Battle of Adrianople: Goths Destroy East Roman Army

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Battle of Adrianople: Goths Destroy East Roman Army

"Romans Battle the Goths" 19th century woodcut, author unknown
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 9, AD 378

Today's military history lesson is set in the late fourth century AD, with Romans fighting Visigoths. Historians have termed this battle as the start of the ascendance of cavalry over infantry in European warfare. However, later scholarship has proved the fallacious nature of that claim. It is, however, a cautionary tale of how a battlefield commander can succumb to excessive pride, lose a battle and his life…but I'm getting ahead of myself.


Map of Roman Empire c. AD 300, before accession of Constantine the Great
Map of Roman Empire c. AD 300, before accession of Constantine the Great

By the mid-fourth century, the Roman Empire was beginning to show cracks in its solid walls. It was menaced from beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers by a number of barbarian tribes seeking land. While in the east, the Sassanid Persian Empire was trying to roll back the Roman frontier. Between the years 226 and 363, Rome and Persia fought seven separate wars.

In addition, the Roman imperial administrators began to realize the empire was too large for one man to rule. In 293, the emperor Diocletian divided the empire into eastern and western halves, keeping the east for himself and appointing Maximian as Augustus in the west. This arrangement did not last long, finally ended when Constantine the Great became emperor of a united empire in 324.

In 364,Emperor Valentinian chose his brother Valens to be his co-emperor in the eastern portion of the empire. Valens remained in that post for the next fourteen years. However, when Valentinian died in 375, Valens was sorely disappointed when his nephew Gratian became the emperor in the western half of the empire. Despite his frustration, he governed the east competently, put down several revolts, and fought two major wars against the Goths and the Sassanids.

Valens, co-emperor Roman Empire (eastern half), AD 364-378 - Capitoline Museum, Rome, Italy
Valens, co-emperor Roman Empire (eastern half), AD 364-378
Capitoline Museum, Rome, Italy

During this time, a number of barbarian tribes north of the Danube were being conquered or displaced by the Huns, who would threaten the Roman Empire eighty years later. One of the consequences of the Huns' migration was that large numbers of Goths, Alans, and other tribes sought first protection, then land from the Romans. In 376 a Gothic alliance headed by the leader Fritigern petitioned Valens for permission to settle in the province of Moesia, an area of modern-day Macedonia and Serbia south of the Danube. Valens granted permission for Fritigern's group to cross the Danube. However, once this small group was allowed into Roman territory, other barbarian groups followed them who were not concerned with all the diplomatic niceties.

Valens had hoped to recruit many of the barbarian warriors into his depleted eastern army. Some Goths did join, but not enough to satisfy the emperor. Soon, Roman officials began abusing the Goths, selling them food at high prices, taking hostages, and generally treating the proud people as second-class citizens. Further, the Goths had converted to a sect of Christianity called "Arianism," which was regarded as heretical and led to more friction. A famine in 377 also contributed to the Goths' troubles, and soon a full-fledged revolt broke out. The local Roman forces – called limitanei, equivalent to local police forces – were not equal to the task. Consequently, Valens received word of the Goths' depredations, and decided to lead his army back from the eastern border with the Persians to break the Gothic revolt.

The Two Armies: Late Imperial Roman vs. Visigoth

The Roman army of the late fourth century was not the same one which had achieved its many victories between the second century BC and the second century AD. In fact, the composition of the western and eastern Roman armies was significant. Under the reforms of the emperor Diocletian (ruled 284-305), the Roman army returned to regular annual conscription of citizens, while admitting large numbers of non-citizen barbarian volunteers. However, soldiers remained 25-year professionals.

The old dual organization of legions and auxilia (non-Roman soldiers trained like legionaries but formed into separate units) was abandoned, with citizens and non-citizens now serving together. The old legions were broken up into cohort or even smaller sizes. Units or 'legions' were now only 1000 strong (approximately the size of two cohorts under the old system) as opposed to the 5,000 man legions of the early empire, seeking to make them more mobile. Due to the chronic manpower shortage caused by barbarian invasions, plagues, civil wars and desertion, Diocletian made military service compulsory amongst the sons of soldiers. In desperate times many men mutilated themselves rather than serve in the army, an act made punishable by death.

The army was re-organized, and divided into static frontier troops (limitanei, mentioned above) and powerful mobile field armies (comitantenses). At the same time, a substantial proportion of the army's effectives were stationed in the interior of the empire, in the form of comitatus praesentales, or armies that escorted the emperors.

Late Imperial Roman (Eastern) heavy cavalryman (AD 307-425) (Illustration courtesy of <
Late Imperial Roman (Eastern) heavy cavalryman (AD 307-425)
(Illustration courtesy of

The eastern Roman army evolved to fight its main foe, the Sassanid Persians. Heavily armored horsemen armed with lanced based on Persian cataphracts became a major part of the Roman army (see above illustration). It also included more lightly-armed and –armored horsemen – many were horse archers – who were originally members of barbarian tribes north of the Danube. Many of the foot soldiers' armor was chainmail or segmented metal plates instead of the classic "muscle" breastplate of the early Imperial period. Helmets began to resemble the Germanic spangenhelm or the steepled Persian helmets. In addition to the horse archers, missile fire was provided by foot archers or javelinmen, most were non-Roman barbarians.

The Visigothic army was not a homogenous force. It consisted of various barbarian nations from eastern Europe and the central Asian steppes. Among them were the Alans, the Thervingi, Ostrogoths and other tribes. [For the sake of brevity, I will call this army the Visigoths.] Despite the steppe heritage of many of these tribes, the army of Fritigern was mostly an infantry force, with horsemen comprising perhaps 25-33 percent of its total.

Gothic light horseman (AD 200-493) (Illustration courtesy of
Gothic light horseman (AD 200-493)
(Illustration courtesy of

Heavy cavalrymen usually were the personal retinue/bodyguard of a Gothic chieftain or commander, wearing chainmail and helmet, armed with lances and swords. There were also several units of mounted warriors, armed with javelins and a sword or long knife. [Note that the horsemen of this era rode their steeds without benefit of stirrups, which would be introduced to European armies perhaps two centuries in the future.] The majority of a Gothic army consisted of unarmored warriors wielding swords, axes, spears and even clubs. A smattering of archers completed a typical Gothic force.

Preliminaries to the Battle

Valens left the vicinity of the Syrian city of Antioch in mid-May of 378, arriving at Constantinople on May 30. During the march, he sent several messages to his nephew Gratian – the western Augustus – asking him to detach some his western troops to assist in the quelling of the Gothic revolt in Thrace. Gratian contacted his uncle, saying he would send troops, even though he was involved in a war with the Germanic Allemanni. Part of Gratian's army marched overland – slowly! Another portion of the western Roman army was inexplicably put on ships and sailed through the Adriatic Sea and thence through the Aegean Sea.

As he waited for the arrival of his nephew's soldiers, Valens began raising local levies and hastily training them. Roman scouts are also sent out, seeking to find the location of the Gothic army. Probably by mid-July, Valens leaves the area of Constantinople, heading westward, hoping to meet up with the western troops somewhere near the city of Philippopolis.

Map of Greece, Aegean Sea and western Asia Minor, showing area of the Adrianople Campaign (Map courtesy of the Interactive Ancient Mediterranean web site (
Map of Greece, Aegean Sea and western Asia Minor, showing area of the Adrianople Campaign
(Map courtesy of the Interactive Ancient Mediterranean web site (

In early August, as his army was still marching west to meet Gratian's western troops, Valens received intelligence of a large horde of Goths traveling south-southeastward toward the area north of Adrianople. This area was largely unsettled, a perfect area for the Goths to settle down, do some farming, and breed horses. [Some historians believe Valens and his army had already passed to the west of Adrianople and was countermarching; this is by no means certain.] Other reports stated that a large Gothic raiding party had detached from the traveling horde, seeking to disrupt the Roman supply lines.

On August 6, the Roman army arrived on the outskirts of Adrianople. They build a lightly fortified camp over the next two days to guard his baggage and treasury; apparently the people of Adrianople did not allow them inside the city walls. Early in the afternoon of August 8, Valens receives further information stating that the Gothic horde made camp about 15 miles east of Adrianople. Additional reports say the Gothic horde has no more than 10,000 warriors within it.

That night Valens calls a meeting of his subordinates, which includes military and civilian officials (he was the emperor, after all, and was basically "governing from the saddle"). Some of his lieutenants urge caution, feeling it would be more advantageous to make a junction with Gratian's western troops before seeking battle. Others, including Valens himself, felt that the eastern Roman army was sufficient to take on the barbarians, so why wait to share the glory? As a result, the next morning, Valens ordered his army to march toward the reported site of the Gothic camp.

Tomorrow: Battle of Adrianople, Part II

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hey whats your name?

They weren't Visigoths at this time, merely an alliance of Thervingi and Greuthingi

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