On Aug. 9, 378 A.D., a Gothic barbarian army defeated the Roman forces of Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople. The defeat ensured that the Goths would spend the next several decades wandering throughout the Roman empire, constantly challenging the power of the eastern and western emperors.
Constantinople served as the capitol of the Roman empire ever since Constantine had founded it earlier in the century. The emperors often appointed subordinates to rule the west from Rome, and occasionally conflict occurred. More often than not in the fourth century, however, the two emperors — western and eastern — worked together.
To the empire's north, various Germanic tribes threatened Roman security. The Goths in particular had been troublesome, frequently raiding the empire over the course of the third century, and by mid-century had even penetrated as far south as the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea. One hundred years later, however, the Goths were being pressured by other forces, notably the Huns, and began to reconsider their actions toward Rome.
The Goths had always been largely nomadic, relying on raids, extortion and thievery to survive. Now, however, the Huns had destroyed their lands and threatened their very existence. Food was scarce and many died of hunger. Looking to the south, the Goths now wanted to be a part of the empire and enjoy the security and much higher Roman standard of living.
By 376 A.D. many Goths had assembled along the banks of the Danube in Dacia, modern Romania. From there they sent representatives to Emperor Valens, requesting his leave to enter and then settle within the empire. In exchange, they would be treated as a subjugated people (foederati) within the empire. Critically, they were required to supply manpower for Valens' armies, an important supplement to his small military forces.
Valens ordered his army to facilitate the crossing of the Danube. It is impossible to know with any detail the exact number of Goths who had assembled on the far bank waiting to cross into the empire, but tens, if not hundreds, of thousands did just that. Logistically, the process of moving such a large body of people across the river in any sort of ordered fashion proved impossible for the Roman army, to say nothing of keeping them fed and sheltered.
In his book “The Day of the Barbarians,” historian Alessandro Barbero (John Cullen, trans.), wrote:
“The situation was also deteriorating for the immigrants who had already been admitted, mostly because of the frightening inadequacy of the arrangements made to receive them. The refugee camps were overcrowded, hygienic conditions were disastrous, and the rations furnished by the army were barely sufficient to stave off starvation. Officials should have started marching the immigrants to the interior of the empire, as the imperial instructions required, but the Roman generals in command ... were in no hurry. The two of them quickly realized that great potential profit lay in the rations they were supposed to furnish to the refugees. Corruption was endemic in the Roman Empire, and the entire system of contracts and supplies for the army had always offered unlimited opportunities for criminal gain.”
Additionally, many Roman soldiers kidnapped women and children, making them their slaves, contrary to the agreement with Valens.
Gothic leaders such as Fritigern agreed to attend a feast that the local Roman commander, Lupicinus, held in their honor, despite the poor conditions most of the Goths were enduring. During the meal several of the Goths outside turned upon the Romans in frustration, and a general riot threatened to break out. Fritigern and the other Gothic leaders, leaving the banquet under the pretext of trying to defuse the situation, joined the rebellion. The Gothic War had begun.
A series of skirmishes occurred over the next two years as the Goths roamed the countryside, pillaging for their food. Valens watched as his small armies, woefully undermanned, faced defeat after defeat at the hands of the Goths. Finally, in 378 A.D., the Goths advanced upon the city of Adrianople (in modern European Turkey), a fortification they would need to pacify before moving on to the imperial capitol.
By this point Valens had assembled a formidable army and decided to personally lead it against the Barbarians. Accounts vary, but each side boasted an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers. (Some accounts place the numbers somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000).
In his book, “How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower,” historian Adrian Goldsworthy describes the battle:
“Fighting began when the two units of Roman cavalry on the far right flank attacked without orders. ... They were quickly driven back, but it seems to have produced a general attack all along the Roman line. On the left flank the units had scarcely arrived and were not properly formed up when they joined the attack. The cavalry units that should have protected the flank of the infantry were not in place, leaving them very exposed. They were completely unprepared to meet the sudden attack of the Greuthungi (one of the Gothic tribes), along with the Gothic cavalry and a band of Alans (Gothic allies from the east).”
Despite continued intense fighting, the Roman assault gradually petered out. The Roman failure to adequately prepare their formations for battle, as well as their early commitment of reserves to battle, spelled disaster once the Goths had gained the initiative. Many Roman soldiers threw down their weapons and fled. With the Goths in hot pursuit, Roman casualties mounted.
The Romans lost two-thirds of their force in the battle. More than 30 tribunes (Roman officials) also fell. The greatest blow, however, was the loss of the emperor himself. At some point in the battle, perhaps during the confused fighting of the doomed Roman attack, Valens was killed, though his body was never found.
Though the battle proved a tactical victory for the Goths, it ultimately proved a strategic failure. The Goths had hoped to negotiate a deal with Valens, whose standing could have ensured the rest of the empire would have gone along with it. Without the revered emperor's stature, there was no guarantee such agreements made in haste by Valens' successor would be accepted by most Romans.
Additionally, the Goths could not successfully exploit their victory. Without siege equipment, the Goths could not scale or destroy the city's walls. Ultimately, they bypassed the city and made for Constantinople, where they encountered the same problem. Eventually, the Goths moved back further into Europe, and spent the next several decades bouncing back and forth between Rome and Constantinople.
The battle is significant for a number of reasons. First of all, as historian Victor Davis Hanson has noted in his book “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power,” all things considered it is a rare enough thing for a non-Western army to defeat a Western army. It is a much rarer thing for a non-Western army to defeat a Western army in Europe. Certainly there are exceptions, but the course of history shows time and again that Western commitment to infantry formations and regular drill, as well as command structures and logistics, usually favor the West. Additionally, on most occasions when non-Western armies and Western armies fight it is outside Europe, illustrating the West's logistical ability to transport and supply armies far from home.
Secondly, the Roman empire had long endured as a major military power. As historians have noted, Rome had successfully defended itself from the comparatively powerful city-state of Carthage during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.), when the empire controlled only a few cities in the Italian peninsula and had far fewer resources to draw upon than it would nearly six centuries later.
By the fourth century A.D. Rome dominated Europe and the Mediterranean, yet when a comparably few Barbarians attacked, the empire was paralyzed. What changed? Did Rome's citizens, now far more numerous than during the wars of the Republican period, simply not have an interest in defending the empire? Was apathy and corruption so great that the bulk of its people preferred being overrun by Barbarians to taking up the sword? Did Roman cultural values really change that much in 600 years?
The answer appears to be yes to all of the above. That poses very real and uncomfortable questions about the state of our own cultural values today.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org