The fourth century Hunnic invasion displaced the Goths sending them into the Roman frontier. The Goths begged the Romans for land in return for military service. The Romans rebuffed the Goths leading to a general war. The war culminated at Adrianople. The Eastern Roman Emperor Valens met the enemy and suffered a catastrophic defeat. Interestingly, the Gothic victory at Adrianople marked the beginning of a death spiral for the Western Roman Empire.
By 376 A.D., the Goths were out of options. The Huns pushed the tribe out of their native homeland and into the Eastern Roman Empire. The Emperor Valens allowed the migration across the Danube. After all, the Huns could farm the land, pay taxes, and serve in the military. However, local military commanders showed nothing but contempt for the newcomers. At one point, they coerced the Goths to trade their children for dog meat. Appalled at the Roman betrayal and angry over the children’s fate, the Goths rebelled.
Brutal fighting and stalemate convinced Valens to take the field himself. In 378, the emperor organized for a major campaign against the Goths. He appealed to the Western Emperor Gratian for assistance and troops marched all the way from Gaul. After two years of continued combat, Valens discovered a large mass of Gothic troops near Adrianople. While the army fortified, Gratian fired a letter to Valens requesting the Eastern emperor wait for his arrival so a combined army could pummel the Goths. Valens’ officers agreed with Gratian and implored the emperor to await the western leader’s arrival. However, Valens wanted glory after Gratian and others achieved military victory over the Goths and other tribes. The emperor’s ego refused to wait for reinforcements. For their part, the Goths sent a peace delegation to the emperor, but Valens wrongly believed he vastly outnumbered his enemy. Therefore, the Roman refused to negotiate and rejected Gothic entreaties. In reality, the Goths dramatically outnumbered the Romans. Valens fielded around 30,000 troops against 100,000 Goths. Sheer numbers favored the Goths, but Valens believed math favored the Romans. Imperial arrogance combined with basic arithmetic and poor intelligence to doom Valens.
The Romans set out early on the morning of August 9, 378. After a long seven hour march, they met the enemy. By this point, discipline within the legions disintegrated. The exhausted army decided to initiate hostilities without orders. The Goths set fires to slow the Romans while their cavalry raced to the field to reinforce the infantry. The initial Roman assault failed which demoralized the army. Next, the Goth cavalry arrived to surround the legions creating panic in the Romans. Valens’ force retreated with Goths in pursuit. A general massacre ensued frightening the emperor’s bodyguards. They fled in the face of the barbarians effectively abandoning their charge. A defenseless Valens died in the Gothic onslaught. His ultimate fate is unknown. Some believe he died on the field with his troops. Others claim Valens retreated to a peasant house where the Goths cornered the emperor. According to legend, the Goths torched the cabin leaving the emperor to literally go down in flames.
At Adrianople, Roman casualties exceeded 60%. This figure includes the emperor and many fine officers and imperial administrators. Essentially, the defeat crippled the empire in the short term. Meanwhile, the Western Emperor Gratian panicked in the aftermath. The 19-year-old proved unable to rise to the challenge and the Gothic War continued for another four years. The war devastated the Balkans and demonstrated barbarian forces could defeat the vaunted Roman legion. The Romans managed a Pyrric victory in the Gothic War in 382. However, the defeat at Adrianople and the high casualties accrued in the Gothic War victory created a short-term manpower shortage. Although the Romans eventually overcame this deficiency, the Eastern Empire apparently began to deflect barbarian tribes westward. In the coming century, the Western Roman Empire suffered from successive barbarian invasions which they eventually succumbed. Due to a lower birth rate that occurred in the fifth century, the west could not replace the dead or ward off multiple incursions along the empire’s large porous border.
Valens bungled at Adrianople. Rather than awaiting reinforcements, the emperor decided to battle the Goths alone. The inevitable defeat cost the empire 2/3 of its core force, created a manpower shortage, and proved a propaganda triumph for barbarians around the Roman world. The image of Roman superiority vanished in short order. In the long term, the Eastern and Western Roman Empire drifted apart. The east deflected invaders westward whenever possible. In the end, fifth century barbarian invasions overwhelmed the undermanned west.