The fourth and fifth centuries saw a profound change in the great Roman army. What was once a predominantly Roman institution became increasingly "barbarized", a term used by historians for the Germanization of Roman culture, with more and more northern peoples being used in the army, which, some modern historians claim had a negative impact on the Empire itself. Many modern historians claim that this was a key factor in the decline and fall of Rome itself. But to understand the impact this had on the Empire, one must first look at how and why the army underwent such a change.
The army went from using German mercenary units as extra troops to the barbarians becoming the backbone of later armies. Was it just a sign of the times, or was it a forced situation, as some historians have thought? Or was it just a continuation of Roman tradition of synthesis and absorption of outside cultures? Rome has always used troops from other cultures and adopted their tactics if superior to theirs. In my paper I shall try to prove that the "barbarization" of the army was no different than what Rome had done throughout its history, and that the Germanization had little impact upon the empire. First I shall look at modern interpretations of the "barbarization" of the Roman army, then move on to the contemporary sources.
From there I shall form the core of my thesis: there was no significant change in the army, and this led to no real impact on the empire. In order to discuss the barbarians and their impact upon the army, we must look first at modern historiography, as it is a more concrete foundation in which I can build my thesis (since modern historians have the ability of hindsight and seeing the whole picture, rather than be limited in vision and scope like the contemporary writers). Randers-Pehrson, a modern historian, states that barbarians in the army were. ".. a de moralizingly disruptive force". She goes on to say how the Goths were "unruly and wild, coming and going as they liked and abandoning the traditional drills, making the army less and less respectable each day". But another modern source, Roy MacMullen, states that by the mid-fourth century no Roman general wanted Roman troops, they wanted barbarians, and that by this time the typical fighting force of Rome was half imported. Hugh Elton warns us that when we read primary text of any sort on the complaints about the barbarians in Rome and its army we have to be careful, as the authors were. ".. civilians for the most part and were writing for political reasons" and that "no soldier, such as Ammianus or Procopius... suggests that barbarization affected the armies performance".
It would be a hasty decision to state that the barbarians had any real negative affect on the army. Modern Historians who support the claim use the treacheries of the Goths and Vandals to lend credence to their claim, yet we have no evidence of actual racial motivations. Most of the betrayals were of political and social origin, not race oriented. If this is true, then the Germans acting in such a way were acting as Romans involved in Roman culture, not a corrupting outside force. As Hugh Elton states, "What would traitors gain from betraying the Empire? They would lose all benefits accrued from being in the Empire...
". . The barbarians joined the empire for such gains. Why would they just throw it all away in treachery? Those Germans who did betray the empire were not volunteers, but usually those conscripted through levies imposed upon defeated barbarian tribes and prisoners of war. The Germans who joined the army were looking for pay, medical care, regular meals, and other such benefits, and would not willingly throw such things away.
The Goths were fighting for a homeland that would be both militarily safe from the Huns and economically healthy. Furthermore, as E.A. Thompson states, .".. it is hard to believe that the Romans would have recruited and promoted barbarians on such a scale as they are known to have done if the danger of treachery had been extreme". The Romans were known for their military genius. It is almost impossible for us to believe that the Romans would make such a military blunder as to conscript such a dangerous and unreliable people.
Yet many modern historians still hold to the claim that the barbarization of the army was detrimental to Rome. Thomas Hodgkin writes, .".. the so-called Romans army was in fact a collection of aliens and enemies to Rome [trained and armed by Rome] but only so much the more dangerous to the country which it professed to defend". Though there has been a revision in the outlook on the Romans and barbarians sociologically since the 19th century when Hodgkin wrote this, there are still some modern historians who still hold to this claim, such as Randers-Pehrson. Yet there seems to be little evidence to support their claims of such a negative impact on the army and Rome. From modern historiography we can conclude that contemporary writers were anti-barbarian for many political reasons, so we must be cautious in taking their mistrust in barbarian troops at face value; there is no contemporary military writer claiming that the barbarians were detrimental to the army; and the barbarians on a racial level had no real reason to throw away their Roman citizenship through treachery. Yet so many historians claim that the barbarization of the Roman army was a key factor in the decline, even still today when we have data that argues a different thesis.
Many modern day historians conclude that the "barbarization" of the army did have an impact on the army, though it was not necessarily a negative one. First of all, the barbarians gave Rome another pool of troops to draw from. This was the most notable of the impacts upon the army, as it gave Rome a new resource to draw upon without exhausting its own. Second of all, the Roman army adopted the war cry of the Germans, the Barritus, showing the Roman army's willingness to adopt some of the techniques of the northerners. This simple adaptation of a German trait shows the slight "barbarization" of the army, yet also shows that it was not a negative one; the Romans would not use it unless they found the barbarians to be an asset to the army. Turning away from the modern day texts on the subject, we can look at the contemporary historians.
Synesius was writing in the time of the fourth and fifth centuries, but Procopius was writing in the sixth. Procopius is relevant in a broader sense, in that his work shows how the anti-barbarian writings before him were propaganda. If the barbarians were such a menace to Rome and its army, why then would the feelings change just one century later? Contemporary writers such as Synesius and Procopius give us contrasting accounts of the German impact on the army. Synesius called for a purging of Gothic peoples from positions of power, claiming that it was dangerous to Roman power.
He says in this text "The Emperor should purify the troops just as we purify a measure of wheat by separating the chaff and all other matter, which, if allowed to germinate, harms the good seed". Yet in Procopius' History of the Wars, we read nothing of a negative impact the Germans have on the army. Gregory of Tours, another contemporary writer gave us an account of how King Clovis of the Franks was given the title of Consul, an honorable Roman title, yet if Synesius is to be believed, why would the Emperor give such a title to the leader of such a "harmful" peoples? It seems that the Germans were no more prone to treachery and betrayal than the Romans, as the only accounts that stand out are the politically orientated texts. There is no real evidence that the barbarization of the army had any real impact on the Empire, and that (later on) it was over-taxation and mistreatment of the German peoples that led to their rebellion, not natural disdain for Rome.
Yet, even if it had no real significant impact on Rome, the army was nevertheless prone to using increasing numbers of barbarians in the fourth and fifth centuries, predominantly Franks, Visigoths and Ostrogoths. The question to be raised is why? Why was it that Rome was forced to draw upon what its aristocrats saw as uncouth barbarians? Some historians claim that the use of Gothic and Frankish troops was due to the fact that Rome could no longer draw upon its own manpower, and that there was problems with recruiting, yet many contemporaries, such as Ammianus Marcellinus claim that it had more to do with Roman troops just not doing their jobs.
The basic Roman armed force was divided into two parts: the field army (comitatenses) and the border troops (limitanei). In the comitatenses, barbarians were either foederati, who were established regiments within the army, or they were allied contingents. The allied barbarians were different from the foederati in that they were not a permanent addition to the army, being instead troops used in specific campaigns and then disbanded. This alignment with the Romans was usually due to a treaty of some sort, where the barbarians had to supply troops until the end of the campaign, and then they were disbanded. Such regiments were hardly "Romanized" in the sense that the foederati was, and as such were left to fight in a single unit upon the field.
Their own leaders, who were subordinate to the Roman officers, even led them on the field of battle. The use of such allied contingents "in place of or supplementary to Roman troops was an effective use of power by the Roman Empire, achieving results without expending their own resources", as Hugh Elton puts it. The foederati were a different case altogether. They were not allied contingents, but were barbarians who were allowed by treaty to live within the Empire. One of the main terms of these treatise was that the barbarian peoples to whom this treaty pertained were obliged to "render military assistance... but their own tribal leaders would receive only subordinate commands". Unfortunately, by the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries, the term foederati becomes almost synonymous with both the Germans living in the Empire by treaty and the foreign allied contingents.
This means that we can only estimate how much the army was essentially barbarized and how much of it was only allies. Though it can be argued that the barbarians were recruited only because of shortage of manpower, the use of mercenary troops is nothing new to Rome. For quite some time, German tribes had served as foederati. During the late fourth and fifth centuries, these foederati became permanently established units in the Roman army, and possibly up to one-third of the officers were of barbarian origin. Yet the majority of the barbarians in the field army, as previously stated, were temporary additions to the army, not one of any permanence (which would be the case if the lack of manpower theory were to be believed). Allied barbarians were used much more extensively than foederati.
To say that the Roman army was becoming rapidly barbarized, in my opinion, is to not know Roman history. Rome was made up of various peoples, as the term Roman is not really an ethnic name but a cultural one. The use of the Germans as Foederati is the same thing as using troops from Gaul, Africa or Italy. Rome was industrious, as we have read, and the use of Germanic peoples in the army, even in increasing numbers, is a poor claim to barbarization (and the eventual downfall of Rome). The Roman army of the fourth and fifth centuries did use barbarians to an extent, but there is little evidence to show that the army had become barbarized. The most we have is the German war cry and records of the use of German regiments.
Less than one-third of the officers were barbarian and the troops were either foederati, which is nothing new to the army, or mercenary units, which was no threat to the army. The claim that the army was barbarized because it began using German troops a hasty one. It is not seeing the whole scope of Rome, just one side of the story. It seems that such a claim is slowly disappearing over time, thanks to new discoveries in Roman culture and history. Rome's army was based on the notion of assimilation of indigenous peoples when they were conquered. To quote Peter Well's "When Rome conquered a region, it was common practice to draft the men and boys into the army".
So if this is true, which it is as Roman tradition has shown us, why is it that historians claim that by assimilating barbarians into the army, it became "less-Roman"? Wouldn't it be just the same "Roman", no more, no less? Rome was a culture not an ethnicity, and by using German troops in the army it was the Germans who actually became Roman, if not in the traditional sense. The bloodlines of the "Roman" troops in the army were just as foreign as the Germans, as many had Persian, Greek, Carthaginian, or Celtic ancestry. Would that mean that the army was "Persian-ized" or "Celtic-ized"? Rome was built upon the foundation of different peoples under one culture, and that one culture was ever changing.
In my opinion, there was no barbarization of the army. It was the continuation of a one thousand-year-old tradition. And if there was no literal barbarization, then there is no impact upon the Empire, save the stagnant aristocracy. It was they who wrote of the detrimental effects of "barbarians" upon the Empire, not the Roman generals or populace. To them, it was just another group of new faces in the Empire.
Primary Sources: Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, Trans. By E. Bre haut, New York, 1969 Jordanes, The Gothic History of Jordanes, trans.
C. Mierow, Barnes and Noble, New York, 1960 Synesius, The Letters of Synesius of Cyrene, trans.
By A. Fitzgerald, University of London Press, London, 1926 Secondary Sources: Elton, Hugh, Warfare in Roman Europe AD 350-425, Oxford University Press Inc.
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