Patricians and Emperors by Ian Hughes
Book Review by Alex Johnston
Spoiler alert! In the very first sentence of the Introduction, Ian Hughes mentions a shocking fact – the Western Roman Empire will fall! “Right. And I can save 15% on car insurance. Everybody knows that!”
However, as the author mentions several times throughout the book, everybody doesn’t know that. Or rather, everybody didn’t know that. The characters who appear in the book, who operated during the final forty years or so of the existence of the Western Roman Empire, didn’t know that. I’m glad he pointed this out, obvious though it may be. I felt a certain sense of, I don’t know, decay (?) while reading the book – like watching flowers lose their bloom and knowing that they will be short-lived. Likely I’m superimposing a sense of dread that the participants didn’t always or necessarily feel, not knowing the outcome as we do. But times were rather bleak, it seems, for the most part.
Using words like “decay” and “dread” might give the impression that I didn’t enjoy reading this brilliant book – I most certainly did! But there was unending warfare, and assassination, and imperial turnover; and military strongmen, and Vandals, and Gauls, and Goths, and…. all playing their part, some all too briefly before meeting their demise, like the afore-mentioned flowers. Decay. Unpopular emperors. Untrained, unmotivated, disgruntled troops. Lots of mercenaries and hired swords. Lack of discipline – in one fascinating vignette the author tells a tale about the emperor Majorian, who had a leader named Tuldila serving him. As the Huns under Tuldila’s command were crossing the Alps, he (Tuldila) led them in ‘unauthorized pillaging’ of local Romans. Majorian was afraid to punish them, for fear of losing his authority, so he gave them a pass. Others in his army were not so forgiving, however, and they massacred the Huns in their sleep! Well you can imagine their punishment for such a SERIOUS violation of orders, right? They were forced to – keep the Huns’ possessions as a reward! That’ll teach ‘em to disobey orders! That Majorian was one tough dude!
But I’m not being fair. He had to appease Goths, Gauls, the Eastern Emperor, and others. “Emperor” was not the same gig as when Caesar Augustus held the position hundreds of years earlier. Uneasy lies the head. Imperial power was as subject to decay as everything else during those final days. In fact, a predecessor, Maximus, despaired of the post immediately after attaining it. The author recounts a quote uttered by the hapless emperor taken from a letter written by the poet, Sidonius Appollinaris: ‘Happy thou, O Damocles, whose royal duress did not outlast a single banquet!’ Just a few weeks after donning the crown, a bunch of Vandals showed up at his gate, and he did only what could be expected of a leader of his stature. He jumped on his horse and took off, intent on getting the hell out of Dodge after telling others to do likewise. This lack of Imperial Cojones did not endear him to his subjects, and some group of same (maybe slaves, maybe not; the sources differ) tore him to pieces.
Again, though, I’m reminded by the author – these people did not know the ultimate fate of the Empire, and not everybody was a weak, disgruntled fatalist. The magistri militum Aetius and Stilicho were able and powerful military leaders and arguably the most influential men of their time (although both were ultimately and fatally dispatched). There were military victories and hope. When I read Ian Hughes’ account of the ‘resounding victory’ of the little-known Burco over the Alamanni who invaded Italy, I was filled with hope, until I reminded myself how things turned out in the end.
The author had a clear intention in writing this book. He mentions in the Introduction that there have been a number of publications concerned with the Fall, many focusing on “Why?” His intention with this book was different – to largely avoid such speculation, and to instead concentrate on writing a coherent chronological narrative of events.
And that he does, in spades! The chronology seemed vast to me; even epochal, probably due to the sheer number of participants he chronicled, and to the rapid pace of change during the time. But it was only forty years, plus or minus. There were emperors (some short-lived), patricians, Gauls, Goths, Eastern counterparts – all expertly slotted into the correct (or as correct as could be inferred from the sources) time periods. Because the ‘Kingmakers’ of the time, the patricians and magistri militum, played such prominent roles, the author, in his words, adopted a “’loose biographical’ approach …where the reign of each emperor is described in as much detail as possible within sections composed around the leading magister militum.” And further, “There are many factors behind this decision. One is that it allowed for a detailed analysis – or as much as is possible – of each emperor’s reign without the recourse of having Ricimer, Gundobad or Orestes as the over-riding character.” In my opinion, Ian Hughes used this device to great effect. By reading of the exploits and actions of the various emperors within the context of the constraints and supports provided by their advisors and puppet masters, I was better able to appreciate the short biographies provided.
Having said that, the book was not a particularly easy read for me. If you’re not an historian or a fan of the late Imperial period, many of the names contained therein will probably lack the familiarity of an Augustus, or a Crassus, or a Julius. Certainly that was the case with me, and there was a lot to digest. But it was a fascinating read, and it left me wanting to know more about some of the major players. The author has written biographies of Aetius and Stilicho, so he does not lack material or research. But as mentioned above, his intention with this book was to write a chronological narrative. He clearly remained true to that intention, as evidenced by the bibliography and notes and references. His research was superb. There are many characters living in these 250 or so pages, so extensive biographies were not the norm. But what was there was compelling enough to make me want to read the author’s longer biographies.
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The book jacket states “This book is the perfect starting point for anyone seeking to make sense of this chaotic, but crucial period of Roman history.” No argument there. It is dense with material – I only touched on a few examples here. Every page is populated with new characters, plots, and intrigues. I plan to re-read this book – the author has whetted my interest in what was a fascinating historical period. If only it wasn’t so damn depressing! I mean, I simply can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a decaying empire, with no inkling of its impending denouement. Oh, wait…
Alex Johnston is the author of several fiction books about Marcus Mettius, a minor character in Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War.