The Roman Empire Loses Its Grip at Adrianople in AD 378

By Adrian Goldsworthy
12/2/2009 • MHQ

The fate of Fritigern is not mentioned in our sources. It may be that he was dead, and it is distinctly possible that this aided the process of negotiation, so no Roman had to negotiate with a man who had defeated and killed an emperor. The Goths got most of what they had asked for in the first place, and what they had requested from Valens, before Adrianople. The bulk of them settled in Thrace, in their own concentrated communities. Their own chieftains seem to have retained a considerable degree of power and enjoyed much local autonomy.

Goths served in the Roman army, but did so under favorable conditions. It was probably as good a settlement as they could have expected.

The Romans’ eventual victory is unsurprising, for the Goths could never hope to harm the empire seriously. That it took the Romans six years, during which they failed to win a major battle and suffered a series of defeats, is remarkable. This was certainly not typical of campaigns against barbarian tribes in this period, although admittedly battles were rare in these operations. When they did occur, the Romans usually won, but in general they preferred to launch surprise attacks and destroy enemies when they were unable to resist.

To some extent this supports the view that what came to be known as the Gothic War was a series of unfortunate mistakes, brought on by bad judgment—whether Gratian’s in advancing too slowly or Valens’s in attacking without support and then rushing prematurely into battle without properly forming his army. Yet the mistakes, incompetence, and even corruption multiply in the account of the wider war, from the very first misbehavior of Lupicinus that provoked the rebellion.

The Roman army and empire won most campaigns in the end because it was difficult for it to lose them. Yet there is something deeply unimpressive in how slowly it directed its resources to deal with a problem. The Gothic War is one of the clearest indications of this inability and other underlying weaknesses. The army was expensive, overstretched, and hindered by a confused command structure that made it difficult to get anything done. There were serious longstanding problems with the state as well, which made the eventual decline and fall of the Roman Empire likely, and perhaps even inevitable. The spectacular disaster of Adrianople, and the Romans’ poor performance in the wider Gothic War, were symptoms rather than causes of this. MHQ

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