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The Last Wars of the Western Empire Part 4: Fifth-Century Armies: Basic Aspects


In Part 1 of this series I suggested that the fourth-century Roman army might have been rather over-rated in terms of its fighting efficiency – its real strength lying in its sheer size and logistical organisation – but that the military balance of power between Rome and its northern neighbours was nevertheless hopelessly, unequally weighted in favour of the Empire.  Part 2 suggested that the principal military causes for the fifth-century disintegration of the western Empire were to be sought in the Romans’ own civil wars.  These destroyed the once-powerful western field army and ruined the imperial ability to project power (thus a crucial recruitment and taxation capacity) across its territory.  This in turn led to an increasing reliance on ‘federate’ troops who, I argued in Part 3, were no mere barbarian irregulars but a new form of regular military unit.  This month I will (I hope) present some more points that you might find interesting – and quite possibly surprising in view of commonly held ideas about this era – and pursue my argument by (again, I hope) demonstrating how the military balance of power between Romans and ‘barbarians’ became much more even in the fifth-century. 


As argued last month, fifth-century foederati were a somewhat different proposition from the barbarian warbands of the fourth century.  Once these groups controlled the resources of Roman provinces they opposed their rivals (Roman and barbarian) on a much more equal basis than that on which fourth-century barbarian confederacies had faced imperial might.  How did this come about?



The worst thing about studying the fifth century is the lack of evidence.  Anyone who, when talking about the armies and tactics of this period, comes out with phrases such as ‘we have good evidence that’ or ‘it is most likely (or probable) that’ is, to use technical academic historical parlance, bullshitting.  I make this point because it is important that you bear it in mind in reading this series; most of what I will say about military matters represents no more than my best guess.  Although there are many and diverse sources with lots of snippets of information there are no surviving detailed classical narrative histories, although, infuriatingly, some were written (as we shall see in Part 5).  Actual data about battlefield tactics and military organisation are scarce in the extreme.  However, we also have archaeological data which, when (like the written sources) freed from being artificially hammered into the ‘Romans against barbarians’ framework sheds valuable light on the subject, although clearly there are many detailed questions about tactical usage, organisation and so on that it is not well-placed to answer.


‘Roman’ Forces

We are in a dark void between Ammianus’ description of the Roman army in the later fourth century and Procopius’ detailed account of the mid-sixth-century imperial forces.  We might assume that the fifth-century army was in the process of morphing from one into the other, though we cannot really know at what stage it was in the process, whether it was an even process, or even if our assumption is correct at all; there might have been a crucial difference between the eastern and western empires.  For the purposes of this series I will tend, nevertheless, to work on this sort of assumption.  We also have Vegetius’ Epitome of Military Science.  This is sometimes thought to be fifth-century but was more plausibly written c.390 and is not, in any case, as wargames writers often seem to think, a military manual.  It is a treatise written by an armchair military theorist, which we do not know for sure was ever used in practice by anyone.  Using Vegetius as a window on the late Roman army is vitiated as an approach by the fact that Vegetius himself is quite clear that he is describing how the army should be, not how it is.  Sometimes I think that using Vegetius’ writings to find out how the army was is a bit like to get a view of the British army in 2007 from letters to the Daily Mail by Major Buffington-Smythe (Army Pay Corps, ret’d) of Tonbridge Wells: ‘Things have gone to the dogs since we had a jolly old empire, don’t you know, when legionaries were big stout hearted fellows, not the namby-pamby shorties we have today who can’t carry a full load of armour, and when we didn’t have to fill out the ranks with filthy Johnny Barbar, hey what?  Why yes, perhaps I will have another gin.’  Vegetius is a useful source, with much to tell us and numerous invaluable snippets of information, but he is certainly not, as wargames writers often treat him as being, the Official Roman Army Manual or the Military Intelligence Handbook of the Late Roman Army.


The big historical problem about the fifth-century Roman army is, of course, how it disappeared.  Put bluntly, in c.400 there was a large regular army stationed throughout the west; by c.500 there wasn’t.  The civil wars and their effects discussed in Part 2 go a long way towards explaining the army’s disappearance but it simply cannot be the case that every single regiment ended up being butchered in battle (although presumably quite a few were), disbanded or redistributed among other regiments as a result, with the Empire unable to recruit or pay for replacements.  Possibly the best-known story about the fate of Roman units is contained in the Life of Saint Severinus, a holy man who lived in what is now Austria.  Here a unit (presumably of limitanei) on the Danube frontier realises that it has not been paid for longer than usual and sends some of its number to find out what is going on.  When the bodies of these men, killed by barbarians, wash back downstream the unit realises the Empire is over and disbands.  Such an option, returning to the life of farmers, was doubtless attractive to some troops, especially impressed provincials.  One wonders, however, whether it was viewed as favourably by the higher-quality fighting men of the field armies or the foederati.


In exploring the imperial army’s evolution into the forces that existed c.500 we must first look at the pay and rewards of late Roman soldiers.  These were paid by being ‘delegated’ a share of the tax due to the Empire from designated civilians.  Whether this was done by assigning individual troops to specific tax-payers (using the billeting system) or by assigning units, collectively, to particular areas, is unclear.  Either way, it meant that soldiers collected much of their pay ‘at source’, saving the Empire administrative effort.  In some circumstances a soldier’s heirs could inherit his delegatio.  On discharge troops were still entitled to a plot of land, now often allocated from the agri deserti (deserted fields).  Rather than being completely deserted, these were lands for which a designated tax-payer could not be identified.  This was a good wheeze for the government as, since troops had at least partial tax exemption, it entailed no loss of revenue.  Other important features of late Roman military service are that it was hereditary and that Roman soldiers lived under different law from civilians.


Putting all these facts together in a context of weakening central government and the passing of authority to regional factions allows us to see how a regular army might evolve into an army raised from a particular stratum of privileged landowners, whose estates were held in return for hereditary military service.  A soldier’s retirement plot could become the family’s ancestral inheritance.  The tax-payers designated to furnish support would remain in a sort of subordinate administrative ‘protection racket’ relationship; if they were unable to pay, their lands might be seized in lieu, turning them into the soldier’s tenants.  Officers could morph into warlords, with larger landed resources and perhaps still controlling the distribution of tax to warriors.  The sons of soldiers/warriors could still serve as the unit’s core, in the military officers’ household, as pueri (boys), earning their later entitlement to land or pay.


This hypothesis is based upon very late Roman legislation about the army and its terms of service.  It gains strength from consideration of ‘barbarian’ military settlers.  As far as they can be reconstructed (a matter of intense and bitter debate), the terms of barbarian settlement involved the same mixture of payment through the delegation of taxation and the granting of land on retirement.  A papyrus document from Valentinian III’s reign (423-55) refers to the ‘barbarian fisc’ inItaly: lands set aside for the settlement (or possibly whose yields were earmarked for the payment) of barbarian troops.  As these soldiers were largely defined by their ethnic identity it is perhaps unsurprising that their military status was hereditary.  They had similar taxation privileges to those documented for ‘Roman’ troops and lived under their own jurisdictions.


It is thus quite easy to see ‘Roman’ and ‘barbarian’ federate troops in the provinces evolving in the same way, in the same direction.  In connection with last month’s discussion of fourth-century ‘barbarisation’ and of fifth-century foederati, it is even easier to see how, in areas like Gaul or Spain, any difference between Roman and barbarian units would have been steadily eroded.  Romans were already used to enlisting in ‘barbarian’ units, to wearing ‘barbarian’ costumes and to playing ‘barbarian’ or ‘barbarised’ military identities off against civil Roman ones.  Western foederati had started to include non-barbarians as early as Honorius’ reign. 


In Part 1 I showed that the provincial Roman aristocracy’s demilitarisation after c.300 has been much overestimated.  During the fifth century it becomes ever clearer that such aristocrats were adopting military roles, usually as part of the armed forces of the regional factions discussed in Part 2.  Raising forces from their estates, they became another element of the land-owning military aristocracy.  This hypothesis is very much based on joining the dots of small snippets of information from widely separated sources, and is, naturally, not the only one possible.  Nevertheless it is based entirely upon those sources and does not involve explaining evidence away.  To my mind (unsurprisingly!) it allows us to see how the Roman regular army evolved into the forces that we see when we again have decent evidence, in the sixth century: raised from strata of privileged land-owners who, in most regions of the post-imperial West (Aquitaine being the principal exception), generally claimed a non-Roman identity, in opposition to the civil, tax-paying Roman population.  With the taxation systems and other logistical bases of imperial provinces behind them as well, fifth-century ‘barbarian’ armies were quite different prospects from the warbands of the fourth century.  The balance of military power between the Roman government and its ‘barbarian’ rivals had changed completely. 


So, when thinking of Roman units, outside Italycertainly and probably within the peninsula too, that’s probably how we ought to envisage them (in Britaintoo).  The key implication is that as the fifth century wore on, the ‘Roman’ army of the imperial government in  Ravenna, the ‘Gothic’ army, the ‘Roman’-‘Frankish’  army on the Loire, the Burgundian army in Savoy, or indeed the British or Saxon armies (south of the Thames) in lowland Britain were probably increasingly alike.  What implications does this have for armament and equipment?  The tactical difference (if any) between late Roman legiones and auxilia is unclear.  I doubt there was much difference at all, though it might still have been the case that the auxilia could operate in looser order with greater facility.  Low-grade units might have been tactically incapable of much more than close-order ‘block’ fighting.  Again, the evidence is vague but some later Roman units might have had a portion of light troops and archers within their ranks.  I suspect that this was reduced as time went on.  During the civil wars a number of units marched across the West (as we’ll see in Part 5) and were probably unable to recruit or train specialist replacements.  This might have been emphasised in the course of the evolution suggested above.  Equally, however, it could be that young recruits were given the ‘light infantry’ tasks under the command of experienced officers, and that their older counterparts did the bulk of the close-order fighting.  In the better documented (if still hardly brilliantly illuminated!) sixth and seventh centuries (and later) most warriors were spearmen but there are still indications that the bow was used and, in the sixth century, evidence of the continuing use of throwing weapons.  We might hypothesise that some (possibly younger) troops skirmished with bows and other missile weapons and/or used them overhead during close fighting.  The signs are that sixth-century warfare could still be quite fluid, involving fast-moving approaches to combat with volleys of throwing-weapons before combat – perhaps a continuation of late Roman tactics?  Later evidence from Gothic andLombardItaly suggests that the bow was the default weapon of warriors who could not afford a horse.


Most weapons known to use are of the usual sort – swords and spears.  Throwing axes are known from northern Gaul and England south of the Thames, where there are traces of continuing use of heavy javelins (now generally referred to as angones [incidentally, the correct singular form of angones is ango, not, as you will see in a number of wargames publications,[1] ‘angon’; angon is the French word]).


Another area where we can perhaps use sixth-century evidence (here from the Eastern Roman as well as western post-imperial armies) as a guide concerns mounted and dismounted warfare.  Western warriors tended, overwhelmingly, to be mounted – whether or not they always fought from horseback is another issue.  The reasons for this are not difficult to find: facility of transport, battlefield mobility and ease of flight, quite apart from the greater status afforded to horsemen.  The probably increasing resources available to post-imperial warriors might have made the acquisition of horses easier.  In Belisarius’ imperial army in Italy (less different from western forces than we are accustomed to believe), Procopius actually says that the Roman infantry had (for less than heroic reasons) copied their officers and acquired horses, requiring some effort to turn back into infantry![2]  My suggestion, therefore, is that we ought to think of a growing percentage of warriors with horses as the fifth century progressed, perhaps another reason for the disappearance of the vaunted Roman infantry.



‘Barbarian’ forces

The barbarians suffer worse from the lack of data, and this is compounded by a series of entrenched but erroneous and misleading assumptions.  As should have become clear, the discussion above, of ‘Roman’ forces, includes the generally barbarians settled within the Empire.  What concerns me now is the idea that there might have been traditional ‘Germanic’ or other tribal characteristics evident in some ‘barbarian’ contingents.  Part of the problem concerns the ridiculous idea that information can be transferred from one group of ‘Germans’ to another, regardless of date or place.  You will encounter absurd phrases like ‘the Germanic weapon-set’ on some web discussions.  The archaeology of barbaricum east of the Rhine and north of the Danube demonstrates considerable variation and change.  The supposition that all these people fought the same way because they (or at least some of them) spoke a Germanic language is ludicrous.  More so, therefore, the notion that there could be a monolithic ‘German influence’ on people.  All these ideas are grounded in nineteenth-century historical developments, without a speck of support in any actual data.  The written sources are hugely unreliable, for reasons discussed in Part 1.  Archaeologically, across the huge area between the Rhine and Scandinavia and between the North Sea and the Ukraine you will find all sorts of spears, swords, bows and arrows and other weaponry: much the same as in any other part of the pre-gunpowder world.  This evidence might yet have interesting things to say if analysed rigorously by time and place, rather than being thrown into the ‘Germanic’ melting pot, although there are obvious problems in the move from hardware to tactics.  Taken together it does not permit anything more than the blandest generalisation, such as that they were probably not horse-archers of the ‘classic’ Parthian or steppe nomad type, or (probably) heavily armoured horsemen.  Time, gentlemen please, to forget the ‘Germanic Warrior’.[3] 


Even if we assume that there were distinctive fighting fashions among particular groups (and even if we assume that we had sufficiently reliable data to know what these were if they did exist), we must ask how long these would last once a group was within the Empire.  It is rarely recognised that the great bulk of ‘barbarians’ involved in the fifth-century fighting across the Roman provinces were actually born inside the Empire, usually to Roman mothers.  Their fathers could, obviously, have taught them the traditional means of weapon-handling, but it is important to remember that the cultural milieu of ‘barbarians’ (that nebulous thing that in old-fashioned views is supposed to make all ‘Germans’ behave like ‘Germans’) was increasingly Roman.  What we know about the barbarians’ attitudes towards ‘Rome’ (admittedly little and weighted towards the social élite) leads us to think that they wanted to bring their offspring up as Romans, not to maintain some traditional, separatist tribal enclave.[4]  Added to that is the difficulty that any such group would have had in reproducing its numbers from within, necessitating the recruitment of outsiders.  All these factors, taken alongside the inclusion of units/warbands of ‘Roman’ descent surely led to a gradual homogenisation.  This supposition is strengthened by archaeological evidence, which does not show marked differences in weaponry (outside northern Gaul), and by the nature of the slightly better-documented armies that emerge from the fifth century, which are of essentially similar type across formerly Roman Europe.  This, I admit, will probably be viewed as bad news by many wargamers, who like their armies made up of a plethora of different ‘ethnic’ troop-types but I hope those who find fact stranger than fiction and are keener to base their games on history will find some interest in this.


This point is especially relevant to discussion of the supposedly ‘Steppe’ forces involved in the fifth-century wars: Alans and Huns.  Army lists, too numerous to list, often feature token Alan units in various armies of this period, usually as a mix of steppes nomad-style light horse-archers and heavy cavalry with lance and bow.  The Alans are a bit of a problem case.  Ammianus Marcellinus describes them in a passage soaked in Roman ethnography about nomads.  However, 200 years previously, Arrian had written a treatise on how to oppose the Alans, portraying them generally as charging cavalry, similar (as far as I can tell) to the Sarmatians.  Arrian’s proposed battle order aims to counter this rather than skirmishing horse-archery.  The Alans who wash up in the west were two generations removed from their steppe homes and many had served in the Roman army.  Even by the time of the battle in Baetica in 422 (Part 6), relatively few will have been born, or seen any real military service, outside the Empire.  Many were sons of Roman mothers, and possibly only half-Alan fathers.  Any fighting style based upon their steppes lifestyle will have been maintained with extreme difficulty.  It is likely that the closer terrain of the west led to some change in fighting style, too (if the Alans ever had ‘typical’ steppes nomadic light horse).  Roman armies included horse-archers, fighting in somewhat different fashion, in close order.  Thus, in the articles in this series I have assumed that the Alans evolved in line with much of the other cavalry alongside whom they fought.  In this they are not dissimilar to those faced by Arrian in the second century: close-fighting heavy cavalry but also armed with bows.  As the century progressed I assume that the percentage of horse-archers slowly declined although, since this sort of rear-ranks horse-archery is faintly attested in post-imperial Europe, I assume it did not die out completely.  Nonetheless, this does not make the Alans very distinctive.  By c.425 I imagine they would have looked much like all the other warriors in and around the Mediterranean area (see below).


And so we come to the dreaded Huns.  Everyone knows that the Huns were light horse-archers of the steppes nomadic type and the ultimate fur-clad savages: the illus(trat)ion of a Hun in the WRG Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome is a good example of the usual view.  This view is based upon literal use of some famous Roman descriptions and upon nineteenth-century ideas that made the Huns into a sort of ‘Yellow Peril’, destroying European civilisation (the fact that many of the most famous paintings of Attila and his hordes come from the time of the European scramble to acquire parts of China and the rise of Japan as a power to be reckoned with is not coincidental).  Other bases of this idea are more scholarly attempts to read the Huns in the light of the later, better documented Mongol armies or of ethnographic studies of modern Mongolians.  The actual foundations of this image are very insecure.  The most famous depiction of the Huns, that of Ammianus Marcellinus, is a patchwork of clichés that cannot be taken at face value.  Where he is not describing them in identical terms to those used for Alans and Saracens, he is borrowing stock phrases about ‘ultra-barbarians’ from the earth’s edges.  The celebrated description found in Jordanes’ Getica, it is worth remembering, was written 100 years after Attila’s death, and the point in any case is that he said that the Huns were kin of the Goths.  Deformed and wicked kin, but kin all the same.  It is a strong possibility that the difference between Huns and Goths, even in the last quarter of the fourth century, was not enormous.  There is no securely identifiable Hunnic archaeology.  The deformation of skulls, practised by some people on the steppe and often associated with Huns when found in western Europe, is in fact (surprisingly) attested in western European archaeology right through the period between the first century and the ninth. 


As far as the fifth century is concerned, we must commence by recognising that the core of Attila’s ‘empire’ was not out on the Eurasian Steppe, but in the Carpathian basin, much more wooded in antiquity than was the case later (or today).  This was not terrain that could support the sort of pastoral nomadic life-style that the Huns might have been used to in the steppes.  Descriptions of Hunnic settlements by contemporaries are not surprisingly of permanent dwellings.  One Hunnish noble had a bath house constructed for his use.  Another point worth bearing in mind is that the Huns were in essence a new political grouping that emerged in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Tervingian Gothic confederacy, destabilised by the Romans in 367-9, and as such incorporated a number of other ethnic identities.  As an example of this, most of the ‘Huns’ known to us, not least Attila and his brother Bleda, have Gothic names.  Attila’s Huns are not possible to distinguish, archaeologically, from the ‘Gothic’ cultures that succeeded them.  The leading men of Attila’s court of whom we are informed were of diverse origins, including some of Roman birth.  This is important: we should not envisage the Huns that terrorised the Empire in the mid-fifth century as the half-naked, fur-clad, horse-born savages portrayed in the famous paintings and illustrations.  They probably looked very different.


Even Hunnish armament and tactics are obscure.  The ‘famous’ horse-archery of the Hunnic cavalry is actually based largely on surmise and analogy.  The word that Ammianus uses to describe the weapon used in their fighting from a distance – iaculum – actually usually means a javelin, not an arrow, but then the fact that he describes them as tipped with bone (a set-piece in descriptions of ultra-barbarians) means we must take this account with a pinch of salt anyway.  The only clear association of Attila’s Huns with archery comes in Jordanes’ account (100 years after the event) of how the emperor Marcian had a prophetic vision on the night of Attila’s death, in which he saw the Hun’s bow broken.  Most of the ‘evidence’ for Hunnic horse-archery is indirect supposition, circumstantial and even circular.  For instance one argument runs that certain fifth-century Romans (Aëtius, Avitus, Valentinian III) are described as being good archers; this is then explained (quite unnecessarily) as resulting from the influence of the Hunnish horse-archers.  This is an entirely circular argument.   The evidence that the Huns were horse-archers in the first place is only provided by the supposition that these Romans were copying them. The same goes for the fact that the Roman cavalry was coming to place a heavier emphasis on horse-archery in the fifth century: the Huns were horse-archers because the Romans were copying them; the Romans must have been copying the Huns because the Huns were horse-archers.  I cannot find a single explicit statement that the fifth-century Huns were mounted archers.[5]


I make this point essentially as a word of caution, to show that some of the most cherished ideas concerning the warfare of the fifth century are not based on direct evidence and may well be quite erroneous.  Attila’s Huns might have included a significant number of horse-archers.  Most of the peoples to emerge from the Eurasian steppe have included mounted bowmen of some sort and that comparative argument must carry some sort of weight.  Whether, by the middle quarters of the fifth century most Hunnic cavalry was of this sort is, however, another issue.  The end of a truly nomadic existence must have had an impact upon the ability to train their horsemen in steppes nomadic tactics.  The Huns’ horse-archery may have gone the ‘Sarmatian’ way, as described above for the Alans: provided by heavily-armed horse, who could charge with lance or spear when required.  Their light horse might have come to resemble that of other people north of the Danube, more reliant on javelins.  The evidence we have does not even rule out the possibility that many Huns fought on foot.  The sheer extent of cultural mix among the Huns should mean that we allow these alternative options as at least as plausible as the idea that the Hunnic strike-force continued to be made up of steppes nomadic style mounted bowmen.  Indeed I think they are morelikely.

[1] Notably G. Halsall, ‘The Merovingian Franks.  Part 3.’  Wargames Illustrated 62 (Nov. 1992), pp.29-34.

[2] Wars 5.28.25.

[3] Not least the dismal Osprey volume of that name: a catalogue of errors (not differences of opinion: errors) from start to finish.

[4] There is a story that suggests a desire for Gothic education in Procopius’ Wars, but it is difficult to take seriously, being embedded in satire and Justinianic propaganda.

[5] Consult O. von Maenchen-Helfen’s account of the Hunnic bow in his The World of The Huns: Studies in their History and Culture (Berkeley, 1973), pp.00-000, and you will see that he cannot find a single such piece of evidence.  The best he can come up with is the account of Marcian’s dream.  Thus the seductively simple argument based placed on the decisive Hunnic bow in P. Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (Oxford, 2005), pp.000-000, falls on simple lack of supporting evidence.



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