With the emperor dead and two thirds of his army destroyed Adrianople was one of the major setbacks in Roman history. In fact it has often been regarded as one of the decisive battles in the decline and fall of the Roman empire. It was certainly regarded as extremely serious by the people at the time. Accounts of the battle and its aftermath take on apocalyptic tones, almost literally so in the case of Saint Jerome. Jerome is recognised as one of the founding fathers of both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. His writing on the issue comes with a rather biblical tone. He describes the entire area of the Balkans being depopulated, not just human beings but animals as well and even the fish in the rivers leaving nothing between the Earth and the sky but barren wasteland. Serious and harrowing stuff indeed.
Aftermath of Adrianople
And it was certainly a major defeat. Very few Roman emperors were ever killed in battle. And with the army destroyed the Goths were free to roam right up to the walls of Constantinople itself, which they were shortly to do. History has found Adrianople a convenient hook on which to hang the tag of decisive. It is often portrayed as the battle which marks the ascendancy of the horseman over the foot soldier. This makes it the transition point between the military tactics of the fading ancient world and the coming medieval one. There has even been suggestions from Isaac Asimov the science fiction writer that the Goths had a technological advantage. They were supposed to have stirrups, giving their riders the ability to use bows on horseback and put more force behind spear thrusts.
This rather appealing theory falls down in the light of archeological evidence, but for the rest Adrianople fits the bill in terms of how things turned out in the century after it took place. The western empire was to collapse completely and was never to be revived. So it has the imprinteur of a major watershed. However it is worth remembering that although it was a major setback, the empire was far from out for the count. The empire still had a population of millions who were available to serve in the army or pay taxes to support the army.
Goths Follow Up to Adrianople
This is borne out by the events immediately following the battle. The Goths had achieved great glory on the field. Their next step was to try and obtain some more tangible reward by capturing the imperial treasure. This was protected by the walls of Adrianople. Fritigern may as well have maintained the peace he had earlier claimed with stone walls. But they were a plucky lot. Having failed to capture a provincial city they decided to try their luck with the capital, and surged south to besiege Constantinople itself. This time they didn’t even have the chance to be beaten by walls. A troop of arab horsemen made a sortie and drove them off.
Having the Balkans in the hands of barbarians was certainly bad, but it was not in itself fatal to the survival of the empire. But there would never be a battle where the legions took their revenge. I think the reason for this is that it was more of a political than a military crisis. There was a vacuum at the top. The western emperor Gratian was only 19 and wasn’t equal to running the whole empire alone. Somebody was needed to replace Valens. It was a problem of legitimacy. Valens had more or less had to go out to fight the Goths because the population was deriding his ability to deal with them. Any successor would have to have a pretty impressive military record just to be taken seriously.
Slaughter of Gothic Youth
We can probably see politics at work in the next event in the saga. One of the conditions of entry to the empire had been that the Goths had to give up their children as hostages for good behaviour. Killing the emperor and most of his army, trying to steal his treasure and attacking Constantinople would tax the most liberal interpretation of the meaning of good behaviour. But as we know from modern day hostage crises, hostages are very valuable as long as they are alive. They can be valuable bargaining chips. An empire on its knees might well have resorted to using the lives of the captive Goths to gain a respite. But in fact they were massacred, in the most public way possible. It suggests that someone was trying to make a point. This wasn’t the emperor’s will – there wasn’t an emperor – it was instigated by an official. This is the kind of thing that happens when there is a power vacuum.
Gratian needed to fill the vacuum before it was filled by someone taking matters into their own hands.
After some deliberation the choice settled on Theodosius. This was the son of the great general Theodosius who had had many successes in various theatres of war in the western empire. In fact he had been so successful he had become a threat to the ruling elite and had been killed. The younger Theodosius was probably lucky to only be orphaned rather than beheaded himself. He retired to the obscurity of his villa in his native Spain and settled down to a life away from the centre of power politics. But he had got more from his father than a famous name. He had been trained in the ways of the camp from an early age and had already distinguished himself in some independent commands. He was therefore the most well known and respected military figure available. This was the sort of person that under normal circumstances no emperor would want anywhere near him. But these were not normal circumstances. With whole provinces overrun, he was the man the hour called for.
And so Theodosius became emperor of the east without opposition and without any effort on his part. Very few holders of the imperial title came to it with such a blameless background and with a reputation ready made for the role. It was the custom when an emperor was proclaimed for the candidate to display a decent reluctance. Theodosius followed this tradition, but it may well have been sincere in his case. He was very ill at the time. He may well have had misgivings about stepping up to the challenge, especially in the circumstances of the time.
If the empire was not short of manpower or resources, it was short of prestige especially on behalf of the ruling classes. The thing he probably most wanted to do, march out to meet the Goths in the field and defeat them, was the one thing he could not do. He could not risk the loss of face of an unsuccessful encounter. I don’t think it is remotely coincidental that the most gruesome accounts talking up the consequences of Adrianople came from Saint Jerome. The organisation that was most ready to step into the power vacuum was the church. Another defeat would strengthen its hand considerably and weaken the power of the emperor still further.
In this sense, Theodosius had the same problem that Valens had had. His room for manoeuvre was curtailed by concern for his own position. We see this in the kind of tactics he employed. Soldiers were kept safe behind fortifications except where there was an excellent prospect of victory in a particular locality. Headquarters were at Thesalonika from where intelligence could gathered and a slow campaign of attrition co-ordinated. The Romans had always included diplomacy as one of their weapons, but with Theodosius we see diplomatic initiatives becoming tightly integrated with military operations. The unity of the Goths was undermined by playing their jealousies and insecurities off against each other. Some were won over to the Roman side by invitations to dine with the emperor in Constantinople. This was a long way from being risk free and was certainly not cowardly. At one point a feud within the Gothic guests broke out into open fighting in the palace in the presence of Theodosius himself.
Campaign Against the Goths
It was a slow and methodical campaign but in the end it bore fruit. In particular one of the major Gothic leaders, the ageing Athanaric, was won other. This may well have been influenced by his amazement at the size and splendour of Constantinople. As well he might have been. It may well have been the biggest city in the world at that time. With this coup the tide had turned decisively in the empire’s favour. The last of the Goths were defeated in a battle on the Danube where their attempt to cross the river was intercepted by a Roman fleet. It had taken four years, but the prudence of Theodosius had repaired the damage caused by the rashness of Valens.
You can follow the whole of my review of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on the History Books Review Podcast.