The Battle of
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)
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
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
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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