Ilkka Syvänne, Gordian III and Philip the Arab (Pen & Sword, 2021)
The Roman Empire in 235 C.E. The Emperor Alexander Severus lies dead beside his hated mother in his campaign tent. His rival Maximinus Thrax is about to assume the Purple, but he will also lead the Empire into a crisis that will last most of the rest of the century. In this book, Ilkka Syvänne narrates the military history of the crisis through biographies of the four emperors who made it happen.
Syvänne’s academic credentials are on show from the beginning, with an analysis of his sources. They are few and lean towards the earlier period, and the book’s structure follows a similar path. Syvänne acknowledges that he accepts sources where others might not, though he declares his speculations in the text, and he is inclined to use the theory of ‘military probability’ based on his military education. As the reader, if you can allow Syvänne that latitude, you will enjoy what follows. Syvänne’s second platform for understanding the narrative is a description of the 3rd Century Roman army complete with drawings of soldiers by the multi-talented author.
We step into the reigns of the emperors next, starting with Alexander Severus and his dominating mother, Julia Mamaea, from 222 to 235 – Syvänne uses the unfortunate term ‘mama’s boy’ to describe Alexander, a blip in an otherwise well-written book. This was a period of rebellions, Persian invasions, and Roman counter-invasions, out of which Alexander’s military reputation did not emerge unscathed. When Alexander, or Julia, abandoned a planned invasion of Germany, Maximinus curried favour with the army, who deserted en masse, while Alexander was assassinated. Maximinus ruled through fear and savagery. He also conducted campaigns into Germany lasting three years in which the Romans won the pitched battles but were dogged at every step by Germanic hit-and-run tactics. However, when Maximinus attempted to raise extraordinary taxes in Africa in 238, he set off a widespread series of revolts in what became known as The Year of the Six Emperors. Gordian I kicked off the revolt but he was soon dead along with his obese son. The Senate nominated two more emperors, Pupienus and Balbinus, to carry on the rebellion, which they did while raising up a boy, Gordian III, to become a figurehead emperor. Syvänne picks his way through the resultant confusion and conflict, including Maximinus’ assassination by his soldiers, and ending with the murders of Pupienus and Balbinus.
That brings us to the reign of Gordian III, and we run into source problems for him, particularly how to treat the Historia Augusta. Syvänne tells us that Gordian faced more military problems from 238-241 and narrates the Persian War from 241-244. The man behind the throne during this period was Timesitheus, but he died to be replaced by Philip the Arab, who became co-emperor, then probably murdered Gordian to become the outright emperor. Syvänne notes that our sources are down to mere fragments for Philip but does his best to fill in the considerable gaps. Philip made peace with the Persians in 244 but was soon at war in the Balkans and faced revolts, most notably in Egypt. Decius usurped Philip in 249 and had him killed. Syvänne argues that Philip has been under-rated as emperor and as a commander. And here, Syvänne’s narrative ends.
If you haven’t read much ancient history and are just looking for a good story, you might find Syvänne a bit heavy going. He likes to get into the weeds and shows his readers the inner workings of constructing a narrative through interpreting evidence. But this is the joy of Ancient History, collating the evidence to see what is hidden and then debating the results. Syvänne’s skill is in making that accessible to readers outside the academic sphere. He writes well and with obvious superior knowledge of his subject. This book is no different in that regards. In this book, Syvänne shines a light on a murky period in Roman history and provides a better understanding of the complex events that made up the crisis of the 3rd Century.