Raising an army in Post-Roman Europe – The later fifth and early sixth centuries

The crucial period during and immediately following the final demise of the western Roman Empire is unfortunately badly served by written sources, so much of our discussion must be hypothetical, using the patchy fifth-century evidence and attempting to draw inferences from what appear to be remnants or survivals from this period in the sources of the sixth century. This method is far from satisfactory but a fairly coherent picture seems to emerge.


The Roman Empire had of course maintained a regular army throughout most, if not all, of its existence in western Europe, and continued to do so in the east (the so-called Byzantine Empire) for many centuries afterwards. From the period of the Tetrarchy (the period of reform, c.284–324, when the empire was, notionally at least, ruled by four emperors) military service became separated from the civil bureaucracy; territorial military commands (‘the Saxon Shore’, for instance) were established which were distinct from civilian administrative units. The army itself was divided into several types of troops, a gradation which came to replace the traditional division into legionaries and auxiliaries. At the core of the empire were the imperial bodyguards and other ‘palatine’ regiments. Then came the ‘praesental’ field armies (those ‘in the presence’ of the emperor) and after them the regional field armies. The troops of the field armies were known as comitatenses (companions). The troops on the frontiers were called limitanei (borderers) or something similar (ripenses – ‘river bank troops’ – for example). In line with the later Roman Empire’s usual workings, those troops further from the Empire’s political core (located wherever the emperor was) were more subject to the detrimental results of corruption, such as abuses by their officers. In the later fourth century, however, units of limitanei were still called upon and transferred to the field armies (becoming pseudocomitatenses), indicating that they must still have been considered capable of playing some battlefield role, even if only as reserves. The deterioration in the quality of the limitanei was, therefore, a slow process.

There are, however, no references to regular armies or regiments in the post-Roman states. What had become of the Roman army? It has been suggested that the reason the Roman Empire fell was that it was unable to keep paying its army and that the army therefore gradually disappeared, leading in turn to an increasing dependence upon barbarian federates and, eventually, to the disappearance of the Roman state itself. As an explanation for the whole problem of ‘the End of the Roman Empire’ this is unconvincing, for it leaves unanswered the necessary questions, either of why the western Roman state should simply no longer have been willing to pay its armed forces or, if it remained willing to pay the armies, of how it lost control of so much tax-producing territory that it was no longer able to pay them. Nevertheless, it does appear that, after the increase in size of the Roman armed forces during the Tetrarchy, recruiting within the empire became, unsurprisingly, more difficult, possibly leading to increased enlistment of barbarians. It seems, however, that most barbarians were recruited into the regular units of the army, particularly the field armies and palatine units, which gradually adopted an increasingly barbarian identity, perhaps to differentiate itself from the now more clearly separated civilian population. As the western Empire fell apart, from the end of the fourth century, the barbarian or ‘barbarised’ units and field armies became the focus for new provincial identities. Generals of barbarian origin, commanding ‘barbarised’ armies, became kings of peoples, and settled their followers in the territories they governed.

As a result of these processes, the relationships between the army and civilian society in the late Roman Empire formed the model for those between ‘barbarians’ and ‘Romans’ in the post-Roman world. The ‘barbarians’ (Goths, Franks, Lombards and, possibly, Anglo-Saxons) were the army and seem to have been exempt from at least certain forms of taxation, just as the late Roman army had been. In the same way as the army had been subject to its own laws and the jurisdiction of its commanders, the ‘barbarians’ were often also governed by particular law codes issued by their leaders, now kings. Consequently ethnicity became functional: ‘barbarians’ fought, Romans paid taxes. Conversely, there was also an ethnic nature to military forces. In northern Gaul, for example, ‘the Franks’ were the army, just as in Ostrogothic Italy ‘the Goths’ were the army.

How the barbarians were settled and paid has long been a matter of debate. Legislation and similar governmental material from Visigothic Spain, Ostrogothic Italy and Burgundian south-eastern Gaul, suggests that each ‘barbarian’ soldier was paid by being allotted a share of a particular estate: a third in Ostrogothic Italy; two-thirds in Visigothic southern Gaul and Spain; and a more complex arrangement, based upon two-thirds of farmland, in Burgundy. Traditionally it has been thought that these ‘thirds’ were actual shares of an estate’s lands. The late Roman army was quartered on the civilian population through what was known as hospitalitas, whereby a soldier was assigned to a civilian householder, who in turn handed one-third of his house over to the soldier’s use. The similarity in the shares of the house led to the supposition that this system was used to parcel out the estates and, indeed, there were references to barbarian hospites (guests) quartered on Roman landlords.

Overall we should probably not expect a simple, unified and unchanging system, and a single explanation is unlikely to work with complete plausibility in all cases and across the whole period of barbarian settlement. Whatever the exact details, however, for our purposes the main points are, firstly, that an armed force was able to be maintained at (to some extent) the state’s expense, providing the latter with an independent coercive force, and, secondly, that a form of professional, regular (or at least semi-regular, or, as we might today think of it, ‘reservist’) army existed in many of the states of the post-Roman West.

In Ostrogothic Italy, Theoderic used regular assemblies of the army as a means of displaying royal power and prestige. Such assemblies brought the ordinary Gothic warrior to one of the three main royal centres (Ravenna, Verona and Pavia), where they could be exposed to presentations of royal ideology. By rewarding the faithful and punishing those who neglected their duties he made these assemblies an important means of enhancing the prestige of royal favour, and undermining the authority of such Gothic magnates as were not dependent upon such favour for their social position. Frankish kings appear to have used annual assemblies, which seem to have taken place on 1 March (‘the Marchfield’) for very similar purposes throughout the sixth century. These gatherings, probably drawing their origin from the post-Roman peoples’ beginnings in the Roman army, were very important in maintaining the direct link between rulers and the broad-based rank-and-file of their armies, mediated only by royal officers.

How such an army was organised in detail is difficult to establish. There is no evidence of the survival of any individual regiment of the late Roman army into the post-Roman period anywhere in the west. Any units that did survive the ‘fall’ of the empire seem rapidly to have become subsumed in the general ethnic nature of the immediately post-Roman armies, that is to say that they became Frankish, Gothic or ‘Saxon’. This is most likely to be true of the units of the field armies, of which the ‘ethnic’ armies of the post-Roman period were the direct descendants. What became of the border troops, the limitanei, is less easy to establish. Eugippius’ Life of Saint Severinus contains a famous passage wherein a regiment stationed on the upper Danube in the fifth century realises that it has not been paid for longer than usual, and sends a number of its members to collect their overdue arrears; the latter are, however, killed by the barbarians. The unit deduces that the empire has, to all intents and purposes, come to an end, and disbands. Whether or not this story is apocryphal, its outlines may very well be quite typical of the fate of many border regiments nevertheless. Others may have transformed into warbands with their old commanders as warlords. Those which did will eventually either have been destroyed or disbanded by rival warbands or armies, or, if they could, joined the successful leaders, those who became kings. If so they too will probably have adopted the ethnicity of their leader.

There may have been occasional exceptions. Gregory of Tours mentions Taifali living in Poitou in the late sixth century. The Taifals were a people who had been neighbours and close associates of the Goths north of the Danube in the fourth century, and those who preserved this ethnic identity in Gregory’s day were probably the descendants of Taifals settled in the region during the late Roman or Visigothic periods. If so, they may well have been settled in return for military service, retained a military function in later periods, and continued to hold land in return for this, although it must be said that neither of Gregory’s references places the Taifals in an explicitly military context (though one refers to an uprising of the Taifals against their bishop). If this speculation is correct, they managed to retain their ethnic identity, rather than being subsumed into the ranks of the Franks. This exceptional survival may have been, firstly, because Taifal identity had previously been subsumed within a more general Gothic identity and surfaced only after the expulsion of the Goths from southern Gaul after 507; secondly, because their settlement was located on what had been the frontier between Goths and Franks in the late fifth century, and such identities tend to be kept longest on frontiers; and, thirdly, because the adoption of Frankish identity by the military and political élite in Poitou never became common. Furthermore, as will become clear, in matters of the raising of armies, post-Roman Aquitaine was rather exceptional.

In some areas, outside Italy, where the Roman aristocracy remained powerful, most notably in Aquitaine and Spain, it appears to have gained a military role. The ‘demilitarisation’ of the late Roman aristocracy has been much overstated. In the closing decades of the Western Empire, some aristocrats had indeed raised private armies and attempted to resist the expansion of the ‘barbarian’ kingdoms. It was not therefore an enormous step for them to take military commands within the post-Roman kingdoms. This was most true in the southern areas of Gaul, where the local nobility were serving in the Visigothic and Burgundian armies and in the Visigothic navy even when the Roman Empire was still in existence, and when other such aristocrats were defending its remnants. In parts of Spain, the local Hispano-Roman aristocracy raised troops from its estates and was able to maintain political independence or semi-independence until the mid sixth century.

It seems most plausible that the dukes and counts of a kingdom were responsible for maintaining and supplying the troops within their areas of jurisdiction, particularly the civitates or city-districts which had been the administrative building blocks of the Roman empire and which continued to be so in most of the post-Roman states (Anglo-Saxon England being the most notable probable exception). The troops would need to be parcelled out throughout the kingdom for much of the time to ease the collection of the yield from their tertiae (‘thirds’) in whatever form this took but this was not very different from the late Roman situation, when troops had similarly been billeted throughout the provinces. In times of crisis royal officers would call up the troops in their areas of jurisdiction and then bring them together into larger military commands, armies, usually commanded by duces (‘dukes’, another inheritance from the late Roman situation) if not under royal command.

The bodyguards of individual leaders formed a core element of immediately post-Roman armies. In the last days of the Western Roman Empire individual generals raised their own bodyguards of bucellarii (‘hardtack eaters’, a reference to the double-baked bread which hardened troops took with them on campaign), and post-Roman leaders apparently did the same. Bucellarii are mentioned by that name in slightly later Visigothic Spanish sources as the followers of dukes and counts and it seems very likely that they existed earlier. It would be surprising indeed if post-Roman kings and other leaders did not provide themselves with bodyguards. The Ostrogothic king Theoderic is said to have disbanded the old Roman guard units, which had become mere ‘show regiments’ of little military value, but Procopius mentions bodyguards surrounding the last Ostrogothic kings of Italy in battle. Although he uses the classical Greek word hypaspistai, it is likely that these guards were in reality called something like bucellarii. Bodyguards are mentioned by Sidonius Apollinaris as in attendance upon the Visigothic king, Theoderic. Some of these units may have been quite large, and formed a cadre of royal officers and other servants. Throughout our period, the royal bodyguard, at the palace, was where warriors, in addition to military training, were taught literacy and other governmental skills.

Thus, in the immediately post-Roman period we can trace transformations in the nature of the army, its methods of recruitment and payment, and its relationships with the state, but these nevertheless remained recognisable descendants of the late Roman system. The most important change would appear to be the end of distinct territorial military jurisdictions. As becomes clear by the later sixth century, the military territorial commands were those of the civil and religious administration, the civitates. There are occasional references to ducal commands, with military functions, on the frontiers but, at least by the time we know anything about them in detail, the duces in charge appear to have had civic jurisdiction in these areas as well. In Spain the Gothic kings seem to have maintained parallel hierarchies of civil and military offices, and armies were assigned to provinces, but these military areas corresponded with the civil units of province and civitas.

(Source: “Warfare and society in the barbarian West, 450–900”, by Guy Halsall)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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