Friday, July 20, 2007

The Late Roman Military

Dennis recently mentioned the late Roman military and its capacities. Here are some citations from Michael Whitby's entry 'The Army, c. 420-602' (pp. 288ff.) in the recent volume of the Cambridge Ancient History covering 425-600. Sorry for the information dump, but perhaps some of it will prove useful for the investigation. These mostly have to do with the western half of the empire.

The year 420 marks a convenient break: between then and the Persian wars of Anastasius' reign (502-7), recorded by Procopius and Joshua the Stylite, there is little reliable narrative of Roman military action, and no Notitia....During these years the western Roman army ceased to exist as a state institution, being superseded by the military forces of the successor kingdoms in Gaul, Spain, Africa and finally Italy, none of which maintained a standing army. (288)

[T]here was a still smaller, but significant, group of comitatenses in Africa commanded by a comes, although comparable units in Spain, Britain and the western Balkans had probably ceased to exist by 420. (289)

Both methods of requiring non-Roman soldiers [i.e., volunteers and those who 'accepted military obligation as part of their peace settlement'--ed.] continued in operation, but the most prominent way of employing tribesmen during the fifth century was as federate units. These functioned as ethnic contingents under the leadership of their own chief--basically a tribal, or quasi-tribal, war-band which might vary in size from a few hundred to the 10,000 or so controlled by each of the Theoderics in the Balkans in the 470s. The commander received a Roman title--magister militum for the powerful and successful, with the consulship as the ultimate accolade--and this gave the tribesmen access to Roman salaries and provisions....Roman reliance on federates, however, had disadvantages in that the mechanics of the agreements served to increase the independent power of non-Roman leaders: their strength as patrons grew through disbursement of Roman resources, while they remained outside the institutional structures and discipline of the state army. In the west in the fifth century independent action by federates on various occasions contributed significantly to the collapse of central authority. (290-1)

Overall, supplying the army, and especially an army on campaign, represented by far the largest, costliest and most complex single element in the administration of the empire, and so would be the first to falter at times of crisis or dislocation. (292)

The administrative problem is expounded in a Novel of Valentinian III in late 444: the empire desperately needed an army, but this required regular supplies which could not be squeezed from the western economy--the serene mind of the emperor was in turmoil over the remedy required by the crises. The western emperor no longer commanded a mobile army. (296)

[On the loss of resources] The result of this process was that by the 440s only Italy and southern Gaul were under imperial control, and even in these areas it was difficult to exploit human or economic resources without the consent of local elites. A military challenge could be met only by the construction of a coalition of local interest groups--for example, the alliance of Gallic military resources, tribal as well as Gallo-Roman, brought together by Aetius to oppose the common challenge of Atilla's Hunds, or on a smaller scale the grouping organized by Anthemius to fight the Visigoths under Euric....Outside Italy, however, local aristocrats, including in some cases bishops, could organize armed forces, such as Ecdicius, the brother-in-law of Sidonius Apollinaris, in the Auvergne, Syagarius at Soissons, or the elite of Saragossa in Spain, but their range of action was limited: it was not that all western Romans had lost the ability or will to fight, but that the state could not deploy this military potential, since the complex system for raising, paying, supplying and moving armies no longer functioned. (297)

The army of Italy was composed largely of non-Roman federal units, off-shoots from the tribal groups dominant in Gaul and Spain or elements who preferred imperial money to Hunnic dominion on the Danube. These troops, like the armies of the emerging post-Roman tribal kingdoms, wanted the stability that only land ownership could afford in times of financial shortage. When their demands were refused in 476 by the patrician Orestes, father of the emperor Romulus Augustulus, they disposed of the last western emperor and elected as king the Scirian officer Odoacer. (298)

In the west the empire's military institutions failed to survive the tribal challenge. Distinctions between limitanei and comitatenses became irrelevant when frontier conditions prevailed throughout all provinces; the authority of the centre evaporated together with its ability to provide pay and organize supplies, while military force was provided either by the tribal war-bands whose federate status became increasingly nominal or by local leaders with the capacity to marshal the military potential of their particular region. (299)


Dennis said...

Thanks, Eric. This is exactly what I had in mind, the military on the frontiers being replaced by tribal bands fighting in their traditional ways. They were not Roman in any real sense, and I don't think there were any Legions. I'm not sure there's any evidence of direct Roman involvement in the province for several decades before the short reign of Romulus Augustus.

Eric said...

Added a little more above.