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Customer reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars

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.
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on 20 March 2016
This is a fascinating account of 'The Last Roman', who held the crumbling Roman Empire together until 454 AD. Like his predecessor, Julius Caesar, he was murdered by jealous mediocrities.
He was a very able general. His time as a hostage of the Huns educated him in their ways and enabled him to defeat Attlla and his allies.
The author has written a clear and readable account of what is known of his life. I wish he wouldn't use the phrase 'end result'.
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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 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 2 November 2016
excellent, would recommend
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on 16 March 2015
Very readable digest of the known facts with intelligent speculation
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on 17 June 2015
Excellent - enjoyed this a lot.
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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 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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on 30 May 2013
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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