Since the time of the first emperor. Augustus, there had been a rough equilibrium between the empire and the German tribes. The empire had been too big for the Germans to defeat, but too overextended to threaten their independence. But with the Huns now about to wipe out the Germans the position had changed. The equilibrium was wrecked. The Goths understood the change in the situation sooner than anyone else.
And so occurred an event without any precedent in the preceding history of the empire. The Goths appeared in huge numbers on the banks of the Danube. They were not there as enemies but as homeless refugees seeking shelter. This was the whole nation including the women and children as well as the warriors. They were not yet completely desperate. They had lost their king, but they still had the infant heir to throne. They maintained enough of a political structure to act as a coherent group, with leaders able to negotiate with the Romans. The chief amongst these was the wily and able Fritigern. His connections within the empire inside the empire meant that the way was open to meaningful negotiations with the Romans.
The arrival of the Goths presented simultaneously a great threat and a great opportunity. The numbers involved were estimated to be in the region of a million. How did this compare with the population of the Roman Empire at the time? Its not known with any certainty, and is still being actively researched. A figure of about 120 million at its peak during the period of the five good emperors was Gibbon suggested, and it seems reasonable given that modern estimates come in both higher and lower. This must have reduced somewhat by the fourth century given all the depredations of the barbarians over the previous two hundred years. Adding a million healthy inhabitants, including a large number of able fighters would have strengthened the economy and the power of the empire. And with the depopulation of some regions, it should have been possible to find vacant farmland to accommodate them. So it was potentially a win-win situation for the two parties, and given the ominous shadow cast by the Huns at very timely one. But turning one time enemies into allies is not the easiest of tricks to pull off.
It would have been good at this testing time to have had another emperor with the ability of Augustus on the throne. Had he survived his reckless war with Persia, and lived up to his early promise Julian could well have been such an emperor. He would by now have been a mature and experienced statesman able to make the best of the situation. Even the more down to earth good sense of Valentinian, who knew the Goths well even if he never got on with them as well as Julian, would have stood the empire in good stead. But Valentinian had died the year before. This left the weak and vacillating Valens to handle this subtle and challenging crisis.
Valens was in Antioch keeping watch on the normally threatening Persians. He had the best troops with him to face what on paper was the biggest threat. But the Persians were currently relatively quiet, so Valens was in a strong position. He took the risk and decided to admit the Goths. This was not necessarily a bad decision. The deal was land in return for military service, which met the needs of both parties. Some precautions were to be taken, which again was sensible enough. The condition of admittance was that the Goths should give up their arms – wise if a little impractical. More controversial, the top Goths had to hand over their children as hostages. They were to be dispersed over a wide area of the Eastern half of the empire to guarantee their parents good behaviour. This was harsh, and it shows just how desperate the Goths were that they agreed to it.
As it often is, the devil was in the detail. The Roman empire was run by a large and efficient bureaucracy. But it was also highly corrupt. Officials routinely explored ways that the public administration could serve their private interests. The governors of the two border provinces given charge of the difficult logistical operation to admit the Goths were a good example of this self-serving tradition. They regarded it as primarily a superb opportunity to line their own pockets. The German tribes had been raiding the empire for the previous 150 years. As a result they possessed a lot of portable wealth. The Romans were of course only too well aware that the origin of this loot was the empire itself. A big chunk of it had now returned. The opportunity to get some of it back was just too tempting to ignore.
The first bit of sharp practice the Goths encountered was simple bribery. They were understandably reluctant to hand over their weapons. A sword was the hallmark of a warrior. It was also a considerable investment. It might well be the most expensive individual item a Goth owned. Giving it up was the equivalent of handing over a sports car. But it turned out that the officials charged with removing the weapons could be paid to turn a blind eye.
A more outrageous means of extortion was to prevent the Goths from visiting the normal markets and instead sell them food directly at high prices. This proved to be ruinous to the once proud warriors. Many families were driven to sell the household slaves and even their children. The best prices were to be had for attractive young girls and boys. Slavery is a sordid business. Roman chattel slavery was not much like the plantation slavery we are more familiar with. In important respects it was much less onerous. But it is as well not to be too sentimental about it.
The Goths had no doubt hoped and expected that they would be treated as friends and allies, but instead found themselves rapidly losing cash, family members and as their resources ran out, body weight. Entering the empire wasn’t proving a lot better than simply being massacred by the Huns. Fritigern used his contacts and protested directly to Valens.
The response was to say that the Goths could obtain supplies at the prosperous market town of Marcianople. Valens presumably made this offer in good faith and the hungry Goths proceeded to march to the south to take advantage of it. But it turned out that the locals had other ideas. On arrival, the hungry Goths found the city gate was closed. But the leaders of the Goths including Fritigern himself were invited in to a banquet ostensibly to discuss the situation.
While this was going on, fighting broke out between the Goths and the Roman soldiers guarding the city. Disorder spread and the Gothic guards outside the banqueting hall were attacked. This alerted Fritigern and his party to the precarious situation they were in. They grabbed their swords and they fought their way out. It has a whiff of Hollywood about it, but the story was to have deadly serious consequences. War followed.
The Romans pulled together what troops were to hand and set out to destroy the Goths. A full scale battle ensued outside Marcianople. It was hard fought, but the Romans were overwhelmed by the desperation of the tribesmen. This robbed the Balkans of mobile Roman forces, though the cities could still be and were defended effectively. The Goths were soon to discover this. Fritigern attacked Marcianople without success, and left declaring he was at peace with stone walls.
He might have been at peace with walls, but his hungry followers rapidly extracted what they needed from the countryside. Many of their countrymen who had been sold into slavery were rescued. The stories of the cruelty they had experienced at the hands of their owners enraged the Goths still further. The situation had turned into a major crisis.
Valens was faced with a huge chunk of his empire occupied by angry looters. He was also still far from being considered to have any kind of legitimacy. As he marched into Constantinople with his army he was mocked by the population for failing to maintain order – the most basic requirement of an effective emperor.
As is often the case, politics clouded judgement. The emperor of the West, Gratian, had defeated his own barbarian challenge and was now marching to the aid of Valens. Militarily, this was good news. But it would look like Valens was being rescued. So Valens resolved to personally lead his forces to defeat the Goths himself, without waiting for external support. Fritigern’s approach was realistic. He now had two full scale Roman field armies on his case. Realising his peril, he attempted to open negotiations. But he did so to buy time and to give Valens a false impression of his weakness. In fact while the negotiations were going on fresh Gothic cavalry forces were returning from foraging, making the Goths both more numerous and more mobile than the Romans realised. With confidence, the Romans marched north of Adrianople to seek a battle with what they had good reason to believe was a weak opponent.
This decision has been much criticised, but the Roman army was hardly unused to dealing with this particular enemy. They were good quality veteran troops. With effective leadership they ought to have been able to bring the situation under control. But the weakness seemed to be at the top. The Goths ought to have been at a disadvantage, given that they had no logistical support and so would find it difficult to concentrate their forces. But in Fritigern, they had a leader who unlike the Roman commanders knew how to play the hand he had been given.
Modern estimates put the forces under arms for Valens at about 10,000 foot and 5,000 horse. They were a formidable adversary. But the eagerness with which they sought battle eroded their advantage. To reach the Gothic camp they had marched for hours under hot sun and arrived tired and dehydrated. The attack was made with some disorder. Fritigern had burnt crops to distract the Romans with smoke. He also once again opened negotiations, which again bought him some valuable time. In fact it did better than that. The soldiers on the Roman side got frustrated by the inactivity and attacked without orders.
The attack on their camp was held off by the desperation of the Goths who were defending both their own lives and those of their wives and children. The Romans were thrown back and lost their formation. It was then that disaster struck. Some 5,000 Gothic horsemen arrived and fell on the Romans. It rapidly became a rout with the Romans easy game for the fresh and mobile mounted warriors. Valens himself escaped from the field and took refuge in a cottage. The Goths, unaware of who was inside the building, burnt it down depriving themselves of an historic prize.