Ilkka Syvanne
ARRSE Rating
3.5 Mushroom Heads
The Roman Empire in the West officially lasted for just over 500 years: from 27 BC, when Augustus was formally inaugurated as the first Emperor, until 476 AD, when Romulus Augustulus, the last Emperor, was forced to abdicate. There will always be disagreement about the precise dating: arguably Rome had become an imperial power well before Augustus, while some authorities consider that the last Emperor was Julius Nepos, who was de jure and de facto Emperor 474-475 AD and then de jure only until 480 AD. So, 500-600 years; a respectable duration. (The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire survived for far longer; until 1453.)

The surprising thing is not that Rome fell, but that it did not fall much earlier, in the third century AD; in fact it almost did. The basic reason is that the Empire had inherent weaknesses that always threatened its survival. These included:

The long Rhine-Danube frontier that the Romans had to defend against the barbarians, because Augustus had never managed to conquer Germany. Had Rome been able to move the frontier eastwards to the Elbe, shortening it dramatically and in the process subjecting the Germans to a forcible dose of Greco-Roman civilization, the Empire might have lasted longer and the later history of Europe might have been very different;

Overstretch, because Emperors wishing to pose as heroes and conquerors pushed the frontiers too far in other directions. The 'vanity provinces' included Dacia (modern Romania), Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Britannia. All were eventually abandoned;

Internal instability, because, after the Julio-Claudians, no long-lasting imperial dynasty was ever established. The imperial crown became the prize for which ambitious generals competed, leading to civil war and the temporary fragmentation of the Empire. (The Eastern Empire did establish great imperial dynasties and lasted 1,000 years longer.);

The menace of another great empire in the East: Sassanian Persia.

The period from 249 to 269 AD, prior to Aurelian's coronation in 270 (Note 1), was one of the darkest in Roman history. In 251 the Goths had annihilated the Roman field army, with the Emperor Decius, at the battle of Abrittus. The German nations were then free to loot and pillage the Empire from Spain to Asia Minor; even North Africa, and they did. King Shapur of Persia did the same thing in the eastern provinces and took the Emperor Valerian prisoner. Although the Empire was being threatened, politics and civil wars continued. Gaul separated itself from Rome and became the Gallic Empire under the usurping 'Emperor' Postumus. Another usurper, Aureolus, controlled Milan and much of northern Italy. The eastern provinces had fallen under the dominion of the royal house of Palmyra, on whom the Emperor Gallienus had been forced to rely to crush the Persians and two more usurpers.

It would require the frantic efforts of two soldier-Emperors: Aurelian and Probus, to turn the tide and save the Empire. Aurelian (Lucius Aurelius Domitianus) reigned 270-275 and Probus (Marcus Aurelius Probus) 276-282. Aurelian reunited the breakaway regions, including Palmyra, while Probus consolidated his achievements. They did this by using Roman armies in an effective and innovative way. This book tells us how it was done.

Aurelian was a supremely gifted commander. He defeated the German barbarians along the Rhine-Danube frontier. He defeated the Arabs, Armenians, Persians, Palmyrenes, Egyptians, Aksumites and Yemenites. He defeated several Roman usurpers. He may even have defeated some enemies in Britain and India. His victory over the Persians in 272 was one of the most devastating that the Romans ever inflicted on Persia. It paralysed all Persian operations against the West until at least 284. Had he not been murdered in 275, he might have achieved at least the partial conquest of Persia. The prudent Probus consolidated Aurelian's victories and evacuated two 'vanity provinces'. He presided over the Empire's economic recovery.

There have been other studies of the reigns of Aurelian and Probus, but until now none has approached the subject from the point of view of military analysis. Yet plenty of material has survived to permit this. The author, Dr Syvanne, has made use of the military treatises that describe the tactics and strategy used by Roman army commanders at this period. He has been able to reconstruct the military campaigns of the two soldier-Emperors and their contemporaries in far greater detail than has ever been done before.

The author is a distinguished Finnish historian and the book has been translated from Finnish, which is a hard language. Like many translations, it probably does not do the original justice; it contains irritatingly clumsy renderings, for example:

“Most of the historians dismiss the list of the captives included in this triumph solely on the basis that it is included in the [controversial and sometimes unreliable] Historia Augusta”.

This might be better-rendered as “Most historians are sceptical of the list of captives paraded in this triumph, but only because it occurs in the Historia Augusta”.

Apart from that, this book is not light reading; it is not 'history as literature'. It will be an invaluable work of reference for serious military historians. If you need a detailed description – copiously illustrated – of Roman army uniforms from Private to Emperor, here it is. Likewise, if you require to understand how Roman military tactics and strategy had evolved since the time of Julius Caesar. But if you are an ordinary reader who is interested in the later Roman Empire, you might do better to buy the Penguin edition of Lives of the Later Caesars, which is based on the Historia Augusta.

Those are the reasons why I have awarded a score of 3.5/5 Mushroom-heads.

Note 1: By this period the Emperors were wearing crowns or diadems on State occasions. Ikka Syvanne gives descriptions of them, so 'coronation' is not incorrect.

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