This is the third-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur! But who was Arthur? Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived. (Read Part Two here)
THE DEFENSE OF ROMAN BRITANNIA IN THE 4TH CENTURY
To understand the army of Arthur and the defenders of Britain in the 4th and 5th century, we need to briefly examine the structure and composition of the Roman army that defended Britannia before the Roman withdrawal. This was the model upon which Vortigern (and, ultimately, both Ambrosius and Arthur) based the defense of Britain.
Roman Britannia was divided into three military commands:
The first was the Dux Britanniarum (the “Duke of Britain”), head-quartered at Eburacum (York). His responsibility was the northern defenses; particularly the garrisons that supported Hadrian’s Wall. The second command, the Comes Litoris Saxonici (“Count of the Saxon Shore”), commanded the coastal fortresses fronting the English Channel and the North Sea. And, finally, the senior of the three: the Comes Britanniae (“Count of Britain”), commanding the province’s mobile field army (Comitatensis).
As in other parts of the Roman Empire, all Roman soldiers in Britain were divided into two rough classes: second-rate, hereditary garrison troops, called Limitanei; and the first-class fighting troops, called comitatenses (sometimes referred to as comitatus). Both classes contained units of cavalry and infantry, light and heavy troops. The Limitanie (garrisons of the Limes) were the descendants of the classical Roman legions and auxilia cohorts, stationed along the frontiers since at least the time of Hadrian, and in places even earlier.
Over the centuries, their size and quality had deteriorated. From the 3rd century on, the best were occasionally pulled back to the interior of the provinces, to make mobile field armies; capable of responding rapidly to any major breakthrough of the frontier perimeter. These, and new regiments raised by various emperors, comprised the comitatenses: the mobile field armies stationed in key frontier provinces.
The strategy of the Late Empire was for the limitani garrisons to deal with low-level threats, such as raids by war-parties or pirates. Major invasions by tribal armies were allowed to pass between the forts (the various “barbarian” races were never adept at siege work, and these border forts tended to get bypassed by invaders eager for easier plunder); leaving the limitani intact to sally-out later to harass stragglers or interdict the invader’s supply and reinforcements. It was the job of the comitatensis to intercept and defeat these larger invasions. Until the 5th century, the quality gap between limitani and comitatensis had been narrow. Limitani were capable of being pulled ad hoc out of their garrisons to augment the field armies on specific campaigns. (Limitani so elevated to field force duty were designated pseudocomitatensis.)
In the 5th century, as their corn rations from imperial granaries in North Africa dried up, these troops became part-time militia; living in their fortresses with their families, and farming the surrounding area. As the situation deteriorated in the Western Empire, these garrisoned fortresses became islands in sea of German-controlled territories….
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