Political Stupidity

One often hears or thinks, when being afflicted by the latest ‘news’: just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse… Implied here is some floor, some level of stupid or bad beyond which any more stupidity or badness is simply unthinkable. Well, I’m here to break the bad news: We’re not close yet. Things can get just a whole lot more stupid and evil.

To illustrate – and, I’m doing this from memory and am not going to look it up, because I’m just going for the general outline here – let’s look at the events leading up to Alaric’s sacking of Rome, as told by R. A. Lafferty in his book The Fall of Rome (reviewed here).

First, start with some very shrewd politics – what one might expect from the Roman empire: the practice of hostage exchanges. You, the Roman Emperor, would arrange to send ‘exchange students’ as it were, to the courts of the leaders of your allies who supply your ‘auxiliary’ troops; they send you some as well, to live at your court. These hostages were the roughly teenage sons of the leading families.

Golden coin depicting man with diadem facing right
Honorius. Manages to look like a goof
on his own coin.

Thus, the Romans had natural spies – a 15 year old Roman nobleman had most likely already been sent on diplomatic missions by his patrician father, and in any event had been raised from the cradle to be a Roman, with all the discipline and focus that ideal entails. Meanwhile, the barbarian noble boys were sent to Rome (or Constantinople) to be overawed by Roman greatness and to be made into Romans as much as possible.

The Romans would get back detailed reports on their ‘allies’ while sending back young men who, it was hoped, had learned to fear, admire, and yearn for Rome.

It even kind of worked.

Now, around 390, Theodosius has at his court a group of Goth and Vandal boys to train up – and makes, according to Lafferty, the extraordinary decision to train them up to be true leaders, going so far as to tell them that any one of them could end up Master General or even emperor, and thus needed to be prepared to lead and rule.

Stilicho, Theodosius’s Master General and one of history’s most impressive characters, had some part in this. He was a one-man advertisement for the greatness and goodness of the Empire: a Vandal lord, yet more Roman than Caesar and more Catholic than the Pope. He was the kind of man who could step into a room full of hardened soldiers and silence them with a glance. His will was iron, and his bravery and prowess the stuff of legend. He and the emperor shared the belief that the Empire was the chosen tool of God to preserve and propagate the Faith, and knew they had to bring the barbarians into the process for it to succeed.

Awesome, and not stupid or evil. It’s what happens next that establishes my personal ‘how bad can it get?’ floor:

Theodosius had two sons, and the Empire was split between them upon his death in 394. Honorius got the Western half, and got Stilicho as his guardian and major general. As one might imagine, the Vandal lord kept a lid on things and held the Empire together for as long as he could. One problem: Honorius had also inherited an advisor named Olympius, who makes Heath Leger’s Joker look like a well adjusted man.

Olympius was evidently very shrewd and good at his job, after a fashion. He was evidently also a sociopath, and the father of intrigues that, according to Lafferty, were so convoluted and involved we moderns couldn’t begin to follow them. Olympius’s goals seemed to be destroying his enemies and seeing how far he could take it. He doesn’t seem to have had or even cared about an end game.

Thus, when he go the chance, he destroyed Stilicho. He had the manifestly incompetent emperor call the master general to court in Ravenna to answer some charges. Stilicho’s friends, seeing an obvious plot, implored him to simply declare himself emperor – he had the army behind him, was clearly being set up, and the emperor was clearly incompetent and being manipulated. Better to save himself and the Empire!

Instead, Stilicho obeyed the emperor’s command, as he had done his whole life. Olympius had him and his family murdered, thus removing the one man who had the will and power to preserve the Empire.

But – and here’s where the evil/stupid becomes incomprehensible: the Visigoths, who, under Alaric and his relatives, made up a critical piece of Rome’s army, had, under the influence of the training they had received as hostages, become, in their own minds, Romans. They spoke Latin, and many of the commanders and soldiers had settled their families in Italy.

Olympius first murders the one man the Visigoths, an armed force in his own land, feared and respected. Then murders his family. Then allowed, and most likely encouraged, the murder of all the Visigoth families living in Italy. Rome for the Romans! the murders cried, not admitting that Rome was still Roman at least in part because the Visigoths had fought to preserve it!

So now you have 30,000 battle-hardened troops in your own country who you’ve incited to very understandable murderous rage while at the same time having murdered the one man with any chance of defeating them – because? Ravenna itself was both impossibly well defended – not that Alaric didn’t try, but the land all about the city was a swampy mess- and well-supplied by ship with grain from Africa.

How did Olympius think this was going to play out? He’s now stuck in Ravenna, everybody with the possible exception of the emperor hating his guts for having gotten them into this situation, with an enraged army at his gates. Did he expect the murder of the Visigoth women and children to blow over, somehow? It’s incomprehensible.

So Alaric, enraged but still a shrewd general, decides he needs to go to Africa, defeat the general there in charge of sending food to Ravenna, and then return to besiege the city to starve Olympius out.

But he needed cash to get the ships.

The Eternal City had cash, and was hardly on the Visigoths’ good side at this point.

Thus Alaric, who had earlier come to think of himself as a Roman and a defender of Rome, who had risked death and lead armies in the defense of the Empire, found himself leading an army to destroy Rome.

The Visigoths did sack Rome, and then headed toward the southern coast to get their ships – and then Alaric died. Honorius also soon died, and his successors promptly had Olympius clubbed to death. The Visigoths, their blood-lust slaked somewhat with the sacking of Rome and death of Olympius, were essentially bough off with Spain, where they settled and became farmers.

Olympius is my floor for stupid/evil politics.

We’re not there yet. I wish I were confident we’re not headed in that direction.

Anybody got a lower floor? I’m afraid to hear it…

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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