Posts Tagged ‘Battle of Adrianople’

The Battle of Adrianople

July 16, 2017

The fall of the Roman Empire in 476 (or at least the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire, the eastern half survived  for a millennium after the “fall”) is one of the historical events which has attracted a lot of attention at least since Edward Gibbon’sThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and probably since the Empire actually fell. All sorts of explanations have been given as the reason for the fall of the Roman Empire; moral decay, civic disengagement on the part of the political elite, the unworldliness of Christianity, even the lead pipes used in Roman plumbing. While these explanations have some merit, in the end the Roman Empire fell because of bad decisions made by several Emperors as well as bad choices made by generations of ordinary Romans. There was nothing inevitable or preordained about the fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire could have stood by centuries longer than it did, or it could have fallen centuries earlier. One of the decisions that, if it did not lead inevitably to the fall of the empire, at least weakened the Roman state and led to the destruction of the Roman army, was the decision by the Emperor Valens to admit the entire nation of the Germanic Visigoths into the Roman Empire, and several subsequent decisions by Valens which led to catastrophe.

Valens was the brother of the Emperor Valentinian I, who came to power in the year 364. By this time, the challenges of ruling the Roman Empire had become so great that it was believed one man could not possibly rule the entire empire alone and as often as not, an emperor would have one or more co-emperors to help manage the burden, and so Valentinian made his brother co-emperor shortly after his own accession to the throne. Valentinian kept control of the western half of the Empire for himself and put Valens in charge of the eastern half. In the year 375, Valens learned that a vast number of Visigoths had appeared on the Roman borders at the Danube.

Valens

The Visigoths were one of a number of German barbarians who lived beyond the Roman borders along the Rhine and Danube rivers. This border was always Rome’s greatest security threat, since the Germans often invaded Roman territories seeking plunder. The Roman legions had a difficult time repelling these raids and they were never able to actually conquer Germany because of the thick forests and fierce inhabitants. It was in the provinces along this border that were the most heavily defended in the Empire and where most of the legions were stationed. Of course, the relations between the Romans and the Germans were not invariably hostile. There was much trade across the borders and over time the Germans came to appreciate Roman civilization and even began to emulate the Romans. The Romans even hired Germans as mercenaries for their armies as Rome’s population began to decline and Romans became disinclined to join the army. Sometimes barbarians would be permitted to settle depopulated territories within the Empire, where they quickly became assimilated.

As it happened, the Visigoths did not come as invaders, but as refugees. The Huns had emerged from Central Asia and had invaded the Goths’ homelands in what is now the Ukraine. The Huns had already conquered the Visigoth’s kinsmen the Ostrogoths, and the Visigoths had decided that they would rather seek refuge inside Roman territory and become Romans themselves than be subjects of the Huns.

Valens was preparing for a war with the Persians, Rome’s traditional enemy to the east and he was delighted with the idea of filling the ranks of his army with trustworthy Visigoths, so he gave permission for some of the Visigoths who had been allies of Rome to enter. Because most of his troops were in Syria for the proposed war, there weren’t enough Romans in the area to properly supervise the crossing of the Danube and before long the entire Visigothic nation was settling in Roman territory. This might not have been a problem if the Gothic refugees had been properly handled. The Visigoths may have been barbarians but they were not strangers to the Romans. Many of these Goths had served in the Roman army and were familiar with the Roman Empire and its customs. Probably a great many of these barbarians spoke Latin or Greek. They were eager to become a part of the Roman Empire and if the Romans had settled them in the more depopulated regions of the Balkans and given them land to farm, while recruiting their young men for the army, the Visigoths would have a valuable asset to Rome.

That is not what the Romans did. The Imperial officials in charge of handling relations with the Goths were corrupt, greedy, and incompetent. They disarmed the Visigoths and settled them in refugee camps. The Emperor Valens had promised to distribute food to the Visigoths until they could provide for themselves, but these officials withheld the provisions to sell to the Goths at such exorbitant prices that they were obliged to sell their children into slavery to eat. The Romans made it clear that the Goths were barbarians who could never expect to become really Roman.

Naturally, the Goths were not inclined to put up with this treatment. They rose up in rebellion in 377 and defeated the Roman troops in the region. Now the Roman Empire had an enemy within its borders. The Gothic army won further victories against the local Roman forces and soon controlled much of the province of Thrace. Valens had to call off his war with the Persians and march west with his army to fight the Goths. Meanwhile, the Western Emperor Gratian, who had assumed the throne upon the death of his father Valentinian, prepared to march east to assist his uncle. By the summer of 378, Valens was ready to launch a campaign to subdue the Goths.

By August 9, 378 Valens’s army had caught up with the Visigoths outside the city of Adrianople. The Visigoths had camped on a hill with their wagons drawn up in a circular corral, rather like the settlers during an Indian attack in an old western. The Romans seemed to outnumber the Goths and the Gothic cavalry was off raiding. It seemed that the Romans would win an easy victory. Valens’s generals advised him to wait for Gratian’s reinforcements before engaging the Goths, but Valens didn’t want to share the credit for the expected victory with his nephew. Valens led his army out to meet the Goths.

Adrianople

The Gothic leaders were aware of their precarious position so they sent envoys out to parley with Valens hoping to buy time until their cavalry returned. The Roman soldiers, already tired after a seven hour march now had to stand at attention in the hot sun while their Emperor negotiated. Eventually the Romans had had enough and began to attack the Goths without waiting for orders. At first it seemed that the Romans would win the easy victory they expected, but the Goths pushed back their first assault. As the Romans were reorganizing for another attack, the Gothic cavalry returned from their raiding. The cavalry managed to surround the tired and thirsty Romans and the Roman army was routed.

The Battle of Adrianople

This was one of the worst disasters in the entire history of the Roman Army. The core of the East Roman Army, the best and most experienced soldiers who were led by the Emperor was destroyed and the Emperor Valens was killed. This was not the end of the Roman Empire. The Goths lacked the siege equipment to capture Adrianople and Valens’s successor, Theodosius I, slowly rebuilt the Roman Army and managed to defeat the Goths, ending the war on much the same terms as they had agreed to when they first entered the Empire. Yet, it was never the same afterwards. The myth of the invincibility of the Roman Army was shattered. The Romans had been defeated before and the Empire has been invaded many times, but always before the legions had managed to triumph in the end. After Adrianople, Rome was never entirely in control of its territory. In 410 these Visigoths sacked Rome and in 418 they established themselves as an independent kingdom in Gaul.

I can’t but wonder if there is some parallel between Valens’s incompetent handling of the Visigoths and some policies followed by present day leaders in Europe. They have permitted large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East to come into Europe to alleviate a post-war shortage of labor, but they didn’t try very hard to assimilate them. Instead they made it clear that these Muslims would never really be French or German etc. Naturally the immigrants started to resent this and sought refuge in their religion, increasingly radical forms of Islam. It hasn’t helped that Europe’s intellectual elite has since lost all confidence in their own Western Civilization and are now inclined to appease the Muslim minority, no matter how outrageous their demands, thus earning the contempt of the Muslim minority. Is there a twenty-first equivalent of the Battle of Adrianople in the near future?


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