Flavius Stilicho

Flavius Stilicho (died 408) was a Roman general of Vandal origin who maintained the territorial integrity of the Western Roman Empire during the reign of the emperor Honorius.

The father of Stilicho was from the German tribe of the Vandals but served with distinction as a cavalry officer in the Roman army. Stilicho's mother was Roman. His early career included both diplomatic and military experience. He was sent on a mission to Sapor III, king of the Sassanian Persians, to arrange for the partition of Armenia (383 or 387). His early military exploits included victories over the Visigoths, Bastarnae (ca. 391), and Franks (395). He held various military offices, and after Emperor Theodosius defeated the rebel Eugenius (394), he promoted Stilicho to the rank of master of infantry and cavalry for Italy. The Emperor further showed appreciation for the ability of Stilicho by marrying him to his niece Serena. On his deathbed Theodosius appointed Stilicho guardian of his two sons, Honorius, who would rule in the West, and Arcadius, who would rule in the East. Thus Theodosius left them in the hands of a talented man whose barbarian ancestry would prevent him from aspiring to become emperor. But the very division of power further weakened the empire, already staggering under severe barbarian pressures on the frontier.

Honorius was too young and incompetent to manage the empire, and the responsibility fell heavily upon Stilicho. His problems were enormous. Virtually no region of the frontier was secure, and one area could be defended only by withdrawing troops from another, exposing that area in turn to barbarian assaults. Thus in 406, when Stilicho defeated an invasion of Italy by the German Radagaisus, he was forced to draw troops from the Rhine and British frontiers, leaving those open to invasion.

Foreign problems were compounded by domestic revolt. In 398, Gildas, the governor of North Africa, revolted and cut off the vital grain supply for the city of Rome. Stilicho raised grain from Gaul and Spain and marshaled forces which defeated Gildas and restored Africa to the empire.

However, the major rival to Stilicho was Alaric the Goth. Four times in his career, Stilicho faced Alaric. He was about to crush Alaric when he was called back by order of the emperor Arcadius. In 397 he confronted Alaric in Greece but was forced to make peace when Gildas revolted. In 402 Alaric invaded Italy. Stilicho checked him in battle (April 6) but negotiated peace rather than crushing him. In 403 Alaric again invaded Italy and was defeated by Stilicho near Verona. This time also, Stilicho did not eliminate his rival.

The failure of Stilicho to annihilate Alaric was the result of other challenges. The first derived from his being semibarbarian and therefore suspect by the still-powerful Italian nobility. Stilicho tried to appeal to that group. He slowed down such antipagan acts of the emperors as temple closings and even restored the altar of victory, a symbol of the old Roman paganism, to the Senate house. He also reduced the burdens of taxation and military recruiting which were levied on the Italian upper classes. These gestures were not successful in winning support, and toward the end of his career he took a more antipagan stance. In 407 he proposed a law which confiscated all pagan property and destroyed all pagan altars. With animosity toward him strong among the Romans, Stilicho needed the potentially powerful assistance that Alaric's forces could provide.

A second area of concern was the Eastern Empire. This was largely independent of Stilicho's control, and in fact, with Arcadius coming under the control of Stilicho's archenemy Rufinus, it became actually hostile. The major area of contention was Illyria, which was a buffer zone between the two parts of the empire and also an important recruiting ground for soldiers. Stilicho arranged the murder of Rufinus but even then did not succeed in dominating the East. After the death of Arcadius, Stilicho had plans for seizing the Eastern throne for Honorius, but his own fall prevented that. Again, Alaric and his Goths, who generally were settled close to the border of the two empires, could be extremely useful as friends of Stilicho against the Eastern emperors.

During the first decade of the 5th century, the power of Stilicho seemed secure. The Emperor had married two of Stilicho's daughters in succession. He had been consul four times. However, trouble continued. A rival, Constantine, led a revolt in Britain and rapidly seized control of Gaul. The Italians were hostile toward the Vandal. Factions in the court led by a palace official, Olympus, were turning Honorius away from him. Finally Stilicho was arrested and on Aug. 22, 408, was executed. For 40 years no barbarians held a comparable high place in the Western Roman Empire.

Further Reading on Flavius Stilicho

Much material on Stilicho is contained in the poems of Claudian. These are highly rhetorical and eulogistic but have a core of historical fact. Fragments from ancient historians on Stilicho are given in Colin D. Gordon, The Age of Attila: Fifth Century Byzantium and the Barbarians (1960). The best modern account in English is still John B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire (2 vols., 1931).

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