At the Gates of Rome: Don Hollway Interview

Don Hollway

The novelist Paul Bernardi sat down with Harald Hardrada historian Don Hollway to talk about The Last Viking
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Congrats on your latest title, At the Gates of Rome. In the introduction to your book, you mention Edward Gibbon’s seminal Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire. How influential is Gibbon, both historically and to your own work, and do we need to move on from his title?

In my opinion, nobody can write a history of Rome without at least a tip of the hat to Gibbon. I always start from the primary accounts, but the Decline is monumental, and though it has its flaws and biases, it’s worthwhile to hear Gibbon’s take on things.

On Theodosius’ death, instead of one emperor there were two, West and East. Did that make the fall of Rome inevitable?

The final months of Theodosius’s reign were actually the first time in generations that the empire was united under one supreme leader. Theodosius put his elder son Arcadius on the Eastern throne, and his younger son Honorius on the Western, but he intended to rule over them both as a sort of father of the country. Unfortunately he died soon afterward, and his dream died with him. Infighting between the empires made them both more vulnerable. The East almost fell to a barbarian takeover before the West did.

Your two main protagonists, the Roman general Stilicho and the Goth warlord Alaric, were initially comrades in arms. What do we know of their relationship?

When they first met Alaric was a bandit chieftain who had bearded Theodosius, and Stilicho was a young military commander sent to bring him to heel. Alaric was spared on imperial orders and even made a Roman tribune, fighting at Stilicho’s side. For public consumption Stilicho’s press agent, the court poet Claudius Claudianus, generally badmouthed Alaric, but if Stilicho really felt that way he would have executed the Goth. He certainly had enough opportunities.

It seems as though the first and second campaigns between the two could have ended with death for Alaric, but he escaped. Was Alaric a ‘lucky’ general?

Not so much lucky as wily. Alaric knew the two empires, East and West, could be played against each other. As their antagonism increased, he and the Goths became the deciding factor in the balance of power. Stilicho defeated him every time they met, yet always found some reason to spare him. Even after Alaric’s first invasion of Italy in AD 402, Stilicho saw him less as an adversary than as a potential ally against the East, and was careful to show mercy.

Stilicho was the Western Roman commander, and his rival, Rufinus, Eastern. Do you think Stilicho was responsible for Rufinus’ death at the hands of his own troops?

 Claudian’s account certainly made it sound that way, and judging by events I think it’s not inconceivable. Rufinus’ troops, the army of the East, were Theodosius’ troops until his death, and Stilicho’s troops after that. Emperor Arcadius ordered Stilicho to surrender his command, but Stilicho knew Rufinus was behind those orders. The legionaries who cut Rufinus down at the emperor’s feet were on Stilicho’s staff a few weeks prior, and were pretty obviously doing his dirty work.

 With the death of Stilicho, did the last hope for Rome resisting Alaric die with him?

No. Alaric did not want to sack Rome. His wish all along was for the Goths to be accepted as Romans. He even offered to lead the imperial legions against the usurpers and rebels cropping up in Britannia, Gaul and Hispania. Honorius refused. Alaric basically held Rome hostage in an effort to force concessions of food and land, but Honorius’ court was in Ravenna, not Rome, and he called Alaric’s bluff. By that time the Goths were starving too. They had to take the city, or perish.

Until 410, Rome had not been sacked for hundreds of years. Just how much of a shock would the initial siege and subsequent sacking have been to the populace?

 There were actually three sieges of Rome, beginning in 408. At first the Romans trusted their impregnable walls to protect them, not realising that walls keep people in as well as out. By the third siege in 410, they were reduced to cannibalism, and it’s possible that some citizens opened the city gates just to end it. The fall of Rome was a world-changing event. If the Eternal City could fall, anything was possible.

 Is there any parallel between the fall of Rome and the decline of the USA (though yet to see a fall)? America was founded with the Roman republic as an inspiration, and with the recent assault on the Capitol (in 2021) are the barbarians at the gates?

Anybody interested in the fall of Rome today is seeking parallels with America, or more properly Western Civilisation, and any writer on the subject needs to be aware of that. We’re getting into politics here, which is thin ice these days, but I will say that the events of January 6 2021 would barely rate a mention compared to events in the late Roman Empire. As I conclude in the book, there are bigger threats facing the West today.

This is your second work of history, following on from The Last Viking. Both are ripe for screen adaptations, so dramatic they would make great movies. Have you heard back from Leonardo DiCaprio yet?

DiCaprio’s long-rumoured project about Harald Hardrada, of The Last Viking, appears to have gone nowhere. Hardrada is a main character in the Netflix series, Vikings: Valhalla, but it’s a melodrama, not a biography, that shows him as an adult in 1002 when he wasn’t even born until 1015. I would think that, given current events, there’s a huge audience for a movie about the end of empires. Maybe the prospect is too touchy for Hollywood. All that said, my books are basically just me describing movies in my head for readers, so I regard your comment as high praise. Thanks!

Don Hollway is an author, illustrator, and historian. He is also a classical rapier fencer and historical re-enactor. His latest book, At the Gates of Rome: The Fall of the Eternal City, 410AD is out now and is published by Osprey.

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