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Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome Hardcover – 19 Jun 2010
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About the Author
Formerly a teacher, Ian Hughes is now a professional author and freelance copy-editor and cartographer. This is his second book, following Belisarius: The Last Roman General (Pen & Sword, 2008). He is already working on the next: Aetius: Attila's Nemesis.
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The picture that emerges of Stilicho is more sympathetic than many accounts. The great J.B.Bury famously described Stilicho as an unwitting traitor. Whereas Aetius is almost universally acclaimed as both a brilliant general and a man who managed to hold the Western half of the Empire together through a 20 - 30 year period where it faced a multitude of threats and the loss of Africa, Stilicho is often seen as an unscrupulous seeker of power. Hughes demonstrates that Stilicho was loyal to the House of Theodosius until near the end of his life when he recognised that a rapprochement between Constantinople and Ravenna was unlikely and that even then he remained loyal to Honorius. Perhaps the relationship that has defined Stilicho's place in history more than any other is that with the great Gothic leader Alaric, the Goth who sacked Rome. Often blamed for conspiring with Alaric and reaching secret agreements to their own mutual benefit at the expense of the Empire Hughes presents a strong counter argument that this was not the case. Surprisingly given that Stilicho is remembered as a military strong man and fine general, it is perhaps his generalship that does not shine brightly in this book.
There is something rather tragic about the stories of Stilicho and Aetius. Both were men who in an earlier era of Roman history could have become famous as conquerors or generals vanquishing the Empire's enemies yet who because of their time were destined to expend their efforts trying to hold back the decline and fall of the Empire in the West, fighting against both internal and external enemies with inadequate resources and weak Emperors. In the case of Honorius it does seem that there was a mutual loyalty between Stilicho and Honorius until very near the end so in that respect at least he was perhaps more fortunate than Aetius. The death of Stilicho resulted in a great upheaval, the sack of Rome by Alaric and the creation of the Gothic kingdom in Gaul which would further encourage the Germanic migration into the Empire. The short sighted vindictiveness of Roman soldiers in slaughtering the families of the German troops serving in the army was spectacularly ill judged. Few Roman's seemed to recognise the inherent contradiction of turning against Stilicho was increasingly Germanising the army whilst at the same time the great Roman senatorial families and estates refused to support the army and provide Roman recruits at a time when the Western army had been mauled by the Eastern army under Theodosius and when it faced so many external threats. Stilicho had few options other than to recruit more and more German troops.
A very fine book, recommended highly.
First, this was a very difficult, but badly needed, piece to write. Just like Aetius, about whom Ian Hughes is just about to publish his next book (in the same collection), Stilicho, his actions, his successes and his failures have always been controversial, even before his death. As Hughes shows rather brilliantly, this was largely because many of his actions did not conform to "Roman traditions" as seen by the Roman senators. Nowadays, we might be tempted to say that he was "not politically correct" (and that's the "nice" version, the other one being to brand him as a "traitor") when recruiting barbarians to beef up the numbers of the Roman army or when failing to utterly destroy and massacre the barbarian armies he faced.
Second, Hughes in fact shows that Stilicho's regime was much weaker than you (or at least I) would haveexpected: the "strongman" was rather vulnerable because his resources were constrained so much and his political backing was unstable. Moreover, his vulnerability increased over time. Most of the land in Italy and Sicily, Africa and most of Gaul had become concentrated into the hands of a small but powerful minority of landlords of which some of the richest were, of course, the senators of Rome. These would bring all their (considerable) influence to bear so that Stilicho (or any other emperor for that matter) would NOT conscript troops from among their workers while, at the same time, deploying similar efforts to minimize or escape their tax burdens. However, they also ressented and criticized any efforts in making up the army's numbers through Germanic recruits as "barbarization". Since Stilicho needed their support, he seems to have been caught between a rock and a hard place and this is one og the things that Ian Hughes shows so well. For anyone who might want to learn more about these aspects, try "The Rome that did not FAll" - a detailed but older analysis comparing the two halves of the Empire and explaining why one half fell but the other one survived.
A third more general point is the author's ability in presenting the sources and discussing the various events, their most likely explanation and their consequences while never being either boring or pedantic. Quite often, I found the story both captivating and fascinating. A related qualify is that the author is never aggressive nor arrogant or pretentious, as others tend to be. So, there are no "so is so is wrong and has simply missed the point" but rather "a more likely explanation is that... (and the reasons for this explanation being more likely than this one are provided and discussed in detail). Finally, Ian Hughes is (or at least comes across as) modest: when he believes we don't know, he just states it.
There is however one little gripe. The structure of the book is narrative and chronological, which is fine. Each chapter is made up of sections with subtitles where you learn about what X or Z was doing while Y was - say - preparing his campaign. This can be great because it makes the narrative somewhat livelier than it would otherwise have been. However, Hughes tends to be quite often repetitive with many sectionsz and most chapters starting with recaps of the points made just previously. While this is certainly done with the best of intentions (the author tries it utmost to ensure that the reader does not get confused), it can also be a bit annoying sometimes.
The last point I want to add is about his assessment of Stilichon. I found it rather lukewarm, almost harsh (for instance: "Stilicho was an able, if not gifted general"). To some extent, it is even unfair given everything that was stacked against him, and as the book clearly shows. What Hughes probably means was that Stilicho made multiple mistakes and did as much as he could for as long as he could, before finally failing. But then, who never makes mistakes? And what can one ask from someone than to try their utmost and die in the attempt? The cruel answer is probably success and Stilichon failed...
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