Roman General Stilicho: The Last Great Defender of the Western Empire

General Stilicho was a tour de force - a military genius and a fierce defender of the Western Roman Empire. Born of mixed Vandal and Roman heritage, he rose from humble beginnings to become the most powerful man in the late fourth century Roman world. In this article, we’ll explore the life and legacy of one of Rome's greatest soldiers - Flavius Stilicho.

History Rulers
13 May 2023

General Stilicho, a formidable warrior and master tactician, stood as the last bastion of hope for the crumbling Western Roman Empire. The ultimate defender of Rome, he valiantly battled barbarian invasions and the treacherous tides of political turmoil.

In the final decades of the fourth century, the political situation in Rome was at best, turbulent and at worst, chaotic. It was characterised by instability, rivalries, threats from external sources, religious tension and economic challenges. The empire was on the verge of collapse.

At this time, the Roman world was divided into eastern and western halves with separate administrations and emperors. This led to competition and tension between the rival factions. Usurpers undermined the central authority and barbarian invaders took full advantage of this volatility.

Step forward Flavius Stilicho, last of the Romans, as he is sometimes known. He was the last great defender of the Western Empire, but was eventually betrayed. Find out about what happened to Stilicho and discover why, despite his critical role in maintaining stability, the challenges of the time were too great even for a man with his military and political nous.

The Early Years of General Stilicho

Stilicho negotiating with the Goths (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Stilicho was born around 359 AD, although with many of the men and women from this period of history, exact dates are scarce and often contradictory.

It’s generally agreed that his father was of Vandal origin – and, it’s believed, an auxiliary soldier in the Roman army – while his mother is thought to have been a Roman. Very little is known of his early life, but he joined the army and quickly rose through the ranks under Emperor Theodosius I.

By 383 AD, the young Flavius Stilicho was sent by the emperor to the ancient city of Ctesiphon, southeast of modern-day Baghdad, to negotiate a territorial settlement with the Persian king Shapur III. He returned successful and was promoted in quick succession to comes stabuli, Count of the Stable, and then comes domesticorum, the head of the corps of the emperor’s bodyguards.

With undoubted abilities as a soldier, the emperor recognised Stilicho as a valued ally. To solidify their bond, Theodosius I, the final emperor of a unified Roman Empire, allowed Stilicho to marry his niece Serena.

Around this time, Stilicho fought with distinction on the side of the Eastern Roman Empire against the Western Roman Empire at the Battle of the Frigidus, possibly somewhere in modern-day Slovenia.

During this campaign, Stilicho fought alongside Alaric, leader of the Goths. However, it wasn’t long before the two men met again on the battlefield, this time on opposing sides.

In around 393 AD, Stilicho was made comes et magister utriusque militiae praesentalis, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and was entrusted with the guardianship of Honorius, the son of Theodosius, shortly before the emperor died.

Stilicho & Honorius, Rufinus & Arcadius

Head of Emperor Honorius as a child (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It has been claimed – although there is little evidence to support it – that while General Stilicho was appointed as the guardian for the young emperor Honorius in the west, a Praetorian prefect named Rufinus was appointed to be the guardian for Theodosius’ other son, Arcadius, in the east.

Naturally, Stilicho and Rufinus became rivals. The narrative goes that Stilicho focused on maintaining the strength of the empire, while Rufinus was more focused on personal power, even at the expense of the west. They clashed on issues such as the allocation of military resources and their rivalry ultimately had a significant, detrimental impact on the political landscape of the late Roman Empire, and may have contributed to its overall decline.

Stilicho, Last of the Romans

Flavius Stilicho (Photo by: Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Ultimus Romanorum, or Last of the Romans, wasn’t a literal epithet. It was used to describe a person who embodied the values and traditions of ancient Rome at its zenith, like sixth century general Flavius Belisarius. Stilicho was one such man.

In 395, General Stilicho led an army to fight the Goths under Alaric, who had reneged on a peace treaty with Rome. Rufinus is believed to have tried to negotiate a diplomatic solution with Alaric, and it was alleged Rufinus was in fact working with the Goths. While the forces of the west were ready to attack, they were ordered to stand down by Arcadius, probably on the instructions of Rufinus. Rufinus was murdered by the returning troops, and some historians have speculated that the killing was carried out on the orders of Stilicho.

General Stilicho, The Warrior

Stilicho with his wife and son (Credit: DEA/BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA via Getty Images)

Stilicho campaigned in France against the Gauls in 396 AD, in part to reinvigorate the Western army and also to recruit soldiers to add to his numbers. The following year, he defeated Alaric in Macedonia, though Alaric escaped – an error for which Stilicho was later criticised.

Flavius Stilicho embarked on further conflicts against Gildo, the leader of troops in Africa, over the supply of grain in 398. In the same year, it has been suggested that the general fought the Picts in Britain, although facts about what became known as Stilicho’s Pictish War are scarce. Indeed it’s unlikely Stilicho left Italy for Britain.

Like Thedosius years before, Stilicho’s daughter Maria married emperor Honorius to solidify the familial ties. The general was conferred with the position of consul in 400 AD.

Yet again, in 402, the Western Roman Empire came into conflict with the Goths under Stilicho’s nemesis Alaric at the Battle of Pollentia, the first Gothic invasion of Italy. Unusually, contemporary Roman writers recorded a Roman victory, but Gothic sources reported the opposite. Albeit indecisively, it’s generally agreed that the Romans won the battle, close to the modern-day city of Turin, but again, Alaric escaped.

The following year, Alaric attacked Verona and was again beaten by Flavius Stilicho. Alaric escaped for the third time with a decimated army and settled in Illyricum. It was due to this Gothic invasion that Honorius moved the capital of the Western Roman Empire to Ravenna. The city was closer to the sea and protected by the landscape.

Stilicho’s final campaigns were against a combined force of Goths, Alans, Vandals and Sueves led by Radagaisus, and later he led an attempt to annex Ilyricum from the Eastern Empire. Stilicho captured almost all of the forces of Radagaisus and his attempts to take Illyricum were thwarted by false reports that Alaric was dead – they were supposed to work together against the East – and of a revolt in Britain.

What Happened to Stilicho?

The Death of Stilicho (Credit:DEA/ICAS94 via Getty Images)

Arcadius died in 408 AD and was said to have put his seven-year old son Theodosius II on the throne. Meanwhile, the western army was in a shambolic state to the point where they revolted and killed Stilicho’s most trusted generals.

News circulated that Flavius Stilicho was on his way to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, to install his son Eucherius as emperor in a coup d’etat. This was untrue but his fate was sealed.

In 408, Stilicho went to Ravenna where he was arrested and executed. His son suffered the same fate soon after, as did most of Stilicho’s battlefield commanders.

With the Western Roman Empire already at breaking point, the power vacuum left by the death of Stilicho was, according to some historians, its death knell. Failing to defeat Alaric and recruiting a non-Roman army – commonplace at the time – shifted the political power away from Rome and into the hands of the barbarians.

In 410, Alaric laid siege to Rome while the decimated Roman army could only watch. The Goths’ capture of Rome was the first by barbarians in almost eight hundred years and was a major catalyst for the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire.


You May Also Like

Explore More