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‘Dagli altari alla polvere.’ Alaric, Constantine III, and the downfall of Stilicho

  • Jeroen W. P. Wijnendaele EMAIL logo


It has been frequently asserted that the western Roman supreme commander Stilicho’s neglect of the Transalpine provinces during the usurpation of Constantine III contributed to his eventual downfall in 408. Stilicho’s fatal flaw, in this recurring opinion, seems to have been a desire to annex eastern Illyricum for which he sought to employ Alaric. In a volte-face, he then wished to use Alaric as the leader of the western field army that was supposed to bring down Constantine. The aim of this article is to advance several notes of critique on this narrative that has had a long life in Stilichonian scholarship. Instead it will demonstrate that a) the threat of Constantine has been overestimated, b) Stilicho had no designs on annexing eastern Illyricum, c) he had a military strategy ready against Constantine that was sound and in tandem with earlier civil wars, and d) that the intended role of Alaric during this enterprise has been misunderstood. Nevertheless, Stilicho’s military strategy in 408 proved to be fundamentally corrosive towards his hitherto carefully built-up political capital. Olympius, the architect of his demise and his precise knowledge of Stilicho’s army preparations, as befitted the magister officiorium, provided the former with the perfect material to fabricate stories of Stilicho coveting a throne while neglecting the west. This set in motion the plot that ultimately brought down Stilicho.


Aspects of this article were presented at the ICAEM “Power and (Op)position in the Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean World” conference at the University of Tartu, where I received helpful comments by Maurits de Leeuw and Lynette Mitchell.


I would also like to thank Viola Gheller for specific feedback and an advance insight in her new monograph on the Goths, and the peer-reviewer of this journal for their constructive response. The final results of this article were made possible thanks to generous research funding provided by the “Research Council of Flanders” (= F.W.O.) and a stay at the University of Tübingen as part of the “Migration and Mobility in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages” programme.


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Published Online: 2018-12-01
Published in Print: 2018-11-27

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