As part of our extended feature on the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, MHM  looks at the soldiers involved in the fighting up to and including the Battle of Adrianople.

Sack of Rome by the Visigoths led by Alaric I in 410, during the reign of Emperor Honorius. Colored engraving.

The Late Roman Army

To one of Julius Caesar’s centurions, the Late Roman Army would have been unrecognisable. The Anarchy of AD 235 to 284 had destroyed much of the old structure, and emergency improvisation had created a new one. The ramshackle organisation that emerged was then consolidated into new type of army by Diocletian (AD 284-305) and Constantine the Great (AD 306-337).

Old units were divided and many new ones formed, and a plethora of regimental titles reflected a diversity of origins. Despite this, we can identify a broad, threefold distinction between limitanei, comitatenses, and palatini.

The limitanei were ‘Frontier Troops’ (from the Latin limes for ‘frontier’). They provided the garrisons of the frontier forts and linear barriers like Hadrian’s Wall. They tended to be lower-grade troops, mainly infantry, and archaeological work implies that they were deeply embedded in the local communities where they served, such that many became effectively immobile – being local men with families and farms.

The comitatenses were ‘Field Troops’ (from the Latin comes for ‘companions’ – i.e. of the Emperor). They undertook mobile operations both inside the Empire and beyond its borders, as circumstances required. They were higher-grade soldiers than the limitanei, and a good proportion were armoured cavalry, these having replaced heavy infantry as the key shock troops of the Roman Army.

The palatini were ‘Household Troops (from the Latin palatinus for ‘Palatine’ – the hill on which the imperial palace was located in Rome). They formed a growing military elite who guarded the Emperor and accompanied him on campaign. They included a high proportion of heavy cavalry, and regimental titles included such honorific names as Herculani (‘followers of Hercules’ – and therefore Maximian’s Own) and Ioviani (‘followers of Jupiter’ – Diocletian’s Own).

Officers and men

Late Roman heavy infantryman. The Roman Army mirrored the rise of the horseman in late antiquity: the proportion of cavalry increased, and greater reliance was placed on cavalry shock action in battle. Nonetheless, the Romans continued to field large numbers of heavy infantry (as shown here), and it was the destruction of their trained regular infantry at Adrianople that was decisive: thereafter, Roman rulers looked to barbarian ‘federates’ to fill the battle-line.

Late Roman heavy infantryman. The Roman Army mirrored the rise of the horseman in late antiquity: the proportion of cavalry increased, and greater reliance was placed on cavalry shock action in battle. Nonetheless, the Romans continued to field large numbers of heavy infantry (as shown here), and it was the destruction of their trained regular infantry at Adrianople that was decisive: thereafter, Roman rulers looked to barbarian ‘federates’ to fill the battle-line.

Frontier Troops were commanded by duces (‘dukes’), Field Troops by comites (‘counts’), and the highest command positions, the equivalent of modern field-marshals, were the magistri equitum (‘masters of horse’) and magistri peditum (‘masters of infantry’). All officers were professionals; the days of amateur aristocratic generals – when Roman politicians did stints of military service as a routine part of their career – were long past.

Units were typically between 500 and 1,000 strong. Smaller units were necessary because warfare had become more fluid and fast-moving. Pitched battles were no longer decided by the clash of compact masses of 5,000 or more heavy infantry, but by the manoeuvres of separate battalions of specialised troops.

The Late Roman Army was recruited mainly in frontier areas, sometimes among the very barbarian tribes whom the Romans were otherwise fighting. It was, to a large degree, Germanic in ethnic composition – even at the most senior levels.

The rising proportion of Germans reflected conditions inside the Roman Empire. The legions had originally been recruited from the prosperous free peasantry of Italy. By the 4th century, most peasants were weighed down by taxes, rents, and labour services; many were the serfs of big landowners. Such men make poor soldiers.

Germanic society was much healthier: society was more egalitarian and democratic, and ordinary Germans enjoyed a much greater measure of personal freedom. This distinction is sufficient to explain the decline of the Roman military tradition and the rise of the Germanic warrior in Late Antiquity.

Equally significant was the rise of heavy cavalry. War had become much more mobile. The frontier defences collapsed again and again, and Rome’s enemies – Germanic barbarians in the West, Sassanid Persians in the East – often raided far and wide in the hinterland. Strategic and tactical mobility became all important. The proportion of cavalry rose from one in ten to one in three. Battles were now decided by the clash of heavy horse. The Middle Ages, in military terms at least, had begun.

The Gothic Army

Gothic light cavalryman. Though many Goths fought on foot, a large minority were mounted, many of them armoured, others more lightly equipped (as here). They represented an intrusion into Europe of a new way of war, forged on the steppes of Central Asia, that involved a combination of missile and shock action by cavalry. This man is depicted with lance, sword, and shield.

Gothic light cavalryman. Though many Goths fought on foot, a large minority were mounted, many of them armoured, others more lightly equipped (as here). They represented an intrusion into Europe of a new way of war, forged on the steppes of Central Asia, that involved a combination of missile and shock action by cavalry. This man is depicted with lance, sword, and shield.

The Goths were a Germanic people with their roots in Eastern Europe and South Russia. The Visigoths (Western Goths) lived in what is today Rumania. Many were settled farmers, and a relatively high proportion fought as infantry. The Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths) lived in what is today Ukraine. As a people of the open steppe – like the later Cossacks – a higher proportion than among their western cousins fought as cavalry.

The Goths knew the stirrup, giving mounted warriors stability in the saddle, and many wore armour, typically of chain-mail with crested helmet of iron and copper-gilt. These heavy cavalry carried an oval shield with iron boss, a kontos (a long, heavy lance), and a ‘Sarmatian’ sword (a long, straight, sharp-edged, slashing weapon). There were also lighter cavalry, formed of men who could not afford body-armour, and these especially might also carry a number of short javelins.

The foot included Goths of more modest station and also subject-peoples like the Slavs. Equipment included javelins, long spears, long swords, and battle-axes. The foot did not normally wear armour, but they carried the standard oval shield. The Gothic host also included contingents of archers.


This article appeared as part of the extended feature ‘The Fall of the Western Roman Empire’ in issue 48 of Military History Monthly.



One Comment

  1. Stephen Coney
    September 2, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

    The Goths knew the stirrup? I don’t know of any sources that say that, can you enlighten us?

    Reply

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