School Library Journal
Strosser and Prince present 16 concise episodes in human history to support their theory that war is generally a bad idea and that we may finally learn from the past by studying martial failures instead of celebrating glorious victories. An irreverent tone and lively writing make this book readable and appealing, although sometimes the flood of names and dates becomes confusing. Unfortunately, there are no maps. Presented in chronological order, the war stories begin in ancient Rome and conclude with the 1991 Soviet coup. Each chapter starts with a short overview, followed by "The Players" (brief, pithy descriptions of the main agents involved in the conflict); the "General Situation" sets the stage for "What Happened," and concludes with "What Happened After" (summary and analysis). Boxed segments feature interesting nuggets of information (thumbnail biographies of individuals or groups, relevant legends). While most of the chapters describe 20th-century events, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 is probably most relevant for making connections to today's headlines. The book assumes some knowledge of history, but it could be used as a reference or supplementary reading for anyone studying American, European, Latin American, or world history. The authors offer excellent, entertaining descriptions of historical figures and events, and provide convincing evidence of the unpredictable, chaotic, and disorganized reality of warfare.-Sondra VanderPloeg, Colby-Sawyer College, New London, NH
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Valens and the End of the Roman Empire
As Roman rule evolved over seven centuries from republic to dictatorship and then to ruin, the only principle held constant by the rulers was that the leaders of Rome should never, ever, show their enemies any mercy.
From its founding in the fifth century BC, when the original Roman gang established itself by tossing the Etruscan kings off the seven hills of Rome and banding together into a republic, the Romans slowly conquered the surrounding tribes and developed the basic template for empire, which served as the model for most of Western civilization down through the ages. The Roman republic trashed the idea of hereditary dynasties and replaced it with two rulers sharing power, known as consuls, chosen from the aristocrats of the conquering class.
The power-sharing model lasted until around 34 BC, when it was replaced by the dictator-like rule of the emperors, starting with Augustus. For centuries the emperors expanded the fascist rule of Pax Romana in a circus of hacked-off limbs. By the fourth century AD, the primary job of the Roman emperor was to maintain and defend the empire from the hordes of barbarians clamoring at the gates. But by now the real power of the emperor lay with the imperial guard, the cohort of soldiers who protected him.
The Roman imperial guard had been created by the first emperor Augustus around year 1 as his own private army. These were the Praetorian Guards, SS-like in structure, function, and attitude. Over the centuries, the Praetorians were disbanded but replaced by a more brutal cadre of imperial guards whowielded the power to choose any emperor they wanted and assassinate the ones they hated. The imperial guards made their choice of emperors with the main goal of keeping the empire in fighting shape.
The preservation of their power was paramount. Showing no mercy was critical. Revolts and rebellions by dangerous people such as Jesus were squashed brutally, often resulting in the disappearance of entire cities, not to mention most of their unruly inhabitants. Survivors were sold as slaves or dragged home to Rome to be ritually slaughtered in front of the home crowd in the Colosseum as testament to the correctness of the Roman way of life.
The greatest threat to the Roman Empire down through the centuries, amid the wars, famines, and revolts, the greed, bloodlust, stupidity, incompetence, and insanity of its emperors, was mercy toward the barbarians. Mercy, as it were, in the form of Emperor Valens, who was given the job of emperor solely because his big brother was the western emperor. Somebody had to run the eastern part, and Valens opened the crack in the shield that ultimately led to the Roman Empire's downfall.
Emperor Valentinian I—A solid soldier from the imperial guard chosen to be emperor because he posed no threat to the two dynasties vying to control the succession.
Skinny—Hot tempered and noted for his screaming memos.
Props—Favored his eight-year-old son over his brother Valens as next in line for his job.
Pros—Good soldier who served the empire well.
Cons—Ruined the empire by making his brother co-emperor.
EmperorValens—Valentinian's younger brother, a simple-minded farmer from the sleepy countryside whose sole qualification to be co-emperor was that his brother was forced to share power by the imperial guard.
Skinny—Didn't speak Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern empire, so relied on interpreters.
Props—Built an aqueduct in his capital, Constantinople, which stands to this day.
Pros—Trusted that people were as simple as sheep.
Cons—Often forgot the concept of "show no mercy to barbarians."
The General Situation
Since the beginning of the Roman Empire in 510 BC, clean-shaven Roman aristocrats were determined to outdo the scope of Alexander's Greek Empire through an unremitting fury of blood-spilling macho aggression. Power and togas mattered to the Romans. Once enemies were subdued by sword or treaty, power kept the peace and filled the coffers with gold. As the empire expanded, the Romans often incorporated the gods of the vanquished people under the big tent of Pax Romana while press-ganging many of their army-eligible men as soldiers and gobbling up their resources as booty and foodstuffs.
Those generals who mastered the rape-and-pillage paradigm of forcibly welcoming non-Romans (i.e., "barbarians") into the empire marched into Rome in triumph, trailing gold and slaves, with the power to stake their claims to be emperor, with the help of the imperial guard.
It didn't matter anymore if the general were a Roman aristocrat, or gods forbid, a Vandal, Goth, or Hun. If the guard gave you the thumbs-up, you were in. This flexibility allowed the Roman republic tobecome the world's first superempire.
By AD 364 the vast size of the Roman superempire required the emperor to spend most of his time battling barbarians on far-flung borders, closely guarded by his cohort of imperial guards, who traveled with him at all times, in case of one of those awkward moments when they found themselves with a dead emperor on their hands.
Which happened when Emperor Julian got himself inconveniently killed that year in combat against the Romans' long-standing nemesis, the Persians. Then Julian's replacement died on the way to Rome. The guard huddled yet again and settled on Valentinian I as the best of a weak field of blood-soaked soldiers short-listed for the position. He was a compromise figure, chosen because he was not from one of the dynastic families of former emperors jousting to regain power. After appointing Valentinian, the imperial guards, wise to the challenges and risks of helming the giant war machine, requested in their nonrefusable way that he nominate a co-emperor to run the eastern half of the empire. Valentinian shrewdly chose the one person he knew wouldn't outshine him and whom he could control, his little brother Valens.
The imperial guards accepted Valentinian's choice of Valens because he was weaker and even more inexperienced than Valentinian. They arrogantly assumed that even a weak emperor, not to mention his dumb little brother, was no threat to the continued existence of the super-empire. Stupid Wars. Copyright ? by Ed Strosser. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.