Monday, 14 November 2011

Review: Restorer of the World: The Emperor Aurelian, by John White

After reading the first three volumes of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Aurelian seemed to be the best Roman emperor to me. So, I bought this book to find out more.

Aurelian is not a name that’s well-known, and I’d guess more people would identify him as the French rugby union player rather than the emperor. He ruled Rome in the 3rd century, and the book examines not only his achievements as emperor (which are numerous) but also the aftermath of his rule and what occurred beforehand.

The author provides a brief summary of the distant past (the founding of Rome etc) and a more detailed run-up to Aurelian’s life and reign. Similarly, the immediate aftermath is written of in more detail than more distant events.

This is something I liked a lot because the context of the world in which Aurelian grew up and the ailing state of the Roman Empire is critical to understanding how impressive and important his victories were. It was also enjoyable to read about another emperor, the Gothic Claudius, who was Aurelian’s predecessor and began a string of excellent general-emperors.

The writing style is concise and easy to read, and the author makes it plain where information is considered dubious, suspicious or is blatant tosh. As well as looking at the many military victories and defeats of Aurelian and others economics are also included. This might seem a bit dry, but actually it’s of interest and significance because rampant inflation fuelled by the increasingly powerful and regicidal armies helped to weaken the Roman Empire.

In addition, the role of a very long and deadly plague (lasting decades) upon the manpower of the Empire helps to explain why the military prowess of Rome declined.

Books of this kind usually have a number of photographs in, and this one is no exception, with several of various ruins and coinage.

Another area of interest was the array of enemies that Rome faced (namely, rebels and break-away empires, the return of Persia and a host of barbarians). The author paints a vivid picture of the very long front of the Empire (the Rhine, the Danube and the Euphrates mostly) and puts into context the particular threats posed and the reasoning behind the numerous break-away empires/emperors.

However, the greatest enemy Rome faced was her own armies, which had become increasingly ill-disciplined, prone to pronouncing (often unwilling) generals emperor and essentially throwing their weight around.

I hope that John White writes some more emperor biographies, because this book was thoroughly enjoyable.


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