Magazine article The Spectator

The Enemy Within

Magazine article The Spectator

The Enemy Within

Article excerpt

THE DAY OF THE BARBARIANS: THE FIRST BATTLE IN THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE by Alessandro Barbero, translated by John Cullen Atlantic, £17.99, pp. 192, ISBN 9781843545934 £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

On the 9 August 378 AD near Adrianople in Thrace the Roman army of the East was massacred and the Emperor Valens left dead on the battlefield by an army of barbarian Goths. It was, as Alessandro Barbero's title claims, 'The Day of the Barbarians'. He gives a highly readable account of the campaign and its consequences for an empire that stretched from Hadrian's Wall to the fortresses on the Rhine, the Danube and the Tigris. It included what is now Turkey and the Middle East, Egypt and a strip of territory along the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Beyond the frontier lay the restive German barbarian tribes and the armies of Rome's great rival, the Persian empire.

The intelligent reader of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire must deduce that it was victim of what modern historians have called 'imperial overstretch'. It lacked the economic and financial, above all the man power, to sustain a vast empire. It turned to barbarian mercenaries to provide an auxiliary mobile army to defend a frontier that ran for thousands of miles.

The very title of Gibbon's great work, Barbero suggests, conceals a determinism: decline must lead to fall. But things were not as bad as Gibbon suggested. True, in the third century AD an emperor had been defeated and killed in the forests of Germany and another captured by the Persians. But a series of strong, reformist emperors from Diocletian to Constantine the Great had repaired the damage. Thus in the mid-years of the fourth century, Barbero argues, 'wherever one looks one finds a society filled with contradictions, not an empire in decline'.

The most dangerous of these was that emperors pursued contradictory policies in dealing with the Goths on the other side of the Danube. The Goths were originally steppe nomads who had settled as farmers on the lands beyond the Danube frontier; under pressure from the still nomadic Huns they were in dire straits. Constantine the Great gave them generous grain subsidies that rescued them from starvation. Valens, in 476, cut these subsidies and the Goths pleaded to be admitted into the Roman empire. Valens accepted their pleas, Barbero argues, in the hopes of enlisting them as mercenaries for his Persian war. They were ferried over the Danube under the supervision of Roman local commanders. They made a mess of the operation. The Goths felt they had been short-changed and revolted. At the battle of the Willows, under the leadership of Prince Fritigern, they proved that they could hold the Roman army to a draw. Unwilling to risk battle unless in superior numbers, the local commanders withdrew to the walled towns; without siege engines to take towns like Adrianople and Contantinople, whose walls they reached, the Goths ravaged Thrace. Valens at Antioch, preparing for his attack on Persia, marched north to break the stalemate. The result was the disaster of Adrianople.

For Barbero Adrianople and its consequences constituted a change of epochal importance. It marked an abrupt, dramatic acceleration in the process by which the Roman empire opened its borders to barbarian immigration, transforming the society, the army and the very government of the empire. …

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