Philip Matyszak holds a doctorate in history from St. John's college of Oxford, and has written numerous books on the Ancient World.
"Maty," as he is known on the UNRV forums, conducted the following interview with Ian Hughes author of the recently reviewed book, Stilicho: The Vandal who saved Rome.
UNRV: Thanks for giving us this interview. I guess the first question our members will ask about your book on Stilicho is that with so many books on ancient history competing for their attention, why should they choose this one?
IAN HUGHES:I have been a member of UNRV since 2007 and in that time the overwhelming majority of posts have been about the Early Empire. This is proof that, despite recent books by notable historians such as Heather, Elton and Goldsworthy, the Later Empire still remains rather neglected in comparison to earlier periods. Yet the individuals who lived through these times, including Stilicho and Aetius, are fascinating and powerful people whose lives reward study in the same way as, for example, Caesar and Augustus.
This book is intended not just to expand knowledge of the Roman Empire. It was written in the hope that it will encourage those interested in ancient history to study a fascinating but much-neglected period of history with the skill and devotion that they have shown for the earlier empire. Unfortunately, they may then need to spend yet more money on books to investigate further!
UNRV: Your previous book was on Belisarius, and we understand you are working on other projects which deal with late antiquity. What's the fascination this period has for you?
The processes of change and transformation. In January 395 the Empire was a vibrant, living entity under the domination of one individual: Theodosius I. Less than three generations later the West had fragmented and was under the control of ‘barbarian’ kings. Yet the most fascinating part of all is the little-known stories of the individuals who were in power during this period of ‘collapse’. I have always been interested in how the policies and personalities of Stilicho, Aetius, Ricimer and the rest of the ‘Patricians’ affected events. There is also the question of why no strong emperor emerged who could deal with the disintegration of the West and establish a secure, even if diminished, ‘West Roman Empire’.
UNRV: Stilicho's biography has a large and varied cast of characters. Are there any you particularly admire or despise? If so, why?
Strangely, I can answer both questions using non-Romans. Although the word ‘despise ’ may be too strong, I can find very little sympathy for the Gothic Eastern magister militum Gainas. His political ambition clearly outweighed his political ability and his (successful) attempt to reach the highest-available position in Constantinople came at too high a price. Further, once there it is clear that he had no idea of how to ‘run’ the empire, and so he was overthrown very quickly.
On the other hand, I would love to know more about the Gothic Eastern magister militum Fravitta. He appears to have been an extremely competent military commander – a column was erected by Arcadius celebrating Fravitta’s defeat of Gainas, although the statue at the top was of the Emperor Arcadius, not of Fravitta. It is clear that, despite his ‘barbarian’ origins, he was a loyal servant to the Eastern Empire and his arrest and execution were almost certainly undeserved.
UNRV: Writing about late antiquity has many challenges. What did you find was the hardest thing about writing this book?
Actually there were two aspects which were extremely challenging. One was the poor quality of the sources. Generally speaking, there are only two types of source which have survived. One is histories dealing with Christianity. Unfortunately, these tend to focus on Church affairs and ignore the vast majority of secular events, which can be very frustrating. The other is the Chronicles. Although these give information on secular events as well as Christian ones, their brevity is also extremely frustrating – and so is their habit of dating events incorrectly. As a consequence, it has been necessary to resort to using every available scrap of information to piece together a reasonable course of events. The net result has meant trawling through little-known sources which are very hard to find in an attempt to determine facts and dates.
The second is the widely-held assumptions concerning individuals such as Stilicho. For example, there is a widely-held belief that Stilicho was half-Vandal and so in league with the ‘Germanic’ barbarians such as the Goths. Yet a close look at the evidence demonstrates that this is untrue and a fabrication of the ancient historians living shortly after his fall who wanted to vilify his memory in order to boost their position own at court. Unfortunately, this has often been followed by more modern historians and so the ‘myth’ has become identified as fact. Whether others will accept my ‘revisionist’ viewpoints is a different matter!
UNRV: There's a lot of debate about whether early fifth-century Rome was in terminal decline or simply 'different and evolving'. Where do you stand in this controversy?
I am in no doubt that it should be accepted as a ‘Terminal Decline’. I am now close to finishing the text for my third book, this one being on Aetius. The ‘different and evolving’ theory presupposes that if there had been no barbarian invasions then the empire would have continued to exist, although in a slightly different form. It also takes for granted the fact that the barbarian kingdoms that arose did so as ‘successor states’ to the empire. During the research and writing of ‘Stilicho’ and ‘Aetius’ it became clear that even without the arrival of barbarians the economic and political decline of the West would have resulted in fragmentation and the rise of successor states owing no allegiance to the emperor in Italy. All that the barbarians did was to supply the different regions with ready-made leaders and armies. Even without them, the rise of the bacaudae suggests that before long Spain and Gaul would have gone the way of Britain. Assuming no Vandal invasions, with the retention of Africa the West could have survived as a ‘rump-empire’, much like the ‘Byzantine’ Empire after 1261, but it would have been in name only.
UNRV: Your focus is on military biography - what other aspects of ancient history interest you, and why?
I am interested in practically all aspects of history, but would like to know more about the lives of the ‘common’ people. Unfortunately, the sources were largely written by the aristocracy or the well-off, and so the poorer classes are ignored. Although it may be possible to revert to archaeology, the trend in that discipline is still to concentrate on the remains of the wealthy – for example villas- although that is slowly changing. As to why, can anyone explain why they are interested in history? I just find it captivating. In fact, there is only one aspect of history which I tend to avoid: it is far too easy to offend people when discussing religion.
UNRV: So far you have concentrated on Roman generals - have you ever thought of doing a history from the other side of the frontier? Attila the Hun for example?
I would love to do biographies of the opponents of Rome in this period. Unfortunately, the evidence for the majority of them is so scanty that a full biography is impossible. Where enough evidence exists to build a picture of one of these ‘barbarians’, they are intimately tied to the lives and careers of one of the internal leaders – for example Alaric and Stilicho. As a result, what can be discovered about their lives is already included in the books I am writing.
As a case in point, although it may be possible to write a short book on Gaiseric there are a couple of distinct problems. One is the lack of source material on which to base events. The second is that all of this is Roman and therefore very heavily biased. Furthermore, what evidence there is has been included in my book on Aetius, Gaiseric’s main opponent, so a separate book would probably not be worthwhile.
The only other candidate that springs to mind is Attila. Unfortunately –at least for me –Otto Maenchen-Helfen has already written a very good book on the Huns, and C.D. Gordon wrote a book bringing together the source information on Attila himself. More recently John Man has also written a book on Attila, so whether the market would be interested in yet another book on the same subject remains to be seen. Maybe, in a few years’ time, I could be convinced to write one of these books, but not at the moment.
UNRV: If you could travel back in time to observe one ancient battle, which would you choose?
Realistically, I wouldn’t choose any: dangerous places to be, battles. Not only that, but being so close to the piles of dead, and the pain and suffering of the wounded, is not my idea of fun! However, if my safety was assured and I was heavily sedated, it would have to be one of the battles of Aetius. With Stilicho we at least have some idea of how he conducted his battles. With Aetius, there is no evidence whatsoever, so it would be interesting to see if he justified his status as one of the better generals of the period. So probably the Battle of Rimini, when Aetius was defeated by Boniface in 432.
UNRV: Thanks for your time.
...to the review of Stilicho: The Vandal who saved Rome.