406: Radagaisus the Barbarian

4 comments August 23rd, 2009 dogboy

Rome in the 5th Century was a difficult place for the general populace. The Roman Empire was at the front end of its long decline, and with its partitioning in 395 on the death of Theodosius I, a series of invasions was to follow that would shake confidence in the leadership of the Empire.

Possible etymological connection to the possibly proto-Slavic barbarian horde: hypothetical Slavic god Radegast lends his gnarly visage to a Czech beer — and maybe to a Tolkein character.

Much of the activity in Rome at the time was tied to the young Visigoth King Alaric. Alaric initially invaded the Eastern Roman Empire, but he was met with resistance in Greece. During negotiations, the de facto head of the Western Roman Empire,* Stilicho, who has been claimed by some sources to have been born a Visigoth, marched on the Goths and prepared to engage in what likely would have been Alaric’s downfall.

According to accounts, Stilicho was called out of the neighboring province of Illyricum, and Alaric, now unencumbered of the prospect of a Western reinforcement, marched through Greece.

But Stilicho would not sit still, and in 397, he brought his army against the Goths and forced them into a difficult spot in the mountains of Pholoe, in the southern prefecture of Illia. Alaric slipped away,** moving his forces north and setting his sights on the Western Roman Empire, starting in northeastern Italy, in 400 AD.

While Stilicho was engaged on this eastern front, the Ostrogoths, led by the commander Radagaisus, prepared for their own invasion. While history is uncertain as to how the series of events transpired, it is clear that Stilicho bested Alaric at Pollentia and Verona and, because of a budding camaraderie with the defeated commander, enjoyed a few years’ respite from the Gothic invaders. Which was useful, because the Roman army had shrunken to a point where even small defeats were extremely costly to the Empire.

So it was that, when Radagaisus invaded Italy in 405, Stilicho had nearly all his army in place. Radagaisus marched with 100,000 people (likely) to 400,000 people (highly unlikely), though a relatively small percentage of these were thought to be armed. His trail of terror displaced uncounted Romans as Radagaisus made his way through northern Italy.

Finally, at the start of the 406 campaign, Stilicho had mustered sufficient forces to assault the invaders. As Radagaisus blockaded Florence, Stilicho amassed his regulars and, fortified also with recalled frontier soldiers, massacred the opposition. The battle was decisive, with the Roman army starving out the invading hordes, and Radagasius apparently quickly losing control of his loose band of warriors.

Whether he was turned on by his own men, or whether the Romans simply overran their enemies after a period of famine, Radagasius eventually fled the battlefield and was captured at one of Stilicho’s outposts. On 23 August 406, the man who called himself King Radagasius was beheaded.† Many of his soldiers defected to the Roman army — joining a long line of conscripts from conquered people — and his supporting band was scattered or enslaved.

Like Alaric, Radagasius has sometimes been indicated as King of the Goths, but his history is a little more murky than that. Radagasius (or Rhodogast, or Radegast, depending on the source) issued from northern Germany before making his march. He had united several tribes under his banner, but he could hardly be said to rule any region. And because of the remoteness of Ostrogoth territories and the limited written history on the region, it’s difficult to assess his true nature.

* Stilicho was protector of the underage Honorius, who has been regarded as weak and incompetent. Honorius died in 423, long after Stilicho was murdered.

** Alaric and Stilicho may have been conspiring at this point: Stilicho again claimed to have been recalled from the battlefield, but, owing to their common heritage and their later connections in defense of the Empire, it’s thought that Stilicho was actively recruiting Alaric for military service in defense of Rome.

† “The death of the royal captive, who was ignominiously beheaded, disgraced the triumph of Rome and of Christianity,” sniffed Edward Gibbon.

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46 B.C.E.: Vercingetorix the Gaul

2 comments September 19th, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date around this time — sort of — in 46 B.C.E., the Gallic chief Vercingetorix was marched as Julius Caesar’s star captive in Rome, then strangled in prison.

A nobleman who in the course of things would have been destined for that class of domestic elites bought off by Rome for orderly management of conquered provinces, Vercingetorix instead mounted a massive and effective semi-guerrilla resistance. A few months after Caesar had declared “Mission Accomplished” and Gaul at peace, it rose in arms … and, as Vercingetorix rolled out a scorched-earth defense, in flames.

Julius Caesar, then serving a long and lucrative career as Governor of Gaul, managed only with difficulty — and staggering bloodshed — to pacify the province at the Battle of Alesia. It was a signal military engagement in the development of the Roman Empire, cementing Roman power in Gaul for centuries to come.

The wily barbarian’s revolt and the very serious danger it posed to Caesar’s ambitions are the subject of a five-part BBC documentary.

Vercingetorix’s allegedly theatrical surrender to Caesar essentially ended the Gauls stubborn, centuries-long resistance to Roman dominion.


Reddition de Vercingétorix à Alésia – Christophe Lambert
Uploaded by EvivaEuropa

Yes, that’s the Highlander, Christopher Lambert, playing the French Braveheart version of barbarian heroism in Druids. HBO’s series Rome went with a less romantic version:

Either way, the once-intractable province became the bastion from which Caesar would overthrow the foundering Roman Republic.

Political rivals in the capital for whom Caesar’s Gallic campaign was nothing to celebrate denied Caesar a ceremonial Triumph and maneuvered to check the ambitious general. When the conflict came to a head in 49 B.C.E., Caesar’s bold move from the provincial borders of Gaul into Italy — crossing the Rubicon — ignited civil war in Rome.

Vercingetorix languished in Roman chains all along, until Caesar finally mopped up his enemies in the field and returned to Rome, where he celebrated an extravagant quadruple Triumph for his various military achievements.

As described by Appian,

when he returned to Rome he had four triumphs together: one for his Gallic wars, in which he had added many great nations to the Roman sway and subdued others that had revolted; one for the Pontic war against Pharnaces;* one for the war in Africa against the African allies of L. Scipio, in which the historian Juba (the son of King Juba), then an infant, was led a captive. Between the Gallic and the Pontic triumphs he introduced a kind of Egyptian triumph, in which he led some captives taken in the naval engagement on the Nile.** Although he took care not to inscribe any Roman names in his triumph (as it would have been unseemly in his eyes and base and inauspicious in those of the Roman people to triumph over fellow-citizens), yet all these misfortunes were represented in the processions and the men also by various images and pictures, all except Pompey, whom alone he did not venture to exhibit, since he was still greatly regretted by all. The people, although restrained by fear, groaned over their domestic ills, especially when they saw the picture of Lucius Scipio, the general-in-chief, wounded in the breast by his own hand, casting himself into the sea, and Petreius committing self-destruction at the banquet, and Cato torn apart by himself like a wild beast. They applauded the death of Achillas and Pothinus, and laughed at the flight of Pharnaces.

It is said that money to the amount of 60,500 silver talents was borne in the procession and 2822 crowns of gold weighing 20,414 pounds, from which wealth Caesar made apportionments immediately after the triumph, paying the army all that he had promised and more. Each soldier received 5000 Attic drachmas, each centurion double, and each tribune of infantry and perfect of cavalry fourfold that sum. To each plebeian citizen also was given an Attic mina. He gave also various spectacles with horses and music, a combat of foot-soldiers, 1000 on each side, and a cavalry fight of 200 on each side. There was also another combat of horse and foot together. There was a combat of elephants, twenty against twenty, and a naval engagement of 4000 oarsmen, where 1000 fighting men contended on each side. He erected the temple to Venus, his ancestress, as he had vowed to do when he was about to begin the Battle of Pharsalus, and he laid out ground around the temple which he intended to be a forum for the Roman people, not for buying and selling, but a meeting-place for the transaction of public business, like the public squares of the Persians, where the people assemble to seek justice or to learn the laws. He placed a beautiful image of Cleopatra by the side of the goddess, which stands there to this day. He caused an enumeration of the people to be made, and it is said that it was found to be only one half of the number existing before this war.

War is hell.

At the Gallic triumph, Vercingetorix — by far the most fearsome enemy Caesar had to display vis-a-vis a five-year-old child and the sister of his lover — was at last the center of attention again for a day. Still defiant, he was marched through the Eternal City, then strangled at the Tullianum, or Mamertine Prison.

But which day? The bare fact is that we just don’t know, but this one has more than the typical imprecision that characterizes dating ancient events. This footnote on a page about Egyptian royalty grapples with the timing.

Suetonius gives us that his Triumphs were celebrated

four times in one month, each Triumph succeeding the former by an interval of a few days.

Since Cassius Dio claims that Caesar dedicated the Temple of Venus (datable to late September of 46) on the last day of the last Triumph, that presumably makes September the “one month” of the various celebrations.

That’s about as close as it gets, but even “September” comes with a caveat. During his few months in Rome between campaigns, Caesar accomplished a frenetic civil agenda (it helps to be dictator). Perhaps none is of such recognizable consequence for posterity as reform of the wacky solar-lunar hybrid Roman calendar — and 46 B.C.E. was the very year he implemented it.

Disdaining incrementalism, Caesar tackled the mess the Roman calendar had become at once, by stuffing the year 46 up to 445 days. As a result, 365 days after the execution of Vercingetorix was not September of 45, but July (or possibly June) — and those months are sometimes given for the dates of Caesar’s Triumphs on this basis. Since Caesar actually won his decisive battle in April of 46 B.C.E. and returned to Rome that July, the potential for confusion multiplies: if you’re not accounting for the exceptional calendar, July Triumphs appear initially plausible.

It is here that one beholds the essential subjectivity behind a putatively mechanistic device like a calendar: if Vercingetorix was executed in spring or summer, was he executed in September?

Whenever it was that he was throttled in the Mamertine, Vercingetorix did not go quietly. If his cause of resistance to Roman authority was doomed for the time being, the eternal allure of rebellion — and, as the Gallic lands later germinated France, the proto-nationalism of his cause — secured him his own symbolic immortality.


Napoleon III, with his complex relationship to the Gallic and Italic dreams of another age, was just the man to put up this statue of Vercingetorix where the barbarian was thought to have made his last stand. Its inscription reads:

La Gaule unie
Formant une seule nation
Animée d’un même esprit,
Peut défier l’Univers.

* The speedily resolved Pontic War gave us Caesar’s “veni, vidi, vici”.

** It was at the Egyptian triumph that Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe was marched, though she was not executed afterwards.

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408: Stilicho, whose execution let in the barbarians

3 comments August 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Sixteen hundred years ago today, the general whose talents were the last bulwark against barbarian conquest of the Western Roman Empire submitted for the sake of civil peace to execution at the hands of a callow boy-emperor.

The half-Vandal patrician Stilicho comes to the notice of posterity late in the reign of Theodosius the Great, the last Roman to rule both Eastern and Western Empires. At Theodosius’s death in 395, his two sons ascended the separate thrones.

Honorius, a 10-year-old child, took the purple in the west and somehow held it for 28 lackluster years that saw Rome’s long erosion finally set the realm on the slide into collapse.*

An apt commander, Stilicho had held Visigoth king Alaric at bay in two invasions of Italy (the crucial Battle of Pollentia stanched the first).


Stilicho and his wife Serena, with their child: two were executed, one was murdered.

Distrusted because of his part-barbarian parentage — and hated by the still-significant pagan community for burning the Sibylline Books — Stilicho’s service never made him popular. Because Alaric had escaped his battlefield defeats, it was whispered that Stilicho had connived with him … and Stilicho’s alliance of his legions with Alaric against other barbarians in Illyrium and Burgundy only heightened the suspicions.

We have little reliable basis to judge the possible truth of these accusations; the fundamental fact was that Rome no longer exercised its accustomed hegemony, and its principals needed to balance interests, cut deals and allocate scarce resources in ways that would have been unthinkable a century or two before.** The army itself was mostly barbarian; Alaric himself had once been a Roman officer.

In the story as related by Zosimus — a later Byzantine historian, a pagan famously abusive towards Christians and elsewhere critical of Stilicho, here softening his stance as he turns to savage his executioners — a wormtongued advisor got the ear of the still-youthful emperor and turned him against the general who was holding back the cataclysm.

Stilicho … was not conscious of any ill intention either against the emperor or the soldiers, [but] Olympius, a native of the vicinity of the Euxine sea, and an officer of rank in the court-guards, concealed under the disguise of the Christian religion the most atrocious designs in his heart. Being accustomed, because of his affected modesty and gentle demeanor, to converse frequently with the emperor, he used many bitter expressions against Stilicho, and stated that he was desirous to proceed into the east, from no other motive than to acquire an opportunity of … placing the empire in the hands of his own son, Eucherius. … Olympius, accustoming himself to visit the sick soldiers, which was the master-piece of his hypocrisy, dispersed among them, likewise, similar insinuations. … they were excited almost to madness … then dispersing themselves about the city, killed as many of the magistrates as they could lay hands on, tearing them out of the houses into which they had fled, and plundered all the town. … The tumult continued till late in the night, and the emperor fearing lest any violence should be committed against his own person also, for which reason he withdrew. … There likewise perished so great a number of promiscuous persons as is beyond all computation.

When intelligence of this reached Stilicho, who was then at Bononia, he was extremely disturbed by it. Summoning, therefore, all the commanders of his confederate Barbarians, who were with him, he proposed a consultation relative to what measures it would be most prudent to adopt. It was agreed with common consent, that if the emperor were killed, which was yet doubtful, all the confederated Barbarians should join together, and fall at once on the Roman soldiers, and by that means afford a warning to all others to use greater moderation and submissiveness. But if the emperor were safe, although the magistrates were cut off, the authors of the tumult were to be brought to condign punishment. Such was the result of the consultation held by Stilicho with his Barbarians. When they knew that no indignity had been offered to the person of the emperor, Stilicho resolved to proceed no further in punishing or correcting the soldiers, but to return to Ravenna. For he reflected both on the number of the soldiers, and that the emperor was not steadfastly his friend. Nor did he think it either honourable or safe to incite Barbarians against the Roman army.

It came to a bad end, Stilicho nobly refusing the prospect of his allies upholding his cause by arms:

Stilicho being therefore filled with anxiety concerning these circumstances, the Barbarians who were with him were very desirous of putting in force their former resolutions, and therefore endeavoured to dissuade him from the measures which he afterwards thought proper to be adopted. But being unable to prevail with him, they all determined to remain in some place until they should be better apprized of the emperor’s sentiments towards Stilicho, … In the meantime Olympius, who was now become master of the emperor’s inclination, sent the imperial mandate to the soldiers at Ravenna, ordering them immediately to apprehend Stilicho, and to detain him in prison without fetters. When Stilicho heard this, he took refuge in a Christian church that was near, while it was night. His Barbarians and his other familiars, who, with his servants, were all armed, upon seeing this expected what would ensue. When day appeared, the soldiers, entering the church, swore before the bishop that they were commanded by the emperor not to kill Stilicho, but to keep him in custody. Being brought out of the church, and in the custody of the soldiers, other letters were delivered by the person who brought the first, in which the punishment of death was denounced against Stilicho, for his crimes against the commonwealth. Thus, while Eucherius, his son, fled towards Rome, Stilicho was led to execution. The Barbarians who attended him, with his servants and other friends and relations, of whom there was a vast number, preparing and resolving to rescue him from the stroke, Stilicho deterred them from the attempt by all imaginable menaces, and calmly submitted his neck to the sword. He was the most moderate and just of all the men who possessed great authority in his time. … he never conferred military rank for money, or coverted the stipend of the soldiers to his own use. … In order that no studious person, or astrologers, may be ignorant of the time of his death, I shall relate that it happened in the consulship of Bassus and Philippus, during which the emperor Arcadius submitted to fate, on the twenty-second day of August.

This date is the end of the line for Stilicho, but hardly the end of the troubles that laid him low. A spasm of mob violence against barbarians on the peninsula ensued; the executed general’s son was among those murdered. Teutons, many of them Roman soldiers, in turn flocked to the banner of Alaric, who promptly swarmed into the enfeebled Italian lands and for the first time in 800 years sacked Rome.

Romans knew just who to blame: Stilicho’s widow, who was herself executed at the order of the Senate. In Gibbon’s relating:

The first emotions of the nobles, and of the people, were those of surprise and indignation, that a vile Barbarian should dare to insult the capital of the world: but their arrogance was soon humbled by misfortune; and their unmanly rage, instead of being directed against an enemy in arms, was meanly exercised on a defenceless and innocent victim. Perhaps in the person of Serena, the Romans might have respected the niece of Theodosius, the aunt, nay, even the adoptive mother, of the reigning emperor: but they abhorred the widow of Stilicho; and they listened with credulous passion to the tale of calumny, which accused her of maintaining a secret and criminal correspondence with the Gothic invader. Actuated, or overawed, by the same popular frenzy, the senate, without requiring any evidence of his guilt, pronounced the sentence of her death. Serena was ignominiously strangled; and the infatuated multitude were astonished to find, that this cruel act of injustice did not immediately produce the retreat of the Barbarians, and the deliverance of the city. That unfortunate city gradually experienced the distress of scarcity, and at length the horrid calamities of famine.

Alaric made out quite a lot better.

* Such, at least, is the conventional assessment of Honorius. For a take friendlier to the emperor (and less so to Stilicho), see here.

** Stilicho, incidentally, called home the second-last legion of Roman troops from Britain for use closer to home, and the island’s remaining Roman presence was cut off by barbarian incursions into Gaul during his lifetime … setting that island on its independent way (into, if you like, the Arthurian age); Honorius would later answer a plea for help from those lands with a note to the effect of, “good luck on your own.”

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472: Anthemius, twilight emperor of Rome

1 comment July 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 472, one of the last “twilight emperors” of the western Roman Empire — and the last of any conspicuous ability — was beheaded by his rebellious general Ricimer.

Here in Rome’s dying days, the dangerous, centuries-old game for the purple was played with the twist of political triangulation with barbarian kings who had set up permanent shop within the old empire’s borders.

Maybe it was his closet paganism, or his Greek patrician breeding, or the way he slung his toga — whatever it was, Anthemius didn’t have the knack for winning them over.

Born and reared in Constantinople, Anthemius was being groomed for succession in the relatively less treacherous eastern empire when his royal patron (and father-in-law) suddenly got gangrene and died.

The Alan commander who held military power in the east wasn’t into Anthemius, so he got the Al Gore treatment and Leo I got the laurels. Interestingly, although barbarian tribes were establishing themselves as the power behind the throne — and this was even more true in the west — they were not yet prepared to assert the imperial majesty in their own names. That last feeble cultural bulwark, however, would not hold out much longer.

Leo “rewarded” Anthemius for taking it all in stride by appointing him emperor of the perilous west. (He also rewarded the kingmaking barbarian chieftain by having him murdered. “Leo the Butcher,” he’s called.)

That pissed off legendary Vandal king Genseric (or Gaiseric, or Geiseric), who had sacked Rome in 455 and settled into a long career lucratively plundering the Mediterranean. And with good reason: Leo’s idea was for the two emperors jump Genseric.

Now, before this time Leo had already appointed and sent Anthemius as emperor of the west, a man of the senate of great wealth and high birth, in order that he might assist him in the Vandalic war. And yet Gaiseric kept asking and earnestly entreating that the imperial power be given to Olybrius, who was married to Placidia, the daughter of Valentinian, and on account of his relationship well-disposed toward him, and when he failed in this he was still more angry and kept plundering the whole land of the emperor. (Procopius)

That war was a debacle and left Genseric merrily raiding Italy, but Anthemius’ real problem was domestic: his new realm had its own Germanic commander who also preferred to pick his own emperors, and he took an instant dislike to the foreign ponce. Anthemius and Ricimer managed a brief detente, during which the new guy tried to take Gaul back from the Visigoths (no dice), but the two fell to fighting in 472. After a brief siege, Ricimer overran Rome and set up in Anthemius’ place that Genseric-favored Olybrius (who would last all of 39 days).

Anthemius took refuge in one of Rome’s churches — either St. Peter’s or Santa Maria in Trastevere — where he was betrayed, and beheaded by (naturally) Ricimer’s Burgundian nephew.

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