Stilicho’s Wars with the Visigoths (390-408 C. E.)


Stilicho recalled one of the two British legions to assist with the defense of Italy against Alaric and the Visigoths. The recalled legion, known as the Sixth Victrix, was said by Claudian (in “De Bello Gallico,” 416) to be “that legion which is stretched before the remoter Britons, which curbs the Scot, and gazes on the tattoo-marks on the pale face of the dying Pict.” The barbarians were defeated, this time, at battle of Pollentia.


Honorius, Emperor in the West (395-423)

The Visigoths broke a peace established in 381 by Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius I (346?-395), by allying with Huns to devastate Thrace in 390. This action brought confrontation with the Roman general Flavius Stilicho (359?- 408), a former Vandal who understood barbarian strategies. By 392, the Romans had suppressed Visigothic raiding. With the death of Theodosius and the elevation of Alaric (370?-410) as the Visigoths’ king, raiding resumed in the southern and western Balkans. Greece suffered the destruction of the Temple of Demeter (396); of the northern cities, only Thebes held out. Stilicho, whose troops failed to win in Thessaly, was briefly transferred to Italy. He returned to Greece in 397 and blockaded the Visigoths in Arcadia, but his strategy was undercut because he was again sent to Italy to punish the African Moors’ refusal to ship grain to Rome. Some Visigoths then devastated Epirus until Alaric, placated by bribes, made peace in 397; he was made magister militum of Illyricum (Croatia) and gained Epirus, an unfortunate reward, for he could now harass the Western Roman Empire. With a Gothic leader, Radagaisus (d. 405), Alaric formed a Danubian confederation, including Vandals and Alans. By 401, northern Italy, especially Milan, was under attack. Stilicho’s forces drove the confederation armies westward and then defeated them in a bloody battle at Pollentia (Polenza) in northern Italy in 402, capturing Alaric’s wife and family and forcing Alaric back to Illyricum. Within a year, he was back besieging Verona. Stilicho’s forces could have massacred the Visigoths; however, Stilicho, who desired Rome’s eastern throne, developed a treaty (403) aiming at an invasion of this younger empire. It failed because Radagaisus went instead to Italy, losing to Stilicho at Fiesole in 405. Alaric took over the Goths’ base in Noricum (southern Austria), demanded a huge payment for Gothic service to Rome, and received it in 407. A mutiny among Stilicho’s troops brought an allegation of treason, a trial, and Stilicho’s execution in 408. Freed of effective opposition, Alaric began to threaten Rome itself.

Stilicho, Flavius (d. 408 C. E.)

Magister militum in the West from 394 to 408 and one of the major political figures in the later years of the Roman Empire.

Stilicho was the son of a VANDAL cavalry officer and a Roman lady. Probably through the influence of his father he was chosen in 383 to serve as part of a diplomatic mission to PERSIA. Upon his return (c. 394) he was married to Serena, Emperor THEODOSIUS I’s niece, and given the rank of COMES, or count. From 385 to 392 he was comes domesticorum, accompanying the emperor on his campaign against Magnus Maximus while amassing influence and power in the court. Made MAGISTER MILITUM in THRACE (c. 392), he was a general during the war against Eugenius. After the battle of FRIGIDUS (394), Theodosius declared him magister militum in the West.

Stilicho now possessed virtually unlimited power, increasing his control by centralizing the bureaucracy of the Western provinces, making them answerable to him alone. Thus, when Theodosius named Stilicho as guardian of the young Honorius, he was ready to go beyond the letter of the emperor’s aims, especially after Theodosius died in 395. De facto ruler of the West and master of the Eastern armies, Stilicho pronounced himself guardian of both emperors HONORIUS and ARCADIUS. Marching into Greece he was ready to annihilate ALARIC and the VISIGOTHS but received orders to desist from Praetorian Prefect RUFINUS, whom Stilicho subsequently had murdered.

The removal of Rufinus did nothing to end the hatred of Stilicho in both the Eastern and Western courts. In 397, Arcadius declared him a public enemy, and the magister militum in AFRICA, Gildo, revolted. Neither event could loosen his hold on the Western Empire, for he was CONSUL in 400. The following year Alaric invaded Italy, only to be beaten by Stilicho at the battle of POLLENTIA. Consul again in 405, the general took to the field once more, this time against Radagaisus, routing the barbarian king in 406. Deciding to use Alaric as an ally, he elevated the Visigoth to the rank of magister militum as part of a plan to take ILLYRICUM. His strategy was ruined by the emergence of the usurper CONSTANTIUS III in Gaul. Not only did he have to face a dangerous usurper, but also Alaric suddenly demanded compensation of 4,000 pounds of gold. Stilicho convinced the SENATE to oblige.

Fortune turned against Stilicho even more in 408. Arcadius died, and Stilicho convinced Honorius to allow him to settle affairs at Constantinople. Already weakened by Alaric’s extortion, Stilicho was accused by members of the court of plotting to put his son on the throne. When the troops in Gaul mutinied, murdering their own officers, Stilicho was arrested by Honorius. After hiding briefly in a church, he was executed on August 22, 408.

Many accounts were very hostile to Stilicho, most notably that of the historian EUNAPIUS. He was, nevertheless, an accomplished general who proved skillful in defeating the hordes then threatening the empire and in dealing with them by negotiation and diplomacy. A vehement Christian, he helped destroy PAGANISM both through laws and with the burning of the SIBYLLINE BOOKS.

Visigothic Sack of Rome, (410 C. E.)

In 408, the Visigoth’s demands upon Rome for tribute and Pannonia (Roman province south and west of the Danube) were rejected by the government in Ravenna; Alaric (370?-410), the Visigothic king, blockaded Rome, gained a sizable ransom, and then withdrew to Tuscany to fight Roman armies. When Roman officials at Ravenna refused to meet Alaric’s new demands, the Visigoths seized Rome’s port city of Ostia in 409; Alaric forced the Roman Senate to elect a puppet emperor, who named him commander in chief. Alaric then besieged Ravenna but withdrew when 4,000 relief soldiers arrived from Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (Ravenna was the capital of the West). A truce followed; the puppet emperor was deposed, but an attack on Alaric’s camp by the Romans broke the truce (410). Determined to sack Rome and then take the Visigoths to North Africa, Alaric invaded northern Italy from Illyricum (Roman colony along the Adriatic’s east coast) and besieged Rome. The city suffered starvation; the Roman Senate agreed to more tribute for Alaric, but Ravenna overruled its vote. Three weeks later, the city’s Salarian Gate was opened by treachery; Visigoths and Roman slaves then destroyed Rome, sparing only the churches. Many died, while others were held for ransom or enslaved. Loaded with loot, the Visigoths marched south.


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