According to Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman soldier and historian who served at the scene under emperor Valens, the mid-fourth century AD had been pretty lousy for the roughly 60,000 Visigoth and Ostrogoth tribal folk living in the region just north of the Black Sea, around the fertile lands surrounding the Sea of Azov. By this point the Gothic tribes had settled into a fairly stable form of agricultural and craft society. They were particularly renowned for their metalwork and steel, which surpassed the skill of the Roman smiths in the south. By roughly 340-360, the Goths were on good relations with their neighbors to the West, the Alans (or Allemani, ’all- men’), and to the East, the Avars and Getans. In fact, it seems the Goths in the region up to this point actually acted as a buffer between the Romans along the Southern portion of the Black Sea and the nomadic tribes which circulated in the Caspian and Urals regions.
That societal stability and military equilibrium shifted radically around 376 AD. Things had been all quiet on the Western Front so-to-speak since the reign of Diocletian (285-305). Rome’s imperial talons had been specifically retracted in many regions, particularly the volatile regions of northern Gaul and Eastern Germania, so that her borders were not so hopelessly far-flung. Italy, after all, by the early 4th c. was having difficulty feeding herself while paying for ever-extending fortifications, patrols, legions, logistics and recruits. However, from 305 – 375, Rome’s far more pressing problem had been the Persian encroachment on the newly established Constantinople (324-360). Conditions for Ostrogothic refugees, then, must have been the last thing Emperor Valens would have been concerned with as dispatches began to trickle in from the north, informing him thousands of refugees were crossing through Odessa en route to the Danube River.
Why precisely the Visigoths undertook this sudden migration is unclear: no written record of their movements were kept until they settled into Northern Spain more than a century later, and even then the histories were written by others (Saint Isidore of Seville wrote one such treatise). At the time, the generals were convinced a new threat had swept down on the Goths from the Kazakh region, forcing them into flight – the Scythians (the Roman name for the Huns) were a popular scapegoat at the time. However, archeological research in the region is ongoing, and others have rejected the Huns as a Prime Mover during the period, suggesting instead the Goths might have simply been looking for better soil, access to other trade goods or more forgiving climates. Whatever the reasons, Valens was uninterested in trouble, occupied as he was the Persian menace. He ordered his administrators at the emplacement on the Danube Delta (now Tulcea, Romania) to provide what material relief they could and to allow the Goths full asylum, provided their men agree to help fight the Persians.*
(…see I always had this image in my head of Rome’s destruction. The screaming frenzy of the barbarian hordes hurtling out of the dark misty forests of the north while the chargers of the nomads galloped in from the east, both finally casting long shadows against the white marble of Rome with their torches…turns out no serious historian has believed that for a century…)
the Visigoth migration might have gone swimmingly but for a few corrupt
Roman border clerks who began demanding payment (in metals or even slave
-children) before any food or asylum was dispensed. There are even indications they sold the starving refugees massing on the northern shore of the Danube dog meat and pig feed as food. Valens
had ordered food and blankets be dispensed as gesture of goodwill
and to ensure loyalty from the Gothic leaders if push came to shove with the Persians. Instead, thanks to timeless old fashioned small-town corruption, he soon had thousands of very pissed off Goths on his hands – men, women and children – all lead by two warrior-kings, Fritigern
. The Goths were escorted south to Marcianople, the regional military headquarters in Thrace
, in preparation for their permanent re-settlement by Valens. However by now the Goth men were furious, as food for their starving and tired families had still not been delivered as promised. A Roman general, Lupicinus
, tried to placate the leaders of the tribe by throwing a feast, but the families were left outside the city gates and went still unfed. The Gothic leaders were only further enraged; fighting broke out on both sides of Marcianople’s walls and the Romans barely managed to eject the Gothic leaders from the city now surrounded by thousands of starving, betrayed Goths, who soon fled into the hills around the Dobrudja
For two years they held up, hunting and fishing, rejecting Roman decrees that they leave the area and relocate to Asia Minor
. The Goths realized emperor Valens wanted to use them as a buffer between Constantinople and Persia, and most likely came to the conclusion they’d rather chew glass, i.e. take their chances as ‘rebels
’. This was all well and good until Valen
s himself, with 40,000 elite legion
shock-troops, showed up to read the Goths an ultimatum at Adrianople. In the late summer of 378, on the dusty wind-swept plain north of the fortress-town, Valens read his terms to the Visigoth
chieftain, Alavivus. Negotiations went badly as the Goths no longer trusted any of the Roman proposals, and talks broke off. The next day, the Roman phalanx
es began to move across the plain toward the Visigoth encampment
. Thick plumes of dust spiraled around the formations as they began to move forward, emperor Valens on horseback at their center. Skirmishes began along the front line; the Roman infantry closed ranks and pressed forward, not mindful they’d shifted all their strength for a full frontal assault on the Gothic rebel camp.
Only when the first Romans forded the river at the plains’ edge and were at the camp walls did they realize there was no one there; the campfires burning untended. The dust clouds kicked up by 40,000 soldiers crossing sparse, dry ground made it difficult to see back far enough in the lines to see what was happening as each new line of troops pressed onward like lemmings. By then it was too late; Visigoth cavalry charged out of the tree line to the east and west, and in pincer fashion tore into the weakened, unprepared Roman flanks. Spearmen and swordsman soon followed, wielding iron
blades far stronger than the common Roman bronze
armor. The most elite force of the Eastern Empire was decimated, two-thirds slain outright, and Emperor Valens
himself was slain. However, the Visigoths never moved against Adrianople
itself. Alavivus, despite his disgust with the Roman treachery, is said to have told his troops,
“Our people attack armies, not cities. We have no quarrel with walls.”
That exchange of military service for land had been used by Romans to conscript for their border armies since Marcus Aurelius
settled with the Quadians almost two centuries earlier.
Sources: Ammianus Marcellinus
, XXXI, 1-19; A. A. Vasiliev, The Goths in the Crimea
(Cambridge, 1936); H. Wolfram, History of the Goths
(Berkeley, 1988); Roger Collins, Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000
(McMillan, 1991); Ancient History Sourcebook