Stilicho emerged the most powerful man in the Roman Empire in the early fifth century. The half-Vandal became a trusted adviser to Emperor Theodosius. As a result, Stilicho served as regent to the crown prince Honorius. He proved a capable and successful general leading to his ultimate demise. Court jealousies undermined Stilicho after Honorius came of age. Honorius executed Stilicho resulting in the near collapse of the empire.
Stilicho considered himself a Roman despite his father’s ethnic origins. He was the son of a Roman soldier of Vandal extraction and a Roman mother. He followed his father into the army and quickly ascended the ranks. Theodosius the Great recognized Stilicho’s ability, promoted him to general, and then formed an alliance through marriage. The general served ably and with distinction when Theodosius defeated an usurper at the Battle of Frigidus in 394 A D. A year later, and shortly before his death, the emperor appointed Stilicho guardian of his son, Honorius.
Honorius ascended to the throne at eight years old, so Stilicho ran the empire as his regent. By the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the imperial role grew more desperate. Stilicho was forced to deal with the Visigoths and their leader Alaric on several occasions. In 397, he defeated Alaric, but the Visigoth general escaped. Stilicho defeated the Visigoths again in 402 and 403 with Alaric escaping each time. The pair finally established a peace treaty which Honorius later broke.
The Visigoths did not provide the only threat to the empire. Stilicho campaigned in Britian in 398, suppressed an African rebellion in 400, and faced a barbarian coalition in 406. By this point, fighting grew desperate leading Stilicho to free slaves in return for military service. He also turned to Alaric for assistance and alliance. As a result of the manpower crisis, the empire faced increased nomadic incursions from lightly defended areas. As barbarians poured into Roman territory, Stilicho faced additional revolts in Gaul and Britannia. Meanwhile, the Visigoths began to make noise again. The emperor and Senate decided to go to war with Alaric rather than submit to terrorist demands. In the end, there were just too many fires for Stilicho to put out.
The crises on the frontiers undercut Stilicho’s reputation. The general proved more adept at defending the empire than Roman power politics. The devastation, political instability, and governmental collapse in these regions left Honorius needing a scapegoat. The emperor’s new favorite, Olympius, provided the justification to remove Stilicho. Olympius claimed Stilicho’s incompetence led to the series of disasters. On top of this, the courtier claimed Stilicho planned a coup to remove Honorius from the throne. An army revolt reinforced Olympius’ claims and led a panicked Honorius to order Stilicho’s execution. The general fled to Ravenna, but was captured. He did not resist and allowed his own execution rather than plunge the empire into civil war. Stilicho’s death led Honorius to lose Gaul, Spain, Britannia and opened Rome to the Visigoths.
Stilicho died on August 22, 408. He loyally administered and defended Honorius’ empire for 15 years. Historian Edward Gibbon proclaimed Stilicho “the last of the Roman generals.” Although not entirely accurate, the title conveys Stilicho’s importance. The general spent his time pacifying rebellions throughout the empire until it overwhelmed the government. Once this occurred his enemies struck him down. His death spelled grave consequences for the empire. Two years later, the Visigoths sacked Rome and a death spiral ensued.