Alaric the ambitious; Stilicho the tactician; Honorius and Arcadius the incapable

After Alaric had been elected king of the Visigoths, he lost no time in striking. He held an assembly, and in it a resolution was taken to march forth and ravage the other provinces of the Illyrian peninsula.

alaric Alaric

The career of Alaric, which is in some ways one of the strangest episodes in the dismemberment of the Empire, is enveloped in much obscurity. Not only because of the chronological gaps in the record of what he actually did, but also due to his motives and  policy. For fifteen years he was making history, and yet there is almost always room for some uncertainty as to his designs. We have a record that Alaric had aspired to a high command in the Roman army. The record is so probable that we may readily accept it; and we infer that his acceptance of the kingship of the Visigoths was in some sense a pis aller. The dignity of a German king must have greatly declined in value, in the eyes of the Germans themselves, through long familiarity with the far greater prestige of the Empire. They had become accustomed to see of how little account a rex was in the eyes of a Praetorian Prefect or even of a provincial governor. Starting, then, with the fact that a career in the imperial service had been Alaric’s ambition, the clue to his work is that he had claims and ambitions for himself, besides, and distinct from, his claims and designs for his people. For his people the only thing which they desired or claimed was more territory or larger pensions, and if that had been the only object he might probably soon have obtained it. But he had at first another aim for himself personally, and when no place was found for him either in the east or in the west, he could not rest content in the obscure peace of Moesia, but made his power felt as a hostile force in the Empire which had not satisfied his ambitions.

The Goths spread desolation in Thrace and Macedonia and advanced close to the walls of Constantinople. The government of Arcadius had no troops sufficient to take the field against them. The legions of the field army that were usually stationed in the neighbourhood of the capital had accompanied Theodosius to the west when he had marched against the rebel Eugenius, and had not yet returned. Stilicho, however, was already preparing to lead them back in person. He considered that his own presence in the east was necessary; for besides the need of dealing with barbarians, there was a political question in which he was deeply interested touching the territorial division of the Empire between its two sovrans. It is not possible to understand the history of the following years without having the importance of this question constantly in mind – it is the question of Illyricum.

The Prefecture of Illyricum had been before the reign of Theodosius the Great subject to the ruler of the west. It included Greece and the central Balkan lands of the Danube. The only part of the peninsula governed from Constantinople was Thrace. But under Theodosius the Great the Prefecture was transferred from the west to the east, and the new line of division between the two halves of the Empire was a line running from Belgrade westward along the river save and then turning southward along the river Drina and reaching the coast of the Adriatic at a point near Scutari. It was assumed at Constantinople that this arrangement would remain in force and that the prefecture would remain under the control of the eastern government. But Stilicho declared that it was the will of Theodosius that his sons should revert to the older arrangement, and that the authority of Honorius should extend to the borders of Thrace, so that only the Prefecture of the East should be left to Arcadius. Whether his assertion was true or not, his policy meant that the western realm, in which he himself was unquestionably supreme, should have marked predominance over the eastern section of the Empire.

To change the division of Illyricum at the expense of the east was a political aim of which Stilicho never lost sight, and it is the clue to his career after the death of his master. The importance of Illyricum did not lie in its revenues, but in its men. From the third to the sixth century the most useful troops in the imperial army were recruited from the highlands of Illyricum and Thrace. It may well have seemed that a partition assigning the whole of the great recruiting ground to the east was unfair to the west. Events proved that the legions at Stilicho’s disposal were quite inadequate to the defense of the west, and therefore it was not unnatural that he should have aimed at bringing the western lands of the Balkan peninsula back under the rule of the western government.

This was a question on which the government of Arcadius was not likely readily to yield, controlled as it was by a powerful and ambitious minister, Rufinus, the Praetorian Prefect of the East. Stilicho took the precaution of bringing with him some western legions of his own, as well as the eastern troops whom he was to restore to Constantinople. In Thessaly he came face to face with Alaric and his Visigoths, who had reached the country in a devastating march from the neigbourhood of Constantinople. He was just preparing to smite the Goths when messengers arrived from Arcadius, commanding him to send the eastern troops on, but himself to return to Italy. Stilicho obeyed the command, and thereby sacrificed Greece. For there is no doubt that he could easily have crushed the Goths and rendered Alaric harmless. But he sent the troops of Arcadius back to Constantinople under a captain named Gainas, a Goth. We cannot say whether he came to any understanding with Gainas. When this officer and his army arrived at Constantinople, Arcadius came forth to receive them a few miles from the city, and he was accompanied by his great minister, the Praetorian Prefect Rufinus. The soldiers of Gainas assasinated Rufinus, and there is no doubt that Stilicho had plotted this murder with Gainas. Indeed Stilicho took no trouble to conceal his complicity in the act. After the fall of Rufinus, a eunuch named Eutropius, who was the Emperor’s chamberlain, became the most powerful minister at Constantinople.

This event happened at the end of A.D. 395. Meanwhile Alaric and his host moved southward into Greece. They occupied Piraeus, the port of Athens, but spared Athens itself; they plundered the great temple of Eleusis, and their visit marks the end of the celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries. Then they passed into the Peloponnese, where all the chief towns fell before them. The Peloponnese was in their hands for more than a year, the year 396, and the government of Arcadius made no attempt to dislodge them. Then in the spring of A.D. 397 Stilicho intervened again. He landed in the Peloponnese and confronted Alaric in Elis. There was some fighting, perhaps only make-believe. In any case, Stilicho came to some agreement with Alaric and allowed him again to go free as in Thessaly. It seems that the eastern government intervened, and an arrangement was made that Alaric should withdraw to Epirus and should receive the title which he had long coveted, that of Master of Soldiers in Illyricum. Stilicho’s expedition was futile. He was obliged to return hastily to Italy on account of the outbreak of a very serious Moorish revolt in Africa. But his presence with an army in the Peloponnese had caused great anger at Constantinople, and the eastern government declared him a public enemy.

stilicho Stilicho

For the time being (A.D. 397), Alaric’s ambitions seem to have been satisfied. During the next four years he remained quiescent, and his presence, so far as our records go, seems hardly to affected the course of history. We are not even quite sure where his people lived at this time, whether in Epirus or in regions nearer the Danube; possibly they were still mainly in their old homes in Moesia. In any case, they did not disturb the Empire before 401. Till this year Alaric’s designs apparently did not travel outside the Balkan peninsula, but from this time onward his eyes were turned towards the west.

The causes of this change are not indicated in our authorities, but there is one thing which had probably something to do with it, a thing which is even in itself of very great historical importance. The Gothic soldier Gainas, who was responsible for the murder of Rufinus, the Praetorian Prefect, aspired to being in the east what Stilicho was in the west. He rebelled against the government of Arcadius, forced it to yield to his demands, and for about six months exercised a power that was almost supreme in Constantinople. But there was a very strong and determined anti-German party there, and they gained a decisive victory over Gainas and his Gothic troops; and the danger, which at the moment seemed serious, of a Germanisation of the government in the east was averted. Now we may take it that Alaric had found support in the party of Gainas, and that the fall of that general in A.D. 400 altered his prospects. At all events, it was in the year 401 that he determined to bring pressure to bear, not upon Constantinople, but on the government in Italy.

In threatening the west he did not act alone. He acted simultaneously, though there is no reason to think that he acted in concert, with a somewhat mysterious German named Radagaisus. Radagaisus was probably an Ostrogoth; he may have been allowed to settle in Pannonia by Gratian; but perhaps he and his followers had taken up their adobe just beyond the frontiers, on the other side of the Danube. Towards the end of 401 Radagaisus and a host of barbarians invaded Raetia and at the same time marched to the borders of Italy. It was a critical moment for Stilicho on whom the defence of Italy devolved. He marched into the Alpine regions of Raetia against Radagaisus, who seems to have moved first, and he was successful in repelling and driving out the invaders. Then he led his troops back south of the Alps to deal with Alaric and the Visigoths, who had already been three months in north Italy, meeting no resistance and causing the utmost consternation among the Italians, who had long accustomed to regard Italian soil as inaccessible to foreign invasion. The young Emperor Honorius was trembling in Milan, and thought of fleeing to Gaul. Alaric had captured Aquileia and all the towns of Venetia, and was beginning a siege of Milan, hoping to seize the Emperor’s person, when Stilicho arrived just in time to relieve it. Alaric raised the siege and marched westward into Piedmont, followed by Stilicho. Finally he halted at Pollentia the only battle that Alaric fought against the forces of the Empire, but it was far the most famous. It was fought on Easter Day in A.D. 402 and was indecisive, but strategically it was a victory for the imperial army and Stilicho.

Alaric’s position became untenable, and he marched into Tuscany. Some members of his family fell into the hands of the Romans. He was glad to make terms with Stilicho. We do not know precisely what the conditions were, but it was certainly arranged that the Visigoths should leave Italy, and there was probably an understanding that they should afterwards assist Stilicho in carrying out the plan on which he was set, of annexing the Prefecture of Illyricum to the Western Empire. Alaric left Italy by the way he had come. But for more than a year he lingered near the borders of the peninsula in Istria and Dalmatia; and then becoming impatient, and perhaps being pressed by want of provisions, he again forced his way into Italy, but was met by Stilicho near Verona and decisevely repelled. This was in the autumn of 403. A new agreement was made, and Alaric seems to have withdrawn immediately to his old station in Epirus.

The Italian enterprise of Alaric had been a failure. Whatever he wanted, he had not got it. But though a failure it was an important episode in Alaric’s career, and that career occupies an important, even unique, place in the history of the breaking up of the Empire.

Wonder has often been expressed that Stilicho did not follow up the check he inflicted on the Goths at Pollentia with more energy, and that when he defeated them again next year at Verona he again let them go. Why did he not strike harder, why did he leave the enemy free to organise new aggressions and prefer new demands? Stilicho was clearly determined to hold the frontiers of the western provinces against the inroads of the barbarians; he did not spare himself in attempting to perform this duty. How are we to explain his indulgence towards the Visigoths and his leniency, which his Roman contemporaries regarded as culpable?

The formation of barbarian settlements within the Empire had been a recognised principle of policy for two hundred years, and it was difficult for anyone in Stilicho’s day to conceive that it would ultimately lead to the disappearance of the imperial authority. Such an idea was equally beyond the visions of Stilicho and of Alaric. We can see plainly that the federate Germans within the Empire were as powerful a force of disruption, and more insidious, than the Germans without the Empire. But for Stilicho there was a gulf fixed between the outside enemies who attacked the frontier and the inside strangers who were linked to the Empire. Against the former he was ready to be ruthless, but the latter were on a different footing; they were part of the system of the Empire, they were to be managed rather than crushed. In the heart of Stilicho this feeling would naturally have been stronger than in a minister of Roman descent; for Stilicho was himself sprung from such federate settlers. But beside this general consideration there can be no doubt that there was a particular motive. It was Stilicho’s object to keep Alaric within the precincts of the eastern half of the Empire. He was not ready to admit Gothic settlements within the Prefecture of Italy; but the existence of a strong Gothic power in Illyricum suited his policy, and he foresaw that Alaric might in certain eventualities be a useful ally.

Hostility prevailed between the courts and ministers of the two sons of Theodosius. One of the difficulties and causes of discord was the boundary between the two realms. Stilicho and the western government desired to draw the line of division farther east, and to add to the dominion of Honorius, if not the whole Prefecture of Illyricum, at all events the northern portion of it -corresponding to Serbia and the western part of Bulgaria. When the moment should come for carrying the wish into effect, Alaric’s aid might be invaluable. The policy of Stilicho, therefore, was not to crush Alaric, but to keep him quiet, by negotiations and management, in the Illyrian provinces of Arcadius. And for nearly five years after the battle of Verona, 403-408, Alaric and his Goths dwelled under their rooftrees in Epirus, without attempting any new enterprise. In 405 Alaric’s former ally Radagaisus descended with a great horde upon Italy; but Alaric took no part in this campaign, and Stilicho’s strategy destroyed the barbarians at Fiesole without a battle. Here Stilicho showed that he had no scruples in crushing a German foe.

(Source: “The Invasion of Europe By the Barbarians”, by Bury, J.B.)

arcadius-honorius Arcadius & Honorius

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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