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on 22 August 2010
This is a very handsomely produced paperback (British Museum Press, no less) with loads of photographs. Mostly it's quite well written, though I could do without neologisms like "bling" and "fit for purpose", thanks very much, and there are times when, because of a certain amount of zigzagging to and fro in time, we seem to be told the same thing twice. There are helpful notes, indices and timelines, though I thought the maps could have been better.
But, despite being an ancient history buff, I didn't often find myself engaged in what was happening, momentous as it was. Partly this is the nature of the material: it is difficult sometimes to decide whose viewpoint we are seeing through. The Romans, awaiting the sack of their city by the "barbarian" Goths, are arrogant, degenerate imperialists, assuming they have the right to live on what their ancestors conquered, ie stole. They are not pleasant folk. The Goths are just as brutal, if somewhat less hypocritical. The natural candidate for sympathy, in fact, is the Gothic leader Alaric, a man clearly in advance both of his people and his time, who wants peace and a homeland for his tribe and would have been satisfied with that, had he ever been treated with anything like elementary civility or justice by the Romans. Never can a man have sacked a city so reluctantly; he even issued orders against looting and excess. They were ignored, of course, they always are, but he tried.
Unfortunately we know little of what his daily life was like, leastways this book certainly tells us little. With the Romans, who left records, we know much more of what they would have been saying, thinking and doing in those final days, and because of this, it is far easier for us to see through their eyes. Perhaps too there is a natural tendency, given our heritage, to side with the people of the walled cities, paved streets and brick houses against the tent-dwelling nomads who represent the "other".
Two of the three Romans who do come alive for us are the ineffectual young emperor Honorius, feeding his pet poultry while the world falls about his ears, and his sister Galla Placidia, a livelier character by far. Captured by Alaric, she ends up marrying his reputedly handsome brother Ataulf and staying among the Goths, as far as can be ascertained, of her own free will. After his death she returns to the Romans, marries the short-lived emperor Constantius and becomes the mother of the future emperor Valentinian.
We next meet her much later, sorting out a crisis in the next generation of her own family. Valentinian, now emperor, has a sister Honoria and has arranged a match for her with a man she doesn't fancy. This was of course quite normal at the time and girls were expected to put up with it, but young Honoria is having none of it and comes up with an idea only a teenage girl would think of: she writes a letter, enclosing her engagement ring, to, of all people, Attila the Hun, in which she explains sweetly that she is being married off against her will and would he please come and rescue her, in return for which she'll happily wed him (clearly she hadn't seen Attila, who was hardly love's young dream himself). Attila is of course delighted with the excuse to make war, as he was going to do anyway, whereas Valentinian, spitting chips, has to be persuaded by their mother not to execute his sister. It's interesting that Placidia took her daughter's side, but the more interesting thing is why the girl embarked on this mad scheme; surely it can only be, as the authors suggest, that she had grown up with exciting childhood stories of Mother's Adventures Among The Barbarians. At all events, this is one of the few times when I felt I was reading about people like me; teenage girls really don't change much over the centuries...
I think the writing style falls rather between two stools; the academic and the popular, but it's informative and generally interesting stuff and the photos are good. Needs more maps, though.