The Roman Emperor Aurelian – John F. White

Restorer of The World

Alternative History tends to fall into two flavors – one is that what happened historically was fixed and unchangeable, or that every tiny contingency will lead to a huge divergence instantly.  Viewed from the future, the Roman Empire appears to be a monolith that existed without change for centuries, until it came to its inevitable end.  The reality shows that the end of the Western Empire was less clearly inevitable – despite its weakness, nobody wanted the empire to end.  Rather, both the invading tribes and the current residents all wanted to find their place in an ongoing system, but the disruptions of the time were enough to make it impossible to support the overarching government on the scale of the Empire.

Centuries before this, when the Empire was far stronger, there was a huge crisis that nearly tore the entire Empire apart.  In fact, for decades the Empire was divided into three separate entities, as the provinces of Britain, Gaul, and Spain broke away to defend themselves.  In the East, in the midst of Persian invasions most of the East broke away under the domination of the city of Palmyra.

Elsewhere, the Goths first made an appearance, sweeping through the center of the Empire and overrunning and sacking parts of Asia Minor, Greece and the Balkans.  One Emperor, Valerian was captured by Persia.  His son, Gallienus, seemed unable to fight the combination of the Goths and the unruly troops that routinely created new Emperors,

While the Empire was down, it wasn’t out.  In the central third, the army was developing a group of officers from the Illyrian provinces that would dominate for the next fifty years and more.

Signs of recovery started even before Gallienus’ murder in 268.  The limited records of the time record a victory over the Goths, and there are signs that he created a reserve “reaction force” that was able to ride and respond to the raiders in a more timely manner than before.  Gallienus’ murder led to the naming of Claudius II Gothicus,

Claudius, too, had success in breaking up the Gothic tribes keeping the central core of the Empire on the defensive, but he died of the plagues sweeping the land.  In the West, the death of the Gallic “Emperor” led to Spain returning to the central core, while in the East, the death of the ruler of Palmyra led to changes in the reverse direction.

In our time, we think of states breaking away as being due to the desire of these lands and rulers wanting autonomy and independence.  In Rome at this time, almost the opposite was true.  Many usurpers and breakaway states were a response to the lack of central direction, and the locals trying to stand in for the absent Imperial authority, busy elsewhere for years at a time.  There was no central state apparatus to manage the regions away from he physical presence of an emperor.

At first, Palmyra followed this scenario.  With the Emperor captured and the Persians running wild, the city took over defense itself and managed to defeat the Persians.  The leader was actually given Imperial office by Gallienus.  With his death, his wife Zenobia began to take matters in a different direction, as she took steps to acquire and manage the entire East under Palmyra.  The Illyrian officers nominated another of their own, Aurelian, over a relative of Claudius, to be the next Emperor.

Within two years, Aurelian had gotten his house in order.  He ordered the construction of walls around Rome, fully defeated the Goths and adjusted the borders, abandoning the province of Dacia.  Now he was ready to take on the “reconquest” of the East.

Given the desire of many districts to return to Rome, parts of the advance were easy,  However, the fifty years of chaos made even the simplest thing difficult.  It shows the skill of Aurelian that he managed to restore the East to central rule in a few years, and that the system lived on even beyond the fall of the West in 476.  Turning to the West, the approach of the army led the emperor of the Gallic Empire to essentially abdicate in his favor and Gaul and Britain returned to the fold.

Aurelian then intended to turn on Persia, but he was murdered himself by dissident officers.  But the Illyrian “line” of similar thinking Emperors lived on and continued to restore and reform the state,  The Emperors Probus and Carinus got the state on track and defeated Persia, although their deaths by murder show that the army still was not under full control.  Diocletian then took over for 20 years of strong rule, forming the Tetrarchy.  After that Constantine, another Illyrian, made Christianity the official religion of the state.

Aurelian put the Empire back on course and gave it hundreds of years of life.  The book is an excellent review of a hugely under documented period of the Empire.

AD 69 – Emperors, Armies and Anarchy – Nic Fields

Again, an attempt to make a dent in my huge pile of books and audiobooks to review! Since it has been a while since I completed this book, some of the recollections aren’t the freshest.

The book is one of the Pen and Sword “semi obscure history” line that I was into quite a bit at the time.  And in a way this is one of the ones that tempered that phase, as overall it is something of a disappointment.

Like many of the books in this line, it isn’t a thick book in the first place, which is natural for a subject where the amount of primary documentation is limited — even although the Year of the Four Emperors is well covered by Tacitus, it hardly has the volumes of information that a more modern subject does.  Even in this short state, the book has a serious problem with padding.

About half of the book is appendices, and several are of only limited relation to the subject of this Civil War.  To make matters worse, the main text shows severe signs of padding, wandering off subject for paragraphs at a time to subjects that, frankly, would fit better in an appendix.

Ironically, ancient authors themselves did this as a matter of style.  If I thought the author was making a modern tribute to this by writing this way, I might have been more amused by it.  As it was, it left me wishing for better editing.

There is at least one, maybe more recent books on this same subject that I enjoyed more than this one.

Europe Between the Oceans – Barry Cunliffe

9000 BC – AD 1000

I picked this up a while back because of its wide coverage. It turns out it is a textbook, so it has the pluses and minuses of that.  It has lots of maps and pictures, covers a lot of ground but is a bit thin on an overriding theme.  It has some broad strokes but also goes down and shows diagrams of particular excavations.

Overall it didn’t do as much as other textbooks I have that aren’t as complete – it just doesn’t have enough text to tie the particulars that are discussed and also give a feel for the overall history that sticks with you.  Perhaps it was intended for a course after conventional ancient history so they assume you know the ebb and flow of Greece, Rome and so forth so a lot of that is glossed over.

So it has interesting bits and pieces, but didn’t make itself into enough of a whole to end up being very memorable.

The Restoration of Rome – Peter Heather

Barbarian popes and imperial pretenders

This is the third book in a series about the end of the classical world and the development of modern Europe.  The first centered on the fall of the Western Empire, and the second was on the change in Europe from a Germanic dominated to a Slavic dominated eastern Europe and Balkans.

The Restoration of Rome covers another aspect of post-Roman Europe – the attempt to recover the idea of the Empire in a new world.  First, came the attempts to physically duplicate the Empire – starting with Theodoric the Ostrogoth.

Within 20 years or so of the Fall of the West, Theodoric took a faction of Goths into the Eastern Empire to make their fortune, just as many other groups had in the last several hundred years.  With a little luck and cleverness, his faction grew to be powerful enough to be considered a threat to the Empire.  Thus they were ‘invited’ to move into Italy to take it away from Odovacar, who had put the final nail in the Western Empire.

Theodoric succeeded very well, and managed to dominate the successor states and become the arbiter of the region.  For a short time he even acquired south France and Spain.  He and his court saw himself as a true successor of Rome.  And he might well have pulled it off – except he did not produce an heir.

This left an opening for the second attempt to physically recover the Western Empire – Justinian’s attempt to recover the West.  He managed to destroy the Ostrogothic state in the end, but did not have the strength to hold on when faced with the subsequent threats of the Lombards in Italy and the Muslims in the East.

The third successor to claim Imperial honors was Charlemagne and the Frankish Empire in North France and Germany.  This was the first successor to move beyond the Mediterranean core and set up an Empire in Europe proper.  Again, they managed to produce a mini Enlightenment that lasted a while, but soon the power of the Empire faded, this time for structural reasons.  Dr Heather notes that a feudal state has a fundamental issue with rewarding followers – a state like Rome can give jobs and money from tax revenues perpetually.  A feudal state leader needs to give land to followers, which results in a permanent transfer of power from the central government to the aristocracy. Eventually, central power fades away.  This happened to the Frankish Empire, and the subsequent Ottonian Empires in Germany.

The final chapter is a new take on claiming the mantle of Rome – the Papacy. Rather than using force to make a physical copy of Rome, that could not be sustained in a post-Roman world, the Papacy claimed a moral successorship to Rome and became a moral arbiter of the successor states in Europe.  They had to pull some interesting tricks to pull it off, but the Middle Ages until the Reformation and later centered around the power of the Papacy in Europe.

This is a great, readable series on not only the history of this period, but also its reflection on other times.

Ghost on the Throne – James Romm

The death of Alexander the Great and the war for Crown and Empire

Alexander the Great’s sudden death in 323 BC left his infant Macedonian Empire in an impossible position.  There was no clear military heir but several candidates, and no heir of the blood but more than one candidate for a figurehead – a simpleton half-brother of Alexander and an infant child.

This book is less of a straight history than an episodic one.  This give a more scope for some of the anecdotes recorded by ancient historians to come out, but does make the flow of the wars harder to understand.  This book is more a people story than an army story.

It isn’t strange that war broke out, as some generals that were left out of the initial division of the Empire into districts found themselves decided to make their own way.  Some decided to opt out of the empire entirely – the most successful, Ptolemy, not only managed to claim Egypt for his very own but also steal Alexander’s corpse away from the others on its journey back to Macedon.

Some Greek cities, also, tried to take advantage of the supposed weakness of the Macedonian empire and reclaim their independence.  This turned out to be a mistake, as even the rump fragments were able to turn on these city-states and defeat them between contests with each other.

But for the most part, the remaining generals and Macedonian royals continued contending for a unified empire under one or another legitimate ruler for a long time. They tried to pick each other off in battles or plots like a Greek “Game of Thrones”.

But in the end the single Empire split back into European Kingdoms and an Asian Empire, with Egypt independent.  A multilateral “Hellenistic” age had begun.

The Roman Empire at Bay – David S. Potter

The Routledge history of the ancient world

I picked this up from Amazon used books because of the subject and the author.  I have seen David S. Potter as a talking head on some of the historical television shows on Rome.  (For example, Rome, Rise and Fall of an Empire I think is one).  The period is one I am interested in because it is so poorly documented.  It is the period after the Golden Age of the “Five Good Emperors” through the Severan Emperors and then the Crisis of the Third Century. Then comes the Tetrarchy of Diocletian, Constantine and his Sons right down to Theodosius.

The book is a bit dry, which I don’t mind, and has a lot of interesting detail on the era.  Not an introductory text by any means.  I liked it so much that I hunted up another volume in the series right away.  Sadly, that volume was not nearly so good.  Since then I have been averse to going for a third one.

Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain – Philip Matyszak

traitor or Hero?

Quintus Sertorius is one of the more interesting characters to rise out of the better documented periods in Roman History, the late Republic. Virtually every other person you come across falls into a standard group – the politicians, aristocrat or ‘populares’ are familiar to us these days, and more similar in how they behave than different, despite the positions they stake out.  The Generals, too, seem to fit a similar mold.  Some are brilliant, some are dolts, but military men all the same.  The corrupt ones that rape provinces or wheedle out deals in the capital are all too familiar.

Sertorius is different.  He was a fine officer in the Roman Army, winning decorations for courage and losing an eye in combat.  The first Civil War broke out when Marius tried to steal the commission for war against Mithridates from Sulla, the consul.  Sulla marched his army on Rome and took it, passing a death sentence on Marius.  Sulla then left for the war in Asia Minor.

This gave Marius and the anti-Sullans room for a comeback and they took it and Rome.  There were even more atrocities than in the first taking of the city, soon followed by Marius dropping dead.  Sertorius, disgusted at the acts of Marius’ motley army surrounded their encampment and butchered them.  Matters in Italy entered a holding pattern for some years until Sulla returned.  When he did, incompetent leadership at the helm of the war effort so disgusted Sertorius that he left Italy and moved to Spain to take up resistance to Sulla there.

This is when Sertorius started to change from yet-another-general to something unique. The first army sent after him was too large for him to defeat, so he fled to Africa. When the army came after him, he managed to kill its general in a skirmish and recruit the army to join him.  Now he had an army and a province.  And soon he heard that the Romans in Spain were squeezing money out of the country to pay for the ruin of the Civil War and they wanted Sertorius to help.  He soon routed the Sullan forces and became effectively the war leader of all Spain.  He even tried to meld Roman government with Iberian customs to make a new nation.

He also invented a new mix of the hit and run brigandry of Spain’s traditional tribes with some Roman ideas and created a force that could crush Roman forces if it caught them in a bad position and vanish into the wild when it couldn’t.  Bad commanders would be ruined, and even good ones had to be very careful.  From 80 BC to 74 BC Sertorius checked first one army under Metellus Pius, then a second under Pompey the Great.  He defeated the overconfident Pompey several times, but could not drive him off and the tides started to turn.  Finally Metellus and Pompey offered a large reward for someone to murder Sertorius.  One of his Roman officers murdered him, and soon after that Pompey caught up to his remnants of Sertorius’ army and destroyed it and its general.  This war in Spain was over.

Roman Conquests: Egypt and Judaea – John D. Grainger

This Pen and Sword book has been in the queue to be written up for quite some time.  The Roman Conquests series collects the history of a sectio n of the Empire and summarizes it all in one place.  The strict chronological approach leads to gaps where Rome expanded into other sections and you lose focus.

In this book you stick in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea from 60 BC to after 70 AD, from Pompey’s first conquest of Jerusalem until the failure of the Great Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the city by the son of Emperor Vespasian.  There is a cast of characters from Pompey to Caesar to Cleopatra to Marc Antony to Augustus.  There is an interesting aside of an expedition deep into Arabia.  And then there is the Revolt.

The only missing element is the second revolt under Hadrian that led to the Diaspora.

These are excellent books and while brief, do give a good view of the historical evidence of some of the less well known aspects of Roman expansion.

1177 B.C. – The Year Civilization Collapsed – Eric H. Cline

Turning Points in Ancient History, Princeton Press

Shortly after 1200 B.C., most of the ancient empires in the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East collapsed at virtually the same moment.  The sole survivor, Egypt, itself retrenched and no longer was able to hold onto land in Asia.  The Hittites, the Mycenaeans, the Minoans in Crete all were no more, and many of their cities were burned down and never built again.  What happened?

This book is a short introduction to the late Bronze Age civilizations of the area and their surprisingly rich networks of communication and trade by land and sea.  We have found and translated many letters between the rulers of these empires as they played politics, traded and sometimes fought.  Recent evidence shows that the states were more interconnected culturally and economically than previously thought.

The book then looks at the causes of the disasters but doesn’t come to a firm conclusion about what happened.  It does debunk the theory that the “Sea Peoples” – several roaming nations that settled in the area later – were the main factor.  There are signs of major earthquakes, and of severe droughts.  And there are also signs of war as well.

The final best guess is a synthesis – that the interdependencies were so strong that the disruptions shook all the other states severely, making them susceptible to their own disruptions.  And once broken, the status quo could never be recovered and a new set of nations had to grow from the ashes – Greece, Israel, Persia, and Rome.

It is a short but good summary of current information about this time in history, with some interesting bits of palace backstabbings and dirty politics thrown in for spice.  I’ll be interested in the other books in the series.



The Crisis of Rome – Gareth C. Sampson

The Jugurthine and Northern Wars and the Rise of Marius

Another great book on Roman History from Pen and Sword books.  Like many of the others, instead of rehashing the well known periods, this book addresses a lesser known time between the Punic Wars against Carthage and the last years of the Republic – 140 BC to 100 BC.

Instead of strictly following the tone of the few sources we have for the period and calling this time a period where Rome was unchallenged aside from “internal decay”.  Instead, if you look at the entire picture you have wars in Spain, Macedonia, and then the Near East and south Gaul straining the resources of the country.

Then two new powers added to the strain – Jugurtha the leader of Numidia, once a Roman ally but now a threatening power, and the appearance of the migrating Germanic tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutones.  The initial dealings were disasters for Rome on both fronts – humiliation in Africa as the army was forced under the yoke and in the north having armies crushed at Noreia in 113 outside Italy, and then after the Cimbri marched north of the Alps into Gaul being defeated twice more, most notably at Arausio where two armies were destroyed entirely.

This view of a strained nation being faced with severe pressure forms a better picture why Gaius Marius, who finally defeated and captured Jugurtha, would be called on to be named consul an unprecedented five times in a row in absentia to deal with the Cimbri threat in Gaul and North Italy, and would be acclaimed a ‘founder of Rome’ for defeating that threat.