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Decisive Battles of History: Adrianople


During the reign of Augustus Caesar and his successor Tiberius the northern borders of the Roman Empire were settled on the Rhine and Danube rivers. The rivers served as the Northern barrier of the Roman Empire in the following centuries. The Germanic or Nomadic invaders who tried to force their entrance into the empire arrived from this direction, so the frontier region was filled with Roman garrisons, watchtowers and river guards. Despite the frequent conflicts between the Romans and their neighbours, the frontier was not always a place for bloody military conflicts, but periods of peace, sometimes long peace, were often the norm also. Small scale raiding was never really eradicated, but large-scale warfare involving tens of thousands of warriors was not the norm on a yearly bases either.

The Romans often made alliances with their neighbours and created Roman client Germanic rulers who served as buffers on their frontiers.

With time it is believed that the population of the regions beyond the frontiers of Rome greatly expanded between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. Large tribal confederations emerged at the Rhine( The Franks and the Alemanni) and the Danube( Goths) frontiers of the empire. Historian Peter Heather, an expert on Gothic history, believes that by this time the Germanic societies became stratified, and the elite was rich enough to maintain a core of professional soldiers, which during the campaign were joined by the freemen of the tribal confederation. Heather estimates that these new Germanic confederations had enough power to deploy at least 10,000 warriors on the field on their own.

The Germanic world was not the only one that went through changes in this period. By the late 4th century the Roman Empire was generally split into two parts and was reunited only briefly for a few years after the death of Constantine the Great. The military machine of the Roman Empire has much changed also. By the late 4th century the Roman army was made up of two types of units: limitanei( border guards) and comitateses( mobile field army) units. Some historians believe that the border guards were not terribly competent at anything else than patrolling the borders and were only part-time soldiers, while other historians believe that they were more capable than they were given credit for. The army by this time also included a large element of Germanic foederati also.

Reenactment of how a 4th century Roman infantrymen may have looked like

Reenactment of how a 4th century Roman infantrymen may have looked like

The Romans often fought against the Gothic federation on their Danube border. Constantine the Great, his son Constantius and Valens all campaigned against the Goths with various levels of success.

Despite the trouble the Germanic invaders on the northern borders caused, Constantinople's greatest enemy were not the Goths, but Sassanid Persia. The Persians were a sedentary empire like Rome, who maintained at least a partially standing army, and were more than a match for the Romans, as many emperors during the 3rd and 4th centuries found out.

They were also bordering the richest eastern provinces of the empire, which played a key role in financing the civilian and military institutions that kept the empire running.

Emperor Valens, who was ruling the Eastern Empire in the decade leading up to the Battle of Adrianople, was stationed right at the Roman-Sassanid border, at Antioch, when news of waves of Gothic refugees flooded the Danubian border of the empire reached him.

Despite the claims of Valens propagandists claiming that the emperor was overjoyed when the news reached him, modern historians believe otherwise, and seeing how the events unfolded, they are probably right.

The refugees arriving at the Danube were the Thervingi and Greuthungi Goths. These tribes came into conflict with the Huns, who arrived at the European steppes in the 370s and swept everything before them.

It is important to mention that the Goths fleeing the Huns were by no means the whole Gothic population living beyond the frontier of Rome, but only a part of it. Still, contemporaries described the human mass waiting at the Danube as seemingly endless, and historians estimate their numbers to have been around or over 100,000 at the lower count.

Valens allowed the Thervingi to enter the empire as refugees, but the rest of them were left out in the cold. The incompetence, corruption and sheer greed of the Roman officials turned an already difficult situation into a full-blown disaster. The great number of refugees put the logistics of the empire under pressure, and as the group entering the empire was not broken up into smaller pieces and dispersed, supplies soon ran out in the area where they were settled. Hunger and starvation kicked in, and the desperate Goths were soon selling their children as slaves in exchange for dog meat.

Resentment soon turned into open disobedience, and the Goths left the area of their confinement. The Roman officials who were already mismanaging the situation then did an even bigger blunder. Lupicinus and Maximus invited the joint leaders of the Goths Fritigern and Alavivus to a banquet at Marcianopolis. Kidnapping and murdering enemy leaders were tactics that the Romans often used, but the two botched up their attempt, and let Fritigern talk himself out of his end. After murdering the bodyguards and Alavivus, Fritigern was allowed to rejoin his army, and instantly incited them against the treacherous Romans.

The Romans marched out to defeat the Goths but were defeated by Fritigern under the walls of Marcianopolis. The remaining Roman forces retreated to the city but were powerless to stop the Goths from plundering and devastating the Balkans.


For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. The Roman Empire became permanently divided in 395.
    • False
    • True

Answer Key

  1. True
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The Road to Adrianople

When news reached Valens of what was unfolding in the Balkans, he sought to make peace with the Persians and sent ahead reinforcements. He also sent messages to his nephew Gratian, the emperor of the West, asking for help. Gratian sent two of his commanders, Frigidus and Richomeres, to help his uncle.

The Romans fortified the towns and left strong garrisons to make sure these were safe. Under the overall command of Richomeros, the Romans fortified the mountain passages of the Balkans and tried to limit the movement of the Gothic army. Richomeros met the Goths and their Nomadic allies at the Battle of the Willowes, but he failed to defeat them, and the battle ended in a draw. Another Roman general Bazimeres met the Goths at the Battle of Dibaltum later that summer, this time, the Goths and their allies smashed the Romans, and even the Roman commander was killed. Another army under Frigidus managed to avoid disaster when their scouts detected a superior Gothic army advancing on them and retreated in time. Most of 377 were spent fighting small scale skirmishes and guerrilla war, as the Romans lacked the numbers to risk many open confrontations.

In the meantime, Valens managed to make peace with the Sassanids and was finally able to depart to Constantinople. He departed Antioch in early spring 378 and arrived in Constantinople on May 30, 378. He was immediately forced to quell unrest in the capital before departing to the town of Millenthios, which became the strategic base of Valens. Valens appointed a new commander, Sebastian, who proved himself an able leader and defeated several of the smaller Gothic raiding parties that were roaming in the countryside.


For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Emperor Valens ruled jointly with his older brother Valentinian.
    • False
    • True

Answer Key

  1. True

Valens expected his nephew Gratian to arrive in the Balkans soon, however, an attack from the Alemanni against Gaul forced Gratian to turn back and defeat the Alemanni. This delay cost Gratian months and left Valens without the promised reinforcement. Still, Valens had a formidable force at his disposal, as he had brought with him around 15,000-30,000 battle-hardened troops from the east.

Fritigern recalled most of his raiders when he received news of the successes of Sebastian, which left him with a concentrated force of 10,000-15,000 soldiers. Valens received intelligence in early August about the location of the Fritigerns force, which was not far away from him. Richomeres arrived around this time with messages from Gratian, who asked his uncle to wait for his arrival with further reinforcements. The commanders of the emperor were divided, with some advising caution, some others were advising Valens to move against the Goths swiftly, and destroy them once and for all.

Valens decided to attack and left Adrianople on August 9, 378.

The Romans marched for hours before they arrived at the Gothic camp. It is believed that the summer heat of Thrace was swelting hot, and temperatures may have risen to up to 40 degrees Celsius. When Valens arrived, Fritigern tried to bide his time to win time for his cavalry, which was foraging in the countryside, to return. Negotiations went on for a time, and the Roman cavalry on the left attacked without orders.

As they received no support, they were easily repelled, and the arriving Gothic cavalry attacked them from their flank, dispersing them. The Goths then attacked the Roman army that was not even properly deployed when the fighting began. It is believed that the Roman cavalry from their left was routed quickly, which left the Roman left flank exposed. The battle was still hanging in the balance when the cavalry of the Greuthungi arrived and smashed into the exposed left flank of the Roman infantry.

The battle soon turned into a bloodbath. As the Romans were not able to deploy properly before the battle began, their superior training and advantage of fighting in formation counted for little, while the long march in the heat left them tired and dehydrated in their heavy armour.

Thanks to the incompetent leadership of Valens, the Goths won a resounding victory and destroyed probably as much as 2/3 of the Roman army, and even emperor Valens died.


The Roman-Gothic War lasted for another four years, and the successor of Valens, Theodosius, had no more luck in destroying the Goths than Valens had. The two sides came to an accommodation in 382 which allowed the Goths to settle in Roman territory and also allowed them to remain under the command of their own leaders, which meant that, unlike the previous refugees who entered the Roman Empire, the cohesion of the Gothic tribes was not broken up after their arrival.


How Rome fell by Adrian Goldsworthy

The fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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