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The Roman Emperor Marcian

Flavius Valerius Marcianus A.D. 392-457


Emperor Marcian Coin

Photo of Emperor Marcian Coin from "The Life and Times of the Empress Pulcheria, A. D. 399 - A.D. 452" by Ada B. Teetgen. 1911

PD Courtesy Ada B. Teetgen

If you can't remember a single thing about the Eastern Roman Emperor Marcian (r. 450-457), you're not alone. Marcian's name is not commonly associated with anything grand or scandalous. During Marcian's reign, the Western Empire suffered when Rome was sacked, but in the East, it was a time of relative peace and prosperity. If you do remember Marcian, it's probably because of his association with a short, golden age and an ecumenical council, for which reason he is sometimes compared with Emperor Constantine.

The Accession of Marcian

According to 20th century historian J.B. Bury, Marcian should never have become emperor if the usual criterion, family, had been used to determine the successor to Theodosius II (408-450).

Bury says Emperor Theodosius II's Master of Soldiers, Aspar, and Marcian, an officer who had served as personal assistant to Aspar, attended the dying emperor in 450. Theodosius told Marcian that it had been revealed to him that Marcian would rule after him. Aspar was not a candidate because his religious views -- he was an Arian -- were not politically viable [Teetgen]. Bury believes Theodosius had pre-arranged this succession with his sister Pulcheria, since it was agreed that Pulcheria would marry Marcian in order to keep the appearance of a dynastic succession. The choice of successor was popular in the East (although Marcian was not recognized in the West until March 451, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium), and Marcian took the throne on August 25, 450 [Clover (August 24, according to Smith)].

Since Pulcheria, past prime child-bearing years, at the time, had earlier in her life made a life-long vow of virginity and, as far as we know, kept it, the marriage was never intended to be consummated. Pulcheria was Marcian's second wife. By his unknown first, he had a daughter named Euphemia. She married Anthemius, emperor of the West from 467-472.

The Reign of Marcian

A Thracian or Illyrian (according to DIR Marcian), Marcian had had a distinguished military career. His term as emperor was marked by economizing measures, including refusal to continue to pay tribute to the Huns -- he is said to have offered them iron instead of gold -- but it was a relatively quiet time and was known as a golden age. Although it was mostly peaceful, campaigns were waged against Saracens in Syria and against the Blemmyes in Egypt. When the Vandals sacked Rome, in 455, Marcian asked their leader Gaiseric to return the empress, Eudoxia (daughter of Theodosius II and Eudocia) and her daughters, Eudocia and Placidia. The mother and Placidia were sent to Constantinople, later, under Leo I, but Gaiseric became the father-in-law of Eudocia [Clover].

Among his financial reforms, Marcian decreed that consuls should not give out money to the people, but should instead fix the public works. He also tried to stop the sale of bureaucratic spots. Marcian partially overturned Constantine's decree against the marriage of a senator with certain declassé women, permitting marriage between senators and respectable women of any class. This meant the Emperor Justinian would later be able to marry Theodora legally.

The most noteworthy act of Marcian's reign was summoning the 4th Ecumenical Council in Chacedon in 451, which discussed the Nestorian controversy and monophysitism.

Marcian's Death and the Succession

Marcian died at the end of January or beginning of February in A.D. 457, perhaps of gangrene. He was buried in the Church of the Apostles beside Pulcheria.

Leo I was the next Roman Emperor in the East.

References and Further Reading:

  • "Geiseric and Attila," by Frank M. Clover. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 22, No. 1 (1st Qtr., 1973), pp. 104-117.
  • "The Legal Definition of Prostitute in Late Antiquity," by Thomas A. J. McGinn. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 42, (1997), pp. 73-116.
  • "The Family and Early Career of Anicius Olybrius," by Frank M. Clover. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1st Qtr., 1978), pp. 169-196.
  • Timothy E. Gregory "Marcian" The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. 1991.
  • Bury, J.B. (1923) History of the Later Roman Empire from the death of Theodosius I to the death of Justinian (New York).
  • Roman Emperors DIR Marcian
  • The Life and Times of the Empress Pulcheria, A. D. 399 - A.D. 452, by Ada B. Teetgen. 1911
  • William Smith's A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

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