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Smuggling the Imperial Purple and Exploring the Ancient World - Q & A with Prue Batten

posted by Gordon Doherty   [ updated ]

Today, I have the pleasure of speaking to Prue Batten, an award-winning author of historical fiction, fantasy and more. You can't fail to be educated and entertained by insights and anecdotes from such a friendly and knowledgeable storyteller. So grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and enjoy...

The premise behind The Triptych Chronicle - the illegal movement of Tyrian purple - is intriguing, and I love how you've built and woven such a rich world around it. What aspect of it inspired you to make the call 'I'm going to write a book about this'?

Prue: I seem to have developed a deep interest in medieval trade over the years. The commodities being traded quite simply raised the hairs on my neck – silk, spices, precious metals and gems, essential oils, alum, timber, dyes – the list just goes on. I was fascinated by the contact between empires, the search for the ‘next big thing’ (nothing changes, does it?) and the excruciatingly venal nature of trade (nothing changes there, either!). Trade reduced men to their most base level and as an author, that gave me such scope for a good story! Not only that, trade presaged the new social order with the development of the merchant or middle class. Often, historical fiction plays out a narrative in a field of war and I wanted to write about something that turned the wheels of society as far, but in a different way.

In respect of Tyrian purple, it was completely protected by the Byzantines – attempts to smuggle it were regarded as treason against the empire. What a story I could tell by secreting it out of Constantinople to Europe! That idea became Tobias – Book One of The Triptych Chronicle. Tyrian purple then continued to run like a silk ribbon through Book Two, Guillaume, which takes place in the trading hub of Lyon. In Book Three, Michael, the story returns to Constantinople with the man who initiated the treasonous crime in the first place.

Left: a murex snail and it's treasured dye. Right: A Byzantine Emperor, draped in the imperial purple, with his retinue of guards.

Gordon: You write about colourful and evocative periods of history, including medieval Byzantium - one of my favourite eras and locations (city and empire). But how much of a challenge is it for you - based in Tasmania - to 'ground' yourself in Byzantine lands? I imagine it must be difficult to organise research trips given the distance and the cost, so how do you go about 'exploring' Byzantium and such places without visiting the places in person?

Prue: A huge challenge, you are right. I live at the bottom of the world and frequent travel is not possible financially for an indie writer. I have a stack of my own travel diaries which I use when I require a memory to be jogged, but research reading becomes even more vital when one is so far away. My sources are books, online PDF’S, virtual tours through museums, historic sites and galleries, documentaries … in fact anything I can lay my hands on. 

And because my stories are character-driven, I suck every bit of experience of life that I have had – joy, happiness, physical pain, grief, anger, fury – and mix it with my own experiences of riding, archery, lifting and swinging a sword, death, sailing, stitching, farming – anything and everything to give my stories dimension. It’s a heady recipe and it seems to work.

In grounding myself in the geographical arena of trade, I read extracts of the twelfth century traveller and geographer from Al Andalus, Ibn Jubayr, who recorded his experiences of the Middle East, Africa, the Middle Sea and the Adriatic. The way he described what he saw was wonderfully enlightening and fresh because he was seeing a twelfth century view of what I needed to see. From there I read much about my timeframe (1190’s) and located aspects of politics, of the shrinking Byzantine empire, of the Eastern Church, Byzantine food, clothing, plants, medicine and so on. I found what maps I could of the city of Constantinople as close to the twelfth century as possible but then fell into a real hole because much of Constantinople as I wanted to know it had been destroyed in the Fourth Crusade and the Ottoman Invasion. But thanks to you, Gordon, I discovered www.byzantium1200.comWhat a blessing!

Finally I felt as if I walked the stones of the streets, as if I leaned against the walls of the Theodosian Harbour, as if my characters could indeed run for their lives along the top of the Valens Aqueduct or climb the steps and gaze up at the cupolas of Sancta Sophia, seabirds wheeling overheard. Combine that with harmonies from the eastern church itself and I was there!

But most importantly, I’m lucky enough to have a very good friend of long-standing who lives in Istanbul and she took a camera and energy and set about taking videos of the unfindable.
I owe my friend, Jane, more than you can possibly imagine…

Constantinople in its pomp - a time and place beloved by many writers, including Prue and me.

Gordon: You have a time machine, but it will only take you to one place, then it'll fall apart. So you'll have to pick somewhere that both intrigues you and that you wouldn't mind remaining in! Where and when?

Prue: Goodness… let me think!
After researching so much of twelfth century Constantinople and knowing that ultimately, in a few hundred more years the Byzantine empire would collapse in a field of war, I can say I wouldn’t want to travel there in a Time Machine. But the Renaissance? Ah, that’s another thing entirely. So much cultural diversity and excitement! To watch Italy bud and flower and give largesse to the world. Trade across the seas, Venice and Genoa becoming massive trading forces, the development of the great banking houses.

If I thought trade was venal in the twelfth century, the Renaissance would prove it was a dozen times worse! And of course, if I was forced to remain there, I would have to marry a wealthy Florentine banker with links to the great artists and philosophers of the time so that I would have contact with the vast minds of the era. Or else I would become a wealthy and outspoken noblewoman who had the freedom to think and feel the way she wanted because she was related to said Florentine noble families and bankers!

The reality though, is that the thought of living anywhere but my island of Tasmania, so far removed from the dramas of our contemporary world, fills me with great sadness, so that if the Time Machine breaks down and can’t take me to the Renaissance, I won’t be at all disappointed or frustrated.
Three of the best (L-R): Tobias (Book 1 of the Triptych Chronicle), Book of Pawns (Volume 1 of the Gisborne Saga) & The Stumpwork Robe (a fantasy tale).

Gordon: What eras do you plan to explore in the future, and do you have any plans to cross into different genres (something that appeals to and frightens me!)?

Prue: My first published books were a fantasy quartet, and I plan to return to fantasy after finishing Michael, my sixth historical fiction. To be honest, I enjoy being a cross-genre writer because diversity is not only fun but prevents this writer from becoming stale. Besides, the rules are the same in each genre – credible world-building, believable characters and a plot that races one through a novel.

But having variety in my writing life is perhaps why I always enjoy being part of an anthology (one coming later this year to raise money for cancer research. Called Tales from a Car Boot Sale) and why I am in occasional collaboration with a miniature book press in the USA ( I think such ‘out of left field’ activities allow one to stretch oneself.

In respect of other timeframes, I have a collaboration coming up with an hist.fict writer in the UK in 2018-ish. We plan to write a novel about convict transportation to Australia in the 1800’s. I live right on the edge of a former penal settlement in Tasmania and am descended from a convict who was transported to what was then Van Diemens’ Land for stealing two sheep. The novelist at the UK end will write the English side of the plot and I shall write the VDL side…

Two of the things that give me the most pleasure in writing are a) hearing that I've cheered someone up thanks to my stories or b) knowing that I've passed on a little encouragement and advice to another writer. What about you?

Prue: Good question!
Above and beyond anything else, I want to entertain. If I know I’ve done that, I am completely content. For me as a reader, entertainment is all. I want to be enthralled, to have my imagination fertilised, to see things in living breathing colour. One of the first reviews I ever received many years ago said: ‘…writes in 3D and surround sound in the very best way. There is nothing loud and obtrusive about it…’
I have tried hard to live up to those words ever since.

Gordon: And do you have any advice or aphorisms to gee up budding writers out there?

Prue: To write without fear and without expectation and ego. To enjoy what one does and to listen to those who might critique and edit because they inevitably know what they are talking about!

Gordon, thank you so much for interviewing me. I greatly appreciate the time you have taken. Best wishes to you and to your readers.

Brilliant stuff there from Prue, I'm sure you'll agree! And if you'd like to read Prue's work, get in touch with her and find out more, you can do so at the following places:

Legionary is FREE for 5 days on Amazon

posted Mar 22, 2017, 2:31 AM by Gordon Doherty

To those who haven't tried my work yet, you can hop onto Amazon and grab a copy of the first book in my Legionary series for FREE:


Offer lasts 5 days (ending 26th March 2017). Go, grab a copy... enjoy!

Land of the Sacred Fire launches in Italy

posted Mar 21, 2017, 3:45 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Mar 21, 2017, 3:46 AM ]

Una vittoria per l'impero di [Doherty, Gordon]
Great news this morning: Land of the Sacred Fire, the third instalment of the Legionary series, has been translated into Italian and will launch on the 23rd March (just two days from now!)

A massive thanks to the guys at Sheil Land and Newton Compton Editori for their work on this project.

Now, check your water skin is full, don a light tunic and prepare to march through the endless sands...

And for Italian readers:

Grande novità di questa mattina: Terra del Fuoco Sacro, il terzo capitolo della serie Legionario, è stata tradotta in italiano e lancerà il 23 marzo (solo due giorni da adesso!)

Una massiccia grazie ai ragazzi di Sheil Territorio e Newton Compton Editori per il loro lavoro su questo progetto.

Ora, controllare la vostra pelle l'acqua è piena, indossare una tunica leggera e si preparano a marciare attraverso le sabbie infinite ...

An update on me, my books and all that shebang...

posted Oct 26, 2016, 7:09 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Apr 2, 2017, 7:25 AM ]

You might have noticed I haven't launched a new book for a while now (some have noticed more keenly than others - slave drivers!). It's less than a year since Legionary: Gods & Emperors came out, though that feels like an age to me. I'm used to writing a book every 9 months or so - they are my babies after all - so as things stand I feel acutely conscious of every bookless day that passes beyond that span. And that's what this update is all about: to let you know where I'm at, what goodies you can expect in the future and just so you know I haven't fallen down a manhole.

The good news is I haven't been chasing squirrels in the garden since last November, or waiting for striped paint and a long stand... I have actually written the first book of a brand new Bronze Age series set in the Hittite Kingdom. You can get a taste of what it's all about here.

It's all done and dusted apart from a few tweaks here and there. "So, Doherty," I hear you ask, "if it's ready then why don't you pull your finger out and get it published?" 
Well it would be on sale right now if I had opted for the self-publishing route (as with my Legionary and Strategos books), and it might well end up on that track. But I felt that, this being the first volume of a new series, it was well worth exploring my options in the traditional market. It might come to nothing, or it might send my writing career down a new and exciting path. All I know is that, for now, it means a short, additional 'gap' between my book launches.

What will end that gap? It might be my Hittite book. More likely, though, it could be Legionary 6 - already well underway in the first draft process and likely to be ready for summer 2017. There's also the very-much-taking-shape Roman trilogy I've been working on with Simon Turney for the last year or two; already we're polishing volume two and looking at volume three. That series could be out even sooner. 
And if you need a HistFic fix in the very short term, you could always listen to the newly-released audiobook version of 'Strategos: Rise of the Golden Heart'? I've heard it's Byzan-tastic...

On that sucker pun-ch, I bid you farewell. I hope to be back soon with a new read for you all and will be sure to shout out to let you know. Until then, happy reading and don't forget about me ;-)


P.S. If you'd like to ensure you hear the latest updates on all of the above, just pop your email address into the box below and hit 'Subscribe'.

Legionary Arrives in Russia!

posted Oct 12, 2016, 6:40 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Oct 12, 2016, 6:42 AM ]

Just a short update: 

It's taken a while, but the eponymous first novel in the Legionary series has been translated and published by Veche Books in Russia.
I had to dive into Google Translate to check, but yes, this is it. Huzzah!

Click on the link below or the cover image to go to the Russian product page:

And, in Russian: 

Это заняло некоторое время, но одноименный первый роман в серии легионеров был переведен и опубликован Вече книг в России.
Я должен был нырнуть в Google Translate, чтобы проверить, но да, это он. Ура!

Нажмите на ссылку ниже или изображение обложки, чтобы перейти на страницу российского продукта:

The Ancient City of Adrianople

posted Nov 19, 2015, 2:33 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Nov 19, 2015, 4:25 AM ]

Above: a panoramic of Edirne (looking southwest), the modern Turkish city that sits on the site of Ancient Adrianople. Click on the image to view full size.

Earlier this year, I travelled to the northwestern (European) part of Turkey, A.K.A. Roman Thracia, in search of the site of the Battle of Adrianople, where the Goths and the Roman legions met in a clash that turned history

But before those mud-soaked exploits in the countryside, I took a trip to the nearby ancient city that gave its name to that historic battle. It felt only right; after all, in the 4th century AD, the city of Adrianople was at the epicentre of the Gothic War, and its streets and taverns would have been well-known to many of the heroes of the XI Claudia - indeed, it was Sura's old stamping ground and Zosimus' home too. Of course, the high-walled Roman metropolis of Adrianople is long gone, but the site has been constantly occupied since those times, and the present-day city of Edirne sits bang on top of the Roman site. 


Left: Gothic-occupied Roman Thracia in the 4th century AD, with the city of Adrianople at the heart of the troubles.
Right: A Map of Western/European Turkey, with modern Edirne highlighted.

And that brings me to a grave aside I wish I did not have to write: since my visit, Edirne has sadly become embroiled in the Syrian refugee crisis. I recently watched a news report, which followed swathes of hungry, frightened and homeless families trekking down the Istanbul to Edirne highway. It really brought home to me the scale of the troubles. Indeed - and I don't mean to trivialise or use this in any way to sell my books - I have spent the best part of the last decade reading about the impact upon this very same tract of land caused by the flight of the Goths into Roman Thracia in the 4th century AD. Then, it was tribesmen and their families who came in their hundreds of thousands. The Romans made an utter mess of the situation. Today, we are seeing millions of displaced and desperate families entering those lands. I truly hope that in their search for a solution, the European nations can employ wisdom and compassion and dispense with petty squabbles and talk of throwing up walls on their borders. Pragmatism is required to a degree, of course, but let us not forget the lessons of the past.

The Syrian refugees on the Istanbul to Edirne highway; a troubling sight. Let's hope the European nations get this one right.

Adrianople: A Brief History 

Legend has it that the site was first settled in the early Iron Age (roughly 1200-1100 BC) by the Odrysians, a Thracian tribe who called the place 'Odrysia'. It's easy to see why they chose the location - a sizeable tract of arable land cupped on its southern and western sides by the confluence of the River Maritsa (the ancient Hebrus) and the River Tundzha (the ancient Tonsus). The rivers would have served as a protective arm around two sides of the settlement, while providing an excellent water source and a ready-made highway for transport and merchant boats. 

The Romans first claimed the Balkan region in the 1st century AD, but it was a hundred years later when Emperor Hadrian came along and gave his name to a Romanised incarnation of the city - 'Hadrianopolis' or 'Adrianople'. By the 4th century AD, Adrianople was a thriving metropolis right at the heart of the imperial Diocese of Thracia and would have been well known to the legions embroiled in the Gothic War that raged across those lands. Despite the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, and perilous times in the East, Adrianople remained in Roman (then Byzantine) hands until the 9th century AD, when Khan Krum of the Bulgars wrested it from imperial control. Over the centuries that followed, it slipped in and out of the hands of various conquerors - Byzantines, rebel despots, Bulgarians and Ottomans. It was in the 14th century that the Ottomans first graced the city with its modern name 'Edirne' (which is in fact an adapted Turkish form of 'Hadrianopolis').

Modern Edirne

The present-day city finds itself perched on the Turkish side of the meeting point of the Greek, Bulgarian and Turkish borders. While the Roman city occupied just the northeastern bank of the Hebrus and Tonsus confluence, Edirne spreads over onto the Tonsus' (Tundzha's) western banks, and sprawls much further eastwards than the imperial city would have - making it perhaps 6 or more times the size of the Roman-era settlement. Edirne combines an interesting mix of Turkish/eastern architecture with more practical Balkan/western structures. Parts of the city are splendorous, with the beautiful Selimiye Mosque - surely a rival of any of the Islamic wonders in Istanbul - the majestic Maritsa bridge, and the picturesque stretch of restaurants along the northern banks of the river. There's also the Balkan War Museum, the Archaeology Museum, Ottoman palace ruins and an art Museum and a bazaar (far less congested that the Istanbul equivalent, making for a more relaxed visit), so even if you're not into the Roman era of the city (which is sadly underplayed, in my opinion), there's still bucket-loads of stuff to see and do (and the delicious food on offer at the many cafes and restaurants is half the price of that in Istanbul!).

Left: the Selimiye Mosque. Click on Image to see full size. 
Right: The Maritsa Bridge. Click on Image to see full size.

Left: The Bazaar. Click on Image to see full size.
Right: Ruins of the Ottoman palace. Click on Image to see full size.

Digging a Little Deeper...

But I was here to cast a little light on the few remnants of the Adrianople of late antiquity, the Adrianople of Pavo, Gallus and Sura. In truth, there isn't a great deal to see, and as previously mentioned, the Roman era and the Battle of Adrianople itself is barely mentioned or alluded to in the city's tourist information (the same could be said for certain aspects of Istanbul - many of the Roman and Byzantine remnants there are only now being polished and shown off as the archaeological jewels that they are). But fortunately there was enough to set my imagination alight, particularly in the city's western quarter around the archaeological site containing the sturdy turret known as 'The Macedonian Tower'. This small part of the Roman-era city was excavated in 2002, and the findings are nicely laid out and well-served with plaques and diagrams.

Left: The 'Macedonian Tower'. Click on Image to see full size.
Right: The surrounding excavations (looking eastwards).

The Macedonian Tower was built in the 10th century AD and derives its name from the Byzantine ruling dynasty of the time. The tower served as the northeastern bastion of the Byzantine-era settlement, linking with the innermost curtain wall of similar, typically Byzantine style (alternating bands of white dressed stone facing and red, burnt brick masonry sealing in a rubble core). The outermost curtain wall, running just proud of the Byzantine one, belongs to Hadrian's original Roman settlement - the larger limestone blocks are certainly an indicator of more opulent times! This original wall would have remained in place till the time of Pavo, Sura and the XI Claudia in the 4th century AD. Presumably there was also a Roman precursor to the Byzantine tower on roughly the same site. In effect, it seems that the general size and shape of Adrianople did not change vastly over the Roman and Byzantine periods.

Based on the tower's location, I could see how ancient Adrianople was nestled snugly into the protective arm of the river confluence. This map should help illustrate:
Map: The two coloured polygons represent the Roman and Byzantine walls, and the outer line speculates as to the course of the moat Emperor Valens' army excavated when they set up camp outside the city immediately prior to the Battle of Adrianople.

Immediately outside the northern wall, it seems that there was a necropolis. Rather fitting, then, that Emperor Valens chose to set up a moated camp at this spot when he brought his army to the city just prior to the Battle of Adrianople...
Inside the walls, many pottery kilns have been discovered - some of which show signs of damage attributed to attacks by the Goths! The ruins of a Byzantine church lie just a little further inside the city boundaries.

Left: The remains of a pottery oven seemingly damaged or destroyed by the Goths in the 4th century AD. Click on Image to see full size.
Right: A view of the Macedonian Tower from inside the walls. Parts of Hadrian's curtain wall can be seen abutting the tower. Click on Image to see full size.

Standing in that small patch of ruins from long-lost antiquity in a gentle mizzle of rain, I couldn't help but feel detached from the working-day hustle and bustle going on in the surrounding streets. The babble and buzz of the many voices, cars and motorbikes faded into nothing, and I was in another place. Emperor Valens once brought his army to these walls  - just days before the battle that he would never return from, and one that would spell disaster for the Eastern Empire...

Hopefully the Turkish government will one day re-open and extend the excavations. There's an off-chance they might find the outline of Valens' moat. Maybe they'd find some late 4th century Roman armour - after all, the city was known to house a mighty fabrica (arms and armour workshop). Or perhaps they'd find scrolls or tablets containing evidence of some of Sura's more outlandish claims - finest javelin-thrower/fire-walker/weight-lifter/climber/orator of Adrianople? :)


Thanks for reading! If you're interested in taking a mosey back into 4th century Thracia, why not try my Legionary series?


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The Late Roman Legionary - Armour or no Armour?

posted Nov 12, 2015, 2:17 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Nov 12, 2015, 2:45 AM ]


The Roman legionary: an iconic figure in military history. Ask almost anyone to describe these ancient soldiers and I’d bet you a solidus that they use the word ‘armour’. Good armour allowed the legions to dominate the battlefield, moving in tight, well-ordered
formations that were the bane of many a foe. Over the centuries, the legions evolved and so did their equipment: in the Republican era they mainly wore mail; in the Principate period they developed the unmistakeable lorica segmentata. In the later empire they reverted to mail once more (and sometimes scale). But there is a curious anomaly in this progression – a nebulous notion that in the late 4th century AD, legionaries didn't bother wearing armour at all during battle.


Why on earth would a military superpower abandon the use of armour, something that was - and had been for centuries - one of its strengths? And why would the men serving in the legions want to face their sword, spear and bow-wielding foes wearing nothing but an itchy tunic? Well, according to Vegetius, a Roman writer from the period in question, that is exactly what they did:

“…it is plain the infantry are entirely defenceless. From the foundation of the city till the reign of the Emperor Gratian, the foot wore cuirasses and helmets. But negligence and sloth having by degrees introduced a total relaxation of discipline, the soldiers began to think their armour too heavy, as they seldom put it on. They first requested leave from the Emperor to lay aside the cuirass and afterwards the helmet. In consequence of this, our troops in their engagements with the Goths were often overwhelmed with their showers of arrows.” - excerpt from De Re Militari (Latin for: "Concerning Military Matters").

Vegetius attributes this 'negligence and slothfulness' to the soldiers and later on to the imperial military system in general. For a long time, his claims were accepted: but while most went along with his view that the late legionaries did not wear armour, some insisted they did. Now, thanks to the work of modern historians, we have a greater understanding of the period and with that knowledge, we can settle the debate. So, armour or no armour? Which camp is right? 

Er, neither...and both! 

Allow me to explain. Let's take a trip back to late antiquity...

From left: a Republican-era legionary, a Principate-era legionary, then two options for a later, Dominate-era legionary - armour or no armour?

A Changing World

In the late 4th century AD, the Huns surged across the Eurasian Steppe in incalculable numbers, hitting Eastern Europe like a storm. Their arrival shattered the centuries-old Gothic/Germanic pseudo-states north of the Danube and east of the Rhine. The worlds of the Thervingi and Greuthingi Goths, the Quadi, The Alemanni, the Franks, the Saxons and the Vandals were thrown into chaos. Millions of these tribesmen were displaced from their homes by the pillaging Huns. For most, there was only one place to run: west or south… into the empire. Thus, imperial territory was soon swamped by an inflow of foreign peoples. The Romans probably saw them as raiders intent on slaughter, while they would likely have considered themselves as refugees, fighting for their survival.

It was late 376 AD when 100,000 Goths, led by Fritigern, fled like this from the Huns. Fritigern's horde spilled southwards across the River Danube and into the Roman Diocese of Thracia. The sight of them must have sent fear through the veins of every imperial subject - for the Goths had been a truculent neighbour to the empire for many years beforehand. But there was actually an air of promise about Fritigern’s arrival, for he and his people entered imperial territory under truce, wilfully entering a temporary refugee camp and agreeing to provide troops to serve in the legions in exchange for a grant of Roman farming lands within Thracia. However, things quickly turned sour when food ran short and the Roman officers began grievously mistreating the Goths. Legend has it that the Romans offered the starving Goths rotting dog meat to eat and demanded their children - to sell into slavery - in exchange. Unsurprisingly, this sparked a rebellion and the Goths broke free of their vast refugee camp. Suddenly, the thinly-garrisoned lands of Thracia had an army of enraged Goths to deal with. This was the start of the Gothic War. Fritigern led his horde well and battled hard, meeting the legions of Thracia in 377 AD at Ad Salices. It was a bloody pitched battle that lasted an entire day, but it ended in stalemate and solved nothing. 

After Ad Salices, both sides withdrew – the Goths to the north of Thracia and the Romans to the south – each bloodied and dazed. Perhaps it was this inconclusive and brutal clash that drove Fritigern to alter his strategy. Instead of regrouping and planning another direct clash with the legions, he based himself at the town of Kabyle with a small guard, and broke up the rest of his horde into multiple small warbands, assigning each a particular part of Thracia to rove around. Swift and lethal, these warbands made the land their own, striking at Roman wagon trains and razing towns and forts, never remaining in one place for too long. The battered and depleted Thracian legions – pinned in the well-walled cities that the Goths could not take – possessed neither the numbers nor the speed to intercept the warbands. They waited in hope for the arrival of Emperor Valens, who was rumoured to be bringing his Praesental Army (consisting of some 30,000 palace legionaries and crack cavalrymen) in relief. 

And Valens did arrive in Constantinople in May 378 AD, determined to end the Gothic War. Some generals within Valens’ retinue called for him to march at once from the region around Constantinople and out into Thracia. But even with his huge army, the roaming Gothic warbands still presented a conundrum: how could a lumbering, marching column of ironclad legionaries – however numerous – tackle an even more numerous enemy that was as elusive as mist and refused to offer pitched battle?  Valens knew that to lead his army into the heart of a Goth-infested Thracia as a column would be like walking naked into a swarm of hornets: they might attack from any and every direction, or swing down behind his column and cut off his route back to Constantinople. He knew that Fritigern's roving warbands first had to be herded and driven back to their master at Kabyle - forged into one great horde again - before he could bring his Praesental Army to bear in a classic field battle. So, how did he set about herding many thousand of deadly Goths? He called for Sebastianus…

Sebastianus (or Bastianus as I call him in Gods & Emperors), was a general of the Western Empire. He answered Valens’ call immediately. Sebastianus’ nous of abstruse warfare was legendary, and the canny general swiftly demonstrated his wisdom. After reviewing the situation in Thracia, he asked Valens for just a handful of men from each Roman regiment – legionaries, archers, slingers, javelin-throwers and riders  totalling no more than a few thousand. He then instructed this heterogeneous force to shed their armour and any unnecessary burdens, before leading them out into the Goth-infested countryside. They moved not under the sun like a marching column, but at night, stealing across the land like shadows, faces blackened, wearing not a jot of iron garb to catch the moonlight. Swift and silent, Sebastianus’ force caught several of Fritigern’s warbands unawares, falling upon them hard and fast. His most famous success was in infiltrating a large Gothic camp by the River Hebrus late one night: he and his men waded up the shallows of the river to draw alongside the camp, then climbed up the riverbank and fell upon the startled Goths, slaying and scattering them and reclaiming many chests of plundered Roman coins.

A depiction of a Roman guerrilla-style raid on an enemy riverside camp - similar to Sebastianus' attacks on the Gothic warbands in 378 AD. 
Picture courtesy of Gerry Embleton and Osprey Publishing.

In these encounters, armour would have been heavy, noisy and would have blown any chance of them sneaking up on the Goths – one glint of torchlight or moonlight on iron or the 'shushing' of a mail shirt could have been the difference between success and failure… between life and death. More, the nature of combat when they engaged with the Goths like this was nothing liked pitched battle. It did not involve two lines of men advancing slowly towards one another behind a shield wall – instead, it would have been fraught, swift, often one-on-one combat. In this kind of skirmish, being spry and dexterous would have been far more advantageous to the legionaries than the swaddling protection of a mail or scale shirt.

Sebastianus’ proto-guerilla campaign eventually forced Fritigern to abandon his strategy and recall his roaming warbands. With the horde reunited, it was only a matter of time before they would face Emperor Valens and his Army. And face them they did, on the 9th August 378 AD, at an as-yet-unlocated site roughly a morning’s march north of Adrianople. When the imperial legions lined up across from the Gothic horde at the infamous Battle of Adrianople, they did so… wearing armour*. Why? Because in this situation, armour was clearly advantageous. There was no call for the stealth and speed of Sebastianus' sorties, no need to move in silence or stay unseen. Now they were face-to-face with the enemy, on open ground, horns blaring and banners waving - a classic pitched battle. The Roman legions lined up in a phalanx of sorts, shoulder-to-shoulder, helms strapped on, iron vests buckled in place, shields interlocked to form an impenetrable barrier, showing the Goths just their spear tips and the fire in their eyes. Here, armoured torsos and helms on heads offered strength, weight and unity to their battle line.

* Our primary source for the battle comes from the Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, who states that the legionaries at Adrianople were ‘weighed down by the burden of their armour’.

One of my favourite depictions of the Battle of Adrianople. I can only assume that Angus McBride was in two minds as to whether to believe Vegetius when he inked this masterpiece, as we see some legionaries in scale and mail, with others wearing just helmets.

So there is my theory: the 4th century AD legionaries almost certainly did wear armour when engaged in pitched battle*, but shed it when they employed what we would describe as 'guerilla' tactics - something that became more and more prevalent in the twilight of antiquity (when costly field combat became a rarer occurrence too). Vegetius' claims that they wore no armour simply because they were lazy, or because the military system was crumbling, simply does not tally with the narratives of the Gothic War (chiefly that of Ammianus Marcellinus). 

This poses one final, additional question: why did Vegetius get it wrong? 

*There may well be some weight in the thinking that as time progressed, the late legions opted to dress just the front few ranks of their infantry in armour (a tactical and logistical choice); this certainly became a standard practice in later ‘Byzantine’ times. Such a notion has even been mooted regarding the iconic lorica segmenta-clad legions of the Principate. 

The Problem with Vegetius

Vegetius authored two texts: De Re Militari, and another work focused on Veterinary medicine. We don't know for sure what his occupation was, but one has to question his credentials and motivations for writing military commentaries - just as one should always question and try to understand the agenda of any historical treatise to shed a more critical light on its content (some texts can prove to be solid and dependable, while others, particularly panegyrics and polemics, can be turn out to be significantly detached from reality - Jordanes' Getica, a work produced to please an Ostrogothic king, being a prime example of the latter).

Regarding Vegetius' credentials: it seems that he was chiefly a vet and secondarily a bureaucrat, but never a military man; modern historians such as Elton, Goldsworthy and MacDowall point to his accounts of 4th century AD warfare which they describe as 'somewhat stilted and confused'. They argue that it is very likely that Vegetius misunderstood the diversity of military tactics that were employed during the Gothic War. 

Apropos his motivation: Vegetius was something of a romanticist, lamenting the lost ways of the ‘legions of old’ (in De Re Militari, he digresses to reminisce over the manipular legions of the Republican era) without really understanding the tactical and strategic necessity of the late 4th century AD legions' art of war. This is quite possibly why he reported on Sebastianus' – very successful if unconventional – guerilla campaign as a martial nadir simply because it did not live up to his expectation of the Roman way of war. 

To supplement the above theory, we can look to the historical facts - the litany of artefactual, monumental, literary and epigraphic evidence for the use of armour before, during and after the period he denounces. For example:

1. The arch of Galerius, the Via Latium Catacombs and the Moesiaci tombstone (below, left, middle & right) host early-mid 4th century reliefs of legionaries clearly wearing armour. 

2. Our primary source for the battle comes from the Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, states that the legionaries at Adrianople were ‘weighed down by the burden of their armour’.

3. Many examples of both scale armour and quite large sections of mail have been recovered, at Trier and Weiler-La-Tour respectively, within 4th-century contexts. Above (left), is a fragment of 4th century Roman scale and above (right), is a modern depiction of how a 4th century Roman legionary wearing a scale vest.
Scale Fragment 

4. The Notitia Dignitatum (Latin: "The List of Offices") lists 35 armour-producing fabricae (arms factories) and their locations in the early 5th century. The majority of these had been in existence and producing arms and armour since the time of Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century.  This one is a reconstruction at the Saalburg Roman fort.

5. An image from De Rebus Bellicis (Latin: "On the Matter of Wars"), and shows a 4th century legionary and his kit. Notice the helmet and two iron mail vests.
Late Roman Infantryman

And Finally

So there you have it. It's been a pleasure to explore this topic; digging into what seemed to be a yes/no question at the outset has allowed me to understand the era I love just that little bit more. I hope you've enjoyed the discussion too ;)

And if you'd like to read about the legionaries who faced the Gothic horde, you can relive those fraught times in my Legionary series!

    Legionary: Gods & Emperors

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Reference Texts
  • Ammianus’ Account of the Adrianople Campaign: Some Strategic Observations, N.J.E. Austin
  • Late Roman infantryman 265-565 AD, Simon MacDowall
  • Adrianople 378: The Goths Crush Rome's Legions, Simon MacDowall
  • Ammianus Marcellinus, The Roman History of, book 31 
  • The Complete Roman Army, Adrian Goldsworthy
  • De Re Militari, Vegetius - 
  • De Rebus Bellicis, Anonymous
  • Notitia Dignitatum, Various/Anonymous
  • The Cambridge History of the Greek and Roman Warfare Vol 2 , Philip Sabin and Hans van Wees, section referenced by Hugh Elton


Searching for the Battle of Adrianople

posted Nov 6, 2015, 3:20 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Nov 27, 2015, 3:14 AM ]

On 9th August 378 AD, under a blistering-hot Thracian sun, two-thirds of the Eastern Roman Army was slaughtered. Emperor Valens fell along with his legions. It was the day of the Goths... it was the Battle of Adrianople.

The time-period has had me in its talons for nearly a decade. The Legionary series is entrenched in the brutal chain of events of those times: the coming of the Huns, the flight of the great Gothic tribes into Roman territory and the colossal upheaval and destruction that ensued in what was known as ‘the Gothic War’. The Battle of Adrianople was one of the bloodiest encounters of that savage conflict, and one that remains surrounded by unanswered questions and misconceptions. 

So when I had the chance to visit the ancient Roman city of Adrianople (modern Edirne in northwest Turkey) and explore the countryside nearby where the clash is thought to have occurred, I set my mind to exploring and investigating in an attempt to answer what is probably the battle's greatest riddle: where exactly did it occur?

Legionary: Gods & Emperors
That's right, we still don't know. Anything between 20,000-80,000 men died on that fateful day. Legionary bodies, banners, helms, swords, spears, shields and Gothic equivalents would have been strewn all across the blood-soaked soil. Most of this would have been cleared away or scavenged in the immediate aftermath, but surely a great deal of it must remain where it fell. Somewhere outside Edirne, there must be a wealth of archaeological remains, fixed forever underneath the modern topsoil. Yet there has never been a positive identification of the battle site. There have, however, been two main candidate locations proposed by modern historians. 

So, armed with a camera, chewing gum, a hire car totally unsuited to the mud-track roads (white and shiny when we picked it up, mud-brown with bald tyres when we returned it) and a very understanding wife, I set about exploring these two sites. The first part of this blog is a narrative of the Gothic War and the battle itself, which should help provide a frame of reference for my findings, further down the page.

I have to stress that I am merely an amateur historian – but an obsessively enthusiastic one nonetheless. I expect some readers may appreciate the concise nature of my investigation, others may feel I am not delving deeply into certain aspects, but I hope all can enjoy the journey with me.

Finally, beware that this discussion contains some spoilers to the fifth book in the Legionary series – Gods & Emperors… I’ve heard it’s a must-read ;)

The Road to War

So why did the Romans and the Goths meet in battle on that fateful day? One man - a contemporary of the brave legionaries and Goths who died on the plains of Thracia - is best placed to explain...

A Voice from History
There are many fine books discussing the Gothic War and the Battle of Adrianople, but all of them draw from one primary source: Ammianus Marcellinus’ ‘Roman History’, written in or before 391 AD, is a gold mine but a labyrinthine one that delivers as many dead ends as it does precious finds. Detail is rich one moment then fleeting the next, and putting shape to times, places, and events is a bit like nailing jelly/garum to a tree. Ammianus was a military man but this is not a strictly military chronicle, which perhaps explains the patchiness of his accounts in places. Another explanation is the suspicion that Ammianus is not thought to have been an eye witness to the battle, but is likely to have visited Thracia after the Gothic Wars to assess and understand the events (I wonder if he hired a pristine, white wagon and handed it back in a muddy mess to a raging trader?).

I should point out that I am not fluent in Latin, so I rely upon the translations of Ammianus and subsequent investigative work performed by many esteemed historians including N.J.E. Austin, Hans Delbruck, Peter Donnelly, Ian Hughes, Noel Lenski, Simon MacDowall, F. Runkel and Herwig Wolfram amongst others.

Thracia: a Land in Turmoil
Ammianus describes how the Roman Diocese of Thracia bore the brunt of the Gothic War. This land is well-trodden by the legionaries of the XI Claudia in my Legionary series, and here’s a map of that region with some of the key locations mentioned in this blog:

Timeline of Events Leading up to the Battle of Adrianople
  • 376 AD
    • Pressurised by the growing Hun threat north of the Danube, Fritigern’s Thervingi Goths – thought to number more than one hundred thousand people – successfully plead with Emperor Valens for entry into and sanctuary within imperial territory.
    • The Goths cross the Danube and end up clustered in Roman Moesia in a refugee camp, near the XI Claudia legionary barracks by the river town of Durostorum. Starvation soon sets in. Added to this, the Roman officers Lupicinus and Maximus resort to barbaric measures, offering scraps of dog meat in return for Gothic children who will serve as slaves/hostages.
  • 377 AD
    • Lupicinus invites Fritigern to a banquet at Marcianople then makes a botched attempt to assassinate the Gothic leader. This is the final straw that incites a Gothic revolt. They rampage around the Roman countryside, shattering the river forts and plundering and looting towns.
    • Worse, the Greuthingi Goths, led by Alatheus and Saphrax, flood across the now undefended Danube, bringing their huge cavalry forces with them and forging an alliance with Fritigern and his army.
    • Soon afterwards, this Gothic alliance meets a patchwork Roman army – consisting of the Moesian limitanei and a cluster of legions sent from the Persian frontier. The battle, at an as-yet unidentified place known as Ad Salices (“The town by the willows”), is a bloody stalemate. Afterwards, the Goths pull back to northern Thracia/Moesia, while the legions withdraw to southern Thracia.
    • The shattered remnant of the Roman forces resort to blocking the Haemus Mountain passes (which divide southern and northern Thracia) in an effort to contain the Goths in the north. But the Goths break through and all Thracia – right up to Constantinople’s walls, comes under threat. 
    • The Roman general, Frigeridus, manages to contain a spike of attempted Gothic expansion towards the Western Empire, defeating the Gothic warlord Farnobius at the Succi Pass (near modern Sofia in Bulgaria). It is a small but important victory, keeping the Goths within Thracia.
  • 378 AD
    • Fritigern realises he can't break the walls of the mighty imperial cities, but he can effectively seize control of the countryside and the road networks. Thus, he tasks his Gothic warbands with roaming far and wide, raiding smaller towns and destroying attempts at transporting food and supplies between the cities.
    • May 31st. Emperor Valens finally manages to extract his Praesental Army (his crack palace legions and specialist cavalry) from the Persian frontier and brings them to Constantinople, on Thracia's southeastern corner. More, Western Emperor Gratian has promised to bring his western army from Gaul to the scene of the trouble.
    • June 11th. Valens marches his army of roughly thirty thousand men from Constantinople to the Imperial estate of Melanthias where they prepare to tackle Fritigern’s numerous roaming warbands.
    • Magister Peditum (Master of the Infantry) Sebastianus is despatched north into the thick of the Gothic-held lands to wage a guerrilla war and weaken Fritigern’s morale.
    • The guerrilla war works, and by late July, it forces Fritigern to gather his distributed mini-armies into one great horde once again. The Goths assemble at Kabyle and they march south through the Tonsus valley towards Roman-held Adrianople and the nearby and vital waystation of Nike.
    • At the same time, Valens leads his army north from Melanthias, along the Via Militaris, towards Adrianople. Passing the fortified imperial waystation of Nike along the way.
    • Soon, Valens reaches Adrianople and sets up a moated camp outside the city’s walls. Gratian and his army are nowhere to be seen and reports indicate they are still a long way off arriving in Thracia. Valens knows Fritigern’s forces have by now spilled from the Tonsus valley and onto the plains north of the city. It is almost certain that Fritigern’s aim is not to assault Adrianople, but to skirt around it and hasten towards and take Nike. Valens faces the choice of waiting on Gratian or marching to face Fritigern alone.
    • Valens’ key men debate the wisdom of staying put or not. In the end, Valens decides not to wait on Gratian and marches out to engage Fritigern instead. Why? Well, popular theory points to the rivalry that existed between Valens and Gratian – this may have been responsible for Gratian’s infuriatingly slow progress (perhaps to anger Valens and demonstrate his own authority) and Valens eventual ‘hasty’ decision to end the wait for the western reinforcements (and snatch victory for himself alone). More likely, however, Valens was acutely aware of the implications of Fritigern taking Nike. The loss of this waystation would hamstring Valens’ campaign, depriving them of supplies and a supply/reinforcement route from Constantinople. And, surely clinching his decision, Valens’ scouts inform him that Fritigern’s forces lack any cavalry support – the formidable Greuthingi riders of Alatheus and Saphrax have abandoned the horde. Fritigern’s infantry are numerous and fierce, but surely defeatable.
    • On 9th August, Valens leads his army from the camp and on through the plains north of Adrianople. Due to the known closeness of the Goths, they march in full armour under a withering, dog-day sun. Thirst and fatigue soon take hold. Around noon, they sight Fritigern’s horde. The Goths have arrayed their wagons in a laager/wall atop a defensible area of high ground. A broad and deep line of spearmen and archers stand before the wagon wall, ready to defend their elevated position.

      • ...the day of reckoning has arrived.

The Battle - 9th August 378 AD


Size estimates of the opposing forces’ vary, some arguing that each side fielded around fifteen thousand men, others claim it was more than sixty thousand warriors each. Most agree, however, that numbers would have been equal, or that maybe the Romans would have enjoyed a slight advantage. I discuss the legions of this era a little more, here and here.

Phases of Battle
  • Phase 1: the armies draw close, with the Romans ascending the baked slope towards the Gothic wagon wall on the crest of their high-ground.
  • Phase 2: once the Romans have halted near the top of the ridge, petty skirmishing (thrown rocks, insults and mock-charges) occurs while frantic last-minute negotiations take place between Valens and Fritigern.
  • Phase 3: Roman cavalry units on the right disobey orders not to engage and charge the Gothic spearmen.
  • Phase 4: Alatheus and Saphrax along with several thousand Greuthingi cavalry arrive unexpectedly at the scene of the battle (Ian Hughes argues the case well that the Greuthingi arrived on the Roman right), driving off the Roman cavalry there then surrounding and crushing the Roman infantry lines. By dusk, the broken remnants of the legions broke away, fleeing for their lives as the Goths cheered in victory.

The Battlefield

Based on the phases (above), the battle is likely to have taken shape as in the following illustration, with the decisive arrival of the Gothic cavalry happening at phase 4.
Battle of Adrianople


With the Eastern Roman Army in ruins, Thracia was Fritigern’s in all but name. The 9th August 378 AD was supposed to be the day the Gothic War was won; instead, it became a black stain on Roman history, it ensured the Gothic War continued and – longer-term – gave rise to the Gothic confederation known as the Visigoths, who would one day sack Rome itself.

Some say the battle marked the end of the era of infantry dominance on the battlefield, but this is an exaggeration. Yes, this was the last time Rome's legions resembled anything like those of better days, but the forces that met outside Adrianople were primarily composed of infantry. From the late 4th century onwards, cavalry certainly grew ‘heavier’ but infantry still dominated armies, numerically at least, with an infantry:cavalry ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 commonplace well into late Byzantine times.

Searching for the Battle Site

So where did this great clash occur? Well, let’s examine what evidence we have:

On the morning of the 9th August 378 AD, Valens and his army marched in a merciless heat (August temperatures regularly reach 40 °C in this part of the world). Ammianus states: “So after hastening a long distance over rough ground, while the hot day was advancing toward noon, finally at the eighth hour they saw the wagons of the enemy.”

This translation implies that the Romans had marched for eight hours, or as other translations have it to the eighth milestone outside the city, when they spotted the Gothic wagon laagers formed up in the distance. A later work, the Consularia Constantinopolitana, claims that the battle occurred twelve miles from Adrianople. So a rough radius of 10-12 miles seems to be a fair range within which to locate the battle site.

Ammianus also indicates where Fritigern halted his horde in reference to other, known locations: “The barbarians… arrived within fifteen miles from the station of Nike, which was the aim of their march… when the emperor… resolved on attacking them.”

Our historian also states that Fritigern and his horde halted three days after something. What that ‘something’ is remains unclear, but Donnelly argues convincingly that it refers to the Goths’ arrival at the southern end of the Tonsus valley. If this was the case, then we are looking for a site roughly three days’ march (at the lumbering pace a horde would move) from the southern end of the Tonsus valley, towards the Nike waystation. However, this wouldn’t be a direct route as such a path would take them past and dangerously close to Adrianople.

So, this means we are looking for somewhere located:
  • roughly ten to twelve miles north/northeast of Adrianople.
  • around fifteen miles from the waystation of Nike.
  • about three days southeast of the Tonsus valley’s southern end.

Added to that, we are looking for a spot with attributes which would have convinced Fritigern to halt his horde, i.e. somewhere:
  • defensible, most likely a piece of raised ground.
    • the location was described as ‘secure’ by Sozomen.
  • capable of holding the reported 100,000 Gothic warriors and families who followed him.
  • that gave him control of the only nearby water source.
    • Ammianus describes how Fritigern went on to use some resource – almost certainly water – as a bargaining chip/potential truce offering to the thirsty Romans. This would only be a viable strategy if the Romans themselves had no access to water to replenish their flasks (which were seemingly empty or close to empty by the time the two sides had drawn up to face one another).

And finally, given the pivotal moment in the battle occurred when the Greuthingi cavalry unexpectedly appeared, we have to ask how the terrain itself might allow for that. So, our last criterion is that the site should:
  • offer some means of disguising the approach of a large (possibly as large as ten thousand riders) cavalry wing.

The Candidate Sites

Two sites in the 10-12 mile zone have been identified and long debated. MacDowall and Potter point to the ridge immediately south of Muratçalı (a farming village north of Edirne/Adrianople), while Donnelly, Runkel and Lenski insist the dominant ridge at Demirhanlı (another village northeast of Edirne) is the one. So, with the criteria outlined above, I visited each location.

Above: the two candidate battle sites in relation to the city of Adrianiople

Site 1 - Muratçalı

We drove north from Edirne, passing through the farming village of Boyuk Doluk – rumoured to be the site of the farmhouse where Emperor Valens retreated to after the battle, wounded, and then died. 
Upon exiting this village we saw, as MacDowall stated we would, the dominant ridge that rests a mile or so further north:
Left: the ridge, as seen from our approach from the south.  
Right: the ridge as seen - on a far finer day - from the north.

Next, we made our way up onto the ridge. It was incredibly still and utterly silent given how high and exposed we were. I must admit it was a rather poignant moment for me, bringing a touch of reality to the legend I’ve spent the last decade writing about:
Left: Following in the footsteps of...Pavo, Gallus...Ammianus? That's me trudging northwards up the last stretch of the slope towards the flat ground atop the ridge; this is the route the Romans would have taken to engage with the Goths who were arrayed on the tip of the slope.
Right: Now on top of the ridge, the camera is looking south. This is the vista the Goths would have had of the approaching Romans (who might have been even more devilishly handsome/frighteningly ugly than the fellow in this pic).

Main: The ridge levels out onto a large-ish plateau. This photo is taken from the northern end/back of the plateau, looking south along the flat area (the point where road meets sky is where I was standing in the previous photo). While Fritigern's warriors would have been arrayed along the distant edge of the plateau, facing south, the rest of the families, tents and animals would have been encamped on this stretch of ground.

Looking down on Muratcali Town
Main: at the northern edge of the ridge, looking downhill to the modern village of Muratçalı (I've effectively turned 180 degrees from the previous pic).

So, how did Muratçalı fit the criteria for the battle site?
  • Located roughly ten to twelve miles north/northeast of Adrianople? 
    • The ridge is just over ten miles north and slightly east of Adrianople/Edirne.
  • Located around fifteen miles from the waystation of Nike? 
    • The site is eighteen miles from the mooted location of Nike. A little bit of a stretch but an acceptable one.
  •  Located about three days southeast of the Tonsus valley’s southern end? 
    • The distance from the Tonsus river valley to the Muratçalı site could be covered in a morning, even by a lumbering horde. Indeed, the Tonsus river is almost visible from the Muratçalı ridge.
  • Offers some means of disguising the approach of a large (possibly as large as ten thousand riders) cavalry wing? 
    • This is a shaky ‘for’. If the Romans were approaching from the south of the ridge, then the ridge itself could indeed mask the Gothic cavalry, were they approaching from the north. One thing that no site could truly disguise, however, is the colossal dust cloud that approaching horsemen in this number would surely cast up. On a baking-hot afternoon, a golden plume would be visible for miles. Perhaps when the Goths took to lighting dry grass in the moments before battle commenced (as Ammianus describes it: “Our soldiers, already suffering from the summer heat, to become parched and exhausted by the conflagration of the vast plain; as the enemy had, with this object, set fire to the crops by means of burning faggots and fuel.”), they did so – as Donnelly suggests – In order to raise a literal smokescreen that would obscure the approach of their cavalry from behind the ridge?
  • Defensible? 
    • Clearly, this site offers a sound, defensible location. The ridge resembles an oppidum of sorts.
  • Space for 100 thousand Goths? 
    • The Muratçalı ridge is maybe a tight squeeze for the reported 100k Goths, but not unfeasibly so. I'm basing this on an - admittedly layman's - comparison of the acreage of the ridge and the slope behind (running down to Muratçalı) which comes in at roughly 500 acres against the site of the modern Glastonbury festival (140k people, 900 acres).
  • Water sources for Fritigern to control?
    • There is a significant stream running E-W immediately behind Muratçalı, though it is hard to tell if this is ancient or borne from modern cultivation. In places it looks very straight and elsewhere it has the look of a natural waterway:
      Muratcali water source

Site 2 - Demirhanlı

After a somewhat comedy navigational malfunction (involving the satnav on/off button falling off and the thing packing in), we spent the next few hours traversing quagmires and hair-whiteningly narrow dirt causeways with tarns/pools on either side but finally found our way back to Edirne. Topping up the car with diesel and our bellies with juicy lamb kebabs, we then set out to the east – presumably the route of a Roman march from Edirne to the Demirhanlı site. We crossed a series of small rises along the way, yet these were but false summits, because after about ten miles, we came over one gentle hill and sighted Demirhanlı, a small town perched on the edge of another formidable ridge. 
Left: The ridge at Demirhanlı, viewed from the west (as the Romans would have approached it).
Right: The ridge is vast and quite imposing, almost like bluffs at its southern extent.

Driving up through Demirhanlı, I noticed that this 'ridge' was in fact more like a shelf - the land behind it remained at a similar elevation for many miles.
Main: The vast expanse of flat, high ground north east of Demirhanlı - stretching for miles.

So, how did Demirhanlıfit the criteria for the battle site?
  • Located roughly ten to twelve miles north/northeast of Adrianople?
    • The ridge is just over nine miles east and slightly north of Adrianople/Edirne.
  • Located around fifteen miles from the waystation of Nike?
    • The site is just eleven miles from the mooted location of Nike.
  • Located about three days southeast of the Tonsus valley’s southern end?
    • The location of the site fits with the distance the horde could have moved in the three days that passed between the raiding party’s movements and the morning of the battle.
  • Offers some means of disguising the approach of a large (possibly as large as ten thousand riders) cavalry wing?
    • This, as with Muratçalı, is a shaky ‘for’. If the Romans were approaching from the west of the ridge, then Gothic cavalry atop and behind the ridge would be rendered invisible. The dust cloud remains though as an enigma. As well as the smokescreen theory, some have suggested that perhaps the cavalry approached along a damp stream bed, knowing far less dust would be cast up as a result.
  • Defensible?
    • Absolutely. The ridge resembles a rampart in places and is would oblige any encroaching Roman army to climb a far steeper slope than at Muratçalı.
  • Space for 100 thousand Goths? 
    • The ridge at Demirhanlı is extensive and easily big enough to accommodate the Goths. Actually, the 'ridge' is really more like a beginning of a shelf, east and north of the town, that runs for miles and miles (all the way to Mons Asticus presumably). This would seem like a stronger position than Muratçalı (which could be more easily surrounded).
  • Water sources for Fritigern to control?
    • MacDowall argues that there are none, Donnelly insists there are some. Indeed, there are water sources nearby. This pic shows a broad stream outside Demirhanlı (running N-S):
      Demirhanli water source
      but this stream is a good half mile west of the town (Demirhanlı is behind the small rise in the top left of the pic). If the Goths held the ridge, and the wagon laagers upon it were in effect the Gothic ‘front line’ then it would suggest they did not hold this waterway. If the Romans were marching east from Adrianople then they would have come to and been able to utilise this brook as they approached the Gothic lines. This doesn’t tally up with Ammianus’ reports (the interpretation of which deduce that) the Romans were thirsty and that Fritigern was able to use water as a bargaining chip.
      Of course, this arguments stands or falls upon whether the waterway in the picture was in existence 1600 years ago! Also, it is possible that if the Goths knew of the Romans approach from the west they could have polluted the water, making it unfit for human consumption. Or, indeed, they may have simply unwittingly polluted the water by way of passing by or through it (so many people and horses fouling could easily render such a narrow waterway undrinkable).


As you can see from my findings above it’s hard to identify one clear candidate. Emotionally, I connected with the Muratçalı site more readily – perhaps because it was the first of the two I visited, and perhaps because I only recently read up on the Demirhanlı theory. But looking at it rationally, we have two flawed candidates. The paltry distance between the Tonsus and the Muratçalı site doesn’t make sense when you consider the sound argument that the Goths had been on the move for three days since leaving the Tonsus valley. Equally, the water source west of Demirhanlı weakens this site’s merits (as does its over-closeness to Nike). I have to reiterate that we are not dealing with an exact science here: the criteria of water sources, location relative to Nike etc are all based on the many educated but varying and sometimes contradictory Ammianus translations. Shifting sands, eh?

So how do we root out a definitive answer? Well, investigation using the latest imaging techniques and metal-detecting would seem like a logical next step (and certainly a step up from an inquisitive chap with muddy shoes, a muddy car, a camera and an over-active imagination). Muratçalı and Demirhanlı could be swiftly ruled out or hailed as the true site, or perhaps another site might come to light. Given the ambiguity of the eight hour/eighth milestone thing – perhaps the scope of exploration should be widened? But such ventures aren't on the cards as things stand. The Turkish people seem to underplay their magnificent Byzantine and Roman heritage, while funding and permissions remain a constant barrier to an in-depth search. And that is such a shame, because there is a treasure out there, waiting to be discovered. In any case - and you can call this cheesy or overly poetic if you like - I certainly found my treasure out there.

And, of course, if you fancy reliving the fraught lives of the legionaries in the time of the Battle of can! My Legionary series will take you there!


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Reference Texts
  • The Barbarian Invasions (History of the Art of War, vol. 2), Hans Delbrück
  • Ammianus’ Account of the Adrianople Campaign: Some Strategic Observations, N.J.E. Austin
  • History of the Goths, Herwig Wolfram (trans. Walter J. Dunlap)
  • Late Roman infantryman 265-565 AD, Simon MacDowall
  • Ammianus Marcellinus, The Roman History of, book 31 
  • What happened at Adrianople? Peter Donnelly
  • Adrianople 378: The Goths Crush Rome's Legions, Simon MacDowall
  • The Goths (The Peoples of Europe), Peter Heather
  • Strategikon, Maurice
  • Rome’s Gothic Wars, Michael Kulikowski
  • Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon
  • Byzantium and its Army, Warren Treadgold
  • Failure of Empire, Noel Lenski 
  • Legions in Crisis, Paul Elliot 
  • The Fall of the Roman Empire – The Military Explanation, Arther Ferrill 
  • The Day of the Barbarians, Alessandro Barbero
  • Imperial Brothers, Ian Hughes 
  • The Cambridge History of the Greek and Roman Warfare Vol 2 , Philip Sabin and Hans van Wees
  • Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, Richard J.A. Talbert
  • Exploratio: Military & Political Intelligence in the Roman World from the Second Punic War to the Battle of Adrianople, N. J. E. Austin and N. B. Rankov
  • Goths and Romans (332-489AD), Peter Heather
  • Ecclesiastical history, Sozomen

Legionary: Gods & Emperors

posted Oct 24, 2015, 4:31 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jan 16, 2016, 2:44 AM ]

Gods & Emperors
The fate of the East rests on the edge of a sword as the legions and the Goths march to war…

378 AD: Fritigern’s Gothic horde tightens its iron grip on Thracia and only a handful of well-walled cities to the south remain in imperial hands. The few tattered legions pinned in these cities can only watch on from the battlements as smoke rises across their lost lands and the Goths roam at will, pillaging and extorting. Every Roman – legionary or citizen – speaks of only one thing: the Emperors of East and West, Valens and Gratian, who are said to be closing swiftly on this war-stricken land, each bringing with them vast armies capable of vanquishing the horde.

Awaiting the relief armies in Constantinople, Centurion Pavo and the XI Claudia prepare as best they can. The Gothic War has taken much from each of them, and none more so than Pavo. But still he and his fellow officers cling to the chance that two lost to them might yet return: their leaders, Tribunus Gallus and Primus Pilus Dexion – Pavo’s brother – have not been seen or heard from since setting off on a mission to Emperor Gratian’s court in the West. Some are sure they must have fallen, yet Pavo refuses to give up hope, instead whetting his blade and praying that fate will guide the pair back in time for the clash that is to come: a clash that promises to end the Gothic War – for the empire’s finest legions are destined to meet Fritigern’s ferocious masses… on the plains of Adrianople.

Gli Invasori Dell'Impero

posted Aug 30, 2015, 9:24 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Sep 29, 2015, 2:51 AM ]

The Italian edition of the second book in the Legionary series - Viper of the North - is now alive and kicking! 

It's been eighteen months since part one came out, and it's every bit as pleasing to see part two in all its glory. 

A big thanks to Ian and Gaia at Shiel Land Associates and the guys at Newton Compton Editori for making this happen. Equally, a massive thank you to all you kind readers out there who have tried my books, helped to spread the word and kept me encouraged and inspired!


L'edizione italiana del secondo libro della serie Legionario - Viper del nord - è ora vivo e vegeto !

Sono passati diciotto mesi da parte è venuto fuori , ed è altrettanto piacevole vedere la seconda parte in tutta la sua gloria .

Un grande grazie a Ian e Gaia a Shiel Land Associati e ragazzi di Newton Compton Editori per rendere questo accada . Allo stesso modo , un enorme grazie a tutti voi gentili lettori là fuori che hanno provato i miei libri , ha contribuito a diffondere la parola e mi ha tenuto incoraggiato e ispirato !

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