The troubles in Italy and Gaul left Britain isolated. Its imperial forces had been withdrawn leaving low level garrisons to defend it from the depredations of the Picts and the seaborne Saxons. Being right at the bottom of the imperial todo list created a power vacuum in the province. There was a long tradition in Britain of providing usurpers to the throne, so it was sort of inevitable that a pretender to the purple should emerge.
And sure enough, a man called Marcus was hailed as emperor. This was a very direct and explicit reaction to the crossing of the Rhine by the barbarians and the collapse of Roman power in Southern France. The British had an even more exposed position and if Gaul could be overrun it was only too easy to imagine exactly the same thing happening to them. They simply could not afford to let themselves get caught in the same way, so getting a local commander was the bare minimum.
Things turned sour quickly for Marcus, and he was replaced by somebody else called Gratian. He too lasted only a short while. Third time lucky, they hit on a man called Constantine. It does sound a bit like anybody with the same name as a former emperor was in with a shot. This may well have been the case. Britain no longer had full legion strength forces so there may well not have been anyone around with any particular seniority. A good sounding name might well have been the decider.
Constantine at any rate was a name with a good precedent. The first Constantine had gone from York to eventually run the whole empire.
But the first Constantine had at least had some legions. All that was available to Constantine III was the handful of troops left behind when the serious forces were withdrawn to fight off the Goths in Italy. Nonetheless he set out across the channel and landed at Boulogne to announce his accession to the throne of the West. Surprisingly, he was taken seriously. He soon found himself being acknowledged as the emperor by people in the locality. Again, it is easy to imagine that with everyone expecting the barbarians to arrive at any moment, falling in behind the nearest person who looked like an emperor made perfect sense. But he was an emperor without much of an army, and whose borders were now completely porous. He found himself working with barbarian chiefs to try and cobble together some kind of authority. And again, surprisingly it seemed to work. The prestige of the Roman name was enough to keep the show on the road for now even when it wasn’t backed up by force.
Constantine showed the way he was going to work straight away. He attacked some Germans and defeated them. It was a small victory but very helpful for PR, marking his arrival on the scene. He then bribed some other Germans to defend the Rhine. Given that they were already over it they were probably quite open to the suggestion. It all seems a bit pathetic compared to the Roman Empire of only a few years before, but when you consider the situation Constantine was in it was not bad going. He had created a sort of mini-empire by dint of nothing much more than force of character. If he could just lay hold of the resources to keep the show on the road it might become the basis for a new form of Roman rule in the north.
He pushed on to try and extend his power further south in Gaul. Whatever else he was, Constantine was clearly a realist. The court of Honorius in Ravenna was meanwhile completely out of touch with the way the world was developing. An accommodation or even an alliance with Constantine would have made enormous sense in the situation. Instead they regarded him as a rebel, and as such the chief object of their war effort. A Goth called Sarus was sent out with orders to bring the rebels’s head back. This mission was well resourced enough for it to besiege Constantine in Vienne, a large town in the foothills of the Alps. But it didn’t have enough to actually succeed and ended up retreating. Even more humiliatingly they had to pay the tribesmen in the mountain for permission to travel through the mountains unmolested. The heroes of Roman history would have shuddered.
Constantine extended his power to Spain using the same simple but effective tactic he had used in northern Gaul. He just announced that he was the emperor and the province fell in with the suggestion. The only people who resisted were the brothers of Theodosius, who would have just about the only citizens with a strong motive for supporting the regime of Honorius. Constantine could only raise a force of 5,000 mercenaries to deal with this. These seemed to have been a discharged unit from the main Roman army. They were called the Honorians, which was a bit ironic.
This small force was all it took to defeat the rebels and establish the rule of Constantine in Spain. You have to wonder what the people in Ravenna were up to, given that they had just lost a major province, and one that the emperor had a strong connection with, for the want of any kind of response. Could they not have even managed a small expedition? Ravenna though still had to cope with Alaric.
Negotiations had opened up, and Stilicho and Alaric now claimed to be friends. Alaric was appointed to the role he had always coveted of Magister Militum, in overall charge of all the forces of the western empire. His ambition to achieve this role would have been conceived in the days when the western empire actually had some forces of course. As it was, the remnants of his Gothic army were probably more powerful than those of the empire with which he was now allied. He offered to sort out Constantine. This was probably well within his power, given that Alaric had an army and Constantine didn’t. All he asked in return was some territory to be made over for his Gothic subjects to live in.
Stilicho wasn’t having this, needless to say. The last thing he wanted was a powerful Gothic kingdom run by a very effective ruler right on the borders of Italy. In fact, despite the apparent friendship that had broken out between Alaric and the empire, Stilicho still seemed to mainly want to get Alaric as far from Italy as he could get him. Consequently he ordered him to deal with a border dispute with the Eastern empire instead.
This was all very well, but high politics don’t always translate to street level. A lot of people were beginning to wonder what was going on. One minute Alaric was threatening Rome, the next he was being given large sums of money. And although Italy itself was safe the rest of the empire was going to pot. A senator got up and opposed the treaty with Alaric, denouncing it as a treaty of subjugation. Nobody had done that sort of thing in the Senate for centuries. But it wasn’t the openly expressed and probably honest opposition of a single senator that was the problem for Stilicho. Behind his back courtiers were plotting and scheming, and getting the ear of Honorius.
The chief amongst the plotters was Olympius, and he was to become the chief rival to Stilicho. But Stilicho was not an innocent to these games. He hit back with a contrived incident in which he appeared to save the life of Honorius from a rebellion in Bologna. It was artfully done, but it was not enough. Honorius went on to Pavia where the army was assembled in preparation for a war in Gaul to restore the authority of the empire. Olympius had been at work, and on the fourth day of the meeting at a pre-arranged signal a massacre was instigated by the pro against the anti Stilicho faction. The fighting got out of hand, with large numbers of deaths at every level. Honorius had never had to handle this kind of thing and at one stage was seen walking around in the streets of Pavia without any of his royal insignia, apparently confused and not knowing what to do.
Olympius soon got him under control. Blame was apportioned to the Stilicho supporters. It was effectively the declaration of civil war. Word soon came to Stilicho of what had happened. His supporters urged an instant response, with an attack directly against the men around the emperor. But the man himself was doubtful. He retired to sleep, but was woken by what was very nearly a successful assassination attempt by the Goth, Salus. It would not have been difficult to rouse enough support for an attempt to take the throne himself. But something stopped him, and instead he handed himself over to the mercies of his enemies in Ravenna.
When Stilicho obediently handed himself over to his enemies, it is hard to imagine what was going through his head. It was a head that contained much information of essential value for the defence of the empire. Maybe he was supposing that given how useful he could be, and how serious the situation was, some kind of agreement could be reached. After all, the empire was on the verge of collapse. It was in nobodies interest to fight one another if all that meant was that the barbarians would triumph. But all that relied on dealing with somebody with sober intelligence and some kind of vision of the future. That wasn’t the kind of people around Honorius. They just cut his head off, as a final insult tricking him out of the church where he had taken refuge by sending Count Heraklion, a respected nobleman with two sets of orders – one implying his life was spared. Gibbon puts it nobly.
“Stilicho supported, with calm resignation, the injurious names of traitor and parricide; repressed the unseasonable zeal of his followers, who were ready to attempt an ineffectual rescue; and, with a firmness not unworthy of the last of the Roman generals, submitted his neck to the sword of Heraclian.”
It was a sad end for somebody who had done so much to preserve the empire and even to revive the republic.