After the military reforms of Emperor Costantine the Great (306-337 AD), the traditional Roman army as we know it morphed into a more mobile and specialized force, able to deal quickly with foreign and domestic threats that arose throughout the empire. The new army of Costantine was composed of three main groups: the Comitatenses, the Limitanei or Riparienses and the Palatina legions.
The Comitatenses, heirs of the classical roman legionnaire, were the professional heavy soldiers armed with the long spatha and an oval shield. Their commanders were the Comes, a military figure who later gave birth to the medieval Count.
The Limitanei or Riparienses were paid less, had lower physical requirements but were still full-time professional soldiers who guarded the precarious roman borders, operating as an initial defensive line and an efficient scouting force. They only dealt with small-scale attacks and were usually withdrawn if the situation got extremely dangerous. Their commanders were the Duces, a word later used to indicate all kind of commands.
The Palatina legions, which included the Ioviani, were elite regiments of soldiers and guards associated with the emperor’s presence. Contrary to popular belief, these legions were extremely successful against enemy incursions because of their structure but were considerably drained by civil conflicts.
This new defensive model provided by the army of Costantine was called “in depth”, as it guaranteed different levels of protection.
As can be seen in the Battle of Strasbourg (357 AD), the late Romans, guided by Caesar Julian, were more than capable of forming disciplined and effective armies. Therefore, we cannot solely blame the army for the Fall of the Western Empire. In fact, the army remained a capable and efficient force almost until the last breath of the Roman West.
To further prove this, we can look at the Battle of Adrianople (378 AD), during which there were no morale or disciplinary failures by the army, with troops retreating only when the situation became hopeless. The late Roman army was not weaker than its predecessor, instead it had to face extremely precarious situations, often prevailing over insurmountable odds. Despite common belief, the considerable “barbarization” of the army did not cause it to decline in efficiency. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, the soldiers whose origins were outside the Roman Empire were extremely competent and reliable.
By the time of the official political “fall” of the western roman empire in 476 AD with the removal of teenage emperor Romulus Augustus by Germanic general Odoacer, western Europe was a mosaic of so-called successor states led by “barbarian” kings and leaders. In this essay, I will focus on the successors I consider the most successful. But first, we must clarify what is meant by the term ‘successful successor state’. As an Italian, I believe that success in late antique and the early middle ages is shown through: political stability, military might, the presence of a central authority with administrative and military branches, territorial control and expansion, achievements in the arts, as well as the willingness to adopt roman cultural traits as the base for further reforms and development.
We often consider the political disintegration of the western roman empire as the end of what we think to be the classical period. Most evidence points to the contrary however, as the so-called “barbarians” that took positions of power inside the imperial bureaucracy became heads of successor states and tried to perpetuate the western roman empire. Most probably, the average roman citizen after 476 AD would not have noticed any changes in his or her daily life, despite now being ruled by a “barbarian” king. Proof of this is the consular ivory diptych depicting Manlius Boethius, father of the famous philosopher Severinus Boethius, shown after 476 AD as a man of high social status who was able to remain in a position of power even after the fall of the western roman empire in 476 AD.
Among the many successor groups of the western roman empire, I believe the Goths were one of the most successful. Both the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, respectively western and eastern Goths, had military and commercial contacts with the Romans for centuries and seem to have had some level of admiration for their culture, as they were the most ‘romanized’ of the “barbarian” groups. This can be seen even today, as Theodoric’s capital, Ravenna, shows his attempt at reproducing late roman and classical forms of art and architecture. Ravenna was to be modeled after Constantinople, as Theodoric had been raised there. His city also took from Rome, in particular his mausoleum, which imitates the classical tombs of the emperors Augustus and Hadrian. Another example is the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in the city of Ravenna, the palatine chapel of king Theodoric, built on the model of the roman civil basilica. Its mosaics on a golden background emulate eastern roman styles.
During the 4th century AD, the Goths’ conversion to Arian Christianity, aided by Bishop Wulfila’s translation of the bible into Gothic, constituted a clear attempt of an immigrant group to better integrate into roman society, although Aryanism was later deemed a heresy at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Their adoption of Arian Christianity presented a great obstacle to the successful amalgamation of Nicene Romans and Arian Goths under the rule of Theodoric in Italy, which would have otherwise been entirely successful.
Theorodoric’s respect and admiration for senatorial elites as well as roman civilization and administration reflects itself in the Ostrogothic administration of his kingdom, which was modeled on its roman counterpart. While military power remained in the hands of the Goths, he left the administration to the senatorial elite, as a sign of admiration for their experience and political shrewdness. He also kept some positions of courtly bureaucracy and power that were directly inherited from the late roman state, such as the office of quaestor sacri palatii, held by Aurelius Cassiodorus and that of magister officiorum, held by Severinus Boethius, author of De consolatione philosophae. Based upon our earlier definition of what constitutes a successful successor state, it is clear the Goths should be seen as successful because they had the ability to adapt and integrate the imperial roman administrative machine to their tribal reality, turning gothic kings from purely military leaders into heads of state with authority over both the administrative and military branches of their reigns.
In terms of political stability however, the Goths lacked continuity as they were often on the move, first on the Danube frontier, then in Moesia, Aquitania Secunda, Italy and finally Spain. These repeated migrations is where their success becomes blighted.
The Goths were to also find success though in the realm of law. The reign of king Chindasuinth saw the compilation of the Liber Iudiciorum, later expanded by his son king Recceswinth in 654 AD, based on the work of past great legislators, such as emperor Justinian and Theodosius II. The main innovations of this code were that women were allowed to inherit land and title, and dispose of their properties independently from their husband’s consent. In his Etymologiae, a monumental collection of general knowledge and etymology, Saint Isidore of Sevilla, although not a Goth himself, shows that visigothic Spain was not a brutish and “barbaric” land, but a culturally flourishing one.
In the field of numismatics, Theodoric the Great, tried to heavily imitate late roman coinage and their characteristic abstract representations while introducing some Germanic elements such as the moustache. During the middle ages, the main Visigoth mints were located in Gaul and in the Iberian peninsula. Visigoths minted mostly solidii and tremissis, two coins which were popular during the late roman era.
The Vandals are another Germanic group that can be considered successful within our construct. Beginning in 429 AD, they were able to establish a relatively stable kingdom in North Africa thanks to the leadership of King Geiseric, a politically able and intrepid leader. Their military prowess showed in their victories against the multiple roman attempts at regaining North Africa, such as that of eastern roman general Basiliscus in 468 AD. The Vandals were successful in developing advanced military tactics, as demonstrated by their use of fireships against the Roman fleet in Cap Bon, Tunisia. They went as far as sacking Rome in 455 AD, when led by Geiseric, who did not burn the city or slaughter its inhabitants due to his promise to Pope Leo I.
Like the Goths, the Vandals also minted their own coinage which was heavily inspired by late roman numismatics.
The Vandals are usually disparaged because of their perceived brutality, of which little historical proof exists. Modern historians however consider them as perpetuators of roman values and culture. I believe the Vandals were not as successful as the Goths or the Franks as their kingdom was brief and ended when North Africa was regained in the 6th century by Belisarius, with very limited resources and manpower.
The transition from a tribal system to some form of centralized government was also a unique skill of the Franks, another Germanic people who were first reunited under King Clovis I and had significant exposure to the roman world.
In terms of territorial control, the Franks came to rule most of central Europe with their sphere of influence extending to northern Italy and the Iberian peninsula under Charlemagne. However, this large territory was divided among Charlemagne successors by the treaty of Vedun in 843 AD, reducing the opportunity for a centralized government and undermining Frankish political stability and unity.
Unlike the Goths who were Arians, the Franks converted to Nicene Christianity with the conversion of King Clovis I on December 24th 496 AD. The king’s conversion to Nicene Christianity and alliance with the church constituted an attempt to align himself with the great Christian emperors of Rome, and the future basis for the empire of Charlemagne. Frankish leaders allied themselves with the personnel of the catholic Church in order to better control their lands as well as influence the political and social spheres of the empire.
In fact, the Frankish kingdom under the Merovingian dynasty paved the way for the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, a Germanic attempt at reestablishing some level of universal authority over Western Europe. The Franks were also able to demonstrate significant military strength, defeating Islamic forces at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD thanks to the leadership of Charles Martell, mayor of the palace under the Merovingian dynasty.
Even more than under the Merovingian dynasty, the reign of Charlemagne brought about a period of flourishing cultural activity called “Carolingian Renaissance”. This cultural renaissance was characterized by the restoration, preservation and emulation of ancient and classical texts and artistic canons by scholars and clergymen of the time, pointing in the direction of the renovatio imperii that saw Charlemagne as the restorer of imperial roman authority in Western Europe. In particular, illuminated manuscripts made mostly by clergymen, such as the “Godescalc Gospels”, can be recognized as works of particular artistic and cultural significance. Another relevant cultural innovation was the introduction of the Carolingian minuscule, a clear script promoted by Charlemagne between the 8th and 9th century AD. This script provided a standardized writing style which facilitated reading and comprehension of medieval Latin throughout Europe. During his reign, Charlemagne also promoted better education for clergymen as they played a relevant role in the administration of the Carolingian empire. The reign of Clovis I, saw the compilation of the Frankish legal code around 500 AD. Unlike the Visigothic legal code, the Frankish one displayed little Roman influence. However, it nonetheless represents an important attempt to regulate life in the Frankish kingdom and, most importantly, constitutes a transition from early Germanic laws, which were oral compilations of custom, to written statutes.
In my opinion, the Goths can be considered as a worthy successor state to the western roman empire. Their close interaction with the Romans within the lands they occupied shows a strong willingness to amalgamate with them. This may have been related to the fact that they conquered coastal territories such as Italy and Spain which were the heart of the old roman world. Their conversion to Aryan Christianity was also a way to integrate themselves into the empire in the 4th century, as the empire was almost fully converted to Christianity, with the eastern roman empire having an Arian emperor, Valens. The Goths also had the cunning and perhaps the luck, to keep the roman senatorial elites in a position of power, taking advantage of their administrative skills and keeping them in line. Unlike the Goths, the Vandals did not experience the same cultural development, as their reign was relatively brief, despite occupying the most fertile lands of the old roman empire. The Franks however do rival the Goths as the most successful successor group of the western roman empire. While the Franks developed a form of centralized government under Clovis I, their interaction with the Roman world at that time was relatively marginal. In terms of religion, the Franks made a more forward looking decision than the Goths, as they converted immediately to Nicene Christianity bypassing all other heresies. As for political longevity, the Franks outlasted all other Germanic groups as they formed the nucleus of what was to become the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, the Franks were also able to demonstrate the greatest military proficiency of all of the successor states, through their halting of the Arab advance into western Europe and the defeat of the Lombards under Charlemagne, while the Visigothic kingdoms fell prey to the Arab push and Ostrogoth Italy became prey to the armies of Constantinople. Although the Franks appear to be the most successful state in terms of prowess, longevity, and cultural achievements, I nonetheless believe the Goths had a symbiotic relationship with the roman world that the Franks never had, and are thus a more direct successor state to the western roman empire.
In June of year 363 AD, near the city of Samarra in modern day Iraq,a large professional Roman army was in a state of total chaos. The Romans were led by Princeps Julian, a cultured and competent leader who had led the army to victory near the Persian capital of Ctesiphon a month earlier. Julian however failed tocapitalize on this important tactical victory, and did not siege the city as an incoming force led by the King of Kings Shapur II was closing in from the east. Near Samarra, Julian’s army of 35,000 was intercepted by skirmishing cavalry sent by Shapur. The Persians attacked the roman cohorts who were advancing in square formations to avoid encirclement. Julian, seeing his troops panicking in front of the suddenSassanid attack, rushed forward without his armor in order to encourage his men to fight on. He was however spotted by Sassanid officers who sent an arab regiment of auxiliary cavalry to assassinate him. Julian was hit on his back by a javelin and was immediately rushed to the rearguard. His doctor Oribasius couldn’t do anything, as the Emperor died a few hours later in his tent. The roman army, now without a leader, chose Jovian (Julian’s Comes Domesticorum) as the new emperor. Facing continuous raids from the Sassanids, the Romans were forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty with Shapur II. Shortly after the peace negotiations, emperor Jovian died in his tent in Anatolia (Dadastana) under mysterious circumstances.
In the spring of 327 BC, Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, had conquered most of the persian Achaemenid empire and defeated the King of Kings Darius III in numerous battles. Alexander had arrived in Central Asia, in a region known then as Sogdiana (modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and had encountered stiff resistance from the Iranic peoples that lived in the hereto unexplored region. One of the leaders of the resistance was Oxyartes, a persian nobleman who had a beautiful daughter named Roxanne. Roxanne was sent by her father to a fortified castle near the city of Maracanda (Samarkand). The castle was considered impregnable, as it was located on the top of a steep mountain and therefore nicknamed “The Sogdian Rock”. While Alexander was preparing the troops for the siege, the confident defenders told him that to take their castle he would need “men with wings”. Alexander took 300 volunteers experienced in rock climbing (Macedonia being a mountainous region, his men were skilled climbers)and sent them up the slopes of the mountain. When the men arrived on the top, Alexander sent messangers to tell the Persians that if they looked up on the walls, they would have seen their winged men. The Persians, astonished, surrendered to Alexander. After the siege Alexander married Oxyartes’s daughter Roxanne, who gave him a son, Alexander IV.
On the western bank of the Euphrates, near the border of modern day Iraq and Syria, once stood the ancient walled town of Dura-Europos. Founded as a military colony by Selecus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s successors, Dura-Europos became a sprawling city, serving as a crossroads of cultures and empires. Under Roman rule, the city became one of the most strongly fortified points on the eastern border with the Sassanid Persians. In the year 256 AD, the Sassanid King of Kings, Shapur I, laid siege to the city. The siege was extremely violent, with the Sassanids trying multiple times to undermine Roman defenses. The Persians may have also used poisoned gas, stemming from ignited sulphur crystals, in order to kill the roman defenders, in what is an ancient example of chemical warfare. The skeleton of the Sassanid soldier who was most likely responsible for the release of the gas was found by archaeologists. Even a siege ramp was erected by the Sassanid troops in order to breach the defenses of the city. Eventually the Sassanids did manage to take the city, deporting the survivors to Ctesiphon and selling them as slaves. The city then became a ghost town, as emperor Valerian was defeated and captured by Shapur’s forces near Edessa in 260 AD and therefore could not intervene in time. Desert sands would gradually cover the city’s buildings, miraculously preserving them for future archaeology. Evidence of Dura’s cultural diversity throughout the centuries can be found in the retrievedworks written in Greek, Latin, Palmyrean, Hebrew and Middle Persian. The city contained a Christian chapel, a Synagogue, a Mithraeum and an Agorà, proof of the greek/macedonian origin of the town. Dura also housed a Roman military camp, the base from which the Roman garrison operated the defense of the walls in 256 AD. The extensive archaelogical evidence (which included also many pagan temples, the Praetorium and the city walls) present in the town led to the city being called: “the Pompei of the Desert”. Contemporary satellite images show that 70% of the site has been destroyedby looters and by ISIS operations in the region. One of the guards of the archaeological site has beenbeheaded. Dura-Europos is now lost to the the desert winds of Eastern Syria.
By the time teenage emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Germanic general Odoacer in 476 AD, the western Roman world was fragmented and governed by mostly “barbarian” rulers who led the so called “romano-barbarian” kingdoms. There was however a land in northern Gaul, near the city of Noviodunum (modern day Soissons), which still claimed to be part of the Roman Empire. The leader of the domain of Soissons was Afranius Syagrius, the son of the able Magister Militum per Gallias, Aegidius. He was referred to as “King of the Romans” by the Frankish nobles, and tried to maintain a successful Gaullic-Roman state in the middle of a mostly germanic ruled western Europe. Syagrius succeeded in pursuing his objective for about 25 years, but, in 486 AD, he was challenged by the ambitious king of the Franks, Clovis I. Syagrius confronted the armies of Clovis near Soissons, in the modern French department of Aisne. The Franks managed to crush the Roman forces, as Syagrius was forced to flee to the Visigothic court of Alaric II. Alaric, intimidated by the powerful Franks, handed Syagrius over to Clovis, who summarily executed him. Gregory of Tours wrote about the event, claiming that Syagrius was stabbed in secret. With the death of Syagrius, Roman rule in the West came to an end. This is not to say that Roman culture disappeared entirely, as the Eastern Roman Empire was still strong and the new germanic kingdoms viewed Rome as a model, which they copied extensively, from administrative posts to military tactics and ranks.
After the gradual disintegration of the Western Roman empire and the Eastern Roman reconquest of the Italian peninsula in the 6th century AD, a small castle called Castrum Cajetanum, situated on the southern Tyrrhenian coastline of Italy, began to flourish under Byzantine rule. The fortified castle, on the slopes of Monte Orlando (a place full of greco-roman legends) slowly started to gain autonomy from the central authority of Costantinople, becoming de facto independent by the 9th century AD. During this time, the rulers of Gaeta and its surroundings were called Hypati, a Byzantine title equivalent to the Latin Consul. During the high Middle Ages, the rulers of Gaeta allied themselves with the pope and fought against saracen pirates, defeating them at the battle of Ostia in 849 AD and at the battle of Garigliano in 915 AD. From this time onwards, Gaeta gradually turned into a sprawling trading centre, with its ships reaching as far as Constantinople, Syria and North Africa. Gaeta became so powerful and rich, that it was commonly referred to as the “fifth” Maritime Republic along with Amalfi, Venice, Pisa and Genoa. Gaeta’s golden age ended in 1140 AD, when the city was absorbed by the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, led by King Roger II. One of the main primary sources on the history of Gaeta is the Codex Diplomaticus Cajetanus, a collection of historical documents, written in the nearby Abbey of Montecassino. The famous Caetani family, of which pope Boniface VIII is part, is said to descend from the powerful Hypati of Gaeta.
The Persian army under the Sassanid dynasty of Late antiquity was an extremely efficient force, more loyal and reliable than its Parthian predecessor. The heavy cavalry or cataphracts, taken from the Azadan or minor Persian nobility (feudal nobles) were its core divisions. The 10.000 knights guarding the King of Kings, the Zhayedan or Immortals, were cataphracts as well.
The 1.000 elite Pushtigban were the same type of heavy cavalry and were based at the capital Ctesiphon. The charge of a shock unit like the cataphracts in battle produced massive damage to enemy divisions and also had great psychological impact on the enemy. In fact, these knights were completely encased in armor, including their faces. According to roman officer and author Amianus Marcellinus, cataphracts looked like “moving iron statues”. The military officers of the Sassanid army were drawn from the Wuzurgan nobility. Light cavalry such as skirmishers and horse archers was mostly supplied by the bellicose tribes of Central Asia like the Hepthalites and the Massagetae. Regiments of light Arab cavalry, mostly provided by the Lakhmids, were always present in Persian armies. The Sassanids also had infantry, though most of their footmen were not trained or professional soldiers but levied and seasonal troops, mostly being armed with spears and large wicker shields. However, an elite body of infantry troops also existed: the Daylamite warriors, Daylamig in Middle Persian.
These warriors were drawn from the mountainous regions of Northern Iran, the Southern shores of the Caspian Sea. They reached such a high status that 4.000 of them were chosen as private bodyguards by Shah Khosrow II, thereby forming the Gond-i Shahanshah or Army of the King of Kings. The Sassanid army was a very efficient sieging force, using mining techniques, siege towers, catapults and battering rams to siege walled and well fortified cities like the roman fortress of Dura Europos. War elephants from India carried little fortified towers with archer support on top. The elephant corps was under a special chief, known as the Zend-hapet, or “Commander of the Indians”.
High Ranking Officers:
Erahn Spahbed – Commander in chief of the army, the equivalent of a Roman Magister Militum.
Spahbed – Army commander and field general, Middle Persian Spahpat.
Pushtigban Salar – Commander of the Pushtigban bodyguards based in Ctesiphon, Mesopotamia.
Eran Anbaraghdad – Officer responsible for the army supplies, of crucial importance while campaigning.
Stor-Bizeshk – Senior officer responsible for the health of the steeds, essential for the cataphracts and very knoledgiable about herbs.
Arghbed – Commander of a fort or castle.
Payghan Salar – Chief of an infantry division, guarded by elite Daylamites, Northern Iranian warriors.
Savaran Sardar – Head of a cavalry division.
Varhranighan Khvadhay – Commander of the 10.000 Zhayedan bodyguards (the Immortals).
The Ioviani were created by soldier Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD) as an elite guard unit. The name Ioviani derives from Iuppiter, the patron god of the legion. Later on, they became part of the Palatina Legions of the new Constantinian army as elite regiments led personally by the emperor. They served under emperor Valentinian the Great as Ioviani Seniores in his aggressive campaigns on the Rhine Frontier, taking part in the Battle of Solicinium in 368 AD.
They also served in the province of Britannia under Comes Theodosius against the Picts, the Franks and the Saxons. In the year 388 AD, the Ioviani fought again in Germany, losing their commander Heraclius in battle. They took part in the Battle of the Frigidus in 395 AD. They served under the Magister Militum Flavius Stilicho and in this period they were headquartered in Pisa, Tuscany. They fought against the rebellion of the Comes Gildo in North Africa alongside the Herculiani Seniores. At the beginning of the 5th century, the Ioviani Seniores were probably still based in Pisa and were one of the last units to dissolve in the west, remaining loyal to the emperor till the very end. The Ioviani were one of the most senior Palatina Legions in the west. They were proficient in the throwing of plumbata, a form of lead-weighted dart carried by heavy infantry. Their shield crest was a red eagle on a blue field. Before engaging in battle, the Ioviani would perform the barritus, a roman war chant of germanic origin that consisted in a crescendo of low pitched noises enhanced by putting the mouth close to the shield. They fought as heavy infantry, armed with a long spatha and an oval shield. They probably also carried short spears.