In Failure’s launch issue [July 2000] we named Charles Martel’s victory at the Battle of Tours (732 A.D.) as the greatest failure of the past two thousand years. Similarly, Alessandro Barbero’s “The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire,” chronicles the dynamic, extraordinary events leading up to the Battle of Adrianople on August 9, 378.
Both Tours and Adrianople are commonly viewed as historical milestones, with Tours marking the turning point in the Arabs’ failure to conquer the world, and Adrianople, according to Barbero, “signifying nothing less than the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the Middle Ages.”
While ancient history can be a dry subject, Barbero—a former winner Italy’s most distinguished literary award, the Strega Prize—makes the story surprisingly relevant and accessible. Barbero not only re-creates the battle, but also brings Roman and Goth leaders to life with vivid descriptions of their individual trials and tribulations.
Yet, what is most revealing about “The Day of the Barbarians” is not how warfare has changed in the past 1,600-plus years, it’s how the catalysts for conflict—ignorance, prejudice, hubris and government secrecy—have stayed the same.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Battle of Adrianople, it’s how military defeat can foreshadow the decline of a powerful nation. As Barbero puts it, the Battle of Adrianople “really did mark the end of one era and the beginning of another, an era in which Rome would find it harder and harder . . . to keep believing itself the world’s only superpower.”