Historians love to identify “notably rare moments” in history – symbolic dates that mark the end of one era and the beginning of another, states author Alessandro Barbero. World War II had its D-Day. Napoleon had his Waterloo. Was the Battle of Adrianople that notably rare moment in Roman history? “The Day of the Barbarians – The Battle that Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire” is a tightly written, 146-page review of a key moment in ancient Roman history, but Barbero argues that it’s not that “rare moment” that lends itself to such dramatic interpretations.
The Romans were soundly beaten by a barbarian army on August 9, 378. It was a turning point in Roman history, but according to Barbero much less of an earth-shattering, all-or-nothing moment in time as other key battles in history.
The Italian author acknowledges that the battle doesn’t resonate with the public like other famous battles do – in fact, few have even heard of it, let alone know where it took place. Adrianople is now Erdine in what is today European Turkey, and at the time was in the Roman province of Thrace, not all that far from Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), ancient capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Barbero dedicates only 18 pages of his book to the battle itself. That’s a scant 12% of the book focused on, well, what the book is about. This emphasizes Barbero’s theme that the Battle at Adrianople was a key point in time for the Empire more due to the context surrounding the event, rather than the event itself. And so the book lays out that context in the other 88% of pages - leading up to the battle, surrounding it, and ultimately following it. The pre-battle details include chapters that frame the Empire in the 4th Century, introduce barbarian background, history and anthropology within the empire, outline the interactions between Goths specifically, and Rome, and five chapters on specific events that led directly to the conflict in August of 378. Following the 18 pages on the battle, Barbero concludes the book with chapters on the events immediately following the Battle, actions taken by Emperor Theodosius, and the longer tail impact of this mass barbarian migration. Additionally, Barbero has detailed notes for each chapter and a brief bibliography.
In setting the stage for Adrianople, Barbero contextualizes barbarians in the Empire. What ultimately became an invasion, started slowly and steadily over time as immigration. “Before the battle of Adrianople, the barbarian invasions had already begun, but they were, for the most part, peaceful invasions carried out by submissive barbarians, who with their labor force contributed…to the economic soundness of the Mediterranean worlds.” Barbero reminds us that the “Roman Empire already was a multiethnic crucible of languages, races, and religions, and it was perfectly capable of absorbing massive immigration without becoming destabilized.”
In autumn of 376, barbarians massed along the northern shores of the Danube. They wanted to cross into the Empire because a new threat was looming in the West - the Huns were moving closer and their violent and deadly reputation preceded them. Valens, Emperor of the Eastern Empire, opted to facilitate the crossing of the Danube – after all, there would be thousands of strong able-bodied men to help bolster his ranks along the borders with Persia which was becoming a bigger political concern.
As citizens of the empire grew increasingly resistant to military enlistment, the Empire looked to fill out its ranks from the outside. Barbero writes that “the barbarians were increasingly seen as...abundant, low-cost manpower. The more the government attempted to bring its military units to full strength by recruiting within the empire, the more it risked damaging agricultural production, displeasing the great proprietors, and--gravest consequence of all--reducing internal revenue. The barbarians were a potential resource that should not be wasted”
So Valens ordered his troops to help the barbarians across the Danube. Except there were too many of them, and despite a reputation for superlative logistics, the Roman army wasn’t prepared. Ultimately, the starving and horribly uncomfortable barbarians revolted.
In the face of these challenges, Fritigern, a Gothic tribal chief, had been able to centralize enough cross-tribal power to lead thousands of barbarians on a two year war within the Empire’s own boundaries.
Near the walls of Adrianople on the morning of August 9, 378 Valens’ armies had finally rallied and moved to face the barbarians whose own armies were positioned on a nearby hilltop. The armies faced each other down, and after an abortive plea for truce, an auxiliary guard cavalry broke ranks and launched into the barbarians. As the battle began, numerous barbarian cavalry, who had been foraging away from their camps, emerged amid the hills near the battle. This became a key moment, in a key battle, at a key point in Roman history.
The Roman Army’s strength lay with its infantry: disciplined, with tight formations that were suited for close-in fighting. But like Cannae against Hannibal and Carrhae against the Parthians, the Roman army was overwhelmed and surrounded by too many riders. Their fate was sealed.
Emperor Valens’ fate was less clear, but Barbero suspects he was mortally wounded by an arrow. There were also rumors at the time that a wounded Valens was backed into a farmhouse with his immediate entourage. When the barbarians realized who was in the building, they burned in to the ground. Valens’ body was never found.
About five months later, Theodosius, a former general, replaced Valens as Emperor of the Eastern Empire.
The most severe pressure from this barbarization was in the Eastern Empire, and yet it was the East that ultimately survived (as the Byzantine Empire) and the West that didn't. Barbero explains why: “After a while, the East decided it had had enough of the barbarian problem and wished to be free of it forever...the government in the East began working to transfer them a little farther west, making them promises and granting them concessions, provided that every time the barbarians took a few more steps westward. The West was governed badly, its energies consumed in the struggle to keep the barbarians across the Rhine at bay, and eventually it succumbed to this eastern policy...there, for a while, the western government managed to pay them and keep them happy; when it could no longer do so, in 410 the Roman general Alaric, a Goth, wishing to show that he was serious, marched on Rome and sacked it. From this time on, the flood of barbarian immigrants, which grew more and more violent and over which the weak western governments ceased to exercise any sort of control, began moving steadily westward.”
“Day of the Barbarians” is a very readable, enjoyable and engaging book. I’m not an academic and I felt that it had the right mix of historical background, research and most importantly to me, narrative. The book also has its requisite descriptions and analysis of strategic army movements and lively battle scenes. It may not be academic enough for the hardcore scholar, however this is a terrific book for insights into an instrumental period in Roman history.
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