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Stilicho: The Vandal who saved Rome by Ian Hughes

Book Review by Philip Matyszak

Welcome to the dying days of the Roman Empire, where in some cases the dying was very literal. This is the world of Flavius Stilicho, the general who struggled desperately to hold the disintegrating western empire together. Though he struggled against constant barbarian incursions, rebellions and usurpers, Stilicho's worst enemies were his fellow Romans in the Roman senate, and the courts of the eastern and western emperors.

Given that Stilicho dominates Roman history at the start of the fifth century, it is at first surprising that his life has not until now been the subject of a definitive biography. This lack is partly explained by the fact that Late Antiquity has come into its own relatively recently and at a time when biography is unfashionable in academic circles. The other part of the explanation is that the life of Stilicho is dogged by controversy, unreliable sources, and a diabolically complex cast of characters. Add the fact that most of the pivotal decisions of the period emerged from murky political intrigues rather than open (and therefore publicly reported) debate, and it becomes very difficult to establish exactly what happened, let alone why.

Our guide through this historical morass is Ian Hughes, author of a well-received biography of Belisarius. In that book, as with this, it immediately becomes apparent that the writer is thoroughly on top of his subject. He seems intimately familiar with his sources, and manages the difficult trick of extracting the maximum of useful information while at the same time remaining healthily sceptical of the motives and accuracy of those providing it.

For example Hughes points to a shift in attitude of an ancient source, and convincingly demonstrates that this is because the source was copying from even older writers who were biased in one way or another. When the source changed writers, the bias in the text changed as well. And as Hughes points out, there is no such thing as an impartial writer in this period. People wrote to justify religious viewpoints, to glorify patrons and to vilify political opponents. The task of determining the real motivation for what went on at this critical time is left for later historians to grapple with, and has left a legacy of controversy which remains to this day.

This book does not shy away from these controversies but tackles them head on. Hughes has his own very clear opinions on these matters, and a comprehensive grasp of the details. So for example, when he describes why Stilicho launched his disastrous attempt to conquer Illyria, he gives a highly convincing description of the personal and strategic incentives which drove Stilicho to do so. Stilicho the man and the general is viewed dispassionately in the text. Hughes makes no attempt to magnify Stilicho's achievements or to hide his faults. The sub-title of the book 'the Vandal who saved Rome' is not developed as a thesis, and is perhaps intended more to catch the attention of a potential reader browsing the bookshelves. (That Stilicho should be considered a 'Vandal' is something Hughes himself dismisses.)

One of the interesting features of this book is Hughes' treatment of Alaric, the Gothic leader with whom Stilicho's career was intimately intertwined. In this portrayal, Alaric is not an opportunistic barbarian who selfishly leapt at any opportunity for enrichment whatever the consequences for Rome. Instead Alaric is a major player in a complex political situation, who needs to meet the demands of his men. His attacks on the Roman Empire are shown as efforts to force the Romans to take him seriously rather than as attempts to bring down the empire. Indeed, Hughes on occasion makes a point of reminding readers that although we are well aware that the western empire was on the verge of collapse, this was by no means apparent to those who were there at the time, and consequently we see events from a very different perspective.

If Alaric is not one of the book's villains, the senators of Rome certainly are. Hughes seldom has anything good to say about the senate. In his opinion they expected Stilicho to crush Rome's enemies while constantly denying him the money and manpower with which to do so. When Stilicho quite reasonably responded by refusing to fight battles unless he could do so without losing any of the men he already had, the senate despised him for it. The senate also objected vigorously to Stilicho's use of barbarian troops, especially the wholesale recruitment of barbarians whom he had recently defeated. In fact, by Hughes' argument, it was a backlash against Stilicho's use of barbarian troops which eventually brought about his downfall.

Overall, this is a gripping read. Those experts already familiar with the period will find plenty of new and controversial material to get their teeth into, and newcomers will find this biography a fascinating introduction. One problem beginners will face is that the author tries to accommodate both those new to the period, and readers familiar with it. This means that at the beginning the reader is confronted with a bewildering range of names and titles. Perseverance is required before one determines that people such as Bacius (Magister Militum Vacans) are not relevant to the central plot and can be forgotten, while others, such as Sarus (prospective magister militum) need careful watching.

Fortunately, the author is aware of the problem, and the book includes lists of the main protagonists and the historical sources for the material. These are supplemented by expertly drawn maps - though with the maps the issue of whether to use ancient or modern names is never fully resolved. By and large the maps use ancient place names, though Roma on p.183 is 'Rome' on p.18, and Augusta Treverorum on one map is Trier in the text below.

In a small way these discrepancies serve to illustrate just one of the many obstacles which Hughes has had to overcome in bringing this biography of Stilicho to the general public. That he succeeds so well in overcoming the rest is a testament to his expertise and knowledge of the period, and the end result is both intriguing and satisfying.

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Stilicho: The Vandal who saved Rome - Related Topic: Roman Timeline 5th Century AD


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