Hughes provides a good overview of the end of the western Empire in this volume. He does analyze things, and come to conclusions, but the primary focus is providing a chronological outline of events.

That latter is the primary value as it can be hard to find any coherent look at the four decades from the death of Aetius to the death of Odovacer. There’s no central figure, which is part of the point, political power and fortunes were so fractured by this period that no one entirely rises above the other players.

However, Ricimer (who should be more prominent in synopses of this era) does provide the central focus for part of this book (enough so that I wonder if Hughes really should have focused in a little bit more and done a book purely on him). He is generally considered to have been the ‘power behind the throne’ for, oh, maybe fifteen years, and often takes the fall for the instability of the West. Hughes gives good reasons to believe that this is not the case, and that his actions were often in response to other political pressures.

This largely comes down to the Roman Senate, which, like in his book on Stilicho, takes the blame for a fair number of ills without introducing any real evidence. He may reference some pertinent sources in the end notes (which I have not gone through), but there is nothing in the main body. Nobody from the senate is mentioned by name. No description of what the senate was like in the Fifth Century is provided. Now he ascribes the senators as a whole with motives that are likely (protecting their own position, and the safety of their own lands), but there’s nothing here to actually support these assertions, so it’s nothing more than an axiom of the book.

Other than that hole, there’s a lot of interest here. Beyond any problems with the Senate, problems of the division of the Empire between East and West are made manfest. Thanks to a lack of a stable dynasty, and a horde of ongoing problems, in the West, the Eastern Empire has become the senior political partner, which ends up crucially weakening the West. Any time an Emperor dies (too common), there is a wait while the choice of a new Western Emperor is coordinated with the East. If the Eastern court doesn’t care for what’s going on, political and military support can get withdrawn, which leaves the West’s leadership high and dry. Additionally, Marcellinus maintains an almost independent existence as comes rei militaris Dalmatiae for almost this entire period as he’s supported by the East, but refuses to work with Ricimer’s administration of the West.

And of course, at the same time there is growing ‘barbarian’ influence in the territories outside Italy and Dalmatia. The book has about one map per chapter showing the slowly shifting patterns of who had control of what. Now, these groups are settled in the Empire by agreement, and acknowledge it’s authority. Mostly. Even the better actors, like the Visigoths under Theoderic acted largely independently of the administration in Italy, even when pursing the same goals. Meanwhile, Vandal kingdom in Africa raided Italy regularly, and the book shows two attempts to counterinvade that came apart utterly, and likely recriminations did much to make the situation in Italy worse. Hughes figures Gaiseric to be the most able leader and diplomat of the period to explain his long stable reign, and the Empire’s inability to reclaim Africa.

Hughes sticks to a largely chronological format, which means he doesn’t give any one subject his full attention as nothing got wrapped up neatly within one year. Mostly, this is well handled, but with some real long-term trends going on here, I think seeing something concentrating on just one of them would be a real plus. I don’t recommend this one for a more casual read because of this, but it is definitely a great framework for anyone in an interest in the last years of the Western Empire.