Rome’s Barbarian Mercenaries

By David G. Frye
5/3/2007 • MHQ

For Sidonius Apollinaris and his beloved native city of Clermont, the year 471 could hardly have brought more misery. Goths surrounded the proud Roman city. Morale was low. Defeat seemed inevitable. Then, quite literally, the cavalry arrived. A small group of men—just nineteen—charged across the plain to scatter the Gothic host. The sheer audacity of the surprise attack must have stunned the besieging army. The Goths, who are said to have numbered in the thousands, suffered heavy losses, and the city was delivered.

In the aftermath, the townspeople watching from behind the broken walls thronged to greet their plucky rescuers. It was an especially joyous reception because the leader of the the tiny cavalry contingent was one of their own, a certain Ecdicius, who had grown up in Clermont before returning to relieve the town with a private army he had raised entirely through his own exertions. Grateful townsfolk now kissed the dust off Ecdicius’ armor and fought for the honor of embracing their victorious native son.

Sidonius, the city’s bishop, was ecstatic. But the affair had been a close one for both Clermont and Sidonius. In his writings Sidonius might well have been justified in asking how a city in the great Roman Empire could have been left so defenseless. Ecdicius’ raid should have been unnecessary. Where was the Roman army? Sidonius never did pose that question because he already knew the answer: The Roman army had been there all along, made up of Goths.

How the “Roman” army came to be composed of barbarian troops of an often renegade nature is in many ways the story of Rome’s fall. It is the story of a people who seemingly lost confi­dence in themselves, a government that lost control of its army, and an army that lost control of its soldiers. It is a story of ambition, but also of miscalculation and finally failure.

In its heyday, the Roman army was composed of citizens and subjects—legionaries were recruited from the ranks of citizens, and subject states contributed the auxiliaries. Roman politicians commanded both types of soldiers, and the army represented a Romanizing force in the empire. All soldiers learned Latin, and those troops from the more barbarous subject states learned the civil ways of Rome. Excavations in northern England have revealed that even Rome’s most distant auxiliaries, Batavians, had adapted to the imperial style. They wrote letters in Latin and built forts that served as makeshift facsimiles of Roman urban life, complete with public baths.

But even while the imperial army Romanized its troops, the Romans themselves professed an ironic longing for the
barbarism of their enemies. Long before the barbarization of the late Roman army, Roman writers expressed admiration for the uncouth warriors who battled their legions. In the eyes of Tacitus, or even Julius Caesar, civilization made men soft. The fiercest fighters were those deemed least civilized.

Perhaps as a consequence of this conviction, Rome often deviated from its standard recruiting policies. For example, no close reader of Caesar could fail to observe that the legendary general was repeatedly saved, even at Alesia, by mounted German mercenaries whom he had hired for his war against Vercingetorix. Subsequently, Augustus established an imperial bodyguard, the custodes, composed entirely of Germans. Army recruitment took a similar path. Whereas Italy still supplied 65 percent of legionary troops during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula, by the mid-second century the contribution of the Italian heartland had dwindled to less than 1 percent. Rome had begun recruiting its soldiers from the least civilized areas of the empire—a policy that would remain in place in late Roman times. Recruiters seem to have believed that the best soldiers, the real fighting men, could only be found outside the cities.

During the third century, the empire experienced a series of invasions and civil wars. These crises intensified Rome’s dependence on uncivilized and, increasingly, foreign troops. The late third- and early fourth-century emperors Diocletian and Constantine essentially remade the army, doubling its size and dividing it into two types of forces: the limitanei, or frontier troops, stationed along the borders of the empire, and the comitatenses, or mobile field forces, held in reserve for major conflicts. The army now swelled to some six hundred thousand men, which created severe recruitment pressures.

To fill its ranks, the late Roman army resorted to unprecedented measures. Sons of soldiers were required to take up the vocation of their fathers. Foreigners served in record numbers. Some were drawn from defeated barbarian groups that had been settled as subject peoples on Roman lands. Not entirely free, these laeti had no choice but to supply soldiers to the Roman army, where they traditionally served under Roman commanders. Increasingly, however, the army filled its ranks by attracting volunteers from outside the empire. In the fourth century, huge numbers of Germans enlisted, and many of them attained high rank. The army itself—once the most powerful Romanizing force in the world—was rapidly becoming Germanized by its own recruits. German terminology and even German customs—such as the barritus, the old German battle cry—became widespread. Contemporary writers used the terms barbarus (barbarian) and miles (soldier) interchangeably.

The transition from a citizen’s army to a very nearly mercenary one did not go smoothly. To many Romans, the same barbarians so admired for their military prowess were also the enemy. Since the early third century, the empire had been locked in a violent and essentially continuous struggle against barbarian raiders. Rome’s citizens, especially in the frontier provinces, had seen cities burned by barbarians. They had seen their fields pillaged, their treasures plundered, and their neighbors killed. If they felt a certain distrust of barbarian soldiers, they came by it naturally.

By the mid-fourth century, that distrust had begun to manifest itself in an open xenophobia. Roman responses to raids assumed a more brutal and punitive cast. When the Roman general Arinthaeus crossed the Danube in 367, he put a bounty on Goth heads and massacred even women and children. Within the empire a new law of 370 banned intermarriage between Romans and barbarians. But the most dangerous manifestations of late Roman xenophobia came a few years later, after the Germanic Goths had emerged as a dominant presence in the Roman world.

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