The purpose of this book is to examine the changing aspects of the Western Roman Empire after the death of Valentinian and until the arrival of Theodoric the Great. Using this, the focus falls on the 'generalissimos' of the Western Roman Empire which, for lack of a better term, is all you could call them. The men who took the position of patrician and magister militum assumed a whole new power base and influence. Unlike the East where the Magister Peditum, (Master of Foot), and the Magister Equitum, (Master of Horse), were equal and the title of Patrician merely was an honor bestowed upon a civilian or friend of the Senate, in the West the title Patrician came to be associated with that of a powerful general or warlord and the Master of Foot always dominated and was superior to the Master of Horse. This was never an formal legalization, it simply evolved and because these titles and this structure never had any definition they continued to evolve until the men who truly ruled Rome in the West adopted their own titles and their own definitions of power and this continued until the last of them finally became acclaimed as 'Rex' the first King sine the days of the Tarquins. Many sources are used throughout the work and the author takes pains to illustrate both the ancient descriptions and well as what later scholars later implied and how they understood it and in doing so, along with new information that had come after, he shows how many sources have been very biased or to quick to judgment when little or no evidence presented itself. Primary sources include Zosimus, Ammianus Marcellius, Claudian, Procopius, Jordanes and more. For the secondary sources they include Gibbon, Bury, Cameron, AHM Jones, Otto Seeck and others.
The first chapter starts with the death of Valentinian and ends with the death of Theodosius and this centers on the generals Merobaudes, Bauto and Arbogast. O'Flynn shows how Gratian slowly lost power and it was transferred to the Masgister Peditum who then also began to control and influence the younger Valentinian II. This would a pattern later on. Also showed is how the West constantly referred to the East as the superior of the two halves of the empire especially when Theodosius the Great ruled there. This would a constant pattern as well, where the West slowly lost legitimacy and emperor's became figureheads, the powerful men of the West would turn to the East for action and legitimacy, because that is were real Emperors truly ruled. The final victory of Theodosius at Fridigus River shows that while propagandists and the like portrayed it as Christianity defeated Paganism, due to Arbogast and his Emperor Eugenius using Pagan idols and ideology for their army, this is false it was not a resurgence or a Pagan last gasp it was merely Theodosius' opponents trying to consolidate whatever support they could get because up to the confrontation they appeased both Christians and Pagans.
In the second, third and fourth chapters, Stilicho is the key figure discussed. O'Flynn tries hard to show Stilicho for what he really was and throws out a lot of pre-conceptions about him and the reader is left with an honest, objective picture of Stilicho. His policy was one in which he took from Theodosius concerning barbarians, and one which would be constantly repeated. The idea that any barbarian force could be potential allies against other barbarians, and the idea that you did not want to completely destroy an enemy force because they could be used by Rome. Rome could only benefit if barbarians killed barbarians, and Rome was a master at using this tactic for the rest of her existence in the West. Stilicho, though half-Barbarian was Roman through and through in actions and is shown through his actions to have been extremely loyal to the Theodosian House. He never aspired to the purple, (and of all the generalissimos only Constantius made himself emperor, it was apparent and clear that to have supreme power one did not need to be emperor and eventually one did not even need an emperor), though some claim he tried. The chapters continue to show his campagins against Alaric and the usurpers in Gaul as well as the administers of the East and O'Flynn shows that Stilicho's downfall came because he gambled to much to try and keep the empire safe.
In the fifth chapter the topic falls on Stilicho's successor Constantius who was a full Roman and who after seems to have forced Galla Placidia to marry him after her time in captivity and marriage to one of the Visigothic chieftains. By her Valentinian III was born and she quickly tried to assert some form of influence but was overshadowed, (as she was under Stilicho), by the power of Constantius and he unlike his predecessors or successors made himself emperor as well, though this was not recognized in the East, (which was something that would happen more and more). Following his death there came to be more generalissimos and this time though Placidia worked well to play each general off the other. One though who she did beat, but who came back stronger than ever was Flavius Aetius.
In the sixth and seventh chapters Flavius Aetius is the main focus. Here is it shown that Aetius was the perfect man for the job and task at hand for leading and defending the empire during these darkening days. The fact he was of good Roman stock meant he had no opposition from the anti-barbarian segment of the the Roman aristocracy and he had invaluable understanding of both the Visigoths and the Huns whom he spent time with as hostage as a boy. His closeness with the Huns actually is what made and broke him. He started his powerbase in Gaul and later influenced Italy as well though as long as he held the sway of the army he was in command and control despite facing the stiff opposition posed by Placidia and her influence and control over her son, Emperor Valentinian III. Aetius became so powerful, foreign envoys went to him and made treaties with him, not Valentinian III or Rome itself, this was the extent to the power that the generalissimo accumulated. Finally, Aetuis fell when the Huns became hostile to Rome. Before, he could use them to fight for Rome or for his own personal use and as long as he held that control and they were friendly Placidia and Valentinian could do nothing, once they became hostile and no longer under is control he lost his power. It should be shown that the policy toward barbarians first begun by Theodosius finally paid it's value as Aetius was able to call upon a large gathering of Germanic peoples, (all former enemies of Rome), to come to Rome's defense against Attila and it is suggested that the battle was inconclusive not because the battle was so bloody, but because Aetius wanted it this way. He was continuing the Roman balancing act of the barbarians. He did not want the Huns destroyed, because then his powerbase is gone and he would no longer be of use, and he did not want the Visigoths gone, because he needed them for the defense of Gaul and Spain and as an offset to the Huns. Afterall, if the Huns had suffered so terribly how could Atilla launch a campaign into Italy so soon after the battle. Aetius would later be killed, and his killer Valentinian by men loyal to Aetius.
In chapters eight and nine the final focus falls on Ricimer and Odavacer mainly though Orestes is spoken of as well. In these chapters we see the struggles with the Vandals which was a major deal concerning Aetius become ever more clear and how the emperor now no longer of the Theodosian House, would be seen as nothing more than a figurehead and something that was superfluous. The East would intervene often and many times the West would remain without and emperor as the generalissimos preferred this since they could do as they pleased and they seemed happen to govern the West as the viceroy to the Eastern Emperor in Constantinople. It also became apparent that real power no longer meant having the title of Magister Militum or Peditum and Patrician but of simply having the loyalty of the barbarian army of the West. Scholars show that the West died when Romulus abdicated and sent the Imperial regalia East saying it was no longer needed, it should be pointed out that Romulus was never recognized in the East as Emperor of the West and the last recognized one, Julius Nespos, would continue to rule from Dalmatia until 480. Finally, when Odavacar became too much for the East to bear Theodoric was sent with his Ostrogothic host to rule Italy. Theodoric did so with the titles of a Roman general and nobleman though when he received his victory in 490 he no longer used them and used the title 'rex' as his predecessor had done. It should also be pointed out that Theodoric quickly asked Emperor Leo to 'bestow' upon him the title of 'Rex' seeing as again, the East was where legitimate rule could only be granted and accepted by the Romans of the West. The East would eventually intervene directly by way of conquest only decades later under Justinian, when it seemed apparent they wanted to do so, so many year previously.
All in all, this is a most excellent read. I would have to give it 5 out of 5 as it fills a lot of vacant information that many simply do not know of the Late Roman Empire. It covers many sources and is fair in the assessment given by the author. I would caution that this be read by those who have at least a basic understanding of the Late Empire, otherwise you may become lost and find yourself checking and re-checking some facts or facets of information the author assumes the reader would know. This book is essentially, in my opinion, to understanding the development and the root causes and effects on the evolution or collapse of the Roman Empire, (depending on your opinion).