Flavius Stilicho (occasionally written as Stilico) (ca. 359 – August 22, 408) was a high-ranking general ("magister militum") and Patrician of the Western Roman Empire, notably of semi-barbarian birth.


Stilicho was born in Germany the son of a Vandal father and a Roman mother. Despite his father's origins there is little to suggest that Stilicho considered himself anything other than a Roman, and he was probably not Arian like many of Germanic Christians and probably Nicene Orthodox because of his high rank within the empire. Most emperors, being Catholic/Orthodox, would have not trusted the Empire's security to an Arian, but a Catholic/Orthodox general, and Stilicho rose in rank under Theodosius I, who declared Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

He joined the Roman army and rose through the ranks during the reign of Theodosius I, who ruled the Eastern half of the Roman Empire from Constantinople, and who was to become the last emperor to rule both the Eastern and Western halves of the Empire jointly. In 384, Theodosius sent him as an envoy to the court of the Persian king Shapur III to negotiate a peace settlement relating to the partition of Armenia. Upon his return to Constantinople at the successful conclusion of peace talks, Stilicho was promoted to general and was tasked with defending the empire against attacks from the Visigoths, a role that he undertook for some twenty years. The emperor recognized that Stilicho could be a valuable ally, and to form a blood tie with him, Theodosius married his adopted niece Serena to Stilicho. The marriage took place around the time of Stilicho's mission to Persia, and ultimately Serena gave birth to a son, who was named Eucherius, and two daughters, Maria and Thermantia.

After the assassination of the Western Emperor Valentinian II in 392, Stilicho helped raise the army that Theodosius would lead to victory at the Battle of the Frigidus, and was one of the Eastern leaders in that battle. One of his comrades during the campaign was the Visigothic warlord Alaric, who commanded a substantial number of Gothic auxiliaries. Alaric would go on to become Stilicho's chief adversary during his later career as the head of the Western Roman armies Fact|date=September 2008. Stilicho distinguished himself at the Frigidus, and Theodosius, exhausted by the campaign, saw him as a man worthy of responsibility for the future safety of the Empire. The last emperor of a united Rome appointed Stilicho guardian of his son, Honorius shortly before his death in 395.

Following the death of Theodosius, Honorius became emperor of the Western Empire, and his brother Arcadius of the Eastern half. Neither proved to be effective emperors, and Stilicho came to be the "de facto" commander-in-chief of the Roman armies in the West. In this capacity, Stilicho proved his abilities energetically, although political manoeuverings by agents of the two imperial courts would hinder him throughout his career.

His first brush with such court politics came in 395. The Visigoths living near the Danube were under pressure from the Huns, and had recently elected Alaric as their king. Alaric broke his treaty with Rome and led his people on a raid into Thrace. The army that had been victorious at the Frigidus was still assembled, and Stilicho led it toward Alaric's forces. As this army, a combination of formations from both halves of the empire, marched into the Eastern Empire, Arcadius recalled the Eastern formations to Constantinople. Arcadius was acting on advice from his Praetorian Prefect, Rufinus, who was an old enemy of Stilicho. Stilicho obeyed the order and sent off his Eastern troops, leaving him too weak to effectively move against Alaric. Rufinus gained little from his victory over Stilicho, as the returning troops killed him upon their arrival in Constantinople.

Two years later, in 397, Stilicho defeated Alaric's forces in Macedonia, although Alaric himself escaped into the surrounding mountains. The same year saw him successfully quell the revolt of "comes" Gildo in Africa. Subsequently he was deployed to Rhaetia in 401, where he led an extensive campaign against his former kinsmen, the Vandals, and other barbarian marauders. Stilicho would also fight two more major battles against Alaric, at Pollentia in 402 and Verona in 403. In 405, he ordered the destruction of the Sibylline Books, because Sibylline prophesies were being used to attack his government.


Despite his successes, his non-Roman background tainted him in the eyes of the imperial courtiers and others, notably Olympius (who had a grudge against Stilicho) and the Pagans (who hated Stilicho for the burning of the Sybilline books), plotted his death in 408 AD. The courtiers spread rumors that he had planned the assassination of Rufinus, that he was intriguing with his old adversary Alaric, that he had invited the barbarians into Gaul in 406, and that he planned to place his son on the imperial throne. The Roman army at Ticinum mutinied on August 13, killing at least seven senior imperial officers (Zosimus 5.32). This was followed by events which John Matthews observed "have every appearance of a thoroughly co-ordinated coup d'etat organized by Stilicho's political opponents." [John Matthews, "Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court AD 364–425", Oxford: University Press, 1990, p. 281.] Stilicho retired to Ravenna, where he was taken into captivity. Although it was within his ability to contest the charges, Stilicho did not resist, either because of loyalty to Rome or for fear of the consequences to the already precarious state of the Western Empire. He was executed on August 22, 408. His son Eucherius was murdered in Rome shortly afterwards.


In the disturbances which followed the downfall and execution of Stilicho, the wives and children of barbarian "foederati" throughout Italy were slain by the local Romans. The natural consequence was that these men (estimates describe their numbers as perhaps 30,000 strong) flocked to the protection of Alaric, clamoring to be led against their cowardly enemies. The Visigothic warlord accordingly crossed the Julian Alps and began a campaign through the heart of Italy. By September 408, the barbarians stood before the walls of Rome.

Without a strong general like Stilicho to control the by-now mostly barbarian army, Honorius could do little to break the siege, and adopted a passive strategy trying to wait out Alaric, hoping to regather his forces to defeat the Visigoths in the meantime. What followed was two years of political and military manoeuvering, Alaric, king of the goths, attempting to secure a permanent peace treaty and rights to settle within Roman territory. He besieged Rome three times without attacking while the Roman Italian Army watched helplessly, but it was not until the deal had fallen through a fourth time that he attacked and sacked the city in August 410. The removal of Stilicho was the main catalyst leading to this monumental event, the first barbarian capture of the city in nearly eight centuries and a presage of the final collapse of the imperial west.

Fictional treatments

Stilicho has appeared in a number of fictional works, both as a protagonist and as an antagonist.
* Stilicho is the main protagonist in the 1901 novel "Stilicho" by Felix Dahn (a part of the "Kleine Romane aus der Völkerwanderung" series), where he is portrayed as a loyal and honest general.
* In the early novels of Jack Whyte's Arthurian series. In these books he had a notable connection to the Britannicus family, whom Whyte ties to the legends of Merlin, Arthur, and Camelot.
* In the first of William Napier's Attila trilogy (2005). He is killed on the orders of Princess Galla Placida, who suspects him of plotting with young Attila, their royal hostage.
* In Wallace Breem's novel "Eagle in the Snow" as an ancillary character.
* in a modification of the strategy game Rome total war, Stilicho is a western Roman general.



Besides the relevant legal records in the "Codex Theodosianus", the major primary source for the events of Stilicho's reign, or at least events prior to 404, are the panegyrics addressed to him by the poet Claudian. For events after 404, Zosimus is a main source, although as a Byzantine, he felt a strong distaste for Stilicho. Stilicho also maintained correspondence with his friend, the renowned pagan senator Symmachus.

Further reading

* Bury, J.B. "History of the Later Roman Empire".
* Claudian. "De Bello Gildonico"
* Claudian. "De Consulatu Stilichonis"
* Claudian. "In Eutropium"
* Claudian. "In Rufinum"
* Ferrill, Arther. "The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation".
* Gibbon, Edward. "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire".
* Zosimus. "Historia Nova".

External links

* [ Claudian at LacusCurtius] (A collection of Claudian's works in both Latin and English, including his panegyrics for Stilicho.)

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