Rethinking a Massacre: What Really Happened in Thessalonica and Milan in 390?
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In 390, the garrison commander at Thessalonica and several officials were killed by local citizens during a riot. Upon hearing of this, instead of an appropriate response to the riot, the Emperor Theodosius ordered a retaliation. The local hippodrome in Thessalonica became the scene of a bloodbath, as soldiers mercilessly massacred thousands of people. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, effectively excommunicated the Emperor, pending a public statement of repentance. The story of the massacre, known from several conflicting reports, leaves many questions unanswered, but its chief problem is the absurdity of such a measure against a civilian population. Puzzled by this ill-advised decision, some scholars have tried to find other explanations, such as errors in communication or the presence of troops who got out of control. The sources, such as they are, fail to support these hypotheses. They do, however, permit a simpler explanation: a grave and tragic failure of the soldiery on the spot in carrying out the Emperor’s orders. The massacre was an unwanted calamity, not only for the inhabitants of Thessalonica but also for the reputation of Theodosius and the balance of power between the state and the church.
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