The History, 31.7

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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7This news from Thrace was received with great sorrow, and caused the Emperor Valens much anxiety. He instantly sent Victor, the commander of the cavalry, into Persia, to make such arrangements in Armenia as were required by the impending danger. While he himself prepared at once to quit Antioch and go to Constantinople, sending before him Profuturus and Trajan, both officers of rank and ambition, but of no great skill in war.

2When they arrived at the place where it seemed most expedient to combat this hostile multitude in detail and by ambuscades and surprises, they very injudiciously adopted the ill-considered plan of opposing the legions which had arrived from Armenia to barbarians who were still raging like madmen. Though the legions had repeatedly proved equal to the dangers of a pitched battle and regular warfare, they were not suited to encounter an innumerable host which occupied all the chains of the lofty hills, and also all the plains.

3Our men had never yet experienced what can be effected by indomitable rage united with despair, and so having driven back the enemy beyond the abrupt precipices of the Balkan, they seized upon the rugged defiles in order to hem in the barbarians on ground from which they would be unable to find any exit, and where it seemed they might be overcome by famine. They themselves intended to await the arrival of Frigeridus, the duke, who was hastening towards them with the auxiliaries from Pannonia and other countries, and whom, at the request of Valens, Gratian had commanded to march to the camp to aid those who were menaced with total destruction.

4After him, Richomeres, at that time count of the domestics, who also, by the command of Gratian, had moved forwards from Gaul, hastened towards Thrace, bringing with him some cohorts, which were cohorts in name, though the greater portion of them had already deserted (if we would believe some people) by the persuasion of Merobaudes, fearing lest Gaul, now divested of all the troops, would be ravaged without check after the barbarians had forced the passage of the Rhine.

5But Frigeridus was prevented from moving by the gout, or at all events (as some of his malicious detractors represented it), he pleaded sickness as an excuse for not being present in the struggles which were expected, and so Richomeres, being unanimously called to the chief command, with Profuturus and Trajan for his colleagues, advanced towards the town of Salices—at no great distance from which was a countless host of barbarians, arranged in a circle, with a great multitude of waggons for a rampart around them, behind which, as if protected by a spacious wall, they enjoyed ease and an abundance of booty.

6Filled with hopes of success, the Roman generals—resolved on some gallant enterprise should fortune afford them an opportunity—were carefully watching the movements of the Goths! having formed the design—if they moved their camp in any other direction, which they were very much in the habit of doing—to fall upon their rear, making no doubt that they should slay many of them, and recover a great portion of their spoil.

7When the barbarians learnt this, probably through the information of some deserter, from whom they obtained a knowledge of our operations, they remained for some time in the same place; but at last, being influenced by fear of the opposing army, and of the reinforcements which might be expected to throng to them, they assembled, by a preconcerted signal, the predatory bands dispersed in different districts, and which, the moment they received the orders of their leaders, returned like firebrands, with the swiftness of birds, to their “encampment of chariots” (as they call it), and thus gave their countrymen confidence to attempt greater enterprises.

8After this there was no cessation of hostilities between the two parties except what was afforded by a few short truces; for after those men had returned to the camp whom necessity had forced to quit it, the whole body which was crowded within the circuit of the encampment, being full of fierce discontent, excitement, and a most ferocious spirit, and now reduced to the greatest extremities, were eager for bloodshed: nor did their chiefs, who were present with them, resist their desire; and as the resolution to give battle was taken when the sun was sinking, and when the approach of night invited the sullen and discontented troops to rest, they took some food quietly, but remained all night sleepless.

9On the other hand the Romans, knowing what was going on, kept themselves also awake, fearing the enemy and their insane leaders as so many furious wild beasts: nevertheless, with fearless minds they awaited the result, which, though they acknowledged it to be doubtful in respect of their inferiority in number, they still trusted would be propitious because of the superior justice of their cause.

10Therefore the next day, as soon as it was light, the signal for taking arms having been given by the trumpets on both sides, the barbarians, after having, in accordance with their usual custom, taken an oath to remain faithful to their standards, attempted to gain the higher ground, in order that from it they might descend down the steep like wheels, overwhelming their enemy by the vigour of their attack. When this was seen, our soldiers all flocked to their proper regiments, and then stood firm, neither turning aside nor in any instance even leaving their ranks to rush forward.

11Therefore when the armies on both sides, advancing more cautiously, at last halted and stood immovable, the warriors, with mutual sternness, surveying each other with fierce looks. The Romans in every part of their line sang warlike songs, with a voice rising from a lower to a higher key, which they call barritus, and so encouraged themselves to gallant exertions. But the barbarians, with dissonant clamour, shouted out the praises of their ancestors, and amid their various discordant cries, tried occasional light skirmishes.

12And now each army began to assail the other with javelins and other similar missiles; and then with threatening shouts rushed on to close combat, and packing their shields together like a testudo, they came foot to foot with their foes. The barbarians, active, and easily rallied, hurled huge bludgeons, burnt at one end, against our men, and vigorously thrust their swords against the opposing breasts of the Romans, till they broke our left wing; but as it recoiled, it fell back on a strong body of reserve which was vigorously brought up on their flank, and supported them just as they were on the very point of destruction.

13Therefore, while the battle raged with vast slaughter, each individual soldier rushing fiercely on the dense ranks of the enemy, the arrows and javelins flew like hail; the blows of swords were equally rapid; while the cavalry, too, pressed on, cutting down all who fled with terrible and mighty wounds on their backs; as also on both sides did the infantry, slaughtering and hamstringing those who had fallen down, and through fear were unable to fly.

14And when the whole place was filled with corpses, some also lay among them still half alive, vainly cherishing a hope of life, some of them having been pierced with bullets hurled from slings, others with arrows barbed with iron. Some again had their heads cloven in half with blows of swords, so that one side of their heads hung down on each shoulder in a most horrible manner.

15Meanwhile, stubborn as the conflict was, neither party was wearied, but they still fought on with equal valour and equal fortune, nor did any one relax in his sternness as long as his courage could give him strength for exertion. But at last the day yielded to the evening, and put an end to the deadly contest: the barbarians all withdrew, in no order, each taking his own path, and our men returned sorrowfully to their tents.

16Then having paid the honours of burial to some among the dead, as well as the time and place permitted, the rest of the corpses were left as a banquet to the ill-omened birds, which at that time were accustomed to feed on carcases—as is even now shown by the places which are still white with bones. It is quite certain that the Romans, who were comparatively few, and contending with vastly superior numbers, suffered serious losses, while at the same time the barbarians did not escape without much lamentable slaughter.

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