Valens and the Battle of Adrianople (Hadrianopolis)

Emperor Valens' military defeat in the Battle of Adrianople

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Bad intelligence gathering and the unwarranted confidence of Emperor Valens (A.D. c. 328 - A.D. 378) led to the worst Roman defeat since Hannibal's victory at the Battle of Cannae. On August 9, A.D. 378, Valens was killed and his army lost to an army of Goths led by Fritigern, whom Valens had given permission only two years earlier to settle in Roman territory.

Division of Rome

In 364, a year after the death of Julian, the apostate emperor, Valens was made co-emperor with his brother Valentinian. They chose to split the territory, with Valentinian taking the West and Valens the East—a division that was to continue. (Three years later Valentinian conferred the rank of co-Augustus on his young son Gratian who would take over as emperor in the West in 375 when his father died with his infant half-brother, Gratian, co-emperor, but only in name.) Valentinian had had a successful military career prior to being elected emperor, but Valens, who had only joined the military in the 360s, had not.

Valens Tries to Reclaim Land Lost to the Persians

Since his predecessor had lost eastern territory to the Persians (5 provinces on the eastern side of the Tigris, various forts and the cities of Nisibis, Singara and Castra Maurorum), Valens set out to reclaim it, but revolts within the Eastern Empire kept him from completing his plans. One of the revolts was caused by the usurper Procopius, a relative of the last of the line of Constantine, Julian. Because of a claimed relationship with the family of the still popular Constantine, Procopius persuaded many of Valens' troops to defect, but in 366, Valens defeated Procopius and sent his head to his brother Valentinian.

Valens Makes a Treaty With the Goths

The Tervingi Goths led by their king Athanaric had planned to attack Valens' territory, but when they learned of Procopius' plans, they became his allies, instead. Following his defeat of Procopius, Valens intended to attack the Goths, but was prevented, first by their flight, and then by a spring flood the next year. However, Valens persisted and defeated the Tervingi (and the Greuthungi, both Goths) in 369. They concluded a treaty quickly which allowed Valens to set to work on the still missing eastern (Persian) territory.

Trouble From the Goths and Huns

Unfortunately, troubles throughout the empire diverted his attention. In 374 he had deployed troops to the west and was faced with a military manpower shortage. In 375 the Huns pushed the Goths out of their homelands. The Greuthungi and Tervingi Goths appealed to Valens for a place to live. Valens, seeing this as an opportunity to increase his military, agreed to admit into Thrace those Goths who were led by their chieftain Fritigern, but not the other groups of Goths, including those led by Athanaric, who had conspired against him before. Those who were excluded followed Fritigern, anyway. Imperial troops, under the leadership of Lupicinus and Maximus, managed the immigration, but badly—and with corruption. Jordanes explains how the Roman officials took advantage of the Goths.

"Soon famine and want came upon them, as often happens to a people not yet well settled in a country. Their princes and the leaders who ruled them in place of kings, that is Fritigern, Alatheus and Safrac, began to lament the plight of their army and begged Lupicinus and Maximus, the Roman commanders, to open a market. But to what will not the "cursed lust for gold" compel men to assent? The generals, swayed by avarice, sold them at a high price not only the flesh of sheep and oxen, but even the carcasses of dogs and unclean animals, so that a slave would be bartered for a loaf of bread or ten pounds of meat."

Driven to revolt, the Goths defeated the Roman military units in Thrace in 377.

In May 378, Valens aborted his eastern mission in order to deal with the uprising of Goths (aided by Huns and Alans). Their number, Valens was assured, was no more than 10,000.

" [W]hen the barbarians ... arrived within fifteen miles from the station of Nike, ... the emperor, with wanton impetuosity, resolved on attacking them instantly, because those who had been sent forward to reconnoiter—what led to such a mistake is unknown—affirmed that their entire body did not exceed ten thousand men."
- Ammianus Marcellinus, The Battle of Hadrianopolis

Occupation Index - Ruler

By August 9, 378, Valens was outside of one of the cities named for the Roman emperor Hadrian, Adrianople. There Valens pitched his camp, built palisades and waited for Emperor Gratian (who had been fighting the Germanic Alamanni) to arrive with the Gallic army. Meanwhile, ambassadors from the Gothic leader Fritigern arrived asking for a truce, but Valens didn't trust them, and so he sent them back.

The historian Ammianus Marcellinus, the source of the only detailed version of the battle, says some Roman princes advised Valens not to wait for Gratian, because if Gratian fought Valens would have to share the glory of victory. So on that August day Valens, thinking his troops more than equal to the reported troop numbers of the Goths, led the Roman imperial army into battle.

Roman and Gothic soldiers met each other in a crowded, confused, and very bloody line of battle.

" Our left wing had advanced actually up to the wagons, with the intent to push on still further if they were properly supported; but they were deserted by the rest of the cavalry, and so pressed upon by the superior numbers of the enemy, that they were overwhelmed and beaten down.... And by this time such clouds of dust arose that it was scarcely possible to see the sky, which resounded with horrible cries; and in consequence, the darts, which were bearing death on every side, reached their mark, and fell with deadly effect, because no one could see them beforehand so as to guard against them."
- Ammianus Marcellinus: The Battle of Hadrianopolis

Amid the fighting, an additional contingent of Gothic troops arrived, far outnumbering the distressed Roman troops. Gothic victory was assured.

Death of Valens

Two-thirds of the Eastern army were killed, according to Ammianus, putting an end to 16 divisions. Valens was among the casualties. While, like most of the details of the battle, the details of Valens' demise are not known with any certainty, it is thought that Valens was either killed towards the end of the battle or wounded, escaped to a nearby farm, and there was burned to death by Gothic marauders. A supposed survivor brought the story to the Romans.

So momentous and disastrous was the Battle of Adrianople that Ammianus Marcellinus called it "the beginning of evils for the Roman empire then and thereafter."

It is worth noting that this catastrophic Roman defeat occurred in the Eastern Empire. Despite this fact, and the fact that among the precipitating factors for the fall of Rome, barbarian invasions must rank very high, the fall of Rome, barely a century later, in A.D. 476, did not occur within the Eastern Empire.

The next emperor in the East was Theodosius I who conducted clean up operations for 3 years before concluding a peace treaty with the Goths. See Accession of Theodosius the Great.


  • De Imperatoribus Romanis Valens
    ( Map of the Battle of Adrianople ( Valens
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Gill, N.S. "Valens and the Battle of Adrianople (Hadrianopolis)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Valens and the Battle of Adrianople (Hadrianopolis). Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Valens and the Battle of Adrianople (Hadrianopolis)." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).