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Emperor Flavius Valens versus Fritigern: A Gothic army under Fritigern fights for not only its own but its families’ lives as well against a Roman army under Valens. Can Fritigern delay Valens long enough for his cavalry to turn the tides?
While this battle is often viewed as a decisive battle that accelerated the decline of the Roman Empire, it would be more accurate to say that the Roman defeat indicated the Empire’s growing inability to assert its authority over its porous borders. Historians often refer to this period in Roman history as the “Barbarian Invasions.” However, these “invasions” were little more than migration of people south and west in to the Roman Empire, what the more astute historians refer to as the “Age of Migration” between 370-568. With this in mind, the Battle of Adrianople is really more of a story of refugees revolting against their host. Far from accelerating the destruction of the Roman Empire, which lasted at least another 600 years by even the strictest standards, the Goths and other “barbarian” migrants settled within the Empire and became a transformative part of it.
It is easy to see why the Romans lost this battle. Faced with a Gothic force occupying a good defensive position and expecting reinforcements, Valens failed to either launch a rapid, well-organized assault and destroy the Gothic infantry before the Gothic cavalry arrived or isolate the Gothic infantry and their families on the hill and prepare for the Gothic cavalry’s arrival. Either of these courses of action would have been reasonable but Valens did neither. Fritigern meanwhile conducted an excellent delaying operation by disrupting the Roman attack with use of fire and smoke and occupying a strong defensive position until his cavalry arrived. The end result was “relatively fresh troops fighting hot, tired, and thirsty men who were surprised by the unexpected appearance of enemy reinforcements” (MacDowall, 2001: 89). In this battle, it is easy to identify two extremely common reasons for the Romans being in this predicament.
First, Fritigern’s effective use and exploitation of tactical intelligence assets gave the Gothic army a distinct advantage over the Roman army from the outset:
Fritigern used his scouts to detect the approach of the Roman army in time to recall his cavalry. Valens failed to use his intelligence capabilities and had no idea where Fritigern and his army were. Valens stumbled into the Gothic positions by accident and could not exploit the absence of Fritigern’s cavalry. (Gabriel and Boose, 1994: 458)
In other terms, Fritigern operated well within the Roman decision cycle and was able to react to events more quickly and effectively as a result.
Second, Valens and his subordinates underestimated their enemy at all levels:
all the Roman commanders, with the possible exception of Sebastian, acted with the typical arrogance of a well-equipped, ‘civlised’ army dealing with what they saw as a rabble. They allowed themselves to be drawn into battle on three occasions (Marcianople, Ad Salices and Adrianople) without propert preparation or reconnaissance and without ensuring that the odds were stacked in their favour before committing to a fight. (MacDowall, 2001: 89)
Ineffective reconnaissance and hubris are of course all too common themes that did not begin or end at Adrianople, and carry on to modern combat.
Gabriel and Boose take issue with the idea Adrianople “demonstrated the newly discovered battlefield supremacy of cavalry over infantry” because the Roman defeat “was essentially due to tactical stupidity on the part of poor field commanders who exposed unprepared and exhausted Roman infantry to surprise cavalry attack” (1994: 456).
You will notice that the recently upgraded PowerPoint animation varies quite a bit from the older video animation. This was one of the first battle animations I created and did not have access to a lot of the best sources on it. While I was still comfortable to keep the original animation (as seen in the video animation) posted for the last seven years, it was one I felt I needed to improve. I completed this animation before five years of university education and six years of experience in the military as an intelligence operator so it should not come as a surprise that my standards have improved, hence the basis of the 2015/2016 project of upgrading all animations. There are three major changes to Adrianople as of August 2016. First, I have revised the strength figures for each side down from 60,000 each side to MacDowall’s admittedly speculative but likely more accurate numbers (2001: 25-33). Second, I have reframed this battle away from being a barbarian invasion to a revolt among refugees in an age of migration. If anyone is interested, during my Master’s degree I actually researched and completed an essay on the significance of the Visigothic migration into the Roman Empire to contemporary debates about migration and the Western world. Third, I have drastically expanded my analysis of this battle with assistance from some excellent sources. I no longer think it is simply enough to show you what happened using colourful animation sequences. I feel it is also important to properly contextualize the battle and explain its result.
– Jonathan Webb
Black, Jeremy. The Seventy Great Battles in History. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Davis, Paul K. 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Dupuy, Trevor N. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present, Fourth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Gabriel, Richard A. and Donald W. Boose Jr. The Great Battles of Antiquity: A Strategic and Tactical Guide to Great Battles that Shaped the Development of War. Westport: Greenwood, 1994.
Macdowall, Simon. Adrianople AD 378: The Goths Crush Rome’s Legions. London: Osprey, 2001.
“The Battle of Adrianople (Hadrianopolis)” Illustrated History of the Roman Empire. http://www.roman-empire.net/army/adrianople.html (accessed Jan. 27, 2008).
United States Military Academy History Department. “Atlas for Ancient Warfare.” United States Military Academy. http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/AncientWarfare/index.htm (accessed Jan. 27, 2008).
Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. London: Salamander, 1980.
Zentner, Joe. “Adrianople: The Last Great Battle of Antiquity.” Military History. October 2005, http://www.historynet.com/adrianople-last-great-battle-of-antiquity.htm (accessed Jan. 27, 2008).
Emperor Flavius Valens: http://www.livius.org/va-vh/valentinian/gratianus.html
Gothic cavalry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_70_figure_1.htm
Gothic infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_70_figure_1.htm
Map of the Roman Empire: http://www.historynet.com/the-roman-empire-loses-its-grip-at-adrianople-in-ad-378.htm/3#prettyPhoto
Map of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_map_projections
Roman cavalry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_77b_figure_1.htm
Roman infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_77b_figure_1.htm
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