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Last Best Chance to Beat the Goths

Stilicho, Rufinus, Alaric and the Goths


Germanic Migrations and Conquests, 150-1066

Germanic Migrations and Conquests, 150-1066

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1911.

Obeying orders is practically the defining characteristic of military life. A good soldier says, "Yes, sir" and asks, "How high?" He doesn't stop to consider the ramifications or worry that jumping might not be appropriate.

No less than today this was true in the fourth century Roman Empire when one of Theodosius' sons, Arcadius, Emperor of the eastern division of the Roman Empire, ordered the commander (Magister Utruisque Militum) Stilicho (who was on the verge of defeating Alaric the Goth) to leave the battle field.

When Emperor Arcadius ordered the highly competent Commander Stilicho to depart, he was following the recommendation of Praetorian Prefect Flavius Rufinus. Rufinus had probably convinced the emperor that Stilicho was trying to steal the territory of the Eastern Empire. Rufinus' motives were complicated, personal, and not based entirely on concerns of what would be good for the Empire, although there were legitimate reasons to be concerned about Stilicho's intentions.

Marital Alliances

The conventional means of obligating one family to another was through a marital alliance, which is what Stilicho, but not Rufinus accomplished. In about 384, Stilicho married Serena, the niece and adopted daughter of Emperor Theodosius. Stilicho and Serena's son, Eucherius, was engaged to Theodosius' daughter Galla Placidia. Honorius -- Emperor of the West and the other son of Theodosius -- married two of Stilicho's daughters (Maria and Aemilia Materna Thermania) in succession.

Praetorian Prefect Rufinus wanted the same edge. He had a daughter whom he was planning to give as bride to Emperor Arcadius. Unfortunately for Rufinus, another equally ambitious member of the court of Arcadius, the chamberlain and eunuch Eutropius, secretly persuaded the emperor to marry a young beauty named Eudoxia who had belonged to a household friendly to Stilicho.

Alaric Obligates Rufinus

Besides being jealous of Commander Stilicho's imperial ties, Praetorian Prefect Rufinus had another reason to keep Stilicho from Alaric and the Goths. Under the leadership of Alaric, the Goths had destroyed much property in Thrace and Macedonia, coming right up to the walls of Constantinople. Alaric judiciously spared the property of individuals who could help him. Among these was Rufinus. His land spared, Rufinus negotiated with Alaric, with the result that the Goths left the capital and moved their train of destruction west.

Stilicho's Motives

Stilicho's motives for taking to Thessaly both the Western army and the Eastern troops Emperor Theodosius had left in the West in order to confront the Goths, may have included political ambition for himself and the young Western Emperor Honorius whose protector Stilicho had been named by his father-in-law, the dying Emperor Theodosius. Stilicho wanted to add the Prefecture of Illyricum, including Greece and the territory of the Balkan peninsula, to the Western Empire. He probably hoped he could cement this acquisition while the Eastern Empire was in his debt for ridding it of the menace of Alaric. Having Illyricum under the command of the Emperor of the West was not without precedent. In A.D. 379, the territory of Illyricum, till then under the control of the Western emperor, was ceded by the Emperor Gratian to his colleague in the East (Theodosius). Stilicho wanted the territory back because the area was what J.B. Bury calls "the best nursery in the Empire for good fighting men." Commander Stilicho needed more troops in order to defend the frontiers of the Empire against the Germans. To legitimate his claim, Stilicho said Emperor Theodosius had told him on his deathbed that the whole of Illyricum should be part of the Western Empire. Stilicho also claimed the dying emperor had named him protector of both his sons Arcadius and Honorius.

The Last, Best Chance to Defeat Alaric

In Thessaly, Commander Stilicho and his army faced the Goths under Alaric in the valley of the Peneius. Stilicho had the advantage and could easily have defeated the Goths had Arcadius not ordered him to depart and to send the Eastern troops back to Constantinople.


An obedient soldier, Stilicho complied. He left the Eastern troops under the command of a Gothic captain in the imperial army, Gainas, and took his Western troops home with him.

Under the command of Captain Gainas, the troops, previously led by Commander Stilicho, returned to Constantinople. Praetorian Prefect Rufinus accompanied Arcadius when the emperor went to greet the men. On November 27, A.D. 395, while the emperor saluted the troops, some of Captain Gainas' men closed in on Rufinus. They stabbed and killed him. While not proven, Stilicho was implicated in the murder.

Alaric proceeded to lay waste to many cities of Greece.

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The Empire was divided into four administrative units (prefectures) based on the tetrarchical division of the Empire set in motion by Diocletian:

  • Gaul (Britain, Gaul, Spain and the northwest corner of Africa)
  • Italy (Africa, Italy, the area between the Alps and Danube and the northwestern portion of the Illyrian peninsula)
  • Illyricum (Dacia, Macedonia and Greece)
  • The East (from Thrace in the north, Egypt in the south, and Asia).

The Praetorian Prefects of Constantinople and Italy were the highest ranking officials in the Empire next to the emperors.

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