Part II: Battle of Adrianople:

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Part II: Battle of Adrianople:

Gothic infantry deployed in front of wagon laager at Adrianople, August 9, AD 378
Many are likely a Gothic leader's retinue, or bodyguard troops
(Illustration courtesy of

Today in Military History: August 9, AD 378

The sole source for this fight is Ammianus Marcellinus, a Greek-born former Roman soldier who lived during the time of the conflict with the Goths. His work Res Gestae had 31 books (chapters), but the first 13 are lost. The battle of Adrianople is included in the last chapter. However, the work has suffered from later footnotes added by various medieval transcribers. The most complete versions are contained in several ninth century manuscripts. Various translations of Ammianus exist.

Battle of Adrianople: First Moves

The Goths had made camp about twelve or fifteen miles east-northeast of the city of Adrianople. As was their custom, they used their estimated 2000 to 5000 heavy wagons as ramparts in building a laager, or wagon fort. It was a large camp, estimated by modern authors to have had a diameter of 1800 feet and a circumference of 5600 feet – just over a mile. It was also probably not a complete circle, but a curved barrier facing in the probable direction of an approaching enemy. There were at least two lines of wagons, also with internal arrangement of wagons to provide street-like pathways within the camp.

Sometime between 1:00 and 2:00 pm, the Roman army came within sight of the Gothic camp. The Romans had been marching since dawn, and were hungry, thirsty, and tired. [A Roman army was said to be able to march 20 miles a day, but that was on a Roman-constructed road, not the cross-country jaunt Valens was forcing upon them.] When they saw the size of the Gothic wagon fort, many of the Romans were…shall we say, concerned. Scouting reports said that the entire Gothic army was only about 10,000 strong, but the camp may have held as many as 30,000 old men, women, and children. About 7000 to 9,000 Gothic infantry were arrayed just outside the laager. There were also some archers either behind or inside the wagons of the laager.

Campaign of Adrianople, August 1-9, AD 378 (Roman routes in red, Goths in black) (Illustration courtesy of
Campaign of Adrianople, August 1-9, AD 378 (Roman routes in red, Goths in black)
(Illustration courtesy of

[Historians are still arguing over the size of both armies. A high of 40,000 for the Goths and 60,000 for the Romans have been hypothesized, and recently discarded. Recent scholars believe the figures are closer to about 12,000 to 15,000 for the Goths and 15,000 to 20,000 for the Romans.]

When the Romans were sighted, Gothic chieftain Fritigern made four quick decisions. First, he placed all his infantrymen inside the laager. Second, he sent messengers to recall his cavalry commanders Alatheus and Saphrax, who had taken the Gothic cavalry to either pillage the neighborhood or to graze the horses. [There is also the possibility the Gothic horsemen were on their way to raid the Roman military depot at the nearby town of Nike.] Third, to further bother the hot, tired, thirsty Romans, Fritigern ordered the grassy fields surrounding his camp to be set ablaze, with the prevailing winds blowing the smoke into the faces of the forming-up Romans. Finally, to stall for time to allow his horsemen to return, he sent a Gothic messenger to parley with the Romans, asking for hostages to guarantee a peaceful settlement. The negotiations delayed the battle perhaps another hour or so.

First Moves

Initial set-up of Goths (to the left) and Romans at Adrianople (Photograph courtesy of Washington Area DBA Gamers
Initial set-up of Goths (to the left) and Romans at Adrianople
(Photograph courtesy of Washington Area DBA Gamers

The Roman Emperor Valens, who still believed he could wipe out the Goths once and for all, rejected the Gothic embassy, and ordered his army to prepare for battle. His foot soldiers lined up in a long line, with Germanic heavy cavalry – part of the Scholae imperial guard – on the right flank and mainly light cavalrymen on the left flank. Many of these men are described as horse archers; some were Arabs while others were Georgians. There was also a unit of Batavian (German) heavy infantrymen deployed behind the main Roman battle line as a reserve. Ammianus mentions that the left flank cavalry took some time to get into position. During the deployment, both armies shouted insults and war cries at each other, the Goths giving "savage and dismal howls."

The first attack came from the Roman left flank horsemen, riding forward without orders and firing arrows into the Gothic camp. They apparently rode right up to the Gothic wagon laager, fought a quick hand-to-hand battle with the barbarian footmen, and then just as precipitously withdrew. By this point, a large dust cloud was visible behind the Gothic camp. Knowing full well its meaning, the Roman legionaries and right flank cavalry then began a slow advance to support the now-retreating Arab and Georgian cavalry.

The Gothic Cavalry Strikes!

At this point, the wayward Gothic cavalry came on the scene. Ammianus describes their attack as "[dashing] out like a thunderbolt does near high mountains." It was certainly no surprise when the barbarian horsemen appeared on the field. However, their mobility and the shock effect of their steed-propelled spear attacks slammed into the Roman cavalry. In fighting that lasted no more than half-an-hour, both the Roman right- and left-flank cavalrymen were driven from the field.

Battle of Adrianople, Three Phases (Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia)
Battle of Adrianople, Three Phases
(Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia)

With their flank protection gone, the Roman infantry line was now exposed. In addition to the Gothic horsemen, barbarian infantry began to emerge from the wagon fort and charged the compressed Roman line. The Roman infantry gathered at the foot of the hill, trying to consolidate their position and defend themselves. Compressed into an ever-shrinking space by Gothic horsemen to the rear and flanks and screaming barbarian footmen to their front, the Romans fought as best they could.

Ammianus wrote:

13.2 "…The [Roman] foot-soldiers thus stood unprotected, and their companies were so crowded together that hardly anyone could pull out his sword or draw back his arm. Because of clouds of dust the heavens could no longer be seen, and echoed with frightful cries. Hence the [Gothic] arrows whirling death from every side always found their mark with fatal effect, since they could not be seen beforehand nor guarded against."

13.3 "But when the barbarians, pouring forth in huge hordes, trampled down horse and man, and in the press of ranks no room for retreat could be gained anywhere, and the increased crowding left no opportunity for escape, our soldiers also, showing extreme contempt of falling in the fight, received their death-blows, yet struck down their assailants; and on both sides the strokes of axes split helmet and breastplate."

Despite being surrounded, the Roman soldiers fought desperately for several hours, right up to sundown – which at that time of year was about 7:00 pm. At this point, the Roman shieldwall finally collapsed from the pressure, and the men of Rome were effectively slaughtered. With the collapse of the resistance, some groups of legionaries managed to escape the field of conflict. The Batavian reserve was already gone – retreating without apparently striking a blow – as were the Arab and Georgian light cavalry. The pursuit did not last long into the night, mainly because there was a new moon. As a result, the battle of Adrianople was over.

Gothic heavy cavalryman, AD 200-493 (Illustration courtesy of
Gothic heavy cavalryman, AD 200-493
(Illustration courtesy of


Casualty figures for this battle are sketchy. If we accept Ammianus's statement that "…barely a third of our army escaped," we are talking of Roman deaths between 10,000 and 14,000 men. Besides the common soldiers, a large number of generals, administrators, and mid-level officers perished in the battle. Gothic casualty figures are unrecorded, but were probably light, perhaps no more than 2000 or 3000 men. The field of battle was littered with bodies of Roman and Goth, but the looting of arms and armor began almost as soon as the fighting ceased.

Footnote #1: Ammianus gave two possible death scenes for the eastern Roman Emperor Valens. One report said Valens was struck and killed by a Gothic arrow. A second story said that the emperor and a depleted bodyguard unit ran from the battlefield to a nearby house, where they barricaded themselves. The Goths surrounded the house and set it on fire, burning everyone to death inside.

Footnote #2: Still overcome with the blood-lust of victory, the Gothic horde marched to Adrianople the next day. They arrived at the city by "the fourth hour of the day," around 9:00 am. In other words, the Gothic cavalry covered the same distance as the Roman army the previous day in half the time; the infantry probably arrived soon afterwards. For the rest of the day, the Gothic horde slammed against the walls of the city. There were also probably attacks on the Roman camp outside the city, where the imperial regalia and treasury were temporarily stored. After fighting nearly the entire day, a late-afternoon thunderstorm drenched both sides, but especially cooled the ardor of the barbarians. Without siege engines to pierce the city walls, the Goths withdrew back to their wagon fort. The Roman-Gothic war would last two more years.

Footnote #3: Late nineteenth and early twentieth century historian Charles Oman erroneously stated that, as a result of the Gothic victory at Adrianople, heavy cavalry gained the ascendancy in European warfare for a thousand years. True, the Gothic heavy cavalrymen struck the decisive blow in this battle. However, there were enough mistakes on the Roman side that Oman's thesis can be fairly well struck down.

Footnote #4: During my internet research, I found a webpage entitled, "What Happened at Adrianople?" by Peter Donnelly ( ). It contained much insight into the various translations of Ammianus, as well as an examination of the geographic area of the battle, meteorological data, and tries to unravel the real lack of information about the battle itself.

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