On this day in 378, Roman Emperor Valens and 20,000 heavily-armed Legionnaires set off on an 8 mile (13km) march towards Adrianople, a large settlement in Western Turkey. Their target was an encampment of 20,000 Goths – Germanic nomads from Eastern Europe – who had been causing trouble in the Empire for a number of years. Valens’ task was to eliminate the “barbarians”, or, at the very least, drive them from his lands for good.
Camped high on a hill, Gothic scouts spotted the Roman column from far out and immediately alerted their leader, Fritigern (“Peace-Desirer”). Initially, the Goths attempted to negotiate: both sides had hostages who could be exchanged, Fritigern argued, and bloodshed could be avoided. As the negotiations dragged on, however, Valens’ Legionnaires grew restless; many of them, worn down from months of hard campaigning, were hungry for violence. Suddenly, a mass of Roman infantry pressed forward in a headlong dash towards Fritigern’s wagon circle, where the Gothic women and children rested. Talks immediately broke down and Fritigern called his men to arms. Narrowly managing to hold back the first Roman assault in vicious hand-to-hand combat, the enraged defenders were soon joined by a force of Gothic heavy cavalry. Soon, Valens’ over-eager Legionnaires had been boxed into a small frontage at the base of a steep hill; unable to maneuver effectively in their heavy armour, men began to throw down their weapons and flee. The rest of the Roman force quickly followed suit, and many – including Valens himself – were cut down by the vengeful Gothic fighters.
So what happened next?
The catastrophic failure of Rome’s “unbeatable” Legions at Adrianople had far-reaching (if not immediately obvious) consequences for the remnants of the Empire. Rome’s territory – split into the Eastern and Western Empires 100 years earlier – was increasingly beset by economic and strategic challenges. Over-extended and running low on able-bodied workers, Rome was increasingly threatened by nomadic “barbarians” from Northern Europe and the Eurasian steppes. Ironically, the Goths – who had been permitted entry into the Empire to help defend it against the forces of Attila the Hun – proved the most significant challenge to the once-mighty Empire. The loss of Valens and his Legions at Adrianople, many of whom had been donated from Western Rome, meant that the Empire could no longer effectively defend itself. By 476 CE, Rome finally fell to outside forces, powerless in the face of the Hungarian Odoacer and his hordes of Northern European troops. The Western Roman Empire had finally come to an end, marking a shift in power towards the near Middle East and Rome’s remaining Eastern half, known later on as Byzantium. Perhaps Valens’ greatest mistake was his underestimation of the “savage” nomads that threatened Rome. In the ensuring centuries, the nomadic horse-trading peoples of the East – from the Turkic Khazars to the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan – would play a decisive role in deciding the balance of power across all of Eurasia.