Pen and Sword (2020) h/b/ 328pp £24 (ISBN 9781473895324)

This is the fifth in a series of seven volumes from the publisher of militaria Pen & Sword, covering nearly 400 years of the later Roman Empire from AD 284 to the early 7th century.

What it isn’t is any kind of formal history. Completely un-edited, almost conversational in tone, it is an episodic commentary on some of the main events by the Finnish historian Ilkka Syvänne. Engagingly he doesn’t profess any superior wisdom: on page after page he regrets ‘it is unfortunate that we do not know…’ or resorts to ‘my educated guess is that …’.

Some of this is not S.’s fault. The sources for the period are either lacking or very untrustworthy; it is hard to pin down campaigns, battles and deaths to specific years; and from the start of this particular volume the empire essentially splits into two, making it all the more difficult to pull together a comprehensive and coherent narrative of East Rome and West Rome.

This volume begins with the fall of Rome (457). Though the city would still boast a ruler, from now on West and East Rome were not equals. The three emperors whose reigns dominate this period—Leo I (457-474), Zeno (474-491) and Anastasius (491-518)—ruled from Constantinople, as did all their successors.

Leo had to deal with no fewer than seven western emperors, none of them capable of organising or financing any serious defence against Rome’s enemies. Territory was steadily lost in Gaul, Spain and along the Danube until rival chieftains with mercenary armies fought across Italy itself. Often former Roman units fought on each side: as Rome finally fell, its army commanded by German officers were fighting Visigoths commanded by a native Roman.

Zeno (who like any serious celeb had jettisoned his clunkier name Tarasicodissa Rousoumbladeotes) was an Isaurian who struggled to fend off rival claimants at home and had to cope with serious unrest in Dalmatia and Thrace; further east there was trouble from Persia and the tribes of the Caucasus. His reign was also marked by a major religious row, a bitter dispute between the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites in Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople. The Henoticon (482), his careful compromise with the Eastern bishops, led in fact to a thirty-year long schism between the different churches.

Anastasius was the most successful of the three, unusually dying aged 88 or 90 in his bed. S. gives him credit for sound administration, an effective tax policy, and the opening of trade routes through the Red Sea to India and Africa. His relatively stable 27-year reign laid much of the ground for Justin and in turn his brilliant nephew Justinian.

Around them we meet a colourful cast of characters: Timothy the Weasel, John the Hunchback and John the Scythian, the Popes Hilarius and Simplicius, Theoderic the Amal, Tumul the Lord of the Bedchamber, Cyril of the Sleepless Monks. And the battles they fought were huge, involving thousands of troops. Here S. comes into his own, sketching for us the likely shape of the major battles and sieges: the details of the forces on each side, the tactics used, the importance of cavalry, the changing technology of warfare (ships fired ‘elemental sulphur’ at the enemy). Students of militaria can dig deep into Orleans (463), Bergamo (464), Serdica (modern Sofia 466), Cape Bon (468), Dyrrachium (477), Verona (489), Addua (490), Apadna (503), Vouille (507), Acrae (515) and Adrianople (517).

So what of these sixty-odd years, apart from the fall of Rome? First, it was an age of brutal, continuous warfare. The traditional frontiers of the empire were long gone; warlords expanded and contracted their territories. For rulers in Rome and Constantinople there were pressures in Gaul, in Spain, in North Africa, in modern Austria and Switzerland, in the Balkans, in Turkey, in Armenia and the Caucasus. Franks, Huns, Visigoths, Alans, Ostrogoths, Suevi, Vandals, Rugii, Burgundians, Alamanni, Sasanians, Isaurians, Heruls, Bulgars Lombards—you name them, they all took their chance to feast on the corpse of Empire.

Cities were besieged and ruthlessly sacked, civilians and enemies slaughtered alike, rival chiefs and their families beheaded or taken hostage. Law and order, local garrisons, provincial magistracy—these were only memories now of the Roman Empire’s peaceful heyday. Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant was the gibe Tacitus puts into the mouth of the British leader Calgacus, but if you lived anywhere in the Western Mediterranean of the fifth or sixth century AD, you might not have shared his cynicism.

Second, what unity there might have remained between West and East was fractured by the collapse of imperial naval power. From North Africa the Vandals sailed out every year, raiding the Balearics, Sardinia, Sicily and Italy itself. The defeat at Cape Bon of the navy sent against them under Basiliscus in 468 really marked the end of Constantinople’s reach in the Western Mediterranean. ‘East Rome’ became the dominant capital, strong in trade and banking but gradually less able to exercise effective control of Rome itself.

Third, the religious disputes were serious: church quarrels between Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople became political. For Christologists the Henoticon Edict was a compromise too far: placating the Monophysites but antagonising Rome and leading to the Acacian schism that portended the much deeper east-west church divisions to come.

Sir Michael Fallon

Former chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Classics Group