Battle of Adrianople

The Gothic victory at the Battle of Adrianople showed the Roman military’s combat deficiencies. The victory of the Goths was due to their effective employment of cavalry against the Roman infantry. This Gothic victory paved the way for more German incursions, initiating a domino effect that ended Roman imperial dominance in Western Europe.

War of Adrianople, sometimes written Hadrianopolis, (Aug. 9, ad 378), battle fought in present-day Edirne, in European Turkey, resulting in the defeat of a Roman army commanded by Emperor Valens by Visigoths headed by Fritigern and bolstered by Ostrogothic and other reinforcements. It marked the beginning of substantial Germanic incursions into Roman territory and was a key success for barbarian cavalry over Roman troops.

The decisive loss of Emperor Valens at Adrianople by the Goths demonstrated the Romans’ susceptibility to “barbarian” invasion. Since the Battle of Cannae, historian Ammianus Marcellinus stated, “there has never been such bloodshed.” However, the eastern Roman Empire survived and battled back after this catastrophe.

In August 378 C.E., the rebellious Goths fought against a Roman army dispatched to put down the revolt. The real battle took place around 13 kilometers from Adrianople, modern-day Edirne, along the confluence of the Greek, Bulgarian, and Turkish borders west of Istanbul. The fight was fought between the field army of the Eastern Roman Empire, commanded by Emperor Flavius Valens, and a mixed Gothic army, with the Tervingi tribe under Fritigern as its nucleus, reinforced by Greuthungi led by Alatheus and Saphrax and other Gothic tribes.

In 376 C.E., the Romans and Goths signed a pact that allowed the Goths to reside within the Roman Empire, but the Goths rebelled due to Roman mistreatment. Valens planned to terminate the threat posed by the Goths. Still, he struck early based on false intelligence reports regarding the Goths’ numerical inferiority, without waiting for the Western Roman army led by Emperor Gratian to arrive. The Roman army was decisively beaten in the fight. Two-thirds of the Roman army, around 15,000 men, including Valens, were slaughtered.

These were the Gothic Cavalrymen.

At Adrianople, the Gothic troops were prepared with heavy cavalry. The Gothic cavalrymen were mounted on sturdy horses capable of supporting their weight and body armor. The horses of the Gothic period had body armor to defend them from various weapons. Since their armored horses were more resistant to debilitating wounds, the Gothic riders were more ready to close with the enemy and deploy their preferred weapon, the thrusting spear. The tactics of the Gothic cavalry were critical at the Battle of Adrianople.

Analysis of the Battlefield and Tactics

During the midday heat of July, sections of both Roman armies marched toward the Goths. Valens chose to launch a decisive fight before Gratian’s arrival because he was seeking all the glory and an erroneous survey led him to believe that only half of the Gothic troops were present.

The Battle of Adrianople progressed in phases. The Romans initially moved in columns towards the Gothic camp. As the Roman army advanced, the Goths formed a defensive posture, surrounding their wagons into laagers to shield their women and children. Soldiers protected the impromptu defense.

Second, the Roman army suffered from heat fatigue, dehydration, and hunger. A ceasefire was being discussed in the absence of the Gothic horsemen when a chaotic charge by Roman cavalry units precipitated a broad military confrontation.

Third, following the failure of the Roman cavalry attack, the Gothic cavalry unexpectedly returned from a foraging excursion and furiously charged the Roman right flank, resulting in the deaths of many Roman troops. As other returning Gothic cavalry arrives, they ferociously attack the Romans’ unprotected left flank. Simultaneous cavalry charges from both flanks completely shattered the Roman lines.

After the Roman cavalry has been driven off the battlefield in disorder, the Gothic cavalry continues to attack the wings of the Roman infantry, quickly enveloping and destroying the Roman center. About two-thirds of the Roman army perished on the hot summer battlefield, including Valens, whose body was never located.

Impact and Importance of the Battlefield

Even though the Battle of Adrianople was momentous due to Rome’s defeat, the significance of the struggle was on the future of warfare. From the commencement of western warfare until the battle of Adrianople, infantrymen armed with clubs, swords, and spears dominated the European battlefield. A small number of mounted warriors were engaged directly against enemy troops, and cavalrymen were used for infrequent strikes, flank protection, and reconnaissance missions.

With the Gothic triumph at Adrianople, this battlefield strategy shifted. The Gothic cavalrymen were the ancestors of the medieval knights and many cavalry groups that dominated European battlefields for the following thousand years. Only until the English longbow archers beat the French cavalrymen at Crecy (1346 CE) and Agincourt (1415 CE) did the cavalry tactics of Adrianople begin to fade from many European battlefields. Similar movements and tactics were reborn in the 20th century when armored mechanized cavalry supplanted horse cavalry on the ground and in the air.

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