The end of the Western Roman Empire is a hard subject to get a real grasp on. Ian Huges’ book about one of the final magister militums of the western empire does a lot to explain conditions during the beginning of the 5th Century.

Stilicho has generally been a controversial figure, either vilified or celebrated by most histories (this book’s subtitle, “The Vandal Who Saved Rome” is a direct reference to that latter tradition), and Huges’ intent is to do a more evenhanded account (which I think ends up giving him more credit than is due in a few places).

The story starts with Theodosius defeating a western ‘pretender’, Eugenius, reuniting the Roman Empire, and then dying a few months later, leaving the Empire to his two children, who were both underage. Stilicho was one of Theodosius’ generals, and was married to his (adopted) daughter, and claimed authority over the Empire as… legal guardian (parens principum) of both emperors. This was never accepted in the East, and led to a strained relationship between the two imperial courts for the duration of his rule. In the West, Stilicho followed the arc of so many regencies, starting with a good amount of power, then falling into political power struggles with the court and the maturing Emperor, and in this case executed.

The book provides a very good overall study of his thirteen years in power (which is a pretty impressive amount of time for someone at the top of Roman politics in an unstable reign), maintaining a mostly chronological account, but dividing things up into specific subjects which are each examined in turn (sometimes round-robin style; coming back to previous subjects in the next year, etc.). I would have much preferred that a few things were handled in greater detail (like his relationship with the Gothic general Alaric), but presumably there isn’t enough in the sources to say more. At the same time, there are ideas introduced (like the attitude of the Senate in Rome) that I’d like a better idea of where he’s pulling it from, of if it is all assumption.

The good news for the Kindle version of this book, is that there’s a lot of maps scattered throughout the book, generally close to where they’re needed; I could wish for better quality or focus on some, but they are there. The bad news is that it seems the formatting did not entirely make it into the Kindle version. All the section headers are presented in normal text, with no bolding, extra space around them, or anything else to set them apart from the text.