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Flavius Claudius Iulianus

Reliance on individual generals in the Western Roman Empire?

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I've noticed that the armies of the Western Empire seemed to be holding their own under talented generals such as Stilicho, Constantius III and Aetius. After such generals died however, it seems as though the Western army suddenly became impotent overnight. What factors led to this apparent reliance on individual generals to maintain the army's capabilities?

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I've noticed that the armies of the Western Empire seemed to be holding their own under talented generals such as Stilicho, Constantius III and Aetius. After such generals died however, it seems as though the Western army suddenly became impotent overnight. What factors led to this apparent reliance on individual generals to maintain the army's capabilities?

 

It really began with the death of Theodosius I in 395. Although there was a trend towards the head of the army dominating politics in the West, it was only with the arrival of Stilicho that the situation became dangerous. Stilicho was the head of the West until 408 under the weak emperor Honorius. He was also Honorius' adoptive brother-in-law (i.e. married to Serena, Theodosius' adopted daughter) and his father in law (both of Stilicho's sons were married to Honorius).

 

With the emperor a weak-willed and incompetent leader, Stilicho maintained control by dominating the army command structure until 408 when he was executed. After that it was realised that being emperor forced the emperor to remain in court and so alienated him from the troops, effectively losing the loyalty of the army. Therefore, the magister militum could rely on the army to support him in running the empire, leaving the emperor as a figurehead.

 

Unfortunately, part of the price was the need to maintain relatively good relations with the Senate in Rome in order to raise taxes and recruits. The Senate opposed the raising of recruits, forcing the magister militum to rely more and more on using mercenaries.

 

The army didn't necessarily become 'impotent': by the time of Odovacer the 'native' army was no longer in control, since this had passed to the magister militum, now supported by large numbers of mercenaries. Furthermore, due to the loss of territory and revenues (especially from Africa, Spain and Gaul) the army was reduced to the forces stationed in Italy. It seems that forces in the provinces were either absorbed by the local warlord/barbarian king or slowly abandoned their posts. Without Eastern aid, the remnants of the West did not have the strength to recapture lost provinces, without which they didn't have the resources to recover.

 

When Odovacer deposed Romulus Augustulus the emperor had lost control of practically everything except Italy. He did not have either the resources or the inclination to attempt to restore the empire to its previous status.

 

A fairly simplistic answer, but one which I'm forced to give due to lack of time. :wacko:

Edited by sonic

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I've noticed that the armies of the Western Empire seemed to be holding their own under talented generals such as Stilicho, Constantius III and Aetius. After such generals died however, it seems as though the Western army suddenly became impotent overnight. What factors led to this apparent reliance on individual generals to maintain the army's capabilities?

 

This is a common factor in ancient warfare. Much is said about the ability of roman legions (mostly its a little exaggerated) but the same reliance on commanders is apparent even from the earliest days of the roman republic. This isn't anything peculiar to the romans, its just a facet of human social behaviour. Organising groups of men, inspiring them to fight, keeping hold of the reins, coping with enemy initiative and the chaos of war - all this requires some ability and individuals vary in capability. No army can be effective without able leadership no matter what training or discipline they suffer. One thing that comes across from studies of ancient warfare (and I'm thinking of Greek & Roman Warfare: Battles, Tactics, and Trickery by John Drogo Montagu - recommended) is just how vital original thinking, clear organisation, and clever subterfuge can be to secure victory.

 

It might be worth mentioning the smaller size of late empire legions and that their quality had declined measurably by that period.

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It might be worth mentioning the smaller size of late empire legions and that their quality had declined measurably by that period.

 

I'm probably being a bit thick here, but what is the evidence for a decline in quality?

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I've noticed that the armies of the Western Empire seemed to be holding their own under talented generals such as Stilicho, Constantius III and Aetius. After such generals died however, it seems as though the Western army suddenly became impotent overnight. What factors led to this apparent reliance on individual generals to maintain the army's capabilities?

As Sonic carefully eplained, the Western Roman Empire's inability to protect its borders was a paulatine, multifactorial, extremely complex and not wholly understood process that developed through decades; it was hardly an overnight phenomenon.

 

As far as I know, the main contribution of the semi-Vandal Flavius Stilicho and the semi-Gothic Flavius Aetius to maintain the army's capabilities was the prudent use of the Germanic allies' resources.

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It might be worth mentioning the smaller size of late empire legions and that their quality had declined measurably by that period.

 

I'm probably being a bit thick here, but what is the evidence for a decline in quality?

I think Sonic has a good point, specially regarding the eastern Roman imperial army (yes, they were Romans too).

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It might be worth mentioning the smaller size of late empire legions and that their quality had declined measurably by that period.

 

I'm probably being a bit thick here, but what is the evidence for a decline in quality?

 

The older style legions were strained to breaking point by the civil wars that saw Constantine placed in power, and the military reforms of that time reduced the size of legions to around 1,000 men, one sixth of it former capacity. From this point forward (roughly speaking) armour was less standardised, the banded cuirass becoming rarer, longer swords were adopted as standard (indicating less inclination and skill in swordfighting), less emphasis on offensive or siege warfare, increased incidents of ill-disciplined attacks (raids on german villages for personal gain), and the ever increasing use of foreign tribal units used without conversion to the roman system, indicating recruitment issues and a failure to maintain organisation and standards, and lastly, the increasing (and probably necessary) defensive policy of communities looking to their own protection rather than relying on the state.

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It might be worth mentioning the smaller size of late empire legions and that their quality had declined measurably by that period.

 

I'm probably being a bit thick here, but what is the evidence for a decline in quality?

 

The older style legions were strained to breaking point by the civil wars that saw Constantine placed in power, and the military reforms of that time reduced the size of legions to around 1,000 men, one sixth of it former capacity. From this point forward (roughly speaking) armour was less standardised, the banded cuirass becoming rarer, longer swords were adopted as standard (indicating less inclination and skill in swordfighting), less emphasis on offensive or siege warfare, increased incidents of ill-disciplined attacks (raids on german villages for personal gain), and the ever increasing use of foreign tribal units used without conversion to the roman system, indicating recruitment issues and a failure to maintain organisation and standards, and lastly, the increasing (and probably necessary) defensive policy of communities looking to their own protection rather than relying on the state.

 

I may be misunderstanding your point here, but I don't think the state of the Roman military near the 'end' of the Western Empire had declined. It had evolved. Pitched battles became increasingly rare. The nature of warfare had changed. In the fourth and fifth centuries AD, for example, it was unusual for an army to be comprised of 20,000 men; 5,000 to 15,000 seems to have been the norm. Warfare took on the style of small-scale raids as opposed to the type of pitched battles the Romans saw under the Republic and early Principate. Theorists in the late Empire favored avoiding pitched battles, for example. In Epitoma rei militaris, Vegetius wrote: "It is better to beat the enemy through want, surprises, and care for difficult places (i.e., through manoeuvre) than by a battle in the open field." He also wrote that "the main and principal point in war is to secure plenty of provisions for oneself and to destroy the enemy by famine. Famine is more terrible than the sword."

 

By virtue of the evolution of warfare, the structure and nature of the battle unit had changed. It, in a way, devolved, but that isn't indicative of a 'decline,' as it were. The decline seems to have come from the wielders of power, not the military traditionally used to protect or expand power. But that is, however, my opinion.

Edited by DDickey

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A fun thing to know is that under the Hannibal wars, the Cartaghians allies in Spain were only loyal to the family Barkas, they didn't care about the far-distant Chartage. So when Hannibal and his brothers died the spanish allied abandoned Cahrtage and joined the romans, but then they where only loyal to the Scipio family, so if they lost their influence the romans lost the spanish. This is an example for the very fragile military system of the ancient, and maybe still.

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I'm probably being a bit thick here, but what is the evidence for a decline in quality?

In general, there was increasingly a trend for military units to go private, to secure regular pay by operating as mecenaries contracting to defend communities rather than act as part of the Roman legions. Particularly after Adrianople, tribes were hired as troops for the Romans, the feoderatii, which was becoming a looser arrangement than the strict treaty it had once been. Archaeology shows the adoption of barbarian style arms and armour. Now whilst that doesn't necessarily mean these weapons were any worse than those used before, it does mean that the Roman forces were not well trained in their own, thus readily adopted those they were more familiar with. It also implies the late empire system of equipment was not functioning well.

 

Vegetius - he wrote De Re Militari as a guide to what the Roman legions of the late Empire should be doing, not what they were, and he hints in the text that soldiers of his day weren't as impressive as those of old. Further, he refers to legionaries as being 'unprotected'. Now whilst he exaggerates the problem (according to archaeological evidence, which admittedly isn't as accurate as we'd like because the sample is too small) there is a correlation - many late Roman soldiers had no armour. Many Roman units were no longer commanded by 'Roman' officers, nor even trained to fight in Roman tactics.

 

Marcellinus - In Res Gestae Libri XXXI Ammianus Marcelliuns describes the Adrianople campaign. By and large Marcellinus doesn't criticise the efforts of Roman troops, but there are hints that things weren't as well organised as they might have been. Units act impetusously and seem to have little steadfastness. Valens had made prodigious efforts during his stay at Melanthia to rouse the troops to any enthusiasm for the forthcoming fight at all, especially since the Goths had already massacered Roman forces under Lupicinus and Maximus, and there's little sign of any desire for revenge.

 

Zosimus - A particularly damning statement comes from Nea Historia, as in book four he describes the preamble to to the Battle of Adrianople. Sebastianus, observing the indolence and effeminacy both of the tribunes and soldiers, and that all they had been taught was only how to fly, and to have desires more suitable to women than to men, requested no more than two thousand men of his own choice. He well knew the difficulty of commanding a multitude of ill-disciplined dissolute men, and that a small number might more easily be reclaimed from their effeminacy; and, moreover, that it was better to risk a few than all. By these arguments having prevailed upon the emperor, he obtained his desire. He selected, not such as had been trained to cowardice and accustomed to flight, but strong and active men who had lately been taken into the army, and who appeared to him, who was able to judge of men, to be capable of any service.

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Well, it"s not fair to say the Western Roman Empire relied on individual generals. For example, the Gallic tribes, when Caesar attacked, relied on Vercingtorix to protect them but when he failed they got conquered. But, like I have said before in one of the other forums i spoke on, if they had good leaders then the army did good, if under bad leadership they did horrible. I can also see why they needed to rely on good individual generals because since they started hiring mercenaries, the discipline and troop quality went down so you had to rely on good leadership to make good decisions with not the best troops in the Roman armies' existence. It's like grabbing an ordinary person, putting them on a bull with about 10 minutes to prepare. If the person teaching is good, the person will have a better chance than if the teacher is bad.

Edited by lost legion23

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Well, it"s not fair to say the Western Roman Empire relied on individual generals.

The structure of the Roman military during the Empire was simple. Individual generals (Legatii) were in command of legions which acted as independent mini-armies. There was no national army. For that reason, the Empire was absolutely dependent on the loyalty of these men and very often found them looking after their own political interests rather than than enforcing the security of provinces.

 

For example, the Gallic tribes, when Caesar attacked, relied on Vercingtorix to protect them but when he failed they got conquered.

Vercingetorix rose in rebellion after the Gauls were conquered, whilst anti-Roman sentiment was at its highest.

 

But, like I have said before in one of the other forums i spoke on, if they had good leaders then the army did good, if under bad leadership they did horrible.

You know what? I agree completely. However, the ability of the opposing troops and leaders must be considered.

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You know what? I agree completely. However, the ability of the opposing troops and leaders must be considered.

 

Well, remember that in Teutoburg Forest, the Germans didn't need real, good leadership to kick the crap out of the Romans. They could just come in small or large parties and attack the Romans when they wanted. Of course it was a combination of the weather and lack of discipline inside the legions. Yet the lack of discipline could be fixed by kicking the civilians out of the mix and let the legions stay together, more of the legionnaires might have been saved then.

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The attack of Germanic tribes at Kalkriese took place over miles of dense temperate rainforest and was a co-ordinated attack, which indicates central planning and communication. Also, the plan was not simply to whittle the Romans down, but a successful attempt to lure the legions into a prepared killing ground. The attacks further back along the column were intended to disrupt the Roman column and prevent any retreat. The fact these tribesmen had co-operated at all suggests also that Arminius was a considerable leader. Certainly his demise took place because of the differences between tribes (though one can speculate about Roman intrigue).

 

The weather did turn bad, but this was less of an physical factor, since the storm was deeply significant to superstitious Roman soldiers so it was their morale that was harmed. The legions of the time were no less disciplined that at any other - indeed, Arminius's plan hinged on the Romans behaving as expected.

 

What civilians are you discussing? The legions were on campaign to stop what they'd been told was a revolt. They were marching to battle in other words.

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