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BOOK REVIEW: Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome: A Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians Circa 375-425 A.D.

Posted By Russ Lockwood, Monday, August 5, 2019

From the MagWeb vault...

BOOK REVIEW: Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome: A Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians Circa 375-425 A.D.

by Thomas S. Burns

The "fall of the Roman Empire" is much like the fall of the Roman Republic--not so much one defining event as it is a series of gradual changes over a number of years. In Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome, Professor Thomas Burns analyzes a crucial period of 50 years to explain how the Roman military institutions evolved--or devolved if you prefer--from the unified legionary system of early and mid-empire to the fragmented barbarian discord of late empire.

Burns concentrates on the western half of the empire in analyzing the influence of "barbarians" on the "Roman" military system. The eastern half, though pressed, retained command and control long after the west collapsed. He argues persuasively that the Roman empire suffered not from any one particular calamity, for example, the disastrous loss at the Battle of Adrianople or the sack of Rome, but a steady erosion of Roman military culture resulting from interlinked internal economic, political, and demographic pressures. Indeed, he contends the policies used to deal with such pressures were typical Roman responses that had served the Republic and Empire well for a thousand years. However, while each individual decision and modification served to perpetuate Roman civilization, the collective weight of these decisions ultimately crushed the system it strove to protect.

Under Pressure

The growing influence of barbarians in the Roman army stems from recruitment problems in the core areas of the Empire. In the glory days of Republic and Empire, the Romans used barbarians as specialized forces, for example, the bulk of the cavalry, while the legions contained citizens, or auxiliaries who were granted citizenship at the end of a two-decade tour of duty. Yet in the later stages of empire, those core areas that used to pump out legionnaires increasingly came under the influence of wealthy landowners who retained immense agricultural help--and forced recruiting officers to look to the frontiers for Roman soldiers.

The Roman emperors often allowed barbarians to cross the frontier and settle on uninhabited lands inside the empire to boost the supply of soldiers and taxable wealth. Burns says this was consistant with the Roman practice of "receptio," roughly translated as surrender. However, as increased numbers of barbarians entered the empire, they had little acclimation to the Roman culture and even fewer ties to supporting the political structure.

As recruitment increased to counteract "barbarian" invasions from the outside and usurper "invasions" from the inside, the military practices of earlier generations, for example, dispersing recruits across the empire and extensive training in the Roman method of warfare, fell by the wayside. Since military power often equated with political power, barbarian leaders who could deliver the troops gained political prominence, further weakening the unifying force of Roman military culture within the army.

Chapter 5 offers an exceptional view of the recruitment, garrison, and deployment procedures in a frontier province near Italy. Backed by archeological discoveries such as grave finds and other excavations, Burns neatly advances his arguments. There is a danger of speculation by using one province and applying it to half the empire, yet Burns makes the case that all frontier provinces suffered the same fate.

Refreshing and Dry

It is refreshing to discover that Burns doesn't pretend to know everything--and indeed he admits that the archeological and literary evidence (thankfully translated into English) are often in short supply. However, he carefully constructs likely scenarios and hypotheses and offers explanations. For example (sans footnotes):

    Gratian went east in 382 as far as Viminacium in Moesia I, which probably was still within eastern jurisdiction, where he issued edicts on 5 July 382. Why Gratian was in Viminacium in 382 is a bit of a mystery, His rapid pace (not longer than two weeks between Padua and Viminacium) seems to preclude any type of military movement. Since as late as 20 June 382 Gratian was in Padua, he certainly had no trouble getting to Viminacium. If indeed Theodosius joined him there, neither did he. No army could have moved so swiftly. It is possible that Gratian hoped to meet Theodosius, but something came up and he departed after receiving only a messenger from Constantinople. Gratian could not have played any major part in a Balkan campaign. He merely turned around and returned to Italy. Illyricum was largely pacified. (p. 87-88)

A couple of footnotes within this paragraph expand on this paragraph with supplementary evidence about when and where edicts were issued. Here is Burns' strength: historical analysis mixed with literary and archeological evidence. This example was part of Gratian's role or not in Balkan military operations. When Burns tackles minutiae, he tackles it with élan and a fine grasp of not only the specific movements and policy decisions, but the interpretation of those movements and decisions.

Or take this example, in which Burns contrasts old and new practices:

    The processes of agrarian evolution to less labor-intensive crops to supply the towns and garrisons had begun in many areas of the West long before. With it came even greater difficulties in tax collection, decried repeatedly in the law codes. Nor was the problem essentially demographic or social response to military service whereby men avoided or refused service through a variety of means. The legendary citizen-soldiers of the Republic who fought without pay for family and friends were dust in their graves. Not even Vegetius could conjure up their shades as he longed for a return of the army of Julius Caesar. The limitanei and barbarian auxiliaries were about as close to those old soldiers as the times could provide...The armies of the day were small and incapable of grand operations. Even their annihilation, which never occurred, would not have drastically changed the situation. Stilicho feverishly manipulated the military and political structures to balance and control the rapidly deteriorating imperial system. (p.202)

However, without such analysis, Burns' narrative turns into a dry recitation of movement--a swirling mixture of names, places, and dates. While not exactly uninspiring, it tends to be dry and requires considerable concentration.

Battles and Leaders

Note that Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome is not about detailed battle plans, tactics, orders of battle, and the like. It is an analysis of the military structure, and the evolution thereof, of the western empire of Rome. What battle descriptions it contains, such as Adrianople, are brief and tied--rightfully so--to the overall premise.


The leap from "Hannibal et portas" (Hannibal at the Gate [of Rome]) to barbarians inside the gates is as dramatic as it is long. By focusing on a narrow point in time, Burns concentrates his considerable analytical powers on the crucial period of military evolution. He details the creeping instability of reforms and compromises that fragmented the unified Roman imperial state into numerous independent barbarian kingdoms with feudal warlord mentalities. Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome offers exceptional insight, backed by solid historical evidence, into that process. Burns' touch, while not always deft, brings us greater understanding about the processes of decline and the ultimately doomed efforts to restore the Roman empire. It is a much more complex subject to tackle than relating an individual battle or campaign, and he melds the elements of archeological finds, literary extracts, and analytical speculation into a coherent body of knowledge examining the late Roman military establishment.

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