Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Book Review: "AD69: Emperors, Armies and Anarchy", Nic Fields

[Free review copy supplied by Pen and Sword Books. My usual statement applies. Price £25 hardback, or £15 digital.]

What we have here is a very nice-looking, circa-250-page hardback, covering the Year of the Four Emperors, in which, in the aftermath of the death of Nero, the position of Roman Emperor was held in fairly rapid succession by Galba, Otho, and Vitellius before settling into the markedly more stable hands of Vespasian. It's where the collection of ways to die in the Imperial purple moves on from the merely suspicious (did he really die of natural causes?) and starts getting interesting: Nero (suicide), Galba (killed by his Praetorians), Otho (suicide), Vitellius (killed by Vespasian's troops). From a wargaming point of view, it's a fabulous excuse for pitting legionary against legionary - witness our WAB campaign day last November, which was themed around this year's events.

There are all the component parts of a really good book in here. It covers the lead up to Nero's death and whole story of AD69, with lots of nice titbits about legionary organisation, ancient sources, some fascinating speculations about various folks' motivation, some interesting parallels to the here and now etc etc. But... and I really hate to say "but", because I so wanted to like this book....

The warning bells rang when the first thing I read after turning over from the contents page is the full captions for all the plates in the middle of the book. Huh? Flicking to the middle, all the photos have short captions as well. Better, surely would have been facing pages of captions and photos? Anything that stops me flicking from the beginning of the book to the middle and back every time I want the details of a photo. 

The main text itself covers the whole story, with, it has to be said, an awful lot of editorialising by the author - some of which I find it hard to agree with, some less so. But you reach the word 'FINIS' on page 99. The next 140 pages are: appendices, several of them fascinating; a sprawling list of footnotes; a bibliography and a pretty decent index. More than half the book is not the main text. More to the point, a lot of the appendices belong in the main text - for example, Galba's speech after he's made emperor and adopts Piso Licinianus resides for some reason in Appendix 9, as does the lex de Imperio Vespasiani, the law the Senate enacted in the last days of December 69 to bestow power on Vespasian. Many of the footnotes are ten to twenty lines long, many contain valuable and interesting information. Am I really supposed to read with a finger in the appropriate page of footnotes and look up every one as I go? I'll be honest: I didn't read a good third of this book by page count, and that's really not a good thing for a reviewer to be saying.

In short? It's a frustrating book, that you can't read from front to back if you want to get all of its considerable and interesting content in any semblance of a sensible order or context. And that's a crying shame, because the words, the sentences, the paragraphs and the pictures contain individually and severally the ingredients of a really good book on a fantastic period of history, that's fundamentally been put together wrong.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting comments.
    Curiously, I have found S&W books quite irregular in content quality, although I've focused mostly on the IIWW period. I infer from your comments that this may be one of those cases.


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