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The Roman Empire Loses Its Grip at Adrianople in AD 378

By Adrian Goldsworthy
12/2/2009 • MHQ

The Gothic chieftain needed time to let these men arrive, but that does not mean that he was wholly insincere when he sent a delegation to parley with Valens. Fritigern had little to gain and a lot to lose by fighting the emperor. Negotiation was still his aim, although adding more warriors to his force would strengthen his hand.

Valens refused to receive the first delegation, since the men were of low status. However, when the Goths sent a second proposal and asked for a senior Roman to go over to them as a hostage for the safety of their own party, the emperor’s staff got as far as choosing a man for the job. Valens may also have been playing for time, for his army was still moving into position, and yet he too would have been willing to end things with negotiation, especially since the Goths were much more numerous than he had expected. A bloodless victory was as prestigious as a battlefield success, and avoided Roman losses.

Whatever the intentions of the leaders, some of their followers proved more aggressive. When two armies were formed up so close to each other, things were bound to be tense. Suddenly two Roman cavalry units on the right wing launched an attack, without orders. The Goths soon chased them away, but the fighting quickly provoked the rest of the Roman line to attack, and it drove forward, reaching the laager at some points.

Yet not everyone had been in position. The rear of the column was destined to make up the left of the Roman formation, but these men were only just arriving on the field. The rear of a long column is usually the most aggravating place to be on a long march. Soldiers there wait longest when there is any delay, and then must rush to catch up. Hurried on by their officers, these Roman regiments arrived tired and not yet ready for the general advance.

The cavalry units supposed to be stationed on the left may have arrived earlier, but there was no time to coordinate the attack. A gap developed between the horsemen and infantrymen, which left the latter’s flank exposed and the Greuthungi suddenly appeared to fill the void.

The bulk of the Gothic cavalry was with them, and there was also a band of Alans who fought on horseback, but in many ways it would not have made much difference if the flank attack had been composed solely of infantry. The Romans were unable to form a new fighting line to face it and were rolled up.

At the Battle of Ad Salices, there had been a second line of units to deal with the situation when one wing collapsed. At Adrianople, Valens sent an officer to bring forward a unit placed in reserve, but he was unable to find any reserves. Most probably they had already been sucked into the fighting. The hurried deployment left the Romans were unable to deal with a changing situation.

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