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Four Stars or Five?
on 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.