On a hot summer’s day in early August, 378 A.D., the elite field army of the Eastern Roman Empire and a tribal army of refugee Visigoths fought on a dusty plain miles from the Roman city of Adrianople.
This battle was once considered the “tipping point” that led to the fall of the Roman Empire approximately a century later. It has also been cited as the moment when cavalry began to eclipse infantry as the dominant arm on the battlefield. Recent scholarship, however, contradicts this traditional view. While certainly traumatic for the Roman psyche, this clash between Rome and her hereditary enemies, the Goths has been overblown in importance by historians of the last two centuries.
The Goths and Romans had been enemies for centuries.
Originating in Sweden (the southern region of which is to this day called East and West Gautland: “Gothland”), the Gothic nation had migrated in the early Christian Era onto the plains of western Ukraine and northern Rumania. By the mid-4th century, under their greatest king, Ermaneric, the Goths had created a powerful kingdom.
The broad rivers of the Ukraine flow southward, draining into the Black Sea. Throughout the 3rd Century A.D., these alluvial highways gave Gothic longships access to the Black Sea. As would there Viking ancestors from Sweden centuries later, Gothic fleets raided the civilized communities along its shores. Passing through the Bosporus and into the Aegean, they brought fire and sword to the ancient towns and cities of Greece and Asia Minor. Ephesus was one of the many cities
sacked and pillaged. There the Great Temple of Diana, one of the “Seven Wonders of the World”, was finally destroyed for all time.
Romans living along the Aegean Coast might well have prayed for deliverance from the “furore Gothicnorum”, the fury of the Goths!
On land, the Goths were equally formidable. In 249 an army of Goths and other barbarian warriors under the Gothic king, Cniva, crossed the lower Danube River; raiding into the Roman province of Moesia. After nearly 2 years, they were brought to bay by the Roman Emperor Decius, near the town of Forum Terebronii (modern Razgrad, Bulgaria). On swampy ground, the advancing Roman heavy infantry and cavalry bogged down; and were overcome by showers of Gothic javelins and arrows. Decius was killed, becoming the first Roman emperor to be slain in battle.
This defeat by the Goths made a deep impression on the Romans. And though the Gothic menace abated after their crushing defeat at the hands of the Emperor Claudius “Gothicus” at the Battle of Naissus in 269 A.D.; they remained a “boggyman” in the minds of later Romans.
In the 4th Century of the Christian Era, a greater “boggyman” stormed out of the vast steppes of Central Asia: the Huns!
These nomadic herdsmen had been driven from the borders of China by aggressive military actions by the Han Chinese. (It is the subject of a great deal of scholarly debate as to whether or not the Huns are the same people as those known in Chinese sources as the Xiongnu. To date there is no consensus on this question.) Over a century, they had drifted ever westwards, across the “sea of grass” that covers the Eurasian hinterland. Along their westward trek, they subjugated or displaced other tribes of nomads. In 370 (approximately), after subjugating the Alans, they entered the lands of the Gothic king, Ermaneric.
The Goths, whose armies were still primarily composed of javelin or bow armed infantry, were no match for the swift-moving Huns, armed with the powerful and deadly composite bow. Like all Asian steppe nomads, Hunnic warfare was a matter of herding or luring the enemy onto killing grounds, where arrow barrages killed or disabled at a distance; till the enemy was weakened enough to be finished off with lance, sword, or lasso (which the expert Hun herdsmen used to rope their enemies and pull them off of their horses and drag to their death!).
The Gothic Kingdom of Ermaneric was overthrown; and the old king committed suicide. Rather than submit, the Gothic nation fled westward. In 376 A.D., led by Fritigern, they found themselves refugees pushing against the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire.
The Roman authorities agreed to allow the Goths to cross into the Empire for succor. The Romans were interested in settling these warlike people in the frontier province of Moesia, site of earlier Gothic devastations; as a buffer against other “barbarian” incursions. This was a common arrangement the Romans had employed throughout the empire in the past, enlisting such tribes as foederati: tribal warriors allowed to settle on Roman territory in return for military service.
Under the terms of the agreement allowing the Goths to cross into Roman territory, the Goths were to refrain from plundering nearby Roman towns and farms; and the Romans were to supply the refugees with needed food and other essentials. Unfortunately for the Romans, as all too often was the case, the local officials were both corrupt and short-sided. According to the contemporary historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, these Roman officials cheated the Goths and drove them into rebellion.
For the next two years, the Goths raided throughout the southern Balkans, as various Roman generals attempted to deal with them with varying degrees of success.
In the summer of 378, the Eastern Roman Emperor, Valens, arrived back in Constantinople after years of campaigning in Armenia against the Persians. He planned to take the field in person against the Goths; to bring about a “final solution” to the Gothic menace.
Valens had every reason to anticipate complete success. Early in his reign, in 369, he had won a short war against the Goths along the Danube. Earlier in the year, his general Sebastianus had success in defeating Gothic detachments in Macedonia and Thrace by use of guerrilla tactics.
The two armies faced each other 8 miles from the town of Adrianople, where the Goths parked their tribal wagons on a hill facing southward; in a defensive circle, called a “wagonberg”. These Gothic wagons were not just filled with the booty taken over three years of pillaging. This was a nation on the move: the wagonberg sheltered the warrior’s families as well. Not enough has been made by commentators concerning the morale effect that defending their families and their only homes must have had upon the Goths in the coming battle. Certainly knowing that defeat would mean death or enslavement for the ones they loved waiting in the camp, must have leant a desperate strength to Gothic arms.
Cognizant of the significance of possible defeat, and of the strength the Emperor had arrayed against them, the Goths sent emissaries of peace on both the 8th of August, and again on the day of battle, the 9th. Knowing that only a decisive defeat of the barbarians could guarantee an end to Gothic raids, and perhaps with the example of Claudius Gothicus to draw upon, Valens rejected these overtures. However, negotiations on the 9th took up much of the day; and the battle did not commence till late in the afternoon.
ARMY OF THE LATE ROMAN EMPIRE
The Roman army of the 4th Century A.D. bore little resemblance to that which had followed the eagles of Caesar or Trajan.
Gone were the 5,000 strong legions of pilum-and-gladius armed legionaries, supported by formations of infantry skirmishers and cavalry on the flanks; who once hacked-and-slashed their way methodically through every enemy they faced. By the Battle of Adrianople, the Roman armies had become a balanced force of spear-and-javelin (or dart) armed heavy infantry; supported by elite regiments of javelin or bow armed skirmishers; and units of heavy and light cavalry.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE ROMAN LEGIONARY
The core of the infantry was still the men of the legio, the legions. However, the legion of the late empire had shrunk to less than a third its earlier size; becoming instead a compact, mobile regiment of 1,200 men. Their equipment was now a spear (which could be thrown or retained in hand for thrusting or warding off cavalry); augmented with a pair javelins or a brace of throwing darts. These were called martiobarbulum or plumbata, an invention of the 3rd century; made of a lead sphere to which fins and an iron spike were attached. These were held on a rack of half-a-dozen within the soldier’s shield. Completing the soldier’s armament was his double-edged spatha. Originally the Roman cavalry sword and ancestor of the Medieval broadsword, it had now replaced the short gladius as the standard side arm of all Roman soldiers.
Gone was the famous banded metal body armor of the earlier legionaries, the famous lorica segmentata. The milites of Valens either wore no armor at all, or (officers and front rankers) mail/scale shirts or cuirasses of bronze or raw hide. Also gone were the classical cylindrical-rectangular shields (scuta) associated with the earlier Roman legionary. Now the Roman infantry used a flat oval shield, closer in design and style to that used by the light infantry thereophoroi of the 3rd century B.C. Hellenistic dynasts!
In the time of Constantine the Great (circa 300 A.D.), certain units of elite auxilia (light infantry) regiments had been raised from German tribes along the Rhine frontier. These were called Auxilia Palatina; and were of the highest status. These supported the legions much more completely than the auxilia of the earlier empire; taking their place in the first line of battle, the legions arrayed in the second line behind them! These auxilia were armed much like their heavier legionary brethren. The distinction was often more one of training and mission than equipment. The size of the auxilia regiments was about half that of the Legion, 600 strong.
The Roman cavalry-arm had been expanded and improved during the 3rd century, beginning under the Emperor Gallienus. In the Eastern Empire particularly, the best cavalry regiments had status as high (or higher) than that of their infantry counterparts.
Roman cavalry was roughly divided into light and heavy cavalry. This distinction reflected mission as much as armament. Heavy cavalry provided a shock force in battle, and guarded the flanks of the main infantry line. Light cavalry operated as mounted skirmishers in battle, on the outside end of the battle line. On campaign, they scouted, foraged, and screened the army as a whole; the traditional mission of light cavalry throughout history.
Javelin-armed light cavalry were recruited from the Illyria and North Africa; while bow-armed cavalry units were recruited (and mostly deployed in) the East. In most cases, such light cavalry wore little armor beyond a helmet; though many of the javelin-armed regiments carried large shields (scuta) for protection.
While the infantry of the Late Empire were (by-and-large) lighter equipped and armored than their counterparts in earlier eras; the evolution of Roman heavy cavalry had gone the opposite direction. Borrowing first from the Sarmatians and later the Sassanid Persians, Roman heavy cavalry now included units of the very heaviest armored cavalry indeed: units of cataphracti and clibanarii. These were lance-armed cavalry, both man and horse covered in banded or scale armor (though not all cataphract units rode armored horses). Their lance was 12 foot long, called a “Kontos”
Such units were a tiny percent of Roman heavy cavalry. Though some of the regiments arrayed on the Roman side at Adrianople were clibanarii or cataphracts (particularly among the Imperial Guard units of the “Scholae“); the bulk of the heavy cavalry were of the more traditional style, armed with javelin or a short, light spear called a lancea. Some of these regiments were called promoti, suggesting they were promoted from the traditional cavalry detachments once attached to the legions.
In battle, the army deployed in two lines: the first composed of auxilia, supported by the legions in the second. Archers could be formed into a third line, to shower the enemy with missiles from above. Artillery, if available, would be placed on the flanks or, if the army was deployed along a ridge, on the highest ground.
Cavalry supported the flanks, with the heaviest units closest to the infantry; and lighter cavalry further out on the flanks. The general and his mounted bodyguard took position on the right flank of the second line.
Unlike the earlier (mostly heavy infantry) armies of the Republic and early Principate, which were marked by aggressive, offensive tactics; the armies of the Late Empire preferred to stand on the defensive in battle. The enemy would be met by a shower of missiles: javelins, darts, and arrows. If the first line of infantry auxilia was pierced, the heavy-infantry legionaries of the second line would deal with the breakthrough.
Light cavalry would harass the enemy’s flanks and rear; heavy cavalry would protect the main infantry line, opposing and (if possible) attempting to break the enemy’s cavalry. If the cavalry on the flanks were able to defeat the enemy cavalry, they would pursue them off the field; and if possible turn onto the enemy’s center.
These tactics are in many ways reminiscent of those of the Hellenistic “Successor” Kingdoms of the 4th-2nd century B.C. It is likely that Antigonas ”One Eyed” or Antiochus the Great would have felt more at home in command of a Late Roman army than would have either Scipio Africanus or Julius Caesar!
Since the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine nearly a century earlier, Roman land forces had been divided broadly into three categories:
1. Limitanei – The garrisons of the frontier fortresses, or limes, these units traced their lineage to the legions and auxiliaries who had held these posts since Augustus. By the time of Valens, their quality was relatively poor; though they could be trusted to hold their border forts against most threats. On occasion, the better of them were “seconded” to the mobile field forces. Most of these units were under the command of various Dux (Dukes), commanders of the main fortresses and border garrisons of the empire.
2. Comitatensis – The mobile field armies that backed-up the limitani along the borders. Such mobile forces were stationed in the towns of the interior. All of the frontier provinces had such an army supporting the frontier limitani, ready to respond to major invasions. These troops were of higher quality, and though some units traced their lineage to detachments from the legions of an earlier era, many were newer units formed during the 3rd century to combat the invasions and raids that marked that turbulent century. These armies were commanded by Comes (Counts).
3. Palatinae – These were the elite units attached to the armies that served directly under the Emperor or his top officer, the Magister Militum Praesentalis; or “Master of Soldiers in the Imperial Presence”. These soldiers were the elite cavalry and infantry regiments of the Empire.
Both the Eastern and Western Empires had mirror-image versions of this structure. In some case, the titles and exact composition differed. However, most of these differences were superficial, not structural.
The army at Adrianople was drawn only from that of the Eastern Empire. The Western Emperor, Valens’ nephew Gratian, was at that moment marching through Illyria with a Western army to his uncle’s aid. But Valens was loath to wait for their arrival; and might have been equally reluctant to share the “glory” of defeating the Goths with his nephew. Had he chose otherwise, the outome might have been very different, indeed.
THE BATTLE OF ADRIANOPLE, AUGUST 9, 378
The army that Valens brought to Adrianople was composed of units drawn from three Eastern Roman field armies: the comitatensis Army of Thrace, which normally backed-up the garrisons along the Danube frontier; and the two elite Praesentalis (“In the Presence” of the Emperor) armies of the East. These were normally stationed around the capital, Constantinople and at Antioch, in Syria, respectively. Both these latter armies had returned with Valens from his Persian and Armenian campaigns; and all were veterans, the very best troops in the Eastern Empire.
There has been wildly varying estimates as to the size of the forces deployed at Adrianople. Enlightenment and Victorian Age historians, who tended to over-blow the importance of the battle, put the size of the Romans deployed as high as 60,000; with a Gothic force appropriately larger as well. Modern scholars note that while all three armies, at full strength, indeed numbered some 66,000 troops; this “paper strength” doesn’t take into account casualties from recent hard campaigning (the Army of Thrace in particular having been roughly handled by the Goths over the last two years); nor detachments left to garrison key places. It is highly unlikely that Valens would have left the still turbulent Eastern provinces without some stiffening garrisons. Additionally, after arriving back in Constantinople, some of his forces would have been granted sick leave, and the garrison of the capital reinforced. At Adrianople, additional troops were detached to garrison that town, as well; where the imperial regalia and the army’s pay-chest was lodged during the battle. By the time the two armies met, the Romans likely numbered only somewhere between 20,000-30,000.
Fritigern’s forces were even smaller. Marcellinus records that Roman scouts reported the Gothic strength before the battle at 10,000; a figure Marcellinus dismisses. If the scouts were indeed reporting accurately what they saw before the battle, their report would not have included the bulk of the Gothic cavalry; who throughout the day were returning from a foraging expedition. So it is more likely that the Goths numbered some 12,000 to 16,000 strong; smaller than the forces Valens brought against them.
Most of the Goths were unarmored infantry; carrying a large oval shield, and armed with javelins. The nobles fought on horseback, as javelin-armed heavy cavalry.
The Gothic position was upon a low hill, behind a barrier of wagons; defending their camp. The Romans deployed in the lower ground below them. The Roman foot held the center, the cavalry divided on both wings.
Throughout the hot summer day, the Romans stood deployed under the baking sun; while the Fritigern stretched out peace negotiations. No doubt the Gothic leader hesitated to engage in a trial of arms against the elite “Army in the Presence”. Just as importantly, they were stalling to allow time for their cavalry to return; which, as stated above, were away foraging.
Late in the day, a skirmish broke out between the Roman leftwing cavalry and the Goths opposite them. Losing patience, Valens ordered a general attack.
Looking south over the battlefield from the hill where the Gothic wagonberg was located. This is the view the Goths would have had from their camp of Valens’ army deployed on the plain; and gives a good impression of how difficult a “slog” up this hill, under fire from Gothic bows and javelins, the tired Roman infantry would have had that hot sumer afternoon.
Standing all day under a blazing sun; in ranks, wearing helmet, carrying a 12 pound shield, and in some cases wearing metal body armor will sap the strength out of the best conditioned soldiers. Pushing uphill, the already tired Roman forces were sluggish. Even so, progress was being made and the wagonberg was overrun in some places when suddenly, returning to the field, the Gothic cavalry fell upon the flanking Roman horse!
In a cavalry fight, impetus and momentum are of the highest importance. One moment the Roman horse had been mere spectators, holding the flanks and watching their infantry assaulting the wagonberg. The next, they were caught “flat-footed”, as charging Gothic horsemen smashed into their formations! After a brief and desperate struggle, the Roman squadrons gave way, routing from the field.
Deprived of their cavalry and the flank protection it afforded, the Roman attack on the wagonberg faltered. Roman soldiers, looking over their shoulders, could see and hear the furious melee on their flanks. And though clouds of choking dust no doubt obscured the details, it must have been apparent that their cavalry was fleeing the field.
The victorious Gothic cavalry now wheeled inward, attacking the flanks and rear of the Roman infantry. At that moment, the Gothic foot sallied from the camp, attacking the Romans from the front. Valens and his men now found themselves surrounded, assailed from every direction.
Ammianus Marcellinus, himself a soldier, provided a vivid description of what followed:
“Dust rose in such clouds as to hide the sky, which rang with fearful shouts. In consequence it was impossible to see the enemy’s missiles in flight and dodge (them; all found their mark and dealt death on every side. The barbarians poured on in huge columns, trampling down horse and men and crushing our ranks so as to make orderly retreat impossible…
In the blinding, choking dust that covered the battlefield, all cohesion and tactical control was lost. Attacked from all sides, the Roman lines crumbled inward. Reports tell how soldiers were pressed together so closely that many could not raise their arms from their sides.
“In the scene of total confusion, the infantry, worn out by toil and danger, had no strength left to form a plan. Most had their spears shattered in the constant collisions… The ground was so drenched in blood that they slipped and fell… some perished at the hands of their own comrades… The sun, which was high in the sky scorched the Romans, who were weak from hunger, parched with thirst, and weighted down by the burden of their armor. Finally our line gave way under the overpowering pressure of the barbarians, and as a last resort our men took to their heels in general rout.”
Some of the elite units held their ground, making a last stand. Foremost of these were two of the Palatine Legions (elite legions that served in the Emperor’s own field force), the Lanciarii Seniors and the Matiarii. The Lanciari were the senior legion of the Roman army, and they showed their quality that day. When all others lost their heads, they kept theirs. Valens took refuge in this island amidst the storm. He ordered the reserves brought up; but though comprised of elite cohorts of Auxilia Palatina, these too had fled the field. The officers sent to fetch them followed suit.
Accounts differ as to Valens fate. One tale has him struck dead amidst these stalwart last defenders. Another, though, states that he was struck by a Gothic javelin or arrow; and was carried to a nearby farmhouse. There, his bodyguards held the Goths off for a time; till the house was set afire; killing all but one, who jumped free of the blaze and was taken prisoner (later relating the Emperor’s fate). That Valens’ body was never recovered lends credibility to this account.
The battle ended with the coming of darkness, allowing some survivors to fight their way out. On the battlefield, the Emperor and the cream of the Eastern Roman Army lay dead.
The following day, the Goths attacked the town of Adrianople; in an attempt to capture Valens’ imperial regalia and treasury. But the garrison left behind managed to drive the Goths back, with help from the townspeople and survivors of the battle; particularly men of the Lanciari Seniores. After this, Fritigern and the Goths spread out throughout the Balkans, ravaging far and wide.
The Goths would eventually be brought to terms, temporarily settling in the Balkans. Eventually, a generation later, a new leader, Alaric, would lead them into Italy and the sack of Rome!
Adrianople is often described in grandiose terms, as the reason for the fall of the Roman Empire; and as ushering in the 1,000 year dominance of cavalry in warfare. In truth, the battle, while traumatic to both Roman pride and the Roman psyche, had little direct long-term effect on the fortunes of the Empire.
The troops lost were few, when the total number of soldiers comprising the Roman Army is considered. At the time of Adrianople, the Roman Army was over a half-a-million men strong; deployed from Hadrian’s Wall in Britain to the Nile cataracts in Egypt. A loss of twenty-thirty thousand, even if of the highest quality, were hardly fatal to the Roman state.
Remember that the Eastern Empire, whose Emperor was slain and whose “Praesentalis” army had been destroyed, lasted for another eleven hundred years; Constantinople falling at last to the Turks in 1453. It was the Western Empire, whose army was not present at the battle, which eventually fell; but that not for another century! The reasons for its eventual fall have only a tangential connection to the results of Adrianople.
The reasons for the Gothic victory have also been distorted. Some historians attribute the barbarian victory to a decline in Roman arms; the legions being no longer of the quality of their predecessors. Perhaps deriving their theories from Gibbons and Oman, some other historians attribute the Gothic victory to the assumed use of the stirrup by the Goths. That having the stirrup gave the Gothic cavalry a great advantage over their Roman counterparts. Finally, some have blamed Valens for blundering badly, leading his army to disaster.
All of this is, of course, nonsense!
Taking the second point first, the exact date of the appearance of the use of the stirrup in Europe is unknown. But most historians now accept that it was likely the Avars, in the 7th century, who brought this invention from Central Asia. Neither the Goths nor the Romans used stirrups; and did quite well without, as had cavalry for the millennium preceding them!
Victorian Age historians, who could not imagine riding without stirrups, have always tended to over blow the value of this invention. Stirrups give a horseman a more stable seat, it is true. It allows a cavalryman a better platform from which to hack downward with a saber at men on foot. However, ancient horseman obviously compensated without stirrups. Alexander the Great’s Companion cavalry charged quite effectively in battle with both lance and sword, and were demonstrably effective in battle. Roman cavalry used a four-horn saddle, that allowed the horseman to use the horns to achieve a stable seat. Modern experimentation has shown these saddles to provide a very stable platform, indeed.
In any case, the Gothic cavalry had no technical advantage over the Romans. What advantage they possessed was simply this: impetus and ferocity. They charged into a mass of Roman cavalry standing idle, always a recipe for disaster for the standing cavalry. And the Romans, who were already exhausted from long hours in the sun; and who thought the battle all but won at that point, were completely demoralized and easily dispersed.
As for the supposed decline in the quality of the Roman foot, just consider: they found themselves charged in rear and flank by cavalry while engaged in assaulting a field fortification. Even the legions of Scipio or Caesar would have had a rough time triumphing under these circumstances.
The Roman foot had, to some degree, declined. The Limitanei, particularly, were not of the same quality as the troops that had held the limes under Augustus or Trajan. But the army at Adrianople was the very best the 4th century Roman Empire could field. While they may have used a different tactical system of weapons and formations than had the legions of Caesar; the Legio and Auxilia Palantina of the Praesentalis armies of the Empire were every bit as good a soldier as any in the world. If not quite as good as the legions of Caesar, they were good enough.
Finally, leadership (on either side) at Adrianople was not the decisive issue. The Romans didn’t lose because of any brilliant ploy on the part of the Gothic leaders; nor by the incompetence of Valens as a commander. If Valens did nothing particularly right, he did nothing particularly wrong. His cavalry failed in their mission adequately scout the enemy, and to protect the vulnerable flanks of the infantry. This is the mistakes of the wing commanders, perhaps; but the blame cannot be fairly laid at the feet of the Emperor.
Rome suffered a disastrous defeat, but not one that was fatal. When compared to the defeats of Cannae, Carrhae, or Teutoburger Forest, it was a trivial loss; save for the death of the Emperor. But Emperor’s had fallen or been captured in battle before; and would again. Nothing about Adrianople distinguishes it in such a way as to fairly justify the place it holds to this day in the history of the Roman Empire.
The indisputable result of the Gothic victory at Adrianople was that an independent Gothic nation would continue to exist within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Though the Romans would make accomodation with them for a time, enlisting them for a time as feoderati, in the end their independence and predatory nature would become a cancer that would eat away at the Roman body politic. Under Alaric, in the next generation, they would ivade the Western Empire; eventually sacking Rome in 410 A.D. From there, they would move on to found a kingdom in southern Gaul and Spain.
This was the legacy of Adrianople, and the battle’s main connection to the fall of the Western Empire. By not destroying the Visigoths when he had the opportunity, the unfortunate Valens helped to doom the Western Empire to eventual extinction; and to open the door to the coming Dark Ages.