Ian Hughes’ books on the period where the Western Empire dissolved into nothingness have been very good at providing a clearer picture of the process. I think this volume might be the best one of the lot.

Like his earlier book on Stilicho, this traces the career of one man, who many with the barest of knowledge of the period will know of because of his commanding the Roman side at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains against Attila the Hun.

The early section looks at Aetius’ early life, and positions him as part of the Roman upper class. He was traded to the Huns as a ‘hostage’ during his teenage years; Hughes is at pains to talk about the actual nature of hostages as political insurance in the pre-modern world, something that needs looking at more often. At any rate, this part informs a large part of his thesis. The Roman military had become very conservative with manpower and emphasized sieges and the like to set-piece battles. The Huns and other tribal confederations still emphasized combat and set-piece battles of various sizes, and Aetius’ career shows the same pattern, so Hughes assumes that much of his military training and style comes from his period with the Huns.

Aetius also relies on support from Hunnic factions, particularly early in his career. Hughes also figures this comes from friendships formed in his time with them. This is important during some early maneuverings, which could easily have ended up with Aetius dead as a rebel, but after stong-arming the other faction, ended with him working quite effectively inside and with the system for the next two decades.

It can reasonably be said that his use of Hunnic troops during his internal fight against Boniface was part of the downfall of the Western Empire. Hughes doesn’t go too much into that, but does spend a good amount of time and thought on various settlements of barbarians inside the empire. This too he sees as not necessarily destructive of the Empire as it had successfully been done before. In his concluding part though, he talks about the various methods by which this was done, and points out that the Goths in southern Gaul had been allowed to settle with their leadership intact, instead of it being sent elsewhere, generally as leadership in a different section of the army. This put people used to politics and power with a built-in power base inside the Empire, and that is what Hughes points to as the dramatic step towards the dissolution of the western Empire.

Often what is known of Aetius comes straight out of Gregory of Tours, and Hughes does a good job here pulling together the sources, and giving the outline of his character. I think Hughes may have trended towards being too sympathetic to him, but his conclusions are reasonable.