The Defense Strategy of the Late Roman Empire – Arther Ferrill

Synopsis:

Defense strategy in the Roman Empire following the Crisis of the Third Century evolved considerably from the earlier preclusive security apparatus of Hadrian – which emphasized a synthesis of passive and active defense along mostly static lines of effort. Arther Ferrill credits the Emperor Constantine with the transition from the preclusive ideal to a novel defense-in-depth approach, which offered weakened frontier defenses in favor of large mobile field armies. This new model Roman army allowed more centralized control for the Emperor – as well as greater personal security – but with a vastly less controlled border region for the Empire.

Excerpts:

“Such obvious advantages, reflecting organization of war-making capacity far beyond that of Rome’s potential opponents, gave the Roman armies a psychological edge, a superiority in morale, often sufficient in itself to deter hostile military action. In the great days of the second century, with an army of about 300,000, the Romans defended an empire of some 50,000,000 people living in the Mediterranean basin.

“More than anything else Roman grand strategy in the High Roman Empire was based on the tactical superiority of the Roman army against all potential foes. To that extent the famous walls and fortresses can be misleading. The army, not the walls or forts, defended the frontiers.

“Roman grand strategy of the second century was predicated on political stability – preclusive security requires the presence of the legions on the frontiers. Civil war and rebellion, especially when they became endemic, diverted legions from the frontiers to the interior, creating marvelous opportunities for enemies across the border. That is what happened in the third century.

“The big change in Roman grand strategy came with Constantine the Great. As Zosimus claimed in the passage quoted above, Constantine organized a large mobile field army (probably 100,000 or more), stationed centrally, by withdrawing units from the frontiers, leaving them in a weakened condition. Zosimus saw this modification of traditional Roman grand strategy as catastrophic, an interpretation endorsed by Gibbon.

“The worst feature of the defense-in-depth is that inevitably the central mobile army will become an elite force and the frontier defenders merely second rate actors in defense policy. Troops that are not expected to defeat the enemy can hardly be blamed for wanting to avoid him altogether.

*All excerpts have been taken from Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation, Thames and Hudson Inc.

Theodosius and the Antibarbarian Reaction – Alessandro Barbero

Synopsis:

The Battle of Adrianople in 378 often signals a key crossroad in the history of the late Roman Empire, but Alessandro Barbero lays out a somewhat different narrative in his book The Day of the Barbarians. Barbero examines the event within a three century context, and chronicles the cultural evolution of Roman civilization leading up to the battle – as well as the civilizational reaction following the final peace agreement with the Goths. As Roman power began to decline in the fifth century the long ignored aristocracy of Rome began to reassert itself by becoming the foremost voice of the anti-barbarian reaction.

Excerpts:

“In the dissatisfaction that the Greek East felt at the political and military hegemony of the Latin West lay the seeds of competition – if not hostility – between the two parts of the Roman Empire; those seeds would not fail to produce fruit, and soon.

“All the rhetoric about the universality of the empire, about its capacity for assimilation, was trotted out to demonstrate that Theodosius had made the right choice. And, to be clear, it wasn’t all empty rhetoric; to a certain degree, that capacity for assimilation genuinely existed.

“The army, which was a community, seemed like the perfect machine for handling this integration process. It absorbed barbarians, ground them down, and transformed them into Roman veterans, into the men whom emperors in their public discourses addressed as ‘comrades in arms’ and who constituted the real pillar of the empire.

“In certain regions of the empire, where the mercenaries had completely replaced the units of the regular army, the change was reflected in the language itself: In Syriac, starting at the end of the fourth century, the word for ‘soldier’ became Goth.

“Most people ultimately shared the assumptions about the empire’s ability to assimilate the barbarians but resisted granting them too much power too quickly and thereby abdicating the civilizing mission of the empire.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire, Walker & Company.

A Military Life of Constantine the Great – Ian Hughes

Synopsis:

Emerging from the Third Century Crisis, the Roman Empire and its military underwent a cultural revolution of colossal breadth. The era before the transition is recognized as the ‘Principate’ – i.e. rule by the First Citizen – and the era after as the ‘Dominate’ – i.e. rule by despot. This evolution was necessary for the autocracy of the Roman central government, because of the unremitting dynastic chaos of the Third Century Crisis. The architects of the revolution were the Emperors Diocletian, and Constantine.

Diocletian created an institutional division between civil and military offices – beforehand the two had often been fused – increased the administrative capacity of the central government, and humbled the Roman aristocracy. Constantine sought to unify the state under a single religious faith – Christianity – as well as establish an enduring administrative division between the Greek East and Latin West of the Roman Empire by founding a second capital city – Nova Roma or Constantinople – with its own Senate. Ian Hughes chronicles all of these events in his book, but with special attention given to the revolution in military affairs which took place under the two Emperors.

Excerpts:

“Modern estimates suggest that the number of legions probably doubled between the reigns of Severus and Diocletian, and by the time of the Notitia Dignitatum (early-fifth century) the 30 legions of the Early Empire had grown to more than 200.

“It has been noted that cavalry only has a ‘strategic mobility’ – the ability to march and retain the capability to fight effectively – that is superior to infantry over short distances. Over longer distances – for example, any march taking around a week or longer to complete – cavalry actually have a lower mobility due to the need to rest the horses, so in reality their strategic mobility is actually less than that of infantry. These questions have resulted in the whole idea of a ‘mobile cavalry force’ being seriously doubted.

“The chaos and confusion caused by piecemeal reforms and temporary solutions to short-lived problems in the third century resulted in the Roman army becoming a disorganized and inefficient organization. Despite it winning many battles in the third century, it was hardly capable of protecting the frontiers from the ‘Germanic’ tribes to the north, the Sasanid Persians to the east or even the Blemmye to the south.

“…it is possible to infer that both Maxentius and Daia offered better pay, higher donatives and better retirement benefits than their opponents. However, the fact that these troops were still easily defeated at the Battles of the Milvian Bridge and Tzirallum suggests that, despite the financial benefits, the troops’ opinion of their emperors was low. The further implication is that, rather than being generous, in order to retain their troops in their service the two emperors had little option but to increase their pay and benefits… It is the morale and readiness to fight and die for their emperors that were the main reasons for the victories of both Constantine and Licinius, not Constantine’s access to new types of troops.

“Their ability to plan and finance large-scale military campaigns, alongside their ‘sound and sophisticated logistical organization’, was only equaled by the capabilities of the Sasanid Persian Empire. Rather than simply attempting to defeat an enemy or conduct a raid, the Romans were capable of ‘having goals, knowing routes, terrain and the type and strength of the opposition’, meaning that their campaigns could be focused and their intended outcome clear. Of equal importance, they could gain intelligence concerning enemy location, direction and intentions, either through the means of informers or from the fact that an army on the move deployed a screen of light cavalry to gain information and screen the main body as it marched.

*All excerpts have been taken from A Military Life of Constantine the Great, Pen and Sword.

Military Institutions of the Romans – Vegetius

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Synopsis:

Late antiquity engendered consequential institutional adjustments for Roman arms. The wealth of the state meant that Rome would always attract the best recruits to its standard, but commonly these recruits were foreign mercenaries. Although still effective the army over time became more and more challenging to control because of foreign preeminence.

The Western Roman Empire never solved the problem of the barbarianization of its army, but rather was taken over by it, and collapsed as a state in 476. On the other hand, the Eastern Roman Empire answered the institutional dilemma of barbarianization first by elevating the hard-bitten Isaurian Romans of Anatolia to supremacy over the formerly favored barbarian mercenaries, and later by establishing the militia thémata system.

The late Roman writer Vegetius sought to unravel the institutional riddle of the late Roman army by advancing the thesis of how the ideal Roman army ought to be organized. His work never reflected the reality of late antiquity, but would become influential in the medieval West.

Excerpts:

“Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it.

“Recruits in particular should be obliged frequently to carry a weight of not less than sixty pounds (exclusive of their arms), and to march with it in the ranks. This is because on difficult expeditions they often find themselves under the necessity of carrying their provisions as well as their arms.

“The courage of a soldier is heightened by his knowledge of his profession, and he only wants an opportunity to execute what he is convinced he has been perfectly taught. A handful of men, inured to war, proceed to certain victory, while on the contrary numerous armies of raw and undisciplined troops are but multitudes of men dragged to slaughter.

“Troops, defenseless and exposed to all the weapons of the enemy, are more disposed to fly than fight.

“To pretend to enumerate the different nations so formidable of old, all which now are subject to the Romans, would be tedious. But the security established by long peace has altered their dispositions, drawn them off from military to civil pursuits and infused into them a love of idleness and ease. Hence a relaxation of military discipline insensibly ensued, then a neglect of it, and it sunk at last into entire oblivion.

*All excerpts have been taken from Military Institutions of the Romans, Praetorian Press, LLC.

The Decline of Roman Power in the West – J.B. Bury

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Synopsis:

In The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians, distinguished historian J.B. Bury offers a narrative account of the deluge of barbarian invasions, and mass migrations which afflicted the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. He also chronicles the early evolution of the barbarian kingdoms in Western Europe throughout late antiquity.

The chapter Bury dedicates to the decline of Roman power in the western half of the empire centers on the institutional collapse of the state, and the ensuing snowball of barbarianization within the army. The barbarianization of the army thus allowed for the eventual consummation of an Italian kingdom under the rule of the barbarian warlord Odovacar.

Excerpts:

“The contribution which the Vandals made to the shaping of Europe was this: the very existence of their kingdom in Africa, and of their naval power in the Mediterranean, acted as a powerful protection for the growth of the new German kingdoms in Gaul and Spain, and ultimately helped the founding of a German kingdom in Italy, by dividing, diverting, and weakening the forces of the Empire. The Vandals had got round, as it were, to the rear of the Empire; and the effect of their powerful presence there was enhanced by the hostile and aggressive attitude which they continuously adopted.

“He (Ricimer) became through circumstances an emperor-maker; and his difficulty was this. If he set up too strong a man, his own power would have probably been overridden; his own fall would have been the consequence; while on the other hand weak upstarts were unable to maintain their position for any length of time, since public opinion did not respect them.

“It is also to be noted that in the intervals between the reigns of the emperors whom Ricimer set up and pulled down, when there was no emperor regnant in Italy, it did not mean that there was no emperor at all. At such times the imperial authority was entirely invested in the eastern emperor who reigned at Constantinople, the Emperor Leo; and this, too, was fully acknowledged by Ricimer, who indeed selected two of his emperors by arrangement with Leo.

“Odovacar had statesmanlike qualities, and he decided against the system of Ricimer, which had proved thoroughly unsatisfactory and unstable. His idea was to rule Italy under the imperial authority of Constantinople, unhampered by a second emperor in Italy, whom recent experiences had shown to be worse than useless. There would have been no difficulty for Odovacar in adopting this policy, if there had existed no second emperor at the time; but Julius Nepos was still alive, and, what was most important, he had been recognized at Constantinople.

“Odovacar was not hampered, as Ricimer had been, by the nominal authority of a resident emperor; he was able to pursue his own policy without any embarrassment, and to act as an independent ruler. His policy was one of peace; he was entirely averse from aggression. It must be noted, too, that his position was much easier than that of Ricimer, because the Vandal hostilities had ceased. Gaiseric had died in 477; and two years before his death he had made peace with Rome, and Odovacar had induced him to restore Sicily in return for a yearly payment.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians, Endeavour Press Ltd.

The Byzantine Art of War: Strategy and Tactics – Michael J. Decker

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Synopsis:

Chapter five of Michael J. Decker’s book on the Byzantine art-of-war recounts the strategy and tactics used by the Byzantine Empire throughout its long history. Decker discusses the stratagems, imperial ideology, and organization of the Byzantine state apparatus centered in its capital city of Constantinople. Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 this apparatus was irrevocably destroyed by the Latin West, and even after the reconquest of the city by the Greeks it was never again on the same order of magnitude or effectiveness as before.

Excerpts:

“…All wars were defensive. Even offensive campaigns were considered defensive, in that they aimed to recover land that had been seized from the empire and rightfully belonged to it, and this notion of the ‘forward defense’ or ‘active defense’ was something that the Romans probably imparted to Muslim jihad theorists.

“Experience taught the emperors that any period of peace was fleeting; never did this come into such sharp clarity more than in the events of the late 620s and 630s, when Heraclius found himself at the top of the wheel of fortune with his victories over the Persians, symbolized by his triumphant entry into Jerusalem in a spirit of millennial jubilation. The wheel turned, however, and within a decade Arab forces seized the whole of the Levant.

“Since the reign of Constantine I, the Romans had understood that the universe was ordered according to the principles of Christianity and the world was a reflection of the unseen cosmos:one God, one faith, one emperor, one empire.

“Subterfuge, bribery, and disinformation were prized bloodless means to undermine or dissolve enemies and were always preferred to open battle. The military manuals instruct, whenever possible, to bribe enemy commanders. Before campaigns on the frontiers, the general Nikephoros Ouranos (ca. 950-1011) ordered that gifts be sent to the emirs along the border in order for the bearers to collect intelligence and possibly induce the enemy to the Byzantine side or at least inaction in the coming conflict.

“The handbooks stress the need to surprise the enemy. Strategic surprise could be achieved by avoiding enemy agents, by disinformation, and by unexpected marches. The Strategikon warns that to avoid enemy spies armies should take little-used routes and march through uninhabited areas that were less likely to be under surveillance.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Byzantine Art of War, Westholme Publishing.

Justinian’s Military Organization – Hans Delbrück

Synopsis:

In the second volume of his History of the Art of War, Hans Delbrück devotes a chapter in book three to the military organization of the early Byzantine/Late Roman Empire under the emperor Justinian. He examines the dissolution of discipline within the ranks, as well as the transition to a generally cavalry centered army. This more mobile force than the famous legions of previous epochs – particularly the Republican one – was the culmination of centuries of evolution within the Roman army that had commenced under the emperor Gallienus. The resultant innovations from this transformation gave Justinian the edge in escalation dominance over the Barbarian kingdoms in the West, and would open-the-door to a Roman re-conquest of North Africa, Sicily, and the Italian peninsula – all within the span of forty years.

Excerpts:

“The active armies were quite small. Belisarius had 25,000 men when he won his victory over the Persians at Daras in 530. He landed in Africa with no more than 15,000 men, and of these 15,000, the 5,000 cavalry included in that total were sufficient to defeat the Vandals in the open field. Even smaller was the army with which Belisarius moved to Italy in order to destroy the East Gothic Kingdom eleven years after Theodoric’s death: there were no more than 10,000 to 11,000 men.

“A contemporary author, Agathias (5. 13), estimated that the total Roman army must have been 645,000 men strong but that only 150,000 men were actually available under Justinian.

“A very large number of the soldiers with whom Belisarius had conquered Italy deserted to the Goths when, after he was relieved, the Roman domination again collapsed and Totila established the Gothic kingdom.

“After the fourth century A.D., and after the disappearance of the legions, everything changed. The barbarian mercenaries now felt that they were the masters. Woe to the prince or the general who might have dared to incur their displeasure by his strictness!

“Procopius considers it a half-miracle and an extraordinary accomplishment of Belisarius that the Romans marched into Carthage in good order, ‘whereas otherwise the Roman troops never march into their own cities without disorder, even if there are only 500 of them.

*All excerpts have been taken from History of the Art of War, Volume II: The Barbarian Invasions, Hans Delbrück, University of Nebraska Press.