Military History of Late Rome 284-361 by Ilkka Syvanne

Book Review by Joe Medhurst

This is the first of what is to be a set of 5 volumes providing a comprehensive narrative of late Roman military history from 284-641. It provides a detailed description of the changes in organization, equipment, strategy and tactics among both the Roman forces and her enemies in the relevant period, while also giving a detailed but accessible account of the campaigns and battles. This first volume covers the period from the end of the third century crisis to the sons of Constantine. He makes some interesting claims such as the earlier than attested increase in Roman cavalry use, and has undertaken a great deal of research to provide an informative, clear and well put together book.

This book covers an interesting period and provides a lot of information, and I was very excited when it arrived, but the more I read the more I found myself questioning the work, and I must admit I would have given up reading it if not for having to write this review. If you look on Amazon.com you can find a very scathing review by an Arch Stanton, and after reading this I also discovered a rebuttal by the author on academia.edu.

To quote from Arch Stanton’s opinion of the book: “On the one hand it's clearly been very diligently researched and is the result of a lifetime's worth of study. It may rely heavily on secondary literature, but it pulls from a wide range of books and tries to offers something that no other work has attempted. On the other hand it's full of unsupported assumptions and some highly misleading statements that diminish its value dramatically.”

Upon seeing this I was quite surprised and felt this to be very derogatory,, especially coming from an unknown reviewer rather than a well known academic. However, I looked into Stanton’s complaints and Syvanne’s rebuttal and found myself agreeing on many points with Stanton. The book does have many unsubstantiated comments, broad generalisations and downright errors. Apart from those mentioned by Stanton I spotted some comments such as “The Germans hadn’t changed since Caesar’s day”, which very little research would tell you is not true. In addition he describes changes in Arabia and the east caused by “the increase of Rome’s Red Sea trade in the third century”, which is the opposite of the facts, as I saw in my research for my Master’s thesis (see the works of Tomber and Matthew Cobb to confirm this). What I found most irritating when reading this though was his constant reference to every ancient society as feudal. This may be mostly true of the Sassanids, but the feudal society was a Medieval phenomenon, and cannot be applied to the ancient Germans, Picts, Irish and mountain tribes of the Caucasus!

I am again forced to agree with Stanton in his assessment that the flaw lies in ‘the author's unquestioning faith in any and all sources. He distrusts basic source criticism and his stated procedure is to believe every source implicitly, unless disproved by another source or archaeological study.’ He uses details from the sixth century or later to describe events in the third and fourth centuries. Also he even uses sources from the 11th-14th centuries to describe Nubian kings in the 3rd century. Additionally he often uses the largest possible estimates of enemy numbers, without considering the evidence. He cannot merely say classicists make mistakes or are over reliant on certain sources, he needs to understand why they follow those particular sources and agree or disagree with good reasons and clear logic. Anyone boasting that the entirety of 'modern' historical scholarship has 'failed to understand' something needs to have some compelling evidence to back up the claim. The book doesn't seem to provide any, beyond the word limitanei appearing in the Historia Augusta; this just makes the whole thing sound amateurish.

Overall I would not recommend this book as it would merely confuse the reader. If one wants to study the late period, there are many better authors out there, for example Peter Heather.

Joe Ward Medhurst was born near London in 1981. After studying for several years in Liverpool he moved to China where he worked in schools and universities for a year before returning to central London. In 2009 he moved to Italy where he still lives. He studied Archaeology for his bachelors, and later did a masters in Ancient history, and a postgraduate diploma in language teaching.

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Union Jack Military History of Late Rome for the UK