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Adrianople, battle of

  1. A. D. Lee

Published Online: 7 FEB 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah19003

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

How to Cite

Lee, A. D. 2012. Adrianople, battle of. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 7 FEB 2012

The battle of Adrianople (August 9, 378 ce), in which a Roman army suffered a crushing defeat by Gothic forces (see Goths) and the emperor Valens died, was described by one contemporary as the worst Roman defeat since Cannae (Amm. Marc. 31.13.19; see Cannae, battle of). It is usually seen as an important step in the hemorrhaging of Roman power during late antiquity, although there are dangers of oversimplifying its significance.

The battle was the culmination of events which began two years earlier when Valens agreed to a Gothic request to cross the Danube en masse and settle in the northern Balkans. Roman exploitation of the immigrants provoked a Gothic revolt which local Roman forces struggled to contain, prompting Valens to return from the eastern frontier with elite army units in the summer of 378. Despite being urged by some to await the arrival of his co-emperor Gratian from the west with reinforcements, Valens decided to tackle the Goths on his own in the Thracian plain, 150 km west of Constantinople – a fatal decision influenced partly by faulty intelligence which underestimated the size of dispersed Gothic forces, but also by Valens' apparent determination not to share the kudos of anticipated victory with Gratian.

Much uncertainty surrounds the details of the battle itself, even though it forms the climax of the best source for this period, Ammianus Marcellinus’ history; his classicizing pretensions and his concern to use Adrianople as a foil to the emperor Julian's achievements in another battle (Strasbourg, 357; Kelly 2008: 313–16), resulted in a battle description which does not lend itselfto tactical analysis. The two sides apparently engaged by accident before either was fully ready, and the Roman left wing then advanced too far, and was isolated and destroyed, leaving the left flank of the Roman center vulnerable. Gothic pressure constricted the fighting space to the point where Roman troops were too densely packed to fight effectively. By nightfall, Valens was dead and two-thirds of the Roman forces had been slaughtered (Amm. Marc. 31.13.18) – but two-thirds of what numberConservative estimates put Valens' army at no more than twenty thousand Roman troops, but data for units missing after 378 imply a figure closer to forty thousand (Lenski 2002: 339), which is also more consistent with the manpower problems evident in the following years. Gothic numbers are also problematic, but are unlikely to have been significantly larger than Roman forces.

The defeat owed more to poor decision-making by Valens than to any deterioration in the quality of Roman troops, and the empire still had substantial armies deployed elsewhere. However, the loss of so many experienced troops could not be made good quickly, and Valens' successor Theodosius I proved unable to defeat the Goths, eventually reaching an agreement in 382 which allowed them to settle in the Balkans in return for providing units for the Roman army. Crucially, the Goths retained a degree of independence not previously conceded to such immigrants which, within a decade, was to create increasing problems for the empire (see Alaric).

References and Suggested Readings

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  2. References and Suggested Readings
  • Burns, T. S. (1973) “The battle of Adrianople: a reconsideration.” Historia 22: 33645.
  • Heather, P. (1991) Goths and Romans, 332–489: 122–56. Oxford.
  • Kelly, G. (2008) Ammianus Marcellinus: the allusive historian. Cambridge.
  • Kulikowski, M. (2007) Rome's Gothic wars from the third century to Alaric: 123–43. Cambridge.
  • Lenski, N. (2002) Failure of empire: Valens and the Roman state in the fourth century a.d.: 320–67. Berkeley.