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In 376 A.D., the Roman Empire was still strong. It was run as well as it ever had been and boasted a large and efficient army. So when a group of migrating Gothic tribesmen and their families arrived that year at the River Danube, which marked the frontier of the Roman Empire, there were well-established precedents for dealing with them.

Emperor Flavius Julius Valens was pleased at the thought of settling them on land in the Roman provinces, thinking they might provide recruits for his army. His local commanders sensed an opportunity for profit, for they controlled the food supplies on which the migrants would depend as soon as they crossed the frontier. After Lupicinus, the magister militum (governor general) of Thrace, had extorted their valuables—in some cases even their children, whom he would sell as slaves—he invited the leaders of the Goths to dinner. During the meal, a rebellion started, which turned into a bitter, six-year war.

On August 9, 378 A.D., near the city of Adrianople (modern Edirne in European Turkey), these Goths and their allies defeated a Roman army and killed Valens himself. This disaster is often seen as a landmark event—a key moment in a process that led to the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire a century later. The Goths who sacked Rome itself in 410 doubtless included many men whose fathers and grandfathers had fought at Adrianople, and just possibly a few old warriors who had been present at that great Gothic victory.

Thus, goes this story line, it was bad luck, poor decisions, and poor leadership that produced the disaster, kicking off a chain of events that eventually brought to an end centuries of Roman rule. By the end of the 5th century, the Goths within the empire would split into two groups: the Visigoths (or West Goths) who conquered Spain, and the Ostrogoths (East Goths) who carved out a kingdom for themselves in Italy.

Yet a closer look, not just at the battle of Adrianople but also at the six-year war that pitted the might of the Roman Empire against two small groups of migrating tribesmen suggests a different scenario.

Far from being strong and well run, the Roman Empire was already showing serious structural flaws. And that turned a minor problem into a major crisis.

Most modern estimates suggest that the 4th-century Roman army was large, perhaps as large as 650,000—twice the size of the force controlled by the Caesars in the first and second centuries. It was divided into two—the limetanei who were stationed on the frontiers, and the better-paid comitatenses who did not have fixed garrisons and were billeted in towns and cities during the winter months. The latter were seen as mobile troops, and were often branded as elite. Not tied to one province, they were free to move to wherever they were required.

The limetanei protected the frontiers, and controlled all but the largest invasions, which would then be dealt with by a field force of comitatenses. This is claimed to have been a far more flexible system than emperors employed in the 1st and 2nd centuries, when almost all the army was stationed on the frontier, and could not be moved elsewhere without seriously weakening these provinces.

However, only an emperor could command a major field army and deal with a serious military problem, so that by the 4th century at least two emperors were usually needed to manage the larger army: one ruling the western provinces and one the eastern lands. This division of labor permitted the emperors to concentrate on regional problems, but as colleagues, they could combine resources when a major threat emerged. The manpower, wealth, size, and efficiency of the Romans’ professional army made the empire immensely stronger than any of its neighbors. No enemy, not even Sassanian Persia, was capable of matching Roman power, still less of destroying the empire. That did not mean that the Romans would always win easily.

The Goths were not a single nation but a loose grouping of tribes and clans, with many different leaders. At least half a dozen groups of Goths existed in the late 4th century and there were probably still more that go unmentioned in our sources. (The more familiar division between east and west Goths, or Ostrogoths and Visigoths, would not develop until the next century.) At this time a small migration was set off as they fled the Huns, with whom the Romans were not yet in direct contact, although rumors spread that the savage Huns were barely human. The Gothic migrants were called Tervingi, but there were also other Tervingi who did not join the migration. There was not a massive wave of fugitives driven toward the empire, and there is no indication that more people were now on the move than in many earlier migrations.

Two chieftains, Alavivus and Fritigern, were the most prominent leaders of the group. Modern estimates suggest that they led some 10,000 warriors, and several times that number of women, children, and other noncombatants. This is plausible, but remains largely conjecture. In 376, the Tervingi arrived on the far bank of the lower Danube and sent ambassadors across. They asked the nearest Roman authorities to allow them to enter the empire and give them land on which to settle. There was nothing new about tribes wanting to cross into the empire, and the Goths knew any attempt to force entrance to the empire would be met with ruthless violence.

They also knew their request was well worth their while. On many occasions over the last few centuries, Rome had accepted substantial groups that then settled within the provinces. Back in the 1st century, a senatorial governor had proudly recorded that “he brought over more than 100,000 of the people who live across the Danube to pay tribute to Rome, along with their wives and families.” Yet by the 4th century, no emperor trusted any of his subordinates with as much local power as governors had enjoyed in the early empire, for fear of civil war. The Tervingi delegation had to journey from the Danube to the emperor, Valens, who was then at Antioch in Syria, keeping an eye on the eastern frontier at a time of tension with the Persians. The emperor, who had then ruled for 13 years, granted the Goths’ request, for his advisers had encouraged Valens to see the migrants as a source of army recruits. By the time the ambassadors returned to the Danube with the good news, they had travelled well over a thousand miles.

The Romans did not always grant migrants access, however. A short time after the Tervingi request, more Goths, this time called the Greuthungi (but once again not all of the people known by this name), arrived on the Danube seeking permission to cross. Valens refused their request.

With all this experience, bringing the Tervingi into the empire should have been a textbook operation, but there were problems from the beginning. Not enough boats were available to ferry the migrants and their goods and carts over the Danube. Some drowned when they grew desperate and tried to swim the great river.

Feeding so many people was a major task, but the army was accustomed to supplying large forces on campaign and there was a well-established system of authorities taxing grain and other essentials, to be stored in major cities, ready for use. Now, however, once the Tervingi were inside the empire, the system failed; there was not enough food to meet their needs. Some of this may have been deliberate—the local Roman commanders colluded to profit from the migrants’ desperation. Soldiers had gathered up large numbers of dogs, and sold these to the hungry Tervingi; at times they were said to have handed over a child to become a slave in return for the carcass of a single dog.

Eventually, the Goths were brought to Marcianopolis, the headquarters of Lupicinus, the commander of the comitatenses currently stationed in Thrace, and the man who had devised the trade of dogs for children. Although the limetanei were supposed to remain on the frontiers, in this case it looks as if many of them had been drawn away to help supervise the Goths. At some point, the group of Greuthungi who had been refused entrance to the empire crossed the Danube anyway. The Roman army seems to have been incapable of stopping them.

As tensions were increasing between the Goths, the Roman soldiers, and the inhabitants of Marcianopolis, Lupicinus invited the Tervingi leaders to a banquet. While they dined, hostility in the city spilled over into open fighting and, apparently the worse for wear after an evening of entertainment, Lupicinus brusquely ordered the chiefs arrested and their attendants killed.

Lupicinus’s invitation might have been a deliberate ploy to neutralize the leaders, since Roman commanders several other times in this period entertained barbarian leaders over dinner only to arrest or even murder them. More probably this was straightforward diplomacy that went awry when fighting erupted outside. Fritigern then persuaded Lupicinus that only he could calm the warriors, and he was set free. Nothing more is heard of Alavivus.

The Tervingi drew away from the city and returned to their main camp some nine miles away. Lupicinus, now deciding that force was appropriate, gathered the immediately available troops and led them against the Goths.

He walked straight into an ambush. The Roman column was routed. Allegedly, its leader was one of the first to flee.

In the 4tg century, various tribes were poised to cross the Roman Empire's northern border, either by invitation of force. The arrival of the Gothic Tervingi and Greuthungi in 376 A.D. sparked a 6-year war.
In the 4tg century, various tribes were poised to cross the Roman Empire’s northern border, either by invitation of force. The arrival of the Gothic Tervingi and Greuthungi in 376 A.D. sparked a 6-year war. (Map by Baker Vail)

The migrants had become rebels, but they were inside the Roman Empire and had no homes outside its borders. Soon, more Goths, who had been recruited into the Roman army but not yet sent to a garrison, joined them.

They were waiting outside Adrianople and there had already been friction with a local magistrate, who now raised a force from the city, including the workers from a state arms factory. The Goths cut this hastily armed militia to pieces, plundering them of their newly made weapons before joining Fritigern.

The combined army tried to besiege Adrianople, but failed dismally. As they withdrew, Fritigern sullenly reminded them that he “kept peace with walls,” meaning that the Goths lacked the resources and skills to take cities.

Not long afterward, the Greuthungi joined him as well. Smaller numbers of Gothic slaves the Romans had captured in past wars now fled to their kinsmen, with whom they could become warriors again. By 377, Fritigern had even hired some bands of Huns and Alans to fight against Rome, paying them with plunder.

Thrace was a rich region, and the Goths divided into smaller bands to ransack its farms and smaller settlements. The tribesmen needed to keep moving to feed themselves, since they would quickly consume the supplies in any one area and were unable to conquer cities, which contained the largest stores of food. Indeed, logistics meant they could not stay concentrated in one large group for long. Fritigern could only hope that his separate bands would have time to assemble if a sizable Roman force pressed them.

At first the Roman response to this raiding was weak. In theory, the division between mobile comitatenses and the more static limetanei was supposed to provide strong field forces capable of dealing with major problems of this sort. But Lupicinus and his main force had been badly mauled, and there were very few other comitatenses in Thrace.

Many troops were tied down providing garrisons to secure the cities or guarding the main passes through the mountains to restrict the Goths’ movements. Some were in the east with Valens, or otherwise committed. It was not until 377 that the Romans scraped together a big enough force to act more aggressively. Units came both from the eastern provinces and from Flavius Gratianus Gratian, the 19-year-old nephew of Valens, who ruled the Western Empire. Yet both emperors had other commitments and there was no true reserve anywhere. The field force they eventually sent to Thrace was small.

Legions had once numbered about 5,000 men. By this period, their full strength was far less, and probably no more than 1,000 or so. Most operations were small in scale, and even emperors often led armies numbering no more than a few thousand men. The 4th-century Roman army specialized in low-level warfare. Pitched battles were rare. They fought instead mainly as the barbarians fought, using speed, surprise attacks, and ambush. Roman troops proved adept at this type of fighting, aided by their training, discipline, clear command structure, and well-organized logistical support.

The field force that began fighting the Goths in 377 used all these assets to advantage. They isolated several bands of marauders and overwhelmed them in surprise attacks. On one occasion the Goths were able to reply in kind. They cut several Roman units to pieces outside the city of Dibaltum (properly Deultum, modern Debelt in Bulgaria, which in this period was still on the coast of the Black Sea, although it is now some distance inland).

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 article first appeared in military history quarterly

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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.

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.

At Adrianople, the Roman cavalry charged prematurely, setting in motion a chain of attacks and counterattacks resulting in a Roman defeat as complete as that at Cannae in 216 B.C.
At Adrianople, the Roman cavalry charged prematurely, setting in motion a chain of attacks and counterattacks resulting in a Roman defeat as complete as that at Cannae in 216 B.C. (Map by Baker Vail)

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.

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 B.C., 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 4th 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 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.

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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.

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.