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in association with, click hereThe Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire
by Alessandro Barbero

“The subject of this book is a battle that changed the course of world history It was not a famous fight like Waterloo or Stalingrad; in fact, most people have never heard of it. And yet some believe that it signified nothing less than the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the Middle Ages, because this battle set in motion the chain of events that would lead, nearly a century later, to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. That event is linked to a wellknown date that forms part of our common fund of knowledge: AD 476, the year when Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor of the West, was deposed. But in fact the removal of Romulus was only the final, inevitable step in a process that had begun long before.”

This introductory sentence puts the author firmly in the camp of early dating of the fall of Rome, and he sets out to prove it to his own satisfaction in this concise history of the events leading up to the battle of Adrianople, the battle itself, and the aftermath. The TOC below lays out his clear narrative, densely packed into 180 pages, as he does in the Prologue.

Chapter I deals with the Roman Empire in the fourth century, and the author rightly points out that it was alive and well, thanks to the clear-sighted but brutal emperors of that era. The empire's vast boundaries are described, including regions “which Europeans today call elsewhere.” The author describes an entity, restored by the measures of Diocletian and Constantine, and a society filled with contradictions, but not an empire in decline. Christianity became a stabilizing factor,whereas traditional culture from the Pagan era had not yet disappeared. Nonetheless, tolerance was on its way out.

And the Barbarians wanted to join in, as he addresses in Chapter II. The population movement in the north had gone on for a while. In the author's view, the accepted term in Romance languages, Barbarian Invasion, is not as good as Völkerwanderung, migration of peoples, used by German historians who “tend to see things from the newcomers' point of view than that of a local citizenry.” But, from the Romans’ point of view, he still asks, what did they see when they looked across the border? He then analyzes the various borders of the empire and sees the real threat as coming from the north: the east is really a back and forth between two empires, the Roman and the Persian, and movements in Africa could easily be contained. Added to this was the ancestral fear, from Brennus capturing the capitol to the annihilation of Varus’ legions. There was a long obsession with security or the lack thereof. On the other hand, there was an ambivalent attitude: The barbarians could be controlled and greatly profited from, both by the Palace and the landowners and other businessmen. The barbarians were an abundant low cost manpower, as soldiers, as agrarian workers, and as slaves. The barbarian movements themselves could be contained or bought off, and any devastation of land by them was seen as temporary and weighted against overall profit.

Thus, the “invasion” had already began, but still could be controlled and exploited. But then the government had to deal with “the Goths.” Chapter III describes the Goths as steppe people who had lived for centuries on the margins of the empire, with an ethnic identity “in a continual state of of negotiations.” They were familiar with the Roman way of life, knew the Roman traders, and even their agricultural methods may have begun to improve: they became “less barbaric.” And after the signing of treaties by various groups with Constantine, they gradually became dependent on the empire. The author maintains that one source of containment was the enlistment of troops, which then became naturally and conveniently thinned out by the wars against the Persians. Another far-reaching consequence was their conversion to Christianity. Though this was to Arianism, it was not the problem yet which it became later.

Problems began with the turmoil after Constantine’s rule was over, the death of Julian, and the advent of Valentinian and his brother Valens. When the latter was challenged by the usurper Procopius, the Goths took the wrong side and Valens pursued them with a scorched-earth policy. He then made a reportedly unfavorable peace with the Goths and exploited Gothic manpower in his war against the Persians, with spin doctor Themistius justifying the emperor’s actions in an astonishing piece of rhetoric. However, the author says that Themistius represented a “humanitarian and universalist attitude of the late empire.” But was this merely a cover for a thoroughly “unscrupulous imperialism?” In any case, brutal sanctions led to a steep decrease in the empire’s standard of living, and an increase of slave labor and the resultant collapse slave prices.

Added to this came “The Emergence of 376.” In Chapter IV, the emergence of the Huns is discussed, how they were perceived, and their pressure on the Goths. The eventual crossing of the Danube in Thrace by what the author calls “a multitude (one of his favorite terms which may have suffered in translation from the Italian) of Goths” is vividly described via Ammianus and Eunapius. The convergence of bribery, corruption by beurocrats, brutality of soldiers, and lack of communication led to the inevitable disaster for the Goths. Hunger, chaos, misunderstandings, and eventually war.

Chapter V, The Outbreak of the War, discusses how, despite of its professionalism, the Roman army under Lupicinus was defeated by the Goths who were led by Fritigern who “knew how to think in strategic terms.” Lupicinus was killed in battle. Another misunderstanding between Gothic but loyal to the empire mercenary troops and the city fathers of Adrianople led to slaughter by the Goths, who then could see no other way than joining Fritigern, whose army was also enlarged by slaves and other inhabitants of Thrace.

Still in Antioch, Valens had to react. Negotiating peace with the Persians, he sent his army to Thrace. From the west came a contingent of troops under Richomer. The well-known story, mostly via Ammianus and the rather opinionated pagan historian Eunapius, continues in Chapter VI, The Battle of the Willows (Ad Salices); Chapter VII, The War Goes On; Chapter VIII; Valens Moves; and culminates in Chapter IX, Adrianople, August 9, 378, the ultimate disaster, defeat of the army and death of Valens, whose body was never found. These vividly narrated chapters should be a delight to readers interested in military history.

Chapter X, After the Defeat, discusses the reaction to the defeat in the Roman world, driven by a return to ancestral fear about the barbarians, superstition that lead to myth of portents prior to the battle, and bad auguries afterwards. This was not helped by the personality of Valens who, they said, had been bound to come to a bad end. In any case, the author terms the defeat a trauma for the ancient world, which led Ammianus to finish his history at that point. He writes that modern historians have been all too inclined to follow this view, with a fondness for historical symbolism: “After Adrianople, it seemed possible to declare the history [as it had been known] was over. If anything, a new one was beginning, one that historians found very much less gratifying, the beginning of the Byzantine Empire.” He also chides those historians who consider Adrianople more or less as the end of the Roman army, which, he writes, was already in the process of changing. Nonetheless, “[the consequences of Adrianople] were deep and and their significance enormous, albeit deserving a little more credit for complexity than they usually receive.”

Chapter XI, Theodiosus, deals with the rearranging of the empire and the appointment of Theodosius as emperor of the east by Gratian, and the politics of both. The author calls Theodosius “the last great protagonist of this story: the man who, in the years after Adrianople, worked harder than anyone else to fill the breach and redress the situation as far as possible.” He was politically savvy and a problem solver, and brutal when necessary. (Not even a Christian when he assumed his position, he converted to Catholicism rather than Arianism and resolved the religious question by declaring Catholicism the only true religion in his edict of Thessalonica in 380. Later, in 391, he took drastic measures to suppress pagan worship.) He built up the army through ruthless conscriptions and Hunnish and Gothic mercenaries. But there was also a greater flexibility towards the Goths, many of whom again became loyal Roman soldiers. The flip side of this, Mr. Barbero points out in Chapter XII, The Antibarbarian Reaction, was that many of the Goths became mercenaries and “autonomous bands” who were hired by the government as entities throughout the empire – indeed, in Syriac, he says, the word for soldier became goth. They were indispensable to the empire, but this situation created severe conflicts with the regular army; moreover, the Christians saw this as the world approaching its end. A great number of barbarians became generals under Theodosius and his sons, the most notable Alaric, who lobbied for top honors but then rebelled and eventually marched on Rome and sacked it in 410.

From this time on, says the author, “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. When the barbarian mercenaries finally seized power, it was in the West – the Goths in southern Gaul and in Spain, the Franks in northern Gaul – so that at length the Western Roman Empire dissolved, while the empire of the East continued to exist.” He concludes: “And this really was an epochal turning point, because it marked the end of the ancient unity of the Roman and Mediterranean world. It also marked the birth of a new West, where Romans and Germans would have to learn, laboriously, to live together, and of a Greek East, whose history would be completely different. The consequences of that split can still be felt in Europe today.”

It's an attractive argument over all, but not wholly convincing as to the timing, and the author seems to contradict himself at times. Readers my judge for themselves. The story itself is compellingly told and a good read! There is a brief reading list followed by specific references by chapter – in lieu of any endnotes the lack of which is a real drawback.

Alessandro Barbero is a professor of medieval studies at the University of Piemonte Orientale in Vercelli, Italy. A previous winner of the Strega Prize, Italy's most distinguished literary reward, he is the author of The Battle: A New History of Waterloo and Charlemagne, Father of a Continent.

Table of Content

I. The Roman Empire in the Fourth Century
lI. The Empire and the Barbarians
III. The Goths and Rome
IV. The Emergency of 376
V. The Outbreak of War
VI. The Battle by the Willows
VII. The War Goes On
VIII. Valens Moves
IX. Adrianople, August 9, 378
X. After the Disaster
XI. Theodosius
XII. The Antibarbarian Reaction
Suggestions for Further Reading

© 2007 Irene B. Hahn

in association with, click here The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire
by Alessandro Barbero
translated by John Cullen
Walker & Company, translation rights 2007
original copyright 2005
180 pages
ISBN 0802715710
List Price $24.95 / UK: used and new from £12.46
in association with amazon.comCharlemagne, Father of a Continent
by Alessandro Barbero
translated by Allan Cameron
University of California Press 2004
426 pages
ISBN: 0520239431
List Price $29.95 / UK £6.99
in association with, click hereThe Battle: A New History of Waterloo
by Alessandro Barbero
Walker & Company 2006
340 pages
ISBN: 0802715001
List Price: $15.95 /
UK not available

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