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Battle of Adrianople (378)

History -- Military history -- List of battles

The second Battle of Adrianople (August 9, 378) was fought between a Roman army led by the Emperor Valens and Germanic tribes (mainly Visigoths and Ostrogoths, assisted by some non-Germanic Alans) commanded by Fritigern. The battle took place at Adrianople (now Edirne, Turkey) and ended with an overwhelming victory for the Germanic tribes.


Battle of Adrianople
DateAugust 9, 378
PlaceNear Adrianople
ResultGothic victory
About 40 000Unknown
376, displaced by the invasions of the Huns, the Goths, led by Alavivus and Fritigern, asked to be allowed to settle in the Roman Empire. Hoping that they would become farmers and soldiers, the emperor Valens allowed them to establish themselves in the Empire as allies (foederati). However, the dishonesty of the provincial commanders led the newcomers to revolt after suffering many hardships. They crossed the Danube and desolated the land. Valens then asked Gratian, the western emperor, for reinforcements to fight the more numerous Goths. Gratian sent the general Frigerid with reinforcements, as well as the leader of his guards, Richomer. For the next two years preceding the battle of Adrianople there were a series of battles with no clear victories for either side.

In 378, Valens decided to take control himself. He left Antioch for Constantinople and at the same time ordered the general Sebastian to leave Italy. Sebastian succeeded in taking a group of Goths by surprise and forcing them to retreat.

After learning of Sebastian's success against the Goths and of Gratian's victory over the Alamanni in the west, Valens was ready for action. He left Melanthis for Adrianople, where he met with Sebastian's force. On August 6, reconnaissance informed him that the Goths were marching to the south-west of Adrianople, about 20 kilometers away. The goal of the Goths was to circumvent the Roman army that stretched back towards Adrianople. Despite the difficult ground, Valens reached Adrianople where a camp was constructed with a ditch and a rampart.

Richomer, sent by Gratian, carried a letter asking Valens to wait for the arrival of reinforcements from the west before engaging in battle. Valens' officers also recommended that he wait for Gratian, but Valens decided to fight without waiting, as Sebastian had beaten the Goths previously. Valens estimated that the army of the Goths numbered only about 10 000 men.

The Goths were also watching the Romans, and on August 8, Fritigern sent an emissary to propose a 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. However, his estimates did not take into consideration a part of the Gothic cavalry that had gone to forage further away.

Composition of the Roman troops

Valens' army was composed of veterans and men accustomed to war. Il was comprised of seven large infantry unites (legions and imperial auxiliaries) of 700 to 1000 men each. The cavalry was comprised of shield-archers and Scholae of the imperial guard. However, these did not represent the strong point of the army and they would flee on the arrival of the Gothic cavalry. There were also squadrons of Arab cavalry, but they were more suited to skirmishes than to pitched battle.

The course of battle

On the morning of August 9, Valens decamped from Adrianople, where he left the imperial treasury and administration under the guard of the legions. The reconnaissance of the preceding days informed him of the location of the Gothic camp. Valens arrived there after marching for seven hours over difficult terrain.

At around 2 pm, the Roman troops arrived in disorder, facing the Gothic camp that had been set up on the top of a hill. The Goths, except for their cavalry, took position in front of their chariots, which formed a circle to protect their families. Fritigern's objective was to delay the Romans, in order to give enough time for the Gothic cavalry to return. The fields were then burnt to delay the Romans, and negotiations began for an exchange of hostages. The negotiations exasperated the Roman soldiers who seemed to hold the stronger position, but they gained precious time for Fritigern.

The Romans began the battle without having received the order to do so, believing they would have an easy victory. The imperial Scholae of shield-archers under the command of the Iberian prince Bacurius attacked, but lacking support they were easily pushed back. Then the Roman left-wing reached the circle of chariots, but it was too late. At that moment, the Gothic cavalry arrived to support the infantry. The cavalry surrounded the Roman troops, who were already in disarray after the failure of the first assault. The Romans retreated to the base of the hill where they unable to manoeuvre, encumbered by their heavy armour and long shields. The casualties, exhaustion, and psychological pressure led to a rout of the Roman army. The cavalry continued their attack, and the massacre continued until nightfall.

The death of Valens and the consequences

In the rout, the emperor himself was abandoned by his guards. Some tried to retrieve him but the majority of the cavalry deserted. He died anonymously on the field.

According to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus a third of the Roman army succeeded in retreating, but the losses were uncountable. Many officers, among them the general Sebastian, were killed in the worst Roman defeat since the Battle of Cannae. The battle was a devastating blow for the late empire. In effect, the core of the eastern empire was destroyed, valuable administrators were killed, and all of the arms factories on the Danube were destroyed following the battle. The lack of reserves for the army led to a recruitment crisis, which accentuated the strategic and moral impact of the defeat.

The battle signified that the barbarians, fighting for or against the Romans, had become powerful adversaries. The crisis that began in 376 was relieved only by negotiations in 382. Theodosius I, Valens' successor, accepted the Goths once more as allies. This compromise left the door open for other Gothic mutinies.

The end of Antiquity?

Some historians give the Battle of Adrianople as the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. They see in the battle the advent of heavy cavalry and the decline of the infantry, marking the beginning of a thousand years of superiority of cavalry over infantry.

Further Reading