Valens has a poor reputation as a Roman Emperor. Given that he presided over the disaster at Adrianople, this is understandable. This book goes some way to suggesting that although he could never be classed as a great emperor, he was a competent man who momentarily lost control.
The book starts at the last days of Julian’s reign and runs through the rule of Valentian I and his brother Valens. Throughout most of the book Hughes takes a methodical, almost annalistic, approach. The military campaigns and major events of each year are briefly described. This is quite a dry style, but it does pay off when the author begins to draw conclusions later in the book. The battle of Adrianople, and the campaign around it, is covered in more detail in the last few chapters.
This detailed approach works in Valens’ favour, by showing how he maneuvered around both internal revolt and the schemes of the Persian Shah Shapur II in Armenia. Hughes takes a different view on Adrianople than I have seen elsewhere. He is unconvinced by the argument that Valens rushed to battle in search of glory or that he was outwitted by Frittigern, the Gothic leader. He sees a cautious approach and preparations to negotiate, which were suddenly overtaken by events as fighting started without the order of either commander. This could certainly have been avoided with a more decisive leader, but doesn’t give a slightly better picture of Valens than is the norm.
Valentinian, on the other hand, looks to have been somewhat overrated by history – Valentinian the Great? He is certainly a dominant character and one can’t imagine him rushing into a defeat at Adrianople, but he never really managed to achieve his goal and fully subdue the Alamanni. This would come back to haunt his dynasty as his son and successor Gratian was pulled away to subdue a new raid rather than come to his uncle’s aid.
In conclusion, it’s a good book but not necessarily a great one. With a focus on the two brothers and their military campaigns, it does give a convincing (if often speculative) case that the defeat and subsequent decline cannot be pinned on the weak character of Valens; but the focus is narrow. There isn’t really a clear picture of the overall state of the empire at this time – in religion, economy, or social terms.