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This book is a masterpiece in several respects. Drawn from the author's dissertation, but with a couple of additional chapters, it retraces the troubled reign of Valens (AD 364-378) up to his death on the battlefield of Adrianople. This relatively obscure Emperor of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire is mostly known for this disastrous defeat, which many historians have seen - perhaps a bit too quickly - as the beginning of the terminal decline of the Roman Empire. He is also known as the younger brother of the energetic Emperor-soldier Valentinian the First (AD 364-375), who ruled the Western part of the Roman Empire while his brother ruled the East.
The first quality of this book is its relative originality. Most books written on Roman Emperors concentrate on either the great ones or the ones that turned out to be monsters, or were painted to be so after their death. This book is about an Emperor who was neither one nor the other, who struggled during his whole reign, and who finally failed.
As the author shows so well, he was a "misfit". Although he was far from incapable and was a talented administrator, he was out of his depth. His lack of education - he neither read nor spoke Greek although this was the main language spoken in the Eastern part of the Empire - put him at a disadvantage. Neither was he a relentless soldier, like his elder brother. He was perseverant, he struggled and he tried his best, but this was not enough.
The third remarkable point made in this book is to list in a seamless way through a mostly chronological narrative the series of challenges that Valens had to face one after the other. From Procopius' revolt, which he dealt with alone, to his first Gothic war that he had to break-off because of growing pressure from the Sassanids on his Eastern frontier, to his conflict with the latter which he also had to put on hold as the Gothic crisis was mishandled by his generals and climaxed. During that time, both the Isaurians and the Arab tribes stirred up trouble and major military efforts had to be organized against them with troops which were badly needed elsewhere.
The impression you get throughout the book is that of an overwhelmed fireman running from one fire to another without being able to put out any of them entirely.
The fourth element is that he also had to face other major political and economic issues within his Empire. As Lenski shows, the division that Valentinian had imposed in AD 364 left him with one third of the Empire (Thrace and Oriens) with his elder brother taking the Gauls (Britain, Gaul, Spain), Italy, Africa and Illyria. Initially, the mobile army seems to have been divided more equally although the author claims that the elder brother, who was very much the senior Emperor, required from Valens that he return 16 units to him half-way through their respective reigns. This did not help Valens who seems to have struggled even more than Valentinian to find sufficient recruits to fill the ranks of his armies. As always, Valens complied, collaborated and was fully loyal to his elder brother.
A second difficulty was that, unlike in the West, the East was rift with religious conflicts between the Nicene and various strands of "Arians" which, together, made up the vast majority of Christians. Unlike his elder brother, Valens got sucked into these conflicts, took sides, and never really managed to solve them and restore order entirely. Finally, there were the financial policies of the two brothers, what we would call today their economic policies. Both fought vigorously against corruption and, according to Lenski, they seem to have been relatively successful through their harsh laws. Note, however, that some historians argue, on the contrary, that these harsh and increasingly strident laws show on the contrary that the Emperors were getting increasingly desperate (see, for instance Jones or McMullen). The reform of the currency, where the pureness of silver and gold coins was increased, while efficient to fight against corruption, was deflationary. The huge debts inherited from Julian's failed Persian expedition followed by the large expenses related to the Emperor's building and fortification program (just like that of Valentinian) made sure that public expenses stayed high. Because of growing internal and external security threats, Valens' expenses grew further, so that, at a time when there were no financial markets for government bonds, he was forced to start selling imperial property. It was as these difficulties were growing that the Gothic crisis developed.
The final chapter tells the story of "The Disaster at Adrianople", with is rather well known but also well told here, in particular when the author gets to analyse the various causes of the disaster. Interestingly, he believes that, contrary to the accepted version that has Valens rushing to seek battle without awaiting his nephew and his forces, the Eastern Emperor waited for as long as he could while Gratian was delayed and only slowly came with limited reinforcements.
Lenski also sides with those who believed that the Roman army that was destroyed and the Barbarian forces were both on the high side (about 30000 against perhaps some 50000 warriors), as opposed to the significantly lower numbers that had become accepted (some 15000-18000 against 20000-25000). Although all these numbers are educated guesses, the author's choice in this respect is perhaps the main weakness of the book. After having demonstrated and insisted so much on the army's recruiting difficulties and shown that most units were understrength and that the army had taken significant losses already, arguing for the higher numbers at Adrianople creates a bit of tension, especially given that significant forces had to be left behind to garrison the East. Another limitation of this book is, of course, its high price. However, it is worth every penny of it.
A superb read which I cannot recommend too much for anyone interested in the twilight of the Roman Empire.
on 10 March 2015
Whilst there is much to admire from Lenski's 'Failure of Empire', he unfortunately at times makes rather sensational statements without evidence to back such statements up. I find this one, on page 127 particularly annoying and based on Lenski's own speculation-
'Valens arrived with his army the following spring, when he is attested at Marcianople from May 10. There, he supplemented his rather deficient strategic knowledge with the new manual 'De rebus bellicis', written for him in the period following the Procopius revolt. The manual not only recommended the sort of border fortifications that he soon built and the manufacture of the ballistae with which he equipped these forts, it also had advice on shirts to protect his men from cool and damp weather, and portable bridges, which would have been ideal for the marshy territory in which he was about to campaign'.
There is no evidence to support Valen's even knew of the existence of the 'De Rebus Bellicis' let alone took a copy of it on campaigns, and even if he had done so it would not have given him any real strategic or tactical knowledge and was full of untested and fanciful idea's to boot, especially those around the scythed chariots and ballista's.
There are similar such issues in the book which prevents me otherwise giving it a five star rating.