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End of the Roman Empire, Historical Wargaming, Last Wars of the Western Empire, Uncategorized

The Last Wars of the Western Empire: Part 2: Rethinking the Fifth Century

In Part 1 I argued that the efficiency and effectiveness of the late Roman army have been much exaggerated, at least beyond the core of high-quality palatine units in the ‘praesental’ field armies (i.e. ‘in the presence’ of the emperor).  This ought to be amply demonstrated by the fate of the eastern Roman army after the disaster of Adrianopolis (mod. Edirne, Turkey) in 378, one of very few defeats ever inflicted on a Roman army by a force of migrating barbarians from beyond the Rhine-Danube limes.  Although this defeat cost the eastern empire perhaps 10-15,000 men (certainly no more than 20,000) out of a total manpower of over 200,000 effectives, and not all of the dead were from the best units, it is clear that it ripped the heart out of the eastern army.  The latter was only able to solve the Gothic crisis with the aid of western troops and by using overwhelming manpower to break up and wear down the Goths by preventing them from foraging or otherwise obtaining food and supplies.  When Theodosius I put together a field army it seems to have fallen apart when it came up against the hardened Gothic warriors.  In other words, the Eastern Roman Empire could easily replace the units destroyed at Adrianopolis, in terms of numbers, but in terms of quality it had enormous difficulty in doing so.  This indisputable fact is inconceivable if one believes in the usual ideas about the efficiency and quality of the late Roman army.  It is further underlined by the fact that the Eastern Roman Empire responded to the loss of its principal field army by the recruitment of large numbers of barbarian foederati.  What these were is a subject to which we shall return.

If you have been reading what I have written so far in this series with an appropriately sceptical eye, several questions will doubtless have occurred to you.  The army annihilated at Adrianopolis was that of the Eastern Roman Empire, the half that did not fall (until 1453), so what happened to the Western Roman army?  If the barbarian threat was so overplayed by the Romans (and by subsequent historians), how was the western Roman field army destroyed?  And if the military odds were so stacked against the barbarians and it was therefore so hard for barbarians to defeat the Roman field armies, how did the Western Roman Empire fall at all?

Who killed the western field army?

The last question is – obviously! – difficult to answer.  Viewing the fifth century as a struggle between barbarian invaders and Roman defenders completely mangles the dynamics of this period of history.  The
scenarios will demonstrate that in more detail.  The question of what happened to the western field army is more straightforward to answer.  Who ‘killed’ the western Roman field army? The Romans themselves.

The western  army suffered its ‘Adrianopolis’ sixteen years after the disaster that befell its eastern counterparts.  The victors also included large numbers of ‘Goths’.  They were, however, not invading barbarians but the reconstituted army of the eastern Empire.  In 392, the Frankish Master of the Soldiers, Arbogast, either killed Emperor Valentinian II or drove the unfortunate young man to suicide and in his place appointed a rhetorician called Eugenius.  Arbogast and Eugenius were pagans and briefly threatened a persecution of Christians (or their enemies said they did; it would have been a very foolish thing to have done in reality).  All this made inevitable a war with the eastern emperor, Theodosius I: Valentinian II’s protector and a rabid Catholic.  Theodosius took his time in assembling a huge army before marching west.  He met Arbogast’s and Eugenius’ forces on the river Frigidus (the Vipava) on 5 September 394.  In a terrible two-day battle that cost the lives of many of his foederati (something viewed with a certain satisfaction by some writers), Theodosius’ forces destroyed the western army.  The principal threats to Roman might were Roman forces, bigger and better equipped than barbarian.  Thus, to lose a battle against a large Roman army meant to lose disastrously.  The western troops were massacred at the Frigidus.

Catastrophic as this defeat was for the western army, it was not the first.  Six years previously, in 388, Theodosius’ armies had defeated it several times, in less cataclysmic but still decisive encounters, in quashing the regime of Magnus Maximus, a usurper who had, in 383, overthrown and killed Valentinian II’s elder brother, Gratian.  In the years between these defeats and the Frigidus a Roman army had also been mauled by the Franks in what was (as far as we know) the last imperial operation launched across the Rhine.  Battles, however devastating, are rarely decisive in and of themselves.  Adrianopolis’ importance has been greatly inflated since the mid-fifth century by historians propagating a particular view of Rome’s fall.  Frigidus’ significance was less apparent at the time.  Roman armies had recovered from worse defeats, just as they had rallied after Adrianopolis.  The importance of the western defeats in 388 and, especially, 394 lies in a conjunction of circumstances.  Maximus had launched his usurpation with the British field army.  He brought about his downfall by invading Italy (hitherto Valentinian II to rule), driving Valentinian into exile at his brother-in-law Theodosius’ court.  Maximus’ invasion doubtless concentrated western élite units in Italy, shortly to be used and defeated in the Balkans and northern Italy as Theodosius overthrew the usurper.  The aftermath of Adrianopolis shows how long it took to rebuild, in qualitative terms, a good field army – perhaps ten years.  Alas for the west only four years passed before Arbogast’s rebellion.  There was little time to re-establish regular government and military organisation in the western provinces either.

Arbogast and Eugenius kept their forces in Italy and doubtless reinforced them by drawing more units from north of the Alps to face Theodosius. The destruction of their forces was bad enough. What made it a real disaster was Theodosius’ death in January 395, less than four months after his victory.  Theodosius left the eastern Empire to his elder son, Arcadius, and the west to Honorius, the younger.  This was the first time the whole empire had been governed by sub-adults since the third century.  More to the point, neither emperor proved capable of effective independent action when he became an adult.  Consequently the courts in Milan (later Ravenna) and Constantinople became the foci of bitter factional struggles.  Worse, since the western regent, Stilicho, claimed that the dying Theodosius had appointed him eastern regent as well, tension between the two courts was inevitable.  Thus – and it is a further graphic illustration of the real weight attached to the ‘barbarian threat’ by Roman politicians when opposed to that posed by Roman rivals –  politics turned inwards.  Troops continued to be stationed in the centre of the Empire as the two imperial courts glowered at each other and little or no attention was paid to restoring governmental and military presence in the north-west.

This situation was worsened by the federate general Alaric’s rebellion (401-2) and his brief invasion of Italy (involving two more fairly indecisive but bloody battles), apparently necessitating further troop withdrawals from the north-west.  The unsurprising result of the fact that the Romans took their eye off the frontier and its management was stress in barbaricum as the usual checks and balances ceased to exist.  The crisis of 367-82 that saw the disintegration of the Tervingian Gothic confederacy, which had dominated the region north of the middle and lower Danube since the early fourth century, left a power vacuum that took a generation to fill.  Largely because internal politics prevented the Empire from maintaining a rough balance of power among the barbarians beyond the limes, one group had, by c.410 (and possibly not without some Roman assistance), emerged as dominant: the Huns.  The inevitable corollary of one group’s dominance was, as had been the case since Caesar’s day, the flight of the losing factions to the Empire.  Two large-scale invasions were probably consequent upon the Huns’ acquisition of power.  The first took place in 405-6 under a Goth usually called Radagaisus (his real name was presumably something like Ratchis or Radegis).  Stilicho defeated this but, again, seems to have had to assemble forces from the north-west.  When the second band of migrating barbarians, a confederacy of Vandals, Alans and ‘Sueves’ (who these latter were being a source of debate among historians), crossed the Rhine on the last day of 406, or perhaps more plausibly 405, there were almost no forces in northern Gaul to stop them.

Roman concentration on factional politics within and between the two courts also (equally unsurprisingly with the benefit of hindsight) produced usurpation.  The Empire’s rulers had, since 388, made little effort to ensure the north-western provinces’ incorporation into the Empire’s government and the benefits that accrued from this.  These were very important for local society.  As had been the case on similar occasions in the past, most recently in 383, Britain produced usurpers.  This might, depending on the date you prefer for the barbarians’ Rhine crossing, have been further precipitated by the incursion of the Sueves, Vandals and Alans.  The eventual claimant, chosen in mid-406 apparently for his name and the fact that it was exactly a hundred years since Constantine the Great’s dramatically successful usurpation (from Britain), was Constantine ‘III’.  He took the pick of the remaining British field army to Gaul, with consequences that we will explore in Part 4.

Constantine’s usurpation led to more civil wars as well as battles – usually successful – against the ‘barbarians’.  Roman commanders repeatedly ignored invading barbarians until they had dealt with Roman rivals.  The barbarians could, as in 414-20, be cleared up later.  Imperial commanders knew that Roman threats were far more serious than barbarian.  It was the former that really wore down the western army.  Unfortunately, no one ever managed to dispose of their rivals for long enough to be able to definitively clear out the non-Romans.  Constantius III (generalissimo from 411 and briefly emperor ten years later) came very, very close to doing so by 421 but his death plunged the Empire back into the chaos of minority rule, faction-fighting and civil war from which, as it turned out, it never recovered.

All this meant that the holders of authority in Ravenna could not project their power across the whole Western Empire.  Their effective power-base shrank, with two obvious results.  First, their recruiting areas continually shrank and, second, their tax revenue, was ever further reduced, hitting their capacity to pay for troops anyway.  These factors led to increasing reliance on armed forces provided by non-Romans.

Romans and Barbarians, warlords and politicians

We must now consider the difference between Roman and ‘Barbarian’ war-leaders.  I have placed ‘barbarian’ in inverted commas as a short-hand for ‘leaders who claimed a non-Roman ethnicity’.  To describe these people in terms that suggest they were savage, fur-clad invaders is grossly misleading.  Most key ‘barbarian’ players of the fifth century were actually born and raised inside the Empire, many receiving a typical Roman education.  Probably the most successful of them all, Gaiseric the Vandal, cannot have been more than a small boy, at most, when he entered the Empire.  None of the kings of the Goths of Toulouse (the so-called Visigoths) was born outside the Empire.  It is now, and has been for some time, well known that everything that we can discern of the ‘barbarians’’ style of government is either borrowed from that of the emperors or their officials or is a new creation (indeed a rather brilliant but
neglected French historian, who rejoiced in the name of Numa-Denis Fustel de Coulanges, pointed this out in the late nineteenth century, and made himself very unpopular in the process).  It is almost impossible to find anything that can be said to have been imported from non-Roman forms of kingship, other than occasional claims to descent from gods of the ‘Germanic’ pantheon (and we ought not to forget, as historians often do, that barbarian kings also claimed classical and biblical figures in their ancestry).

It is usually mistaken even to think of their territories being founded as kingdoms.  ‘Barbarian’ war-leaders were generally given territories to govern (land seized by conquest is much less common) but we can rarely if ever be sure that this was intended to be a permanent arrangement; careful consideration of the circumstances usually suggests the opposite.  In no case, if I remember correctly, do the Romans ever say that the barbarians were given a kingdom.  The administrative and ‘constitutional’ arrangements are usually extremely shadowy indeed.  Kingdoms as such tended to come into being slowly and unevenly, as the result of a series of contingent events rather than a single act of foundation.  ‘Barbarian’ rulers were usually more concerned with the acquisition of Roman titles, ‘king’ (rex) usually being a default option when nothing better (i.e. Roman and legitimate) was available.  For instance, Gundobad, sidekick of the Patrician Ricimer and briefly his successor, only returned to Gaul and took up a position as one of the kings of the Burgundians when high political events drove him out of Rome.  Roman titles legitimised rule over Roman provincials.  This was necessary as, from the outset, the administration of these territories (thus the provision of pay and provision to the troops) was conducted by provincial aristocrats.

This last point is important.  Such provincials were not ‘traitors’ or ‘quislings’ as they have sometimes been portrayed as being.  Remember that the stationing of federates in a region was by imperial order and not necessarily intended to be permanent.  The foederati were in many ways just a new form of auxilia (Part 3).  Seen thus, the role of Gallo-Roman or other aristocrats in their administration and supply was fundamentally no different from, or more reprehensible than, if they had been told to administer the billeting and supply of a field army stationed in their province.

The other side of the story concerns the aims of those aristocrats themselves.  Roman high aristocratic culture, as mentioned in Part 1, relied on a balance of otium (leisure) and negotium (business – service of the state).  Such aristocrats liked to moan about the burdens of office but in fact they were desperate to obtain such positions.  They needed them for competition within their peer group (offices brought honorific titles and all-important precedence) and in order to exercise power and patronage.  A prominent role at the core of the Empire brought untold opportunities to exert influence.  Involvement in the heart of government was therefore central to their way of life.  In the fourth century, aristocracies in different parts of the empire began to show the beginnings of regional identities (partly through links of family and patronage).  The Italian senatorial aristocrats resented their exclusion from the heart of the ‘inside-out’ Empire.  When the emperor Gratian returned to Italy (380) the Gallic and British aristocracy backed usurpers who would, they hoped, bring the government back to Trier while the Italians fought tooth and nail to hang on to their newly re-acquired place at the political centre.

Now, all this is actually important to understanding the wars, and armies, of the fifth century.  What we see happening during the fifth century is this regionalism being accentuated.  Provincial aristocracies and ‘barbarian’ generals came together in political factions.  They shared the same aims, to control the imperial court and the heart of the Empire, in the fourth-century style.  As early as 408 the Italian senate, no less, joined Alaric the Goth in raising a usurper; the actions of the Goths of Toulouse are never out of line with those of the Aquitanian Gallo-Roman aristocracy, and the Burgundians and the senators of the Rhône valley were in cahoots from the start.  Even the Vandals, long the real villains, the arch-heretics and ‘ultra-barbarians’ of the piece (and the only significant group whose territories largely came under their control by outright military seizure from the Empire) may have been much more in alliance with their African aristocratic subjects than usually supposed.  The rabid hostility of Catholic and Constantinopolitan sources was possibly a reaction to Vandal success in this area; militant Vandal heresy and the fact that Vandal troops controlled the west’s most economically important provinces, didn’t help.  As we’ll see, they were as anxious to be a part of the imperial régime as anyone else.  The crucial point about the fifth century, as stated above, is that, unlike fourth-century political groupings, none of these factions ever managed to defeat their rivals decisively, secure control of the political centre and extend their régime across the whole Empire.  As the century wore on they became ever more entrenched, important and difficult to balance.  This also meant that the control over armed forces progressively slipped away from the central imperial government and into the hands of the regional factions.

We are accustomed to thinking of fifth-century in terms of ‘Roman defenders against barbarian invaders’, something that a sensitive examination of the sources (especially those strictly contemporary with events) reveals to be simply untrue, usually coloured by centuries of nationalist and other politics.  It is this view that turns Roman aristocrats into cowards or ‘quislings’ and means that we have an in-grained idea that ‘Roman’ and ‘barbarian’ leaders had somehow different aims and objectives.  The latter are, in this view, out to create independent states and conquer the Empire; the former’s actions rarely make much sense at all in this way of seeing and are often consequently denigrated as ‘short-sighted’, treacherous or selfish.  I have already said that seeing the territories governed by barbarian leaders as ‘kingdoms’ may be unhelpful; people, even within very traditional ways of seeing the fifth century, have long noted that many were kings of their followers rather than of defined territories.  Indeed, if we lay aside the fairly artificial distinction between Romans and barbarians, we can see that the aims of military leaders, whatever their ethnicity, were pretty similar.  Like Roman civilian aristocrats, they wanted a place at the heart of government, with senior command and, if they could not obtain this, they rebelled.  In this there is little to distinguish Alaric’s actions from those of Boniface or Aëtius.  Seen thus, independence and separation from the imperial régime was, for barbarian leaders, an admission of failure, not the achievement of an aim.

Rebellion could sometimes mean trying to make your own man emperor: Alaric and Athaulf (Gothic commanders between c.395 and 415) twice placed Priscus Attalus on the throne.  The Roman general Castinus made Johannes western emperor when he looked likely to fall from power after Emperor Honorius’ death.  Gaiseric the Vandal waged a long war to raise to the purple Olybrius, his son’s brother-in-law and, by marriage, a member of the Theodosian dynasty.  When he was finally alienated from the régime of the Constantinople-backed Emperor Anthemius and in open revolt, Ricimer supported Olybrius.  Earlier, after murdering the emperor Majorian, he placed another candidate, Libius Severus, on the throne.  Gaiseric’s actions are especially interesting in that they (like his son’s marriage to Valentinian III’s daughter Eudocia) showed that ‘barbarians’ were every bit as obsessed by imperial dynastic legitimacy as the Romans.  Indeed, after the failure of Johannes’ usurpation, for thirty years everyone appears to have realised that dynastic legitimacy was a trump card.  The crucial change followed Valentinian III’s assassination (455) when the Theodosian dynasty withered and none was able to replace it.  Of course, at this stage, any sons of either Olybrius or Huneric the Vandal would have had the most legitimate claim to the western throne in the Empire!  The patrician Ricimer is often seen by those who see the period in terms of the defence and preservation of the Empire from barbarian invaders, as the ultimate traitor (and – since he was a barbarian – fifth-columnist).  Yet liberated from this, ultimately highly misleading, way of seeing the era, Ricimer’s actions can be seen as well within the traditions of Roman politics.  He was simply defending his position from rival factions, controlling the legitimate court in Rome and Ravenna.  He certainly took vigorous action to defend Italy from barbarian invaders from outside the Empire when necessary, defeating an Alan invasion in 464.

This engenders another suggestion, which occurred to me in writing this series.  There is something in the evidence to suggest (no more than that) that ‘federate’ Gothic generals were much more cautious than their Roman counterparts.  This makes sense.  Their position was tenuous and entirely dependent upon their command of an army. Like fifteenth-century condottieri, their troops were their stock in trade.  Unlike a Roman officer with an official post in the established military hierarchy, a single serious military defeat could have cost them everything.  In Part 5, we’ll see that this might have very serious effects on imperial campaigns.

The points I have just made have two further implications.  One is that I wish I’d pushed my argument further along these lines in my book on the period!  The second is that we ought probably to reconsider the history of Britain in this period, away from seeing it as a bipolar fight between invading Saxons and defending Romano-Britons.  When we begin to know anything about British politics, in the seventh century, it is clear that wars are about groupings of Britons/Welsh and Saxons against other such factions and it seems unlikely that things were different in the fifth and sixth centuries,[1] especially when viewed in continental context.  The points I have just set out might, however, help you set up fifth-century campaigns that are more historically accurate (and interesting) than those that simply pit barbarian invaders against Roman defenders.


[1] My thanks to Paul Leach for this point.

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