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Meet the New Boss: Stilicho, the rise of the magister utriusque militiae and the path to irrelevancy of the position of Western Emperor

Cancella, Michael

Certain figures in history undertake actions that reverberate down through time; their successes and failure continue to have consequences centuries after they have died. One such man was Flavius Stilicho, magister utriusque militiae of the Western Roman Empire, guardian of the child Emperor Honorius, senior military commander of all Roman forces in the west and de facto ruler of the Western Empire from the death of Theodosius I in January 395 until his execution on August 23rd, 408. Thirteen years is barely a blink in time, but during his short reign Stilicho's establishment of an entirely new position amongst the western Roman military hierarchy, magister utriusque militiae or master of both services, led to the dawn of the pre-eminence of the senior military figure in the west; pre-eminent indeed over even the Emperor himself. Stilicho's aim had been to aggrandize the military power unto himself and then to use that military power to influence and control the civil and administrative power of the west. He did so out of necessity as the Emperor Honorius, his nephew and guardian, was a mere nine years old at the time of his succession. Stilicho succeeded in making the position he held powerful enough to successfully oppose the enemies of the Empire for over a decade despite having a child Emperor on the throne. The long-term consequences of his actions on the Empire were less than beneficial, however, as this shift in power to the titular head of the Western Empire's military led to the eventual demise of the position of the Emperor in the west, as that role had become so entirely irrelevant that it was simply abolished by one of Stilicho's magister militum successors in 476 AD. Stilicho had a larger aim, however, than being de facto leader of the Western Empire. He wanted to become not just the senior military commander of the Western Empire and guardian of the Western Emperor Honorius, but to extend his control over all military forces in the Empire and to become guardian of the Eastern Emperor as well, Arcadius, the older brother of Honorius. His obsession with fulfilling this desire greatly influenced his actions and his failure to achieve this end had disastrous consequences for himself and for the Western Empire he ruled. This paper will examine the reign of Stilicho from three perspectives: his military campaigns, especially those against his nemesis Alaric, his adversarial relationship with the eastern court at Constantinople and his internal political agenda through which he arguably managed to accrue more power to a non-Emperor than any other individual before him. These perspectives on Stilicho's career will be analyzed and a new picture of Stilicho, a figure much maligned as at least incompetent and labeled by some as a traitor, will emerge. He was a man who did not possess the necessary resources in money or manpower to defend the Empire and although a talented administrator and a skilled politician, he did not have a the paramount skill set needed, especially in the military arena, to overcome this shortfall in resources and in the end the issues confronting him overwhelmed and destroyed him.

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History
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B.A., Columbia University

Notes

Senior thesis.

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