Sunday, March 13, 2011

Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome by Ian Hughes

Ian Hughes, Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome, (Pen and Sword, 2010) 282 pages, Verdict?: 4/5 A detailed analysis of a neglected figure in a pivotal moment in history.

As a university student who undertook the rather odd enterprise of teaching himself extinct ancient Germanic languages, I was always on the lookout in second hand bookshops for books on Old English or, even better, Old Norse or Gothic.  Most of the ones I found had been superannuated to gather dust in these shops by the widows of Classics scholars of the earlier decades of the Twentieth Century, which was the last time my alma mater had bothered teaching something as non-vocational as philology.  On November 30 1992, in the period between handing in my Master's thesis and working out what the hell to do next, I found a musty copy of Rev. Joseph Bosworth's A Compendious Anglo-Saxon and English Dictionary, published by Gibbings and Company of 18 Bury Street, London, in 1901. Written back in 1838, it's worth keeping just for the Preface, in which the good reverend got rather excited:

Instead of continuing to associate with the Gothic tribes nothing but ignorance cruelty and barbarity, let us remember forever, - that we are indebted to them for our strong physical powers, our nervous language and our unrivalled freedom under our glorious constitution .... Disgusted by the effeminacy and vices of the Romans, they subdued the Empire and became its moral reformers.  .... Jordanes the Goth calls the north of Europe "the Forge of Mankind" - I should rather call it the forge of those instruments that broke the fetters manufactured in the south.  It was there those valiant nations were bred who left their native climes to destroy tyrants and liberate slaves and to teach men that, nature having made them equal, no reason could be assigned for their becoming dependent, but their mutal happiness. (Bosworth, p. iii)
The certainly don't write prefaces to dictionaries like that any more.  By the time Rev. Joseph had gone on for another couple of pages about the swelling breast of the proud Englishman as he contemplates his good old Germanic "freedom" and how superior this was to the tame and mincing "Romanised" word "liberty" he was probably ready for Mrs. Bosworth to serve him a nice cup of tea and suggest a quiet lie down.

But Dr Bosworth was writing in a period where quite a few descendants of those "Gothic tribes" were shaking off centuries of idolisation of all things Roman and starting to romanticise the Germanic tribes much as the scholars of the Enlightenment idealised the Romans.  Not long afterwards banker and amateur historian Thomas Hodgkin decided to write a history of the Germanic invaders of Rome.  Antiquarian hobbyists didn't do things by halves in those days and between 1880 and 1899 eight whopping volumes of his magisterial  Italy and her Invaders appeared, representing decades of detailed research and translation of source material and still worth reading despite some quaint asides a little like Rev. Bosworth's one above.  In this and other works of the time Stilicho's part in the defence of the Empire is given as much detail as most other prominent generals of the later Empire but they all tend to agree on one thing: he was from one of those "Gothic tribes" himself, because he was a Vandal.  Much was often made of his "martial skill" and his "determined vigour", all of which was thought to be due to his "northern blood" unsullied by the "effeminacy and vices of the Romans".  Thankfully, once the Nazis took this kind of thing to its most vile extreme, no-one writes like that any more.

Ian Hughes certainly doesn't in his book on Flavius Stilicho, which is, as far as I can tell, the first book-length study of the man's life.  He notes that we know very little of Stilicho's background and family other than that his father was a Vandal who had entered Roman military service and his mother was Roman.  Hughes notes that it's his Vandalic father who has got the most attention from historians, with speculation about what having a Germanic "barbarian" for a father might tell us about his later character and actions.  But he argues that it's Stilicho's mother who was probably more significant for how his career at least began:

Many nobles of barbarian origin were given high rank in the Roman army.  However, there is no evidence either they or their descendants were appointed to powerful posts at a young age.  This suggests that Stilicho's mother was of a sufficient status to help promote his career. (Hughes, p. 14)
Our first mention of the young Stilicho has him, in his early twenties, being dispatched on an embassy to the Persian Empire, which would certainly suggest he had family connections that made him already high up in the Imperial court.  So as romantic as the image of him as a shaggy-haired son of a wolfskin-wearing Wodan worshipper might have been for people like Bosworth and Hodgkin, his father was almost certainly a Vandalic noble who had risen to high rank in the army and married well into an aristocratic family.  Which means the young Stilicho would have been a Latin-speaking nobleman of the court with little in common with the tribesmen north of the Danube and west of the Rhine.

Stilicho, with his wife Serena and son Eucharius
Arms and Armour in the Later Roman Army

Hughes has already written a recent biography of another later Roman general, Belisarius, which came out in 2009 around the same time as a very similar book called The Gothic War by Torsten Cumberland Jacobson.  Hughes' book, titled Belisarius: The Last Roman General, is by far the superior of the two.  Most of what we know about Belisarius' Sixth Century campaigns in Justinian's wars against the kingdoms of the Vandals and the Ostrogoths in north Africa and Italy comes from the fawning hagiography of Procopius, who wildly exaggerates the odds against which Belisarius fought, presents his every victory (however minor) as the result of his personal genius and downplays his every setback and defeat as the result of treachery by jealous rivals and subordinates.  Cumberland Jacobson's dull, plodding book simply takes all this at face value and is effectively a lumbering paraphrase of Procopius with a few (bad) maps and background comments.  Hughes, to his credit, is much more sceptical of his sources and notes the many points where Procopius seems to be covering up his hero's mistakes and papering over severe divisions and flaws in the Eastern Roman military establishment.

It was not surprising to learn that Hughes is also an avid war-gamer, as he is one of the few historians of this period who demonstrates a genuine understanding of the tactics and strategy of the time and an appreciation of what a skilled, effective and well-equipped fighting force the later Roman Army was.  He pauses in his analysis of Stilicho's career to devote two detailed chapters to the Roman and barbarian forces respectively, trashing most of the myths about the late Army in the process.  Enthusiasts of the earlier Empire tend to have a misty-eyed devotion to the equipment of the "classic" Roman legionary of the later First Century AD, and regard the later army as a kind of degenerate, "barbarised" shadow of the older Army, with inferior equipment and training.  Recent research has demonstrated, however, that the equipment of the later Army was highly effective and that the "classic" legionary gear so beloved by Classicists, Hollywood and fanboys was abandoned simply because it was no longer up to the job.  When discussing the abandonment of the classic one-piece, spun bowl Roman helmet of earlier centuries for two-piece "ridge helms" and multi-piece "spangenhelms" Hughes notes that it is often claimed these later designs were inferior and were only adopted because they were cheaper and easier to manufacture:

These claims do not take into account the fact that the process of spinning iron can weaken it and lead to irregularities in the bowl.  This may account for the need to reinforce earlier, one-piece bowls across the brow. .... The new methods produced bowls that did not need brow reinforcement and were of a more uniform thickness and quality, since they were easier to work and toughen than the one-piece skull.  Although looking to modern eyes, with computer-driven accuracy, as if they are a step back, in production and quality they may actually have been an improvement on earlier helmets. (Hughes, p. 62)

Hughes also discusses the abandonment of the classic gladius short sword of the earlier legionary for the longer spatha.  He attributes this to Germanic influence on the later army, claiming the spatha was a Germanic design.  Personally, I think this is wrong - spathae had been used by cavalry units in the Roman army, well before there was any serious Germanic influence.  They had been adapted originally from Gallic cavalry sword designs had been been used because a cavalryman needs a longer, slashing weapon.  The short, stabbing gladius was abandoned by the infantry around the same time as they adopted the spear-like lancea rather than the classic two pilae javelins and dropped the rectangular, curved scutum shield in favour of round or oval shields.  All these changes happened in the Third Century and seem to reflect a radical change in infantry tactics, probably as a result of having to face a newly aggressive Sassanian Persian Empire with its strong cavalry forces.  The old equipment simply was not up to the task and so was rejected.

So rather than being a Germanic influence, the originally Gallic spatha was simply adopted by infantry from the cavalry as a weapon that gave them more reach in the looser and more flexible unit formations required by the new tactics.  In fact, the influence seems to have gone the other way.  When the gladius predominated in the Roman Army, we find it predominating the Germanic archaeological record as well.  Once the spatha was adopted by the Romans, we find it being adopted by the Germanics also.  It seems the Romans influenced the barbarians, not the other way around.

The Germanic barbarians, similarly, were very different to the small, weaker, fairly primitive tribes the Romans had fought and not quite managed to conquer in the First Century.  Four hundred years of cross-border warfare with Rome, service in the Roman Army by many of their young men and a militarisation of their society generally had forged them into far larger tribal confederations and newer, bigger, more powerful tribes generally.  While still less well-equipped and trained than the Romans, these tribes were able to field sizable forces.  Their other attraction for an increasingly cash-strapped Western Empire was that, as warrior societies, the men of these tribes were pre-trained, ready to fight and happy to do so for a price.  Paying them to fight for Rome as foederati was usually cheaper and far quicker than raising armies of reluctant civilian conscripts and then trying to whip them into a battle-ready force.  Though, as Stilicho was to find, this often came with a variety of political consequences.  The result of all these changes meant that the armies that Stilicho came to command looked far different to the Roman soldiers of four centuries earlier.  And they faced a far tougher job.

Soldiers of the Late Roman Army - Early Fifth Century

The Turning Point

Choosing Stilicho's career as a his focus gives Hughes the opportunity to throw some light on what turned out to be a pivotal few decades in the history of the Roman Empire.  When Stilicho was selected to be comes et magister utruisque militiae praesentalis, or supreme commander of the Western Empire's armed forces, in October 394 AD the Empire was relatively stable.  The Eastern Emperor Theodosius had just defeated the rebel Western general Arbogast and ended the bid by the usurper Eugenius to the Western imperial throne.  He installed his young son Honorius, then nine years old, as emperor of the West and needed a strong but trustworthy military commander to stabilise things during his son's minority.  Stilicho was apparently the perfect choice given his loyalty, presumably some proven military ability in the recent campaign and - most importantly - his marriage to Serena, who was the niece and adopted daughter of Theodosius.  This marriage made Stilicho part of the Imperial family, though not in the line of succession.  Theodosius judged, correctly as it turned out, that this association would be close enough make Stilicho loyal to the young Honorius, but not to tempt him to seize power for himself.

Stilicho did not really need to.  Theodosius died just months later, succeeded in the East by his seventeen year old son Arcadius.  With both halves of the Empire under the rule of Emperors who were still minors, Stilicho declared that the dying Theodosius had asked him to be parens - effectively guardian of both boys and essentially ruler of both Empires.  As Hughes notes, this appointment was only ever claimed by Stilcho and his propagandists, like the poet Claudian, and was never confirmed by anyone else.  Not surprisingly, it was disputed in the East, particularly by the eastern preafectus praetorio Orientis Rufinus, under whose care Theodosius had placed the young Arcadius when he left to campaign in the west. This was the beginning of a political rivalry between Stilicho and Rufinus, who were the real powers behind the throne in the West and East respectively.

Hughes' analysis of Stilicho's career highlights exactly how bitter this rivalry between the Western and Eastern Empires was and how easily it could and did flare into full scale war.  This is one element in this turning point that is often overlooked - not only did the Western Empire face barbarian incursions and rebel generals as well as Imperial usurpers in this period, but it did so alongside an Eastern partner that was often hostile if not actually at war with its Western equivalent.  The two halves of the Empire ruled by brothers were supposed to work together, as Theodosius had envisaged.  In effect, the rivalry between Stilicho and his eastern equivalents meant the two Empires increasingly drifted apart, with terrible consequences in the long run for the weaker Western half.

The other aspect of this turning point period that Hughes details very well is the role of Alaric.  Once again, the romanticised Nineteenth Century image of Alaric makes him into a Germanic folk hero - the brave young warrior king of the Visigoths leading his wild, nomadic tribe across the Empire, bringing it to heel with his prowess in battle and finally sacking the Eternal City itself before prematurely dying.  Thankfully Hughes cuts through the misty idealisation and depicts Alaric as what he actually was - another Roman general of Germanic descent whose main aim was higher rank in the Army for himself and money and land for his (mostly Gothic) troops and who was prepared to mutiny to achieve this.  Stilicho consistently outmanoeuvred Alaric when he needed to, used him and his troops for his own ends when it was useful to do so and defeated him in battle on a succession of occasions.

Alaric's sack of Rome in 410 AD has tended to cast Stilicho in a bad light and a great deal of ink has been spilled over whether this would have happened if Stilicho had followed up his earlier defeats of Alaric back in 402 AD by destroying his army the way he later destroyed the invading army of another Gothic leader, Radagaisus.  Hughes analyses the possible reasons Stilicho did not wipe out Alaric's defeated troops, which are mainly political, such as the idea he wanted to preserve Alaric's army now it had been cowed to use it against other, more serious threats.  But Hughes pushes a more military explanation, arguing that the later Roman Army used more cautious tactics than its early Imperial equivalent, since it could not sustain huge casualties and replace them as easily as the earlier Army.  Once Alaric had been brought to heel, Stilicho considered the job done and to attack him again would be to risk major losses to his already depleted military resources or, even worse, a wholesale defeat.

The boy emperor Honorius, by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1880
The Slide Towards Collapse

It has been traditional for historians to make a great deal of Alaric's sack of Rome as the key turning point and the marker of the final rush towards the collapse of the Western Empire.  But if there was a real pivotal moment in the fall of Rome it was one that came four years earlier, with the double blow of the rebellion of the Roman troops in Britain and the crossing of the lower Rhine by a motley collection of barbarians: Asding Vandals, Siling Vandals, Alans and a grab-bag of Marcomanni, Quadi and Allemani who are generally referred to simply as "the Sueves".  These events in mid to late 406 AD seemed reasonably minor in the scheme of things, but were to prove the real catalyst of the fall of Stilicho and the beginnings of the fall of the Empire.

In most treatments of this period the 406 invasion usually gets little more than a few lines and the consequences of the British rebellion often get ignored completely.  Hughes' two chapters on these events are the most detailed and careful I have seen and he does an excellent job of teasing the sequence of what happened from the often scanty and confusing sources (as he notes, one source does not even agree with the others on what year the invasion occurred).  Hughes' reconstruction of the nature of the invasion is interesting, particularly since he makes it clear that (i) the forces involved were initially fairly small, (ii) they were by no means united or even clear about their aims and (iii) the invasion was possibly not even reported to Stilicho until after the Frankish foederati on the frontier had been narrowly defeated by the invading barbarians.  The idea that this was some vast horde that poured over the border, sweeping aside the corrupt late Roman army is one of several myths associated with this invasion:

Confusion over the course of events is equally prevalent.  The renowned report that the Rhine was frozen is not upheld by any of our ancient sources.  It would appear to be a theory proposed by Gibbon, possibly to account for the lack of a Roman defence at any bridges that should have been defended .... This has been repeated so often that it is now accepted as fact, rather than as theory.
(Hughes, p. 180)
Gibbon strikes again, it seems.  What actually made this incursion significant was not its size or nature, but what happened next.  The rebel troops in Britain had selected a certain Gratian as their leader, but he was soon deposed and replaced by the propitiously-named Flavius Claudius Constantius, or Constantine III.  The new commander promptly declared himself Emperor and invaded Gaul.  There he won the support of the local troops by inflicting crushing victories on the Saxons, who had taken advantage of the Vandal/Alan/Suevic invasion by doing some invading of their own.  Bolstered by these new troops, Constantine advanced as far south as Lyon, where he set up his capital and began minting coins, while his commanders secured the roads to the passes over the Alps.

This new threat to the young Emperor Honorius made the barbarians, who had retreated back towards the Rhine in the face of Constantine's advance south, a secondary consideration for Stilicho.  But the general's grip on power was weakening.  His powerful political ally in the Senate, Symmachus, has died in 402 AD and new courtiers were beginning to get the ear of Honorius, who was now in his early twenties.  Unable to risk leading armies against Constantine himself, Stilicho dispatched and expeditionary force over the Alps under Sarus, who fought an indecisive campaign.  Constantine continued to consolidate his power in Gaul and into Spain and now Alaric began putting pressure on Stilicho and the Imperial government to grant him a huge amount in gold to pay for the up-keep of his army - the one Stilicho had failed to destroy in 402 AD.  Opposition to Stilicho in the Senate and at court hardened, led by a powerful courtier and administrator Olympius. With the news of the death of the Eastern Emperor Arcadius, the new powers behind the throne made their move.  Incited by Olympius, the army at Pavia mutinied, Stilicho's resented bucellarii - a personal bodyguard of Hunnic warriors - was ambushed while sleeping and destroyed and Stilicho was arrested and executed on Honorius' command.

The Vandal Who Saved Rome?

There is a trend in history books these days that says they have to have a catchy sub-title that will grab readers attention.  "The Vandal Who Saved Rome" might well catch the eye of a casual browser in a bookshop, but it certainly is not very accurate.  As noted above, it is very hard to accurately describe Stilicho as a "Vandal" in anything but the loosest sense.  But "Who Saved Rome" is an even bigger stretch.  Perhaps a generalissimo who was less loyal to the young emperor who eventually betrayed and killed him may have accelerated the end of the Empire, but Stilicho did not really "save Rome" at all.  Personally, I would argue this was because Rome was already beyond saving.  The inter-Imperial conflicts, usurpations, rebellions, mutinies and occasional invasions that punctuated Stilicho's career had been going on for a while and were accelerating.  And the cash-strapped Western Empire became increasingly incapable of stemming their ill-effects.

After Stilicho's execution, the usurper Constantine was defeated, but the Western Empire never fully regained control in Gaul and Britain which slowly slipped from its grasp.  The barbarians who crossed the Rhine in 406 AD had escaped undefeated thanks to the Romans' civil war and settled in Sapin, eventually crossing to Africa in 429 AD to take advantage of yet another inter-Roman conflict.  And that sealed the fate of the Western Empire.  With its richest province and the wheat supply of Italy in enemy hands, the end was by this stage inevitable.

The Western Empire did manage to stage one last hurrah, under another great magister militum, Flavious Aetius who managed to scrape a victory against Attila's Huns before the final collapse came.  Apparently the life and career of Aetius is Hughes' next book, and if this one is any indication it will be a welcome addition to the analysis of this turbulent period.


Humphrey said...

This review brings to mind my historiography course in which I looked at the late nineteenth century / early twentieth century 'Constitutional History' which was then in vogue. The basic thesis was that the vigorous, resolute and independent minded Anglo-Saxons purged and populated the British Isles before being infused with viking blood and 'tamed' by Norman feudalism. Thus by a great mixing of blood the pathetic 'bow legged' celt, dreading the the sea and rowing around it's shores in a miserable coracle, became the race of strapping seamen that went on to conquer the oceans.

Tommykey said...

Recent research has demonstrated, however, that the equipment of the later Army was highly effective and that the "classic" legionary gear so beloved by Classicists, Hollywood and fanboys was abandoned simply because it was no longer up to the job.

Tim, I don't know if you ever saw that gawd awful movie version of Attila the Hun with Attila played by Gerard Butler and Aetius by Powers Boothe. The Roman infantry depicted in the movie were virtually indistinguishable from the legions shown in Spartacus.

And from watching the movie without knowing the history, you would have never known that the mid-5th century Roman Empire was Christian.

Curt Emanuel said...

I used to consider Stilicho a great "what-if" topic; "What would have happened to the Empire if Stilicho had lived?"

After learning a bit more I decided that the answer was pretty much nothing, even if he'd managed to come to some sort of accommodation with Alaric. The better figure to attach that question to is Constantius III.

Good review.

The Ubiquitous said...

I was just reading Romans and Barbarians and was pretty entranced by the character of Stilicho. It's good to know there's a mostly accurate book about him, whatever the caveats.

Thanks a bunch for the recommendation.

The Ubiquitous said...

Ugh --- I got the title wrong. I was reading Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, A.D. 400-700, by J.D. Randers-Pehrson. That's embarrassing.