Stilicho – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 29 Part 2

Stilicho

While the east was in the hands of the scoundrel Rufinus, in the west a very different man came to prominence.  This was Stilicho.  Stilicho’s father was a Vandal, but his mother was a Roman and he lived his entire life in the empire and in service to it.  Neither he nor his contemporaries seem to have regarded his German heritage as remotely important so I suggest we don’t either.  He was married to the niece of Theodosius, but this was the result of his rise to power rather than the cause of it. He owed his position to his ability not his birth.

Stilicho had been the main deputy of Theodosius in the build up to the battle of Frigidus which had re-established Theodosius as the overall emperor.  At the battle itself he distinguished himself.  Theodosius responded by making him the guardian of his eleven year old son Honorius.  At the same time he made Honorius emperor of the west, and appointed Stilicho as the head of the military for that half of the empire.  This meant that Stilicho was for all intents and purposes in command of the western empire, under Theodosius at first and then independently when he died.

Incidentally another participant at the battle of Frigidus was Alaric, a Gothic chieftain of whom we will be hearing more. But that is another story.

For now the focus is on Stilicho, who couldn’t have been a bigger contrast to Rufinus.  One of his first actions on assuming his new role as head of the Western Empire was to cross the Alps in winter and visit the frontier troops.  With so much internal conflict of all kinds going on inside the empire it was important not to forget the threat that still existed outside the borders. This isn’t to say Stilicho was not interested in internal politics. He was quite adept at them in fact. He was just responsible in the way he pursued them.

Having made himself happy that things were in order on the borders he returned to Italy and started the work of returning it to normal.  Interestingly, he started referring to the Senate more.  The august but powerless body still sat, and in some ways the split from the more powerful east gave it more weight than it had had for a long time.

The civil war had left the bulk of the empire’s military forces in the west under the control of Stilicho.  This gave him the opportunity to lead a large chunk of his forces back to the east to hand them back over.  Right.  Rufinus wasn’t buying that one for a minute. The last thing he wanted was an army loyal to a potential rival arriving in Constantinople.  As they marched across the Balkans a message was sent to Stilicho saying that if he led his army any further it would be treated as an act of war.  I imagine that everyone was suprised when Stilicho dutifully did just that – returning to Italy and leaving his deputy Gainas in control of the troops.

But this was a trick.  Gainas had orders to kill Rufinus as soon as the opportunity arose.  And it arose almost straight away. Rufinus advanced from the city of Constantinople to greet the advancing army, who simply surrounded him and killed him.  His body was handed over to the people who vented their anger on him.  His grasping hand was removed and passed around for particular mockery.  This was all par for the course.  But there was one small aspect of the affair that indicated that maybe the Romans weren’t quite as heartless and violent as they used to be.  The family of Rufinus, namely his wife and daughter were not killed along with him.  They were exiled to a nunnery in Jerusalem.  So that was nice.

On paper Stilicho was now the big cheese, but Constantinople exerted its glamour on Gainas who proceeded to resist the will of his benefactor and throw his lot in with a new favourite.  Arcadius had found himself under the sway of Eutropius, a eunuch who held the post of chamberlain. And the Goth provided the necessary military muscle.  So the empire remained divided.  The Greek speaking east was now so disconnected that Gibbon announces that from now on the story will split into two forks, and that he would first address the end of the empire in the west.

In fact the problem wasn’t just a split between east and west.  The provinces of Africa, under Gildo the Moor, were showing a level of independence that was troubling.  In the civil war between Theodosius and Eugenius the Africans had managed to avoid taking sides until the outcome was clear.  With the new settlement following the death of Theodosius, they decided that they would rather be ruled directly from Constantinople than from Rome.  Most of us like the boss to be located as far as away as we can conveniently locate him.  But it was a serious issue.  It is hard to imagine today what the countries of Roman Africa were like in Roman times.  We think of Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Algeria as dry and not enormously productive agriculturally.  But the climate was different in those days and the yield of cereals was huge.  This was where the bread for the bread and circuses came from.

Stilicho therefore was obliged to take the situation in Africa seriously.  Gildo wasn’t a particularly benevolent dictator.  He spent the days depriving the rich of their property.  For recreation in the evening he helped himself to whatever women took his fancy, passing them on to his guards when he was finished with them.  He had fallen out with his brother, Mascezel, who had fled to the Romans.  In revenge, Gildo had killed his children.  The case against Gildo was solemnly put the Senate, who after some deliberation decided that something needed to be done about him.

St Ambrose got involved in the decision, despite having died the year before.  Before passing on, he had had a vision of a victorious campaign in advance, so that was handy. A good prognosis from Heaven is always a good thing to have.

Back here on Earth the big risk was that in the event of a prolonged war in Africa grain supplies would be cut off leading to shortages or even famine.  But Stilicho was a leader who could see the big picture.  He arranged for supplies to be gathered in Gaul and placed in magazines near the city.  This was the kind of large scale strategic thinking that marked out effective emperors from the time servers, and which was essential to managing and solving crises large enough to threaten the empire.

Stilicho couldn’t neglect Italy, so he sent Mascezel to lead the army against his fellow Africans.  Considering how important the mission it was a very small force, just 5,000 strong.  The troops sent were from crack regiments, so it was a question of quality rather than quantity.  But the list of the company names, including the now famous Herculeans founded by Diocletian, is surprisingly long.  It makes you wonder just how many men some of these units had in them.

Gildo met the invasion with 70,000 men, but somehow his battle plan never came together.  In one version it was misunderstanding of signals causing confusion in his poorly organised armies.  More pious accounts attribute the miraculous success to the intervention of God.

Whatever the reason, it was successful and so Stilicho was able to prevent the Byzantines from gaining a stranglehold over his half of the empire.  But it was an indication of just how tough managing the western empire was becoming.  You could no longer rely on resources from the east, and they could well be working to destabilise you.  And to the north as always, at any point the barbarians could attack.

Mascezel did not live to enjoy his victory for very long.  He was killed back in Rome when he fell from a bridge and drowned before he could be rescued.  Stilicho was present when this happened and the writers of the time suggest he may have been involved in arranging it.  It doesn’t sound like something Stilicho would not be capable of.  The death of a possibly doubtful ally who might well have become way too independent must have suited him rather well.  But it does sound like a rather tricky way to reliably get rid of somebody.  I’d be more inclined to think it was just a chance occurrence.

Gibbon rarely makes editing errors, but I think I have picked one up here.  After relating the death of Mascezel it is really necessary to the narrative to point out that Stilicho appointed his brother in law Bathanarius as count of Africa.  Bathanarius held the post until he was exectued and replaced by Heraklion in an internal feud.  Heralklion turns up later without any introduction suggesting that it had simply slipped Gibbon’s mind that only the best read reader would have any idea who this guy was.  A minor glitch like this doesn’t detract from my admiration of Gibbbon. In a work this long you’d expect a lot more of this kind of thing.  It just makes me wonder how much more he could have done if he too had had Google.

For now, Stilicho’s position was not too uncomfortable.  He had secured Africa’s grain supply.  He had no particular rival internally.  He had to contend with potential threats from the barbarians in Germany and the civilised in the east both of whom had ample reserves of manpower, the one thing which Stilicho was short of.  But he must have been confident in his military abilities at least.  He was able to strengthen his position by the marriage of his daughter Maria to the young emperor Honorius.  He was now the emperor’s father in law as well as being in charge of the military. His position was pretty impregnable.

It wasn’t such a rosy picture for his daughter.  Honorius seems to have been what we would call educationally subnormal.  He never learned to read or write properly and ended up spending most of his time looking after chickens.  His marriage to the unfortunate Maria was never consummated and she died ten years later still a virgin.  The lack of ability of Honorius might well have played into the hands of the highly able Stilicho, and did just that at first.  But it was to lead to problems later that would be disastrous for the survival of the western empire.

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