First posted on Amazon.co.uk on 16 September 2013
This is Ian Hughes' fourth book for Pen and Sword, although it is not his best, and it is not as good as his other books on Stilichon or on Aetius. The reasons for this pertain to the choice of topics, this book's structure, but also the relative lack of originality, meaning that the book felt mostly like a compilation of several previous works to me with, perhaps, a couple of exceptions.
The choice of topics, to treat the reigns of the two imperial brothers (Valentinian and Valens) in parallel, is a relatively bold one, but the execution is a bit problematic. This is especially the case when this is accompanied by an annalistic approach, with the events of each year being treated in separate chapters that gather together what was happening in the Western and in the Eastern parts of the Empire. The first problem with such an approach is that it leads to repetitions and breaks up the narrative of given campaigns or actions that straddle several years. In addition, the author frequently feels obliged to summarize the events of the past year as the opens up a new year on the same topic. Moreover, while this ploy does allow for the two stories to be told in parallel, it is also somewhat artificial and breaks up the narrative's continuity.
Another point, although not necessarily a problem, is that Pen and Sword authors often borrow from and heavily rely upon a limited number of secondary sources which they summarise and present in a non-scholarly format to the so-called "general reader". This is fine, and some of these books can be truly excellent, provided that these sources and authors are clearly and fully acknowledged. Unfortunately, I sometimes had the impression that this was not exactly the case with this book. This happened for instance with regards to NoŽl Lenski's "Failure of Empire" (a rather superb study of the reign and personality of Emperor Valens). The author criticizes and, to some extent, even misinterprets Lenski when stating that the later believes Valens to have been a "poor emperor". In fact, it is Lenski's who shows that Valens was a very capable administrator and that his record was far from being one of general and abysmal failure, and Ian Hughes who borrows these conclusions for his own book.
The book also contains a fair amount of personal interpretations, not to say speculations from the author. One of the most surprising to me is to postulate, and present as "almost certain", that Theodosius set up an official inquiry into the disaster of Adrianople shortly after becoming Emperor and that this is reflected in the narrative of Ammianus Marcellinus (our main source). There is, to my limited knowledge at least, no solid evidence to back up this interesting but speculative statement and I could not help wondering where the author got this idea from. It is even doubtful as to whether Theodosius would have had any interest in such an inquiry in AD 379, especially since this could lead to recriminations and some kind of "blame game" at a time when he needed all of his surviving generals to focus on curtailing the Gothic war bands. Anyway, it is not even necessary to imagine the creation of such an inquiry: the scapegoats - the dead Emperor and his two dead generals - made ideal candidates to bear full responsibility for the disaster and exonerate the surviving generals (whom Theodosius needed) from any personal responsibility.
Having mentioned these flaws, the book does have at least two main strongpoints. One is the narrative of Valens' last campaign in general, and of the battle of Adrianople in particular, where he shows that the charge of the Gothic cavalry must have hit the Roman right wing, as opposed to the left one, contrary to what most historians have believed. The whole campaign is well described. The case for the Gothic charge coming from their left wing is well made, and the reasons for the Roman defeat - they were caught unprepared with all senior commanders gathered around the Emperor when the fighting started - quite plausible, regardless of whether you ultimately "buy it" or not.
The second very interesting point is the discussion about the respective merits of the two brothers, and how posterity seems to have exaggerated the achievements of Valentinian and, on the contrary, blackened the reputation of his junior brother who died defeated. The case for the later borrows from Lenski's failure of Empire, as already mentioned. The case for the elder brother's partly undeserved high reputation and his real military achievements against the Allemani seems to have been borrowed largely for Drinkwater's recent book of this powerful Germanic confederation. In both cases, Ian Hughes explanations are generally clear and mostly convincing.
So while this is perhaps not the author's best book, and there are also some other glitches and questionable statements in it which I did not mention in this review, it is nevertheless a rather interesting introduction to the military challenges that these two little known successors of the House of Constantine had to face. One problem and limit, however, is that the book's focus on military affairs is somewhat narrow. For instance, while the author repeatedly mentions military manpower shortages that plagued the Emperors, he never really gets to explain them.
While not a "bad" book, I was a bit disappointed given the high expectations that the author's two previous books had created as far as I am concerned.