Why Did the Romans Lose at Adrianople?
9 August 378 – Battle of Adrianople
“Some have asserted that he was burnt to death in a village where he had retired, which the barbarians assaulted and set on fire. But others affirm that having put off his imperial robe he ran into the midst of the main body of infantry; and that when the cavalry revolted and refused to engage, the infantry were surrounded by the barbarians, and completely destroyed in a body. Among these it is said the emperor fell, but could not be distinguished, in consequence of his not having on his imperial habit.” (Socrates Scholasticus)
The Roman Empire was undergoing a fatal decline in the Fourth Century. The strength of will of Aurelian had reunified the ancient behemoth after it split into three states in the Crisis of the Third Century, with Diocletian realizing it was too big an unwieldy for a single emperor to govern – one man could not respond to simultaneous invasions of Persia and Gaul, while delegating legions to another could see them proclaimed imperator and marching back to seize the purple, though leaving the capital to deal with events in person left the throne vulnerable to usurpation.
Diocletian’s answer was to split the empire into four, with the Tetrarchy comprising two senior emperors (Augusti) and two juniors (Caesars), though he lived to see his own reforms come undone when Constantine the Great united the empire back into a while. Just as the Tetrarchy relied on Diocletian’s guiding hand, so the reunified empire needed Constantine’s strength of will to maintain it, with its recent conversion to Christianity not enough to end all its woes. German tribes still poured over the Rhine and Danube frontiers, Saxons and Jutes still raided into Britannia, and the Persians were ever clamoring to restore the glory days of the Achaemenid Empire that had stretched far west of the Euphrates.
The mid-Fourth Century saw the empire split between two brothers, with Valentinian ruling from Ravenna and Valens from Constantinople. Unknown to them was the wider world picture, which has been changed so often throughout history by the migration of the mighty Steppe tribes into settled societies from the Medes spelling the end of the Assyrian Empire to the Mongols of Genghis Khan forging the world’s largest contiguous empire millennia later. At this time the Huns were moving west from the edge of China, in so doing causing a domino effect that saw numerous Germanic tribes decide it was better to try their luck with the Romans than resist the newcomers. Valentinian died in 375 when he got so angry shouting at an emissary of such tribesmen that he suffered a stroke, to be replaced by his son Gratian.
Valens had transferred troops to the west in 374 to support his older brother Valentinian, but this had left gaps in the eastern force. Coupled with the variety of threats arising elsewhere to deal with, Valens had repeatedly found his plans for a grand Persian campaign frustrated. A huge recruitment drive was thus launched to replenish the legions, and when he received news of hundreds of thousands of Goths looking to cross the Danube, this was not particularly unwelcome – they were potential legionaries in waiting. The Goths had failed to hold onto Dniester or Prut rivers against the advancing Huns from the far east, and now were migrating south en masse. When the Visigoths under Fritigern had reached the shores of the Lower Danube, emissaries were sent to Valens in Antioch to seek asylum.
The imperial advisors swiftly pointed out to the emperor that these Goths could supply the troops to immediately swell the legionary ranks, decreasing the dependence on provisional troop levies. Rome had started as a republic of farmer-soldiers, then become one where anyone could serve in the legions, then transitioned to an imperial professional army based on the frontiers rather than raising legions from the Italian heartlands, and eventually when citizenship was rolled out universally by Caracalla in the Third Century, the final barriers distinguishing Romans from barbarian, or legionary from auxiliary, were essentially dissolved. As such the legions regressed from being a proud, nationalist force to being composed of the very foreigners Romans looked down upon and sought to expel.
As the legions became the preserve of enfranchised foreigners looking for a career in the provinces, rather than Romans of Rome looking to defend their homeland, these very Romans turned to other careers and held the legions with a haughty contempt. By this period an aspiring Roman of Rome was more likely to pursue a career in the imperial court or the clergy than to serve on the bitterly cold Rhine frontiers or scorching heat of the Persian frontier in the legions. Pride was transferred to other professions – as happens in many nations as they develop, a formerly proud role becomes unskilled and those who once made up its ranks focus on other professions instead. It is a trend that is seemingly impossible to reverse.
Valens seized the opportunity to permit Fritigern’s band of Visigoths – up to a million people, including up to 200,000 fighting men – to cross the Danube, but denied entry to other bands seeking to flee the Huns. With these Goths added to the legions, recruitment tax would increase, although there would need to be an initial outlay of gold and silver to hire them.
Moreover, with such a huge form of barbarians crossing into Roman territory, Valens was essentially reliant on their cooperation in settling and integrating, as he lacked the forces in the province to enforce the terms of settlement. With so few troops in the region, and a precedent set, other groups including the Ostrogoths, and later the Alans and the Huns, began crossing the Danube in force too. A controlled resettlement of migrating forces was rapidly descending into a full-scale invasion. The situation was exacerbated by the corruption of Roman administrators, accepting bribes to allow the Goths to remain armed, charging exorbitant prices for food, and generally treating them with disdain.
When the Romans ordered Fritigern to assemble his force at Marcianopolis he complied, only for the duplicitous Thracian governor Lupicinus to attempt to murder the Gothic leadership at a feast.
In the ensuing battle, the veteran Danube legion fought valiantly, only to be abandoned by the feckless Lupicinus and eventually overrun by the sheer number of outraged Goths. Rather than having an allied force within its borders from which to raise legionaries, Rome now had a hostile force on the rampage. Fritigern assembled a coalition with the Ostrogoths and set about devastating the country. A combined East-West Roman force checked the Goths at the Battle of the Willows, with bloody and inconclusive fighting only interrupted by nightfall.
Through a modern lens, it is difficult to see the Goths as the aggressors in such a war.
They went through the proper channels of requesting amnesty from an expanding Hunnic Empire, only to find themselves rebelling after being generally maltreated. There are echoes of many avoidable wars caused by Roman arrogance, such as the Social War five centuries earlier that erupted because Romans refused to extend citizenship to even Italian allies. Such a notion as that would have seemed absurd by this time when Roman citizens included all those in the Empire, from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, and from Britannia to the Upper Nile.
Valens’ adjutant Saturninus sought to hem the swelling Gothic force between the lower Danube and the Black (Euxine) Sea, but the wily Fritigern then invited the advancing Huns to cross the Danube to fall on the Roman rear. The Roman general Sebastian was able to defeat a number of rampaging Gothic bands in turn, but was not strong enough to move against the main host. The Gothic force was a coalition rather than a centralized state, and so various chieftains would regularly splinter off to fulfill their own ends.
By 378 Valens himself was ready to march from his base in Antioch to address the escalating crisis.
He left all but a skeletal force on the Persian border – ironically including some Goths – and marched west, reaching Constantinople by the end of May. His advisors counseled him to wait for the arrival of his nephew and western emperor Gratian, who had confident, veteran troops fresh from defeating the Alamanni. Gratian too urged a united front against the Goths, but Valens was facing mounting internal pressures.
The Gothic invasion was entirely preventable and predictable, and it was a problem the emperor himself had caused. The citizens of Constantinople urged him to march out with haste and meet the Goths, crushing them and ending the problem to restore his reputation. Torn between the sound advice of waiting for reinforcements or rushing into battle alone, Valens was emboldened by reports suggesting the Gothic army was weaker than first thought. He thus decided to act alone and seize the glory before Gratian could arrive, and crush the Goths at Adrianople.
Two main Gothic armies were rampaging around the Roman provinces south of the Danube, one under Fritigern and the other under Alatheus and Saphrax. The Roman general Sebestian ambushed and crushed a small Gothic detachment while marching to Adrianople, swelling Roman hopes. Reacting to the approaching threat, Fritigern assembled his forces at Nicopolis and Beror (modern Stara Zagora). Western Roman Emperor Gratian marched to Pannonia (in the Balkans) when the Lentienses tribe of the Alamanni crossed the Rhine. He recalled his legions and defeated this force at Argentaria (modern Colmar, France), then resumed his expedition east, part overland and part by sea. The seaborne legions arrived at Sirmium, near the Danube’s Iron Gates, some 240 miles west of Adrianople, when they were attacked by a group of Alans, and withdrew. Rome’s Rhine and Danube borders were becoming increasingly porous.
Having heard of the victory of Sebastian and the triumph of his nephew Gratian, Eastern Emperor Valens was ready for a win of his own. He joined with Sebastian’s force at Adrianople, and his scouts informed him that a Gothic army some 10,000-strong was encamped about 16 miles away, marching on the city. Despite difficult terrain, Valens reached Adrianople and fortified the city’s camp with a ditch and rampart.
Gratian’s emissary Richomeres urged Valens to wait for the arrival of the western legions, but Valens decided to risk a fight now rather than await their arrival. This is often portrayed as a glory-grab by an emperor not wanting to share the spoils, though it may also be choosing to attack a seemingly inferior force while their presence is certain. The plodding legions would have struggled to pin down and bring to battle a fleeing Gothic force more mobile than them, so fighting while a battle is certain may have been the sensible option.
Fritigern sent an emissary of his own proposing peace in exchange for territory. Assured of his impending victory, Valens rejected the terms out of hand. Unfortunately for the Romans, the reason for their certainty of the low Gothic numbers is because they had not accounted for the vast hoard of Gothic cavalry away foraging from the main camp. The Gothic army did have a strong cavalry detachment, but it was mostly infantry. Contrary to the popular belief, stirrups were not in use and first came into use by the Romans and the Goths in the Sixth Century, likely imported from the Avars.
Some historians have seen the battle that followed as marking the end of the infantry age and the dawn of cavalry supremacy, but this is now seen as exaggerated. Very few armies relied predominantly on cavalry in the centuries that followed, and those that did were usually those needing to cover large swathes of barren terrain, such as the Mongols of the Steppe and the Mamluks of Egypt. Infantry would remain a crucial part of armies throughout the Medieval period, with cavalry playing a similar role of being the preserve of the wealthier classes.
It is hard to accurately gauge the size of the forces at Adrianople, though most modern estimates place the Gothic army at between 12,000 and 15,000, the Romans at 15,000 to 20,000. Contemporary sources reluctant to admit that Romans could be outclassed often made out that they were overwhelmed by a Gothic army numbering between 20,000 and 80,000, while they exaggerated the scale of Roman losses stating there were between 25,000 and 30,000 legionaries present.
Given the numbers involved are relatively small compared to some of Rome’s epic battles from the late republic and early empire to even a couple of generations ago under Constantine, it is easy to think of Adrianople as a minor affair. It must therefore be remembered in the context of a time when recruitment was a daunting challenge, when emperors struggled to attract even foreigners to legions and fund them properly. This was not the halcyon recruitment days of the Second Punic War, when Rome could lose 70,000 sons at Cannae and then recruit two legions a year thereafter, and that from a much smaller recruitment pool confined to central Italy. Adrianople occurred at a time when Rome could not afford to lose soldiers, much less legions, and had little hope of replacing any that it did.
Valens decamped from Adrianople, leaving the imperial treasury and court in the city, and marched eight miles over difficult ground to the Gothic camp. His troops arrived weary and dehydrated, and then faced the daunting prospect of a hilltop encampment. The Goths were defending a wagon circle, within which was their families and their possessions. Rather than needing to attack, Fritigern’s objective was to delay the Romans long enough for his cavalry to return. Surrounding fields had been razed by the Goths to confuse the approaching legions with smoke, and negotiations began for an exchange of hostages.
As these dragged on, the confident legionaries grew increasingly restless as the prospect of battle dwindled. Expecting an easy victory and thirsty for revenge for two years of Gothic devastation of the Balkans, numerous Roman troops began to ignore their leaders and pressed ahead to battle. Like the opening of a floodgate, soon the entire Roman host was advancing.
An auxiliary allied Iberian unit was repelled by the Goths, but then victory seemed to be at hand when the Roman left wing reached the wagon circle. Now they could descend on the defenseless women and children of the Goths with abandon, collecting whatever spoils they could carry while delivering Roman vengeance on this invading hoard. Just as victory seemed imminent, the foraging Gothic cavalry arrived.
The legions were already in disarray after the failed initial assault, and soon found themselves surrounded by the Gothic cavalry. The legions retreated down the hill but were unable to maneuver or regroup. As the Gothic horsemen pressed in and cut them down, the exhaustion and shock of the reverse soon turned Adrianople into a rout. As the army lost all cohesion, the Gothic cavalry came into its element, riding down and hacking apart any legionaries their blades could reach. The slaughter was only ended by sunset, at which point up to two thirds of the Roman army lay dead on the field.
As the Roman army disintegrated, Valens himself was abandoned by his guards, who were as panicked as the rest of the legions.
Some tried to retrieve him, but the majority of the Roman cavalry fled when they saw what was happening – one advantage of being on horse is to be assured of not being among those poor foot soldiers slaughtered by the enemy cavalry by being able to escape yourself. His body was never found, and he may have been slain on the battlefield. One story was that he fled with a bodyguard and some eunuchs to a peasant’s cottage, and when the marauding triumphant Goths came to sack it, they sent arrows at the house.
Unaware that the emperor was inside and unwilling to suffer casualties from stubborn hold outs, they set the house ablaze. The bodyguard leapt from the window to tell them Valens was inside, but by that point it was too late, and he died in the inferno. Valens was 49-years-old, and had ruled the Eastern Roman Empire for 14 years. He left a legacy of being a mediocre general, but a capable administrator. He reduced taxes and brought Christianity back to the fore, was a loyal adjutant to his older brother, but also increased proscriptions and executions for treason. Overall, there is little to distinguish Valens among the pantheon of Roman emperors, and his legacy is ultimately marred by the debacle at Adrianople and the entirely avoidable war that preceded it.
Despite the defeat, all was not lost for Rome. The triumphant Goths immediately set out to capture the city of Adrianople, and were swiftly repelled. The furious citizens refused entry to a number of battle survivors seeking sanctuary, including Sebastian, who instead fought and died outside its walls.
Adrianople was the worst Roman defeat since Valerian’s bungled Persian campaign ended in his crushing defeat and capture by the Sassanids at Edessa in 260.
It was a huge blow for the empire, destroying the core of the eastern army, plus a number of administrators and leaders, while the arms factories of the region were destroyed. The losses were not on the scale of devastating defeats like Cannae or Arausio, but this was a time when Rome simply could not replenish its legions. Defeat at Adrianople was heavily felt because there would be no new army springing up quickly to replace the fallen – the existing recruitment crisis would instead be exacerbated.
The defeat also showed that the barbarians had become powerful adversaries. The Goths would not be expelled from Roman lands, there would be no ultimate victory over them as there had been the marauding Cimbri and Teutones in the late republic. Without an army to challenge them, a recruitment pool to raise such an army, or the martial culture and fervor to drive citizens to the legions, the Goths would have to be accommodated, rather than expelled. The challenge for the next emperor would be how to live with the Goths, rather than how to expel the Goths. Despite being partly tamed, they would never be exterminated nor fully assimilated, and would essentially remain a continued hostile force within Roman territory.
Hope did come from the Gothic failure to take Adrianople – for all their battlefield success, the Romans still rest assured that barbarians could not capture cities. This hastened the demise of centralized power though, as now regions began to trust in their fortified cities for the support that the legions of Rome could not offer them. The focus would be on fortifying cities to ensure the barbarians could not get in, rather than supporting legions that would keep them out of Roman territory at all.
Valens had left an awful mess for his imperial successors, who now had to try and accommodate the Gothic army, which was emboldened by victory at Adrianople, but chastened by the knowledge it lacked the skill in siege craft to attack Roman cities. That is where Roman hope remained, and the regions focusing on fortifying and defending themselves would lay the foundations for the Medieval kingdoms that would follow. Though if the Romans thought no barbarian could capture a city, they would soon get a nasty surprise when the Huns arrived in force.
Why Did the Romans Lose at Adrianople?
Written by Jack Tappin
Why Did the Romans Lose at Adrianople?