Dr. Ilkka Syvänne, The Military History of Late Rome AD425-457 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
This is the fourth in a series of seven books by Ilkka Syvänne, presenting the military history of an Empire in deep trouble. And while it seems a short period to cover in a book, this was an action packed and turbulent three decades that Syvänne calls the Age of the Warlords. For Romans it was an era spent on the precipice of disaster.
Syvänne outlines an Empire united but fragile in 425. That integrity could not hold without a strong centralised power, however, and that was tragically missing. The West though was in much greater trouble than the East as becomes obvious when the narrative unfolds. Enemies surrounded Rome’s frontiers, and some were already inside; others, like the Huns, emerged from out of the vast emptiness beyond the frontier to threaten Rome’s existence. Policies of divide and rule against the barbarians and sometimes effective management of resources, along with almost constant firefighting under the brilliant general Aetius, stemmed the tide.
The Eastern Romans helped the West when they could, but they had their own problems, mainly with the Persians but also the Arabs and Huns. The latter threatened both Roman spheres, and led by Attila they invaded Gaul in 451, leading to the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, which he lost to Aetius. Undaunted, he invaded Italy the following year and lost again. When Aetius was murdered in 454, Attila had been dead for over a year, and the door was open for the Vandals to attack and sack Rome in 455. Marcian, by then Emperor in the East since 450, sent some help, according to Syvänne, but he was also busy in his own backyard. By his death in 457, the East at least was in a stable position. And that is where Syvänne ends this volume.
In telling this often complex story, Syvänne makes the best of patchy sources and is quite happy to lay his analytical steps out for all to see; perhaps too much so at times when he interrupts the flow to dig around in the weeds. He also has an irritating habit of referring to his other published works in lieu of straightforward explanations. Nevertheless, his interpretations are interesting, particularly when he goes against the orthodoxy; for example, on army sizes. He supports his descriptions with frequent maps and illustrations, and the centre section features multiple colour photographs of reenactors, which are visually appealing though it isn’t clear what value they add to the text. I would not say this is a book for beginners studying the late Roman Empire, but for those who have some background, they will find this stimulating and provocative.