Battle of Abrittus

Battle of Abrittus

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Abrittus
partof=the Roman-Gothic Wars of 3rd century AD
Part of the Roman-Germanic wars

caption=Coin of Decius, Roman Emperor defeated and killed in the battle
date=Summer (probably June), 251
place=Razgrad, Bulgaria
result=Gothic victory
combatant1=Roman Empire
combatant2=federation of Goths
commander1=DeciusHerennius Etruscus

The Battle of Abritus [This seems to be the correct spelling. See "Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World", map 22. Also see T. Ivanov and S. Stojanov above] (modern Razgrad, Bulgaria), also known as the Battle of Forum Terebronii [Also spelled "Trebonii". The uncertainty of the spelling comes from the imperfect transcribing of the Latin place-name into the Greek text ("τῷ λεγομένῳ φόρῳ Θεμβρωνίῳ") of George Syncellus] , occurred in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior probably in June, 251, between the Roman Empire and a federation of "Scythian" tribesmen under the Goth King Cniva. The Romans were soundly defeated, and Roman Emperors Decius and his son Herennius Etruscus were both killed during battle. They became the first Roman emperors killed in a battle with a foreign enemy.

The battle typically marks the starting of a period of increased military and political instability in the Roman Empire, although the symptoms of the crisis had already appeared in the preceding decades.


. [D. S. Potter, 244] Decius might also had taken with him troops from the Danube frontier, in order to depose Philip in 249, and the resulted military vacuum would inevitably attracted the invaders. [P. Southern, 222. H. Wolfram, 45]

The course of events is not clear. It seems that in 250 the Carpi invaded Dacia, eastern Moesia Superior and western Moesia Inferior. At the same time, a tribal coalition under Cniva crossed the Roman frontier, probably advancing in two columns. Whether these were consisted only of Goths is rather unlikely so the name "Scythians" by which the Greek sources called them (a geographical definition) seems more appropriate. [D. S. Potter prefers to call them "Scythians", since the 4th century "Goths" cannot be easily connected with their supposed ancestors 100 years above. See D.S.Potter, 246] It is quite possible that other people of Germanic and Sarmatian origin (like Bastarnae, Taifals and Hasdingian Vandals), perhaps Roman deserters as well, had joined the invaders. However, the name of the king is indeed Gothic and probably genuine.D. S. Potter, 245. He suggest that, since the name Cniva doesn't appear in the fictionalized genealogy of Gothic kings by Jordanes, the latter found it in a genuine 3rd century source]

The first column of Cniva's army, a detachment likely led by the chieftains Argaith and Gunteric, besieged Marcianopolis, without success it seems. [D. S. Potter, 246 and, in more detail, H. Wolfram, 45, 397. Although Jordanes ("Getica", 91) places these chieftains under the command of Cniva's predecessor (a certain Ostrogotha), Wolfram and other scholars argue that it is plausible to regard their campaign as part of Cniva's invasion] Then they probably headed south to besiege Philippopolis (now Plovdiv in Bulgaria). Cniva's main column under the King himself crossed Danube at Oescus then headed eastwards to Novae, where he was repelled by the provincial governor (and future emperor) Trebonianus Gallus."The Cambridge Ancient History", vol XII, 38] Then the invaders headed south to plunder Nicopolis ad Istrum where Decius defeated them but not decisivelyH. W. Bird, 129] . After these initial setbacks, the barbarians moved southwards through Haemus mountain and Decius pursued them (likely through the Shipka Pass) to save Philippopolis. This time Decius army was taken by surprise while resting at Beroe/Augusta Traiana. Romans were heavily defeated. Decius was forced to withdrew his wrecked army to the north at Oescus, leaving Cniva ample time to ravage Moesia and finally capture Philippopolis in the summer of 251, in part with the help of its commander, a certain Titus Julius Priscus who had proclaimed himself Emperor. [H. Wolfram, 46, suggests summer of 250 as the date of the fall of Philippopolis and spring of 251 as the earliest date for the beginning of Cniva's returning to his base] It seems that Priscus, after receiving the news of the defeat at Beroe, thought that the Goths would spare him and the city. He was wrong and probably died during the sack of it.P. Southern, 222. H. W. Bird, 129] . Then the "Scythians" began returning to their homeland, laden with booty and captives, among them many of senatorial rank.

In the meantime, Decius had returned with his re-organized army, accompanied by his son Herennius Etruscus and the general Trebonianus Gallus, intending to defeat the invaders and recover the booty.


Probably in June [H. Walter, 28] or August [P. Southern, 308. She conjectures August as the date of Herennius Etruscus proclamation to the rank of Augustus, then the battle could not take place before that point] of 251, the Roman army engaged the "Scythians" under Cniva near Abritus. The strength of each bellingerent is unknown but we know that Cniva divided his forces into three units, the third of them concealed behind a swamp.. It seems that Cniva wasn't lacking knowledge of tactics and knew the surround area very well.H. Wolfram, 45] From Jordanes and Aurelius Victor came the following anecdote. [Jordanes, par.103. Aurelius Victor, par.29] During a skirmish before the outset of the battle, Herennius Etruscus was killed by an arrow and his father addressed his soldiers as if the loss of his son would not matter. He allegedly said "Let no one mourn. The death of one soldier is not a great loss to the republic". However, other sources imply that he Herennius died with his father.D. S. Potter, 247]

The manoeuvre of the "Scythians" was ultimately successful. Decius forces defeated the opponents in the front line but he made the fatal mistake to lead his army into the swamp. The immense slaughter marked one of the most catastrophic defeats in the history of the Roman Empire and the perishing of Decius itself.D. S. Potter, 246] Zonaras [Zonaras, 12.20, a free translation of the following Greek text: "καὶ αὐτός τε σὺν τῷ υἱῷ καὶ πλῆθος τῶν ̔Ρωμαίων ἐνεπεπτώκει τῷ τέλματι, καὶ πάντες ἐκεῖσε ἀπώλοντο, ὡς μηδὲ τὰ σώματα αὐτῶν εὑρεθῆναι,καταχωσθέντα τῇ ἰλύϊ τοῦ τέλματος" ] vividly narrates how

"he and his son and a large number of Romans fell into the marshland; all of them perished there, none of their bodies to be found, as they were covered by the mud."

Lactantius, a Christian apologist of the early 4th century (deeply hating Decius for the persecution of Christians resulted from his edict on sacrifices) described the emperor's demise as following : [Lactantius, chapter 4]

"he was suddenly surrounded by the barbarians, and slain, together with great part of his army; nor could he be honoured with the rites of sepulture, but, stripped and naked, he lay to be devoured by wild beasts and birds, a fit end for the enemy of God."

The supposedly treacherous behavior of Treboniannus Gallus who, according to Zosimus [Zosimus, 1.25] , signalled the final Gothic assault is not accepted today. It seems impossible that the shattered Roman legions proclaimed emperor a traitor who was responsible for the loss of so many soldiers from their ranks. Another strong point against Gallus' treason is the fact that he adopted Hostilian, the younger son of Decius, after returning to Rome.D. s. Potter, 247] P. Southern, 308]

The long-debated location of Abritus was finally established (1 km east of the city of Razgrad) after the excavations published by T. Ivanov in 1969 and 1971. [T. Ivanov and S. Stojanof, 1]


Gallus, who became emperor upon Decius' death, negotiated a treaty with the Goths under duress, which allowed them to keep their booty and return to their homes on the other side of the Danube. It is also possible that he agreed to pay an annual tribute in return for the Goths' promise to respect Roman territory. [P. Southern, 76] This humiliating treaty, the contemporary spread of plague with its devastating effects and the chaotic situation in the East with the Sassanian invasions left Gallus with a very bad reputation amongst the latter Roman historians. However, D. S. Potter suggests that, before the defeat at Abritus, the situation was not so serious that the available Roman forces would not be able to manage the invasions. Therefore, it is Decius' bad conduct which was responsible for the disastrous turn of the events.D. S. Potter, 245] In any case, Gallus had no choice but to get rid of the Goths as soon as possible.H. Wolfram, 46]

Ammianus Marcellinus rated this reverse with the most serious military disasters of the Roman Empire to his time: Varus' defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, the incursions of the Marcomanni during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, and the Battle of Adrianople. [Ammianus Marcellinus, "History (Res Gestae)", 31.12.13, in "Loeb Classical Library", Harvard University Press, 1939–2001, 479]

In 271, the Emperor Aurelian conclusively defeated the Goths and killed their king Cannobaudes in battle. Based on the similarity of the names, that king might coincide with the king Cniva who defeated Decius in Abritus. [P. Southern, 116, 225]



Primary sources

* Aurelius Victor, "De Caesaribus", par. 29.4-5 in "Liber de Caesaribus of Sextus Aurelius Victor", critical edition by H. W. Bird, Liverpool University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-853-23218-0
* Dexippus, "Scythica", (fragments of a lost work which is the main known source of all later Roman and Byzantine historians and chronographers), in "Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker", entry 100, ed. Felix Jacoby, Brill Academic Publishing, 2001
* George Syncellus, "Chronographia" (Greek: "Εκλογή χρονογραφίας"), in "Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae", ed. Dindorf, Weber, Bohn, 1829
* Jordanes, "Getica", par. 101-103 from "The Gothic History of Jordanes" (English Version), ed. Charles C. Mierow, Arx Publishing, 2006, ISBN 1-889-75877-9
* Lactantius, "De mortibus persecutorum", from [, Christian Classics Ethereal Library]
* Zonaras, "Epitome historiarum" (Greek: "Επιτομή ιστοριών"), book 12, in "Patrologia Graeca", ed. J. P. Migne, Paris, 1864, vol 134
* Zosimus, "Historia Nova" (Greek: "Νέα Ιστορία"), book 1, in "Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae", ed. Bekker, Weber, Bonn, 1837

Secondary sources

* Bowman A. K., Garnsey P., Cameron A. (ed.). "The Cambridge Ancient History - vol XII The Crisis of Empire", Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-521-30199-8
* Ivanov Teofil and Stojanof Stojan. "ABRITVS: Its History and Archaeology", Cultural and Historical Heritage Directorate, Razgrad, 1985
* Potter, David S. "The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180–395", Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0-415-10058-5
* Southern, Pat. "The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine", Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0-415-23943-5
* [ Stillwell, Richard (ed.). "Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites", 1976:] "Abrittus (Razgrad), Bulgaria"
* Talbert Richard J. A. (ed.). "Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World", Princeton University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-691-03169-X
* Wolfram, Herwig. "History of the Goths" (transl. by Thomas J. Dunlap), University of California Press, 1988, ISBN 0-520-06983-8
* Wolfram, Herwig. "The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples" (transl. by Thomas J. Dunlap), University of California Press, 1997. ISBN 0-520-08511-6

ee also

*Roman army
*Gothic and Vandal warfare

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