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Osprey, Catalaunian Fields: 451 AD
Hey guys, so here's the diatribe I posted on Amazon. Overall, I recommend it, but it needs to be taken in comparison to modern scholarship if you are a serious scholar of the period.

Long review follows:

[SPOILER]Catalaunian Fields, AD 451, is overall decent for an Osprey book, better than most of their titles. In this review I will discuss the historical accuracy of the work, an at the end of it, give an overview and recommendation. As a whole, and a scholar of Aetius and this battle, I do recommend this book.

I will warn you now: this is a long diatribe of nitpicking historical details and arguments and comparing it to modern scholarship, so if you want the overall overview and recommendation, scroll all the way to the bottom.

To Mr. MacDowall: If you read this review, I sincerely apologize if it comes across as blunt. Don't hesitate to contact me if you'd like to talk about this book: I would have emailed you myself if I could have found an email address.

The book begins with a brief overview of about thirty years of Roman history, of which the author does not seem uninformed but improperly informed. The author shows inherent bias against Aetius, mostly taken from primary sources and outdated scholarship. In fact, the author fails to use recent volumes printed on the period in their entirety, such as Aetius: Attila's Nemesis or Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, both of which very precisely and accurately show the relationship between Aetius and his contemporaries to be one of mutual benefit and management, and not as a generalissimo who abandoned the rest of the empire to attend to his estates in Gaul. Furthermore, and I'm being a bit nitpicky here, a few of the "achievements" he gives to Aetius were actually done by Litorius' or others of Aetius' competent command staff, such as the defeat of the Aremoricans of Tibatto and the relief of the siege of Narbonne.

The author moves on to talk about the other Barbarian leaders, most of which is reiteration of earlier publications. He does reiterate the same outdated belief that Sangiban was of uncertain loyalty to Aetius and the Romans, which Bachrach, whom he cites in his bibliography, vehemently contested explaining that Aetius' Alans had been loyal Roman allies since the siege of Bazas in 414 AD. Hughes and other modern authors also agree with Bachrach.

His discussion of the Huns and Attila is grossly uninformed, ignoring nearly two decades of Central Asian scholarship by men like Bona, Vovin, Peter Golden, and others who show the Huns not to be the grossly propagandized savages of Ammianus, but a highly organized and culturally affluent steppe empire. Understandably though, there is a massive divide in scholarship between Europe and Central Asia, in which both spheres of study are largely ignorant of both each other and their sources. In fact, it is nearly impossible for a classicist to learn central asian history, and vice versa, due to the combination of modern and ancient language barrier (few classicists speak Middle Persian or EM Chinese after all). He also uses several outdated dates for Attila's rise to power and the treaty of Margus, both of which probably occurred in 439, not 433 and 435.

He then moves on to the discussion of the causes of the war, of which he lists three and gives them roughly equal credebility and likelihood for cause, something that is not a fair treatment of horribly garbled and biased historians like Jordanes. He primarily attributes the cause of the battle to the classic proposal by Honoria, which again ignores modern scholarship, particularly that of Bona mentioned above, many of whom argue that the cause of the war was the Frankish succession between the sons of Chlodio. In fact, he also gets this point, which he does mention, wrong, as it is impossible for Merovech, by Priscus' description, to have been the father of Childeric who would have been older than him in 457/458 when he allegedly came to the throne. Bona rightly concludes that Childeric and Merovech were both sons of Chlodio, with Merovech being the younger and Childeric the older who fled into Thuringia seeking help from Attila (who had vassalized the Thuringi).

Next, in his discussion of the sources, he takes very conservative estimates of the combined armies, placing them at 20 to 40 thousand each. He also states the Roman army was virtually non-existent at this time, another point that recent scholarship has disproven. Peter Heather's estimates of the Visigothic and Ostrogothic armies at their height in the 450's in his 1999 book "The Goths" place them at 25,000 and 15,000 respectively, while modern estimates for the Roman army under Aetius show that the Gallic field army was in fact still intact, and that the Limitanei who manned the Rhine (as Drinkwater shows, were Germanics in professional Roman service as regular soldiers, not foederati) and other garrisons were professional soldiers, not militia (a process which wouldn't come about until the Anastasian and Justinianic eras which reformed them into the Akritai). In terms of the smaller barbarian federates, like the Franks, Burgundians, and Alans, he largely ignores or underestimates their contributions, which must have been significant considering the first two were able to actively challenge the Roman field army of Gaul in the 420's through 440's, particularly under Chlodio at Tours and Vicus Helenae in 444/445. Therefore his maximum estimate of 40,000 men is probably a "minimum" of the actual.

He also states that the Riparii of Jordanes may have been Riparienses, and that the Olibrones may have been Aetius' Bucellarii. Both of these are ideas established two years ago in the unfinished article "The Whole North into Gaul", which he does not mention (but can be found on I did write that article and have been in the process of writing a book out of the criticism and source recommendations I recieved for it for the past two years. I will otherwise not "pick a bone" with the author, as I'd rather make a friend than an enemy if he reads this review.

Moving on,his estimates of the Hunnic forces are somewhat more inline, although he neglects the forces that the smaller vassals of the Huns could have fielded (some of which we have accurate numbers for, such as the Nicer Burgundians who fielded 3000 men against the joint ruler Octar in 430 AD). His estimates of the Hunnic army fall in line with that of Lindner in his 1983 piece "Nomadism, Horses, and Huns" who estimates about 10-15,000 Hunnic troops could have been fielded. His estimate of the "Ostrogothic" forces, actually composed of about 4 Gothic groups under Hun domination as shown by Heather, as the Ostrogoths had not formed out of the Amali Goths yet, falls roughly in line with Heather at 10,000-15,000 men.

However, switching to a more positive tone, his account of Attila's campaign is fairly good, and agrees with much of modern scholarship. He points out that Attila's campaign probably went almost straight from Metz to Orleans, with small bands of men ravaging the countryside for supplies and other logistical purposes, agreeing with the modern interpretation by Hughes that most of the "Sackings" in North Gaul were exaggerations. His route of invasion also agrees with characteristic ash layers under cities like Trier and Reims that date to roughly 450 AD, and he also thoroughly explains the dubious credibility of the hagiographical accounts of saints from that time who allegedly faced down Attila, most of whom were dead prior to the invasion.

He then goes on to the siege of Orleans, in which he largely focuses on the interpretation from the Vita Aniani that Attila laid siege to the city first, and that it was saved by the arrival of Aetius and Theodoric, who met up with Sangiban and the Alans as Attila retreated. Modern scholarship does not have a general consensus of what actually happened, but Hughes suggests that a mix of Jordanes' and the Vita Aniani's accounts is a reasonable interpretation: that the Alans resisted staunchly and had put up extra fortifications around Orleans before Attila arrived, but that Attila did not breach the walls and when news of Aetius' arrival approached, he decided to retreat.

MacDowall then proposes a few possible sites for the battle: he mentions the older proposals of Mery-sur-Seine and La Cheppe, and proposes that it could have been fought at either Montegeaux near Troyes or Mount Aine near Vertus (the latter of which was also proposed in "The Whole North into Gaul"). His argument that the battle took place at Troyes is fantastic, and it is clear he has visited the site and talked with the locals in order to understand how the legends of the battle survived. He goes on to give a detailed interpretation of Attila's retreat to Troyes, describing with great detail the terrain and how the retreat itself played out, showing his knowledge as an actual officer in the military and his understanding of how to use a battlefield and terrain to one's advantage. His argument that the battle took place next to Montegeaux has certainly convinced me, and I commend (and will cite his argument) for it (although I would be VERY interested in his citation for the addendum to Prosper's Chronicon that gives the location of the Battle at Mauriacia 5 miles from Troyes, as such a source is priceless to modern scholars. I'm not questioning its existence, I just want to use it myself!).

Then he moves on to his interpretation of the Battle, which is decent reiteration of Jordanes. Tackholm, a source he uses, nominally calls Jordanes' account into question, but more recent scholarship believes much of it may be entirely fabricated. Goffart, Whately, and in particular Kim (whose work on the Huns is considered controversial) suggest the Battle is largely a fabrication and political tool, with Kim going so far as to say it is ripped off the Battle of Marathon itself. However, Macdowall seems to be unaware of these works and does not use them in his description of the Battle, nor does he use Hughes' decent interpretation of Jordanes either.

The description of the Battle he uses largely agrees with Tackholm's two stage interpretation: that the first part of the Battle was a small skirmish fought on the long, steep but not impassable bridge next to Montegeaux, while the second part was fought down on the plain itself. However Tackholm inadvertantly contradicts his own interpretation that the Battle was fought in two stages when he discusses that Jordanes' pause in the battle and speech was a bungled attempt to move it from the beginning of the battle, which it is placed in Cassiodorus' orginal work. As such, the battle should be read as a single continuous engagement, with the only skirmish being the one between the Franks and Gepids the night before. Macdowall's interpretation is that Thorismund drove off the Huns on the ridge, whom Attila had put there as a delaying action while he prepared his army, and then hid on the ridge of Montegeaux until a critical point in the battle, where they charged down onto the Ostrogothic flank below. Again, modern scholarship disagrees with this: Hughes puts Thorismund's Gothic cavalry in the center of the line with Sangiban's Allies, as a cavalry force is most useful against a Hunnic center (which is why Aetius placed the Alans there, not because of dubious loyalty). The battle was also probably fought on the ridge itself, as Jordanes states, not on the plain in front of it, and that at the beginning of the Battle both sides clashed for the ridge, with both armies meeting at the top and the Romans and Alans gaining the advantage with the "Ostrogoths" gaining the advantage over the Visigoths on the Roman right. The terrain of the ridge, as well as the route of Aetius' approach that MacDowall suggests, would support Hughes' interpretation over his own. MacDowall then goes on to describe that the Theodoric dies, the Alans retreated, and Thorismund comes down from Montegeaux on the Hunnic flank. This is another point to be contested, as Kim shows the Goths probably retreated, not the Alans, when Theodoric died: however Kim's interpretation is to be taken with a shaker of salt. Hughes states the Alans probably held firm and that this is Jordanes' bias getting in the way, and that Thorismund and Sangiban both charged from the Allied center and center-right into the Huns.

After this, his description of the next series of events is largely matching what Jordanes' describes when both armies retreat in confusion to their camps during the evening. Kim contests this, believing the Huns won the battle and pursued the Romans to their camp, but again his work is widely considered a dubious interpretation. Therefore, Macdowall's description of the retreat is largely accurate to the primary sources.

However, his interpretation of what happens after the battle is a bit iffy. Yes, as he reiterates from Jordanes, Thorismund and Merovech both went home to secure their thrones, as both were in dubious circumstances of succession. However, he doesn't mention other interpretations of this, and also mentions the Chronicle of Fredegar's extraordinarily biased account of Aetius' duplicity (an account which can't even get Aetius' or other contemporary names correct, calling him Agecius), without stating that Fredegar is a very untrustworthy source. Otherwise, his account of the immediate, and long-term aftermath of the battle (Attila's Death, Aetius' assassination, Thorismund's Assassination) largely agrees with modern scholarship.

Overall, this book should best be considered a traditional account of the battle based mostly on Jordanes. He uses outdated, but largely respected and reliable authors, to support his arguments, but is likely unaware of the more, and often extremely recent scholarship, which is understandable since I was also oblivious to its existence for a long time as well. His description of Attila's retreat from Orleans and his argument for the battle's location, however, are absolutely fantastic, as well as his understanding of the battlefield terrain. As for his writing style, it is very smooth and very fluent, making the book an easy read and one that draws the reader in and keeps him interested.

The art by Peter Dennis, unfortunately, is of an older style in which the military equipment and scenes depicted are largely following those of Angus Mcbride and the beautifully done, if inaccurate, depictions in books like "Late Roman Infantryman", rather than the recent and very accurate depictions by artists like Graham Sumner (although Sumner's paintings of D'Amato's Late Roman troops should be taken with duplicity, as although I respect D'amato most of his interpretations are not supported by archaeology). The paintings are nice and evocative, but the equipment, particularly that of the Huns', is largely not in agreement with more modern depictions.

If one does not know much about the battle, I highly recommend this volume. I do recommend it to those who are knowledgable, or experienced scholars of the period, but with the note that modern scholarship contradicts a lot of what Macdowall says. It is also easy to read and well written, so no reader should have a problem enjoying this book. I certainly enjoyed it and, as General Grievous says, will enjoy adding it to my collection.[/SPOILER]
So I do have to correct myself here: he does use a few modern sources: I just checked the bibliography a second time. He does cite "The Goths", Hugh Elton, and Guy Halsall.

Still, he largely ignores modern scholarship focusing on Aetius or Central Asian scholarship on the Huns. I know the books he uses on Attila and they are largely incomplete, in a large part failing to connect European and Central Asian scholarship.
Hi Evan - interesting review. Can I suggest, though, that you add an extra star to your review rating? Whatever you thought of the author's interpretation, you clearly engaged with the book and found it stimulating.

Osprey are a popular commercial publisher, not an academic press. They have a tight publication schedule, and commission books they think are going to sell. Books sell well when they get good reviews on Amazon (amongst other factors!) They tend not to sell well when they don't. So if you'd like to see more titles about the later Roman period (for example) it's a good idea to give a decent review rating, then add your more critical comments in the review itself.

These Osprey books also have a very limited format, and the authors necessarily have to condense their work. Often there's no space to give the full spectrum of current opinion on any given subject. In general, I'd say it's better to assume that the author has read all the available sources and evidence, even if their interpretation of it differs from your own. Suggesting that they've failed to read, or to understand, X or Y recent study is unlikely to elicit much more than authorial annoyance! Wink
I was kind of iffy on the number of stars, I didn't think it was worth five because I was disappointed by the paintings of the soldiers, but the other images (showing maps of the battlefield and whatnot) are good.

I did increase the rating to 4, you are right I did like and find it engaging. I'm only really questioning the historical accuracy of his points.
Thanks for the mention by the way!

I presume the Late Roman paintings you refer to are those for 'Roman Naval Forces'?

The late version of 'Arms and Armour of the Imperial Roman Soldier' with D'Amato, is waiting for said author to finish his text, so you would not have seen the paintings I have produced for that.

"Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream" Edgar Allan Poe.

"Every brush-stroke is torn from my body" The Rebel, Tony Hancock.

"..I sweated in that damn dirty armor....TWENTY YEARS!', Charlton Heston, The Warlord.
I actually meant D'Amato's Late Roman Clothing books. Some of those armour interpretations are a bit wacky. And made of leather.

Di immortales... corium...

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