<<The pale death, with impartial step, knocks at the hut of the poor and to the towers of kings>>
<<The brave may fall, but never yield>>
Until 378 every attempt of establishment had been repelled, but that year a decisive battle at Adrianople was fought: for the last time, the roman legions formed up their infantry troops like in old times. Even though they were more germanized than their predecessors, their tactics were alike the glorious armies of their old heroes, based mostly on the strength and discipline of the world’s best infantry. Romans presented, according to modern estimations, no less than seventy thousand soldiers, palatini and comitatenses elite legions included, with their own elite cavalry units as well and an auxiliar batavian contingent, famous by its strength.
Rome wanted to repel the mass entry of the Goths of king Fritigernus, that was the most numerous and powerful people of all the invaders, which was devastating Thrace. This people was moved from Dacia (where they were settled for years) by the crossing of the Volga River by the Huns.
The roman leaders certainly believed that a clear victory could overcome the serious crisis, at least pushing the other peoples to doubt, but the defeat obtained, with the loss of two thirds of the infantry and a big part of the cavalry, caused the opposite effect: it was a full-fledged invitation.
This battle became so important, that even the emperor Flavius Valens took part of it. It was a time of contemporary emperors, and Valens had been ruling from Antioch during fourteen years as co-emperor in the East. He had already defeated the Goths twice in 367 and 369, also the Persians in Mesopotamia even though he had to return territory and retire. He wanted to defeat the Goths again and take the glory for him. According to Ammianus, a surviving officer from the disaster who served three different emperors, Valens was jealous of the successes of his general Sebastianus, who with the select vanguard had devastated groups of looters and had recovered large booty. He was also jealous of his nephew Gratian, successor of Valentinian in the West since 375 and who came with part of his troops to forced marches from the Rhine after repeatedly defeating the Alamanni people, thus respondig to the distress call of Valens to make a joint offensive.
A little perhaps because they felt in numerical superiority (explorers calculated ten thousand enemy soldiers when in fact they were at least five times more and were located in a strategic elevation) and a little perhaps because of this personalistic selfishness, he committed the big mistake of not waiting the Gratian army that was approaching a few days away, wanting to take all the glory for himself, and not even waiting for his legions to rest after eight hours of walking.
That day the best army in history was going to retire tactically forever. The legionaries, for centuries, knew that their enemies could be superior in number and that they knew their way of acting, but they had faith in their military superiority even if their opponents used the cavalry in mass as was the case of Adrianople. A chain of bad decisions from the headquarters of Valens and from some lines of his army that felt victorious before drawing the sword led to a catastrophic outcome: more than forty thousand legionaries annihilated (with officers and emperor included) after hours of fierce combat. The catastrophes of Allia against the Gauls of Brennus, Cannae against the Carthaginians of Hannibal, Carrhae against the Parthians of Surena or perhaps Teutoburg against the Cherusci of Arminius, could be at the level of such defeat. After this bloody victory the Goths entered at ease and the other tribes could no longer be contained as before.
From this moment, the death wound was done, but the last exploits of the dying would last another century more in the West. The romans, militarily weakened to the extreme, focused more on political ingenuity than on weapons: they granted the status of federated to peoples who abide by the imperial power through foedus, reign under their law and provide military aid, they sought bleeding alliances for the imperial treasury with other peoples to contain the constant barbarian incursions, and they established the imperial headquarters in Ravenna that was better defensible (meanwhile from the eternal city, a corrupt Senate and a Church little involved in the Roman political ideal, agreed with whoever it was to maintain their privileges, increase their wealth and survive the inevitable). Finally, the Spanish Theodosius believed that the definitive division of the empire was convenient after his death, which resulted in a richer and stronger East that pushed again and again barbarian hordes of all kinds over a West, that mainly Stilicho and Aetius, tried to contain continuously.
On the other hand, the embryo of the medieval knights was born in the Roman agony: small bodies of elite cavalry were created. Clibanarian cavalrymen from the 4th century deserve a special mention, which wore thick armors, and covered their heads with helmets that hided their entire faces. Later, armored horses with metal sheets appeared, cavalrymen wearing big oval shields, long spears and germanic inspired swords. A late military innovation whose fruits would be collected by the nations born after the fall of Rome, and that if it had been generalized before the catastrophe of Adrianople could have changed the destiny of the West.
The initial irruptions in this vertiginous phase of decay were treated with mastery by Stilicho, who reconquered all the lands that he found in his way, although he himself had to dismantle the Danubian border between the years 395-398. On the other hand, the lower part of the Rhine limes, in Gaul, probably was not rebuilt after the breaches of the 3rd century, and the line that replaced it through Cologne, Bavay and Bologna was abandoned in the time of Gratian. In the rest of the limes all defensive cohesion was lost after the crossing of the Rhine with the Alans at the forefront in 406 (the other disaster together with Adrianople) and the limes located in the current Switzerland was dismantled in 401.
The castella resisted for many years as fortified cities in the middle of the devastation that surrounded them. People took refuge in the cities and defended themselves as they could while waiting for reinforcements that often never arrived. Anyway, the inheritance of Romanization remained safe on this first wave of invasions and the Romans defended themselves until 440 in Panonnia and until 475 in Noricum, until the final general evacuation occurred in 488, years after the deposition of Romulus Augustus, the last western emperor.
Finally Aetius achieved the most important victory in the history of Rome, preserving the culture of his ancestors for the coming millennia. Then he pursued the rests of the Hun army some distance until they definitively retreated to Pannonia.
The following year Attila gathered a new and colossal army. This time taking by surprise the diminished and disintegrated troops of the Romans and allies, who never imagined such a rapid return, and their advance, this time towards Rome, was unstoppable.
When he had only to enter the city with his barbarians to sow the destruction, Pope Leo I went out to meet him. It was never known what they talked about (maybe some secret Vatican file contains the truth), but we know that Attila took Honoria (sister of Emperor Valentinian III) with him and a tribute, possibly because the Eastern Emperor, Marcian, was attacking the Danube in his rearguard. Shortly after returning to his pannonic lands he died, in 453.
After his death there was a struggle for power between his sons and his young state was dismembered, leaving freedom of movement for his allies: Ostrogoths, Gepids, Rugians, Herules and Scirii, who abandoned their former lords.
When the citizens of Rome recovered from these years of terror, the map they found was desolating: North Africa held by the vandals of Genseric who had been expelled from Hispania along with the Alans by the Visigoths, always loyal to their treaties with the Empire since they were federated, but that moved the chaos and the dismemberment to the African provinces with the exception of the already Eastern Egypt. In these regions the Romans were enslaved, banished or destined to the cruelties of the circus, a hobby that was resurrected by the self-proclaimed Rex Vandalorum et Alanorum, when more than a century ago it had been totally eradicated from Latin society. His reign was ephemeral, and a century later, Belisarius reconquered all his lands for the New Rome of Justinian: Byzantium.
Count Belisarius was one of the best generals of Rome, who has not yet received enough fame and recognition that his exploits deserved. In addition to Northern Africa, he reconquered Sicily, Italy, Illyria, Southern Hispania (with the help of another good general: Narses) and restrained Persians to the East and Huns to the North of the Byzantine capital when it could succumb to their unstoppable advances. He did all of this traveling from one end to the other of the Eastern Empire throughout his military career, always with shortage of men and resources, always in numerical inferiority, always loyal to the emperor although he was jealous of his glory, ungrateful with his services and stingy in his help. Belisarius devised an elite body that was the terror of his enemies in the 6th century, probably the best heavy cavalry of the entire Middle Ages. It was a lethal combination of his own invention, a mixture between the heavy cavalry of Goth lancers and the light cavalry of Hun archers. Riders who protected themselves entirely with coats of mail and who possessed an incomparable training with spear and bow, an unbeatable adaptability, and ideals and loyalty to their great general unparalleled from the time of Caesar. In addition, if this were insufficient, according to Robert Graves, their individual exploits rival those of King Arthur’s heroes.
Belisarius was more than a legend, he was a Roman hero, a descendant of exiles from the West who dreamed and almost achieved the complete reconquest and reunification of the Empire.
In Hispania the Visigoths maintained a flourishing kingdom that merged into a single people the Hispano-Roman majority and the Goth minority in a new state that was perpetuated after the fall of 476. The Hispano-Goth kingdom lasted until the terrible arrival of Islam (711). Their territories comprised all the Iberian Peninsula (with the exception of the Suebi kingdom of Gallaecia), part of the Gallic southeast and good part of what is today the north of Morocco. Years after the fall of Rome, the kingdom was reduced to the Peninsula, after defeating the Suebi and dealing with Frankish pressures to the north and Byzantine to the South, where the population welcomed the reconquering troops of Justinian, confident in the restoration of imperial power in the West. Anyway, the Gothic kingdom of Hispania was positive and the most solid and advanced of all the neighbouring kingdoms, worthy of admiration for its inhabitants, like the legendary “praise” of Saint Isidore, and created most of the monarchical symbology that inherited the various European royal houses during the rest of the Middle Ages.
In Britannia, the Angles and Saxons (apart from the name, otherwise little different from each other) were gaining ground on the southeast coast of the island, launching migratory waves from the coasts of present-day Denmark and its surroundings.
At the time of Honorius there were still garrisons paid with money from Italy, but from his successor the Romano-britons were alone before the barbarian tide. They maintain a kind of Celto-Roman state that still retains its decurions and a fragile coalition of cities.
When Saint Germanus arrives on the island in 429 he sees the disaster: incursions of Picts, Scoti and Anglo-saxons. The conviction of this Holy warrior who in the past had been governor in Gaul, breathed courage and bravery, he regrouped the abandoned Romans of the island and gave them a great victory, the victory of the Alleluia, on Easter Day. When he returned 20 years later, the situation was even worse: a Celtic leader named Vortigern led a faction hostile to the bishops and allowed more and more mercenary barbarians to enter. A series of Saxon fortresses were erected to avoid a hypothetical landing of Aetius, who was occupied with Attila, ignoring the continuous requests for help from the Romano-britons, and almost a third of the former imperial province fell without resistance into barbarian hands.
It is curious that the Arthurian myth is a sign of Anglo-Saxon identity, when archaeological evidence and recent studies show that he was Latin. This myth was forged between the 5th and 6th centuries, and surely after some killings like that of Anderitum (near Pevensey) and an authentic ethnic cleansing of the island, a local leader emerged, a king perhaps, known by the people as “the last Roman”, which unified the Romano-britons national rests and led them to the mythical and little documented victory of Mount Badon (or Mons Badonicus). Its leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, the last Roman. King Arthur? probably, but what is clear is that he had nothing English, on the contrary, he fought against them to defend Latin civilization.
Anyway, despite the brutality with which the Anglo-Saxon barbarians treated the legitimate inhabitants of Britannia, they showed recognition and admiration for the architectural works and the abandoned cities of the Romans, referring to them as: eald enta geworc, that is to say “the ancient work of the giants” (thus is how it appears in poems written in primitive English).
In Gaul, along with the Burgundians, the Franks consolidated and defeated the Alamanni in the important battle of Tolbiacum. On the other hand, long before, in 456, Aegidius, general of the intervention armies stationed near Lutetia (Paris) put the Franks at his service to combat the Visigoths. His successor Paulus against the Saxons, and the son of Aegidius: Syagrius, later became “king of the Romans” maintaining an independent Roman kingdom and isolated for ten years after the deposition of the last emperor, until in 486 defeated by the Franks of Clovis seek refuge in Tolosa, the Visigothic capital of Alaric II. He surrenders him and the Frankish King executes Syagrius without mercy.
And finally Italy. Stilicho had defeated Visigoths and Ostrogoths in 401 and 406 respectively, but the first in 408 came to besiege Rome and in 410 they occupied it, something that did not happen since Brennus at the beginning of the Republic, that is, eight centuries back.
The invulnerability was broken, and as if that were not enough, the warlord Alaric kidnapped Galla Placidia, the beautiful sister of the emperor. All this happened shortly after the crossing of the Rhine (Vandals, Suebi, Alans) that together with Adrianople meant the beginning of the end. Later the entry of Ostrogoths and Lombards could not be avoided, and the army was completely in the hands of barbarians.
This ended when one of them, Odoacer, proclaimed himself king of Italy after defeating Orestes in Pavia, then he got rid of the young emperor in an exile with miserable pension and sent the imperial insignia to Byzantium proclaiming to the Eastern Emperor his will to govern as his lieutenant.
In spite of everything, this king dedicated himself to be romanized, maintaining the Senate and the preceding bureaucracy, establishing relations of supposed subordination with the East and friendship with the neighbours who were certainly more powerful than his kingdom: Franks and Visigoths.
In the 6th century, after the fragile reconquest of Italy by Belisarius, the last Germanic wave of that time ended with the Lombards ravaging the Italic Peninsula. The hole they left in Pannonia was used by the Avars (successors of the Huns), who would also enter temporarily through the Danube limes, little defended by the Byzantines, who were engaged in the reconquest of the West and in the defense of the East against the Persians. In turn, Bulgars and Slavs would eventually settle around the Danube, and the Khazars took their place in the steppes.
There is not much left to say about our ancients on the western side. Thus the homeland of our ancestors fell, among massacres, heroic deeds and without a sigh of peace during the centuries that surround the deposition of the last emperor.
Author: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina