Failure of Empire by Noel Emmanuel Lenski
Book Review by Neos Dionysos
The author in his epilogue states that his purpose in writing this book was to show the change in dynamics that a late Roman Emperor would have had to face and deal with and personally. I think he does an excellent job. He relies on primary sources such as Zosimus, Ammaianus and the Annonymous to name a few as well as several contemporary works by such historians as Peter Heather, AHM Jones and Ramsey MacMullen.
The book is around 400 pages long and covers every aspect of the reign of Valens, (as well as his brother in the West Valentinian), from how they came to power, to the end of Valens reign. He covers the challenges Valens faced from simply being of Pannonian birth and of the extreme exertion of will needed to govern the East during the 4th century.
The first chapter deals with both emperors, thier background and early life and how they came to be. Also talked about is how the largely Roman elite viewed them and others from this region as well as the difficulties in building a court that would not only work well but not cause trouble. Valentinian was lucky because he went West and gave the East to his younger brother who faced numerous challenges because he was not an easterner nor did he even speak Greek. Lenski addresses these issues and how they were dealt with.
In the second chapter, Lenski tells us how quickly Valens faced challenges as in the first year of his reign an ursuper challenged his rule, "the Procopius Revolt", and the difficulties and frustrations he endured putting it down. Valens, like many a late Roman Emperor, had a set number of ideals to which to live by and many contradicted the other but the people expected all to be shown by their emperor. How the revolt ended and the punishments and the reprecussions of it are addressed. Of particular interest is how from this revolt, Valens would forever hold a hatred and grudge against Constantinople and ironically just before his death, having been in the city for two weeks and greeted and recieved with riots and insults, he left the city swearing upon his return he would see it leveled.
In the third and fourth chapters, the author tackles Valens first Gothic War and the Eastern Front respectively, showing us the complexity of the issues and the problems he faced in taking the throne in the east. It seemed as though he was never free of revolt or threat from outside force and was usually pulled in 3 or 4 seperate directions that would need his immediate attention. However, he did not have the military strength to handle each when the time demanded. Lenski also points how Valens not only re-secured Armenia but had forced Persia to negotiations which were favorable to Rome and was planning a large-scale invasion to retake land given up by Jovian before him.
In the fifth and sixth chapters, the author talks about religion in the empire under the two brothers and of administration and finance. Here we are shown how overall, both emperors preferred not to become involved in the disputes and divisions of religion. Yet in the end, after Valentinian's death, Valens attacked and persecuted certain Christian sects, (namely the Nicenes), and his death was used by them as a divine tool. In a twisted way he is seen as making this sect go from almost extinct to the eventual victor in the struggle.
In terms of adminstration and finance, we see how the brothers early exeprience, espcially that of Valens, of running farms and estates prepared them to run the empire effectivly. Both were very zealous in rooting out corruption, fixing the bureaucracy and above all helping the common man whom they personally felt attached to (having suffered the same problems and hardships of corrupt goverment when they were still younger men). In finance, Valens is seen as a genious, his reforming of the taxes, of the coinage and his measures to repair the debasement of coins by making them pure helped alleviate a lot of the stress of the inflation of the times and to help end the economic disaster they inhereted from Julian.
Finally, in the seventh chapter, the Diaster at Adrianople is explained in excellent scholarly detail. From the re-settlement, the reasons behind, and the subsequent rebellion we see how much blame is put on Valens unfairly. His lack of immediate response was due to revolts from Arabs, Isaurians and threats from Persia who had violated the peace treaty. He was desperatly short on manpower after having to send a quarter of his army to his brother years before, an army that Gratian kept.
We see the problems between the two emperors and the annoyance and grievence felt by Valens toward his nephews, (Valentinian II), whom were elevated to equal status when Valens was clearly their senior. We are shown what drove the Goths to revolt, how so many came into the land, and why they grew into such a huge force, partially from taking in slaves, hiring mercenaries and forcing riparian units from leaving the Danube and allowing previously fellow tribesmen to enter who had been previously denied. Gratian, for his part seemed as though he did not care, since it was not his realm in trouble and reluctantly sent forces to assist (of which Ammanius states were of the poorest qaultiy and of little number).
Also shown is that Valens was waiting for his nephew but instead of sending forces he instead chose to chase a defeated barbarian group back over the Rhine and punish them further. Doing this, he even recalled advance units he sent to help his uncle so it is no wonder that Valens was fed up with his nephew from holding back forces, (some of which were part of the army he has sent West). It was a necessity that action had to be taken, and the gravity that the Goths were not a single, unified command but a conglomeration of different peoples as well, (which is attested by their ability to act independent and why the initial reports made it to be only 10000 Goths since the other roving bands had not come back yet), which made them that much more dangerous.
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In conclusion, I highly recommend this book for a number of reasons. One, for the person wishing to have a much better understanding of the late Roman Empire and the severity of situations faced by an emperor. Two, it is a much further examination of a time deemed to be the decline when in fact the empire was still vibrant and strong. Three, to better understand Adrianople, what led to it and the aftermath and why Valens as well as the battle have become so negative and seen as a complete and utter failure from the onset. This aspect is shown to be untrue and when based on the evidence and the reasoning for such actions, thelogical and the right choices were made. To put it short, Valens is a scapegoat for a plethora of problems and is unjustly seen by many as the failure when in reality the blame must be spread. He comes out as being more a victim of the circumstances and in my eyes a tragic figure.
I give this book a 5 out of 5 and would recommend that anyone who reads it have a good grasp on Roman history and political, social and military background of the era in question before attempting to read, otherwise you will be left constantly stopping to reference something you are not familiar with.