Throughout human history, the truly seismic events that fundamentally changed to course of our civilizations are almost always complex, multifaceted affairs. Add to this the patchy record of many such events, often coming to us through biased or ill-informed sources, and what we are left with is an incomplete picture at best, and an outright misconception at worst.
Do we know if the Carthaginians, in their desperation in the face of their great enemy Rome in the Punic Wars, resorted to child sacrifice? The Romans say they did, but these are hardly unbiased sources. Similarly we know of the Bronze Age collapse, a cascade of falling civilizations, was caused by the arrival of the “Sea Peoples” but who these people were is almost completely mysterious.
Rarely can the fall of a great empire be placed at the feet of a single man, but with the western Roman Empire this is the case. One man could have saved Rome, or rather two men whose histories are intertwined. These men are Flavius Stilicho, Rome’s last great general, and his emperor, Honorius.
An Empire Under Siege
By the end of the 4th century AD Roman Italy was under constant attack. Invasions by two separate Gothic kingdoms into Gaul and Hispania (ancient France and Spain), as well as attacks by countless smaller warlords, were a constant threat to the Pax Romana. However, when Visigothic king Alaric entered Italy itself in 401 AD the situation became dire indeed.
By this time the Roman Empire was in a fragmentary state, and the role of emperor was a dangerous one. Honorius had ruled in effect since the age of two, used to absolute power since before he could walk. And after the death of his father Theodosius I, the empire had been split into two: Arcadius Honorius’s brother, would rule from Byzantium, and Honorius would rule from Milan.
Rome may not have been the capital or either portion of the empire any more, but it was still the talismanic city of the Romans. Milan, while preferrable to Honorius, was alarmingly close to where Alaric had invaded, and so Honorius moved to Ravenna: very safe for him, but far from the center of the Roman world.
To defend the empire Honorius looked to one man, his great general Stilicho. Married to the emperor’s daughter and the emperor’s guardian before he came of age, this grizzled old veteran was perhaps the only man who could save Rome from the Visigoths.
And save her he did. Alaric’s 401 AD invasion was fought off, as was another invasion by a competing warlord named Radagaisus in 406 AD. After another rebellion, this one internal and from Britain, Stilicho made the Alps impregnable to prevent Italy being threatened at all. Rome was safe.
Like Another Fall of Man
But in order to safeguard the center of the empire, Stilicho had withdrawn troops from elsewhere. In a string of rebellions through Gaul and across the Rhine river the western Roman Empire was looted. Honorius blamed Stilicho.
What happened next has the appearance of a carefully organized political coup aimed at the great general. Accused of treachery and faced with the mutiny of one of his own armies, Stilicho stepped aside from the defense of Rome and retired to Ravenna in 408. There, on the orders of his emperor, Rome’s last great general was executed for crimes of which he was likely innocent.
Alaric needed no further encouragement, and crossed the Alps that same year. Without a strong army or the necessary leadership to stop him, he laid siege to Rome, which fell in 410 AD to the Visigoths. It had been 800 years since Rome had fallen to an outside invader, and the shock to the empire changed it forever.
Could Stilicho have saved Rome? Most probably. Could he have saved the empire? Probably not. His realistic appraisal of the situation gave the eternal city life for a few more years before she was destroyed. But her last great general was killed for political gain, and she was lost.
Top Image: A weakened Rome would be sacked several times by aggressors following Alaric’s example, her treasures stolen and her monuments destroyed. Source: Karl Bryullov / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green