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Caius Maxentius

When did they stop being legions?

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Just curious when the term "legio" or legion fell out of use. Were Roman soldiers still members of legions in the time of Aetius (when it seemed the foederati had become really important in the West); in the time of Justinian; in the time of Heraclius? I assume that by the time the Eastern Empire had re-organized into the military themes, that legion was no longer the term, but I could be wrong.

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I think there were legions until the fall of western empire, although their quality began to noticeably deteriorate in the fifth century. In some ways, they actually continued on for a bit after the fall, as a number of Frankish kings I think made use of several Gallic legions for several decades along borders of the kingdom, and Visigothic kings may have done something similar. In Byzantium, Latin continued to be the administrative language of the army until the early seventh century due to a majority of the troops being enrolled from the Latinized Balkan provinces, so legions would have continued, though they weren't as large as the ones in the Pax Romana. After Heraclius' reforms made Greek the official military language, the term legio would probably have fallen out of use, although had the Muslim conquests not occurred, the future East Roman military organization might not have been that different. As it were, the Byzantines were forced to radically reorganize their armies to suit the needs of a much smaller empire that for a time was on the verge of the destruction. In some ways, this simply accelerated the trend that began in the third century with faster and smaller cavalry and light infantry units being increasingly favored over massive plodding legions. The realities of Dark Age Byzantium made this a necessity,and by the time the empire began to recover, the core of the military were fast and mobile cavalry units that were very much under local control and ultimately developed into the powerful armored cataphracts, a less feudal-based cousin of the medieval knight.

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Roman legions were much smaller after the reforms of Constantine, and along with the decline of the centurianate at around this time, so the quality also declined. Zosimus in particular provides a colourful description of the capability of Valens army

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Re: Franks using Gallic legions after the fall -- I remember reading something briefly about this, with the Roman military tradition carrying on in certain places even though the Western empire was gone. What evidence do they have of this?

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After Heraclius' reforms made Greek the official military language, the term legio would probably have fallen out of use...

This indeed the case, and units which had retained the prefix 'LEGIO' continued to be so named until the early 7th century when the Thematic reforms took place. If I had my books handy (I am away from home just now) I could even name some Legions which retained their designation from at least the third century up until the time of Heraclius in 625.These legions were, in turn, originally formed from vexillations of the earlier legions formed in the Principate.

 

Caldrail's source paints a depressing picture of the later Roman army, and this description of forces under some of the later Roman emperors certainly applied to a great many units. This was not, however, universal. Ammianus Marcellinus refers to Gallic legions in the service of the General Julian ( later emperor ) who fought with great discipline and almost fanaticism, and whose engineering skills were on a par with those of the earlier empire.

Edited by Northern Neil

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Discipline has to be created - it doesn't automatically exist - thusn much depends on leadership, which will only affect the performance of a legion while the talented commander is present. After all, for the weaknesses and failings of late Roman legions, Sebastianus did manage to begin a successful campaign against the goths using the very form of warfare that the late imperial legion had been trimmed down for.

 

This is one point that generally escapes the casual observer. The legion of the late empire was about one sixth of the size of its forebears. There may have been more legions at that time, but they were smaller and more diverse in character. Specialisation was appearing. Marcellinus makes an intereesting reference to legionaries armed with hammers for instance. In many respects, the sort of army we see in the middle ages was already evolving along with the rise of armoured cavalrymen.

 

The situation had changed for Rome. The days when their legions were a force of conquerors had long since passed. They had become a security force, adapted to dealing with raiders - and in fact, a parallel of the modern day reduction from WW2 and its huge continental battles to smaller task forces against irregular enemies. Much of the old 'substance' (as Vegetius describes it) had eroded because there was little incentive to maintain it. Set piece battles were becoming rare and much of the expertise in handling such affairs had gone.

 

Also we should note that Valens asked for Sebastianus to take command of his armies because his old guard commanders had failed to impress him. Valens was facing a confrontation with Persia don't foregt - that was a serious situation. There were increasing rumours of the huns and thir lightning raids, such that Sebastianus' predecessor had built a wall to try and obstruct their cavalry in eastern europe (which of course they rode around - sound familiar?)

 

With regard to engineering we should realise that the average legionary was just as much a manual labourer as he had always been. Typically the legionary knew very little about civil works, other than any trade he had previously learned, and the 'skill' level derives from individuals who did know something, so it would appear Julian had the right men on his team.

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Take a look at THIS site that I use quite a lot when I'm researching the Legions.

 

Plenty of info here.

Edited by Gaius Paulinus Maximus

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Actually I feasred for the worst when I saw the home page, but after a quick delve here and there it doesn't look too bad.

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The "legions" still existed (in their modified form of about 1000 men) in the time of Aetius as there are many of them listed in the Notitia Dignitatum, which gives a list of the units of Western Empire's army that dates to around 420.

 

The general military organization described in the Notitia (at least the regional and praesental field armies) probably continued through the time of Heraclius until it evolved into the "Themes" and "Tagmata" in the 670's or 680's.

 

However, I don't believe the two main sources on military affairs after 420, Procopiu's Wars (dated in the mid 500's) and the Strategicon sometimes attributed to the emperor Maurice (late 500's), mention the term "legion". The Strategicon uses Greek terms like "banda" and "chilias". So, as othes have mentioned, sometime after the end of the Western Empire, as Greek became the official language the term "legion" went out of use.

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Strictly speaking, in my view, the legions ceased to be after the reforms of Constantine. I say this because they were nio longer a conquering force as they had been but evolved into a security force. The 'legions' of later times were not the independent formations of earlier, no longer the 'one size fits all' formation (indeed, the earlier Strategikon of Maurice dictates that tagma should not be the same size to prevent accurate enemy estimations of their strength)

, but had become smaller units that were formally part of a primitive army organisation and even then split between border and response grouping.

 

As with many things, the Romans continued to use the term legio because that was the traditional term for levies of armed arm even though the organisation and purpose had changed. Importantly, the style of warfare conducted by the cavalry of Maurices's time was pretty much medieval albeit perhaps more sophisticated.

 

I agree that the classic legion had always encompassd a security role. However, throughout their history, these troops had mounted punitive expeditions when necessary. The Romans always preferred an aggresive stance. In the later empire they seem to lose that martial streak. Certainly they riaded across the border - we have accounts of Roman troops attacking germanic villages covertly for loot - but essentially the later legions were maintained in a much more defensive posture.

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Re: Franks using Gallic legions after the fall -- I remember reading something briefly about this, with the Roman military tradition carrying on in certain places even though the Western empire was gone. What evidence do they have of this?

 

In John Moorhead's The Roman Empire Divided: 400-700, he writes about Roman commanders who led Gothic armies in Spain organized in ways very similar to the Roman legion. I don't have a direct quote offhand. As to the Franks, I don't have a direct quote, but I read about it somewhere like you. I do know that both the Frankish and Burgundian kings used Gallo-Roman generals to lead their armies. Considering how Romanized Burgundy was, I would not be surprised if their armies were organized in a Roman fashion.

 

After Heraclius' reforms made Greek the official military language, the term legio would probably have fallen out of use...

This indeed the case, and units which had retained the prefix 'LEGIO' continued to be so named until the early 7th century when the Thematic reforms took place. If I had my books handy (I am away from home just now) I could even name some Legions which retained their designation from at least the third century up until the time of Heraclius in 625.These legions were, in turn, originally formed from vexillations of the earlier legions formed in the Principate.

 

Caldrail's source paints a depressing picture of the later Roman army, and this description of forces under some of the later Roman emperors certainly applied to a great many units. This was not, however, universal. Ammianus Marcellinus refers to Gallic legions in the service of the General Julian ( later emperor ) who fought with great discipline and almost fanaticism, and whose engineering skills were on a par with those of the earlier empire.

 

The Gallic legions did serve well, but I've stated in an earlier post in another thread that this may have been somewhat due to the fact that they were directly defending their homes and families from destruction in and around Strasbourg, although their training and tactics were definitely crucial, especially since they were facing a much larger force. In fact, the catalyst that had Julian acclaimed as Augustus was that his men did not want to be moved east to serve under Constantius since they knew that the barbarians would come back and kill their loved ones.

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The Gallic legions did serve well, but I've stated in an earlier post in another thread that this may have been somewhat due to the fact that they were directly defending their homes and families from destruction in and around Strasbourg, although their training and tactics were definitely crucial, especially since they were facing a much larger force. In fact, the catalyst that had Julian acclaimed as Augustus was that his men did not want to be moved east to serve under Constantius since they knew that the barbarians would come back and kill their loved ones.

It is true they acquitted themselves well at Strasbourg; however, the passage in Ammianus Marcellinus I refer to describes their efficacy and fighting quality during the Persian campaign.

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