The Battle of Adrianople. 378 AD.

The Battle of Adrianople was the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. The fact is, one could almost point to any Roman defeat prior to Adrianople as a portend to how well the moribund Roman nation would fare against the increasing encroachment upon their borders. In order to retain order, the Romans split their huge empire into two empires, one in the East and one in the West.  Emperor Valens ruled the Empire in the East. He was in his fifties, growing fat and blind. The Western portion of the Roman Empire was ruled by his 20 year-old nephew Gracien. Although young, Gracian had already impressed his enemies on the battlefield, and his military victories nonetheless, his uncle did not respect him. Here we see how the destruction of one’s own centuries’ old country does not trump the always surprising strength of the green eyed monster.


Across the Danube in the East, Goths were trying to find inroads into the Roman territories. The Romans of course thought they were invading. The Goths were distinctly not invading. They had asked Valens permission to cross. Valens granted permission to cross the Danube and live in Roman territory in return for military service to Rome. Of course he didn’t realize that the Goths would take the invitation universally. No, the Goth leader wasn’t just talking about a few tribesmen of the Thervingi clan, he was referring to all the Gothic tribes, and since there was no census at the time we can only estimate how many Goths were emigrating. It may have turned out to be hundreds of thousands, because  the Goths were driven by desperate warfare and scorched Earth behind them and a need for a place to live before them. So they began fording the Danube by themselves.  By 376 AD Gothic tribes were all over Easter Roman land.


Lupicinus, a local Roman leader decided that he would stop this Gothic barbarian pestilence and murder Fritigern and his staff and then force the bulk of the Goths back across the river. The Thervingi were the largest Gothic clan seeking refuge. At the banquet, Fritigern and his staff got wind of the ambush and escaped. The first thing Firtigern did was stage an attack on Lupicinus’ garrison at Marcianople in Turkey. Badly outnumbered, Lupicinus arrayed his infantry legion in front of Marcianople’s entrance. Fritigern cavalry blasted through the Roman lines, surrounded those in retreat. On that day, otherwise he killed 5000 Legionnaires.


As word spread that a Gothic force overran a Roman garrison, other tribes joined the fight in a headlong charge for Rome itself. Emperor Valens realized that only he and his three Roman legions could be theoretically standing between the barbarian hordes and the final day of Rome.


An assault on the walls of Adrianople by Firtigern’s Gothic warriors was ineffectual. The Romans cut down many enemies with arrows fired from the wall parapets-walls that the Goths could not scale or defeat because they had no siege equipment. So Firitgern marched his forces away. The forces he commanded included Thervings, Greutungs, and Alans. The Germanic tribes from Scandanavia were encroaching across the Roman border to the west as well.


Why all of a sudden were the tribes of Northern Europe appearing the borders of Rome?


The scorched Earth mentioned previously was a result of the Huns. Huns were on the rampage. In fact, to the East, the Fritigern was really looking for a sanctuary against their relentless attacks. The Danube would make quite a robust defense against them. To the West Gratian, his nephew and Sebastianus, under Gratien’s command, both fielded Roman armies in successful battles against the Lentienses, and the Alamanni. Now something else was happening, Valens was beginning to grow envious of his nephew’s fame and glory, and couldn’t wait for his own. Valen’s picket scouts found a Goth encampment 18 kilometers from Adrianople and only saw what looked like a force of around only

Emperor Valens

10,000 men. What they did not see were 10,000 or more cavalry grazing in the land around them. And they didn’t realize this force of Gothic light cavalry would soon be on the way to reinforce Fritigern. Valen’s commanders were split on the advice. Some advised that he attack now while he outnumbered the Gothic position. They all knew eventually other tribes would join this tribe of Goths, as that is how the barbarians fought. So attack now and win. Others advised him to wait until his nephew Gratian arrived. Gratian was bringing a huge cavalry contingent up to Adrianople only days away. Valens made a fateful decision. He would jump, both feet into the battle and surprise Fritigern. He would defeat Fritigern and have the glory to himself rather than share it with Gratien. Leaving the equipment train behind the walls of the city, Valens brought his force outside the city and in combat order, ordered a march to the Goth encampment. It was 100 degrees Farenheit, the men had not eaten, they were thirsty and they marched up to the encampment in poor order.


Sources are split on the numbers. Some say the Romans had 25,000 men at Adrianople, and others say as many as 60,000 Romans fought there. Some sources say the Goths had 60,000 warriors fighting at Adrianople and other say 100,000. Perhaps they were counting the women and the children. This happens often in military history and it’s important to keep in mind the fact that actual facts of the histories of some of the most famous battles are in question.


The Goths literally circled their wagons, protected the women and the children, and marched out in front of the Romans. Fritigern now had to stall for time. He needed his Gothic cavalry to return. He sent out a peace emissary and that ate up some time. Then he offered a tribute and that ate up some time. The Romans were tired, hungry, thirsty and to harass the Romans, the Goths were burning the fields to produce smoke. Around 2 PM, a Roman unit, led by an officer of the Roman Army of Thrace, began a skirmish with the Goths. It went badly. The Gothic cavalry drove back the Roman skirmish line, but the action essentially was a spark in a pile of kindling.


Advanced portions of the Gothic cavalry began to arrive and poured in from behind the Romans at this unfortunate timing and the Roman order of battle on their right flank crumbled. The Romans retreated to the base of the hill where the Goths were assembled and there they were surrounded and all killed. Other portions of the Roman line held for a time and even made headway. But 4 PM, the rest of the Gothic cavalry poured in and routed the Romans. As many as 25,000 Romans may have been killed. Valens, himself was abandoned by his guards and died on the battlefield.


The essential change this affected was not the crumbling of the Roman Empire. Rome in the East went on for a while. But the main core of the Roman Army in the East was defeated. Rome was not in the shape financially to replace all these assets even from mercenaries willing to fight in return for land. The last time a Large hostile force resided inside Roman lands was during the Second Punic War when Carthaginians were unchallenged on Roman soil fro over a decade. This time, the hostile force would not be removed.



The Battle of Adrianople 378, by David W. Koeller. 2003. April 2, 2007

Ammianus Marcellinus, Historiae.

Adrianople AD 378, The Goths Crush Rome’s Legions, by Simon MacDowell and Howard Gerrard

History Channel’s History of Rome, Invasion of the Goths.




3 thoughts on “The Battle of Adrianople. 378 AD.”

  1. Valens was a suprisingly good adtsaiitrnmor, and no better or worse than most of his generation of “Romans” at generaling, but by the time of Adrianople, the Roman army, especially the Balkan units, was a poorly organized hodgepodge of differently equipped and trained merceneries from half a dozen different cultures. The Goths, on the other hand, were the only traditionally organized Romans on the field. They had been the redheaded stepson of northern Europe for generations, bullied, beaten, and chased by everyone from steppe nomads to Gaulish militia. Finally, they got permission to settle in Roman territory, and did a wonderful job as trained heavy infantry, with a small minority going on to become crack cavalry, equal (except for archery skills) to the Byzantine cataphractii. They wanted nothing but to become Romans, and do the best job they could for the empire that had taken them in. Unfortunately, that empire no longer had a clue, and, after several generations of abuse, the Goths were forced choose between rebellion and starvation, with those surviving starvation often being sold into slavery. The real heroes of the battle were the Goths, who, after three or more generations in the Roman army were disciplined, competent, and honorable. Why Valens thought he could beat what were essentially tough Roman regulars with an army composed mostly of support troops (light infantry skirmishers, Spanish archers trained specifically for siege war, conscript cavalry) is beyond me. Even if the Gothic cavalry hadn’t returned from it’s chevauchie of the countryside in time to roll up his flank, the battle would have been lost. Valens might have gotten away, but in the tradition of the times, he almost certainly would have been whacked by his own officers. Conversely, the Byzantines treated the Goths with the respect they deserved, and got centuries of brave and honorable service from them. The Goths and their Frankish cousins deserve more from history than their typical depiction as smelly, hairy savages wrapped in grease and bearskins. They were professionals, almost the last of their kind in the west, and the only real continuation of what was best in the old Roman army. They also differed from the decadent Romans of their day in thinking an oath was a sacred, binding thing, more important than life, rather than a momentary agreement used for short term advantage. Kind of the difference between a kid from middle America nowadays who enlists, as versus someone from a liberal urban area who thinks the enlistee is at best a useful idiot, at worst a sociopathic danger to be reeducated. Hurray for the “Badguys”.

  2. Using Ancient Rome 3D in Google Earth, you can explore Rome as it appeared in 320 A.
    In addition, the observing surgeons could transmit their comments to the operating surgeon, who could read them
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  3. Also the Roman Empire endured until 1452. Yes, that is the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine empire, but it had the same institutions as the “old” one, and evolved from that. The only difference being that they spoke Greek instead of Latin. Our western cultural viewpoint tends to obscure that fact.

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