At the beginning of the 5th century AD, Alaric stood at the gates of Rome and legionnaires stood arrayed against them, dressed in full combat regalia on the other side of the wall. Along the outskirts of the Empire, legionnaires faced other barbarian tribesmen along the frozen Rhine river. The Romans stood in order, each in body armor, helmets, pila, galdii, scuta. Their hair was cut to fit the helmet and to the shape of their skull. They stood behind a vexillum, a Roman war flag that denoted a specific unit. They cut their beards to show their jawline, a symbol of civilization. Increasingly starting in the 3rd century, Roman soldiers were also comprised of mercenaries, barbarians who took money to fight for Rome; and many of them would rather have been a Roman than belong to whatever poor migrating tribe that faced the Romans – or accept a worse fate that would have been their alternative to being an infantryman in Roman. The Gauls, as many barbarians, had been fully Romanized for three hundred years, and Gallic troops were part of this orderly army. The Roman Army was a killing machine that had kept the world armies at bay for at least 500 years. Rome represented the best and biggest and brightest of what the known western world could offer. The Romans couldn’t help but believe in their own invincibility and inevitable prominence.
Behind the Roman Army, crews of slaves carried weapons, handled horses for the cavalry, prepared food and attended all the other trivia which made an Army work. Behind them were also edifices that had stood for centuries, many of them still standing today. Below their feet and intersecting for tens of thousands of miles were the Roman roads, the sure sign of easy, safe, unsurprising travel. Under their clothes, the legionnaires had under garments, in their bags they had
shaving razors and prepared food. The bag itself was the result of either craftsman or a Roman slave who competently made the bags and carry packs of their overlords. Despite the fact that by now Roman senators had become persona non grata among citizens, despite the fact that most governors were impotent plenipotentiaries who caved to the will of the emperor, Romans still could not imagine losing all of this to the rabble, the next new tribe of barbarians who faced them across the river. These barbarian men and women were not bathed, they stank, their hair looked like birds nests, some of them had body and facial tattoos, other had painted themselves or were almost naked. They yelled and screamed and sang songs that no Roman had ever heard. They threw rancid meat and dumplings into huge heated cauldrons. They ate with their hands and wiped themselves with the same hands. The Visigoths allied with poorer tribes that knew little poetry nor did they write any. Like peoples all across the world, the barbarians had been running out of land and began migrating into northern Europe or the Iberian peninsula from Central Asia. These people, ragtag and slovenly compared to the Romans, were ascendant. The huge grain basket in the center of the Italian peninsula was now in the hands of the barbarians. The aqueducts pouring once 85 million gallons of water into Rome every day were going dry, because far upstream they could not be maintained against the Vandals and the Saxons and the Goths and other Germanic tribes who diverted them or just destroyed them as a way to help bring down the empire. In fact the list of tribes that surrounded the Romans and had their backs to their own border along the Meditteranean, was a long one. Blemmyes, Saracens, Moors, Scots, Picts, Franks, Alamanni, Sarmatians, Huns, Alans, Burgundians, and Suevi. It goes on.
The question becomes could the Romans have ever afforded the taxes it would take to keep everyone out who wanted in. The answer is probably not. When Ursulus saw Amida, sacked by the Persians in 360, he commented “behold the courage of our soldiers who defend our cities and for whose abundant pay the wealth of the empire is already insufficient”. Thus recruitment problems began. Under Marius in the first century, the Roman army was mostly
Roman. Later it grew to be Spaniard and North African. By the fourth century Rome could barely recruit enough soldiers for its own army and recruits were willing to fill roles in return for money. Some recruiters forced men from small villages into service, a bad way to motivate. Before it was all said and done, Goths themselves fought for Rome, often against their own people. By the end of the empire, Romans and barbarians, both serving in the same units were fighting each other.
The Romans had long memories, because they recorded their own histories and they taught the history to their own children. But the Romans also had short memories about a string of defeats that was beginning to pile up. Fifty years before Alaric stood at the gates of the empire, a 30,000 man Roman army attacked three barbarian tribes. Fritgern, Atlatheus and Saphrax commanded 20,000 Goths holed up behind a wagon laager on a small hill. The attack was ordered by Valens before the Roman lines could even form up. He simply looked at the Goths in a large circle, looked at Roman history and assumed a frontal assault would make all the difference in the world. The battle of Adrianople on August 9th, 378 was the fall of Rome in a nutshell. Because they did not have the advantages of ordered battle, the Romans could not penetrate the Gothic lines. While the Goths fought well and fell back in order, the Gothic cavalry showed up at the last minute and surrounded and pounded out of order Roman troop formations. The Romans panicked and fled and were pursued until nightfall, even Valens was felled by an arrow.
The Greeks were no barbarians but they were suspect. Their classical empire had long since devolved into competing city states and the democracy that flourished in Athens under Pericles was a distant memory. In the Aeneid, Virgil renders the Greeks as all deceivers, cheaters who hid inside a hollowed out horse to defeat Troy. Beware Greeks bearing gifts, sites Virgil. Yes, the barbarians are dirty scum. The Hellenes are not to be trusted. So the Romans were in a bind. One in three people in Rome was a slave and the could not raise a big enough army to defend the empire, so they had to rely on those they once disdained and it was a long hard fall.
The Romans sent envoys hoping to merely negotiate the unkempt masses across the river to accept a payoff, or camp on arable land for a season in return for leaving. Alaric would have none of it.
Some historians blame the barbarians who eventually overwhelmed the Romans in large numbers. Some blame the attacks on Christianity. Most scholars will see this all as a perfect storm to bring down the thousand year empire; that and endemic corruption which prevented rulers from exacting enough taxes to keep the massive Roman social infrastructure working. Whatever history will teach us about the Fall of Rome will also remind us that the fall of Rome happened slowly, it happened within a long lifetime and some Romans noticed nothing. But near the end, those in power acted for their own interests and maintaining the notion of serving the masses or governing at their behest faded into bribes, theft, graft, kidnappings and ransoms. Senators were powerless, landowners and industrialists had power, and the emperor had power. (Sound familiar?) The rule of law broke down, and the things that the Romans took for granted crumbled slowly and then it collapsed in a fulsome pile at the gates on that faithful day when the Visigoths did to the Romans what the Romans had done to some many others: pillaged and burned.
The Romans of the fifth century saw their borders change. Eastern barbarian tribes stretched west and even drove the senate into Ravenna, protected by its own marshy shores. Those who saw Roman exceptionalism growing up, saw it
decline steadily in the form of unsafe travel, crumbling buildings, and laws that were made up on the spot by whoever was in power.
The roads themselves survived the fall of the empire even if they ushered it in. Tribes found easy travel around on efficient well-made Roman roads. Brigands found easy ways to way lay people and steal from them, and kidnap children and ransom them. Ships that were made for the largest navy the world has ever seen were converted from battle ships to commerce vessels. The lack of tax revenues left many to rot in harbors or wait until some group stole them and created a new piracy in and around the complex nooks and crannies of the Aegean. In many ways Rome begins to look like modern day Mexico, a hollowed out state that can no more tame its borders than the Mexican government can stop the narco-state on our own border. The wall that Hadrian built, the outposts in Britain, all of these are abandoned and the Pax Romana that helped create a stable economy in the British Isles has deteriorated until everyone was a target for someone else.
The fall of Rome was not the fault of the armies. The Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire, the weapons, formations, training and recruiting hardly changed at all. Rome fell from its own corruption.