In 378, a single soldier, not even an officer, made a mistake that greatly hastened, and perhaps even led directly to, the final destruction of the Western Roman empire. It all started far away in the steppes of Asia. This is the traditional home of most tribes of horse barbarians, and among others, the Goths had started there before moving into eastern Europe. The Goths were tough, but they migrated toward the borders of both Roman empires (Byzantine and western) because a much nastier bunch of barbarians were pushing them. These were the Huns, as in Atilla the Hun, who were destined to wreak havoc across most of Europe a generation later. But at this time, the Huns were still a distant threat, and the Goths were on Rome’s border asking to cross and settle into territories then controlled by the western empire. They were split into two groups: the eastern Ostrogoths and the western Visigoths. As described in Mistake 19 (see pages 77-79), Visigoth leaders met with Roman officials and asked permission for their people to enter Roman territory. It was agreed that if the men left their weapons behind, the Goths would be welcome. It was also agreed, since there would be no chance for the Visigoths to raise crops, that Rome would provide them food to get by until the next harvest.
The entire population migrated; hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, with tens of thousands of warriors among them, crossed into the Roman empire. Even though they had not agreed to the deal, the other large group, the Ostrogoths, under pressure from Hun allies and caught amid the confusion, also crossed over the river that marked Rome’s boundary. It became obvious fairly quickly that there simply was not enough food available for the Romans to keep the Goths supplied. Starving, the Visigoth tribes began taking what food they could find, often pillaging the villages while doing so. A near-constant fight between small groups of Goths and small Roman units erupted. To try to deal with the problem the two Roman governors requested a meeting with all of the Visigoth leaders. The meeting was a ruse with the intention of assassinating all of the Visigoth leadership, likely as a prelude to enslaving the hungry and (they hoped) leaderless Goths.
The assassination attempt failed, miserably. The Visigoth leaders escaped, their army was soon reinforced by the Ostrogoths, and open warfare resulted. For months, both sides sparred, small bunches of horsemen raiding and then ambushing one another, as infantry units defended the larger Roman towns and cities. Finally, Emperor Valens arrived to take control of the war. He hoped to win a decisive battle that would crush or drive the Goths away. The Visigoth king Fritigern offered peace if the Romans would allow his people to virtually take over the province of Thrace. This was rejected by Valens, who collected a large army made up of both cavalry and infantry. Fritigern also gathered the Goths, but once more offered to negotiate.
At this point in history, the Goths as a people were almost as civilized as the Romans and were actually more literate than the Roman citizens of Gaul. Their leaders were angry, but they also saw that both sides had more to lose than win. They did not really want a war or a battle whose loss would destroy them as a people. Even if they won, they were just weakening a potential future ally against the Huns. What the Goths really wanted was a safe place to settle. This is later shown by the fact that the Goths did unite with what was the last real Roman army to face down and defeat Atilla and the Huns eighty years later. The Visigoths may not have liked Rome, but they feared the Huns more.
The two armies met near Adrianople and camped in sight of each other. It was agreed that Valens would send a delegation into the ring of wagons that formed the Visigoths’ camp. Remember, this was a movement of the entire Visigoth people, and in that camp were not only warriors but also families. Each side, not without cause, watched for betrayal and formed up their horsemen, ready to attack as needed. But Fritigern seems to have been more than ready to talk peace. Then a small mistake doomed Rome.
As the Roman delegation rode toward the Visigoth camp, they had to be nervous. Their side had just used a similar maneuver in an attempt to assassinate the very leaders they were riding to meet. Around them, thousands of horsemen armed with bow and lance stood poised to attack one another. For months, both sides had been fighting small, bitter battles and rarely taking prisoners.
Maybe it was in response to some sort of unusual movement on the wall of wagons as the Romans approached. Or maybe he saw an old enemy. One of the soldiers, who was acting as the bodyguard for the Roman delegates, fired an arrow, one arrow only, toward the disturbance. The other guards may have fired then as well. None survived to say if they did or did not. The Visigoths reacted with a shower of arrows. Most of the Roman delegation fell, and the survivors fled.
Seeing this, the Roman cavalry charged the Goths’ camp from their position on both flanks of the infantry. The horsemen were unable to break into the Visigoth camp they surrounded. The bulk of the Visigoth and Ostrogoth heavy cavalry, well-armored men on fresh horses, had returned late. They had been waiting out of sight, behind a small wood, to one side of the battlefield. These armored horsemen charged first one, then the other force of Roman cavalry. Assailed by arrows from the wagons and attacked from behind by thousands of armored warriors, both groups of Roman horsemen fled. This left the still-unformed and badly trained Roman infantry at the mercy of the entire Gothic army. About 40,000 men died, and the power of the Western Roman empire was broken forever. Roman armies became less and less Roman and more and more barbarian. The vaunted infantry of the legions was shown to be gone. Rome never again ruled more than parts of Italy, and within a century, the city of Rome itself had fallen twice and the barbarian Odoacer held the meaningless title of emperor.
If that one arrow had not been fired, there was a very good chance that peace could have been achieved. It was the Visigoths, who had valid claims and concerns, who had asked to talk, and it was very much in Valens’ interest to have them as allies and not enemies. Without the disaster at Adrianople, Rome would have remained stronger and much more capable of defending itself. A Rome that still had a real army with Gothic allies might have maintained the high level of culture and literacy the Romans and Goths shared. The centuries that followed the Battle of Adrianople are described as the Age of Barbarians and the Dark Ages. Except for one arrow fired by an anonymous bodyguard, those times might have been much less barbarous and far less dark.