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Stilicho (365-408) is often described as the last great successful Roman General, even though he was officially described as 'half Vandal' and therefore to then imperial Roman Empire rules, ineligible for the title of Augustus. He was the man to attempt to run both the Western and Eastern Roman empires via proxies or purple glove puppets but was in the end murdered on the orders of his own son-in-law and his body left to the dogs to chew.
Flavius Stilicho was officially the generalissimo of the Roman world - or 'Magister Militum Badassium' in Latin. His father Aerosolus was a Vandal and so let a riotous life of hooliganism in the Roman arenas until he ended up as lunch for a particular band of hungry lions. Stilicho's mother Almamater was a Roman aristocrat so when her husband died, she successfully got her son in the Roman army of Theodosius the Great, a pious Christian bigot with a filthy temper and murderous ways.
It seems Theodosius adopted Stilicho and gave him important duties like wiping the imperial arses of future emperors Arcadius and Honorius. These boys were Theodosius's genetic gifts to the Roman World but as they proved in their own particular reigns, both were spoilt ninnies with odious personal habits. Stilicho befriended both but decided that the younger boy Honorius would be more malleable when it came to taking over the empire from their father. So he adopted Honorius and promised he could play with his cousins Maria and Thermantia without getting arrested. At least that was the accusation from writers hostile to Stilicho but as was later to be proved, Honorius preferred the company of chickens over to humans and both women (and him unless he did something most foul/fowl), would all live and die virgins.
Stilicho's wife was Serena, a niece of Theodosius. The marriage seemed happy but Stilicho was ruthless in making sure he got his way about the disposal of the vaginas of his unfortunate daughters. It would do none of them any good in the end or the fate of his son by Serena, the curly mopped hair kid Eucherius.
edit Working Out with Theodosius
Stilicho followed Theodosius all round the Roman empire and built up his own army of allies from various odds and sods Germans, Scythians and the Alans - where everyman was called 'Alan'. He was also able to attract the nomadic Visigoths within the ranks and helped one particular soldier, Alaric the Goth to shave himself the 'Civilised' way and not to eat his food by simply sticking his head into a plate and eating from the centre outwards. Theodosius hoped that having someone who was at least half-barbaric like Stilicho present would teach the immigrants from across the Danube a modicum of good ol' Roman ways and to support the burgeoning imperial dynasty once Theodosius dropped dead. Which he did in Milan in January 395.
This was a tad awkward for Stilicho as he knew that the real power base of the Roman Empire was now in Constantinople rather than decadent/decaying Western Europe. He couldn't like Diocletian had back in 283-284, remove (or 'do nothing') when two emperors Carinus and Numerian had inherited their jobs from their father Emperor Carus and had both ended up dead shortly after. Stilicho's Vandal blood (the 'half Vandal blood prince' if you prefer) was considered by the plutocratic Roman class a counter jump too far. Stilicho could remain the Supreme Military commander and nothing else.
Yet the job came with no exact job description. Stilicho claimed he was de facto the Guardian for both Honorius and Arcadius but the later repudiated that and then refused to acknowledge Stilicho as a Roman representative of anything. Influenced by Stilicho, Honorius agreed and relations between Rome and Constantinople fell out of the bottom of the cordiality thermometer.
edit Alaric the Goth Comes to Italy
Not trusting that he would keep his head if he travelled East, Stilicho decided not to visit Arcadius or his henchgaul Rufino. Stilicho did live to see Rufino take a fatal tumble when rivals in Constantinople said he was 'too Gaulish' for them but the replacment was a eunuch which didn't seem to make it any better.
More productively, Stilicho had Honorius married to his elder daughter Maria and got to do some urgent repair work on the Western Empire's shaky defences. He even got to visit Britannia in around 399 where the locals were complaining about Anglo-Saxon immigration levels - the 'pagan peril'. Stilicho left a couple of legions there to keep law and order and returned to the Rhine frontier.
The big blot was the Visigoths. These unwelcomed visitors had long exhausted their asylum status and were hoping a juicy chunk of territory inside the Roman Empire to rule as theirs and act very 'Gothy' without interference. Eventually Emperor Arcadius revoked the Visigoths visas and ushered them towards the frontier with the Western Empire. By now Alaric had left the Roman army and took over his leadership role and headed straight towards Italy via the province of Illyricum.
Stilicho who was away fixing the Rhine frontier hadn't expected that move and in 401, the Visigoths had slipped passed the customs posts and were running up and down Italy like drunken yobs. Honorius ran off to Ravenna which was in the middle of a lagoon and safe from a quick sack and pillage. Rome itself got a close look at Alaric and his mob but they had their walls too and so for now, it was a standoff.
Unable to do any more sackings, the Visigoth army grew lazy and lethargic until Stilicho caught them in battle in 403 and thoroughly crushed Alaric's soldiers with the strategic 'nut grab'.
edit Mercy for the Visigoths
The defeated Visigoths could not expect much mercy but Stilicho had a better idea. Why don't they return East - he was sure Arcadius had been bluffing that he was fresh out of bribes. Alaric agreed but returned only as far as the Balkans to rebuild the Visigothic strength. To Stilicho's Roman enemies, this looked like rank collusion and now warned Honorius that his father-in-law was a danger. This chorus of fear was increased when Honorius's younger sister, Galla Placidia added her two denari's worth of bile - mainly aimed at Stilicho's wife Serena and her cousins.
Honorius declined to hear their pleas, he was far happier looking after his chickens and it took awhile to notice that his wife Maria had been dead for the last few months. Stilicho had also overlooked this but simply replaced one dead daughter with his other one Thermantia who looked exactly the same as her sister. She also slept in a full swaddle of clothing and so prevented any accidental touching by Honorius.
edit Collapsing In
By juggling his legions about, Stilicho had defeated the Visigoths but he had left the Rhine frontier very short of Roman soldiers in hob nailed sandals. In December 406 a horde of disgruntled Germans slide across the frozen River Rhine and crashed into the West Roman Empire. This sparked a revolt in Britannia who refused to pay any more taxes to Rome and elected their own emperor, a slippery chancer called Constantine III. Proclaimed emperor in York (like Constantine the Great), the new purple challenger reckoned he could repeat the actions of his namesake 101 years ago and take over the entire empire.
Stilicho sent armies north but whether it was to challenge the usurper or throw the Germans and their friends back across the Rhine wasn't made clear. Confusion was all about but Stilicho promised he would push the Visigoths eastwards and then sort out Gaul and Britain.
In early 408 Emperor Arcadius died after swallowing a pin ball in a particular violent game of "Master of My Own Destiny". His successor was Theodosius II, aged just seven years old. There then seems to have been a misunderstanding where Honorius thought he could move to Constantinople and take over there (as 'senior idiot partner' said one Roman wag) and leave Stilicho to run the tumbling Western Empire. Stilicho said it would be much better if he went as he had a lot of contacts there and knew how to squeeze the right throats to get his way.
Accusations that Stilicho was aiming for the purple covered throne now finally entered Honorius's ear and he ordered the arrest of Stilicho. He also encouraged the slaughter of Stilicho's army which was a bit of a bad move as now the Visigoths (if they had any plans to go East - they got ditched) re-invaded Italy. Blaming everyone except for the chickens what was going on, Honorius had his father-in-law executed, his wife repudiated and had Eucherius 'minced' outside a church in Rome. Galla Placida then accused her cousin Serena of 'waving to the Visigoths to come back and slaughter us' and she was dispatched too. Only Thermantia survived but was stuck in a nunnery for the rest of her short life.
Honorius hoped he could renew his extended holiday plans in Constantinople but when you had just killed your best general and murdered most of his army, the emperor never was able to get away from Ravenna in the end. Shucks!