Massacre of Thessalonica

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Massacre of Thessalonica
Palace of Roman Emperor Galerius.jpg
The Palace of Galerius in Thessaloniki (Navarinou Square), near the Hippodromus, where the massacre allegedly took place.
LocationThessalonica, Roman Empire
Attack type
VictimsCitizens of Thessalonica
PerpetratorsEastern Roman army
MotiveTo quell revolt

The Massacre of Thessalonica is one act in a set of disputed events that begins with the murder of an important Roman officer, an arrest, a riot by the inhabitants of Thessalonica, the retaliatory massacre of many innocent Thessalonians by imperial troops under the Roman emperor Theodosius I in 390, and the confrontation between church and state that resulted.[1]:215

The massacre[edit]

One description by Averil Cameron and Peter Garnsey in The Cambridge Ancient History says that, "In 390, Butheric, the garrison commander of Illyricum which included Thessalonica, was lynched by a mob of citizens in a dispute over the detention of a charioteer. Theodosius decided that a clear demonstration of his anger was required and in April 390, when the citizens of Thessalonica had gathered in the circus of their town, the emperor’s troops were let loose. The slaughter was frightful; 7,000 men, women and children were massacred in three hours. Ambrose withdrew in horror from the emperor’s court. He denounced Theodosius’ wickedness and banned him from receiving communion until he had repented. The emperor sought absolution and was readmitted to communion on Christmas day 390, after an eight-month penance.”[2]

Daniel Washburn writes that several "key aspects of this sequence remain murky".[1]:215 Summarizing the core elements only, he says: "The people of Thessalonica revolted and killed at least one public official. For this infraction, the empire struck back with a punishment that, intentionally or not, produced the massacre of Thessalonica. The saga continued as Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, rebuked the emperor Theodosius for his part in the bloodshed, refused him the eucharist until he repented, and ended when remorse was demonstrated."[1]:215 While the precise date of the riot is unknown and disputable, general consensus places it in the spring or summer of 390 CE.[1]:fn.1, 215

Robert Frakes says this is all that can be safely assumed: "there was a riot, and some of the inhabitants [of Thessalonica] killed an important military officer."[3]:89


Many contemporary scholars, such as C. W. R. Larson, are skeptical of the story.[3]:89 None of the pagan historians of the period mention the Thessalonican massacre at all.[3]:91 The biggest problem, according to Stanley Lawrence Greenslade, is not the lack of information, it's that the story of the Massacre of Thessalonica is in art and literature in the form of legend.[4]:251 Neil B. McLynn, a Fellow in Later Roman History, explains that this political event was quickly transformed, in the Christian historiography of the time, into a moral lesson, where "the surviving sources always present the story... in the context of Theodosius' repentance."[5]:223[6]:316

Daniel Washburn says that determining what really happened at Thessalonica has 'vexed' scholars, and McLynn says it is almost impossible to reconstruct.[1]:215[6]:316 Reconstructing the story is riddled with problems of all kinds beginning with the sources themselves, says Stanislav Doležal.[7][3]:89 The first problem is that the most significant sources are not contemporaneous, but instead come from fifth century church historians: Sozomen, Theodoret the bishop of Cyrrhus, Socrates of Constantinople and Rufinus. The second problem is, they do not give a unified account, and in many respects, are mutually exclusive.[1]:216[3]:96 Washburn indicates that, while these accounts are plausible, they also had a method and purpose: "to evoke appreciation for ecclesial action and imperial piety. As a result, Ambrose is presented as the "bishop par excellence."[1]:218

According to Washburn, Sozomen gives the fullest account of the riot's origins: he says a popular charioteer tried to rape a cup-bearer (or a male servant in a tavern, or perhaps Butheric himself),[3]:93,94 and in response, Butheric arrested and jailed the charioteer.[3]:93[8] Sozomen says the populace demanded the chariot racer's release, and when Butheric refused, a general revolt rose up, costing Butheric his life. Sozomen is the only source for the story about the charioteer.[1]:216,217 The other sources do not include many of the details that have become part and parcel of the legend: they do not say how strong the garrison was, or whether or not the garrison was composed of Gothic allies, or even whether the "military officer" in question was, himself, a Goth. The sole source on who the officer was, is again, Sozomen, who supplies only enough information to identify Butheric as the commanding general of the field army in Illyricum (magister militum per Illyricum).[3]:91[9] Doležal says the name 'Butheric' indicates he might very well have been a Goth, and that the general's ethnicity could have been a factor in the riot, but none of the sources actually say so.[3]:92

Theodosius was not in Thessalonica when the massacre occurred, the court was in Milan, and it is unclear whether he ordered or simply permitted the massacre as a response.[1]:223 G. W. Bowersock, Stephen Williams,[10] and his co-author Gerard Friell think that Theodosius ordered the massacre in an excess of "volcanic anger," "choler" and "wrath."[3]:95[11] Church historian Theodoret puts the number of dead at 7,000, saying:

The anger of the Emperor rose to the highest pitch, and he gratified his vindictive desire for vengeance by unsheathing the sword most unjustly and tyrannically against all, slaying the innocent and guilty alike. It is said seven thousand perished without any forms of law, and without even having judicial sentence passed upon them; but that, like ears of wheat in the time of harvest, they were alike cut down.[12]

However, "the reports of Rufinus, Sozomen and Theodoret are mutually exclusive."[3]:96 This has led other scholars to the opposite conclusion concerning Theodosius' anger: "According to N. Q. King, the Emperor may initially have been infuriated, but his decision was made after he had regained a clear mind."[3]:95 Doležal also argues for the unlikelihood of Theodosius ordering the massacre in a fit of rage. Referencing Peter Brown, he points out that there was an established process of decision making in the empire, and quotes Brown as saying "the emperor was expected to listen to his ministers" before acting.[3]:95 In Doležal's view "It is barely conceivable that his consistory approved of the massacre or that Theodosius made up his mind without any consultation with his advisers."[3]:98 Thessalonica was an important city populated largely by Nicene Christians, most of whom would have been totally innocent of the crime, and Theodosius and his advisors would have known that. One peculiarity of the story is that there is no record in any of the sources of a criminal investigation or other attempt to track down the culprits responsible.[3]:95 Yet Theodosius had carefully crafted a public image of an emperor with "a love of mankind."[3]:100 This inconsistency leaves scholars like Carole Hill to call these events "unprecedented."[13]:263

"Ambrose, Paulinus, Augustine and Theodoret, (but not Rufinus or Sozomen) either imply or openly declare that the Emperor was somehow misled or duped in his decision by his officials.[3]:95 Ambrose is quite enigmatic, speaking of the “deceit of others”, which caused the Emperor’s guilt (defl evit in ecclesia publice peccatum suum, quod ei aliorum fraude obrepserat), while Paulinus only mentions some “secret negotiations of the officers with the Emperor”, (with which Augustine concurs), adding that Theodosius was “compelled by the urgency of certain of his intimates” (tumultu quorundam, qui ei cohaerebant). Sozomen knows of no such involvement, and the church historian Rufinus blamed no persons either, but a “demon” instead (subreptione quadam daemonis)."[3]:98


However it came about, Doležal describes the massacre as "a stupid move, because it would serve no real purpose" yet carried with it the potential of considerable political consequences.[3]:100,93 fn.21 McLynn puts all the blame on the Emperor: “unable to impose discipline upon the faraway troops, he was compelled by the much-proclaimed myth of imperial omnipotence to accept the ultimate responsibility. The best face he could put upon the situation was of a hasty order countermanded too late.”[3]:103

Although the relationship between Theodosius and Ambrose was, according to McLynn, "transformed into myth" within a generation of their deaths, scholars such as Boniface Ramsay think these events occurred during a period when Ambrose was banned from Theodosius' presence.[14] As Ambrose himself says in letter 51, "I alone of all at your court have been stripped of the natural right of hearing, with the consequence that I have also been deprived of the power of speaking."[13]:262 Ambrose hadn't been there to offer counsel when the riot and massacre occurred, however, Ambrose was informed of events, somehow, and when he heard all that had happened at Thessalonica, he wrote Theodosius a private letter. In that letter, according to McLynn, Ambrose offered his emperor another way out, suggesting what Carole Hill describes as "a consciously planned publicity triumph."[13]:263

This still existing letter, according to McLynn, is "unusually" tactful for Ambrose, and it offers a way for the emperor to 'save face.' Ambrose tells Theodosius that he cannot give him communion while Theodosius is unrepentant for the massacre. Ambrose urges a semi-public penitence using the example of David and Uriah.[15]:12 Wolf Liebeschuetz says "Theodosius duly complied and came to church without his imperial robes, until Christmas, when Ambrose openly admitted him to communion." [16]:262

Anthonis Van Dyke's 1619 painting of St.Ambrose blocking the cathedral door, refusing Theodosius' admittance.

According to Peter Brown, there was no dramatic encounter at the church door.[17]:111 McLynn states that "the encounter at the church door has long been known as a pious fiction." [6]:291[18]:63,64 Washburn says the image of the mitered prelate braced in the door of the cathedral in Milan blocking Theodosius from entering is a product of the imagination of Theodoret who wrote of the events of 390 "using his own ideology to fill the gaps in the historical record."[1]:215

Brown notes that Ambrose was not guaranteed success with his letter. He had been denied access and other requests before.[17]:111 Ambrose was one–among–many advisors, and there is no evidence Theodosius favored him above anyone else.[18]:64 Ambrose had advocated a course of action which would avoid the kind of public humiliation Theodoret describes and Theodosius took it.[13]:262 McLynn observes that the documents that reveal the relationship between Ambrose and Theodosius seem less about personal friendship and more like negotiations between the institutions the two men represent: the Roman State and the Italian Church.[6]:292

John Moorhead says that Ambrose is sometimes referred to as having influenced the anti-paganism policies of the Christian emperors, including Theodosius, to the degree of achieving the dominance of church over state.[19]:3 Ramsay MacMullen writes that, "Theodosius...was no natural zealot. Ambrose, on the other hand, was very much a Christian. His restless and imperious ambition for the church's growth, come what might for the non-Christians, is suggested by his preaching."[20]:100[21] Alan Cameron observes that Theodosius' actions are often explained in terms of his falling under the dominating influence of Bishop Ambrose, which, Cameron says, is "often spoken of as though documented fact." Indeed, he says, "the assumption is so widespread it would be superfluous to cite authorities. But there is not a shred of evidence for Ambrose exerting any such influence over Theodosius." [18]:60,63,131

The events in Thessalonica are generally believed to have occurred in April of 390, and in August of 390, Theodosius is alleged to have issued a law ordering a 30 day wait between an order for capitol punishment and its actual execution. Peter Brown says Theodosius wanted to "take the wind out of Ambrose' sails" in his demand for public penitence.[17]:110 MacMullen says that the law "represented the will of its bishop, Ambrose."[20] According to Doležal, Theodosius was forced to enact the law "that would exact a thirty-day delay before capital punishments before being allowed to rejoin the Christian community." However, this requirement is not in Ambrose's letter.[13]:263–265 "The law in question seems to be CTh IX,40,13 and it has been inferred that the transmitted date of the law (18th August 382) is wrong and should be corrected to 390" but there is no consensus agreement this law happened in 390 at all.[note 1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See: ERRINGTON 1992, p.452, argued that the law was issued in 382 and had nothing to do with the massacre of Thessalonica. Most scholars argue for the year 390 but are divided about the relationship of the law to the incident; BROWN 1992, p.110, claims that the law was unrelated to this incident (“The law envisioned notables held in prison, not the innocent population of a wholecity”); or HONORÉ 1998, p.67, who is cautious about it (“The law is only loosely connected with the massacre”) or MATTHEWS 1997, pp.202–206, who firmly believes in the connection.[3]:93, fn.20


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Washburn, Daniel (2006). "18 The Thessalonian Affair in the Fifth Century Histories". In Albu, Emily; Drake, Harold Allen; Latham, Jacob (eds.). Violence in Late Antiquity Perceptions and Practices. Ashgate. ISBN 9780754654988.
  2. ^ Cameron, Averil; Garnsey, Peter, eds. (1928). The Cambridge Ancient History, Late empire, A.D. 337-425. Volume 13. Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Doležal, Stanislav (2014). "Rethinking a Massacre: What Really Happened in Thessalonica and Milan in 390?". Eirene Studia Graeca et Latina. 50 (1–2).
  4. ^ Greenslade, S. L., ed. (1956). Early Latin Theology Selections from Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Jerome. Westminster Press. ISBN 9780664241544.
  5. ^ Biennial Conference on Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity (5th : 2003 : University of California, Santa Barbara). Violence in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Practices. United Kingdom, Ashgate, 2006.
  6. ^ a b c d McLynn, Neil B. (1994). Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520914551.
  7. ^ "Stanislav Doležal". University of South Bohemia, Faculty of Philosophy, Faculty Member
  8. ^ Sozomenus, Ecclesiastical History 7.25
  9. ^ SOZOMEN, Historia Ecclesiastica, VII,25,3:
  10. ^ "Stephen Williams". Faculty of Philosophy. Oxford. Emeritus Fellow
  11. ^ Williams, Stephen; Friell, Gerard (1995). Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (illustrated, reprint ed.). Yale University Press. p. 68. ISBN 9780300061734.
  12. ^ Theodoretus, Ecclesiastical History 5.17
  13. ^ a b c d e Liebeschuetz, Wolfe; Hill, Carole, eds. (2005). Ambrose of Milan Political Letters and Speeches. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 9780853238294.
  14. ^ Ramsey, Boniface (1997). Ambrose (reprint ed.). Psychology Press. p. 31. ISBN 9780415118422.
  15. ^ Cotten, Christopher Ryan. Ambrose and Stilicho. Diss. uga, 2007. url=
  16. ^ Liebeschuetz, John Hugo Wolfgang Gideon; Hill, Carole (2005). Liebeschuetz, John Hugo Wolfgang Gideon; Hill, Carole (eds.). Ambrose of Milan: Political Letters and Speeches. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 9780853238294.
  17. ^ a b c Brown, Peter (1992). Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire. Univ of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 9780299133443.
  18. ^ a b c Cameron, Alan (2011). The Last Pagans of Rome. USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199747276.
  19. ^ Moorhead, John (2014). Ambrose: Church and Society in the Late Roman World. Routledge. ISBN 9781317891024.
  20. ^ a b R. MacMullen, "Christianizing The Roman Empire A.D.100-400, Yale University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-300-03642-6
  21. ^ King (1961) p.78


The massacre is treated in all accounts of Theodosius' reign, including:

  • A. Lippold: Theodosius der Große und seine Zeit. 2nd ed., München 1980, p. 40ff.
  • J. Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, p. 112.
  • E. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ch.27 2:56
  • A. Demandt: Magister Militum. In: Pauly-Wissowa. Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (neue Bearbeitung). Supplementband XII, Sp. 717 - Butherichh and Theodosius

See also:

  • P. Heather, Goths and Romans, 332-489. Oxford 1991, p. 184.
  • A. Schwarz, Reichsangehörige Personen gotischer Herkunft. Wien 1984, s.v. Butherichus.

Primary sources for this event:

Later historical works: