Disastrous Roman Defeat at Adrianople
The Demise of the Roman Empire
The disastrous Roman defeat at Adrianople on August 9, 378 CE ranks among the worst military setbacks in all of Roman history. Its estimated losses of over 10,000 are comparable to Roman defeats at Cannae (216 BCE) and Carrhae (53 BCE). The battle pitted the Germanic Ostrogoths and Visigoths under the leadership of the Thervingian chieftain Fritigern (d. c. 380 CE) against the unpopular and glory-seeking Roman emperor Valens (r. 364-378 CE).
This terrible defeat caused a “domino effect” that exposed Roman military flaws, and eventually opened the door for other barbaric assaults. This resulted in the final collapse and demise of the Roman Empire in the west. Many historians concur that Emperor Valens’ poor leadership, rather than the incompetence of the Roman army, is largely to blame for the terrible disaster.
Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman historian who lived in the fourth century CE, stated that “The annals record no such massacre of a battle except the one at Cannae, although the Romans more than once, deceived by trickery due to an adverse breeze of fortune, yielded for a time to ill success in their wars ….”.
The Goths and the Empire’s war started out innocuously enough. The Visigoths, who numbered over 200,000, went from modern-day Ukraine to the edge of the Roman Empire, crossed the Danube River in 376 CE, and settled in Thrace as the nomadic Huns pushed westward across Asia inflicting havoc.
Following an alliance between the Gothic and Roman authorities, the tribes were ultimately permitted to establish permanent settlement within Roman territory as the Huns resumed their westward advance into Europe. Many Romans found the partnership unpopular. But there was a catch: the Goths had to commit to supply warriors for the Roman army in exchange for land and food. Lupicinus and Maximus, two dishonest Roman commanders, quickly made further demands, including the need for children to be delivered as slaves and the surrender of all weapons.
Due to limited food supplies and a protracted famine, the Goths revolted against the Romans in order to avoid starvation. Fritigern and his comrades Thervingi started plundering the land after an attempt to assassinate them failed. The raiding continued, and in Marcianople (376 CE) and Ad Salices, the Romans and Goths eventually engaged in combat (Battle of the Willows, 377 CE).
By 378 CE, the continuing disparity proved too embarrassing for Roman leadership. Valens returned to the city and marched against Fritigern after hearing the frantic cries of Constantinople’s residents as the Goths drew near.
Emperor Valens’ ego and thirst for glory, however, spelt disaster for Rome. The tumultuous reign would come to an end with the defeat at Adrianople. In 364 CE the Roman emperor Valentinian I (364–375 CE) named his younger brother to reign with him as co-emperor in the east, with Constantinople serving as the capital.
The ill-advised appointment brought a capable and successful, albeit unpopular, military leader onto the throne. Valens’ unpopularity stemmed primarily from his support of the Arian Christians, angering both non-Christians and traditional Christians alike.
When Valentinian passed away in 375 CE, his 16-year-old son Gratian took over as co-emperor and commander in the west. Gratian, who was initially viewed as being too young and inexperienced, would prove to be a capable leader and achieved great success in Gaul. Unfortunately for the impatient and jealous Valens, he would be unable to lend support to his uncle against the Goths at Adrianople.
Whilst Valens and his legions patiently waited for Gration and his forces, he received unreliable intelligence that the Gothic forces only numbered around 10,000. This gave him the impression that he easily outnumbered them. Urged by his closest advisors, and the desire to earn all the glory for himself, Valens decided to leave camp close to Constantinople and march eight miles towards Adrianople in sweltering heat.
On the morning of the 9th, the Roman army, leaving provisions behind, marched from their camp to meet the Gothic forces who had already established themselves in a defensive position; a wagon circle containing the women, the elderly, children, and supplies.
Fritigern’s army assumed a strategic position along a nearby ridge; a position with the potential to charge the Romans when necessary. The Roman army established themselves into two lines with heavy infantry in the center, skirmishers in front of them, and cavalry on the left and right flanks.
The Roman infantry, which consisted of a number of seasoned veterans was equipped with the usual chain mail, round shields, and long swords. Although much of the Roman forces had not been fully deployed, two cavalry units, acting without orders, went on an unsuccessful attack but were quickly driven back. The battle had begun.
Even though the Roman forces were not fully prepared, the left wing was sent on the attack. Although making great progress by pushing the Goths back to the wagon circle, the Romans failed to recognize the arrival of the much-anticipated Greuthungi, accompanied by both Huns and Alans.
The Roman left wing had been attacked and completely shattered. The surviving members of the Roman left abandoned the battlefield, leaving the infantry fully exposed. The Therungi who were still positioned on the ridge attacked the Roman infantry line. The overly-tired Romans were struck on both their front and flanks. The Romans were surrounded and no longer able to defend themselves.
The Gothic archers shot arrows within the Roman mix. The survivors soon broke ranks and fled only to be cut down by the Goths. Ammianus’ description of the intense fighting and horror of battle can be seen in this description of the battlefield: “…when the whole scene was discoloured with the hue of dark blood, and wherever men turned their eyes heaps of slain met them they trod upon the bodies of the dead without mercy.”
Emperor Valens and about 1,500 remained. Even the reserves had fled. The reports of Valens’ death vary. In the end, his body was supposedly taken, wounded, to a nearby farmhouse only to have the Goths burn it down. In all two-thirds of the Roman forces, including Valens died. His body would never be found.
However, he was “desirous of great wealth, and impatient of toil, rather affecting awesome austerity than possessing it, and somewhat included to cruelty….” (487) And, Ammianus added, he was unjust and hot-tempered, a procrastinator, and irresolute.
The Roman defeat at the Battle of Adrianople resulted in the demise of the Roman Empire.
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