Stilicho – Ian Hughes

Flavius Stilicho was the general-in-chief and leader of the Western Roman Empire from the death of Emperor Theodosus in 395 AD to his own death in 408.  He was regent for the child-emperor Honorius.

In addition to commanding the army, Flavius St...

In addition to commanding the army, Flavius Stilicho served as regent for the child emperor Honorius and was the de facto leader of the Western Roman Empire when Radagaisus invaded. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The book is especially welcome since there is such little information available on the period.  The author has collected and sifted through the evidence to provide a coherent storyline for you.

Stilicho was a half-Vandal, but married into the family of the emperor Theodosius.  This made him ideal as a regent, since his ancestry made him unacceptable as emperor himself.  He also had great loyalty to the family, so he could be trusted not to topple the child emperors that Theodosius left behind in both East and West after his untimely death in 395.

Rome was still recovering from the disaster of the battle of Adrianople in 378 and a series of civil wars afterward.  The Goths, now under the ‘king’ Alaric were a major player in the region, having been settled in the Balkans but still being an independent power.

Struggle for Position

This period was a difficult one for Rome.  The arrival of the Huns behind the frontier was driving barbarian tribes forward into Roman lands to escape them.  Rome’s forces were not strong, and this weakness was magnified by the two courts in East and West to work together.

This might have been inevitable once the second capital was founded, but the dire effects of division really began to take hold in this period.  With two child-emperors, the handlers in each capital began to look to their own interest instead of the empire as a whole.  This trend was magnified when Stilicho claimed that Theodosius named him regent over both children rather than just Honorius.  This was naturally a threat to the current handlers of Arcadius in the East that they continually tried to beat back.

With East and West conflicted over the Balkans, Alaric and the Goths became both a bone of contention and a force that each needed to keep their lands in the Balkans secure.  But using Alaric led to friction, as both Empires had a lot of hatred of the Goths  saved up since Adrianople.  Using the Goths was necessary, but unpopular.  For a regent with an insecure position, clever balancing was a requirement.  Silicho went from fighting to using to fighting the Goths several times over the years.

Sadly, events would give the West no time to recover fully.  Major invasions by Radagaisus and a revolt in Africa kept his attention focused mostly on the Balkans and Italy.  So when a major force of barbarians broke into Gaul in 407 there was little he could do.  Forces in Britain revolted and set up a rival Emperor, joining with these barbarians to threaten and occupy most of Gaul.


While not always quickly effective, Stilicho had been trying keep things afloat, but his need to mollify the Goths so he could move into Gaul was the end for him.   After allowing a payment to Alaric to keep the peace, his popularity was worse than ever.  When the Eastern Emperor died, Stilicho decided to try and go to Constantinople to influence the court of the new emperor.  It was a fatal mistake, as either Honorius was made suspicious by the court or was too afraid of the courtier Olympius to contest the removal of Stilicho.

Stilicho himself did not fight his arrest or even his execution, too loyal to try and fight another civil war with his nephew.  With his death, anti-Gothic feeling exploded in the cities of Italy and the families of the Gothic troops in Roman service revolted. The angry troops joined Alaric, and now the Goths were the major force in the region.

The next few years were a standoff, with Alaric moving on Rome for a siege to try and force concessions from the government in Ravenna.  Safe behind the walls, Honorius was not eager to deal with Alaric, and the hard-line might have worked out, but one day in 410 a gate in Rome was opened and the Goths sacked Rome.

Stilicho was no genius, or saint, but it is rare that the value of a leader is shown so clearly by the collapse of a system after his removal.  After Stilicho, Rome had to depend almost entirely on barbarian troops to restore its borders.  Multiple districts were ceded to tribes, cutting into the tax base, making the empire weaker.  And the Vandal tribes that could not be dealt with in Gaul or Spain in subsequent years eventually took North Africa away from the Empire for good, even sacking Rome again in  455 AD.  Not so coincidentally, the second sack was an immediate effect of the murder of another effective general-in-chief, Aetius by the last emperor of the Theodosian line.

A very good book!


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