The Western Roman Army, Mid-Fifth Century

Art by Graham Sumner

The Late Roman army has recently been the subject of much investigation. Earlier opinions that the Roman army of this period was poor in equipment, training and discipline when compared to its earlier counterparts have been overturned – or at least heavily revised. Yet there does remain one problem. Most analyses are based around Ammianus Marcellinus, the Notitia Dignitatum, and Maurice’s Strategikon.

The Roman History of Ammianus is obviously too early to be certain of its application to the mid-fifth century, and although the dating of the Notitia Dignitatum has been extended to the 420s, most historians have baulked at the idea of using it to inform their concepts about the armies used either by Aetius or his successors. In a similar manner, the later Strategikon has been used to postulate about the armies of the mid-sixth century and in the East, but rarely, if ever, earlier and usually not in the West.

This is understandable. After 420 the armies of the West were poorly documented and were the subject of disruption, attrition and reorganization. By 454 the loss of Britain, of large areas of Gaul, of the majority of Hispania, and of Africa to the Vandals, means that the army as listed in the Notitia Dignitatum no longer existed. Furthermore, the substantial differences in the composition of the armies of the fourth century and the armies of the sixth century means that it is impossible to use the Strategikon for the fifth century: the date of the changes between the two is unknown and therefore liable to interpretation. To fill the gaps in our knowledge, large amounts of speculation are required.

Yet it is difficult to analyse events from 454 to 480 without an analysis of why the Roman army failed to deal with the barbarian incursions, and it is hard for students of the earlier Empire to understand why the citizens of Italy, who had earlier conquered such a vast Empire, were unable even to hold on to one half of their previous conquests. Yet in reality the seeds for the ‘Fall of the West’ were sown in the second century BC. Even at this early date the citizens of Rome were becoming unhappy at the prospect of serving in the army. Two of the Leges Porciae (Porcian Laws), probably dating to 197 BC and 184 BC, protected Roman citizens serving in the army from ‘abuses’ and as a result it is clear that Rome was happy for the burden of war to fall on the other Italian peoples. As the Empire expanded the extension of citizen rights to the whole of Italy resulted in the burden of war passing to those peoples nearer the frontier. By the fifth century AD the peoples of Italy had been relieved of the burden of fighting for so many centuries that in many respects they were no longer suited to war.

AHM Jones in his magisterial The Later Roman Empire, 284–602: A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey analysed the Notitia Dignitatum and arrived at a series of figures for the strength of the Western army c. 420. It is clear that, given the numerical superiority the Romans had over invaders, the West should easily have been able to defeat the barbarians. Yet they failed. What follows is an attempt to piece together from fragmented or non-existent evidence the fate of the armies of the West and of the people that manned them. However it should be noted that attempts to analyse the composition and size of the army and its individual units are hypotheses and should not be taken as fact.

The manpower of the units within the Roman Army is not known. The figure calculated by Jones in the mid-twentieth century has since been heavily revised. For the sake of comprehension both Jones’ and later figures are given here:

According to Jones (and Nicasie):

Duncan-Jones, (1990) pp. 105–17; Elton, (1996) p. 89; Goldsworthy, (2003) p. 206; and Mattingly, (2006) p. 239.

These are estimates and modern scholars are continuously revising the figures, based, for example, on the results of archaeological excavations of Late Roman forts. As a result, these numbers should not be accepted as fact but as guidelines. Furthermore, the units’ strengths will have been greatly affected by the campaigns fought in the different regions of the Western Empire in the first half of the fifth century. For a greater analysis of these campaigns and their possible effects on the army, see below.

One interesting aspect of the above figures is that Jones’ specific numbers have now been adjusted to figures within, in some cases, quite wide boundaries. This implies that unit strengths in different regions of the Empire may have differed from each other. For example, in Gaul the expectation of major campaigns may have resulted in recruits being supplied on a regular basis in order to maintain a viable fighting force, as against Egypt, where troop numbers may have remained low as the army was simply fulfilling policing duties and so did not need regular drafts of recruits.

The army was now separated into several different types. The troops on the frontiers were labelled either limitanei (border defence, land) or riparienses (border defence, river) troops (both classed as limitanei in the tables). These troops had three main functions: to police the borders, to gather intelligence, and to stop small-scale raids. In the interior of the Empire were stationed troops known as comitatenses (companions) whose purpose was to deal with intruders who broke through the outer defences, to discourage usurpers from attempts to take the throne, and to act as an internal police force against banditry.

As time passed there grew an intermediate group known as pseudocomitatenses, formed from border troops who were promoted to the ranks of the comitatenses in order to fill gaps or take part in specific campaigns.

Above these, and theoretically with the emperor himself, was a further tier known as the palatinae (palace troops), with their own mini hierarchy. At the top were the elite bodyguard to the emperor, the scholae palatinae (schools of the palace); these units acted as informal training bodies for many of the army’s senior officers, and below them were the palatinae (of the palace), who supplied the emperor’s army with the majority of its troops, with the auxilia palatina (allied palace troops) ranking above the legiones palatina (legionary palace troops).

Finally, there were units whose status is either unclear or whose rank could differ between individual units, such as the foederati, gentiles, dediticii, tributarii, and the laeti. However, the actual status of the troops at the lower end of the scale is vague. This is mainly because the sources use a wide range of terminology which is applied almost indiscriminately to a variety of units, usually of barbarian origin, and the application of titles need not necessarily follow a set pattern.

The gentiles appear to have been composed of tribesmen, either recently settled within the Empire or recruited from tribes still living beyond the frontiers: with the sources available it is impossible to say for certain which of these was more prevalent. Their exact status is unclear but gentiles are later listed amongst the scholae of Diocletian, and in the Notitia Dignitatum they are found in the scholae attached to both the Eastern and the Western magister officiorum. Units of Sarmatian gentiles (Sarmatarum gentilium) are also attested as being stationed in Italy. Due to the context, it is possible that they were settled as farmers throughout these regions with individuals then being enrolled in regular units.

The laeti may have been different to the gentiles. They were formed from barbarians settled within the Empire who were obliged to provide troops for the army in exchange for land. The settlements were not self-governing, being administered either by a Roman military official or by the council of a local city. However, there were units combining the two titles, such as the laetorum gentilium stationed in Belgica Secunda, which suggests that any differences between the two may be coincidental and more of a reflection of modern prejudices than of ancient custom or title.

Tributarii and dediticii appear to have been obtained from external sources. As their names suggest, it is possible that they were supplied as part of a treaty by tribes who had been defeated by the Romans. However, it is impossible to be certain whether this format applied to all troops with the name, as sometimes this may be a hangover from when a unit was formed rather than later recruiting practice.

The foederati cause the greatest confusion to historians. This may be because the same title was given to troops recruited in several different ways. As with the Goths, the name may be given to non-Roman troops serving the emperor as part of a treaty but who were not a part of the regular Roman army and did not serve under Roman officers. However, it may also refer to barbarian troops recruited directly into the army to either fill the ranks of normal Roman units, or instead to form their own, distinct, tribal units within the framework of the army. Furthermore, the name was given to barbarian troops of different tribes who were attracted to serve under one leader, either Roman or barbarian, who was part of the Roman hierarchy. Due to the indeterminate nature of the foederati it is impossible to be clear on their nature and their status. As a result, each unit so designated has to be assessed solely using its own history.

There is also the problem of the emergence of the bucellarii. These men may have started as foederati serving as bodyguards to one specific commander, however they are generally accepted to have begun as troops serving under local magnates rather than under military commanders. Only slowly were they accepted as part of the military hierarchy, serving as bodyguards to Roman generals. In fact, it is possible that Stilicho (395–408) was the first Roman general to have had bucellarii serving as a bodyguard. They would become increasingly important during the course of the fifth and sixth centuries.

Command Hierarchy

After Aetius assumed sole control of the army in 433 the command hierarchy of the West becomes a little confusing, in part because modern historians are only familiar with modern, logical, strictly linear military ranks. This was not the case during the Roman era. During Aetius’ regime many men were given the title of magister militum, and this has been used by some authorities as evidence of political infighting within the top ranks of the army, due to modern conceptions of how military ranking should work. However, it is more likely that Aetius retained personal control of all of the army and gave his supporters the title of magister militum in order both to establish their military authority in their respective areas and to reward them with a high political rank within the Empire as a whole.

Below the magistri were the comes and duces. As with the magistri, the two titles were not wholly distinct, with one serving above the other. It seems likely that the designations comes and dux had been given by different emperors depending upon the circumstances surrounding individual appointments. Their use by Aetius and his successors probably followed the early Imperial trends but this cannot be proven.

The above shows that, contrary to the expectations of modern authorities whose experience is dominated by rigid hierarchies and naming conventions, neither troop designation nor the titles of commanders were linked to specific methods of recruitment or use and appear to have been dependent upon the needs or whim of the individual emperor or his magister. As a consequence, the changes must be seen as ‘organic and progressive, not wholesale or ordered’ and any attempt to impose a rigid structure that lasts throughout the course of the later Empire is doomed to failure.18 Furthermore, it is obvious from a close reading of Ammianus Marcellinus that the higher ranks owed their loyalty solely to the person that appointed them: it should not be taken for granted that a magister, comes or dux would be able to give orders to other commanders theoretically below them in rank. His area of command would need to be specified when he was first appointed.


There were three methods of recruitment in the later Empire: enrollment of volunteers, conscription, and levies from ‘barbarians’ settled either as prisoners of war or as normal ‘Roman’ farmers with a duty to provide troops for the army when a levy was demanded.
Earlier laws demonstrate that in the past the Empire had only wanted to recruit troops suitable for service in the army. Anyone found to be below these standards was not allowed to join. By the mid-fifth century it is likely that the majority of these laws had been waived. Military leaders could no longer afford to be picky about the quality of men that they enrolled. Sadly, by this time a career in the army was almost certainly unpopular. One of the main difficulties was that in the extremely uncertain times of the fifth century joining the army could mean a recruit being posted to a province far from his home. This could leave his family unprotected and so many men may have preferred to stay and defend their own homes. Furthermore, there is some evidence for citizens being disillusioned with the government and its heavy taxation, and angry at the behaviour of troops, who may by now have been billeted in citizens’ homes in cities. There is even evidence of them siding with invaders in the expectation of better treatment and booty.

In earlier times conscription would be needed to fill the gaps in the ranks only in times of war, but in times of peace emperors had different agendas. When the need for men was not urgent, provinces were allowed to pay a tax – the aurem tironicum (gold for recruits) – instead of supplying men. It is possible that as resources dwindled and emperors often found themselves to be short of money, they were tempted to pass a decree calling for conscription simply in order to commute this to the aurem tironicum to boost the treasury. In the meantime, they could spend some of the money to hire ‘barbarian’ mercenaries, who did not need to be trained or equipped by the state, so maintaining the army at a functioning level with less cost.

Whether new troops were conscripts, volunteers or mercenaries, the duces were responsible for recruitment and for the assigning of individuals to units. Unfortunately we are not given any details as to how this took place. All that can be accepted is that the system appears to have worked up until the early fifth century.


According to Zosimus, the training and discipline of the army was not as it had been in earlier centuries, and the years of almost constant warfare in many provinces of the West must have ensured that the training of recruits was kept to a minimum in order to ensure their arrival in the front line. Although the poor quality of troops in the Later Empire has long been accepted as fact, analysis of battles – especially those of Argentoratum (Strasbourg) and Adrianople – has resulted in a reappraisal. It is now accepted that, to a large degree, Roman training methods continued into the fourth century: indeed, Ammianus affirms the esprit de corps and the survival of old skills in the comitatenses, such as the building of marching camps and permanent forts. When properly led, and when training was combined with strict discipline, the Roman army was still a formidable fighting force.


At the time of Valentinian I (364–375) the limitanei still received the supplies needed for nine months of the year straight from the government. However, for the remaining three months they were paid in gold and had to locate and purchase the supplies themselves. Over the ensuing decades the system of ‘self supply’ had been extended until by 406 it included virtually all military personnel. In such a situation, it would be easy for the troops to begin taking more than their money was worth. It is hard for military men to pay full price for goods from people they are protecting: instead, they are likely to have expected a discount for any goods bought.

Barbarian Settlements

One final aspect of the fifth century is rarely analysed in detail, largely because historians writing after the event have the benefit of hindsight and realize that the Empire would fall. The Romans did not know this. It is certain that barbarian groups allowed into the Empire were not seen as the threat that they later became. This is due in part to Roman arrogance. In the preceding centuries all of the tribes and political entities that had been conquered by Rome had seen the benefits of inclusion and became members of the Empire: there was no reason why tribes such as the Goths or Franks should be any different. Allowed to settle and have the benefits of Roman rule they would lose their identity amongst the common Roman citizenry. This theory helps to explain why so many German leaders were accepted into service in the army. By serving the Empire they would gradually absorb the benefits and mentality of citizens – as had happened to the Gauls, the Britons and many other belligerent tribes.

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