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An important bookon one of the great figures of Roman history
on 3 November 2015
Given that Aetius was the most important and influential man in the Western half of the Roman Empire for a period of around 20 years and that he is credited with delaying the collapse of this half of the Empire during his life it is remarkable how little is known of him. Earlier generals and statesmen were well served by the classical historians whilst Bellisarius has Procopius. Unfortunately the life of Aetius has to be reconstructed from fragmentary evidence such as chronicles which are not generally considered to be the most accurate of sources. The event for which he is most widely remembered is his victory over the Hunnic and Allied Army of Attila at the Catalaunian Plains yet there is disagreement over the site of the battle and details of the battle are sketchy to say the least.
Whilst his achievements and career have been analysed in many history books there are few books which are dedicated to a study of his life and career (at least in English) and virtually nothing is known about Aetius as a human being as opposed to his military and government career. This is unfortunate as the fact that he retained the loyalty of the army and was able to form alliances with the Germanic tribes and Huns in the way he did would indicate he was blessed with some impressive human qualities. Whilst there are many disagreements over the historical importance of the Catalaunian Plains there is almost no disagreement that his influence and impact on the Western half of the Empire was immense and that his efforts secured a semblance of stability and apparent recovery which it is hard to imagine could have taken place otherwise. That this stability and recovery was fleeting and merely delayed the fall of the Western half of the Empire is hardly his fault.
This book by Ian Hughes then fills a huge hole and complements the works of historians such as the great J.B.Bury. To the authors credit he is very open in accepting that much of the book is based in conjecture and throughout the book the author calls attention to alternative scenarios and provides the basis for the version of events recommended as being the most likely one. This is not because the author has not done his research or because he does not know his subject, if anything the opposite is true and it is precisely because he has studied the fragmentary and at times contradictory evidence that so much of the story is based on supposition and balance of probability. The first chapter is a general history of the period followed by a concise overview of the Roman Army of the period and those which they would fight and then a more or less chronological history of Aetius and his campaigns. The book is balanced and mercifully free of any axes being sharpened. Whilst some reviewers have opined that they found the book to be somewhat dry I found it a very engaging read. The author debunks a few myths, particularly that of Pope Leo's mythical salvation of Rome by convincing Attila to turn away when the city was at his feet.
The book tells the story of one of the key figures of Western European history, a figure who has been neglected and about which little is known. As such is fills an enormous void in the historical literature. The fact that the book is balanced, honest and engagingly written adds appeal to its importance. Very highly recommended.