, too, that the emperor tried to avoid confrontation: the assassination of Valentinian III and the subsequent Vandal sack of Rome in 455 was met with muted silence from the east. The emperor contented himself with sending an embassy to Gaiseric requesting the return of the empress, Eudoxia, and her daughters.

Marcian did remain largely beholden to Aspar, however. Perhaps because of his support, Marcian made the general a patrician. The emperor also appointed his son, Ardabur, the commander-in-chief for the East (magister utriusque militiae per Orientem) and perhaps made him a patrician as well. It is difficult to tell whether they dictated policy, but it seems that if they did, Aspar and his son were for the most part careful not to step on the political toes of Constantinople's ruling class. Despite the general's power, there was still a strong anti-Germanic sentiment among the aristocracy.

Towards the end of his reign in 456, Marcian heavily censured the Greens throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, one of the two circus factions continually at war with one another. When they showed their displeasure at the emperor's patronage of the Blues, he forbade the Greens from holding any administrative or public posts for three years. Since Chrysaphius had favored the Greens, these actions may have had a dynastic aspect to them.

Financial and Legal Reforms

Most of Marcian's financial policies were designed to placate the senatorial aristocracy and in those policies, he was also very successful. The one tax upon senatorial wealth, the collatio glebalis, was abolished, more easily accomplished since the emperor no longer subsidized the Huns. Of equal importance to the senatorial elite, Marcian ended many of the financial obligations owed by holders of the old republican offices. Praetors and consuls normally had to put on large public games, the latter also having to distribute wealth to the general public of Constantinople. Now only the highest-ranking senators, the illustres, were eligible to serve in these offices and they were not required to spend the huge sums of money that had been traditionally associated with holding them. The financial windfall for the aristocracy was great and since it had previously gone to public entertainments instead of imperial coffers, the emperor could easily afford such munificence.

Marcian did try to address other financial issues, too. Upon his accession, he proclaimed a remission of all old monies owed to the state. Again, this probably benefited the wealthier classes, but it certainly spread to a much broader spectrum of imperial society. Of equal importance was a campaign against the sale of governmental offices. The fact that the emperor Anastasius and others also tried to halt this practice demonstrates the endemic nature of the problem. Nevertheless, his attempt was a recognition of a corrupt custom that led to other corruptions.

His legal record is much less clear, although a few of his enactments survive. Perhaps his most significant was a law rescinding a previous law of the emperor Constantine, which had in turn been an extension of an Augustan law. Whereas it had been previously illegal for a member of the senatorial class to marry a freeborn poor woman (humilis), Marcian now permitted such a match assuming that the lady in question was of good moral character. It was significant law not only in itself, but also to a future law of the emperor Justin in the 520's, which allowed senators and other lowborn women (infames) to marry: that law permitted Justinian and Theodora to wed. Whether Marcian's decree was in reaction to a specific case, however, is unknown.

Death and Assessment

In January of 457, Marcian died at the age of 65, supposedly of gangrene in the feet. Legend has it that he was also on a long religious procession on the eve of his death. The emperor was buried in the Church of the Apostles next to his wife, Pulcheria. Despite the fact that he had married his daughter to Anthemius, she had no Theodosian connection and hence lacked even the legitimacy that Marcian had gained through marriage. Anthemius did not succeed his father-in-law.

Later Byzantine writers looked back at Marcian's reign as something of a golden age. He had secured the political and financial security of the east, had established the orthodox line that future emperors would support, and had achieved a fair amount of political harmony and stability within the capital city. These things were all real, but much of his success must also be accorded to luck. The Persians and Huns were absorbed with other matters, no great natural disasters had crippled the resources of the government, and he was fortunate that there was a representative of the house of Theodosius to validate his position. It is also clear that he steadfastly remained out of entanglements with the west. In that sense, Marcian's rule was the conceptual end of a universal--and unified--Roman Empire.

Sources and Bibliography

No true comprehensive descriptions of Marcian's life or reign survive. The Ecclesiastical History (Historia Ecclesiastica) of Evagrius offers some important details of his early life, as does the Chronographia of Theophanes. The decisions of the Council of Chalcedon can be found in the official Acta (E. Schwartz et al. eds., Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum v. 2 [1932-8]). For the rest of his reign, the Chronicon Paschale, the chronicles of Marcellinus comes, the Lexicon of Suidas, the Chronographia of John Malalas, and the fragmented history of Priscus are all valuable sources. John Lydus' Magistracies of the Roman People (De magistratibus populi Romani) also offers important information about the state's finances. Several laws survive: CJ i:39:2, xii:2:2, xii:3:2, and several novellae.

Bury, J.B. (1923) History of the Later Roman Empire from the death of Theodosius I to the death of Justinian (New York).

Croke, B., (1978) "The Date and Circumstances of Marcian's Decease, A.D. 457," Byzantion 48, 5-9.

Devos, P., (1976) "Saint Jean de Lycopolis et l'empereur Marcien," Analecta Bollandiana 94, 303-16.

Holum, Kenneth (1982), Theodosian Empresses (Berkeley).

Jones, A.H.M. et al. (1970), The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 1 (Cambridge).

Kohlfelder, R.L., (1984) "Marcian's Gamble: A Reassessment of Eastern Imperial Policy toward Attila AD 450-453," American Journal of Ancient History 9, 54-69.

Martindale, J.R. (1980), The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 2 (Cambridge).

Thompson, E.A., (1950) "The Foreign Policies of Theodosius II and Marcian," Hermathena 76, 58-75.

Copyright (C) 1998, Geoffrey S. Nathan. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Geoffrey S. Nathan

Updated: 24 August 1998

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