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Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (Roman Imperial Biographies) Paperback – 30 Apr 1998
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Theodosius Theodosius I was the last Roman Emperor to rule over both the East and West and his reign was a turning point in the history of the late-Roman Empire. This book describes the military, political and religious struggles of this turbulent period and analyzes the effects of his policies. Full description
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The work is primarily a biography. It starts prior to Theodosius with a brief build up to Adrianople, whilst the work then carries on with a good chapter on Stilicho and a discussion as to whether the East/West split was inevitable. The authors know their source material well and this is evident in how they structure the chapters and also in how the use Gibbon, who centuries later still, looms large in this subject area.
The work is largely a defence of Theodosius, setting his reign between two key historical turning points, the battle of Adrianople, which destabilised the East and his early death, which left his two young sons nominally in charge of the Empire. Such a revision is welcome in helping to rebalance the historical scales, though at times it can feel, that the work defers too much toward absolving Theodosius; he certainly made mistakes (hereditary rule for his sons, was an example, especially given his non-hereditary elevation by Gratian) and it is possible to tackle both his indecision and inconsistency (such as volte-face regarding pagan worship in the Empire). However this must be set against the works wider emphasis which is to challenge some misconceptions about the Later Roman Empire that have persisted since Gibbon, in particularly the chapters on the barbarisation of the army and on religion are good reads in this respect.
I'd recommend this to anyone interested in the Later Empire and also with an interest in Rome's relationship with Barbarians.
Theodosius I seems to have been an upstanding kind of chap; not brought up with any expectations of becoming Emperor, but rather having a father who clearly knew what he was doing in the service of the Emperor, until factional politics saw the Count executed, and Theodosius the son in respectable exile on the family estates. After the disaster of Adrianople and the death of Valens in 378, Gratian called on Theodosius to step up into what was effectively a co-emperor role, that of supreme military command in the East. This was clearly a formidable challenge for anyone to have to face. Theodosius seems to have had an intelligent and good nature, and believed strongly in the righteousness of his role and what he was doing. But unfortunately for him, and for the Empire, his love for his family and his determination to offer a dynastic succession to his sons meant the neglect of the best interests for the Empire as a whole, and his early death led to fractures among those who should have worked to hold the Empire together. Theodosius died so suddenly and at such a critical juncture in the history of the Eastern and Western Empires that it is important, and welcome, that the authors continue the story into the reigns of Honorius and Arcadius, and considers the important role that Stilicho continued to hold and the ongoing struggles after Stilicho's death.
Not only does this book cover in valuable detail the chronological narrative of Theodosius' reign, there are also extremely informative and interesting sections on the military, barbarian settlements and their transition from laeti to foederati, and the difficulties in the fourth century with the empire's frontiers, bureaucratic and administrative machinery. All this adds to the deeper understanding and final conclusions offered by the authors as to the inevitability, or otherwise, of the fall of the West.
Appendices offer information on the Battle of Adrianople, the structure of the Roman Army in the later fourth century, outline of the senior military hierarchy, the Valentinian and Theodosian dynasties, barbarian settlements and fourth-century barbarian officers in the Roman Army.
This is a great book; totally and utterly recommended. The writing is engaging and interesting, indepth yet never overly difficult. The story itself is enthralling and riveting stuff. I now have books on Ambrose and Stilicho in my `to be read' pile.
The religious policies enforcing uniformity, which are usually analysed as a Bad Thing by those modern day historians with a liberal eye obsessed with "diversity" (that is, almost all historians these days), are here properly put in the context of the age. (I really don't recognise what another reviewer said about it being a leftist analysis of the religious policy - I actually thought it quite neutral and even handed.)
Militarily, the numerous problems Theodosius had in dealing with the Goths are detailed making it understandable that he was not dealing from a position of strength, and the treaty creating foederati was the only real option. From our privileged position looking backwards, we see this as the thin end of the wedge leading to the breakup of the West. But in the final analysis, the authors conclude that although he was ultimately unsuccessful in terms of his political and military legacy, Theodosius did the best he possibly could under the circumstances.
Essential reading for this critical period of history, easily accessible to the general reader and not just for students and academics.
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