"The celestial gift, which Achilles obtained, and Alexander envied, of a poet worthy to celebrate the actions of heroes, has been enjoyed by Stilicho in a much higher degree than might have been expected from the declining state of genius, and of art." -Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Magister Militum Flavius Stilicho was the last great hero of the Western Roman Empire. At a time when all of the noble Patrician fat cat losers around him were busy being a bunch of obnoxious, lazy, back-stabbing sycophants more obsessed with slaves, jewelry, and top-shelf hair products, this old-school stoic honor-bound barbarian-smiting warhammer of Imperial justice was out there proving that even though she was dying and decaying from the inside, the blood of Caesar, Scipio, Marius, and Agrippa still coursed through the veins of Roman Empire. He rose from the rank-and-file of the Roman Legions to serve on the Emperor’s bodyguard, marry the Emperor’s daughter, take command of all Roman armed forces, and then defended the Eternal City from barbarian invaders at the gates not once but twice despite being underfunded, outnumbered, and having every single logistical problem in the Ancient World kicking him in the balls every time he tried to take a leak. In twenty years of military service to the Empire this dude fought off unstoppable hordes of rampaging enemy soldiers with a handful of legionnaires cobbled together at the last minute, and he defended the realm without ever sacrificing his personal honor or his duty to the Emperor. Nowadays he goes down in history as the last great warrior of Rome, and his tragic death marks the end of the Western Empire as we know it.
Flavius Stilicho was born in Germany around 365 AD. We don’t know a whole lot about his early days because the Romans didn’t really bother writing down information about kids who didn’t come from well-known wealthy Roman families, but we do know that his mother was a Roman provincial and his father was a Vandal, which was a tribe of Germanic barbarian dudes who were super in to smashing mailboxes with baseball bats and tagging graffiti on highway underpasses. Stilicho’s dad was a cavalry officer serving the Roman army as an auxiliary, and as soon as Stilicho was old enough to heft a gladius over his head he enlisted in the military to get busy with the head-cracking. He was a badass archer, horseman, and hand-to-hand fighter, a charismatic leader, and a steel-plated tactical genius, and at a time when it was pretty common for soldiers from good families to just pay for military promotions like a dude trying to unlock a Counterstrike skin, Stilicho never once accepted a promotion that wasn’t based purely on merit.
Stilicho first shows up in history in 383 AD, when he was selected to command an honor guard sent by Emperor Theodosius to negotiate and ratify a peace treaty with the King of Persia. Stilicho negotiated that shit like a boss, returned to Constantinople in triumph, flexed his pecs, and married the Emperor’s daughter Serena, who basically fell in love with him as soon as she saw his six-pack. Marrying the Princess of Rome is pretty badass by itself, but Serena was a shrewd diplomat herself, and she was deftly able to defend him from the machinations of his enemies. Her behind-the-scenes political skills are what kept this guy alive and in power at a time in history where most powerful men ended up futilely trying to remove six-inch blades that had just been embedded in their spines by their best friend.
The Emperor’s son-in-law continued rising through the ranks of the military. He commanded the Emperor’s personal bodyguard, and then was trusted with a sizeable portion of the Imperial army at the Battle of Frigidus in 394 AD. Stilicho opened the attack by sending forward his expendable barbarian infantry head-on into the enemy, which resulted in a lot of dead barbarians, which is fine by him, and then while the enemy was busy chopping up the Germans Stilicho flanked around with the cavalry and broke the enemy forces with a pincer move. The enemy commander – Emperor Theodosius’ brother – was captured executed on the battlefield.
Well Emperor Theodosius died in 395, and he left his empire to his two young sons, setting up a divide between East and West that would never really be reunified again. Because the emperors weren’t old enough to rule, Stilicho was put in charge of governing the West, and a total asshole named Rufinius was sent to help manage the East. Rufinius was a scheming, self-serving jerk who had willingly ordered one of Stilicho’s best friends to his death, so clearly the next logical step was for the brothers to start killing each other. And that’s totally what was about to happen, but then all of a sudden there was a rebellion by a tribe of long-haired Germanic barbarian warriors called the Goths.
Oh hey, remember a minute ago when I was talking about all those barbarians who got mulched into sawdust during the Battle of Frigidus? Well, their commander was a guy named Alaric the Bold – a man you should be familiar with if you’ve read the first Badass book – and Alaric the Bold didn’t get a nickname like that by sitting around and letting a bunch of sandal-wearing Roman d-bags use him as cannon fodder. Alaric the Bold declared himself King of the Goths, kind of like a 5th-century Morrisey, and went to work devastating the Greek countryside at the head of a screaming horde of axe-swinging German marauders.
Stilicho immediately raised the armies of Western Rome, sailed across into Thrace, and crashed his armies head-long into the Goth menace. Bloodied and defeated, Alaric retreated further into Greece to escape the wrath of Rome. Stilicho chased him, forced him up a mountain, and then surrounded the mountain with heavy siege engines.
Over in Constantinople, Stilicho’s old pal Rufinius decided that the only thing that made him more upset than a rampaging band of plundering Germans was a full-scale Roman army led by Stilicho walking all over his territory, so even though Stilicho had Alaric’s nuts in a vice he was ordered to back down and get the hell out of the East. Stilicho was pissed but agreed, and as a parting gift he sent a couple of his troops over to Constantinople to murder Rufinius. Which they did.
Stilicho returned to Italy to find that one of the provinces in North Africa had rebelled against the Romans, which honestly was just totally not acceptable behavior for those dudes. Their governor, a guy named Gildo, was refusing to send food to Rome and declared himself King of an independent North Africa. Well that wasn’t going to fly. Stilicho first provided for the Roman people by importing food from Gaul, and then he went across the Mediterranean and beat some Imperial sense into the rebel king with a couple javelins to the face, smashing Gildo’s armies so bad that Gildo killed himself. After dealing with that nonsense, Stilicho returned to Rome and cemented his claim to power by marrying his daughter Maria off to the 14 year-old Emperor Honorius, which is kind of gross, because Maria and Honorius were first cousins, but Gibbon says that Honorius died a virgin so I guess that’s some small consolation in that.
It’s worth mentioning that Honorius is pretty much a worthless ruler with all the charisma of a week-old pre-chewed chunk of bubble gum. He spent all day in his decadent palace feeding his pet chickens and pigeons, he never showed any inclination to rule whatsoever, and pretty much anybody that met this dude in person immediately lost all respect for Roman rule and attempted a rebellion. Gibbon himself states in his own inimitable fashion that “In the eventful history of a reign of twenty-eight years, it will seldom be necessary to mention the name of the emperor Honorius.”
Ok, so around this time Alaric the Bold was getting pretty bored of reducing the cities and townships of Greece to blood-stained burning rubble, so the King of the Goths set his sights on Italy and went full-throttle across the Alps with the intention of beating the Emperor to death with his own dismembered leg. Honorious, hearing reports of the rampaging onslaught of Visigoths beatboxing their way towards his castle, immediately prepared to flee for his life like a coward.
Stilicho told him hang on. I got this.
Now, the Western Roman Empire at this point in time is completely falling apart. The vaunted Legions of old are gone. There is a minimal standing army. There’s not much money to raise one. The citizenry are either lazy or rebellious depending on where they live. But Stilicho had a city to defend, and the only thing standing between the Emperor’s skull and a barbarian axe was the Last Great Roman Warrior, and this guy was going to be damned if the empire fell apart on his watch. Stlicho rode his horse hard across the Alps in the dead of winter, braved the ice and snow into Gaul, and started cobbling together every single fighting man in the Western Roman Empire. He recalled garrisons as far north as Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. He left entire regions undefended on critical borders. He pulled recruits from German tribes that were among Rome’s biggest enemies and stripped garrisons from cities. Basically if you could hold a spear parallel to the ground and thrust it in a vaguely-menacing way, you were going to get called up to face-shank some Visigoths in a fight for your life.
Alaric the Bold burned, plundered, and pillaged his way through Northern Italy, finally arriving outside the Emperor’s palace in Milan in the Spring of 402 AD. Honorius freaked out and ran for it, fleeing with an entourage of toga-wearing dignitaries who wore sandals to work and smelled like flowers all the time, but the battle-scarred, warmongering Visigoths caught up to him and the Emperor had to take emergency refuge in a small walled fort just south of the Alps. The Goths surrounded the fortress, set up siege equipment, and prepared to ransom themselves an Emperor.
But then, just when all appeared lost, on the horizon a lookout spotted something amazing. General Stilicho, protector of Rome, was swimming across the fucking Addua River with a vanguard of thousands of Roman soldiers. When they reached the far side, they pulled themselves out of the water and began lining up in battle formation.
It was around this time that Alaric started receiving reports of Roman Legionnaires marching through basically every single mountain pass in the Alps, all streaming towards the Goths’ position in sweeping arcs.
In the moment of his greatest victory, Alaric the Bold was about to be completely surrounded by Roman soldiers ready to fight and die to protect the Empire.
The battle that followed was a crushing Roman victory. Stilicho captured Alaric’s camp, took his wife prisoner, freed all the slaves Alaric had taken during his march, and recovered priceless treasures that had been looted from towns ranging from Constantinople to Rome. Alaric escaped with about half of his force intact, and tried to attack the Italian city of Verona on his way out of town, but once again Stilicho beat him to the punch – Stilicho had bribed some of Alaric’s disgruntled chieftains to spy on him for Rome, and when Alaric emerged from the mountain pass outside Verona he was attacked on three sides by Roman forces and smashed to bits.
For being the Defender of Rome, Stilicho was given a Triumph through the streets of the city. Sitting in the spot of honor next to the Emperor, Stilicho led a parade of his victorious soldiers, prisoners, and treasure while all the citizens of the city came out and cheered their hero. In the last 100 years of the Western Roman Empire, only three men received this honor, and Stilicho was the only one who had accomplished the feat without having to kill other Roman citizens in the process.
(It’s not really related, but it’s worth noting that this event also marked the last time gladiator battles ever took place in Rome. During the games at the Coliseum that followed the triumph, one particularly violent gladiator battle was interrupted when a badass, fearless Asiatic monk named Telemachus came running out onto the battlefield and tried to separate the two fighters. Telemachus was killed when angry fans threw rocks at him, but Emperor Honorius was in attendance when this went down and he was so horrified by the whole thing that he banned gladiator games forever.)
But, as I’ve said, these are dark times for Rome, and it wouldn’t be long before Stilicho was going to need to save his people once again. This time it was in 405, when a humongous horde of Ostrogoths crossed the Danube under the command of a warrior named Radagaisus and began immediately creating chaos, mayhem, and destruction. Stilicho once again cobbled together an army out of nowhere – he promised freedom to slaves who would fight for him, abandoned the defenses anywhere he could spare it, and somehow put together 30 Legions of Roman Infantry to stare down a Gothic horde that was easily three or four times his size.
Time was short, and Radagaisus’ Goths were moving much too quickly. By the time Stilicho had finally built a half-decent army, he was receiving word that the Gothic army had surrounded Florence and was attempting to starve the population into submission. He was going to have to work quick if he wanted to save the people of that city – and the people of Rome, who were only about 180 miles away from Florence.
Stilicho marched his army as hard as they would go. The people of Florence held out bravely, thanks in no small part to the inspiring speeches of St. Ambrose, and then, just when it was starting to look like the Ostrogoths were going to break through the city defenses, “All of a sudden, they beheld from their walls the banners of Stilicho, who advanced with his united force to the relief of the fateful city; and who soon marked that fatal spot as the grave of the barbarian army.”
Stilicho couldn’t afford to lose his valuable troops on a battle in the open, so he took a page out of the Julius Caesar playbook – he surrounded the besiegers and set up a humongous series of defensive works that bottled the Goths up in a ring around the city. Radagaisus tried multiple times to break out of the trap, but Stilicho’s Romans held the line against wave after wave of barbarian attacks. Disease, hunger, and attrition ravaged the Goths. When Radagaisus met with Stilicho to make peace, Stilicho arrested him and sent his head back to the Goths in a catapult. When the rest of the Goths surrendered, he had them all sold into slavery.
Because that’s what happens when you fuck with the Roman Empire when it’s led by a badass Roman commander.
Stilicho continued to kick asses for Rome, putting down a Vandal invasion and containing a rebellion in Gaul, but despite all the heroics he’d accomplished for the Empire Stilicho wasn’t completely immune to subterfuge and political backstabbing. First, the Senate thought Stilicho had gone soft when he agreed to pay Alaric the Bold not to attack Italy again… which is dumb as hell because negotiating peace to avoid an unwinnable battle is a hell of a lot smarter than having your homeland burned to ash. Then some of Emperor Honorius’ advisors, jealous of Stilicho’s power and influence, started convincing the Emperor that Stilicho was going to overthrow him and seize power. Or that Stilicho couldn’t be trusted because he was half-German and therefore had divided loyalties. Or something.
A large number of Stilicho’s friends and top generals were ambushed and murdered by their own men in 408 AD. A barbarian warrior broke into Stlicho’s tent and tried to murder him as well, but Stilicho defeated that guy, escaped, got to a church and asked for sanctuary so he could write a letter telling the people of Rome never to open their gates to the barbarians and to defend their Empire and their cities to the last man. When Imperial soldiers finally came to arrest him, the great Roman hero went outside with them willingly and was executed by beheading in the Church courtyard. He was 49 years old.
Less than two years after Stilicho’s death, Gothic armies under Alaric the Bold invaded Rome once again. With no one left to defend the empire, Alaric encircled Rome in 410 AD, stormed the walls, and his barbarian warriors sacked the city with sword and fire.