The Roman Empire Loses Its Grip at Adrianople in AD 378

At Adrianople the Roman cavalry charged prematurely, setting in motion a chain of attacks and couterattacks resulting in a Roman defeat as complete as that at Cannae in 216 BC. (Map by Baker Vail)
At Adrianople the Roman cavalry charged prematurely, setting in motion a chain of attacks and couterattacks resulting in a Roman defeat as complete as that at Cannae in 216 BC. (Map by Baker Vail)
Valens called a conference of his officers, who expressed a range of opinions. Some urged caution, suggesting that he wait until his nephew arrived so that they could confront the Goths with overwhelming strength. Others advocated boldness. If they did not strike now, then the Goths might grow stronger as more bands arrived, or disperse so that the Romans would have to chase down small groups one at a time.

Valens is said to have been as much concerned with political aspects of his decision as with purely military factors. He was eager to win a victory on his own, something to match Gratian’s recent success against the Alemanni, and hoped to far surpass the small successes his own commanders had won over the Goths the previous year.

The emperor’s confidence soared when Fritigern sent a Christian clergyman as his envoy. The cleric brought a formal request: that the Goths be granted Thrace, where they might settle. Privately, the envoy assured the emperor that Fritigern wanted only peace. He asked that Valens put on a show of force to make it easier for him to persuade his warriors to accept a less generous settlement. The Romans sent the envoy away without an answer, but now the emperor was convinced that his enemy was nervous and weak.

On August 9, Valens led his army out from Adrianople. We do not know how many men he had with him, and estimates have varied. Valens clearly felt that he had enough men to overwhelm a force of 10,000 Goths, but it is difficult to say how many this was.

However, the scouts’ report was wrong. There were far more than 10,000 Goths waiting for the Romans. Our sources do not tell us how many there were, nor do they make clear whether the original estimate was for the number of warriors, or if it included men, women, and children. If the latter, then this would markedly influence the number of soldiers Valens would have felt he needed. The most persuasive recent estimates put the Romans at around 15,000, and the Goths at about the same, or perhaps nearer 20,000, including warriors who arrived after the battle started.

It was a hot day, and the Roman soldiers were thirsty and dusty when the vanguard of the column approached the Gothic camp. It was much bigger than Valens expected.

As at Ad Salices, the tribesmen had formed their wagons into a large circle with their families and possessions protected within, and the warriors forming a line outside, facing the approaching enemy.

The Romans began to deploy, the head of the column wheeling to the right and marching to where they would take position as the far right flank of the line. Cavalry and light infantry covered the deployment. The Goths began chanting as they tried to encourage themselves and intimidate their enemy. Others lit bush fires in the dry scrub and grass. The wind took the smoke toward the Romans, which was unpleasant, but more important, made it hard for them to see much of the Gothic position. Fritigern was expecting reinforcements, mainly from the Greuthungi (including a strong force of cavalry), and the smoke would conceal their approach.

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2 Responses

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