The Goths rise and managed to win a battle against the disciplined Roman army. The Roman
army, led by the emperor Valence, was professional and well trained and the Gothic people just
one year before were starving, suffered from deceases and really humiliated by the Romans. Now
they were stronger and the Goths were fighting with their hearts and also severely underestimated.
It finally became very bloody and almost all of the Roman troops, including Valence himself, were
slaughtered. There are a few surviving Roman witness who documented what happened and went
back to report. The Goths didn't seem to document much at that time...
This surprise Gothic victory was the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.
The Roman army lost almost two-thirds of their total number of soldiers in that battle. That is about
40,000 soldiers - a defeat the historian Ammianus Marcellinus declared the worst since Cannae.
How did the Goth refugees from over the Danube, who up to that point had been on the defensive
against the Romans, inflict such a crushing defeat on the Empire?
Here's what happened
Adrianople is today named Edirne in Turkey.
Some time in the morning of August 9, 378 AD, the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens marched out
of the city of Adrianople with an army of about 25,000 troops determined to destroy the forces of
the Goths led by Fritigern ( in Gothic=Frithugairns).
According to his scouts, the Goths was encamped about eleven miles away with only 10,000 men.
The road was in poor condition and Valens arrived there after marching for seven hours over difficult
terrain. At around 2 PM, the Roman troops arrived in disorder, facing the Goths, encamped behind
their circled wagons that had been set up on the top of a hill.
As the Goth laager came into view it became apparent to Valens that his scouts had been wrong.
Far from approaching Nike with only 10,000 warriors, it was clear that this was the main Gothic
force. Estimates of how many men Fritigern commanded that day vary widely, with some modern
authorities claiming there were as many as 150,000 Goths, but its unlikely that the Roman scouts
could have underestimated the Gothic force by a factor of fifteen. It is likely that the two armies
were relatively evenly matched in number.
Fritigern knew he had to buy more time. While the Imperial infantry formed up in the middle of the
Roman line, he sent some emissaries to negotiate with Valens, but the Emperor rejected them,
demanding that higher ranking Goths come forward to speak with him. The Goths in turn suspected
a trap, so they demanded a high ranking Roman hostage come over to their side to ensure their
envoys' safety. Then there was a debate amongst the Roman high command as to who would go,
with Richomer, the Western Imperial general, finally volunteering. But as he prepared to cross the
field to the Gothic laager, word reached Valens' position that the battle had already begun. The
Romans began the battle without having received the order to do so, believing they would have an
easy victory. The imperial Scholae of shield-archers under the command of the Iberian prince
Bacurius attacked, but lacking support they were easily pushed back.
As the battle began in confusion, with both sides surrounded by thick smoke and choking summer
dust, the Gothic allied cavalry led by Alatheus and Saphrax suddenly appeared as if from nowhere
and fell immediately on the Roman right flank, turning it and then attacking it from behind. The
cavalry on the right were swept away by the sudden assault, with Ammianus describing the
charging barbarian cavalry as 'descending from the mountains like a thunderbolt'. Then the Roman
left-wing reached the circle of chariots, but it was too late. The Gothic cavalry surrounded the
Roman troops, who were already in disarray. The Romans retreated to the base of the hill where
they unable to manoeuvre, encumbered by their heavy armour and long shields. Now the infantry
stood their ground and fought for survival rather than victory. The casualties, exhaustion, and
psychological pressure led to a rout of the Roman army. The cavalry continued their attack, and
the massacre continued until nightfall.
Some historians give the Battle of Adrianople as the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the
Middle Ages. They see in the battle the advent of heavy cavalry and the decline of the infantry,
marking the beginning of a thousand years of superiority of cavalry over infantry.