Battle of Adrianople Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Battle of Adrianople marked the first time that tribal invaders from outside Rome’s borders managed to inflict a full-fledged defeat on the Roman army and gained permission to enter the Roman Empire as refugees.

Summary of Event

The group that historians eventually termed the Visigoths (they called themselves the Tervingi) first came into contact with the Roman Empire because the Huns, a group of powerful Asian nomads, were pushing them westward. The Goths were less an ethnically homogeneous nation than an armed group consisting of various peoples, largely Germanic in origin but containing peoples from other backgrounds as well. At first, the Goths had contracted to serve in the imperial armies but later had accumulated many grievances against the Romans and had begun to rebel. Valens Sebastian (d. 378 c.e.) Fritigern Gratian

For almost two years, rebellious Visigoths had spread death and destruction throughout the Roman provinces that made up the area of modern Bulgaria. The emperor Valens was in residence at Antioch pursuing his campaign against the Persians, and it was there in 376 c.e. that he learned of the disastrous breakdown of his agreement with the Visigoths. Without undue haste, he arranged a truce with Persia so that he might deal with the Germanic threat; it was not until April, 378, that he departed for Constantinople. Dissatisfied with the efforts of his commander Trajan against the Visigoths, he replaced him with a capable officer recently arrived from the Western Roman Empire, Sebastian, who had a distinguished military record. To him, Valens entrusted a selected infantry force that Sebastian quickly whipped into shape and then led off toward the troubled provinces. Sebastian experienced no difficulty in clearing the countryside of the roving bands of marauders, but he was not prepared for a major engagement. With additional troops, Valens himself left his headquarters near Constantinople at the end of June and advanced toward Adrianople to join his general in preparation for a decisive blow.

Fritigern, the Visigothic leader, became alarmed. He realized that his scattered countrymen, impeded by the presence of their wives, children, and possessions, were highly vulnerable. They were more like a group of refugees on the move than an army. Fritigern therefore ordered his people to concentrate near Cabyle, and at the same time, he sent out agents to enlist auxiliaries for the impending clash with the Romans. Bands of Huns and Alanis from beyond the Danube River joined him, and a wandering contingent of Ostrogothic cavalry under the ethnic Alanis Alatheus and Saphrax promised to do the same. Fritigern had already recruited runaway slaves and a variety of discontented Roman subjects, and although these additions to his fighting force swelled his numerical strength, the diversity of their interests and their undisciplined nature placed heavy demands on his leadership. Food supplies were uncertain because the Germans were living off the countryside, and time worked against them.

Unfortunately for the Romans, Emperor Valens threw away his advantages. Reinforcements from the west led by his nephew, the co-emperor Gratian, were marching eastward; a small advance unit reached Adrianople about August 7, while Valens and his officers were discussing strategy. Some urged caution and delay until the western army arrived. Sebastian and others, however, favored an immediate attack, and their advice confirmed Valens’s own inclination. He had been incorrectly informed that the Visigoths numbered only ten thousand men. No figures are available about the numerical strength of either side, but the Roman army probably totaled at least twenty thousand. At the same time, unknown to Valens, the Goths actually outnumbered the Romans.

Possibly Valens was also motivated in his decision by jealousy. Gratian had shortly before achieved a notable victory over the Germans in the Western Roman Empire, a feat that Valens seems to have desired to emulate. Gratian was vastly preferred by the majority of the Roman people because he was an orthodox, Catholic Christian whereas Valens was an Arian heretic. Ironically, the Goths were also Arian Christians, having been converted a generation before by the Gothic missionary Ulfilas, so Valens was in religious communion with the barbarians who opposed him in battle. His religious differences with Gratian made Valens less inclined to cooperate. To wait for the Gallic reinforcements would mean sharing the glory of victory rather than enjoying it alone. Whatever the reason, Valens decided on an immediate offensive.

While these councils were being held, Fritigern sent an Arian Christian priest as an envoy to negotiate with Valens. The envoy promised peace in return for a guarantee of land in Thrace for the Visigoths to settle on as their own, together with an adequate food supply. In effect, this had been Valens’s original agreement with the Goths two years earlier, so that Fritigern asked little more than what had been previously conceded. Yet Valens rejected any talk of a truce or treaty. Perhaps he was convinced that the rebellious depredations of the Germans could not be left unpunished. Perhaps, too, he doubted Fritigern’s sincerity, for the Visigothic leader was awaiting the arrival of the Gothic cavalry of Alatheus and may have been stalling for time.

Early on the morning of August 9, 378 c.e., the Romans broke camp and advanced 8 miles (13 kilometers) out from Adrianople to within sight of the Visigoths. Fritigern had drawn up his forces in a defensive position with his wagon train forming a circle enclosing his noncombatants and supplies. Tired from their morning’s march, the Roman soldiers also suffered from the summer heat as well as from the smoke and heat of the fires that the Visigoths set in the surrounding fields to confuse and discomfit them. A second offer of negotiations from Fritigern induced Valens to dispatch one of his officers toward the Visigothic camp for a consultation. Before the officer could reach the camp, some of the Roman troops impetuously opened the attack.

The details of the battle cannot be reconstructed accurately. The Gothic army, largely cavalry, overwhelmed the Roman infantry, who evidently broke under the shock and the superior numbers of the Visigoths. By nightfall, scarcely one-third of the Romans survived. Among the slain were Valens and Sebastian. The emperor’s body was never recovered. Two stories circulated about his death: one that he had been killed by an arrow while fleeing in a band of common soldiers, the other that he had been carried wounded into a farmhouse that the Visigoths destroyed by fire, not knowing the identity of the Romans within who refused to surrender.

Fritigern’s victory at Adrianople did not solve his problem. Even with numerical superiority, the Visigoths could not follow up their success properly because they lacked the equipment and knowledge needed to conduct siege operations. As a result, they could not strike at the towns in which Roman wealth and power were concentrated. Two days after the battle, they tried to take Adrianople itself but had to abandon this effort. They soon made their way southward and reached the outskirts of Constantinople before retiring.

Essentially, the Visigoths desired land on which to settle and make new homes for themselves, but they could attain their objective only by coming to terms with the Roman authorities. Shrewdly understanding this aim, Theodosius the Great, the new emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, combined diplomacy with military pressure and subdued the barbarians with a treaty in 382 c.e. They received what they desired and also the right to rule themselves. They agreed to pay an annual tribute in return for peace and guaranteed they would serve in the Roman army whenever called on.

Significance

Valens’s Arianism made him hated by Catholic historians; thus the calamitous nature of his loss at Adrianople has perhaps been exaggerated in the historical record. However, it cannot be denied that there were two significant results of the Battle of Adrianople. First, the Visigoths became the first Germanic tribe to win territory within the Roman Empire and a degree of autonomy that placed them generally beyond the government’s control. This situation portended the future dismemberment of the Roman Empire. Second, the destruction of a Roman army on its own soil demonstrated the deterioration of the once-powerful legions, thereby encouraging the Visigoths and later other Germanic tribes to risk further campaigns against Rome. The period of the peaceful penetration of the Roman Empire by the Germans thus came to an end, and the age of invasions by conquest and force began on the battlefield of Adrianople.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ammianus Marcellinus. The Later Roman Empire. Selected and translated by Walter Hamilton. New York: Penguin, 1986. The major primary source of knowledge about the Battle of Adrianople. Of necessity, it emphasizes the Roman perspective and is not sympathetic to Valens.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 3 vols. Reprint. New York: Modern Library, 1995. This work by the great eighteenth century British historian places Adrianople within a general account of the Roman Empire’s collapse.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grant, Michael. The Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1990. Grant reevaluates whether Adrianople constituted a crucial loss for the Roman Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heather, P. J. The Goths. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996. An overall history of the Goths, which includes the Roman period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heather, P. J. Goths and Romans, 332-489. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Provides a close examination of Gothic history during the migration period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicasie, Martinus Johnannes. Twilight of Empire: The Roman Army from the Reign of Diocletian Until the Battle of Adrianople. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1998. An examination of the Battle of Adrianople and the history that led up to it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Stephen, and Gerard Friell. Theodosius: The Empire at Bay. 1994. Reprint. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. A provocative and detailed account of the Battle of Adrianople and its aftermath.
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