ORB Online Encyclopedia

Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean

"Barbarization" in the Late Roman Army

Hugh Elton

The term 'barbarization' is used to describe the use of soldiers whose origins were outside the Roman Empire in the late Roman army. It has been argued (especially by Ramsay MacMullen) that this caused the army to decline in efficiency, though this is a view that is coming under some revision. There were two types of this 'barbarization'.

The first type was the recruiting of individual 'barbarians'. Many of the army's recruits did come from beyond the empire, from Frankish, Alamannic or Gothic tribes in Europe, from Persia or Armenia in the east. Their non-Roman names usually make them stand out in our sources but some did change their names. No systematic opposition to recruiting or promoting such men existed and they could and did reach the highest ranks of the army, something which only occurred in the late Roman army. However, their presence in the army as private soldiers was not new and they had been a feature of the army since the first century BC. None of our evidence suggests that this affected the battlefield effectiveness of the army. In number, they may have made up as many as a third of the empire's troops. The only effect of this process was a tendency to avoid forcing officers to fight against their own tribe. Even this was a rarely needed precaution, since many barbarians were contemptuous of those who had left their society for a Roman career.

The second type of barbarization was the short-term use of tribal groups of barbarian allies. These supplemented Roman forces, for the most part in civil wars. Again, this process was not innovative, but such contingents had usually been smaller. What was new was that it sometimes became a necessity. In 382 Theodosius I settled Goths in the Balkans. Then in 388 and 394 he was forced to incorporate them in his army to fight against Magnus Maximus and Eugenius respectively. If he had not, they would have taken advantage of the absence of Roman troops, even without encouragement from his enemies.

These contingents were not a permanent part of the army. Instead Roman emperors and generals hired them for the duration of a war and then dismissed them. Nonetheless, their easy availability from the settled barbarians, combined with the need to use such troops to stop them attacking Roman territory themselves, meant that the regular army suffered. This, with the financial crisis faced by the western empire, began to weaken the western army. However, in the east the stronger financial resources and the movement of Alaric's Goths from the Balkans to the Western Empire removed the need for such groups. When they did appear within the eastern empire after the dissolution of the Hunnic empire, there were two Gothic groups which could then be played off against each other.

Although there were many men of extra-imperial origin in the late Roman army, there is no link between their presence and diminished battlefield effectiveness. The use of large allied contingents was not a permanent addition to Roman forces and was not the result of a need to bolster a weak army unable to win battles without help. But the continued presence of these contingents meant that within a generation the Romans saw them as allies, not as enemies. As allies, it was difficult to destroy them, but their increasing occupation of Roman territory eroded the Roman tax base. This in turn reduced the capacity of the western empire to defend itself, though these problems were not present to such a severe extent in the east.


A Short Bibliography

Elton, H.W., Warfare in the Roman World (Oxford, 1996)

Heather, P.J., Goths and Romans (Oxford, 1991)

Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G., Barbarians and Bishops (Oxford, 1991)

MacMullen, R., Corruption and the Decline of Rome (New Haven, 1988)


Collapse of the Roman Empire--Military Aspects

Late Roman Army

Late Antiquity Index


Copyright (C) 1996, Hugh Elton. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

ORB Homepage About ORB Who is ORB? ORB Library ORB Reference Shelf Index