Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome by Ian Hughes

12215Half Vandal.  If it matters.  Which it probably does.  In this book Ian Hughes is all about defending the Roman general’s reputation.  He’s not unreasonable about it, but there’s a lot time spent piecing together a plausible narrative from opposing sources and a generous view of the actors’ behaviour.  In that sense it’s very balanced, and Hughes does convince in showing the weak position of the Western Empire – demoralised, under-resourced, with the crucial path through Illyria to Italy in the hands of an uncaring Eastern empire.  Hughes does present Stilicho as a canny politician who identifies these weak spots and does his best to solve them.

Boosting the armies moral and fighting defensively helps the first two.  The last is difficult – first Stilicho aims at taking a leading role in both halves of the empire, then he aims at a more direct reshuffling of provinces.  Maybe some of this is later propaganda, maybe other parts are mistakes on Stilicho’s behalf.  Stilicho had his break as much through family connections as his talent, and remained more a political general than a battlefield leader.  In the end it doesn’t end well for him or the empire in the hands of less capable successors.

Ian Hughes has written a number of books on this period for Pen & Sword (I previously posted on his book Imperial Brothers, about Valentinian and Valens).  This one suffers from the same narrowness of scope as some of the others, but does do a better job of setting the background (it feels odd that the rushed introduction actually covers similar ground to Imperial Brothers itself).  It might be nice to see a longer book from Hughes, one where he doesn’t have to do that kind of recap – but on the other hand, a longer book might not allow such a focus on a single character.