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Alaric the Visigoth and Stilicho the Master General

Alaric and Stilicho were both close friends and bitter adversaries in the years before the sack of Rome c. AD 395 - 410

This portrait of Stilicho on one panel of an ivory diptych conveys an image of a tall, powerful man who had to bend his body just to lean on his shield. Contemporary sources tell us that he was an excellent swordsman and rider as well as a general.

Flavius Stilicho was one of the most powerful men in the Roman Empire during the reigns of Theodosius I and Honorius. Alaric was a great leader and symbol of national pride to the Visigothic nation. To the Romans, the name Alaric meant only fear for their safety and the realization that their own world was crumbling about them. The story of Stilicho's military career and his ongoing struggle with the Visigothic leader Alaric for control of much of the western empire is one of the most captivating sagas of the late Roman period. Much dramatic fiction has been written about the events of these periods. Uncovering the truth about these events has been an ongoing enigma for historians throughout the past fifteen centuries. The fact that one of the most gifted literary minds of all time, the poet Claudian, utilized his talents to glorify his patrons and totally vilify their opponents does not help the cause of historical truth, but it surely magnifies the appeal of juicy gossip that makes this period one of the more interesting nooks and crannies of history.

During the late Third Century A. D., trouble with the Visigoths and Ostrogoths began to seriously threaten the Roman Empire. In A. D. 378, the combined forces under Fritigern totally defeated Emperor Valens and his army at Adrianople, killing Valens himself in the battle. When Theodosius I became emperor in 379, he could only resolve this dangerous situation by offering a treaty to the Goths. Part of the reason for their revolt was that they had been betrayed by the Roman government officials?not honoring their previous treaty with Valens. Theodosius granted them land on which to settle and employed great numbers of them in the Roman army.

To build up a corps of experienced, capable officers, Theodosius established a military academy or school for officers. Promising young men from all over the empire were recruited to be trained in the arts of war and strategy. These would become the finest fighting men in the world at a time when the Roman empire most desperately needed their services. Alaric, a young Visigoth of the Balthi, a Royal family amongst the Goths, was one especially promising student at the officers' school who would do much in the service of Rome. Later, out of frustration and not a little greed, Alaric would turn his hand against the empire he had served and revered.

Stilicho first came to prominence when Theodosius asked him to handle some difficult negotiations with the Persian Empire. He was promoted to the office of MAGISTER EQVITVM (Master of Cavalry) and later to the supreme command of all the Western armies (MAGISTER UTRUISQUE MILITVM). Giving one man such wide-ranging powers might seem to be a dangerous step back towards the old praetorian prefects of the Third Century who regularly made and murdered emperors, but Theodosius was a strong ruler who could manage a powerful subordinate like Stilicho.

During the Battle of the River Frigidus, Alaric led a detachment of Theodosius?army under orders from Stilicho on a particularly dangerous mission down a hot, dry, waterless canyon with enemy soldiers well hidden on the cliffs above picking off his troops. After the battle, Alaric felt that this part of the battle plan was devised to expend most of the Gothic troops in the place of regular Roman army units. Though Alaric remained loyal until Theodosius died early next year, Alaric always felt that his sacrifice for the Roman empire on that day was not adequately appreciated and that he deserved promotion to a higher military rank or government position. Nevertheless, a close bond of friendship had formed between the Visigoth Alaric and Stilicho as often happens to men who have served together in combat.

After Theodosius' death, Alaric decided to take his troops into Thrace, raiding and pillaging towns and the villas of wealthy landowners. It seems puzzling that Alaric would so quickly betray the empire he had just so recently sacrificed his troops for, but it is believed that Alaric was put up to this by Rufinus, Arcadius' corrupt praetorian prefect. Arcadius was the Eastern Roman emperor in A. D. 395, after Theodosius?death. Evidently Refines was jealous of Stilicho’s power and tried to convince Arcadius that Stilicho wanted to steal some territory from him. Stilicho had his revenge on Rufinus later that year when he had some troops he was returning to the East murder Rufinus before the gates of Constantinople.

Stilicho responded to Alaric's raiding by going after him with an army. Alaric, however, slipped across the frontier into Arcadius' half of the empire. Stilicho went after him and had him effectively trapped, but Alaric escaped Stilicho's grasp when Arcadius ordered Stilicho to leave Eastern territory with his army. Stilicho meekly obeyed because he respected and worked to preserve the imperial system during these troublesome times. The Visigoths continued down the Peloponnesian Peninsula, sacking cities as they went. Athens managed to ransom herself from the devastation, but Megara, Corinth, Sparta, and many other Greek cities of great antiquity experienced Alaric's wrath and rapine. In the meantime, Stilicho was inspecting the defenses on the Rhine frontier. Stilicho returned and again went after Alaric, this time crossing the Adriatic and cornering him in the frozen wasteland between the mountains and the Gulf of Corinth. It is not exactly clear what happened next, but Alaric again escaped annihilation. According to Zosimus, he escaped across the Gulf of Corinth, which had frozen due to a terribly cold Winter that year. Arcadius again ordered Stilicho to remove his legions from the East. Alaric broke off his raids after he was given the post of MAGISTER MILITVM PER ILLYRICVM (Master General of Illyricum) and a place in which to settle his followers. By this time, it was hard to determine whether the men that followed Alaric were Roman allied troops following a Roman officer or independent Gothic troops following their king.

In 397, Stilicho had to deal with a dangerous revolt in North Africa by the nobleman Gildo, Count of Africa. He made short work of this upstart who thought to control and interrupt Rome’s grain supply. Stilicho landed veteran troops on the coast before Gildo knew what was upon him. The unfortunate Count Gildo committed suicide when it was clear he would not escape capture. An interesting story is told concerning Gildo’s brother Mascezel. Mascezel had helped Stilicho against Gildo and had shown himself to be quite an effective general. After the victory, Mascezel was crossing a bridge on horseback with Stilicho and some Roman troops. Mascezel’s horse bolted and threw him into the river. Stilicho is reported to have laughed and refused to allow anyone to rescue his ally. Historians have speculated that Stilicho was jealous of Mascezel's new popularity and that the accident was in reality a murder.

In November, A. D. 401, Alaric invaded Italy and was soon encamped outside the important imperial city of Milan (MEDIOLANVM), placing it under siege. Milan was strongly fortified, and Stilicho ordered the garrison to hold out until he had finished with mopping up some barbarians in the North. Rather than allow himself to be trapped between an armed city and an advancing army, Alaric withdrew. Later, Stilicho soundly defeated him in a great battle near Pollentia on Easter Sunday, A. D. 402. Stilicho recovered much of the booty the Goths had taken from the Romans since Adrianople, and took hostages, including Alaric’s wife. Alaric was still not forced out of Italy until he was defeated yet once again at Verona in 403. The evidence points to the fact that Stilicho had Alaric in his grasp on both occasions. Historians still argue about why Alaric continued to slip through Stilicho’s fingers after having been at his mercy three times in a row. The Roman people were also beginning to notice that Alaric was springing free at the last moment. Rumors began to fly that Alaric was paying Stilicho off or that Stilicho was allowing their former friendship to get in the way of duty.

In A. D. 405 - 406, a group of ex-slaves, peasants, and various barbarians under a Gothic leader named Radagasius marched on Rome. They struck terror into the hearts of an unarmed Italian populace, burning and looting as they went. They were no match for an army of seasoned veterans, though. When Stilicho caught up with Radagasius and his rabble, he simply surrounded them and waited for them to starve or die of exposure. Those wretches who did not escape before the net was drawn tight were thankful to be sold into slavery, where they would at least be fed.

In 407 the empire was again invaded by Vandals who crossed the frozen Rhine River. Also in that year, Constantine III led a revolt in Britain. Stilicho managed to stop the Vandals and keep Constantine III contained.

During the early Fifth Century, a rising sentiment of racism and anti-German feeling was sweeping up the Romans in a series of acts of senseless fear and hatred. The families of Gothic warriors and noblemen in the service of the Roman Empire were brutally murdered. This only served to enrage the Goths who had been loyal officers and troops up to this point and drive them to follow Alaric when he undertook his march on Rome.

Another victim of the anti-German movement was Stilicho himself. Despite the fact that he had faithfully served the emperor Honorius and his father Theodosius for almost twenty of the empire's most perilous years, an ambitious but cowardly minister of Honorius’named Olympius convinced the young and somewhat stupid emperor that Stilicho wanted to depose him and put his own son Eucherius on the throne. Accordingly, Honorius was persuaded to sign an order for Stilicho's arrest.

In a churchyard in Ravenna the order was carried out against Stilicho. When he saw that popular sentiment had been mobilized against him, he entered the church and claimed sanctuary, a traditional law binding on both government and Church that a fugitive could not be taken inside a church. Though Stilicho could have asked for his loyal soldiers to defend him and perhaps put him on the throne, he was ever loyal to Rome. He quietly submitted to Count Heraclian who was sent to arrest him. On promises that his life would be spared, Stilicho was persuaded to leave the sanctuary of the church in which he had sought refuge. Count Heraclian wanted to make sure that there would be no escape or reprieve for the faithful old general so he went beyond the letter of his orders. On August 22, A. D. 408, Heraclian removed Flavius Stilicho’s head with one powerful stroke of his axe.

Tragedy refused to depart from the house of Stilicho. His young son Eucherius was murdered a few months later. Also murdered was Stilicho's wife Serena. She had opened her home to the princess Galla Placidia, daughter of Theodosius I. Serena had raised the girl as if she were her own child. Placidia joined her voice to those of the citizens of Rome calling for Serena’s execution during the panic that ensued as a result of Alaric’s placing The Eternal City under siege when Stilicho’s strong arm was no longer there to put a halt to his depredations.

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