September 9

384 The birth of a nincompoop

It was the ill-fortune of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fifth century to be governed by a pair of useless twits, the sons of the capable Theodosius I, Honorius in the West and Arcadius in the East.

Honorius succeed to the imperial throne at the age of ten. As long as he was under the tutelage of Stilicho, the half-Vandal general who had married into the royal family, things went fairly smoothly: revolts were put down and barbarian invasions were thwarted. In 408, however, Honorius had Stilicho and his family murdered. This not only deprived him of an able general but prompted barbarian troops in the service of Rome to defect to the Visigoths, who in 410 sacked Rome while Honorius hid out in Ravenna. 

Thomas Hodgkin, the 19th-century historian and author of the massive Italy and her Invaders sums up the life of this hapless emperor:

Let us now turn from poetry to fact, and see what mark the real Honorius made upon the men and things that surrounded him. None. It is impossible to imagine a character more utterly destitute of moral colour, of self-determining energy, than that of the younger son of Theodosius. In Arcadius we do at length discover traces of uxoriousness, a blemish in some rulers, but which becomes almost a merit in him when contrasted with the absolute vacancy, the inability to love, to hate, to think, to execute, almost to be, which marks the impersonal personality of Honorius. After earnestly scrutinising his life to discover some traces of human emotion under the stolid mask of his countenance, we may perhaps pronounce with some confidence on the three following points.

1. He perceived, through life, the extreme importance of keeping the sacred person of the Emperor of the West out of the reach of danger.

2. He was, at any rate in youth, a sportsman.

3. In his later years he showed considerable interest in the rearing of poultry.


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