The “barbarization” of military identity in the Late Roman West

Here we present selected parts of the very informative paper titled “The last legions: The “barbarization” of military identity in the Late Roman West“, by Vedran Bileta.


“The Late Roman army was an immense organization, with around 400,000 men under arms in the fourth century (Elton 1998:192). Reading the late fourth-century document known as the Notitia Dignitatum, one can learn that while unit sizes did become smaller, there were more units, widespread along the imperial limites (Seeck 1876; Hoffman 1969; Kulikowski 2000). Its sheer size and its unique position in the imperial system made the Roman army an important element in the social construction of the Roman identities. Due to the nature of “Romanization”, for an individual or a community becoming Roman was not achieved by forced assimilation, but rather through a remarkably flexible cultural system that was unthreatened by the persistence of distinctively local customs and conventions, but which had a great capability to assimilate foreigners while at the same time facilitating the reception of foreign cultures. The flexibility of the cultural system meant that the Romans did not lead a one-sided discussion with outsiders, rather it made it possible for the other side to join – in the words of Greg Woolf – “the insider’s debate”, allowing for the preservation of specific identities (Woolf 2000: 11).

The palpably multiethnic character of the Late Roman army facilitated any soldier’s integration into the imperial system. As any other layer of identity, “Roman” ethnicity should be seen as a rather fluid and dynamic concept, which could allow for a considerable degree of flexibility, resulting in the simultaneous existence of multiple identities that could change depending on circumstances (Amory 1997: 14). Descent clearly did not determine political allegiance, and ethnicity did not play a large role in establishing “Romanness”. The extension of citizenship in 212 AD further facilitated the integration of foreign populations into the Roman world in the fourth and fifth centuries, blurring the differences between “barbarian” soldiers and the traditional aristocracy (Matthisen 2006a: 1014-1015). Flavius Stilicho’s citizenship is specifically mentioned by his panegyrist Claudian, although one cannot state with certainty how precisely his citizenship was obtained (Claud. De cons. Stil. 3.180-181). The sharp division between the military and civilian offices following developments in the third century, as well as the redefinition of the Roman manly ideal, only further obscured the distinction between “barbarian” and Roman. Imperial service, including service in the army, came to be a new vehicle for an individual to present himself as a proper “Roman”. The visibility and distinction of the army from the civic sphere was further enhanced by the former’s distinctive, ceremonial, dress and privileges (Coulston 2010: 463-492; Coulston 2004: 135-152). The military aristocracy intermarried with both the imperial family and barbarian leaders, to the extent that the conduct and culture of this type of elite cannot be categorized by traditional Roman/non-Roman ethnographic classifications (Whittaker 1994: 243-278). The cosmopolitan and meritocratic nature of the Roman army allowed the “barbarian” to blend in, unrelated to his origin or pre-military social status, and to ascend to the higher rungs of the imperial administration’s ladder by relying only on his accomplishments and skills. Nevertheless, in a society as complex as that the Roman Empire in its waning years, his “barbaric” origin would not be easily forgotten.*

*(The soldier’s isolation from the educated civilian circles and his warrior pedigree could serve as a powerful device, as a link to an emperor of military origin or as a connection with other military officers of non-Roman stock. Furthermore, some facets of barbarian identity could be employed when competing with non-military elites of the Late Empire. Thus, we see imperial barbarian commanders using their office bestowed by the emperor to promote themselves both within the empire, as high ranking military (and political) leaders, and at the same time travelling back to non-imperial territory, where Roman status assured them a high place in “barbarian” society. Such is the case with Vadomarius, king of the Alamanni, Gabinius, king of the Quadi, and Macrianus, also a king of the Alamanni. They all used Roman aid to reinforce their power in the barbaricum. See, respectively: Amm. 21.4.3; 29.6.5; 18.2.17. See also, Lee 1993: 71. However, it was not easy for a “barbarian” general to maintain his high status in both the Empire and the “barbaricum”. As Ammianus tells us, when blamed for usurpation against his emperor, Silvanus briefly contemplated escaping to his own people, but decided against it, after he received notice that his own fellow-countrymen would kill him, or turn him over to the emperor. Amm. 15.5.6.)

Through the eye of the beholder: “miles” et “barbarus”

The “barbarian” recruits manned the army in large numbers and shed blood for the Empire. However, the Roman civilian elite continued to look upon the “barbarians” through the smoked glass of Graeco-Roman tradition.

By the fourth century, the gap between that idealized mirror image of a docile, uncivilized and weak barbarian and reality became even wider. The “simple” Germani of Tacitus were replaced by formidable political entities with coherent social hierarchies, with no small Roman agency involved (Whittaker 1994; Heather 1996: 51-95; Elton 1998: 15-89). That inferred a varied and much more subtle foreign policy, based on negotiation with barbarian client kingdoms, rather than the policy of total cultural and military domination usually presented by imperial propaganda. The break with the idealized image of the barbarian arch-enemy was particularly striking when Romans and barbarians fought other Romans – during the civil wars, which were commonplace in the fourth century.

The Late Roman army made use of barbarian contingents and employed their warlike qualities to strengthen its frontier forces. But for the purposes of imperial propaganda, the use of barbarians proved to be an extremely useful way to discredit the defeated opponent. As “barbarians” were unable to live under the law, anyone who (in eyes of the imperial government) refused to live according to the law (brigands, bandits) was assimilated into the barbarian category. This could also be applied to any unrecognized authority.

There is one more aspect of identity to consider, that of region and profession. The army, due to its location on the imperial periphery (along limites) formed its own, distinctive identities, which were gradually appropriated through the entire frontier zone. As the grasp of the centralizing and homogenizing imperial ideology weakened in the West, the distinction between “army” and “barbarian” became increasingly blurred, both rhetorically and in reality. In the late Empire, within frontier regions – always important recruiting grounds – “Roman soldiers” became scarcely distinguishable from “barbarian soldiers”. The words peregrini, and alieni, traditionally used to describe barbarians, now described “Romans” who lived on the limes (Nov. Theod. 4). On the other hand, barbarus became a generic term for denoting a soldier in addition to miles. In eyes of civilian elites – who had shifted their battles to the bodily plane – the martial culture and aggressive nature of soldiers and their inability to control their bodies made them potential threats to the “civilized” parts of the Empire, in other words, “barbarians”. Furthermore, certain military elements, such as elaborate military finery, particularly ornamentation, became associated with what was perceived as a barbarian custom. The lack of terminology differentiating between regular and irregular (or “allied”) troops in the fourthand fifth-century Roman army shows the flexibility of Late Roman military identity.

(In the Late Roman Empire) What mattered for one to be branded a “Roman” or “barbarian” was not his origin or even citizenship. Rather it was the status of individuals in the Roman imperial state, most of all loyalty to the emperor and the court, and perception of them by the educated senatorial elite.

“Barbarization” or “Romanization”

Soldiers of barbarian origin had indeed formed a considerable part of the Late Roman army.

Most of the military men in Late Antiquity came from rural areas, and were of a humble origin and could continue using their own non-Roman names. On the other hand, what appears to be a traditional Roman name may actually be the name of a Romanized barbarian. The work of Ammianus Marcellinus is full of such examples, featuring fully Romanized generals who had little or nothing to do with their former compatriots on the other side of the border. Roman generals Bonitus and Silvanus (father and son) were actually of Frankish origin (Amm. 15.5.33). Flavius Stilicho, a powerful general and politician, was disdained by the traditional Roman nobility because of his Vandal origin. One of the leading intellectual figures of that time, Jerome, called him semibarbarus (Elton 1996: 141-142).

Fravitta, Stilicho’s contemporary, was a general of Gothic origin, described by Zosimus as “by birth a barbarian, but otherwise a Greek, not only in habit but also in character and religion” (Zos. Hist. Nov. 5.20).

So, as Elton pointed out, relying on names alone is insufficient and faulty.

The proportion of non-Roman officers within the army did not increase over the given period (350s-470s) (Elton 1996: 145-152).*

*(Elton’s first conclusion was that less than one-third of the army officers were actually barbarian in origin. In his analysis of known names, out of 100 officers who had both Roman names and a stated ethnic or geographic origin, only eight were barbarians. Elton acknowledged that there may be a problem in his analysis, as there is a discrepancy between the number of barbarians holding the high office of the magister militum (higher than the average) and lower ranking officers. If this is the result of better evidence for higher ranks then perhaps the proportion of barbarians may have been higher. Nicasie similarly argued for a low number of barbarian officers in the imperial ranks. In the period under consideration (342-395), approximately a quarter of the known names are found to be of Germanic stock. Nicasie argued that at least until the battle of Adrianople more than seventy percent of the generals were of Roman origin. See Nicasie 1998: 102-103 See also Lee 2007: 84-85.)

The lack of source material makes it virtually impossible for a researcher to establish the ethnic composition of Late Roman units.

Previous scholarship used evidence on barbarian customs in the Roman army as one of the main arguments for the ongoing process of “barbarization”. Some of the more notable examples are the Germanic war cry – barritus, the raising of the elected emperor on a shield – Schilderhebung, and the adoption of supposedly Germanic battle formations such as the wedge – cuneus or caput porci. However, as Nicasie pointed out, it is very difficult to prove that the customs described in the sources were indeed of barbarian origin and that they can be interpreted as signs of a growing number of barbarians in the Late Roman military. On the contrary, they could be cases of nothing more than the adoption of customs that Romans found useful, as throughout history the Romans adapted what they saw fit for military purposes (Nicasie 1998: 114-115).

Romans had a long tradition of hiring foreign soldiers. If the Romans needed more troops, an easy option would be to look beyond the imperial borders. The third-century crisis, however, led to increased demand for military manpower, particularly for recruitment beyond the frontier (Cameron and Long 1993: 199-233; Whitby 2006: 7; Speidel 1975: 203). Besides recruitment of individual barbarians, sometimes entire barbarian tribes were settled in border areas in return for frontier defence. This allowed Roman soldiers to serve elsewhere (Nicasie 1998: 88). However, recruitment itself acted as a powerful agent of “Romanization”. Through the induction rituals, such as an imperial oath, and participation in a unit’s institutional life, a specific esprit-de-corps was fostered among fellow soldiers. Further incentives, such as regular pay, promises of booty, and the possibility of achieving the highest ranks in imperial society only further cemented a soldier’s loyalty.

Then why did the Late Roman military require an increased influx of “barbarian” personnel? The older assumption that military service had become increasingly unpopular amongst fourth-century Roman men of all classes has recently been challenged as well (Lee 2007: 84-85). Recent studies argue that the number of deserters from the Roman military in the fourth and fifth centuries was not significantly greater than in earlier periods (Williams and Friell 1998: 211; Lee 2007: 82-83; Williams and Friell 1998:211). The evidence is at best confusing. The selection of texts preserved in the Theodosian Code is generally considered as a whole, but they should be differentiated. The earlier set – the laws dating to the reigns of Valentinian I, Valens and Theodosius I – do leave an impression of coherent management of the recruitment process for the standing army. The other set contains ad-hoc responses to the specific military crises in the Western part of the empire and does not seem to be applied empire-wide, as was the case with most of the preceding examples. One can find evidence of desertion in the laws, and of measures employed by the imperial authorities to counter it. But the laws show the remarkable resilience of the military recruitment system in an empire under pressure. The law that encourages the admittance of slaves into the army (406) stands in stark contrast to an edict issued 26 years earlier, which expressly forbids recruitment of slaves, members of disreputable professions or dishonourable occupations, cooks, and bread-makers.

The names of Late Roman units are quite different from earlier imperial names, as they stress qualities that are the very antithesis of classically-defined Romanness: animal names, ferocity, and fierceness (also animal qualities). The boastfulness inherent in these titles, usually reserved for the “barbarian”, does constitute a clear difference from normative Romanness, perceived by the educated civic elites. Thus, what is traditionally understood through the derogatory lenses of the “barbarization” of Late Roman military structures should rather be seen as the military adoption of a different discourse of Roman masculinity in a clear opposition to traditional “civic masculinity”.


The “barbarization” process of the fourth and fifth centuries significantly altered the Roman military. The influx of recruits of the foreign origin resulted in a change of tactics, weaponry and even the unit names. As the pressure at the boundaries mounted, and with the recurrence of the civil wars during the given period, the gaps in the army ranks were increasingly filled by the personnel of foreign stock. The process intensified in the fifth century as the traditional commanders-in-chief – the emperors – distanced themselves from their soldiers, opting for the relative security of the walled imperial capital at Ravenna. The role of the supreme military commander was taken over by the men like Stilicho – magistri militum – who used their military power base to assume control over the government as well. Although most of the “barbarian” military men were Romanized upon their entry into the service, the traditional enmity of the civilian elites continued, with the status of the military being constantly contested. At the same time, the Roman army appropriated the “barbarian” habitus, attempting to highlight its own, separate identities. The significant losses of imperial territory in the first half of the fifth century further limited military responses, resulting in fragmentation of the Western Roman polity in the late fifth century. However, as presented in the text, it is difficult to blame the “barbarization” process for this development. Instead of decline and corruption, the prominence of military men of non-Roman origin in the Roman army should be seen as strong evidence of a flexible Roman society, as another way of the Roman state maximizing its limited resources. The contribution of barbarian soldiers to military manpower and leadership strengthened the empire as a whole and ensured its survival into another century. Due to the nature of the Roman army and the flexibility of Late Roman military identity, the large numbers of foreigners incorporated into its ranks preferred to be Romanized rather than “barbarizing” the army in which they served. It could be argued that the very cultural mélange and continuous development within a single military organization was what made people “Roman” beyond a mere chronological and political epithet, unifying the Empire under the umbrella of the Roman military.”


NovoScriptorium: There are some very good arguments in this -revisionist- paper. No doubt about that. Nevertheless, our opinion -for a variety of reasons- is that ‘barbarization’ of the late Roman Empire Army still remains a key point of the Empire’s collapse in the West. Additionally, an analogous ‘barbarization’ of the Army apparently took place in the East some centuries later, in another form, leading the last remnants of the Roman dream in ruins, slowly and anxiously. As for the word ‘barbarian’, it has to be said that even though there is a strong point that ‘Roman identity’ in the later years before the ‘barbarian invasions’ was much less relevant to ethnicity than before, the surviving Eastern Roman State actually never stopped using the term in its more traditional way – even though ‘Romanity’ in the East was definetly not fanatically adjusted to ‘blood’ and ‘genus’, too.

We completely disagree with the statement:

The contribution of barbarian soldiers to military manpower and leadership strengthened the empire as a whole and ensured its survival into another century“.

The Empire was never ‘strengthened’ in such a way. On the contrary, the supposed ‘Romanized’ barbarians co-operated with their invading compatriots a few years later and led to the collapse of the Roman State in the West. Few were the exceptions among the ‘later Romanized barbarians’ that fought for the ‘glory of the Empire’. It needs to be added that the barbarians lacked much in military tactics and ignored the use of some crucial military equipement (e.g. siege machines). This is crystal clear until the 3nd century AD. Serving the Roman Army, they have learned stuff, that not very much later, their fellow people used against the Empire. It is true though that the West part of the Empire did not fall because of the ‘barbarization’; that would be an over-simplified view and statement. We are convinced that the countless civil wars constitute the main reason of the collapse in the West; if one studies the numbers of dead Romans in just a few of those battles, will realize how much military strength the Empire lost, why the ‘barbarian element’ rose -as a necessity- inside the 4th-5th century Imperial Army, and, finally, why the Imperial Army in the West ended up unable to resist the mass invading barbarians a few years later.

The author of the paper uses the following interesting footnotes:

“Traditional scholarship does argue for the existence of a “Roman” identity or “Roman” culture, which was imposed gradually through a process of Romanization, with Romans (and the Roman army in particular) as its main driving force. Ando 2000: 19-48. The concept of forced assimilation has been discarded by the concept of a flexible system of “Romanization” that required close cooperation from both sides. For the most recent interpretation, see Stouraitis 2014: 179. See also the footnote below.”

““Becoming Roman was not a matter of acquiring a ready-made cultural package, then, so much as joining the insider’s debate about what that package did or ought to consist at that particular time.” Thus, the Roman system should not be seen as a static one, but rather as the result of interaction between individual peoples and groups living together, both the “Romans” and “foreigners”, who shaped it over time.”

We can surely agree on the latter. Though we need to add that there has always been a Roman core, some core values, cultural, social, unchanged, regardless of time. This is very clear in the surviving Eastern Roman State. And last but not least, we need to add that this ‘plan’ seems to have worked under the ‘rule’ that the ‘true Romans’ are the majority of each ‘newly formed’ society (i.e. a society where ‘foreigners’ undergo ‘Romanization’). When a small population was accepted in Romanity, then, in most cases, the ‘experiment’ worked quite well, and the new populations were ‘Romanized’ without problems. E.g. we suppose that many people would be surprised to know that even a good number of Turks (from various tribes) were very well ‘Romanized’ in the Eastern Empire. The same ‘experiment’ was proved to be a failure when a ‘threshold number’ of people ‘entering Romanity’ was reached. Then, conflicts, serious and heavy, emerged rather than ‘Romanization’. Of course, the Imperial Army was the first to be influenced every time. When it ended up relying fully on foreign, ‘barbarian’ troops, then it was just a matter of time for the State to fall. Many Eastern Empire defeats can be easily attributed to the heavy ‘barbarization’ of its Army (Manzikert is a good example for this). As in the West, some centuries earlier, civil wars have firstly weakened the State -repeatedly- at very crucial and turbulent times.

Research-Selection-Comments: Anastasius Philoponus

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