"Nor, except the battle of Cannae, is so destructive a slaughter recorded in our annals" - the Battle of Adrianople in 378

9 August 378, Valens and his Roman Army of Thrace was decisively defeated by a federation of Steppe tribes led by Fritigern and his Thervingian Goths in the Battle of Adrianople, present-day Edirne in Turkey.

"Many illustrious men fell in this disastrous defeat ... Scarcely one-third of the whole army escaped. Nor, except the battle of Cannae, is so destructive a slaughter recorded in our annals; though, even in the times of their prosperity, the Romans have more than once had to deplore the uncertainty of war, and have for a time succumbed to evil Fortune." (Ammianus Marcellinus)

Detail of a Roman sarcophagus, showing Roman infantry fighting heavy cavalry from the Steppe 
(late 2nd / early 3rd century CE) 

Coming from Scandinavia, the vagina nationes, womb of nations, King Berig landed his Goths in three longboats on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea and sent his tribe forth to write history, first in present-day Poland, later, migrating up the river Vistula into the Pontic-Caspian steppe, to become a terror of the Romans along the Danube, forming a great nation under their King Ermanaric, ruling “all the nations of Scythia and Germania” until internal strife tore the Gothic Kingdom apart and then the Huns invaded, in 376. Ermanaric committed suicide before he had to witness the end of his empire. It was the beginning of the migration period, the Völkerwanderung, that would turn the ancient world upside down. Or so the master storyteller Jordanes tells us, unfortunately the only source we have from the early centuries of Gothic history and most of it is just that. A tall tale. The Germanic tribes east of the River Elbe and North of the Danube obviously were continuously resettling the region and probing the Roman frontiers along with the locals, first in Eastern Central Europe and from the 2nd century onwards along the Rhine and began to form new federations out of various old tribal structures, the Marcomanni, Franks, Alemanni and, in all probability the Goths in the Eurasian Steppe after the Romans further destabilised the region with Trajan’s conquest of Dacia, present-day Romania, around 100 CE. “Goth” seems to have been either a name for a new confederation of various Germanic settlers migrating in from the north with a “Gothic” core from the Vistula and hardly any Scandinavian influence at all and mingling with the local Sarmatians and Scythians. Maybe it was even a honorific title given to a newly formed elite with no tribal background at all. However, the Goths adopted a lot of customs from their semi-nomadic new neighbours and predecessors, husbandry, seafaring and raiding on the Black Sea, and their way to fight from horseback, with mounted archers and a core of heavily armed and armoured nobles. And they did indeed become a terror of the Romans and the provinces along the Danube during the crisis of the 3rd century when their empire almost collapsed around their civilised ears. However, things were somewhat stabilised with various reforms and reorganisations from Diocletian to Constantine and the situation along the lower course of the Danube had degenerated into the usual frontier fighting between the Romans and the tribes north of the river and Gothic warbands were either raiding or fighting for the emperors as foederati. The arrival of the tribes from the Central Asian Steppe around 370, commonly known as the Huns, proved to be a game changer, though. Parts of the Gothic tribes, taken together as Greuthungi, “steppe” or “beach dwellers”, later known as Ostrogoths, mostly joined the Huns while others, mainly the western groups, among them two of the Thervingi, the forest-dwellers, under their reiks, petty-kings, Alaviv and Fritigern, chose to flee along with across the Great River in 376 and seeking asylum in the Roman territories of Thrace.

The French painter  Évariste Vital Luminais' (1822–1896) somewhat Romantic imagination of
"Goths crossing a River"

Emperor Valens actually had his hands full with keeping the Sassanid Persians out of Roman Armenia when the Thervingi crossed the Danube with the Huns breathing down their necks. He had fought Fritigern’s rival Athanaric, reiks of another group of Thervingi, during a more or less successful punitive expedition into Dacia in the 360s, earning him the somewhat pretentious title of “Gothicus Maximus”. Valens supported Fritigern in his rivalry against Athanaric and chose to employ his people as foederati to secure the frontier against anything else that might come across the river at a later date. The Roman officials in Thrace had not reckoned with the large number of fugitives they had to support and supply all of a sudden, though. Along with Alans and several groups of Greuthungi and Huns, many of Athanric’s Thervingi had joined Fritigern and Alaviv instead of trying to stay at home in Dacia with their reiks. Since Fritigern was supposed to defend the Roman frontier, his warriors kept their arms and his warbands remained intact, not that the Thracian administration had the means to disarm them anyway. They had, however, a time-honoured method of dealing with fugitives and pulling out their claws, such as interning them and their families in the worst imaginable places, delaying supplies to the point of starvation and wearing them down with the full array of bureaucracy an empire can bring to bear. The Therwingi and their allies began to get restless and then Valens’ lord lieutenant in Thrace, one Flavius Lupicinus, came up with the mother of all plans. He invited the Therwingi leaders to a banquet to discuss matters and tried to murder them and the diplomatic genius bungled even this barbaric attempt to get the situation along the frontier in hand. Alaviv died but Fritigern could escape, the Therwingi now revolted in earnest and began to plunder the Roman Balkan region. Valens hurried west from Antioch, gathered his Army of Thrace and ordered his co-emperor Gratian to bring troops from Gaul, which promptly caused an invasion of Alemanni in Alsace. Valens decided to strike against Fritigern anyway.

An imagination of how Valens' Army of Thrace might have looked around 380 CE

Early in August of the year 378, the emperor and his army, of about 30,000 men with a core of late Roman heavy infantry, skirmishers and maybe 5,000 horse arrived on the scene and expected Fritigern to have 10,000 men fielded against them. 25,000 was nearer the mark though, and after having his troops quick-marched with full field pack and equipment through the Thracian summer heat over 10 miles, the Romans met the tribal alliance of Therwingi, Greuthungi, Huns and Alans near Adrianople, their foot neatly laagered in the centre of the field in a wagenburg-like arrangement and their impressive cavalry, many of them in full Sarmatian-style heavy armour, arranged on both wings. Fritigern still tried to negotiate with Valens, but some bustling Roman junior cavalry officers, probably eager to get mentioned in despatches or by Ammianus Marcellinus, opened hostilities on the right wing while the Roman infantry they were tasked to protect was just about to get from marching into battle formation. With the wind blowing into the Roman lines, Fritigern’s men set the grass in front of their laager on fire and while the legionaries began to choke on the smoke, the steppe cavalry charged on both flanks and wiped the Roman horsemen from the field and promptly fell into Valens’ flanks. The legionaries had tried to assault the laager over the charred ground, arrived completely exhausted from heat, smoke and thirst and were beaten back by the tribesmen and then their horse was upon them and the slaughter began. Allegedly, two-thirds of Valens’ Army of Thrace was cut up, crushed, choked and trampled to death. And, quoting Ammianus Marcellinus, Jordanes tells us: ” The Emperor himself was wounded and fled to a farm near Adrianople. The Goths, not knowing that an emperor lay hidden in so poor a hut, set fire to it (as is customary in dealing with a cruel foe), and thus he was cremated in royal splendor.” Contemporary Ammianus himself saw the Battle of Adrianople as the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire as he knew it. And indeed, a generation later in 410, one of Fritigern’s successors in leading the tribal formation now known as Visigoths, one Alaric, plundered Rome itself, while heavily armoured cavalry would dominate European battlefields for the next 1000 years.

Befittingly bushy-bearded Gothic heavies charging 

And more about the Battle of Adrianople on: