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 with Pulcheria, the sister of Theodosius, who agreed to marry Marcian, and Flavius Zeno, a military leader of similar influence to Aspar, who 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. While Attila was taking part in the Hunnic raids upon Italy, then a part of the Western Roman Empire, in 452, Marcian launched expeditions across the Danube into the Hungarian plain, defeating the Huns in their heartland, an action which, accompanied by the famine and plague that broke out in northern Italy, allowed Attila to be bribed to retreat to the Hungarian plains. 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 budget surplus of seven million solidi. After his death, Aspar had Leo I elected as Eastern Roman Emperor.


Marcian was born in c. 392.[1] Little of Marcian's early life is known. It is known that he had a daughter named Marcia Euphemia, who in 453 married Anthemius, who would later become Western Roman Emperor. Marcian rose to prominence only after the unexpected death of Theodosius II on 28 July 450. Theodosius II died without a son and had not designated a successor, leaving the Eastern Roman Empire leaderless.[2][3][4][5] During this period of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Alan general Aspar held massive influence, enough so to influence the succession to have Marcian elected. There was a one month delay between the death of Theodosius and the election of Marcian, a 58 year old Roman army officer of the Domesticus,[6][7][8][9] who was largely unknown before his election as emperor. Marcian's ties to Aspar, and his fifteen years of service to Aspar and his father, Ardabur, leave no doubt that Aspar backed his candidacy, or even initiated it, so it is believed that this one month period was 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.[7][8][9] The marriage of Pulcheria and Marcian helped to legitimize Marcian's rule, as her family, the Theodosian dynasty, had direct ties to the throne.[7]

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 to this effect.[7] Marcian was elected on 25 August 450, 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.[10][3][4] Valentinian III would not recognize Marcian as Eastern Roman Emperor until March 452.[11] The election of Marcian in 450 resulted in large changes to eastern imperial policy: The eunuch Chrysaphius, who had exercised huge influence over the young Theodosius, was eliminated, 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. Flavius Zeno passed away soon after Marcian ascended the throne, possibly by as early as the end of 451,[10] and Pulcheria passed away in 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.[12]

Conflict with the Huns

A colored drawing of Europe, showing the borders of states by different colors.
  Hunnic confederation under Attila
  Roman Empire

Almost immediately after becoming emperor, Marcian reversed the policies of 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. Attila reacted angrily, demanding tribute, but did not alter his plans to invade the Western Roman Empire, under the guise of helping Valentinian III against the Visigoths. He led his horde west from Pannonia in spring 451, into the Western Roman Empire.[6] 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, more so 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 on 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 Eastern Rome 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 Eastern Rome 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 Eastern Rome 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 safely hidden behind Constantinople, were secure enough to allow Eastern Rome 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 a wedding celebration 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 Eastern Rome to resume its policy of playing 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 formed 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, decisively defeating Attila's oldest son, Ellac, at the Battle of Nedao in 455, in which Ellac himself 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. This network of subject peoples, which were overall reliable, and overall manageable, was extremely beneficial to Eastern Rome, as the various tribal people generally kept each other's power in check without East Roman intervention, and could be induced to serve East Rome against its enemies by way of gifts, subsidies, and treaties.[17]

Religious policy

A wall painting of Painting of the Council of Chalcedon, mostly in red and gold paint.
Painting of the Council of Chalcedon, being presided over by Marcian and Pulcheria.

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, which had taken place just two years earlier in 449 and stated that Jesus had one united nature, miaphysis,[18] and instead agreed that Jesus had "a divine nature (physis) and a human nature, united in one person (hypostasis), with neither division nor confusion".[19] The council also agreed to condemn Pope Dioscorus I of Alexandria, and revoke the condemnations of Ibas of Edessa and Theodoret, which had taken place during the previous council. The council also iterated the importance of the see of Constantinople, placing it firmly in second place behind the see of Rome. The council was finished in November 451, after which Marcian made numerous edicts confirming the outcomes of the council.[20] One such edict ordered the repression of Eutychianists, barring them from holding state offices, forbidding them to criticize the Council of Chalcedon, and ordering their literature, alongside that of the Nestorians, to be burned.[21] As a result of the council and following edicts, a large number of Christians who disagreed with the council, including many Nestorians, migrated to the Sassanid Empire.[22] Due to his piety, Marcian was compared to both Paul and David.[23]

Economic and legal policy

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. 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 senator's property which amounted to seven pounds of gold per annum. 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.[24] 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.[25]


Marcian's reign ended in 26 January 457, when he died of gout.[12][26] He was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, in Constantinople.[26] 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.[27] Marcian had no heirs or designated successors, thus 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 by me". This comment has often been interpreted to be a reference to the fact that he was an Arian,[12][26] or else to his Alanic heritage.[28]



  1. ^ Meijer 2004, p. 153.
  2. ^ Lee 2013, p. 94.
  3. ^ a b Jeffreys, Haldon & Cormack 2008, p. 243.
  4. ^ a b Cameron, Ward-Perkins & Whitby 2001, p. 42.
  5. ^ Dzino & Parry 2017, p. 258.
  6. ^ a b Friell & Williams 2005, p. 84.
  7. ^ a b c d Lee 2013, p. 96.
  8. ^ a b Jones 2014, p. 83.
  9. ^ a b Jones 2014, p. 95.
  10. ^ a b Lee 2013, p. 97.
  11. ^ Cameron, Ward-Perkins & Whitby 2001, p. 43.
  12. ^ a b c Lee 2013, p. 98.
  13. ^ Friell & Williams 2005, p. 85.
  14. ^ Friell & Williams 2005, p. 86.
  15. ^ a b Friell & Williams 2005, p. 87.
  16. ^ Friell & Williams 2005, p. 88.
  17. ^ Friell & Williams 2005, p. 89.
  18. ^ Lee 2013, p. 145.
  19. ^ Lee 2013, p. 146.
  20. ^ Lee 2013, p. 147.
  21. ^ Bury 2012, p. 380.
  22. ^ Bauer 2010, pp. 122–123.
  23. ^ Herrin 2009, p. 11.
  24. ^ Bury 2012, pp. 236–237.
  25. ^ Pharr, Davidson & Pharr 2001, p. 562.
  26. ^ a b c Meijer 2004, p. 154.
  27. ^ Friell & Williams 2005, p. 127.
  28. ^ Norwich 1998, p. 51.


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External links

  • Media related to Marcian at Wikimedia Commons
Preceded by
Theodosius II
Eastern Roman Emperor
Succeeded by
Leo I