Roman emperors grew weaker as the clock turned to the late fourth century. Although Theodosius the Great provided dynamic leadership, his immediate successors proved too weak to rule. Both Honorius and Arcadius fell under the control of their advisers. Stilicho dominated Honorius in the west while a succession of advisers ruled the east for Arcadius. At one point, the eastern emperor finally fell under the spell of his wife. Although Arcadius reigned for 25 years, he never truly exercised power.
Theodosius the Great elevated his 6-year-old son, Arcadius, to co-emperor in 383 A.D. Two years later, the youth ascended to the eastern throne. Since an 8-year-old lacked the maturity or knowledge to rule, advisers dominated the emperor. At first, Praetorian Prefect Rufinus ruled the east, but entered into a rivalry with the western ruler. As in the east, the western emperor fell under the control of an adviser. Stilicho ruled the west for Honorius and craved the east as well. Stilicho assassinated Rufinus in an attempt to assert control.
Even with Rufinus removed from power, Stilicho failed to assert control over the east. The eunuch Eutropius filled the vacuum left by the assassination. Eutropius arranged the marriage of Arcadius to Aelia Eudoxia. The adviser’s power seemed secure after defeating the Huns in 398. His success led to the promotion to consul, but his cruel disposition made few friends. Rivals and the empress successfully plotted Eutropius’ downfall.
Eudoxia played the key role in Eutropius’ removal and execution. After his removal, she assumed his position as power behind the throne. Under her influence, Arcadius demolished the last remaining pagan temples. In 404, Eudoxia moved against her chief rival the Patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom. Three years later, he died in exile. However, Chrysostom outlived his enemy. Eudoxia died shortly after his banishment.
Following Eudoxia’s death and Chrysostom’s exile, the praetorian prefect Anthemius assumed control over Arcadius. During the final four years of the emperor’s life, Anthemius managed to achieve peace with Stilicho in the west. In the end, the emperor cared more about religion than governance. Despite the construction of a forum on Constantinople’s seventh hill, Arcadius left few noteworthy accomplishments or achievements behind. In fact, the rivalry with Stilicho and a massacre of Goths in 400 A.D. represent the most important events during his rule.
Emperor Arcadius lacked any real power. He ascended the throne at an early age and never demonstrated any desire to exercise power. While he tried to act as a good Christian, a series of advisers ran the empire. Deadly rivalries between advisers and between the east and west dominated his reign. In the end, Arcadius rule simply worked to measure time in the Eastern Roman Empire.