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.”
On this day..
- 1946: Döme Sztójay, former Prime Minister - 2020
- 1651: Christopher Love - 2019
- 1936: Melquiades Alvarez, a liberal in a revolutionary time - 2018
- 1831: Edward Hogsden, rapist father - 2017
- 1972: The Trelew Massacre - 2016
- 1572: Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland and rebel - 2015
- 1879: Joseph Davidenko, Sergei Chubarov, and Dmitri Lizogoub - 2014
- 1814: John Ashton, Lord Wellington, at Horace Cotton's first hanging - 2013
- 1700: The Rev. Thomas Hunter, M.A. - 2012
- 1851: Two men hanged and one lynched in Sacramento - 2011
- 1679: St. John Kemble, 80-year-old priest - 2010
- 1468: Charles de Melun, governor of Paris - 2009