Theodosius - Empire at Bay by S. Williams and G. Friell

Book Review by Neos Dionysos

Theodosius reigned at perhaps the most crucial time in Rome's existence, from the days when Christianity finally took complete control over the empire, to the last division of East and West to the constant threats on the borders of Rome and immediately after the destruction of a Roman Army at Adrianople.

This book covers his years before his appointment as supreme commander of the armies of the East, (then quickly to co-Emperor), until the death of Stilicho in the West, who was Theodosius' protégé and one who carried on his ideals and policies.

With around 200 pages long, it is not a very long read though some of the information can be a bit overwhelming to laymen of the field, the appendixes in the back hold excellent information in their own right and the authors strive hard to be as accurate as they can, including old stereotypes and old theories of Theodosius, his successors and contemporaries as well as new ones which are for the most part in contrast to the old ones. Ammaianus is the chief primary source used, but which is supplemented by Zosimus, Vegetius and other writers. Secondary sources include Gibbon, Bury, Seeck, AHM Jones, MacMullem, Holum, and Liebeschuetz.

Part I of the book consists of chapters 1-5 and the topics covered are "Adrianople and After", "The Burdens of Empire", "Imperial Divisions", "Catholic Ascendancy", and "Victory in the West". From these we are given the picture of the dire situation the empire faced following Adrianople, how Theodosius, coming out of exile, was called onto rebuild the shattered remains of the Eastern Army and face the reality that repulsion or annihilation of the Goths was simply a dream and could not conceivably happen again. His settlement of the Goths as Foederates within the empire set a precedent that was to continue, though which hindsight says was a terrible idea, but within his lifetime and those immediately after it was a complete success. Further discussed is the rise of his comrade, Maximus in the West and the overthrowing of Gratian and Valentinian II in the West.

For a while, Theodosius seemed to have allowed it since he was in no position to actually strike at the usurper but his loyalty to the Valentinian House made him move against Maximus even though it can be argued had he been allowed to rule and been his colleague Roman history may be different. During these times it is shown his greatest strengths and weaknesses and perhaps most important was the power Ambrose of Milan and the church had over Theodosius' decisions and actions even to the point of it being counter-productive for the integrity of the empire. Final section of this part shows his lightening victory against Maximus in the West and the reinstallment of Valentinian II in Milan.

Part II consists of chapters 6-8, "The War Machine", "Barbarians Settlements: From Laeti to Foederati", and "The Topheavy Empire". The War Machine covers the reforms made to the Roman Army during the third century crisis and all the way to Constantine, showing how the army had to adapt to new situations and threats that were non-existent in the earlier days of the Empire. Evidence is presented that these reforms were not only needed but highly successful, it was due to the corruption and decline of the civic administration that let to the army’s downfall, which is explained in detail in 'The Topheavy Empire', and from this chapter we can see how the West declined in comparison to the East.

Chapter seven, on the Barbarians, shows the development of the traditional settlement of Germanic troops to the new form being adopted, why it was necessary, why it was initially successful and why in the end it was a reason for the decline of the West. It also shows just how loyal many Germanic forces and leaders were to the Roman cause and how 'barbarization' was more positive than negative.

Part III consists of chapters 9 and 10, "Contra Paganos" and "Triumph and Death". These two chapters cover the last years of Theodosius' reign and shows how the control of the church over him forced very harsh laws on the Pagans of Rome who were the majority of the senatorial body which caused a backlash and allowed for the rise of Arbogast, (who had been placed by Theodosius as his agent in the West, and whom was very loyal to Theodosius), but a crisis occurred when Valentinian II, (nothing more than a puppet), committed suicide and Arbogast pleaded for Theodosius to name a successor, in the meantime he ruled and was forced to proclaim his own man for Emperor and only now did Theodosius act, of course this was after Eugenius and Arbogast constantly tried to conciliate and keep a peace, but Theodosius' inaction and final quick decision caused a civil war which could have easily be averted at a time when Rome could ill afford such a war. This civil war is shown to be the last 'breath' of Roman Paganism and has been painted as the final triumph of Christianity over Paganism, though there is much more to it and the authors do an excellent job explaining this.

Part IV consists of chapters 11 and 12, "Stilicho: Last Guardian of a United Empire" and "The Inevitable?” Both are excellently written and present to the reader the crisis which arose from the pre-mature death of Theodosius and the reign of his young sons as emperors of East and West, and his work to make Stilicho the guardian to safeguard Rome in the coming years. Much in the past has been written that Stilicho was a traitor and sold the empire out to barbarians, when in fact he was perhaps more loyal than many Romans wished to acknowledge, his devotion to the Theodosian House is shown time and again and how his policies concerning the Germans were exactly those of Theodosius and how Stilicho, despite the situation given him, perhaps made the best decisions and actions that anyone else could have, but the sad fact was he did not have the resources to manage so many threats and crises.

His, (Theodosius), most fatal flaw it is argued, is that he made no attempt to train his sons in the ways of war and leadership as Valentinian had his son Gratian or Count Theodosius had his son. Until that point, Rome was strong and had almost recovered from Adrianople, but, it was not to be, when Honorius and Arcadius assumed the purple in their own name, and ho idea how to rule on their own.

In conclusion, I would like to say that this was an excellent read and filled with a lot of information concerning the late empire and it's more crucial years. The authors don't just focus on Theodosius, but of the empire as a whole, the army, the church and the threats it faced and the immediate aftermath until 410. Even if this is your first book on the late period it is an essential and perhaps the best place to start to be given a plethora of information. I give it 5 out of 5 and rank this as one of the best books I have ever read on the period.

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