Late Roman Army - Recruitment - Barbarians


Barbari ("barbarians") was the generic term used by the Romans to denote peoples resident beyond the borders of the empire, and best translates as "foreigners" (it is derived from a Greek word meaning "to babble": a reference to their incomprehensible languages).

Most scholars believe that significant numbers of barbari were recruited throughout the Principate by the auxilia (the legions were closed to non-citizens). However, there is little evidence of this before the 3rd century. The scant evidence suggests that the vast majority, if not all, of auxilia were Roman peregrini (second-class citizens) or Roman citizens. In any case, the 4th-century army was probably much more dependent on barbarian recruitment than its 1st/2nd-century predecessor. The evidence for this may be summarised as follows:

  1. The Notitia lists a number of barbarian military settlements in the empire. Known as laeti or gentiles ("natives"), these were an important source of recruits for the army. Groups of Germanic or Sarmatian tribespeople were granted land to settle in the Empire, in return for military service. Most likely each community was under a treaty obligation to supply a specified number of troops to the army each year. The resettlement within the empire of barbarian tribespeople in return for military service was not a new phenomenon in the 4th century: it stretches back to the days of Augustus. But it does appear that the establishment of military settlements was more systematic and on a much larger scale in the 4th century.
  2. The Notitia lists a large number of units with barbarian names. This was probably the result of the transformation of irregular allied units serving under their own native officers (known as socii, or foederati) into regular formations. During the Principate, regular units with barbarian names are not attested until the 3rd century and even then rarely e.g. the ala I Sarmatarum attested in 3rd-century Britain, doubtless an offshoot of the Sarmatian horsemen posted there in 175.
  3. The emergence of significant numbers of senior officers with barbarian names in the regular army, and eventually in the high command itself. In the early 5th century, the Western Roman forces were often controlled by barbarian-born generals or generals with some barbarian ancestry, such as Arbogast, Stilicho and Ricimer.
  4. The adoption by the 4th century army of barbarian (especially Germanic) dress, customs and culture, suggesting enhanced barbarian influence. For example, Roman army units adopted mock barbarian names e.g. Cornuti = "horned ones", a reference to the German custom of attaching horns to their helmets, and the barritus, a German warcry. Long hair became fashionable, especially in the palatini regiments, where barbarian-born recruits were numerous.

Quantification of the proportion of barbarian-born troops in the 4th century army is highly speculative. Elton has undertaken the most detailed analysis of the meagre evidence. According to this analysis, about a quarter of the sample of army officers was barbarian-born in the period 350–400. Analysis by decade shows that this proportion did not increase over the period, or indeed in the early 5th century. The latter trend implies that the proportion of barbarians in the lower ranks was not much greater, otherwise the proportion of barbarian officers would have increased over time to reflect that.

If the proportion of barbarians was in the region of 25%, then it is probably much higher than in the 2nd-century regular army. If the same proportion had been recruited into the auxilia of the 2nd-century army, then in excess of 40% of recruits would have been barbarian-born, since the auxilia constituted 60% of the regular land army. There is no evidence that recruitment of barbarians was on such a large scale in the 2nd century. An analysis of named soldiers of non-Roman origin shows that 75% were Germanic: Franks, Alamanni, Saxons, Goths, and Vandals are attested in the Notitia unit names. Other significant sources of recruits were the Sarmatians from the Danubian lands; and Armenians and Iberians from the Caucasus region.

In contrast to Roman recruits, the vast majority of barbarian recruits were probably volunteers, drawn by conditions of service and career prospects that to them probably appeared desirable, in contrast to their living conditions at home. A minority of barbarian recruits were enlisted by compulsion, namely dediticii (barbarians who surrendered to the Roman authorities, often to escape strife with neighbouring tribes) and tribes who were defeated by the Romans, and obliged, as a condition of peace, to undertake to provide a specified number of recruits annually. Barbarians could be recruited directly, as individuals enrolled into regular regiments, or indirectly, as members of irregular foederati units transformed into regular regiments.

Read more about this topic:  Late Roman Army, Recruitment

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