Military history



The Barbarian Invasions, AD 370–476

THERE IS STILL considerable debate over the extent to which Rome’s collapse was brought about by growing corruption, dissension, tax avoidance, currency depreciation, and other types of internal decay. Traditional accounts such as Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire have emphasized the shortcomings, moral and otherwise, of the later Roman Empire. Writing of the excesses of one Syrian-born emperor in the third century AD (“He was drawn in his sacerdotal robes of silk and gold, after the loose flowing fashion of the Medes and Phoenicians; his head was covered with a lofty tiara, his numerous collars and bracelets were adorned with gems of inestimable value. His eyebrows were tinged with black, and his cheeks painted with an artificial red and white”), Gibbon acerbically concluded that “Rome was at length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury of Oriental despotism.”50

More recent scholarship, however, suggests that the empire was vibrant enough to survive absent a string of military defeats.51 Those defeats were delivered by a variety of “barbarians.” Some, notably the Germanic tribes, fought on foot and farmed; others, notably the Huns, fought on horseback and disdained agriculture. On occasion they could mobilize large armies and engage in major battles; Rome suffered a major disaster at Adrianople in AD 378 near the present-day Turkish city of Edirne. Here the Goths wiped out a Roman army and killed the emperor Valens in a battle in which both sides had roughly fifteen thousand soldiers engaged.52 But this clash in the open was the exception, not the rule. More often the barbarians campaigned as small groups of raiders—essentially guerrillas. At least at first, writes the historian John Ellis, “their tactics were very much of the guerrilla mode.”53

Thus Rome, as much as ancient Mesopotamia, was a victim of the type of hit-and-run warfare practiced by nomadic guerrillas. One of the precipitating events in its cataclysmic collapse was the appearance of the Huns, a nomadic horse people migrating from Central Asia. They showed up in Europe around AD 370—just before the battle at Adrianople that did so much to weaken Roman power in the West. Not only did the Huns do great damage themselves with their subsequent invasion of western Europe, but the knock-on effects of their savagery also pushed other, more sedentary tribes into Roman territory in an attempt to escape from them.

Little is known about the Huns. Since they were illiterate, they left no records. We are not even sure what language they spoke or where they came from, although one popular theory holds that they migrated from China’s northern border. What we do know is that, like other steppe nomads, they were ferocious and fearless, supremely skilled in the use of composite bows on horseback (notwithstanding their apparent lack of stirrups), capable of moving great distances at high speed, and able to endure immense hardships.

The fourth-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus summed up many of these qualities in a description of these “brute beasts,” at turns admiring and horrified, that echoed the Mesopotamian tablets’ descriptions of the Gutians, Elamites, and other “tent dwellers” who had terrorized Sumeria. “The people called Huns . . . are a savage race beyond all parallel. . . .” Ammianus wrote.

They are certainly in the shape of men, however uncouth, but are so hardy that they neither require fire nor well-flavoured food, but live on the roots of such herbs as they get in the fields, or on the half-raw flesh of any animal, which they merely warm rapidly by placing it between their own thighs and the backs of their horses. . . .

They never shelter themselves under roofed houses. . . . [B]ut they wander about, roaming over the mountains and the woods, and accustom themselves to bear frost and hunger and thirst from their very cradles.

As for their methods of warfare, Ammianus reported that they employed guerrilla-like tactics:

They are very quick in their operations, of exceeding speed, and fond of surprising their enemies. With a view to this, they suddenly disperse, then reunite, and again, after having inflicted vast loss upon the enemy, scatter themselves over the whole plain in irregular formations: always avoiding a fort or an entrenchment.

Perhaps for this reason, the sixth-century Gothic historian Jordanes wrote, “The Huns do not overthrow nations by means of war, where there is an equal chance, but assail them by treachery, which is a greater cause for anxiety.” That is a curious comment to make about such a notoriously warlike people who were hardly noted for their subtlety. It makes sense only if one assumes that “treachery” is simply a pejorative way of referring to “guerrilla warfare”—a term that did not then exist.

It was not easy to wield such an “active and indomitable race” into a coherent military force. That required the rare talents of Attila the Hun. The legendary leader of the Huns initially ruled for a decade in conjunction with his brother, Bleda, but in 444 or 445 he murdered his sibling and assumed sole control. “The Scourge of God” was described by a Roman envoy who met him as short and squat, with a broad chest, small eyes, a thin, gray-flecked beard, flat nose, and “swarthy complexion.” He spoke “a confused jumble of Latin, Hunnic, and Gothic.” He dressed simply and disdained the finery, decorative gems, and golden goblets that his chief lieutenants came to favor. A clean garment, an unadorned sword, and a wooden cup were always good enough for Attila. Yet for all his lack of pretense, which anticipated Genghis Khan’s manner, the great Hun’s aura of power was unmistakable: “He was haughty in his walk, rolling his eyes hither and thither, so that the power of his proud spirit appeared in the movement of his body.”

During the 440s Attila cut a swath of destruction through eastern Europe before moving west. Impalement, the act of driving a wooden stake through the victim’s anus, was a favorite method of execution as well as a source of merriment. The Christian scholar Saint Jerome wrote of how “terror-struck” the Roman world was by the advance of these “wild beasts”: “Everywhere their approach was unexpected, they outstripped rumor in speed, and, when they came, they spared neither religion nor rank nor age, even for wailing infants they felt no pity. Children were made to die before it can be said that they had begun to live. . . . How many of God’s matrons and virgins, virtuous and noble ladies, have been made the sport of these brutes!”

In the past disciplined Roman armies would have made short work of the rapacious but disorganized Huns. But by the fifth century Rome had been weakened by centuries of incessant infighting, with multiple imperial usurpers competing for power and Roman military units regularly fighting one another, often with the help of tribal allies. As one recent history notes, “After 217 there were only a handful of decades without a violent struggle for power within the Roman Empire.” The once mighty legions were so weak that the Huns were not stopped until 451, when a mixed force of Romans, Franks, Saxons, and Visigoths barely managed to repulse them near the French town of Troyes. Two years after this defeat, Attila died, an apparent victim of excessive drinking on his wedding night, hardly his first, to a German maiden. With its polygamous conqueror gone, the Hunnic empire collapsed within a few years.54

By then, however, it was too late to save Rome. By 452 much of Britain, Spain, North Africa, and parts of Gaul had been overrun by assorted barbarians. The lost tax revenues from those rich provinces made it impossible to keep the central machinery of the empire going, setting off a death spiral.55 Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and by the Vandals in 455. The last Western emperor was deposed in 476.

A recent historical study estimates that the mightiest of empires was ultimately brought down by no more than 110,000 to 120,000 invaders. That might seem like a paltry figure given that as late as AD 375 the Roman army was estimated to total at least 300,000 men and possibly many more. But most of those troops were tied down either confronting the Persian Empire, engaging in Roman civil wars, or guarding thousands of miles of frontier against raiders or guerrillas. That left only 90,000 men in the field armies deployed in the west to confront the barbarian onslaught.56 Not nearly enough. Guerrilla-style raiders thus became a crucial contributing factor in Rome’s downfall, although we should not neglect the important role played by domestic disunity and disorganization—a major factor in the success of more recent insurgents, too, from Chiang Kai-shek’s China to Batista’s Cuba. As Adrian Goldsworthy notes, Rome “may well have been ‘murdered’ by barbarian invaders, but these struck at a body made vulnerable by prolonged decay.”57

With Roman control gone, European unity and security would also disappear. For centuries to come the continent would be at the mercy of sanguinary raiders who fought for the most part in guerrilla-like fashion. From the north came Vikings; from the south, Arabs; from the east, Avars, Bulgars, Magyars, Mongols, and Turks. Tales of their predations would echo those of the Huns’. It would take a millennium for a polyglot array of weak polities to cohere into states strong enough to safeguard their own frontiers. The Eastern empire was longer lived: it would continue to rule at Constantinople (modern Istanbul) for another thousand years, but over the centuries its culture would become less and less Roman.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!