The enemy within
Raymond Carr 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 © £1439 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 n 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.
Valens's successor, Theodosius, a successful professional soldier, turned to the Goths to supply recruits for the army destroyed at Adrianople. He gave them land and citizenship though they had Roman blood on their hands. His subjects did not share his assimilationist enthusiasm. The Goths would wear togas when sitting with Roman magistrates but put on their animal skins when at home. Synesius, an African landowner and bishop, warned the son of Theodosius that his father was responsible for ruining the empire: 'He could have brought the Goths to their knees; instead he lifted them up and gave them so much room that now we are all in their hands'.
Ammianus Marcellinus portrayed the Goths as illiterate savages who had raped Roman wives and pillaged the great senatorial estates of Thrace; they could not distinguish between right and wrong, the mark of a civilised man. Valens's admission of the Goths to the empire was a tragic mistake. 'Great efforts had been made to help a group of people to enter the empire who would in the end reveal themselves as its mortal enemy.'
The Gothic general Alaric had long served as a loyal defender of the empire. He had no intention of destroying it but as king of the Visigoths, when an anti-Goth emperor repeatedly refused his demands for honours and subsidies, in 410 he sacked Rome. In the 1950s the United States supported a series of disreputable Latin American dictators who would in return support American policies. 'They may', the saying went, 'be bastards but they are our bastards.' Alaric had wearied of soldiering as Rome's bastard.
Barbero has mastered the vast scholarly output on his subject. He possesses the historian's gift of summarising a complex situation in a single sentence. But not all historians swallow his case for Adrianople as being one of history's decisive battles. After all, the empire survived in the East for 800 years as a Christian bulwark against Bulgar barbarians and Persian imperialists. It was in the West that the barbarians overran it, creating the Christian kingdoms of Europe. In 1204 the Western crusaders sacked Constantinople. Venetian merchants and Latin princes divided the spoils. 'The conquests of the Ottomans', Steven Runciman argues, 'were made possible by the Crusaders' crime.' Thus, the fall of Constantinople in 1243 left the former empire in the hands of an Islamic power hostile to the West.
Barbero wonders whether we will admit Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman empire, into the EU. Governed by moderate Islamists but under the threat of fundamentalists from the poverty-stricken eastern provinces, the secular, Europeanised state of Kemal Atatiirk is now preserved by a powerful army loyal to its creator; Boris Johnson welcomes its admission to the EU as the heir to Rome. Roy Jenkins, a former President of the European Commission, had doubts.
The decline of the Roman empire had complex causes: the military problems of overstretch demanded crippling taxes to maintain a large army, corruption was rampant, religious disputes endemic. But what Barbero stresses is the consequence of misguided and inconsistent immigration policies. Britain's acceptance of mass immigrants, not all of whom appeciate our commitment to Western democratic values, is to invite at least some of the consequences feared by Romans as the Goths poured over the Danube.