Flavius Stilicho (occasionally written as Stilico) (c. 359 – Ravenna, 22 August 408) was a high-ranking general (magister militum) in the Roman army who became, for a time, the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire. Half Vandal and married to the niece of the Emperor Theodosius, Stilicho’s regency for the underage Honorius marked the high point of German advancement in the service of Rome. After many years of victories against a number of enemies, both barbarian and Roman, a series of political and military disasters finally allowed his enemies in the court of Honorius to remove him from power, culminating in his arrest and subsequent execution in 408. Known for his military successes and sense of duty, Stilicho was, in the words of historian Edward Gibbon, “the last of the Roman generals.”
Origins and rise to power
Stilicho (Στιλίχωνας in Greek) was the son of a Roman soldier of Vandal birth and a provincial Roman woman. 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.
Honorius becomes emperor
Following the death of Theodosius, Honorius became Emperor of the Western Roman Empire while his brother Arcadius was placed on the Eastern throne in Constantinople. As both were underage, Theodosius had appointed Stilicho as the caretaker for Honorius until he came of age. He would claim to have been given a similar role in regards to Arcadius, although no independent verification of this exists. 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 his role in the west, Stilicho proved his abilities energetically, although political maneuverings 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 Rufinus 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. Edward Gibbon, drawing on Zosimus, criticizes Stilicho for being overconfident in victory and indulging in luxury and women, allowing Alaric to escape. Contemporary scholarship disagrees, and finds a variety of possible explanations, including an order from Arcadius ordering him to evacuate the Eastern Empire, the unreliability of his mostly barbarian troops, the revolt of Gildo in Africa or the possibility that he simply was never as close to Alaric as Claudian suggests.
Later that year, Gildo, a Roman general in Africa, led a revolt in which he tried to place the African provinces, the critical source of Rome’s grain supply, under the control of the Eastern Empire. Stilicho sent Mascezel, the brother of Gildo, into Africa with an army, which quickly suppressed the rebellion. However, upon his return to Italy, Mascezel was drowned under questionable circumstances, perhaps on the orders of a jealous Stilicho. The year 400 also saw Stilicho accorded the highest honour within the Roman state by being appointed consul.
Around this time, Alaric moved to invade Italy with his Visigoths and established positions around Milan, where Honorius lay trapped. Stilicho hastened forward with a selected vanguard in advance of his main body of 30,000 troops, breaking the siege of Milan and rescuing the besieged emperor. Alaric had to raise the siege of the city. One of his chieftains implored him to retreat, but Alaric refused.
In a surprise attack 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 escaped by the speed of his horse. A truce was made and Alaric went to Illyricum.
In 405 there was a major invasion of Italy by those Alans, Sueves, and Vandals under the command of Radagaisus, disrupting Stilicho’s plans to re-take Illyria from the Eastern Empire with the help of Alaric. Stilicho, scraping together thirty legions (roughly 30,000 troops - legions during the Late Roman Empire had around 1,000 soldiers) through a variety of desperate methods, including efforts to enroll slaves in the army in exchange for their freedom, led a coalition of Romans, Alans, and Huns to defeat Radagasius at Ticinum (Pavia) in 406.
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 order to protect Italy, the Empire had depleted the Rhine frontier of forces, leaving it defended by "only the faith of the Germans and the ancient terror of the Roman name", as Gibbon put it. A massive number of Vandals, Alans, and Suevi from central Europe crossed the frozen-over and poorly-defended Rhine on 31 December 406. These new migrants proceeded to devastate the provinces of Gaul, as well as triggering military revolts in Britannia and Gaul. Stilicho’s reputation would never recover from this disaster.
The destruction that occurred in Gaul and the lack of an effective response from the court in Ravenna lent support to the rebellion of Constantine III in Britain, which Stilicho proved unable to quash. As Constantine moved his forces into Gaul, Stilicho sent his subordinate Sarus to oppose him. Sarus had some initial success, winning a major victory and killing both of Constantine's magistri militum, but a relief force drove him back and saved the rebellion. Sarus withdrew and Stilicho decided to seal off the Alps to prevent Constantine from threatening Italy.
Meanwhile, Constantine's rebellion having interrupted the negotiations between Alaric and Stilicho for the joint attack on Illyria, Alaric demanded the payment he was owed, threatening to attack Italy again if he did not receive a large amount of gold. The senate, "inspired by the courage, rather than the wisdom, of their predecessors", as Gibbon put it, favored war with Alaric until Stilicho persuaded them to give into Alaric's demands. They were angry at Stilicho for this, and one of the most outspoken of them, Lampadius, said "Non est ista pax, sed pactio servitutis (This is not peace, but a pact of servitude)."
Stilicho's unsuccessful attempts to deal with Constantine, 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 (1 May 408) caused a revolt. The Roman army at Ticinum mutinied on August 13, 408, killing at least seven senior imperial officers (Zosimus 5.32). There followed 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. Stilicho did not resist and was executed on August 22, 408 – as was his son, Eucherius, 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 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, 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 army of Italy watched helplessly, but only after a fourth failed attempt at a deal was Alaric's siege a success. After months under siege the people of Rome were dying of hunger and some were resorting to cannibalism. Then, the Gothic army broke through the gates and sacked the city in August of 410. Many historians argue that the removal of Stilicho was the main catalyst leading to this monumental event, the first barbarian capture of Rome in nearly eight centuries and a part of the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Besides the relevant legal records in the Codex Theodosianus, the major primary source for the events of Stilicho's reign, or at least events prior to 404, are the panegyrics addressed to him by the poet Claudian. For events after 404, Zosimus is a main source, although as a Byzantine, he felt a strong distaste for Stilicho. Stilicho also maintained correspondence with his friend, the renowned pagan senator Symmachus.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Stilicho.|
- Claudian at LacusCurtius (A collection of Claudian's works in both Latin and English, including his panegyrics for Stilicho.)
|Consul of the Roman Empire
|Consul of the Roman Empire
Anicius Petronius Probus
|Supreme Commander of the Western Roman Army