The Battle of Adrianople

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Podcast Transcript

On August 9, 378, one of the most important battles in world history took place. While largely forgotten today, it was a critical battle that contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t just a loss for the Roman army; it also resulted in the death of an emperor, and it also contributed to the rise of a group known as the Visigoths, who would go on to spread throughout much of Europe over the next several centuries. Learn more about the Battle of Adrianople and how it changed the course of history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

There is a good chance that many of you have never even heard of the Battle of Adrianople. If you have heard of it, there is a good chance you don’t know much about it. The Battle of Adrianople took place during a time in the late Roman Empire that doesn’t get nearly the attention of the early Roman empire. If was fought against an opponent known as the Goths that, again, many people might have heard of, but they know little about. Nonetheless, the Battle of Adrianople played a pivotal role in the decline of the empire. To understand what happened and why it was so important, we first have to understand the situation in the late 4th century. In the third century, Rome suffered through what was known as the Crisis of the Third Century. It was a period of great instability that saw invasions, rebellions, and a continual succession of short-term emperors, most of whom died violently.  This all almost resulted in the collapse of the Empir. It eventually ended with the region of Emperor Diocletian, who reorganized the empire between East and West and established separate, co-equal emperors who governed each part of the empire. This system of Eastern and Western emperors remained mostly intact for most of the next century, and it was still the case by the latter part of the 4th century. In 364, the emperor Valentinian I assumed control of the western half of the empire after being elected by his legions, and afterward, he installed his younger brother Valens as the emperor in the East. Valen was a Christian, but he was an Arian Christian, a sect that was considered heretical by the dominant Nicene Christians  The Arian Heracy was one of the most important issues during the period and will be the subject of a future episode. For the purpose of this episode, Valens religion caused conflict with other Christians in his empire. The other major issue that colored the rule of Valens were foreign wars. In particular, wars against two groups: The Sasanian Persian Empire in the east, and the Goths to the north. I’ve covered the Sasanian Empire in a previous episode. What is relevant to this episode are the Goths. Despite the contemporary use of the word, the Goths weren’t a bunch of kids who hung out underneath the bleachers, who wore dark clothes, heavy eye liner, and listened to the Cure. The Goths were a group of Germanic tribes that played a crucial role in the history of the late Roman Empire and the early medieval period. They were originally from Scandinavia and migrated southwards over the course of centuries, eventually becoming a dominant force in the Roman territories. The Goths are generally divided into two main branches: the Visigoths or the Western Goths, and the Ostrogoths or Eastern Goths.They migrated down the Vistula River in Poland and eventually settled in areas along the western Black Sea in what is today modern-day Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria. From the years 367 to 369, Valens fought the Goths in what became known as the First Gothic War. A army of 30,000 Goths, led by their king Ermanaric, invaded Thrace, what is today Northeastern Greece, Southeastern Bulgaria, and European Turkey. Valens counter-attacked, but the war was brought to a standstill with no real resolution. Ultimately, in 369, peace was negotiated as Valens attention was turned to the Sasanians in Persia. In 375, Valentinian, Valen’s co-emperor died and was replaced in the west by his sixteen year old son, Gratian.While Valen’s attention was directed towards the east, events were transpiring with the Goths north of the border. They had been invaded by another group from the Eurasian steppes, the Huns. The Huns would go on to cause problems for the Romans for the next century, but this was one of the first times they appeared on their radar. The Huns caused the Goths to flee, so they crossed the Danube and headed to the Roman province of Thrace. In 376, the co-kings of the Goths, Alavivus and Fritigern, appealed to Valens to let the Goths settle there, and Valens consented. The idea behind letting the Goths settle in Roman lands was that they would become farmers and soldiers and eventually become a part of the empire. The Goths were also mostly Arian Christians at the time, just like Valens. The idea wasn’t a bad one in theory. The Roman Empire was enormous and encompassed many different ethnic groups. Having the Goths settle in Roman lands could provide an established population that could defend the land from invaders. There were approximately 200,000 Goths that had migrated to Thrace. The problem came in the implementation of the plan. The settlement of the Goths was overseen by a military magistrated named Lupicinus. Lupicinus was incredibly corrupt and used his position to enrich himself at the expense of the Goths. He extorted the Goths and withheld food, which initiated a famine. The Goths were so hungry that at one point, Lupicinus offered to trade the Goths a slaughtered dog for every boy they would sell into slavery. Eventually, the Goths became fed up with their situation under the Romans and revolted. They began raiding the Thracian countryside for food and supplies. For two years, the Goths and Romans fought without any real resolution to the conflict. Valens was tied down in the east, fighting the Persians. In the summer of 378, he returned to Constantinople and requested aid from his co-emperor Gratian in the west to counter the Gothic threat. After two years with no success, Valens decided to take matters into his own hands. In late July and early August 378, he waited for reinforcements to arrive from the west. As they were waiting, Valens was informed that the Goths were approaching with a force of about 10,000 men. Valens felt that this was his opportunity. He felt he vastly outnumbered the Goths and could defeat them in one fell swoop. Valens decided he would personally lead his troops to battle. Moreover, he wasn’t going to wait for Gratian to show up for reinforcements. He was going to hog all of the glory for himself. His advisors told him “to make all haste in order that Gratian might not have a share in the victory which was already all but won…”The fact that he had received word that Gratian had won victories on his way to relieve him only made his desire for glory all the greater. On August 9, 378, he set out with his army of approximately 15 to 30,000 from the city of Adrianople to meet the Gothic army. Here, I should note that it was an extremely hot day. The region was suffering a heat wave, and it has been estimated that temperatures reached above 100F or around 40C. I should also note that the day before the army set out, the Gothic commander Fritigern sent an envoy to Valen offering peace in exchange for land, which was pretty much the original deal they had before Lupicinus ruined everything. Also, Valens also had received word from Gratian to wait for his reinforcements and this had been reiterated by his top commanders. The Roman army under Valens marched over eight miles in this temperature over exposed terrain. By the time they met the Goths, they were exhausted and dehydrated. The Goths began by starting grass fires to confuse the Romans and to reduce visibility. They had also fortified themselves into defensive positions.The Romans, in a highly unusual move, began an unorganized attack on the Goths. Usually, Roman forces were highly disciplined, especially compared to Germanic forces. Just as they were approaching the Gothic lines, they were hit by something unexpected: a large force of Gothic heavy cavalry. It began a route of the Roman forces. The disorganized attack was pushed back by the cavalry attack as well as the Gothic infantry, which may have outnumbered the Romans. As the Roman lines fell apart, they were picked apart by Gothic archers. When the lines fell apart, they fell apart so completely that Valens personal guards fled, leaving the emperor unprotected. No one knows exactly what happened to Valens other than that he was killed on the battlefield. There were different stories as to what happened to him. One holds that he retreated to a village where he was captured and killed by the Goths. Another says that he was hit in the head by a projectile, which killed him because he didn’t wear a helmet in battle. Yet another story is that he was surrounded by Goths once his bodyguards fled and killed. The Battle of Adrianople was the Romans’ worst battlefield defeat in centuries. Chroniclers considered it on par with the defeat at Cannae by the Carthaginians or at Charrae by the Parthians. An estimated ? of the Roman forces in the east were killed in a single day. However, it wasn’t just a major defeat. The Battle of Adrianople had long-term reproductions. For starters, the Goths eventually came to peace with Valen’s successor, Theodosius I. However, they never integrated into Roman society. They remained culturally and linguistically separate. The Goths in Thrace eventually became known as the Visigoths or the Western Goths. After the fall of the Western Empire in the late 5th century, the Visigoths spread throughout much of Europe. They established a kingdom in France and later occupied Spain and parts of North Africa. The Visigoth kingdoms in Spain and North Africa would exist until the Islamic conquests of the 8th century. Some historians consider the performance of the Gothic cavalry to be the beginning of heavy cavalry and the origin of European knights. Granted, these were a far cry from the fully armored knights with lances and heavy war horses that would appear centuries later, but Gothic-shielded cavalry was also a significant departure from the way cavalry had been used by the Romans for centuries.Perhaps the biggest implication of the Battle of Adrianople was that it was the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. Even though the battle was fought in the eastern part of the empire and the eastern emperor was killed, the Goths eventually caused more problems in the west than in the east.Historians debate exactly when the decline of the Roman Empire started, but the Battle of Adrianople is often given as an inflection point in history. The death of an emperor on the battlefield was an incredible blow to morale and the myth of an invincible empire. The loss of such a huge part of the Roman army materially weakened Rome in a way that may have never completely recovered from, even though the ranks of the army were eventually restored. Finally, the battle established what was once just a barbarian force on the edge of the empire as a permanent presence within the empire. A presence that would eventually grow and spread until it ultimately caused the destruction of the Roman Empire itself. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. Today’s review comes from listener hehehehehrhehe, over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:Amazing podI always watch for a new podcast to come out. I especially love the ones about aircraft. Could you do more on those?

Thanks, hehehehehrhehe! I certainly do have more aircraft episodes on my list of future shows. I don’t know when the next one will be released, but rest assured they are on the list. Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.