Gibbon, Part 4: Theodosius and the Last Roman General

In the last two posts, we reflected on the latter half of Volume I of Gibbon. Struggling under its immense size and the frequent civil strife of the 3rd century (including a period so tumultuous that it is known as the Crisis of the Third Century), the empire finally found some long-term stability during the reign of Constantine. Christianity was legalized and flourished. Unfortunately the descendants and successors of Constantine never managed to sustain this state for long, and the barbarians who were always at the gates were more than happy to take advantage. The Gothic War, and in particular the devastating Battle of Hadrianople, was the first time in centuries (or perhaps ever) that Rome was so decisively defeated by barbarians, losing battles which were never revenged. (Compare that to the infamous defeat at the Battle of Gergovia in 52 BC during Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which ended with the complete defeat of Vercingetorix at Alesia a few years later.)

During the reigns of the next few emperors which we shall now cover as part of the first half of Volume II, the Empire continued to decline. The East-West division of the empire had become entrenched since the rule of the brothers Valentinian and Valens. While the Eastern Empire still continued to be able to maintain an appearance of security and even opulence in the beautiful palaces of Constantinople, the Western Empire suffered several more devastating defeats from the barbarians, resulting in inexorable, permanent decay and its final demise.


The empire had a last moment of greatness, however. Emperor Gratian was a weak, ineffectual emperor who eventually became victim to a rebellion headed by a Roman general named Maximus. Theodosius, who had earlier been elected and appointed as emperor of the Eastern empire after the death of Valens in the Battle of Hadrianople, was too late to come to his rescue and he had to concede the countries beyond the Alps to Maximus, while Valentinian II (brother of Gratian) continued to rule over the the rest of the Western empire. Eventually, when Maximus invaded Italy, Theodosius rescued the Western empire by his superior military genius and an army including Huns, Alani, and Goths. The rule of Valentian II continued, until he was assassinated by a provoked barbarian general named Arbogastes. Arbogastes raised a puppet emperor in the West, Eugenius, an accomplished and respected rhetorician who had served as master of the offices. Theodosius marched against him with a Roman army filled with Iberians, Arabs, and Goths, the last of which included the later-to-be-famous Alaric. Despite the formidable natural obstacles of the Alps, Theodosius met the armies of Arbogastes head on, and was initially repulsed, only to be rescued by a fortunate storm that did not affect his armies but devastated the Gauls and Germans of Arbogastes. Eugenius and Arbogastes were defeated and Theodosius emerged as sole ruler of the entire Roman world. But he died only four months after his final victory, and the two halves of the empire were passed on to his sons, Arcadius and Honorius.

Theodosius’ numerous virtues was counterbalanced by the critical observations by contemporary historians that during his time Roman society was as luxurious and effeminate as ever. Gibbon remarks on the apparent decline of the quality and discipline of the Roman legions, due to the exposure to the refined manners of the courts of the Eastern empire. This is cited as one of the immediate factors of the overall decline of the empire. From the time of Gratian, the legionaries were too weak to continuously wear their heavy armor and hold up their large shield which had been the defining feature of the Roman military since the inception of the Republic. In contrast, the barbarian armies had started to adopt the use of heavy armor, so the situation was reversed: now the Romans warriors were naked and the barbarians armored. However, Gibbon adamantly holds that this was not particularly Theodosius’ fault, but that “their profuse luxury must have been the result of that indolent despair which enjoys the present hour and declines the thoughts of futurity” (Chapter XVII). The indolent despair was the result of the calamities of the Gothic War.

Theodosius’ reign was also marked by the final victory of Christianity over the surviving remnants of paganism. This was a special event, in Gibbon’s view, due to its “total extirpation”; no other any ancient beliefs in any society were extinguished with such totality. The pagan religious institutions of the Pontiffs, Quindecimvirs, Augurs and Vestals had existed since the beginning of the senate. Even Christian emperors accepted as a formality the religious office of supreme pontiff. Despite the attempts of Constantius to destroy pagan religious symbols and monuments, many persisted and were restored by Julian, and tolerated by Valentinian and later Christian emperors. The senate remained a stronghold of paganism. But Gratian was the first to completely reject these profane offices. The Catholic clergy continued to lobby the government to formally repudiate paganism. In particular, the renowned Ambrose argued that attributing military victories to pagan gods was an indication of superstition which would make humanity relapse into barbarism. During the reign of Theodosius, who was very strongly Christian, Jupiter was officially condemned by the entire senate. While there continued to be some feeble opposition, in time, all the major senatorial families were converted to Christianity.

Pagan sacrifices and divination were formally banned and declared and declared an act of treason against the state. The altars and temples used for them had to be destroyed to “prevent temptation,” and the masses of zealous Christian monks and clergy were more than happy to do it personally. Interestingly, unlike the persistent Christians under the persecutions of Decius and Diocletian, few pagans were willing to die as martyrs for their faith, and many acquiesced to be baptized and became Christians. Theodosius himself never enacted a law which explicitly required all pagans to convert to Christianity, and many persistent pagans were allowed to ascend to high posts in his government. The high praise for this clemency is dismissed by Gibbon as typical of a “nation of slaves.” But Christianity itself became corrupted over time through the increasing worship of saints and relics. Churches and monasteries saw the opportunities for enriching themselves by acquiring and verifying more of these treasures, which were more valuable than gold. These also helped to accelerate the rate of persuasion and conversion to Christianity, supported by numerous reports of accompanying miracles and visions. The growing prominence on external symbols became reflected in the development of Christian liturgy and ceremonial practices. This paradoxically became the small final revenge of polytheism

The sublime and simple theology of the primitive Christians was gradually corrupted; and the MONARCHY of heaven, already clouded by metaphysical subtleties, was degraded by the introduction of a popular mythology, which tended to restore the reign of polytheism…
…The religion of Constantine achieved, in less than a century, the final conquest of the Roman empire: but the victors themselves were insensibly subdued by the arts of their vanquished rivals.
(Chapter XVIII)

The Last Roman General

Theodosius was the last emperor to personally lead his troops to battle. Starting with his sons, supreme field leadership of the military was entrusted to prominent generals, some of whom became saviors of Rome, and others who ended up threatening the throne. Rufinus was one of them. He was a Gaul, a favorite of Theodosius who was elevated to prefect of the offices in Constantinople. Upon the Theodosius’ death, Rufinus became the de facto ruler of the domains of the 18-year-old emperor Arcadius. Gibbon stresses his extreme ambition and avarice, boldly trampling and executing any rivals and persecuting the people. Ultimately his dream was to marry his daughter to Arcadius. But in a sudden twist of fate Arcadius chose to marry a different woman, Eudoxia, the daughter of a Frank general, which invited widespread ridicule on him.

Rufinus’ rise was counterbalanced by his counterpart Stilicho in the West. Touted by Gibbon as “the last of the Roman generals” (Chapter XXX), Stilicho’s father was actually a Vandal cavalry soldier in Roman service. He rose through the ranks from a normal soldier to master-general of all Roman forces in the West and married Theodosius’ niece, Serena. Stilicho won over the loyalty of the troops of the East, who under the command of Gainas the Goth killed Rufinus in the roads outside Constantinople. Stilicho also had to contend with the rebellion of Gildo the Moor in North Africa, brother of Firmus, another Moor who had rebelled against Valentinian I. Stilicho cleverly used his other brother Mascezel (with whom he had had a power struggle and had taken refuge in Milan) against him to defeat him. After Gildo was vanquished, Mascezel died in a suspicious accident over a bridge, conveniently solidifying Stilicho’s command over all the Roman armies. Stilicho’s daughter Maria then married the emperor Honorius, who turned out to be incapable and passionless. Hence Stilicho became de facto ruler of the entire Western empire throughout his reign.

Not before long, the Goths started a revolt under the command of the great Alaric. As typical of Gibbon, he posits the fundamental cause to be their growing dislike of Theodosius’ effeminate, non-military sons. The Goths swept through Greece, sacking Athens and forcing other major Greek cities to surrender. Gibbons sardonically laments the embarrassing powerlessness of the Greeks to resist the invaders at all, in contrast to their illustrious ancestors, such as the Spartans who fought at Thermopylae. They were only stopped by Stilicho’s forces, who unfortunately chose to celebrate his early victories instead of crushing them once and for all, giving time for Alaric to escape, conquer the province of Epirus, and negotiate a treaty of surrender with the Eastern court. Instead of being punished, Alaric was recognized as an official magistrate of the provinces he conquered, and eventually promoted to the rank of master-general of the Eastern Illyricum. He intelligently used this opportunity to modernize his barbarian army and make them proclaim him king of the Visigoths. Both eastern and western governments were powerless to stop him when he revealed his real intentions of invading Italy. Alaric successfully advanced and started approaching the Imperial palace in Milan. At the last moment, Stilicho went over the Alps and managed to assemble an army consisting of barbarian troops, including Alemanni and Alani cavalry. All legions guarding provinces in Gaul and Germany were recalled for the defense of Italy, as by this time Italy itself was too powerless to be able to muster up its own forces. Stilicho’s forces rescued Honorius in time and pressed back the Gothic forces, eventually defeating them at the Battle of Pollentia. Alaric once again escaped intact with his cavalry, still resolved to continue to invade Rome. Unwilling to fight another battle, Stilicho sent him a generous offer of a peace treaty, which would allow him to retreat and even give him a pension. While Alaric was predisposed to reject them, the chieftains under his command pressed him to accept it. In the end he succumbed, and Rome was again saved from the barbarians. However, in response to the danger which the emperor had been exposed to in Milan (which had been the Imperial capital of the Western empire since the time of Diocletian), the capital was moved to the more secure and isolated site of Ravenna.

But different troubles were brewing in the North. The Topa people from northern China (precursors of the Mongols) invaded China and established a new dynasty (the Northern Wei). They pressed the barbarian tribes of Europe in Germany and Eastern Europe to the West, pressuring them to retreat to the territories of Rome. Radagaisus, a barbarian from northern Germany, rallied as many as 200,000 men under his banner consisting of Vandals, Burgundians, Suevi, and Alani. They started marching down to invade Rome, and besieged Florence. Just as they were about to surrender, Stilicho again came to the rescue, defeating the invaders and executing Radagaisus. Stilicho wanted to pursue the remnant of his armies which were still beyond the Alps and were intent on invading Gaul. He successfully convinced the Franks to defend Rome. They initially defeated a large number of the Germans but were ultimately repulsed by the arrival of the Alani. The invaders continued unabated to occupy Gaul, and Gibbon regards this as the end of the Western empire beyond the Alps.

Meanwhile, Britain was also experiencing some tremors: the soldiers started a series of revolts, elevating several of their own emperors after another. Eventually they settled on a private soldier named Constantine. Constantine successfully landed in Northern France and reconquered many formerly Roman Gallic cities which had been overrun by the barbarian invasion. He continued downwards, only to raise the alarm of Honorius, who ordered his own armies to stop him. Constantine was besieged in Vienna, but the Imperial armies lost and were forced to negotiate their safety from him, and he went on to conquer Spain, where the only meaningful resistance were from the family of Theodosius. Stilicho tried to enlist the help of Alaric’s remaining forces to stop Constantine, but this was turned against him by the minister Olympius, who accused him of scheming against the emperor. The Deliverer of Italy’s illustrious career was over and he was executed.

Constantine’s rebellion was eventually successful, being recognized by Honorius as a co-emperor of Gaul and Spain. But his one of his own noblemen, Count Gerontius, rebelled against him and besieged him in his capital Arles. He was rescued by his general Constantius, who proceeded to turn against him, and defeated and executed him.

The Sack of Rome

With Stilicho out of the way, Alaric once again invaded Rome. The ministers of Honorius made the fatal mistake of massacring the families of the barbarian auxiliaries who had been faithful to Stilicho and were staying in Italy, causing them to defect over to the King of the Visigoths. Rome was vulnerable, being unable to muster its own citizens in the surrounding area to defend itself, and the emperor chose to abandon the city, being safe in Ravenna. Alaric ended up performing three sieges of Rome. The first was relieved by the payment of a large ransom including 5,000 pounds of gold. Alaric continued to Ravenna to negotiate with Honorius. But persuaded by the obstinate Olympius, they sent out 6,000 soldiers to attack Alaric’s forces instead, who were quickly annihilated. Alaric proceeded to besiege Rome for the second time. He took over Ostia, where the grain reserves of Rome were kept, and the threat of famine persuaded the city to surrender to Alaric’s new demands that a new emperor be crowned in the place of the absent Honorius. Attalus, prefect of Rome, was invested with the purple.

Alaric continued to try to negotiate the fate of the empire with the Imperial government in Ravenna. Attalus at first tried to gain the loyalty of the African provinces, but they failed, and in time he was forcibly stripped of his crown by the Goths. During negotiations, Sarus, a Gothic general allied to Honorius, sallied out of Ravenna and attacked Alaric. Enraged, Alaric approached Rome for the third time. This time, the city was finally undone by a conspiracy of slaves and servants who opened the Salarian gate.

The King of the Visigoths entered Rome as a triumphant conqueror, and proceeded to sack the city for the first time in history. By the standards of sackings, this sack of Rome was comparatively mild, as Alaric implored his troops to exercise restraint, spare the unresisting citizens, and respect the Christian churches and sanctuaries. Some of the recently converted Christian Goths stayed true to their new faith. But all the same, much wealth was looted, many citizens were still massacred, several important buildings such as the Gardens of Sallust were burned down. After only six days of sacking, the Goths evacuated Rome and continued to devastate the southern provinces of Italy. Alaric wanted to continue towards Sicily and eventually Africa, but many of their ships were destroyed in a sudden storm and Alaric himself prematurely died.

Alaric’s brother-in-law Adolphus was elected to replace him, and he moved his army permanently into southern Gaul, conquering Narbonne, Toulouse, and Bordeaux. But Adolphus proceeded to become attached to the cause of the Roman empire, seeking an alliance with Honorius. Despite early resistance, this was cemented by marriage to Placidia, a daughter of Theodosius. The Goths proceeded to withdraw completely from Italy, and within a few years all vestiges of the Gothic invasion were gone. Later, Adolphus would assist Honorius in quelling the rebellion of the brothers Jovinus and Sebastian. Unfortunately, he would be assassinated by a follower of Sarus, the former Gothic general of Honorius who had defected to the rebels and killed by Adolphus. Adolphus was succeeded by Singeric, then Wallia, whose plans to invade Africa once again failed due to storms and shipwrecks. With the armies of the general Constantius backing up the position of Rome, Wallia made a treaty that allied him with the empire. Wallia proceeded to vanquish the barbarians in Spain, and faithfully returned them to Honorius.

Despite this successful temporary alliance with the Goths, the long term future of the Western Empire continued crumbling under Honorius. The Goths, Franks, and Burgundians invaded and occupied regions in Germany and Gaul with little resistance from the Imperial government. Similarly, Britain liberated itself. These developments were not only allowed, but officially recognized by Honorius himself. The Western Roman Empire was thus reduced to the province of Italy.

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