At the Gates of Rome, by Don Hollway

Rome's sacking in 410AD is never dull.
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In less assured hands, this could have been a turgid and thoroughly bewildering read. Thankfully, Don Hollway knows his subject inside out and neatly picks his way through the convoluted history of the late Roman Empire. As the title suggests, the focus is on events leading up to the climactic fall of Rome, the so-called Eternal City, sacked by Alaric the Goth in 410 AD.

Much of the narrative is a build-up to the sack of Rome, and concentrates on the complex rivalry of two of Rome’s great generals: Alaric himself and Flavius Stilicho. Both were of ‘barbarian’ blood – or half-barbarian in Stilicho’s case – but this was no bar to reaching high office in the latter-day Empire. By this point the empire itself had split into two, the East and the West, governed by co-emperors. These emperors were often manipulated by ambitious generals and advisers. One of the most prominent was Rufinus, a scheming spymaster to the eastern Emperor, Arcadius. He met with a gruesome fate; butchered by Stilicho’s troops outside the very walls of Arcadius.

Hollway eloquently describes a treacherous, fragile world, in which the greatest empire the world has ever seen slowly collapsed under its own weight. Every so often a strong-man figure came along to shore things up, but such respites were only temporary. Even Stilicho, a man of unusual military and political, eventually fell victim to the lethal merry-go-round of late Roman politics. His removal proved a major mistake, as it allowed Alaric the Goth free reign.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this excellent study of the fall of a centuries-old empire, scholarly but never dull. Thoroughly recommended.

At the Gates of Rome by Don Hollway is out now and published by Osprey.

David Pilling is a historian and novelist and author of Caesar’s Sword series. His latest book is The Northman.