Augustus of the Eastern Roman Empire
Illustration of Marcian, based upon coins minted bearing his image.
Emperor of the Roman Empire
Reign 450–457
Coronation 25 August 450
Predecessor Theodosius II
Successor Leo I
Co-emperors Valentinian III (Western Emperor, 450–455)
Petronius Maximus (Western Emperor, 455)
Avitus (Western Emperor, 455–456)
Born c.392
Died 26 January 457 (aged 65)
Burial Church of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople
Issue Marcia Euphemia
Full name
Flavius Marcianus
Regnal name
Imperator Caesar Flavius Marcianus Augustus
Dynasty Theodosian dynasty

Marcian (/ˈmɑːrʃən/; Latin: Flavius Marcianus Augustus; Greek: Μαρκιανός; c. 392 – 26 January 457) was the Eastern Roman Emperor from 450 to 457. Very little of his life before becoming emperor is known, other than that he was a domesticus who served under Ardabur and his son Aspar for fifteen years. After the death of Emperor Theodosius II on 28 July 450, Marcian was made a candidate to the throne by Aspar, who held massive influence due to his military power. After a month of negotiations Pulcheria, the sister of Theodosius, agreed to marry Marcian, and Flavius Zeno, a military leader of similar influence to Aspar, agreed to help Marcian to become emperor in exchange for the rank of patrician. Marcian was elected and inaugurated on 25 August 450.

Marcian reversed many of the actions of his predecessor, Theodosius, both in regards to the Eastern Roman Empire's relationship with the Huns, under Attila, and in religious doctrine. Marcian almost immediately revoked all treaties with Attila, ending all subsidy payments from Eastern Rome to him. In 452, while Attila was raiding Italy, then a part of the Western Roman Empire, Marcian launched expeditions across the Danube into the Hungarian plain, defeating the Huns in their own heartland. This action, accompanied by the famine and plague that broke out in northern Italy, allowed Marcian to bribe Atilla into retreating from the Italian peninsula.

After the death of Attila in 453, Marcian took advantage of the resulting fragmentation of the Hunnic confederation, settling numerous tribes within Eastern Roman lands as foederati (subject tribes which gave military service in exchange for various benefits). Marcian also convened the Council of Chalcedon, which reversed the outcome of the previous Second Council of Ephesus, and declared that Jesus had two natures, one divine and one human. Marcian died on 26 January 457, leaving the Eastern Roman Empire with a treasury surplus of seven million solidi. After his death, Aspar had Leo I elected as Eastern Roman Emperor.

Early life

Marcian was born in c. 392,[1][2] in either Thrace[3] or Illyria.[2] Little of Marcian's early life is known. Marcian's father had served in the military and at a young age Marcian enlisted at Philippopolis in Thrace. By the time of the Roman–Sasanian War of 421–422, Marcian had reached the rank of tribune but did not see action in the war itself due to becoming ill in Lycia, where was cared for by Tatianus and his brother Iulius.[2][4][5][6] He eventually rose to become the domesticus (personal assistant) of Aspar,[2][5][6] the magister utriusque militiae (commander in chief) of the Eastern Roman Empire; who, despite being Alanic, held massive influence in the Eastern Roman Empire, comparable to that of Stilicho in the Western Roman Empire.[2][5][6] In the early 430s, Marcian served under Aspar in Roman Africa, where he was captured by the Vandals. Some sources give a likely false account of Marcian, while in captivity, meeting the Vandal King Genseric who predicted he would later become emperor. After his capture, he is not mentioned again until the death of Eastern Emperor Theodosius II.[2]


Rise to throne

After Eastern Emperor Theodosius II died unexpectedly in a riding accident on 28 July 450 the empire was met with its first succession crisis in 60 years, as Theodosius did not have any sons, nor had he designated any successor.[2][7] Some later sources state that Theodosius willed the Eastern Empire to Marcian on his deathbed, but this is thought to merely be propaganda created by Marcian's supporters after his election.[2]

Marcian had loyally served Aspar's father Ardabur for fifteen years, and had served Aspar for some time, and thus Aspar conspired to have Marcian elected, and was able to negotiate with other powerful figures to have Marcian made emperor, despite Marcian's relative obscurity.[6] There was a one-month delay between the death of Theodosius and the election of Marcian, possibly due to negotiations between Aspar and Pulcheria, the sister of Theodosius II, who agreed to marry Marcian, although she kept her vow of virginity, which she had taken in 413, aged 14, during her three years of marriage to Marcian.[6] The marriage of Pulcheria and Marcian helped to legitimize Marcian's rule, as her family, the Theodosian dynasty, had direct ties to the throne.[6] It is possible negotiations were also needed between Flavius Zeno, who was similarly in a position of military power, and Aspar. Flavius Zeno was given the prestigious rank of patrician upon the ascension of Marcian in 450, which has led many historians to suggest a deal was made whereby Zeno would be rewarded for supporting Marcian.[6]

Marcian was elected on 25 August 450, with Pulcheria herself crowning him emperor, a unique event symbolizing that the imperial power was shared, likely to further boost Marcian's legitimacy.[2][8][9][10] Marcian was elected without the consultation of the Western Roman Emperor, Valentinian III, which has been viewed as a marker of further separation between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.[8][9][10] Valentinian III would not recognize Marcian as Eastern Roman Emperor until March 452.[11] Marcian had his daughter Marcia Euphemia, who came from a previous marriage, marry Anthemius, future Western Roman Emperor, in 453.[2][12]

The election of Marcian in 450 resulted in large changes to eastern imperial policy: The eunuch and spatharios Chrysaphius, who had exercised huge influence over the young Theodosius, was killed, either by murder or execution; and Marcian took a much tougher stance against the Huns, and a more direct role in ecclesiastical affairs. For these reasons, some historians consider him the strongest, or at least most independent, Eastern Roman Emperor, although the fact that both Pulcheria and Flavius Zeno were opposed to Chrysaphius' influence, may have influenced Marcian's actions.[2][8]

Conflict with the Huns

Almost immediately after becoming emperor, Marcian reversed the policies of his predecessor Theodosius, revoking all treaties with Attila, and proclaiming the end of subsidies, saying he may grant gifts if Attila was friendly, but if he attempted to raid the Eastern Roman Emperor, he would be repelled. At this time Attila was preparing to invade the Western Roman Empire, under the guise of helping Valentinian III against the Visigoths. Attila reacted angrily, demanding tribute, but did not alter his invasion plans. He led his horde west from Pannonia in spring 451, into the Western Roman Empire.[5] Flavius Aetius, the Comes et Magister Utriusque Militiae of the Western Roman Empire, organized a defence, and called upon the Visigoths, Franks, Burgundians, Alans, Saxons, Celtic Armoricans, and other tribal groups to aid him, numbering about 60,000. Attila's forces were made of Gepids, Alans, Sciri, Heruli, Rugians, some Franks, Burgundians, and Ostrogoths.[13]

Attila sacked Metz, and attempted a siege of Orleans, before meeting Aetius' forces at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, in Northeast Gaul. This battle involved around 100,000 men total, and involved massive losses on both sides. After the battle, Attila retreated to the Hungarian plain, and Aetius dismissed his coalition of barbarians, sending them back to their own territory. In spring 452, Attila again launched a raid, this time into the almost entirely undefended Italy, likely motivated by desire for revenge, along with a need to raid to keep his tribal state together. Attila captured the city of Aquileia after a long and difficult siege,[14] and then ransacked the city. Attila then raided across Northern Italy, taking Milan and other important cities. There was much fear that Attila would attack Rome itself, whose walls were weaker than some of the cities Attila had already captured. During this period, Aetius was unable to launch an attack on Attila, other than cutting his lines of communication and harassing his rear forces.[15]

Despite having the rich plunder from capturing Aquileia, Milan, and other cities, Attila was quickly placed into a precarious situation, due to the actions of both Eastern and Western Rome. In Italy, he was seriously lacking in funds, due to the lack of subsidies from either Eastern or Western Rome for two years, and his forces were depleted from the constant warfare. Additionally, his homeland was threatened by the Eastern Empire which, despite punitive raids ordered by Attila, took the offensive against the Hungarian plain, attacking across the Danube and inflicting a defeat upon the Huns. Italy was at this time suffering from famine, which along with a plague that followed it, placed yet more strain upon Attila, allowing the Western Roman Empire to bribe him into retreating to his homeland. After returning to the Hungarian plain, he threatened to invade the Eastern Empire in the next spring, and enslave the entirety of it.[15] Marcian and Aspar ignored his threats, as they reasoned, based upon the previous treaties which Attila had made and then broken, that Attila could not be permanently deterred by gold, of which the Eastern Empire had given approximately six tons to appease Attila. They reasoned that this gold would be better spent building up armies, than appeasing threats, and that the rich Asiatic and Oriental provinces, which were protected behind Constantinople, were secure enough to allow the Eastern Empire to retake any European provinces it might lose. This campaign never came to fruition, as Attila died unexpectedly in 453, either from hemorrhaging or alcoholic suffocation, after celebrating a marriage to one of his many wives. After the death of Attila, his tribal confederation rapidly fell apart, starting first with the rebellions of the Ostrogoths, but within a year escalating to full blown fragmentation.[16]

This fragmentation allowed the Eastern Empire to resume its policy of playing off barbarians against each other, to stop any one tribe from becoming too powerful. Quickly, many tribes began to request settlement within the eastern empire in exchange for military service, as had been done before Attila. It is almost certain that the Gepid king Ardaric came to an agreement with Marcian. Ardaric had formed a coalition of the Rugians, Sciri, Heruli, and his own Gepids, which he led against the remaining Hunnic confederation. Ardaric, alongside the Ostrogoth leaders Theodemir, Valamir and Videmir, decisively defeated Attila's oldest son, Ellac, at the Battle of Nedao in 455, in which Ellac was slain. After this battle, the Hunnic confederation fell apart entirely. Marcian forcibly settled multiple peoples in the recovered European provinces: the Rugians in eastern Thrace, Sciri in Lower Moesia and Scythia, Gepids in Dacia, and others, as foederati. This marked the official abandonment of a rigid Danube barrier, manned by Roman Laeti, replaced by barbarian foederati. Marcian also accepted the Ostrogoths, who had established themselves in Pannonia, the heartland of the former Hunnic confederation, as nominal subjects, to prevent their re-emergence as a powerful group. This network of subject peoples, which were overall reliable, and overall manageable, was beneficial to the Eastern Empire, as the various tribal people generally kept each other's power in check without East Roman intervention, and could be induced to serve the East Empire against its enemies by way of gifts, subsidies, and treaties.[2][17][18] After the death of Attila Marcian enjoyed a relatively peaceful reign, although some small campaigns against the Saracens in Syria and against the Blemmyes in Egypt are recorded.[2]

Religious policy

Shortly before Marcian became emperor, the Second Council of Ephesus was held in 449. The council, despite the intention that it be a ecumenical council, was marred by what both the Eastern and Western Roman Churches saw as heretical beliefs, and as such both refused to accept the results of the council.[19][20] The decision considered most objectionably by the Eastern and Western Roman Churches was on the matter of Christology, when the council stated that Jesus had one divine united nature, called miaphysis, which went against both churches belief in the hypostatic union.[20][21]

To repudiate the Second Council of Ephesus, Marcian convened the Council of Chalcedon, the fourth council of the early church, in 451. Pulcheria may have influenced this decision, or even made the convention of a council a requirement during her negotiations with Aspar to marry Marcian. The council was to take place near Constantinople, so that Marcian and Pulcheria could watch the proceedings closely. Initially it was to be held at the city of Nicaea, which held enormous religious importance to the early church, as it was the site of their first council, the First Council of Nicaea in 325. However Marcian successfully requested to transfer the spot to Chalcedon, because it was closer to Constantinople, and would thus allow him to respond quickly to any events along the Danube, which was being raided by the Huns under Attila. The council met in October 451, and was attended by about 370 bishops, most of them Eastern Roman, although four representatives were sent by Pope Leo I. This council reversed the decision of the Second Council of Ephesus that Jesus had one divine united nature, [21] and instead agreed that Jesus had "a divine nature (physis) and a human nature, united in one person (hypostasis), with neither division nor confusion".[22]

The council also agreed to condemn Pope Dioscorus I of Alexandria, who had overseen the Second Council of Ephesus and revoke the condemnations of Ibas of Edessa and Theodoret, which had taken place during the Council. The council also repeated the importance of the See of Constantinople, placing it firmly in second place behind the see of Rome, and giving it the right to appoint bishops in the Eastern Roman Empire, over the objection of Pope Leo I. The council was finished in November 451, after which Marcian issued numerous edicts confirming the outcomes of the council.[2][23] One such edict ordered the repression of Eutychianists, barring them from holding state offices, forbidding them from criticizing the Council of Chalcedon, and ordering their literature, alongside that of the Nestorians, to be burned.[24] Marcian suppressed multiple violent religious revolts through military force, sending the military to suppress monks in Palestine and placed troops in Alexandria to ensure the installation of Proterius of Alexandria, who was to replace the deposed Pope Dioscorus I.[2] As a result of the council and the following edicts, a large number of Christians who disagreed with the council, including many Nestorians, migrated to the Sassanid Empire.[25]

Marcian also funded Pulcheria's extensive building projects until her death in July 453, all of which focused on the construction of religious buildings,[2] including the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae, and the Hodegon Monastery.[26] Due to his piety, Marcian was compared to both Paul and David.[27]

At the beginning of Marcian's reign, the Eastern Roman treasury was almost bankrupt, due to the huge tributes paid to Attila by Theodosius. Marcian reversed this near bankruptcy not by levying new taxes, but rather cutting expenditures.[28] Upon his accession he declared a remission of all debts owed to the state.[2] Marcian attempted to improve the efficiency of the state in multiple ways, such as mandating that the praetorship must be given to senators residing in Constantinople, attempted to curb the practice of selling administrative offices, and decreed that consuls should be responsible the maintenance of Constantinople's aqueducts. He repealed the Follis, a tax on senators' property which amounted to seven pounds of gold per annum.[28] Marcian removed the financial responsibilities of the consuls and praetors, who had since the time of the Roman Republic been responsible for funding the public sports games or giving wealth to the citizens of Constantinople, respectively; additionally he made it such that only the Vir illustris could hold either office.[2] He also partially repealed a marriage law enacted by Constantine I, which decreed that a man of senatorial status could not marry a slave, freedwoman, actress, or woman of no social status (humilis), in an attempt to preserve the purity of the senatorial class. Marcian adjusted this law by declaring that the law should not exclude a woman of good character, regardless of her social status or wealth.[28] By the time of his death, Marcian's shrewd cutting of expenditures and avoidance of large-scale wars left the Eastern Roman treasury with a surplus of 100,000 pounds (45,000 kg) of gold.[2]

Marcian laid out many legal reforms in his five novels, or codes of law, many of which were targeted at reducing the corruption and abuses of office that existed during the reign of Theodosius.[29] Marcian decreed in 451 that anyone who performed pagan rites would lose their property and be condemned to death, and that no pagan temples, which had previously been closed, could be re-opened. In order to ensure his law was implemented, he set a penalty of 50 pounds (23 kg) of gold for any judge, governor, or official who did enforce the law.[30]


When Marcian became emperor, he was influenced by Flavius Zeno, Pulcheria, and Aspar; however Flavius Zeno died soon after Marcian ascended the throne, possibly by as early as the end of 451,[2][8] and Pulcheria died in July 453, leaving Aspar as the only major influence in the court of the Eastern Roman Empire. This influence was enhanced by the promotion of his son Ardabur to Magister militum per Orientem.[2][31] Marcian's principal advisors were Pulcheria, Euphemius the magister officiorum, Palladius the praetor, and Anatolius of Constantinople.[32]

It is unknown if Aspar and Ardabur directly dictated policy, but if so they were extremely careful to avoid upsetting the ruling elites of Constantinople; despite Aspar's large influence, the Eastern Roman elites retained much of their anti-German sentiment. Marcian patronized the Blues, who were one of the originally four circus teams; the two teams which remained had become more like political parties than sports teams by his time, wielding large influence in the empire, the other being the Greens, with both vying for power. After the Greens responded angrily to his patronage, Marcus censured them, forbidding any of them to hold any public office for three years. Marcians patronage of the Blues may have had dynastic motivations, as Chrysaphius had been favorable to the Greens.[2]

Vardan II Mamikonian, who was leading a revolt against the Sassanian Empire, sent an embassy to Theodosius in 450, composed of his brother Hmayeak Mamikonian, Atom Gnuni, Vardan Amatuni, and Meruzhan Artsruni, in order to ask for assistance, which was received favorably by Theodosius; however these plans were cut short upon the death of Theodosius and accession of Marcian. Marcian was counseled by Anatolius and Florentius not to make war with the Sassanians, and thus did not agree to help them.[33] Later on, in c. 456, Marcian risked the anger of the Sassanids to strike against the king of Lazica, which was nominally a vassal state of the Eastern Roman Empire, Gubazes I, who was attempting to form an alliance with the Sassanians to break free of Eastern Roman control. Marcian launched a military campaign against him in 456, forcing him to acknowledge Eastern Roman rule. Marcian also demanded that Gubazes either abdicate or depose his son and co-ruler, Damnazes, as having two joint rulers was against Roman client state traditions. Gubazes chose to abdicate.[34]

Relationship with the Western Roman Empire

Marcian came to the throne during a time when the Eastern Roman Empire and Western Roman Empire were increasingly divided from each other, with both effectively acting as independent states. When Marcian was elected in 450, it was done without the consultation of the Western Emperor, Valentinian III,[8][9][10] who would not recognize him until March 452.[11] Valentinian also did not recognize the Eastern Roman consul for 451, Marcian, or 452, Sporacius.[35] Marcian also radically changed Eastern Roman policies, especially in relation to the Huns,[8] without consulting the Western Roman Empire, which infuriated Valentinian.[36] Hydatius suggests that Marcian made Eastern Roman troops available to Valentinian to repel the Huns, confusingly led by a man named Aetius, which may simply be a muddling of the of Aetius' campaign against Attila and Marcian's campaign against the Huns in the Danube.[37]

When Marcian settled the Ostrogoths in Pannonia and the Gepids in Tisza, he was accused of encroaching upon the border of Western Roman land.[38] Marcian avoided involving himself with the affairs of the Western Roman Empire when possible; When the Vandals under King Gaiseric attacked the Western Roman Empire and sacked Rome in 455, after Petronius Maximus assassinated Valentinian III and broke an engagement treaty with the Vandals, Marcian did not respond violently, possibly due to the influence of Aspar, merely sending an envoy requesting that the Vandals return the Eastern Roman Empress Licinia Eudoxia, and her daughters, Placidia and Eudocia.[2][38]


Marcian's reign ended in 26 January 457, when he died, possibly of gangrene;[31][39] according to some legends while at a long religious procession.[2] He was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, in Constantinople, next to his wife Pulcheria.[2][39] He left the Eastern Empire with a budget surplus of seven million solidi, an impressive achievement considering the economic ruin inflicted upon Eastern Rome by the Huns, both through warfare and the massive subsidies they received under Theodosius.[40] Although Marcian had a son-in-law, Anthemius, he did not have any connection to the Theodosians, and thus would not be considered legitimate, so Aspar was once again left to play the role of emperor-maker. Aspar selected Leo I, a fifty-year-old officer commanding a unit in the Praesental army. A later source claims that the Eastern Roman Senate offered to elect Aspar himself, but he declined, with the cryptic comment "I fear that a tradition in ruling might be initiated through me". This comment has often been interpreted to be a reference to the fact that he was an Arian,[2][31][39] or else to his Alanic heritage.[41]


Marcian's reign was seen by many later Byzantine writers as a golden age: Marcian secured the Eastern Empire both politically and financially, set an orthodox religious line that future emperors would follow, and stabilized the capital city politically. Some later scholars attribute his success not merely to his skill, but also to a large degree of luck: not only had he been fortunate enough to have Pulcheria, a marriagable member of the Theodosian dynasty, to legitimize his rule, for much of his rule both the Persians and the Huns, the greatest external threats to Rome, were absorbed with their own problems, and there were no natural disasters during his reign.[2][26] He was remembered fondly by the people of Constantinople, who would shout "Reign like Marcian!" at the installation of future emperors.[38]


The Column of Marcian was dedicated to Marcian, built by the praefectus urbi Tatianus, who had taken care of Marcian when he had become ill in Lycia in his early life.[42] It still stands in modern Istanbul, though the statue of Marcian which originally topped it has been lost.[43] Marcian also had a statue in the Forum of Arcadius, which contained the statues of several of the Eastern Emperor Arcadius's successors.[44] Marcian may have been the sponsor of the Chrysotriklinos of the Great Palace of Constantinople; the Patria of Constantinople states that Marcian constructed it, whereas the Suda states that Eastern Emperor Justin II built it, however most historians believe it is more likely that Justin II built it. The Byzantine historian Joannes Zonaras states that Justin II actually rebuilt an older construction, which some historians identify as the Heptaconch Hall of Eastern Emperor Justinian.[45]



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Preceded by
Theodosius II
Eastern Roman Emperor
Succeeded by
Leo I
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