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Battle of Abritus

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Battle of Abritus

Battle of Abrittus
Part of the Roman-Gothic Wars of 3rd century AD, the Roman-Germanic wars and the Crisis of the Third Century
Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius
Coin of Trajan Decius, Roman Emperor defeated and killed in the battle
Date July or August, 251
Location Abritus, Moesia Inferior
(modern-day Razgrad, Bulgaria)
Result Gothic victory
Roman Empire Goths
Commanders and leaders
Trajan Decius 
Herennius Etruscus 
20,000-30,000 30,000-40,000
Casualties and losses
Heavy Unknown,minor

The Battle of Abritus,[1] also known as the Battle of Forum Terebronii,[2] occurred in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior (modern Razgrad, Bulgaria) probably in July, 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 by 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.


Map of the invasions and the location of the battle
Soon after Decius ascended to the throne in 249, barbarian tribes invaded the Roman provinces of Dacia, Moesia Superior and Moesia Inferior. Two factors had contributed to growing unrest in the area north of Danube. First, Decius' predecessor Philip the Arab had refused to continue payments, initiated by Emperor Maximinus Thrax in 238, of annual subsidies to the aggressive tribes of the region.[3] Second and more important, there were continuous movements of new peoples since the time of Emperor Severus Alexander.[4] Decius may also have taken with him troops from the Danube frontier, in order to depose Philip in 249. The resultant military vacuum would inevitably attract invaders.[5]

The course of events is not clear. It seems that in 250 the Carpi invaded Dacia, eastern Moesia Superior and western Moesia Inferior.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] However, the name of the king is indeed Gothic and probably genuine.[9]

The first column of Cniva's army, a detachment of about 20,000 or so likely led by the chieftains Argaith and Gunteric, besieged Marcianopolis, without success it seems.[10] 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.[6] Then the invaders headed south to plunder Nicopolis ad Istrum where Decius defeated them but not decisively.[11] After these initial setbacks, the barbarians moved southwards through Haemus mountain and Decius pursued them (likely through the Shipka Pass) to save Philippopolis.[12] This time Decius' army was taken by surprise while resting at Beroe/Augusta Traiana. The Romans were heavily defeated in the ensuing battle. Decius was forced to withdraw his 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.[13] 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 was probably killed when the city fell.[14] Then the Scythians began returning to their homeland, laden with booty and captives, among them many of senatorial rank.[12]

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 July[15] or August[16] of 251, the Roman army engaged the Scythians under Cniva near Abritus. The strengths of the bellingerent forces are unknown, but we know that Cniva divided his forces into three units, with one of these parts concealed behind a swamp.[17] While Jordanes claimed that the force that Cniva was command of numbered around 70,000, modern estimates have shown that the Gothic force was probably no more than between 30,000 and 40,000 troops. Decius' own army consisted of 4-6 legions from the Danube frontier, along with available auxiliaries and cavalry, and was probably estimated to be no more than 20-30,000 soldiers in total. Decius felt extremely confident that he would be able to crush the Goths in one final assault, but he would soon underestimate his enemy. It seems that Cniva was a skilled tactician and that he was very familiar with the surrounding terrain.[8] Jordanes and Aurelius Victor claim that[18] Herennius Etruscus was killed by an arrow during a skirmish before the outset of the battle and that his father addressed his soldiers as if the loss of his son did 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 state that Herennius died with his father.[19]

Roman ruins at Abritus, site of the battle
The manoeuvre of the Scythians was ultimately successful. Decius' forces defeated their opponents in the front line, but made the fatal mistake of pursuing their fleeing enemy into the swamp, where they were ambushed and routed. The immense slaughter marked one of the most catastrophic defeats in the history of the Roman Empire and resulted in the death of Decius himself.[17] Zonaras[20] 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."

A 6th-century Byzantine scholar, Zosimus also described the total massacre of Decius' troops and the fall of the pagan emperor:

"Proceeding therefore incautiously in an unknown place, he and his army became entangled in the mire, and under that disadvantage were so assailed by the missiles of the Barbarians, that not one of them escaped with life. Thus ended the life of the excellent emperor Decius."

Lactantius, a 4th-century early Christian and advisor to Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, described the emperor's demise as following :[21]

"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,[22] 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.[19][23]

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.[24]


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.[25] This humiliating treaty, the contemporary spread of Plague of Cyprian 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.[9] In any case, Gallus had no choice but to get rid of the Goths as soon as possible.[12]

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.[26]

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.[27]


  1. ^ This seems to be the correct spelling. See Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, map 22. Also see title in Ivanov and Stojanov 1985
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ Southern 2001, p.347
  4. ^ Potter 2004, p.244
  5. ^ Southern 2001, p.222. Wolfram 1988, p.45
  6. ^ a b The Cambridge Ancient History, vol XII, 38
  7. ^ 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 Potter 2004, p.246
  8. ^ a b Wolfram 1988, p.45
  9. ^ a b Potter 2004, p.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.
  10. ^ Potter 2004, p.46 and, in more detail, Wolfram 1988, pp.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
  11. ^ Bird 1994, p.129
  12. ^ a b c Wolfram 1988, p.46
  13. ^ Wolfram 1988, p.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
  14. ^ Southern 2001, p.222. Bird 1994, p.129
  15. ^ Herwig Wolfram, Die Goten und ihre Geschichte, C. H. Beck Verlag, München, 2001, p.33. ISBN 3-406-44779-1
  16. ^ Southern 2001, p.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
  17. ^ a b Potter 2004, p.246
  18. ^ Jordanes, par.103. Aurelius Victor, par.29
  19. ^ a b Potter 2004, p.247
  20. ^ 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"
  21. ^ Lactantius, chapter 4
  22. ^ Zosimus, 1.25
  23. ^ Southern 2001, p.308
  24. ^ Ivanov and Stojanof 1985, p.1
  25. ^ Southern 2001, p.76
  26. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, History (Res Gestae), 31.12.13, in Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1939–2001, 479
  27. ^ Southern 2001, p.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 0-85323-218-0
  • 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
  • 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 1-889758-77-9
  • 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
  • , 1976:Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical SitesStillwell, Richard (ed.). "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

See also

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