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4.0 out of 5 stars Good Period, Good Detail, Questionable Thesis, 14 Oct 2011
This review is from: Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire (Classical) (Paperback)
This book deals with the military leaders who rose up to take control during the last century of the Roman empire. O'Flynn calls them generalissimos but a better term might be warlords. Part of the reason for that is that these men weren't always generals but they used their power and their threat of force to make new chains of command. Tyrants might be a better term if used in the Classical sense of a man who ruled illegally. These were men who were the power in Rome and they ruled through weak or puppet emperors. The reason for this would be an interesting study but O'Flynn merely takes a look at the men themselves.

Stilicho was half-Vandal and he was one of the first generalissimos to rise to power. As O'Flynn points out the power in the West had actually been in the hands of the earliest "generalissimos" for several years. There was a child on the throne and the power naturally went to the military leader who controlled him. But when little Valentinian tried to exert his power his general Arbogast rudely told him that he didn't take his orders from him. The poor boy then did the only thing he could do to inconvenience the man and hung himself in shame. With no figurehead behind which to rule Arbogast was forced to promote a new emperor and hope no one else objected, which of course they did. Theodosius led his forces against Arbogast crushing him completely. His untimely death a few months later led to the Western throne passing into the hands of his young son Honorius. The West found itself in the same situation again with Stilicho ruling in the name of the child. Generally Stilicho has a pretty good reputation for his loyalty to the Theodosian house and his noble death but he had his dark side as well. There's an exellent study of Stilicho out called Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome. It's mostly a military history but it goes into more detail than this one.

Constantius' main difference from the rest is that he actually did become emperor. He married Honorius' sister and became co-ruler for a brief time. Still, he had always been the power behind the throne. There isn't much written on him so it's nice to see him covered in this work.

Aetius was the first pure-blooded Roman on this list. He used his relationship with the Huns to secure his power and keep Rome's enemies at bay. He is most famous for defeating Attila at the Battle of the Catalonian Fields. Once Attila died the emperor Valentinian III actually managed to establish his power by personally assassinating Aetius. Given his general ineffectiveness this was not the best solution and he found himself dead shortly after. So the Huns and the Western Romans found themselves leaderless at the same time. O'Flynn's view on Aetius is rather less rosy than that commonly given. He focuses a lot on the selfishness of the man's actions. While all these people were certainly selfish men or they wouldn't have gotten to power, the placing of one's personal interests above what was best for the Empire as a whole is a common theme of the Romans as a whole. It certainly isn't something unusual about these men. There's a book on Aetius called Aetius: Attila's Nemesis by the same author who wrote the above-mentioned book on Stilicho. It's an excellent look at the man and highly recommended.

Ricimer was the eventual successor to Aetius. He's the first man on this list to be a pure-blooded barbarian. O'Flynn takes the rather common view that Ricimer was a treacherous and untrustworthy barbarian although he really doesn't seem particularly worse than any of these other men. Ricimer's thing was the creation of puppet emperors. His first one rebelled against him and had to be destroyed, another one died prematurely, and the last one was forced upon him by the Eastern Emperor. Following a depressing trend Ricimer defeated his enemy (this time the failed Emperor) and then promptly died leaving a power vacuum. This was filled by several men before the whole Empire collapsed and was replaced by the kingdom of Italy.

Odovacer was Rome's first king in a millennium. He saw the way in which Rome was going and decided for whatever reason to do away with the tradition of rule through a powerless Emperor and assume the power himself. While his actual position was never securely determined he managed to rule Italy for over a decade before being overthrown by Theoderic.

I'm not sure I buy his thesis. He believes that all of these men held the same unofficial position. The warlords he lists have plenty of similarities but there are many differences as well. These men never occupied any one established position (as he points out) so they never had a formalized role. Treating their role as a single evolving position is thus doomed to failure. These were just men who took advantage of a power vacuum to make a position for themselves. The assumption that these men acted as they did because of their Germanness is also an annoyance. These men didn't view themselves as Germans but as Romans. Stilicho for example, despite his much vaunted Vandal ancestry had a Roman mother and was raised in the Roman manner. His successor Aetius was pure Roman. Yes he was raised amongst the Huns, but to make everyone who was influenced by barbarians into a barbarian is to eliminate all meaning of the word. Everything was barbarized to one degree or another by this point in the empire. That these men had German origins/influence is not even slightly surprising. If you consider that a cause for the fall of Rome then that's fine but making these men seem exceptional in that sense is just wrong. Perhaps this is being too harsh on the man. It is after all an older book (1983) which came out around the same time as many of the revolutionary new surveys of late antiquity. If you wish to view it that way then it adheres to the old school of thought and is simply somewhat out of date.

Another annoyance about this book is its use of quotes. He leaves these in their original language with the translations in the back. I can usually work my way through them but I know many others can't. Whether stopping to translate or stopping to flip to the back of the book it is an unnecessary annoyance. These aren't short quotes either, some of them take up almost a page. Unless your Greek and Latin are really good this is guaranteed to bug you. The strange thing about this is that apart from that the book as a whole seems aimed at a more general audience. The examination of the generalissimos is rather cursory with each one getting maybe 30 pages, and the details are limited. I'd say it was a popular history but for these quotations. For a scholarly work it is somewhat lacking since it never goes into as much depth as it should. This inconsistency of purpose is rather annoying.

For a better look at the period in general I would strongly recommend Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire. It has its own set of flaws but is highly readable and makes the period comprehensible. A better book on the "generalissimos" is Late Roman Warlords. That book only covers the warlords after Aetius' death but it does so in such unparalleled detail that it makes one wish she would turn her pen to covering the earlier ones next. This book serves well as a general history of these men and their actions but it is somewhat superficial and doesn't apply enough analysis to their positions.
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