Battle of Adrianople II

Battle of Adrianople II

The Battle of Adrianople (Hadrianopolis, Edirne) in Thrace between the Romans and the Goths was one of the worst military defeats sustained by the Roman Empire. Following the death of Constantine the Great in 337, the Roman Empire underwent a series of succession struggles. In 364 Valentian, a successful general, became emperor. Valentian I (r. 364–375) appointed his brother as coemperor and sent him to Constantinople to deal with the Persians while Valentian concentrated on shoring up the empire’s Danubian defenses against the Barbarians. Valentian died in 375 and was succeeded by his 16-year-old son Gratian, who proved too young and inexperienced to deal with the incursions of large numbers of Goths in the Balkans.

The movement of the Huns west from China drove other peoples before them. As the Huns forced the Ostrogoths (eastern Goths) west, they in turn pushed against the Visigoths (western Goths), driving them into the Danube River valley, the northern border of the Roman Empire. When the Visigoths arrived in Byzantine territory, they asked to be allowed to settle there. Valens (r. 364–378) agreed but on the condition that they surrender their weapons to Byzantine authorities and give up as hostage all males under military age. Valens held the Visigoths in utter contempt; had he been more accommodating, he might well have won their loyalty and secured a large loyal population from which he could draw soldiers.

In 377 Valens campaigned against the Persians. He left two generals, Luppicinus and Maximus, in charge of disarming the Visigoths. They chose to enrich themselves and, in return for bribes and sexual favors, allowed the Visigoths to keep their weapons. Meanwhile, the Ostrogoths arrived. When their request for sanctuary was denied, they simply crossed into Roman territory anyway and pillaged widely.

King Fritigern, one of the Visigoth leaders pressed too far by Luppicinus and Maximus, made common cause with the Ostrogoths. When the two Roman generals attempted to assassinate Fritigern, the Goths went to war and soon inflicted several defeats on the Romans.

Valens responded by concluding a truce with the Persians and returning to Europe. He then sent a sizable force against Fritigern, pushing the Goths back into a marshy area near the mouth of the Danube. The resulting battle proved inconclusive, with most of the Goths escaping through the marsh. The Goths then raided northern Greece, and Valens pursued, marching into Thrace northeast of Greece.

Valens sought reinforcements from his nephew Gratian in Italy, for the Goths had concluded a series of alliances with German tribes against Rome. German uprisings along the Rhine forced Gratian to campaign there. Defeating the Germanic tribes, he then moved down the Danube River valley to join up with his uncle.

In the summer of 378 Valens’ generals drove the Goths back in Thrace toward the city of Adrianople, west of Constantinople on the Maritza River. Valens’ principal general, Sebastian, had trained a small reliable force and had conducted a series of successful hit-and-run attacks with it. Sebastian recommended a continuation of this strategy, believing that it would eventually force the Goths to depart. Valens disagreed. He favored a large pitched battle, believing that his forces would have the advantage against poorly trained Goth levies.

Some eight miles from Adrianople, Fritigern and the Visigoths set up camp in an excellent defensive position on high ground with a perimeter circle of wagons. The Visigoths were primarily an infantry force, while the Ostrogoths provided the bulk of the cavalry. The Goth cavalry then departed to forage for provisions to feed the camp population of perhaps 100,000 warriors and 200,000 women and children.

Jealous of Gratian’s success and anxious to achieve a glorious victory before his nephew could arrive, Valens decided to press the issue. He departed Adrianople with his legions at dawn on August 9, having left behind under suitable guard his treasury and baggage. After a rapid advance in extreme heat over rough ground, at about 2:00 p.m. Valens and his legions came on Fritigern’s camp. Valens commanded some 50,000 men; Fritigern had twice that number, the majority of them cavalry.

Fritigern sent negotiators to Valens to buy time for the Ostrogoth cavalry to return. Valens stalled in order to rest and deploy his men but finally broke off negotiations. Before the Romans had completed their deployment of infantry in the center and cavalry on the wings, however, the Goth cavalry returned and fell on the cavalry on the Roman right wing. Although the Roman cavalry fought well, it was badly outnumbered; when it broke, the cavalry under Ostrogoth chieftains Alatheus and Saphrax drove against the infantry, which was still not completely deployed. Blinded by dust kicked up by the cavalry, the foot soldiers were driven back into a mass so tight that many could not even draw their swords, let alone use them.

The Ostrogoths then subjected the Roman infantry to attack by arrows. Seeing the situation, Fritigern passed his own infantry from inside the ring of wagons. Their long slashing swords and battle-axes exacted a terrible toll on the Romans; some 40,000 reportedly perished in the battle, Valens and Sebastian among them.

Called by one Roman historian the greatest defeat for Rome since the Battle of Cannae (216 BCE), the Battle of Adrianople did not immediately affect the Roman Empire. Although the Goths rampaged through the Balkans for a time, Gratian and a new emperor in the East, Theodosius I (r. 379–395), eventually drove back across the Danube those Goths who would not swear loyalty to the empire. In 382 Theodosius extended official recognition to the German communities within Roman territory in return for a pledge of military service. Influenced by the large number of Goths in the army, the army of the Eastern Roman Empire became predominantly a cavalry force.

References

Burns, Thomas S. Barbarians within the Gates of Rome. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Ferrill, Arthur. The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 3. Edited by J. B. Bury. London: Methuen, 1909.

Grant, Michael. The Army of the Caesars. New York: Scribner, 1974.

Whittacker, C. R. Frontiers of the Roman Empire. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.