Ancient History & Civilisation

Stilicho and Alaric

The death of Theodosius left his two sons, the eighteen-year-old Arcadius and the ten-year-old Honorius, as reigning Augusti in Constantinople and Milan respectively (Map 3.3). Thus the political stage was set for other big players to assume the roles which were beyond the capabilities of the youthful emperors. The most powerful figure in the western empire was the general Flavius Stilicho, who had been magister peditum (master of the infantry) at the western court since 391 (Plate 3.5). He had already been marked out for prominence by his marriage in 384 to the emperor's niece Serena, and Ambrose's commemorative oration for Theodosius, a work that had been commissioned by Stilicho, implies that he had been entrusted with the care both of the dying emperor's sons and with the empire itself.79 The year 395 is sometimes seen as the moment when the eastern and western empires parted ways. However, this will not have been apparent to contemporaries, who were aware that this was a division of responsibilities precisely as favored by Valentinian and Valens in 364. In this case, however, the driving political force came not from the youthful rulers but from the men who dominated their courts and controlled their armies.


Map 3.3    The administrative dioceses of the empire in 395


Plate 3.5    Ivory Diptych of Stilicho, Serena and Eucherius (Monza cathedral) (© 2013 White Images/Scala, Florence)

Stilicho's dominance is to be explained both by the youth of Honorius and by the fact that there was no secure ruling caste in the western part of the empire. In the East there had been more continuity. By 395 Arcadius was almost of an age to rule in his own right, and had grown up in the court that had served Theodosius. The leading figure in 395 was the praetorian prefect Rufinus, but during the same year he was murdered in a political coup. Now the most influential figure in Arcadius' court was the eunuch Eutropius, who had arranged the emperor's marriage to Eudoxia, the daughter of the Frankish general Bauto, who may have been the father of the western warlord Arbogast.

Between East and West a new force had to be taken into the equation. The large band of Gothic warriors that had turned the battle of the Frigidus in favor of Theodosius had suffered enormous casualties, but failed to gain the material rewards that they demanded for their loyalty: gold, grain, and land for settlement. Alaric, now aged in his mid-twenties and married to a sister of the Gothic leader Athaulph, emerged as a major leader after the battle. He had already commanded a Gothic band that had tried to prevent Theodosius passing through Thrace on his return from the West to Constantinople in 391 (Zosimus 4.45, 48). Zosimus reports that he had expected to be rewarded with a command for himself as magister militum (Zosimus 5.5.4). After causing mayhem in Thrace and Macedonia, Alaric now took his Goths east to Constantinople and appears to have struck a deal with Rufinus. In 395–6 Alaric and his men invaded Greece. Athens was ransacked, although a pagan legend, told by Zosimus, implied that the Goths were deterred from attacking the city by visions on the city walls of the goddess Athena and Achilles (Zosimus 5.6.1). The invasion of Greece could be interpreted as a maneuver to forestall Stilicho's advance eastward, or even be a response to moves that Stilicho had already made.80Stilicho came to the aid of the Peloponnesians but allowed the Goths to cross over to Epirus, which they occupied.

The rise of Alaric and his followers between 395 and 410 led to the collapse of an important internal frontier, dividing the eastern from the western empire. The Goths were now able to move within the whole of Illyricum from Aquileia and the Julian Alps to Thrace, thus creating a third force in the struggle between East and West. The wider context and purpose of Alaric's activities from this time until the fall of Rome in 410 are hard to clarify, due to the inadequacies of Zosimus' narrative and the partisanship of the only contemporary source, Claudian. Apart from many uncertainties of detail, there is a major issue. Was Alaric the leader of a national movement, the rallying point for the Goths, who had originally settled in Lower Moesia after the battle of Adrianople, and were now in search of more land and better living conditions? Or was he the leader of a substantial group of foederati, fighting in Rome's service, but potentially biddable by the rival rulers of the eastern and western empire, and out for the best terms and conditions that he could obtain for his followers? There is a parallel to be drawn between Alaric's position, and that of the rival Gothic bands led by Theoderic the Amal and Theoderic Strabo in relation to the eastern empire in the 470s and 480s. At both periods, Gothic self-definition, as an independent ethnos or as Roman federate allies, was surely fluid, and must have depended both on the particular circumstances in which they found themselves and on the perspective of the observers of their position. Alaric's followers seem to have been unable to feed themselves from their own produce, and were always dependent on provisions supplied by the Roman authorities. This implies that they possessed no land and argues against the hypothesis that they should be identified with the Goths who had settled after Adrianople in eastern Moesia.81

From 397 to 405 the only narrative source, Zosimus, says nothing about Alaric. Claudian, the court poet and panegyricist, indicates that he was made general in command of cavalry and infantry (magister utriusque militiae) by the eastern administration in 399.82The significance of this position was that Alaric could now legitimately acquire the supplies needed to support his own men through the Roman provisioning system. When the eastern government stopped their supplies in 401 (Jordanes, Get. 146), Alaric and his men moved into northern Italy, where they were held at bay by Stilicho at the battles of Pollentia and Verona during the spring and summer of 402. Stilicho now changed his tactics and began to use the Goths as allies in his aim to secure Illyricum for the western empire. Alaric received the insignia of magister utriusque militiae for Illyricum not from Arcadius but from the western court. The Goths initially occupied territory on the boundary of Dalmatia and Pannonia, but moved back to their former possessions in Epirus, from which they threatened Thessalonica.83

Stilicho's plans to recover Illyricum with Alaric's help were interrupted in 405/6 by an invasion across the Rhine and the Danube of another Gothic chieftain Radagaisus, at the head of an army of Gauls and Germans, said to number 400,000 men. Stilicho, aided by Alans and Huns as well as thirty regiments of the Roman field army, forced Radagaisus to surrender near Ticinum in Liguria. Many of the barbarians were enslaved, depressing slave prices in Italy, while as many as twelve thousand warriors were enlisted in Roman forces.84 The inhabitants of Italy and Rome in particular expressed their relief at being saved from this new barbarian invasion. A triumphal arch was dedicated by the Senate and people of Rome, and the prafectus urbi, Pisidius Romulus, erected statues to honor the emperors and Stilicho himself, by whose counsels and fortitude the city had been saved.85 Stilicho returned in triumph to Ravenna where he received news from Honorius that the western provinces, including Britain, had rebelled under the leadership of a usurper, Constantine III (Zosimus 5.26–7).

The forces of the western empire, which had been unable to prevent the attack of Radagaisus, were also powerless to stop large numbers of barbarians, including Vandals, Suebi, and Pannonians, from crossing the Rhine in late 406 and early 407.86 Insecurity inevitably led to usurpations. Three uprisings are attested between 406 and 408, headed respectively by Marcus, Gratianus, and finally Flavius Claudius Constantinus. The last of these managed to recover some control of the Rhine frontier and northern Gaul, where the cities of Mainz, Worms, Reims, and Trier had been overrun, and established his residence in Provence at Arles (Zosimus 6.5).

Meanwhile Alaric and his men gave up waiting in Epirus for Stilicho to support their efforts to take control of Illyricum. They returned westwards, attacking northeastern Italy and the province of Noricum, and threatened Stilicho with further incursions if he did not pay the money which had been promised to them during their stay in Epirus. Stilicho consulted the emperor Honorius and the Senate in Rome. The majority of senators voted to attack Alaric, but Stilicho cowed them into honoring their agreement with Gothic leader. His arguments, as reported by Olympiodorus, the source of Zosimus, revealed the role which Alaric had been set up to play:

Alaric had stayed so long in Epirus by arrangement with Honorius, in order to make war on Arcadius and detach Illyricum from the East and add it to the West. This would already have been done if letters from the emperor Honorius had not arrived to prevent his march to the East, in expectation of which Alaric had spent so much time there. (Zosimus 5.29.7–8, trans. Ridley)

The sum required was enormous; 4,000 pounds of gold, to be raised from the wealth of the senatorial class at Rome. Quoting Cicero, Lampadius, one of the senators and perhaps identical with the praefectus urbi of 398, observed that such a gesture bought not peace but servitude.

In the spring of 408 news came of the death of the eastern emperor Arcadius. This provoked a dispute between Stilicho and Honorius, both of whom wanted to travel to Constantinople to take control of the succession. Stilicho prevailed, and arranged for Honorius to go west to Gaul to deal with Constantine III, while he and Alaric fulfilled their former ambitions in the East. However, opposition was led by a court official, Olympius, who alleged that Stilicho's real ambition was to set up his own son Eucherius to succeed Arcadius. A violent mutiny broke out at Ticinum among the troops assembled to begin the campaign against Constantine. In an atmosphere of tense uncertainty there was increasing polarization between Roman and barbarian troops. Stilicho decided to treat with Honorius at Ravenna, but was seized and killed by the emperor's guards (Zosimus 5.34). Soldiers loyal to Honorius thereupon perpetrated a massacre of thousands of barbarians who were quartered in Italy, including women and children. Up to thirty thousand of the survivors sought protection and redress by joining Alaric (Zosimus 5.35).

Alaric now had to deal directly with Honorius. He initially made modest financial demands and requested permission to move his army from Noricum into Pannonia, where they would presumably have settled. Honorius, advised by Olympius, his magister officiorum, refused cooperation, and Alaric resolved to march on Rome, bypassing Honorius who was holed up in Ravenna. Through the autumn of 408 Alaric besieged the city of Rome. Serena, Stilicho's widow, was put to death on suspicion that she was ready to betray the city to Alaric. Hunger gripped the inhabitants, and pagan priests even negotiated with Innocentius, bishop of the city, about reviving the old cults in the hope of securing divine protection. Negotiating under duress, the besieged agreed to pay a prodigious quantity of gold, silver, and other precious goods to the Goths to relieve the blockade, and an embassy was sent to Honorius to persuade him to make a peace with Alaric, who would henceforth fight in defense of the Roman Empire. Honorius was again dissuaded from making an agreement by Olympius, who was implacably hostile to any plan that seemed to revive Stilicho's policy of working with Alaric. Instead five legions were summoned from Dalmatia to protect Rome in future. Their commander, Valens, imprudently engaged Alaric in open warfare and lost his whole force.

During 409 abortive peace negotiations were carried out between Iovius, Honorius' praetorian prefect, and Alaric. The latter scaled down his demands to the point that he renounced his claims for an office for himself, and indicated that he would be satisfied with land in the two Norican provinces, which lay exposed to the Danubian frontier and paid little tax to the treasury. He would take any grain that could be made available to his hungry people and dropped his demands for gold. On these modest terms there could be friendship between his people and the Romans. Iovius rejected even these conditions on the grounds that all those who had taken office from Honorius since the fall of Stilicho had sworn an oath never to make peace with Alaric (Zosimus 5.48–51).

Alaric resumed the blockade of Rome, seized the harbor at Ostia, and cut off the food supply from Africa. The Senate at this point, as they had done in 408, yielded to his demands.87 These included the appointment by Alaric of Priscus Attalus, Honorius' praetorian prefect, to be emperor at Rome. Attalus in turn gave Alaric the military command that he had asked for, the post of magister utriusque militiae. Alaric now besieged Honorius in Ravenna, while Attalus was expected to secure the province of Africa. When the new emperor failed to fulfill his half of the bargain, Alaric stripped him of his position in summer 410.88 Negotiations were resumed with Honorius, but a renegade Gothic force, led by Sarus, attacked Alaric and led him to abandon his diplomacy and turn on Rome (Zosimus 6.13). The city was captured by assault on August 24, 410, and given over for three days for the Gothic forces to plunder.

Jerome wrote that his morale was broken and he could no longer dictate for weeping, now that the city of Rome, which once had conquered the entire world, was captured (Jerome, ep. 127, 12). Although the episode was to resonate in the contemporary imagination, it offered no solution to Alaric's predicament. After a mere three days, during which the population took refuge in the city's churches and were in large part spared by the Goths, who were themselves Christian, he marched his men south to Campania, but was prevented by a storm which wrecked his fleet from crossing to Sicily, where he hoped no doubt to obtain grain, other supplies, and perhaps land. Returning northwards through Italy he fell ill and died at Consentia in Bruttium in the early months of 411.

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