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 Emperor Decius 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 “bogeyman” in the minds of later Romans.
Then, in the 4th Century of the Christian Era, a greater “bogeyman” 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, a portion of the Gothic nation fled westward. Led by Fritigern, these Goths (who later became known as the Visigoths) 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 of Moesia, 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.
(Artwork by Howard Gerrard, “Adrianople AD 378”, p.82-83, by Simon MacDowall, © Osprey Publishing)
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 this 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. Just the previous summer his general (the Magister 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 9th took 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.
Gone were the 5,000 strong legions of sturdy pilum-and-gladius armed legionaries, who for centuries had hacked their way methodically through every enemy they faced. By Adrianople Roman field armies had evolved into a balanced force of spear-and-javelin (or dart) armed heavy infantry; supported by elite regiments of javelin or bow armed skirmishers and units of heavy and light cavalry.
The core of the infantry was still the men of the legio, the legions. However, the legion of the late empire had shrunk to less than a third its earlier size; becoming instead a compact, mobile regiment of 1,200 men. Their equipment was now a spear (which could be thrown or retained in hand for thrusting or warding off cavalry); augmented with a pair javelins or a brace of throwing darts. These last were called martiobarbuli or plumbata, and came into use in the 3rd century. They were made of a lead sphere to which fins and an iron spike were attached. These were held on a rack of half-a-dozen within the soldier’s shield. Completing their armament was a double-edged spatha. Originally the Roman cavalry sword and ancestor of the Medieval broadsword, it had now replaced the shorter gladius as the standard side arm of all Roman soldiers.
Armor and defensive equipment had changed dramatically as well. Gone was the famous banded metal body armor of the earlier legionaries, the famous lorica segmentata. The milites of Valens either wore no armor at all, or (if officers and front rankers) mail/scale shirts or cuirasses of bronze or raw hide. Also gone were the classical cylindrical-rectangular shields associated with the earlier Roman legionary (and seen in nearly every Hollywood epic involving the Romans). Now Roman infantry used a flat oval shield, closer in design and style to that of the light-infantry thureophoroi of the 3rd century B.C. Hellenistic dynasts!
Under Constantine the Great (circa 300 A.D.), certain units of elite auxilia (light infantry) regiments had been raised from German tribes along the Rhine frontier. These were called Auxilia Palatina; and were afforded the highest status within the ranks of the non-guard portion of the Roman army. These supported the legions much more completely than the auxilia of the earlier empire, taking their place in the first line of battle, the legions arrayed in the second line behind. These Auxilia were armed much like the heavier legionaries: the distinction was often more one of training and mission than equipment. The size of an auxilia regiment was about half that of one of the new legions, some 600 strong.
The Roman cavalry-arm had been expanded and improved during the 3rd century, beginning under the Emperor Gallienus. In the Eastern Empire particularly the best cavalry regiments had status as high (or higher) than that of their infantry counterparts.
Roman cavalry was roughly divided into light and heavy. This distinction reflected mission as much as armament. Heavy cavalry provided a shock force in battle, and guarded the flanks of the main infantry line. There role was to drive off enemy cavalry and, when practical, turn the flank of the enemy line. Light cavalry operated as mounted skirmishers in battle, on the outside end of the battle line. On campaign, they scouted, foraged, and screened the army as a whole, the traditional mission of light cavalry throughout history.
Javelin-armed light cavalry were recruited from Illyria and North Africa, while bow-armed cavalry units were recruited (and mostly deployed in) the East. In most cases such light cavalry wore little armor beyond a helmet; though many of the javelin-armed regiments carried large shields (scuta) for protection.
While the infantry of the late empire were (by-and-large) lighter equipped and less armored than their counterparts in earlier eras, the evolution of Roman heavy cavalry had gone the opposite direction (and there is very possibly a correlation between these two trends). Borrowing first from the Sarmatians and later the Sassanid Persians, Roman heavy cavalry now included units of the very heaviest armored cavalry available: cataphracti and clibanarii. These were lance-armed cavalry, both man and horse covered in banded or scale armor (though not all cataphract units rode armored horses). Their lance was 12 foot long, called a kontos (“barge pole”).
Such units were a tiny percent of Roman heavy cavalry. Though some of the regiments arrayed on the Roman side at Adrianople were clibanarii or cataphractarii (particularly among the Imperial Guard units of the “Scholae“) the bulk of the heavy cavalry were of the more traditional style, armed with javelin or a short, light spear. Some of these regiments were called promoti, suggesting they were promoted from the traditional cavalry detachments once attached to the legions.
In battle, the army deployed in two lines, each as many as eight ranks deep: the first composed of auxilia, supported by the legions in the second. Archers could be formed into a third line, to shower the enemy with missiles from above. Artillery, if available, would be placed on the flanks or, if the army was deployed along a ridge, on the highest ground. Cavalry supported the flanks, with the heaviest units closest to the infantry, and lighter cavalry further out on the extremes of the line. The general (or Emperor) and his mounted bodyguard took position on the right flank of the second line.
Unlike the earlier (mostly heavy infantry) armies of the Republic and early Principate, which were marked by aggressive, offensive tactics, the armies of the Late Empire preferred to stand on the defensive in battle; at least against enemies known for their strong attack or charge, such as the western Germanic tribes, the Sarmatians and Alans of the steppes, or against the very heavy cavalry of the Sassanid Persians. Such an attacking enemy would be greeted by a shower of missiles: javelins, darts, and arrows. If the first line of infantry auxilia were pierced, the attack would wash against the shields of the heavy-infantry legionaries of the second line.
Light cavalry would harass the enemy’s flanks and rear while heavy cavalry would protect the main infantry line, opposing and (if possible) attempting to break the enemy’s cavalry. If the cavalry on the flanks were able to defeat the enemy cavalry, they would pursue them off the field, and if possible turn onto the enemy’s center.
These tactics are in many ways reminiscent of the Hellenistic “Successor” Kingdoms of the 4th-2nd century B.C. It is likely that Antigonas “One Eyed” or Antiochus the Great would have felt more at home in command of a late Roman army than would have either Scipio Africanus or Julius Caesar!
Since the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine nearly a century earlier Roman land forces had been divided broadly into three categories:
1. Limitanei – The garrisons of the frontier fortresses, or limes, these units traced their lineage to the legions and auxiliaries who had held these posts since Augustus. By the late 4th century their quality was relatively poor; though they could be trusted to hold their border forts against most threats. On occasion, the better of them were “seconded” to the mobile field forces. Most of these units were under the command of various Dux (Dukes), commanders of the main fortresses and border garrisons of the empire.
2. Comitatensis – The mobile field armies that backed-up the limitani along the borders. Such mobile forces were stationed in the towns of the interior. All of the frontier provinces had such an army supporting the limitani, ready to respond to major invasions. These troops were of higher quality, and though some units traced their lineage to detachments from the legions of an earlier era, many were newer units formed during the 3rd and 4th centuries to combat the invasions and raids that marked that turbulent period, between the reigns of Gallienus and Constantine. These mobile armies were commanded by Comes (Counts).
3. Palatini – These were the elite units attached to the armies that served directly under the Emperor or his top officer, the Magister Militum Praesentalis (“Master of Soldiers in the Imperial Presence”). These soldiers were the elite cavalry and infantry regiments of the Empire. Some of these elite regiments were also detailed-off to various comitatensis armies of the provinces for stiffening.
Both the Eastern and Western Empires had mirror-image versions of this structure. In some case, the titles and exact composition differed. However, most of these differences were superficial, not structural. All units of cavalry or infantry were assigned to one of these three categories.
THE FORCES INVOLVED
Valen’s army at Adrianople was drawn only from that of the Eastern Empire. The Western Emperor, Valens’ nephew Gratian, was at that moment marching through Illyria with a Western army to his uncle’s aid. But Valens was loath to wait for this reinforcement, perhaps reluctant to share the “glory” of defeating the Goths with his nephew. Had he chose otherwise, the outcome that day might have been very different, indeed.
The Roman forces at Adrianople were composed of units from three Eastern Roman field armies: the comitatensis Army of Thrace, which normally backed-up the fortress garrisons along the Danube frontier; and the two elite Praesentalis (“In the Presence” of the Emperor) armies of the East. These were normally stationed around the capital, Constantinople and at Antioch, in Syria, respectively. Both these latter armies had returned with Valens from his Armenian campaigns. All were veterans, the very best troops in the Eastern Empire.
There has been wildly varying estimates as to the size of the forces deployed at Adrianople. Enlightenment and Victorian Era historians, who tended to over-blow the importance of the battle, put the number of Romans as high as 60,000; with a Gothic force appropriately larger as well. Modern scholars note that while all three Roman armies, at full strength, indeed numbered some 66,000 troops, this “paper strength” doesn’t take into account casualties from recent hard campaigning (the Army of Thrace in particular having been roughly handled by the Goths over the last two years) nor detachments left to garrison key places. It is highly unlikely that Valens would have left the still turbulent Eastern provinces without some stiffening garrisons. Additionally, after arriving back in Constantinople, some of his forces would have been granted sick leave, and the garrison of the capital reinforced. At Adrianople additional troops were detached to garrison that town as well, where the imperial regalia and the army’s pay-chest was lodged during the battle. By the time the two armies met, the Romans likely numbered only somewhere between 20,000-30,000.
(Artwork by Gerry Embleton, plate D, “Rome’s Enemies (1)” by Peter Wilcox, © Osprey Publishing)
Fritigern’s forces were even smaller. Marcellinus records that Roman scouts reported the Gothic strength before the battle at 10,000. The skeptical Marcellinus, refusing to believe that the finest army in the Eastern Empire could be defeated by a numerically smaller force of “barbarians”, dismissed this figure out of hand. But if the scouts were indeed reporting accurately what they saw before the battle, their report would not have included the bulk of the Gothic (and allied Alan) cavalry, who throughout the day were returning from a foraging expedition. So, including the absent cavalry, it is very possible that the Goths numbered some 12,000 to 16,000 fighting men: a smaller force than that which Valens brought against them.
Most of the Goths were unarmored infantry, carrying a large oval shield and armed with javelins. The nobles and their household-warriors fought on horseback, as javelin-armed heavy cavalry. Armor would have been scarce, found only upon the richest warriors or nobles and their retainers.
THE BATTLE OF ADRIANOPLE, AUGUST 9, 378
The Gothic position was upon a low hill, behind a barrier of wagons, defending their camp. The Romans deployed in the plain below them. The Roman foot held the center, the cavalry divided on both wings.
Throughout the hot summer day, the Romans stood in ranks under the baking sun, while Fritigern stretched out peace negotiations. No doubt the Gothic leader hesitated to engage in a trial of arms against the elite “Army in the Presence”. Just as importantly, he was stalling for time to allow the Gothic cavalry to return; which, as stated above, were away foraging.
Looking south over the battlefield from the hill where the Gothic wagonberg was located. This is the view the Goths would have had from their camp of Valens’ army deployed on the plain; and gives a good impression of how difficult a “slog” up this hill, under fire from Gothic bows and javelins, the tired Roman infantry would have had that hot summer afternoon
Late in the day, a skirmish broke out between the Roman left-wing cavalry and the Goths opposite them. Losing patience, Valens ordered a general attack.
Standing in ranks all day under a blazing sun wearing an iron helmet, carrying a 12 pound shield, and in some cases wearing metal body armor will sap the strength of even the best conditioned soldiers. Pushing uphill in the stifling heat, the already tired Roman forces were sluggish. Even so, progress was being made as the Roman foot battled all along the front of the Gothic camp, and the wagonberg was broken into in some places.
Then, at this crucial moment, the Gothic cavalry returned to the field. Clouds of dust kicked up by the advancing Roman forces must have blinded the Romans to the arrival of this threat. With no warning, the Gothic horse fell upon the flanking Roman cavalry on Valen’s left wing.
In a cavalry fight, impetus and momentum are of the highest importance. As the Gothic cavalry charged out of the obscuring dust, the Roman horse were caught “flat-footed”. One moment they were standing idle, mere spectators as the infantry assaulted the wagonberg; the next, they were set upon by furiously-charging Gothic horsemen. After only the briefest struggle, the Roman squadrons gave way, routing from the field.
Deprived of their cavalry and the flank protection it afforded, the Roman attack on the wagonberg faltered. Soldiers looking over their shoulders could see and hear the furious melee on their flanks. And though clouds of choking dust no doubt obscured the details, it must have been apparent that their cavalry was fleeing the field.
The victorious Gothic horsemen now wheeled inward, attacking the flanks and rear of the Roman infantry. At that moment, the Gothic foot sallied forth from their camp and assailed the Romans from the front, driving them back to the base of the slope. Valens and his men found themselves surrounded and attacked from every direction.
Ammianus Marcellinus, himself a soldier, provided a vivid description of what followed:
“Dust rose in such clouds as to hide the sky, which rang with fearful shouts. In consequence it was impossible to see the enemy’s missiles in flight and dodge (them); all found their mark and dealt death on every side. The barbarians poured on in huge columns, trampling down horse and men and crushing our ranks so as to make orderly retreat impossible… “
In the blinding dust clouds that covered the battlefield, all cohesion and tactical control was lost. Under the pressure the Roman lines crumbled inward. Reports tell how soldiers were pressed so closely together that many could not raise their arms from their sides.
“In the scene of total confusion, the infantry, worn out by toil and danger, had no strength left to form a plan. Most had their spears shattered in the constant collisions… The ground was so drenched in blood that they slipped and fell… some perished at the hands of their own comrades… The sun, which was high in the sky scorched the Romans, who were weak from hunger, parched with thirst, and weighted down by the burden of their armor. Finally our line gave way under the overpowering pressure of the barbarians, and as a last resort our men took to their heels in general rout.”
Some of the elite units held their ground, making a last stand. Foremost of these were two of the Palatine legions, the Lanciarii Seniors and the Matiarii. The Lanciari were the senior legion of the Roman army , and they showed their quality that day. When all others lost their heads, they seemed to have kept theirs. Valens took refuge in this island of steady soldiers amidst the storm of rout and ruin. He ordered the reserves brought up; but though comprised of elite cohorts of Auxilia Palatina, these too had been carried off in the general panic that gripped the army (and likely without striking a blow). Officers sent to fetch them back followed suit, also deserting their emperor.
(Artwork by Howard Gerrard, “Adrianople AD 378”, p.82-83, by Simon MacDowall, © Osprey Publishing)
Accounts differ as to Valens fate. One tale has him struck dead amidst these stalwart last defenders. Another, though, states that he was struck by a Gothic javelin or arrow; and was carried wounded to a nearby farmhouse. There, his bodyguards held the Goths off for a time, till the house was set afire; killing all but one, who jumped free of the blaze and was taken prisoner (surviving to later tell the tale of the Emperor’s fate). That Valens’ body was never recovered lends credibility to this version of his death.
The battle ended with the coming of darkness, allowing some survivors to escape the stricken field. On the battlefield, the Emperor and the cream of the Eastern Roman Army lay dead.
The following day the Goths attacked the town of Adrianople, in an attempt to capture Valens’ imperial regalia and treasury. But the garrison left behind managed to drive the Goths back, with help from the townspeople and survivors of the battle; particularly men of the Lanciarii Seniors. These latter, after cutting their way to safety, had arrived at the town in time to join the defenders.
After their victory the Goths spread out throughout the Balkans, ravaging far and wide. They would eventually be brought to terms, temporarily settling in the Balkans. A generation later, a new leader, Alaric, would lead them into Italy and the sack of Rome.
Adrianople is often described in grandiose terms, as the reason for the fall of the Roman Empire; and as the end of the legions and the beginning of the 1,000 year dominance of cavalry in warfare. Recent scholarship, however, contradicts this traditional view. While certainly traumatic for the Roman psyche, this clash between Rome and her hereditary enemy, the Goths, has been overblown in importance by historians of the last two centuries. In truth, the battle, while a blow to both Roman pride and confidence, had little direct long-term effect on the fortunes of the Empire.
The troops lost were few, considering the total number of soldiers comprising the Roman army. At the time of Adrianople, the Roman Army was over a half-a-million men strong; deployed from Hadrian’s Wall in Britain to the Nile cataracts in Egypt. A loss of twenty-thirty thousand, even if of the highest quality, was hardly fatal to the Roman state.
Remember that the Eastern Empire, whose Emperor was slain and whose “Praesentalis” army had been destroyed, lasted for another eleven hundred years, with Constantinople only falling at last to the Turks in 1453. It was the Western Empire, whose army was not even present at the battle, which eventually collapsed, and that not for another century!
The reasons for the Gothic victory has also been misinterpreted. Some historians attribute the barbarian victory to a decline in Roman arms; the legions no longer being of the quality of their predecessors. Perhaps deriving their theories from Gibbon and Oman, other historians credit the Gothic victory to the assumed use of the stirrup by their horsemen. That having stirrups gave the Gothic cavalry a great advantage over their Roman counterparts. Finally, some have blamed Valens for blundering badly, leading his army to disaster.
All of this is, of course, nonsense.
Taking the second point first, the exact date of the appearance of the use of the stirrup in Europe is unknown. But most historians now accept that it was likely the Avars, in the 7th century, who brought this invention from Central Asia. Neither the Goths nor the Romans used stirrups; and did quite well without, as had cavalry for the preceding millennium.
Victorian Age historians, who could not imagine riding without stirrup, have always tended to over-blow the value of this invention. Stirrups give a horseman a more stable seat, to be sure. It allows a cavalryman a better platform from which to hack downward with a saber at men on foot. However, ancient horseman obviously compensated without stirrups. Does anyone imagine that the Macedonian Companion Cavalry of Alexander the Great, who rode without even saddle, were less effective lancers in their day than the Polish Uhlans who served Napoleon? Roman cavalry used a four-horn saddle, which allowed the horseman to use the horns to achieve a stable seat. Modern experimentation has shown these saddles to provide a very stable platform, indeed.
In any case, the Gothic cavalry had no technical advantage over the Romans. What advantage they possessed was simply a tactical one involving surprise, impetus and ferocity. They charged into an unsuspecting and ill-prepared mass of Roman cavalry which was standing idle; always a recipe for disaster for the horsemen on the receiving end. The Romans, already exhausted from long hours in the sun, and who thought the battle all but won were panicked and easily dispersed.
As for the supposed decline in the quality of the Roman foot, just consider: they found themselves charged in rear and flank by cavalry while engaged in assaulting a field fortification. Even the legions of Scipio or Caesar would have had difficulty overcoming such dire circumstances.
It must be admitted that the Roman foot had, to some degree, declined over the centuries. The Limitanei, particularly, were not of the same quality as the troops that had held those very defenses under Augustus or Trajan. But the army at Adrianople was the very best the 4th century Roman Empire could field. While they may have used a different tactical system of weapons and formations than had the legions of Caesar; the Legio and Auxilia Palatina of the Praesentalis armies of the Empire were every bit as good soldiers as any in the world. If not quite as good as the legions of Caesar, they were good enough.
Finally, leadership (on either side) at Adrianople was not the decisive issue. The Romans didn’t lose because of any brilliant ploy on the part of the Gothic leaders, nor by the incompetence of Valens as a commander. If Valens did nothing particularly right, he did nothing particularly wrong. His cavalry failed in their mission to adequately scout the enemy, and to protect the vulnerable flanks of the infantry. This is the mistakes of the wing commanders, perhaps, but the blame cannot be fairly laid at the feet of the Emperor.
Rome suffered a disastrous defeat, but not a fatal one. When compared to the defeats of Cannae, Arausio, or even Carrhae, it was a trivial loss, save for the death of the Emperor. But emperors had fallen or been captured in battle before and would again. Nothing about Adrianople distinguishes it in such a way as to fairly justify the place it holds to this day in the history of the Roman Empire.
Save for one result.
The indisputable outcome of the Gothic victory at Adrianople was that an independent Gothic nation would continue to exist within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Though the Romans would make accommodation with the Goths (who would become known as the Visigoth, to differentiate them from those Goths that remained as subjects of the Huns in their homeland, the Ostrogoths), granting them the status of foederati; in the end their independence and predatory nature would become a cancer that would eat away at the Roman body politic. Under Alaric, in the next generation, they would invade the Western Empire repeatedly, eventually sacking Rome in 410 A.D. From there, they would move on to found a kingdom in southern Gaul and Spain.
This was the legacy of Adrianople, and the battle’s main connection to the fall of the Western Empire. By not destroying the Visigoths when he had the opportunity, the unfortunate Valens helped to doom the Western Empire to eventual extinction, and to open the door to the coming Dark Ages.
1. It is unclear if the Gothic horse initially attack the Roman left; or both flanks simultaneously. Some have suggested that the Roman left broke, and the Roman right-wing cavalry then routed in fear, not waiting to be attacked. This seems unlikely, however; as the highest quality cavalry tended to be deployed on the right wing of any Roman army.
2. The Lanciarii were likely formed by the Emperor Gallienus, as part of the original mobile field army, stationed then at Milan. It has been suggested that he formed this legio by gathering together the lanciarii attached as light troops to the various legions; into a fast-moving legion capable of keeping up with his mobile cavalry force, meant to reinforce armies on the Rhine or Danube in time of crisis. By the 4th century, the Lanciarii Seniores, stationed near Constantinople as part of the Praesentalis army of the East. By this date they were no longer “light infantry”; but a legio palatinae heavy infantry unit. Their designation as “Seniores” is a puzzlement. With the division of the empire into two-halfs, many of the same formations existed in both. To prevent confusion, identical regiments were designated “senior” or “junior”, in either the west or east. In most cases, the “senior” infantry legio were in the West; the “senior” cavalry vexillations in the East; but this was not always the case. As for the Lanciarii, the oddity is that there is no Western equivalent regiment listed in the Notitia Dignitatum as “Lanciarii Juniors“. Therefore, I would tentatively suggest that the designation “Seniors” in the case of the Lanciarii Seniores may indicate their status as the senior legion in the mobile army.
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.