"Wheresoever Stilicho plants his tent there is my fatherland." - The Death of a Commander-in-Chief of the Western Roman Army
22 August 408, the commander-in-chief of the Western Roman army, the Vandal Flavius Stilicho, was executed for high treason on behalf of Emperor Honorius in Ravenna.
“We are a body one and indivisible. Thee will we follow whithersoever thou goest; thee will we accompany even as far as Thule lying icebound beneath the pole-star, or to the burning sands of Libya. Should thy path be by the waters of Ind, or the bays of the Red Sea, I would go drink Hydaspes' golden stream. Shouldst thou bid me fare south and search out the hidden sources of the stripling Nile, I would leave behind me the world we know. Wheresoever Stilicho plants his tent there is my fatherland." (Claudian, “Against Rufinus”)
Stilicho with his wife Serena and his son Eucherius. Copy of an ivory carving. The original dyptich was created circa 395.
When Stilicho was appointed by Emperor Theodosius with the role of “magister utriusquae militae” (lit: “master of both forces”, foot and cavalry), the highest military post the Western Roman army had to offer, the 30 years old son of a Vandal officer in the Eastern army and a Roman noblewoman already had carved out an impressive military career. Theodosius' decision to make a semi-barbarian the de facto regent of the West was by no means unusual as well. Several generals of Germanic origin, mostly Franks, already had played the role of being the power behind the throne in Rome, Milan and Ravenna, while sub-empires popped up in Gaul and other regions on a regular basis, and anti-emperors, likewise staffed with high-ranking and influential Frankish officers, tried their luck against the so-called “senior Augustus” residing in Constantinople.
|Jean-Paul Laurens (1838 -1921): "The Byzantine Emperor Honorius" (1880)|
Thus, married to Theodosius’ favourite niece Serena and guardian of his ten-years-old son Honorius, the designated Emperor of the West, Stilicho found himself in quite a predicament, when his old master suddenly died. The whole European part of the Roman Empire from Solway to the mouth of the Danube groaned under the onslaught of the Migration Period and the rivalry between the Western and Eastern part of Rome flamed up on top of it. Stilicho acted in a way that he thought best to preserve the empire without assuming the title of emperor. He claimed guardianship over the underaged Eastern Emperor Arcadius as well, rebuffed the mighty political machinery in Constantinople and begun to fight, more often than not, Alaric, the leader of Rome’s former Visigothic foederati, defeating him in several hard fought battles without being able to capture him. A fact that aroused the suspicion of Stilicho being secretly in league with Alaric to further destabilise the empire.
Stilicho’s decisive victory at Faesulae near Florence over the Ostrogothic-Hunnic alliance who invaded Italy in the Summer of 406 allowed his ward Emperor Honorius to celebrate one of the last triumphs ever held in Rome and the young potentate, married subsequently to one of Stilicho’s two daughters, saw his chance to get rid of his mighty commander-in-chief and father-in-law. Especially since Stilicho had alienated the non-Christian elite of the City of Rome by melting down statues of deities to finance the army and allegedly ordered the old Sibylline Books to be burned, a collection of 1,000 years old oracles that were often consulted in times of trouble during the time of the old Roman republic and then in the latter days of the Empire, after the senators tried to interfere with his military conduct on the base of Greek hexameters. When Alaric prepared to strike at Rome again two years later and Honorius, now “senior Augustus” at the age of 24, tried to embark for Constantinople to assume guardianship over his young nephew Theodosius II, Stilicho more or less ordered his son-in-law to remain in the West to help him counter the new threat – and Honorius decided he’d had it. Seizing upon the old accusation, fueled by continuous Eastern Roman machinations, that Stilicho and Alaric, were secret allies and in fear that the mighty magister militum finally was about to make a final grab for the imperial purple, Honorius had Stilicho arrested and executed on the same day in Ravenna, followed by a pogrom against Germanic foederati and their allies in Italy.
Alaric could be moved to withdraw from Italy with the payment of an immense ransom, while Serena, Stilicho’s wife, was executed for being in league with the Visigothic King as well. Allegedly, the Roman senators never forgave her that she took a necklace from the statue of the goddess Rhea Silvia, mother of Romulus and Remus, and put in on herself in a Heliodoric act in Rhea’s temple in Rome. The last Vestal Virgil cursed Serena and her whole family. Stilicho’s only son Eucherius, a potential rival of his cousin Honorius, was executed as well and his last daughter Thermantia, Honorius’ wife, was just divorced, since she was positively not allied with Alaric, and died in a nunnery seven years later. Without a Stilicho to defend the Western Empire, Alaric returned a year later and sacked Rome on August 24, 410.
* image found on their website http://www.durolitum.co.uk/fifth.html
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