Book Review: Iron and Rust by Harry Sidebottom

“Enrich the soldiers and ignore everyone else.” This was the maxim of Emperor Maximinus’ mentor, the Emperor Caracalla. It seemed like good advice as an emperor generally attained and maintained power at the behest of his troops. Unfortunately, Emperor Maximinus, who came to power in the coup that assassinated the Emperor Alexander Severus and his mother Mamea, took the advice a bit too much to heart. In enriching the soldiers he so depleted his revenues that he was compelled to raid the wealth of the temples to the gods, proscribe wealthy Senators and Equites to obtain their wealth, and cut the grain dole to the Roman plebes. Displeasing so many segments of the population led to revolts against his rule and full-scale bloody repression, and ultimately to his own destruction.

In Iron and Rust, Harry Sidebottom brings to life a lesser known era of late Roman history, the reign that ushered in a long period of instability and the inexorable decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The story is complex and there are a lot of characters and a lot of settings. The reign of Maximinus ended up being a reign of terror in which prominent Romans, even those like Timesitheus and Gordian who believed themselves in the good graces of the Emperor, lived in fear.

Rome at this time was attempting to retain the huge empire bequeathed by the earlier Caesars but was besieged on multiple fronts. There were the Germans, the Goths, the Sassanids, and even in Africa there were incursions by fierce nomadic tribesmen. Maximinus, a giant of a man, a Thracian risen through the ranks and raised to the position of Caesar by the soldiery, is determined to conquer Germany once and for all and make it a province of Rome. His predecessor was roundly condemned for his policy of trying to buy off the Alemanni and other German tribes. As a military man, Maximinus was successful in battle, but his efforts were ultimately in vain. Germany would never become a Roman province. As a result of his single-mindedness he would lose his beloved wife and ultimately, his own head.

Harry Sidebottom is an historian turned novelist and as such his books are impeccably researched and erudite. The novel is not light reading but is a worthwhile commitment for anyone who desires an understanding of this late period of Imperial Roman history

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