If you are one of those people who view the Roman Empire as a unified entity defended by Imperial born and raised, Latin speaking, soldiers holding at bay the uncivilized barbarians beyond its borders, then this book is a must read. Originally published for an Italian audience but now translated into English, Alessandro Barbero’s masterful book, shows the later Roman Empire for the chaotic and fluid world that is often less appealing to the modern reader than the slick and upright image of earlier times.
Based around the events that lead to the Gothic rebellion of the late fourth century and more specifically the overwhelming defeat of Valens Roman troops at Adrianople in 378, this book is a vivid account of not only the campaign but of the concept of the roman/barbarian relationship. Here it is the Goths that are under the microscope but essentially the parallels are the same for all of the peoples of the Empires fringes, be it Huns, Franks, Alans, Sarmatians, Batavians or a hundred other sub groups and tribal coalitions.
Barbarians existed in the Roman world in many forms, as fully Romanized soldiers, as mercenaries, as immigrant civilians within the Empire and as outsiders and often changing status, as politics require. For this reason battles such as Adrianople are difficult to view as us and them scenarios, when Frankish generals led barbarian troops to defend the empire against essentially invited settlers, ex-empire employees and steppe warriors alike. In many ways the wars of this period were more civil war actions than a unified campaign against the borders of the empire.
On paper, the Romans should have won the Battle of Adrianople, the fact that they didn’t can be seen both as a symptom and a major factor in the fall of the Roman Empire. One interesting point of academia is that Barbero sees the year 378 as the key turning point towards Rome’s decline, whereas Edward Gibbon, in his massive anthology on the subject would cite 476. The argument in this book is that the defeat of Valens at the hands of a Gothic army would have had major, immediately realized consequences for the people at the time, Gibbons chosen date is based more on a bigger picture which would not have impacted in quite the same way.
The main problem with 378 as a date for the Fall of Rome is a kind of logical twist. Valens and Adrianople were in the East, yet the Eastern “half” of the Roman Empire didn’t fall for more than a millennium, when it fell to the Ottoman Turks. It was the Western Empire that “fell” possibly as a result of the aftermath of the 378 battle, but not as a result of the battle itself. After Adrianople, the Eastern emperors made sure their part of the Roman Empire survived. They encouraged the barbarians to migrate west, thus ridding themselves of the problem.
There is a wonderful sympathy for the two sides in this book, neither the Romans nor the Barbarians are favoured by the author, people are either good or bad, wise or corrupt, irrespective of which side they are on. One of the reasons for this is that Barbero is essentially a medievalist and his distance from the subject matter probably stops him from becoming too precious about the events and people involved.
The book will change our understanding of the nature of the late Roman Empire; highlight the complexities of the politics of the time and makes for a cracking roller coaster ride of read along the way. The Dark Ages will never seem quite as dark again.