Military Heritage June 2001
The Terror of the Goths
The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople, August 9, 378 AD
By Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
“In 376 AD the Goths appeared on the lower Danube frontier of the Roman Empire. They came as a whole tribe, with warriors, women and children. They came on foot, on horse-back, and in lumbering ox-drawn wagons, refuges on the retreat from a foe even fiercer than themselves. They came knocking on the Roman door.”
Under the leadership of Fritigern and Alavivus, the Goth tribe of the Tervingi petitioned the Romans for refuge. The Romans accepted their pleas…
“The Tervingi crossed the Danube on boats and rafts made up of tree trunks. Heavy rains had swollen the river and not a few Goths drowned in its ice-cold torrents. The barbarians endured a bitter winter. Not only were Roman food supplies barely adequate but the corrupt Roman count of Thrace, Lupicinus used the supplies destined for the Goths to run a black market. The barbarians were reduced to starvation and forced to barter the favors of their women and sell their children into slavery in return for dog meat dished out by the Romans.”
Lupicinus invited Fritigern and Alavivus to Marcianople for a dinner conference…
“While the chiefs’ honor guard remained outside the palace, Fritigern and Alavivius pleaded their case to Lupicinus. Of the two, Alavivius was probably the most vocal. Meanwhile, outside the city, Roman soldiers kept the hungry Tervingi multitude away from the city’s walls. The barbarians soon turned unruly.
“Inside the palace, Lupicinus seemed drowsy after luxurious meal followed by a noisy floor show. Yet when he heard of the troubles outside the city, he suddenly ordered the Tervingi chiefs’ guard of honor to be put to death and for Alavivius to be held captive. The situation looked equally dire for Fritigern but he cleverly wormed his way out of the predicament. Perhaps not too dismayed at having been rid of his rival, he promised Lupicinus to prevent bloodshed if released. It was ruse. With swords drawn, Fritigern and his personal retainers made their way through the palace and angry crowds gathered in the city.
“Once back with his people, Fritigern promptly struck out to loot the countryside. No longer would he heed the will of the Romans, no longer would his people suffer hunger and slavery. From now on the Goths would take what they wanted and make war on those who opposed them.”
Two years later on August 9, 378, the Goths met the Roman army commanded by Eastern Emperor Valens at the decisive battle of Adrianople…
“The lines clashed together like beaked ships and tossed about like waves at sea. On both sides strokes of axes split helmet and breastplate. One might see a barbarian filled with lofty courage, his cheeks contracted in a hiss, hamstrung or with right hand severed, or pierced through the side, on the very verge of death, threateningly casting about his fierce glance” –Ammianus Marcellinus.¹
“The Terror of the Goths, The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople, August 9, 378 AD,” was originally featured in Military Heritage Magazine.
¹ Ammianus Marcellinus, Ammianus Marcellinus, translated by John, C. Rolfe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1939) p. 473-475.