The barbarization of the late Roman army, a fatal error or inevitability?

When looking into the transformation of the LateRoman field army you have to look at the society which formed it and which itprotected. Roman society was not something that was unique in fact almostnothing about it was unique. The Romans had always assimilated the culturesaround them a prime example of this is when the Romans took the Greek conceptof democracy and re-interpreted it and used it as their own. The Romans alsoretrofitted the Greek religion keeping the myths and legends the same butsimply just changing the names of the Gods, Zeus became Jupiter and Poseidonbecame Neptune and so forth.  Rome wasmoulded by her interactions with other cultures from the Gaelic invasion of the4th century BC to the Punic wars right up to the Third Century Crisis,with each event changing her society and her military.

So then, it should comeas no surprise that when the Roman empire stretched from the moorsof Scotland to the deserts of Iraq that it would see some change on a social level.When someone reads the word ‘barbarization’ theywould register it as having a negative connotation  The real allure to join the Roman army for manybarbarians during this period was the prospect of material wealth and power[1]. Many of these people weremigrating from their homelands due to either climate change or external forces(i.

e. the Huns) this made the Roman Empire seem like the ideal place to settle.By the third century Rome was forced to realisethat it faced a fundamental shift in the way it conducted war, Rome could nolonger pick and choose where it fought, Rome was no longer the instigator.Instead, it now simply reacted to aggression instead of being the aggressorwith most campaigning happening within Rome’s own borders[2]. Rome’s policy of frontierdefence had changed drastically over time, it went from a static line of forts positionedall along the frontier with watchtowers placed in-between each fort at regular intervals.

The idea behind this was that with the forts and their large garrisons thatthey would be able to deter and repel any incursion by a barbarian tribe. Bythe 4th century this had changed radically for now the policy hadchanged from that of a static line to a defence in depth, this meaning thatinstead of stopping any attempt of an incursion at the border the army wouldallow the attacking force to advance unhindered into Roman territory forcing itto move further away from its supply line and giving the army more time tomobilise a counter attack. However, this new plan had disastrous consequencesfor the people of the Roman countryside since the barbarians were given freereign until the army could arrive this meant that entire towns, villages andfarms were ransacked. Recruitment during this period was difficult since the new strategy of elasticdefence/defence in depth which was successful in repelling the barbarian incursionsallowed them to destroy much of the provinces that they raided creating ashortage of manpower and damaging tax revenue. This led to the recruitment ofresettled barbarians into the army this reliance on barbarian troops onlybecome more common as time went on, this peaked during the fifth century withan increasing reliance upon barbarian federateswhich significantly changed the Roman military. Following the disaster atAdrianople, increasing numbers of less than reliable federates began to fillthe military ranks. So, when Germanic barbarians invaded in 406AD Rome wasunable to use its field army since it was made up of primarily of Germanic federates[3]  One of the main reasons why Rome adopted this newpolicy was because the government had great difficulty in paying its soldiersand recruiting new ones from within the Empire [4] this meant that duringthis period Rome did not have the ability to field a standing army or man fortsall across the frontier as it had done during the time Hadrian.

It was at this juncture that the Imperial governmentbegan to grant certain barbarian tribes such as the Danubin tribe of Sciri[5]land within the Empire alongthe frontier. This move allowed the Imperial government to resettle lands thatwere abandoned due to the raiding and also gave them a new source of soldiersfor the army. Bythe late 4th Century the Roman people had lost their martial spiritthus they became somewhat alienated from the armed forces no longer seeing itas a worthwhile career. This shift in public option meant that the governmentwas forced to rely more and more on barbarians to fill the ranks of the army.However, this alienation worked both ways with the armed forces becoming lessand less Italian meaning that the citizens begin to see the army as somethingforeign, but this had the same effect on the army who began to see the publicas something alien[6].Underthe Emperor Hadrian Roman troops stationed on the frontier were forbidden fromcultivating the surrounding land ‘for fear that through the desire ofcultivating the soil they may be withdrawn from military service’. Also, iftroops were stationed in a city they would erect a cross wall in order to reinforcethe separation between the civilian and military life.

All of this helped tocreate a very clear line that defined the role that the military played inRoman society. However, under the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus thesepolices were reversed the idea behind this was that this would make the armymore self sufficient with soldiers now being able to farm the land, own cattleand trade. By throwing away army discipline the army turned into anadministrative machine with soldiers being used as clerks and centurions beingused as a kind of police force, this lead to men serving their 25 years as penpushers not soldiers. The army was now involved in a multitude of civilactivities ranging from policing to engineering but not war, this began to blurthe once clear line between the professions of war and peace[7].Theperiod 305-313AD was marred by almost continuous civil war within the RomanEmpire making it a fixture of everyday life for Romans[8]. Keeping this in mind wecan now better understand why during this period that Roman generals andemperors decided to so willingly recruit barbarians en-masse, with law codesshowing us that these mass recruitment drives usually took place when manpowerwas at a premium[9].Throughoutthe history of Rome, the barbarian was always viewed with contempt and disgustfor its lack of civilitas but its often one redeeming feature was its ‘strongmartial tradition’[10] making them ideal soldierssince they would require minimal training.romanarmy training Romanised its recruits TheGerman people through generations of war had become born professional fightersso much so that even Roman society acknowledged their martial prowess even tothe point where it was considered a compliment to have ones fighting capabilitylikened to that of a German[11].

Itwas during this time of civil wars, usurpations, unstable governments andexternal incursions that the army of late antiquity was forgedTheadoption of pants was not just a change in military life but also civilian lifeas well Itwas at this point that the army had begun to become less and less Italian andalso began t move away from being a citizen army[12].Duringthese turbulent times the Roman army was the only thing that safeguarded theempire for despite numerous civil wars it was able to successfully repelexternal threats[13].Soonconscription became a form of taxation and this would have serious ramificationfor the economy of the Empire since if all able-bodied men were in the army whowould work the farms? This is where the barbarians come into play.

During timesof war provincial governors would be told to raise troops for the army or in timesof crisis be told to provide troops instead of gold as tax, this would create ahuge problem for when the governor would gather troops he was pulling men outof the economy thus lowering food production and tax revenue. There is evenevidence of local landowners refusing to send men in response to the call upeven during times of crisis[14]. With the introductionthe new barbarian settlers the Imperial government saw an opportunity, they barbarianswould provide troops as a form of taxation thus alleviating the pressure on landownersto provide men for the army.

This idea of recruiting soldiers from barbarian tribeswas most certainly not a new idea by late antiquity in fact Emperors had beenusing defeated tribes as a vital resource for their armies for a long time, butthis was different this time the barbarians were doing this voluntarily sincethey saw this as the price for being a Roman citizen. With the increasing usageof barbarian soldiers in regular units meant that now these federates werequickly becoming the decisive factor in Roman armies[15] Throughout this period, a trend developed where large numbers ofauxiliary troops served to help the regular army deal with threats. By 235, atleast 400 of these units served the empire and they played a significant rolein defending against these near constant invasions. These auxiliary units wouldhave strongly supplemented the 33 legions known to have existed in 235.

Inspite of these additional military units, it does not appear that adequate troopswere always available to deal with barbarian incursions even in the heart ofprovinces. This was especially true if large incursions occurred on multiplefronts at the same time. The collapse of the frontier between the Rhine and theDanube by the year 260 took place during a time of massive pressure in theeast, as Persian Emperor Shapur captured Antioch in 256. An additional seriesof raids by Germanic peoples into Gaul in the 270s led to the sacking of nearly60 towns, including Paris.

While the Roman military was badly battered duringthis period of crisis, it still retained its ability to win substantialvictories and this allowed the army, and the empire, to survive through theThird-Century Crisis[16] To placate these invaders and maintain some semblance of control, Romanemperors continuously gave invaders large tracts of land to settle on within theRoman Empire in exchange for service as federates. The settlement of Gothictroops in Aquitania is a prime example of this. These federates did not payimperial taxes, which only further strained imperial resources and led to afurther dependence of federates for military support[17].[1]Donald Kagan ed, ‘The End of the Roman Empire, J.B Bury, ‘Decline andCalamities of the Empire’, p.

25[2]Philip Sabin, Hans Van Wees, Michael Whitby, ‘The Cambridge History of Greekand Roman Warfare’ Vol II, p.310[3] JustinOtt, ‘The decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire’[4]Ibid p.296[5]Ibid p.

298[6]Richard S. Cromwell, ‘The Rise and Decline of the Late Roman Field Army’ p.2[7]Ramsay MacMullen, ‘Militarism in the Late Empire’ p.88[8]Averil Cameron,’ The Later Roman Empire’ p.133[9]Ibid p.147[10]A.D.

Lee, ‘War in Later Antiquity, A Social History’ p.84[11] Warand society in the Roman World p.275[12]Brian Campbell, ‘The Roman Empire’ p.227[13] BrianCampbell, ‘The Roman Army 31BC-AD337’ p.231[14]War and society in the Roman World p.274[15]War and Society in the Roman World p.267[16] JustinOtt, ‘The decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire’[17] Ibid