Battle of the Frigidus

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Battle of the Frigidus
Illustration of battle
Battle of the Frigidus by Johann Weikhard von Valvasor (1689)
Date5–6 September 394
near the Frigidus river (probably the Vipava in what is now western Slovenia)
45°52′13″N 13°56′10″E / 45.87028°N 13.93611°E / 45.87028; 13.93611Coordinates: 45°52′13″N 13°56′10″E / 45.87028°N 13.93611°E / 45.87028; 13.93611
Result Theodosian victory
Theodosius gains Western Empire
Eastern Roman Empire
Western Roman Empire
Commanders and leaders
Theodosius I
Alaric of the Visigoths
Units involved
Herculiani shield pattern.svg Herculiani seniores
20,000–30,000 Romans
20,000 Goths[1]
35,000–50,000, about the same as Eastern Romans
Casualties and losses
10,000 Goths[2]
Unknown (Heavy)
Battle of the Frigidus is located in Slovenia
Battle of the Frigidus
Location of the battle within Slovenia
The Roman Empire in late 395, after the East‘s transfer of the Diocese of Pannonia (east of Italy) to the Western Empire. In 394, at the time of the battle, this diocese was still part of the Eastern empire.

The Battle of the Frigidus, also called the Battle of the Frigid River, was fought between 5–6 September 394, between the army of the Eastern Emperor Theodosius I and the army of Western Roman ruler Eugenius in the eastern border of Regio X in Roman Italia.

Because the Western Emperor Eugenius (though nominally Christian) had pagan sympathies, the war assumed religious overtones, with Christianity pitted against the last attempt at a pagan revival. The battle was the last serious attempt to contest the Christianization of the empire; its outcome decided the outcome of Christianity in the western Empire, and the final decline of Greco-Roman polytheism in favour of Christianity over the following century.

The defeat of Eugenius and his commander, the Frankish magister militum Arbogast, put the whole empire back in the hands of a single emperor for the last time until the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire (not considering the purely nominal claim of Zeno in 480). Theodosius passed the rule of the Western Empire to his younger son Honorius in the following year (with general Stilicho as regent while Honorius was underage).


In 313 Constantine I and Licinius had legalized the Christian faith with the Edict of Milan. Theodosius I had made it the official religion of the State with the 380 Edict of Thessalonica. Conflict simmered between the Roman Senate, many of whom were not Christian, and the emperors in Constantinople and Milan who officially subscribed to Christian teachings. The senators wrote letters and argued for a return to traditional Roman beliefs, often stressing the protection and good fortune the old Roman gods had bestowed upon Rome since her beginnings as a small city-state. For their part, the Christian emperors emphasized the primacy of Christianity, although not all did so to the same extent. This clash between the Roman world's two main religions was for the most part an academic debate, without threats of armed uprisings, although small-scale violence was widespread.

Map showing the "Frigidus River" north east of Aquileia

However, on 15 May 392, the Western Emperor Valentinian II was found dead at his residence in Vienne, Gaul. Valentinian had continued the imperial policy of suppressing the interests of adherents of the old pagan religions while supporting Christians. This policy had resulted in increasing tensions between the emperor and the senators. Arbogast was the magister militum, or military commander, of the Western Empire and its de facto ruler. After Valentinian's death he informed Theodosius, the Eastern Emperor that the young emperor had committed suicide.

Tensions between the two halves of the empire were heightened further that summer. Arbogast made several attempts to contact Theodosius, but apparently none got further than the ears of the Eastern praetorian prefect, or chief minister, Rufinus. The responses that Arbogast received from Rufinus were unhelpful. Theodosius himself was slowly coming to the belief that Valentinian had been murdered, in no small part because his wife Galla was convinced her brother's death was caused by treachery. For his part, Arbogast had few friends in the Eastern court, although his uncle Richomeres was chief commander of the eastern cavalry. As it appeared increasingly likely that whatever course Theodosius decided upon would be hostile towards Arbogast, the Frank decided to make the first move.

On 22 August Arbogast elevated Flavius Eugenius, the Western imperial court's magister scrinii, or senior civil servant, to the throne of the Western Empire. Eugenius was a well-respected scholar of rhetoric, and a native Roman, making him a far more acceptable candidate for the purple than the Frankish commander. His ascension was backed by the praetorian prefect of Italy, Nicomachus Flavianus the Elder, and by many of the pagan members of the Roman Senate. Some senators, notably Symmachus, were uneasy with this action. After his elevation to emperor, Eugenius appointed several important pagan senators to key positions in the Western government. He also supported a movement to advance the traditional religion by granting it official recognition and by restoring important shrines such as the Altar of Victory and the Temple of Venus and Rome. These actions earned Eugenius withering criticism from Bishop Ambrose of Milan and did little to endear him to the Christian Theodosius.

As a Christian, Theodosius was distressed by the apparent pagan revival that was occurring under Eugenius's reign. In addition there was the issue of Valentinian's death, which had never been resolved to his satisfaction. Furthermore, Eugenius had removed all the high civil officers left by Theodosius when he had given the Western half of the empire to Valentinian, so that Theodosius had lost control of the Western Roman Empire. When a party of Western ambassadors arrived in Constantinople to request that Eugenius be acknowledged as the Western augustus, Theodosius was noncommittal, even if he received them with presents and vague promises. Whether he had already decided on an offensive against Eugenius and Arbogast at this point is unclear. In the end, however, after declaring his son Honorius, then eight years old, as the western augustus in January of 393, Theodosius finally resolved to invade the West.

Campaign preparation[edit]

Over the following year and a half Theodosius marshalled his forces for the invasion. The Eastern armies had atrophied since the death of the Emperor Valens and most of his soldiers at the Battle of Adrianople. It fell upon the generals Flavius Stilicho and Timasius both to restore discipline to the legions and to bring them back up to strength through recruitment and conscription.

At the same time another of Theodosius's advisers, the eunuch Eutropius, was sent out from Constantinople to seek the advice and wisdom of an aged Christian monk in the Egyptian town of Lycopolis. According to the accounts of the meeting given by Claudian and Sozomen, the old monk prophesied that Theodosius would achieve a costly but decisive victory over Eugenius and Arbogast.

Theodosius I
Eugenius on a coin. The Western ruler was taken prisoner after the battle and beheaded. His head was displayed in Theodosius' camp.

The Eastern army set out towards the west from Constantinople in May 394. The re-galvanized legions were bolstered by numerous barbarian auxiliaries including over 20,000 Visigoth federates and additional forces from Syria. Theodosius himself led the army; among his commanders were his own generals Stilicho and Timasius, the Visigoth chieftain Alaric, and a Caucasian Iberian named Bacurios Hiberios.

Their advance through Pannonia until the Julian Alps was unopposed, and Theodosius and his officers must have had suspicions about what lay ahead when they discovered that the eastern ends of the mountain passes were undefended. Arbogast had, based on his experiences fighting against the usurper Magnus Maximus in Gaul, decided that the best strategy was to keep his forces united to defend Italy itself, and to that end he went so far as to leave the Alpine passes unguarded. Arbogast's forces consisted mainly of his fellow Franks, Alemanni, and Gallo-Romans, plus his own Gothic auxiliaries.

Thanks to Arbogast's strategy of maintaining a single, relatively cohesive force, the Theodosian army passed unhindered through the Alps and descended towards the valley of the Frigidus River to the east of the Roman port of Aquileia. It was in this narrow, mountainous region that they came upon the Western army's encampment within the Claustra Alpium Iuliarum in the first days of September.

The battle[edit]

It is uncertain exactly where the battle took place. Though it has been claimed that the location of the battle should be sought in the Upper Isonzo Valley, it has mostly been placed somewhere in the Vipava Valley. Whereas the "Frigidus" has been usually considered to be the Vipava River or Hubelj Creek and the battle to take place near Vrhpolje, recent research suggests that it actually took place some kilometers away, between Col and Sanabor in the so called Door to Roman Italia.[3]

Before the battle, Eugenius and Arbogast placed a statue of Jupiter on the edge of the battlefield, and had applied images of Hercules on the army banners.[4] This way they hoped to repeat the victories of Rome in earlier days, when it had always relied on the old gods for support in battle. On the first day of battle the old gods seemed to be winning. Theodosius attacked almost immediately, having undertaken little to no prior reconnaissance of the field of battle. He committed his Gothic allies to action first, perhaps hoping to thin their ranks through attrition and lessen their potential threat to the Empire. The Eastern army's headlong attack resulted in heavy casualties but little gain: 10,000 of the Gothic auxiliaries are reported to have been slain, and the Georgian general Bacurius was among the dead.[5]

Day's end saw Eugenius celebrating his troops' successful defense of their position while Arbogast sent out detachments to close off the mountain passes behind Theodosius's forces.

After a sleepless night, Theodosius was cheered by the news that the men Arbogast had sent to bottle him up in the valley intended to desert to his side. Buoyed by this favorable development, Theodosius' men attacked once again. This time nature was on their side as a fierce tempest—apparently the bora, a regular occurrence in the region—blew along the valley from the east. Other stories tell of Theodosius praying to God for a storm, which God subsequently granted.[6]

The high winds blew clouds of dust into the faces of the Western troops (legend also says that the fierce winds even blew the Western troops' own arrows back at them). Buffeted by the winds, Arbogast's lines broke and Theodosius gained the decisive victory that the Egyptian monk had prophesied.

In the aftermath, Eugenius was captured and brought before the emperor. His pleas for mercy went unanswered and he was beheaded. Arbogast escaped the defeat and fled into the mountains, but after a few days' wandering, he concluded escape was impossible and committed suicide.

Religious character of the conflict[edit]

While the version of the battle in which a divine wind defeated the pagan enemies of Theodosius became popular in late antiquity, modern historians, most notably Alan Cameron, have disputed the reliability of this version of events. Cameron asserts that the idea that Eugenius and Arbogastes were pagans or supporters of pagans was created to justify Theodosius' campaign against them, and that other usurpers, such as Magnentius, were falsely branded as pagans after their defeat. The idea that Theodosius' enemies were pagans originates in the church historian Rufinus, and only the sources dependent on Rufinus mention this idea.[7]

In addition, the earliest source to mention the decisive bora wind was Ambrose of Milan, but he states in his sermon on Psalm 36 that the wind blew before that battle, and demoralized Theodosius' enemy before any fighting began. This idea was probably picked up by the poet Claudian, who, in his fanciful and propagandistic poetry for the Theodosian family, moved the wind to the decisive moment of the battle. Claudian seems to have been making a classicizing allusion to Silius Italicus, whose account of the Battle of Cannae mentioned a similar wind blowing spears and weapons back. From Claudian's poetry, which was popular in both eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire, the idea of the bora wind deciding the battle spread. It fit well with the other idea that the battle was one between pagans and Christians: Theodosius, as the Christian emperor, was aided by God in the form of the wind.[8]


It had been a costly but total victory for Theodosius, and a total loss for Eugenius. The western provinces quickly submitted to Theodosius. A mere four months later he died, leaving the government in the hands of his young children Honorius and Arcadius.

Most significantly, the battle has often been seen as the last attempt to contest the Christianization of the empire. According to Rufinus, the battle is on a par with the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in importance, for it was seen not only as a victory in a civil war, but a vindication of the Christian God and the triumph of Christianity[9] – within a generation the elite pagan families of Rome would give up any serious resistance to Christianity.[10]

However, the battle also accelerated the collapse of the Roman army in the west. The legions were already losing their effectiveness, due to reorganizations and a decline in the quality of their training and discipline. The losses at the Battle of the Frigidus weakened the western legions. This downturn in the capabilities of the Roman soldiers meant an increasing reliance by the Empire on barbarian mercenaries employed as foederati, who often proved to be unreliable, or even treacherous.


  1. ^ John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 115
  2. ^ The Dynasty of Valentinian and Theodosius the Great, Norman H. Baynes, The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol.1, Ed. H.M.Gwatkin and J.P. Whitney, (Cambridge University Press, 1911), 247.
  3. ^ Štekar, Andrej (2013). "Poskus lociranja bitke pri Frigidu leta 394 na območju med Sanaborjem in Colom" [The Try to Locate the Battle of the Frigidus in 394 in the Area Between Sanabor and Col]. Annales: anali za istrske in mediteranske študije (in Slovenian, English, and Italian). 23 (1): 1–14. ISSN 1408-5348.
  4. ^ Cynthia White (1 November 2010). The Emergence of Christianity: Classical Traditions in Contemporary Perspective. Fortress Press. pp. 171–. ISBN 978-0-8006-9747-1. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
  5. ^ Edward Gibbon, The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, (The Modern Library, 1932), chap. XXVII., p. 998
  6. ^ Mary Whitby (1998). The propaganda of power: the role of panegyric in late antiquity. BRILL. pp. 282–. ISBN 978-90-04-10571-3. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
  7. ^ Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 93–107
  8. ^ Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 112–17
  9. ^ Rufinius, Historia Ecclesiastica, 11.30
  10. ^ Kenneth W. Harl (2004). Rome and the Barbarians. (The Teaching Company). ISBN 1-56585-903-0


Primary sources[edit]

  • Rufinius. Historia Ecclesiastica. 11.30.

Secondary sources[edit]

  • Baynes, Norman H. (1911). H.M.Gwatkin and J.P. Whitney (ed.). The Dynasty of Valentinian and Theodosius the Great. The Cambridge Medieval History. 1. Cambridge University Press.
  • Harl, Kenneth W. (2004). Rome and the Barbarians. The Teaching Company. ISBN 1-56585-903-0.
  • Kohn, George Childs. Dictionary of Wars (Revised ed.).
  • Williams, Stephen; Friell, Gerard (1994). Theodosius: The Empire at Bay. Yale University Press.
  • White, Cynthia (1 November 2010). The Emergence of Christianity: Classical Traditions in Contemporary Perspective. Fortress Press. ISBN 978-0-8006-9747-1.

External links[edit]