Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!
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.
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 the Britains”), 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, 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 in the singular). Both classes contained units of cavalry and infantry, light and heavy troops. The limitanei (garrisons of the limes, or border defenses) were the descendants of the classical Roman legions and auxilia cohorts stationed along the frontiers since at least the time of Hadrian, and in some places much 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 limitanei 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 limitanei 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 qualitative gap between limitanei and comitatensis units had been narrow. Limitanei were capable of being pulled ad hoc out of their garrisons to augment the field armies on specific campaigns. Limitanei 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 a sea of German-controlled territories. By the last decades of the 5th century, many swore allegiance to the new German authorities, be it Frank, Visigoth, or Burgundian. Over time, the dux who commanded the larger border fortresses became hereditary feudal lords in the new kingdoms that grew out of the ruins of the Western Empire during the “Dark Ages”.
A third class was the foederati. From the 2nd century onward, the Romans made use of small groups of tribal warriors from outside the Empire. These fought in their native dress, using their own equipment and tactics and commanded by their own leaders. They were hired for specific periods, and not given citizenship upon discharge (unlike auxiliaries recruited from tribes within the Empire). At times they were settled within the Empire after their discharge, usually in border regions, to provide both future soldiers and a buffer between civilized lands and the barbarians beyond the frontier. Stilicho, the commander-in-chief of the Western Roman army at the beginning of the 5th century, was just such a son of Vandal foederati.
At the end of the 2nd century, during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, 5,500 Sarmatian armored horsemen from the Danube frontier were settled in Britannia as foederati. Tantalizing enough, these may at one point have been under the command of a Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus. They and their descendants remained in Britain till the end of the Roman period and, presumably, beyond. At least one cuneus (wedge) is recorded as still part of the garrisons that supported Hadrian’s Wall at the time of the Roman withdrawal.
From the 4th century on whole tribes of “barbarians” were enlisted as foederati. As their numbers grew in proportion to the rest of the army, so did their demands. The best example is Alaric, who commanded Visigoth foederati in the Balkans. In the first decade of the 5th century, he and his Visigoths revolted when his demand to be named as Magister Militum of Illyricum was denied. It was this mutiny by Alaric and the Visigoth foederati that set in motion the chain of events that, in the end, led to the end of the Western Empire. ( See Part One here)
Britannia was not warded from attack by its Roman garrisons alone. In the north, between the long-abandoned Antonine Wall and the still defended Hadrian’s Wall, the Romans had cultivated the friendship and alliance of the Celtic tribes who dwelt there. Most notable amongst these were the Votadini, who later formed the Kingdom of Gododdin in what would become the Scottish lowlands; and a branch of whom , under their legendary leader Cunedda, founded the Kingdom of Gwynedd in Wales (as discussed in previous installments). This transfer of a Roman allied tribe (or a portion thereof), from southern Scotland to Northern Wales was accomplished sometime between the last days of Roman Britain and the mid-5th century. It was a major political achievement. It has been suggested that the Roman or Romano-British authorities used these fierce allies to crush a hostile Irish settlement in north Wales and replace them with a buffer client-kingdom. In time, of course, Gwynedd would become the premiere kingdom in Wales.
As discussed in Part One, it is tempting to link this move to both Germanus and Vortigern’s activities between 429 and 440. This theory of Roman/Romano-British influence in Cunedda’s occupation of north Wales is not, however, without critics. But the suggestion that a major migration of a client people across Roman Britain could have occurred without the blessing of the provincial authorities is absurd.
THE ARMY OF ROMAN BRITAIN IN THE 4th CENTURY
The army that garrisoned Britannia was divided into three commands. The best were the comitatensis, the mobile field army, which acted as a reaction force to any major incursion, and numbered between 4,800 and 6,600; under the control of the Comes Britanniae. The Dux Britanniarum commanded the 9,000 garrison troops spread across the northern border, mostly along Hadrian’s Wall. The Comes Litoris Saxonici had some 2,200 troops manning the coastal forts under his jurisdiction. Thus between 15,000 and 17,000 men were deemed adequate by the Roman authorities to secure the island.
These regiments that composed this force were both cavalry and infantry. The majority were armed with spear or javelin (or both), though some portion of the auxilia were archers. How many of the units in Britain were archers is unknown. The later Roman army stressed archery, and cohorts of sagittarii used a powerful “Skythian” composite bow. Civic militia, conversely, were allowed a weaker “soft” bow, suitable for unskilled burgers doing infrequent military service and asked only to defend their own town’s walls.
These were now designated as limitanei, the first assigned to the Saxon Shore and garrisoning the fort at Rutupiæ (Richborough), the latter under the command of the Dux Britanniarum at Eburacum (York). One of these limitanei legions of the old empire were withdrawn by Stilicho in 406 (likely the VI Victrix). Both would have numbered no more than a thousand each, and likely somewhat less.
Like all late Roman heavy infantry, they were armed with a light spear called a lancea, or a throwing spear called a spiculum; either of which could be thrown or retained for use in close-quarter combat. These were possibly augmented by either a lighter javelin called a verutum, or (in rarer cases) a half-dozen small throwing darts, called plumbata, which were carried in a rack mounted inside of their shields.
Few Roman infantry outside of the field armies wore armor beyond a helmet. What designated them “heavy” as opposed to light infantry was their role in battle and the tactics they employed. Heavy infantry, regardless of the amount of armor (if any) worn, fought in deep and closely ordered formations, often with shields either overlapping or touching. Their job was to close with the enemy and, after showering them with missiles, finish them at close-quarters with spear and sword.
“Light infantry” auxilia were more versatile and had attained high status in the mobile field forces of the late empire. They could be used to skirmish on the wings of or in front of the main battle line of heavy infantry. Or, in other cases, to form-up in similar depth and density and fight in the main battle line with the “heavy” legions. They were particularly useful in wooded or rough terrain. Their armament was also lancea and verutum. The majority of limitanei posted in Britain and remaining after Constantine III pulled the comitatensis out in 407 were light infantry auxilia.
Cavalry, too, was classified as light and heavy. As with the infantry, these designations had everything to do with their battlefield roles, and little to do with their armaments.
Many of the limitanei cavalry units that (likely) remained in Britain after 407 were classified as “heavy”, armed with lance or javelins, and wearing some amount of armor. At least one unit of catafractarii, the Equites Catafractarii Iuniores (exceptionally heavily armored lancers) and a unit of Sarmatians, the Cuneus Sarmatarum ( heavily armored lancers as well), are known to have been part of the northern garrisons.
Armored lancer regiments fighting in the Sarmatian style grew in number and importance among Roman heavy cavalry of the 4th and early 5th century, though never equaling the traditional javelin-armed heavy cavalry. After the Romans departed Britain, the northern parts of the province and what would later be known as Lowland Scotland became the Kingdoms of Gododdin and Strathclyde. The aristocracy of these Celtic people maintained a heavy cavalry tradition into the 9th century. As we know that Sarmatians had been settled in the north since the 2nd century, it is not unlikely that the Sarmatian style of warfare may have permeated among and been partially adopted by the north British nobility, some of which likely were related by marriage or blood ties to the Sarmatian community that existed in the north.
The Roman heavy cavalry garrisons also included more “conventional” regiments equipped with spear or javelins and a large shield. These could either skirmish with the enemy at a distance, showering them with javelin, or charge home with spear or sword. In later post-Roman Britain, most of the Celtic Romano-British upper class warriors fought in this fashion.
Late Roman light cavalry tended to be javelin armed as well, with either large shields or, occasionally, smaller “target” type. They were useful in skirmishing on the flanks of the heavy troops, and were skilled at showering enemy infantry with missiles from a distance. They were also quite comfortable riding down a broken and fleeing enemy with sword.
The prime secondary weapon of all Roman (and later Romano-British) soldiers was the sword, or spatha. The short gladius of the classic Roman legions had long gone out of usage. The 34” spatha, originally a cavalry sword, had become the standard side-arm of all branches of the Roman army, horse and foot. These spatha were the ancestors of the later medieval broadsword.
- That this Lucius Artorius Castus is the Arthur of legend is a theory held by Linda A. Malcor and others. This possibility will be dealt with at a later time in this series. Suffice to say that this writer disagrees with theory.
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.