This is the ninth installment in a series of articles on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic.
In the fourth century of our era, the Danube River marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. To the north and east of the Danube, fierce Germanic and Scythian tribes roamed to the edges of the known world. Beyond them--according to the uncertain traditions of the ancients--lay a savage, frozen wilderness populated by the likes of the Geloni, who dressed in the skins of their slain enemies, and the Melanchlaenae, who fed on human flesh.
Immediately to the north of the eastern Danube were vast settlements of Goths, who by the mid-370s found themselves threatened by invading Huns and Alans from the east. To escape the ravaging barbarians from the hinterlands, the Goths fled en masse to the banks of the Danube and sent envoys to the Roman emperor Valens, begging for permission to cross into Roman territory to escape the marauding hordes, and to settle in the province of Thrace. Valens, persuaded of the need for a mercenary and labor force to fortify and protect the northern boundaries of the empire, and anxious to expand his tax base, made one of the most fateful decisions in all of history: he opened the borders of the empire and invited the Goths to immigrate to Roman territory.
With the help of boats furnished by the Romans, the Goths poured across the Danube into Roman territory--"like lava from Etna," in the words of Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus--and set up encampments in Thrace. The occupying population was estimated by Edward Gibbon to have numbered at least 200,000 fighting men and up to a million total immigrants. The Romans immediately took advantage of the situation by bartering food and other necessaries (including, supposedly, spoiled dog meat) to the desperate Goths, in exchange for slaves. The Goths resented such treatment and soon rebelled against the Roman authorities. Before too many months, the Goths, led by their crafty general, Fritigem, were pillaging and laying waste to cities all across Thrace.
Disaster at Hadrianople
After several bloody and indecisive battles, the Roman emperor Valens himself decided to intervene. He marched north at the head of an enormous army that represented much of the military might of Rome and encountered the Gothic army--which by now was strengthened by Alan and Hun auxiliaries--outside the city of Hadrianople. Hadrianople, the "city of Hadrian," was named for the emperor best remembered for his efforts to fortify another Roman frontier, the boundary between Roman and Celtic Britain known as "Hadrian's Wall." But on August 9, 378 A.D., the plains outside the city of Hadrian witnessed the battle that brought the Roman Empire to her knees.
Valens and his forces advanced confidently against the howling barbarian host, only to be outflanked and outfought by the furious Goths, who had cleverly postponed the engagement until the heat of the day, when the Romans were weakened and dehydrated. Crushed together by the furious onslaught, the Romans, unable to maneuver or even use their swords and javelins, were slaughtered like cattle. By the end of that terrible day, the flower of the Roman military had been cut down, including 35 tribunes, many distinguished generals, and Valens himself, whose body was never recovered. With them fell somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Roman soldiers, or up to 80 percent of the entire existing Roman military force.
Not since Cannae in the Second Punic War had Rome suffered such a disaster. But unlike Cannae, which became a rallying point liar republican Rome, Hadrianople shattered the empire beyond repair. Over the next few decades, the empire was swept away by successive invasions of barbarians eager to take advantage of Rome's undefended borders.
Within 30 years of the disaster in Thrace, Alaric and his Gothic horde were besieging the Eternal City. By 429 A.D. …