The Battle of Adrianople sits near the top of the list of misunderstood battles in history, being variously labelled one of the main causes of the fall of the Roman Empire and the battle that launched the medieval practice of knighthood by proving that cavalry was superior to infantry.
Although these misrepresentations are nothing more than historians injecting fanciful thinking into a situation where detail is lacking, we don’t want to dismiss the battle as inconsequential. Adrianople was important because it showed, for the first time, the Visigoths ability to defeat the Roman army in a real battle, predicting events in the next century that would lead to the end of the empire in the west. But, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Where is Adrianople (current name Edirne)? It sits in near the Bulgarian Turkish border today, but was located in Thrace during the time of the Roman Empire. Greek mythology has the city founded by Orestes, son of the Spartan king Agamemnon, but its name derives from the Emperor Hadrian who named it as a Roman city during his reign from 117-138 AD. See the map below for the city’s location.
The story of the Battle of Adrianople is best told by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (330-391) in his book Res Gestae which chronicles the history of the empire from 96-380 AD. Ammianus’ account contains the usual biases in favor of the side he was representing.
As his story unfolds in 376 AD, the Visigoths, led by Alavivus and Fritigern, asked Rome to allow them to settle in the Eastern Roman Empire, south of the Danube. Hoping that they would become farmers and soldiers, the Eastern Roman emperor, Valens, allowed them to cross the river and settle as allies. Unfortunately, the dishonesty of the provincial commanders Lupicinus and Maximus led the Goths to revolt after being mistreated. Valens then asked Gratian, the western emperor, for reinforcements to put down the revolt, so Gratian sent his general Frigeridus with reinforcements and, for the next two years, there were a series of minor battles with no clear victory for either side.
In 378, Valens decided to take control of the situation himself. He planned to bring his own troops from Syria and requested that Gratian bring his army from Gaul.
Valens left Antioch for Constantinople, and arrived on the 30th of May. He appointed Sebastianus, newly arrived from Italy, to reorganize the Roman armies already in Thrace. Sebastianus picked 2,000 of his legionaries and proceeded to Adrianople. Meanwhile Fritigern assembled the Gothic forces at Nicopolis and Beroe to deal with this new Roman threat.
Gratian had sent part of his field army by boat; with the rest traveling overland. After learning of Sebastian's success against the Goths and anticipating a victory of his own, Valens brought his army to Adrianople, where he met with Sebastian's force. On 6 August, reconnaissance informed Valens that about 10,000 Goths were marching towards Adrianople from the north, about 15 miles away. This gave Valens time to build a Roman field camp with ditch and rampart.
Gratian sent a letter asking Valens to wait for the arrival of reinforcements from before engaging the Goths. Valens' officers also recommended that he wait, but Valens ignored these warnings, remaining focused on his impending victory. Meanwhile, the Goths were spying on the Romans, and on August 8th Fritigern sent an emissary to propose peace and an alliance in exchange for some Roman territory. Sure that he would be victorious due to his supposed numerical superiority, Valens rejected these proposals. Unfortunately, his count of the enemy did not take into consideration the Gothic cavalry which was separated from the rest of the Gothic army.
On the morning of 9 August, Valens left Adrianople and headed north. Finally, after a seven hour march, the Roman army arrived, tired and dehydrated, within sight of a Gothic camp which had the advantage of elevation. The Goths, except for their cavalry, defended a wagon circle, containing their families and possessions. Fritigern's objective was to delay the Romans, so the Gothic cavalry had time to return. The fields were set on fire by the Goths to delay and harass the Romans with smoke, and they asked for negotiations for an exchange of hostages. These negotiations were frustrating to the Roman soldiers who felt they were in a stronger position, but they gained precious time for Fritigern.
At one point, Roman units began the battle without orders to do so, believing they would have an easy victory, and perhaps over-eager to finally defeat the Goths after two years of attempting to achieve a decisive victory. After a strong advance, the Roman left-wing reached the circle of wagons, but it was too late. The Gothic cavalry appeared in support of its infantry and turned the tide of the battle. As Ammianus tells it:
“The 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 arrows whirling death from every side always found their mark with fatal effect, since they could not be seen beforehand nor guarded against. But when the barbarians, poring 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. Here one might see a barbarian filled with lofty courage, his cheeks contracted in a hiss, hamstrung or with right hand severed, or pierced through the side, on the very verge of death threateningly casting about his fierce glance; and by the fall of the combatants on both sides the plains were covered with the bodies of the slain strewn over the ground, while the groans of the dying and of those who had suffered deep wounds caused immense fear when they were heard. In this great tumult and confusion the infantry, exhausted by their efforts and the danger, when in turn strength and mind for planning anything were lacking, their lances for the most part broken by constant clashing, content to fight with drawn swords, plunged into the dense masses of the foe, regardless of their lives, seeing all around that every loophole of escape was lost. The ground covered with streams of blood whirled their slippery foothold from under them, so they could only strain every nerve to sell their lives dearly; and they opposed the onrushing foe with such great resolution that some fell by the weapons of their own comrades. Finally, when the whole scene was discolored with the hue of dark blood, and wherever men turned their eyes heaps of slain met them, they trod upon the bodies of the dead without mercy. Now the sun had risen higher, and when it had finished its course through Leo, and was passing into the house of the heavenly Virgo, scorched the Romans, who were more and more exhausted by hunger and worn out by thirst, as well as distressed by the heavy burden of their armor. Finally our line was broken by the onrushing weight of the barbarians, and since that was the only resort in their last extremity, they took to their heels in disorder as best they could.”
The Gothic cavalry continued their attack and killing did not end until nightfall. Valens was abandoned by his guards, and when some soldiers tried to retrieve him, they were unsuccessful. His final fate is unknown and his body was never found.
Ammianus states that a third of the Roman army was able to retreat from the battle, but the losses were substantial. Many officers, among them the general Sebastian, were killed in the worst Roman defeat since the Battle of Edessa, fought 120 years before. Adrianople was a significant blow for the late Empire, resulting in the destruction of the core army of the eastern Empire, the deaths of valuable administrators, and the destruction of all of the arms factories on the Danube following the battle. Despite these losses, the battle did not mark the end of the Roman army because the imperial military power was restored soon after.
Ultimately, the Romans lost this battle due to their own mistakes: overconfidence, impatience, and poor planning. If Valens had waited for reinforcements, the outcome would probably have been different. His poor planned march left his army exhausted before battle (he didn’t learn the lesson of Trebbia), and weakened their endurance. He paid the ultimate price for his own stupidity.
The defeat at Adrianople showed that the barbarians, fighting against the Romans, had become powerful adversaries. The Goths, though partly tamed by Valens' successor Theodosius I, were never again expelled, exterminated, or assimilated. They remained as a distinct entity within the Roman frontier, for a time allies, and then later as victors over the empire.