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The Roman Disaster at Adrianople
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The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians

Rome's Gothic Wars: From the Third Century to Alaric

Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe

Cascading Failure: The Roman Disaster at Adrianople AD 378 - Part 2 of 3
Cascading Failure: The Roman Disaster at Adrianople AD 378 - Part 2 of 3
by Jeffrey R. Cox

Explosion at Marcianople

The events at Marcianople remain disputed in their timeline and interpretation. What is known is that Alavivus and Fritigern and a small escort were allowed inside the city walls to attend a banquet in their honor given by Lupicinus. The two Gothic chieftains were seated in a main hall while their escorts were treated in a separate area. Meanwhile, after having been led to believe there would be provisions available for purchase, the Tervingi were now denied entry into the city. Their feelings at this latest development are probably better imagined than described.

Not surprisingly, open fighting broke out at the city gate between angry Tervingi and their Roman guards and, it seems, Roman civilians. Inside the city, Lupicinus, by now drunk and half-asleep, had the Gothic escorts murdered. Alavivus disappears from the historical record. Fritigern, apparently on horseback, galloped out of Marcianople and rejoined his people. The limitanaei guards were overwhelmed. The Tervingi stripped the dead Romans of their armor and weapons to arm themselves. The revolt was on.

The dominant interpretation of these events seems to be that Lupicinus’ banquet was nothing more than a cover for an assassination attempt on Alavivus and Fritigern, an attempt that went badly wrong. Some go further and argue that the assassination attempt precipitated the revolt. That may be true, but if so it might qualify as the Most Incompetently Planned and Executed Assassination Plot in Roman History: the limitanaei guards had been completely unprepared for possible trouble, Lupicinus had allowed himself to get drunk at a critical moment, and Fritigern had been able to escape a walled city with the gates closed.

The more likely explanation, in my opinion, is that upon hearing of the fighting outside, Lupicinus panicked. He then had the Tervingian escort killed. The silver-tongued Fritigern, sources agree, offered to go outside to attempt to calm his people, and was allowed to do so, with Alavivus kept as a hostage. When Fritigern obviously failed in whatever attempts he had made, Alavivus was likely executed.

Lupicinus had reason to panic. The Empire was not prepared to face this revolt, either in practical terms – they did not have enough troops in Thrace – or in institutional terms. Throughout its existence, the Empire had dealt with numerous revolts, but those revolts were typically of two types: popular and centered around a major city, or military and centered around a unit or group of units. This disturbance was neither – this was a roving, migrating horde, pillaging crops and plundering homes to support itself, might better be termed an invasion – except that this horde had been invited into the Empire and was already beyond the border fortifications that might have otherwise slowed it down. This was neither a revolt nor an invasion, yet it was also both.

The obvious solution was to nip this in the bud using the Army of Thrace. Lupicinus slapped together a force from as many comitatenses as he could gather at Marcianople; many historians figure he gathered some 10,000 troops from the areas around the city. He then led them off – “with more haste than prudence,” says Ammianus – to crush the revolt by force, and met the Tervingi some nine miles from Marcianople.[58] But the effort in battle proved much more difficult than Lupicinus had anticipated. Ammianus’ references to the haste in which the comitatenses had marched out hints that they may not have been properly deployed to fight. When the battle started going against the Romans, Lupicinus panicked and fled on horseback, abandoning his troops. The Roman battle line then collapsed altogether. The Goths again proceeded to strip the fallen of their armor, weapons and equipment.

Through his haste, sloppiness and cowardice, Lupicinus had destroyed the only Roman force capable of stopping the revolt. The Army of Thrace was effectively destroyed as a fighting unit; the remaining comitatenses holed up in cities across Thrace, too small in number to challenge the Goths, unable to rendezvous because, as later events would show, they risked ambush by superior forces. The Gothic horde grew larger, attracting deserters, disaffected citizens and escaped slaves, many of whom had been among those sold earlier by the desperate Goths in exchange for food. So the Tervingian horde grew larger as the Romans ran out of troops. Yet the horde was like a bucking bronco, with its own mind and will (or, more accurately, minds and wills), Fritigern barely holding on as he tried to direct its efforts.

Lupicinus and Maximus had thus dug the Romans an enormous hole, but further south was at least one more Roman official determined to continue digging.

Gasoline on the fire at Adrianople

For some period of time that remains indeterminate but was likely no longer than a few months, the Gothic horde remained at large in Thrace, continuing to pillage and plunder, at least as much out of necessity as out of anger, moving southward towards Adrianople. The area around the City of Hadrian would provide the stage for the climax of this particular tragedy, but it would have a significant role in the early acts as well.

Before l’affaire Marcianople, the Romans had been able to send some of the Tervingi southward, some for resettlement, others to be organized into new military units. One of these new units, under the Gothic nobles Sueridas and Colias, had been sent into winter quarters in Adrianople. Ammianus reports that the city had given these Goths a welcome reception. That was about to change.

The Goths here had been watching the revolt of Fritigern and his allies with (according to Ammianus) great indifference, a testament to the fractured nature of the Gothic peoples. Then they received orders from Emperor Valens himself to leave the city and move into the Hellespont. Although Ammianus refers only to the orders given to Sueridas and Colias, probably all the newly formed Gothic units received similar orders in response to the Terving revolt. Valens, who had by now been informed of the situation, wanted to get the new Gothic units out of the area to reduce the possibility that they would join the uprising. It was a sensible precaution on the emperor’s part. And, once again, it would turn out badly.

In carrying out their orders, Sueridas and Colias went to the chief civilian magistrate (magistratus) of Adrianople to request money and provisions for the march. They also requested a delay of two days to get prepared for the endeavor.

The magistrate’s answer consisted of words to the effect of, “You will get nothing and like it.” Their request for the delay was similarly denied.

And to “encourage” the Goths to vacate the area, the magistrate “collected a great mob of the lowest of the people,” apparently criminals and other thugs. The civilian workers from Adrianople’s state-owned and -operated arms factory were also called out, equipped with the weapons and armor they had just manufactured. They managed to rile up the city’s civilian population. The Tervingian soldiers were threatened with death if they did not leave immediately.

Sueridas, Colias and their cohort stood there stunned and bewildered by these developments, not knowing what they had done to deserve such treatment. And, indeed, they had done nothing; the magistrate, it seems, was angry over damage done to his country estate outside the city walls, damage which he had attributed to the Goths.

To their credit, for a time the Gothic troops just stood there, not responding to the provocations and occasional missile attacks, apparently in an effort to convince everyone of their good faith and loyal intentions. But eventually, the insults and attacks became too much. All things being equal, armed thugs and civilians are no match for experienced troops. It was no different here; the Goths killed their attackers, wounded several more, and drove everyone else off.

As at Marcianople, the Tervingi stripped the fallen of their weapons and armor. Then, as the magistrate had wished, they left the city, though not for the Hellespont, but rather, since they had nowhere else to go, for Fritigern and the Gothic horde.

Thus strengthened – again – the Tervingi this time turned their sights on Adrianople. The Goths had neither the training, nor the equipment, nor the patience to take a walled city. Fritigern knew this, yet they tried anyway, more evidence of Fritigern’s incomplete leadership over the horde. After an ineffectual siege that saw numerous Tervingi killed by Roman arrows and missiles fired from catapults atop the city walls, they finally gave up and Fritigern regained control.

While the Goths would make war on the Romans, Fritigern told them he “made peace with walls,” like those at Adrianople. There was plenty of low-hanging fruit in the form of farms and country estates ripe for plunder, to which disaffected Romans and escaped slaves would lead the horde. Ammianus says the Goths left a small force to keep a blockade of the city, while the rest of the horde scattered into small bands across the area. More deserters, escaped slaves and disaffected Roman citizens flocked to the Tervingi. Ammianus describes the chaos:

To these were added no inconsiderable number of men skilled in tracing out veins of gold, but who were unable to endure the heavy burden of their taxes; and who, having been received with the cheerful consent of all, they were of great use to them while traversing strange districts—showing them the secret stores of grain, the retreats of men, and other hiding-places of divers kinds. Nor while these men led them on as their guides did anything remain untouched by them, except what was inaccessible or wholly out of the way; for without any distinction of age or sex they went forward destroying everything in one vast slaughter and conflagration: tearing infants even from their mother's breast and slaying them; ravishing their mothers; slaughtering women's husbands before the eyes of those whom they thus made widows; while boys of tender and of adult age were dragged over the corpses of their parents. Lastly, numbers of old men, crying out that they had lived long enough, having lost all their wealth, together with beautiful women, had their hands bound behind their back, and were driven into banishment, bewailing the ashes of their native homes. [59]

And in Antioch, Valens was left to figure out what to do about this conflagration from thousands of miles away.

Ad Salices

The news of the situation in Thrace, not surprisingly, caused extreme consternation in Antioch. It certainly had to be disheartening for Valens. He had spent years preparing for the invasion of Sassanid Persia and now when his army was finally ready to carry out the plan, they were tripped up by events on the Danube. Nevertheless, the Pannonian emperor knew he could not even consider his invasion while Thrace was on fire, both figuratively and literally.

But responding to the Gothic revolt was not as simple as moving the praesental field army from Antioch to Adrianople. The Sassanids were always a threat to take advantage of Roman weakness on the eastern frontier, especially in Armenia, so Valens sent Victor, his master of cavalry (“master of horse” or magister equitum), to settle matters in Armenia. Until that was completed, the praesental army would have to stay in the east.

Even so, Valens did take some countermeasures. As has been seen, he ordered the new Gothic legions to move east to reduce the chances they would join the revolt. That ended badly. He also sent a request to Gratian for military assistance in quelling the Gothic uprising. And he withdrew legions from Armenia that had been helping to prop up the client king. Those legions were sent back west under the command of Profuturus and Trajanus (also known as Traianus, which is pronounced in the same way, or Trajan). Both were sensible, prudent actions. And, once again, both ended badly.

Whatever the differences he had with his uncle (and vice versa), Gratian does seem to have taken the situation very seriously. His first act was to send the dux Frigeridus, who seems to have been a capable if older commander, with troops from Pannonia.[60] Except Frigiderus (also known as Frigerid) did not make it all the way. Ammianus says that Frigiderus complained that health issues, possibly gout, prevented his movement, though the historian acknowledges that others attributed it to less charitable explanations. What became of his troops is not totally clear, but they seem to have continued onward. [61]

Gratian also sent Richomeres (also known as Richomer or Ricimer), his comes domesticorum, with some “cohorts” from Gaul. [62] Those cohorts, however, were depleted by desertions. The general Merobaudes, says Ammianus, convinced most of the troops to mutiny and refuse to move, claiming that if they left Gaul, the Germans would attack the unprotected province from across the Rhine. Whatever the sincerity of Merobaudes’ position, those concerns would prove justified. Ultimately, Richomeres would leave with only about 1,000 troops. [63]

Sometime in the fall of 376, Richomeres’ expedition, such as it was, joined the Armenian legions of Profuturus and Trajanus near a town called Ad Salices (“Near the Willows”) in Roman Scythia some 25 miles northwest of Constanza, in the extreme northeast of the diocese, where part of the Gothic horde was camped. [64] Once combined, the Roman forces totaled some 12,000 troops. [65]

Though the evidence is far from conclusive, there are several hints that Profuturus and Trajanus may not have followed their instructions from Valens. Up until this time, the heavily outnumbered Romans had contented themselves with a policy of containment of the Gothic predations. They had blocked the passes of the Haemus (Balkan) Mountains with limitanaei and ripenses withdrawn from the breached Danube defenses, as well as some of the remaining comitatenses from the battered Army of Thrace. In so doing, they drove the Tervingi from Thrace proper (though, to be clear, not the larger Diocese of Thrace) and confined them to the Haemus, where the forage would be exhausted fairly quickly, facing the Tervingi with famine.

For the actions that followed, Ammianus lays some heavy criticism on Richomeres, Profuturus and Trajanus, the latter two of whom he says had more rank and ambition than ability, though he seems to contradict himself about Trajanus later on. Ammianus, perhaps with the benefit hindsight, advocated following a guerilla version of the old Fabian strategy of denial of forage and fodder, about which more will be said shortly. Under this view, the newly-arrived legions would have been used to surprise and ambush the individual foraging parties, thus both reducing the Gothic numbers and limiting their ability to feed themselves.

That is not what was done here. Rather, Richomeres, Profuturus and Trajanus resolved to attack the Gothic horde as it moved as a train. All three commanders agreed that “new guy on the block” Richomeres would take charge for the coming operation, a somewhat curious action given Ammianus’ statement that Profuturus and Trajanus were ambitious commanders, and indicative that they may have wanted some political cover for themselves.

The Goths were camped near Ad Salices in a defensive wagon circle, called a laager, similar to what the pioneers in the Old West would use more than 1400 years later, and with effectiveness similar to that of a city wall. There is no mention of Fritigern in this action which, together with the location of the camp being in the far north of the Thracian diocese, strongly suggests that this was not the Tervingian horde but instead the Greuthungi, who had crossed the Danube into Roman Scythia at about the same time as the events at Marcianople. By this time the Greuthingi had been joined by a people called the Taifali. The barbarian peoples smelled Roman blood in the water, even if their leaders knew fighting the Romans was counterproductive.

The Goths were tipped off about the Roman plan, probably by a deserter. By some preliminary maneuvering, during which the Goths showed a remarkable ability to recall their foraging parties very, very quickly, the Roman plan was thwarted. Instead, the Goths and Romans appear to have skirmished and then withdrawn for the night. Despite the failure of their plan and their apparent numerical inferiority, the Roman commanders prepared for battle. The next day, the Goths and the Romans drew their infantry up in battle order.

The resulting Battle of Ad Salices is used by some historians to help reconstruct the later Battle of Adrianople. Both the Goths and the Romans had their infantry line up with their shields overlapped as in a phalanx, but the Goths appear to have had their infantry line up in a deeper column on their right. After an exchange of missiles, both sides made their usual battle cries, taunts and insults, skirmished somewhat, then advanced. Like most phalanx actions, when the two lines went toe-to-toe, there was a lot of shouting and shoving, with the Goths continuing to pelt the Romans with a rather unique missile in the form of a large club sharpened and burned at one end. Ultimately, the pressure from the deep Gothic right collapsed the Roman left. The Romans were prepared for this possibility, however, and a second line of Roman infantry limited the breakthrough. There has been some speculation that this second line was purposely put behind the Roman left to help counteract the tendency of phalanx formations to drift to their right to avoid being outflanked on their unshielded side. Both sides fought to exhaustion, then withdrew.

This action, though small, seems to have been exceedingly bloody as the Goths were so shaken by their casualties that they retreated inside their laager and did not come out for a week. The Roman losses were so heavy that they were compelled to cede the field and pull back to Marcianople. Though Ammianus mentions his name once afterwards, Profuturus may have been killed or fatally wounded in this action, because he disappears from the record.

Tactically, the battle had been a draw. But despite the damage they had done to the Gothic horde, the horde remained, while, once again, the only Roman army capable of stopping the Goths had been so badly mauled that it could not take the field again. Thus, Ad Salices was a strategic defeat for the Romans.

Richomeres knew what the action portended and returned to the original Roman strategy of starving the Goths. He used the respite from the Goths remaining in their camp to reposition his troops, blocking the routes southward from Moesia and Scythia and intending to keep the Greuthungi penned in between the Danube and the Haemus. In this region, the forage was already almost gone. He returned to the West intending to bring reinforcements back, but also having to deal with a developing situation on the Rhine.

Meanwhile, back in Antioch, Valens remained unable to leave the East. Victor had managed to negotiate a truce with the Sassanids, but now a second major problem popped up: the Arabs had begun raiding Roman Palestine and Egypt. These Arabs were something of a client people of Rome, not in Roman territory but under some degree of Roman control and, like many client states, had agreed to provide troops to the Empire. The local Roman troops proved completely unable to stop the raids and were even defeated in battle. [66]

According to most sources, these pre-Islamic Arabs were angry with Valens for trying to force an Arian bishop on them. But some historians argue that the real issue was the troops that the Arabs were supposed to provide. Under this theory, having those troops serve in the Middle East was no problem for the Arabs, but they apparently objected to Valens’ plan to send them much further away – to Thrace. [67] Ultimately, the issue was resolved and the Arabs did supply cavalry, but as will be seen, it cost Valens precious time.

In the interim, the eastern emperor once again had to send help to Thrace in driblets. He made the veteran general Saturninus magister equitum and sent him back with some cavalry to, in Ammianus’ words “help” Trajanus. In actuality, Saturninus would take over. He would reposition the limited Roman military assets in the region, but would continue with the Roman strategy of starving the rebellious Goths into submission.

The Roman strategy for starving the Goths into submission was apparently working quite well. Ammianus reports that by this time Moesia and Scythia were out of forage. Numerous efforts by the Greuthungi to break out of their exhausted area and join the Tervingi failed because the Roman troops, though badly outnumbered, occupied excellent defensive positions in the Haemus mountain passes and defiles. In desperation, the Goths promised plunder to the mercenary Huns and Alans back across the Danube if they would join in the revolt, so now fortune-seeking Huns and Alans crossed the Danube.

This tipped the delicate balance in favor of the Goths, or at least Saturninus thought so. He felt compelled to withdraw his troops from their blocking positions to avoid being encircled and overrun. The Gothic horde now poured back through the Haemus, going as far as Rhodope province. Ammianus describes the devastation:

The moment that, by the seasonable retreat of our men, the passage of these defiles was opened, the barbarians, in no regular order, but wherever each individual could find a passage, rushed forth without hindrance to spread confusion among us; and raging with a desire for devastation and plunder, spread themselves with impunity over the whole region of Thrace, from the districts watered by the Danube, to Mount Rhodope and the strait which separates the Aegean from the Black Sea, spreading ravage, slaughter, bloodshed, and conflagration, and throwing everything into the foulest disorder by all sorts of acts of violence committed even on the freeborn. Then one might see, with grief, actions equally horrible to behold and to speak of: women panic-stricken, beaten with cracking scourges; some even in pregnancy, whose very offspring, before they were born, had to endure countless horrors: here were seen children twining round their mothers; there one might hear the lamentations of noble youths and maidens all seized and doomed to captivity. Again, grown-up virgins and chaste matrons were dragged along with countenances disfigured by bitter weeping, wishing to avoid the violation of their modesty by any death however agonizing. Here some wealthy nobleman was dragged along like a wild beast, complaining of fortune as merciless and blind, who in a brief moment had stripped him of his riches, of his beloved relations, and his home; had made him see his house reduced to ashes, and had reduced him to expect either to be torn limb from limb himself, or else to be exposed to scourging and torture, as the slave of a ferocious conqueror. [68]

Saturninus’ efforts at protecting his forces were not entirely successful. Near Dibaltum on the Black Sea, a group of Roman Scutarii, part of the Cornuti (“horned ones”) legion (both apparently prasesental field army units sent from the east) and possibly several unidentified units from the Army of Thrace, all under the veteran general Barzimeres, were caught in the open making a camp, apparently by the Greuthungi and their new allies.. [69] Too weak to defend, Barzimeres chose to attack. According to Ammianus, the outnumbered Romans more than held their own until, in another foreshadowing of Adrianople, the Gothic cavalry outflanked the Roman infantry and attacked from the rear. Barzimeres was killed. [70] The Roman infantry here appears to have been entirely killed or captured.

Saturninus now tried to confine the entire horde in Thrace. Frigeridus, on orders from Gratian, had returned and stationed his command near Beroea (now Stara Zagora, Bulgaria), in western Thrace. Frigeridus does not appear to have been seeking combat, but only to block any possible Gothic move westward into Illyricum. The Goths saw an opportunity to eliminate this blocking force and began massing their forces near Beroea. Frigeridus may have been an older and perhaps lethargic commander, but he was also a capable and savvy veteran. Seeing that he was about to be outnumbered, he withdrew westward into Illyricum.

The context of what followed is not entirely clear. A force of Goths and Taifali under the chieftain Farnobius seems to have been among those massing at Beroea, though there is some belief that they crossed the Danube into Illyricum itself. They headed westward as well, trying to catch Frigeridus. In this they succeeded, technically – Frigeridus ambushed them in the Succi Pass. After Farnobius was killed, the remainder of his troops surrendered. Interestingly, Frigeridus had them resettled in the Po Valley of northern Italy. This was Frigeridus’ last contribution to the campaign against the Goths, as shortly after this success and much to Ammianus’ disgust, Gratian replaced him with some useless political hack.

But this battlefield success failed to get the Roman efforts to regain control of the situation out of second gear.

Through extreme effort, Gratian had managed to pull some legions from the Rhine for the purposes of assisting Valens’ efforts in Thrace. Several cohorts were sent ahead towards the east, while Gratian remained behind to raise more troops, with whom he would later head to Thrace personally.

But there is a reason for the adage “Loose lips sink ships.”

One of Gratian’s imperial guard Scutarii, from the German Allamanic tribe known as the Lentienses, went home on leave. He revealed that he was going east with Gratian to aid Valens against the Goths. When the Romans found out, they had the soldier punished, but the damage was done. The Lentienses figured correctly that the units Gratian would take east would come from Rome’s Rhine frontier. They made plans to take advantage of the Roman weakness, and when the Rhine froze over in February 378, the Germans began sending probing raids across the Rhine.

Although repulsed, the raids did confirm for the Lentienses the skeletal nature of the Roman defenses. They followed up with a large invasion consisting of some 40,000 troops according to Ammianus. Gratian had already sent legions ahead towards Thrace, with the intent of joining them later on, but the legions had only reached Pannonia when he was compelled to recall them to deal with the Allamannic invasion.

Ultimately, Gratian, who was rapidly proving himself to be a capable commander, would repel the German invaders. And then he would follow up with the obligatory punitive expedition across the Rhine in retaliation.

All of which meant the western emperor would be nowhere near ready to join the campaign against the Goths when the eastern emperor returned from Antioch.

Return of Valens

If Valens had hoped that “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” or even that the large aqueduct he had ordered constructed would earn him a warm welcome upon his return to Constantinople – or even a lukewarm welcome – he was to be bitterly disappointed. Now, the Constantinopolitans had more reason to be angry at the Pannonian emperor than his unforgivable sin of not being Procopius. With Thrace being thrashed by barbarian raiding parties who would come right up to the city walls, The City Formerly Known As Byzantium was now basically cut off from its main source of food. Consequently, shortages developed and prices skyrocketed. The response of the people was predictable.

On May 30, 378, Valens and his army returned after his extremely long absence to find Constantinople in an uproar. [71] There was rioting in the Hippodrome. The emperor and the praesental army were subject to taunts and insults while marching through the streets. It did not help that Valens, by now with a gut and blind in one eye, did not visually inspire martial confidence. A particularly popular jab involved civilians demanding to be armed so they could fight the Goths themselves. Perhaps Valens could have given them a few choice words of his own, even told them that this had been tried earlier against Sueridas and Colias at Adrianople, with disastrous results – if only he could speak Greek.

Nevertheless, Ammianus, who was clearly no fan of Valens, makes no mention of the typical brutal Roman response to the unrest. To his credit, the eastern emperor, who was otherwise known for his short temper, kept his focus on the Gothic emergency and kept his swelling anger in check. For now.

The first order of business was to clear out the barbarians from around the City of Constantine, thus enabling the army to leave the cramped urban confines where it was definitely not wanted. The Arab cavalry had been obtained at a heavy price in time, casualties and prestige, but they proved their worth. They developed a reputation for fierceness in driving the scattered Gothic raiding parties away from the city walls and further into Thrace. With the way now cleared, on June 11, Valens proceeded to move the praesental army from the eastern capital to the imperial estate at Melanthias, some 17 miles away. [72] But the eastern Roman emperor had been simmering and now he was completely steamed with Constantinople and its insolent citizens; as he left, Valens promised to completely level the city upon his return. [73]

Once at Melanthias, Valens could focus on the second order of business: taking care of his army after its long, difficult and disappointing journey from Antioch. The army had suffered losses from desertions, was tired from the march, and was angry at having to trade plundering relatively rich Sassanids for not plundering destitute barbarians. The Pannonian emperor gave his troops their pay and provisions. As was typical for him, Valens did not make any grand speeches to the army, but seems to have done his best with his limited oratorical skills by walking among his troops and personally speaking to individual units. He set about rebuilding their confidence and fighting prowess with increased training and drilling. And he set about rebuilding their numbers by recruiting and calling back retired troops.

The eastern emperor also continued to reorganize the command of his forces, an effort he had begun while cooped up at Constantinople. It seems that only upon returning to the eastern capital did Valens grasp the true depths of the corruption and failure of Lupicinus, Maximus and others. [74] Precisely what he did about it – or even could do about it, given the dearth of officers available – is not entirely known.

What is known is that Trajanus returned to Constantinople to speak with Valens. The meeting was not a pleasant one. Valens tore into Trajanus for the defeat at Ad Salices, charging him with “infirmity and cowardice.” Trajanus shot back that Valens’ own persecution of non-Arian Christians had turned God against the Romans and in favor of the Goths. Though Trajanus was stripped of his position of magister peditum praesentalis (Master of Infantry in the Emperor’s Presence), the magister equitum Victor and the general Arintheus dissuaded the emperor from further punishing the outspoken general. [75] Trajanus was with Valens, Victor and the praesental army when it left Constantinople for Melanthias.

Neither Ammianus nor the other historians mention Saturninus in this time period, but if Trajanus met with the emperor in Constantinople it seems safe to assume Saturninus, who had been the ranking general in Thrace, met with the emperor as well. There is also no talk of Valens’ opinion of Saturninus’ handling of the campaign, but clearly it was not high. For, like Trajanus, Saturninus would not be the top general when the praesental field army went to war with the Goths. The emperor had someone else in mind.

That someone was Sebastianus, a veteran general from the western Empire. Sebastianus (also known as Sebastian or Sebastiani) had, with Procopius, commanded the diversionary force in Julian’s ill-fated Persian expedition. Since both Valens and Valentinian took part in the expedition (in the latter’s case it constituted the entirety of his military experience), there is a good chance that this was where they became familiar with Sebastianus, who, fortunately for him, did not get along with Procopius.

Upon becoming emperor in the west, Valentinian scooped up Sebastianus, made him comes rei militaris, and put him to work fighting the Germans, where the general enjoyed considerable success. By the time of Valentinian’s death and the ascendance of Gratian and Valentinian II to the purple, Sebastianus had a reputation as a good general, sound tactician (“general of well-known vigilance,” says Ammianus) and popular commander – too popular, it would seem, for Gratian and the regents for young Valentinian II. [76] For Sebastianus seems to have disappeared for a time shortly thereafter. Valentinian II may have been made augustus to head off a possible usurpation by Sebastianus. [77] Likely seen as a threat, Sebastianus was forced to “retire.” In the late Roman Empire, battlefield success could be a curse.

Valens seems to have really wanted Sebastianus. He specifically requested the general by name from the western court, which was probably all too happy to have someone he viewed as a potential usurper shipped out east, and Sebastianus, who seems to have requested leave from the western court as well, wanted to go where his talents in service to the Roman state would be appreciated. Valens, “knowing [Sebastianus’] ability both in civil and military affairs,” needed a general of a higher caliber than what he had at hand. It seemed like a win-win-win situation.

Sebastianus met with Valens in Constantinople, where he was made magister peditum praesentalis to replace Trajanus, and was with the army when it left the eastern capital. Once at Melanthias, Sebastianus reviewed the praesental army and was underwhelmed. According to the historian Zosimus:

Sebastianus, observing the indolence and effeminacy both of the tribunes and soldiers, and that all they had been taught was only how to fly, and to have desires more suitable to women than to men, requested no more than two thousand men of his own choice. He well knew the difficulty of commanding a multitude of ill-disciplined dissolute men, and that a small number might more easily be reclaimed from their effeminacy; and, moreover, that it was better to risk a few than all. [78]

Sebastianus selected some 300 men from each legion, mainly new recruits and younger veterans, for a total of perhaps 2100 troops, and put them through a rigorous training regimen. [79] He was the magister with a plan.

That plan was two fold. First, he knew that an army-in-being represented a threat that the Goths had to respect, whether it attacked or not. The barbarians were free to plunder Thrace because the Romans had bet their entire armies – at Marcianople, at Ad Salices and perhaps at Dibaltum – on a single throw of the dice and lost. After these engagements there was no force in the field capable of stopping the Gothic raids. Sebastianus was willing to risk only a small part of the army. If his troops were lost, there would still be an army capable of fighting that the Goths must respect. So he would take his small detachment and, for the second part of his plan, take a page from the Fabian playbook.

“Fabian” refers to Quintus Fabius Maximus, a Roman general from the Second Punic War. Facing an invasion of Italy led by the Carthaginian general Hannibal, Rome had stuck to its simple and time-tested strategy for fighting enemies: find them, attack them and defeat them. Hannibal would turn this strategy against them, repeatedly luring Roman armies into traps or tricking them into attacking under very unfavorable circumstances. The result was a string of disastrous Roman defeats.

Fabius decided upon a radical departure from this traditional Roman strategy: he would not attack Hannibal. [80] The Carthaginian was a master at choosing battlegrounds to his advantage, and in any case Fabius’ army was a demoralized force full of green recruits called up to replace the last Roman army destroyed by Hannibal. Instead, he would just follow Hannibal’s army. One may ask, what was the point of using an army to simply follow an invading army; the Roman people certainly asked that question, quite frequently. But there was a method to Fabius’ seeming madness. His strategy was designed to put slow but steady pressure on the Carthaginian invaders’ biggest weakness: supplies.

Like the Gothic horde, Hannibal’s army had no supply line but was instead dependent on forage and plunder to sustain itself. His army would disperse into small groups to pillage and loot – seizing food, fodder and property; burning what they would not use. The larger the area over which the army dispersed, the more they could bring in.

With his own supply lines secure, Fabius would follow Hannibal with his army and set up camp in a very defensible area such as a ridge or hilltop that Hannibal could attack only at a disadvantage. Then Fabius would send out patrols to take out Hannibal’s foraging parties one by one, gaining local superiority. This strategy carried with it multiple advantages. First, it would gain combat experience for Fabius’ green troops and build their confidence. Second, it would slowly whittle down Hannibal’s troops. Third, it would – and did – force Hannibal to limit the reach of his foraging parties to within a distance where they could easily retreat to the main army or call on it for support. By forcing Hannibal to recall his foraging parties, Fabius was limiting the area the Carthaginian-led army could plunder, thereby helping to protect Roman territory. With its foraging radius limited, Hannibal’s army would constantly have to move just to keep itself supplied, with the Roman army constantly following them. Seeing the danger, Hannibal tried to lure Fabius into attacking him but failed. The Carthaginian general, arrogant in the extreme, later said that Fabius was the only Roman general who worried him.

This strategy had obvious drawbacks. It was slow and not very sexy. It did not produce the spectacular battlefield victories the Roman people wanted and that Roman politicians needed to have. It was thus not a popular strategy with the Roman citizenry and it initially got Fabius bounced from office. He got the nickname “Cunctator” (“The Delayer”), which was not intended entirely as a compliment. Yet after his removal from office produced the Roman disaster at the Battle of Cannae, Rome used Fabius’ “cunctation” strategy on Hannibal, with limited exceptions, for the rest of the Carthaginian’s time in Italy. The polyglot Carthaginian army ended up constantly moving, short of food and fodder and strapped for cash. By the time he was recalled to Africa, Hannibal’s army was exhausted, broken, and limited to the toe of southern Italy.

Sebastianus’ efforts against the Goths have been called “guerilla warfare,” but that is too simplistic a description. Without a large army, he used his small force to gain local superiority over the barbarian raiding parties and take them out. As with Hannibal, it would limit the Goths damage and threaten them with starvation. It was a classic Fabian strategy.

Ammianus’ account gets a bit muddled at this point, so what happened next is confusing. What is known is that Roman intelligence found a raiding party of Goths, near Adrianople, who were retreating after plundering the Rhodope Mountains and trying to reach larger Gothic masses near Beroea and Nicopolis. If Ammianus is taken literally, Valens and the praesental field army marched out from Melanthias and got as far as Nice, a way station about which more will be said momentarily. At that point, Sebastianus apparently convinced Valens to let him try out his strategy. The general and his small force set out for Adrianople, while the emperor and the remainder of the army returned to Melanthias. Given that Valens and the praesental army obviously left Melanthias later on, and the significance Nice would take later on as well, many historians believe this part of Ammianus’ story is a doublet, with the report being received at and Sebastianus leaving from Melanthias, with the emperor and the army staying there all along.

In any event, after having some trouble getting in, Sebastianus and his legionaries set up shop in Adrianople. The next night, using some hills to screen his troops, he ambushed the Goths near the Maritza River, killing the vast majority of them and, according to Ammianus, “recover[ing] such an enormous quantity of booty, that neither the city [of Adrianople], nor the extensive plains around could contain it.” [81]

Ammianus can be forgiven for exaggerating the plunder here, for this was a sorely needed Roman victory after a string of defeats. He only mentions this one incident, but implies that there were more. Zosimus says that, indeed, Sebastianus repeatedly ambushed the Gothic foraging parties to the point that they would not face him and instead retreated. [82] Sensing the danger, Fritigern, now apparently more in control of the Gothic masses, recalled all the raiding parties and had his forces mass near Cabyle, some 60 miles north of Adrianople.

It was now that Valens learned why the western court had such a low opinion of Sebastianus: the general’s penchant for self-promotion. Sebastianus kept the eastern emperor appraised of his activities through letters, in which, Ammianus says, he “exaggerated what had taken place by his pompous language.” [83] Sebastianus’ successes had created a lot of jealousy in Melanthias, and members of the imperial court, apparently at the instigation of Trajanus and Saturninus, managed to poison Valens against the only successful general he had. [84] Once again, in the late Roman Empire, battlefield success could be a curse.

Valens was already jealous of the battlefield successes of Gratian, who had finally completed his punitive expedition into Germany, though perhaps having taken way too much time to do so, and was on his way to Thrace to help. [85] The eastern emperor certainly didn’t like being overshadowed his own general. When Sebastianus sent word requesting that the praesental army remain in Melanthias and that he be allowed to continue with the promising Fabian strategy, that was the last straw.

The Army in the Emperor’s Presence marched out of Melanthias, with its fickle emperor present at its head. At the end of July, it arrived in a “suburb” of Adrianople. There the troops set up a camp, fortified with a palisade and moat, as Roman troops had done for centuries, joined up with Sebastianus and his detachment and whatever remnants they could find of the battered Army of Thrace, and sat down to impatiently wait for Gratian.

Gothic countermoves

By now the original Tervingian band, themselves divided by tribe, clan and family, had been joined by the similarly-divided Greuthungi, escaped slaves, disaffected Roman citizens, deserting Roman troops, and mercenary Huns and Alans. It is probably simplest to think of this Gothic horde as a coalition, with Fritigern having to placate its component members, only intermittently serving at its head, typically only in times of military crisis.

And this qualified as a military crisis. The return of Valens and his army from the east had changed everything. The Romans now had an army capable of defeating the Gothic horde. That by itself had to be respected, but it was the tactics of Sebastianus that presented Fritigern with the real nightmare.

Sebastianus and his small force had already forced Fritigern to recall the foraging parties and direct the Gothic coalition to mass at Cabyle. The Goths’ foraging area would thus be severely limited. The horde would have to move constantly just to keep itself supplied.

But with the praesental army in the area, with its secure supply line to Constantinople, simply moving presented a major problem. The horde was vulnerable to attack on the move. A Roman attack in transit formation would be disastrous. Yet even if the Romans did not attack, a mere approach by the praesental army would force the horde to quickly deploy its troops in battle line; even then, the horde could be forced to fight in unfavorable territory. And while its troops were deployed, the horde could not forage to support itself. Starvation was a serious possibility.

If starvation was to be avoided, Fritigern needed to force the issue quickly. He needed either (preferably) a peace agreement to secure the future of his people, or to defeat the praesental army in battle.

These were the strategic considerations that likely convinced Fritigern what to do with his next move.

As mentioned earlier, on the road between Constantinople and Adrianople was a “way station” called in Latin Nice and in Greek Nike – “victory,” as most Americans now know from the shoe company. This way station appears to have also been a Roman supply depot, about which Fritigern had been informed by Roman deserters. Fritigern had the horde leave the area around Cabyle and head southward through the Tonzos River valley on the road toward Adrianople, with Nice ultimate destination.

The strategic considerations involved are somewhat uncertain due to the ambiguities of Ammianus’ account, particularly regarding when the horde began its movement in relation to Valens’ move from Melanthias to Adrianople. What is certain is that a Gothic take over of Nice would have been a strategic coup. Constantinople would be effectively cut off from Thrace. If Valens were still in the eastern capital, he would be compelled to have the praesental army clear out the Goths, not stragglers and scattered raiding parties like the Arab cavalry had done earlier, but the entire horde. Even better would be if Valens were in Adrianople, because then the emperor would be cut off from his capital and his main base of supply. He would be compelled to fight the Gothic coalition, perhaps at a severe disadvantage, while if the horde could take Nice, they could take all the base’s supplies for themselves. In terms of strategy, Fritigern’s choice of Nice was an inspired one.

Fritigern seems to have hedged his bets, however, possibly because he learned that Valens and his army were en route to Adrianople, possibly because he knew that the massed horde could not move very quickly, possibly both. He sent a raiding party out to seize Nice. The composition, size and route of the raiding party are all murky at best. Since the Terving chieftain was looking for speed, the raiding party was probably composed entirely of cavalry, and may have even consisted of all the horde’s cavalry. While the main horde moved slowly down the road from Cabyle toward Adrianople, the raiding detachment split off and headed for Nice. While the route of the party is only dimly understood from Ammianus’ account, a persuasive case has been made by historian Peter Donnelly that it first headed east, then turned south following a track through what is now the town of Cemeskoy, Turkey, intending to head through the valley and emerge from the hills just north of Nice to seize the supply depot. [86]

This plan was a gamble, especially if as some believe the raid used up all the Gothic cavalry; if successful, however, it could have indeed forced the issue, as Fritigern had likely hoped, to a peaceful conclusion. Valens’ supply line would be turned from a strength into a weakness. The Romans would take the field against the Gothic horde with their supplies gone, the army cut off from its main supply base at Constantinople, Valens cut off from his capital, and Gothic cavalry in their rear. The emperor and his troops would have been at a severe disadvantage, and perhaps compelled to negotiate.

While the cavalry raid was off, Fritigern continued the main horde’s journey south. The Romans held a blocking position at Adrianople, first with Sebastianus’ detachment and then with the praesental army. Ammianus’ account of the horde’s movements is confusing and subject to differing interpretations. Nevertheless, it has been persuasively argued by Donnelly among others that the Gothic horde tried to bypass Adrianople to get to Nice. [87] According to Ammianus, the Gothic chieftain was concerned about an ambush in transit from mountain hiding spots, as Sebastianus had managed to achieve, or from Adrianople itself.

As a result, as the horde approached Adrianople, Fritigern had the horde turn to the southeast, staying, according to Ammianus, 15 miles from the city, while staying away from mountain defiles as well; obviously, if the Romans sortied, Fritigern wanted them to travel as long as possible and give the Goths as much warning as possible. Ammianus also says the host was moving slowly, apparently setting up the wagon laager relatively early in the day after a very limited move. Though by no means conclusive, when combined with trying to keep well clear of Adrianople and the hills, the slowness of the horde’s movement hints at a lack of screening and scouting capability, which was usually provided by cavalry.

If at this point Fritigern did lack the cavalry to screen the Gothic host, it would have some interesting consequences.

The consilium and Valens’ decision to attack

On August 8, 378, Richomeres arrived at the praesental army’s camp outside Adrianople in advance of Gratian’s troops bearing a letter for Valens. According to Ammianus, the letter “implore[ed] Valens to wait a little while for [Gratian] that he might share his danger, and not rashly face the danger before him single handed.” [88] The western emperor was coming – finally – with a substantial force of light troops, although not nearly as many as he would have before the Alamanni attacked across the Rhine. To speed up his advance, he had sent the army’s baggage ahead separately by land while he sailed with his troops down the Danube. Unfortunately, Gratian was still a few days away, laid up with a fever after beating back a surprise attack by the Alans. Richomeres’ arrival caused Valens to hold a conference (consilium) with his generals and his civilian court. [89]

Ammianus describes the discussions that followed:

And while some, influenced by Sebastianus, urged him to give battle at once, the man called Victor, a commander of cavalry, a Sarmatian by birth, but foresighted and careful, with the support of many others recommended that his imperial colleague be awaited, so that, strengthened by the addition of the Gallic army, he might the more easily crush the fiery over-confidence of the barbarians. However, the fatal insistence of the emperor prevailed, supported by the flattering opinion of some of his courtiers, who urged him to make all haste in order that Gratian might not have a share in the victory which (as they represented) was already all but won. [90]

Zosimus gives a slightly different version:

Sebastianus sent a request to the emperor, desiring him to remain where he then was, and not to advance; since it was not easy to bring such a multitude to a regular engagement. He, moreover, observed that it would be better to protract the war in harassing them by ambuscades, until they should be reduced to despair from the want of necessaries, and rather than expose themselves to the misery and destruction of famine, either surrender themselves, or depart from the Roman territory and submit to the Huns. While he gave the emperor this counsel, his adversaries persuaded him to march forward with his whole army; that the Barbarians were almost destroyed, and the emperor might gain a victory without trouble. Their counsel, though the least prudent, so far prevailed […] [91]

By this time Valens was well aware of Fritigern’s designs on Nice. At some point late in the praesental army’s transit to Adrianople, Roman exploratores (scouts who specialized in operational intelligence) had spotted the Gothic raiding party making for Nice. According to Ammianus, the eastern emperor sent a “sufficient force,” consisting of a “squadron” (turma) of cavalry and a body of foot archers, to seize the mountain passes to block the raid. Frustratingly, Ammianus says nothing else about the concluding events of this attempted raid and thus leaves it shrouded in fog.

Valens seems to have sent his force sometime between August 3 and 5, and may have felt sufficiently concerned about his supply line to halt the army’s transit and hold position temporarily. [92] The “sufficient force” appears at first glance to be relatively small, which would suggest the raiding party was also quite small – except the party still had to be big enough to either seize Nice (which would have had a small guard force) or invest it (which would take even more troops). The question may turn on the meaning of “turma.” A long time earlier it had formally meant a troop of 30 men, but by this time it had acquired a more general meaning and may have covered forces f hundreds of men. [93] It is not clear if there was combat involved here. Given that the Roman blocking force did seize a pass, the position may have been so strong defensively that the Goths could not force it. Additionally, the Goths may have been seeking a quick coup de main or even surprise, and the sight of the Romans holding the pass, though small in number, may have convinced them that they could not take Nice without losing time and troops and so they decided to abandon the effort.

With that taken care of, Valens could turn his attention back to the main horde.

It is difficult to assess the true wisdom of the decision to attack because the location of the Adrianople battlefield is not known. Two sites for the battlefield have been prominently mentioned. One theory puts it just east of the Tonzos River, about 10 miles north and slightly east of Adrianople, near the modern village of Muratçali. [94] The other places it a similar distance east northeast of the city, near Demirhanli. [95] It may even have been an as-yet-undiscovered location some 10-15 miles northeast of Adrianople. Yet if the projected locations, especially the Demirhanli theory, are correct, Valens had some very good reasons for taking immediate action, if not the precise action he ended up taking.

Valens knew that Fritigern was going after his supply line. The Gothic horde was moving on the supply depot at Nice. The Goths were going around Adrianople, keeping some 15 miles between themselves and the city, moving counterclockwise southeast towards Nice. If they captured the supply depot, then the Goths would be set for supplies and Valens’ army would be cut off from Constantinople. In fact, from a political standpoint, Valens really could not even allow the Goths to get between his army and the eastern capital.

And therein lay the problem with waiting for Gratian: Valens’ army was stationary, camped at Adrianople, while the Goths were to his northeast moving southeast towards Nice. From the standpoint of longitude, the Goths had thus already passed the Romans to the east. The horde may have been as little as one day’s march from Nice.

Put simply, Gratian had taken too long. Valens could not wait any longer; he needed to act now.

At the same time, while this calculus is compelling in explaining why Valens decided to immediately act, it does not completely explain why Valens decided to immediately attack. The praesental army, not burdened with noncombatants, had a speed advantage over the horde. Though it would involve moving away from Gratian’s reinforcements, there was still time for the eastern emperor to have his army assume a blocking position.

Ammianus gives the catalyst for the decision to immediately attack:

During the next three days, when the barbarians, advancing at a slow pace and through unfrequented places, since they feared a sally, were fifteen miles distant from the city and were making for the station of Nice, through some mistake or other the emperor was assured by his skirmishers that all that part of the enemy’s horde which they had seen consisted of only ten thousand men, and carried away by a kind of rash ardour, he determined to attack them at once. [96]

Zosimus partially corroborates this statement by reporting that many of the emperor’s advisors said “that the Barbarians were almost destroyed.” [97]

The report, which had come from the procursatores, the field army’s advance guard who were assigned to gather tactical intelligence, appears to have put Valens in the mood to immediately attack. [98] The histories are in agreement as to why. Both Ammianus and Zosimus agree that Valens desperately wanted a victory all his own, both out of a desire to shore up his political position and jealousy of the military successes of Gratian and, it seems, Sebastianus.

The magister equitum Victor led those advocating that Valens wait for Gratian. Zosimus points out that Sebastianus had argued for not committing the entire army, but instead continuing to use small detachments in the Fabian tactics that had been so effective. Ammianus has Sebastianus leading a contingent arguing that Valens should attack immediately, probably because his advice on the Fabian tactics had been rejected. The key point seems to have been that scouting report that the Goths only had 10,000 troops and Valens’ early decision to act on that report. Ammianus and Zosimus blame court intrigue, shallow flattery and Valens’ own obstinance for the decision to attack. Both historians are thus critical of the decision to attack. And in hindsight, it was a bad decision.

What happened with the procursatores and their underestimate of 10,000 Gothic troops, coming as it did with such catastrophic consequences, is probably the greatest mystery of Adrianople. As historian N.J.E. Austin and N.A. Rankov point out in their landmark study on the subject of Roman intelligence-gathering, Exploratio, the procursatores, the advance guard and tactical scouts, and the exploratores, the operational scouts, were very, very good at it, particularly when it came to estimates of enemy numbers and terrain analysis. [99] That they would have one and possibly more of their rare failures at this critical juncture is, as Alannis Morissette would say, ironic. Nevertheless, it is possible to glean some nuggets from the very shallow information pool provided by Ammianus and Zosimus.

First, concerns Ammianus’ wording. The procursatores estimate that the “all that part of the enemy’s horde which they had seen consisted of only ten thousand men” spurred a debate concerning whether the Romans should immediately attack. Ammianus must be referring only to the Gothic army, combat troops or men of fighting age. If the entire horde, including noncombatants, was 10,000, that may have placed combat troops at somewhere around 3,000, which would not have warranted a debate and may not have even been able to cause such problems in the diocese of Thrace.

Second, while the precise numbers of Roman troops are not known, the estimated 10,000 figure for the Goths helps narrow the range. Given the inherent advantages in defense, an attacking army usually needs a numerical advantage, somewhere in the neighborhood of two-to-one. If the Romans were even debating attacking this supposed force of 10,000, then they may have had a numeric advantage, but perhaps not quite up to this two-to-one ratio. That suggests for the Battle of Adrianople the Army in the Emperor’s Presence and any attached remnants of the Army of Thrace totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000-20,000 troops. These were not the numbers of Cannae or Zama.

Third, it must be pointed out that the procursatores were trained and experienced in assessing the numbers of combat troops of an enemy army, like the armies they would have faced in the east on Valens’ planned expedition against the Sassanids. But what they were facing here, as mentioned earlier, was not an army. It was a migrating horde, full of not just men of fighting age, but noncombatant women, children and elderly. It would also have contained far more in the way of transport wagons and ox carts than the typical army. And their numbers could have been shielded in part by their wagon laager, which was also not a regular feature of professional armies. All of these factors would have combined to complicate efforts to estimate the combat numbers of the Gothic horde.

Fourth, the Romans were apparently able to maintain surveillance over the horde with the exploratores.[100] There is no mention that the horde was reinforced, nor is there mention of combat before the events of August 9. That the Romans were able to maintain watch over the horde with little trouble begs the question of where exactly was the Gothic cavalry, who should have been performing screening duties, during this time.

Finally comes the question of what exactly did this 10,000 figure mean in terms of whether it covered the entire horde or just a part of it. There has been some belief that the procursatores just saw part of the horde and that there were other elements of the horde nearby, especially the cavalry, that the scouts just managed to miss. In this view, the procursatores got the number 10,000 right, but had seen only a part of the main horde. Thus, Valens and his generals, had they analyzed and correlated the report properly, would have and should have realized that this was only part of several groups of the horde, which would suggest the possibility that the praesental army, if it attacked, could be facing a much larger Gothic horde than the report alone would have indicated.

To be sure, this is a reasonable scenario and may be in fact what happened, but it nonetheless does not match Ammianus’ description. He says that the procursatores had found this body of Goths and indicates that on August 9 the praesental army encountered that same body. Furthermore, he does not indicate that it had been reinforced in any way. [101] The exploratores had managed to keep the horde under surveillance.[102] During this time period, except for the Gothic raiding party, no other elements of the horde were spotted. It seems that almost no one is willing to believe Ammianus’ statement that the procursatores just badly underestimated the fighting strength of the horde.

As will be seen shortly, Valens’ plan was to attack immediately, and he pushed the praesental army hard to do just that. Ammianus says that on August 9 the army headed for the Gothic horde in “extreme haste.” [103] So great was their haste, says Zosimus, that they were in some disorder. [104] Whether they left Adrianople in disorder is open to question, but they did leave their baggage behind. While this was usually done when entering into a combat situation, it was also done to speed up the movement of the army. Ammianus also suggests that this was a forced march, as in, with no breaks to rest. [105] Edward Gibbon, in his seminal work, says the troops, “were compelled, in the sultry heat of summer, to precipitate their pace.” [106] Engaging the Gothic horde in battle as soon as possible was the strategy, and everything was sacrificed to speed up the approach of the praesental army. Everything – including, as will be seen, the army’s combat effectiveness.

Why were the Romans in such a hurry?

This pattern of behavior suggests that the Romans were well aware that the 10,000 was only part of the Gothic horde. As it was, Valens was aware of at least two separate forces of Fritigern’s coalition at large: one was the main horde of 10,000 troops, as the procursatores had reported; the other was the raiding party that had been turned back from Nice. The logical conclusion is that Valens wanted to attack this body of 10,000 before it could be reinforced, possibly with the return of the raiding party.

While this decision has been criticized as rash, impetuous, driven by vanity and supported by flattery, it is in fact militarily defensible. It is also in line with Sebastianus’ strategy in picking off pieces of the horde rather than attacking the whole, which likely explains the general’s support of the immediate attack.

Valens could only have been encouraged in his plan for an immediate attack by the arrival of a delegation from Fritigern. As Ammianus explains:

While the necessary preparations for the decisive battle were going on, a Christian presbyter (to use their own term), who had been sent by Fritigern as an envoy, in company with some humble folk came to the emperor's camp. He was courteously received and presented a letter from the same chieftain, openly requesting that to him and his people, whom the rapid forays of savage races had made exiles from their native lands, Thrace only should be granted as a habitation, with all its flocks and crops; and they promised lasting peace if this request were granted. Besides this the aforesaid Christian, apparently a confidant and trusted friend of Fritigern, presented also a private letter of the same king, who, all too skilled in craft and in various forms of deception, informed Valens, pretending that he hoped soon to be his friend and ally, that he could not tame the savagery of his people, or entice them to adopt conditions favourable to the Roman state, unless the emperor should from time to time show them near at hand his army ready for battle, and through the fear aroused by the imperial name check their destructive eagerness for war. But as to the envoys, their sincerity was doubted, and they left without accomplishing their purpose. [107]

Ammianus understandably views the communications from Fritigern, especially the private letter, with skepticism. Nevertheless, the private letter is consistent with Fritigern’s incomplete control over the horde, as evinced by their earlier failed attack on Adrianople in 376. And, again, Fritigern had negotiated the Gothic crossing in the first place. He likely understood his people’s best chance lay with Rome.

Having delivered their chieftain’s messages to Valens, the ambassadors were sent on their way. While the Roman court had accepted them as representatives of Fritigern, they were not of sufficient rank to continue negotiations.

So the eastern emperor went to bed on the night of August 8, 378, believing the Gothic horde had – for now – only 10,000 fighting men and that its chief was not confident of his chances in battle, to the point where he initiated peace negotiations.

By comparison, Valens was quite confident of his chances, so much so that he need not wait for reinforcements from his lethargic nephew.

Tomorrow, the eastern emperor and the Army in the Emperor’s Presence would march as fast as possible to the Gothic horde and attack.

And like Valentinian, like Gratian and like Sebastianus, Valens would finally get his day in the sun.

< Go to Part 1 of 3 Go to Part 3 of 3 >

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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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

Published online: 04/01/2012.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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