The Roman Empire Loses Its Grip at Adrianople in AD 378

By Adrian Goldsworthy
12/2/2009 • MHQ

Romans are shown fighting against barbarians in this 2nd-century sarcophagus. (
Romans are shown fighting against barbarians in this 2nd-century sarcophagus. (


The Gothic War showed the deep flaws that would lead to the Roman Empire’s downfall

In AD 376, the Roman Empire was still strong. It was run as well as it ever had been and boasted a large and efficient army. So when a group of migrating Gothic tribesmen and their families arrived that year at the River Danube, which marked the frontier of the Roman Empire, there were well-established precedents for dealing with them.

Emperor Flavius Julius Valens was pleased at the thought of settling them on land in the Roman provinces, thinking they might provide recruits for his army. His local commanders sensed an opportunity for profit, for they controlled the food supplies on which the migrants would depend as soon as they crossed the frontier. After Lupicinus, the magister militum (governor general) of Thrace, had extorted their valuables—in some cases even their children, whom he would sell as slaves—he invited the leaders of the Goths to dinner. During the meal a rebellion started, which turned into a bitter, six-year war.

On August 9, AD 378, near the city of Adrianople (modern Edirne in European Turkey), these Goths and their allies defeated a Roman army and killed Valens himself. This disaster is often seen as a landmark event—a key moment in a process that led to the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire a century later. The Goths who sacked Rome itself in 410 doubtless included many men whose fathers and grandfathers had fought at Adrianople, and just possibly a few old warriors who had been present at that great Gothic victory.

Thus, goes this story line, it was bad luck, poor decisions, and poor leadership that produced the disaster, kicking off a chain of events that eventually brought to an end centuries of Roman rule. By the end of the fifth century, the Goths within the empire would split into two groups, the Visigoths (or West Goths) who conquered Spain, and the Ostrogoths (East Goths) who carved out a kingdom for themselves in Italy.

Yet a closer look, not just at the battle of Adrianople but also at the six-year war that pitted the might of the Roman Empire against two small groups of migrating tribesmen suggests a different scenario. Far from being strong and well run, the Roman Empire was already showing serious structural flaws. And that turned a minor problem into a major crisis.

Most modern estimates suggest that the fourth-century Roman army was large, perhaps as large as 650,000—twice the size of the force controlled by the Caesars in the first and second centuries. It was divided into two—the limetanei who were stationed on the frontiers, and the better-paid comitatenses who did not have fixed garrisons and were billeted in towns and cities during the winter months. The latter were seen as mobile troops, and were often branded as elite. Not tied to one province, they were free to move to wherever they were required.

The limetanei protected the frontiers, and controlled all but the largest invasions, which would then be dealt with by a field force of comitatenses. This is claimed to have been a far more flexible system than emperors employed in the first and second centuries, when almost all the army was stationed on the frontier, and could not be moved elsewhere without seriously weakening these provinces.

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