The battle of Adrionople was a pivotal battle in the history of the Roman Empire. Not only did it mark the end of Romans being top dog, it also marked the beginning of a new era of warfare, an era that would last for another thousand years: the era of cavalry.
We all know and love the Roman legions. After all, they formed the basis of military tradition that we follow to this very day. An Army Ranger would find himself quite at home in a Roman Legion. Drill Sergeants, NCO’s, douche bag officers, motivational marches and really bad food. However, this battle was the start of Medieval warfare and also the Medieval society that slowly formed over the next two hundred years.
To say that the Battle of Adrionople was a disaster would be like saying “The Black Plague made you feel kind of under the weather.” The Empire was already in a decline at this point, but it wasn’t beyond saving by any means. Rome was still the main Super Power around and could still (with a bit of difficulty) amass large armies that could school anyone around. As stated in a previous post of mine where I described the three eras of the Roman Legions, we are now firmly in the Late Roman era. 378 AD to be precise. (I have a bad habit of forgetting to post dates.) Long gone is the awesome, mass produced plate armor called the “Lorica Segmentata.”
Though the military power of Rome had slipped, it was still the biggest boy on the block and still had the hotly forged tradition and training of their ancestors.
But there was one problem: barbarians. Germanic barbarians were moving in on Roman territory, not learning Latin, celebrating Cinco De Mayo and playing obnoxious Ranchero music. The Roman Emperor gave them amnesty and let them move in. However, the local governors were like any other politicians, greedy, cruel and corrupt. They swindled and treated poorly the barbarian guests and to no one’s surprise, the Barbarians rebelled and began looting and breaking store windows all over the Balkans. The Empire was divided into East and West and in theory acted as one Empire. Well, it looked good on paper but the two Empires were drifting apart. So, the Eastern emperor Valens asked Gratian, the Western Emperor to come and help out. Gratian had other things to do like wash his hair and take out the garbage but he eventually got his boys together and started marching east to help out the Eastern Empire.
Sounds like a good plan, right? Two massive armies ganging up on a pitiful barbarian tribe. Good plan, yup! Good plan.
Valens growing impatient and wanting the glory for himself, decided to go on without Gratian. His army of about 50,000 found the Goth’s encampment of about 60,000. (battles in Antiquity were on a MUCH larger scale than most Medieval battles which only had a few hundred to a few thousand combatants at most.) So, the two forces were more or less evenly matched. The Romans had armor, training and sound military strategy and the Goths had black trench coats, black hair, pale skin and listened to Death Metal.
The Goths made their camps with all their wagons in a great circle and made a kind of fort from where they’d charge out and attack their enemies. Also, their camp was on top of a hill and the Romans had just finished a hard march. If I was facing an equal force but they were encamped and had the high ground, I think I’d have second thoughts and maybe either try to lure them off the high ground or come back at a better time. Shame that they didn’t have Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The Chinese General would be rolling in his grave because Valens chose to attack. He didn’t see the Gothic cavalry so he thought he was safe. He hadn’t properly scouted the enemy out. Custer would make the same mistake 1200 years later.
The Romans charged up the hill and got promptly pushed back. It wasn’t really going well for the Romans but matters weren’t improved when the Gothic cavalry suddenly came back and attacked the Roman flanks. This pushed the Romans together in tighter formations. Then the Gothic infantry came out of their circled wagons and surrounded the entire Roman army. The Roman cavalry was too weak to fend off the Gothic cav, a mistake the Byzantines and Western Europe learned from. However, it didn’t save the Romans now and once they were completely surrounded (a feat that few armies have ever accomplished btw.) they were completely slaughtered and Valens was killed unceremoniously and no one really knows what happened to him. Aside from one incompetent politician, the Empire lost almost all of their veterans. This had unseen and very dire consequences for the Empire. Without the knowledge and experience of the veterans, the Romans had to rely on outdated and incomplete military manuals. They never fought the same and their training and doctrine never recovered. Also, the loss of manpower could not be replaced and this forced the Empire to recruit from the very people that were destroying the Empire from the outside and inside. The Empire never recovered. Rome was on the defensive for the remainder of its history.
With the rise of heavy cavalry, more land and money was required to train and equip each cavalry soldier so their status increased as did their pay. This led to a higher class of cavalry soldiers that would eventually become mounted knights and define the Middle Ages.
It is rumored in the ancient Chronicles that the Goths celebrated their victory by listening to “Cradle of Filth” and getting some wicked skull tattoos.