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The Militarisation of Roman Society, 400 - 700

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...interesting article about


The Militarisation of Roman Society, 400 - 700

by Edward James

University of Reading

from Military Aspects of Scandinavian Society in a European Perspective AD 1 - 1300


Historians and archaeologists have lavished attention on the new kingdoms established by various barbarian peoples in the former western Roman Empire in the fifth and sixth centuries. These peoples are, relatively speaking, visible: their kings issue lawcodes; men such as Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville and Bede write their histories; they bury their dead with jewellery, vessels, and, of course, weapons. Even if we cannot follow one Anglo-Saxon archaeologist, who seems to argue that because Angles and Saxons buried weapons with the dead their society must necessarily have been very violent,1 we must at least accept that the Germanic barbarians lived in militarised societies. Let me define that term. By a militarised society I mean a society in which there is no clear distinction between soldier and civilian, nor between military officer and government official; where the head of state is also commander-in-chief of the army; where all adult free men have the right to carry weapons; where a certain group or class of people (normally the aristocracy) is expected, by reason of birth, to participate in the army; where the education of the young thus often involves a military element; where the symbolism of warfare and weaponry is prominent in official and private life, and the warlike and heroic virtues are glorified; and where warfare is a predominant government expenditure and/or a major source of economic profit....


full article at Deremilitari

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I'm uncomfortable with this viewpoint. Describing a tribal society wth no clear disctinction between civilian and soldier cannot accurately be labelled as a militarised society, since that phrase by definition describes a domination of society by its military half. You shouldn't really use a specialisation to describe a general case. In any case, Rome began in more or less the same way. Tribal bands raiding and feuding among themselves, and we now refer to the pre-Marian era as essentially non-military despite the martial values of Rome, because they employed a militia army called to serve as required.


The question here is really at what level of organisation and involvement can a society claim to have a military component? Does picking up a sword and skewering someone else define an individual as a soldier? No, of course not. I prefer to regard the phrase 'military' as defining a profession. Tribal warfare is a way of life, one born to and brought up to exercise, rather than a career choice.

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I prefer to think of this period as a shift from the old stable Roman system of government to a feudal system of government where there are local landowners who administrate and defend their domains, and tenant serfs who farm the land and pay taxes to these landowners in exchange for government and protection from external threats. These landowners were the knights and lords who held all the wealth. They usually kept this wealth for themselves rather than give food and entertainment to the masses like a classical Roman Emperor (ie Trajan). The serfs were anybody else not in the local power circle. They stayed in the local area and lived locally, abandoning the trade, commerce and mobility offered by a safe and industrialized Roman Empire.


Life in this feudal system became very local as it was dangerous to travel to other lands. This process began during the Crisis of the 3rd Century and ultimately culminated in the fracturing of the Western Roman Empire into barbarian kingdoms. This did not happen swiftly but took place over the time period specified by the topic author.


The breakup of the Western Roman Empire can be explained in simple terms. One of two things happened;


1- The local people in a given area stopped paying taxes to the Emperor , opting instead to pay taxes to local kings or knights who could defend them better and for less money. Taxes were high in the late Empire.


2- The local people in a given area were deliberately abandoned by the Emperor and told to look to their own defence. Conquest by barbarian tribes was the usual result. A prime example of this would be Roman Britain in the 5th century.


When it comes to militarisation, it depends what is meant by this. Society has had a military capability for some time. Although the Romans of the late Empire did have to become more entrenched and fortified to defend against internal and external threats, Roman society in general continued as before with a continued distinction between military and civilians, until conquered by the barbarians.

Edited by tk421

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