"It is a frustrating and intriguing challenge to write the history of this period. Ian Hughes sets himself an even more difficult task in writing a biography of Stilicho, where the central thread is the career of just one man. It is well worthwhile, for it is always good to remind ourselves that men like Stilicho, Honorius and Alaric were just human beings. Historians rightly concern themselves with wider social trends, where the successes and failures of individuals are seen principally as illustrations of broader patterns. Yet this is not how people actually live their lives, and it is very dangerous to remove this human element from history."
The lead up to and "fall" of the Western Roman Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire continued for another 1000 years as Byzantium) in the 4th and 5th Century is a time of turmoil. Primary sources are fragmented and sometimes contradictory, giving the novelist lots of leeway, but making the historian/biographer's job tough. Stilicho is one of the major figures of this time. Born of a Vandal father and high-born Roman mother, he married Theodosius the Great's niece (and adopted daughter) Serena and spent his life fighting for the empire. After Theodosius' death, he raised the emperor's son Honorius and daughter Galla Placidia. He effectively ruled the Western Empire during Honorius' minority, putting down usurpers and fighting barbarian incursions while balancing the politics of the Roman Senate. He eventually falls afoul of the "anti-barbarian" faction in Western Roman politics, not because of his own parentage, but because he incorporates barbarians into the Roman army. Stilicho faced enormous challenges both external and internal while trying to save the Empire.
I've read and reviewed several biographies in the past year (both for pleasure and research.) Those authors blessed with a plethora of primary sources can tell their subjects' story in their own words and those of contemporaries. Those without have addressed the challenge in different ways. Schiff in Cleopatra: a Life, speculated on emotions and even put thoughts in her subjects' heads. A choice that made the book highly readable, but was troubling to me. Hughes presents what is known, takes sides in the historical controversies, but is also not afraid to say "we don't know" when there is no evidence. This is a dense book, both in pages and information. The style is a bit dry, but a wonderful resource for anyone interested in this time period.
- Title: Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome
- Author: Ian Hughes
- Publisher: Pen & Sword Military, 2010
- Format: Hardback, 282 pages
Note: I purchased this book for my own research, the opinions in this review are my own.