Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.2.16

P. Southern and K.R. Dixon, The Late Roman Army. London: B.T. Batsford / New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Pp. xvii, 206. ISBN 0-300-06843-3.

Reviewed by Hugh Elton, Trinity College, CT.

Until very recently, there has not been a book in English on the late Roman army. Now we have two published in the same year. I wrote one; this is the other, by Pat Southern and Karen Dixon (SD).1 SD have written a book with a carefully defined subject matter. Very helpfully, in fact, they have given us two definitions of what they will do. They begin with: 'This book aims to bring together the evidence concerning the history, organization and fighting methods of the army' (ix), though a few pages later, 'it is intended to document the physical presence and appearance of the army from an archaeological and historical point of view. Lack of space precludes any in-depth discussion of methods of warfare or the tactics of particular battles' (1).

SD decided to use their second definition, so we get ten chapters covering Sources, the Development of Military Organization (The Third Century and Constantine Onwards), Recruitment, Conditions of Service, Equipment, Fortifications, Siege Warfare, Morale and The End of the Army; a very traditional approach to its subject. SD describe how the military machine was structured, but they do not describe what it actually did. It is as if one were to describe the tobacco industry in great detail without talking about smoking. This failure to deal with the realities of warfare, in favor of a focus on the minutiae of organization and archaeological survivals, accounts, I think, for the frequent neglect of military history as an important area of historical specialization.2 On the other hand, praise is due for the chronological period covered, stretching from Septimius Severus to Justinian. This is a tremendous advance on the way the subject has been handled previously, where the third and fifth centuries are often seen as black holes to be avoided at all costs. SD are to be congratulated for the breadth of approach taken here.

The execution is not up to the planning, however, and I felt little reassurance in the first few pages of text. My qualms began in the preface (ix), which blithely states that Jones' LRE is out of print. This is news, I'm sure, to Basil Blackwell and Johns Hopkins University Press who market it in paperback as well as hardcover. Over the page is a list of emperors that has been collated from two different sources. It includes Pacatianus, Jotapianus and Hostilianus for the third century, but the fourth century emperors Magnentius, Procopius, Magnus Maximus and Eugenius are omitted. For the fifth century there is no mention of Constantine III, John or Basiliscus, but Leo II gets an entry. Furthermore, the dates of Petronius Maximus are wrong and the unwary might think that Julius Nepos was assassinated in 475. Next is a table of significant events in which Septimius Severus' Parthian wars are mentioned, but the next Roman activity in Persia apparently comes under Valerian. Persian campaigns are mentioned in the fourth century only with regard to Constantine [sic] in 360, Julian and Jovian; there appear not to be any wars in the east after 364. Whatever view one takes of the seriousness of the Persian threat, this is an inadequate summary.

These criticisms may sound petty, but this book suffers from similar minor errors throughout. If we turn to the other end, in a secondary bibliography of ca. 230 items, I noticed 14 errors, while the list of primary sources and abbreviations is inadequate; 'Belgium' is not acceptable as a place of publication. But there is more than sloppiness and repetition (e.g., 33 on trans-Danubian earthworks, repeating 27, or 116 on 'fabricae' repeating 89-90). The book reflects very little of the authors' own opinions and instead, we are constantly reminded of the point of view of A.H.M. Jones (or, on some occasions, Grosse, van Berchem or Hoffmann). Then the opposing schools of thought are often laid out clearly, but no firm conclusion is given. Thus, at 31-2, there is an extensive discussion of legionary strengths. In the process, we learn what Duncan-Jones, Grosse, Jones, Mommsen, Seston and van Berchem thought, before being told that 'ultimately, the full complement of men in individual legions, vexillations, alae and cohorts, and whether or not they were split up between forts, is of purely academic interest' (cf 85 on marriages). The summaries of scholarship are useful, but no substitute for reading Jones, Grosse, van Berchem or Hoffmann themselves, and anyone studying this topic in detail will be reading them anyway. On the other hand, those who are starting with this work may find themselves confused by such questions and frustrated by the authors' indecisiveness.

Despite SD's great willingness to summarize modern material, the range of source material employed is a grave under-utilization of what is available. Not surprisingly, it is dominated by Ammianus and Procopius, but no use is made of Malchus who has much to say about the Gothic Wars in the Balkans in the late fifth century, or Dexippus, useful for the third century. Given that they start with Septimius Severus, Dio and Herodian get short shrift too. Although the Abinnaeus Papyri are used, the Dura material is dismissed since 'the detail about routine procedures is perhaps more applicable to the army of the early empire than it is to the late army' (3), a conclusion that would surprise those knowledgeable about the (barely mentioned) Nessana archive or the Panopolis Papyri.3 The Notitia Dignitatum is, rightly, described as a difficult source, but in terms of chronology more needs to be said than 'late fourth century'. Moreover, we are told that panegyrics 'cannot be taken at face value because of their overt and pronounced bias' (2), but 'the fourth-century Orations of Themistius strike a more reasoned note on the subject of the barbarians' (3)! Monumental evidence (e.g., the Arches of Galerius or of Constantine, Column of Arcadius) is almost entirely neglected. Inscriptions are frequently mishandled, e.g., the inscription in Fig. 6 survives only in the left part, but with no citation given (it is CIL 13.11537), this could fool the unwary. Similarly, ILS 2788, 2789, 2796 and 9213 are cited to record long service, but two record only the number of years lived, with no record of service lengths (87).

The selectivity in sources and the emphasis on Ammianus and Procopius has a second consequence. The chronological coverage, despite the initial claims, is tremendously uneven. Much is said about Diocletian, Constantine and the late fourth century, while at times the sixth century is well represented. Other major events are not. We get nothing on the Gothic wars of the fifth century, or the Huns, nothing serious about civil wars, naval battles, fighting the Persians. However, since the enemies of the Romans and their motivations are not seen as important (21), this does not overly concern SD. This refusal to engage with the historical context often affects their interpretations. For example, when discussing laws concerning recruiting, no attention is paid to the events that surrounded the issuing of these laws. SD point out that in 406 slaves were accepted into the army. This is described as 'by 406, all scruples about the unsuitability of slaves had been abandoned in the west, and the emperors were calling them to arms' (53). The fact that Radagaisus was threatening Italy at the time has been missed. But SD do know that slaves were only recruited in emergencies, mentioning this in reference to the recruitment of slaves to oppose Gildo's revolt in 397 (67, cf 179-180). Where they do provide history, it can be a mess. 'Constantius II [sic] withdrew troops from Britain in 407... The army was withdrawn from Spain in 411' (55). Quite apart from the egregious error and the refusal to comment on the Notitia Dignitatum, one wonders what to make of Honorius' letter to the Spanish garrison in this context.4 Similarly, at 53, we are told that western emperors never appointed a Germanic magister militum after 408, a mis-reading of the cited source (Jones, LRE 177).

I could go on, but I think you get the picture by now. However, given the lack until this year of a monograph in English on the subject, it is liable to be consulted often while its low price and impending paperback edition open the possibility of classroom use. What does it have to recommend it? Probably the most useful part of the book is the consolidated account in chapters 2 and 3 of the development of the structure of the Roman Army from the end of the second century to the sixth century. As an introduction, it shows clearly the steps in the creation of the field armies of the Late Empire. This started with the increased use of detachments of troops clustered round a campaigning emperor, a process which became more common from Marcus Aurelius to Gallienus. A second, Diocletianic stage, was that of returning most central troops to the borders, while a third stage, under Constantine, involved reconstituting field armies around emperors, later extended into providing regional field armies as well. Alongside the analysis of the structural changes, we also get occasional comments on fortifications, recruiting and barbarization, foreshadowing later chapters. This is a good introduction to the admittedly difficult problems, though students with no knowledge of the historical background may find this heavy going.

When the chapters on Recruitment and Conditions of Service arrive, they lean heavily on the legal evidence. However, they do this with no mention of two major challenges posed by this material, that the Codex Theodosianus and Codex Justinianus preserve only some of the laws issued, and that they reflected problems, not normality. Moreover, the use of this legal material means that the weight of the chapters falls on the fourth and early fifth centuries. There is little attempt to confront the fact that three centuries separated Septimius Severus and Justinian. The legal evidence is often patchy and inadequate, but this is no reason to ignore its difficulties, difficulties clearly discussed in the secondary literature.5 Thus, we are told that 'the Roman army suffered from a lack of recruits' (67). Since almost all of the evidence for this shortage comes from law codes, one wonders how true it might be. Moreover, ancient authors tended to complain that troops were not doing their job, not that there weren't enough of them.6 Refreshingly, the presence of barbarians in the army is not seen to have had disciplinary consequences or to have affected performance (69-71) (though SD's comments here are a little at odds with their later comments in the chapter on Morale).

The chapters on Equipment, Fortifications and Siege Warfare (i.e., Siege Equipment) are adequate, while the text is strengthened by a large number of illustrations which really help our understanding. As with other Batsford books, many of these illustrations are line-drawings rather than plates. These have the advantage of clearing up details, but often remove the context of the item. It is good to see a clear discussion of the availability of armor in the period following Gratian, correctly contradicting Vegetius (1.20), though Ammianus cannot be cited in support of a proposition that armor was used (98), since his subject predates Gratian. SD's analysis, however, often seems determined by what has survived, rather than by the intrinsic importance of the material. This is particularly true in the chapter on Equipment. Of the 38 pages on equipment, seven-and-a-half concern long swords, though more than six are concerned with scabbard fittings and how the sword might be hung. There is no discussion of the dating of most of this equipment (the fire arrow shown on 156 is probably second century), the scale of issue, or of any difference between cavalry and infantry equipment. Nor do specialized troop types receive any mention. One of the more hotly debated topics of Late Roman Military History is that of 'cataphracti' and 'clibanarii', but these are not described anywhere. Likewise, 'lancearii' are ignored and no mention is made of the interesting finds from Apamea.7 For the subject of equipment, this is an adequate introduction, but Bishop and Coulston's recent 'Roman Military Equipment' (London, 1993) is to be preferred.

The penultimate chapter, The Morale of the Late Roman Army, has considerable potential and I devote so much space to it because this is the most original and thought-provoking chapter of the book. It looks at morale by focusing on four topics, cohesion, discipline, leadership and war-weariness. Although promising, the approach is weakened by treating the Late Roman period as a single bloc although it was a body of perhaps 400,000 men, scattered over the Mediterranean on several different fronts, over three centuries. The working method is a comparison of modern authors to a number of anecdotes from our sources. Bafflingly, John Keegan's classic, 'The Face of Battle', is not mentioned. Their approach, however, suffers from the same weakness as the chapters about Recruitment, etc. Although military performance is discussed, SD's refusal to engage with the history of the era makes this a difficult problem to follow. Furthermore, the lack of surviving battlefield accounts (essentially Ammianus and Procopius) means that what we do know about battlefield performance is often shouted down by the large numbers of negative comments, especially those of Libanius' speeches.

In their discussion of cohesion, SD recognize the importance of fighting spirit in the effectiveness of any army. SD do make some good points, e.g., that an effective army can be built of differing nationalities, but these peek out from a landscape of misunderstanding the literature. They assert that there would be a great difference between so-called Europeans (Romans and Germans) and Asiatics Huns (169). This may be true, but it cannot be supported in the way that it is here, by mentioning a survey of a regiment of troops still in the US in WWII, i.e., before they were shot at, about whether they would like to kill Japanese or Germans. Likewise, they quote a 1948 study on 'Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht', which they argue shows that 'where various ethnic groups are intermixed, there was, however, a detrimental effect on cohesion' (169). But SD's source, Shils and Jonowitz (285) says: "In the Wehrmacht, desertions and surrenders were most frequent in groups of heterogeneous ethnic composition in which Austrians, Czechs and Poles were randomly intermixed with each other. In such groups, the difficulties of linguistic communication, the large amount of individual resentment and aggressiveness about coercion into German service, the weakened support of leadership due to their inability to identify with German officers -- all these factors harmed the formation of cohesive groups." This seems to me to be far from the description by any author, ancient or modern, of the incorporation of barbarians into the late Roman army. I do not think it can bear the weight SD place on it. Nor am I certain whether the Late Roman Army really did keep units ethnically distinct, as suggested here (169, though contradicting 51).

Discipline is their next area of concern. SD start with Adrianople, where, according to Ammianus, 'barely a third of the army survived' (AM 31.13.18). A catastrophe, but it is hard to see how important it is, unless one guesses at how many men were in the army as a whole, who died at Adrianople, or what happened next, issues not pursued by SD. Nonetheless, they analyze the situation confidently. After 378 there was 'little respite in which to repair the damage' (171) suggesting that it took decades, not weeks or months, to rebuild armies. This might be an interesting topic to follow up -- Vegetius (2.5) suggests basic training should take four months, similar to modern armies. For SD, following MacMullen, part of the blame for the supposed disciplinary failure falls on the practice of basing troops in cities, troops who were then more vulnerable to corruption. Now, I could cite instances of poor discipline by early imperial soldiers (Juvenal, Satire 16; Apuleius, Met. 9.39-40) or the dissolute behavior of early imperial troops based in cities, (Tacitus, Annals 13.35; Fronto, ad Verum 2.1.19), but what would that prove? Instances of poor discipline are easy to show in the army of the late empire, but a connection between disciplinary problems and poor battlefield performance needs to be proved. To take one modern example, the Soviet army of 1944-1945 had an appearance of tremendous indiscipline, and accounts of their treatment of Germans are often horrifying. Yet no author suggests that they were any less effective as battlefield soldiers because of it.8 In the case of the late Roman army, poor battlefield performance needs to be argued for, though this facet is missed by SD's refusal to talk about combat. They also suggest that barbarians were not subject to the same discipline as Romans, but it would have been nice to see some discussion of Belisarius' impalement of two Massagetae for public drunkenness in Africa (Procopius, Wars 3.12).

The next section, on leadership, is more successful. A number of instances of poor Roman leadership (here defined as corruption) are mentioned, then contrasted with other examples of inspiring leadership. As with discipline, more historical perspective might have helped, since the early imperial army suffered similar problems, but is rarely criticized for it. Lastly, in this chapter, the section on 'war-weariness' is severely misconceived. Although moments of ancient warfare were terrifying, the strain cannot be compared to that of twentieth century warfare. To suggest that the daily battering undergone by allied units in NW Europe in 1944-1945 was remotely comparable to any ancient campaign is laughable.9 Again, SD's sense of context is weak. 'During prolonged periods of active service, late Roman commanders were faced with the extremely difficult task of maintaining control over groups of deeply demoralized troops' (177). Keeping an army which is not engaged in a war ready for one is hard, but I can't see how this differed from the problems faced by early imperial officers or modern army officers in Cold War Germany. Like discipline and leadership, these are not problems faced only by the Late Roman army. SD conclude by noting 'what is utterly remarkable about the army of this period is the fact that the men stood and fought at all' (178). Since troops did fight, maybe there is something wrong with SD's analysis.

Reviews should end with conclusions, so here are mine. For a one-volume modern study in English, this is a reasonable attempt (far better than Ferrill's The Fall of the Roman Empire: the Military Explanation), but by no means is it a definitive work. For academics, it is only a starting point, and they will (and should) move on quickly. Students and general readers will probably find the whole very disorienting, given the minimal attention paid to chronology and historical explanation in the text. Teachers will dislike the way three centuries are often homogenized into a single period and will be irritated by the numerous basic errors. Military historians will be disappointed by the focus on things, not on how the army did its job. But despite all this, I suspect it will be a popular work.


1. Elton, Hugh, Warfare in Roman Europe: AD 350-425 (Oxford: OUP 1996); I have avoided making any direct comparisons with my work and leave that to others.

2. Goldsworthy, A., The Roman Army at War: 100 BC - AD 200 (Oxford, 1996), 1-11; Griffith, P., Battle Tactics of the Western Front, (New Haven, 1994), Appendix 1: Some Limitations in the University Approach to Military History.

3. Nessana Archive, ed, Kramer, C.J., Excavations at Nessana, vol. 3 (Princeton, 1958); Panopolis Papyri, ed. Skeatt, T.C., Papyri from Panopolis (Dublin, 1964) and note R.P. Duncan-Jones' revisions of his own work on the Panopolis Papyri in Structure and Scale in the Roman Economy (Cambridge, 1990), 105-117; his conclusions are not universally accepted.

4. Jones, LRE 1106n44; Sivan, H., 'An Unedited Letter of the Emperor Honorius to the Soldiers', ZPE 61 (1985), 273-287; PLRE 2: Sabinianus 2.

5. Harries, J. and Wood, I.N., eds., The Theodosian Code, (London, 1993).

6. N.b. Finley's devastating review of Boak in JRS 48 (1958), 157-164; recently, Whitby, Michael, 'Recruitment in Roman Armies from Justinian to Heraclius', The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East 3: States, Resources and Armies, ed. Averil Cameron (Princeton, 1995), 61-124.

7. lancearii, Balty, J.C., 'Apamea in the second and third centuries AD', JRS 78 (1988), 91-104.

8. E.g., Ryan, C., The Last Battle (London, 1966); cf. recently, Wheeler, E., 'The laxity of Syrian Legions', in Kennedy, D.L., ed., The Roman Army in The East (Ann Arbor, 1996), 229-276.

9. E.g., Belfield, E. and Essame, H, The Battle for Normandy (London, 1965), 165-178.