On the 9th of August 378 AD, two great armies faced off on a still undiscovered hilly battlefield near the city of Adrianople, in Thrace.
The imperial army of Augustus Flavius Iulius Valens faced the Goths who were led by their chieftains Fritigern and Alavivus. In the epic clash that followed, the eastern Emperor, Valens, leader of half the known world, mysteriously perished during the chaos of battle. As we known nothing definitive about the Emperor’s death apart from legends and stories, I will embark on an investigation in order to discover what truly happened to the emperor on that faithful summer day. Much of what happened during this battle is unclear as the only literary source we have, Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman officer and member of the Protectores Domestici, was not present at the event and only gathered convoluted information from survivors. To begin our investigation, let’s start with the physical description of the Emperor given to us by the Historia Augusta and Ammianus.
Valens was a man of medium height, dark skin, in his fifties at the time of the battle and had a visual impairment in one eye. Despite his age, he possessed enormous tenacity, was a loyal friend but was also lazy and overly passionate.
On the battlefield, Emperor Valens would have been surrounded by his bodyguards, the Scholae Palatinae, an elite cavalry regiment introduced by Costantine the Great, as a substitute for the Cohors Pretoriae. He would have probably placed himself on the right of the formation as that was considered a place of honor.
We do not know the intensions of Valens on the day of the battle but, given his character and the superior numbers and training of the Romans, we can probably say that he favored an attack on the Goths in order to annihilate the fortified camp they were erecting on a hill and who, it was believed, represented only a regiment of the enemy forces. Whatever his intentions were however, we know that before the battle occurred, long negotiations took place, a diversionary tactic most likely stemming from Fritigern, as a means of buying time.
During these negotiations however, a Roman cavalry regiment, formed by the Scutarii and the Sagittarii, and led by Cassio and Bacurius, attacked the Gothic camp without orders and probably forced Valens into ordering an attack on the entire enemy camp. The Roman army at Adrianople was an elite force, it had Palatina Legions, Auxilia Palatina and also heavy cavalry regiments such as the Clibanarii. After the Roman attack however, regiments of gothic cavalry led by ostrogoth chieftains Alateus and Saphrax who had been away foraging for food, arrived at the battlefield and surrounded the Romans. As the Romans were compressed in a tight formation, our Valens, who was most likely positioned on the right, was probably driven to the centre of the formation. Here, we know that he sent a certain Comes Victor to fetch the Batavian auxiliaries in the rear guard, though they were nowhere to be found. At this point in the battle, Valens most likely panicked and took refugee with the Matiarii and Lanciarii, who we know, thanks to the Notitia Dignitatum, were elite Palatina units. Comes Peditum Traianus would have been there to protect the Emperor.
Now we face the great mystery surrounding the battle and the fate of Valens. Was the Emperor killed by an enemy warrior, was he trampled by his own men’s retreat or was he killed by a projectile? There is a story which says that the wounded emperor was escorted by his bodyguards to a nearby farm which was then besieged by the Goths and burned down.
I think we can safely dismiss this version of events as more of a romantic story than a historical tale, but it does bring up an interesting point, as it tells us that when Valens was killed in the flames, his bodyguards told the Goths that they had just killed the emperor, and the Goths became desperate. But wait, why were the Goths desperate? Could it be that the Goths actually wanted the emperor alive? After all, a Roman Emperor was worth a fortune, not to mention the prestige of capturing him alive, as he would have been a splendid trophy of war. The emperor however died during the battle and his body was never found.
After examining the evidence, my personal theory is that the Emperor was killed by a projectile launched by a gothic warrior. Valens would have been extremely heavily armored and well protected by his bodyguard, making death in a close quarter fight very unlikely. Only an arrow or a javelin could have breached that kind of security by exploiting vulnerable areas like the eyes and other parts of the face, but this is just speculation. There is also a possibility that he was killed by his own men, as we know that 1/3 of the Roman forces survived the battle and therefore there must have been disorder during the retreat. During a disorderly retreat, everyone is by himself, with no unit cohesion, no chain of command and as it appears, no Emperor, making it a time of terror for those involved.
After the battle, Valens was succeeded by a headstrong Spaniard, Theodosius, who will fail to drive out the Goths through military means but will make them Foederati or allies of the Roman Empire. The famous Visigoth Alaric would grow up during this period.