On a hot and dusty plain eight miles from the Roman city of Adrianople, on August 9, 378 A.D., the elite field army of the Eastern Roman Empire and a tribal army of refugee Visigoths fought one of the most celebrated battles in western military history. The results would reverberate for centuries.
The Goths had been enemies of Rome for centuries.
Originating in Sweden (the southern region of which is still to this day called East and West Gautland, i.e., “Gothland”), this Germanic people had migrated in the early Christian Era onto the plains of western Ukraine and northern Romania. Under their greatest king,Ermaneric, the Goths created a powerful kingdom in the mid-4th century.
The broad rivers of Ukraine flow southward, draining into the Black Sea. Throughout the 3rd Century A.D., Gothic longships sailed down these alluvial highways, and from the Black Sea raided the civilized communities along its shores. Passing through the Bosporus and into the Aegean, they brought fire and sword to the ancient towns and cities of Greece and Asia Minor. Athens, Corinth, Argos, Olympia and Sparta: all felt the fury of the Goths. Troy and Ephesus on the coast of Asia were also sacked and pillaged. In the latter, the Great Temple of Diana, one of the “Seven Wonders of the World”, was finally destroyed for all time.
Perhaps presaging the sentiments of northern Europeans who centuries later faced the depredations of the Viking “Northmen”; Romans living along the Aegean Coast might well have prayed for deliverance from the “furore Gothicnorum”, the fury of the Goths!
On land, the Goths were equally formidable. In 249 an army of Goths and other barbarian warriors under the Gothic king, Cniva, crossed the lower Danube; raiding into the Roman province of Moesia. After nearly 2 years, they were brought to bay by the Roman EmperorDecius, near the town of Forum Terebronii (modern Razgrad, Bulgaria). On swampy ground, the advancing Roman heavy infantry and cavalry bogged down; and were overcome by showers of Gothic javelins and arrows. Decius was killed, becoming the first Roman emperor to be slain in battle.
This defeat by the Goths made a deep impression on the Romans, and though the Gothic menace abated after their crushing defeat at the hands of the Emperor Claudius “Gothicus”at the Battle of Naissus in 269 A.D.; they remained a “boogie man” in the minds of later Romans.
Then, in the 4th Century of the Christian Era, a greater “boogie man” stormed out of the vast steppes of Central Asia: the Huns!
These nomadic herdsmen had been driven from the borders of China centuries earlier by the Han Chinese. (It is the subject of a great deal of scholarly debate as to whether or not the Huns are the same people as those known in Chinese sources as the Xiongnu. To date there is no consensus on this question.) Over a century, the Huns drifted ever westwards, across the “sea of grass” that covers the Eurasian hinterland. Along their westward trek, they subjugated or displaced other nomadic tribes. In (approximately) 370 A.D., after defeating the Alans, they entered the lands of the Goths.
The Goths, whose armies were still primarily composed of javelin or bow armed infantry, were no match for the swift-moving Huns, armed with the powerful and deadly composite bow. Like that of all Asiatic steppe nomads, Hunnic warfare was based upon “the Great Hunt”: herding or luring the enemy (like wild game) onto killing grounds; where they could be worn down by elusive swarms of horse archers. Once the enemy’s numbers were depleted or physical exhaustion had set in, the Huns would close with the enemy and finished them off with lance, sword, or lasso (which the expert Hun herdsmen used to rope and drag their foemen to their deaths).
The Gothic Kingdom of Ermaneric was overthrown, the old king committing suicide in despair. Rather than submit, the Gothic nation fled westward. Led by Fritigern, the Goths found themselves refugees pushing against the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire.
In 376, the Roman authorities agreed to allow the Goths to take refuge within the Empire. The Romans were interested in settling these warlike people along the frontier province ofMoesia, an area devastated by earlier Gothic raids. There they would repopulate the province and act as a buffer against future “barbarian” incursions. This arrangement was a common one the Romans employed throughout the empire, enlisting tribes as foederati: tribal warriors allowed to settle on Roman territory in return for military service.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Goths were to refrain from plundering Roman towns and farms; while for their part the Romans were to supply the refugees with needed food and other essentials. Unfortunately, as was all too often the case, local officials were both corrupt and short-sided. According to the contemporary historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, these Roman officials cheated the Goths and drove them into rebellion.
For the next two years, the Goths pillaged throughout the southern Balkans, as various Roman commanders attempted to deal with them with varying degrees of success.
In the summer of 378, the Eastern Roman Emperor, Valens, arrived back in Constantinople after several years of campaigning in Armenia against the Persians. He decided to take the field against the Goths in person ; and bring about a “final solution” to the Gothic menace.
Valens had every reason to anticipate complete success. Early in his reign, in 369, he had won a short war against the Goths along the Danube. That summer, his general (theMagister Peditum) Sebastianus had enjoyed success against Gothic detachments in Macedonia and Thrace by use of guerrilla tactics. Based on these successes, the Goths may not have seemed to Valens to be so formidable a foe.
The two armies met 8 miles from the town of Adrianople (modern Edirne). There the Goths had arranged their camp on a hill facing southward, overlooking a broad plain. Their wagons formed an outer defensive perimeter, called a “wagonberg”, atop the hill. This Gothic camp was not just filled with the booty taken over three years of pillaging in Roman territory; it was the home to a nation on the move: the wagonberg sheltered the warrior’s families as well. Not enough has been made by commentators concerning the morale effect that defending their families and their only homes must have had upon the Goths in the coming battle. Certainly knowing that defeat would mean death or enslavement for their loved-ones and an end to their people must have lent a desperate strength to Gothic arms.
Cognizant of the significance of possible defeat, and of the strength the Emperor had arrayed against them, the Goths sent emissaries of peace on both the 8th of August, and again on the day of battle, the 9th. Knowing that only a decisive defeat of the barbarians could guarantee an end to Gothic raids, and perhaps with the example of Claudius Gothicus to draw upon, Valens rejected these overtures. However, negotiations on the 9thtook up much of the day; and the battle did not commence till late in the afternoon.
THE ARMY OF THE LATE ROMAN EMPIRE
The Roman army of the 4th Century A.D. bore little resemblance to that which had followed the eagles under Caesar or Trajan…