Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.01.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.01.38

Jeroen W. P. Wijnendaele, The Last of the Romans: Bonifatius - Warlord and 'comes Africae'. Bloomsbury classical studies monographs.   London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney:  Bloomsbury, 2015.  Pp. xiii, 182.  ISBN 9781780937175.  $86.00.  

Reviewed by Hugh Elton, Trent University (


Writing about the history of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD is challenging. Unlike many other periods of Roman history such as the Antonine period, there is very little consensus as to the story (or even the sort of story) we should tell. In part this is the result of the highly lacunose source material, but it also reflects the complexity of the events leading up to the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Wijnendaele’s work focuses on the life of Bonifatius, a Roman soldier active in Africa and Italy in the first half of the fifth century. He argues that Bonifatius was the first successful late Roman warlord although for many, his main claim to fame is the accusation of inviting the Vandals into Africa in 429 and then dying in a battle in Italy at the hands of Aetius in 432.

As with so many of his contemporaries like Castinus, Felix, Merobaudes, or Sigisvultus, little is known of Bonifatius’ life. One of his rivals, Aetius, is better known and has been the subject of a recent monograph by Stickler.1 A major challenge in writing about Bonifatius and his contemporaries is the source material itself, but this is complicated by the need to fit what the sources say into a framework of imperial politics and military campaigning, an area where there remains much uncertainty. Wijnendaele avoids this approach, wishing to remain focused on Bonifatius himself. This has been done successfully for one of Bonifatius’ contemporaries, Augustine of Hippo, but is very difficult here. However, the source material has improved since de Lepper wrote his dissertation in 1941, not only in terms of the editions and of our understanding of genre and of relationships between texts, but also with the discovery of a cache of letters of St Augustine by Divjak, two of which (7* and 17*) mention Bonifatius.2 Wijnendaele makes good use of the Letters of Pseudo-Bonifatius (29-30, 46-47, 72-73, 82). However, given the questions about this collection of 16 letters forged in late antiquity, perhaps in Ostrogothic Italy a century after Bonifatius’ death, I felt that more discussion was needed than the paragraph they receive here (5-6). In some parts of the work, the handling of primary sources is not helped by using endnotes rather than footnotes. This is probably the publisher’s decision, but it sometimes means that the author of a quotation can only be established by turning to the back of the book. I found myself doing this a lot because Wijnendaele’s thinking on relationships between various primary sources was not always clearly set out. ‘Three authors discussed Bonifatius’ recruiting of the Vandals. According to Jordanes… John of Antioch elaborated further… Theophanes likewise commented….’ (75). Writing that ‘Jordanes, John of Antioch, and Theophanes are seemingly echoing Procopius’ statements’ (76) unfortunately fails to make it clear that all three of these accounts were derived from Procopius. However, elsewhere, it is clear that all three authors were copying Procopius (69) and that the fifth century writer Priscus was probably the source for the accounts of the invitation in the sixth century writer Procopius and thus also of Jordanes, John of Antioch, and Theophanes (115). Perhaps because of the focus on Bonifatius himself, this ends up being more confusing than it needs to be, especially for students.

The combination of difficult source material and complex events makes it unlikely that all scholars will interpret events in the same way. However, I felt the approaches to eastern imperial politics by several recent scholars offered a more nuanced way of thinking about these sorts of events. Such studies include Alan Cameron and Jackie Long on the reign of Arcadius, especially the Gainas affair,3 Millar and also Kelly’s edited collection on Theodosius II,4 Croke on the reigns of Leo I and Justin I,5 and Liebeschuetz and Lee on generals in politics in the fifth century.6 This body of work makes clear the complexity of Late Roman politics, as well as taking a different perspective on the role played by Roman emperors in politics in both parts of the Empire. They are also relevant to Wijnendaele’s argument that Bonifatius was the first successful western late Roman warlord. The same complexities are suggested by wider-ranging books about the late Empire, e.g. by Matthews on the western aristocracy at this period or by Brown on aristocratic culture as it related to imperial politics in the fourth and fifth centuries, as well as McEvoy on western child emperors. 7 I felt this political complexity was missing from Wijnendaele’s work, which occasionally reduces political activity to generalizations. In describing Sebastianus, Bonifatius’ son-in-law leaving Constantinople in 435, he notes that ‘one plausible interpretation is that the palace intrigues between the Empress Pulcheria [i.e. Theodosius II’s wife] and certain chamberlains, with senior generals caught in the middle, ultimately forced Sebastian to leave the eastern capital’ (106). Perhaps, but there is no evidence to suggest that Sebastianus met either Pulcheria or any chamberlain. Wijnendaele also suggests that Bonifatius and Aetius were appointed to positions by Galla Placidia (47, 66, 67, 97), though there is no evidence for an Augusta appointing any imperial officials in this period.

Despite my criticisms, the work contains a number of astute observations. I’ll restrict my comments to two of these. The focus on the letters between Bonifatius and Augustine is an excellent reminder that Late Roman soldiers were participants in a highly cultured world, even if they were not always as cultured as their correspondents might wish. There is also a very attractive interpretation of the battle of Rimini in 432 between Aetius and Bonifatius as a small battle fought between the bucellarii of the two generals rather than a large battle between a divided Italian field army (101).

In terms of audience, this is probably too detailed a book for undergraduates to use without a great deal of additional support. At the same time specialists will probably not be satisfied with the lack of detailed engagement with either the primary sources or the way in which many modern authors think that imperial politics worked in the fifth century. A consequence of the focus on Bonifatius rather than on politics is that it is difficult to evaluate the claim in the conclusion that ‘Bonifatius became the first western Roman officer to challenge and resist central authority successfully without resorting to the traditional means of usurping the imperial office’ (120). These are complex issues and Wijnendaele’s work makes clear the difficulties posed by our source materials in dealing with fifth century politics and the fall of the western Roman Empire.


1.   Stickler, T., Aetius: Gestaltungsspielsräume eines Heermeisters im ausgehenden Weströmischen Reich (Munich, 2002).
2.   Very recently, Shaw, B.D., ‘Augustine and Men of Imperial Power’, Journal of Late Antiquity 8.1 (2015), 32-61; cf. McLaughlin, J., ‘Bridging the Cultural Divide: Libanius, Ellebichus, and Letters to ‘Barbarian’ Generals’, Journal of Late Antiquity 7.2 (2014), 253-279
3.   Cameron, Alan and Long, J., Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius (Berkeley, 1993); Heather, P.J., ‘The Anti-Scythian Tirade in Synesius’ De Regno’, Phoenix 42 (1988), 152–172
4.   Croke, B., 'Dynasty and Ethnicity: Emperor Leo I and the Eclipse of Aspar', Chiron 35 (2005), 147-203; Croke, B., ‘Justinian under Justin: Reconfiguring a Reign’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift 100 (2007), 13-56
5.   Millar, F., A Greek Roman Empire (Berkeley, 2006); Kelly, C., ed., Theodosius II: rethinking the Roman Empire in late antiquity (Cambridge, 2013); Elton, H.W., ‘Imperial Politics at the Court of Theodosius II’, Cain, A. and Lenski, N., eds., The Power of Religion in Late Antiquity (Aldershot, 2009), 133-142
6.   Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G., Barbarians and Bishops (Oxford, 1991), ‘Warlords and Landlords’, in Erdkamp, P., ed., A Companion to the Roman Army (London, 2007), 479–494; Lee, A.D., ‘Theodosius and his generals’, in Kelly, ed., Theodosius II (2013), 90-108; cf. Kulikowski, M., ‘Marcellinus 'of Dalmatia' and the dissolution of the fifth-century empire’, Byzantion 72 (2002) 177-191
7.   Matthews, J. F., Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court AD 364-425 (Oxford, 1975); Brown, P., Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity (Madison, 1992); McEvoy, M.A., Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455 (Oxford, 2013).

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