Failure of Empire: Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D.

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University of California Press, Mar 3, 2003 - History - 470 pages
Failure of Empire is the first comprehensive biography of the Roman emperor Valens and his troubled reign (a.d. 364-78). Valens will always be remembered for his spectacular defeat and death at the hands of the Goths in the Battle of Adrianople. This singular misfortune won him a front-row seat among history's great losers. By the time he was killed, his empire had been coming unglued for several years: the Goths had overrun the Balkans; Persians, Isaurians, and Saracens were threatening the east; the economy was in disarray; and pagans and Christians alike had been exiled, tortured, and executed in his religious persecutions. Valens had not, however, entirely failed in his job as emperor. He was an admirable administrator, a committed defender of the frontiers, and a ruler who showed remarkable sympathy for the needs of his subjects.

In lively style and rich detail, Lenski incorporates a broad range of new material, from archaeology to Gothic and Armenian sources, in a study that illuminates the social, cultural, religious, economic, administrative, and military complexities of Valens's realm. Failure of Empire offers a nuanced reconsideration of Valens the man and shows both how he applied his strengths to meet the expectations of his world and how he ultimately failed in his efforts to match limited capacities to limitless demands.

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TL;DR- How much should you pay for this book? No more than 80 USD. It's amazing.
This book does not follow the traditional format of year-by-year chronological documentation. Instead, Lenski
breaks this massive topic into several sub-topics: The culture of the state in the late 4th century, the context behind it all, and then the many aspects of Valens: his brother, his family, his strengths and weaknesses, his wars, his economic and religious policies, and finally his death in the battle of Adrianople.
Economics and religion are covered from Britain to Egypt. Lenski tells us just as much about what Valantinian (Valens' older brother who ruled over him) did for the economy and church; Valens essentially emulated what his brother did in as many aspects as was possible. And as far as we can tell, Valens was okay with being the junior emperor. This is explored deeply in the book, and it's a great window into what Valens was probably like as a human being and not just an emperor.
The downside to this book: the language can, at times, be jarring. Big words. I had to look up a definition every three pages or so. It's a minor issue at best.
The wars Valens took part in are documented move-by-move, with great detail given to what information survives.
The primary source for this time period is a rather famous Roman officer-turned-historian: Ammianus Marcellinus. This man was alive during the time; he had served in the army under Julian, and he documented his world's history up to the death of Valens. Lenski will point out on occasion that Ammianus had his own opinions and agendas to promote, and we as readers should take his documentation with a grain of salt at times.
So, if you want to read thirty pages on what Valens did for the Roman economy, and how that affected the functionality of the government and its army, then this book is definitely for you!
If you want a year-by-year account of what happened with just enough detail to hold you over, then this book will bog you down.
I am in the former of these two categories, and I love this book! At over 400 pages, it'll hold you over for a few weeks of light reading!

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About the author (2003)

Noel Lenski is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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