Considerable debate then took place among the Roman commanders and the high-ranking courtiers who surrounded the emperor. The debate appears to have centered on whether the army of the Eastern Roman Empire should remain on the defensive or march out and attack the Goths without waiting for Gratian and the army of the Western Empire to arrive. Here, the influence of Roman traditions, the failure to recognize the changes in the empire’s strategic situation, and the lack of military experience in Valens’s background all worked to undermine the more conservative but sensible choice to await Gratian’s arrival. Aggressive, ruthless, offensive military action had marked Roman tradition throughout Rome’s lengthy rise to dominance over the Mediterranean basin and its subsequent defense of that great territory. Traditionally, Roman generals sought out and then attacked their enemies. Only in desperate situations did they go over to the defensive. The fate of the consul Varro at the Battle of Cannae during the period of the Roman Republic is instructive, for it was his foolish, headlong attack that had led to disaster at Cannae. Yet the Romans did not punish him for the defeat, but rather honored him for his aggressiveness.
But a great deal had changed in the half a millennium between Cannae and Adrianople: Rome no longer had either a large surplus population or the martial traditions among its peasants that had made the legionnaires of the third century B.C. such fearsome soldiers. In other words, admittedly in retrospect, Rome’s ultimate survival depended on the caution with which its emperors and generals husbanded the lives of their soldiers and the care they took to stack the odds in favor of their armies.
At a minimum, the strategic constraints that the late empire faced required competent, if not inspired, generalship. Unfortunately for the fate of his army, Valens was no general. With little military experience and even less skill, the emperor was unprepared to evaluate the advice his officers and courtiers provided as to whether immediately to attack the barbarians or await the arrival of his nephew. Thus, largely on his own, he made the decision that his army would march out from Adrianople and attack the Goths before Gratian arrived. Letters from Gratian about the success he and the western troops had had in attacking and then in short order defeating the Germans on both sides of the Rhine undoubtedly helped make up Valens’s mind to seek action. Already, that success stood out in stark contrast with the failures in the east to stop the Goths.
The courtiers, of course, were only too ready to impress on the emperor how weak a figure he would cut if his nephew was to share the credit for defeating the Goths. Considerable argument took place among those in the court, but from the first the emperor leaned toward the more aggressive course of action. As related by the fourth-century historian Marcellinus: “The fatal obstinacy of the emperor prevailed, fortified by the flattery of some of the princes, who advised him to hasten with all speed, so that Gratian might have no share in a victory which, as they fancied, was almost already gained.” Optimistic reports that the Goths barely numbered ten thousand men of the Tervingi further encouraged the emperor to seek victory before Gratian arrived. In fact, the Goths probably numbered twice that amount, because the Greuthungi had arrived to reinforce their fellow tribesmen.
Roman intelligence from terror-stricken fugitives and spies had indicated that the Goths had laagered somewhere to the north of Adrianople within easy reach of the Roman army. Since the main force of Goths traveled with their women and children in wagons and sent out cavalry raiding parties from the slow-moving central force, the Romans had a fairly good idea of their enemy’s location, but obviously they had failed to pick up on the fact that the Goths had concentrated and represented a far larger and more dangerous force.
Thus, Valens ordered the army to march. Having chosen to attack, the emperor further demonstrated his unsuitability for command by the decisions taken immediately before battle. First of all, he ordered the troops to stand to before dawn without having made any provisions to feed them. To add to the difficulties his soldiers would confront on their march to battle, the emperor and his generals failed to make provision for adequate supplies of either water or food along their route. The lack of water undoubtedly represented a severe handicap, because summer temperatures in the Balkans hover close to ninety degrees Fahrenheit. Finally, without water and food the army marched north in full armor for a distance of approximately eight miles. Not surprisingly, they arrived in front of the Gothic encampment in the early afternoon largely exhausted and in considerable disarray.
The Goths, eager to ensure that the remainder of their troops could come up, had recalled their cavalry, which had been raiding and foraging in the area, raping and plundering whoever was unfortunate enough to lie in their path. As soon as the Goths saw the unmistakable sign that the Roman army was on the march from Adrianople—the huge dust cloud to the south created by thousands of Roman soldiers and animals on the march was an immediate indicator—they concentrated their forces and prepared for battle. To further hamper the Roman approach and to gain time for their horsemen to return, the Goths set fire to the brush and crops along the way, which served to exacerbate the Roman failure to supply water for their troops. The Goths then attempted to parley as the Romans approached. As Marcellinus relates:
[The Goths] designedly delayed, in order that by fallacious truce which subsisted during the negotiation to give time for their cavalry to return, whom they looked upon as close at hand; and our soldiers already suffering from the summer heat, to become parched and exhausted by the conflagration of the vast plain[,] as the enemy had, with this object, set fire to the crops by means of burning faggots and fuel. To this evil was added that [the] men … were suffering from extreme hunger.
The Goths arrayed their warriors in front of their wagons, which formed a great circular formation, resembling the laagers of so many films about the American West. The women and children remained sheltered behind the wagons. In this case, the number of people protected by the laager was enormous, and there may well have been obstacles placed to the front of the wagons to make it more difficult for the Romans to fight their way through the mass of Gothic warriors. Moreover, the extent of the laager made it virtually impossible for Roman scouts to estimate the size of the enemy army, nor were the Romans when they arrived in front of the laager much better positioned to estimate the number of their enemies. Valens, since he believed he confronted only the Tervingi, erroneously thought he had superiority in numbers. Since in fact he was confronting both tribes, he was clearly outnumbered. From the outset of the battle, the Goths would enjoy substantial advantages, for their warriors had fed, drunk plenty of water, and spent the morning and early afternoon resting.
As the negotiations were taking place, the last Roman cavalry units straggled onto the battlefield to form up on the left flank. The most recent, and reasonable, calculation of numbers on the opposing sides suggests that had Valens waited for the troops from the west, the Romans would have enjoyed nearly a two-to-one advantage over the combined forces of the Goths. Valens, however, probably calculated that he had an advantage over the Tervingi of one and a half to one. In fact, he was outnumbered, since both Gothic tribes had arrived on the battlefield, but not to such an extent that Roman defeat was inevitable. Current estimates suggest a strength of fifteen thousand soldiers in the Roman army, with five thousand cavalry and the remainder in infantry formations. The forces available to the Goths probably approached twenty thousand men.
The Romans arrived on the battlefield exhausted and dehydrated from the trials of their march. They appear to have deployed in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. By their silence, our sources suggest that Valens and his generals had no clear plan of attack except that the infantry in the center, supported by archers, would smash ahead straight into the laager of the Gothic tribesmen, while the Roman cavalry deployed on the flanks would cut down those who attempted to escape. As Valens’s last envoy was approaching the Goths drawn up in front of their wagons, a portion of the Roman army attacked without orders. The sagittarii (archers) and the scutarii (equivalent to the praetorian guard of the early empire) decided to charge the Goths, even though negotiations were still ongoing. Apparently they were supposed to intimidate the Goths but remain in a defensive stance. Nevertheless, they “yielded on their march, to an indiscreet impetuosity, and on approaching the enemy, first attacked them rashly, and then by a cowardly flight disgraced the beginning of the [battle].” Nothing better indicates the poor discipline of the late Roman army than this ill-considered and unplanned attack, one that immediately collapsed.
But for the moment, that was the least of the Roman troubles. Their front line held as the sagittarii and scutarii disappeared from the battlefield. But the very solidness of the infantry legions behind those units represented a weakness as control of the battle spun out of the hands of the Roman generals. With the decline in tactical discipline that had occurred since the beginning of the third century, Roman infantry had come to depend on the psychological bond of physical proximity to their fellow soldiers, rather than on the ruthless but tactically flexible discipline imposed by the centurions that had characterized the nearly invincible legions of earlier centuries. As such, the tactical formations of the late Roman armies were virtually solid blocks that were difficult to maneuver; nor did individual soldiers have much room to move. The very density of the infantry formations would redound significantly to the disadvantage of the soldiers, because as the pressure on the flanks increased, they had less and less area in which to use their weapons.
At the moment the scutarii and the sagittarii collapsed, the Gothic cavalry, led by their chieftains Alatheus and Saphrax, arrived on the scene with a group of Alani tribesmen, described by Marcellinus as “these descending from the mountains like a thunderbolt, spread confusion and slaughter among all whom in their rapid charge they came across.” Our sources do not indicate upon which flank the Gothic cavalry fell, but obviously the barbarian cavalry shattered the Roman cavalry on one of the wings. The shock of their arrival must have rippled across the Roman lines, further exacerbating the disorder caused by the attack and the sudden collapse of the sagittarii and scutarii. In effect, Valens and his generals had lost control of the battle and could only hope their infantry could bail them out. Again our sources are silent as to what happened to the Roman cavalry on the other wing, but the most plausible explanation is that seeing the initial troubles, they embraced the ancient military principle that discretion is the better part of valor and took off on roads heading south away from the battle scene.
On the left, the Roman infantry had some success in fighting their way through the Goths to the wagons. But with the collapse of the cavalry on the two flanks, the Roman infantry, outnumbered as they were, had little chance of breaking the Gothic infantry. Instead, the fighting began to resemble what had occurred at Cannae, when the Roman soldiers, compressed into an ever smaller area, were eventually unable to use their weapons and even began to crush one another to death. Now, as Marcellinus has it, this battle, beginning in early afternoon, placed impossible demands on the Roman infantry,
who were emaciated by hunger, worn out with toil, and scarcely able to support even the weight of their armor.…
Many were slain without knowing who smote them; some were overwhelmed by the weight of the crowd which pressed upon them; and some were slain by wounds inflicted by their own comrades. The barbarians spared neither those who yielded nor those who resisted.
As we have seen on several occasions in European soccer matches or at rock concerts, when a panic ensues, the crush of bodies literally suffocates many. A similar situation occurred at Adrianople. As at Cannae, the Roman infantry with its cavalry cover chased off the battlefield fought and died in an enormous charnel house. The killing was not as terrible as that inflicted when the Carthaginians of Hannibal slaughtered upward of fifty thousand Romans. But it was dreadful enough. Adding to the horror of the scene were the gallons upon galians lons of blood flowing onto the ground from the ferocious, brutal nature of the slaughter, mixed with the inevitable excrement, urine, and dust of the battlefield, all of which created a glutinous swamp of horror onto which the dying Romans fell.
The ground, covered with streams of blood, made their feet slip, so that all they endeavored to do was to sell their lives as dearly as possible; and with such vehemence did they resist their enemies who pressed on them, that some were even killed by their own weapons. At last one black pool of blood disfigured everything, and wherever the eye turned, it could see nothing but piled up bodies of dead, and lifeless corpses trampled on without mercy.
It appears that Valens was caught up with the infantry and never had a chance to escape, so rapid was the collapse of the Roman cavalry. As a result, he died with the legions, but his body was never recovered, perhaps because by the next morning decomposition of the bodies, blood, and other desiderata in the Balkan heat made even the barbarians less than enthusiastic about digging through the mass of blackened, stinking flesh. And so perished much of the Eastern Roman Empire’s infantry, a victim of gross incompetence and the arrogance of Roman military traditions.
It was not numbers that defeated the Romans, but rather the mistakes and overconfidence of their leaders that were responsible for the extent of the catastrophe. However, the fact that the Eastern Empire was at best able to bring barely fifteen thousand soldiers to the battlefield suggests the decline in Rome’s ability to support its military forces. As with so much of history, there were considerable ironies accompanying the defeat. Adrianople did not spell the end of the Eastern Roman Empire. Instead, what historians term the Byzantine Empire struggled on for another millennium.
Yet the destruction of Valens’s army was disastrous in the largest sense, because it destroyed the empire’s reserve of military power. Gratian had been able to move much of the Western Roman Empire’s field army into the Balkans to aid Valens. Unfortunately for the fate of the empire as a whole, Valens decided to fight the Goths on his own. Thus, when the barbarian waves broke over the Western Empire in the fifth century, there was no reserve of troops in the east to come to the aid of the west, and without reinforcements, the Western Empire was no longer able to stem the barbarian invasions. Instead, in a great break with Rome’s history, the barbarians overwhelmed not just the armies, but the provinces on which those armies depended and on which their reconstitution and rebuilding depended. Once the provinces fell into the hands of Rome’s tribal enemies, there would be no recovery in the west.
Equally significant was the destruction of the remnants of the disciplined, trained troops that had characterized Rome’s military power at the height of the empire. Those who made up the later armies of the Byzantine Empire gained their skill on the battlefield itself, where only the fiercest survived. Counted in their ranks were indeed fierce warriors, but not the expert, seasoned soldier of the legions. It would take over a thousand years before the Roman concept of trained, highly disciplined soldiers would reemerge in Europe in the early seventeenth century, first under Maurice of Orange, the great Dutch leader in the rebellion against the Spanish, and Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish warrior-king. Significantly, the Swedish Articles of War promulgated by Gustavus would explicitly state that “soldiers must dig, when told to do so.” No Roman legionnaire of Marius, or Caesar, or Trajan would have refused to dig when so ordered. For the armies of the Byzantines, or the Arabs, or the medieval Europeans, such orders were not to be taken seriously, if the soldiers were not inclined to dig.
Similarly, the Roman defeat was not the result of superior Gothic cavalry overrunning Roman infantry. Rather, the decisive role of the barbarian horsemen also reflected the mistakes of the Roman commanders. The Battle of Adrianople may have ushered in a period when cavalry dominated the battlefield, as the historian Charles Oman suggests, but that domination was the inevitable result of the lack of discipline among infantry that precluded their standing firm in the face of cavalry charges. Horses will not charge into a line of infantry that holds its ground. But once the cohesion of an infantry formation breaks, it becomes a mob of individuals, each fair game for charging horsemen.
Adrianople taught those who guided the policies of the Eastern Roman Empire the crucial lesson—the new reality—of the fragility of military power. And on that lesson the survival of the empire depended for the next millennium. Thus, the Byzantine strategic approach for the remainder of the Eastern Empire’s existence emphasized the diplomatic and manipulative aspects of foreign policy. In fact, one might suggest that the Byzantine Empire invented the concept of strategy. Those who led the empire in succeeding centuries maintained their control over their territory by a mixture of diplomacy, outright bribery, and military power, but war was always their least preferred choice, a last resort, which they exercised only when no other option existed and the survival of the empire depended on military force alone. But in terms both of the resources available and their understanding of the relative strategic weakness of their power, they used force with the utmost discretion.
We might note in conclusion that the survival of the Byzantine Empire was, of course, essential to the future of Western civilization. For the military reformers of the seventeenth century, the Byzantines transmitted the fundamental secrets of Roman military power. In terms of developing military formations that marched in step and could maneuver fluidly on the battlefield, the military reformers of seventeenth-century Europe drew on ancient Roman military texts for the commands that still echo today on the parade grounds of Western armies and those trained in its traditions.
Of course, the transmission of Greek and Roman culture was the greater gift the Eastern Roman Empire provided Western civilization—that, and the fact that the Byzantine Empire served as the great bulwark that prevented the spread of Islamic conquests from the Middle East into a nascent and vulnerable European civilization just emerging from the Dark Ages. But it depended for survival on a combination of force, policy, and strategy very different from the raw military power of the legions that had gone down to their last defeat at Adrianople.