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Aetius: Attila's Nemesis
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 May 2012
This is another book which I found difficult to review, hence the fact that the review is only coming up today, as opposed to last week. The difficulty for me was to determine whether this book was worth five stars - the top rating - or somewhat less. Interestingly, the previous reviewer seems to have had a similar problem, although I am not quite sure that he has addressed it in a consistent way. As a customer (and a avid buyer of books!), I am always a bit puzzled when a book's excellent rating does not quite correspond to the contents of a review. This is especially the case when a reviewer rates a book five stars but then comes up with a mostly critical review that exceeds a page. For me at least, this raises a bit of a consistency issue : either the rating is inflated and the contents of the critical review are spot on or, on the contrary, the rating is justified but the criticism is excessive. There is, of course, a third possibility : the book may be worth five stars AND some of its contents may be questionable, but perhaps NOT for the reasons mentioned by the previous reviewer. This is the case that I will try to make.

First of all, this is the only recent history book (as opposed to novels) written specifically on Aetius in English in about a century. To my knowledge, there is only one recent biography on Aetius in French, but it is rather poor and more of a novel than the work of a historian. I am not aware of any recent work in German. I didn't check for Italian, however. This seems surprising, given Aetius' lasting fame as "the last of the Romans", but it can be explained by problematic sources. The explanation helps to illustrate the kind of challenge that Ian Hughes decided to take up.

Until quite recently (up to the last 20 years or so), the history of the Roman Empire during the fifth century was mostly only covered in general terms. Few historians were willing to take the risk of writing detailed biographies or monographies. This was because the primary sources were deemed to be so deficient. In reality, as Ian Hughes' shows so neatly in his introduction where he assesses the sources in a short, but comprehensive way, this is not quite true. There is quite a lot of material, but the sources are always biased and many of them are either religious or panegyrics, that is, there are not very good at reporting facts and events accurately, to put it mildly. You might be tempted into believing that historians always complain about the deficiencies of their sources, and tend to use such complaints as disclaimers. This is true, to some extent, but the deficiencies are particularly acute for the fifth century in the Western part of the Roman Empire because the sources are so much more fragmentary than for other periods. For a historian, or, for that matter, for anyone wanting to write on this period, this has at least three major consequences:

- one is that you have NO reference against which you can assess the other sources and determine to what extent they are valuable or questionable. For instance, you have NO equivalent of Tacitus for the fifth century, in part because most of Priscus' work has been lost
- another is that because you have no firm foundation to rely upon, it is extremely difficult - some would say impossible - to come up with a chronology of events that is not at least in part conjectural or even speculative
- the third is that, although the biases of the various sources may be mostly clear, the reconstitution of what really happened is often a matter of deduction or educated guesswork. This is simply because it is very hard to tell how the various sources may have interpreted events and slanted their presentation in partiocular ways in the absence of some kind of benchmark.

In other words, taking up such a challenge, just like he did with his work on Stilichon (his previous book) and unlike many other historians, is certainly something to be commended.

Second, the book is also outstanding because of the character that it covers, and because of the way he is treated. Aetius is one of the rare Roman leaders to have earned undying fame, even to this day, and to have had a very favourable press even when alive. This is because, as the book demonstrates very clearly, he held together the Western Empire almost single-handedly for 20 years, and because it collapsed rapidly over the next 20 years, after he was assassinated. Both Caesar, who was also assassinated and was not an Emperor, and Trajan, who is generally portrayed as "the Best of Emperors" are remembered for their successes. Aetius is remembered for having stopped Attila, but also for his ultimate failure. He is traditionally seen as a rather romantic and certainly tragic hero, relentless in fighting a battle that he cannot win against the rising tides. Ian Hughes plays very much on this image. He also portrayed Stilichon in a similar way in his previous book.

I found the author mostly - if not always - successful when presenting his very positive image of Aetius, although I am not quite convinced that Aetius was necessarily doomed to fail once Africa had been lost to the Vandals, as Ian Hughes clearly is. There could have been a possible recovery if Aetius had not been assassinated and if the East had helped in another joint effort to reconquer Africa and wipe out the Vandals, as would happen in 468 on a massive scale. However, Aetius was murdered and the massive expedition of 468 against the Vandal ended in a huge disaster for the Romans which almost bankrupted the Eastern part of the Empire.

Third, Ian Hughes' work is also exceptional for at least three other reasons: he gets all the main points right. He makes good use of most, if not all, of the secondary sources (by the way, contrary to another reviewer's assertion, Ian Hughes HAS listed "Late Roman Warlords" in his bibliography, see page 263, five author referenced from the top of the page) and his reconstructions, hypotheses and speculations are credible and always flagged for what they are. I won't discuss each of these aspects in detail, otherwise this review will turn into a dissertation, something that is threatening to happen already. Here are, however, a few examples:

- Two very interesting points emphasized by Hughes are those showing Aetius' advantages when compared to any other general: he had been trained in the Gothic and Hunnish ways of waging war and in the Roman way. In addition, in a world where connections and friends were even more important than before, he was the ONLY general to have these with BOTH the Goths and the Huns (Avitus, for instance, has "only" connections with the Goths, although these might have been even better than those of Aetius).

- The author also makes a rather good case for Aetius' character through the loyalty and efficiency exhibited by his troops and the ways in which he, his rivals and his enemies interacted. At a minimum, his multi-faced military and political competence was clearly recognized by all. His word was trusted. He managed to attract and keep a large number of competent and efficient commanders who were loyal to him and who knew he would reward them according to their merits. None of the warlords who came after him ever managed to bring together the same range of qualities, although many of them had served under him.

- As already identified by other historians, one of the main turning point was the loss of the very strategic Africa Proconsularis to the Vandals in 439. Ian Hughes correctly identifies its importance with regards to its grain surpluses which were exported to Italy as part of the grain dole. He also mentions the huge impact that losing the revenues of Africa - whether taxes or the revenues arising from the Imperial domains - had on the Imperial treasury. For those particularly interested in this point, one reference that Ian Hughes did NOT mention in his bibliography is William and Friell's second book on "The Rome That Did Not Fall", explaining why Rome fell, but not Constantinople. In it, the authors estimate that by the beginning of the fifth century, Africa could have made up at least a third of the Western Empire's financial resources, a proportion that is about similar to that of Egypt's taxes for the Eastern half. Needless to say, any power losing a third of its revenues while most of its provinces were under attack would be in for a tremendous shock. Since the main source of expenditure for the Roman Empire was, by far (estimates by historians consider that at least two-thirds of the Empire's budget would go to the army) the army, the impact this had on Aetius' forces could only have been tremendous.

- This impact is another reason - which is not discussed by Ian Hughes - for historians to consider that most of the Roman Army of the Fifth century must have mostly lacked metal armour. He is, however, quite correct when mentioning that historians have largely retreated from the view that Roman soldiers were less-well equipped than their predecessors, a view that was largely based on a single source (Vegetius) which might have had an interest in blackening the picture. Having said that, the loss of Africa certainly had an increasingly negative impact over the years on the quality, if not the quantity, of equipment that could be processed, just as it also had an impact on the number of soldiers that the Empire could afford to pay.

My fourth point on content, where Ian Hughes compares Aetius to Stilicho, is where I might somewhat disagree with the author. I found that some of the similitudes were a bit superficial, although one of the points made by Hughes is perfectly well stressed.

Both Stilicho and Aetius were considerably handicapped by the attitudes of the aristocracy, especially the Italians, who refused both to pay taxes and to lose men toi the army at a time when the Western Empire increasingly and desperately needed both. This point was even more essential in the West than in the East, because Roman Senators had accumulated fortunes in land over centuries so that society in the West was increasingly dominated by a small number of ultra-rich that owned huge amounts of land and had the political power and connexions to repeatedly dodge their taxes and obligations on an astonishing scale, and get away with it.

In addition, I found that the author's methods throughout the book were thorough and honest. When discussing possible interpretations to explain the context of an event, he generally does provide alternatives and discusses them sufficiently and convincingly so that you do tend to "buy his explanation". Also, I found that one of the author's main qualities, which appears several times, is his honesty. He mentions that his piece on weapons is copied from his book on Stilicho, although in his view, it still needs to be included in this volume (and I entirely agree: it does!). He also states that one of his chapters should be best read with the help of his chronology. He comes up with maps, diagrams and a list of the main characters of the book. He systematically flags each of his interpretations as such. He recognizes them for what they are worth - merely an attempt to come up with a story line and a chronology that make sense, however tentative they may be.

What more would you want from an author?

Finally, I'll just make a few quick comments on style and editing. The Pen and Sword collection is usually infamous for its poor and sloppy editing. Curiously, this book is MUCH better in this respect than the average book in the collection. There are still some typos and mistakes, but only a few. With regards to style, Ian Hughes does sometimes tend to repeat himself a bit, although this did not really bother me.

So, after having at length tried to explain why I believe that this book is excellent, even if it is not quite perfect, I hope to have made a convincing case for a five star rating.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 11 November 2014
At the time of writing this review Ian Hughes has written three excellent books covering the lives of military leaders who tried to halt the decline and fall of the Roman empire: Stilicho, Aetius and Belisarius.

These three books could be combined into one volume. The advantage would be that the description of weapon's and military organisation, which is is a little too lengthy for any one of the books, would only have to be given once. That said, each book does stand alone and each is a good read in its own right. Hughes recognizes that in all three books he is constructing an edifice on very poor foundations, but he manages to create three beautiful structures on the sand. Towering above the other two is Aetius.

Hughes clearly looked upon Stilicho as a maligned figure in history and set out to redeem his reputation, he looked upon Belisarius as overrated and he set out to put him in perspective. I believe he considered Aetius to be the most dimly understood and set out to turn him into a real person. He did this using the sparse facts we know without resorting to any leaps of fantasy. Aetius appears from this as a loyal Roman who nevertheless had lived with the 'barbarians', understood them and respected them as friends or enemies.

In addition to shining a light through the centuries on Aetius, Hughes also turns Attila from the savage portrayed in most histories into a capable (if not brilliant) leader, an image that is far more credible for a man who held a nation together and negotiated with the greatest powers of his day. Hughes does much less for the reputation of Leo the Great, who appears as a fairly incidental figure in this story. Personally I find this angle far more credible than the traditional view supported by papal propagandists. It was Aetius and not Leo who saved Rome.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 20 May 2012
Like Mr. Hughes' previous books this work is filled with both very good and very bad qualities. Unlike the previous ones this book manages to consistently rise above them to provide an interesting and informative read. The subject is a fascinating one, and on a topic that I find to be unbelievably poorly covered in the existing works. Aetius was the western Empire's last great general. After him the empire quite quickly fell into pieces. In just over twenty years after his death the western empire had ceased to exist. For twenty years he was pretty much all that was holding the empire together. He's also the guy that took on Attila and won. A very impressive man.

The interesting thing about this book is the extremely positive image it presents of Aetius. In Hughes' previous books his subjects suffer a great deal of criticism despite the generally favorable conclusion. It's one of the things I've always liked about his books, even though it makes his hyperbolic titles seem that much more out of place. And now in the most prosaically named book he heaps on the praise. Perhaps this is due to how little information there is on the man, although even here he finds excuses for the worst of the accusations against Aetius. The lowest point in Aetius' career was when he got into a power struggle with the commander of North Africa while the Vandals were invading, yet Hughes argues (pretty convincingly) that it was in fact a third general, Felix, who was busy playing power politics at the empire's expense. I can't help but be amused by the fact that Belisarius with his own private historian and Stilicho who has panegyrics providing the main source for his actions both come off worse than a man whose praise-singers have been lost.

There isn't enough information on Aetius to allow this book to do more than provide an outline of his career, but at least the outline given here is informative and includes basically everything known about him. Given how little there is to go on much of the book is taken up with an analysis of the why rather than the what. There is a discussion of the nature of the Roman military at this date in chapters four and five, but apart from that the book mostly deals in generalities. For example, in 428 Aetius defeated the Franks somewhere in Gaul. That is all that is known about it. Hughes goes into some detail about what was most likely happening but in the end it comes down to that. He makes the most out of very little data and somehow manages to form a narrative out of it. Whether you enjoy this book or not will depend mostly on whether you buy his explanation for events. He spends little time proposing alternatives. It would have been nice if he'd gone a bit more into the way the state and society was ordered in this time but I suppose that that wasn't considered necessary in a military history.

His main search throughout the book is for any hints of Aetius' actual personality. As might be expected he finds very little of value, but occasionally bits and pieces slip through. For example, his rivalry with Boniface seems to have been entirely political and not personal. From the way he was treated when defeated in battle Hughes deduces that Boniface actually respected Aetius, or at least thought him useful. His rivalry with Felix was rather less friendly and ended in that man's death through riot. Hughes is a little overeager to make all the pieces fit together even when they seem contradictory, but he does at least show you the pieces first so the reader can decide for themselves how well his explanation work. Also as usual he has some truly excellent maps, although the battle diagram for the battle of the Catalonian Fields is relatively poor, due no doubt to the fact that we don't know where it actually happened.

That said, this book does suffer from many of the same problems as his earlier books. I don't know who he has editing these but they're doing a terrible job. This one isn't as bad as his last one but while I was willing to grant that one some slack since it seemed rushed, this one has taken twice as long as the other two and is still painful. I always get suspicious when I spot minor obvious factual errors since it makes me suspicious that there may be big ones I don't notice. For example, he claims that rex wasn't originally a Germanic word but a Roman one, yet the word is Indo-European in origin (the precursor to both Latin and German) and is still present today in the word reich. If they'd borrowed that term from the Romans I'd expect it to be a variant of regnum, the Latin word for kingdom, not rex, the word for king. I wouldn't normally care, but he spends an entire paragraph examining this without mentioning it. Sometimes he's not inaccurate but merely misleading, such as when he gives a confused account of Palladius being sent to the Scots. Since I know who Palladius was I understood what he meant, but somebody who's never heard of him has no way of realizing that by Scots he means the Irish (He was Saint Patrick's predecessor as bishop of Ireland, which was inhabited by a people called the Scotti). Worse still he uses this as evidence that Britain wasn't completely cut off from the empire. Now I have no idea why he believes that shows anything of the sort (Palladius wasn't British but Gallic and Ireland was never a part of Britannia) and he doesn't bother to explain it. It's just a passing reference. He has a lot of references to Britain interspersed throughout the book which have nothing to do with Aetius and distract from the otherwise obvious focus of the book.

Some of his chapters are set up poorly too. He actually recommends that chapter two "be read in conjunction with the Chronology to aid understanding." That's usually a bad sign. His section on arms is reproduced from his book on Stilicho. Apart from the basic introductory chapters though, the organization is fine. It's strictly chronological and doesn't go off on tangents.

Most of these are issues of style or editing. The content generally seems to be pretty solid. Sometimes it seems that he's grasping at straws, and in this book particularly I often felt that he speculated more than was appropriate in a nonfiction book, but the speculation is always marked as such and isn't hidden away in the text. And despite my last two paragraphs I really did enjoy this book. Despite its flaws this book is definitely recommended to anyone interested in the period at all.

There are a few books dealing with this period, altough as far as I know the only book written specifically on Aetius in English is an obscure popular history called Aetius and the Augusta: The Last of the Romans, and even that sounds like it covers over a century. However, Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire is essentially a collection of biographies of the generals ruling behind the emperor. As might be expected Aetius takes up the majority of the focus in that work. Late Roman Warlords is an excellent book dealing with Aetius' successors and it mostly covers the twenty years following from this book to the end of the empire. I'm absolutely astonished to find that it wasn't included in his bibliography. If it's more your taste there is a popular history written about this period called Attila the Hun: Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire which unsurprisingly deals mostly with Attila. It's pretty good and covers the period well. I wouldn't normally recommend a movie in a nonfiction book review, but whenever I think of Aetius I think back to the film that first introduced me to him: Attila The Hun. It's not that great a made-for-tv movie and the acting is often terrible, but Powers Boothe makes an awesome Aetius and easily outshines a horribly overacting Gerard Butler in the lead.
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on 25 October 2014
This book pulls off a trick: it delivers a difficult and complex period of Roman history in an engaging and compelling style. What I like most is the transparency: the sources are clearly listed, and each judgement or theory is shown in a clear and balanced light. Most importantly, the light literary style allowed me to devour this in a few sittings. I recommend this book. I'm now reading Stilicho by the same author.
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on 17 April 2015
The man who stopped the unstoppable Attilla. There should be a big budget movie about this bloke in the "El Cid" mode. Bumped off by jealous cowardly incompetent Rome execs frightened he'd make a play for Emperor no doubt. Haven't read this yet but he and Stilicho are two end of Roman Empire characters I always wanted to read about but couldn't find anything on. Ian Hughes sorted that out !
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on 16 March 2015
Very readable digest of the known facts with intelligent speculation
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
With two lengthy reviews here already, I'm not going to spend too much time dissecting this - there are after all many more books to get on with reading. Ian Hughes third book, after Belisarius: The Last Roman General and Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome, is an admirable history of the half century in the West up to 455 centred around Flavius Aetius. He has gone back to the primary sources, but like his earlier works it seems that here too he has married his own speculations a little too closely with the attestations in his narrative. Words such as "undoubtedly" and "possibly" abound concerning events before becoming transformed into fact.

There can also be revisionism almost for its own sake, a curse upon modern history. Take for example the incident of Justa Grata Honoria sending the ring to Attila, as precipitating the latter's invasion of Gaul. Recent historians have taken a politically correct view on this, viz. Honoria is a woman; the historians are men; the history must therefore by definition be both sexist and wrong. Hughes' spin on this seems equally risible, viz. Honoria was simply appealing to another Roman official (Attila had been flattered by the honorary title of magister militum as appeasement) after appeals to others had failed.

A welcome book, but beware of Hughes' tendency sometimes to speculation by sleight-of-hand turning into actuality.
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on 17 June 2015
Excellent - enjoyed this a lot.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
History of the last days explained , who why and where !! The family rivalry and politicians scrimping yet again hoping for a lot having given a little .
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 20 July 2014
This is a PhD thesis and by no means an easy read for the generally interested. Read the conclusion first and save yourself hours.
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