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.

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.

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.

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.

Roman Conquests: North Africa – Nic Fields

This is yet another in the Pen and Sword series of books.  Like the others, it is a well put-together book on a subject that few cover.  And Nic Fields seems to know his subject well.  There is a lot of good information about the Punic Wars and the war against Jugurtha.

But organization is a problem.  There’s an old Monty Python joke about memorizing the lines in a play where the director says “Sounds like you have all the words in there, now to get them in the right order”.  Now for a historical work, you’d think that the text would start at the beginning and move forward chronologically.  Nor does he work thematically.  Instead there are sections that move through a period, then the next section moves through the same period again with a slightly different emphasis.  There is a flash forward to an episode in the Civil Wars 200 years or so in the future, but then the war itself is never covered.  This is in a chapter giving background on the Numidians  so it might be forgivable, were it not the second chapter on the subject successively.

Near the end of the book is a diatribe on Sallust and his accusations of bribery against the Senate.  Mr. Fields has a more charitable opinion of the Roman Senate than I do, and his defense fails painfully.  Sallust is our major source, and I’ve never heard anyone in the last 2000 years and more go on record as questioning his accuracy.  And he’s pretty much the only game in town on this war, so calling him a liar is undermining your own account.

Since the fellows Sallust indicts were, in fact, convicted of bribery at the time leads me to think he might been right.  And this chapter is another case of revisiting the same incidents – we had just finished with the Jugurthan wars and here we are back before they had started.  He could have put it in an appendix – there are two fat ones included, although why they are in an appendix and the other, similar, discursive chapters are in the main text is a question.

So unlike the others in the series, my opinion on this one is a bit mixed.  There is a lot of interesting stuff there, but it really hasn’t gelled into a good book.  I suppose if I thought of it as a collection of essays I would have a better opinion of it.

Invisible Romans – Robert Knapp

This book is a description about the kinds of people who you don’t often hear about in history – not the generals and kings and emperors, but the regular man and woman.  It is in many ways successful, but has a few problems.

One quirk that pops up in a few places is placing modern values back onto the ancients rather than taking them on their own terms or putting them in a broader perspective.  One amusing quirk was the author’s squirming description of the impurity of the Roman bath.  But compared to western societies up to about 1900s, the Romans were on the whole far cleaner – and it isn’t even close.  There is also the routine decrying of the lack of a ‘vote’ or a ‘career’ for women of the periods, and how those women lacked some kind of social conscience for not letting that bother them.  But in the text, without noticing, he mentions that women routinely ran the large force of slaves owned by the family, produced the clothes they wore, made items for sale,  and raised the children.  And in the middle classes if the family had a business, the wife helped run it, and if the husband died, ran it alone after that.  People outside of academia are often too busy making a living to worry about trifles – and it isn’t like men outside of a tiny upper class in a single city participated in politics either.

Also amusing is the assumption that what our upper class sources said about sex is what actually happened anywhere.  Even today “nice girls” aren’t supposed to do a lot of things that seem to get done a lot.  And the final chapter, where he uses playwrights to get a feel for the life of bandits and pirates is even more comical.  I can see him next using the “Pirates of Penzance” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” to get a picture of pirate life in the 1700s, and finding that they sung most of the time, had buxom co-pirates and had a lot of adventures.

But aside from these, it does give some light on how normal folk got along in between the palace coups and civil wars that we read about.  I would have liked some discussion of the differences between provincial, and country life and the life in the captial.  Here they seemed to be lumped together to try and boost the record. Was life in Egypt just like the stewpots of the capital?

But in between the quirks, the book does give a lot of information about daily life, and has quotes from the sources to support the general analysis.  It is quite a bit less dry than some of the other books on the subject I’ve read.

Roman Conquests: Asia Minor, Syria and Armenia – Richard Evans

The “Roman Conquests” series by Pen & Sword books is a nice collection of books collecting the information about Rome’s campaigns of expansion in a district into one book.  Often this is spread about in many books, often ones that the semi-casual reader can’t easily find.

This book covers what I think of as an almost ‘absent minded’ period of growth.  Rather than have any plan, provinces were acquired by inheritance, wars were entered while Rome was busy elsewhere but won nonetheless.  I don’t think at any time Rome had some plan of becoming the master of the Eastern Mediterranean, but once they were in the region, they had no objection to settling matters in their favor.  And no one in the area could face Rome’s strength, even when distracted with other matters.

The first contact with the power in the region, the Seleucid Empire under Antiochus III came in the latter stages of the Roman “conquest” of Greece.  His expeditionary force to help the Greek states objecting to Roman hegemony was run out of the area fairly easily.  It did not help relations that Hannibal was staying with the king in his court.

The next struggle was for some of the states of Asia Minor that had allied with the Romans.  The Romans again outfought the Seleucid army and most of Asia Minor was freed from Seleucid rule, although not yet under Rome.  Rome began using its influence even more after the war, in one great story sending a single senator, Popillius Laenas to meet an invasion of Egypt alone.  He famously drew a “line in the sand” around the feet of the Seleucid king and told him to decide before crossing it – if he crossed to the side of Egypt, it was to be war with Rome, otherwise he could go home.The king went home, and the power of that state was gone.

After this there were the wars with Mithridates of Pontus, who fought war after war with Rome while they were occupied with civil strife at home.  He was a punching bag for Sulla, Lucullus, and finally Pompey but was saved from final destruction by the distractions of Roman politics, only to come back for more.  At the end Rome was the ruler of the entire region.