Dr. Ilkka Syvänne, Aurelian and Probus (Pen and Sword, 2020)
“Cometh the moment, cometh the man” they say. For the Roman Empire in the throes of the 3rd Century Crisis, they desperately needed a saviour. According to Ilkka Syvänne, they got two. As Emperor from 270-275 CE, Lucius Domitius Aurelianus with Marcus Aurelius Probus as his general waged relentless campaigns against barbarian invasions and internal rebellions to restore most of the Empire. Probus reigned from 276 to 282, almost completing the job his mentor had started.
Syvänne sets up his narrative with a selection of excellent maps, an overview of his sources, and a rather more detailed survey of the Roman army with illustrations. Then he gets into the story, following the military careers of Aurelian and Probus as they rose through the ranks while fighting an extraordinary range of enemies on all points of the compass. That experience would stand them in good stead when they assumed Imperial command. That was just as well because, as Syvänne makes clear, the Empire was a mess in 270 when Aurelian came to power. Aurelian took to the offensive, putting out fires and sweeping up the mess against diverse enemies, while developing a reputation for cruelty that probably helped lead to his assassination in 275.
After an interregnum of a few months under Marcus Claudius Tacitus, Probus emerged from a contested accession to continue Aurelian’s work. He fought the Goths then campaigned in Gaul, Germania, Illyricum, Thrace, and Persia before crushing revolts in Gaul, Spain, the Balkans, and Britain. But in doing so, he made enemies among the rank and file of his army and that led to his assassination in 282. Syvänne concludes his narrative with an assessment of the three Emperors who vied for the throne before Diocletian emerged to become one of Rome’s greatest Emperors. Some technical appendices on the Roman army complete this volume.
Syvänne loves to get into the weeds when writing, which he deploys well for his accounts of campaigns and battles in particular, but also many of the other major events of the period. Syvänne also pauses to provide discussion and analysis at key points, which are necessary to let his readers catch their breath, though at times there is a bit too much personal commentary and referencing of his other books. He also describes Rome’s enemies well, so that we get a good all round picture of the threats. I am not big fan of numbered sub-titles or lists, however, especially in a narrative history. Syvänne is ably assisted by the inclusion of many coloured plates, photographs, and illustrations, which taken with the detailed narrative produces a valuable book for students of the Roman Empire and military history in general.