Battle of Adrianople

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Battle of Adrianople
Part of Gothic War (377–382)
Date August 9 378
Location Near Adrianople
Result Gothic victory
Eastern Roman Empire Goths
Valens Fritigern, Alatheus, Saphrax
15,000 to 30,000 ca. 20,000
About 20,000 Unknown

The second Battle of Adrianople (August 9 378) was fought between a Roman army led by the Roman Emperor Valens and Germanic tribes (mainly Visigoths and Ostrogoths, assisted by some non-Germanic Alans) commanded by Fritigern. The battle took place at Adrianople and ended with an overwhelming victory for the Germanic tribes.

Part of the Gothic War (377–382), the battle is often considered the start of the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century.


[edit] Background

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 in Roman territory the dishonesty of the provincial commanders led the newcomers to revolt after suffering many hardships. Valens then asked Gratian, the western emperor, for reinforcements to fight the more numerous Goths. Gratian sent the general Frigerid with reinforcements, as well as the leader of his guards, Richomer. 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. He left Antioch for Constantinople and at the same time ordered the general Sebastian to leave Italy, and Gratian to bring his sizable force from the Rhine frontier. Along the way Sebastian succeeded in taking a group of Goths by surprise and forcing them to retreat. Meanwhile Gratian was delayed along the Rhine where he made a spectacular victory over the Alamanni earning him much praise throughout the Roman empire.

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 left Melanthis for Adrianople, where he met with Sebastian's force. On August 6, reconnaissance informed him that the Goths were marching to the south-west of Adrianople, about 20 kilometers away. The goal of the Goths was to circumvent the Roman army that stretched back towards Adrianople. Despite the difficult ground, Valens reached Adrianople where a camp was constructed with a ditch and a rampart.

Richomer, 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. Valens had underestimated the army of the Goths at only about 10,000 men.

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.

[edit] Composition of the Roman troops

Valens' army was composed of veterans and men accustomed to war. It comprised seven legions — among which the Legio I Maximiana and imperial auxiliaries — of 700 to 1000 men each. The cavalry was composed of shield-archers 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.

One major cause for the Romans' defeat was the fact that the Roman army's quality had declined significantly: discipline was lost due to the mercenaries and the equipment level in the legion was far from what it was during the 2nd or 3rd centuries. Some Roman legionaries didn't even have armour, possibly because it was heavy and mobility was important in the late legions or because discipline was so low that the legionaries could refuse to wear the heavy armour. And the armouring level had fallen too: chain mail was used often and the lighter and more protective lorica segmentata was long gone.

[edit] Order of battle of Valens' army

Image:Lanciarii iuniores shield pattern.svg
Shield pattern of the Lanciarii seniores, according to Notitia dignitatum.

It is not possible to precisely austin list the units of the Roman army at Adrianople. The only source is Ammianus, although it is possible to guess the units' names relying upon the composition of the Roman army according to Notitia Dignitatum, a late 4th - early 5th century document. A possible composition of the Roman army could be (according to Macdowall<ref>Simon Macdowall, Adrianople Ad 378, Osprey Publishing, 2001, ISBN 1-84176-147-8</ref>, Valens had 15,000 men at Adrianople):

  • 1,500 Scholae (Imperial Guard), commanded by Valens. Each Schola was nominally composed by 500 men, but the campaign strength was possibly reduced to 400 men. Probably they were divided into:
    • Scutarii Prima (heavy cavalry);
    • Scutarii Secunda (heavy cavalry), which, together with Scutarii Prima, were the Scutarii who attacked at the beginning of the battle;
    • Scutarii Sagittarii (horse archers), possibly the mounted archers following the Scutarii attack;
  • 1,000 Equites Palatinae (elite cavalry). The vexillationes Palatinae had a nominal strength of 500 men, possibly 300 men during the campaign. The units that were probably present at Adrianople were:
    • Equites Promoti Seniores (conventional heavy cavalry), whose tribune, Potentius, was killed during the battle;
    • Comites Sagittarii Iuniores (light horse archers), in the right wing cavalry;
    • possibly Comites Clibanarii (heavily armoured cataphracts);
  • 1,500 Equites Comitatenses (conventional cavalry), with units nominally composed by 500 men, actually reduced to 200-300 during the campaign. Most probable present units:
    • Equites Primi Scutarii (conventional heavy cavalry);
    • Equites Promoti Iuniores (conventional heavy cavalry), commanded by Potentius;
  • 5,000 Legiones Palatinae, nominal strength 1000 men, possibly reduced to 800 men during the campaign. The units present at Adrianople were:
    • Lanciarii Seniores (heavy infantry), the most expert unit on the field, made the last stand during the battle;
    • Matiarii Iuniores (heavy infantry), joined the Lanciarii during the last stand;
  • 6,000 Auxilia Palatinae, full strength 500 men, campaign strength 300-400 men:
    • Batavi Seniori (heavy infantry), held in reserve;
    • Sagittarii Seniores Gallicani (foot archers);
    • Sagittarii Iuniores Gallicani (foot archers);
    • Tertiis Sagittarii Valentis (foot archers), raised by Valens;

On the other hand, 15,000 would have been miniscule for a Roman army, even for an army of the late Roman Empire. The loss of two thirds of a 15,000 army, or even of an entire army of 15,000, could have been readily absorbed and made good by the Romans. The inability of the Empire to make good on the losses suffered at Adrianople (comparable in scale and enormity to the catastrophic defeat suffered in the Battle of Cannae, in which 70,000 to 80,000 Romans were killed or captured) suggests that the Roman losses at Adrianople exceeded 15,000. A more likely estimate is that Valens led a force of at least 40,000 Romans to disaster.

[edit] 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 2.30 pm, 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 manoeuvre, encumbered by their heavy armour 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.

[edit] Death of Valens and aftermath

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 Cannae nearly six 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.

The battle signified that the barbarians, fighting for or against the Romans, had become powerful adversaries. The crisis that began in 376 was relieved only by negotiations in 382. Theodosius I, Valens' successor, accepted the Goths once more as allies. This compromise left the door open for other Gothic mutinies; 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.

[edit] Further reading

[edit] Notes and references

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Battle of Adrianople

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