The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 57
At Theodosius’ death in 395, Honorius assumed the role of emperor of the west, with his brother Arcadius becoming emperor of the east. At his accession Honorius was only 12 years old and Theodosius had appointed a guardian to watch over matters of state for him, the Master of Soldiers, Flavius Stilicho. Stilicho was half Vandal, half Roman, and married to the emperor’s cousin Serena. The daughter of this couple, Maria, was married to the young Honorius in 395.
In 403 Italy was terrified by an invasion of the Visigoths, smashing their way into the very homeland of the empire. But Stilicho, gathering troops from the Rhine, Britain, and from wherever else he could, managed to halt their advance and force them back out of Italy. Meanwhile Honorius decided to move his residence from Mediolanum (Milan) to the greater safety of Ravenna in 404. Yet Italy was far from safe.
In 405 the Ostrogoths, who had in previous years been gradually forcing their way across the Middle Danube, flooded over the Alps into Italy. But once again Stilicho saved the day, by decisively defeating them at Faesulae. Stilicho now made plans to attack the eastern empire, yet he was forced to abandon them in 406 as huge numbers of Vandals, Suevi, Alemanni, Alans and Burgundians crossed the frozen Rhine. Moguntiacum and Treviri fell to the invaders who then spread out into Gaul in a wave of utter destruction. In such desperate times, Stilicho saw no other means to save the empire as to buy off the Visigoths. The price demanded was 4,000 pounds of gold. The senate was unwilling to yield such an obscene amount of money, but Stilicho forced them to comply.
However, the pressure brought to bear on the senate cost Stilicho dearly. The senators resented his methods and conspired to rid themselves of him. Soon after Stilicho was accused of plotting with Alaric, leader of the Visigoths, to depose Honorius and instead make his own son Eucherius emperor of the west. The troops at Ticinum were persuaded to stage a rebellion against their leader and in 408, Stilicho surrendered to the emperor at Ravenna and was executed.
The effect of Stilicho’s downfall was disastrous. Stilicho’s many German soldiers thereafter all went over to Alaric in order to avoid persecution by the Romans. Alaric himself, no longer hoping for the bribes to keep the peace he had received from Stilicho, now marched on Italy. Rome was only rescued by payment of another vast payment by a reluctant Honorius.
For a short period Alaric and Honorius strangely coexisted in Italy. Then, in 410, Alaric’s camp was attacked by Sarus, another Visigoth leader. Alaric believed this attack to have been done on Honorius’ behalf, and so broke off all negotiations with Honorius and marched on Rome. Agents within the city opened the gates and on August 24, 410, the Visigoths fell upon Rome and sacked the ancient city for three days.
Thereafter Alaric moved on into the south of Italy. Apparently he had plans to embark and conquer Africa. But before any of this plan could be put into action, Alaric died in 410. In 411 the able commander Constantius, who was to become Constantius III in 421, became Honorius’ leading military commander.
While the Visigoths, now led by Alaric’s brother-in-law Athaulf, was still lingering in Italy, the empire of the breakaway Emperor Constantine III was collapsing. It broke down, partly because of the revolt of one of his officers in Spain, and partly because of the military talent of Constantius.
Returning to Italy, Constantius effectively drove the Visigoths out into Gaul in 412. Having rescued the western empire from utter destruction, Constantius was rewarded by being made co-Augustus in 421 and his wife Galla Placidia was invested as Augusta.
However, the eastern emperor, Theodosius II, refused to accept either the elevation of Constantius III or of Placidia, which led to threats of war by Constantius III and a renewed deterioration of relations between east and west. But after a reign of only seven months, Constantius III died.
After Constantius’ death, Honorius began making advances towards Galla Placidia, embracing her in public. Not merely did this cause public outrage but it alienated her from him and she fled to Constantinople in 423, taking the two sons of Constantius III with her. In the same year, 423, Honorius fell ill and died.