Another colorful recounting of a historic clash of armies, from the author of The Battle: A New History of Waterloo (2005).
This time the contest in question is the battle of Adrianople on Aug. 9, 378, when Roman forces took the field against Goth tribes united under their leader Fritigern. Barbero (Medieval Studies/Univ. of Piemonte Orientale) challenges conventional wisdom, arguing that the fourth-century Roman Empire was not “an organism in terminal decay.” Matters were fairly stable in a.d. 376, when vast hordes of Goths were set in motion toward Rome’s northern border by the arrival from Asia of the ferocious Huns. The Romans, in dire need of workers in the fields and fresh recruits for the army, allowed the barbarians to cross into the empire—and lived to rue the day. Once it became apparent that the food supply was insufficient for all of them, the Goths began a series of raids. With the Roman military already spread thin, Emperor Valens personally led a force to confront Fritigern, only to be defeated by a combination of circumstance, luck and hubris. This defeat, Barbero asserts, presaged the splitting of the eastern and western halves of the Empire and the birth of a new West, in which the Romans were forced to coexist with Germans. Mining the same limited source material as his predecessors, the author has few new insights to offer into the defeat’s ramifications for Rome, and he’s hardly the first to mark Adrianople as the beginning of the end. Where Barbero does excel, however, is in recreating the day of the battle with evocative details and shrewd commentary on troop deployment and tactics.
Fascinating for generals, more mundane for historians.