The worst military defeat that Roman forces suffered after the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest in 9 A.D. was the disaster at Hadrianople in 378. Both of these crushing defeats occurred at the hands of Germanic tribes. In the former battle, the emperor Augustus was haunted by the loss of three entire legions in the swampy German forests. He could never really bring himself to accept it.
But unlike the Teutoberg Forest, Hadrianople was not an ambush. It was a situation where bad leadership and tactics combined to produce a total rout. To see how this happened, we must review some factual background.
In the early 370s, the Huns were on the move. They burst out of the steppes of Russia and began to move into Europe. The nations already there–Germans and various other barbarous tribes–came under severe pressure. As the Huns pressured them, they in turn pressed up against Rome’s imperial frontiers all over Europe. The Ostrogoths were overrun, and then the Visigoths. Under the leadership of Athanaric, the Visigoths in 376 asked for permission to move into Roman territory south of the Danube.
The Roman emperor at the time, named Valens, found himself on the horns of a dilemma. Should he let these alien peoples into his realm, or refuse them entry? It was not an easy question. There were about 80,000 Goths, and they were armed and nationally conscious. Rome was a highly organized and administered state, but it is never an easy matter to digest a population of this size all at once.
Eventually the decision was made to let the Goths in. Valens probably thought it was safer to do this than to deal with an expected forced entry. But this turned out to be a fateful mistake. Valens, seeking to placate the Goths and expecting to turn them into peaceful imperial subjects, got neither peace nor gratitude from them.
So the Goths moved into the empire and tried to settle in Lower Moesia (what is now Bulgaria). But things did not go well. Antagonisms developed. The Goths’ expectations were first raised, and then crushed. They began to demand more, and then still more. Roman officials and the existing population were not happy with the new arrivals, either. At some point, the Goths must have decided that they could gain more through force than by request; so they launched an insurrection that developed into a war.
One of the greatest battles of late antiquity was fought on August 9, 378. Things got off to an inauspicious start for the Romans. Valens apparently failed to appreciate how good the Gothic cavalry was, and did little or nothing in the way of reconnaissance before the battle. He was arrogant and eager to show his military prowess to his successful nephew, Gratian. Gratian had had much success in keeping the Germans on their side of the Rhine, and knew how to deal with them. He warned Valens not to engage the enemy until he could come to the Balkans to help him.
But Valens was apparently oblivious to these warnings. He may also have wanted to score all of the glory of an anticipated victory for himself. If so, it was a fatal mistake; for the battle cost him not only his army, but his life.
Our best account of the battle, that provided by Ammianus Marcellinus, leaves much to be desired. But it is clear that the Roman infantry was overwhelmed by the Gothic cavalry, which arrived unexpectedly on the scene after the battle had commenced. For many generations, the Roman infantry had been the backbone of her army. Cavalry existed and was used, of course, but it was primary light cavalry used mostly for reconnaissance and limited flanking actions. So the Romans were unprepared for shock of being hit full-force by heavy cavalry.
The Gothic cavalry was powerfully armed and well-led by its commander, Fritigern. His forces rode right up on the Romans and shattered their ranks, then cut them down piecemeal. It was a terrible spectacle. Gibbon (in Chapter XXVI of his history) provides us the following description:
The event of the Battle of Hadrianople, so fatal to Valens and to the empire, may be described in a few words: the Roman cavalry fled; the infantry was abandoned, surrounded, and cut to pieces. The most skillful evolutions, the firmest courage, are scarcely sufficient to extricate a body of foot, encompassed, on an open plain, by superior numbers of horse; but the troops of Valens, oppressed by the weight of an enemy and of their own fears, were crowded into a narrow space, where it was impossible for them to extend their ranks, or even to use, with effect, their swords and javelins.
And so their died where they stood, packed together and trapped. Valens himself seems to have been wounded and taken to a small hut near the battlefield. But a party of Goths, not knowing who he was, set the structure on fire and incinerated the occupants. The casualties were horrendous: Gibbon claims that they equaled those of Cannae during the Second Punic War. Ammianus agreed with him (Nec ulla, annalibus, praeter Cannensem pugnam ita ad internecionem res legitur gesta. [XXXI.13]).
It is always easy (after the fact of course) to see what a commander should have done, or not done, during a battle. But it is clear that critical mistakes were made before the battle. Valens never should have allowed such a large number of armed foreigners to settle on his lands. His empire was not prepared to handle this volume of displaced persons all at once. Had the resettlement been gradual, things might have been different, but we will never know.
The battle marked the beginning of the primacy of cavalry in European warfare. It would hold this position for a very long time, until infantry armed with effective projectile weapons (e.g., the longbow) could find a way to counter it.
Military errors were made as well. Valens never bothered to scout the area around Hadrianople and locate his enemy’s heavy cavalry. He appears to have had little respect for the Goths and expected them, as barbarians, to behave a certain way. But enemies seldom do what we want them to do. And for this failure of judgment, he paid the ultimate price.
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