Cascading Failure: The Roman Disaster at Adrianople AD 378 - Part 1 of 3
by Jeffrey R. Cox
So long as humanity has existed, war has existed as well. Yet given the size of
the earth, the relative youth of humanity the limitation of human habitation to
certain climates and environments, is should come as no surprise that the portion
of the earth that has experienced war, including major battles or significant combat
actions, is very small. What should be much more surprising is that relatively few
places have experienced such combat actions on more than one occasion.
Of those that do, most were the subject of a single campaign. For instance, two
American Revolutionary War battles near Saratoga, New York, combined to stop the
British drive down the Hudson River. Multiple major combat actions were fought in
and around Atlanta during the Civil War campaign to control that city. No less than
five naval clashes were fought in the waters immediately north of Guadalcanal as
part of the World War II campaign to control that island.
More rare are those places that have been the subject of multiple battles in the
same war but otherwise unrelated. The most obvious examples come from the American
Civil War, where the area around Manassas, Virginia, and its Bull Run was the subject
of not just two battles but two complete campaigns. Manassas was not alone. Two
different campaigns witnessed major combat actions around Chancellorsville, Virginia
– not so much a “ville” as a single mansion with outbuildings that was burned to
the ground during the first battle. Then there is Franklin, Tennessee, site of a
major cavalry skirmish and, in 1864, a particularly brutal clash.
Much more rare is the place that has been the subject of multiple battles in different
wars. And most of those places, like Carthage, capital of the Carthaginian Empire
and later the Vandal Kingdom; or Ctesiphon, the capital of Arsacid Parthia and later
Sassanid Persia, were major political centers. Yet there are a remarkable few that
are not. Sedan was the site of the decisive battle during the 1871 Franco-Prussian
War and the breakthrough of the Wehrmacht’s panzer divisions in Germany’s 1940 conquest
of France. Smolensk, Russia, just across the border from Belarus, was the site of
a major battle during Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Tsarist Russia and a massive encirclement
of Red Army troops by the Panzergruppe Guderian during Germany’s 1941 invasion
of the Soviet Union. To top it off, the Soviets murdered some 20,000 Polish officers
and intellectuals near Smolensk in the Katyn Forest.
The same place experiencing the horror of war firsthand two times. Three times.
Even five times. Doesn’t exactly sound lucky.
Yet there is one place that is particularly unlucky, having witnessed no less than
That place, an area of Thrace that today straddles the border between European Turkey,
Bulgaria and Greece, is occupied by a city that is now called (for reasons known
only to the Turks) Edirne. It had been named for the Roman Emperor Hadrian – “Hadrian’s
City,” or “Hadrianopolis” in the Greek tongue that had been so prevalent in the
region for centuries. But that Greek name would be westernized into the name by
which the city, despite the best efforts of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, would be known
Those fifteen battles highlight the perceived strategic importance of the Adrianople
region. Historian John Keegan describes that significance:
[Adrianople’s] curious distinction as the most frequently contested spot on the
globe has been conferred on it not by its wealth or size but by its peculiar geographic
position. It stands at the confluence of three rivers, whose valleys provide avenues
of movement through the mountains of Macedonia to the west, Bulgaria to the north-west
and the Black Sea coast to the north, and which then flow to the sea through the
only extensive plain in the most southeasterly tip of Europe. At the other side
of the plain stands the great city of Constantinople (Istanbul), on a site chosen
by [Roman Emperor] Constantine for his capital because it was the most easily fortified
position on the Bosphorus, which separates Europe from Asia. Adrianople and Constantinople
are therefore strategically twin cities, together guarding movement from the Black
Sea to the Mediterranean and from southern Europe to Asia Minor, or vice versa.
Because Constantinople defied attack from the sea, particularly after the building
of the [city] walls of [Roman Emperor] Theodosius in the early fifth century, all
invaders of southern Europe from Asia Minor were compelled to land in the plain
to its rear; invaders starting north of the Black Sea were driven to hug its western
shore by the barrier of the Carpathians on their inland flank, and so also ended
up in the plain of Adrianople; while invaders from Europe, drawn by the prize of
Constantinople […] had no choice but to cross the same plain in their approach march.
Adrianople, in short, is the European end of what geographers call a land bridge,
by which Asia gives on to Europe along two major routes, and it was fated to be
fought over whenever there was a major outflow of military force, east-west or north-south,
by way of either[.]
Historian Peter Donnelly highlights the geographical features of the area:
To the south and east are the rich lowlands that only the year before have been
devastated by the Goths. To the southwest rise the Rhodope Mountains, with the broad
Hebros River flowing along their northern flank, bringing with it the great highway
from Philippopolis and all the west. [footnote omitted] At Adrianople, just before
it turns south, the Hebros meets another considerable river, the Tonzos, which has
its origins far north in the Haemus Mountains. Beyond that range is the Danube […]
Between the Haemus and Adrianople, the plains are interrupted by a range of hills
that present a sufficient barrier to form the modern boundary between Turkey and
Bulgaria. This range broadens as it extends eastward before becoming Mons Asticus
(today called the Yildiz), a largely impassable region. At least two paved roads
cross the hills from the north: one alongside the Tonzos, leading from the town
of Kabyle (modern Yambol) to a junction with the western highway at Adrianople,
[footnote omitted] and another farther to the east connecting Marcianople and the
lower Danube with [Constantinople (now İstanbul). From the plain around Adrianople,
the ground rises gently toward the hills, across a landscape featureless save for
shallow ravines and the occasional stream trending toward the Constantinople highway.
Although fifteen major combat actions (at least) could be legitimately called “The
Battle of Adrianople,” when historians, military analysts and especially classicists
speak of “The Battle of Adrianople,” they are usually speaking of only one: one
that took place on the afternoon of August 9, 378, already an inauspicious day in
Roman history. One that saw the Eastern Roman Emperor Flavius Julius Valens and
his army attempt to end, by force or by diplomacy, an insurrection that had already
lasted two years by a sort of confederacy of Goths, Alans, Huns, escaped slaves
and disaffected Romans under the intermittent leadership of the Gothic Chieftain
Fritigern. One that would see the disappearance of Valens and the end of the Roman
army as it had existed for centuries. One that would cement August 9, the anniversary
of the annihilation, by ambush and treason, of four Roman legions under the governor
Varus at Teutoberg Forest in AD 9, as a day of infamy. One that would herald the
doom of the Western Roman Empire, even though it had been the army of the eastern
Roman Empire that been the one destroyed. One that foreshadowed the end of Roman
civilization and the onset of a Dark Age that would last a thousand years.
The AD 378 Battle of Adrianople was thus one of the major turning points in history,
a pivot point after which Roman confidence was irrevocably shattered, and the barbarian
tribes that had been licking their chops at the Roman riches across the Danube and
Rhine Rivers smelled new Roman blood in the water and went in for the kill, with
the particularly vulnerable Western Roman Empire their first target.
As such, “Adrianople” (as the battle became known to history and especially to the
Roman psyche) has gotten considerable attention, although usually in the context
of other events and perhaps not the “exclusive” attention it could be said to deserve.
Much of that attention can be attributed to the work of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus.
His history of the later Roman Empire, only part of which survives, remains one
of the best accounts of the ancient world. Ammianus lived at the time of the Battle
of Adrianople, and though he did not himself fight there, he interviewed those who
did. His experience as an army veteran gave him an understanding of military affairs
shared by few other historians in antiquity, enabling him to create a much better
picture of battle than others.
But Ammianus was not perfect. A pagan and supporter of Valens’ successor Theodosius,
Ammianus had an agenda, which comes through in his writing. He was also trying to
write a good story with a moral to it. Thus some of his language was intended to
create more heat than light; his success in so doing can be frustrating for historians
who must interpret his often vague and incomplete statements when trying to reconstruct
the battle. He was also the only historian that we know of to compose a contemporary
account of Adrianople. Other contemporary historians, especially ecclesiastical
historians, mention only bits and pieces of the battle. As a consequence, only part
of Ammianus’ account can be corroborated.
The result, when combined with the continuing inability to definitively locate the
battlefield, is an incomplete understanding of the events at and surrounding the
Battle of Adrianople, an understanding that is less complete than other ancient
battles of similar magnitude such as Marathon, Thermopylae, Cannae and Teutoberg
Forest. But that has not prevented a “conventional wisdom” of the battle. Most analyses
of Adrianople blame the Roman defeat, at least insofar as the conduct of the Romans
themselves is concerned, on at least one of three factors:
1. The Romans’ erroneous estimate of the size of the Gothic fighting arm;
2. Valens’ decision to delay hostilities at the battlefield to negotiate with Fritigern,
which bought time for the Gothic cavalry to return; and
3. The launch of Roman attack, without orders, by the Roman cavalry on the army’s
And that blame is accurate, if oversimplified. Consider the following:
1. The exact nature of the erroneous estimate of the Gothic forces is not addressed
by Ammianus and is subject to debate. How much of an underestimate was it? Did it
include the Gothic cavalry? Did they not know where the Gothic cavalry was?
2. Blaming the defeat on Valens’ delay assumes a Roman victory absent that delay.
Given Ammianus’ statements as to the thirst, hunger and fatigue of the Roman troops,
that assumption is questionable.
3. The nature of this “attack” by the right wing Roman cavalry is also unknown and
subject to debate. Did they just spontaneously launch an ancient version of a banzai
charge? Or did they just become entangled with the enemy during the course of their
normal screening duties?
What I would put forth is the Romans brought about their own fate at Adrianople
through a cascade of failures, each one at least contributing to and in some cases
causing the next failure in the chain, culminating in the final defeat. I would
arrange that cascade as follows:
1. The erroneous estimate of the Gothic forces led to …
2. The Roman decision to force march their troops to the Gothic horde’s location,
3. Left the Roman troops thirsty, hungry and tired once they arrived at the battlefield,
4. Caused Valens to agree to delay the start of hostilities by negotiating with
Fritigern, which …
5. Caused Valens to summon his senior officers to assist with the negotiations,
6. Left the fighting troops without senior leadership immediately available, which
7. Allowed the right wing Roman cavalry, operating without senior officers, to “attack”
before the Romans were ready for battle and while Valens was even negotiating a
truce with no intention of attacking, which …
8. Caused the Roman defeat.
What follows is an attempted reconstruction of the Battle of Adrianople with an
explanation of this cascade. Like my earlier article on the World War II Battle
of the Java Sea, this reconstruction fits what we know about the battle, but I make
no representation that this is the only possible scenario; it is merely what I believe
the most likely. I will attempt to fill in the numerous gaps and ambiguities in
the story of Adrianople with deduction, probable scenarios and, lastly, informed
speculation. This reconstruction is presented here for purposes of review, comment
and criticism. I highly recommend readers consult the endnotes for this piece.
For the uninitiated, I have an admittedly (very) long lead-in with information designed
to give the battle some context and help understand the account of the battle itself.
For that account, I will place special emphasis on several questions on the battle
that are not only unanswered, but have been largely unaddressed. Those questions
1. The decision to attack;
2. The march to the battlefield;
3. The whereabouts of the senior officers; and
4. The “attack” of the right wing cavalry.
With that, sit back, relax and, hopefully, enjoy this piece of detective work about
one of the most important battles in Western history.
The Roman Empire in the 4th century
By the arrival of the 4th century, the Roman Empire “was not your father’s Roman
Empire,” so to speak, and had not been for some time. The glory days of the Principate
(the emperor being “first citizen among equals”) were long gone. The unending stream
of revolts by generals, assassinations of emperors, corruption, plagues and outside
invasions had culminated in what has become known as “The Crisis of the Third Century,”
which would be a turning point in the history of the Empire.
The Crisis swept away the last vestiges of the Principate and found the Empire split
into three parts, each claiming sovereignty over the whole, while, with the army
depleted by infighting and focused on threats inside the Empire, barbarian bands
crossed the Rhine and Danube and raided deep into Roman Europe; the Goths in particular
raided as far south as Athens. The barbarian raids crippled internal commerce, with
the resulting fall in tax revenue frustrating Roman efforts to refill an imperial
treasury exhausted by the civil wars.
Rome needed a hero, and it got one: Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Augustus, known to
history as Aurelian. Becoming emperor in 270, Aurelian defeated the barbarian
hordes that had been tormenting the Empire. He also brought the two breakaway empires
back into the fold. For all his efforts, he was rewarded with the title “Restorer
of the World,” a massive triumph and, in 275, his assassination.
While the Roman state had survived the biggest threat to its existence since Hannibal
some five centuries before, it would never be the same. Areas that had not known
war for hundreds of years had been faced with it and were found unprepared. The
trauma it left was deep and lasting. As economics is all about psychology, internal
commerce never fully recovered. Confidence in the imperial government waned, and
with it the loyalty of the people.
But the effect was more than just psychological. Cities all over Europe began building
defensive walls, not the least of which was Rome itself. Having expanded well beyond
the Severan Walls that had kept out Hannibal, Rome saw itself as vulnerable in the
new reality. Aurelian responded by constructing what are now known as the Aurelian
Walls encircling the Eternal City. Such walls would prove to be effective in keeping
out barbaric hordes and other foes, but city walls were expensive – very
expensive – and a constant reminder of the threat under which the Empire now found
The Empire continued to muddle along through civil wars, currency devaluation and
more plagues until the reign of Diocletian (AD 286-305). After fighting a civil
war of his own to attain power, Diocletian (technically Caius Aurelius Valerius
Diocletianus Augustus) instituted numerous reforms to stabilize the situation, only
a few of which concern us here.
The first is the tetrarchy, or system of four rulers. Diocletian believed that the
Empire was too big for one man to rule effectively and so devised a system where
two emperors (each called an augustus) would rule the Empire. Having two
rulers was not unknown to Rome, as the Republic had always been ruled by two elected
consuls. Each co-emperor would have an under-emperor (or caesar) to assist
him, and upon the death or abdication of the augustus would become augustus himself,
thereby setting up an institutional system for a smooth transition of power.
Not surprisingly, multiple emperors meant the Empire had to be divided between them.
Conventional wisdom has Diocletian formally dividing the Empire permanently into
eastern and western halves, each having an augustus and a caesar. In truth, his
division of the Empire has been overstated. What Diocletian and the other tetrarchs
did was simply determine among themselves the areas of the Empire on which each
would focus. After Diocletian the division of the Empire would continue to be negotiated
between the emperors, with the dividing lines often changing with each emperor,
and would not be institutionalized until 395.
As a practical matter, during Diocletian’s reign the force of his personality kept
the tetrarchy together and functioning effectively. However, aside from that “charming”
personality, he developed no formal system for resolving disagreements among the
tetrarchs. While the tetrarchy would function with surprising efficiency after Diocletian
left power, there would be problems.
Though his division of the Empire for the tetrarchy has been overstated, Diocletian
did divide the Empire in a very significant way – he doubled the number of provinces.
The old provinces were seen as too large, so they were basically halved in size.
This resulted in some provinces having the same name so they were differentiated
by numbers, such as Moesia I (Moesia Prima) and Moesia II (Moesia Secunda). Provinces
would then be grouped together to form a diocese. For instance, the provinces of
Moesia II, Scythia, Thracia, Haemimontus, Rhodope and Europa were grouped together
into the diocese of Thrace (Thracia), the area that would be most affected by the
events surrounding the AD 378 Battle of Adrianople. This organization would endure
until the end of the Western Empire.
Other changes were made as well. In the Republic, the Principate and even beyond,
military command and civilian administration had been unified. No more. It used
to be that to hold a military command one had to be the rank of senator or above,
but with senators having thrown their weight around during the various civil wars,
they were now barred from holding a military position. Unfortunately for the emperors,
that reform ended up backfiring by opening up the commands to a far larger group
of people, the equestrians (equites or “knights”), who took full advantage of the
situation so that the emperor, instead of cutting his list of potential threats
had actually increased it.
The most dramatic changes were, undoubtedly, instituted by Flavius Valerius Aurelius
Constantinus Augustus, known to history as Constantine. After his “divine” victory
over his rival for the imperial throne at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, he made
Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Constantine also saw Rome as strategically
unsuited to be capital of the doughnut-shaped empire that bore its name, so he decided
to build a new capital. He chose as its site the Bosporus, that strategic crossroads
– or choke point – between east and west, between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
The site was already occupied by an ancient Greek settlement called Byzantion, or
as the Romans called it, Byzantium. Once Constantine was finished upgrading the
town, he would call it Nova Roma – New Rome. But the locals would call it “Constantine’s
City” – in the Greek language of the Bosporus, Constantinopolis, or in its westernized
The Roman army in the 4th century
Like the Empire itself, the Roman army was vastly different than it had been during
the Principate, let alone the Republic. The changes in the army and their rationale
are very difficult to track, however, because of the dearth of documentation from
the time many of these changes took place during the 3rd and early 4th centuries.
Much of what we know about the late Roman army comes from an enigmatic document
called the Notitia Dignitatum.
Dating from roughly the end of the 4th century, the Notitia Dignitatum is a compilation
of the positions of imperial dignity, including military units, within the Eastern
and Western Roman Empires. As such it is an invaluable resource, but it has its
own mysteries. The dating of the Notitia Dignitatum is ambiguous, especially in
the case of the Western Empire, as the lists for the two halves of the Empire were
apparently compiled at different times. No one knows who made the Notitia Dignitatum
or why. Its list of military units includes no information as to their strength,
so for all anyone knows these units could have just existed on paper but had no
troops, especially in the case of the Western Empire. Finally, the original Notitia
Dignitatum is long lost; the major version that exists today dates from the 16th
Century, the result of copying and re-copying – by hand – over hundreds of years,
so no one knows what corruptions and omissions have entered the picture (literally,
in some cases). Nevertheless the Notitia Dignitatum has been a godsend in understanding
the concepts of the changes in the late Roman army, even if, in some cases, only
in a broad context.
These organizational changes, as I will explain, arose out of the army’s changing
mission. During the Republic and the Principate the army was an instrument of external
conquest and internal suppression. Rome’s external ambitions largely ended with
the death of the Emperor Trajan, and with the efficient performance of the government
under the Principate, popular revolts became fewer and further between. However,
the rebellions of the people were replaced by rebellions of the troops. On his deathbed,
the Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus is said to have told his sons, “Enrich the
soldiers and despise everyone else.” When this cynical yet sensible advice was
not followed, emperors paid for it, usually with their lives.
The constant civil wars and intrigue sapped the army’s morale, strength and public
standing. Once the army had become a professional force under Marius in the 1st
century BC, it became dependent on recruiting and other measures to get men to “volunteer”
for service. As recruiting became more and more difficult, especially after the
arrival of Christianity and its more pacifist outlook, the Roman state had to resort
to more and more “extreme” measures to stock the army’s manpower tables to any significant
At the same time, the army was more needed than ever for defense of the Empire because
the pressure of barbarian bands from across the Rhine and Danube continued unabated,
and usually increased during periods when the Empire was perceived as weak. The
Roman military had thus become weaker and more of a liability to the Roman state
at the same time it had become more of a necessity than ever before.
Over time this dynamic created what became basically a two-tiered system in the
Roman army, much of which was formalized by, not surprisingly, Diocletian. First
there was a line of troops at the borders, or limes, of the Empire; these troops
became generally known as limitanei. These were part-time troops, often
farmers in the border areas who had retired from active service, as well as their
sons. Organized on a provincial basis and commanded by a dux (from which
the term “duke” would emerge), the limitanei (or ripenses, as the troops
who patrolled the Rhine and Danube rivers – ripes – were called) would patrol
the border watching for signs of impending invasion; given the distances involved,
the limitanei were heavy in cavalry. They would also perform certain police functions
and counter bandit activities. They were not to engage in significant combat against
a major invading force, only to report and if possible delay it. The border areas
were fortified with forts, fortlets, towers, palisades, ditches and reinforced farmhouses
and granaries, usually in depth albeit on an ad hoc basis, to aid in this delaying
function. The actual combat with an invading force would come from the second tier.
That tier was the field army, the comitatus. The origins of the field army
are murky. Around AD 195, Septimius Severus created three new Roman legions, and
stationed one of them, Legio II Parthica, near Rome itself. While many saw the deployment
of Legio II Parthica in Italy, where a legion had not been permanently stationed
since the beginning of the Principate, as Septimius Severus’ effort at preventing
a move against his throne while he was on campaign, it has also been called the
first Roman field army, because its deployment was also ideal for not only a defense
of Rome from invasion but to counter any threats to northern Italy or the upper
This concept would further develop over time to where the emperor had his own army
with him at all times – the praesental field army (praesentalis – “Army in the Emperor’s
Presence”). Much more difficult for a Roman general to have the army declare
him imperator and start a civil war if the army was with the current emperor
at all times. Unfortunately, the emperor could not be everywhere at once. An
emperor fighting the Persians on the Euphrates would not be able to move his army
in time to stop barbarians from crossing the Rhine.
The solution, or more properly the evolution from the older organization, was the
regional field army. Each comitatus was based on a border diocese and commanded
by a comes, from which the title “count” would emerge. The regional field
army was to intercept and destroy any invasion force, preferably once it had become
ensnared by the border fortifications. The troops of the comitatus, the comitatenses,
were seen as higher in status than the limitanei with better equipment and better
pay, the best in the Roman army – until the comitatenses in the praesental army
were accorded even higher status and gained the name palatini.
The late Empire also saw changes in the Roman “legion,” or, more precisely, the
meaning of legion. The classic Roman legions, such as the 2nd Legion Parthica mentioned
above, still existed, but with the changing mission of the army, more often than
not the original legions would be split up with their cohorts and other vexillationes
(detachments) sent to various hot spots across the Empire. For example, two
legions (Legio V Macedonica and Legio XIII Gemina) were each split
between the Balkans and Egypt. The “classic” legions, which had consisted of
4,800-6,000 troops, were now considered too large and inflexible, and though they
still existed, many were split up among the limitanei. In their place were new units
of perhaps 500-1,000 men, though, confusingly for historians, these units were also
called “legions.” More confusingly, the term vexillationes came to refer
to cavalry units. Romans usually served in these legions, while barbarian troops
were also recruited to serve in auxiliaries (auxilia). The auxilia were ultimately
seen as more flexible and better fighters than the legions and often did more of
the actual fighting in combat.
With its changing mission and changing organization, the Roman army also changed
its tactics and equipment, once again looking nothing like the legionaries of the
Principate, with their segmented armor and Spanish swords that have become so famous.
The Roman soldier of the late 4th century might be said to be a cross between a
Greek phalanx, a Macedonian phalanx and a late Republican Roman legion, all made
up in a medieval style.
The Greek phalanx had formed the foundation for all combat units in the Greco-Roman
worlds. The phalanx, consisted of a block formed entirely by infantry – the Greek
hoplites. Each carried a 3’ diameter shield, a 6’-8’ spear and sword, and wore a
cuirass, greaves and a helmet. Before combat, the phalanx would form up and each
hoplite would bring up his shield and level his spear. The result was a “shield
wall” – a wall of overlapping shields protecting the men of the phalanx – bristling
with spear points. The phalanx would then march toward the enemy, usually another
phalanx. When the two phalanxes made contact, there would usually be a lot of shoving
and shouting as each phalanx tried to break the other. Casualties were relatively
few during this period of contact.
That is, until one of the phalanx’s shield walls suffered a “crack,” where the shields
were no longer overlapping and the body of a hoplite was exposed, either through
the disruption of the ranks of the phalanx; the injury, death or panic of one of
the hoplites; or simply losing or breaking a shield. Unless the crack was filled
quickly, it would then be exploited, the phalanx would break, and the hoplites would
flee. The victorious phalanx would then pursue them. This was where the vast majority
of battle casualties would usually occur, with unprotected individual troops cut
down by their pursuers, who, in any event, could not chase very far due to the encumbrance
of their armor and equipment.
The Greek phalanx, always more than a military unit to the Greeks, came to dominate
the ancient world until the rise of Philip II (359-336 BC) and his Macedonians.
Philip had studied the phalanx and its strengths and weaknesses, and had discovered
that among the latter was the phalanx’ inability to deal effectively with attacks
from its flanks. So Philip designed what became known as the Macedonian phalanx.
The Macedonian phalanx was similar to the Greek phalanx, but differed in two very
important respects. First, infantry would carry small shields strapped to their
arms and necks, because they needed both hands to hold their massive (20’) spears,
called sarissas. Second, the Macedonian phalanx was not the primary weapon,
but was an “anvil” for a “hammer and anvil” attack. The “hammer” would be the Macedonian
cavalry. Once the Macedonian phalanx had engaged the enemy infantry, the cavalry
would circle around and attack the enemy infantry from the flanks and rear. Philip’s
son Alexander the Great would use these new tactics to great effect in creating
his short-lived empire.
The early Romans, having dealt with Greek colonies in central and southern Italy,
were aware of the phalanx and had adopted it themselves. At some point (precisely
when and why remain murky), the Romans developed the legion that became so effective
in the Republic and early Empire. Without going into too much detail, the legion
was armed in roughly the same manner as the phalanx, but instead of a spear most
legionaries carried the pilum, a type of heavy javelin. The legion was also
organized much differently and fought much differently than the phalanx. Once the
legion had advanced to within some 30 yards of the enemy, they would throw their
pilae. The instinct of the hoplites would be to raise their shields to block
the shower of javelins. But that was fine with the Romans – the pilum was designed
to get stuck in a shield, from which it could not be easily removed. The added weight
of the pilum would make the shield awkward and unusable, so it would have to be
discarded. Voila! There was the crack in the shield wall. The Romans would
then charge – not march en masse like the phalanx, but a running charge – with their
swords drawn. Instead of a toe-to-toe shoving match by a line of troops, the Romans
sought to create numerous individual battles along the line. While the Romans still
carried their shields, anyone in the phalanx who had lost theirs to the javelin
attack would be at a severe disadvantage in such an individual battle, and the crack
would widen, eventually causing the phalanx to break. The heavy version of the pilum
could also, in a pinch, be used as a spear. The legion was so effective that it’s
fair to ask if it was designed specifically to defeat the phalanx.
The late Roman army borrowed elements from all these units. Like the Greek hoplites,
the late Roman infantryman carried a 3’ wide shield. There is disagreement as to
whether it was round or oval but it is uncontested that the famous semi-cylindrical
shield had fallen out of use by this time. The Romans also carried a spear, unlike
their earlier counterparts of Julius Caesar’s day, and a sword, though the sword
was not the famous Spanish sword (gladius Hispaniensis) or other short swords
that were used primarily for stabbing, but a longer sword commonly known as the
spatha – probably derived from earlier cavalry swords of the same name –
that could be used for slashing and hacking as well as stabbing. Certain comments
by the military theorist Vegetius and the late Roman practice of depicting soldiers
without their armor caused many to believe that the Romans did not wear body armor,
but Ammianus (himself a former soldier) confirms that they in fact did; they had
stopped using the distinctive segmented armor (lorica segmentata) one to
two centuries earlier, but they used chain mail (lorica hamata) and scale
mail (lorica squamata), both of which had been in continuous use by the Roman
army since at least the Punic Wars. Helmets varied, but were often of the spangenhelm
type, some showing the influence of the earlier Gallic helmet that has become archetypical,
with coifs often mixed in.
When ready for battle, the Roman infantry would, like the Greek phalanx, deploy
the shield wall, but with a twist. If the unit was planning on tactical defense,
taking the enemy’s charge, the first row of troops would kneel behind their shields,
while the second row held their shields over the shoulders of those in the front
row, creating a six-foot high wall of shields, with the spears sticking out of every
opening. While the shield wall would, if things went right, cause at least a standoff
with the enemy infantry, the ranks behind would, like the earlier Roman infantry,
shower the enemy with “missiles” – darts (often clipped inside the Roman shields),
javelins and even rocks. Roman archers would often add to the bombardment. The
use of such missiles was much more prevalent in the late Empire than in earlier
times. If the Romans were to advance, they would use a similar shield formation
but would for obvious reasons not kneel.
If the Roman infantry could defeat the enemy on its own, that was fine, but it was
not always necessary; the Roman troops just had to hold the enemy in place by keeping
them engaged. Like the Macedonian phalanx, the Roman infantry would be the “anvil”
to the “hammer” of Roman cavalry. The cavalry, who now made up about a third of
the Roman troops (up from about a tenth in the Republic and Principate), would then
attack the flanks and rear of the enemy.
It was a tested and logical system. Infantry as the anvil, cavalry as the hammer.
Borrowed from Alexander the Great, with whom the ruling class of Rome had become
obsessed in the late 2nd and into the 3rd and 4th centuries. The Macedonian
cavalry had been excellent, the key to victory in creating Alexander‘s short-lived
empire. The Romans, still the best trained, best equipped and most skilled fighters
in the world, tried to copy his system.
Unfortunately, as they had shown at Cannae, Carrhae and countless other battles
over the centuries, the Romans did not do cavalry well.
The rise of Valens
The Roman obsession with Alexander the Great and all things Greek (even though Alexander
was not technically Greek) went beyond military tactics into literature, art and
clothing. It could be seen as a fad, but when that obsession extended into state
policy, it turned distinctly unhealthy. In some cases, literally.
So it was with the ascension of Flavius Claudius Julianus – Julian – to the purple.
A relative of Constantine, Julian had been a successful general and caesar when
raised to augustus by his army in Gaul in 360. But once on the imperial throne,
he let his innate quirkiness come out. His early work in the Church and membership
in the Constantinian dynasty had helped him hide his staunch paganism. Not only
was Julian a pagan, he did not even worship the recently “manufactured” gods of
state religion like Sol Invictus, but the old Roman gods like Jupiter and Mars,
themselves based on even older gods of the Greek pantheon. It would earn him the
title Julian the Apostate.
Yet while Julian reversed many of the pro-Christian acts of Constantine and others,
Julian was more pro-pagan than anti-Christian. He set about reducing the imperial
bureaucracy and fighting corruption. He basically did away with the tetrarchy. But
he never strayed too far from his fervent belief in the traditions of the past,
especially those drawn from Alexander and Homer and their glorification of battle.
And then, needing a military victory to secure himself politically with his troops,
he turned his attention to the ever-troublesome Sassanids of Persia, a particularly
nasty and perfidious dynasty who claimed for themselves much of the eastern Empire
and were always intent on conquering it, peacefully or (usually) otherwise.
With visions of his own Homeric epic dancing in his head, Julian spent years preparing
– developing intelligence, planning, recruiting troops, gathering supplies – for
an invasion of Persia with the goal of regime change on the Sassanid throne. He
assembled an army of some 80,000-90,000 troops. Marching from Roman Syria, he sent
one part of the army under the generals Procopius, who was one of his cousins, and
Sebastianus toward Armenia to lure the Sassanid army north while he himself led
the bulk of the army south along the Euphrates, with a large convoy of supply barges
alongside. The ploy worked, and soon, after sporadic combat which saw Julian leading
from the front in a dangerously exposed fashion, sometimes even engaging in combat
himself, the Roman army found itself at the gates of the Persian capital of Ctesiphon.
And then, after arriving under the walls of Ctesiphon, after spending all this time,
effort and expense preparing for a campaign whose military objective was the capture
of Ctesiphon, Julian decided that he could not, in fact, take Ctesiphon. The Persian
army had wised up and was on its way, and Julian determined that he could not lay
siege to the city while the bulk of the Persian army operated in his rear. He decided
to set out north along the Tigris to meet it. This decision was perhaps understandable.
His next one was not.
For reasons that remain vague, Julian ordered that the barges carrying all the Roman
supplies be burned. He soon thought better of it, but by then it was too late –
the barges were charred ruins, the supplies were gone. It was a disastrous decision.
Now, thanks to Julian, the Roman army found itself deep in a hostile desert with
no food and no water.
The pagan emperor may have hoped that the destruction of the barges would speed
up the army’s movement up the Tigris to intercept the Persian host. While that may
have been true, it also made the point moot. Knowing the Romans were now short of
food and water, the Sassanids decided to let the desert do their work for them.
They maintained a scorched-earth policy, denying Romans supplies while avoiding
a major engagement. This was not the Homeric epic that had been the stuff of Julian’s
dreams. That did not stop him from trying. He continued to lead dangerously from
the front, at one point heroically charging into a skirmish without putting on his
armor. The engagement was indecisive, except Julian suffered a spear wound that
would cost him his life three days later. At least that part of the Homeric epic
he got right.
Now the Roman army was deep in a hostile desert with no food, no water and no emperor.
With choices limited because of the army’s isolation, the general Flavius Jovianus
– Jovian – was quickly made the new emperor. It was a poisoned chalice: the situation
was so desperate that Jovian was forced to settle a humiliating peace treaty with
the Persians that cost the Empire several provinces just to get the remnants of
his army back to Roman Syria.
While the settlement may have been a practical necessity, it was a political nightmare.
Upon his arrival at Antioch, Jovian was subjected to jeers and insults from the
public. After staying in Antioch long enough to reverse many of Julian’s anti-Christian
decrees and well aware that his political position was insecure, Jovian headed back
to Constantinople to try to explain the Persian debacle to an angry senate and political
Fortunately or unfortunately for him, depending on your perspective, Jovian never
made it to Constantinople. Outside of Ancyra, the new emperor died under mysterious
and perhaps unusual circumstances. Jovian was apparently asphyxiated as he slept,
possibly from carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of improper ventilation for
the fire used to heat his room, possibly from paint fumes released by that same
fire, possibly from poisoned or poisonous mushrooms. He had worn the purple for
only eight months.
Now the Romans needed another emperor. After running through a few choices, the
court eventually settled on Flavius Valentinianus – Valentinian – as the new emperor.
It was, in many respects, a good selection. While some of his early history is obscure,
Valentinian is known to have been a successful general who served under Julian in
Gaul and in some capacity on the Persian expedition. He cut a rather impressive
figure and inspired confidence. Many would later call him the last Roman emperor
to inspire fear in Rome’s enemies.
Nevertheless, Valentinian was not perfect. He was paranoid, obsessed with conspiracies
(real and imagined) and possessor of an explosive temper. He was also from Pannonia,
a region in the Roman Diocese of Illyricum along the Middle Danube. The population
at large perceived Pannonians to be oafs – illiterate, unintelligent, unsophisticated,
rural. Good only for fighting. Well, they were really good at fighting, and the
Roman army both respected and had benefited tremendously from their prowess in combat
and strategy. But Pannonians were not believed to be “management material.” Valentinian
was able to overcome this prejudice with the Roman court, largely because of his
prior military performance.
Valentinian was rather unique in that regard. He was firm in his belief that the
Empire was too big for one man to manage on his own, and felt he needed someone
to help him, preferably someone relatively subservient who was not going to attempt
to seize the throne from him. He had the perfect candidate: his brother Flavius
Julius Valens. But perfect to Valentinian was not perfect to the Roman court. Valens
seemed to be the stereotypical Pannonian – not particularly well educated, rather
introverted, a poor public speaker, had spent most of his life on the family farm.
By Roman standards and especially Pannonian standards, his military experience was
extremely limited, having only served on the Persian expedition. Dagalaifus, the
comes domesticorum (count of household troops), told Valentinian, “If you
love your relatives, most excellent emperor, you have a brother; if it is the state
you love, seek out another man to invest.” But loyalty trumped the opinion of
the court, and despite his inability to speak Greek, Valens was made augustus of
the Greek-speaking east.
So in 364, after divvying up the Empire and the military between them, they set
out to their agreed-upon assignments. Valentinian, who always planned to be the
dominant one in this pair, went to the western Empire secure the frontiers from
the always-troublesome barbarians on the Rhine and in Roman Britain. Valens, happy
to be the sidekick, went to Antioch to try to fix the mess left by Jovian in the
east. It was a good plan, a logical plan.
And then Procopius returned.
Procopius, the last remaining blood relative of Constantine, had been a commander
in the northern army of Julian’s disastrous Persian expedition. He would have been
a natural to succeed the pagan emperor, but when Julian died his army was isolated
with almost no communications and had little choice but to choose as ruler someone
close at hand, which was not Procopius.
Knowing that he would be perceived – accurately – as a threat to the throne, Procopius
went underground. He would resurface in 365 in Constantinople, where he managed
to talk a small army unit passing through the city into declaring him imperator.
The people of Constantinople were less than enthused by the prospect of yet another
revolt and civil war. But Procopius was handsome, intelligent, educated (he even
spoke Greek!), eloquent and resourceful – everything Valens was not, or so it seemed
to the Constantinopolitans. And the name of Constantine was still a popular one
and carried considerable weight, especially in the city that bore his name. The
usurper quickly cut off the eastern capital from outside communications, began a
slick propaganda campaign, and soon the people were firmly in his corner. Additionally,
Valens’ early attempts at fighting corruption had alienated the Roman bureaucracy
to the point where most of it supported the usurper as well.
The revolt of Procopius was very unusual by the standards of the late Empire, which
in many respects made it both more dangerous and more damaging. Most bids for the
purple consisted of a general convincing his army to proclaim him imperator, and
then fighting it out with other claimants to the throne, with the civilian population
largely just trying to survive the fighting. That is, military in nature. But while
Procopius did convince that small army unit to proclaim him emperor, he really had
no army. Instead, the shrewd politician had convinced the people of Constantinople
to support him. His revolt was not military in nature, but political.
And it was politics that helped propel Procopius forward. That popular support helped
convince other cities around Constantinople to support him, some of which contained
imperial mints. Procopius quickly turned these mints to his own use, minting coins
that further spread his image as emperor and gave him legitimacy, at the same time
giving him money to pay for more troops and bribe politicians while denying that
money to Valens.
Finally, this was not some army on the frontier naming an emperor, too far away
from the centers of power to do immediate damage; this was in Constantinople, the
capital of the eastern Empire. Worse, Constantinople was the primary avenue of land
communication between east and west, between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
As a result of the city falling to Procopius, Valens was basically cut off from
his brother emperor.
When he was informed of Procopius’ actions, Valens went into a panic. His first
thoughts were of abdication and even suicide, which begs the question of whether
or not he even wanted to be emperor at all. Yet Valens quickly recovered mentally,
and took two immediate steps to restore the situation. First, he sent word to his
brother Valentinian – no mean feat with Constantinople in enemy hands – of the situation
and requested help. Second, he sent one of the praesental units to Constantinople
to try to retake the city from Procopius.
Both were sound, logical steps for Valens to take. And like so many other decisions
Valens made as emperor, both would turn out badly.
At that time, Valentinian was besieged with emergencies, with a serious incursion
from across the Rhine and a major revolt in Britain. With the news of Procopius’
usurpation, he did not have the troops to deal with all the crises. He had to make
a painful choice: Valens would have to fend for himself for the time being.
Valens’ second action went even worse: when his troops reached Constantinople, the
slick-tongued Procopius talked them into switching sides.
The Pannonian emperor would not make that mistake again. He still had his numbers
of troops, which he set about gathering from across the east to march on Constantinople.
Procopius had money from his seizures of the imperial mints. Usually money could
buy troops, but the same problems of recruiting that plagued the Roman army also
plagued Procopius. His money was no good with so few selling. And with no other
troops passing through the Constantinople region for him to sweet-talk into defecting,
he found himself desperately short of soldiers to stop Valens’ growing and advancing
Procopius felt compelled to use his power as “emperor” to invoke a treaty the Empire
had with the Goths north of the Danube. In times of emergency, the Goths were required
to supply the Empire with troops. Procopius now sent the Goths word that the emperor
needed their troops under the treaty. The Gothic chieftains dutifully complied.
It would be a fateful decision.
But not for Procopius. Before the Gothic troops could even arrive, the usurper found
Valens army already at Chalcedon, across the Bosporus from Constantinople. So under
the usurper’s spell were the people of Chalcedon that they taunted the Pannonian
emperor from the city’s walls. However, Procopius did not have the troops to match
up, so his only shot was to try to sweet-talk Valens’ soldiers into defecting.
Yet he who lives by defections can die by defections as well. Valens talked some
of Procopius’ generals into switching sides, and they managed to convince the usurper’s
few troops to defect back. Procopius was captured and brought to the Pannonian emperor’s
camp, where he was promptly relieved of his head.
With that, the revolt of Procopius was over. Valens had won back his throne, and
in so doing, convinced his troops and perhaps himself of his legitimacy and ability
But while it would be unfair to call the Pannonian’s victory Pyrrhic, Procopius’
actions did cause serious and lasting damage that would be felt throughout Valens’
reign and beyond. The relationship between Valens and the eastern capital was irrevocably
poisoned. The people of Constantinople now hated Valens, and Valens hated them right
back. The people of Chalcedon had not only backed Procopius but had been arrogant
enough to taunt the eastern emperor; now they saw their punishment in the destruction
of much of their city walls.
And there were the Goths.
As far as the Goths were concerned, they had sent troops in support of Procopius
as required by a legal treaty in response to a request by an emperor. Whether they
knew about the civil war or not, Procopius’ credentials as emperor seemed legitimate
to them. But while that defense may work in a court of law, it did not work with
Valens. As far as the Pannonian emperor was concerned, the Goths had supported Procopius;
therefore they should be punished. And Valens would punish them.
Or at least try. But two punitive campaigns in three years against the Gothic tribe
known as the Tervingi north of the Danube did not get the decisive result the Pannonian
emperor had wanted. Just as indecisive was the peace treaty the Romans ended up
signing with the Goths, both in substance and in execution. Valens had been compelled
to sign the agreements on a boat in the middle of the Danube because the Terving
chieftain Athanaric had sworn an oath to his father that he would never set foot
in Roman territory, an oath not particularly well understood by historians, or,
perhaps, even by Athanaric himself.
Under the terms of the treaty, the former flourishing trade between the Goths and
the Romans would now be limited to a few specific sites on the Danube, and the Goths
were no longer required to provide troops to Rome. The Goths were particularly hard
hit by the former, but the Romans were to suffer as a result of the latter. The
terms of the treaty, however, were consistent with the policy of Valentinian to
further separate Rome from the barbarians, and thus may have originated with him.
And so Valens set to the business of actually running the Empire. Whatever Valens
other faults – not particularly well-educated or articulate, temperamental, paranoid,
not charismatic, etc. – he was not insane like Caligula, dissolute like Nero, elitist
like Commodus, incompetent like Elagabalus or murderous like Caracalla (well, not
that murderous anyway). He does seem to have been a conscientious ruler. He
tried to protect his people from the twin threats of barbarian raiding and Sassanid
expansionism, all the while also trying to secure the Empire economically. Valens
worked particularly hard to attack the corruption that had become systemic within
the imperial bureaucracy. He even ordered construction of a massive aqueduct in
hated Constantinople. And after Procopius, he seems to have had the loyalty of the
army, if not that of the bureaucracy.
But whatever his intent, Valens had a talent for alienating people and pushing the
wrong buttons. A particular sore spot was the emperor’s religious faith: Valens
was an Arian, a branch of Christianity that believed that Christ, having been created
by God, was therefore something less than God and the Holy Spirit. While Arianism
was held to be heretical by Nicene Christianity (which would evolve into Catholicism),
the dominant sect in the western Empire, in its various forms Arianism had a significant
following in the East. Given the political problems it caused him, Valens’ Arian
belief does seem to have been sincere and thus deserving of respect. And in any
event his main goal seems to have been creating “concord” in the Church to avoid
popular unrest. But even so, to make a short story long, Valens managed to alienate
just about everyone who was not an adherent to his particular branch of Arianism
(Christian and pagan) with a plethora of decrees and exiles, forcing Arian bishops
on unwilling populations, trials for such offenses as “magic” and executions here
and there, including a suspicious fire that destroyed a ship containing as many
as 80 monks. Such actions further embittered an already surly populace.
The two major issues in foreign affairs – the Sassanid Persians and the barbarians
– were never far from the emperor’s mind. Knowing the Sassanids would use the massive
gains from Jovian’s disastrous peace treaty for further attacks on the Empire, Valens
nibbled away at it at every chance and even violated it to regain some control over
the major point of contention with the Sassanids, the Kingdom of Armenia. To be
sure, the Sassanids were violating the treaty left and right as well.
North of the Danube, Valens was actually called in to broker a split within the
Tervingi. After the peace settlement ended the punitive Roman expeditions, Athanaric
decided to take out his frustrations on the Goths who practiced what he perceived
as the “Roman” religion of Christianity. The Christian Tervingi, not surprisingly,
were not at all pleased with this development. These Christians, led by a chieftain
named Fritigern, were able to break free from Athanaric with the help of Valens.
Predictably, this split would later haunt the Tervingi.
Valentinian had also spent much of his career in the purple trying to tame the barbarians,
or at least get them to stop bothering the Romans. Valentinian has been called the
last Roman emperor who was feared by the barbarians, largely because of his effective,
punitive expeditions against the German tribes east of the Rhine. He even constructed
new Roman outposts east of the Rhine. When the tribes complained that these outposts
were on their territory, Valentinian responded basically that these outposts on
barbarian territory would not be needed if the Germans would stop raiding Roman
A German tribe known as the Quadi on the upper Danube proved particularly troublesome.
The western emperor was forced to ask Valens to lend him troops to deal with unrest
in Africa. As this was going on, the Quadi raided Pannonia. Valentinian resorted
to another punitive campaign against these people. Ultimately the Quadi were forced
to sue for peace. They entered into an agreement with Valentinian by which they
were to stop raiding Roman territory. After the agreement was signed, the Quadi
chieftains told Valentinian that raiding was such a part of their internal politics
that many of the Quadi groups would not feel bound by the treaty and would continue
attacks on Roman territory to secure themselves politically.
Not surprisingly, Valentinian was furious at being told this treaty was largely
illusory and would be ineffective. He flew into a rage, ranting, yelling and screaming
at the Quadi ambassadors until his head burst. Literally. A ruptured blood vessel
in his brain left the emperor moaning and groaning incoherently in front of the
startled Quadi. Death followed shortly thereafter.
This was obviously a crisis at court, but one Valentinian had foreseen. He had named
his son Gratian (technically Flavius Gratianus), now a teenager, as co-augustus,
which should have made for a smooth transition of power. Except Gratian was far
away in Augusta Treverorum (now Trier) and could not be immediately contacted. Fearing
a move against the throne in the interim unless an emperor was actually in place,
the court named as co-augustus Valentinian’s other son Flavius Valentinanus, better
known as Valentinian II. Unfortunately, Valentinian II was only five years old,
and so needed regents to act in his stead.
Ultimately, Gratian was found and made emperor, or, in actuality, co-augustus. Neither
Gratian nor Valens were happy about having to share the title with the toddler;
Valens sought to ignore and belittle Valentinian II and his court, while Gratian
just walked all over them. If Valens had hoped the younger Gratian, who would
prove himself to be a talented general, would defer to his uncle’s age and wisdom,
such as it was, he was to be sorely disappointed. With consequences that were not
only political but practical and, indeed, very serious.
The entire arrangement of the augustan offices as contemplated by Valentinian depended,
as they had under Diocletian, on the force of his personality, specifically his
dominance of the not-nearly-as-confident Valens. With Valentinian gone, Valens believed
that, as he had deferred to his more-experienced brother, Gratian should now defer
to his more experienced uncle. This Gratian was unwilling to do, and Valens would
not defer to him. An undercurrent of mistrust and jealousy developed between the
two emperors. The two halves of the Empire, unofficial though they may have been,
began a serious drift apart.
But the change had immediate practical ramifications: Valens had sent troops to
Valentinian, and now Gratian would not give them back. The manpower of the army,
never plentiful in the late Empire, became a critical issue with Valens. He had
persistent threats on opposite sides of the eastern empire – the Danube and the
border with Sassanid Persia – and now, thanks in part to Gratian, he did not have
the troops to deal with them both.
Yet he did not feel he necessarily had to. The Danube frontier seemed to be quiet,
and his preparations for an offensive against the troublesome Sassanids were maturing,
so Valens believed the time was right to switch his emphasis to Persia. He moved
himself and his praesental army from Marcianople, which had been serving as his
capital due to his poor relationship with Constantinople, to Antioch, to begin the
final phase in earnest.
And that’s how it stood when a large horde of Goths appeared across the Danube.
The arrival of the Goths
The Goths were but the latest domino to fall as a result of the westward movement
of the fierce tribe of nomadic horsemen from Central Asia known as the Huns. What
follows is a general, perhaps oversimplified description of this particular domino
The Huns, their origins as shrouded in mystery as their reasons for moving west
across the Asian steppes, bumped into the Alans. The Alans were themselves a people
of great martial prowess who could at least hold their own against anyone – except,
it seems, the Huns. After being badly beaten several times, the Alans figured if
they couldn’t beat the Huns, they would join them.
This new confederation continued the westward push and clashed with the Greuthungian
Goths, the later Ostrogoths, who were then operating between the Dniester and Don
rivers in present-day Ukraine. Once again, the locals could not stand up to the
invaders and, in fact, suffered serious losses. Their chief died in the unrest and
his heir was killed. The new chief, Viderichus, was only a child, so the Greuthungi
were led by a pair of veteran chieftains named Alatheus and Saphrax, acting as regents.
Rather than surrender to Huns, the Greuthungi retreated back to the Carpathians.
In so doing, the Greuthungi backed into the Tervingian Goths, the later Visigoths,
who were already living there. For the Tervingi, a simple retreat as the Greuthungi
had done was not an option – they were already backed against the Danube and Roman
Apparently a large summit was held between the Tervingi led by Athanaric and those
led by Fritigern, who was joined by a second chieftain named Alavivus, to discuss
moving into the Roman Empire across the Danube. Athanaric, as a result of his oath
and his indifferent treatment of Valens, believed there was no way he would be allowed
into the Empire and so headed back to the Carpathians with a small group. The remainder,
the vast majority of the Tervingi, decided to follow Fritigern and Alavivus and
petition for legal entry into the Empire.
For most of the story that follows, the Tervingi will likely come off as the wronged
party. While this description is generally accurate, the Tervingi were by no means
entirely innocent. Fritigern time and again would show a gifted sense of opportunism,
not necessarily acted out of greed or malevolence to intentionally hurt the Roman
Empire, but instead used in an effort to get the best deal possible for his people.
This was one of those opportunistic instances, inasmuch as he led his people to
the lower Danube across from the Roman diocese of Thrace after Valens and the praesental
field army had moved away from the Danube frontier and out of Thrace east to Antioch.
As a result, the remaining Roman troops – the limitanaei and ripenses border troops
on the Danube and the comitatenses of the local field army, the Army of Thrace –
likely did not have the numbers to stop a Terving crossing.
The Romans were only dimly aware of the large migrations taking place from Central
Asia to Europe, but those limitanaei and ripenses were aware enough of the large
group of Goths congregating across the lower Danube from Thrace to dutifully report
that fact to Roman authorities. Eventually, sometime in spring of 376, an embassy
of Tervingi crossed the Danube and asked for entry into the Empire. The local Roman
officials said that only the emperor had the authority to allow them entry into
the Empire. While the Goths continued to gather, a second embassy went to Antioch
to plead their case before Valens personally. The rather confused account of the
ecclesiastical historian Sozomen indicates the delegation was led by the Christian
bishop of the Tervingi, Ulphilas.
The agreement that resulted from these negotiations is only partially understood.
The agreement seems to have been at least partially based on a process called receptio,
by which the Romans had long accepted entire peoples into the Empire. Broadly speaking,
in receptio, the peoples were treated as defeated or conquered by the Romans. They
could be compelled to serve in the Roman military. They could and usually would
be scattered across the Empire as imperial citizens to whichever areas needed people.
A further basis for the agreement may have been a subset of receptio was deditio
(surrender), which, again, involved conquered barbarians submitting to Roman authority.
Except this was not exactly a Roman “conquest.” In these negotiations, Valens was
in an awkward position. It has often been said that he was delighted at the military
manpower the Tervingi could provide, especially for his upcoming Persian campaign.
This is true, but Valens was also wary of the Goths and their potential for trouble.
He also did not have the troops in Thrace to stop a crossing, and he knew it. For
the Goths’ part, while some have claimed that they intended to take Roman land all
along, they needed a place to live, a place safe from the Huns, which was not possible
without the protective umbrella provided by the Empire.
As a result of this dynamic, from what is known about the agreement between Valens
and the Tervingi, there were significant differences from a straight receptio. The
Tervingi were not scattered across the Empire, but, per their request, were to live
in a set area in Thrace and have limited autonomy by living under their own laws
and their own leadership. Upon entry into the Empire, the Tervingi would give up
their weapons, and because they depended on foraging that they could not do in Roman
territory, they would be fed by the imperial government until they were settled.
In exchange, the Tervingi would farm the land, provide troops for the military and
help defend the lower Danube frontier from barbarian incursions. There is some
disagreement as to whether the Tervingi were already Arian Christians when they
petitioned for entry into the Empire, but it is agreed that they were or were to
be Arians after entry.
Far from receptio, this, then, was a version of the foederati policy (“federates”
– foreign tribes providing troops to the Empire but serving under their own tribal
leaders) that would become so controversial among Roman historians and, indeed,
The ambassadors returned from Antioch to the Danube to put the agreement into effect.
Word of the agreement spread and the gathering of Goths across the Danube appears
to have continued. At the same time, the Greuthungi now appealed for entry into
the Empire, perhaps hoping for similar terms to the Tervingi. Valens denied their
petition for reasons that remain unclear, but likely having to do with not being
able to take in so many people at once. As if to emphasize the point, the ripenses
from the lower Danube were moved to block the Greuthungi.
While this was going on, it appears that Valens sent an ambassador of his own speeding
to Italy to the court of Gratian to inform the western emperor of the situation.
Valens wanted to be ready for trouble.
And trouble came, though not necessarily of the type Valens had been expecting.
Execution of the agreement was dependent on two local officials. One Ammianus identifies
as Maximus. Maximus was the dux Moesia secunda and thus commanded the border
troops of Moesia II, the province in which the Tervingi’s entry into the Empire
would take place. It was his troops that would have to facilitate the Goths’ crossing
of the Danube and then direct them southward further into the diocese of Thrace.
Ammianus calls him “notoriously wicked.”
The other, who seems to have been in charge of this entire operation, was Lupicinus,
one of Valens’ veteran generals who was serving as comes rei militaris per Thracias,
or count of Thrace, the military commander of the diocese of which Moesia was a
part. As such, Lupicinus commanded the Army of Thrace, but while the comitatenses
would be available, it was probably hoped they would not be needed. Rather, what
he brought to the table – in theory, anyway – was easy access to supplies. Unable
to forage, the Tervingi would be dependent on the Romans for food until they could
be settled. It was probably thought that Lupicinus would make it happen. As military
commander of Thrace, Lupicinus was also to coordinate the movement of the horde
and their conscription for military service.
At least that was the plan. But the plan started going wrong almost immediately.
One of the great unknowns about the Adrianople campaign has been the size of the
Gothic horde, both upon entry into the Empire and afterwards. The ancient sources
do not give a clear indication as to the size. Estimates at various points in the
campaign range from 40,000 to 200,000 men, women and children. Also unknown is whether
Valens and his court knew the size of the horde when the Tervingi asked for entry.
Fritigern seems to have been a good salesman, both to his own people and to others,
and may have tried to report a figure to Valens that would seem to minimize the
number of new people to take in but maximize the number of potential troops. Additionally,
during its time on the north bank of the Danube, the Tervingi gathering may have
attracted more and more who wanted to sneak into the Empire with the Goths. Whatever
the reason, the Romans do not seem to have been prepared for the massive influx
of people entering the Empire.
With no bridge in place, the Tervingi had to be ferried across the Danube in boats,
which the Romans had constructed for this purpose.
The crossing is believed to have taken place at Durostorum (now Silistra, Bulgaria), in Moesia II,
where the Danube is less than a mile wide.
 At this point in the year – early spring – the Danube
was swollen with winter rains and melting snow and thus had a swift current. The
crossing took several days and had problems amid indications the Tervingi wanted
across as quickly as possible. Some boats were overloaded and capsized in the river.
Some Tervingi tried to traverse the river in hollowed-out tree trunks; still others
tried to swim across, both often with predictably tragic results.
Once across, imperial officials trying to register the new citizens were overwhelmed
by the crush of people, and ultimately just gave up trying. A higher priority seems
to have been given to collecting the Goths’ weapons, but the success of this measure
was only limited, in part because of the sheer numbers of people, but also because
individual Goths would bribe the intake officers to look the other way as they smuggled
their own weapons in.
By far the worst aspect of the situation was food. The desperate measures used by
the Tervingi to cross the Danube suggests they were almost frantic to get into imperial
territory, perhaps because in waiting for the Roman response to their petition they
had stayed in the area too long, thereby exhausting its forage, and thus needed
immediate provisioning. Unfortunately for them, the food situation would get little
better on the Roman side of the Danube.
The corrupt Roman arrangements, such as they were, for feeding the Tervingi have
been well-documented. The food supplies that were supposed to be provided to the
Goths for free were instead run through the local black market, which forced the
Goths to pay exorbitant prices for their provisions, with the proceeds pocketed
by Lupicinus and Maximus, on whom Ammianus squarely places the blame for the subsequent
revolt. The historian Orosius says specifically of Maximus, “[H]is unbearable avarice
brought famine and injuries upon the Goths and drove them to arms and rebellion.”
By this point in time, corruption in the Empire was endemic, and local officials
were expected to enrich themselves to a certain extent with limited extralegal arrangements.
Whether this particular arrangement was abnormal by Roman standards is unclear.
Additionally, the Romans had in the past often used tight food supplies as a method
of controlling large, potentially unruly immigrant groups.
But that does not seem to have been the case here. According to Ammianus, the prices
skyrocketed to the point where Gothic families ended up trading their children for
dog meat at the rate of one dog per child. While such inhumane profiteering
is certainly appalling by 21st century western standards and, judging by Ammianus’
treatment of it, unacceptable even by those of the Empire, when read in context
with the reports that Lupicinus had ordered troops to round up all the stray dogs
they could find, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Romans had simply
run out of food.
To the Tervingi, however, reasons were irrelevant. The food was only one of the
abuses perpetrated by the Romans on them. There were plenty more. Gothic men were
often pressed to work as laborers for wages bordering on slavery. Women were driven
to Roman brothels. When it came to their new Tervingian brethren, Roman civilians
were at best suspicious and generally hostile; over the centuries the Roman people
had been taught to believe that barbarians such as the Tervingi were sub-human,
little more than animals. To be sure, the barbarians, and in particular the
Goths themselves, with their devastating attacks into Roman territory in the 3rd
century, had done little to dispel this reputation. Nevertheless, this was not what
the Tervingi had signed up for. Understandably, their anger swelled.
At this point, timelines and events and the interpretations thereof start to become
very murky and disputed.
While some detachments of Goths had been sent southward, the majority had been kept
in the vicinity of their crossing point near Durostorum. This may have been so that
Lupicinus and his pals could keep plundering the Goths of their last remaining wealth,
but it also may have been because the Terving migration was a major political headache
and Lupicinus could not get cooperation from civilian authorities to move them southward.
During this time period, the Tervingi had maintained contact with the Greuthungi
north of the Danube.
For reasons that remain unclear, the Tervingi began moving en masse towards Marcianople,
the logical first waypoint on any southward march. They had been led to believe
that food would be available at Marcianople, which may have motivated the movement.
But Lupicinus may also have known about their communications with the Greuthungi
and sought to put some distance between them. If so, his plan was foiled by the
need for additional troops to shepherd the Tervingian migration, which required
him to pull the limitanaei and ripenses from the Danube. With the river now clear
of Roman troops, the Greuthungi, taking their weapons and horses, began crossing
the river themselves, apparently into Roman Scythia downstream from Durostorum on
the extreme lower Danube. The movement of the Tervingi was slow, possibly deliberately
so to keep in touch with the Greuthungi.
It is this movement and seeming coordination between the Tervingi and the Greuthingi
that has convinced some historians of bad faith on the part of the Goths, that their
intent all along had been to invade the Empire and carve out a country for themselves,
that the negotiations and petitions for entry into the Empire had been a ruse to
get behind Roman defenses. That argument ignores the effect of the Huns. The Goths,
and in particular the Greuthungi, had shown that they could not defend themselves
from the Huns. Moving across the Danube offered no defense against a people who
had already crossed the Volga, Don, Donets and Dnieper rivers, at least. They needed
Roman military protection. A war with Rome would do them much more harm than good.
Fritigern and Alavivus were well aware of this necessity. At the same time, however,
they needed to keep the political support of their people, who were themselves further
divided by tribe, clan and family. The Roman abuses had enraged their people and
had probably cost Fritigern and Alavivus politically. If this course continued,
they could be forced to choose between peace with the Romans, perfidious in this
case but powerful enough to protect them, or the leadership of his people who, whatever
their power, needed protection from the Huns.
At Marcianople, Fritigern found himself faced with exactly that choice.
. John Keegan, A History of Warfare, Vintage, 1993, pp. 70-1.
. Keegan, pp. 70-71.
. Peter Donnelly, “What Happened at Adrianople? A re-examination of the campaign
and battle of Adrianople, August 378 CE,” http://skookumpete.com/adrianople.htm,
(2011), pp. 2-3. Donnelly’s excellent piece is a Web article that contains no page
numbers; I have added them so the cites can be more easily located.
. As best as scholarship can determine at this time, the division between the
eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire was not formalized until AD 395.
Because the division was only informal until that time, for the period before 395
I will refer to the two halves of the Empire as the “eastern Roman Empire” and the
“western Roman Empire” with their emperors called “eastern Roman Emperor” and “western
Roman Emperor,” or, less formally, “eastern emperor” and “western emperor.” For
395 and afterwards, the reference will be capitalized titles as “Eastern Roman Empire”
with an “Eastern Roman Emperor” or “Eastern Emperor,” and “Western Roman Empire”
with a “Western Roman Emperor” or “Western Emperor.”
. Unless noted otherwise, all references to Ammianus come from Ammianus Marcellinus,
Ammianus Marcellinus, trans. by John C. Rolfe, Harvard University Press,
. Upon becoming emperor, the title augustus was appended to the emperor’s name.
. During his campaign, Aurelian came to the town of Tyana in Asia Minor. When
Tyana closed its gates to him, Aurelian vowed to take the city anyway and “not to
leave even a dog alive.” When he finally took Tyana, he did nothing to the inhabitants
or their property, but killed all the dogs. Adrian Goldsworthy, How Rome Fell,
Yale University Press, 2009, p. 128.
. Moesia I was not contiguous with Moesia II, but was separated from it on the
south bank of the Danube by the province of Dacia Ripensis. Dacia was actually on
the north side of the Danube. It had been conquered by Trajan and occupied by the
Romans for years with extreme difficulty in the face of resistance from the Dacian
tribes. Aurelian decided to abandon Dacia as untenable, but rather than admit the
Romans had been forced out of Dacia, he decided to move Dacia. The Dacians had fought
long and hard to eliminate every trace of the Romans. Today their land is called
. Goldsworthy (2009), pp. 166-167.
. For the rise of the equestrian order in imperial politics generally, see Goldsworthy
(2009), pp. 145-149.
. Constantinople was located in the Roman province called “Europa” – “Europe.”
According to the Romans, most of the continent of Europe was actually outside Europe.
. The version of the Notitia Dignitatum used here is Otto Seeck’s 1876
version, Notitia Dignitatum: Accedunt Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae Et Laterculi
Provinciarum, republished in 2010 by Nabu Press, Charleston, SC.
. Goldsworthy (2009), p. 69. Septimius Severus’ use of the term “the soldiers”
illustrates a little known quirk of Roman society. While today we speak of the legions
of troops serving the Roman Empire as “The Roman Army,” that term and, for that
matter, that concept was unheard of in Rome. They would speak of “the soldiers”
(milites), the armies (exercitūs) or the legions (legiones).
Romans thought of what we would call “The Roman Army” as people, not an institution.
Simon James, Rome & The Sword: How Warriors & Weapons Shaped Roman History,
Thames & Hudson, 2011, pp. 22-23.
. Severus’ son, the Emperor Caracalla, was murdered while he was using the bathroom.
. For Roman recruiting and its difficulties, see David S. Potter, The Roman Empire
at Bay AD 180-390, Routledge, 2004, pp. 457-459.
. The term limes originally described the roads that ran along the borders.
Only later did it come to mean the borders themselves.
. Goldsworthy (2009), p. 67. On the concept of Legio II Parthica as the
first Roman field army, see Edward N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire:
From the First Century A.D. to the Third, Johns Hopkins University Press,
1976, p. 184. Potter, p. 455, calls Legio II Parthica a “strategic reserve.”
. The Notitia Dignitatum lists for the Eastern Empire two praesental field armies,
which are often referred to as Praesentalis I (“First Army in the Emperor’s
Presence”) and Praesentalis II (“Second Army in the Emperor’s Presence”). The Notitia
Dignitatum also makes reference to two Masters of Cavalry and Infantry in the Emperor’s
Presence (magistri equitum et peditum in praesenti duo). The reason for the
distinction is unclear and which of these armies or which combination of their units
was at Adrianople is unknown; Simon MacDowall, in Adrianople AD 378: The Goth’s crush
Rome’s legions, Osprey, 2002., p. 26, believes the order of battle for Praesentalis
I is the closest to what the Romans had at Adrianople. Since the part of the Notitia
Dignitatum covering the East is believed to date from 395, it is not clear if the
distinction existed at the time of the Battle of Adrianople. For the sake of clarity,
in this article the terms “praesental army,” “praesental field army” and “Army in
the Emperor’s Presence” will be used to refer to the combined praesental army.
. Imperator would later become the title for the Roman emperor and would
itself evolve into the English word “emperor,” but its origins are far more humble.
Publius Cornelius Scipio (later Africanus, later still Africanus Major), trying
to convince his troops to not proclaim him rex (“king”), which was a disgraced title
in Rome, convinced them to instead proclaim him “victorious general” – in Latin,
imperator. James, p. 86.
. See J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius
I to the Death of Justinian, Vol. 1, Dover, 1958. at 34-39. According to
Bury the palatini were the successors of the disbanded Praetorian Guard.
. See Luttwak, p. 175.
. Stephen Dando-Collins, Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of Every Imperial
Roman Legion, Quercus, 2010, p. 137, 168.
. Luttwak, p. 175, says the legions in the mobile field armies were perhaps
1,000 strong and the territorial legions maybe 3,000. Potter, p. 455, also says
the legions consisted of 1,000 men.
. See, e.g., Luttwak, p. 177, 185.
. The history of the gladius and its “evolution” into the spatha
is ambiguous at best. See Jones, pp. 28-33.
. Flavius Vegitius Renatus, Flavius, On Roman Military Matters (De Re Militari)
, trans. by Lt. John Clarke (1767), Red and Black, 2008, pp. 20-21.
. Adrian Goldsworthy, The Complete Roman Army, Thames & Hudson, 2003
p. 205, 209. For equipment in the late Roman army generally, see Pat Southern, and
Karen R. Dixon, The Late Roman Army, Yale University Press, 1996, pp. 89-126.
. Maurice, Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy, trans.
George T. Dennis, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984, 12.A.7, B.12; Vegetius,
pp. 18-19, Lendon, pp. 263-268.
. For late Roman tactics generally, see J.E. Lendon, Soldiers & Ghosts: A History
of Battle in Classical Antiquity, Yale University Press, 2005, pp. 261-268.
. In 215 the Emperor Caracalla, himself obsessed with Alexander the Great, reorganized
certain Roman legions along the lines of the Macedonian phalanx. Goldsworthy (2009),
. In a desperate bid to secure his family on the imperial throne, Jovian named
his six-month-old son Varronianus consul. As one historian points out, Varronius
proved incapable of handling the office or even, for that matter, the inauguration
ceremony because “he would not keep still and cried all the time.” R. Malcolm Errington,
Roman Imperial Policy from Julian to Theodosius, University of North Carolina
Press, 2006, p. 20.
. Ammianus, 26.4.1; Noel Lenski, Failure of Empire: Valens and the Roman State
in the Fourth Century A.D. , University of California Press, 2002, p. 23.
. Lenski (2002), p. 126, says the oath was actually to secure Athanaric’s loyalty
to the Empire by prohibiting him from invading it.
. Lenski (2002), pp. 135-136.
. Shortly after becoming emperor, Caracalla arranged for the murder of his brother
Geta, with whom he was supposed to share the purple. This assassination became the
subject of jokes, particularly among the people of Alexandria. Caracalla went to
Alexandria and killed some 20,000 young men. The Alexandrians didn’t joke after
. The dominant branches of Christianity in the east were the Homoousians, the
Homoiousians, the Homoians and the Anomoeans. For the sake of clarity, none of them
will be discussed here.
. Theodoret, The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret, Blackmask Online,
. The possible usurper feared most by the court seems to have been Sebastianus,
who would later figure prominently in the Adrianople campaign. Potter, p. 543.
. See Lenski, pp. 357-359.
. Zosimus, New History, Green and Chaplin, 1814, 4.102. Noel Lenski, “Initium
mali Romano imperio: Contemporary Reactions to the Battle of Adrianople,” Transactions
of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 127 (1997), p. 138,
points out that Gratian reassigned the dioceses of Illyricum and Macedonia to the
eastern court so as to assist Balkan military operations and increase eastern conscription.
But that was a case of closing the proverbial barn door after the horses had escaped
and gone on to form their own army to storm the barn.
. Ammianus 31.3.3.
. Sozomen, The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Christian Classics
Ethereal Library, 6.37.
. For discussion of receptio, see Burns (1994), pp. 10-14. For a discussion
as to how it did and did not apply here, see Burns (1994), pp. 23-32.
. For contrasting opinions as to whether the agreement was deditio or not, see
Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians,
Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 162-163 and Lsenski, pp. 341-348.
. In modern parlance, the Goths were needed to do the jobs Romans would not
. For more on the foederati, see Jones, pp. 611-613 and Bury, pp. 42-43.
. Heather (2006), pp. 163-164.
. Ammianus, 31.4.9.
. Ammianus, 31.5.9.
. Lenski, p. 325.
. Paulus Orosius, The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, 7.33.
. Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic Wars, Cambridge University Press,
2007, p. 131.
. Kulikowski, p. 131.
. Ammianus, 31.4.11.
. Ammianus, 31.4.11. The logic here is that the inhumanly high price was an
effective price ceiling. If the Romans had better food than dog available, they
would not have been able to charge more than one child because very few would have
been able to pay it.
. Lenski (2002), pp. 326-327.
. Peter Heather, Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe,
Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 168-173
Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey R. Cox.
Written by Jeffrey R. Cox. If you have questions or comments on this article, please
contact Jeffrey R. Cox at:
About the author:
Jeffrey R. Cox is a litigation attorney in Indianapolis, IN, and an independent
military historian specializing in World War II, ancient Greece and ancient Rome,
which he has studied for decades. He holds a bachelor’s degree in National Security
Policy Studies from The Ohio State University. He can be reached at JCCentCom@sbcglobal.net.
Published online: 04/01/2012.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.