Book Review: Military History of Late Rome 284-361


by Ilkka Syvänne.

Barnsley, Eng.: Pen and Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2015. Pp. xx, 320+. Illus., maps, tables, plans, append., noted, biblio., index. $44.95. ISBN: 1848848552

Roman Warmaking from Diocletian to Constantius II

This is the first of a series of volumes by Prof. Syvänne, author of Aurelian and Probus, Caracalla: A Military Biography, and many other works in ancient history, that offers a an impressive treatment of Roman military history from the end of the “Crisis of the Third Century” with the accession of Diocletian in A.D. 284 through the death of Justinian, in A.D. 565, giving us an informative and often insightful look at the last ages of the Roman Empire. In the process, as he discusses military trends and developments, he also give us some valuable looks at the social, religious, and economic trends that affected the fate of the empire over these ages.

Each of the volumes follows more or less the same pattern, so comparisons between trends in each period are easier to make. Syvänne usually follows events on a reign by reign basis, cutting back and forth from theatre to threatre or across time as necessary. He examines the reasons for changes and reorganizations of imperial political and military institutions, and, of course, gives us accounts of a great many campaigns, both against a broad variety of foreign enemies or in civil wars. Syvänne covers a number of things usually overlooked, such as the interaction between local elites and imperial officialdom, the role of the fleet in military operations, the changing political and military institutions of Rome’s various enemies, efforts to repopulate devastated regions, often covers remarkably obscure operations usually ignored in general histories of the empire, and, of course, gives us a lot of information on a great many people, Roman and otherwise.

In addition to available documentary and archaeological evidence, which he often subjects to very critical analysis, Syvänne uses lessons learned from experimental archaeology and re-enactors. Very commendably, he does not pretend omniscience, and often tells us why he is interpreting events in a particular manner, while noting alternative viewpoints.

The many illustrations, some in color, maps, and plans of battles or fortresses help the reader to a better understanding of the events.

In this volume, Syvänne covers the period from the end of the so-called “Crisis of the Third Century”, when Diocletian (r. A.D. 284-305) restored imperial unity after some 50 years of internal disorder and foreign invasion which very nearly saw the collapse of the Empire, through the end of the reign Constantius II (A.D. 337-361). A period of reform and reorganization punctuated by some internal disorder and even civil war, which ended with the Empire seemingly as strong as ever.

Syvänne covers events well, particularly the very complex series of civil wars from 306 through 324. However, he might have spent more time discussing the so-called Diocletianic reform of the empire, including the establishment the ‘Tetrarchy’, with its co-Emperors, to the total restructuring of provincial organization, and particularly in the matter of the reorganization of the army, most of which were more the culmination of long running trends that a radical departure from the past.

Nevertheless, this is an outstanding work, particularly when read in conjunction with Kyle Harper’s masterful The Fate of Rome, on deteriorating environmental conditions across these centuries that stressed the empire’s resources, giving us a very good picture of the long process that has come to be known as the “Fall of Rome”.

The Military History of Late Rome, A.D. 284-361 is an invaluable read for anyone with an interest in the Roman army or Late Antiquity

Other Volumes in the Series:

Military History of Late Rome 395-425


Note: The Military History of Late Rome, A.D. 284-361is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium (

Reviewer: A.A. Nofi   

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