Saturday, March 28, 2009

Today In History: An unlucky star.

On this date in 364AD, the none-too-distinguished son of a nouveau riche Pannonian rope salesman who had made it big in the army got his own shot at the brass ring.

His older brother, who had been conveniently present at the death of the previous emperor, had been proclaimed Augustus and, deciding that he needed help running the empire, now he appointed Valens as his co-emperor in the east.

Nominally governing from Constantinople, Valens mostly spent the next 14 years gallivanting about the Near East, racing from crisis to crisis. From a usurper in Constantinople to uppity Persians to playing politics in Armenia, he probably got all of five minutes' rest in the next fourteen years.

He is, of course, best known for losing both the battle and his head to marauding migratory Goths in the rolling fields outside Adrianople, marking what many consider the beginning of the end of the Western Empire.


Anonymous said...

A fabulous story to motivate me as I get ready to go to the gym :)

Mark Alger said...

Pasty white skin, inappropriate eye shadow, long, stringy hair, and black fingernails? This is a... a thing?


Ed Foster said...

Valens was a suprisingly good administrator, and no better or worse than most of his generation of "Romans" at generaling, but by the time of Adrianople, the Roman army, especially the Balkan units, was a poorly organized hodgepodge of differently equipped and trained merceneries from half a dozen different cultures.

The Goths, on the other hand, were the only traditionally organized Romans on the field. They had been the redheaded stepson of northern Europe for generations, bullied, beaten, and chased by everyone from steppe nomads to Gaulish militia.

Finally, they got permission to settle in Roman territory, and did a wonderful job as trained heavy infantry, with a small minority going on to become crack cavalry, equal (except for archery skills) to the Byzantine cataphractii.

They wanted nothing but to become Romans, and do the best job they could for the empire that had taken them in.

Unfortunately, that empire no longer had a clue, and, after several generations of abuse, the Goths were forced choose between rebellion and starvation, with those surviving starvation often being sold into slavery.

The real heroes of the battle were the Goths, who, after three or more generations in the Roman army were disciplined, competent, and honorable.

Why Valens thought he could beat what were essentially tough Roman regulars with an army composed mostly of support troops (light infantry skirmishers, Spanish archers trained specifically for siege war, conscript cavalry) is beyond me.

Even if the Gothic cavalry hadn't returned from it's chevauchie of the countryside in time to roll up his flank, the battle would have been lost. Valens might have gotten away, but in the tradition of the times, he almost certainly would have been whacked by his own officers.

Conversely, the Byzantines treated the Goths with the respect they deserved, and got centuries of brave and honorable service from them.

The Goths and their Frankish cousins deserve more from history than their typical depiction as smelly, hairy savages wrapped in grease and bearskins.

They were professionals, almost the last of their kind in the west, and the only real continuation of what was best in the old Roman army.

They also differed from the decadent Romans of their day in thinking an oath was a sacred, binding thing, more important than life, rather than a momentary agreement used for short term advantage.

Kind of the difference between a kid from middle America nowadays who enlists, as versus someone from a liberal urban area who thinks the enlistee is at best a useful idiot, at worst a sociopathic danger to be reeducated.

Hurray for the "Badguys".

Anonymous said...

Oh, the Goths weren't all that. Those "professionals" could be pretty unpleasant to have around, if you were their next-door neighbors on the other street.

Still no doubt superior to the late Romans, as you say. And living at an unfortunate time to trade on one's "honor."

This event starts the West's longest-running and most destructive tradition, the ambition to be the New Rome. We fall prey to it ourselves from time to time--particularly when we argue over whether it's better to have a military of "professionals" (translates in Pentagonese to "Praetorians") or "amateurs" (by which we mean "drafted"). One Roman who split the difference has a big town named after him in southern Ohio.

When you try to copy the Romans, you end up with the Romans' issues. Bad. Could be worse.

og said...

Remember Earth Hour is tonight. Make some history yourself! Rent some Klieg lights!!

Joanna said...

I set an alarm to remind me to turn on every light I own, plus as many appliances as possible. I'll count it a personal achievement if I blow a fuse.

Don M said...

The other thing about the condition of their entry into Roman territory was to lay down their arms and accept slavery. They didn't. Neither should we.

Angela said...

"He is, of course, best known for losing...his head"

Meh. He had it coming.