The Roman Empire Loses Its Grip at Adrianople in AD 378

By Adrian Goldsworthy
12/2/2009 • MHQ

The Roman attack lost momentum. Many units were still heavily engaged around the wagon circle, and fighting continued there for some time. Some regiments were surrounded, and others were packed into such dense masses that most soldiers were unable to fight effectively. They continued to resist, and no doubt inflicted some losses on the Goths, but the outcome was never in doubt. Eventually, Roman units started to break and soon the whole army was in rout. Not everyone could get away, and as was usual for ancient battles, in this stage the Goths were able to kill with little risk to themselves. Ammianus Marcellinus, a Greek of Antioch, an army veteran and historian, described the scene:

Now the sun climbed higher…[and] the Romans were weakened by hunger and thirst, and burdened by the weight of their equipment. In the end the great force of the barbarian onslaught shattered our battle-line…. Some fell without seeing who struck them, or were knocked down by the sheer weight of the attackers, or even killed by comrades.

No one knows precisely what happened to Valens. He disappeared during the rout, as victorious Gothic warriors hunted down the fleeing Romans. Although many Roman emperors died violently, Valens was one of only a handful who perished at the hands of foreign enemies. One story asserted that Valens and his attendants had taken refuge in a villa. The Goths tried to break in but were repulsed, and so just set fire to the building, burning it to the ground with everyone inside, except one of the imperial bodyguards who managed to jump from a window.

Some two-thirds of the Roman army died. Ammianus compared the disaster to the battle of Cannae in August 216 bc, a devastating battle in which Hannibal had slaughtered some 50,000 Roman and Italian soldiers and captured another 20,000. Valens’s force was much smaller and very different from the citizen volunteers who had marched to battle the Carthaginians. Nonetheless, Adrianople was a dreadful Roman defeat.

Thirty-five Roman tribunes—officers elected by the people who commanded regiments or were staff officers—also died in the battle. It is possible that they suffered a higher rate of loss than the two-thirds casualties suffered by the rest of the army. Since Valens himself apparently died, casualties among his headquarters may well have been extremely high.

Ingenious attempts have been made to infer the number of units lost at Adrianople from the Notitia Dignitatum, an official document listing the regiments in the army about a generation after the battle. Any unit formed late in the fourth century is assumed to be a replacement for one destroyed.

In fact, this is a very large leap of faith, since it does not allow for regiments given a new title by later emperors. Even more important, it ignores the possibility that units were disbanded or destroyed on other occasions, most notably during the frequent Roman civil wars.

The Roman defeat was a great victory for the Goths. Yet strategically, Fritigern and his people had gained very little, for they needed to negotiate with an emperor, not kill one and destroy a Roman army. In victory, the Goths launched an attack on the city of Adrianople, hoping to capture the supplies Valens had brought to support his army, but there were enough soldiers still within the city to easily repulse the Goths.

The victorious band had no more success when they marched on Constantinople itself. Ammianus tells a story of an Arab soldier who was part of a contingent serving with the Roman troops there. This man went into battle half naked, and when he killed a Goth, he drank the man’s blood. Such savagery suitably impressed the barbarian Goths. Nevertheless, they were even more intimidated by the sheer size of the city and the scale of its fortifications. Fritigern returned to keeping peace with walls and withdrew.

The Goths quickly broke up once again into many small bands. They could not feed themselves if they remained together, and Fritigern’s authority was loose. Many of the individual chieftains preferred a degree of independence.

Rome’s response to its loss at first verged on panic. Local authorities disarmed and massacred parties of Goths throughout the eastern empire, even some serving loyally in the Roman army. For Gratian, it was more important to ensure a smooth transition of power than to focus on dealing with Fritigern. Early in 379, he appointed a man named Flavius Theodosius as eastern emperor, to replace Valens.

The two men proved able to work together, and the new emperor showed considerable talent as an organizer. He raised new troops, and reinforced the laws against draft dodging. It took time to train the recruits, and so he reverted to the earlier strategy of harassing the Goths whenever possible. After a while, Theodosius grew bolder and attacked a larger concentration. His father had been a distinguished general, but the son proved less talented and the enemy cut up his column.

Still, the Romans won the war slowly and gradually, with no more major battles. Instead, they raided and ambushed isolated groups of Goths, tried to keep control of the important mountain passes and gradually hemmed the migrants into a smaller and smaller area.

They were also keen to accept surrenders. Several groups capitulated to Gratian. He removed them, giving them land in Italy. By the end of 382, all of the Goths within the empire had surrendered.

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