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

When looking into the transformation of the Late
Roman field army you have to look at the society which formed it and which it
protected. Roman society was not something that was unique in fact almost
nothing about it was unique. The Romans had always assimilated the cultures
around them a prime example of this is when the Romans took the Greek concept
of democracy and re-interpreted it and used it as their own. The Romans also
retrofitted the Greek religion keeping the myths and legends the same but
simply just changing the names of the Gods, Zeus became Jupiter and Poseidon
became Neptune and so forth.  Rome was
moulded by her interactions with other cultures from the Gaelic invasion of the
4th 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 come
as no surprise that when the Roman empire stretched from the moors
of Scotland to the deserts of Iraq that it would see some change on a social level.

When someone reads the word ‘barbarization’ they
would register it as having a negative connotation

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The real allure to join the Roman army for many
barbarians during this period was the prospect of material wealth and power[1]. Many of these people were
migrating 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 realise
that it faced a fundamental shift in the way it conducted war, Rome could no
longer pick and choose where it fought, Rome was no longer the instigator.
Instead, it now simply reacted to aggression instead of being the aggressor
with most campaigning happening within Rome’s own borders[2]. Rome’s policy of frontier
defence had changed drastically over time, it went from a static line of forts positioned
all 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 that
they would be able to deter and repel any incursion by a barbarian tribe. By
the 4th century this had changed radically for now the policy had
changed from that of a static line to a defence in depth, this meaning that
instead of stopping any attempt of an incursion at the border the army would
allow the attacking force to advance unhindered into Roman territory forcing it
to move further away from its supply line and giving the army more time to
mobilise a counter attack. However, this new plan had disastrous consequences
for the people of the Roman countryside since the barbarians were given free
reign until the army could arrive this meant that entire towns, villages and
farms were ransacked.

Recruitment during this period was difficult since the new strategy of elastic
defence/defence in depth which was successful in repelling the barbarian incursions
allowed them to destroy much of the provinces that they raided creating a
shortage of manpower and damaging tax revenue. This led to the recruitment of
resettled barbarians into the army this reliance on barbarian troops only
become more common as time went on, this peaked during the fifth century with
an increasing reliance upon barbarian federates
which significantly changed the Roman military. Following the disaster at
Adrianople, increasing numbers of less than reliable federates began to fill
the military ranks. So, when Germanic barbarians invaded in 406AD Rome was
unable 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 new
policy was because the government had great difficulty in paying its soldiers
and recruiting new ones from within the Empire [4] this meant that during
this period Rome did not have the ability to field a standing army or man forts
all across the frontier as it had done during the time Hadrian.

It was at this juncture that the Imperial government
began to grant certain barbarian tribes such as the Danubin tribe of Sciri[5]land within the Empire along
the frontier. This move allowed the Imperial government to resettle lands that
were abandoned due to the raiding and also gave them a new source of soldiers
for the army.

By
the late 4th Century the Roman people had lost their martial spirit
thus they became somewhat alienated from the armed forces no longer seeing it
as a worthwhile career. This shift in public option meant that the government
was 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 less
and less Italian meaning that the citizens begin to see the army as something
foreign, but this had the same effect on the army who began to see the public
as something alien[6].

Under
the Emperor Hadrian Roman troops stationed on the frontier were forbidden from
cultivating the surrounding land ‘for fear that through the desire of
cultivating the soil they may be withdrawn from military service’. Also, if
troops were stationed in a city they would erect a cross wall in order to reinforce
the separation between the civilian and military life. All of this helped to
create a very clear line that defined the role that the military played in
Roman society. However, under the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus these
polices were reversed the idea behind this was that this would make the army
more self sufficient with soldiers now being able to farm the land, own cattle
and trade. By throwing away army discipline the army turned into an
administrative machine with soldiers being used as clerks and centurions being
used as a kind of police force, this lead to men serving their 25 years as pen
pushers not soldiers. The army was now involved in a multitude of civil
activities ranging from policing to engineering but not war, this began to blur
the once clear line between the professions of war and peace[7].

The
period 305-313AD was marred by almost continuous civil war within the Roman
Empire making it a fixture of everyday life for Romans[8]. Keeping this in mind we
can now better understand why during this period that Roman generals and
emperors decided to so willingly recruit barbarians en-masse, with law codes
showing us that these mass recruitment drives usually took place when manpower
was at a premium[9].

Throughout
the history of Rome, the barbarian was always viewed with contempt and disgust
for its lack of civilitas but its often one redeeming feature was its ‘strong
martial tradition’[10] making them ideal soldiers
since they would require minimal training.

roman
army training Romanised its recruits

The
German people through generations of war had become born professional fighters
so much so that even Roman society acknowledged their martial prowess even to
the point where it was considered a compliment to have ones fighting capability
likened to that of a German[11].

It
was during this time of civil wars, usurpations, unstable governments and
external incursions that the army of late antiquity was forged

The
adoption of pants was not just a change in military life but also civilian life
as well

It
was at this point that the army had begun to become less and less Italian and
also began t move away from being a citizen army[12].

During
these turbulent times the Roman army was the only thing that safeguarded the
empire for despite numerous civil wars it was able to successfully repel
external threats[13].

Soon
conscription became a form of taxation and this would have serious ramification
for the economy of the Empire since if all able-bodied men were in the army who
would work the farms? This is where the barbarians come into play. During times
of war provincial governors would be told to raise troops for the army or in times
of crisis be told to provide troops instead of gold as tax, this would create a
huge problem for when the governor would gather troops he was pulling men out
of the economy thus lowering food production and tax revenue. There is even
evidence of local landowners refusing to send men in response to the call up
even during times of crisis[14]. With the introduction
the new barbarian settlers the Imperial government saw an opportunity, they barbarians
would provide troops as a form of taxation thus alleviating the pressure on landowners
to provide men for the army. This idea of recruiting soldiers from barbarian tribes
was most certainly not a new idea by late antiquity in fact Emperors had been
using defeated tribes as a vital resource for their armies for a long time, but
this was different this time the barbarians were doing this voluntarily since
they saw this as the price for being a Roman citizen. With the increasing usage
of barbarian soldiers in regular units meant that now these federates were
quickly becoming the decisive factor in Roman armies[15]

Throughout this period, a trend developed where large numbers of
auxiliary troops served to help the regular army deal with threats. By 235, at
least 400 of these units served the empire and they played a significant role
in defending against these near constant invasions. These auxiliary units would
have strongly supplemented the 33 legions known to have existed in 235. In
spite of these additional military units, it does not appear that adequate troops
were always available to deal with barbarian incursions even in the heart of
provinces. This was especially true if large incursions occurred on multiple
fronts at the same time. The collapse of the frontier between the Rhine and the
Danube by the year 260 took place during a time of massive pressure in the
east, as Persian Emperor Shapur captured Antioch in 256. An additional series
of raids by Germanic peoples into Gaul in the 270s led to the sacking of nearly
60 towns, including Paris. While the Roman military was badly battered during
this period of crisis, it still retained its ability to win substantial
victories and this allowed the army, and the empire, to survive through the
Third-Century Crisis[16]

 

To placate these invaders and maintain some semblance of control, Roman
emperors continuously gave invaders large tracts of land to settle on within the
Roman Empire in exchange for service as federates. The settlement of Gothic
troops in Aquitania is a prime example of this. These federates did not pay
imperial taxes, which only further strained imperial resources and led to a
further dependence of federates for military support[17].

[1]
Donald Kagan ed, ‘The End of the Roman Empire, J.B Bury, ‘Decline and
Calamities of the Empire’, p.25

[2]
Philip Sabin, Hans Van Wees, Michael Whitby, ‘The Cambridge History of Greek
and Roman Warfare’ Vol II, p.310

[3] Justin
Ott, ‘The decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire’ http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1577&context=etd

[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] War
and society in the Roman World p.275

[12]
Brian Campbell, ‘The Roman Empire’ p.227

[13] Brian
Campbell, ‘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] Justin
Ott, ‘The decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire’ http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1577&context=etd

[17] Ibid