Ancient Rome

 

The Battle of Adrianople, Ammianus

Gary Edward Forsythe: Assistant Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago. Author of The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition.  Robert A. Guisepi:  Author of Ancient Voices

(Re-printed by permission)

 

"Remember, Roman, that it is for thee to rule the nations. This shall be thy task, to impose the ways of peace, to spare the vanquished, and to tame the proud by war."


9 August 378

When the day broke which the annals mark as the fifth of the Ides of August, the Roman standards were advanced with haste. The baggage had been placed close to the walls of Adrianople, under a sufficient guard of soldiers of the legions. The treasures and the chief insignia of the Emperor's rank were within the walls, with the prefect and the principal members of the council.

Then, having traversed the broken ground which divided the two armies, as the burning day was progressing toward noon, at last, after marching eight miles, our men came in sight of the wagons of the enemy, which had been reported by the scouts to be all arranged in a circle. According to their custom, the barbarian host raised a fierce and hideous yell, while the Roman generals marshaled their line of battle.

While arms and missiles of all kinds were meeting in fierce conflict... our men began to retreat; but presently, aroused by the reproaches of their officers, they made a fresh stand, and the battle increased like a conflagration, terrifying our soldiers, numbers of whom were pierced by strokes of javelins hurled at them, and by arrows.

Then the two lines of battle dashed one against the other, like the prows of ships. Thrusting mightily, they were tossed to and fro like waves of the sea. Our left wing had advanced actually up to the wagons, intending to push on still farther if properly supported. But they were deserted by the rest of the cavalry. They were so much pressed by the superior numbers of the enemy that they were overwhelmed and beaten down like the ruins of a great rampart.

Soon our infantry too was left unsupported. The companies and regiments were shoved together so closely that a soldier could scarcely draw his sword, or even withdraw his hand after he had once stretched it out.

By this time such great clouds of dust arose that it was hardly possible to see the sky. The air resounded with terrible cries. The darts, which brought death on every side, reached their mark and fell with deadly effect, for no one could see them quickly enough to place himself on guard. The barbarians, rushing on with their enormous army, beat down our horses and men and gave us no open spaces where we could fall back to operate. They were so closely packed that it became impossible for us to escape by forcing a path through them. Our men finally began to despise the thought of death and, again taking their swords, slew all they encountered. Helmets and breatplates were smashed in pieces by mutual blows of battle-axes.

Then you might see the barbarian, towering in his fierceness, hissing or shouting, fall with his legs pierced through, or his right hand cut off, sword and all, or his side transfixed, and still, in the last gasp of life, casting around his defiant glances.

The plain was covered with corpses, showing the mutual ruin of the combatants. The groans of the dying, or of men horribly wounded, were intense and caused much dismay on all sides. Amidst all this great tumult and confusion, our infantry were exhausted by toil and danger, until at last they had neither the strength left to fight nor the spirit to plan anything. Their spears were broken by the frequent collisions, so that they were forced to content themselves with their drawn swords, which they thrust into the dense battalions of the enemy, disregarding their own safety, and seeing that every possibility of escape was cut off.

The sun, now high in the heavens, scorched the Romans, who were emaciated by hunger, worn out with battle, and scarcely able to bear the weight of their own weapons. At last our columns were entirely beaten back by the overpowering weight of the barbarians. They took to disorderly flight - the only resource under the circumstances--each man seeking to save himself as best he could.

Scarcely one third of the entire army escaped. Never, except in the battle of Cannae, had there been so destructive a slaughter recorded in our annals.


Charles D. Yonge. The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus During the Reigns of the Emperors Constantius, Julian, Jovianus, Valentinian, and Valens. (London: 1862), book XXXI, chapters 12-14.

 

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