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The Roman Empire Loses Its Grip at Adrianople in AD 378

By Adrian Goldsworthy 
Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: December 02, 2009 
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However, only an emperor could command a major field army and deal with a serious military problem, so that by the fourth century at least two emperors were usually needed to manage the larger army. One ruling the western provinces and one the eastern lands. This division of labor permitted the emperors to concentrate on regional problems, but as colleagues, they could combine resources when a major threat emerged. The manpower, wealth, size, and efficiency of the Romans' professional army made the empire immensely stronger than any of its neighbors. No enemy, not even Sassanian Persia, was capable of matching Roman power, still less of destroying the empire. That did not mean that the Romans would always win easily.

The Goths were not a single nation but a loose grouping of tribes and clans, with many different leaders. At least half a dozen groups of Goths existed in the late fourth century and there were probably still more that go unmentioned in our sources. (The more familiar division between east and west Goths, or Ostrogoths and Visigoths, would not develop until the next century.) At this time a small migration was set off as they fled the Huns, with whom the Romans were not yet in direct contact, although rumors spread that the savage Huns were barely human. The Gothic migrants were called Tervingi, but there were also other Tervingi who did not join the migration. There was not a massive wave of fugitives driven toward the empire, and there is no indication that more people were now on the move than in many earlier migrations.

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Two chieftains, Alavivus and Fritigern, were the most prominent leaders of the group. Modern estimates suggest that they led some 10,000 warriors, and several times that number of women, children, and other noncombatants. This is plausible, but remains largely conjecture. In 376 the Tervingi arrived on the far bank of the lower Danube and sent ambassadors across. They asked the nearest Roman authorities to allow them to enter the empire and give them land on which to settle. There was nothing new about tribes wanting to cross into the empire and the Goths knew any attempt to force entrance to the empire would be met with ruthless violence.

They also knew their request was well worth their while. On many occasions over the last few centuries, Rome had accepted substantial groups that then settled within the provinces. Back in the first century ad, a senatorial governor had proudly recorded that "he brought over more than 100,000 of the people who live across the Danube to pay tribute to Rome, along with their wives and families." Yet by the fourth century, no emperor trusted any of his subordinates with as much local power as governors had enjoyed in the early empire, for fear of civil war. The Tervingi delegation had to journey from the Danube to the emperor, Valens, who was then at Antioch in Syria, keeping an eye on the eastern frontier at a time of tension with the Persians. The emperor, who had then ruled for 13 years, granted the Goths' request, for his advisers had encouraged Valens to see the migrants as a source of army recruits. By the time the ambassadors returned to the Danube with the good news, they had travelled well over a thousand miles.

The Romans did not always grant migrants access, however. A short time after the Tervingi request, more Goths, this time called the Greuthungi (but once again not all of the people known by this name), arrived on the Danube seeking permission to cross. Valens refused their request.

With all this experience, bringing the Tervingi into the empire should have been a textbook operation, but there were problems from the beginning. Not enough boats were available to ferry the migrants and their goods and carts over the Danube. Some drowned when they grew desperate and tried to swim the great river.

Feeding so many people was a major task, but the army was accustomed to supplying large forces on campaign and there was a well-established system of authorities taxing grain and other essentials, to be stored in major cities, ready for use. Now, however, once the Tervingi were inside the empire, the system failed; there was not enough food to meet their needs. Some of this may have been deliberate—the local Roman commanders colluded to profit from the migrants' desperation. Soldiers had gathered up large numbers of dogs, and sold these to the hungry Tervingi; at times they were said to have handed over a child to become a slave in return for the carcass of a single dog.

Eventually, the Goths were brought to Marcianopolis, the headquarters of Lupicinus, the commander of the comitatenses currently stationed in Thrace, and the man who had devised the trade of dogs for children. Although the limetanei were supposed to remain on the frontiers, in this case it looks as if many of them had been drawn away to help supervise the Goths. At some point, the group of Greuthungi who had been refused entrance to the empire crossed the Danube anyway. The Roman army seems to have been incapable of stopping them.

As tensions were increasing between the Goths, the Roman soldiers, and the inhabitants of Marcianopolis, Lupicinus invited the Tervingi leaders to a banquet. While they dined, hostility in the city spilled over into open fighting and, apparently the worse for wear after an evening of entertainment, Lupicinus brusquely ordered the chiefs arrested and their attendants killed.

Lupicinus's invitation might have been a deliberate ploy to neutralize the leaders, since Roman commanders several other times in this period entertained barbarian leaders over dinner only to arrest or even murder them. More probably this was straightforward diplomacy that went awry when fighting erupted outside. Fritigern then persuaded Lupicinus that only he could calm the warriors, and he was set free. Nothing more is heard of Alavivus.

The Tervingi drew away from the city and returned to their main camp some nine miles away. Lupicinus, now deciding that force was appropriate, gathered the immediately available troops and led them against the Goths.

He walked straight into an ambush. The Roman column was routed. Allegedly, its leader was one of the first to flee.

The migrants had become rebels, but they were inside the Roman Empire and had no homes outside its borders. Soon more Goths, who had been recruited into the Roman army but not yet sent to a garrison, joined them.

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2 Responses to “The Roman Empire Loses Its Grip at Adrianople in AD 378”


  1. 1
    thanata fion says:

    Why do people say Atlantas is not real no one on this earth would know there ass from there stomach if they did not have eyes you cant say that Atlantas is mythical place when they have never been or seen it. This is my opinon

  2. 2
    John Manov says:

    Ye y do ppl say hades is a myth? youve never seen it hades exists and zeus too you've never seen him!



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