378 Adrianople: Rise of the Barbarians And The Beginning Of The End Of The Roman Empire


The Fall of Rome was an arduous, drawn-out process, lasting centuries in the West to over a thousand years in the East. The so-called “barbarians” are often considered a main factor in the fall of the Western Empire and the weakening of the East.

By the 4th century CE, the Romans had a lot of experience with barbarian confederations, opting to fight, recruit, settle or pay off tribes as they saw fit. For the Eastern Romans in the late 4th century, they had to decide what to do with the large Gothic horde at the banks of the Danube.

This was not the first interaction between the Romans and the Goths, as the Goths had rampaged through Thrace a little over a hundred years before Adrianople and actually killed the co-Emperors Decius and Herennius Etruscus at the disastrous battle of Abritus, though this was during a period of instability in the whole empire and there was a recovery before the next major Gothic interaction.

The Gothic invasions of 250-251, show that the Goths were indeed capable of dealing damage within Roman borders
The Gothic invasions of 250-251, show that the Goths were indeed capable of dealing damage within Roman borders

The Goths were culturally and linguistically Germanic, supposedly migrating from Scandinavia then occupying areas around Crimea and the Black Sea. In the mid and late 4th century they were under heavy pressure by the Huns and sought safety across the Danube within the Empire. The Eastern Emperor Valens agreed and planned to use the large force to supply troops, as he was currently embroiled in a tightly contested war against the Sassanid Empire on the eastern borders.

Once in Roman territory, the Goths were cruelly treated by the local officials. Food was withheld or sold at absurdly high prices, there were instances of stray dogs being rounded up by the Romans and sold for the price of one dog per child given up for slavery. The Romans did face an overall food shortage due to the influx of Goths, but the treatment of the Goths was intentionally cruel.

When the Roman officials heard of an impending rebellion they invited the Gothic leaders for a feast and attempted to kill them all. The assassinations did not go well and men on both sides were killed as a few Gothic leaders got away and organized a mass rebellion. Soon after they defeated the local Roman garrison army and armed themselves with captured Roman equipment and seized what food they wanted.

Typical Gothic soldier around the time of Adrianople
Typical Gothic soldier around the time of Adrianople

The Goths, actually two main large tribes, the Thervings and Greutungs, were much larger than many of the smaller bands that skirmished on the borders of the Empire and required a large mobilization to be dealt with. Their ranks also swelled with nearby tribes, escaped slaves and prisoners. Valens quickly organized a peace with the Sassanid Empire while heading to Constantinople to raise a larger army and received word that the Western Roman Emperor and Valens’ nephew, Gratian, would send an army as well.

Over the next two years, a few skirmishes and inconclusive battles occurred until Valens had his army assembled, some being newly raised and some coming from eastern territories. The Roman general Sebastianus had scored a number of small victories on the widely dispersed warbands, which caused the Gothic leader Fritigern to consolidate his forces.

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