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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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In the fourth century, various tribes were poised to cross the Roman Empire's northern border, either by invitation of force.  The arrival of the Gothic Tervingi and Greuthungi in AD 376 sparked a six-year-war. (Map by Baker Vail)
In the fourth century, various tribes were poised to cross the Roman Empire's northern border, either by invitation of force. The arrival of the Gothic Tervingi and Greuthungi in AD 376 sparked a six-year-war. (Map by Baker Vail)

They were waiting outside Adrianople and there had already been friction with a local magistrate, who now raised a force from the city, including the workers from a state arms factory. The Goths cut this hastily armed militia to pieces, plundering them of their newly made weapons before joining Fritigern.

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The combined army tried to besiege Adrianople, but failed dismally. As they withdrew, Fritigern sullenly reminded them that he "kept peace with walls," meaning that the Goths lacked the resources and skills to take cities.

Not long afterward the Greuthungi joined him as well. Smaller numbers of Gothic slaves the Romans had captured in past wars now fled to their kinsmen, with whom they could become warriors again. By 377 Fritigern had even hired some bands of Huns and Alans to fight against Rome, paying them with plunder.

Thrace was a rich region, and the Goths divided into smaller bands to ransack its farms and smaller settlements. The tribesmen needed to keep moving to feed themselves, since they would quickly consume the supplies in any one area and were unable to conquer cities, which contained the largest stores of food. Indeed, logistics meant they could not stay concentrated in one large group for long. Fritigern could only hope that his separate bands would have time to assemble if a sizable Roman force pressed them.

At first the Roman response to this raiding was weak. In theory, the division between mobile comitatenses and the more static limetanei was supposed to provide strong field forces capable of dealing with major problems of this sort. But Lupicinus and his main force had been badly mauled, and there were very few other comitatenses in Thrace.

Many troops were tied down providing garrisons to secure the cities or guarding the main passes through the mountains to restrict the Goths' movements. Some were in the east with Valens, or otherwise committed. It was not until 377 that the Romans scraped together a big enough force to act more aggressively. Units came both from the eastern provinces and from Flavius Gratianus Gratian, the 19-year-old nephew of Valens, who ruled the Western Empire. Yet both emperors had other commitments and there was no true reserve anywhere. The field force they eventually sent to Thrace was small.

Legions had once numbered about 5,000 men. By this period their full strength was far less, and probably no more than 1,000 or so. Most operations were small in scale, and even emperors often led armies numbering no more than a few thousand men. The fourth-century Roman army specialized in low-level warfare. Pitched battles were rare. They fought instead mainly as the barbarians fought, using speed, surprise attacks, and ambush. Roman troops proved adept at this type of fighting, aided by their training, discipline, clear command structure, and well-organized logistical support.

The field force that began fighting the Goths in 377 used all these assets to advantage. They isolated several bands of marauders and overwhelmed them in surprise attacks. On one occasion the Goths were able to reply in kind. They cut several Roman units to pieces outside the city of Dibaltum (properly Deultum, modern Debelt in Bulgaria, which in this period was still on the coast of the Black Sea, although it is now some distance inland).

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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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