(Richard Abels)

I.                   Roman army in the fourth and early fifth centuries

II.                Military aspects of the fall of the Roman Empire in the West

III.      The armies of the successor kingdoms
IV.      Justinian's attempt to reconquer the West


Maps of the Late Roman Empire in 337 and 450 A.D.



The evolution of the Roman military over the fourth and fifth centuries parallels the political, economic, and social changes that occurred in the Empire during this period. In the early fourth century A.D., the Roman military was a public institution, a force of soldiers and sailors recruited, trained, supplied, and paid by the Roman state through a large and expensive bureaucracy. The Empire in the fourth century and early fifth centuries was a ‘non-militarized’ society, that is, a society in which there is a well defined distinction between “soldier” and “civilian.”  All of this was also true of the Roman military of the Principate (27 B.C. - A.D. 235), but much had changed since the time of Augustus, Trajan, and Hadrian.  The armies of late antiquity were no longer the well-disciplined infantry legions of the first centuries B.C. and A.D. celebrated on the History Channel. That military had ‘died’ during the political and military chaos of the Third Century Crisis (A.D. 235-284).  Although there was some continuity, especially in military terminology, the armies of the Late Roman Empire were organized, recruited, deployed, trained, and armed differently from those of the Principate.  From the reign of Constantine (306-337), the Roman army was organized into two groups with distinct functions, which, according to some historians, were elements of an overall defense-in-depth strategy.  Frontier troops (limitanei) were stationed in a system of fortifications along the borders, while mobile field forces (comitatenses) were billeted in the cities and towns of regions deemed most vulnerable to attack. The frontier troops were designed to deal with and discourage low intensity threats, such as raiding across the border, and to impede the progress of major incursions to allow sufficient time for the mobile field forces to respond and intercept invaders within Roman territory.  Frontier and field forces included both infantry and cavalry contingents that were organized into units and characterized by specified ranks with defined command structures that culminated, at least in theory, in the emperor. Cavalry, which in the late Republic and early Empire had been supplied, for the most part, by foreign allies (auxiliaries), was now fully integrated into the Roman military; its importance and prestige grew during the fifth and sixth centuries, in part because of the need for greater strategic and tactical mobility that horses provided, and, in part, because of encounters with nomadic horsed peoples such as the Huns.  Rome’s armies were complemented by a standing navy, with fleets based in ports along the frontier’s rivers (most notably the Danube and Rhine) and in the port cities of Italy.  But, as in earlier times, the imperial navy was a subordinate (and despised) element of the military without a strategic mission. Its duties were limited largely to protecting Roman grain-tax fleets against pirates and conveying important imperial dispatches.  Engineers, medical services, intelligence services and a full commissariat supported the land combat troops.

All of this was paid for with taxes. Indeed, support of the military was the single greatest expenditure of the Roman state. The payment of taxes, however, was the extent to which most Roman citizens contributed or (if they were lucky) interacted with the military. The cultural and social divide between soldier and civilian that had begun even before Augustus’ professionalization of military service had grown wider over the centuries.  In the fourth and early fifth centuries ordinary citizens of the great metropolitan centers of the Empire—Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople—and most peasants in the interior of the Empire would have had little if any dealings with soldiers. This was greatly to their benefit, since soldiers were notorious for bullying and extorting money and goods from civilians, as well as for rape. This was particularly true for the field army, whose transient troops lacked identification with the locals of the towns in which they were temporarily billeted.  The brutality of the rank and file was only checked by the even greater brutality of their noncoms, who viewed the imposition of discipline not only as a military matter but as a source for extra income. This was nothing new in the fourth century, but the decline of Roman urban life in the Western half of the Empire during the Third Century Crisis abetted these abuses. The late Roman Empire had no public police forces. During the Principate, urban authorities had been responsible for enforcing law and punishing crime. This was still true in the cities of the east and Italy in the fourth century.  In the countryside, private landowners, supported by hired soldiers known as bucellarii (literally “dry-biscuit eaters”), assumed that role within their lands.  On the frontiers and in the smaller interior towns in which troops were billeted, military commanders often were often looked to for the maintenance of law and order. In these cases, soldiers functioned as the Empire’s “cops”—“brutal, non-regulated cops” (to quote Dr. Phyllis Culham).  On the other hand, Roman civilian society grew more “militarized” in the fifth century as the army proved inadequate for the defense of the citizenry.

The Emperor Diocletian’s decision to separate military and civilian administration responsibilities created a divide between a civilian aristocratic elite that boasted landed wealth and classical education and who served in the upper reaches of the civilian administration of the Empire, and a military officer corps that often had risen from the ranks, as evidenced by the origins of many of the so-called ‘barrack-emperors’ of the third century. (Rankers could become officers if they distinguished themselves sufficiently to merit appointment to the emperor’s personal guard, the protectores domestici, which in the fourth century served as a sort of Staff College. With the endemic political and military unrest of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, however, “rising through the ranks” was sometimes achieved by knocking off one’s superiors.)  By the beginning of the fifth century, the only political “officials” who still possessed military command were the emperors themselves, and by time many of them were “commanders in chief” in name only. Rome’s armies and military policies were now in the hands of generalissimos called magistri militum (‘masters of the soldiers’). Although they were legally appointed by emperors, they often held power over their nominal masters. In several instances, emperors who felt threatened by the power of their magistri militum arranged for their assassinations, which was easier than dismissing them. As a further check upon the ambitions of generals and the possibility of military coup d’états, the supply and provisioning of troops were handled by civilian authorities.

The social status of the rank and file soldier was low in the fourth and fifth centuries, and, despite (theoretically) good pay, Roman citizens tended to avoid military service if they could. Conscription, hereditary military service, and, increasingly, the use of barbarian allied troops (“federates”) were essential to meet the manpower needs of the army.


            By the end of the sixth century military organization in what had been the Western Roman Empire looked very different. State-maintained standing armies and navies had ceased to exist along with the regular systems of taxation and public finance that had supported them in the fourth and fifth centuries. Western society had been further “militarized,” that is, the legal distinction between “soldier” and “civilian” became blurred and indistinct.  “Ethnic” identity, which had little to do with biological descent, rather than an obligation of citizenship, was now the basis for recruitment, as barbarian rulers raised their armies from the population of adult free males in their realms who claimed membership in his ethnic group.  The social status of the warrior rose dramatically as military service became redefined as a privilege associated with social identity.  The ability to wield a sword rather than knowledge of Virgil and Cicero now became the mark of nobility. The closest thing remaining to “standing armies” in these Germanic Successor Kingdoms were the military households maintained by kings, their great royal officials, and powerful local landowners, which drew upon both German and Roman antecedents.  Rather than swearing oaths of loyalty to the Emperor and the Roman State, these household warriors were bound by personal ties of loyalty to their masters, to whom they were bound by expectation of material reward. The grant of land was an especially prized reward for loyal service, but there was no system of paying soldiers with land or the revenues from land akin to the “theme” system that emerged in the Eastern Roman Empire (i.e. Byzantine Empire) in the seventh century. As radical as these changes were, the imprint of Rome remained. Landed aristocrats held titles and offices of command derived from the Late Roman state and its army, but the functions and status of being a “count” (comes) or a “duke” (dux) had changed dramatically as the bureaucracy that underlay the Roman state had withered away in what had once been the western provinces of the Roman Empire.








The military threats to the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries came from abroad and within.  The foreign threats included various barbarian tribes settled along the Danubian and Rhine borders, many (though not all) of whom were characterized by the Romans as “Germans”; Picts, Scots, and Saxons in northern Britain; Moorish Bedouins in north Africa; and the Sasanian Persian Empire in the east.  The main domestic threat came from periodic attempts by ambitious Roman generals to usurp imperial power or to seize parts of the empire. Because the major historical event of this period is the so-called “Fall” of the Roman Empire in the West, which entailed the replacement of the Roman state in the West by various Germanic kingdoms, historians have focused their attention upon the barbarian threat.  The historical reality, however, was that emperors often accorded higher priority to repelling domestic challenges to their authority and rule, since the consequences of a successful usurpation could mean his own death and that of his immediate family.




Sasanian King Shapur I receives submission of Emperor Valerian, AD260 (NaghshRostam)                                     Sāsānian empire at the time of Shāpūr I (Encyclopedia Britannica,       



Foreign threats: The most powerful military force confronting the Late Roman Empire was the Sasanian Persian Empire. The Sasanian Empire ruled a territory that comprises most of modern day Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, and shared a disputed frontier with Rome that stretched over western Mesopotamia and Armenia. Because the disputed region was dotted with cities, the Roman-Persian wars were dominated by sieges and by battles arising from attempts to relieve sieges. A long history of territorial warfare stretching back to the first century B.C. marked relations between the two empires. The Emperor Trajan in 115-117 conducted an ambitious war of conquest that resulted in the occupation of Mesopotamia and Armenia, but these territories were abandoned by Trajan’s successor Hadrian because of the difficulty of defending them. Warfare between the two states became even more intense after the aggressive Sasanian dynasty from southern Iran replaced the Arsacid kings of Parthia/Persia in 226. The first Sasanian king Ardeshir I invaded Roman territory in 230, initiating a series of invasions and counter-invasions that continued until 384, when peace was secured through a formal division of Amernia. With the exception of two brief wars in 421-422 and 440, the Roman and Persian empires remained at peace until 502, when the Persian emperor Kavadh I in an attempt to extort much needed money from the eastern Roman emperor Anastasius seized first the undefended Roman town of Theodosiopolis (modern day Erzurum in eastern Turkey) and then the Roman fortress-city of Amida, which fell after a three month siege.  The Romans regained Amida and the lost territory by the war’s end in 506. Wars between the eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire were fought throughout the sixth century (526-532, 540-561, and 572-591).



From Ian Mladjov’s resources, University of Michigan (                   Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus, depicting triumph over Germans in 251 AD (National Museum of Rome)



            Barbarians.   For the Romans the word “barbarian” primarily meant “non-Roman” and, by extension, non-civilized. This was not a “racial” category.  A Roman citizen of Germanic descent was to the Romans of Late Antiquity simply a Roman.  Peoples or groups designated as barbarians by the Romans in the fourth century included various “Germanic tribes” such as Alamans, Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, Franks, Sueves, and Gepidae, and non-German-speakers such as Picts, Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Isaurians, and Moors.  For this course, the most important of these barbarian groups were those whom the Romans identified as “Germans.” German barbarians presented a relatively minor military threat before the Battle of Adrianople in 378. Between 378 and 500 the central authority of Roman empires in the Western Roman Empire gradually withered away to be replaced by German barbarian kings who identified themselves and the peoples they rules variously as Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, Burgundians, and Saxons. Whether these barbarian groups were militarily responsible for the Fall of the Roman Empire or were the beneficiaries of an internal collapse is still a matter of hot historical debate.  The answer to this question, as with most historical controversies, probably lies somewhere in between.

The German-speaking barbarian tribes settled along the Rhine and Danubian frontiers in the fourth and fifth centuries were mainly farmers. Politically, they were organized into “cantons” (pagi) consisting of several villages, each with its own dominant family, that recognized the authority of a king or a royal family. Rome’s diplomatic policy of favoring and enriching client kings and magnates led to the emergence of larger and more cohesive political units in the third and fourth centuries, as stronger kings absorbed the cantons of weaker neighbors. Meanwhile, Roman trade culturally and economically ‘Romanized’ the barbarian elite in this frontier region.

            The barbarian cantons were militarized societies. Their armies consisted of free farmers led by village ‘big men,' who, in turn, followed a tribal king.   This was a violent society. Kings and local magnates maintained military households with young warrior retainers who served as their bodyguards and who in times of war became the 'professional' core of barbarian armies.  Because of the agrarian character of the economy and society, warfare was conducted as much as possible during agricultural down times, either during winter months or between the spring (May-July) and autumn (September-October) harvests.  Warfare tended to be small-scale, mainly involving raids across the border by the forces of individual German cantons, numbering no more than a couple of thousand men, to acquire booty, followed by punitive responses into German territory by Roman troops. This changed dramatically in the late fourth and fifth centuries.  The key date was 376, when pressure by the migrating Huns drove a confederation of cantons, the Gothic Tervingi, to seek refuge in the Roman Balkans. The Roman border was quite permeable, and it was not unusual for Germans to take up residence within the Empire.  The Roman army in the fourth century was filled with such immigrants. What was unusual was the numbers who poured across the Danube.  Emperor Valens’ decision the Goths to cross the Danube might not have proved so disastrous if the imperial officials charged with supervising the Germans had not so mismanaged matters so as to provoke the starving Tervingi into pillaging the countryside.  This, in turn, led to the Battle of Adrianople (378) in which a Roman army was destroyed and an emperor killed, in large measure because of Valens’ contempt for the enemy, which made him careless and reckless. The upshot was that Valens’ successor, Emperor Theodosius I, found it necessary to contract a treaty with the Tervingi (now called Visigoths) that allowed them to settle within the Empire under their own rulers and laws in return for providing troops when called upon to do so. States that provided troops for Rome by treaty were known as “federates,” and Rome’s use of such allied forces stretched back to the days of the Republic. The difference now was that these “federates” lived within the Empire. They formed a state within a state and an army within an army.


The Tetrarchs. Porphyry status from Constantinople, now in St. Marks, Venice.


Internal threats:  Questions about the ‘Fall of Rome’ (whether it ‘fell,’ and if it did, why and when did it fall?)  dominate historical study the late Roman empire. Because of this, military historians have tended to focus on Rome’s wars with those barbarian tribes that evolved into the ‘successor kingdoms’ of the sixth century. But for Roman emperors during this period perhaps the greatest and most imminent threat was civil war, either attempts by discontented or ambitious generals to seize imperial power for themselves or for civilian proxies, or wars between co-emperors to expand their rule or to eliminate colleagues and rivals.  Civil war had been endemic during the third century.  Between the assassination of Emperor Alexander Severus by his troops in 235 to the accession of the Emperor Diolcetian in 284 there were at least twenty six 'official' emperors, many of whom had seized political power from their predecessors, and an additional twenty or so generals who unsuccessfully attempted to usurp the throne. Most of these emperors were peasants who had risen through the ranks to be generals. Historians credit Diocletian (284-305) with restoring political stability through a series of administrative reforms.  But his success was limited. To be sure the fourth and fifth centuries were less politically chaotic than the third century, but this era was also marked by military usurpations, rebellions, and civil wars. Diocletian had attempted to solve the problem of succession by creating a ‘Tetrarchy,’ a system in which imperial rule was divided among four individuals, two senior emperors (‘Augusti’), one of whom was superior to the other, and their two junior colleagues (Caesars).  Upon the death or resignation of an Augustus, his Caesar would move up, and the remaining three ‘emperors’ would appoint a new Caesar to fill the vacancy.  As a result, imperial rule would be self-perpetuating and succession, peaceful. This is how it was supposed to work. In practice, the Tetrarchy barely survived the resignations of Diocletian and his colleague Maximian in 305. Constantine (reigned 306-337), for example, had to fight battles against Maximian, his son Maxentius, and his co-Augustus Licinius to obtain and keep imperial power. Licinius, meanwhile, fought a civil war against his own Caesar for control over the East. Constantine’s subsequent reign was internally peaceful, but the same was not the case for Constantine’s successors. In the second half of the fourth century, Roman armies fought more battles against other Roman armies than they did against barbarians or Persians, including a bloody and costly engagement between the Western emperor Eugenius and the Eastern Emperor Theodosius on the banks of the Frigidus River in 394 that not only determined control over the Roman empire but also to a large extent the future of Christianity as Rome’s official religion.

            Strategically, Roman imperial military thinking had always to take into account the possibility of a rebellion by one or more generals and their armies. From the time of the Republic until the reign of Diocletian, Roman governors were in charge of all functions of government within their provinces, military as well as civilian.  Diocletian changed this by dividing responsibilities for Roman governance between civilian and military officials. Generals still commanded the Roman military forces in their sectors, but now they depended upon civilian officials to provide their soldiers’ with pay and provisions, as well as supply them with armor, weapons, and uniforms produced by state-run factories, also under civilian supervision.  This division of functions undoubtedly reduced military efficiency, as it required commanders to coordinate military actions with their civilian counterparts, but for that very reason it also lessened the likelihood of successful rebellions by ambitious generals. In terms of Roman society and culture, Diocletian's division of authority between military and civilian officials widened the gulf between soldiers and civilians, as educated Roman aristocrats filled the higher ranks of the civilian bureaucracy, leaving military command to professional soldiers, many of whom were the sons of soldiers.


Military Actions 350-395. The best way of understanding the military challenges faced by late Roman emperors and their responses to them is by surveying the military events over a period of time.  I have chosen the forty-five year period 350 to 395 but a similar pattern would emerge from the study of any such period in the fourth and fifth centuries. 

When the year 350 began the Empire was relatively at peace. In the previous decade, it had experienced only a Frankish raid into Gaul (341/2) and some unrest in Britain.  War along the eastern frontier with Persia had raged in the early 340s, as several border towns and fortresses changed hands, and continued sporadically until 353-358 when the aggressive Persian king Shapur II had to turn his attention to his own eastern frontier from attacks by nomad tribes.  The Empire was ruled by two sons of Constantine the Great, Constans in the West and Constantius II in the East. (Their older brother Constantine II had been killed a decade earlier while fighting against Constans for control of the West.)  The peace was soon shattered when the army of Gaul revolted against Constans, who seems to have had contempt for the soldiers, and acclaimed its low born general (comes) Magnentius as emperor. Constans fled upon learning of the revolt, but was captured and killed. Magnentius took Italy by force from another would-be usurper, while Spain and Africa peacefully submitted to his rule. Another general, Vetranio, meanwhile took advantage of the situation by assuming command of the field forces of the prefecture of Illyricum (Greece and the Balkans, excluding Thrace). The Eastern emperor Constantius II, who was in Antioch monitoring a threatened invasion by the Persian emperor Shapur II, finally responded in late 350. He marched his army into the Balkans and cowed Vetranio into giving up his command.  Constantius II then defeated Magnentius in a major battle in Pannonia (351), which forced the usurped to retreat into Italy.  Meanwhile, a confederation of German tribes (Franks and Alamanni) took advantage of the political unrest and raided Gaul, defeating Magnentius’ brother whom he had made his “Caesar” (subordinate emperor). Civil war raged until 353 when Magnentius and his brother, having lost Italy, Spain, and Africa, both committed suicide in Gaul.

            The civil war left Gaul vulnerable to barbarian attack on a number of flanks.  In 354 Constantius II appointed a veteran general of Frankish descent named Silvanus as magister militum per Gallias (commander-in-chief for all forces in Gaul) to deal with Frankish incursions over the lower Rhine near Mainz, while Constantius II from his base at Augst (now in Switzerland) dealt with Alamanni attacks across the upper Rhine. Rather than fight the Franks, Silvanus used tax money to pay the Franks to withdraw from Roman territory.  This provoked Constantius II’s suspicions.  Fearing arrest and execution, Silvanus responded by declaring himself emperor in the August 355. His ‘reign,’ however, lasted less than a month. Constantius II sent his magister equitum (master of the cavalry) of the East, Ursicinus to investigate the rumors of Silvanus’ disloyalty. Ursicinus dealt with the matter by bribing some of Silvanus’ troops to kill him.

The Franks in the north and the Alamanni in the south took advantage of the civil war to invade Gaul once more.  Constantius II elevated his young cousin Julian to the rank of Caesar and sent him to Gaul to deal with the Germans. Between 356 and 359 both Constantius II and Julian waged war along the Rhine against various German tribes and confederations.  Despite being greatly outnumbered, Julian won a major victory over the Alamanni at Strasbourg 357, in which he captured their king Chnodomar.  The war with the Alamanni, however, continued for another two years before they sued for peace.  With Gaul for the moment safe, Julian was able to send his magister militum per Gallias to Britain to deal with incursions in the north by the Picts.

In 359 King Shapur II, having subdued the nomad tribes on his eastern frontier, renewed war against the Romans.  The Persian king took the border fortress of Amida after a 73 day siege, and massacred all of its inhabitants. Recognizing the magnitude of the Persian threat, Constantius II summoned units from the West to join him in the East. Unwilling to leave Gaul, the discontented Gallic army responded in 360 by elevating Julian to the rank of “Augustus” (senior emperor). When Constantius II refused to ratify his promotion, Julian marched east against his cousin. A full civil war was only averted by the sudden death of the Emperor Constantius II in the fall of 361, which left Julian as sole emperor of a reunified empire. The problem of Persia remained. Julian attempted to deal with this decisively by mounting in March of 363 a major expedition into Persia, with the intention of conquering the rival emperor. Leading an army of 65,000 men, Julian marched down the Euphrates River and defeated the Persians in battle before the city of Ctesiphon (about 20 miles southeast of modern Baghdad). Julian, however, was unable to take the city by siege. Learning that a Persian relief army was on its way, Julian decided to withdraw.  The retreat became a fighting march, as the Persian army caught up with the Romans. Julian died in late June 363 from a wound sustained in the retreat—although rumors circulated that he had actually been assassinated by Christian soldiers who resented his sponsorship of a pagan revival—and the army chose one of its general, Jovian, as the new emperor. Cut off from further retreat by a superior Persian force, Jovian was forced to accept a humiliating peace that entailed the surrender of all Rome’s territory east of the Tigris. The largest Roman military expeditionary force mounted in late antiquity had ended in complete failure.

            Jovian reigned only briefly. His death in 364 led the army to ‘elect’ another professional soldier, the successful general Valentinian I, as emperor. Valentinian, in turn, chose his brother Valens to be his co-emperor. The two divided the Empire and the army, with Valentinian assuming command over the West and Valens over the East. In 365-366, while Valentinian engaged the Alamanni in the West, Valens successfully fought a civil war against Procopius, a cousin of the late Julian. In 367-8 the brothers found themselves facing threats on all borders. Valentinian, who having fallen ill, elevated his son Gratian to be his co-emperor, faced major barbarian incursions in Britain (Picts and Scotti), which resulted in the deaths of two Roman generals, and yet another raid across the Rhine by the Alamanni, who plundered Mainz.  Meanwhile, Valens began a war against the Goths under their king Athanaric, who had supported Procopius in his rebellion, while the Persians captured the king of Armenia, a Roman ally, and invaded Georgia. Valentinian found an excellent general in the comes Theodosius senior (father of the Emperor Theodosius I), who in 369-70 pacified Britain and drove the Alamanni back across the Rhine. In 371-372, while Valentinian was dealing with still further barbarian incursions into Gaul (this time by Saxons) and an attempted usurpation by a Moorish prince, Valens sent troops to aid the Armenian king against the Persians, resulting in a victory over Shapur, leading to a five year truce signed in 373. In the following three years the Roman found themselves fighting barbarian Sarmatians and Quadi in the northwestern Balkans, and dealing with an Isaurian revolt in Asia. Valentinian died in 375 while planning a punitive expedition across the Danube against the Quadi. His army immediately named his four year old son Valentinian II as emperor, with his older brother Gratian assuming guardianship over the child and acting as co-ruler.

The arrival of the Huns into Europe and their attacks on the Goths in the early 370s created a new strategic situation for the Romans.  In 376 the Huns defeated the tribe of Goths known as the Tervingi, who under their king Frithigern sought refuge within the Roman Empire. Valens, seeing in them potential recruits for the army and workers for the imperial estates, permitted them to cross the Danube into Thrace. In 377 Valens attention was redirected east by a revolt by the Saracens under Queen Mavia, which resulted in the Saracens ravaging Roman Phoenicia and Palestine, while Theodosius the Younger, whose father had been executed the previous year, was placed in command of the field forces of Illyricum where he campaigned against Sarmatians.  Meanwhile, mismanagement by Roman officials led to conflict with the Gothic refugees in Thrace. Valens sent the Illyrian field army to deal with the Tervingi, while he himself remained in Antioch to deal with the Saracen revolt. The Romans first managed to blockade the Goths in Scythia but were unable to maintain the blockade through the winter. By 378 the Gothic threat was sufficiently grave for Valens to request military help from his co-emperor in the West, his nephew Gratian. The removal of troops from the Rhine frontier encouraged the German Alamannic confederation to cross the frozen Rhine into Roman territory.  Gratian responded by recalling those troops, won a victory over the invaders, and managed to push them back across the Rhine. With his own borders secured, Gratian now personally led an army to aid his uncle. Valens, jealous of the military glory that Gratian had won and dismissive of the threat posed by the Tervingi, decided to attack without waiting for reinforcements.  The result was the disastrous Battle of Adrianople (9 August 378) in which the field army of the East was destroyed and Valens killed.

            Gratian appointed a professional military officer, Theodosius, to succeed Valens as “Augustus” in the East. In 379-383, Gratian campaigned against Goths and Alamanni in Pannonia (northwestern Balkans) and Gaul respectively, and Theodosius fought against the Sarmatians and the Goths in the eastern Balkans, which ended with the defeat of the Sarmatians and the recognition of the Tervingi in 380 as Roman federates settled within Roman territory. Gratian’s campaign against the Alamanni was interrupted in 383 by the rebellion of the Roman general in Britain, Magnus Maximus, who declared himself emperor and invaded Gaul.  Gratian’s army, which met the forces of Magnus Maximus near Paris, defected. Gratian himself fled, but was captured and killed.  Magnus Maximus took control of Britain, Spain, and Gaul, with Gratian’s young half-brother Valentinian II left in charge of Italy, a situation that was formally sanctioned by Theodosius. Meanwhile, Valentinian II continued to campaign in 384-386 against Alamanni and Sarmatians in Pannonia, while another tribe, the Greuthungi, were defeated by Roman forces. as they crossed the Danube to escape the Huns. In 387 Magnus Maximus invaded Italy, driving Valentinian II to seek refuge in Thessalonica.  Theodosius, having dispatched his magister militum for the East the Vandal Stilicho to negotiate a settlement with the Persians, joined Valentinian in a campaign against Maximus. After a year of fighting, Theodosius’s forces captured Maximus who, along with his son, was executed.

In 388 Theodosius reorganized the military forces of the Eastern Empire and appointed Arbogast, a Roman general of Frankish birth, commander-in-chief of Roman forces (magister militum) in the West. The period from 388 to 392 witnessed warfare against various German tribes across the Rhine in northern Germany, within Gaul, in Thrace, and in Thessalonica. The disordered conditions that prevailed in the threatened areas is underscored by a law issued by Theodosius in 391 that allowed Roman provincials to defend themselves against rogue soldiers. (This represented a marked change from 364, when the Emperor Valentinian I had issued an edict prohibiting private citizens from owning weapons.) In 392, while Arbogast was campaigning against Franks in the Rhineland near Cologne and Stilicho was fighting the Goths, now under a new leader, Alaric, in Thrace, a political breach erupted between Arbogast and Theodosius. In late 391 the Emperor Valentinian II attempted to sack his magister militum Arbogast.  Arbogast refused to step down, stating that only Theodosius had the right to remove him from office.   Soon after (392) Valentinian II suddenly died (by suicide, according to Arbogast), and Theodosius suspected foul play. Arbogast, fearing that Theodosius would order his removal set up his own puppet-emperor, Eugenius II, a pagan Roman intellectual in charge of the imperial writing office. The result was civil war, culminating in the Battle of the Frigidus River (5-6 September) on the western side of the pass through the Julian Alps (in modern Slovenia), which Theodosius won decisively, aided by a sudden wind storm that Christian writers saw as miraculous. Eugenius was captured and beheaded, and Arbogast committed suicide. In 395, Theodosius died.  He was succeeded by his two young sons, Arcadius and Honorius.  The former (and elder) became emperor in the East and the latter in the West.  Theodosius’ magister militum in the West, Stilicho, assumed guardianship of Honorius. He also claimed guardianship of Arcadius but was opposed by the praetorian prefect at Constantinople Rufinus, who ruled in the young emperor’s name.

Theodosius’ forces at the Battle of the Frigidus had included about 20,000 Visigothic federates, whom he had deployed in the front line resulting in heavy casualties. Embittered by the disproportionate losses they had suffered in the battle, the Visigoths under their ambitious new king Alaric renounced their treaty with Rome and began to ravage Thrace. Ostensibly because the army of the East was preoccupied with fending off Hunnic attacks in Syria and Asia Minor, Stilicho, acting in the name of the Emperor Honorius, led a Western army into the eastern prefecture of Illyricum to oppose the Visigoths. He was in position to destroy their forces when he was ordered out of Illyricum by Rufinus. This led to the suspicion that Rufinus was in league with Alaric, a suspicion strengthened by Rufinus’s subsequent negotiations with Alaric that made the Visigothic chieftain the magister militum of Roman forces in Illyricum. Certainly, Rufinus’ position as regent for Arcadius would have been undermined if Stilicho gained a victory over Alaric in Greece.  By co-opting Alaric with a Roman command, Rufinus gained a powerful ally against Stilicho. But Rufinus’ political victory was short-lived as he was shortly after murdered by troops under the command of Gainas, the Gothic magister militum in Thrace who had hitherto been Stilicho’s second in command.

(For an overview of military actions in the Late Empire, see Robert Vermaat, Late Roman Timeline, 250 AD – 550 AD.)




            The Greek historian Zosimus, writing around AD 500, described two profound reorganizations of the Roman military in the first half of the fourth century:


By the foresight of Diocletian the frontiers of the Roman Empire were everywhere studded with cities and forts and towers, in the way I have already described, and the whole army was stationed along them, so that it was impossible for the barbarians to break through, as the attackers were everywhere withstood by an opposing force. But Constantine ruined this defensive system by withdrawing the majority of the troops from the frontiers, and stationing them in cities which did not require protection.


Based on the evidence of Zosimus and other ancient writers, military historian and political scientist Edward Luttwak posited that after Emperor Diocletian (284-305) restored a preclusive defense system that had been abandoned during the Third Century Crisis, his successor Constantine the Great (306-337) dramatically reconstituted Roman grand strategy, substituting a defense-in-depth defense for Diocletian’s preclusive defense system.  Constantine implemented his new strategy, according to Luttwak, through the fundamental reorganization of the Roman military. His main innovation was to establish a large mobile field army (comitatenses), probably in excess of 100,000 men, by withdrawing forces from the frontiers (limitanei) and stationing them in central locations.

Defense-in-depth is a strategy based on the idea that the borders cannot be made impenetrable and that invaders will inevitably breach the frontiers. To defeat these incursions the state constructs a series of strong points along the frontiers and along the interior lines of communication (roads and rivers) reaching into the interior. These forts are designed to serve as threats to the enemy’s lines of communication, as pockets of resistance, and as logistical depots. The main resistance to the incursion, however, will come from mobile field forces stationed in the interior that will, in coordination with the smaller forces in the forts, engage the enemy within Roman territory. The enemy, thus, can get in but once in, cannot then escape.

Luttwak emphasized the major benefits of this strategy: 1) it is cost effective, and 2) the centralized field armies protected the power of the emperors who controlled them. He also pointed out its major weakness--it sacrifices territory to the enemy and creates within the borders of a state a de facto buffer zone. This will inevitably lead to demoralization of the local population and an erosion of the logistical base.

Although in retrospect the deployment of Roman armies and the placement of Roman fortifications along Rome’s frontiers appear to be elements of a defense-in-depth system and may have functioned in practice as such, a number of Luttwak’s critics have questioned whether the strategic intentions of the Roman emperors can in fact be accurately determined through such evidence. Luttwak’s lack of credentials as a classicist (he is a political scientist whose area of specialization in the Soviet military strategy) and his use Roman history as a mechanism to explore the ramifications of NATO’s grand strategic choices during the Cold War have invited criticism by academic historians of the Roman Empire. These criticisms have taken two main forms. Several historians have questioned Luttwak’s assumption that Roman imperial strategy was essentially defensive, and have pointed out that contemporary sources characterize the foreign policies of most Roman emperors as aggressive rather than defensive. Others have challenged Luttwak at a more fundamental level, suggesting that the use of modern military jargon such as “grand strategy” and “defense-in-depth” is both anachronistic and misleading.  Fergus Millar, for example, argued that the policies of Roman emperors were mainly formulated by their ad hoc responses to appeals and complaints from citizens and officials. In arguing against any Roman “grand strategy,” Millar cited the practical difficulties of centrally controlling a state the size of the Roman Empire with the primitive system of communication that emperors had at their disposal. Historian Ben Isaac added substantially to Millar’s critique in his study of the activities of the Roman imperial armies on the eastern frontier from the first to the sixth century. Isaac’s argument is well summarized in a review by Dr. D.S. Potter:


[T]here was no ‘grand strategy’ of empire. Questions of war and peace were decided by the emperor, most often to enhance his own glory and to satisfy his soldiers, who would profit from foreign adventures. This was the most important factor because, in Isaac's view, "there was no powerful officer class in Rome, no central army command" (p. 383). Furthermore, he maintains that, "it is unlikely that most Roman frontier lines were determined by choice and by a conscious decision to halt indefinitely all further advance" (pp. 387-88). In his view, the Roman limites were not thought of as lines to cut off movements by outsiders, but rather to facilitate communication among Roman forces. When the Romans thought about expansion, they did not do so with the intention to acquire territory, but rather to control peoples (an important point indeed, pp. 394-95), and they really knew very little about lands beyond their borders. The grand strategy of the Roman army, insofar as it existed at all, was simply to control internal disorder and to be ready to conquer other peoples.


Whether Diocletian and his successors (or his predecessors) thought in terms of “grand strategy” and, if they did, what those strategies were remain open questions and how historians answer them is determined to a great extent by their underlying view of the nature and capacities of Roman imperial rule and government.

Many towns and cities in the Roman Empire boasted strong defenses in the fourth and fifth centuries.  The third century crisis was initially responsible for this process of urban fortification, as imperial and regional officials ordered the building of strong stone walls to defend towns and cities, even in the interior, to guard against depredation by rebel Roman armies and barbarian raiders.  It was in response to Vandal raids into Italy in 270 that the Emperor Aurelian ringed the city of Rome with a twelve mile long circuit of walls constructed from brick-faced concrete. The Aurelian Walls were 11 feet thick and 26 ft high, with a square tower every 100 Roman feet (97 ft). Rome’s defenses were strengthened even further in the fifth century, with the walls doubled in height and the number of towers increased to 383. Rome was not unique. The collapse of Rome’s border defenses in the fifth century created interior ‘frontiers’ and necessitated the erection of walls around previously unfortified towns and cities.  As archaeologist Neil Christie comments, “By the end of the Roman period artificial defences were everywhere and society lay virtually entrenched behind walls. No distinction can be easily drawn between a ‘frontier’ province and a ‘central’ one by the mid-fifth century, except in case of greater urban population density persisting away from the old frontiers, where towns in particular struggled to survive.” (Christie 285)  As a result, warfare in the late Western Roman Empire and in the barbarian kingdoms that succeeded it featured sieges and devastation of the countryside in preparation for sieges.



DIOCLETIAN (284-305) appears to have doubled the number of legions, increasing the size of the army dramatically, to about 400-500,000. (John the Lydian in the 6th century gives the figure 435,266.) To raise troops Diocletian made military service hereditary and instituted a new system of conscription in which landowners became responsible for producing specified quotas of soldiers.

Diocletian deployed his troops mainly on the border, but he also had a small field army made up of the praetorian guard (disbanded in 312), lanciarii (cavalry lancers), Ioviani and Herculiani (elite infantry, personal following of emperor), and scholae (mounted imperial guard--mainly German). Together these forces were the emperor's comitatus, i.e. personal guard. When Diocletian needed a large expeditionary force, he used vexillationes, ad hoc units drawn from the legions. Diocletian's command structure placed praetorian prefects immediately below the emperors (Augusti and Caesars). These praetorian prefects were immensely powerful, combining both military and civilian authority: a pp was responsible for leading troops, overseeing public post and arms factories, levying men and material for public works, and supervising provincial governors.

CONSTANTINE'S REFORMS: Constantine (reigned 306-337) was responsible for the general reorganization of the Roman army that redefined it in late Antiquity. Constantine’s army was divided into three general categories of troops, each with its own strategic mission: COMITATENSES (mobile field armies, divided into infantry, cavalry, and mixed cohorts--military elite); LIMITANEI/RIPENSES (frontier garrisons, increasingly poorly trained and of questionable military value--the dregs of the army); and SCHOLAE (imperial guard--five regiments, each 500 strong, in the West; seven regiments in the East--ca AD 400: Notitia Dignitatum--crack troops, largely recruited from Germans; declined in military value after Theodosius I, when emperors ceased to take the field, and became a parade-ground elite).  Constantine also divided civil and military control.

Our knowledge of force deployment in the late Roman Empire is based largely upon a surviving official document known as the Notitia dignitatum et administrationum omnium tam civilium quam militarium in partibus Orientis et Occidentis 408 (A.H.M. Jones, Later Roman Empire, vol. 3:table 15). This is an administrative list of Roman civilian and military officials in the east and the west in the early fifth century.  From the titles of military officials we can reconstruct a rough idea of the size and disposition of Late Roman forces.  The Notitia survives in Renaissance manuscript copies of a lost ninth-century codex. The document was most likely compiled a chief notary in the West ca. 408 (the material for the Eastern empire reflects conditions around 408). The data for the Western Empire was updated and revised down to 423.


Numbers: Notitia Dignitatum provides at least paper numbers for Western armies, ca. 423, and Eastern armies, ca. 423 (after A.H.M. Jones, who estimated “legions” at 1,000 men for field armies and 3,000 men for frontier troops, and other units—alae, vexillationes, pseudo-comitatenses, cohorts, etc.—at 500 men)

Western Empire

comitatenses 113,000 (23,500 cavalry and 89,500 infantry)

limitanei 135,000 (29,500 cavalry and 105,500 infantry)

scholae 2500 (cavalry)

Eastern Empire

comitatenses 100,000 (21,500 cavalry and 78,500 infantry)

limitanei 250,000 (112,000 cavalry and 138,000 infantry)

scholae 3500 (cavalry)

Total Western forces: 250,500 (of which 54% were limitanei)
Total Eastern forces: 353,500  (of which 70% were limitanei)
Total imperial forces: 604,000

These numbers agree with the figure given in the 6th century by Agathias. They represent, probably, the “paper” strength of the armies (the fiscal cost of these forces) rather than the true combatant strength.  

In addition to the regular troops, late Roman emperors made extensive use of FEDERATES (contingents supplied according to treaty by tribes along the borders-- the remnant of old CLIENT STATE system). Federates were to become increasingly important in the West after the Battle of Adrianople, AD 378. By the middle of the fifth century, they were, to a great extent, the “Roman Army” in the Western empire. See below.





To lessen the likelihood of rebellion by ambitious generals, Diocletian divided military command and civil administration, and this policy was continued by his successors.  For civil administration, the Late Roman Empire was organized into four prefectures, each of which was divided into dioceses, which in turn were divided into small provinces.  Although lacking military command, the highest civilian officials, the praetorian prefects, remained responsible for recruiting troops and seeing to the provision of arms and supplies within their prefectures.

 Armies and offices of high command

Field Army (comitatenses):  The soldier emperors of the fourth century such as Constantine the Great and Julian were themselves the commanders-in-chief of their field armies. They were served by a general in charge of the infantry with the title of master of the foot (magister peditum), and a general in command of the cavalry, the master of the horse (magister equitum).  The late fourth and early fifth centuries saw the emergence of generalissimos called “masters of the soldiers” (magistri militum) or masters of both military arms (magister utriusque militiae) who, as the title implies, commanded both the infantry and the cavalry in the sector under their command. After the death of Theodosius I the Great in 395 and the accession of his two young sons, emperors no longer led the armies. At this time also the military organization of the Eastern and Western halves of the empire diverged. A new system arose in the West which featured a single commander in chief, termed the magister peditum in praesenti who commanded all field armies and limitanei, and to whom the other generals and sector commanders (comites, duces, and magistri) answered. Command in the east remained decentralized. The Notitia Dignitatum shows the field army of the east as divided into five brigades: two near Constantinople for immediate use by the emperor; one on the Eastern frontier; one in Thrace; and one in Illyricum. Each brigade was commanded by a magister utriusque militiae (master of both arms), assisted by a vicarius. The magistri in the fifth century commanded also the duces of the limitanei in their sectors.


Palatini (“palace troops”), a.k.a scholae/protectores domestici /praesentales. These terms refer to the emperor's personal guard. One could enter this either through distinguished service as a non-comm or by direct imperial appointment (often sons of high ranking officers). In the fourth century the institution of protectors domestici functioned almost like a staff college; those promoted from the ranks did a stint as protectors before being appointed unit commanders.  The emperors' guards, the Scholae Palatinae, were all cavalry regiments.


Frontier garrison troops (limitanei)

A. Frontier commanders: “counts” (comites) and “dukes” (duces). Comes, the title given to some key sector commanders, e.g. of Egypt, indicated higher dignity, as the title implies that they had control over units of comitatenses.
            i. In the West, ca. 400, there were ten regional commands under duces: four in the upper Danube,  five in Gaul, and two in Britain (one the comes litoris Saxonici, the “count” of the Saxon shore forts). These sector commanders were independent of the field armies. In addition there were two comites in north Africa who commanded both field and frontier forces.
            ii. In the East, ca. 400, there was one comes in Egypt, seven duces along the eastern frontier, four along the Danube, three in Asia Minor, and two in the African provinces. These comites and duces were under the command of the regional magistri of the field armies (see above).


Naval units, engineers, medical services, intelligence services and a full logistical service supported the land combat troops.


Tactical units and their officers


The basic trend in the evolution of the organization of the Roman army between the time of Augustus and the time of Constantine was the movement toward smaller and flexible tactical units.  The structure of Roman imperial armies of the first century A.D. featured legions of 5,000 to 6,000 heavy infantry. In contrast, Roman armies in the fourth and fifth centuries consisted of more numerous and smaller units that provided greater flexibility. The field armies were divided into permanent regiments of c.400-600 men for cavalry and c.800-1200 for infantry units. Infantry regiments were called 'legions' or auxilia; cavalry were usually termed "vexillations."  The officers commanding regiments were variously titled 'prefects,' 'tribunes,' or praepositi.


Rankers and non-commissioned officers 

A soldier in the late fourth century (at the time of Valens) would enter the army as a tiro, a recruit. During this training period he did not receive full pay and supplies. He then advanced to the rank of pedes (private) or eques (horse trooper). If he distinguished himself, he could be promoted to the grade of semissalis, distinguished by receiving one and a half rations, and then to a non-commissioned rank.
            For 'legions' (infantry units of c.1200 men) the old terms for non-commissioned officers continued to be used: optio and centurion. For the newer units, vexillationes (cavalry regiments of c.600 troopers) and scholae (praesental regiments), new ranks were employed.  In addition there were drill instructors called campidoctores and standard bearers (draconarii). Non-commissioned officer ranks in vexillations and infantry auxilia were, from bottom to top: circitor, biarchus, centenarius (in theory commanded units of 100 men), ducenarius (in theory commanded units of 200 men), senator, primicerius. Promotion to all these ranks was within regiment. Transfers were discouraged.

Promotion, for the most part, was a matter of longevity. A noncom, however, who distinguished himself could be appointed a "Protector" in the emperor's guard, the Palatini, and eventually promoted to become a unit commander. In this sense, the late Roman army, unlike Roman civilian society, functioned as a meritocracy.



Naval forces


The Notitia Dignitatum records Roman fleets based in the West at Ravenna, Aquileia, Misenum (near Naples), all in Italy, and at Arles and in the mouth of the Somme River in Gaul.  Other sources record a naval base in Pisa as well. The Notitia does not list any naval bases in the East, but there is other evidence for fleets based in Constantinople (which contained military docks), Crete, Rhodes, Alexandria, and in the Hellespont. Whether these Eastern naval bases were “imperial,” however, is uncertain. Greek cities in the Aegean and the Black Sea went into the third century with city navies to stop piracy. The size of Roman fleets can be gauged from a number of recorded naval actions. The magister militum Stilicho dispatched 5,000 men from Pisa to Africa in 398.  According to the sources, the Western Emperor Honorius’s magister militum Heraclianus in 413 commanded a fleet of 3,700, a figure the majority of which were probably cargo vessels carrying grain and supplies and other transport ships. One of the largest naval engagements in Antiquity occurred in 468 when the emperors Anthemius (in the West) and Leo I (in the East) combined forces to send an invasion fleet of 1,113 ships, each reputedly with 100 men aboard, against the Vandal kingdom of Carthage. The king of the Vandals Geiseric engaged the Romans off of Cap Bon (Tunisia) with a fleet of 600 ships. In the ensuing battle, the Vandals’ use of fire ships proved decisive, destroying about half of the Roman fleet.

           Most of the fleet actions named in the sources had Roman generals in command, and it appears that naval forces were considered to belong to the military resources of the magister militum in charge of the territory in which the naval base lay. The sources tell us nothing about the ordinary command structure of the Roman navy in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.

            For the entire history of the Roman Empire, the Navy was considered an inferior service that was, at best, ancillary to the land forces. The Imperial Navy had only three missions: 1) to escort the grain/tax fleets; 2) to protect against pirates (related to the first and primary mission. and 3) to deliver important imperial dispatches. The Navy had an economic-strategic mission rather than a military-strategic mission. Its “professional” sailors functioned much like drug interdictors in the Coast Guard.



Increased emphasis upon cavalry:


One of the most notable differences between the armies of the Principate and the Dominate was the increased emphasis upon cavalry in the latter.  Provision of cavalry forces had been largely the responsibility of auxiliaries in the early Empire. This began to change during the Third Century Crisis, and even to a greater degree in the fourth and fifth centuries. The strategic missions of both Rome’s frontier and field forces required both strategic and tactical mobility.  For the limitanei, this involved scouting against and intercepting barbarian raids; for the mobile field forces, it meant the movement of troops from one threatened sector to another. Rome answered these needs by fielding larger and more effective cavalry forces. [G.T. Dennis, ed., Maurice's Strategikon, p. viii]. The trend toward the greater use of cavalry was also accelerated by Rome’s encounters in the fourth and fifth centuries first with the Visigoths, who made use of horses in combat, and then, especially, with the Huns, a nomadic horse people. 

 The current scholarly consensus is that cavalry played a critical role in the armies of the late Roman Empire. Recently there has been somewhat of a backlash in the academic community. Historians Hugh Elton, Michael Whitby, and A.D. Lee caution against overemphasizing the importance of cavalry in late Roman warfare. As Elton observes, “in 478, an Eastern field army was composed of 8,000 cavalry and 30,000 infantry. These proportions were probably similar in the fourth century although precise figures are lacking. However, it can be roughly calculated that at Strasbourg in 357 Julian had 10,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. By the time of Justinian cavalry had become much more important, but precisely why or when this change occurred is unknown." (105-6). Lee adds, "the greater prominence of cavalry afforded increased tactical mobility--although the significance of this development ought not to be overemphasized at the expense of the role of infantry, which remained fundamental" (10), and points out that although Procopius states that the most important element of Justinian’s armies in the early seventh century were cavalry (actually mounted archers), in his descriptions of battles and other military actions, Procopius represents infantry as playing a central role.

        Although Elton, Whitby, and Lee are undoubtedly correct about the continued importance as well as numerical superiority of infantry in late Roman armies, there is no gainsaying that the status and prestige of Roman cavalry was far greater in the fourth century than it had been in the first or second centuries.  As Dr. Phyllis Culham observes, “During the Republic and Principate, there was no such thing as a Roman "cavalry general."  No Roman consular would be riding with cavalry, or would even be mounted unless sick or injured.” In contrast, by the fourth century, cavalry was the elite arm of the Roman military, and command of cavalry forces was as, if not more, prestigious than command of infantry units.



                            Sptrom2Kopie.jpg Spätrömisch1 image by Tiberius_pics              

Fourth-century Roman infantryman and his weapons                                Fourth-century Roman cavalrymen (reenactors)                        Sasanian (Persian) heavy cavalryman


There is debate about how widespread the use of infantry body armor was in the fourth and fifth centuries.  Hugh Elton believes that most infantry were equipped with either loricae hamatae (mail armor) or loricae saquamatae (armor made from iron scales mounted on linen or leather). Infantry carried an oval, slightly concave wooden shield, covered with linen or hide and edged with rawhide, measuring about 4ft high by 3 ft wide and a half inch thick, with a central boss and strap. Infantry helmets were either shaped like bowls with ridges atop running from front to back. Some were of the 'ridge' variety, which consisted of two sections attached to the ridged crest, complemented by a neck protector at the back and large cheek flaps. Others were 'Spangelhelm' helmets, made up of four plates riveted to four broad vertical bands that met at the top. All of these were riveted to a brow band and complemented with hinged cheek protectors.  Offensive infantry weapons included missile weapons: the spiculum, a throwing spear with a 9 inch triangular iron head attached to a wooden shaft about 5 ft long; a shorter javelin (verutum); and a dart known as a plumbata (a short spear with a leaded weight fitted below the spear head with a wooden shaft, measuring two to three feet long).  The most important thrusting weapon was a long double-edged sword (spatha), with a blade about 27 inches long, worn on a broad 'German'-style belt on the left hand side.  Regiments of archers armed with power 'm' shaped composite bows and slingers also existed.
            Cavalry regiments ranged from light cavalry armed with bows or javelins to cataphracts, clothed in chain mail, and the even more heavily armored clibanarii. Cataphracti and clibanarii rode on armored horses, and, much like eleventh century knights, were equipped with lance and shield for charging into contact. They lacked, however, stirrups.


Full-scale (20 m long) replica Roman warship in the Mainz Museum für Antike Schiffahrt (Museum of Ancient Shipping), based on a 3rd-4th-century wreck.



The Roman fleet consisted of warships and transport ships carrying troops, supplies, and horses (the last in specially designed vessels).  Late Roman warships were oared galleys with a single square sail. The standard warship was probably a trireme, that is, a ship with three banks of oars.  Equipped with rams, Roman warships were designed to be “ship-killers.”  Transport vessels, on the other hand, were powered by sail and were not designed for military actions.



Roman soldiers were recruited from both Roman citizens (all adult males within the empire after 212 AD) and from barbarians.

A. Recruitment from citizenry:

1) Volunteers, if they met the prescribed standards (e.g. health, honorable status), were welcome; but the popularity of military service had dropped to the point that army needs could no longer be met by volunteers.

2) Conscription based on a land tax instituted by Diocletian became the main source for the rank and file. This was an annual levy that fell only on the rural population. Landlords (and villages of peasants) were required to meet a quota of soldiers from among their tenants, or to commute this obligation for a sum of 25 or 30 solidi. Landlords much preferred to commute the obligation rather than use up their available labor, but the decision whether to take men or money was made by the government. Pressure from landlords led to an exemption being granted to coloni, citizen farmers bound to a tenancy.  Also exempted from conscription were men of high social status, including the urban elite (curiales) and landowners (praesidial rank).

3) Hereditary enlistment: sons of soldiers who by Diocletian's law were obliged to follow the profession of their father (NOT systematically enforced). In addition, defeated enemy troops who were settled in Roman territory owed hereditary military service as laeti.

4) periodical impressments in cities

Military service was very UNPOPULAR. Despite good pay (in theory), exemption from the poll tax, and other benefits (food and clothing), many did not want to serve. The length of service and the stationing in places far away from the recruit's home led to massive desertion during the transportation period. It also led to self-mutilation, as a series of laws from the Theodosian Code testify. (Cutting off a thumb to avoid service was punishable in the mid 4th century by death by fire; by 400 such recruits were accepted, but the recruiting source was obliged to provide an additional soldier.) Paradox: though military service was unpopular, the society became militarized. As Ramsey Macmullen had pointed out, the civilian population in the late empire was increasingly militarized, as military uniforms became fashionable among the aristocracy; private citizens carrying weapons became common) while the military became increasingly civilianized (see below).


The ‘Gurkha Syndrome.’ Although conscription was a general obligation throughout the empire, Roman authorities in the fourth and fifth centuries were particularly interested in recruiting from so-called ‘military races,’ groups supposedly possessing ‘natural’ martial qualities. Isauria, the rugged interior of southern Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and the Balkans were particularly prized recruiting areas. Military sociologist C.H. Enloe calls this the “Gurkha Syndrome,” referring to the Ghurkas of Nepal and northern India whom the British in the nineteenth century recruited into Gurkha regiments. As identified by Enloe, such ‘races’ share certain common characteristics. They tend to come from geographically distinct regions that are often mountainous and of poor agricultural quality.  Although their settlements tend to be separate and remote from ‘civilization,’ they also tend to live “near historic invasion routes” and have histories of fighting against absorption into neighboring more ‘advanced’ expansionist states.  These characteristics describe well the Isaurians and the peoples of Roman Pannonia, Noricum, and Dalmatia. (Enloe 23-49).  The ‘Gurkha Syndrome’ also explains the desire of Roman authorities to recruit from among the Germans, Huns, and other barbarian peoples.



a. Length of service: Ordinary term of service was 20 years to achieve an honorable discharge; 24 years for a veteran's discharge. Some NCOs stayed on for as many as 48 years. Veterans enjoyed fiscal privileges (immunity for themselves and their wives from the poll tax; discharge allotments of land with oxen and corn or cash bounties)

b. Personnel Support: army fortresses and field forces had in the 5th century regimental chaplains (most soldiers were still pagans) and regimental doctors. There were army hospitals with army doctors and orderlies.

c. Promotion: promotion was both through seniority and by acts of bravery. Common soldiers could rise through the ranks and be commissioned as officers. Those selected were given their rank through an audience with the emperor in which they 'adored the sacred purple.' This made them into protectores. The protectores formed a Corps of Officer Cadets open to ordinary soldiers and to the sons of officers. They served on headquarters' staffs and were used for miscellaneous duties, such as rounding up recruits or arresting important persons. A protector would eventually be given command of a regiment (becoming a tribune or prefect).

PAY AND RATIONS (in theory, based on A.H. M. Jones).

a. Soldiers received remuneration in the form of food, fodder, and cash. The annual pay of the common soldier was 4-5 solidi a year (bread for a year, at 3lbs a day--soldier's ration--cost 1 solidi; meat rations, 2lb a day=2 s.; clothing=1 s per garment). In addition to regular pay (which was not always so regularly paid!) soldiers received bonuses on the accession day and birthdays of the emperor and his family.


b. Officer pay: little is known of officer pay, except that it also was in the form of cash and rations. We do know that it was considerably higher than that of regular troops, and that it was often supplemented by embezzlement, kickbacks, and bribes.

Rations: Rations for limitanei were supplied by the civilian authorities: the praetorian prefect through the vicars and provincial governors, who directed curial collectors to issue to the quartermasters (actuaries) of the regiments the supplies listed in their warrants. Comitatenses units were supplied in bulk by the provincial authorities in which the units were billeted. Armies on campaign were supplied by praetorian prefects.

A soldier's rations (according to a sixth-century Egyptian papyrus source, the only table of rations we have) included bread (3lbs), meat (2lbs), 2 pints of wine, and 1/8 pint of oil. On campaign the soldier would receive biscuits instead of bread and salt pork instead of fresh meat. The amount of rations increased with each rank for non-commissioned officers: semissalis received one-and-a-half rations; a circitor or biarchus, two rations; a centenarius, three-and-a-half rations; three and a half for a ducenarius; four for a senator; and five for the primecerius.

a. Limitanei--lived in permanent forts on border.
b. Comitatenses--billeted in cities, usually given one-third of the living space in private houses. Though only the magistri had a right to demand a bath, many officers coerced their hosts to provide them—illegally—with wood, bedding, and baths.  Quartermasters were responsible for “assigning billets in cities” (hospitia in civitatibus), and would do so by writing the names of those troops to be billeted on the doorpost of the houses they chose. By law, the houses of teachers, clergy, and lawyers, and synagogues were exempted from this obligation.


A well known military adage attributed to Gen. Omar Bradley (among others) has it that “amateurs talk strategy and tactics, professionals talk logistics.”  This is a very Roman attitude.  Roman military writers such as Vegetius and Procopius emphasized the centrality of logistics for success in warfare; for Vegetius one could not talk strategy without talking logistics. Unsurprisingly given its administrative sophistication and well developed bureaucracy, the Late Roman state (like the modern American military) excelled at logistics. Unlike medieval warriors, Roman soldiers were paid, fed, clothed, armed, and trained by the state.  This was accomplished through a centrally administered system of public armories (fabricae) and mills distributed in those dioceses in which the main forces of the Roman army were based. The largest number of fabricae were devoted either to the production of shields or arma, that is weapons and armor.  There were, however, also specialized workshops that produced arrows, siege equipment, and armor for heavy cavalry. As listed in the Notitia Dignitatum, these armories were carefully located so as to be near the bases of the field army on roads and navigable rivers to facilitate transportations of their products, but sufficiently distant from the frontiers to be safe from capture.  The only exception to the last condition were factories devoted to the production of shields.  Mapping out the fabricae leaves little doubt as to the deliberate planning behind their distribution.  Although it cannot be proved, this network of military factories seems to have been established as an element of Diocletian’s military reorganization of the Empire.

In the early Empire military clothing was bought from private weavers by imperial agents. In the late third century, the responsibility for clothing soldiers was transferred to the local communities, and the production and purchase of items of clothing became a tax known as the vestis militaris.  A system of imperial mills either supplemented or replaced the vestis militaris, which continued into the fourth century but as a tax in cash rather than kind. By the reign of Constantine, the uniforms of soldiers, consisting of shirt, tunic, and cloaks, were produced in state run woolen and linen mills.  Boots continued to be produced by levies, though there is evidence for an imperial boot factory in 344.  The switch to state mills may have been an attempt to deal with the runaway inflation that beset Rome in the late third century.  But the maintenance of state mills also proved costly, and beginning in the second half of the third century issues of uniforms were gradually commuted into cash payments.

Horses for the cavalry were either bought on contract or supplied by imperial stud farms.  There were specialized fabricae to produce armor for cavalrymen and their mounts.

One of the characteristics of Diocletian’s military reorganization was the separation of financial and military functions.  This was done to create a system of checks and balances that Diocletian hoped would lessen the incidence of military rebellion.  Just as the collection of money to pay the soldiers fell to a civilian official, the praetorian prefect, so too did the responsibility for running the armories and mills fell.  The functioning of the former were entrusted to the imperial “master of the offices,” while the responsibility for the mills belonged to two financial officers, the comes sacrarum largitionum, the official responsible for imperial gold and silver mines and for the payment of donatives to soldiers and civil servants, and the comes rei privatae, responsible for the collection of imperial rents.

The late Roman state was capable of impressive feats of campaign logistics. On campaign, Romans made use of supply depots and magazines set up along the proposed routes of march.   Typically, preparations for both offensive and defensive campaigns involved requisitioning and distributing food, fodder, and other supplies.  This was the responsibility of the highest civilian official in a region, the praetorian prefect and the imperial officials under his jurisdiction.  Some supplies were delivered directly to military units; others were stockpiled in magazines along the routes to be taken by the armies. Supplies were carried in wagons and by cart animals until consumed, unless the army had the good fortune of marching alongside a river, in which case the provisions could be more easily transported by water. The relatively small size of Roman expeditionary forces in relation to the total disposable tactical strength of the Roman army has often been the subject of commentary. One plausible explanation is the logistical difficulties presented by larger armies.  Historian John Haldon estimates that a Byzantine army of 6,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and 1,000 remounts would require a minimum of 23.5 tons of grain per day—and that doesn’t include the 30,000 gallons of water and 13 tons of fodder the army would have required daily.  The problem of transporting supplies of this magnitude by horse and wagon is self evident.  Julian’s Persian expeditionary force of 65,000 men, the largest Roman army of the period, was only possible because it marched along the Euphrates. Even so, he could not have advanced far if he hadn’t also ordered supply depots set up in northern Mesopotamia in preparation for the invasion.

Establishing supply depots to which armies could march was standard operating procedure.  In 361 Emperor Constantius II ordered three million bushels of grain stored in Raetia (Switzerland) on the border of Gaul in preparation for his campaign against his rebellious cousin Julian. Accumulating and transporting this much grain was time and labor consuming. It was most feasible in cases of wars of choice.


Historian Ramsey Macmullen provides a ‘reality check’ to this rosy picture of a well administered and well supplied late Roman military.  For Macmullen the reality of Roman military service in the fourth and fifth centuries can be summed up by the terms corruption, peculation, and extortion. (193): “While the ethic prevailing in the legions had traditionally permitted extortion as a routine by and among the noncommissioned officers and lower ranks,” Macmullen observes, “it was only in the third century that whole regiments and armies (meaning, surely, colonels and generals) were seen to put profit before war.” (193) “The Empire as a whole,” Macmullen concluded, “suffered from the prevalence of venality.” (196)  The learned rhetorician Libanius, addressing the emperor in 390, bemoaned that even soldiers in rural billets were all 'on the take,' all 'selling protection' against rent and tax collectors. The general, of course, received the biggest share, but the protection money trickled down to the rank and file.


Pay.  Synesius, Libanius, and other fourth century writers describe hungry soldiers clad in 'bits of boots and ghosts of great-coats' (Libanius), because their officers had pocketed their soldiers' rations and pay (a practice known as "peculation"). Only the scholares, the imperial bodyguard, were paid on time and lived well. Limitanei's and even the field forces' pay was often in arrears, as high ranking officers detoured money into their own pockets and actuaries demanded and took kickbacks. The results were mutiny--Justinian's armies in Africa and Italy mutinied for back pay--and, more commonly, soldiers bullying and extorting money from civilians.

               Dishonest officers (Macmullen 161) created another problem. Some pocketed money earmarked for their men's uniforms and equipment. Many accepted payment from their men for extended--in some cases permanent--leave. One of the greatest problems was the failure to report deaths or desertions, since this meant that senior officers could draw for themselves the wages and benefits allotted to these 'paper troops.' Conscription, as Macmullen points out, became an accepted excuse for a shakedown.


Billeting.  The policy of billeting field troops in the homes of civilians, a practice euphemistically termed “hospitality” (hospitalitas) was given to abuses and was, understandably, extremely unpopular with those forced to share their homes (and often their food, goods, and even wives) with soldiers. The unpopularity of hospitalitas is evidenced by a law against householders erasing the names of soldiers to be billeted from their doorposts. Individuals and whole cities were willing to bribe officials to be spared the expense of billeting troops. Bishop Synesius, writing in the early fifth century, denounced a Roman commander whom he accused of moving his troops not on the basis of military need but to places “where there was the most plunder. Burdened by this billeting of troops upon them, cities paid in gold” (quoted by Lee, 168).  Although householders were only obligated to give soldiers lodgings, the Theodosian Code indicates that soldiers commonly extorted amenities such as baths, oil, bedding, wood, and food from their hosts, which in military slang was called salgammum (“pickles”).  An early sixth-century Syrian Christian clergyman denounced Roman soldiers who came to defend Edessa during the Persian War of 502-505:  “[They] came to our assistance ostensibly as saviours … [but] they looted us in the manner little short of enemies. They threw many poor people out of their beds and slept in them, leaving their owners to lie on the ground at a time of cold weather. They ejected others from their houses, going in and living in them. Others’ cattle they led away by force as if plundering an enemy. … They used rough treatment on others for the sake of obtaining anything whatever.] (quoted by Lee, 168-9). On top of this, soldiers were notorious for their culture of drunkenness, which often led to brawls and rape, the latter sometimes disguised as “adultery” in the sources.

               Such problems were endemic with the billeting of field armies. They were less so in the case of the limitanei. The main reasons seem to be that limitanei troops tended to be housed in border fortifications and camps outside of towns rather than in requisitioned quarters in homes, and limitanei were far better integrated into the local communities. Frontier troops most often were conscripted from the areas in which they served and spent most if not all of their careers in the same place.  Field troops, by comparison, were transients, moving from city to city, region to region, according to the orders of their superiors. 


Logistics. Although the Romans excelled at logistical support for their troops, the fourth- and fifth-century sources nonetheless complain about the behavior of troops marching through Roman territory. Apparently, Roman soldiers were not loathe to practice “self-help” in obtaining food and supplies from the locals. The problem of Roman soldiers looting Roman territory became particularly severe during civil wars.  Then it was no longer the problem of individual soldiers bullying and robbing locals in the areas through which the army passed, but of the army itself living off the land if the commanders did not have the support of the region’s prefects who controlled the distribution of the army’s food and supplies.


Discipline: "The regular army, we are told [by Ammianus], lacked discipline, energy, and courage. It excelled only in its 'lust for plunder.'" (Macmullen, Corruption 175). As Macmullen points out (ibid), Vegetius, Claudian, Ambrose, Symmachus, Libanius, Synesius and the author of the Augustan History all comment on the lack of drill, discipline, practice among soldiers, and the problems of drunkenness, inadequate armor, and readiness to run away. Macmullen: "No general wanted regular Romans."
               Discipline was notoriously lax among late fourth and early fifth-century border garrisons (limitanei) and, increasingly so among the more elite field forces (comitatenses) of and the 5th and 6th centuries. Many soldiers became full time farmers or tradesmen. Jones cites the case of a comitatensis of Alexandria who weaved baskets from dawn until 1500 and then put on his uniform and went on parade. He did this for eight years. Another soldier from southern Egypt described himself in a legal document as a soldier of regiment x, by profession a boatman.
               The early fifth-century writer (and antiquarian) Vegetius famously diagnosed the military problem of the Empire as the result of a lack of discipline: "Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it. We find that the Romans owed the conquest of the world to no other cause than continual military training, exact observance of discipline in their camps and unwearied cultivation of the other arts of war. ... But the security established by long peace has altered the dispositions of Romans, drawn them off from military to civil pursuits and infused into them a love of idleness and ease. Hence a relaxation of military discipline insensibly ensued, then a neglect of it, and it sunk at last into entire oblivion." (Vegetius, De Re Militari ["Concerning Military Matters"], book one.) . The cure he prescribed was a return to the (idealized) drill and manual of arms that he found in the works of earlier Roman writers.


Reality check on the reality check.  Macmullen was undoubtedly correct in seeing corruption, peculation, and extortion as rife in the late Roman army. BUT the same could be said for the armies of the earlier Caesars. Even in the first century, Roman centurions commonly used their positions to enrich themselves at the expense of those under their command, while soldiers in general were notorious for extorting money from civilians with threats of violence. These practices were so ubiquitous that the Gospel According to Luke (3:14), composed ca. 85 AD, has Jesus respond to a question from some soldiers about how they ought to behave, with the admonition:  "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."

               The extent to which military discipline and training declined between the first and fourth centuries is questionable. A. H. M. Jones and, more recently, Hugh Elton, point out that the field armies of the early fifth century were still formidable military forces capable of defeating larger barbarian armies (e.g. Stilicho's victories of Pollentia, Verona, and Faesulae). The early seventh-century Byzantine armies of Justinian conquered Italy and Africa not because of numbers but because of their tactical superiority (Belisarius's army in N. Africa in 533 numbered only 15,000 troops). The only battle in which a barbarian army defeated a regular Roman army in the fourth and fifth centuries was Adrianople (378), which was exceptional because of the poor leadership demonstrated by the Emperor Valens, which led to the Romans being caught between the German camp and the bulk of the German cavalry returning from a foraging expedition.






            One of the hottest areas of scholarly debate among historians of the late Roman military is the extent of the barbarian presence in Roman regular armies of the fourth and fifth centuries. Everyone agree that many barbarians served in these forces, the great majority of barbarian as volunteers, although prisoners of war and quotas from federate tribes were also enrolled. Barbarian prisoners of war were settled in small villages under Roman prefects. These laeti were bred to supply troops to the armed forces. (Constantine, supposedly, settled 300,000 Sarmatians as laeti in villages in Italy and the Balkans).

Under Constantine, Franks and Alamans (two German tribes) dominated the scholae and barbarians were well represented throughout the fourth and fifth centuries in the elite ‘palace’ forces in the Western Roman Empire. This is an indication that barbarians were deemed to be better fighting material. There were many barbarians in the comitatenses; fewer among the limitanei. The desirability of Germans for the armed forces underlies the decision of the Emperor Valens to welcome in the Gothic refugees of 376.


But how “barbarianized” was the late Roman military? This remains an open question.  The orthodox position is best represented by Ramsey Macmullen (Corruption and the Decline of Rome [1988] 201-04) who maintains that from the time of Constantine Germans formed the bulk of the Roman military forces. The civil wars of the fourth century, according to Macmullen, pitted German auxiliaries of emperors against the German auxiliaries of pretenders. As Macmullen points out (176), from 312 on the soldiers credited with 'Roman' victories were forces mustered from outside the empire: "No general wanted regular Romans. By the mid-fourth century the typical fighting force, as opposed to a more or less useless mass of men merely in uniform, appears to have been half imported. A generation later, imported soldiers formed the majority. Notorious, before the century was over, barbarian commanders of essentially barbarian armies had gained control over the empire's fate. ...The sack of Rome [by Alaric in 410] was a purely domestic event."

Macmullen’s conclusions have been more recently challenged by Hugh Elton. Elton’s analysis of the names of commanders of Roman forces in the period between 350 and 425 suggests that less than a quarter of the Roman officer corps was ‘barbarian.’ Elton’s conclusions are supported by the research of M.J. Nicasie (1998) into the composition of the Roman army that fought at Adrianople in 378. Elton, moreover, points out that so-called ‘barbarian’ generals such as Stilicho not only were Roman citizens but were so acculturated that one could not distinguish between them and commanders of ‘Roman’ ancestry.

There was some debate in the late 4th century over the wisdom of relying on barbarian recruits, especially after Adrianople when Theodosius recruited heavily among the Germans to make up for the losses suffered by the army.  The bottom-line, though, is that Germans in regular units were Roman soldiers, subjected to Roman discipline and training and commanded by regular Roman officers (some of whom were barbarians themselves). They tended to be reliable and loyal troops. (Federates were a different matter.) One ought not to think in terms of divided loyalties: there was no German “nationalism” in the fourth century.

Cultural Integration: Romanization. Germans (Goths, Alamanni, Burgundians, etc.) living within the Roman provinces or across the borders in Late Antiquity had been "Romanized" through long contact with the empire. Patrick Geary stresses that Roman leaders, needing recognizable states with which to deal, helped create, through gifts and diplomacy, and define stable tribal units. In a sense, Rome  created and categorized the varieties of Goths (Visigoths, Ostrogoths, etc.) and saw them as having a political unity that they had not possessed until they had encountered the Romans.  Germania was defined in relationship to the Roman territorial borders: without the Romans there would have been no more unity among the 'Germans' than among the 'Gauls' before Julius Caesar.

Reciprocal cultural interaction. Along the Rhine and Danubian borders of the Empire, Germans were Romanized through commercial contacts, military arrangements, diplomacy, etc. 'Romans,' on the other hand, were increasingly 'barbarianized.' This may be seen in fashion in the adoption of 'German' trousers in the 4th century empire: in 397 the emperor Honorius decreed that trousers and German footwear not be word within the city of Rome. This law had to be reissued in 399 and 416, attesting to the popularity of German wear. In terms of material culture, the Germans along the border and the Romans across it may have been virtually indistinguishable. Roman and barbarian soldiers possessed the same equipment and uniforms, as can be seen from artistic representations of the imperial bodyguard from the time of Theodosius (ca. 388). For example, 'German' belt buckles found in 4th cemetery military graves actually were standard issue among Roman soldiers, manufactured by Romans.  The “Germanization of the Roman army may best be seen in Julian’s army in Gaul declaring him emperor in 360 through the German practice of raising the new king on a shield.


Visigoth warrior and his weapons, ca. 425


Foederati within the empire.

Federates were barbarian tribes allied to empire that could be called upon by treaty to provide contingents for distant operations (e.g. bedouin force from Syria defended Constans against the Goths in 378). Constantine, who favored Germans for his imperial guard, the scholae, made a treaty in 324/32 with Gothic chieftains for 40,000 western Goths to defend Constantinople as federates. (Macmullen, Corruption and the Decline of Rome [1988] 202; Eusebius Vita Const. 4.5, Ammianus Marcellinus 21.10.8).

Federates were the forces of sovereign ‘states’ beyond the borders of the empire.  The decision of the Emperor Valens to allow tens of thousands of Germans to cross the Danube in 376 and the Battle of Adrianople two years later changed this. After a year of indecisive warfare, the Emperor Theodosius (379-95) concluded that it would be impossible task to drive out the Goths from the Balkans. He made the best of a bad situation by entering a treaty with the Goths that allowed them to settle in Thrace within the borders of the empire as a federate people under their own king and with their own laws and customs. The Burgundians and Alans were later given the same privilege. Theodosius's army that defeated the pretender Eugenius in 394 relied heavily on the federate forces of Alaric and Gainas. Eugenius also relied on federates. After the civil war, Stilicho, needing troops to oppose Alaric, stripped the frontiers of soldiers and replaced them with federates (Macmullen, Corruption and the Decline of Rome [1988] 204).

These federate bands, unlike the earlier federates outside the empire or the Germans serving in the Roman regular army, proved unreliable. Loyal to their own chiefs rather than to the emperor, the barbarian foederati were willing to follow their leaders in opposition to the empire to gain better deals.  Again, the example of ALARIC is instructive: "Nothing shows better how weakened had become the resistance against the barbarians, taken into the empire since 380, than the settling of German federates in 397, under a king provided with a Roman office" (Demouget, quoted by R. Macmullen, Corruption and the Decline of Rome [1988], 204). Macmullen concludes: BY THIS DATE [410], IN ANY MILITARY SENSE, THE EMPIRE WAS NO LONGER A SOVEREIGN STATE AND THE SACK OF ITS ANCIENT CAPITAL BY ALARIC--A HIGH IMPERIAL OFFICIAL AND EVEN A BORN ROMAN, SO FAR AS THE WORD HAS MEANING--HAD NO QUALITY OF INVASION ABOUT IT AT ALL. HE AND HIS MEN WERE THE ROMAN ARMY, AND HAD BEEN FOR DECADES." (Macmullen 204).

The Western Empire in the 5th century increasingly relied upon federates. The Eastern Empire, in contrast, lessened its reliance upon German barbarian soldiers, and instead strengthened its border garrisons with local recruits). Jones attributes this to heavy losses suffered by Western Roman armies during the great barbarian invasion of Italy by Alaric, 407-410, and subsequent invasions by Vandals, Alans, etc., and endemic civil war. The sources indicate that late Roman generals, acting under and on behalf of fifth-century Western Roman emperors (who after Theodosius ceased to take the field themselves), were in command of armies largely composed of federates and bucellarii (generals' personal followings of barbarian soldiers). The great fifth-century generals, Stilicho, Constantius, Boniface, and Aetius all relied upon bucellarii. Liebeshuetz points out that this personalization of the military 'recalls the last century of the Republic' and was a consequence of the core of these armies having been recruited personally by the commander (269). Such armies could easily into personal forces, which explains the tendency of the imperial government to lose control of its armies during this period




Flavius Stilicho (on left), with his wife Serena and son Eucherius

(right), ca. 395. Ivory diptych, Monza Cathedral, Italy.


STILICHO AND ALARIC: a case study for the ‘barbarianization’ of the Roman Army

            Toward the end of the fourth century, Roman field armies and auxiliary forces led by Romanized German commanders and barbarian federate forces led by Romanized barbarian chieftains began to merge. The careers of the Roman general Flavius Stilicho, the son of a Vandal who was a career soldier in the Roman army, and the famous (or infamous) Visigoth king Alaric, who held the position of magister militum of the prefecture of Illyricum under two emperors, illustrate this trend. Before we begin our examination of these two men, a caveat is in order. For historians of U.S. warfare in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the problem is too much information; their challenge is to distinguish between the “signal” and the “noise” when attempting to explain events.  For historians of Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the problem is the exact opposite. Few sources survive from these eras.   Historians are often forced to make do with narratives written decades after the events they describe by individuals whose knowledge of what actually occurred was limited and whose agendas for writing shaped the stories they told. The careers of the rivals and sometimes allies Stilicho and Alaric may be pieced together from sources as varied as the contemporary letters of St. Jerome (ca. 347-420), an Illyrian Christian Father who observed these events from Palestine, and the  early sixth-century “New History” of the pagan Greek historian Zosimus, which, in turn, was based on century old writings by a pagan Greek philosopher Eunapius (ca. 405) and a poet Olympiodorus (ca. 425). As a result, it can be difficult simply to devise an accepted chronology of events, let alone explain the motivations of either Stilicho or Alaric. What follows is a plausible if not definite narrative of events.

Stilicho (c.359-408) was among the most powerful Roman leaders of the late fourth and early fifth centuries. He served as magister militum under the emperors Theodosius I and his son Honorius, and held the civilian offices of “Patrician” and “Consul” under the latter. Stilicho is often characterized in history books as a “semi-barbarian” because his father was a Vandal, but this is misleading.  Stilicho’s father was a career Roman soldier and there is no evidence that he regarded himself as anything but Roman. Following his father into the army, Stilicho rose through the ranks and by 383 had sufficiently distinguished himself to be entrusted by Emperor Theodosius I with a critical peace mission to the court of the Persian king Shapur III that resulted in a treaty partitioning disputed Armenia and ushered in a period of relative peace between Rome and Persia that lasted until the early sixth century. 

Stilicho was rewarded for his successful efforts at peace making with high military command, as Theodosius I elevated him to the rank of magister militum.  Stilicho’s new prominence was confirmed by his marriage to the Emperor’s adopted niece. In the late 380s and early 390s Stilicho protected Roman territory against raids launched by various German tribes. In 394, however, the enemy was Roman: the usurper (in Theodosius’s eyes) Eugenius II and his puppet-master, the Frankish magister militum Arbogast. Despite the greater wealth and resources of the east and Arbogast’s considerable military talent, Theodosius triumphed, and Stilicho played a large role in his success. Stilicho not only raised barbarian federate troops for Theodosius’s army but distinguished himself in the decisive Battle of the Frigidus. 

Theodosius’s rule of a reunited Roman Empire was brief. In 395 he fell seriously ill.  When it became clear that he was dying, he confirmed the arrangements for the succession he had made earlier.  In 383 he had elevated his elder son Arcadius, then only five or six years old, to be his co-Augustus in the East. Ten years later he had done the same for his other son Honorius. In 395 Honorius was only eleven years old.  Recognizing that because of his youth Honorius would not be capable of personally leading armies, Theodosius appointed the loyal Stilicho commander-in-chief for all the military forces in the West (comes et magister militum utriusque militiae), and entrusted to him the guardianship of Honorius after his death. This much seems certain. What Theodosius intended for the east is a matter of dispute. Stilicho claimed that Theodosius had also given him charge of Arcadius but the Patrician of Constantinople Rufinus, jealous of Stilicho’s power and presumably with the approval of the eighteen year old Arcadius, assumed that role for himself. 

Arcadius as the elder son had inherited the more valuable Eastern prefectures. He also inherited the consequences of the Battle of the Frigidus.  The battle had all but wrecked the army of the West. (In contrast, the heaviest casualties suffered by the Eastern army in this bloody engagement were by barbarian federate troops.)  To compensate for this, Theodosius transferred several Armenian regiments to the West to defend against German raiders, which was made possible by the peace that Theodosius had made with the Persians.  However, there were other military threats in 395, the greatest of which were the fearsome Huns, who now chose to invade Roman Syria and Asia Minor. While Rufinus’s generals engaged the Huns on their eastern front, Alaric, the newly elected king of the Visigoths (then settled in lower Moesia, the parts of Romania and Bulgaria bordering on the Danube) and veteran of the Battle of the Frigidus, took advantage of the absence of Roman troops in the Balkans to pillage Thrace. Unopposed, he devastated the region, even burning the countryside around the city of Constantinople. Without military resources at hand Rufinus could do no more than negotiate with Alaric. According to the poet Claudian, Rufinus gave Alaric leave to pillage over parts of the Balkans, Claudian, however, was a supporter of Stilicho and his account should be read with that in mind. More likely Alaric withdrew to Macedonia and Thessaly because it became clear to him that he could not take Constantinople by siege.  Stilicho saw in this a great political opportunity.  He would rescue Arcadius from Alaric and in the process “liberate” the young king from the baleful influence of Rufinus. With the blessings of Honorius, Stilicho led the army of the West into the Balkans to engage Alaric.  But Arcadius, undoubtedly on the “advice” of Rufinus, derailed Stilicho’s plans by demanding that he return the eastern regiments in his army for service in the war against the Huns on the eastern frontier.  Stilicho obeyed, and as a result found himself with insufficient forces to face down Alaric, who had in the interim become an ally of Rufinus. Stilicho withdrew to the West without having engaged the Visigoths. Rufinus resolved the threat posed by Alaric by appointing him as magister militum for the prefecture of Illyricum, which included the lands that he had been pillaging.

Alaric is one of the most famous names in the story of the “Fall of Rome.” His sack of Rome in 410 is used by modern historians (somewhat misleadingly) as a marker of the “decline and fall” of the Western Empire.  What is particularly interesting about Alaric, however, is how his career illuminates the interpenetration between the German and Roman militaries in the late fourth century. For Alaric has as much a claim to be considered a Roman general as a barbarian chieftain. Alaric first comes into historical sight in 391 as a leader of a group of rebel Goths who came close to killing the Emperor Theodosius. The mid sixth-century historian Jordanes writing a “History of the Goths” in Constantinople claimed that Alaric was descended from Visigothic royalty, but modern historians doubt this and even doubt whether there was a “Visigothic” people let alone Visigothic royalty in 390.  Jordanes is the only source for Alaric’s ancestry, and it looks very much like he (or his source, the Roman Cassiodorus) was attempting to create a royal pedigree for the kings of the Visigoths to match the one Cassiodorus or Jordanes had invented for the Ostrogoths.  It is more likely that Alaric was a “new man” who rose to influence among the Goths because of his success as a leader of small (and fluctuating) bands of barbarians warriors, fighting both for and against the Romans, depending upon which was more profitable. By 394, however, Alaric had been clearly pulled into the Roman world and was serving Theodosius as a leader of federate Goths.  Alaric’s ambitions had also been “Romanized.”  According to the early sixth century Greek historian Zosimus, Alaric’s intention in ravaging Thrace in 395 was not to conquer and rule it as a barbarian king but to press his claim to the Roman command that he felt he had earned through his service to Theodosius. 

Rufinus’ tactical victory in forcing Stilicho to return to Rome proved Pyrrhic. Ironically, the praetorian prefect was murdered by the very same Armenian troops he had recalled during a muster and review, presumably by order of their commander Gainas, a Roman general of Gothic descent who previously had served as Stilicho’s second in command in the West.  Neither Gainas nor Stilicho, however, benefited from the assassination, as a court eunuch named Eutropius acted quickly to take over Rufinus’ role as the emperor Arcadius’ guardian and de facto ruler of the East.  Like Rufinus, the civilian Eutropius proved to be a surprisingly effective military leader. He not only restored Theodosius’s military organization of the east but personally took command over the Roman forces fighting the Huns in Syria and Asia Minor and led them to victory in 397-398. His most dangerous enemy, however, was Stilicho, who invaded Greece in April 397. The poet Claudian, who wrote in praise of Stilicho and condemnation of Eutropius, presents Stilicho’s expedition as a defense of Roman territory against the depredations of the barbarian Alaric. In fact, it is more likely that Alaric was defending Roman territory (and his superior Eutropius) in his capacity as magister militum of Illyricum against an invader, and that the devastation was the result of Stilicho’s troops “living off of the land.” (Alaric’s forces were being provisioned by the cities of Greece.) At any rate, it is certain that Eutropius regarded Stilicho as a serious threat to his position. He responded to Stilicho’s forces landing in Greece by having him officially declared a “public enemy” (hostis publicus) and by confirming Alaric’s position as magister militum. This meant that Alaric, rather than Stilicho, would have the support of the local landowners and officials in the Balkans, as well as the imperial system of provisioning the army. Once again politically outmaneuvered, Stilicho was forced to retire to Rome.

Upon his return Stilicho was confronted by a major rebellion in the diocese of Africa, the bread basket of the Western EmpireEutropius had persuaded the Moorish chieftain Gildo, whom Theodosius had appointed comes Africae, to transfer the diocese of Africa to the East and cut off the grain shipments to the city of Rome upon which the population of the city depended.  Stilicho responded by invading Africa, defeating Gildo, and restoring the diocese to the West. The Emperor Honorius honored his magister militum by marrying his eldest daughter Maria, tying Stilicho, whose wife was a niece of Theodosius, even closer to the royal family.  Eutropius meanwhile did not fare as well in maintaining his position in the East. Despite his triumph over the Huns in Asia Minor and Syria and the continued favor of Arcadius, Eutropius’s political position was fragile. He had made many enemies in Arcadius’s court, including the empress. Matters came to a head in 399 when two Goths in command of Roman troops, Gainas in Thrace and Tribigild in Asia Minor, demanded that Eutropius be deposed and that each receive senior military commands.  Eutropius’s successor as praetorian prefect Aurelian was also deposed because of a threatened revolt by Gainas, who also demanded and received the title of “Consul,” but Aurelian’s successor Caesarius proved more formidable. An anti-Goth backlash led to a riot in Constantinople that resulted in the killing of thousands of Germans. Gainas was subsequently defeated in battle (400 AD) by yet another Gothic Roman commander Fravitta. Tribigild fell in the engagement; Gainas escaped across the Danube but was captured and killed by Huns, who sent his head to Arcadius as a gift. 

Alaric apparently took no part in these events. Nonetheless, the fall of Gainas and the backlash against Goths apparently persuaded Alaric and his troops to leave the southern Balkans, where they had been billeted and supplied by the local civilian administration, and enter Italy through the Julian Alps in late 401. Alaric’s passage through the Alps had been unopposed by Stilicho was at the time occupied fighting the Vandals in Raetia (comprising modern day Switzerland and parts of Bavaria and Lombardy). Alaric moved to take the city of Milan but was intercepted by Stilicho at Pollentia on Easter Sunday, 402. Stilicho won the ensuing engagement, even capturing Alaric’s wife and children and, as importantly, his baggage train, including all the treasure he had looted over the years. For reasons that are unclear, Stilicho did not press his victory but instead negotiated a truce with Alaric, which Alaric apparently violated since the two fought an inconclusive battle near Verona late that summer. Alaric’s forces remained intact but, weighing the costs and benefits of continuing to campaign in Italy, Alaric chose to withdraw to the northern Balkans for the next two years.  Stilicho possibly had spared Alaric because he saw in him a potential ally.  That, at any rate, was how he viewed him early in 405 when he offered Alaric official recognition as comes rei militaris per Illyricum, commander of the Roman field army (in point of fact, Alaric’s troops) in Noricum and, theoretically, throughout the prefecture of Illyricum (most of which was under the jurisdiction of the Eastern Empire). Subsequent events reveal that Stilicho’s intention was to use Alaric’s forces to advance his (or Honorius’) ambitions in the East.

Stilicho ended up facing one military crisis after a number from this point until his execution in 408. In late 405 an otherwise unknown Gothic king, Radagasius, crossed the Danube into Roman territory with perhaps as many as 200,000 men, women, and children, whom he led across the Alps into Italy in the summer of 406. The Emperor Honorius responded by moving his court from Rome to the less vulnerable Ravenna, which was protected by the marshes that surrounded it, and left the defense of Italy to his magister militum.  For logistical reasons, Radagasius divided his forces into three parts. Stilicho, in command of perhaps no more than 15,000 troops, took advantage of this and intercepted Radagasius’s main force near Florence, defeating it in battle. Stilicho exploited his victory by cutting the barbarians off from food and starving them into submission.  In possession of a fully mobilized and triumphant army, Stilicho turned his attention once again to the East, and ordered Alaric to move against Epirus where he would join forces with him. Stilicho’s goal was to recover for his master Honorius those parts of the prefecture of Illyricum that had been transferred to the East by the Emperor Theodosius.  Alaric’s ambition was to regain the post of magister militum per Illyricum that he had held under Rufinus.  Alaric’s forces quickly took possession of Epirus and Stilicho appointed a civilian official named Jovius to serve as praetorian prefect of Illyricum, who took charge of the local administration to provision Alaric’s troops as they awaited the advent of Stilicho’s army for a push into Macedonia.

Alaric, however, was left cooling his heels in Epirus, as Stilicho was distracted by problems closer to home.  As Stilicho prepared an expedition to Macedonia (probably in the winter of 407), he received orders from the Emperor Honorius to deal with a new threat—or threats—in Gaul. In 407 Gaul was on the receiving end of two separate invasions, one by barbarian Germans, and the other by Romans. The winter of 406 was very harsh. On the very last day of that year, thousands of hungry Vandals, Sueves, and Alans crossed the frozen Rhine into Roman Gaul, defeated the local Gallic forces, took the cities of Mainz, Worms, and Trier, and plundered the countryside.  The disordered conditions in Gaul also led peasants to organize into bands of “bagaudae,” whom the official government considered brigands but who may have been an attempt by locals to fill the power vacuum left by the Germans’ defeat of Rome’s legions in Gaul.  About the same time and probably for unrelated reasons, the Roman army of Britain rebelled and set up a series of would-be emperors, the last of whom was a professional soldier of obscure ancestry who bore the portentous name of Constantine. Associating himself with the unrelated Constantine I the Great, who had himself been declared Emperor by his troops in York in northern Britain a century before, “Constantine III” used the inability of Honorius to deal with the barbarian depredations in Gaul as a pretext to cross the Channel. In 407 Constantine III led the army into Gaul.  (This marks the end of a formal Roman military presence in Britain.)  It was the usurper’s invasion of Gaul, rather than the rampages of Germans that led a panicky Emperor Honorius to order Stilicho to abandon his campaign to the east and deal with the trouble in the north.  The remnants of Rome’s Gallic forces joined up with Constantine III as he marched through Gaul. Within a few months he had  recovered Trier and secured the Rhine frontier against further incursions. Meanwhile, Stilicho dispatched his lieutenant Sarus to deal with the usurper. After some initial military success, Sarus was defeated and scampered back across the Alps, leaving his baggage train to the Bagaudae as the price for his safe passage.  Constantine III now established his capital at Arles and began to strike coins in his own name. Within a year, he controlled all of Britain, Gaul, and Spain.

To check Constantine III’s possible advance into Italy, Stilicho ordered Alaric in the spring of 408 to return to Noricum from Epirus.  Alaric complied, but demanded 4,000 pounds of gold as reimbursement for the costs he had incurred in his expedition to Epirus, threatening an invasion of Italy if he wasn’t paid. Stilicho persuaded Honorius to pay the money, despite opposition from some bellicose senators who muttered about appeasement. (“This is not peace but a pact of servitude,” one senator is reported to have declared.)  Stilicho may have thought Alaric’s demands for payment justified; he certainly believed that 4,000 pounds of gold was a small price to pay for Alaric’s support against Constantine III, for with the defeat of Sarus, Alaric was the best weapon that Honorius had against the usurper in Arles. The senatorial opposition probably had less to do with Alaric than with resentment against Stilicho’s influence over the emperor.  They possibly saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between the emperor and his magister militum when Honorius’ wife (and Stilicho’s daughter) Maria died in late 407. But Honorius quelled any rumors of a rift between him and Stilicho by now marrying Stilicho’s younger daughter Thermantia.

 As Stilicho was arguing Alaric’s case to Honorius, news arrived from the east that the Emperor Arcadius had died (1 May 2008), leaving his seven year old son Theodosius II as the new “Augustus.” Honorius’s initial impulse was to go to Constantinople in person and take charge of his nephew.  Stilicho, however, persuaded the Emperor that the threat posed by Constantine III demanded his presence in the West, and offered to go in his place.  Honorius drew up imperial letters for Stilicho’s embassy, which was to consist of four legions marching under a standard bearing the sign of Christ, the “Chi-Rho” .  Honorius also drew up an imperial letter to Alaric, presumably his appointment as magister militum in preparation for a campaign against Constantine III.  However, before he could depart, Stilicho fell victim to a palace coup. The master of the imperial secretaries, Olympius, spread the rumor that Stilicho was preparing to use his embassy for his own purposes, and that his intentions were to replace Honorius’ nephew Theodosius II as emperor with his own son Eucherius. As Honorius was about to exhort his army assembled in the northern Italian city of Ticinium before they marched off to fight the usurper, Olympius denounced Stilicho as a traitor and gave the order for the troops to attack and kill Stilicho’s main supporters, including two generals. Stilicho heard the news as he awaited the arrival of Alaric in Bononia (Bologna) to plan the campaign against Constantine III. When troops came to arrest him, he took refuge in a church, but left his sanctuary when he was told that the soldiers had no orders to kill him.  That may have been true of the first troops that had arrived, but not for a second contingent that arrived soon after. Stilicho still was surrounded by his bodyguard, who wanted to fight to save their master, but Stilicho chose to surrender and accept his fate. For the Christian writers Jerome and Orosius, Stilicho’s execution was just. They repeated rumors (probably spread by Olympius) that Stilicho had been planning to replace not just Theodosius II but Honorius with his son. Jerome, who hated Alaric for the devastation he had wrought in the saint’s homeland of Illyricum and had contempt for the German barbarians whom he denounced as Arian heretics, claimed that Stilicho was guilty of a further treason.  According to Jerome, Stilicho had been plotting with Alaric to destroy the Roman army on the Rhine (the usurper Constantine III’s), not to restore Gaul to Honorius but to permit the Germans to settle permanently within Roman territory. (Jerome and Orosius both emphasized Stilicho’s Vandal heritage.) Neither accusation seems to have been true, but they must have seemed credible enough at the time to the soldiers who killed Stilicho and his supporters.

Stilicho’s fall deprived Alaric of his one firm supporter in Honorius’ court. It is ironic given the accusations that Stilicho had been conspiring with Alaric and the barbarians that one of Stilicho’s last acts as Honorius’ magister militum was to order the town and cities in which barbarian troops were being billeted to lock their gates against these auxiliaries, most of whom Stilicho himself had recruited. Stilicho was acting responsibly, as he feared that the attack on his supporters could result in a general uprising by his barbarian auxiliaries. As things turned out, it was the barbarians who had things to fear from the Romans. Inspired by Olympius’s purge of Stilicho’s supporters, Roman garrisons massacred the Germans residing within towns and cities, including the wives and children of the auxiliaries. Thousands of furious German auxiliaries poured into Alaric’s camp in Noricum, swelling his ranks. Alaric’s immediate impulse was to negotiate an exchange of hostages with Honorius and permission to withdraw his troops to Pannonia, where he would be content with the office of comes. For whatever reason, Honorius, who was now firmly in Olympius’s camp (and had dismissed his wife to show his approval of Stilicho’s execution), refused Alaric’s very reasonable demands. Alaric’s response was to invade Italy. In October 408 Alaric marched south through Lombardy to lay siege to Rome.  In 409 he blockaded the city and began to starve it into submission. The senators, however, were able to buy him off with “5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 scarlet-colored skins, and 3,000 pounds of pepper.” (Apparently, Alaric and his “barbarian” troops had been sufficiently Romanized to appreciate the fruits of civilization, silk tunics and spices.) They also offered to send an embassy to the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna to negotiate a peace on Alaric’s behalf.  The emperor agreed to send a high level delegation headed by Alaric’s old acquaintance Jovius, now praetorian prefect of Italy, to meet with Alaric at Rimini. Alaric’s demands were gold and grain for his troops and Stilicho’s old office of magister utriusquae militiae for himself. Honorius and Olympius were willing to deliver money and food but balked at appointing Alaric to high imperial command.  Honorius was also emboldened to refuse Alaric’s demand by the unexpected arrival of a delegation from Constantine III begging “forgiveness” for Constantine’s “unanticipated elevation at the hands of the soldiers.” Honorius, viewing Constantine III as a counterbalance to Alaric, officially forgave him and accepted him as a colleague.  Alaric’s response was to renew hostilities.

Alaric had learned a great deal about imperial politics in his decades of dealing with Roman emperors. He knew that the one thing that really got the attention of Roman emperors was the specter of a rival emperor. Honorius had all but shrugged at the incursion of thousands of barbarians into Gaul in 407 but had immediately sprung into action when he learned of Constantine III’s invasion.  Frustrated by Honorius’s refusal to grant him a magistership, Alaric decided to set up his own puppet emperor, and chose a distinguished senator Priscus Attalus for this role.  Attalus accepted and awarded Alaric and his brother-in-law Athaulf high commands. Attalus, however, refused to be Alaric’s puppet. He rejected Alaric’s strategic advice to send him and about 500 troops to Africa to cut off food supplies to Italy and instead ordered Alaric and Athaulf to march on Ravenna. (Ironically, it was Honorius who ordered his comes Africae to stop grain shipments to Italy in order to starve Attalus’ and Alaric’s troops into submission!) Honorius was sufficiently concerned to offer Attalus co-emperorship, but Attalus refused.  Unfortunately for Attalus, Honorius’s position was suddenly improved by the arrival of 5,000 troops from the East, who came in a belated response to an appeal sent a year earlier by Stilicho. Disgusted with the ineptitude of Attalus, Alaric deposed him in early 410. Meanwhile, Honorius’s suspicions of Olympius’s ambitions led his fall and exile.

Alaric marched his troops within 13 kilometers of Ravenna and entered into negotiations once again with Honorius.  While negotiations were underway, Alaric’s troops were suddenly attacked by the magister militum Sarus, whether on Honorius’s orders or his own recognizance is unknown. Alaric, regarding this as an act of treachery, broke off negotiations and marched once again on Rome.  The citizens of Rome had been suffering from food shortages because of Honorius’s decision to withhold grain shipments to Italy from Africa.  This time Rome offered no resistance against Alaric. On 24 August 410 the Romans opened their gates to Alaric.  As a Christian (albeit an Arian heretic), Alaric ordered that the Christian basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul be respected and that those who had taken refuge in Christian places be spared. Everything else was fair game for Alaric’s troops, who sacked the city for three days, an event that shocked the Roman world and which forced the Christian apologists Augustine and Orosius to try to explain why God would allow Christian Rome to be sacked. With Honorius still unwilling to accede to his demands for the magistership, Alaric now decided that his only chance lay in taking Africa and its critical grain supplies.  He marched his army into southern Italy but fell mortally ill at Consentia in Bruttium.

As historian Thomas Burns concludes, “The ‘Sack of Rome’ in 410 was not the victory of barbarism any more than had been Constantine the Great’s ‘Sack of Rome’ after his victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312. From the perspective of the Roman Army both were predictable consequences of civil war.” (Burns 245)





            During the course of the fifth century the Roman army and empire in the west disintegrated.  Part of the reason had to do with historical circumstances, the most important of which was large-scale barbarian penetration and settlement of Roman territory.  Although the most of the barbarian tribes who poured over the frontiers were German, the motive force behind this great movement of population was the growth of Hunnic power.  As historian Peter Heather notes, “By c. 410 … Goths, Vandals, Alans, and Suevi (among others) had made their way into the western Roman Empire directly as a result of the insecurity generated by the Huns beyond Rome’s frontiers” (Heather 19). Immigration, in particular German immigration, was not a new phenomenon. But before 378 this immigration had occurred on Roman terms, with German settlement being allowed only after Roman military victory with the defeated dispersed into small groups. The defeat at Adrianople changed all that. Theodosius’s decision to allow the Visigoths to remain as a political community settled within Roman territory marked a watershed.

The incursion of hundreds of thousands of Germans merely exacerbated the ongoing political instability of Rome. Although historians like to credit Diocletian with the restoration of political stability, his twenty-one year reign (284-305) could more accurately be considered a hiatus rather than an end to civil wars.  Barbarian incursions did nothing to deter would-be imperial usurpers, and barbarian federate chieftains such as Alaric were not reluctant to take advantage of the opportunities created by endemic political unrest.

Because of barbarian incursions and civil war, the fifth century witnessed the contraction of Roman central rule and the withdrawal of Roman regular military forces from the provinces.  Stilicho’s ultimately unsuccessful campaigns against Alaric in 406-08 entailed the withdrawal of forces from the Western frontiers. Even before this, a series of civil wars, especially Theodosius’s conflict with the Western usurper Eugenius (resolved by the former’s victory at the Battle of the Frigidus River in 394), left the strong points in the Alpine passes largely unmanned.  Stilicho followed a policy in the early 400s of relying upon federates and recruiting from among Germans, especially for the Western armies entrusted to him by the child emperor Honorius. Romans withdrew from Britain in 407 (this was not a conscious policy decision, but the result of the pretender Constantine's attempt to seize the purple and to defend Gaul against Vandals, Alans, Burgundians, etc. that had poured unopposed over the Rhine in 406-07; that the Roman army would never returned to Britain was probably not foreseen in 407); the Vandals, virtually unopposed by Roman troops, conquered all of Africa by 455; Visigoths took Spain by 457 and southern Gaul by 460. Northern Gaul remained "Roman," under a Romano-Gallic aristocrat, Syragius, until Clovis, king of the Franks, defeated and killed him in 486. Even the army of Italy was replaced by federates by 480. The army of the Danube continued to exist until c. 475, when it disbanded due to cessation of pay.

Although Gothic chieftains in the late fourth and early fifth century adopted Roman political ideology and sought imperial offices and dignities, this should not be allowed to mask political reality. They constituted states within the Roman state, and their restless desire to increase their territorial dominion came literally at the expense of Rome. Peter Heather explains the consequences of this process: “If we reduce the matter to basics, the Roman state taxed the agricultural production of its dependent territories to pay for a powerful army and political-cum-administrative establishment. Any loss of territory due to permanent annexation or temporary damage in warfare thus meant loss of revenue and a weakening of the state machine” (Heather 21). This was the mechanism behind what is popularly called “the Fall of Rome.”





            (from Hugh Elton, Warfare in Roman Europe, AD 350-425)


As interpreted by the greatest historian of the Late Roman Empire, A.H.M. Jones, then, the “Fall of the Western Roman Empire” was really the withering away of the imperial fiscal, administrative, and military systems. What survived was a cultural and administrative tradition adopted by the new Romanized barbarian “successor” kings Collins (91): "The “Fall of the Roman Empire in the West” was not the disappearance of a civilization: it was merely the breaking down of a governmental apparatus that could no longer be sustained." Jones concluded that the West fell and the East survived because the former lacked the financial resources necessary to resist the barbarian invasions.

The armies and navies of the Late Roman Empire were expensive to maintain.  The state spent enormous sums of money to recruit, train, arm, feed, and pay career soldiers and sailors. There are no reliable statistics to determine what percentage of Roman taxation was spent on the military.  The estimates range from a third to two-thirds.  The former may be too low, while the latter seems too high, given the costs of maintaining the civilian bureaucracy and of providing grain to feed the populations of Rome and Constantinople. The scholarly consensus, however, is that military expenditures were the greatest drain upon the public fiscal system.  As historian John Moorhead observed, “it is certain that much of the wealth created on the land found its way to the state. From there, it passed to the army. One way of looking at the role of the state in late antiquity is to see it as a gigantic apparatus that took wealth from the land with one hand and gave it to the military with the other” (Moorhead 27).  Fiscally, the “Fall of Rome” can be explained by the failure of the government in West in the fifth century to extract sufficient revenues from its citizenry to maintain the military it needed to defend itself against barbarian invasions. The economy of the West was commercially less well developed and considerably poorer than the East’s. With the division of the Empire upon Theodosius’ death in 395, the Western emperor Honorius and his successors had a much reduced tax base to defend against an increasing number of barbarian incursions across the Rhine and western Danube. Matters were complicated by the myriad would-be usurpers raised up by disgruntled Roman troops in the peripheries. This in itself was a symptom of the fiscal problems faced by Western emperors. Resentment against late or missing military pay lay at the heart of many of these rebellions. If the emperor would not pay them what they deserved, the mutineers thought, than they would set up an emperor who would.  As the Western Empire lost territory to the barbarians and with it the tax revenues generated by these lands, emperors had fewer financial resources at their disposal to maintain an army large enough to recover the lost provinces or to defend what remained.

Hugh Elton’s chart well illustrates this trend. The figures he suggests for military expenditures are estimates, Elton admits, “but their relationship to imperial income is more important that the figures themselves. Before the division of the Empire, there was an appreciable surplus, but after 395, though costs for each part were reduced, so was income. … From the 450s, on all cost estimates, insufficient income was being generated to support the Western army at its original size. … Not surprisingly, from Honorius’s reign onwards, the West began having problems paying for its troops, resulting in a search for cheaper alternatives, found in the use of allied or barbarian contingents.” (Elton, Warfare in Roman Europe AD 350-425, p. 126.) 

The seizure and settlement of Roman territory in what had been the Western Empire created a vicious cycle. The reason that the West was vulnerable was because it lacked the financial resources to maintain a large enough military to protect it against the invaders. But the loss of territory meant a reduction in the Empire’s logistical and tax base, which in turn, meant that the Western emperors had fewer resources with which to maintain control over the remaining areas of direct imperial rule.



Any explanation for the “Fall of the Roman Empire” in the West must take into account its survival in the East and its continuation in the form of the Byzantine Empire for another thousand years. The great walls of Constantinople deterred the barbarians, as did geography and the inability of the barbarians to contend for control of the seas (which was to cost the Vandals control over North Africa in the early sixth century).  Military historian Arther Ferrill cites also the superiority of the Eastern army following Theodosius's victory at the River Frigidus in 394, and what he sees as the resulting demoralization of the Western forces.  Differences in the composition of their military forces in the early fifth century undoubtedly played a role. The East, as we have seen, resisted the trend to rely on barbarian federates because the authorities had the financial resources to maintain the existing Roman organization. The greater financial resources of the East also meant that emperors had the wherewithal to pay subsidies to the barbarians and send them westward.

Underlying these differences in military organization and power were profound economic differences.  For A.H.M. Jones the reason the West fell and the East survived was that the former simply did not have the economic resources or manpower to weather the storm. Jones’s explanation begins by noting that the heavy taxation needed to pay for the army and other ‘idle mouths’ (120,000 citizens on the bread dole in Rome, 80,000 in Constantinople; senators and their households, decurions [administrators in the cities], civil servants, clergy) overstrained the resources of the Western Empire and became the root cause of its economic and military decline. In the East, however, there was 1) greater commercial wealth, meaning greater imperial revenues, and 2) a vigorous class of small landowners, taxpayers and conscripts for the military, who had a 'stake' in the survival of the state. The poverty of the peasants in the West had demographic and economic consequences. Population decreased, marginal lands went out of production, and the tax base eroded.

Certain cultural and political trends that were tied to economic conditions weakened the ability of the Western Roman imperial authorities to defend the Empire against barbarian incursions in the late fourth and fifth centuries. Beginning with the Third Century Crisis, the elite of the West fled the cities to the security of their rural villas. For the Romans as for the Greeks, the “city” stood at the heart of civilization (a word derived etymologically from the Latin civis, ‘urban’).  To the Roman elite, cities meant baths, colonnades, temples, town houses, market-places, and schools. The governor of Britain in the late first century, Julius Agricola thought the best way to pacify the warlike and rebellious native population was to have their leading families build and live in Roman style towns where they would “become accustomed to peace and quiet by the provision of amenities” such as “colonnades and warm baths and elegant banquets.” (Tacitus, Agricola, ch. 21). Although the economy of the West was primarily agricultural, cities served as market-places for luxury goods brought from the far reaches of the Empire. Cities were also central to Roman imperial administration, with the curiales, members of the city councils, were responsible for collecting taxes from the peasants in the hinterlands.  In the fourth century, cities in the West tended to shrink in size and importance.  The culture of urban civic duty in which wealthy individuals competed for honors with one another by donating public buildings and forums to their native towns gradually disappeared, as the wealthy retired to their widely separated villas and played the roles of regional grandees.  Increasingly, wealth became concentrated in fewer hands.  Battered by the pillaging of barbarians and Roman armies, on the one hand, and taxes, on the other, many peasants abandoned their vulnerable small farms to become tenants of their great neighbors. These so-called coloni legally remained free Roman citizens but in practice their landlords often stood between them and the state. The reality was recognized in 366 when an imperial edict was issued making landlords responsible for collecting taxes from their tenants.  Thus in the West the economic and social gulf between the wealthy senatorial class and the masses of poverty stricken peasants who worked their estates grew wider in late antiquity.  By the fifth century wealthy aristocrats had come to dominate the countryside around their villas politically, militarily, and economically; they had, for practical purposes, replaced the state, although the state continued to press the peasants for taxes.  In contrast, urban life in the East survived and even flourished in the fifth and sixth centuries. In part this reflects the more ancient pedigrees of these cities, most of which well predated the coming of the Romans. Most importantly, however, the economies of city and country were more completely integrated in the East than the West.  As a result, the East was richer and its wealth more widely distributed. 

The success of the barbarians in the West was facilitated by the indifference of both rich and poor alike to the survival of Roman authority. To the peasants “Rome” meant oppressive taxes.  The looting and pillaging of the barbarians, many thought, were less onerous than the systematic taxation levied by Roman authorities. This is essentially the point of view of the fifth-century Christian polemicist Salvian, who blamed the disasters of his age on the immorality of his contemporaries. Salvian's On God's Governance of the World (ca. 440) compares the virtues of the Germans favorably to those of the Romans, and explains that the common man neither feared the Germans nor cared when they took over the reins of empire.  The Roman diplomat Priscus on an embassy to the court of Attila the Hun in 448 encountered a former Greek merchant who had ‘gone native.’  When he asked why a Roman citizen should have embraced Hunnic ways, the man responded:


He considered his new life among the Scythians better than his old life among the Romans, and the reasons he gave were as follows: "After war the Scythians live in inactivity, enjoying what they have got, and not at all, or very little, harassed. The Romans, on the other hand, are in the first place very liable to perish in war, as they have to rest their hopes of safety on others, and are not allowed, on account of their tyrants to use arms. And those who use them are injured by the cowardice of their generals, who cannot support the conduct of war. But the condition of the subjects in time of peace is far more grievous than the evils of war, for the exaction of the taxes is very severe, and unprincipled men inflict injuries on others, because the laws are practically not valid against all classes. A transgressor who belongs to the wealthy classes is not punished for his injustice, while a poor man, who does not understand business, undergoes the legal penalty, that is, if he does not depart this life before the trial, so long is the course of lawsuits protracted, and so much money is expended on them. The climax of the misery is to have to pay in order to obtain justice. For no one will give a court to the injured man unless he pay a sum of money to the judge and the judge's clerks."


An appalled Priscus responded with a spirited defense of the Roman state and its system of justice and the man which brought tears to the eyes of the renegade, who “confessed that the laws and constitution of the Romans were fair, but deplored that the governors, not possessing the spirit of former generations, were ruining the State.”

The disaffection of the poor was exacerbated by the indifference of the rich. The landed aristocracy of the Western Empire was extremely wealthy, paid modest taxes, but felt little positive loyalty to the state. The culture of public service that characterized the Pax Romana had all but died in the Third Century Crisis. In the West, landed aristocrats looked to their own safety and prosperity first. As Peter Heather points out, the weakening of the Roman state had the


insidious effect of breaking down ties between the local Roman elites and the imperial centre. Reduced to basic terms again, the late Roman elite consisted of a geographically widespread class of local landowners, who, at the same time, participated in imperial institutions because the state offered protection and legitimization of their position at home, and, via imperial careers, substantial additional opportunities for making money. This extra wealth, together with the lifelong rights and privileges which were also part and parcel of an imperial career, further strengthened the landowners’ position within their local societies.

     If, because of the appearance of new military forces, the Roman state was no longer capable of sustaining local elites in this fashion (and hence of constraining their loyalties either), the whole point of attachment to the Empire disappeared. As a result, they naturally tended to look in such circumstances elsewhere for props to their position, notably to whichever barbarian immigrant group was currently most powerful in their locality. (Heather 20)


This passivity extended to military matters: the imperial authorities could not call upon local citizens to rise up in mass against the invaders. These local citizens, instead, looked to the government to protect them, and when this protection was not forthcoming, repudiated the central authority that had failed them.

Making matters worse, the West experienced far greater external pressure than did the East. Part of the reason for this was geographical. Because of the plains of Gaul, its long permeable Rhine/Danube border, and its smaller number of defenders, the Western Empire was an easier target for invading tribes. The Eastern Empire’s maintenance of a navy, moreover, meant that the barbarians could not easily move against the richest provinces of the East, Syria and Egypt. Another reason had to do with the East’s ability and willingness to pay barbarians, such as the Ostrogoths to go west.



Wolfgang Liebeschuetz (267) argues that the regular Roman army virtually disappeared as an effective fighting force in the West by the middle of the fifth century: "The thesis of this chapter is that in the course of the first half of the fifth century, the regular army, that is the class of units listed in the Notitia Dignitatum, became unimportant as compared with the federates. The thesis is not that within fifty years every unit mention in the Notitia had disappeared. Some, perhaps a considerable number, may well have survived as garrison troops into the Gothic and Merovingian periods. But what I hope can be shown is that regulars ceased to be the decisive elements in field armies. The men who increasingly came to decide battles were barbarian federates."

One of the paradoxes of Roman military history is that the Roman army in the late 4th century had close to 600,000 men in the field (or at least on the books), yet the LARGEST expeditionary force ever raised by Rome was the 65,000 men of Julian's Persian campaign (361-63). Stilicho could only muster about 20,000 men to fight the major threat of Alaric in 407. Justinian dispatched only 10,000 troops with Belisarius to reconquer Italy in 536. (He received reinforcements of 6500 a year later.) Belisarius's forces in Africa numbered about 15,000 regular troops and 1000 allies. Even though the Gothic armies numbered only around 20-30,000 combatants, nevertheless, the Romans found themselves outnumbered consistently. Why?

Jones explains this by pointing out that the Empire had huge borders--over 6,000 land miles, and its disposable military force was slight. Even the comitatenses were divided regionally and over time became more of internal garrison forces than true mobile striking armies. With poor and slow communications, it was dangerous to withdraw the forces from one area to face a threat in another. The only forces, according to Jones, that remained truly mobile and formidable in the field were the praesential armies (imperial guards) of Italy and Constantinople, but these numbered only about 20,000 in all.

Roger Collins noted that "one of the most striking features of the period between the years 395 (death of Theodosius the Great) and 476 is the lack of reference in the literary sources relating to both the eastern and western halves of the Empire to specifically Roman armies" (Collins 75). The sources indicate that Roman generals, acting under and on behalf of Roman emperors (who after Theodosius ceased to take the field themselves), were in command of armies largely composed of FEDERATES and bucellarii (generals' personal followings of barbarian soldiers). The few references we do have to field armies in the early fifth century are to their being withdrawn from parts of the Empire, either by would-be usurpers or by emperors fighting these rebels. In 407 the field army was removed from Britain; in 411, from Spain; in 432, from N. Africa (to serve in a civil war fought in Italy).

In fifth-century Gaul (modern-day France, the Low Lands, Switzerland) we find "a gradual contraction of the Roman military presence over the course of several decades, with at the same time an increased dependence on mercenary or federate troops to preserve an ever dwindling enclave of direct imperial rule" (Collins 75). What happened in Gaul, which along with Italy, remained the focus of imperial attention, was a model for what happened elsewhere in the West: The Roman central administration contracted, leaving rule of whole areas to barbarian federate tribes (e.g., Visigoths in Aquitaine in 418). The contraction of imperial administration meant also the contraction of the tax base necessary to support a standing army. Military expenditures in terms of pay, rations, and equipment required more money than tax revenues in the Western Empire could supply.

Liebeschuetz concludes that the bulk of the field army/armies by 450 in the West consisted of federates. Regular units remained, but these consisted largely of garrisons in towns and fortresses. Liebeschuetz attributes this reliance on barbarian troops to the demilitarization of Roman society in general, to the resistance of landowners to the conscription of their work force, and for the willingness and availability of large number of barbarian soldiers, who were renowned for their military qualities (Rich 273-74). More than this, the Roman authorities were shifting the burden of defense to the localities and private commanders. The Roman army in the fifth-century was, in essence, privatized.

What it meant in practice for the regular Roman army “to disappear” is evocatively illustrated in an anecdote in the late fifth-century Life of St. Severinus by the Christian hagiographer Eugippius. Eugippius tells his reader that when Saint Severinus was pursuing his Christian ministry in Noricum (in modern Austria and Bavaria, on the south bank of the Danube) the Roman army had largely disappeared from that province and its neighbors: “Throughout the time that the Roman empire existed, the soldiery of many towns was maintained at public expense for the defense of the frontier. When this practice fell into abeyance, both these troops and the frontier disappeared” (quoted by Ward-Perkins, 19).  The one Roman garrison apparently that continued to operate during Severinus’ mission was at Batavis (modern day Passau in lower Bavaria), and by Eugippius’ day even that unit had dissolved.  The commanders of the Batavis periodically would dispatch men over the Alps into Italy to obtain pay for their soldiers from imperial officials. This practice stopped after the bodies of the emissaries they had sent were discovered washed up on the banks of the Danube, the victims of barbarian brigands.  When the officers and troops realized that they would no longer be paid, they took off their uniforms and took up civilian occupations in the town and the surrounding region.  The former soldiers may have continued to defend Batavis from barbarian raiders, but if they did so, it was now as townsmen under the direction of local town officials rather than as imperial troops.

The inadequacy of standing Roman military forces to defend the localities in the fifth century is recognized in a number of edicts issued by the Emperor Valentinian III preserved in the Theodosian Law code.  One such dated to 440 and entitled “Restoration of the right to use weapons,” admonished the provincials to “guard Our provinces and their own fortunes” by taking up whatever arms they had available to resist brigands and raiders, while nonetheless “preserving the public discipline and the moderation of free birth unimpaired.”  The reason given is that, despite the best efforts of the emperor to establish strong garrisons throughout the empire and guard the coasts, “it is not sufficiently certain, under summertime navigation, to what shore the ships of the enemy can come.” As a reward for performing their public duty of self defense, Valentinian III promised that “whatever a victor takes away from an enemy, undoubtedly will be his own.” (Nov. Val. 8.2, title 9). Another imperial edict issued in the same year assured the citizens of Rome that they would not be obliged to go on military expeditions; their only military duty was to defend the city’s walls and gates. (Nov. Val. 5.2).   The process of militarization of the civilian population of the Western Empire was underway.




The military career of the magister militum Flavius Aëtius, hero of the victory in the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields (commonly known as the Battle of Chalons) in 451 over Attila the Hun (reigned from 435-453) shows the basic trend. Aetius, who from c. 411 until he was murdered by the emperor Valentinian III in 454, is best remembered as the Roman general who defeated Attila the Hun. This is ironic. As historian Wolfgang Liebeschuetz points out, " Aëtius’s achievements would have been impossible without his following of Huns. ... [it] looks as if the not only the success of Aëtius’s army, but even his position of commander-in-chief of the western empire, depended on the fact that he had at his personal disposal a strong force of Hun federates" (Rich 270).  Aëtius’s fortunes were made when he established personal relations with the Huns while a hostage in their court (423-25) on behalf of the usurper John. Aëtius’s career really began with his leading a large force of Huns to aid John in 425. It climaxed in the battle of Chalons in 451, in which he led an army that consisted almost entirely of federate forces.

Aëtius was born around 390 in Thrace, the son of a Roman general, possibly of barbarian ancestry, and an aristocratic Italian mother.  He spent his youth attached to the court of the Emperor Honorius and was of sufficient status to be sent to Alaric as a hostage, 405-408, and subsequently was a hostage in the court of the king of the Huns where he made friends and connections that were to prove valuable.  After the death of Honorius he entered the service of the Emperor John, regarded, who was regarded as a usurper by the Eastern emperor, Honorius’s nephew Theodosius II. When in 425 Theodosius II sent an army led by his loyal Alan magister militum Aspar to unseat John, John countered by sending Aëtius to obtain military help from the Huns. By the time Aëtius returned to Italy with an army of Huns,  John was dead and the new rulers were the child emperor Valentinian III and his mother and regent, the colorful Galla Placidia, widow of both the Visigoth king Athaulf, and of Honorius’s colleague in the West, the Emperor Constantius III.  Aëtius’s Huns, however, persuaded Galla Placidia that it would be better to come to terms with Aëtius than fight him. Consequently, Aëtius was appointed magister militum per Gallias, commander in chief of the army in Gaul, and his Hunnic army was paid off and sent home. Aëtius fell briefly from favor in 432 when he politically and militarily lost out to another general, Boniface, but was restored to power in 433 and given both the military office of magister militum and the civilian title of Patrician.

  This incident established Aëtius's basic military policy, which was to rely upon foreign mercenaries. In the 420s-440s Aetius drew largely upon the Huns to maintain imperial control over Gaul against the threat posed by the Visigoth federate kingdom (the other provinces were left to defend themselves as best they could). The Huns under their great king Attila (reigned 434-453) profited from the Empire by 1) supplying mercenary troops against German federates and against rebels, and 2) by extorting annual money payments by threatening raids into the Balkans. The prudent policy was to pay Attila subsidies and to deal with him as an equal, which was not difficult considering the size of the empire that Attila was amassing at the expense of the German tribes. (A Roman ambassador named Priscus left an interesting and admiring description of the court of Attila the Hun, which he visited in 448.)  Because of Aëtius, Valentinian III enjoyed good relations with Attila, who supported the Hunnic king’s attacks on the Visigoths and conquests of other Germanic tribes. Attila, perhaps recognizing the greater wealth of the East, directed most his attention in that direction, devastating the Balkans up to the very walls of Constantinople in 447.  The Eastern court bought Attila off with a payment of tribute and a promise of annual subsidies. The money payments were stopped in 450, however, by the new soldier-emperor of the East, Theodosius II’s general Marcian, and Attila responded by invading—Gaul!  His announced intention was to attack Constantinople, but Attila a letter from Valentinian III’s sister Honoria changed his mind. Honoria, for some unknown reason, appealed to Attila for help in freeing her from an unwanted engagement to a Roman senator forced upon her by her brother. Honoria sent a signet ring along with the letter, and Attila chose to interpret this as a marriage proposal. He accepted and demanded half of the Western Empire from Valentinian as a dowry. Valentinian of course refused, and Attila invaded Gaul.  Honoria’s “proposal” was more than likely a cover for Attila’s very prudent decision to attack the more vulnerable half of the Empire. Not only was Marcian an experienced general but the walls of Constantinople had been strengthened in response to Attila’s last invasion of the Balkans. Gaul and Italy, on the other hand, were ripe for the picking.

Aëtius now reversed policy and formed a coalition with Visigoths, Franks, Alans, and Burgundians to oppose their mutual enemy. The result was the victory at the Catalaunian fields near Chalons-en-Champagne (451), which forced Attila to withdraw from Gaul. The Battle of Chalons has been celebrated as a decisive Roman victory, which is ironic given the prominent role played by German federates in this battle. The king of the Goths commanded one wing, Alans were in the center, and Aetius led the 'Roman' forces on the other wing; but Aëtius’s 'Roman' forces seem to have been made up of Franks, Sarmatians, and other barbarian federates.  Calling Chalons a victory also ignores its aftermath. In 452, within a year of his supposedly decisive defeat, Attila invaded Italy. This time there was no organized Roman military resistance. Rather than an army,  Rome dispatched Pope Leo I and two senators to attempt to negotiate with Attila. Christian sources say that Leo prevailed on Attila to withdraw; more likely, the malarial infested swamps around Ravenna were more persuasive. Attila died in the following year, and his Hunnic empire collapse.

His victory over Attila at Chalons had enhanced even further Aëtius’s prestige. In 453 Valentinian III honored the Patrician by betrothing his daughter to Aëtius’s son. As had happened to Stilicho a half century earlier, members of the imperial court, who were threatened by Aëtius’s preeminence, successfully turned the emperor against the Patrician by spreading rumors that he planned to place his son upon the imperial throne. On 21 September 454 the Emperor Valentinian III slew Aëtius with his own hand at the imperial court in Ravenna. Valentinian himself was killed soon after by two members of his royal guard, Huns who had been friends of Aëtius and saw it as their duty to avenge his death.

In 455 when a Vandal fleet under King Geiseric sailed from North Africa and sacked the city of Rome, again the Romans could mount no military opposition. The implication of Attila’s and Geiseric’s unopposed invasions of Italy is that by the middle of the fifth century there was no Roman army left to defend Italy.



Dick Whittaker observes that the "twin process of soldiers becoming landlords and landlords becoming soldiers" in the late empire facilitated 1) the collapse of the frontiers, 2) the integration/fusion of German 'barbarian' and Roman culture, 3) the breakdown of law and the growth of a new culture of private power in which 'the poor became increasingly dependent on the arbitrary will of the landed rich" (Rich 281). As soldiers became landlords and landlords became the masters of soldiers, private individuals became the heads of military retinues of bucellarii. Though by law bucellarii were required to take an oath not only to their employers (a private contract), but one as well to the emperor (public). Surviving Roman administrative records show that bucellarii performed public duties (under the direction of their civilian masters) and were liable for military service if called upon by government authorities. The wealthy Apion family of early sixth-century Egypt received tax breaks for hiring bucellarii, whom they used to collect taxes and maintain order during games in the hippodrome. (Lee 165, citing Liebeschuetz, Barbarians and Bishops 45-6.)  But, as Whittaker points out, “the public oath was of limited relevance if the patron rebelled or if imperial rule was not recognized: the loyalty of the soldiers than became private obsequium [a personal following]” (295).

Archaeologically, one of the key developments of the fifth century was the increasing 'nucleation of rural sites. ... Small farms disappeared, many vici (villages) were abandoned or removed to old Iron Age hilltop sites, while larger villas ... survived, expanded and were often fortified. ... [There is evidence] of concentration of property holdings, the increased isolation and inaccessibility of estates and the compulsion on peasants to seek the refuge of the rich' (292).
            Increasingly in the fifth century, the "remnants of the Roman army operated in towns," and bands of bucellarii in the service of local great men, their patrons, controlled the countryside. The Roman sources term these bands as 'robbers,' but it seems probable that they were actually the private forces of local magnates maintaining order and control outside of Roman public authority.
            This process was not restricted to 'Roman' landlords. It was true also of German chiefs, many of whom were 'Roman' generals or federate chieftains. The distinction between 'Roman' and 'German' itself was disappearing as the cultures merged.




                                                                                                                                                                        Coin of King Theodoric I, King of the Ostrogoths (488-526)

                                                                                                                                                                        and King of Italy (493-526)



The barbarian armies that conquered the Western Roman Empire pose a paradox to the student of military history. Byzantine military manuals of the 6th century assessed their strengths and weaknesses. They had a reputation for bravery and savagery, but they were also seen as ignorant of tactics, weak in military technology (lacking effective siegecraft and body armor), and deficient in the patience needed for a tactical reserve (Thomas Burns, History of the Ostrogoths 1984, 186-87). Nor did barbarian commanders have any idea of logistics besides living off of the land or receiving Roman subsidies and supplies, if they were federates. Their armies, moreover, were SMALL. Theodoric the Great, conqueror of Italy 488-89 and Ostrogothic king of Italy, led an army of maybe 30-40,000 men (Burns). Contamine (11) provides estimates of other barbarian forces: Alamans in 357, 25,000; Visigothic coalition at Adrianople 378, 18,000; Vandals in Africa 429, 16,000 fighting men. The tactics employed by fourth-century barbarian forces favored the simple assault. The barbarians would form a wedge and rush the enemy, hoping that they would break. If the enemy held firm, the barbarian army would lose all cohesion and flee. Philippe Contamine (12) characterized fourth-century barbarian forces as small armies, with rudimentary tactics and an almost non-existent logistics. Until taught by Roman, the barbarians lacked knowledge of siegecraft and possessed no siege weapons. The Visigoths attempted to exploit their victory at Adrianople by seizing that city. They failed; the city’s walls proved too formidable. Fritigern recognized that it was pointless for men without experience of siege-craft to throw themselves against walled cities. After an earlier unsuccessful attempt by the Goths to take Adrianople, Fritigern is said to have remarked that “he had no quarrel with stone walls, and he advised them to attack and pillage in perfect safety rich and fruitful regions which were still unguarded.” (Ammianus Marcellinus 31.6.4).

This characterization is undoubtedly true of the Germanic bands that sought entry into the Roman Empire in the late fourth century. But the armies of the successor kingdoms were heirs not only to Germania but, to an even greater extent, to Romanitas. In the late fifth- and sixth-century West 'barbarian' identity became closely associated with warfare and military service in large measure because the late Roman army had recruited so heavily among the barbarians. But the great transformation in the sixth century was the creation of a new elite social identity in which to be a 'barbarian' and a 'warrior' conferred social status. In the successor kingdoms, 'barbarians' fought while 'Romans' paid taxes to support those who defended them. Weapons in graves marked both masculinity and barbarian ethnicity. Armies became deliberately exclusive groups and military service became defined as a privilege. In these circumstances, the old Roman elite embraced the social identity of the dominant barbarians. They became Franks,  Lombards, Visigoths, and so forth. By the seventh century aristocrats in the West were characterized by possession and mastery of sword and horse rather than the ability to recite classical Latin verse, which now became the preserve of the Christian clergy.

Continuity in military institutions is most clearly seen in Ostrogothic Italy (AD 493-553) and seventh-century Visigothic Spain.  Upon conquering Italy 488-493, the Ostrogoths under their King Theodoric the Great preserved and maintained the Roman imperial system of government.  Like Alaric before him, Theodoric viewed himself as both a Gothic king and a Roman general. In invading Italy and overthrowing its self-declared King of Italy Odovacar, he had acted--at least in theory--in obedience to the orders of the Eastern emperor Zeno, although his assumption of the title of King of Italy was clearly against the wishes of the emperor in Constantinople. In terms of public administration, law, and taxation, the establishment of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy was fully Roman.  The civilian bureaucracy continued to be headed by the praetorian prefect and the "master of the offices" (magister officiorum), under whom served urban prefects and various other officials charged with fiscal and judicial responsibilities. Most of these offices, moreover, continued to be held by Romans such as Theodoric's "master of the offices," the future Christian abbot Cassiodorus. The military organization of Ostrogothic Italy, however, was a different matter. The population of Italy was divided into two societies with distinct public functions: the Goths served the state as its soldiers; the Romans, as taxpayers.  In essence, in Theodoric's Italy the Roman regular army had been completely replaced by a Gothic federate force.  The Goths, moreover, was not 'professional' soldiers in the sense that Roman legionaries had been. Most Goths were farmers who fought when called upon to do so. Theodoric did not scatter his Ostrogoths throughout Italy but settled them in concentrations with eye toward military and political needs. The settlement itself was based on existing Roman law governing the maintenance of federates as outlined in the Theodosian Code, the so-called hospitalitas, 'law of hospitality,' which mandated that federates receive either half the land or revenues of the estates in the area in which they were billeted. The armies of the Ostrogoths were led by Gothic noblemen, distinguished by their wealth and birth, who continued to bear titles of Roman command (duces and comites). Every Gothic noble possessed a military household, and here, as in other successor kingdoms, the similar but distinct institutions of the Germanic war band and the Roman bucellarii (imperial troops assigned to defend individual Roman aristocrats and their property) began to merge, as native landowners began to shed their Roman ethnicity in favor of the now more honorable Gothic social identity. Theodoric also continued to maintain the Roman system of logistics.  Theodoric was as concerned as his Roman predecessors with arranging supplies for his troops.  The consequences for failing to do so is announced in two letters that the king gave to local officials (both Roman):

"We rely upon you to collect the proscribed rations and deliver them to the soldiers.  It is most important that they should be regularly supplied, and that there should be no excuse for pillage, so hard to check once an army has begun to practice it." (Letters of Cassiodorus, book V, letter 13)

 "We desire that our soldiers should always be well paid, and that they should never become the terror of the country which they are ordered to defend.  Do you therefore, Sajo Veranus, cause the Gepid troops whom we have ordered to come to the defense of Gaul, to march in all peace and quietness through Venetia and Liguria.

    You Gepidae shall receive three solidi per week; and we trust that thus supplied you will everywhere buy your provisions, and not take them by force.

    We generally give the soldiers their pay in kind, but in this case, for obvious reasons, we think better to pay them in money, and let them buy for themselves.

    If their wagons are becoming shaky with the long journey, or their beasts of burden weary, let them exchange for sound wagons and fresh beasts with the inhabitants of the country, but on such terms that the latter shall not regret the transaction." (Letters of Cassiodorus, book V, letter 11)

    Although Italy had exchanged a Gothic for a 'Roman' master, the imprint of imperial Rome is nonetheless seen clearly in the civilian and military administration of Ostrogothic Italy.

Visigothic Spain tells a similar story. From law codes and Julian of Toledo’s late seventh-century History of King Wamba we can reconstruct the military organization of this ‘barbarian’ kingdom ca. 690, and much of what we find is Roman imperial practice continued under Gothic kings. The Roman military offices of ‘dukes’ and ‘counts’ survived here as well as in Gaul and Italy, where royal officials bearing these titles continued to be responsible for raising and provisioning military forces from the regions under their jurisdiction. Visigothic Spain was divided militarily into provinces, the forces of which were led by a dux exercitus provinciae, a “duke of the province’s army.” The provincial army was composed of regiments numbering 1000 men, led by tiuphadi. These were sub-divided into battalions of 500, commanded by quingentenarii, which in turn were divided into smaller tactical units led by royal officials with the familiar Roman titles of centuriones and decuriones.


But there were also significant changes. Guy Halsall in his Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (2003) concluded his survey of the development of military institutions in the successor kingdoms during the sixth century by observing:


By the end of the seventh century we can see that the nature of armed forces in the formerly Roman territories had changed considerably since the final days of the Western empire. Certain features, in their general outlines, seem to be common across the former provinces. Paid regular armies had ceased to exist. They were replaced first of all by armies generally raised from people who could claim a particular ethnic identity, usually barbarian: Frankish, Gothic, Lombard, or (probably) Saxon. Armies, as far as can be ascertained, were organized by administrative unit and led by royally appointed officers. Service amongst this (potentially) increasingly large group frequently seems to have been moderated by age. Whilst young men might form the households of royal officers, the army called up seems to have been formed of mature males: married heads of households. …[I]n practice armies tended to be raised from the more powerful landowners and their dependants and retainers. The facts that these powerful landowners still generally held titles in theory related to royal service and that the royal legitimization of power remained important makes the change less dramatic than might be supposed but it is significant none the less.   …By about 700 the aristocratic following seems to have become the principal building block of armed forces throughout the west. These warriors were linked to their leaders by a mixture of formal and informal rewards, and the leaders’ position established on the basis of both local social and economic preeminence and the tenure of titles. There was no formal system of granting land in return for military service. (69-70)


Across Western Europe the vestiges of the imperial Roman military system were slowly giving way to a different sort of military organization from that of the late empire and Byzantium, one characterized by chieftains and their military households, rather than military officers commanding regular troops. Society in general had become militarized—a process that had begun in the late Roman Empire—as townsmen were expected to defend their city walls, and able-bodied peasants could be levied for local defense.  By the seventh century, grants of land rather than monetary wages had become the means of maintaining military forces in these barbarian kingdoms. The conception of the 'state' was being redefined in the West. The Roman legal distinction between 'public power'--the institutional and constitutional power of the Roman state and its officials--and "private power"--the power of the heads of families--became blurred. Although the 'state' survived in the form of kings and their officials, private landowners now assumed public authority and powers that had formerly belonged to the imperial bureaucracy and army. In a sense, the new military system demonstrated continuity with the Roman past, but it looked more toward the bucellarii of the late empire than to its regular armies.

            These changes were caused to a large extent by the twin collapse of the Roman fiscal and commercial systems in the West. Rome's commercial network of commodity exchange had been so closely integrated with its taxation system that when the former failed, so did the latter, with the result that the West in the sixth century was far poorer and much less urbanized than the Byzantine Empire or what  it had been a century before. That the erosion of the Roman tax system resulted in complete economic collapse is only an apparent paradox. The Late Roman Empire had a command economy in which the fruits of taxation (sometimes literally, since taxes in the fourth and fifth centuries were paid in the form of agricultural produce) as well as shipments of grain from North Africa to feed the poor of Rome (the annona) had been transported by private fleets in return for tax exemptions. The favored treatment received by these conveyors made it economically impossible for other shipping companies to compete with them. The same ships that transported the proceeds of taxation carried the commodities upon which the economy depended.  As a result, commerce in late antiquity had been inextricably connected with tax collection and the transport of the proceeds of taxation. Because this had been a commodity exchange economy, the collapse of the commercial system meant that regions in the West that had depended upon manufactured goods (e.g. pottery, clothing) from the East, were now forced to develop their own local--and far more primitive--craft economies and goods that had once been staples of trade now become luxuries and marks of wealth.
          Historian Chris Wickham regards the collapse of the Roman tax system as "the single major change that took place when the western empire broke up."  For Wickham, the "framing" of early medieval governance and economy in the West can be attributed to this.  The general changes that he identifies as resulting from the transition of a tax-based state such as the Roman Empire to a land/rent-based state such as Francia is worth quoting:


a political system that is based on tax-raising is fundamentally different in its basic structure to one that is not. In the ideal-type tax-based state, where wealth is taken from (nearly) everyone, the fiscal system provides an independent basis for political power, separate from the goodwill of the aristocracy, for the army is paid directly from public coffers, and complex bureaucracies, themselves usually salaried, handle the process of tax-collection (as well as other aspects of administration and law, which can also, as a result, in principle operate separately from aristocratic interest). .... [T]he wealth of the state is so great that it will keep aristocratic loyalty and commitment for a long time. Tax-raising rulers have one crucial advantage over their dependants, too" in the case of unreliability, whether through disloyalty, corruption, or simple ineptness, they can simply dismiss them, and stop paying their salaries. ... Subjects have only one practical recourse in return: the replacement of the ruler, by rebellion or coup. Regional autonomies, in particular, are hard to create, unless the state structures themselves can be regionalized, because any ambitious regional leader would regard separating himself from tax-raising powers as a pointless excercise.  ... Contrast an ideal-type land based (or rent-based) state: here, the bulk of the wealth of a ruler is derived, not from a whole population, but only from the rent-paying inhabitants on the land he (very rarely she) directly controls, and that wealth is also the major support for all political aggregation. The administration is simpler, for the tax system is absent or rudimentary; the ruler's principal officials are his local representatives and his army leaders, and they too are based on the land, as indeed is the whole army. All political reward is dominated by the 'politics of land'--cessions of land and its rents, to officials or to other powerful aristocrats, in return for loyalty. Rulers have two basic problems here. The first is that land is finite, except in periods of political expansion. ... Rulers may achieve loyalty from one round of land-gifts, but they have less to give as a result, and may become less attractive over time. .... The second problem is regional fragmentation. (Wickham, Framing the Middle Ages 58-59)


            The armies of the Frankish Merovingian and Carolingian kings of Gaul reached their apex in the military forces of Charlemagne (768-814), the first man to bear the imperial title in the West (crowned emperor by the pope in Rome in AD 800) since the deposition of the boy emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476. In studying Charlemagne's careful logistical planning, his recruitment of troops by public levy and by use of military followings of his great nobles, and his emphasis on sieges and campaigns of maneuver rather than battle-seeking (on which see Vegetius), Charlemagne was following in the footsteps of late Roman military chiefs such as Theodosius, Stilicho, Alaric and Aetius as much as Germanic 'barbarian' chieftains. Indeed, the military institutions of the Frankish kingdoms in Gaul, the Visigothic kingdom in seventh-century Spain, and the Ostrogothic kingdom in sixth-century Italy owed much to Roman military practice and institutions in the late empire. Just as Roman law evolved (or degenerated) into the simplified Roman law codes known as 'barbarian law codes', so Roman military institutions devolved into the military systems of the successor kingdoms.


Emperor Justinian and his court, c. 547 (San Vitale, Ravenna)                           Justinian’s empire (conquests in green)


Justinian (527-65) is often characterized as a ‘Byzantine’ emperor, but he more properly should be thought of as Roman. He was the nephew and adopted son of his predecessor, the emperor Justin, and like him was a native of the Roman diocese of Dacia in what is now Macedonia, a region in which Latin rather than Greek was spoken. As characterized by Dr. James Allen Evans:

The reign of Justinian was a turning-point in Late Antiquity. It is the period when paganism finally lost its long struggle to survive, and when the schism in Christianity between the Monophysite east and the Chalcedonian west became insurmountable. From a military viewpoint, it marked the last time that the Roman Empire could go on the offensive with hope of success. Africa and Italy were recovered, and a foothold was established in Spain. When Justinian died, the frontiers were still intact although the Balkans had been devastated by a series of raids and the Italian economy was in ruins. His extensive building program has left us the most celebrated example of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture that still survives: Hagia Sophia in modern Istanbul. His reign was a period when classical culture was in sharp decline and yet it had a last flowering, with historians such as Procopius and Agathias working within the tradition inherited from Herodotus and Thucydides, and poets such as Paul the Silentiary who wrote some of the most sensuous poems that the classical tradition has ever produced. The Codex Justinianus, the Institutes and the Digest of Roman jurisprudence, all commissioned by Justinian, are monuments to the past achievements of Roman legal heritage. Justinian's reign sums up the past. It also provides a matrix for the future. In particular, there was the bubonic plague, which appeared in Constantinople in 542, for the first time in Europe, and then travelled round the empire in search of victims, returning to the capital for a new crop in 558. The plague ended a period of economic growth and initiated one of overstrained resources.

        Justinian fought wars to secure his eastern frontier against the Sassanid Persian Empire and to recover Roman territories in Africa and Italy from barbarian rulers. .Justinian’s Gothic and Persian Wars are interesting in that they demonstrate both the survival in the East of a disciplined, well trained, and effective imperial regular army with capable commanders, as well as the lack of disposable military forces in excess of 20-30,000 men available to the Eastern Roman emperors in the sixth century for offensive campaigns.


Roman emperor, possibly Justinian,  triumphing over Persians,

shown offering tribute at bottom ( Barberini Ivory, early 6th century, Louvre)


Justinian’s goal in the east was the stabilization of the frontier, which ran near the Syrian-Iraqi border. Despite a military reorganization of his forces, Justinian’s commanders did poorly in the war. Fortunately for Justinian, in September 531, the shah of Persia, Kavadh, died and in the following year his successor Khusro I agreed to the "Endless Peace.’ Justinian, who had almost been overthrown in January of 532 by rampaging circus sports fanatics in the so-called Nikka revolt and who was possibly planning a campaign against the Vandals in north Africa, saw the benefits of peace with Persia. Khusro agreed, largely because it freed him to put down rebels who were contesting his succession. The ‘Endless Peace’ lasted until 540, when Khusro, now secure on his throne, attacked.

        Freed from military concerns on his eastern borders, Justinian in 533 launched an expedition led by his most trusted general Belisarius, the magister militum ‘of the East,’ against the Vandal kingdom of North Africa. For about a century the German Vandals had ruled over what had been the rich Roman province of Africa, a territory that stretched along the Mediterranean coast from modern day Morocco to Tripoli in western Libya, and which included the island of Sardinia. Justinian’s pretext was the deposition of the Vandal King Hilderic, with whom Justinian had good treaty relations, by another Vandal prince, but Justinian’s real goal was undoubtedly the recovery of territory that had belonged to the empire. Belisarius's forces consisted of about 15,000 regular troops, complemented by about 1,000 barbarian auxiliaries and Belisarius’s own bucellarii (household troops), which may also have numbered about 1000. These forces were carried by a fleet of 500 transport ships manned by 30,000 sailors, protected by 92 warships, with a crew of about 2000. Unlike the Roman armies of earlier times, Belisarius’s main attacking force was mail-clad horsemen, or cabalarii, who were capable of fighting either with lance or bow from horseback.  Procopius provides a detailed description of these troops: “[Our] archers are mounted on horses, which they manage with admirable skill; their head and shoulders are protected by a metal cap and buckler [small round shield]; they wear greaves of iron on their legs and their bodies are guarded by a coat of mail. On their right side hangs a quiver, a sword on their left, and their hand is accustomed to wield a lance or javelin in closer combat. Their bows are strong and weighty; they shoot in every possible direction, advancing, retreating, to the front, to the rear, or to either flank; and as they are taught to draw the bowstring not to the breast, but to the right ear, firm indeed must be the armor that can resist the rapid violence of their shaft.” Garrison duties and defensive positions were held by two types of infantry: lightly armed archers and heavily armed soldiers in mail who fought with sword, ax and spear. Reflecting changes in the warfare from the previous century, Belisarius’s forces were not organized by legion but divided into squadrons called banda, a Greek word taken from German and formerly used to designate German allied troops.  Belisarius’s forces, ironically given subsequent events, were provided with supplies in Sicily by the Ostrogoths. The Vandal king Gelimer, who was already dealing with revolts in the west and in Sardinia and with attacks by Moors, was quickly defeated and his kingdom recovered for the empire.


        Justinian’s subsequent attempt to take Italy from the Ostrogoths, after quick initial successes, proved far more difficult. Again using the deposition of a friendly ruler as a pretext, Justinian in 535 dispatched the magister militum for Illyricum Mundus to retake Dalmatia (modern Croatia) from the Goths and Belisarius to Sicily with a small force about half the size of that involved in the African campaign. Justinian attempted to purchase the neutrality of the Franks through gifts of gold. The Ostrogoth king Theodahad, a nephew of Theodoric the Great who had seized from his cousin Queen Amalasuntha in 534, initially attempted to negotiate a peace, offering to cede control over Sicily and to recognize Justinian’s overlordship. But news of the defeat of Mundus in Dalmatia led him to withdraw his offer. Justinian in 536 sent another general to Dalmatia, who speedily conquered the territory, and ordered Belisarius to invade Italy. Despite having only 7,500 troops Belisarius took Sicily without much opposition and then proceeded to march north, taking Naples and Rome, again without opposition. King Theodahad’s passivity in the face of invasion led to his deposition and execution by a capable Gothic military commander, Witigis, who legitimized his kingship by marrying the daughter of the late Queen Amalasuntha.

Coin of Ostrogoth King Witiges (536-540)


Witigis unsuccessfully besieged Belisarius in Rome for a year (March 537-March 538). The Ostrogoths were hampered by their relative inexpert use of siege engines and by Belisarius’s troops tactical superiority, demonstrated through a series of sallies and engagements.  According to Procopius, Belisarius, after a few initial engagements, discovered that the Ostrogoths, whose cavalry consisted of lancers, were incapable of dealing with his mounted archers, who were able to kill the Ostrogoths from a safe distance. As Procopius relates, Belisarius was quick to exploit this advantage (Gothic War, 5.27):

He commanded one of his own bodyguards, Trajan by name, an impetuous and active fighter, to take two hundred horsemen of the guards and go straight towards the enemy, and as soon as they came near the camps to go up on a high hill (which he pointed out to him)[255] and remain quietly there. And if the enemy should come against them, he was not to allow the battle to come to close quarters, nor to touch sword or spear in any case, but to use bows only, and as soon as he should find that his quiver had no more arrows in it, he was to flee as hard as he could with no thought of shame and retire to the fortifications on the run. Having given these instructions, he held in readiness both the engines for shooting arrows and the men skilled in their use. Then Trajan with the two hundred men went out from the Salarian Gate against the camp of the enemy. And they, being filled with amazement at the suddenness of the thing, rushed out from the camps, each man equipping himself as well as he could. But the men under Trajan galloped to the top of the hill which Belisarius had shewn them, and from there began to ward off the barbarians with missiles. And since their shafts fell among a dense throng, they were for the most part successful in hitting a man or a horse. But when all their missiles had at last failed them, they rode off to the rear with all speed, and the Goths kept pressing upon them in pursuit. But when they came near the fortifications, the operators of the engines began to shoot arrows from them, and the barbarians became terrified and abandoned the pursuit. And it is said that not less than one thousand Goths perished in this action. A few days later Belisarius sent Mundilas, another of his own bodyguard, and Diogenes, both exceptionally capable warriors, with three hundred guardsmen, [257] commanding them to do the same thing as the others had done before. And they acted according to his instructions. Then, when the enemy confronted them, the result of the encounter was that no fewer than in the former action, perhaps even more, perished in the same way. And sending even a third time the guardsman Oilas with three hundred horsemen, with instructions to handle the enemy in the same way, he accomplished the same result. So in making these three sallies, in the manner told by me, Belisarius destroyed about four thousand of his antagonists.

But Vittigis, failing to take into account the difference between the two armies in point of equipment of arms and of practice in warlike deeds, thought that he too would most easily inflict grave losses upon the enemy, if only he should make his attack upon them with a small force. He therefore sent five hundred horsemen, commanding them to go close to the fortifications, and to make a demonstration against the whole army of the enemy of the very same tactics as had time and again been used against them, to their sorrow, by small bands of the foe. And so, when they came to a high place not far from the city, but just beyond the range of missiles, they took their stand there. But Belisarius selected a thousand men, putting Bessas in command, and ordered them to engage with the enemy. And this force, by forming a circle around the enemy and always shooting at them from behind, killed a large number, and by pressing hard upon the rest compelled them to descend into the plain. There a hand-to-hand battle took place between forces not evenly matched in strength, and most of the Goths were destroyed, though some few with difficulty [259] made their escape and returned to their own camp. And Vittigis reviled these men, insisting that cowardice had been the cause of their defeat, and undertaking to find another set of men to retrieve the loss after no long time, he remained quiet for the present; but three days later he selected men from all the camps, five hundred in number, and bade them make a display of valorous deeds against the enemy. Now as soon as Belisarius saw that these men had come rather near, he sent out against them fifteen hundred men under the commanders Martinus and Valerian. And a cavalry battle taking place immediately, the Romans, being greatly superior to the enemy in numbers, routed them without any trouble and destroyed practically all of them.

And to the enemy it seemed in every way a dreadful thing and a proof that fortune stood against them, if, when they were many and the enemy who came against them were few, they were defeated, and when, on the other hand, they in turn went in small numbers against their enemy, they were likewise destroyed. Belisarius, however, received a public vote of praise from the Romans for his wisdom, at which they not unnaturally marveled greatly, but in private his friends asked him on what he had based his judgment on that day when he had escaped from the enemy after being so completely defeated, and why he had been confident that he would overcome them decisively in the war. And he said that in engaging with them at the first with only a few men he had noticed just what the difference was between the two armies, so [261] that if he should fight his battles with them with a force which was in strength proportionate to theirs, the multitudes of the enemy could inflict no injury upon the Romans by reason of the smallness of their numbers. And the difference was this, that practically all the Romans and their allies, the Huns, are good mounted bowmen, but not a man among the Goths has had practice in this branch, for their horsemen are accustomed to use only spears and swords, while their bowmen enter battle on foot and under cover of the heavy-armed men. So the horsemen, unless the engagement is at close quarters, have no means of defending themselves against opponents who use the bow, and therefore can easily be reached by the arrows and destroyed; and as for the foot-soldiers, they can never be strong enough to make sallies against men on horseback. It was for these reasons, Belisarius declared, that the barbarians had been defeated by the Romans in these last engagements. And the Goths, remembering the unexpected outcome of their own experiences, desisted thereafter from assaulting the fortifications of Rome in small numbers and also from pursuing the enemy when harassed by them, except only so far as to drive them back from their own camps.

 (Procopius, The History of the Wars, Books V and VI, trans. H.B. Dewing. London: William Heinemann Ltd/Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 1919/


However, with only about 5000 troops now under his command, Belisarius was unable either to defeat the Ostrogoths in a decisive engagement or to move further north.  In response to his appeal for aid, Justinian sent him an additional 7000 troops under the command of Justinian’s court eunuch Narses. Despite a dispute with Narses that almost derailed the campaign, Belisarius was able to secure Roman control over northern Italy by 539, when the Ostrogoths surrendered to him at Ravenna. The conquest apparently complete, Justinian recalled Belisarius in 540 to resume command over the Eastern frontier, once again threatened by a Persian invasion.

        Almost immediately after Belisarius sailed off, the Ostrogoths renounced the treaty and resumed hostilities under the leadership of a capable general named Totila. By 544 the Ostrogoths had recovered most of southern Italy, including Naples.  Justinian once again sent Belisarius to Italy, providing him with a small force of 4,000 soldiers from Thrace. Because Justinian believed that Italy would pay for itself, he sent no money to pay for the Roman troops stationed there. The result was that wages were seriously in arrears and the troops were near mutiny. Belisarius did as well as he could with the manpower available to him, but the most he could accomplish was to prevent Totila from holding Rome after the Vandals took it. Disappointed by Justinian’s unwillingness to send more troops, Belisarius asked to be relieved of command, and returned to Constantinople in 548. Totila took advantage of the vacuum of Belisarius’ departure to take Rome and invade Sicily. Finally spurred to action, Justinian sent a large army, numbering perhaps 25,000, to Italy under the command of Narses in 553, who defeated Totila, killing him along with about 6000 of his 20,000 troops. The war was now essentially over. By 561 Narses had recovered all of Italy. Meanwhile, Justinian took advantage of a request for military aid by the Visigothic king of Spain to recover for the empire some cities along the Mediterranean coast of Spain.

        By his death in 565 Justinian had managed to take back for the empire much of the lands ringing the western Mediterranean, but the cost in treasure and manpower was enormous. The Gothic War in Italy was a war of attrition, marked by sieges and the systematic devastation of the Italian countryside.  The Byzantine’s decisive technical superiority in siegecraft meant that Totila could not retake cities by assault but was forced to starve them into submission.  Once he captured a city, moreover, he would raze its defenses, lest it be retaken by Byzantine forces. The entire war seemed to have been fought in accordance with Vegetius’s maxim that “To distress the enemy more by famine than the sword is a mark of consummate skill.” Similar devastation was wrought during Justinian’s reconquest of the diocese of North Africa. In both regions, cities were sacked and trade and agriculture disrupted. Justinian’s reconquest of the West was more devastating than the conquests of Italy and N. Africa had been by the Ostrogoths and the Vandals.  Perhaps even more damaging in the long run, however, was the plague that Justinian’s armies carried to the West with them. As it was, a weakened Italy was to fall prey to a new barbarian invader, the Lombards. Foederati under Justinian, the Lombards entered Italy in 568 and over the next century extended their rule over much of the peninsular. The Byzantine empire retained control only over Ravenna and a number of other coastal cities, and Sicily. They would lose Ravenna to the Lombards by the middle of the eighth century.  Carthage and the province of Africa would fall to the Arabs by 711 and all of Sicily by 938.



1) Notitia dignitatum et administrationum omnium tam civilium quam militarium in partibus Orientis et Occidentis:
Administrative list of Roman civilian and military officials in the east and the west in the early fifth century.  From the titles of military officials we can reconstruct a rough idea of the size and disposition of Late Roman forces.  The Notitia survives in Renaissance manuscript copies of a lost ninth-century codex. Document most likely compiled a chief notary in the West ca. 408 (the material for the Eastern empire reflects conditions around 408). The data for the Western Empire was updated and revised down to 423. PAPER STRENGTHS--probably a financial/administrative document.

2) Publius Flavius VEGETIUS Renatus, De re militari (383 X 450). Manual.
Most influential handbook on warfare and military organization throughout the Middle Ages. Vegetius produced a summa on Roman warfare by culling earlier Roman sources for what they have to say about training, recruitment, strategy, tactics, siege warfare. The purpose of the manual was, literally, to reform the Roman army by returning it to what it had once been: a highly disciplined and drilled professional force. Point: military victory comes from training and drill; the best armies are those with integrated tactical arms. Arther Ferrill sees this work as a meditation on what was wrong with the late Roman army, a lament, especially, for the deterioration of the infantry. One should emphasize, however, that Vegetius was not a military commander; he was the archetypical “armchair general.”

3) De rebus bellicis (Anonymous, 337 X 378). Imaginative manual that emphasizes technological innovation as solution to the military problem.
The De rebus bellicis urged the introduction of ingenious new weapons to restore Roman military might. Among the weapons proposed in this work are a warship propelled by a drive shaft based on the watermill powered by oxen; a moveable armored shield for siegework; a rotating, horse drawn catapult. Highly ingenious and highly impractical--sort of the Leonardo approach to warfare.

4) Ammianus Marcellinus. Ammianus Marcellinus was a fourth-century historian and army officer of Greek extraction who was born in Antioch and who wrote a massive continuation of Tacitus down to his present day (ca. 390). What has survived is the material for AD 354-378. This is an extremely valuable source for late Roman military history.

5) Theodosian Code and the Novels. The code issued by the Emperor Theodosius II in 438 supplemented by his immediate successors (the “Novels”) provides a compendium of Roman law from the time of Constantine to the middle of the fifth century. It is a great source for conditions of military service, problems of desertion, recruitment, etc. during this period.

6) Abbinaeus archives. Because of its dry climate, Egypt is a treasure trove for Late Roman papyrus documents. Of special importance to historians of the late Roman military are the private and public records of Flavius Abinnaeus, a commander of the cavalry (praefectus alae) stationed in the fortress of Dionysias in the Fayum (Egypt) from AD 342 to 351. These bilingual (but mainly Greek) documents, consisting of petitions, letters, accounts, and lists, were collected and re-edited by H.I. Bell and others, and published as The Abinnaeus Archive. Papers of a Roman Officer in the Reign of Constantius II (Oxford, 1964).  Trismegistos: An interdisciplinary portal of papyrological and epigraphical resources dealing with Egypt and the Nile valley between roughly 800 BC and AD 800 ( gives the following description of this resource:  “Of the 42 letters, 37 are addressed to Abinnaeus and one is written by him. All together, he has 26 different correspondents. Fourteen petitions are addressed to Abinnaeus in his official capacity as commanding officer at Dionysias. One petition in Latin is directed to the emperors by Abinnaeus himself. Most accounts and lists register tax contributions levied from farmers by the agents of Abinnaeus.” The “Abbinaeus archives” are invaluable for the light they shed on the relationship between Roman army commanders and civilian society in late antiquity.

6) Zosimus. early sixth-century century Greek historian; Procopius, John the Lydian and Agathias, 6th century Byzantine historians. Latter two provide numbers of troops for fourth century army.

7) Procopius (ca. 500-ca.565). Procopius was a prominent Byzantine scholar from Palestine.  He was legal adviser to the general Belisarius and accompanied him on his Persian and Gothic campaigns in the wars of the Emperor Justinian I.  He is the principal Roman historian of the 6th century. His writings include the Wars of Justinian, the Buildings of Justinian and the notorious and slanderous Secret History.

8) Jordanes (bishop of Crotona, Italy). Sixth-century churchman and historian, probably of Gothic ancestry, who about 551 A.D. wrote De origine actibusque Getarum (The origin and deeds of the Goths), known as the Getica for short. Jordanes wrote the Getica while in Constantinople, where he was involved in a dispute between his patron, the papal legate Vigilius, and the Emperor Justinian. Jordanes’ sources included Cassiodorus’ lost early sixth-century history of the Goths and the works of Priscus (mid fifth century).

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