This book is a biography of the little-known late Roman Emperor Aurelian who reigned in the Third Century AD. Aurelian is the man traditionally credited with saving the Roman Empire from the brink of disaster. This is probably overstating the case, but White would very much like to convince you otherwise. The book begins with two chapters summing up Republican and Imperial history up till that time. This is matched with the final two chapters which cover Roman history after his time. These summaries are fairly superficial and are intended merely to bring the non-academic audience up-to-date. There are some very nice pictures of Rome and some of coins. Given the relatively minor role of Rome by this point they seem a strange choice to focus on and likely represent the author's interest rather than the book's focus. There are also a number of maps which appear to be hand drawn. The battle maps in particular are not as useful as they should be since the landscape is based entirely of the literary descriptions as the real battlefields are unknown. The maps of the empire however are fairly accurate.
The big problem with this book is that it is almost entirely written record-based. Archaeology plays a very small role in the book, only showing up in the context of material gleamed from other writers discussing similar events in detail. It is also almost exclusively Latin based with Greek sources only playing a minor role. The author is an expert at Latin, but doesn't know Greek so this tendency is to be expected. This leads to very real problems when it comes to the use of Greek sources. With Zosimus for example he uses a copy by an unknown translator from 1814, while for Dexippus and Peter the Patriarch he uses the Latin translations from the Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum. The 1814 translation is badly outdated (obviously) but the Latin translations are reasonably accurate.
While these problems may sound damning they are not entirely so. This is one of those rare periods in the Later Empire which is better documented in Latin than Greek. The brief epitomes of the 4th Century are based off of the postulated Kaisergeschichte and are fairly accurate if brief, while the earliest surviving sources in Greek come from the 6th Century and deal primarily with later events. That is not to dismiss the problem entirely. Archaeological work (especially numismatics) is vital to produce an accurate chronology of this period. Zosimus is vital for any understanding of the situation in Palmyra, and Zonarus (a 12th Century source!) contains much that is not found elsewhere. His use of these works is erratic at best (I'm not sure he even uses Zonarus) and based entirely off a poor translation. He also doesn't bother citing his information much of the time (less than a citation a page) which is likely to be infuriating for a historian.
The problem with the Latin sources is rather more serious. White uses the Historia Augusta
(HA) fairly uncritically as a source for Aurelian's reign. The HA is the late antique historian's bette noir. It's accuracy has been questioned since at least Gibbon, and for the last hundred years it has been fairly convincingly shown that this work was actually written by one author in the late 4th Century rather than six in the late 3rd and early 4th as is claimed within the book. The authors use anachronistic terms that would have been meaningless in the 3rd Century, reference political families that would not rise to prominence until the 370s and generally maintain a fairly consistent air of fantasy. As proof of many of their most ridiculous claims they quote letters and documents in the manner of Suetonius, except that while Suetonius as the Emperor's secretary had access to the Imperial archives, the author of the HA simply and obviously makes them up. Even in his first biography he has Hadrian talking to a consul who wouldn't achieve that position for four years about his son who he wouldn't adopt for six years. As such historians have to be extremely careful when basing any of their material off of the HA unless they can find corroboration elsewhere.
White of course argues the opposite. While not entirely disregarding the evidence for a late 4th Century authorship date he believes in the multiple authors and has used computer analysis in an attempt to prove it. To his credit he merely states that this shows that the case for a single author is unproven and not disproven, but it is obvious that he believes the former to be the case. He believes in the accuracy of the HA in a way that suggests to me that he entirely misses the point of earlier critiques. His assumption is that the HA, whenever it was written, was the work of men attempting to record the truth from shaky and unreliable eyewitness testimony. To him this accounts for the discrepancies and blatant errors. The problem is that the general consensus is that this is exactly the opposite of the truth. There are enough obviously fictitious elements in the work to make it clear that the author could in no way have been writing a sober, reliable history and was most likely falsifying what little he knew in order to entertain or amuse. The other alternative is that he was simply uncritically copying the lies and falsifications of others. I am personally of the opinion that the entire work is but a parody of the often ridiculous stories told by biographers. White believes that ancient historians are simply unfamiliar with the unreliability of such eyewitness accounts without considering the fact that all such ancient works were written in that way. A generally unreliable and sloppy historian can indeed be recognized whatever the nature of his sources. By any standards the HA is a mess, and to just assume that it is an honest attempt to record the past (even if just as a record of what was currently believed) is a dangerous assumption and ignores the sections (such as the letters) that have been shown as deliberate falsifications.
Despite what the blurb says about there being no up-to-date biography of Aurelian just such a book was published in 2004, two years before this one came out. While the situation described might have been true at the time when White began his book it seems either sloppy or deceptive to describe it that way in the author section (especially since he cites that work in his book). The other book is called Aurelian and the Third Century
and it is a far superior work to this one. Since it is cheaper too I would strongly recommend seeking that book out instead. Had that book not come out I would likely be singing this book's praises (but not unconditionally) for bringing a little known period of Roman history to light. As it is it's simply the second best book on the subject, and not a very close second either. This book's positive aspects in comparison to that one: It is more readable, better designed for the beginner, and offers a pretty clear summary of his reign. People looking for a light read who aren't put off by the price tag and don't intend to use it as a source may find this book the superior one. Those who want to read a more in-depth work or need it for a source would be well advised to search out the other one. As I've said, it doesn't seem fair to judge this book too harshly simply because a better one exists, so I've given it the rating it would have earned were there nothing else available on the subject.