p.s. Somebody just pointed out there are no illustrations in my new book, The War Nerd. Well, that’s totally different. Never mind why. America doesn’t want to hear about that! Let’s move on!
The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle that Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire
By Alessandro Barbero
The battle this book talks about is Adrianople, as most ancient-war fans would have guessed. I’ve always been interested in this battle, for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, out of sheer orneriness I always preferred the Byzantines to the Western Romans. Something about that Classical crap, the kind that books like the one I just discussed come out, just sticks in my craw and always has. Makes me think of Kim Philby, Oxford boys betraying us and buggering each other while they eat scones. Besides, the Byzantines faced east, where the real threats always came from. Europe was a fucking forest; how hard did the Romans have it? Even so they fucked up massively, got a classic ambush, Monagahela-style, in Teutoburger Wald, let a bunch of German irregulars with javelins pick off three whole legions.
But never mind that, my point here is to talk about this Italian’s book about Adrianople. Another reason I always liked Adrianople is that it was a very 20th-c. style battle. It was what they call a “humanitarian crisis,” and in case you think that’s a totally modern invention, you’re wrong. The Eastern Romans in 378 AD were rich and dumb enough not to massacre every stranger who crossed their borders. They were in the market for cheap labor and mercenaries, so they usually tried to do a deal when some terrified tribe came knocking on the wall looking for escape from some even scarier tribe back east.
That’s what happened at Adrianople: the Goths, an updated Scythian gang straight outta Ukraine, fled west to escape the Huns. See, the Goths were great riders but they didn’t use the compound bow from horseback. Mistake! You’ve got to incorporate both pony and compound bow if you want to win on the steppes. The Goths, who fought with swords and spears, were so terrified of the Huns that, as this book explains, they made up a story that the Huns were born when Goth witch women who’d been cast out of the tribe mated with demons in the wasteland. It wasn’t far from the truth.
The Goths showed up at the Danube, the frontier of the Empire, begging the Romans to take them in. The Danube is a serious river by Euro-standards, and the Goths were no sailors, so they just piled up there in huge refugee camps while the local bureaucrats waited for word from Constantinople on what to do.
The situation is so familiar to anybody who watches the news these days that you just know no writer can help making cheap cracks about some current event. And there are a lot of good parallels you might make. Unfortunately this Alessandro Barbero is an Italian leftie and the only one he can think of is Iraq. Dumb. This has got nothing to do with Iraq. Iraq is plenty bad enough on its own, and I’ve said so till the death threats rained down like…uh, rain, I guess…but you’ve got to be smart about it. Dumb anti-American Iraq jokes like the one this guy keeps cracking—well, if there’s anything that could turn me into a Cheney fan, that’s it.
When he’s not being an asshole, Barbero tells a good story. It was cool to hear that for the Romans, the Goths’ looks—tall, white skin, red or yellow hair—was just another sign that they were uncivilized and dirty and poor. Of course when a Euro professor says that you have to wonder, is he really channeling the ancient Romans or just showboating to sound PC? I hope the fucker’s telling the truth, because it’s cool to think of these short thick oily Caesars sneering at the genetic traits that that fool Hitler was going to make into signs of superiority 1600 years later.