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The Roman Empire Loses Its Grip at Adrianople in AD 378

By Adrian Goldsworthy
12/2/2009 • MHQ

Yet on the whole, the Romans gained the advantage in these early encounters, and they were encouraged to attack a larger band of Goths outside the city of Ad Salices. It took some time for the Romans to mass enough units, and the enemy used that time to concentrate several bands of warriors. As they often did, the tribesmen formed up in front of a great circle of wagons, their families within the circle. The Romans deployed in two lines of units and attacked, reaching the wagons. Then the Roman left wing gave way, and the situation was only stabilized by the troops in the second line. The battle was a draw, and, after watching the enemy for a few days, the Romans withdrew.

For the rest of the year, they reverted to their strategy of harassing the Goths and wearing them down in many small engagements. There was less risk of a serious defeat this way, and over time the enemy would suffer. Yet so too did the provinces where the slow campaign of raid and ambush was fought.

Although the 377 campaign in Thrace was indecisive, Valens in the meantime had made peace with the Persians and returned to Constantinople. He had brought back some of the soldiers from the eastern frontier and gathered whatever other troops were available to form a new field force. Emperor Gratian had agreed to lead another army drawn from the western provinces and join his uncle in Thrace.

This ought to have given the Romans sufficient strength to overwhelm the Goths in battle; some thought that such a show of force would persuade Fritigern and his warriors to surrender. Both emperors wanted to avoid Roman casualties if possible. Conscription was unpopular and trained troops were a valuable resource. The prospect of settling the Goths and drawing recruits from them in the future still remained attractive.

Moreover, Fritigern had few options. Although he now held loose control over a large force of warriors, it was impossible for him to win the war. The Romans would not go away, and would not readily abandon any territory within their provinces to the Goths. In a war of attrition the Romans were bound to win, simply because they had far more men-at-arms. Fritigern knew he could not destroy or even seriously hurt either the empire or its vast army, however well he might do against smaller Roman forces.

At the same time, any defeat would weaken Fritigern. The bands of Alans, Huns, and other Goths who had joined the migrants, based on eagerness for plunder, would quickly leave should prospects start to look less favorable. But the Tervingi and Greuthungi had nowhere to go. Only a negotiated peace with Rome offered them any long-term security. Yet, the Romans never negotiated as equals with any foreign group, least of all tribes of barbarians.

The Gothic tribes would eventually have to surrender, and when to do so largely depended on what terms they could get. If Fritigern and his men looked formidable but were willing to seek peace, then they might hope for a generous settlement. Yet if they fought too hard, then it might become a point of pride and prestige for the Romans to inflict heavy losses on them, and turn the survivors into slaves. No Roman emperor in the fourth century was secure enough to risk appearing weak in his dealings with barbarian tribes.

Fortunately for the Goths, the Roman plan quickly started to break down. Gratian was delayed when he had to deal with a heavy raid by the Alemanni, a Germanic tribe, on the Rhine frontier. The attack was opportunistic, as were most barbarian raids.

An Alemannic soldier from Gratian’s bodyguard had gone home on leave to visit his family and talked of the planned expedition to Thrace. Learning that the emperor and his best troops were likely to be away for months fighting the Goths, the German tribesmen exploited the situation. In this event, they were premature, for the Roman army had not yet set out. Gratian led a punitive attack against the Alamanni and so there was a delay of several weeks before he could begin marching east.

By late summer, Valens decided that he could waste no more time waiting for his nephew, and he advanced on his own. By the beginning of August he was at Adrianople, closing on a large group of Goths led by Fritigern. Scouts reported that the enemy numbered 10,000, and Valens sensed an opportunity. At the same time, messengers arrived to inform him that Gratian was finally approaching and would arrive in just a few days.

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