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The Battle of Adrianople (August 9, 378), sometimes known as the Battle of Hadrianopolis, was fought between a Roman army led by the Roman Emperor Valens and Gothic rebels (largely Thervings as well as Greutungs, non-Gothic Alans, and various local rebels) led by Fritigern. The battle took place about 8 miles or 13 kilometers north of Adrianoplemarker (modern Edirnemarker in European Turkey, near the border with Greece and Bulgaria) in the Roman province of Thracia and ended with an overwhelming victory for the Goths.

Part of the Gothic War , the battle is often considered the start of the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. Adrianople actually was fought between the Goths and the Eastern Roman Empire, which ultimately withstood the Gothic invasions and developed into the Byzantine Empire.


In 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, once across the Danube (and in Roman territory), the dishonesty of the provincial commanders Lupicinus and Maximus led the newcomers to revolt after suffering many hardships. Valens (of the Eastern Empire) then asked Gratian, the western emperor, for reinforcements to fight the Goths. Gratian sent the general Frigeridus with reinforcements, as well as the leader of his guards, Richomeres. For the next two years preceding the battle of Adrianople there were a series of running battles with no clear victories for either side.

In 378, Valens decided to take control himself. Valens would bring more troops from Syriamarker and Gratian would bring more troops from Gaul.

Valens left Antiochmarker for Constantinoplemarker, and arrived on the 30th of May. He appointed Sebastianus, newly arrived from Italymarker, to reorganize the Roman armies already in Thrace. Sebastianus picked 2,000 of his legionaries and marched towards Adrianople. They ambushed some small Gothic detachments. Fritigern assembled the Gothic forces at Nicopolismarker and Beroe to deal with this Roman threat.Socrates Scholasticus, Church History, book 1, chapter 38.

Gratian had sent much of his army to Pannonia when the Lentienses (part of the Alamanni) attacked across the Rhinemarker. Gratian recalled his army and defeated the Lentienses near Argentaria (near modern-day Colmarmarker, France.) After this campaign, Gratian, with part of his field army, went east by boat; the rest of his field army went east overland. The former group arrived at Sirmiummarker in Pannonia and at the Camp of Mars (a fort near the Iron Gatesmarker), 400 kilometers from Adrianople, where some Alans attacked them. Gratian's group withdrew to Pannonia shortly thereafter.

After learning of Sebastian's success against the Goths, and of Gratian's victory over the Alamanni, Valens was more than ready for a victory of his own. He brought his army from Melanthias to Adrianople, where he met with Sebastian's force. On August 6, reconnaissance informed Valens that about 10,000 Goths were marching towards Adrianople from the north, about 25 kilometers away. Despite the difficult ground, Valens reached Adrianople where the Roman army fortified its camp with ditch and rampart.

Richomeres, sent by Gratian, carried a letter asking Valens to wait for the arrival of reinforcements from Gratian before engaging in battle. Valens' officers also recommended that he wait for Gratian, but Valens decided to fight without waiting, ready to claim the ultimate prize.

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 may have included troops from any of three Roman field armies: the Army of Thrace, based in the eastern Balkans, but which may have sustained heavy losses in 376–377, the 1st Army in the Emperor's Presence, and the 2nd Army in the Emperor's Presence, both based at Constantinople in peacetime but committed to the Persian frontier in 376 and sent west in 377–378.

Valens' army was composed of veterans and men accustomed to war. It comprised seven legion — among which were the Legio I Maximiana and imperial auxiliaries — of 700 to 1000 men each. The cavalry was composed of mounted archers (sagittarii) and Scholae (the imperial guard). However, these did not represent the strong point of the army and 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.

Ammianus Marcellinus makes references to the following forces under Valens:
  • Battalions of the Lanciarii, and the Mattiarii, the latter being apparently allied forces. However, mattiarii may refer to mace infantry (mattea being Roman for mace). Valens is referred to as seeking protection with them as the Roman forces collapsed (apparently a sign of how desperate the battle had become). Eventually they were unable to hold off the Goth's superior numbers.
  • A battalion of Batavians, apparently held in reserve who apparently fled given a reference to a comes named Victor attempting to bring them up into battle but unable to find them.
  • Scutarii (shielded cavalry) and archers. As one or both were under the command of Bacurius the Iberian, these may have been allied auxiliary troops from Iberia rather than Roman.

He also refers to the following officers:

  • Ricimer (Richomeres), Frankish Comes of Gratian's Domestici (the corps of bodyguards of the emperor who were stationed in the imperial palace) sent to assist Valens in 376. He offered to act as a hostage to facilitate negotiations when Equitus refused. He managed to survive the battle, indicated due to retreating.
  • Sebastian, arrived from Italy previously, and clearly operating as one of Valens' generals. Killed in the battle.
  • Victor, master-general of the cavalry, a Sarmatian by birth and who led the officers counselling waiting for Gratian.
  • tribune Equitius, a relation of Valens, high steward of the palace, who refused to act as a hostage having previously been a prisoner of the Goths in Dibaltum and having escaped feared revenge. Killed in the battle.
  • Bacurius (presumably Romanised Bakur), a native and possibly prince of Iberia (modern Georgia), in command of the archers and/or scutarii (shielded cavalry) with Cassio that accompanied Ricimer as hostage, and who attacked without orders.
  • Trajan, apparently in command of Roman forces before Valens assumed command, and who was described as an illustrious man whose death in the battle was a great loss. He was allegedly still alive when Valens sought refuge with the Lanccarii and the Mattiarii.
  • A comes named Victor who attempted to locate the Batavians in reserve, but was unable to find them.
  • Cassio, in command of the archers and/or scutarii accompanying Ricimer as hostage.
  • Saturninus, referred to as being able to stay alive by retreating. Presumably an officer or notable given he is referred to by name.
  • Valerianus, Master of the Horse. Killed in battle.
  • Potentius, tribune of the promoted officers, son of Ursicinus, former commander of the forces. He "fell in the flower of his age, a man respected by all persons of virtue".
  • Thirty five tribunes, with no particular command, who were killed. Presumably there were more than this, but who survived.

Strength of Valens' army

Several modern historians have estimated the strength of Valens' army.

Treadgold estimates that, by 395, the Army of Thrace had 24,500 soldiers, while the 1st and 2nd Armies in Emperor's Presence had 21,000 each. However, all three armies include units either formed (several units of Theodosiani among them) or redeployed (various legions in Thrace) after Adrianople. Moreover, troops were needed to protect Marcianopolis and other threatened cities, so it is unlikely that all three armies fought together.

More recent sources, e.g. Alessandro Barbero (The Day of the Barbarians) estimates the total Roman force at approximately 15,000 men with the Visigoths and Ostrogoths at approximately 20,000 men.

Order of battle of Valens' army

It is not possible to precisely list the units of the Roman army at Adrianople. The only sources are Ammianus, who describes the battle but mentions few units by name, and the eastern Notitia Dignitatum, which lists Roman army units in the late 4th to early 5th century, after Theodosius. Many units listed in the Balkans were formed after Adrianople; others were transferred from other parts of the Empire, before or after Adrianople; others are listed in two or more sectors. Some units at Adrianople may have been merged or disbanded due to their losses. The Roman forces consisted of heavy infantry, various archers and cavalry.

Composition of the Gothic forces

The Gothic armies were mostly infantry with some cavalry.

There were probably two main Gothic armies south of the Danube. Fritigern led one army, largely recruited from the Therving exiles, while Alatheus and Saphrax led another army, largely recruited from the Greuthung exiles.

Fritigern brought most if not all of his fighters to the battle, and appears to have been the force the Romans first encountered. Alatheus and Saphrax brought most of their cavalry, and possibly some of their infantry, to the battlefield late. These infantry were indicated as being an Alan battalion.

Ammianus records that the Roman scouts estimated 10,000 Gothic troops; but Ammianus dismissed this as an underestimate. This appears to be due to Alatheus and Saphrax's forces being away when the Roman scouts estimated the Goth's numbers before battle. Several modern historians have estimated the strength of the Gothic armies at 12,000–15,000.

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 north of the city. Valens arrived there after marching for seven hours over difficult terrain.

At around 14:30, 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 wagon circle, inside of which were their families and possessions. Fritigern's objective was to delay the Romans, in order to give enough time for the Gothic cavalry to return. The fields were burnt by the Goths to delay and harass the Romans with smoke, 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.

A detachment of Romans began the battle without orders to do so, believing they would have an easy victory, and perhaps over-eager to exact revenge on the Goths after two years of unchecked devastation throughout the Balkans. 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 wagons, but it was too late. At that moment, the Gothic cavalry, alerted by messengers from the embattled wagon circle, 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 were unable to maneuver, encumbered by their heavy armor 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.

In the rout, the Emperor himself was abandoned by his guards. Some tried to retrieve him, but the majority of the cavalry deserted. Valens' final fate is unknown; he probably died anonymously on the field, although one account says he was trapped in a nearby village house and burned.


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 the Teutoburg Forestmarker, nearly four centuries earlier. The battle was a devastating blow for the late Empire. In effect, the core army 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 morale impact of the defeat; but it is also clear that Adrianople did not mark the end of the Roman Empire, because the imperial military power was only temporarily crippled.

The defeat at Adrianople changed the character of the Empire in that it signified that the barbarians, fighting for or against the Romans, had become powerful adversaries. The Goths, though partly tamed by Valens' successor Theodosius I (who accepted them once more as allies), were to remain as a distinct entity within its frontiers; sometimes allies; other times enemies. Roman losses could only be made good by co-opting barbarians into the army as Foederati under their own commanders; and, as so often, military power has ways of translating into political influence.

The long term implications of the battle of Adrianople have often been overstated, with many Twentieth Century writers repeating Sir Charles Oman's idea that the battle represented a turning point in military history, with heavy cavalry triumphing over Roman infantry and ushering in the age of the Medieval knight. This outdated idea was overturned by T.S Burns in a ground-breaking article in 1973. Burns shows that the Gothic army's cavalry arm was actually fairly small, that Valens would actually have had more cavalry and that while the role of Fritigern's cavalry was critical to his victory, the battle was a mainly infantry versus infantry affair. The Medieval knight was not to rise for several centuries after Adrianople. It is also often stated that the defeat at Adrianople led to changes in the composition of the late Roman Army and an increase in the use of cavalry. In fact, this process had been going on in the Roman Army long before AD 378, with cavalry increasing its role and status in the Army from at least the time of the Emperor Gallenius (AD 253 to 260)

The real significance of the battle was political and strategic: the Roman defeat left a large and hostile foreign force within the frontiers of the Empire. This was a force that was to cause significant problems to the Empire for the next century and which would be a contributing factor to the eventual collapse of the Western Roman Empire.




Alessandro Barbero (2007). The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire. ISBN 0802715710

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