Thursday, November 24, 2011

Flavius Stilicho (359-408)

Stilicho Parleying with the Goths--Drawn by H. Leutemann. Depicts Roman general Flavius Stilicho in conversation with Goth commanders. Image published: 1901

Goths leaving Italy

Germanic-Roman general Stilicho with his wife Serena and his son Eucherius. Copy of an ivory carving. The original dyptich, carved circa 395, is in Monza (Italy)

Flavius Stilicho (occasionally written as Stilico) (ca. 359 – August 22, 408) was a high-ranking general (magister militum), Patrician and Consul of the Western Roman Empire, notably of Vandal birth. Despised by the Roman population for his Germanic ancestry and Arian beliefs, Stilicho was in 408 executed along with his wife and son. The subsequent massacre of tens of thousands of Gothic civilians in Italy provoked Alarics invasion of the country the same year.

Stilicho was the son of a Vandal father and a Roman mother. Despite his father's origins there is little to suggest that Stilicho considered himself anything other than a Roman, and his high rank within the Empire suggests that he was probably not Arian like many Germanic Christians but rather a Nicene Christian like his patron Theodosius I, who declared Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Stilicho joined the Roman army and rose through the ranks during the reign of Theodosius I, who ruled the Eastern half of the Roman Empire from Constantinople, and who was to become the last Emperor to rule both the Eastern and Western halves of the Empire jointly. In 383, Theodosius sent him as an envoy to the court of the Persian king Shapur III in Ctesiphon to negotiate a peace settlement relating to the partition of Armenia. Upon his return to Constantinople at the successful conclusion of peace talks, Stilicho was promoted (to comes stabuli) and later to general (magister militum). The Emperor recognized that Stilicho could be a valuable ally, and to form a blood tie with him, Theodosius married his adopted niece Serena to Stilicho. The marriage took place around the time of Stilicho's mission to Persia, and ultimately Serena gave birth to a son, who was named Eucherius, and two daughters, Maria and Thermantia.

After the death of the Western Emperor Valentinian II in 392, Stilicho helped raise the army that Theodosius would lead to victory at the Battle of the Frigidus, and was one of the Eastern leaders in that battle. One of his comrades during the campaign was the Visigothic warlord Alaric, who commanded a substantial number of Gothic auxiliaries. Alaric would go on to become Stilicho's chief adversary during his later career as the head of the Western Roman armies. Stilicho distinguished himself at the Frigidus, and Theodosius, exhausted by the campaign, saw him as a man worthy of responsibility for the future safety of the Empire. The last emperor of a united Rome appointed Stilicho guardian of his son, Honorius, shortly before his death in 395.

Following the death of Theodosius, Honorius became emperor of the Western Roman Empire, and his brother Arcadius of the Eastern Roman Empire. Neither proved to be effective emperors, and Stilicho came to be the de facto commander-in-chief of the Roman armies in the West while his rival Rufinus became the power behind the throne in the East. In this capacity, Stilicho proved his abilities energetically, although political manoeuverings by agents of the two imperial courts would hinder him throughout his career.

His first brush with such court politics came in 395. The Visigoths living in Lower Moesia had recently elected Alaric as their king. Alaric broke his treaty with Rome and led his people on a raid into Thrace. The army that had been victorious at the Frigidus was still assembled, and Stilicho led it toward Alaric's forces. The armies of the eastern Empire were occupied with Hunnic incursions in Asia Minor and Syria so Rufinus attempted to negotiate with Alaric in person. The only results were suspicions in Constantinople that Rufinius was in league with the Goths. Stilicho now marched east against Alaric. According to Claudian, Stilicho was in a position to destroy the Goths, when he was ordered by Arcadius to leave Illyricum. Soon after Rufinus was hacked to death by his own soldiers.

Two years later, in 397, Stilicho defeated Alaric's forces in Macedonia, although Alaric himself escaped into the surrounding mountains. The same year saw him successfully quell the revolt of comes Gildo in Africa. The year 400 saw Stilicho accorded the highest honour within the Roman state by being appointed Consul.

Around this time Stilicho may have campaigned successfully against the Scots, Picts, and Saxons in Britain.

In 401, two barbarian leaders planned the joint invasion of the Roman Empire - Alaric and the Ostrogoth, Radagaisus. Radagaisus, with Alans, Sueves, and Vandals, attacked first, and invaded Raetia (Rhaetia). Stilicho rushed his soldiers to the area, crossed the Danube River, and crushed Radagaisus. Wasting no time, Stilicho turned his attention towards Alaric and his Visigoths, who had invaded Italy. Bravely hastening on in advance of his main body of troops (30,000), he hurled his crack units in a surprise night attack against Alaric's position around Milan. Alaric had to raise the siege of the city. One of his chieftains implored him to retreat, but Alaric refused.
On Easter Sunday in 402, Stilicho defeated Alaric at the Battle of Pollentia, capturing his camp and his wife. Alaric managed to escape with most of his men. This battle was the last victory celebrated in a triumphal march in Rome, which was saved for the time being. In 403 at Verona, Stilicho again bested Alaric, who as Gibbon said only escaped by the speed of his horse. A truce was made and Alaric went to Illyricum. In late 406, Stilicho demanded the return of the eastern half of Illyricum ( which had been transferred to the administrative control of Constantinople by Theodosius), threatening war if the Eastern Roman Empire resisted. The exact reasons for this are unclear, but it is possible that Stilicho planned to employ Alaric and his battle-hardened troops as allies against the bands of Alans, Vandals and Sueves that were threatening to invade the West. To do so, Stilicho may have needed to legitimize Alaric's control of Illyricum.

In 405, according to Rutilius Namatianus, De Reditu 51-60, Stilicho ordered the destruction of the Sibylline Books. The reasons for this are unknown, and the story cannot be verified.

Despite his successes against the Goths he failed to stop the barbarians from crossing of the Rhine on 31 December 406. This crossing initiated a wave of destruction of Roman cities and military revolt in Britannia and Gaul. Stilicho persuaded the Roman Senate to approve a gold payment to Alaric (who again was threatening to invade Italy since Stilicho had been unable to provide economic and military support in 406/407 as promised) since he wanted to send the Goths to Gaul as foederati. His unsuccessful attempts to deal with usurper Constantine III, rumors that he had earlier planned the assassination of Rufinus and that he planned to place his son on the Byzantine throne following the death of Emperor Arcadius in 408 caused a revolt. The Roman army at Ticinum mutinied on August 13, killing at least seven senior imperial officers (Zosimus 5.32). This was followed by events which John Matthews observed "have every appearance of a thoroughly co-ordinated coup d'état organized by Stilicho's political opponents." Stilicho retired to Ravenna, where he was taken into captivity. Although it was within his ability to contest the charges, Stilicho did not resist, either because of loyalty to Rome or for fear of the consequences to the already precarious state of the Western Empire. He was decapitated on August 22, 408. His son Eucherius was murdered in Rome shortly afterwards.

In the disturbances which followed the downfall and execution of Stilicho, the wives and children of barbarian foederati throughout Italy were slain by the local Romans. The natural consequence was that these men (estimates describe their numbers as perhaps 30,000 strong) flocked to the protection of Alaric, clamoring to be led against their cowardly enemies. The Visigothic warlord accordingly crossed the Julian Alps and began a campaign through the heart of Italy. By September 408, the barbarians stood before the walls of Rome.

Without a strong general like Stilicho to control the by-now mostly barbarian army, Honorius could do little to break the siege, and adopted a passive strategy trying to wait out Alaric, hoping to regather his forces to defeat the Visigoths in the meantime. What followed was two years of political and military manoeuvering, Alaric, king of the Goths, attempting to secure a permanent peace treaty and rights to settle within Roman territory. He besieged Rome three times without attacking while the Roman Italian Army watched helplessly, but it was not until the deal had fallen through a fourth time that he attacked and sacked the city in August 410. The removal of Stilicho was the main catalyst leading to this monumental event, the first barbarian capture of the city in nearly eight centuries and a presage of the final collapse of the imperial west!

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1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.