The Consequences of Two Defeats – What If?

This is the story of two battles and what might have happened if their results had been reversed—as well they might have been. Both involved powers on the cusp of advance or retreat. In the first, Adrianople (A.D. 378), the Roman Empire suffered a disaster even worse than that of the Teutoburg Forest, and one that went far to send it reeling into its final decline. In the second, Poitiers (probably 732), a Frankish army turned back Muslim invaders near the Loire River at the moment when they seemed ready to spread across Europe—“The Great Land,” as they called it.

Did the Roman Empire—or at least the part of it that dominated Western Europe—have to die and so give birth to the Dark Ages? Did the Dark Ages themselves (which may not have been all that dark) have to happen? As Barry S. Strauss tells us, much of the blame may fall less on Spenglerian fatigue than on the poor judgment of one man, the emperor Valens, who squandered an army in a battle that he should have avoided or delayed fighting. (Adrianople—the present Turkish city of Edirne—has the distinction of being the most fought-over city in the world, Valens’s fatal reverse being one of fifteen major battles or sieges that have taken place there in just short of 1,700 years.) The Visogoths who slaughtered Valens’s troops, and who also killed him, would eventually move west to capture and sack the city of Rome itself. By that time the empire was all but beyond rescue. It did not have to be that way, Strauss argues. What would a world that Rome continued to lead have been like?

The dynamism that had once belonged to the Roman Empire would pass to a new locus of power: Arabia. Less than a century after the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632, the armies of Islam had established rule as far west as Spain—the kingdom they called Al-Andalus. How important was Poitiers? Strauss comes down on the side of those historians who see it as a turning point. It certainly brought us the foremost dynasty of early medieval Europe, the Carolingians: Charlemagne was the grandson of the victor, Charles Martel. But if the battle had gone differently, so might history. As an anonymous Muslim chronicler put it: “On the plain of Tours [as the battle is sometimes called] the Arabs lost the empire of the world when almost in their grasp.” It would have been an empire full of luster: These Arabs were the foremost broadcasters of enlightenment in their time.

Both Adrianople and Poitiers are cases of what might be called first-order counterfactual theory—that is, a major rewriting of history stemming from small changes. How different would our lives have been if only Valens had been more patient. If only Abd Al-Rahman, the Muslim commander at Poitiers, had survived to rally his forces.

In the European early Middle Ages two events took place—the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and the Muslim tidal wave of conquest—that might have changed everything had they turned out differently. Had imperial Rome maintained control of Europe or had imperial Islam restored a single, central authority there, Europe would have been spared the chaos of the Dark Ages (ca. A.D. 500-1000). To be sure, even chaos can yield dividends in the long run: Some would say that the Dark Ages sowed the seeds of later Western freedom; others deny that there was anything dark about them. Yet dark or bright, they undeniably lacked the order and stability that an empire brings. The fate of an empire, be it Roman or Muslim, may have hinged on battles—battles whose results could have gone either way.

True, the rise and fall of an empire is a long process, but the heaviest doors pivot on small hinges, and at the battles of Adrianople (August 9, 378) and Poitiers (October 732) the hinges turned. At Adrianople, a Germanic people, the Visigoths, destroyed a Roman army and killed the emperor, thereby setting in motion a century of defeats that would finally bring down the empire in the West. Yet it was a near-run thing. A little patience on the part of the commander, a little rest for the men, a change in the weather—any of these might have changed the outcome at Adrianople and ultimately saved the Roman Empire. At Poitiers, a Frankish force defeated a Muslim army. It was a smaller engagement than Adrianople but it proved a psychological and political turning point, because it blunted the triumphant Arab advance northward and because it propelled the efforts of the Frankish general Charles Martel to establish a dynasty. Under his grandson Charlemagne (r. 768-814), that dynasty governed a far-flung state that laid the foundations for much of what would follow in Europe—from kingdoms like France and Germany to local government by royal vassals to the Christian culture of cathedral schools and decorated manuscripts. Yet had the Frankish army not killed the Muslim commander that day at Poitiers, they might have lost the battle; Europe would have lost the family that built a great Frankish state; and what might have emerged, instead, was a Muslim France or even a Muslim Europe.

Historians no longer think of early medieval Europe outside of Spain as the time and place of the Dark Ages but rather as the seedtime of European greatness. Where historians once saw a sharp break between Rome and its Germanic conquerors, they now find continuities in the “Romano-German” kingdoms; where once they perceived poverty and misery, they now see prosperous trading networks and free farm laborers; where once they saw cultural decline, they now find creativity—in Celtic manuscripts, for example, or the poetry of Beowulf, or the monasticism of the Benedictines. In short, many scholars no longer ask whether the Dark Ages could have been avoided because they don’t believe they should have been avoided.

Yet not even the most sunny interpretation of the fifth to tenth centuries A.D. can dodge gloom altogether, not in Western Europe. Around A.D. 350, a single empire—Rome—governed much of the Near East and North Africa, as well as what is now England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and western Germany. Then violent invasions began to tear that empire apart. In the east, the Roman Empire survived as the Byzantine state for a thousand years, until the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453. In the West, the last Roman emperor was dethroned in 476, a generation after the Western empire had become little more than a legal fiction. The Western empire had been tottering for years. Roman land was plundered, Roman cities were attacked—Rome itself was sacked in 410 and 455—Roman men were killed and Roman women were dragged off as war booty to marry Germanic chiefs. The central government could not stop foreigners from settling en masse on Roman lands and from eventually carving out separate kingdoms in the Roman state. The population declined enough for Pope Gelasius (r. 492-496) to write of “Emilia, Tuscany, and the other provinces [of Italy] in which nearly not a single human existed.” An exaggeration, but what really happened can be seen in the fate of the city of Rome, which may have contained one million people in the time of Christ, but by the ninth century A.D. had a population of about 25,000. By contrast, in the tenth century A.D. Córdoba, the capital of Muslim Spain, had a population of about 100,000, and Seville perhaps 60,000. In short, a single Roman Empire was replaced by smaller states, and in the process, society became more violent and less urbanized.

Europe would have been spared violence, anarchy, and misery if the Roman Empire could have survived or, once having fallen, it could have been pieced back together again. Which is why the battles of Adrianople and Poitiers are so important and so tantalizing. Each could have had a different result, if just a few changes are imagined. Let us examine each in turn.

Throughout its long history, the Roman state had to face continual military challenges from the warlike peoples on its frontiers. A double threat confronted Rome in the fourth century A.D., with Persia on the rise in the east and various Germanic peoples pushing from the north. In response to frequent emergencies, the empire was divided in two, with one emperor in Constantinople and another at Rome—or rather, at Milan, the de facto Western capital because it was closer to the battle zone.

In the early fourth century A.D. the Visigoths, a Germanic people, had settled north of the Danube in Dacia (modern Romania), formerly a Roman province. About fifty years later they were invaded by other Germanic tribes, who were in turn fleeing from the Huns, a ferocious people who had ridden out of central Asia. Pushed to the point of famine, in A.D. 376, the Visigoths asked the government in Constantinople for permission to cross the Danube to seek refuge—and a permanent home—in Roman Thrace, all 200,000 or so of them, including women and children (to follow a reasonable modern estimate of numbers). It would be mass emigration of a people who gave the Romans the shivers. Yet the Eastern emperor, Valens (r. 364-378) agreed to their request.

He was no humanitarian. Valens knew that the Visigoths were dangerous warriors but he planned to co-opt them and add them to his armies, which already had a Visigothic contingent. He needed more soldiers to fight Persia. He also knew that Visigothic refugees would bring wealth with them, which his officials could skim off if not plunder outright—corruption being a depressing reality of Late Roman administration. In return, he insisted that the Visigoths lay down their arms when they crossed the Danube. The Visigoths agreed, but Valens should have known better.

No sooner did the Visigoths cross the Danube then they came into conflict with Roman officials, who outdid themselves in coming up with creative ways to fleece the refugees. The trouble was, the Visigoths fought back. In early 377 they began a revolt that defeated a Roman army and spread among other aggrieved groups such as miners and slaves. Eventually, with the help of a large cavalry contingent from their allies, they forced a Roman retreat. “The barbarians,” writes the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, “poured over the wide extent of Thrace like wild animals escaping from their cage.”

In spring 378, the Emperor Valens prepared to counterattack with an army estimated at thirty to forty thousand men. Meanwhile, the Western emperor, Valens’s nephew Gratian (r. 367-383), marched to his aid from Raetia (roughly Switzerland) where, the winter before, he had defeated other Germanic invaders. Unfortunately, Valens “rose to the level of his mediocrity,” as we might say today. He had the opportunity to crush a cornered, but by no means defeated enemy; he turned it instead into disaster. Instead of waiting for Gratian’s reinforcements, Valens insisted on fighting—according to critics, he did not want to share the glory of victory. In his overconfidence he gave credence to intelligence reports that the Visigoths had only 10,000 men (we don’t know how many men they did have but it was far more than that). The battle would take place on the plains near the city of Adrianople (modern Edirne, in Turkey) and it would take place immediately. It was August 9, 378.


Charles Martel, flourishing a battle ax, center, inspires his Christian Frankish troops to defeat the Muslim Moors at Poitiers. Had the Arabs won the battle in 732, would Islam have continued to spread across Europe?

(Carl von Steuben, 1788-1856, Battle of Poitiers. Giraudon/Art Resource, NY)

Barbarians the Visigoths might have been, but their leader, Fritigern, had a sure instinct for the enemy’s weak points, none more important than Valens himself. The emperor sent his men into battle in the broiling heat of an August afternoon in the Balkans (summer temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit are common in the region) with no rest or food after an eight-mile march over rough country. The Visigoths, encamped behind a circle of wagons, were surprised by the Romans, but their men were rested and they used their opportunity well. First, they deftly sent their cavalry to turn the Roman lines and trap the legionnaires between the wagons and the Visigothic infantry. Ammianus Marcellinus describes that fateful ride: “The Gothic cavalry . . . shot forward like a bolt from on high and routed with great slaughter all that they could come to grips with in their wild career.”

Then, having attacked the Romans with their cavalry first on one side and then the other, the Visigoths hit them head on with their infantry. They slaughtered the closely packed enemy troops.

It is estimated that as many as two-thirds of the Romans in the battle were killed, including thirty-five high-ranking officers. The greatest casualty was Valens himself. The catastrophe is made all the more poignant by the knowledge that it could have been avoided. Had the emperor waited for reinforcements or, failing that, had he attacked with fed and rested men the next morning, the outcome would probably have been different. Nor can we underestimate the role of accident. The Visigothic cavalry only arrived on the battlefield at the last minute; had they been detained further, there would have been no Visigothic victory. Keenly aware of their importance, Fritigern played for time by sending various negotiators to the Romans until the eleventh hour. The Roman high command might even have accepted his offer to parley, but the troops took matters into their own hands. Roman archers and cavalry disobeyed orders and began to attack the Visigoths, thereby forcing battle. So perhaps the fate of the Roman Empire lay in the hands of a nervous skirmisher.

Flush with victory, the Visigoths were now free to roam the Balkans. The loss of perhaps 20,000 to 25,000 men was big enough to imperil Rome’s manpower needs. It was, said St. Ambrose of Milan on hearing the news of the battle, “The end of all humanity, the end of the world.” It was, at any rate, the end of the old Roman ability to bounce back from defeat, so prominent a feature of the empire’s previous history. Far from closing in for the kill, Rome allowed the enemy to settle within the boundaries of the empire, south of the Danube, in the area of modern Bulgaria. Worse still, Rome allowed the Visigoths to keep their arms. They were, in theory, allies of Rome, but in practice they were a rival state. In the 390s, for example, the Visigoths looted Greece and the Balkans, and then, after 400, they did the same to Italy. The height of disaster came in 410, when the Visigoths, led by the wily and aggressive Alaric, took the city of Rome and sacked it for three days. It was a sign of things to come for the tottering empire.

Why did the Romans tolerate Visigothic settlement within the empire? For one thing, they needed the Visigoths as soldiers, and the Romans believed they could co-opt and tame them. Second, as Roger Collins argues, defeatism may have been at work. For many Romans, the lesson of Adrianople seems to have been that Rome could not prevail in battle against the enemy. At least, that may explain why four times between 395 and 405, in Italy and the Balkans, Roman armies fought and beat the Visigoths under Alaric, but each time they allowed them—and him—to escape and fight again. It is hard not to wonder whether Adrianople had done to Rome what the Battle of Verdun (1916) did to France—not in its military outcome, for France won at Verdun, but in its psychological outcome. The bloody battle devastated French morale for a generation and weakened military manpower badly.

Thirty years after Adrianople, Alaric and the Visigoths were in Italy. After sacking Rome, they eventually settled in Gaul and Spain. In the meantime, to save Italy, the Roman government had to withdraw troops from Britain and Gaul, which gave other Germanic tribes the opportunity to invade the empire. Britain was lost to Rome after 407, and within a generation large parts of Gaul, Spain, and North Africa were effectively independent. Now largely dependent on barbarian mercenaries to defend it, Rome had traveled far down the road to 476, when the Germans in Italy deposed the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus (r. 475-476), whose “empire” was mere fiction.

What could have been done? Arther Ferrill maintains that Rome’s best hope would have been to reverse the outcome of Adrianople; that is, to win the battle, kill the Visigoths’ commander, Fritigern, and two-thirds of his men. That would not have ended the security threat, because there was no shortage of barbarians ready to probe the empire’s defenses and attack it, but it would have bought Rome time to regroup. It might, moreover, have generated the confidence and political will to ram through the political and military reforms needed to man the Roman army. Without such reforms, the empire would have remained weak in the long term. With Rome victorious, though, Adrianople might have proved not a Roman Verdun but a Roman defeat of the Spanish Armada, turning back the invader and inspiring assurance and reform.

What if the Roman Empire had survived? What if it had bounced back from the crisis of the years 376-476 the way it had earlier recovered from the crisis of the years 188-284? Like the Chinese Empire, the Roman state would have remained a great power dominating a huge area. With the resources of the Western empire to help it, the East Roman, or Byzantine, Empire might have defeated the Muslims in the seventh century and kept the Mediterranean a Christian lake. Beyond the Rhine and Danube, Germanic and Slavic rivals to Rome would have developed, or perhaps Rome would eventually have conquered them too. There would, of course, have been periods of disorder, inevitable invasions such as China suffered from time to time. But the empire would always have bounced back. It might have even expanded, stretching at its greatest extent from Mesopotamia to Morocco and from Britain to the Elbe, the Vistula or even—who knows?—the Dnieper.

Latin-speaking Europe, governed from a capital in Italy, would have become a more orderly and stable society than the boisterous and freedom-loving Germanic kingdoms that replaced imperial Rome. The emperor, whose office had been around seemingly forever, would have been endowed with a charisma no less potent than the “mandate of heaven” that the rulers of China enjoyed. There would have been no feudalism, no knights, no chivalry, but no Magna Carta either, no doctrine of the right of rebellion, and no parliaments.

The Roman world would have been Christian, but Christianity might not resemble what we know today. It would be Roman, of course, and Catholic—that is, universal—but the pope, if the bishop of Rome had so grand a title, would be strictly subordinate to the Defender of the Faith, that is, the emperor, just as in Eastern Orthodoxy the patriarch stayed under the Byzantine emperor’s thumb. No pope could have made a Roman emperor kneel in the snow outside his door, as Pope Gregory VII did the German monarch Henry IV at Canossa in 1078. There would have been no conflict of church and state, no papal monarchy, and no Protestant Reformation. If Martin Luther ever penned his Ninety-Five Theses, he would have done so in his native Latin. They would have been delivered in executive session at a church council, and if the emperor was not amused, he would have sent Luther straight to the lions. The Romans never had much patience for dissent.

There would, of course, have been no Renaissance since, without the death of classical culture in the early Middle Ages, there would have been no need for it to be reborn. Whether Columbus would have sailed across the Atlantic from Hispania without the scientific and commercial spirit of the Renaissance to inspire him is a good question, but one thing is certain: A new Roman Empire in the Americas would have been far less dedicated to individual liberty than the English colonies turned out to be. Governed by a proconsul resident in the city of Nova Roma (New Rome, perhaps today’s New Orleans), the United Provinces of America would stand as a model of the ideal proclaimed by Cicero: otium cum dignitate: that is, “peace with respect for rank.” Merciless with their enemies but not racists, the Romans might have treated the Indians much as the Spanish did, with a mixture of brutality, missionary zeal, and a surprising willingness to intermarry.

Like the Roman Empire, the U.P.A. would be an oligarchy rather than a democracy. Truth to tell, the American founders had great respect for Rome and thought pure democracy dangerous; to some degree they modeled our government on Rome’s. Yet they admired the Roman Republic and its political ferment, not the Roman Empire and its centralized monarchy. Our constitution contains a Bill of Rights; our culture is founded on a revolution in the name of liberty; our society prizes equality, although it often fails to achieve it. Were America a New Rome, it would have the same inequality of the United States today without a movement to change it; it would have a judicial system without such rights as habeas corpus or the guarantee against self-incrimination; it would have no reason to have abolished the profitable slave systems that grew up in the New World. New Rome would have bread and circuses but no citizens’ assembly in the forum.

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