27 May 2009

Book review: The Day of the Barbarians

The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire (2007)
By Alessandro Barbero, trans. by John Cullen

The year of the fall of Rome is 476 C.E. Unless you happen to be an historian.

Although some counter-debate has started over this topic during the last few years, the standard position among medieval and classical historians about the end of the Roman Empire is that it never actually “fell,” and the ouster of Romulus Augustulus, last emperor of the Western Empire, was hardly marked by any commentators of the time. Nobody thought it was important because the change to the era of Late Antiquity had already occurred. Rome didn’t fall, it just shifted.

This new, slender volume (originally published in Italy as 9 Agosto 378: Il Giorno dei Barbari) belongs to this “Late Antiquity” school of Roman history. Italian scholar Barbero describes a key event that throttled the empire and ended the old order forever—nearly a century before the infamous year of 476 C.E. According to Barbero, the Battle of Adrianople on 9 August 378 C.E. sealed the fate of the Roman Empire and changed the history of the world. “It is 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. . . .”

The small page count of the book attests both to Barbero’s goal of reaching the general reader and also the scarcity of primary source material. Barbero relies heavily on the surviving volumes of the History of Ammianus Marcellinus, the principle historian of this period. I read Ammianus in college, and I understand why a non-specialist would much rather read Barbero’s modernization of his account. To round out Ammianus Marcellinus’s report, Barbero adds analysis from a few other sources, such as the fragmentary history of Eunapius, and supplements it with guesswork, which he always identifies in the main text or the surprisingly readable endnotes, based on other studies of Late Antiquity.

A short summary of events: In 376 C.E. tribes of Goths started to stream across the borders of the Eastern Empire, and requested permission to settle from Emperor Valens. However, the poor attempts to settle these refugees caused the Goths to rise in rebellion against local Roman authority and start pillaging in the Balkans. Valens moved with an army against the Goths and their leader Fritigern, but his troops received a devastating defeat from the barbarians outside the city of Adrianople.

The crisis with the Goths in the Empire lasted for two years before the battle at Adrianople. Barbero draws attention to the civil devastation this caused, and that this wasn’t just another barbarian thrust across Roman borders:
The Goths were not invaders in a traditional sense but rather immigrants and refugees who had rebelled because of the shameful treatment that had received, and who had since welcomed into their ranks a multitude of deserters, escaped criminals, and runaway slaves. By contrast, the soldiers of the imperial army, a great many of whom had been recruited among barbarians and immigrants as well, regularly came to public notice for the arrogance and brutality of their dealings with civilians. Between one and the other, the population . . . of the empire was practically at a loss to choose, and the citizens ended up heartily detesting both.
Chapter IX contains Barbero’s account of the battle, mostly taken from Ammianus Marcellinus, but supplemented with knowledge of the terrain and generalizations based on the Imperial army of the day. Barbero’s analysis of Ammianus shows shrewd but honest historical reporting—we know few facts about this battle for certain, but can assume much. The description of the conflict itself provides exciting reading, and it concludes with speculation about the fate of Emperor Valens, who apparently died in the combat, although no one identified his body.

The remainder of The Day of the Barbarians covers the consequences of the disaster, telling us how this loss near Adrianople set up the Roman Empire for its fading. Although most readers will come to this book for the battle itself, this is the volume’s most important section. Emperor Theodosius, who followed Valens and would be the last ruler of both the eastern and western halves of the Empire, prevented further crisis with the Goths, but also had to integrate them into the army and Imperial lands. From now on, barbarians will form an integral part of the Empire, leading to its eventual dissolution into medieval Europe. (And if you want to see how the entity known as Western Europe evolved from those years between, read R. W. Southern’s classic 1953 study The Making of the Middle Ages. Not for the casual reader, however.)

Despite the book’s subtitle, Barbero doesn’t actually press his own thesis at the close of The Day of the Barbarians, preferring to remaining ambiguous about how much the Battle of Adrianople contributed to the end of the Roman Empire. His conclusions will at least urge curious readers to go deeper, and his list for further reading offers a good starting place.

Aside from the pleasures of reading about the battles, fans of military history will enjoy Barbero’s discussions of the changes in the Roman army. People tend to view the Roman military as a static entity, the same as it was in Julius Caesar’s day, but Barbero explains how significantly it had changed by the fourth century, with more emphasis on cavalry that would eventually become the foundation of the armies of the Middle Ages. (They still don’t have stirrups, however.)

The Day of the Barbarians will serve as a good introduction for casual history readers to the study of Late Antiquity. It’s short, exciting, and focused, but also offers a glimpse at a wide canvas of this neglected period of time.