Barry C. Jacobsen

Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!

This is the first part in a multi-part examination of Britain, in the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical Age of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. The heroes of this struggle, and the “barbarian” warlords who opposed them, are the subject of this discussion.

If he indeed existed (and it is the opinion of this author that he did) Arthur was a warlord who successfully led the British resistance to the Saxon threat. He lived in the late 5th century, and ruled Britain into the early 6th century. Using historical analysis of the disparate chronicles, poems, legends, archeological evidence, and applying deductive logic backed by a lifetime of military study and practice I will attempt to develop a working theory of who Arthur was and the events of his life.

This was in the sunset of Roman culture in Britain; itself once the jewel in the crown of the Roman Empire. Arthur was the champion who kept the flame of civilization alive as the rest of Western Europe sunk into the Dark Ages.

But before we can discuss Arthur, it is important to understand the world in which he lived.

British Canterbury (Durovernum Cantiacorum) in the Roman Era


In the first two decades of the 5th century, Roman Britain (Britannia) was gradually abandoned by the Roman Empire. While some among the Romans and the Britons may have considered the island to be a part of the Empire until the Germanic generalissimo Odoacer forced the last Western Emperor, Romulus, to abdicate in 476; for all practical purposes Roman Britannia became an independent Romano-British state after 410 A.D.

Britain was prosperous, mostly Christian, and outside of the tribal hill country a thoroughly Romanized province. The Celtic inhabitants of the cities and towns spoke Latin as a first language. Throughout the province they were governed by elected magistrates; drawn (as elsewhere in the Roman world) from the aristocratic curiales class. In the southern part of the island, the countryside was dotted with prosperous villas, inhabited by this same Romano-British aristocracy and their retainers. Britannia contributed financially to the Empire as a whole; it was not a drain upon its resources, except in one respect: the military.

The Late Roman Empire experienced a drastic military manpower shortage; due to a variety of causes. Trained troops capable of relocation to trouble spots (as opposed to the numerous garrison troops of the frontier fortresses) were relatively few and worn down by a very high (to use a modern term) “mission tempo”.

In the first decade of the 5th century, the mobile forces stationed in Britain would be needed elsewhere, to save the “motherland” province of the Empire, Italy, from foreign invasion.


The Western Roman Empire found itself caught in a death-spiral of cause-and-effect that began in 401 AD, and would continue for the next 75 years; slowly strangling the life out of the Western Empire.

This destructive loop of events began with the Visigoths under their leader, Alaric invading Italy for the first time in 401. Indirectly, one could trace this even further back to the victory of the Goths over the Romans at Adrianople; which victory had guaranteed a large, independent, and potentially threatening Gothic force in the Balkans for a generation.

The Visigoths rampaged through the Balkans periodically in decades after Adrianople; plaguing the Eastern Roman government. Accommodation with the Visigoths was reached in 397, whereby they were settled in Illyria, and their new leader, Alaric, given the title magister Militum. This was a common Rooman practice: to co-opt potential or former foes as foederati, and giving their leaders titles, honors, and commands in the Roman military structure.

Alaric’s sudden and rapid incursion into Italy in 401 caught the Western Roman authorities surprisingly unprepared, and the Visigoths very nearly captured the young Emperor Honorius in Milan.

In response, Stilicho, the Magister Militum (Master of Soldiers) of the Western Empire (and the real power in the Western Empire), at the time campaigning in Raetia and Noricum (modern Austria) along the Danube; was forced to pull troops from that frontier and hurry them back to Italy to fight Alaric. Alaric was defeated at the battles of Pollentia and Verona, and driven back into Illyria.

But stripping troops from Pannonia to rescue Italy was not without its own risks: another, hitherto undetected barbarian army appeared from beyond the frontier; led by a warlord named Radagaisus. These pillaged their way through southeastern Noricum and western Pannonia; the very places Stilicho had denuded of troops to deal with Alaric. Crossing the Alps, they entered Italy early in 406; their numbers too strong for Stilicho to face in battle with the forces at his disposal.

To repel this invasion, Stilicho spent 6 months gathering troops from Gaul and the Rhine frontier. A legion (likely the remnants of the old Legio II Augusta) and some number of auxilia regiments were even pulled from far off Britain. By August 406, Radagaisus was blockaded and defeated at Florence with these reinforcements. His force was largely captured or dispersed; with 12,000 of the best taking service in Stilicho’s army. Other survivors escaped to join Alaric’s army in the nearby Balkans.

Radagaisus’ sudden and unexpected appearance was not a lone event. His invasion was but the gust front of a coming storm. The Germanic nations were on the move: this was the beginning of the Völkerwanderung period, the “wandering of the peoples”. It was the harbinger of the coming Dark Ages.

Just over four months after Radagaisus’ defeat, the storm reached the Rhine frontier.

On New Year’s Eve, 406 AD, just over four months after Radagaisus’ defeat, three Germanic nations : the Vandals, Suebi, and the Alans, crossed over the frozen Rhine River into Roman Gaul.

The border garrisons were too weakened to stop the penetration; the mobile field army that backed up the frontier (the comitatensis) was with Stilicho in Italy. Gaul was now virtually defenseless. For the next two years, the province was mercilessly ravaged by this barbarian horde.

The Roman system of defense was a single garment, of whole cloth. As one thread after another was pulled out, the whole became unraveled.

The policies of Honorius (really Stilicho) had resulted in disaster. As so often happened in Roman history when the central authority appeared too weak or foolish to deal with a crises, ambitious generals took advantage of the situation to declare themselves candidate for “the purple”. Revolts soon broke out in Gaul; and in Britannia the mobile field army mutinied against its commander (whose title was Comes Britanniarum, the “Count of Britain”) and chose a soldier named Constantine as their leader. He proclaimed himself Western Roman Emperor, Constantine III. Taking the bulk of the field army of Britain with him, he crossed the Channel in 407 AD.

Stilicho was neither weak nor foolish. The military establishment he inherited and served in was merely stretched too thin. The real problem wasthat there were just not enough troops in any one province’s mobile field army (comitatensis) to deal with the massive invasions that now fell like hammer blows on the West, one after the other. Only by concentrating all of the available comitatenses troops in the West into one “super-army”, stripping them away from the defense of their home provinces; could Stilicho create a mobile “fire brigade” of sufficient size to be capable of putting out each cirses in turn. In essence, he was forced to “rob Peter to pay Paul”.

Stilicho, the Roman-Vandal general who ruled the Western Roman Empire at the turn of the 5th century, was a commander of great ability. But his denuding of the provincial field armies in order to strengthen the defense of Italy led to the total collapse of the Gallic and Pannonian frontiers; and the subsequent loss of much of the Western Empire after his murder.

Stilicho wagered that he could put out the fire in Italy before another broke out elsewhere. It was a gamble, and like all good generals, he was willing to play the odds. But moving this fire brigade from one theater to another took time. And time was in very short supply.

Before he could deal with the unraveling situation in Gaul, Stilicho needed to ensure that Italy’s eastern flank would be secure in his absence. That meant negotiating with Alaric, who waited like a vulture in neighboring Illyria. After some wrangling, Stilicho agreed to acknowledge the Visigoth king as Magister Militum in Illyricum; and to pay over a large stipend. This negotiation caused outrage in Rome, and Stilicho (himself of Vandal birth) was accused of plotting treachery. In August of 408 Stilicho was executed by the Emperor he had served so well.

Stilicho’s death triggered a general slaughter of the defenseless families of German soldiers in the Roman army (presumably while their men were away , in distant army camps). Romanized Germans made up a sizable portion of all Roman field armies (unlike the limitanei, the border garrisons, which tended to be “Romans” serving generationally in their forefather’s regiments). This outrage against their families led to a general mutiny among the troops Stilicho had brought to defend Italy, the main strike force of the Western Empire!

Alaric lost little time in taking advantage of the chaos in the Western Empire, and invaded Italy a second time. In August of 410, two years after the execution of Stilicho, Alaric and the Visigoths sacked the city of Rome.

The Germanic nations that had crossed the Rhine in 406 were never expelled; and were soon followed by Franks, Burgundians, and Alamanni ; who settled in the Gallic territories west of the Rhine. The original invaders moved on into Spain, and in the case of the Vandals eventually into North Africa.

For the next 70 years, German settlements and zones of authority laid in a patchwork quilt across the Western Empire. Weak and often corrupt Roman administration remained in the areas between these barbarian occupation zones; sometimes serving the ends of the government in Ravenna (now the capital of the Western Empire), sometimes their own ends. In other places, the provincial nobles set up their own pseudo-governments; carrying on the fight against the barbarians or rebelling against the central government as they saw fit.

The Western Empire was slowly disintegrating.

Deprived of tax revenue, not to mention the recruiting grounds for native soldiers these lost territories had provided (and in the case of North Africa, its main grain source), the Western Empire died a slow death.


Constantine III departed Britain in 407, at the start of the crises; taking with him all or most of the comitatensis troops that had been the core of Britannia’s defense. His bid for “the purple” ultimately failed and in a few years he was dead. His main achievement was to leave Britain vulnerable.

With the shepherds gone, the sheep seemed ripe for the shearing. The wolves very quickly closed in.

That is not to say that Britain was without its defenders. The fortress garrisons along the coasts and in the north remained: these troops were settled on plots of land around their garrisons, in lieu of pay from the central government. But these were distinctly second-rate troops, capable of holding the walls of their own forts but little else.

Hadrian’s Wall had deteriorated badly during the 4th century, and was no longer a continuous defensive line warding the Roman south from a “barbarian” north.

By the late 4th and early 5th centuries Hadrian’s Wall had ceased to be a clearly defined frontier. It was now a ramshackle structure between forts which were more like armed and densely populated villages. The Wall itself, its turrets and mile-castles have been abandoned, and the forts were inhabited by the families of second-grade, and probably hereditary, frontier auxiliaries. (David Nicolle, Ph.D., “Arthur and the Anglo-Saxon Wars”)

Even had the Imperial government in Ravenna ordered their withdrawal across the Channel, the garrisons would likely have mutinied rather than obeyed. Something like this happened 50 years earlier, in Gaul, when the Augustus Constantius II ordered the mobile field army of the province to the east to fight the Persians. The soldiers responded by throwing off their allegiance to Constantius and proclaiming his cousin, Julian, Emperor!

While the field army and a few of the willing garrisons had withdrawn across the channel, never to return, the remaining forces stayed in place; accepting the authority of the new British leadership.

In the first two decades after the Roman withdrawal, the political situation is murky. The question that looms is who or what was the new British authority?

Perhaps some of the senior Roman officers remaining in Britain converted their position to noble status in the post-Roman hierarchy. In the north, where many of the later Celtic tribal kings traced their lineage to one Coel Hen (the “Old King Cole” of rhyme), it hasbeen suggested that he was the last official Dux Britanniarum (commander of the Wall and other northern garrisons). As such, he had command of a wide swath of territory, and influence on both sides of the Wall; and was well placed to dominate affairs in northern Britain in the years immediately after the Roman departure. He may have been the main leader in Britain during the first decade post-Rome; though how much (if any) influence he had south of his headquarters at Eburacum (York) is unknown.

The sources indicate that a “Council of Britain”, likely composed of representatives of the various tribes, the cities (civitates), and military commanders (like Coel) attempted to organize a common defense. In this they had their work cut out for them, as Britain reeled under ceaseless and destructive raids from all sides.

From the north, the Pictish tribes took to the sea in curraghs: small, light-weight hide covered boats; circumventing the buffer zone of Roman-friendly tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall and the Wall garrisons themselves; and raided rich British lands to the south.

In the West, Irish pirates and raiders pillaged and took slaves back to Hibernia. Some intrepid chieftains even seized portions of south and north Wales, founding temporary Irish settlements. And in the far north, Irishmen from Ulster landed in Dal Riada and founded an Irish kingdom there. These Irish raiders had been known by the Romans (and presumably by their successors, the Romano-Britons) as “Scotti”; and it was these Irish tribes of Ulster who eventually spread throughout Pictish Alba, giving the land a new name: Scotland.

In the southeast, where Britain came closest to the continent, pirates from north Germany and Scandinavia had been raiding Britain since the 3rd century. These were collectively called “Saxons” by the Romans and Romano-British. Of all the dangerous foes who threatened Britain, the Saxons were the fiercest and the most dangerous.

The Councilors of Britain begged Rome to return and take up the defense of the island. But the best that they could get was authority from the Emperor Honorius to see to their own defense. While no military aid could be lent, spiritual aid from the Catholic authorities in Gaul was available. In 429 the Church dispatched Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, to Britain to battle heresy. This was the Pelagian heresy, and its doctrine of self-reliance was gathering strength in a land left to its own devices in a time of troubles. Germanus successfully reasserted Catholic authority. He stayed long enough to also lead the Britains to victory over a Pictish (and Scotti?) raiders in north Wales.

Germanus’ arrival in Britain coincided with the early years of a British leader who was to dominate the narrative for the first half of 5th century Britain; and who would unleash forces that changed the history of the Island forever.

He was called Vortigern.

Vortigern came to power in the 420s, as the recognized war leader of the Britons. His origins are unknown, his very name is in doubt, with some historians theorizing that the name “Vortigern” was in fact a title, meaning “High King”. (One theory is that his real name might have been Vitalinus.) Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his largely fanciful Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), states that Vortigern was the successor to Constans, the son of the late usurping emperor Constantine III; who he used and later treacherously caused to be killed during his rise to power.

Vortigern is associated with Powys, where later generations account him the founder of the first dynasty, the Gwerthrynion (Gwerthigern/Guorthigern being an alternative Brythonic version of his name). The Kingdom of Powys was founded around this time, a union of the Cornovii and the Ordovices tribes of the west. Now in east-central Wales, in pre-Saxon days it straddled the Severn and stretched into the Midlands. The Cornovii tribal capital at Viroconium (Wroxeter), on the Severn River, was also the fourth largest city in Britannia. During this time, Viroconium prospered and underwent a rebuilding period. It was clearly the seat of a prosperous and powerful prince.

We don’t know where Vortigern fit in the Cornovii tribal hierarchy. But as the progenitor of the future kings of Powys, it is not unlikely that he was either the tribal king or a prince of the ancient Cornovii ruling family. As with other tribal chiefs in Roman Britain, this meant Vortigern and likely his ancestors for three centuries had been Roman citizens and members of the curiale class. It is in this role that he likely rose to power as a member of the Council of Britain that took over the province’s administration in the post-Roman era.

Gildas the Monk, the only near-contemporary chronicler of the period (his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain” was written sometime between 530 and 560 AD) addresses Vortigern as the “proud usurper” (superbo tyranno); though later sources call him “king”. It is therefore likely that at least some in Britain considered Vortigern’s assumption of authority as illegitimate, that he perhaps seized power unlawfully from the Council; perhaps even assuming the name of king; a distinctly “un-Roman” title.

Tradition puts him at odds with Germanus, one author suggesting he was a heretical Pelagian. Perhaps he rode the rising wave of Pelagian heresy to power. But if Germanus’ victory over barbarian raiders took place in North Wales, it would have served Vortigern and Powys well; removing a threat so close to its borders. This would argue for an alliance between the two, and it may have been Vortigern, not Germanus, who was the actual military leader of the operation.

Interestingly, sometime in approximately this period the Votadini hero, Cunedda, led a migration of a part of the Votadini people of the Pictish border region to north Wales, founding the Kingdom of Gwynedd. Could this move be somehow related to the events of 429?





Barry C. Jacobsen

On August 9, 378 A.D., on a hot and dusty plain miles from the Roman city of Adrianople, the elite field army of the Eastern Roman Empire and a tribal army of refugee Visigoths fought one of the most celebrated battles in western military history.

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 Goths 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. 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 “boogie man” in the minds of later Romans.

Then, in the 4th Century of the Christian Era, a greater “boogie man” stormed out of the vast steppes of Central Asia: the Huns!

These nomadic herdsmen had been driven from the borders of China centuries earlier 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 they where weakened by harassment by swarms of horse archers. Once the enemy’s numbers were depleted or exhaustion had set in, the Huns closed with the enemy and finished him off with lance, sword, or lasso (which the expert Hun herdsmen used to rope their enemies and pull them from their horses to be made captive or dragged to their death).

The Gothic Kingdom of Ermaneric was overthrown, the old king committing suicide in despair. Rather than submit, the Gothic nation fled westward. In 376 A.D., led by Fritigern, many 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, devastated by earlier Gothic raids; as a buffer against future “barbarian” incursions. This arrangement was a common one the Romans employed throughout the empire, enlisting tribes as foederati: tribal warriors allowed to settle on Roman territory in return for military service.

Under the terms of the agreement, 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, as was all too often the case, 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 pillaged throughout the southern Balkans, as various Roman commanders 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 several years of campaigning in Armenia against the Persians. He decided to take the field against the Goths in person ; 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 that summer, his general Sebastianus had enjoyed success against Gothic detachments in Macedonia and Thrace by use of guerrilla tactics. These Goths did not seem so formidable a foe.

The two armies faced each other 8 miles from the town of Adrianople, where the Goths arranged their camp on a hill facing southward; their wagons forming an outer defensive perimeter, called a “wagonberg”. The Gothic camp was not just filled with the booty taken over three years of pillaging in Roman territory. 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 their loved-ones 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.


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, who once stabbed-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 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 last were called martiobarbuli or plumbata, and came into use in the 3rd century. They were 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.

Armor and defensive equipment had changed dramatically as well. 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 an auxilia regiment was about half that of one of the new Legions, 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. (There is very possibly a correlation between the two.) Borrowing first from the Sarmatians and later the Sassanid Persians, Roman heavy cavalry now includedunits 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; at least against enemies known for their strong attack or charge, such as the western Germanic tribes, the Alans of the steppes, or the Sassanid heavy cavalry. Such an attacking 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 outcome might have been very different, indeed.

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 plain 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 for time to allow their cavalry to return; which, as stated above, were away foraging.

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 summer afternoon

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.

Standing in ranks all day under a blazing sun, wearing helmet, carrying a 12 pound shield, and in some cases wearing metal body armor will sap the strength 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 and 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, deserting their emperor.

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 Lanciarii Seniors; who after cutting their way to safety, had arrived at the town in time to help defend it.

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. 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. 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. In truth, the battle, while a blow to both Roman pride and confidence, 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; and that not for another century!

The reasons for the Gothic victory have also been distorted. Some historians attribute the barbarian victory to a decline in Roman arms; the legions no longer being of the quality of their predecessors. Perhaps deriving their theories from Gibbon and Oman, other historians credit the Gothic victory to the assumed use of the stirrup by their horsemen; that having stirrups 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 preceding millennium. Does anyone imagine that the Macedonian Companion Cavalry of Alexander the great, who rode without even saddle, were less effective lancers in their day than the Polish Uhlans who served Napoleon?

Victorian Age historians, who could not imagine riding without stirrup have always tended to overblow the value of this invention. Stirrups give a horseman a more stable seat, to be sure. 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. 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 cavalry caught flat-footed. The Romans, who were already exhausted from long hours in the sun; and who thought the battle all but won at that point, were panicked 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 difficulty 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 Palatina of the Praesentalis armies of the Empire were every bit as good soldiers 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 to 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 a fatal one. When compared to the defeats of Cannae, Arausio, Carrhae, or Teutoburger Forest, it was a trivial loss; save for the death of the Emperor. But Emperors 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 accommodation with them for a time, enlisting them as feoderates; 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 invade 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.



Barry C. Jacobsen

Throughout history there have existed elite units whose legend lived long after the men themselves had faded from memory. From the Heroes who fought at Troy to the Navy SEALs of today, warriors of the highest caliber have been drawn to join brotherhoods of men of like kind. In the Dark Ages few had a more lasting impact than the Jomsvikings.

Founded in the late 10th century, the Jomsvikings were a Scandinavian warrior brotherhood, based at Jomsborg, a fortress on the southern Baltic shore (likely near modern Wollin, in German Pomerania). Their origins are shaded in fable and obscured by conflicting sources.

One source states that this brotherhood was established and patronized by the Danish king, Harald Bluetooth. That he granted their leadership to Palnatoke (“Toke the Archer”, also rendered as Palna Toki), and supplied them with their first fleet of longships. However, the Jómsvíkinga saga says that Jomsborg was founded by Palnatoke alone, the land to build the citadel of Jomsborg granted him by the (mythical?) Wendish ruler Burislav.

However they were founded, this Viking brotherhood soon became a force to be reckoned with in the Baltic. They intervened in dynastic disputes both in Sweden in 984, and in Norway in 986. In 1000, they fought with distinction at the battle of Svoldr, one of the greatest Battles of Viking Scandinavia. In 1010, a group of Jomsvikings followed Thorkell the Tall, to raid England; and stayed to serve the English King, Ethelred the Unready.

The Jomsvikings drew their strength from adventure-seeking recruits from all over the Viking world (including Russ from Novgorod and Kiev). Their numbers are unknown. However, their ships numbered around 30, putting their strength at somewhere between 900 and 2,000 warriors. Alternative accounts put their numbers higher, at 300 and even an improbable 1000 ships; but these higher numbers may represent large fleets of allied Vikings who joined in for specific expeditions, such as Styrbiorn’s attack on Sweden.

They lived by strict code of conduct, and military discipline was enforced among its members. Violation of these rules could be punished with immediate expulsion from the order. No man was accepted without first having to prove his fighting prowess in a duel, or Holmgang, with a selected member. One such candidate was Vagn Åkesson, who at twelve defeated Sigvaldi Strut-Haraldson in such a holmgang; becoming the youngest Jomsviking ever!

Each Jomsviking was bound to defend his brothers, as well as to avenge their deaths if necessary. Speaking ill of one’s fellows or quarrelling were forbidden. Blood feuds between members were mediated by Jomsviking officers. No women or children were allowed within the fortress walls, and none were to be taken captive. (It is unclear, however, whether members were forbidden marriage or liaisons with women outside the walls.) No Jomsviking was permitted to be absent from Jomsborg for more than three days without permission.

Jomsvikings were forbidden to show fear or to flee in the face of an enemy of equal or inferior strength, though orderly retreat in the face of vastly outnumbering forces appears to have been acceptable. All spoils of battle were to be equally distributed among the entire brotherhood.

Palnatoke was the first Jarl of the Jomsvikings. Like William Tell, he was forced to shoot an apple off of his own son’s head. Unlike Tell, who shot at his stationary son, Palnatoke successfully did so as the lad ran down a hill!

According to some sources, Palnatoke was overthrown and replaced as Jarl by the exiled Swedish prince, Styrbiorn the Strong.

This notable Viking married Thyra Haraldsdottir, daughter of the Danish king Harald Bloothooth. Depending on the source, Harald did so to cement his relationship to the Jomsvikings and Styrbiorn, who he backed in his bid to seize Sweden; or, alternatively, because Styrbiorn had taken the king hostage and forced him to give over his daughter as ransom!

Stybiorn attempted to overthrow his uncle, and led the Jomsvikings into Sweden. The opposing forces met at the Battle of Fýrisvellir, in which Styrbiorn was slain and his force destroyed.

Styrbiorn was followed as Jarl by Sigvaldi Strut-Haraldsson. Sigvaldi was not the heroic figure his predecessor had been. He can at best be described as prudent; though a less charitable observer would call him unscrupulous. He has the distinction of being the longest serving and last Jarl of the Jomsvikings.

His first act was to lead the Jomsvikings to Norway, in 986, to depose Jarl Haakon Sigurdsson; who had ruled the land since the death of King Harald Greycloak. When the Jomsvikings were defeated at the Battle of Hjörungavágr, Sigvaldi fled rather than stand and die, as Styrbiorn had two years earlier!

In 1000, the Norwegian king, Olaf Trygvasson, was sailing home after an expedition to Wendland, with 11 ships plus another 71 supposedly allied Jomviking ships.

For reasons that are unclear, Sigvaldi betrayed the Norwegian king, leading Olaf into an ambush at Svoldr. There, a fleet of enemies awaited, led by Svein Forkbeard, King of Denmark; Olof Ericson, King of Sweden; and Eric Haakonson, son of the late Haakon Jarl of Norway. Trygvasson was defeated, and died fighting to the last.

A few years later, Thorkell the Tall, younger brother of Sigvaldi, took a Jomsviking force to raid in England. He defeated the local forces encountered, and received a large payment (“danegild”) from King Æthelred the Unready, to cease raiding. The following year, 1012, the Jomsviking band split apart, with Thorkell taking a portion into the English King’s service. When Svein Forkbeard invaded the country, Thorkell’s band fought successfully with the English.

The hapless Ethelred turned against his Jomsviking soldiers after they had helped turn back Svein’s assault. The English treacherously attacked them and among those killed were Thorkell’s younger brother, Hemming. Thorkell and the survivors returned to Denmark; taking service with Svein.

When Svein’s son Cnut (or Canute) succeeded in conquering England in 1015, it was with the help of Thorkell and his Jomsviking warband. For this services, Thorkell was made Earl of East Anglia; and his band became the nucleus of Cnut’s household guards, the Huscarls.

Back in Jomsborg, the Jomsvikings declined after Thorkell’s departure. In 1043, Magnus I of Norway (nephew and co-king of Harald Hardrada) decided to put an end to the Jomsviking threat. He sacked Jomsborg, destroyed the fortress; putting an end to the Jomsvikings. It is unknown if the aged Sigvaldi was still in command there; as he disappears from the record after his treachery at Svoldr.

The Jomsviking’s lasting legacy was manifest in the elite unit that sprang from those members who ventured to England under Thorkell the Tall: the Anglo-Saxon Huscarls who fought so nobly at Hastings in 1066!