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The Late Roman Legionary - Armour or No Armour?

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    Posted: 12 Nov 2015 at 21:16

Vegetius, the late Roman writer, claims that the late Roman legionary did not wear armour in battle. A striking claim, and a much debated one. 

Grab a coffee and have a read of my take on it, here:
Gordon Doherty, Author - www.gordondoherty.co.uk
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote caldrail Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 13 Nov 2015 at 19:57
A curiosity then, because there is plenty of evidence for mail or scale armour both being produced and worn by late empire soldiers.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Gordopolis Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 20 Nov 2015 at 00:50
Absolutely. My conclusion is that Vegetius was well-meaning but ill-placed to make the assertion about a lack of armour (the article on my blog discusses this) - essentially when the late legions chose to NOT wear armour, it was for tactical reasons, not because they didn't have it.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote caldrail Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 21 Nov 2015 at 00:57
Well, on the other hand, whilst Vegetius was not a military man, he was around at the time and was well aware of the state of Romes legions, ie, not good. His book was intended to suggest using the best of past practises (which were not all used by all legions all of tim)to restore the might and glory of the ROman military. Also to please his Caesar in the process, though the work has had little practical effect despite some exaggerated claims for its influence.

It may well be that as the legions diversified in style toward the late empire (Ammianus mentions a unit armed with mattocks or hammers for instance) and that led to skirmishing or missile troops being left without protection. Bear in mind that the late empire soldiery were not well equiiped, motivated, or well led. The Roman military system had become a second rate career and not well regarded. Certainly the skills of fighting large set piece battles had been lost, but as Adrian Goldsworthy notes, they had a talent for low level warfare such as raiding and ambushes. Sebastianus recognised that in the adrianople campaign, rejecting to some degree the hopeless majority, and training keen youngsters to form a corps of advance troops that were quite effective against the Goths, and actually forced the Goths onto their back feet immediately before the big battle in 378.

We also have a mention of some shameless raids against peaceful German villages by troops swimming across watercourses using shields to float themselves. It doesn't seem likely that had much armour protection though.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Gordopolis Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 21 Nov 2015 at 01:33
Originally posted by caldrail caldrail wrote:

Well, on the other hand, whilst Vegetius was not a military man, he was around at the time and was well aware of the state of Romes legions, ie, not good. His book was intended to suggest using the best of past practises (which were not all used by all legions all of tim)to restore the might and glory of the ROman military. Also to please his Caesar in the process, though the work has had little practical effect despite some exaggerated claims for its influence.

It may well be that as the legions diversified in style toward the late empire (Ammianus mentions a unit armed with mattocks or hammers for instance) and that led to skirmishing or missile troops being left without protection. Bear in mind that the late empire soldiery were not well equiiped, motivated, or well led. The Roman military system had become a second rate career and not well regarded. Certainly the skills of fighting large set piece battles had been lost, but as Adrian Goldsworthy notes, they had a talent for low level warfare such as raiding and ambushes. Sebastianus recognised that in the adrianople campaign, rejecting to some degree the hopeless majority, and training keen youngsters to form a corps of advance troops that were quite effective against the Goths, and actually forced the Goths onto their back feet immediately before the big battle in 378.

We also have a mention of some shameless raids against peaceful German villages by troops swimming across watercourses using shields to float themselves. It doesn't seem likely that had much armour protection though.

Almost entirely agree with this apart from the following:
1) The late army was not well equipped: 
     While there might have been a disparity in the equipment issued to the field armies and the limitanei (although this is thought to be exaggerated), the huge fabricae/arms workshops set up in Diocletian's time were still in full operation right through to the 5th century and beyond. I'm not sure there is strong evidence that the late army was undersupplied with arms or armour in any way. Have a glance at the images near the end of my article - reliefs, paintings and similar that support a continued supply of armour throughout the 4th century (happy to be corrected on this).
2) The skills of fighting large set piece battles had been lost, but as Adrian Goldsworthy notes, they had a talent for low level warfare such as raiding and ambushes: 
     I don't think they had lost the skills, as such, more that they found themselves faced with more canny enemies. And it was necessarily for this reason, I believe, the legions developed the 'guerrilla' style warfare you mention (the story of Sebastianus' commando-style campaign is quite an exciting read).

As for Vegetius, modern historians such as Elton, Goldsworthy and MacDowall point to his accounts of 4th century AD warfare which they describe as 'somewhat stilted and confused'. They argue that it is very likely that Vegetius misunderstood the diversity of military tactics that were employed during the Gothic War. 
In his lamenting the lost ways of the ‘legions of old’ (in De Re Militari, he digresses to reminisce over the manipular legions of the Republican era), it strikes me that he quite possibly didn't really understand the tactical and strategic necessity of the late 4th century AD legions' art of war (manipular legions would have been chasing Gothic shadows - at best!). This is quite possibly why he might have reported on Sebastianus' – very successful if unconventional – guerrilla campaign as a martial nadir!




Edited by Gordopolis - 21 Nov 2015 at 01:35
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote caldrail Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 Nov 2015 at 20:11
The behaviour at the Battle of Adrianople is most illustrative of poor battlefield management.

Sebastianus, observing the indolence and effeminacy both of the tribunes and soldiers, and that all they had been taught was only how to fly, and to have desires more suitable to women than to men, requested no more than two thousand men of his own choice. He well knew the difficulty of commanding a multitude of ill-disciplined dissolute men, and that a small number might more easily be reclaimed from their effeminacy; and, moreover, that it was better to risk a few than all. By these arguments having prevailed upon the emperor, he obtained his desire. He selected, not such as had been trained to cowardice and accustomed to flight, but strong and active men who had lately been taken into the army, and who appeared to him, who was able to judge of men, to be capable of any service. He immediately made trial of each of them, and obviated their defects by continual exercise; bestowing commendations and rewards on all who were obedient, but appearing severe and inexorable to those who neglected their duty.
Nea Historia (Zosimus)

Although the Roman force had only eight miles to march to the Gothic encampment, they failed utterly to arrive together or in any sense of order. In fact, the late and chaotic arrivakl of a cavalry unit sparked the whole thing off. The Goths, who had been playing for time, thought they were being attacked and launched a fusilade of arrows, which resulted in the Roman left wing attacking the encampment without authorisation from Valens, who was busy trying to confront Fritigern personally and settle the conflict without further bloodshed.When this attack was repulsed - without further support from the Roman army present - the Goths launched their suprise outflanking movement of their cavalry, which resulted in a complete deformation and entrapment of the Roman army. From that point any organised resistance was impossible. At least one unit had quietly scarpered (The Batavians were searched for but not found).

Diversity of tactics? Not sure about that since tactical nous was defintely not present. If you mean strategic diversity, there were only a set number of alternatives. Sebastianus had realised the Roman army wasn't up to the job of taking on the gothic rebellion. He had been summoned to take command at the order of Valens, to replace the former commander Trajanus who had clearly fallen into disfavour - and who was still present on campaign along with his supporters. Right from the start Sebastianus was under pressure to achieve results and was subject to malicious accusations and alertanive planning. Sebatianus originally favoured taking a course of ambushes and low level warfare - indeed, that was what his corps of youngsters was supposed to be - and it worked. Zosimus tells us that heads were being returned to Constantinople every day, and we know from Jordanes that the Goths suffered a bad defeat at the River Maritsa three days before Adrianople. However, his detractors wanted a set piece battle so Valens could wallow in glory and make Sebastianus look overly cautious. Eventually Seb had overcooked his toadying to counter this and was forced to take a much more radical stance - not only did he suddenly suggest the battle went ahead, but that Valens should not wait for Gratian's reinforcements from the west. Valens wanted a peaceful resolution and thus tried to negotiate with the Goths, albeit clumsily. So the leadership of the Roman forces against the Goths was subject to petty intrigue and poor decision making to begin with, irrespective of what hopeless battlefield management was demonstrated on the day.

This sort of thing was nothing new....

So by long unfamiliarity with fighting the Roman soldier was reduced to a cowardly condition. For as to all the arts of life, so especially to the business of war, is sloth fatal. It is of the greatest importance for soldiers to experience the ups and downs of fortune, and to take strenuous exercise in the open. The most demoralised of all, however, were the Syrian soldiers, mutinous, disobedient,seldom with their units, straying in front of their prescribed posts, roving about like scouts, tipsy from one noon to the next, unused to carrying even their arms.
Letter to Lucius Verus (Fronto)

The name of the legion remains indeed to this day in our armies, but its strength and substance are gone, since by the neglect of our predecessors, honors and preferments, which were formerly the recompenses of merit and long services, were to be attained only by interest and favor. Care is no longer taken to replace the soldiers, who after serving their full time, have received their discharges. The vacancies continually happening by sickness, discharges, desertion and various other casualties, if not supplied every year or even every month, must in time disable the most numerous army. Another cause of the weakness of our legions is that in them the soldiers find the duty hard, the arms heavy, the rewards distant and the discipline severe. To avoid these inconveniences, the young men enlist in the auxiliaries, where the service is less laborious and they have reason to expect more speedy recompenses.
De Re Militaris (Vegetius)

Vegetius in unequivical - the Roman legions of his day weren't the legions of old, and he knew it, even though he wasn't himself a military man. The evidence is damning.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Gordopolis Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 Nov 2015 at 20:34
There is suggestion of all not being right with the late army, but I can't see anything I would classify as damning evidence. The letter to Fronto is from the 2nd century AD, is it not?
The late army no doubt had its flaws (in discipline, tactics, mentality), but I simply can't take Vegetius' view seriously, especially when he airs his manipular 'solution'. 

Vegetius aside, we have to remember that almost any other evidence in question is mainly post-defeat, anti-Valens (and anti-Arian/anti-heretic) polemic. And I'm now very careful in interpreting too much (if anything) from Jordanes: his history is effectively a grossly conflated panegyric (in which he invents an ancient lineage for the 6th century AD Ostrogoths). The Maritsa night raid almost certainly happened a lot more than 3 days prior to the Battle of Adrianople (are you perhaps thinking of the advance Gothic raiding party which tried to steal through the Golyam Derwent 3 days before the battle?).

Re the battle:
-Most sources seem to confirm it was the cavalry right (i.e. the vanguard on the marching column) that attacked the Goths first, rather than the left. What source were you basing this on? 
-Some historians also question the translations that suggest the Roman Army reached the battle site in a staggered, unruly formation (though I think there must have been some degree of this as any marching column would by definition be 'staggered' for a short while until they could draw up into a broad battle line). 
-Interesting and fresh theory on Sebastianus' motives for urging Valens to march to battle - may I ask which source you found this in?
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote caldrail Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 Nov 2015 at 20:49
Vegetius wasn't looking for a 'solution'. He had trawled through the histories available to him and searched for activities that he thought were superior, even if they had been mentioned because of their uniqueness. As for 'maniples', he was describing a legion of old, not suggesting that formation was better, although it does suggest a rather less formal formation in his day.

As for the defeat at the Maritsa - that was mentioned by Jordanes, and since the Goths had taken to foraging expeditions en masse (that was why the Roman scouts seriously underestimated Gothic forces and why the Gothic cavalry wasn't visible initially). You can question the timing if you want - but the action forced the Goths to go on the defensive. They knew the Romans were coming and arranged their camp accordingly. As it happens, most historians only use Ammianus Marcellinus for their account. Further detail is available in a swathe of other documents, including those by Jordanes and Zosimus. Since no Roman writer is without bias, accusing one of bias to support an argument is rather irrelevant.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Gordopolis Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 Nov 2015 at 21:12
That's a good point re Ammianus - in fact he is the one source all others are based upon (though not always accurately, as Zosimus so infuriatingly demonstrates with blatant contradictions within his own text!). As for bias, yes, virtually all Roman texts are - I was more pointing to the fact that they are almost all biased against Valens.

You're absolutely right that Sebastianus' guerrilla campaign drove the many roving Gothic bands back and into a 'horde' once more. However, I wouldn't confuse those roving bands with the Greuthingi cavalry who were seemingly absent at the battle (then suddenly turned up). There is no certainty as to why they were absent when the fighting commenced. They may have been foraging, they may have been absent and on the advance raid (via Golyam Derwent and headed to Nike), or it may have been a deftly-executed tactical ploy. Either way, one has to question why the imperial exploratores missed such a large body of enemy cavalry; Roman intelligence was - maybe by necessity in absence of military excellence - generally first class, and this was a grievous error.

Can I ask again where you sourced the idea of Sebastianus' motives for urging Valens on to go to war (I've read the accounts of him doing this, but not for the reasons you mentioned)? It would put a very different and intriguing slant on the machinations going on in the Roman command tent!


Edited by Gordopolis - 24 Nov 2015 at 01:18
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote caldrail Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25 Nov 2015 at 22:55
The delay in the fighting is interesting. Valens has no choice but to wait because his troops are arriving somewhat less than in orderly fashion, but also because he knew Fritigern, having agreed peace terms once before with him and no doubt wanting to converse with him on the apparent betrayal - it isn't clear whether valens sponsored or disagreed with the shabby treatment meted out by Lupicinius and Maximus.After all, Fritigern's appeal for settlement south of the Danube was on the grounds of good behaviour. In any event, Valens wanted to negotiate and an exchange of hostages was being arranged when the battle kicked off (though Valens wasn't being entirely cooperative - he'd already dismissed gothic emissaries because they weren't noble enough, but that might have been simply because he wanted Fritigern in front of him).

For the Goths, the arrival of the Roman army was what they had feared. Their position was defensive and thus it was unlikely they would attack first. It becomes clear that the Goths are playing for time. Why? They had nothing to gain from delaying the battle unless something was going on. They set fire to crops so the smoke blew in the eyes of the Roman lines on top of their weariness from the march in a desperately hot day. Not a delaying tactic but certainly one to exploit the Roman decision to wait.

The arrival of the cavalry is an intersting one. On the one hand their absence explainfs the poor intelligence received from Roman scouts regarding gothic numbers, and would underline the need of the Goths to forage en masse, seeing how many of their foraging parties had been running into Roman ambushes (Zosimus tells us that gothic heads were being sent to Constantinople every day - even allowing for exaggeration, clearly the Goths were starting to suffer casualties regularly). Usually I suggest that the Gothic horse had been out foraging and the Goths were waiting for their return.

The only problem with this idea is that you might expect a large number of horsemen to create dust, which was not seen by the Romans hence the outflanking manoever during the battle was by suprise. In fariness, there was already a large amount of dust present though the wind direction might not support the idea that it hampered Roman observation, though the Gothic smoke definitely would. Note that the Gothic cavalry charged out from cover. At any rate though, there seems to be a desperate need by the Goths to keep the Romans from launching the battle. Nothing to do with cowardice of course - the Goths loved a good fight and allowed anyone to side with them who would fight alongside, which in this case included Alans and some Roman deserters. It may even be that the emissaries sent by Fritigern to see Valens were not seriously empowered to reach a conclusion but to keep him talking. It all does point toward a covert arrival by a cavalry force - who would have seen the dust of Roman legions from afar.

That said, the battle began not by order, but by hasty reactions and tit for tat as the Goths saw an arriving Roman cavalry unit as an attack in progress. They fired missiles at the ROmans, the Romans saw themselves as under attack - well, they sort of were weren't they? - and began the disorganised assault upon the Gothic camp, after which the battle progressed. There is no record of Valens or any other senior Roman general, Sebastianus included, trying to restore order. The whole thing was a confrontation that got out of hand.
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