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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 March 2013
This is a collection of 28 studies first published in 1992 derived from a conference held at the University of Sheffield in 1989 and organized by the editors (John Drinkwater and Hugh Elton). Despite its age, and although a few of the studies may have become a bit dated (particularly some of those based on archaeological findings), it remains a very valuable reference on many counts.

At first, this looks like the typical book for specialists - professors and students with a "professional" interest in the period. This is largely the case, with a number of studies being rather technical and narrowly focused. It can, however, also be of interest for "amateurs" if only because it provides a lot of valuable insights into what is termed as the "crisis of identity" in Fifth Century Gaul.

It does show, through a number of studies that thoroughly examine the written sources, how the perceptions of the Romano-Gallic aristocrats shifted and how they started to conceive, accept and even seek a life outside of the Empire and accommodation with the "Barbarians". These mainly refer to the Visigoths and also the Burgundians, to a lesser extent, because relations in Northern Gaul with the Franks are not really covered by the collection of essays. On the other hand, other articles illustrate different attitudes taken by the Gallic aristocrats. Some fled to other parts of the country. Many seem to have embarked on an ecclesiastic career, with some becoming bishops but many others renouncing earthly goods and entering monasteries. Some fled, but much further, with the Holy Land and monastic life there becoming a place of refuge for Gallo-Romans after the 406-407 invasions.

One of my favourite pieces in this collection is Hugh Elton's article about the defence of Gaul in the Fifth century. Largely centred on Aëtius, it shows that despite conventional wisdom, the Roman army did not entirely break down after 406-407 and even partly recovered. It was also still very much a force to be reckoned with and with which Constantius and then Aëtius were able to recover much - but not all - of the lost ground. One piece that is perhaps not sufficiently explained throughout this collection, although it is alluded to towards the end of the book, is the financial impact that the loss of Africa to the Vandals had for the Empire, its army and the Court at Ravenna. However, there is an interesting study showing that, as a result of the loss of imperial control over Africa, Vandalic Africa's trade towards Gaul increased because it was no longer monopolised by Italy and the Empire's government.

It also shows how, over time, and despite the partial recovery under Constantius and Aetius, the Empire became increasingly weaker, with its limits and interests shrinking to Italy and its leaders more interested in squabbles and internal conflicts, while the barbarian federates in Gaul (and the Visigoths, in particular) evolved into kingdoms. It also emphasizes the middle of the fifth century, the costly defeat of Attila and the murder of Aëtius, as one of the main turning points. After that, whatever was left of the Rhine defences were abandoned for good, although some Roman generals (Count Paul, Aegidius and his son Syagrius) managed to hold out for a few more years.

The Visigoths became very much the dominant power in Gaul and sought to expand north of the Loire but also into Narbonnaise, Auvergne, Provence and Spain. One interesting illustration of this take-over is the article analysing the minting of "fake" coins copied on the Imperial patterns by the various successor states, but also probably by the half-autonomous regions and municipalities that struggled on.

A third merit is the attempt to depict the considerable social and economic changes that were taking place and the growing instability in Gaul as the power vacuum created by the Empire's decline increased. The articles on the changes affecting towns, where power was largely taken over by bishops which were often local magnates and those on the Baccaudae, on slaves, on the evolution of Roman villas and of what was left of trade are particularly illustrative of this period of turmoil and change.

By and large, this collection of studies offers a multi-faceted view of how Gaul was progressively taken over and lost to the decaying Empire. One of its main strongpoints is the many paths and areas of research that these studies have suggested for examining how other parts of the Western Roman Empire slipped out of its control (in particular Spain, but also Britain) and what happened to their societies and economies when this took place.

Another of its main qualities is, of course, this whole (and mostly successful) attempt to present the Fifth century under as many angles as possible. One of its limits, however, is that there are so many angles and that some are perhaps more developed than others.
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on 25 August 2014
Interesting historical book
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