Fritigern (also Fritigernus, died c. 380 CE) was a Visigothic king best known as the victor of the decisive Battle of Adrianople in 378 CE, which decimated the Roman army and haunted Roman military commanders for decades afterwards. He was a Thervingi Goth who converted to Arian Christianity and challenged the authority of the Visigothic king Athanaric (d. 381 CE), who persecuted the Gothic Christians, plunging the region into the Gothic Civil War of the early 370's CE.
Bested by Athanaric, he appealed to the Roman emperor Valens for assistance but still failed to unseat his rival. After his defeat, Fritigern led his followers across the Danube River into the Roman Empire in 376 CE to escape not only Athanaric's wrath but also the invasion of the Huns. Once he and his followers were in Roman territory, they found their situation rapidly deteriorating under corrupt provincial governors and revolted, initiating the First Gothic War with Rome (378-382 CE) in which the Battle of Adrianople played a key role early on.
Nothing is known of his life before his conflict with Athanaric, and he vanishes from history prior to the peace treaty ending the First Gothic War with Rome in 382 CE. He is presumed to have died around 380 CE but how or where is unknown.
Fritigern's Christianity & the Gothic Civil War
According to the ancient historian Socrates Scholasticus (5th century CE), Fritigern converted to Arian Christianity in 376 CE, along with his followers, at the request of the Roman emperor Valens (reigned 364-378 CE). Their conversion was a condition of being allowed entrance to the empire following Fritigern's defeat by Athanaric.
In the same work, however, Socrates notes that the Christian missionary Ulfilas had already won a number of Gothic converts to Christianity by 348 CE. Another ancient historian, Ammianus Marcellinus (4th century CE), also mentions Ulfilas' work and maintains that Fritigern was sympathetic to Christianity prior to 376 CE and the agreement with Valens. It is probable, then, that Fritigern was already a Christian before the Danube crossing, and that the public conversion was simply a part of the formal agreement between Fritigern and Valens.
Further support for Fritigern's early conversion from the Nordic paganism of his tribe to the Roman religion is suggested by the Gothic Civil War between Fritigern and Athanaric in the early 370's CE. Athanaric was the king of the Gothic confederacy that had repelled Valens' invasions between 367-369 CE. Part of the peace treaty signed between Athanaric and Valens stipulated that Athanaric was free to persecute any Christians among his own people as long as he did not cross the border to harass Roman Christians.
A large part of Athanaric's position as king was his role as judge of the people, a sacred office which maintained the traditional religious beliefs and culture of the tribe. Athanaric, like his father before him, saw Christianity as a threat to the Goths' way of life and religious understanding and, after 369 CE, engaged in a number of brutal persecutions of Gothic Christians.
It is unclear whether Fritigern went to war against Athanaric to stop the persecutions or whether, with the Roman threat now gone, he simply withdrew from the confederacy and challenged Athanaric's rule. The historian Herwig Wolfram, among others, has noted how, due to the chaotic nature of the event, sources give no definite reason for the war and the causes may only be inferred.
Athanaric had brilliantly employed guerilla tactics to repel the Roman invasions and may have used the same against Fritigern (as he later would against the Huns). How he proceeded against Fritigern's forces is as unclear as the rest of the war, but he defeated Fritigern in the early engagements. Fritigern, along with his ally Alavivus, then turned to Valens for assistance in defeating Athanaric, and seems to have made some progress, but was again defeated.
By this time the Huns had arrived on the borders of the Gothic regions and were making regular raids into the territories, destroying crops and massacring the inhabitants. Fritigern, already allied with Rome, requested permission to lead his people across the Danube to the safety of Roman Thrace in order to escape both the Huns and Athanaric.
It is at this point that Valens stipulated the conversion of Fritigern and the Goths under him to Christianity as well as having them promise to supply fighting men for the Roman army. Once these conditions had been met, Fritigern and Alavivus led their people into Rome. Although Fritigern is always mentioned prominently in the ancient sources, it seems Alavivus was initially the leader of these Goths and Fritigern his subordinate until after the crossing of the Danube. Alavivus' role is unclear, however, since the primary sources always reference the Gothic Civil War as a conflict between Fritigern and Athanaric.
The Goths often had two leaders in place, a king (knows as a reiks, which means judge) who presided over civil matters and a general (known as a dux) who commanded the military. It is possible that Alavivus was a reiks and Fritigern his dux, but the sources cite Fritigern as reiks so this remains unclear. It is apparent, however, that it was Fritigern who made the agreement with Valens and led the Goths to Roman territory.
The Danube Crossing & Life in Roman Thrace
The Thervingian Goths crossed the Danube under close Roman supervision. There were many Goths who were now fleeing from the Huns who sought safety in the empire but were not allowed to cross. Even Athanaric, a sworn enemy of Rome, is said to have approached the Danube to lead his tribe across but turned back after considering what reprisals Rome may have visited upon him for his earlier conflicts with Valens. Those Roman soldiers stationed along the banks were responsible for continually turning away those Goths who had not been granted permission to cross. The historian Christopher Kelly describes the crossing:
For several days and nights, the Thervingi were ferried across the Danube at one of its narrowest points, near the garrison town of Durostorum, sixty miles west of the Black Sea. This was a dangerous operation made more difficult by the fast-flowing river, still swollen by spring rains. Many Thervingi, frustrated by the slow progress and distrustful of Roman military supervision, ventured across in canoes made from hollowed-out logs; the most desperate decided to swim. Some were drowned when overcrowded rafts capsized. Darkness brought only greater confusion: the shouts of terrified families separated in the crush to board the boats, the wash of dead bodies against the banks, the harsh orders barked by unsympathetic soldiers. (13)
Once across, life for the Gothic refugees only became worse. Kelly observes, "The situation was beyond Lupicinus, the Roman commander on the frontier. Without warning, he was faced with eighty thousand refugees crammed together in a makeshift camp. The overflowing latrine trenches threatened an outbreak of disease; the stench drifted into nearby Durostorum" (13-14). The Goths had escaped the Huns but were now confronted by new enemies: starvation and the greed of the Roman authorities on the frontier. Ammianus writes of the situation:
During this time, when the barriers of our frontier were unlocked and the realm of savagery was spreading far and wide columns of armed men like glowing ashes from Aetna, when our difficulties and imminent dangers called for military reformers who were most distinguished for the fame of their exploits: then it was, as if at the choice of some adverse deity, that men were gathered together and given command of armies who bore stained reputations. At their head were two rivals in recklessness: one was Lupicinus, commanding general in Thrace, the other Maximus, a pernicious leader. Their treacherous greed was the source of all our evils. (10)
Lupicinus and Maximus diverted the grain wagons from the Goths, stole quantities of food to sell for their own profit, and then allowed the wagons to continue on to the camp. They also rounded up as many dogs as they could, and the Goths sold their children as slaves in exchange for dog meat; "the going rate was said to be one child for each dog" (Kelly, 14). After seven months, the situation in the camp was growing beyond the control of the Roman authorities. Lupicinus invited Fritigern and Alavivus to dinner to discuss the situation but allowed only a small number of their personal bodyguard inside the gates of the city of Marcianople.
The Goths, fearing for the safety of their leaders, crowded around the outside of the gates along with those members of the bodyguard who had not been admitted. Ammianus and the historian Jordanes (6th century CE) give slightly different accounts of what happened next, but both report that Alavivus and his escort were assassinated at dinner along with the contingent of bodyguards, but Fritigern escaped.
The First Gothic War & the Battle of Adrianople
Fritigern rallied his people and led them on raids throughout the area. Lupicinus had sent a contingent of Roman soldiers to manage the removal and relocation of a number of Goths, and these forces had previously been those guarding the frontier of the Danube. With the military presence withdrawn, Greuthungi Goths crossed the river easily, as well as a number of Huns who saw the opportunity for easy looting. Fritigern enlisted these forces and led them against Lupicinus and his army, easily defeating the Romans (though Lupicinus himself escaped). The Goths were now in full revolt and the region of Thrace was in chaos.
In the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Valens was constantly being harassed by the common people, demanding he do something about the situation in Thrace. He finally decided to march against the Goths and had the support of his younger nephew, Gratian, the emperor of the west. Gratian wrote Valens that he was coming soon and to wait for his arrival before engaging with the Goths. Valens marched his troops from Constantinople and waited for Gratian's reinforcements, but these were delayed by revolts in the west that Gratian had to attend to. Valens became impatient and moved his army to the area of the Goths' last known position: the city of Adrianople (modern-day Edirne, in Turkey).
Fritigern was in the vicinity with his men, raiding the countryside, and Valens gathered his councilors and asked whether he should attack or wait for Gratian. Some suggested he attack at once while others advised him to wait for Gratian. Valens was a proud and vain man who had always wanted the kind of glory in battle that characterized the greatest emperors of the early days of Rome.
It seems that, however substantial the advice to wait for Gratian was, Valens was going to try to attack on his own. Ammianus writes, "the fatal insistence of the emperor prevailed, supported by the flattering opinion of some of his courtiers, who urged him to make all haste in order that Gratian might not have a share in the victory which (as they represented) was already all but won" (28). Valens was also given to understand that the forces of the Goths numbered less than 10,000, while his own army was over 15,000 (though ancient historians place these numbers much higher). He gave orders for the Roman forces to mobilize to attack the Goths.
While the army was preparing for battle, Fritigern's forces were scattered. Valens' scouts had reported the small number of around 10,000 because that's the number they had seen in the Goths' camp; the actual number was closer to 20,000, but the cavalry (around 5,000 men) were away on a raid. Fritigern sent messengers to call them back but needed to buy some time. He sent an envoy to Valens with two letters; the first of these offered peace if Valens would simply permit the Goths to settle in Thrace on the land he had originally agreed to, while the second was a private letter to Valens.
In this letter, Fritigern essentially said that he hoped he and Valens could again be friends as they had formerly been and how Fritigern meant no harm and posed no threat; it was simply that he was having a hard time keeping his people under control and, from time to time, had no choice but to allow them to ravage the countryside until a Roman force threatened them and they backed down. Fritigern assured Valens that this present situation was one of those instances and there was no real need for hostilities.
Valens read the letters but, as Ammianus notes, "as to the envoys, their sincerity was doubted, and they left without accomplishing their purpose" (28). In fact, they had fully accomplished what they had been sent to do: delay Valens' advance into battle until the Goth cavalry returned.
Valens marched his army toward the Goth camp and arranged them in formation for attack. Meanwhile, the Goth cavalry still had not returned, and Fritigern needed to buy more time. He again sent envoys to Valens requesting negotiations and offering peace but, this time, Valens refused to even read the letters because the messengers were of low rank, and he would only speak with the those he felt were of some importance.
While the envoys were distracting Valens with their mission, other Goths set fires in the fields surrounding the Roman army. By all accounts, the day was hot, and the Romans had not had time to eat before they were mobilized for the march. Further, they had been standing in formation now for hours in full battle dress under the August sun. The smoke from the fires around them furthered their misery. Ammianus writes:
The enemy purposely delayed, in order that during the pretended truce their cavalry might return, who, they hoped, would soon make their appearance; also that our soldiers might be exposed to the fiery summer heat and exhausted by their dry throats, while the broad plains gleamed with fires, which the enemy were feeding with wood and dry fuel, for this same purpose. To that evil was added another deadly one, namely, that men and beasts were tormented by severe hunger. (29)
Valens' forces were not completely assembled, some still arriving on the field, when a skirmish toward the front lines initiated the battle. The Romans were driven back and, at the same time, the Goth cavalry arrived and drove through their ranks. Ammianus describes the battle:
Our soldiers who were giving way rallied, exchanging many encouraging shouts, but the battle, spreading like flames, filled their hearts with terror, as numbers of them were pierced by strokes of whirling spears and arrows. Then the lines dashed together like beaked ships, pushing each other back and forth in turn, and tossed about by alternate movements, like waves at sea. And because the left wing, which had made its way as far as the very wagons, and would have gone farther if it had had any support, being deserted by the rest of the cavalry, was hard pressed by the enemy's numbers, it was crushed, and overwhelmed, as if by the downfall of a mighty rampart. The foot-soldiers thus stood unprotected, and their companies were so crowded together that hardly anyone could pull out his sword or draw back his arm. Because of clouds of dust the heavens could no longer be seen, and echoed with frightful cries. Hence the arrows whirling death from every side always found their mark with fatal effect, since thy could not be seen beforehand nor guarded against. (30-31)
Valens was mortally wounded, and his bodyguard carried him to a nearby cottage where, in an effort to keep him safe, they carried him up to the second floor to tend his wounds. By this time the Goths had completely broken the Roman lines and were slaughtering every Roman soldier they could lay hands on. Coming upon the cottage, the Goths tried to break in, but Valens' bodyguard fired arrows down at them from the upper windows, so they simply set the building on fire, and Valens burned to death with his guard.
Ammianus reports that one of the guards leaped from the window and was taken by the Goths, and "when he told them what had happened, he filled them with sorrow at being cheated of great glory in not having taken the ruler of the Roman empire alive" (33). The massacre of the Roman army continued until night fell, when the Goths returned to their camp, and the surviving Romans escaped from the field in any way they could. Many of these men made their way back to the city of Adrianople and helped to fortify it against the possibility of an attack.
The Siege of Adrianople & Aftermath
The next morning, the Goths fell upon the city but were repulsed. Fritigern had already learned, as he said, to "make peace with stone walls", because his people lacked siege engines and could not take fortified cities. His soldiers, however, having lost their chance at glory in capturing Valens alive and hearing that the imperial standards and treasure were within the city, refused to listen to advice to leave Adrianople alone. They seemed confident that their superior numbers, and the demoralizing effect on the Romans of their victory the day before, would take the city.
Throughout the day the Goths tried to break through the city gates or scale the walls and even sent a delegation of Romans who had sided with them to enter the city pretending to be seeking refuge and then set fire to it (their intentions were discovered and they were executed), but they could not make any progress. By nightfall, according to Ammianus, they "retired disconsolate to their tents, accusing one another of reckless folly because they had not, as Fritigern had earlier advised, wholly held aloof from the miseries of siege" (38). The next morning they left the area under Fritigern's leadership and continued raiding the wealthy estates and villages in the region.
Two thirds of the Roman army had been lost in the battle as well as the emperor of the Eastern Empire. Kelly writes:
The Battle of Adrianople was the worst defeat suffered by the Romans for seven hundred years: out of thirty thousand troops, twenty thousand were killed. In the chilling phrase of the imperial court orator Themistius, in one summer afternoon `an entire army vanished like a shadow.' The impact of this moment of destruction of Roman policymaking cannot be underestimated. Most importantly, the defeat exposed the importance of the Danube frontier to the empire's security. Valens had been critically slow to react to the disruption caused by the emerging menace of the Huns west of the Black Sea. His support of Fritigern hindered Athanaric's attempts to restore order. The crossing of the Thervingi was poorly managed, and their internment and policing were left to barely competent officers…The decision to fight at Adrianople without waiting for reinforcements from the West was one of the poorest judgment calls made by any emperor in the history of the Roman empire. The scale of the defeat was a direct result of Valens' petulant rush to seize victory on his own. (21-22)
The defeat at Adrianople would continue to haunt the Roman Empire for the next century as it continued its slow decline. For Fritigern, however, it was a great victory, and he and his followers continued their raids throughout Thrace and passed into the Balkans and then down into Greece. No Roman force was able to stop them. Where or how Fritigern died is unknown, but he is no longer mentioned in any historian's account after 380 CE.
Following Valen's death, the emperor Theodosius I ruled the Eastern Empire and, by 382 CE, had managed to broker a peace with the Goths. This peace would last until Theodosius I's death in 395 CE when, again, the Romans would make the mistake of mistreating the Goths (most notably using them in the front lines at the Battle of Frigidus in 394 CE) and initiate the conflict that resulted in the sack of Rome by Alaric I of the Visigoths in 410 CE. Although nothing is known of Fritigern's early life, nor of his death, he is remembered as a great warrior and leader of his people who delivered to Rome the worst military defeat in its long history.