Ancient History & Civilisation

Military Security

The emperors had absolute power and authority, and ruled by means of an elaborate bureaucratic system. This need not be described or analyzed in detail, a task that has been done with unmatchable authority by A. H. M. Jones in The Later Roman Empire. One important feature of the system was the functional division between civilian administration and military command. The main army commands were now given to the “masters of soldiers” (magistri militum), and to other senior commanders including “counts” (comites) and “dukes” (duces), who were subordinate to them. These headed the complex and fluid structure of the late Roman armies.

The pattern of Roman military organization was considerably complicated by the regional division of the empire. When the empire was divided between two or more emperors, each was at the head of his own military hierarchy, and this multiplied the number of offices. Lactantius made the famous charge that by creating the tetrarchy Diocletian quadrupled the size of the Roman army, thereby creating an intolerable tax burden on the civilian population (On the Deaths of the Persecutors 7.2). This cannot be literally true. There is a tendency both in the ancient sources and in modern scholarship to exaggerate the size of the Roman armies in late antiquity (see pp. 475–9). The sixth-century bureaucrat John Lydus claimed that Diocletian's army numbered 435,266 soldiers and sailors (John Lydus, de mens. 1.27), and Zosimus reckoned that in 312 the combined forces of the western empire alone numbered 286,000 (Zosimus 2.15). The Notitia Dignitatum, which reflects the putative conditions around 400 in the East and the 425 in the West, has been interpreted to suggest troop numbers as high as 600,000.18 However, these high figures contrast with the actual numbers given for troops engaged in major campaigns, especially after the end of the fourth century, when overall Roman military capacity became appreciably weaker than it had been. Procopius, for instance, says that the largest army ever to fight the Persians was assembled by Anastasius in 502 (Procopius, Bell. Pers. 1.8.4). The well informed Chronicle of Ps-Joshua the Stylite puts the figure for this force at 52,000 (Ps-Joshua, Chron. 54). Agathias observed that in its weakened state at the end of Justinian's reign the army numbered only 150,000 and was no longer equal to the task of defending the empire (Agathias 5.13). This figure seems broadly credible for the mobile field armies, although it does not account for the sedentary frontier garrisons.19 At all events it is important to draw a distinction between overall military numbers, which included the regional garrisons of limitanei, and the much smaller figures which represent the manpower available for active campaigning (Diagram 5.1).


Diagram 5.1    The East Roman high command and military structure

The units of the late Roman army fell into three main categories.20 The limitanei were garrison troops, who resided in the frontier areas of the provinces. They contrasted with the comitatenses, the mobile field armies, which accompanied the emperors on campaign during the fourth century and were available for expeditionary deployment later, and the palatini, units which were attached to the forces that were based in the imperial capitals themselves, especially at Constantinople. In the fifth and sixth centuries their counterparts in the field armies were elite bodies of troops with personal connections to the commanders, who were informally known as bucellarii, after the baked biscuit which was the staple military ration. However, it is unlikely that the distinction between these categories was completely clear cut, and the field units certainly made up numbers from the frontier garrison units when need arose. The field armies also drew their recruits to an increasing degree from barbarians, who thus became integrated into Roman forces.21

Rome made military use of barbarians in numerous ways.22 Barbarians who were taken captive as a result of Roman campaigning during the fourth century were often resettled in small groups in frontier areas. They were known as Laeti and were liable to be enlisted or press-ganged into army service.23 From the reign of Constantine onwards assimilated barbarians occupied prominent positions as military commanders, reflecting the fact that a growing proportion of rank and file soldiers were of non-Roman origin.24In 382 the Goths in Thrace were offered the status of allies, foederati, by treaty with the Romans, which enabled them to retain their own social structures and tribal leadership (see p. 91).25 It was even more significant that the most important military leaders in the western empire in the fifth century had large personal followings of barbarian soldiers. These included Stilicho, who commanded 35,000 federate followers at his death in 408 (Zosimus 5.35.6). According to Olympiodorus, Constantius, the western general who became Augustus in 421, had a large retinue of barbarian soldiers, which he bequeathed to Placidia, Honorius' sister (Olympiodorus fr. 38). Other major military figures of the first half of the fourth century were Bonifatius, who attempted to mount a usurpation from Africa supported by Gothic federates (Possidius, Life of Augustine, 18), and above all Aetius, whose political predominance in the West between the 430s and the 450s was due to the large following of Hunnic mercenaries that he could command.26 They were followed in the next generation by Marcellinus, whose power base was in Dalmatia, and above all by Ricimer, the kingmaker of the western empire in the third quarter of the fifth century.27 It is important to note that these warlords were only influential in the western part of the empire. Their actions contributed as much as anything to the collapse of Roman authority in the West. In the East, even during the grievous instability of the Isaurian regime of Leo and Zeno, generals with private armies never took control of the civil hierarchy. Under Justinian Belisarius is reported to have been accompanied by a retinue of 7,000 barbarian horseman (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.1.19–20). Procopius, however, only drew attention to this huge retinue in the context of Justinian's decision, which was unchallenged, to deny his general the opportunity to parade in a second triumph.

The exact terms under which barbarians were recruited were evidently fluid and flexible, and Procopius indicates that by the sixth century federate troops included many soldiers who might previously have been classified as Romans.28

Now at an earlier time only barbarians were enlisted among the foederati, those, namely, who had come into the Roman political system not in the condition of slaves, since they had not been conquered by the Romans, but on the basis of complete equality. For the Romans call treaties with their enemies foedera. But at the present time there is nothing to prevent anyone from assuming this name. (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 3.11.3–4, trans. Dewing)

Some groups of barbarians operated within Roman army structures; others, especially those with strong and effective leaders of their own, have the appearance of free agents. The latter could be a serious threat to the internal security of the state, if their leaders chose to defy the orders of their political masters, as was clear in the cases of Alaric and Gainas at the beginning of the fifth century, and of Theoderic the Amal and Theoderic Strabo in the time of Zeno; but in general these barbarian troops were effective, well trained for war, and probably posed no greater problems of discipline than Roman troops. The Chronicle of Ps-Joshua the Stylite provides graphic detail of the abusive behavior of Gothic troops quartered in Edessa during Anastasius' Persian campaign, but their behavior was not significantly worse than that of Roman troops billeted on civilian populations at other times and places (Ps-Joshua, Chron. 93–95).

These diverse categories of the Roman army were all supported by the state systems of military pay, provisioning, and transport. The armies were able to provide security across the huge area of the empire thanks to their mobility and the logistic infrastructure that supported them. Rome's military capacity was built on an extraordinary communication system, which was capable of conveying information, manpower, arms, and provisions between its regions.29 On land there was an engineering miracle, the road system, and its administrative counterpart, the organization of state transport liturgies, which were provided by local communities (see pp. 326–9). Although inscribed milestones become rare after the fourth century, the literary evidence, notably of Procopius in Buildings, indicates that at least the major roads were maintained until the mid-sixth century, and the Justinianic law code indicates that the system for requisitioning official transport continued to function at this period (CJust. 12.11.1–23). The supposed collapse of this system, and the replacement of wheeled transport by camels, has been suggested as a major reason for the Islamic conquest of much of the eastern empire in the seventh century, but this remains contentious.30

The passage of rulers, officials, and soldiers along the roads of the empire had a huge impact on provincial life in the later empire. Fourth-century emperors were constantly on the move between the empire's trouble spots. It has been estimated that Diocletian throughout his years as emperor must have moved an average ten miles every day, a statistic that makes the praise of his tireless care of the empire a fully comprehensible feature of the panegyrics of the age. Emperors were accompanied by a large entourage of advisors and officials, and of course by military units, amounting to several hundreds of people, and the demands made by these traveling administrations were immense. The complex preparations and demands that were necessary on such occasions are vividly illustrated by a dossier of correspondence from Panopolis in the Thebaid (Upper Egypt), involving the procurator of the lower Thebaid nome (the senior Roman regional official), who was issuing requisitioning orders in advance of the imperial visit, the strategos in charge of the district of Panopolis, and the president of the local council. The local population had to be organized to provide food equipment, transport, and billeting. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the whole business is the intensity of written communication that it generated. This included not merely the surviving correspondence between the principal players, but the plethora of requisitioning orders, accounts, receipts, and other paperwork that the correspondence implies.31 One consequence of the growing emphasis on the official use of the road system was that the communication network itself, rather than the cities that it connected, became a main focus for imperial attention.32 Road stations (mansiones) were a prominent feature of the imperial landscape, and could become the focal point of substantial settlements. The finest archaeological example of this phenomenon in the eastern Roman Empire is the mansio at the foot of the pass that carries the main road from Pamphylia in southern Asia Minor into the interior at the Döşeme Boğazi (Plate 5.8).33 The structure, measuring about twenty by thirty meters and secured from the exterior by lockable doors, had a suite of substantial rooms adjoining a courtyard, where pack animals could be unloaded and stabled. It stood immediately beside the main highway, but was not isolated. Around it was a cluster of stone houses, cemeteries, and several churches. This is the archaeological counterpart of a road station that is well documented in the literary record, the birthplace and home of the Galatian saint Theodore, which lay at Sykeon, on the border between Bithynia and Galatia on the main road that led across Asia Minor from Constantinople to Syria.34 As land communications between the eastern and western parts of the empire became less secure in the fifth century, maritime communication was a factor of increasing significance. Constantinople depended on the sea, and by the sixth century maritime transport both of goods and troops had become more important than land communications. Shipbuilding and the maintenance of secure harbors were both essential to the success of the late Roman state (see pp. 328–9).


Plate 5.8    The Mansio beside the Roman road that ran through the Döşeme Boğazi in southern Turkey from the Pamphylian plain to the interior of Asia Minor (S. Mitchell)

All forms of state activity, but above all army costs, were supported directly or indirectly by Roman taxation. Most Roman taxation was related to land and landownership. Agriculture was the largest economic activity in the empire, and land was the most important reservoir of invested wealth. By contrast city-dwellers paid much less tax, often none at all. There were vigorous protests in the time of the tetrarchy, when Diocletian and his colleagues conducted new censuses and attempted to levy an urban poll tax throughout the empire in order to meet the budgetary requirements of the state, which had been rigorously calculated.35 Later levies on the income of urban craftsmen were similarly unpopular.

There is general agreement that one of the achievements of Diocletian was to reform the entire Roman taxation system and place it on a more unified basis. Theoretically, at least, universal censuses were conducted at fifteen-year intervals. These counted and registered individuals for the poll tax, and assessed their property, in terms of quantity and quality, for the land tax. The outcome in the early fourth century was a general system of assessment known as iugatio-capitatio. The empire's subjects were liable to provide levies in kind, known as indictiones, and compulsory labor for state projects (operae), as well as money contributions. Both types of contribution could be commuted into cash. The fifteen-year census period was known as the indiction cycle. One indication of the universal impact of Roman authority in the late empire is the very common use of indiction years as a way of dating documents, including funerary inscriptions, throughout the eastern empire in the fifth and sixth centuries. The tax system, when fully enforced, was put into practice by a very large number of minor and middle-ranking officials in the capitals and throughout the provinces, under the overall supervision of the praetorian prefects. No ancient source survives to explain the principles or general procedures of Roman taxation, and our understanding of the details of the system is based on often uncertain inferences from individual tax documents, or from passing references in the historical sources. This creates an impression of great complexity, but in general the tax system of the later Roman Empire appears to have been simpler and more rational than it had been in the Augustan period. This is partly due to the systematic organization which Diocletian and his successors brought to the problem, and partly to the fact that tax collection was now almost exclusively handled by imperial officials, rather than being a task delegated to city administrations, as it had been during the early empire.36

Hardly any quantifiable evidence for taxation levels survives from the later Empire. The most usable figures come from a papyrus which records the land-tax assessment of the Egyptian city of Antaiopolis in AD 540. The tax liability of 51,655 arourae (12,819 hectares) on cultivated land (92 percent arable, 5 percent vineyards, 3 percent gardens) was assessed at a rate of about 1.2 artabae plus 4.75 gold carats per aroura, giving a proportion of tax in kind to tax in coin in this assessment of 38 : 62. If we convert the gold tax to its wheat equivalent, according to A. H. M. Jones' calculation, the tax on each aroura of land would have been 3.2 artabae. In the irrigated Nile valley it is estimated that one artaba of seed would produce a harvest of twelve artabae of grain, and on that basis the proportion taken by the state as a tax would have been around 27 percent. Additionally a tenant farmer would have to set 8.5 percent of his yield for seed, and might expect to pay between 33 percent and 50 percent of his total yield as rent to a landlord, thus leaving him with between 14.5 percent and 31.5 percent of the harvest for his own subsistence.37 It is very difficult to draw general conclusions from these isolated figures and calculations. In particular, crop yields in Egypt were predictably at least twice as high as those from areas of dry farming, the usual pattern throughout the Mediterranean. Thus the absolute size of harvests in Egypt led both to higher tax yields and to a more comfortable margin of subsistence. In areas with tighter margins tax levels would have necessarily been lower. This is one of the reasons why the level at which farmers were taxed on their land's produce varied from region to region, with proportions for arable produce in dry farming areas ranging between 10 (a tithe) and 20 percent. Total taxation as a proportion of GDP in a modern European state runs between 30 and 45 percent, but modern states pay for their health and social services, universal education, pensions, and a host of smaller but significant budget items from their tax income. Late Roman taxation underwrote three main areas of expenditure, the army, the costs of the court and the state administration, and part of the cost of feeding the inhabitants of its capital cities.

Unsurprisingly a prodigious number of tax regulations were drafted and published in the late empire, and these demonstrate both the administrative complexities of tax collection, and its vulnerability to abuse by officials. As a particularly telling example we can cite a lengthy Latin inscription dated between AD 368 and 375 found at the Italian city of Canusium in Apulia which contains a law of Valentinian I which has not survived in the later codifications. The text is fragmentary and in parts problematic, but the imperial ruling required persons in charge of rural settlements and those responsible for the running of state granaries to submit monthly accounts, and city accountants to prepare documentation for the officials responsible for tax collection, whereby it could immediately be known how much tax and in what form each individual should pay, or what should be assigned to their future obligations. Then, as a further form of oversight, the provincial governors, shirking no burdens of government, should travel hither and yon through the roads and villages, having summoned the landowners to meet them at appointed locations. Even when the documentation appeared to concur with reality, they should hold face-to-face meetings with each landowner and discuss their calculations, and demand to see the tax receipts and evidence of the process. After establishing what each person had paid by personal inspection, they should minutely investigate whether any quantity of goods had been held back. The justification for the new regulation was that only by these remedies could measures be taken against the fraudulence which hitherto had brought vast profit to deceitful compulsores (tax enforcers) and criminal officials. By removing this corruption it would become clear what a landowner had contributed to the public granaries, so that no future tax debts could be removed, and no burden owed by one person transferred to anyone else.38 This highly elaborate regulation certainly did not create a model for tax assessment and collection that applied across the western empire; the details of the text should be interpreted as a specific solution to local problems and abuses, and reveal the distinctive temperament of the reigning emperor, Valentinian. On the contrary, the procedures were so labor intensive and intrusive that it is hard to imagine they were sustained in practice at all. However, it is hard to find a more eloquent demonstration of the practical demands of running an efficient taxation system on the Roman model. States whose finances depended on tax income always had to meet, although they certainly did not always master, the challenges of enforcing demands through the bureaucracy, and dealing with corrupt officials.

Tax was always felt as an imposition by those who paid it. The inhabitants of the empire frequently sought tax remission at an individual or a community level, and this was one of the commonest forms of benefaction that emperors could confer on their subjects. The impact of taxation at a local level, and the ways in which burdens were alleviated by an imperial benefaction are well illustrated by the Chronicle of Ps-Joshua the Stylite, concerning the city and territory of Edessa in Osrhoene around 500. The Chronicle's entry for the year 497/8 is dominated by the report that the emperor Anastasius had issued an edict which remitted the tax paid by artisans and manufacturers, the chrysargyron.39 The decision was proclaimed in all the cities of the empire. The Edessenes had hitherto paid 140 pounds of gold every four years.

The whole city rejoiced. They all dressed up in white from the greatest to the least, and carrying lighted candles and burning censers, to the accompaniment of psalms and hymns, they went out to the martyrion of Mar Sergius and Mar Simon, thanking God and praising the emperor. There they held a eucharist, and on coming back into the city they extended the feast of joy and pleasure for a whole week, and decreed that they would celebrate this feast every year. All the tradesmen sat around and had a good time, bathing and relaxing in the courtyard of the City Church and in all the city's colonnades. (Ps-Joshua, Chron. 31, trans. Watt)

In 499/500 the territory of Edessa was devastated by locust infestations. Peter, the metropolitan bishop, undertook an embassy to the emperor at Constantinople to ask for remission of the land and poll tax, the synteleia, but this did not prevent the provincial governor from using violence against the local landowners to extract the contribution that was due and sending it to Anastasius. The emperor did not remove the tax, but agreed to a remission of two folles per head by the villagers, while city dwellers were freed from the obligation to draw water for the Greek garrison (Ps-Joshua, Chron. 39). In 500/1 the food shortage continued. Villagers were reduced to eating bitter vetch or withered grapes in the countryside, or crowded in to beg in the city, gleaning scraps of vegetables from the filthy streets. The governor, Demosthenes, reported the famine conditions in person to the emperor, and brought back with him a considerable sum which was used to obtain bread for the city's relief. But disaster could not be avoided and deaths from famine and disease through the winter from November to March ran at 100–130 per day. The harvest gathered in June and July 501 brought some respite (40–44).

During this period edicts also reached Edessa from Anastasius concerning entertainments. The first, in August 499, addressed to all the Greek cities of the empire, abolished wild beast shows (kynegia) in the amphitheater (34). The second, which arrived in May 502, made dancers (orchestai) illegal (46). In October 502 the Persian king Kavad launched an offensive against the Roman Empire and laid siege to Amida, while his Arab ally Na'mân attacked the region of Carrhae (Harran) and Edessa. Anastasius refused to meet the Persian demands for money and sent Greek forces to the cities of the region. The people of Edessa were ordered to bake 630,000 modii of bread for the troops at their own cost, although it seems that the flour was mostly brought in by the army from Egypt. In December 503 an edict came from Anastasius to remit the land and poll tax, the synteleia (66). In May 504 more wheat was brought to Edessa to be made into bread for the soldiers by the local people (850,000 modii). The conditions of war caused extreme famine, which led even to cannibalism in Amida, which had been occupied by the Persians, but the Roman troops in Mesopotamia received their supplies.

The Roman troops, however, lacked nothing. On the contrary, everything was supplied to them in its due season, for by order of the emperor it was sent down to them with great care. There were more things for sale in the camps than could be found in the cities, whether food, drink, shoes or clothing. Bakers in all the cities were baking boukellaton and sending it to them. This was especially so with the Edessenes, for the citizens there baked in their houses 630,000 modii during this year too by order of Calliopius the hyparch, not counting what was baked by the villagers throughout the whole chora and the bakers, both foreign and native. (Ps-Joshua, Chron. 77, trans. Watt)

During this year (504/5) Mar Peter, the bishop, again went to the emperor to ask him to remit the tax (synteleia). The emperor rebuked him for having neglected the charge of the poor in bringing the petition, saying that God himself would have put it into his heart, if it had been right, without anyone persuading him, to do a favor to the blessed city. However, while the bishop was still in Constantinople, he authorized the remission of taxes for all Mesopotamia. He also remitted one-third of the taxes of the district of Mabbôg-Hierapolis (78). His conduct is consistent with an edict issued in 496 that all tax reductions were to be authorized by Anastasius in person (CJust. 10.16.13).

These extracts, written by a well-informed author about events which he had witnessed himself, serve to illustrate how the empire was governed in practice. Major initiatives can be traced back to the emperor himself. The decision to abolish the chrysargyron, a tax on urban manufacture, was greeted at Edessa, as elsewhere, with unfeigned enthusiasm. His successor Justin commended Anastasius for his skill at working to a tight budget (CJust. 2.7.25 pr.), and the contemporary panegyrics of Priscian and Procopius of Gaza are full of praise for his fiscal and financial competence. On the other hand the orders to abolish wild-beast shows and pantomime performances are evidence of his puritanical religious predilections. The role of the provincial governor revealed here was to ensure that taxes were collected in full, even to the extent of using violence to extract them. No doubt he would have been held accountable for any shortfall. The emperor might choose to be generous, but this was not a liberty permitted to officials in his service.

Remissions were obtained by petitioning the emperor. The narrative indicates that there were two spokesmen of sufficient status to achieve the desired results. One was the provincial governor himself, Demosthenes, who successfully obtained a grant-in-aid from the emperor for the city during the second year of an acute famine, which caused very high mortality. The other was the city's bishop, who undertook two embassies in five years to Constantinople, on each occasion to ask for remission of the city's synteleia, that is the composite land and poll tax of its inhabitants.

The passage also provides dramatic evidence of the impact of war. The Sassanian king declared war on the empire as a result of Anastasius' decision to discontinue the subsidy which the Romans paid to the Persians to maintain the Caucasus garrison against the Huns. Such decisions were the outcome of international politics at the highest level. The consequences, however, were felt locally, in the Mesopotamian frontier area, which not only suffered from the enemy invasion (Amida was occupied after a Persian siege), but also from the consequences of Roman mobilization. Edessa provided provisions and billets for the mainly Gothic troops of the field army that had been sent to the front. Baking bread for the army became a task for every household as well as for the professional bakers. As we have seen their efforts were poorly repaid by the indiscipline and abuses of the soldiers (see p. 179). It required another episcopal petition, employing tact rather than indignation, to gain tax relief in compensation for this.

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