The Gothic War is the name given to a series of Gothic battles and plunderings of the eastern Roman Empire in the Balkans between about 376/7 and 382. The war, and in particular the Battle of Adrianople, was a major turning point in the history of the Roman Empire, the first barbarian invasion in a series of events over the next century that would see the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
In the summer and fall of 376, tens of thousands of displaced Goths and other tribes arrived on the Danube River, on the border of the Roman Empire, requesting asylum from the Huns. Fritigern, a leader of the Thervingi, appealed to the Roman emperor Valens to be allowed to settle with his people on the south bank of the Danube, where they hoped to find refuge from the Huns, who lacked the ability to cross the wide river in force. Valens permitted this, and even helped the Goths cross the river, probably at the fortress of Durostorum (modern Silistra), Bulgaria.
Valens promised the Goths farming land, grain rations, and protection under the Roman armies as foederati. His major reasons for quickly accepting the Goths into Roman territory were to increase the size of his army, and to gain a new tax base to increase his treasury. The selection of Goths that were allowed to cross the Danube was unforgiving: the weak, old, and sickly were left on the far bank to fend for themselves against the Huns. The ones that crossed were supposed to have their weapons confiscated; however, the Romans in charge accepted bribes to allow the Goths to retain their weapons.
With so many people in such a small area, famine struck the Goths, and Rome was unable to supply them with either the food they were promised or the land; they herded the Goths into a temporary holding area surrounded by an armed Roman garrison. There was only enough grain left for the Roman garrison, and so they simply let the Goths starve. The Romans provided a grim alternative: the trade of slaves (often children and young women) for dog meat. When Fritigern appealed to Valens for help, he was told that his people would find food and trade in the markets of the distant city of Marcianople. Having no alternative, some of the Goths trekked south in a death march, losing the sickly and old along the path.
When they finally reached Marcianople's gates, they were barred by the city's military garrison and denied entry; to add insult to injury, the Romans unsuccessfully tried to assassinate the Goth leaders during a banquet. Open revolt began. The main body of Goths spent the rest of 376 and early 377 near the Danube plundering food from the immediate region. Roman garrisons were able to defend isolated forts but most of the country was vulnerable to Gothic plunder.
In late winter 377 war began in earnest and would last for six years before peace would be restored in 382. The remaining Goths moved south from the Danube to Marcianople, and next appeared near Adrianople. The Roman response was to send a force under Valens to meet and defeat the Goths. In 378 Valens moved north from Constantinople and was defeated (and himself killed) at the Battle of Adrianople (378) (modern Edirne). The victory gave the Goths freedom to roam at will, plundering throughout Thrace for the rest of 378. In 379 the Goths met only light Roman resistance and advanced north-west into Dacia, plundering that region.
In 380 the Goths divided into Terving and Greuthung armies, in part because of the difficulty of keeping such a large number supplied. The Greuthungi moved north into Pannonia where they were defeated by western emperor Gratian. The Tervingi under Fritigern moved south and east to Macedonia, where they took "protection money" from towns and cities rather than sacking them outright. In 381, forces of the western Empire drove the Goths back to Thrace, where finally in 382, peace was made on October 3.
By the end of the war, the Goths had killed a Roman emperor, destroyed a Roman army and laid waste large tracts of the Roman Balkans, much of which never recovered. The Roman Empire had for the first time negotiated a peace settlement with an autonomous barbarian tribe inside the borders of the Empire, a situation that a generation before would have been unthinkable.
The lesson was not lost on other tribes, as well as the Goths themselves, who would not remain peaceful for long. Within a hundred years the Western Empire would collapse under the pressure of continued invasions as the Empire was carved up into barbarian kingdoms.