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Aetius: Attila's Nemesis
 
 

Aetius: Attila's Nemesis [Kindle Edition]

Ian Hughes
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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In AD 453 Attila, with a huge force composed of Huns, allies and vassals drawn from his already-vast empire, was rampaging westward across Gaul (essentially modern France), then still nominally part of the Western Roman Empire. Laying siege to Orleans, he was only a few days march from extending his empire from the Eurasian steppe to the Atlantic. He was brought to battle on the Cataluanian Plain and defeated by a coalition hastily assembled and led by Aetius. Who was this man that saved Western Europe from the Hunnic yoke? While Attila is a household name, his nemesis remains relatively obscure.

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  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3042 KB
  • Print Length: 276 pages
  • Publisher: Pen and Sword Military (25 Jun 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00DN5V6Q6
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  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #35,168 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

Ian Hughes was born in Burnley, Lancashire, and attended Heasandford Junior School, Barden High School, and Burnley Grammar School.

He worked as a garage mechanic and librarian before entering the Fitted Kitchen Industry. Leaving work to study full time, he attended Cardiff University. After gaining an MA in Ancient History and Society he became a teacher. Following the birth of his son he gave up teaching and became a writer.

For more information go to: http://www.ianhughesma.com/


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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars or Five? 23 May 2012
By JPS TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is another book which I found difficult to review, hence the fact that the review is only coming up today, as opposed to last week. The difficulty for me was to determine whether this book was worth five stars - the top rating - or somewhat less. Interestingly, the previous reviewer seems to have had a similar problem, although I am not quite sure that he has addressed it in a consistent way. As a customer (and a avid buyer of books!), I am always a bit puzzled when a book's excellent rating does not quite correspond to the contents of a review. This is especially the case when a reviewer rates a book five stars but then comes up with a mostly critical review that exceeds a page. For me at least, this raises a bit of a consistency issue : either the rating is inflated and the contents of the critical review are spot on or, on the contrary, the rating is justified but the criticism is excessive. There is, of course, a third possibility : the book may be worth five stars AND some of its contents may be questionable, but perhaps NOT for the reasons mentioned by the previous reviewer. This is the case that I will try to make.

First of all, this is the only recent history book (as opposed to novels) written specifically on Aetius in English in about a century. To my knowledge, there is only one recent biography on Aetius in French, but it is rather poor and more of a novel than the work of a historian. I am not aware of any recent work in German. I didn't check for Italian, however. This seems surprising, given Aetius' lasting fame as "the last of the Romans", but it can be explained by problematic sources. The explanation helps to illustrate the kind of challenge that Ian Hughes decided to take up.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Last Roman 20 May 2012
By Arch Stanton TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Like Mr. Hughes' previous books this work is filled with both very good and very bad qualities. Unlike the previous ones this book manages to consistently rise above them to provide an interesting and informative read. The subject is a fascinating one, and on a topic that I find to be unbelievably poorly covered in the existing works. Aetius was the western Empire's last great general. After him the empire quite quickly fell into pieces. In just over twenty years after his death the western empire had ceased to exist. For twenty years he was pretty much all that was holding the empire together. He's also the guy that took on Attila and won. A very impressive man.

The interesting thing about this book is the extremely positive image it presents of Aetius. In Hughes' previous books his subjects suffer a great deal of criticism despite the generally favorable conclusion. It's one of the things I've always liked about his books, even though it makes his hyperbolic titles seem that much more out of place. And now in the most prosaically named book he heaps on the praise. Perhaps this is due to how little information there is on the man, although even here he finds excuses for the worst of the accusations against Aetius. The lowest point in Aetius' career was when he got into a power struggle with the commander of North Africa while the Vandals were invading, yet Hughes argues (pretty convincingly) that it was in fact a third general, Felix, who was busy playing power politics at the empire's expense. I can't help but be amused by the fact that Belisarius with his own private historian and Stilicho who has panegyrics providing the main source for his actions both come off worse than a man whose praise-singers have been lost.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Last hope of the West 19 Jun 2012
By E. L. Wisty TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
With two lengthy reviews here already, I'm not going to spend too much time dissecting this - there are after all many more books to get on with reading. Ian Hughes third book, after Belisarius: The Last Roman General and Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome, is an admirable history of the half century in the West up to 455 centred around Flavius Aetius. He has gone back to the primary sources, but like his earlier works it seems that here too he has married his own speculations a little too closely with the attestations in his narrative. Words such as "undoubtedly" and "possibly" abound concerning events before becoming transformed into fact.

There can also be revisionism almost for its own sake, a curse upon modern history. Take for example the incident of Justa Grata Honoria sending the ring to Attila, as precipitating the latter's invasion of Gaul. Recent historians have taken a politically correct view on this, viz. Honoria is a woman; the historians are men; the history must therefore by definition be both sexist and wrong. Hughes' spin on this seems equally risible, viz. Honoria was simply appealing to another Roman official (Attila had been flattered by the honorary title of magister militum as appeasement) after appeals to others had failed.

A welcome book, but beware of Hughes' tendency sometimes to speculation by sleight-of-hand turning into actuality.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Roman Might 30 May 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
History of the last days explained , who why and where !! The family rivalry and politicians scrimping yet again hoping for a lot having given a little .
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars or Five? 11 Jun 2012
By JPS - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Review first posted on Amazon.co.uk on 23 May 2012

This is another book which I found difficult to review, hence the fact that the review is only coming up today, as opposed to last week. The difficulty for me was to determine whether this book was worth Five Stars - the top rating - or somewhat less. Interestingly, the previous reviewer (Stuart McCunn) seems to have had a similar problem, although I am not quite sure that he has addressed it in a consistent way. I am always a bit puzzled when a book's excellent rating does not correspond to - or is not really justified by - the contents of a review. This is especially the case when a reviewer rates a book five stars but then comes up with a mostly critical review that exceeds a page. For me at least, this raises a bit of a consistency issue : either the rating is inflated and the contents of the critical review are spot on or, on the contrary, the rating is justified but the criticism is excessive, or even unjustified. There is, of course, at least a third possibility : the book may be worth Five Stars AND some of its contents may also be questionable, but NOT for the reasons mentioned by the previous reviewer. This is the case that I will try to make.

First of all, this is the only recent history book (as opposed to novels) written specifically on Aetius and in English in a long time (about a century). To my knowledge, there is only one recent biography on Aetius in French, but it is rather poor and more of a novel than the work of a historian. I am not aware of any recent work in German but I didn't check for Italian, however. This seems surprising, given Aetius' lasting fame as "the last of the Romans", but it can be explained and the explanation helps to illustrate the kind of challenge that Ian Hughes has chosen to take up. Until quite recently (up to the last 20 years or so), the history of the Roman Empire during the fifth century tended to be mostly covered in general terms. Few historians were willing to take the risk of writing detailed biographies or monographies on particular aspects. This was, allegedly, because the primary sources were deemed to be so deficient. In reality, as Ian Hughes' shows so neatly in his introduction where he assesses the sources in a short, but comprehensive way, this is not quite true. There is quite a lot of material, but the sources are always biased (that is, even more biased than usual!) and many of them are either religious or panegyrics, that is, there are not very good at reporting facts and events accurately, to put it mildly. You might be tempted into believing that historians always complain about the deficiencies of their sources, and tend to use such complaints as disclaimers. This is true, to some extent, but the deficiencies are particularly acute for the history of the fifth century in the Western part of the Roman Empire because the sources are so much more fragmentary than for other periods. For a historian, or, for that matter, for anyone wanting to write on this period, this has at least three major consequences:

- one is that you have NO reference against which you can assess the other sources and determine to what extent they are valuable or questionable. For instance, you have NO equivalent of Tacitus for the fifth century, in part because most of Priscus' work has been lost
- another is that because you have no firm foundation to rely upon, it is extremely difficult - some would say impossible - to come up with a chronology of events that is not at least in part conjectural
- the third is that, although the biases of the various sources may be mostly clear, the reconstitution of what really happened is often a matter of deduction or even educated guesswork. This is simply because it is very hard to tell how the various sources may have slanted events and their interpretations in the absence of some kind of benchmark.
In other words, taking up such a challenge, just like the author did with Stilicho (his previous book) and unlike many other historians, is certainly something to be commended.

Second, the book is also outstanding because of the character that it covers, and because of the way he is treated.

Aetius is one of the rare Roman leaders to have earned undying fame, even to this day, and to have had a very favourable press even when alive, essentially for having lost. This is because, as the book demonstrates very clearly, he held together the Western Empire almost single-handedly for 20 years, and because it collapsed rapidly over the next 20 years, after he was assassinated. Both Cesar, who was also assassinated and was not an Emperor, and Trajan, who is generally portrayed as "the Best of Emperors" are remembered for their successes. Aetius is remembered for having stopped Attila, but also for his ultimate failure. He is traditionally seen as a rather romantic and certainly tragic hero, relentlessly fighting a battle that he could no longer hope to win against the rising tides. Ian Hughes plays very much on this image. He also tends to portray Stilicho in a similar way in his previous book.

I found Hughes mostly - if not always - successful and convincing when presenting his very positive image of Aetius, although I am not quite convinced that Aetius was doomed to fail once Africa had been lost to the Vandals, as Ian Hughes is. There could have been a possible recovery if Aetius had not been assassinated and if the East had helped in another joint effort to reconquer Africa and wipe out the Vandals, as would happen in 468 on a massive scale. However, Aetius was murdered and the massive expedition of 468 against the Vandal ended in a huge disaster for the Romans which almost bankrupted the Eastern part of the Empire.

Third, Ian Hughes' work is also exceptional for at least three other reasons: he gets all the main points right. He makes good use of most, if not all, of the secondary sources (by the way, contrary to another reviewer's assertion, Ian Hughes HAS listed "Late Roman Warlords" in his bibliography, see page 263, fifth author referenced from the top of the page) and his reconstructions, hypotheses and speculations are credible and always flagged for what they are. I won't discuss each of these aspects in detail, otherwise this review will turn into a dissertation, something that is threatening to happen already. Here are, however, a few examples:

- Two very interesting points emphasized by Hughes are those showing Aetius' advantages when compared to any other general: he had been trained in the Gothic and Hunnish ways of waging war and in the Roman way AND in a world where connections and "Barbarian" friends were MUCH more important than before, he was the ONLY general to have these with BOTH the Goths and the Huns (Avitus, for instance, has "only" connections with the Goths, which might have been even better than those of Aetius).

- The author also makes a rather good case for Aetius' character through the loyalty and efficiency of his troops and the way he, his rivals and his enemies interacted. At a minimum, his multi-faced military and political competence was clearly recognized by all. His word was trusted. He managed to attract and keep a large number of competent and efficient commanders who were loyal to him and who knew he would reward them according to their merits. None of the warlords who came after him - and many of these had been his former lieutenants - managed to bring together the same range of qualities.

- As already identified by other historians, one of the main turning points was the loss of the very strategic Africa Proconsularis to the Vandals in 439. Ian Hughes correctly identifies its importance with regards to its grain surpluses which were exported to Italy as part of the grain dole. He also mentions the huge impact that losing the revenues of Africa - whether taxes or those arising from the Imperial domains - had on the Imperial treasury. For those particularly interested in this point, one reference that Ian Hughes did NOT mention in his bibliography is William and Friell's second book on "The Rome That Did Not Fall", explaining why Rome fell, but not Constantinople. In it, the authors estimate that by the beginning of the fifth century, Africa could have made up at least a third of the Western Empire's financial resources, a proportion that is about similar to that of Egypt's taxes for the Eastern half. Needless to say, any power losing a third of its revenues while most of its provinces were under attack would be in for a tremendous shock. Since the main source of expenditure for the state was, by far the army (modern historians' estimates are tht at least two-thirds of the Empire's "budget" were absorbed by the army), the impact this had on Aetius' forces could only have been tremendous.

- This impact is another reason - which is not discussed by Ian Hughes - for historians to consider that most of the Roman Army of the fifth century must have mostly lacked metal armour. He is, however, quite correct when mentioning that historians have mostly retreated from the view that roman soldiers were less-well equipped than their predecessors, a view that was largely based on focusing on a single source (Vegetius) which might have has an interest in blackening the picture. Having said that, the loss of Africa must certainly have had a negative impact over the years on the quality, if not the quantity, of equipment that could be processed, just as it also had an impact on the number of soldiers that the Empire could afford to pay.

My fourth point on content, where Ian Hughes compares Aetius to Stilichon, is where I might somewhat disagree with the author. I found that some of the similitudes were a bit superficial, although one of the points made by Hughes is perfectly well stressed.

Both Stilichon and Aetius were considerably handicapped by the very selfish attitudes of the aristocracy, and especially the Italian-based aristocrats, who refused both to pay taxes and to lose labour at a time when the Western Empire increasingly and desperately needed more of both types of resources. This point was even more essential in the West than in the East, because Roman Senators had accumulated fortunes in land over centuries so that the society in the West was totally and increasingly dominated by a small number of ultra-rich that owned huge amounts of land and had the political power and the connexions to repeatedly dodge their taxes and obligations on an astonishing scale and get away with it.

In addition, I found that the author's methods throughout the book were thorough and honest. When discussing possible interpretations to explain the context of an event, he generally does provide alternatives and discusses them sufficiently and convincingly so that you do tend to "buy his explanation". Also, I found that one of the author's main qualities is his honesty. He mentions that his piece on weapons is copied from his book on Stilichon, although in his view, it still needs to be included in this volume (and I entirely agree: it does!). He also states that one of his chapters should be best read with the help of his chronology. He comes up with maps, diagrams and a list of the main characters of the book. He systematically flags each of his interpretations as such. He recognizes them for what they are worth - merely an attempt to come up with a story line and a chronology that make sense, however tentative they may be.

What more would you want from an author?

Finally, I'll just make a few quick comments on style and editing. The Pen and Sword collection is usually infamous for its poor and sloppy editing. Curiously, this book is MUCH better in this respect than the average book in the collection. There are still some typos and mistakes, but only a few. With regards to style, Ian Hughes does sometimes tend to repeat himself a bit, although this did not really bother me.

So, after having at length tried to explain why I believe that this book is excellent, even if it is not quite perfect and despite a few quibbles, I hope to have made a convincing case for a Five Star rating.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Last Roman 20 May 2012
By Arch Stanton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Like Mr. Hughes' previous books this work is filled with both very good and very bad qualities. Unlike the previous ones this book manages to consistently rise above them to provide an interesting and informative read. The subject is a fascinating one, and on a topic that I find to be unbelievably poorly covered in the existing works. Aetius was the western Empire's last great general. After him the empire quite quickly fell into pieces. In just over twenty years after his death the western empire had ceased to exist. For twenty years he was pretty much all that was holding the empire together. He's also the guy that took on Attila and won. A very impressive man.

The interesting thing about this book is the extremely positive image it presents of Aetius. In Hughes' previous books his subjects suffer a great deal of criticism despite the generally favorable conclusion. It's one of the things I've always liked about his books, even though it makes his hyperbolic titles seem that much more out of place. And now in the most prosaically named book he heaps on the praise. Perhaps this is due to how little information there is on the man, although even here he finds excuses for the worst of the accusations against Aetius. The lowest point in Aetius' career was when he got into a power struggle with the commander of North Africa while the Vandals were invading, yet Hughes argues (pretty convincingly) that it was in fact a third general, Felix, who was busy playing power politics at the empire's expense. I can't help but be amused by the fact that Belisarius with his own private historian and Stilicho who has panegyrics providing the main source for his actions both come off worse than a man whose praise-singers have been lost.

There isn't enough information on Aetius to allow this book to do more than provide an outline of his career, but at least the outline given here is informative and includes basically everything known about him. Given how little there is to go on much of the book is taken up with an analysis of the why rather than the what. There is a discussion of the nature of the Roman military at this date in chapters four and five, but apart from that the book mostly deals in generalities. For example, in 428 Aetius defeated the Franks somewhere in Gaul. That is all that is known about it. Hughes goes into some detail about what was most likely happening but in the end it comes down to that. He makes the most out of very little data and somehow manages to form a narrative out of it. Whether you enjoy this book or not will depend mostly on whether you buy his explanation for events. He spends little time proposing alternatives. It would have been nice if he'd gone a bit more into the way the state and society was ordered in this time but I suppose that that wasn't considered necessary in a military history.

His main search throughout the book is for any hints of Aetius' actual personality. As might be expected he finds very little of value, but occasionally bits and pieces slip through. For example, his rivalry with Boniface seems to have been entirely political and not personal. From the way he was treated when defeated in battle Hughes deduces that Boniface actually respected Aetius, or at least thought him useful. His rivalry with Felix was rather less friendly and ended in that man's death through riot. Hughes is a little overeager to make all the pieces fit together even when they seem contradictory, but he does at least show you the pieces first so the reader can decide for themselves how well his explanation work. Also as usual he has some truly excellent maps, although the battle diagram for the battle of the Catalonian Fields is relatively poor, due no doubt to the fact that we don't know where it actually happened.

That said, this book does suffer from many of the same problems as his earlier books. I don't know who he has editing these but they're doing a terrible job. This one isn't as bad as his last one but while I was willing to grant that one some slack since it seemed rushed, this one has taken twice as long as the other two and is still painful. I always get suspicious when I spot minor obvious factual errors since it makes me suspicious that there may be big ones I don't notice. For example, he claims that rex wasn't originally a Germanic word but a Roman one, yet the word is Indo-European in origin (the precursor to both Latin and German) and is still present today in the word reich. If they'd borrowed that term from the Romans I'd expect it to be a variant of regnum, the Latin word for kingdom, not rex, the word for king. I wouldn't normally care, but he spends an entire paragraph examining this without mentioning it. Sometimes he's not inaccurate but merely misleading, such as when he gives a confused account of Palladius being sent to the Scots. Since I know who Palladius was I understood what he meant, but somebody who's never heard of him has no way of realizing that by Scots he means the Irish (He was Saint Patrick's predecessor as bishop of Ireland, which was inhabited by a people called the Scotti). Worse still he uses this as evidence that Britain wasn't completely cut off from the empire. Now I have no idea why he believes that shows anything of the sort (Palladius wasn't British but Gallic and Ireland was never a part of Britannia) and he doesn't bother to explain it. It's just a passing reference. He has a lot of references to Britain interspersed throughout the book which have nothing to do with Aetius and distract from the otherwise obvious focus of the book.

Some of his chapters are set up poorly too. He actually recommends that chapter two "be read in conjunction with the Chronology to aid understanding." That's usually a bad sign. His section on arms is reproduced from his book on Stilicho. Apart from the basic introductory chapters though, the organization is fine. It's strictly chronological and doesn't go off on tangents.

Most of these are issues of style or editing. The content generally seems to be pretty solid. Sometimes it seems that he's grasping at straws, and in this book particularly I often felt that he speculated more than was appropriate in a nonfiction book, but the speculation is always marked as such and isn't hidden away in the text. And despite my last two paragraphs I really did enjoy this book. Despite its flaws this book is definitely recommended to anyone interested in the period at all.

There are a few books dealing with this period, altough as far as I know the only book written specifically on Aetius in English is an obscure popular history called Aetius and the Augusta: The Last of the Romans, and even that sounds like it covers over a century. However, Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire is essentially a collection of biographies of the generals ruling behind the emperor. As might be expected Aetius takes up the majority of the focus in that work. Late Roman Warlords is an excellent book dealing with Aetius' successors and it mostly covers the twenty years following from this book to the end of the empire. I'm absolutely astonished to find that it wasn't included in his bibliography. If it's more your taste there is a popular history written about this period called The End of Empire which deals mostly with Attila. It's pretty good and covers the period well. I wouldn't normally recommend a movie in a nonfiction book review, but whenever I think of Aetius I think back to the film that first introduced me to him: Attila. It's not that great a made-for-tv movie and the acting is often terrible, but Powers Boothe makes an awesome Aetius and easily outshines a horribly overacting Gerard Butler in the lead.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent research and analysis 13 Jan 2013
By J. Groen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Aetius was the last great Roman who led in the Western Roman Empire from 425-454AD. An indication of his greatness is that shortly after he died, the Western Roman Empire slid to its inevitable fall usually identified as occuring in 476 but more recent books have highlighted that date as the date that Aetius died. After he died, there was no one to take his place to defend the Western Roman Empire.

This book does an excellent job of covering his life and shows why he was such a great leader and how he defended the Western Roman Empire and delayed its fall.

Of course, the highlight of the book is the lead-up and the battle of Catalaunian Fields (or really Maurican Fields just slightly northwest of current Troyes, France). There is an excellent picture of what is probably that ground today showing what the battlefield probably looked like. The book does the best job that I have read of covering the crisis leading up to that battle and the battle itself.

Further, the book does an excellent job of covering the events in the Western Empire in the 430s - these were crisis years and Aetius was fully up to the challenge. This part of the book is so chock full of events and facts, that it at times was a challenge to read what with all the names of the individuals, cities and peoples.

To me, the best part of the book, however, was the end. In the end, the author does an excellent job of analyzing the importance of Aetius and how he delayed the inevitable end of the Western Roman Empire.

I highly recommend that anyone who enjoys reading Roman History read this book. It is the best book that I have read on the Roman Empire since the book about Stilicho by the same author and actually, I liked this book better (probably because I liked Aetius bettter.)
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The man who almost prevented the “Fall of Rome” 16 Jan 2014
By A. A. Nofi - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A summary of the review on StrategyPage.Com:

'The late Roman general Flavius Aetius (c. AD 391-454) was arguably the last man who might have had a chance to save the Western Empire, which dissolved little more than 25 years after his murder at the hands of an inept and jealous emperor as a result of court intrigue. In this work, Hughes, author of Stilicho, about an earlier Roman general with a similar career and fate, collects all available information about Aetius and gives us not a biography, but more of a “life and times.” Aetius is an impressive and useful work because Hughes frequently carefully explains his analysis of the often unreliable or fragmentary evidence upon which he bases his account. This is particularly helpful because Hughes draws several innovative conclusions about Aetius; for example, at a time when Roman commanders tended to be cautious, Aetius was unusually aggressive, which Hughes attributes to him having lived among the Huns for several years as a young hostage. Despite the sparse evidence, Hughes has written a lively, often insightful account of the declining years of Roman power in the West which will be of particular interest to students of Roman history, the onset of the “Dark Ages,” and early Byzantine history, but will prove a good read for anyone interested in military history or leadership.'

For the full review, see StrategyPage.Com
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Neglected and Fascinating 27 Sep 2013
By P. Weiser - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Hughes on Aetius - the known facts are scanty, but author does a fine and interesting job filling them in with reasonable deduction and conjecture. By this time in the very late Empire, Aetius was unusual in being an actual Roman wth a barbarian power base (which others had, but they were barbarians themselves). The title is not an over-dramatization: Aetius was intimately familiar with Attila's father's generation of Huns, so he was, in a sense, their revenge on Attila's internal coup.

Readable and recommended.
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