In today's blog post, author Don Hollway introduces us to the second key player in his new book At the Gates of Rome - Flavius Stilicho.
In late August of AD 408 a contingent of Roman legionaries pounded on the door of a church in Ravenna, Italy – then the capital of the Western Roman Empire – demanding the surrender of a criminal who had sought sanctuary within. They produced orders written on behalf of the emperor himself, stating that the fugitive was not to be killed, nor harmed, nor even bound, but merely detained. With that admission, the man in question came forth. He was none other than Flavius Stilicho, who had until a few days earlier been Rome’s comes et magister utriusque militiae, count and supreme military commander, the most powerful man in the empire. Having taken him into custody, the legionary officer produced a second set of orders countermanding the first, decreeing Stilicho’s execution.
The downfall of Stilicho, whom historian Edward Gibbon called, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “the last of the Roman generals,” is the story of Rome. Born of a barbarian father by an unknown, almost certainly aristocratic Roman woman, Stilicho served as a young man in the bodyguard of Emperor Valens, a role in which he was groomed for leadership. At the disastrous battle of Adrianople in AD 378, he somehow survived when the East Roman army was practically annihilated, and Valens killed, by the barbarian Goths. Valens’ successor, Emperor Theodosius, thought well enough of the promising young officer to send him to Persia as part of a successful diplomatic mission and, on his return, arrange Stilicho’s marriage to the emperor’s niece and adopted daughter, Serena. The new imperial son-in-law rose rapidly through the ranks, serving as second-in-command at the two-day Battle of the Frigidus in AD 394, when the Christian Theodosius narrowly defeated the pagan Western usurper Eugenius.
For the first time since AD 293, when it was divided into East and West, the Roman Empire was reunited under one emperor and one religion. Too soon afterward, however, Theodosius fell fatally ill. On his deathbed he is said to have named Stilicho as guardian of his sons, the new emperors, Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West; yet, crucially for the empire, there were no witnesses. Honorius was still a child, whom Stilicho and Serena raised as a brother to their own children, son Eucherius and daughters Maria and Thermantia. Arcadius, though, was already of legal age, with his own retinue of advisors in Constantinople who resented and disputed Stilicho’s interference. The two empires fell to quarreling again.
In an age always rife with rebellion, when any man with enough legions behind him could declare himself emperor and even make it so, the Easterners fanned the flames. They encouraged North Africa to cut off grain shipments to Rome, without which the population of up to 750,000 would starve. They prodded the Goths – who, since their victory at Adrianople, had become practically an independent kingdom within the empire – to make trouble for the West. Stilicho, reluctant to openly declare war on the East, countered with targeted assassinations and campaigns of intimidation over the Alps to quell hostile tribes in Britannia and Gaul. Since Roman citizens proved reluctant to serve in his legions, he filled out his ranks with barbarian mercenaries.
Alaric, king of the Goths, had served beside Stilicho as a mercenary at the Frigidus and desired nothing more than to be a Roman military commander but trusted neither empire. Over the decades, he and Stilicho fought each other to a standstill. Perhaps because of his barbarian blood, Stilicho was the one Roman general who could, and repeatedly did, defeat the Goths in the field, yet he always showed leniency to his old comrade Alaric.
In the early 5th century, a religious spat between rival Christian factions threatened to spark open conflict between the empires. Stilicho enlisted Alaric and his warriors, planning to forcibly re-unite Rome once and for all. Before they could launch their campaign, events in the West overtook them. Fresh usurpers claimed far-flung parts of the empire for themselves. Gaul rebelled. Britannia was cut off and abandoned. Hispania fell. Stilicho was probably the only man in either empire who could have managed all these catastrophes at once. He was about to employ Alaric and his Goths against the rebels when his own political enemies accused him of colluding with barbarians and intending to put his son Eucherius on the imperial throne.
Young Emperor Honorius – whom Stilicho and Serena had raised as their own son and who married their daughter Maria and, when she died young, their other daughter Thermantia – proved too easily manipulated. That was fine when it was Stilicho pulling the strings, but when Stilicho’s head was turned by all the trouble on the frontiers, Honorius listened to his enemies instead. With the boy emperor as their figurehead, they staged a palace coup. Stilicho’s officers were arrested or killed. Stilicho himself went on the run until cornered in that Ravenna church. His wife and son – Honorius’ adoptive mother and brother – were likewise executed. Stilicho was condemned to damnatio memoriae, a 17th-century Latin phrase meaning “condemnation of memory,” the Roman practice of eradicating all mention that a person ever existed.
Without its greatest general to hold it together, the West tore itself to pieces. Rebels proclaimed Gaul a separate empire. Alaric and the Goths, unrestrained by Stilicho, invaded Italy and held Rome hostage as they made demands on Honorius, who spurned them. Just two years after Stilicho’s death in AD 408, the city fell and was sacked by the barbarians.
After his execution, some accused Stilicho of barbarian sympathies, blaming him for Rome’s fall. Others believed that, had he not held off the barbarians, the city would have fallen much sooner. Perhaps it is enough to know that, despite his sentence of damnatio memoriae, Stilicho and his accomplishments could not be erased from history. A marble monument to him still stands in the Forum of Rome after everything else around it was destroyed and in ruins. Though his name and titles were chiseled off 1,600 years ago, the inscription was written down elsewhere, and has preserved in death what the people of Rome thought of him in life: “[To] the strategy and bravery of the illustrious Count and Master of Horse and Foot in Attendance of the Emperor, Flavius Stilicho.”
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