Stilicho, Flavius

Stilicho, Flavius
(c. 360-408)
   Roman military commander and regent whose career stood in the tradition of Arbogast, the fourth century German soldier who was the power behind the throne, and in contrast to that of the Gothic king Alaric. The son of a Vandal cavalry officer in the service of Rome and a Roman noblewoman, Stilicho fully embraced the empire and its customs, including Catholic Christianity. He had a successful career and was a loyal follower of the emperor Theodosius the Great. As regent for Theodosius's son Honorius, Stilicho faced the increasing pressure of the barbarians on the empire and invasions by Goths led by Alaric and Radagaisus. Although not wholly successful against either king, Stilicho struggled valiantly to preserve the integrity of the Western Empire, even at the cost of nearly losing Britain. His talent for managing his rivals is perhaps best illustrated in the failure of Honorius to prevent the successful invasion of Italy and sack of Rome by Alaric in the years following Stilicho's execution.
   The son of a Vandal father and Roman mother, whose marriage required imperial dispensation, Stilicho was marked early on for advancement in the service of the empire. His parents placed him on the roster of the guards of the court as a small boy, where he may have made contact with the future emperor Theodosius. In 383, Stilicho served on an imperial delegation to the Persian king Shapur III (r. 383-388). Upon his return from the embassy to Shapur, Stilicho married Theodosius's favorite niece, Serena, and was raised to the office of master of the stable. By 385, he was made a general and given promotion to the rank of chief of the guard. In 391, the year he first faced Alaric, Stilicho was promoted to a high-ranking post in the Eastern Empire, and in 393 he was made master of both services, the commander in chief of the army.
   Stilicho's rapid rise, together with the clear favor of the emperor, brought him to the top of the Roman military hierarchy before the death of his patron. His debt to the emperor did not, however, go unpaid; although little is known of his early military career, it is certain that Stilicho played an important, if not decisive, role in the victory over the pretender to the Western Empire Eugenius and his military commander Arbogast in 394. Indeed, Stilicho probably led the attack on the second day of the battle that turned the tide and brought about the defeat of Eugenius and his general. Stilicho was of such importance to the emperor that he set off for the Eastern Empire before Theodosius, who died suddenly on January 17, 395, while on his way there. Stilicho was favored by the emperor one last time when Theodosius on his deathbed entrusted his sons, Honorius and Arcadius, to the care of the Vandal general.
   The death of Theodosius left Stilicho the most powerful figure in the empire, even though he was not without rivals and subject to Theodosius's heirs, Honorius in the Western Empire and Arcadius in the Eastern Empire. Indeed, his greatest rival, and personal enemy of long standing, Rufinus, was the commander in chief for Arcadius. And, under Rufinus's direction, Arcadius restricted Stilicho's field of action and ordered that Stilicho, who preparing to challenge Alaric in part of the Eastern Empire, send some of his troops to defend Constantinople against their mutual enemy Alaric and his followers. Ever loyal to the house of Theodosius and the empire, Stilicho yielded to Arcadius's demands, but the troops he sent murdered Rufinus, perhaps at their general's initiative. Stilicho next faced Eutropius, who assumed the position of chief advisor to Arcadius until late 399. The two negotiated control of important border regions between the two halves of the empire and struggled to contain Alaric. At the same time, of course, they struggled for power in the empire, which Eutropius lost in a plot that included an ally of Stilicho in the Eastern Empire.
   As the leading military commander in the empire, Stilicho took on the responsibility of protecting it from various barbarian groups and spent much of his career in a complex game of cat and mouse with Alaric. They had served together when Theodosius crushed the usurpation of Eugenius, but they had become rivals as Alaric's demands went unmet by the imperial governments. In 397, Stilicho had the opportunity to destroy Alaric and his army but negotiated a settlement with him, which allowed the Gothic king to trouble the Eastern Empire and Stilicho's rival at the time, Eutropius. Although Alaric abandoned his claims to western territory over the next four years-during which time Stilicho reached the pinnacle of power, assumed the office of consul, and married his daughter, Maria, to Honorius-he invaded Italy in late 401 while Stilicho was engaged with other barbarians. Quickly turning his attention to Alaric by early 402, Stilicho called for reinforcements from Britain and the Rhine frontier to protect Italy. He also gave command to a pagan Alan, who attacked while Alaric and the Goths were celebrating Easter, thus inflicting a severe defeat on him. This was followed by an even more crushing defeat by Stilicho by late summer 402, but Stilicho once again allowed Alaric to survive and receive a military commission from Arcadius. Alaric launched one more assault on the Western Empire in 407, again at a time of crisis for Stilicho, who sought to reach an agreement with his long-term enemy; the attempt failed because of Stilicho's fall.
   Stilicho faced other challenges during his career leading the Roman military. In 397-398, he faced the revolt of the Roman count of Africa, which cut off the grain supply to Italy. Stilicho overcame this challenge by importing grain from elsewhere and by sending a powerful army to suppress the unruly governor. The victorious general of that army mysteriously died not long after his victory, and many blamed Stilicho for the death. He made new treaties with the Alemanni and the Franks, and deposed a Frankish king he disliked. More serious than his difficulties in Africa or Gaul was the invasion by the barbarian Radagaisus and a large band of Ostrogoths in 405. This serious breach of the Rhine frontier, perhaps the result of Stilicho's efforts to protect Italy at the expense of the rest of the empire, would lead to Stilicho's downfall. Although he imposed a punishing defeat on Radagaisus near Florence in the summer of 406, Stilicho could not decisively defeat him. Radagaisus remained a threat to Italy for the next several years, to the dismay of Honorius and Stilicho.
   The return of Alaric and death of Arcadius further complicated matters for Stilicho. Indeed, competition over the succession to the throne of Arcadius between Stilicho and Honorius, as well as the death of Maria and Stilicho's loss of important imperial territory and failure to inflict final defeats on Alaric and Radagaisus led to his downfall. No longer confident in his general, Honorius ordered the arrest and execution of Stilicho on August 22, 408. Two years later, Alaric sacked the city of Rome.
   See also
   Alaric; Arbogast; Honorius; Ostrogoths; Theodosius the Great; Vandals; Visigoths
 ♦ Burns, Thomas S. Barbarians within the Gates of Rome: A Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians, ca. 375-425 a.d. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994.
 ♦ Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. 2 vols. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.
 ♦ ---. The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.
 ♦ Claudian. Claudian's Fourth Panegyric on the fourth consulate of Honorius. Ed. and trans. William Barr. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1981.
 ♦ Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
 ♦ Zosimus. New History. Trans. Ronald T. Ridley. Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1982.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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