"Snails for the boys" - On the road with Theophanes of Hermopolis

Theophanes Carriage


Some time in early March (Phamenoth in the Egyptian calendar), around AD320, a man named Theophanes set off from the city of Hermopolis in the Nile valley on a journey to Antioch in Syria, capital of the eastern provinces of the Roman empire. Theophanes was probably a lawyer, and he was travelling to Antioch to visit the office of Dyscolius, the vicarius (deputy) to the Praetorian Prefect of the East. We don’t know the reason for his journey, but it may have been connected with a property dispute between different towns in the Hermopolis region. His round trip would take him nearly six months, but Theophanes travelled in style, staying at imperial guesthouses, bathing regularly, meeting and dining with friends and officials along the way. As a man, he is otherwise completely unknown, but his journey allows a fascinating insight into the daily life of a middle-class Roman traveller of the early 4th century AD.

We know about Theophanes today because a record of his trip, together with some letters of introduction to the officials he would meet along the way and an inventory of household possessions, was discovered in Egypt, in a cache of preserved papyri. The main document is a simple itinerary with a list of travel expenses – a dry compilation of facts, presumably compiled by his secretary. But, deciphered and studied by the historian John Matthews (in The Journey of Theophanes: Travel, Business and Daily Life in the Roman East), this basic account provides a way of reconstructing these few months in Theophanes’s life.

The document was written on the back of an official Latin petition, or subscriptio, stating the names of the reigning Caesars (junior emperors) of the day, which gives us an approximate date. Papyrus was valuable, and this would have been the equivalent of office scrap paper. The eastern empire at this point was under the rule of the Augustus Licinius, the great rival of the western emperor Constantine: fortunately, this is the exact period covered by my ‘Twilight of Empire’ novels.

Theophanes was not travelling alone, of course – wealthy Romans of his day seldom went anywhere unaccompanied. Notes in the account mention several members of his travelling retinue, most or all of them probably slaves. A man named Silvanus served as his phrontistes, or household manager, while another named Eudaimon dealt with his daily finances. There was a messenger (dromeus), appropriately called Hermes, and another named Horos. Two Egyptian slaves called Piox and Aoros seem to have acted as general helpers and baggage handlers. These, and perhaps other slaves, were collectively called paidia – ‘the boys’ – and there are frequent references to special provisions of lower-quality rations allocated to them.

Various friends and travelling companions come and go – somebody called Antoninus appears to accompany Theophanes for part of his journey. At the fortress of Babylon in Egypt (near modern Cairo) Theophanes pays for wine for ‘a Pannonian soldier’, and on the last leg of his journey, from Laodicea in Syria to Antioch, he is accompanied by ‘six Sarmatians’: these men are probably also soldiers, perhaps a military escort provided by the local governor. On that day Theophanes covered an extraordinary 64 miles, so perhaps he had joined a military group in a ride through the night to reach his final destination.

                                 Scenes of everyday life in Antioch, from the 5th century Yakto mosaic.

                                 Scenes of everyday life in Antioch, from the 5th century Yakto mosaic.

Other stages of the journey were less hectic. As an important civilian travelling on official business, Theophanes could apparently make use of the imperial post-carriage service, or cursus publicus, and stay at the network of mansiones, inns or guesthouses, along the route. This allowed him to move very rapidly: he covered distances of between 16 and 45 miles daily, averaging 32 per day. Matthews estimates that he would have used two carriages and probably a wagon as well to transport himself, his staff and his travelling baggage.

The most interesting aspect of the accounts, however, are the smaller items that Theophanes pays for along the way. He makes regular visits to the baths, taking his own bath-salts (nitron) and even soap (sophonion). He eats well – daily bread of differing quality, fruit, and the typical Roman three-course meal, sometimes with the herb-flavoured white wine called absinthion, drunk as an aperitif. He frequently buys lunch or snacks for his companions too – ‘olives for lunch with Antoninus’ at one point. At Pelusium, on his journey home, the account mentions ‘snails for the boys’ – whether this was a rare treat, or all that was available, is unclear!

All of the monetary sums are given in drachmae, an obsolete Greek currency at the time but still used as a financial unit, like the Roman denarius. Theophanes’s daily transactions – or those of his slaves and treasurer – were probably carried out in nummi, the silver-washed bronze coins in common use at the time. One nummus was worth 50 drachmae, so a loaf of refined bread would have cost two coins, an amphorae of good wine fourteen. With average expenditure at 75 nummi per day, Theophanes’s money-men would have had to carry substantial quantities of heavy coinage about with them.

Some of the expenses relate to special occasions. At Antioch Theophanes buys ‘gourds for the wedding of Pellios’. At Ascalon he not only pays for tickets to the theatre and odeion, but also buys a gilt statue of the emperor (Licinius, presumably) for dedicating in a temple, while at Ptolemais he commemorates his daughter’s birthday – probably with another temple dedication. Interestingly, bearing in mind the date, there is no mention of Christianity in these documents; Theophanes’s religious world is still resolutely traditional. The snow-chilled water (chiones hudor) he pays for at Byblos was perhaps a luxury in the summer heat, while it’s tempting to imagine that the ‘wine jar in the form of (the god) Silenus’ that he buys at Tyre was the 4th-century equivalent of a trashy tourist souvenir!

We don’t know whether Theophanes’s trip was successful or not. He spent over two months in Antioch before making his way home to Egypt. Whatever he was doing has left no other trace in the historical record, and compared to the momentous events shortly to convulse the Roman world – the climax of the ongoing civil wars between Licinius and Constantine – his journey may seem of little importance. But these documents give us a narrow window into the everyday experiences of the era, and the lives of those multitudes who lived through a period of profound change, albeit distracted by their own affairs. And for a novelist trying to reconstruct the world of the early 4th century in fiction, they are an invaluable resource.



John Matthews. The Journey of Theophanes: Travel, Business and Daily Life in the Roman East. Yale University Press, 2006




Knights vs Romans?

Knights Vs Romans

Comparing the armies of entirely different historical periods or cultures, and trying to work out which would win in some anachronistic clash of arms, is generally a fairly futile pursuit. Military forces develop in response to the specific needs of their day, and rely on the available technology of their era. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped people trying to imagine the results, and while some of these fantasy confrontations are more fanciful than others (Vikings vs. Ninjas?), the idea of a battle between Imperial Rome and the knightly warriors of the Middle Ages has long been a recurring topic for internet historians, armchair strategists and wargamers of all sorts.

Putting aside the obvious objections, therefore: if we imagined that a Roman army and an army of Medieval Europe were somehow sucked through a rent in the space-time continuum and compelled to fight a battle, is there any way of guessing who might come off best?

To try and answer the question, we’d first have to decide on some representative forces. The Roman army of the 2nd century BC was very different to that of the 4th AD, just as the armies of the 10th century differed greatly from those of the 15th. But the Roman empire was vast, far larger than any medieval state; a single legion with its auxiliaries could have outnumbered the average force deployed by a king of the earlier middle ages. So we’d need to choose opponents of a similar size, a suitable era, and of which we have a fairly detailed description.

Even so, the match would be difficult. The Roman army was based on the heavy infantry legion, developed to beat opponents who mainly fought on foot. The armies of the medieval era, on the other hand, were centred on the heavily armoured aristocratic knight, usually mounted before the 14th century, and supported by a range of foot soldiers. To make our imaginary clash more equitable, we’d have to choose opponents that had in some way adapted to fighting outside their tactical comfort zone: Romans who went up against a largely mounted enemy, versus knights with some experience of battling largely infantry foes.

For the Romans, then, I’ve selected the force described by Lucius Flavius Arrianus – better known today as Arrian – in his Acies contra Alanos. Arrian was a Roman senator and governor of Cappadocia, of Greek origin, and his Greek account details the composition and tactics of an expeditionary force he led, or intended to lead, against the invading Alanic horse nomads in AD135. Arrian appears to have led two legions, five cavalry units and around ten cohorts of auxiliaries, three of which may have been of double size. On paper his force possibly numbered about 19,000 men, but few units were ever at full strength; 15,000 seems a more likely figure, of which 8000 were legionary infantry and around 2000 cavalry. Eight of his auxiliary cohorts included a mounted component, and at least three also included archers. Crucially, his army also included an artillery section of catapults and ballistae; the late Roman writer Vegetius suggests that each legion may have had 55-65 of these machines.

                     Roman cart-mounted bolt-shooting ballistae, shown on Trajan's Column (AD113)

                     Roman cart-mounted bolt-shooting ballistae, shown on Trajan's Column (AD113)

As a suitable medieval force to oppose the might of Rome, I’ve chosen the Anglo-Welsh army led by King Edward I of England against the Scots in 1298. The English had been beaten the year before by a Scottish army that included large numbers of infantry pikemen fighting in blocks called schiltrons – perhaps the closest medieval battlefield equivalent to an ancient infantry array. Numbers for Edward’s army are harder to establish with any great accuracy, but he probably had around 2500 cavalry – most of them fully armoured knights and men-at-arms. This time, however, he was better prepared to deal with the Scots schiltrons, and his knights were supported by around 12,500 infantry, many of whom were longbowmen from Wales and northern England.

             English longbowmen in training, from the Luttrell Psalter of c.1325

             English longbowmen in training, from the Luttrell Psalter of c.1325

Arrian’s tactics are far more defensive than the usual Roman style of fighting against opponents on foot. He first selects a suitable location with high ground on either side to prevent outflanking moves by the mobile enemy, then draws up his legions in a strong line eight ranks deep, forming a wall of shields with the light troops on the flanks and the archers and artillery at the rear. Even trained cavalry horses will not generally charge against a solid wall of infantry, and Arrian intends to hold his position and break the impetus of the Alanic assault with volleys of javelins, arrows and artillery projectiles. Once the Alans are in disarray, the infantry will open lanes and allow the Roman cavalry to charge through them and drive the enemy from the field.

Medieval tactics of the 13th century were also fairly simple, and relied on the power of the charging mounted knight. Knights were formidable warriors, trained since childhood in combat and accustomed to regular exercise in hunting and the mock battles of the tournament, even when they were not on active campaign. Edward’s horsemen would be dressed from head to foot in mail, with full helmets and plate limb defences, and armed with lances, swords and shields; some were also mounted on armoured horses. But at Falkirk, the most important aspect of the English army was the longbowmen: rather than charge directly against the Scots infantry, Edward ordered his archers to shower them with mass volleys of arrows, only sending in his knights and mounted men-at-arms when the enemy formations had frayed and gaps had opened in their ranks. The combination was deadly – but how well would it have worked against Arrian’s Romans?

Rome had faced large numbers of archers before, and large numbers of mounted cavalry too. The Parthians had beaten a Roman army at Carrhae in 53BC using massed archery to wear down the legionaries, followed by horseback charges, just as Edward did against the Scots. But the Romans had learned from their mistakes, and managed to defeat the Parthians, and later the Persians, several times in open battle. The disciplined ranks of Arrian’s armoured legionaries would perhaps have stood up to archery much better than the Scots levy pikemen at Falkirk. Besides, the Romans had archers too, and every legionary carried one or more heavy javelins as close-range missile weapons. They also had artillery, of course, although with the catapults positioned behind the infantry lines it would have been difficult to use them as sniper weapons, as the Romans sometimes did, and pick off the leaders of the enemy horsemen. Arrian does not mention caltrops (tribuli) – spiked obstacles strewn on the ground to cripple men and horses – perhaps because he intends to send his own cavalry forward through the front lines. If this was not an option, the Romans may have used caltrops as well to break up any advancing enemy.

                  Roman caltrops from the 1st century BC, found at the battle site of Alesia in France.

                  Roman caltrops from the 1st century BC, found at the battle site of Alesia in France.

We don’t know for sure whether the longbows used by Edward’s archers in 1298 were as powerful as those of the following century, but they may have had a draw weight of more than 100lb. These bows would have shot much further and harder than the smaller bows used by the Romans; only Arrian’s artillery could have matched their range. But while the 100 or so Roman ballistae could each release around 3 bolts a minute, Edward’s thousands of archers could shoot an arrow every seven seconds. If the English were supplied with unlimited ammunition, they could feasibly keep on pelting the Romans with arrows until the legionary formation broke, as the Parthians had done at Carrhae. The arrow storm would perhaps not kill too many of the Romans directly, but with the effort of keeping their shields raised against the missiles the Romans would have little strength to do much except defend themselves.

If the Romans could maintain their formation and withstand the withering volleys from the powerful English longbows, they could also hold off any charges from the mounted knights. However, their offensive capability would be gone: if they attempted a charge on foot, they would be cut to pieces, and their cavalry would be of little use: the medieval warhorse was far larger than anything known in the ancient world, and the Roman cavalrymen would stand little chance against the knights in open combat.

                            Knights doing what they do best... From the Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

                            Knights doing what they do best... From the Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

However, even with their ranks frayed the Romans would still have presented a formidable obstacle to Edward’s battle-winning knights. Barring a sudden lucky charge, the English horsemen would be unlikely to get close enough to the legionary ranks to force a gap in their line. Any individual knight who managed to brave the storm of missiles, the caltrops and the javelins and break through the wall of shields would be swiftly surrounded, brought down and battered to death with blunt instruments: the Romans’ favoured way of despatching armoured opponents.

On the face of it, the battle looks like a stalemate.

At this point, therefore, we have to consider the skill of the opposing leaders. Edward I was reputedly one of the best military commanders in Europe (even if he said so himself), while we have, unfortunately, little idea of the true martial abilities of Flavius Arrianus. Once battle was joined, maintaining discipline and morale would be as important as tactics. A Roman commander like Julius Caesar, Domitius Corbulo or the Emperor Trajan could well have motivated his troops to withstand a lengthy battle of attrition, and perhaps found a way to take the fight to the enemy. Edward was clearly an exceptional leader of men, and perhaps could have inspired or cajoled his knights into a mass frontal attack against the odds. But with their forces so evenly matched, it would take either luck or a crafty bit of generalship to force anything more than a lengthy and very bloody stand-off.

With this kind of consideration in mind, we can appreciate that warfare of any era is far more than a simple comparison of strengths and tactics. Victory is seldom a matter of calculation, but relies on an unquantifiable balance of skill, morale, discipline and plain luck. It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that while the armies of 2nd century Rome and of 13th century Europe were supremely effective in their day, both evolved to face changing threats and to reflect changing societies. And while a single battle may decide a conflict, to gain a true idea of the military capabilities of a past society, we’d need to look at the larger picture. The true strength of the Roman military lay not so much in its legions, as in the vast supply and logistics network that allowed the legions to keep on functioning during lengthy campaigns. The Romans may have lost battles, but they seldom lost wars.




I’d originally intended to include maps in my list of Ten Things the Romans Didn’t Have, but then realised that it’s not quite that simple, and the subject deserves its own post.

Picture the command tent of a Roman general on campaign, his subordinate officers gathered for a briefing. It’s difficult to imagine this scene without a map being present somewhere; how else is the general to explain his plans? Perhaps the map is drawn on a scroll, unrolled upon the table. Perhaps it’s much larger, and fixed to a frame – the general maybe has a stick, to point out the important details… Maps are so much part of our idea of strategic and tactical planning, it’s hard to see how an army could have operated without them.

And yet, the Romans apparently did just that for a large part of their history. The Latin language has no word for what we would consider an accurate scale map – mappa just means a sort of posh table napkin. Ancient literature has several examples of Romans – even high ranking ones – becoming completely lost while trying to get from one place to another, and having to rely on local guides. In one instance, Julius Caesar lost track of his army while trying to find his way around Gaul.

But this did not mean that Romans had no conception of the shape of the world around them. Far from it – late Roman mosaics from Ammaedara in North Africa and Madaba in modern Jordan show large-scale pictorial landscapes with the coastlines and the names of the cities gorgeously illustrated. But these landscapes are not maps – they are decorative rather than functional. Nobody could navigate their way around the islands of the Mediterranean using the Ammaedara map – for a start, some of islands appear more than once!

Nevertheless, the Romans were capable of visualising large spaces in a more schematic way. The so-called Forma Urbis, or ‘Severan marble plan’, was an enormous map of the city of Rome, inscribed onto marble panels and originally erected on one inside wall of the Temple of Peace, close to the Forum. Its original purpose is rather obscure, but it may have been connected to the office of the Praefectus Urbis, or prefect of the city. Fragments of it survive today, and allow us to guess what the complete plan might have looked like. The level of detail is extraordinary – even the internal walls of houses are plotted, which must have been a gift for potential burglars – and would perhaps have been enhanced by coloured paint in situ.

One of the surviving fragments of the marble plan of Rome.

One of the surviving fragments of the marble plan of Rome.

But even this plan is not drawn to an accurate scale, nor was it ever altered. In fact, it may have been as decorative in its intention as the mosaic landscapes of Ammaedara and Madaba; the ‘real’ city map, if there was one, was perhaps transcribed onto papyrus or vellum sheets and regularly updated.

The closest thing to a larger-scale map in the ancient world was the itinerary, a sort of route guide to major destinations, noting the stopping places and the distances between them. Using one of these lists, an ancient traveller could follow the excellent Roman road network from one end of the empire to another, with a good chance of arriving in the right place. Luckily, several of these ancient itineraries survive today, giving us a good idea of how people in the Roman world might have planned their journeys. One of the most famous even survives in illustrated form, albeit as a medieval copy. The Peutinger Table, as it’s commonly known, shows a plan of road routes and cities across the world, from Britain to India, although the furthest western section is lost.

Section of the Peutinger Table, showing northwest Europe, the Rhine, northern Spain and the south coast of Britain

Section of the Peutinger Table, showing northwest Europe, the Rhine, northern Spain and the south coast of Britain

The dimensions of the Peutinger plan appear strange to us today. It’s possible that the original was displayed on the wall of a public portico, perhaps in Rome: at least one such ‘world plan’ is known from ancient literature. This would explain why the lay of the land has been oddly stretched and folded, to fit a long narrow space.

The late Roman writer Vegetius mentions that written itineraries had a military function too:

[The general] should have itineraries of all regions in which war is being waged written out in the fullest detail, so that he may learn the distances between places in terms of the number of miles and the quality of roads, and examine short-cuts, by-ways, mountains and rivers, accurately described.

Some of these itineraries appear to have been pictorial, although Vegetius implies that this was a rare thing by his day:

Indeed, the more conscientious generals reportedly had itineraries of the provinces… not just annotated but illustrated as well, so that they could choose their route when setting out by the visual aspect as well as by mental calculation
Vegetius, De Rei Militari, III.6

We do have an example of this sort of ‘illustrated itinerary’, or what might approximate one, from a military context. A fragment of leather shield cover discovered at Dura Europos in Syria (dated to c.AD257) shows a part of the Black Sea coast, with the towns along the way, and even an oversized ship to provide a ‘visual aspect’ to the scene.

Dura Europos map

So can we call these ‘illustrated itineraries’ or itineraria picta ‘maps’? Probably not, in the modern sense. The view they give of the world is abstract, like a diagram. The London Underground map might provide a good analogy. Fine for tracing a route from point to point, but not much use for determining actual distances or the relation of one place to another. Anyone leaving the main arterial roads would have found their itinerary fairly useless.

Nevertheless, for the Romans these itineraries clearly sufficed, and, as Vegetius points out, they were used as we would use more accurate scale maps today. They would enable a Roman general to plan his campaign strategy, sending his troops to certain destinations and giving him a good idea of how long they might take to get there.

What about tactical maps? Obviously an itinerary would be of little use with that. But we should remember that, in an age before long-range weapons and motorised transport, most battles took place in a very limited area. The average battlefield was only a few miles square. If the general wanted to explain his tactical plan to his officers, he could very easily have taken them out of the gloom of the command tent and onto some suitably prominent place, and simply pointed at the features of the landscape that would play a part in the coming battle!

Romans and Slaves

Roman slaves

In the Roman world, slaves were everywhere. Everybody owned slaves. Even slaves owned slaves. To us, reducing another human being to a commodity seems one of the most heinous of crimes, but in all Roman literature, even into the Christian era,  there are few, if any, suggestions that it was wrong.

Slaves, Kyle Harper claims in Slavery in the Late Roman World (Cambridge University Press, 2011), were ‘the ancient equivalent of domestic appliances’, and he provides evidence of slave ownership in households across the social spectrum, from the super-rich to the comparatively poor. If this seems implausible, we might consider how many households today, living in comparative poverty, still own a car, a cooker and washing machine, a television and computer, and central heating. In ancient Roman society, slaves performed all these functions. To the Romans, they were essential for civilised existence; in fact, slave ownership was the very mark of freedom itself.

According to John Chrystostom, a man who appeared in public without a single slave thought himself ‘laughable’. The free Roman citizen was expected to be accompanied by slave attendants everywhere, even into the bath. Libanius mentions that women bathers would gossip if they saw someone enter the baths unaccompanied. Some very wealthy individuals, claims the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, might turn up at the baths with up to fifty slaves in their retinue. Slaves accompanied free Romans wherever they went, from the moment of waking throughout the day and the night too. They were the constant shadows of everyday Roman life.

  A wealthy Roman lady goes to the baths. Her two female slaves carry boxes of oils and lotions, and towels. The two male attendants might also be slaves - based on their 'barbarian' hairstyles - or perhaps even eunuchs. Mosaic from the Villa Romana, Piazza Armerina, Sicily. cAD320


A wealthy Roman lady goes to the baths. Her two female slaves carry boxes of oils and lotions, and towels. The two male attendants might also be slaves - based on their 'barbarian' hairstyles - or perhaps even eunuchs. Mosaic from the Villa Romana, Piazza Armerina, Sicily. cAD320

‘It is astonishing,’ writes Harper, ‘how often a slave will unexpectedly appear in a late antique scene.’ He cites a story from Augustine’s Confessions, about a young man who set out to rob a silversmith in Carthage; he took his slave with him to carry the loot. Clearly even thieves in the Roman world did not like to risk being seen carrying things around in the street… Even Christian priests had slaves, so they would not have to demean themselves by performing ‘shameful labour’.

This attitude is perhaps surprising to modern sensibilities. In our contemporary society, hard work is seen as virtuous; the adjective ‘hardworking’ is often used to connote goodness and moral worth. The work ethic is deeply engrained in almost all of us. Yet, for the Romans, the opposite seems to have been the case: they had a sort of anti-work-ethic. To perform any sort of manual labour, the sort of thing a slave might do, was to appear similar to a slave oneself, and to incur the shame of slavery. A Roman woman who did her own shopping or cooked her own dinner might have been mistaken for a slave; a commentator on the Psalms suggests that it is ‘shameful’ even for a free woman to breast-feed her own child. The same might be thought of an educated Roman man who had to dress himself in the morning, pour his own wine or write his own letters (Romans usually dictated their letters to slave secretaries, and the same secretaries would read the replies out loud. Romans had not, it seems, mastered the art of silent reading.)

Wealthy Roman families could own hundreds of slaves, even thousands of them. When in AD408 the young Christian aristocrats Melania and Pinianus renounced worldly possessions to take up the ascetic life, they freed eight thousand slaves, and that was after the rest of their family (the prominent Valerii) had taken their share. For poorer families, or for individuals, one or two slaves had to suffice. Kyle Harper mentions Egyptian papyri that document several poor households clubbing together to buy a slave between them. Soldiers, too, might own slaves, while others would be owned in common by their units. The 4th century Christian cavalry trooper Martinus – later St Martin – was thought unusual in owning only a single slave. In a rare demonstration of charity, Martinus shared his domestic chores with the slave, even cooking their meals and cleaning his own boots on occasion.

While slavery in the later Roman world was in some ways easier than it had been – imperial legislation had outlawed many of the harsher mass punishments of an earlier time – it was still an unenviable fate. Slaves were regarded as not wholly human, and could be punished and abused at the will of their owner. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus mentions a slave being given 300 lashes; 30-40 seem to have been considered moderate. Fugitive slaves could expect to be branded, or forced to wear iron collars detailing their offence. TMQF, the brand might read – tene me quia fugi: ‘Arrest Me I Have Fled’. One known collar reads ‘I am the slave of Felix the Archdeacon. Hold Me Lest I Flee’ – proof that churchmen too owned slaves. Another, from North Africa, reads adultera meretrix: tene me quia fugitivi de bulla regia – in Harper’s translation, ‘I Am A Slutty Whore. Hold Me I Have Fled From Bulla Regia’. Under Roman law, it was impossible for a slave to be raped: slaves had no legal humanity, and it was considered only a crime against the owner’s property. For the owners themselves, almost anything was permitted, and by late antiquity the Roman state had lost its monopoly on violence.

But for all this, Roman slavery differed in an important respect from the horrors of plantation slavery in the 18th-19th centuries. Roman slaves could be freed, and once free they could become Roman citizens, equal (in almost every respect) to those around them. Some freed people could amass great wealth and rise to high status. By the later Roman era, almost every family must have had slave ancestry, even the most prestigious. This too seems incredible, especially considering the very brief and apparently rather cursory ceremony required to turn a slave chattel into a free and legal human being.

In the earlier Roman era, there were a variety of manumission rituals, but Harper demonstrates that, by Late Antiquity, the usual method was the alapa – the ‘slap’. The slave owner simply slapped the slave on the face, perhaps two or three times; when this act was performed before witnesses and a magistrate, freedom was the result. According to the churchman Basil, it represented ‘the final act of violence the slave would have to bear before freedom’; the poet Claudian writes that this ‘happy’ blow would free the slave from the threat of the lash. It seems that this slapping ritual was often performed in public, at the opening of the games. The sixth-century ivory diptych of the Consul Anastasius appears to show slaves being freed in the amphitheatre with a blow on the head in just this fashion.

         Detail from the ivory diptych of Anastasius, AD517.


       Detail from the ivory diptych of Anastasius, AD517.

Oddly, the ritual of the slap seems to have carried over into both the confirmation ritual of the Catholic church and the medieval ceremony of knighthood. According to some sources, a slap or blow (the same word, alapa, is used) was given to the candidate for knighthood, perhaps symbolising the last violence he might suffer before demanding redress. Later, the blow with the hand seems to have turned into a tap with the flat of a sword blade. It is perhaps amusing to consider that when the Queen of England knights some deserving worthy by tapping a sword lightly upon their shoulders, she is unknowingly re-enacting the ancient Roman ritual of freedom from slavery!


         Galley slaves clash with vambraces: Ramon Novarro in the title role of the classic 1925 'Ben Hur'...


       Galley slaves clash with vambraces: Ramon Novarro in the title role of the classic 1925 'Ben Hur'...

There were plenty of things the citizens of the Roman empire did not have that most of us take for granted today. Potatoes, for example, or tomatoes, or universal suffrage. They rode horses without stirrups, and sweetened their food with honey as they had no sugar.

But there are still a lot of mistaken ideas about things the Romans had or commonly did. Historical novelists, of course, generally try to avoid falling into such traps, but it’s often surprising how many times I’ve had to think twice about some detail or other of the world I’m describing. So many notions about ancient or other historical societies are deeply rooted, and hard to dislodge. So here are ten things that the Romans (probably) did not have or do – I say probably, as our ideas about history are constantly changing!


1. Galley slaves

Despite the famous scenes in old films like Ben Hur and Cleopatra, Roman galleys were not rowed by chained slaves. Roman oarsmen were paid professionals, and those in the navy were enlisted in the armed forces. Galley slaves did exist, but not until centuries later; medieval ships of both the Christian and Islamic Mediterranean powers used them extensively. In fact, the French were still using chained prisoners to row their galleys until the eighteenth century.


2. Forearm ‘handshakes’

This is another Hollywood favourite. The manly clasp of forearms turns up all over the place, but has no basis in historical fact. Romans actually shook hands in the same way as we do, although perhaps not as frequently; it was a gesture of fellowship, used to agree deals and treaties. The handshake even appears on Roman coins, symbolising trust and mutual concord. It was also, apparently, part of the wedding ritual. It was probably not used as a casual greeting, though: Romans preferred to embrace, or even kiss, when they met, just as people in Mediterranean societies do to this day.


3. Noisy scabbards

Imagine somebody drawing a sword; you’ve probably already superimposed the sound effect. The shwing noise of a drawn sword is omnipresent in films and TV; even in books it’s seldom a sword is drawn without at least a rasp. In fact, scabbards were made of wood and leather, and made very little sound at all. Perhaps just a rattle, as the blade tapped against the inside. A shame, perhaps, as the schwing noise is so satisfying…


4. Ineffective armour

The Roman army was one of the most heavily armoured in antiquity. For good reason: Roman armour was very effective at keeping its wearer alive and relatively unharmed. The most famous type, of course, is the banded iron cuirass known to historians as the lorica segmentata, although mail and scale were probably more common, especially in the later era. Despite this, one would think from many depictions of ancient warfare that body armour had the protective qualities of a knitted jumper. In practice, it was almost impossible to cut or stab through armour with a hand weapon. Tests carried out on sections of mail armour (medieval, but the technology was the same) suggest that a penetrating blow would need far more energy than could be delivered by a sword or spear. A cavalry lance or heavy javelin might break through; an arrow from a powerful bow shot at very close range might puncture it. But against the majority of weapons a Roman soldier would encounter on the battlefield, his mail or scale or banded armour would prove very good protection indeed. When the Romans themselves encountered armoured opponents, they were more likely to try and batter them to death with blunt implements. An effective method, although not perhaps such a photogenic one.


5. Highly flammable oil

Battle scenes in films about Roman and medieval warfare commonly feature great balls of fire. True enough, the Romans did use incendiary weapons: combinations of pitch and naptha, or just dry straw set alight. These weapons were even used at sea; a graffito of the 1st C. BC shows a naval galley with a firepot suspended over the ram. The Romans also knew of natural petroleum: asphalt or seep oil. But the ‘oil’ of the ancient world, used in lamps and in food, and by bath-house masseurs, was derived from olive oil and was not particularly flammable. Covering something in it might make that thing very slippery, but would not cause it to burst into flames.


6. Tireless horses

Like most pre-industrial societies, the Roman empire relied on horse power. Roman horses were comparatively small by modern standards – 13 to 14 hands, pony size, being the probable average – but they were doubtless hardy beasts. But, like all horses, Roman mounts needed considerable quantities of fodder and water, and plenty of rest. There were instances in Roman history of very long journeys accomplished very rapidly, but this was only possible because the Romans maintained a system of posting stations along major roads, where horses could be rested and exchanged. The state messenger service – cursus publicus – could cover fifty miles a day, or much greater distances, using this relay system. The messengers probably did not actually ride the horses, but travelled in light carriages, with the teams being regularly replaced. Cavalry forces, unless they brought large numbers of remounts, could not match this speed. In fact, an American colonel writing in the 1860s estimated that, over long distances, marching infantry could out-distance cavalry. So unless Maximus Decimus Meridius availed himself of the imperial posting system, it’s very unlikely he could have ridden his horse all the way from the Danube to Spain in less than a couple of months!


7. Drums

Drums are so much a part of our conception of historical armies, it’s hard to imagine that the Romans did without them. In fact, the drum as we know it today was pretty much unknown in the Roman world – the closest instrument they possessed was a sort of big tambourine, like the Sicilian tamburello. Some sources suggest that the Romans thought drumming to be somehow effeminate, and associated it with certain eastern religious sects. So how did Roman armies keep in step when they marched? Possibly they used flutes, like the Greeks, or primitive bagpipes – but it’s highly likely that they didn’t march in step at all…


8. Minutes

In a world without clocks, Roman timekeeping was often a rather haphazard affair. The day and the night were divided into twelve hours each, but the length of these hours fluctuated depending on the season. There were sundials, of course, to show the approximate time in daylight, and waterclocks, commonly used in courts to measure the length of lawyer’s speeches. But the smallest increment of time measurable by a waterclock was a quarter of an hour. How did Romans talk about shorter periods of time? The idea of the minute runs so deeply in our thinking – we talk of things taking ‘a few minutes’, tell people to ‘wait a minute’, or give something ‘a minute’s thought’  that it’s hard to imagine a world in which small increments of time could not be considered. Novelists writing about the ancient world often get around this by having their characters measure time in heartbeats – I do it as well, although I have no idea whether anybody has ever really counted their own heartbeat in this way!


9. Chunky leather wristbands

The bane of conscientious historical reenactors, the leather wristband, or vambrace, is another of those anomalies that seem to have been invented by Hollywood, and to have bound themselves deeply into popular conceptions of the ancient world. They probably originated with a gold or silver armbands, called armillae, awarded by the Roman army as decorations of valour. These are often shown on Roman tombstone images. However, in film and TV depictions from the 1930s to the present day these wristbands reach incredible proportions. Often they are reinforced with buckles, studs, bit of fur, or even metal plates. Why? One theory is that artistic directors needed something to hide the visible pale mark left by a watch strap on an actor’s wrist. Possibly so – but I suspect it’s more likely that somebody decided they look tough and somehow ‘ancient’, and the idea has proven too attractive to shake off ever since.


10. Orgies

Orgies, like bloody gladiator duels and people reclining on couches eating grapes, are among the quintessential aspects of the popular ancient scene. There are fairly obvious reasons for this: sex sells. Even the comparatively prudish Victorians were nervously fascinated by Roman sexual license, although they usually drew a discreet veil over what might have been going on among the flower garlands… The Romans themselves had a pretty robust attitude to sex, as their literature and poetry proclaims. But in an age without any effective contraception, and when childbirth was often fatal, unbridled sex could never have been commonplace. While sex in itself was not considered immoral, Roman society had an obsession with self control, and to give in to lust was to lose control of oneself and become bestial, uncivilised, even unmanly. The sexual excesses of various emperors and other notables, as described by Roman historians, are probably intended as examples of bad moral practice; many of them are almost certainly exaggerations. As with so many things, we shouldn’t take the evidence of Roman literature too literally!






Win a signed copy of all three ‘Twilight of Empire’ novels!



My publisher, Head of Zeus, have very kindly offered to send a free signed hardback copy of each of the three novels published so far – War at the Edge of the World, Swords Around the Throne, and Battle for Rome, to a lucky winner who can correctly answer the questions on the form below.

The emperors of Rome are a very mixed bunch. While a few of them are still regarded as great rulers, the majority are better known today for their quirks and eccentricities, which in some cases approached dangerous insanity. Most of these stories come from the writings of Suetonius, whose book on the first twelve emperors of Rome remains very popular today.

My own novels, the ‘Twilight of Empire’ series, are set at a much later date, hundreds of years after the days of Augustus and Nero. This was the time of the emperor Constantine, one of the outstanding figures of the ancient world. But many other emperors of that later age are less well known, their lives and deeds recorded only in dubious semi-fictional histories and fragmentary accounts.

These three questions, then, relate to later Roman emperors. Answer them all, and you have a chance of winning three signed books. Three runners-up will each receive a signed copy of the third book, 'Battle for Rome'. The winner will be drawn from all correct entries in two weeks time.


Italy, October 2014

A few pictures from Italy, taken during my research trip for "BATTLE FOR ROME".

The Battle of the Milvian Bridge

The battle of the Milvian Bridge, fought 1703 years ago today - 28th October 312 - is often considered one of the most significant clashes in Roman history. Constantine’s victory over Maxentius gave him control of the western empire, and of the city of Rome itself. In the traditional view, as depicted in Guilio Romano's huge fresco in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, the battle represents the triumph of a Christian emperor over the pagan gods of old Rome.

And yet the battle is more famous for something which probably did not happen. The so-called ‘Vision of Constantine’, a heavenly apparition sent to the emperor by the Christian God on the eve of battle, supposedly convinced him to convert to the new religion, and laid a path for the spiritual transformation of the empire over the following century. But this vision is not mentioned in the earliest accounts of the battle at all. Two imperial panegyrics given shortly after the event make no reference to celestial manifestations, the pagan historian Zosimus ignores the story, and the Christian writer Lactantius claims instead that the emperor was visited by God in a dream, and instructed to mark the shields of his troops with ‘the heavenly sign’.

It was the churchman Eusebius who first supplied the story of the emperor’s vision. Constantine, he claimed, had witnessed ‘with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription 'Conquer by This’. It is not entirely cynical, I think, to relate this anecdote to the solar apparition that Constantine reportedly saw in Gaul two or three years earlier, described at the time as a sign from the sun god. It does not seem unlikely that the Christian emperor of later years chose to reinterpret this older vision, and install Christ in the place of Apollo.

Maxentius has long had a bad press. His reputation was blackened by his opponents at the time, and Christian historians cast him as a satanic figure and a persecutor of the faithful. In fact, he was not particularly opposed to Christianity, and the influential congregations of North Africa were still crediting him as their saviour from persecution some years later. Ironically, while Maxentius's army at the Milvian Bridge was drawn partly from the heavily Christianised populations of Africa and southern Italy, Constantine's troops came from northern Gaul, the Rhine frontier and Britain, where the new faith had won little ground. An impartial spectator at the battle, asked to identify the 'Christian' army, might well have chosen that of Maxentius.

The site of the battle is not known for certain, but very probably lies on the plain of Tor di Quinto in the broad loop of the river north-east of the bridge (which still stands, although better known for the padlocks left on its railings by amorous couples!). The plain is occupied today by military and police training facilities, and crossed by the Via Flaminia Nuova and Tangenziale Est, while modern apartment blocks loom from the red bluffs of the heights above it to the west.

I visited the area a year ago today, researching my forthcoming book, Battle for Rome, but beyond a rough appreciation for the topography I could gain little sense of that long-distant clash of arms. Imagination, as always, made up the deficit!

  View eastwards from Via Castiglione del Lago, across the plain of Tor di Quinto - the probable site of the battle of Milvian Bridge - towards the Tiber and the Apennines. 28th October 2014.


View eastwards from Via Castiglione del Lago, across the plain of Tor di Quinto - the probable site of the battle of Milvian Bridge - towards the Tiber and the Apennines. 28th October 2014.

Did the Romans Ever Smile?

Once upon a time, historians and men of letters might have assumed that the people of the ancient past were, at heart, very similar to themselves. The Romans, for example, may have dressed in a curious manner and had strange religious habits involving chickens, but beneath the patina of culture they were an understandable people.

Nowadays, both scholarship and popular culture tends to stress the unfamiliarity of ancient worlds, the alien qualities that make them other to ourselves. Ancient Rome, as portrayed in recent films and TV dramas, is an amoral place of blood, violence and unconstrained sex; today’s Romans are viciously addicted to slaughter, and their rulers are all maniacs.

Even their minds work differently, it seems. Mary Beard, in her book Laughter in Ancient Rome, points out that Romans never smiled. Or, at least, their language had no word for it. The verb ridere, often translated as ‘smile’, actually connotes laughter. More particularly (bearing in mind the nature of their jokes) it connotes laughing at somebody else. The idea of the Romans going about in stone-faced solemnity, only cracking up at some poor fellow citizen’s misfortunes, seems shocking in its lack of human empathy. By contemporary standards, this sort of attitude would suggest a serious mental disorder. Was ancient Rome a society of psychopaths?

Not a happy man... Portrait bust of an unknown Roman.

Not a happy man... Portrait bust of an unknown Roman.

Of course, this is an exaggeration. Even if the Romans looked down on open expressions of happiness or fellow feeling (Beard points out that subridere, a ‘suppressed laugh’, might come closest to smiling), they must have been capable of it. Their portrait busts, certainly, tend to accentuate a forbidding gravitas, but less prestigious art, even some of the famous Roman-era mummy portraits from Egypt, clearly shows a much greater facial expressiveness. Indeed, some of the people depicted are undoubtedly smiling.

The ghost of a smile, at least... Mummy portrait from Roman Egypt, 2nd century AD

The ghost of a smile, at least... Mummy portrait from Roman Egypt, 2nd century AD

What Mary Beard means, I think, is that we should exercise caution in our assumptions about the peoples of the past. Language is not an accurate map of reality, but nevertheless reflects the structure of thought in a society. This is worth bearing in mind when we go about trying to reconstruct those ancient societies in fiction.

Novels, necessarily, deal in empathy. Historical fiction seeks not only to reconstruct the fabric of a lost world but also to get inside the heads of its inhabitants, examine their fears and motivations. Just as we ‘translate’ the speech of our fictional Romans or Vikings or medieval knights into modern English (the older habit of using ‘archaic’ speech in historical novels seems, thankfully, to have died out), so we translate their thought processes, their reactions and their ideologies into forms recognisable to a contemporary readership. This, of course, is inevitable. I have yet to read a historical novel that manages completely to eradicate all trace of a modern consciousness. Perhaps I would not want to.

But neither should we, in our attempts at translation, try to ignore the strangeness of historical societies, nor rely on comfortable stereotypes or received wisdom. Every age creates its own vision of the past – this is why history is constantly changing. If our visions are to be original, challenging and vital, the stories we tell about the past need to engage with the strangeness, perhaps even the alien unknowability, of our long-dead subjects. Even if, perhaps, we allow them the occasional smile.

A version of this piece was originally published as a guest post on Laura's Little Book Blog.


How 'accurate' is historical fiction?

  The Ludovisi Sarcophagus (mid 3rd century AD): an accurate depiction of ancient warfare, or just a dramatic one?


The Ludovisi Sarcophagus (mid 3rd century AD): an accurate depiction of ancient warfare, or just a dramatic one?

Novelists who write about the past are often asked about the importance of historical accuracy in their work. This is perhaps a strange question; history, after all, is not an exact science. The past no longer exists, so how could we measure the accuracy of our view of it? Instead, history is a method of attempting to understand the fragments left to us of the past, a set of tools and parameters for interpretation and speculation.

But, of course, this isn’t really what the question is about. ‘Accuracy’ (for want of a better word) in historical fiction is all about accordance with the sources, paying attention to details and not veering off into fantasy. It is about the construction of a plausible view of the past that fits with what we know and does not contain jarring anachronisms.

Put like this, the question is much easier to answer, for me at least: ‘accuracy’ is extremely important. One of the most fascinating aspects of historical fiction is the constant collision and interplay between the novelistic imagination and the raw matter of the past. Individual stories take root from the greater story of past events, and are constantly fed by it. Beyond the story itself, the structure that will get the characters from prologue to dénouement and hopefully carry the readers along with it, there is the accumulation of supporting details.

Historical research provides the furniture of my character’s world, the clothes they wear and the food they eat. It provides the thoughts in their heads. It is a liberation, not a chore. The more I know of the period I’m writing about, the more comfortable and confident I feel about imagining the bits I don’t know. And, of course, it’s those gulfs of the unknown, and the bridges we build to cross them, that makes the exercise so rewarding.

But can we take ‘historical accuracy’ too far? In this age of the internet, the raw matter of history is available to all, the sources and the speculations about any era easily accessible. So should novelists spend less time worrying about ‘accuracy’, and more on telling a unique and engaging story?

Writers of a previous generation were certainly less concerned about historical rivet-counting. Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman novels are powerfully evocative works of imagination, but at times could have historical purists wincing. Wallace Breem’s novel Eagle in the Snow concerns the fall of the Rhine frontier in the 5th century, but his Roman army seems largely transplanted from the days of Hadrian. Both Alfred Duggan and George Shipway wrote novels of the Roman past which have stood the test of time, although by the standards of modern scholarship they may default on the details.

Breem’s portrayal of the barbarian hordes menacing the Roman frontier, however, may have been inspired by own experiences with the North West Frontier Force in British India. Shipway’s painstaking narration of Suetonius Paulinus’s army on the march through Britain on the eve of Boudica’s revolt perhaps draws on his time as a cavalry commander and staff officer, again in India, in the 1930s. And Alfred Duggan’s service in the Norwegian campaign during World War II doubtless fed into his descriptions of military life in a another era.

All of these writers brought to their work a sense of authenticity: the grit and sweat and tedium of army life, the reality of combat, the sense of adventure in strange and distant lands in a time before television, the jet engine and the internet shrunk the world.

It is this sense of authenticity, I believe, that people are looking to find when they ask about ‘historical accuracy’. Not the sterile checking of facts, but the sensation of a real world, complete in all its details. Whether we achieve this by personal experience, imaginative empathy or a painstaking immersion in the minutiae of history, it should be the desired end of all our research.

Authenticity will always trump ‘historical accuracy’. Because history is changing all the time.


This piece originally appeared as a guest post on Lynsey James's blog.

The Roman Army of Constantine - Part One

  The late Roman army on the march. Scene from the Arch of Constantine, Rome, AD315.


The late Roman army on the march. Scene from the Arch of Constantine, Rome, AD315.

Between AD284 and AD337 – the era of emperors Diocletian and Constantine, and the setting of the “Twilight of Empire” novels –  the Roman army not only fought a series of bloody civil wars, but defeated every known enemy on the frontier and expanded the empire for the first time in a century. Clearly the legions of the later empire, when properly led, were a formidable force indeed. But this army appears in many ways quite different to the more familiar force of the earlier empire, portrayed on monuments like Trajan’s Column in Rome, and (albeit without a great degree of authenticity!) in films like Gladiator, Centurion and The Eagle. How did this change happen, and why?

As with most large and complex organisations over long periods of time, the development of the Roman army from the 2nd to the 4th centuries shows signs of both evolution and revolution, besides continuity. Nevertheless, by looking back at the army of an earlier era, we can perhaps identify the seeds of future developments.

During the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the Roman army transformed itself from a strategically and tactically aggressive force of conquest and expansion, into a microcosmic military society based in permanent fortresses on the frontiers, adapted for small-scale local defence and periodic large-scale punitive campaigns. Already, though, emperors like Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius were calling on smaller detachments of troops – called vexillations – to make up or reinforce field armies in more wide-ranging campaigns across the empire.

It was during the Marcomannic wars of the later 2nd century, when the empire for the first time was invaded by large numbers of Germanic barbarians, that this use of mobile detachments really seems to have gained primacy. By combining smaller bodies of men from different legions, Roman commanders could create strong and flexible ‘offensive’ field armies without depleting the ‘defensive’ strength of the legions on the borders, maintaining security over a wide stretch of frontier while allowing for rapid reaction against incursions and reprisal strikes into barbarian territory.

But this system would be tested to breaking point in the years that followed. The ‘crisis of the third century’ saw the Roman empire beset by barbarian invasions, civil wars, plague and economic upheaval. At Abrittus in AD251, the emperor Decius was slain and his entire army destroyed by invading Goths. Less than a decade later, the emperor Valerian was defeated and taken captive by the Persians, and his troops annihilated or enslaved. These disasters could have been catastrophic for the security of the empire, and it is a testament to the strength and flexibility of the Roman military system that the army maintained itself through the decades that followed, before emerging in a new and quite different form by the century’s end.

  Roman troops at an imperial address. Relief from the Arch of Galerius, Thessalonika, cAD298


Roman troops at an imperial address. Relief from the Arch of Galerius, Thessalonika, cAD298


It was the emperor Diocletian (AD284-305) who, building on the reforms of his predecessors, established this new-style army. At its core was the comitatus, or imperial retinue, made up of select bodyguard troops. One of these accompanied each of the four emperors of the Tetrarchic system. The comitatus was reinforced on campaign by detachments from the frontier legions – often drawn from the heavily militarised Danubian provinces of Pannonia and Moesia – and new cavalry units called equites. These regular troops were frequently supported by large bodies of barbarian ‘allies’, serving under their own chiefs or kings, perhaps as part of a treaty arrangement with Rome. Galerius had a Gothic contingent during his Persian campaign, while Constantine would later make use of Frankish and Alamannic auxiliaries.

A papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt gives details of Diocletian's field force, c.AD298; it included troops from two Moesian legions, IV Flavia and VII Claudia, commanded by an officer (praepositus) called Julianus, together with another paired detachment from legions XI Claudia and I Italica. An inscription from Mauretania, meanwhile, probably dating from the emperor Maximian’s campaign of the same year against a rebel group called the Quinquegentiani, records a dedication to ‘Deo Invicto Mithras’ (the invincible god Mithras) constructed by men of the seventh and tenth cohorts of II Herculia.

Some of these legion detachments must have covered vast distances in the service of their emperors. While the two cohorts of II Herculia were on campaign in north Africa, other men of the same legion are recorded in the Crimea, while others seem to have accompanied the junior emperor Galerius on his Persian campaign of AD298. The inscription of a soldier called Aurelius Gaius records a lengthy military career that spanned the empire, from the Rhine frontier to Mauretania and from Mesopotamia and Egypt to the Danube. Gaius even claims to have served in ‘India’ – probably the region of Berenice on the Red Sea, entrepot for the Indian Ocean trade.

In time, these mobile detachments acquired a semi-independent status, losing their connection with the parent legion. They became referred to as 'legions' in their own right, some of them using variations on the old legion name: II Italica Divitensis, which seems to have formed part of Constantine’s army in Italy in AD312, were probably formed from a detachment of legion II Italica based at Divitia on the Rhine. Tombstones from Aquileia in Italy mention a unit called the Moesiaci, also known as prima italicae moesiacae, clearly formed by men of I Italica from Moesia. By the later fourth century both the ‘Moesiaci’ and 'Divitenses' appear in army lists as regular legions.

  Tombstone of an unknown soldier of the Moesiaci legion, from Aquileia. It dates from AD352, but gives a good impression of the appearance of an early 4th century legionary: crested 'ridge' helmet, oval shield and spear, patterned tunic, and perhaps a muscled breastplate.


Tombstone of an unknown soldier of the Moesiaci legion, from Aquileia. It dates from AD352, but gives a good impression of the appearance of an early 4th century legionary: crested 'ridge' helmet, oval shield and spear, patterned tunic, and perhaps a muscled breastplate.


The appearance of the Roman soldier, on both imperial monuments and individual tombstones, changes radically during this period. A mobile force would perhaps be a more lightly equipped force, but it was also cut off from the traditional legion armoury at home base. This might explain the shift from segmented armour, for example, which required skilled craftsmen to repair, to the more versatile mail, scale and even musculata (breastplate) type armours. The institution of state-run armouries (fabricae) at centralised locations by Diocletian may have been an attempt to give these mobile new armies the supply of armour and weapons previously provided by the legion fortresses. A different type of armour too, perhaps - the ‘ridge’ helmet may have been more cost-effective to build on a production line; constructed of several plates riveted together, they could also have been stronger and more durable than the traditional helmets, which were hammered from single sheets of metal.

Changed equipment suggests a change in battlefield tactics too - the late Roman 'fulcum', or shield-wall, may have developed from the old testudo (‘tortoise’), but appears to have been largely a defensive formation. Longer swords and round or oval shields may have been a response to the need for a more flexible combat style. Rather than the destructive javelin-volley followed by fast aggressive sword-charge that typifies (perhaps even defines) the military style of the earlier empire, we have a variety of considerably more static tactics, coupled with increased and sustained missile potential - a tactic of endurance and attrition, rather than the delivery of a sudden killer blow, perhaps reflecting both the increased sophistication of Rome's enemies and the increased frequency of civil wars.

But amid all this change, there was continuity, and perhaps more than appears immediately obvious. Equipment probably didn't alter suddenly - the traditional pilum (heavy javelin) was still in use into the late 3rd century and perhaps, under a different name, later. The familiar rectangular shield seems to have survived in some places into the 260s, and even the distinctive ‘lorica segmentata’ may not have died out as rapidly as once thought - fragments found at Leon in Spain and Caerleon in Britain date from the later 3rd, perhaps even 4th centuries, so perhaps it was still in use in the era of the tetrarchs.

All armies are responses to the particular military needs of their era. The Roman army repeatedly proved itself able to adapt and to survive - in doing so, it demonstrated a flexible response to military and political necessity. Just as the Roman empire, and the world surrounding it, changed almost beyond recognition over the centuries, so did its army.

In Part Two of this article, I will go on to discuss the changes to the command structure in the legions of Constantine's era.

The Roman Army of Constantine - Part Two

  A late Roman military commander and two soldiers, from the 'Great Hunt' mosaic in the villa of Piazza Armerina, Sicily. Early 4th century AD


A late Roman military commander and two soldiers, from the 'Great Hunt' mosaic in the villa of Piazza Armerina, Sicily. Early 4th century AD

While the later 3rd and early 4th centuries saw the development of a newly organised Roman army, the essential building blocks of the Roman legion remained much the same. It was in the structures of military command, however, that the greatest changes took place.

In the earlier empire, legions and other military units were traditionally led by men of the aristocracy. Legions were commanded by legates drawn from the senatorial order, while the lower aristocracy of the equestrian order supplied the cohort and cavalry commanders and the legion tribunes. During the chaos of the mid 3rd century, these aristocratic officers were withdrawn from military positions. Instead of the senatorial legati, legions were now commanded by officers with the title of either praepositus agentes vice legati, or just praefectus legionis (‘Prefect’), initially drawn from the equestrians but later from men promoted from the ranks.

Smaller units of the legion were still commanded by centurions, although by the later 3rd century these officers seem to have acquired the additional title of ordinarius (centurio ordinarius is recorded as a transitional term), and this term later came to supplant the original one. Greek documents from the eastern (‘Byzantine’) empire still record the existence of the centurion (κεντυρίων or kentyrion) and ordinarius (ὀρδινάριος) in the 6th century.

With the demise of the old equestrian legion tribunes, centurions were able to take up a wider range of command positions. The legionary detachments of the new field armies were led by praepositi, once an ad-hoc title for any small-unit commander, but now formalised as a command position for senior centurions in the field armies.

In the earlier legions, the senior centurion ranks were primus pilus (‘first file’, approximately) and praefectus castrorum, but these positions seem to have been phased out in the last quarter of the 3rd century. Instead, we see a greatly expanded centurionate, with a number of different grades in a hierarchy that still remains largely obscure. But while the old primipilate offered veteran centurions the chance to move up to higher command positions, the new army of the tetrarchy developed an alternative means of advancement, the schola protectorum, or Corps of Protectores.

  A Roman commander - possibly the emperor Constantine - with two bodyguards probably from the Corps of Protectores. The winged figure of Victory flies overhead. From the Arch of Constantine, Rome. AD315.


A Roman commander - possibly the emperor Constantine - with two bodyguards probably from the Corps of Protectores. The winged figure of Victory flies overhead. From the Arch of Constantine, Rome. AD315.

The first Protectores appeared under the emperor Valerian (AD253-260). Initially a title of high honour for senior officers close to the emperor, by the end of Gallienus's reign centurions were holding the title, and by a few decades later the Protectores were apparently organised as a bodyguard corps attached to the imperial retinue, or comitatus (protectores divini lateris, or 'protectors of the sacred flank'). The schola protectorum functioned as a promotional mechanism to move veteran soldiers and centurions into command positions. Admission carried the honorific grade of ducenarius, which signalled an elevation above the centurionate and allowed field command in the imperial comitatus. Newly appointed men would therefore gain this title upon first joining the corps and ‘adoring the purple’: in a rigidly hierarchical empire, this ritual of kissing the hem of the emperor’s robe signified that an officer had moved into the inner circles of power, and was perhaps destined for higher things.

Inscriptions dating to the early 4th century provide some evidence of this new, and rather more meritocratic, system of promotions. Florius Baudio, formerly ordinarius of II Italica, served and died in Italy as a Protector, while Aurelius Firminus, a former Protector, rose to become Prefect of Legion II Adiutrix. The future emperor Galerius reportedly served as a scutarius (guard cavalryman, probably), then Protector and Tribune before attaining the purple. Protectores, it seems, were expected to fight, and often die, in the service of their emperors: the Protector Valerius Valentus ‘fell in civil war in Italy’, while 30-year-old Viatorinus died ‘in barbarico’ during a battle with the Franks.

The subordinate ranks of the legions of Diocletian's day were probably quite similar to those of the earlier empire. We still find optiones (centurion’s deputies) and tesserarii (watch officers) right though later Roman history. One of the senior centurion or veteran positions, drillmaster or campidoctor, seems to have taken a similar role to the old primus pilus or praefectus castrorum. There were sometimes several of these men in a unit, and they also functioned as front line soldiers. Later papyri and inscriptions, plus the writer Vegetius, mention several other ranks or roles that may have appeared around this point, or some time later. Flaviales and Augustales, for example, could have been centurion grades, or (perhaps more likely) senior soldier grades; the former is most probably Constantinian. Better attested positions, perhaps dating from the later 3rd century, would include actuarius (legion quartermaster, approximately), adiutor (clerk or record keeper) and draconarius (the bearer of the ‘windsock’ draco standard).

  A Roman centurion, or ordinarius, identifiable by his broad-headed staff, beats a slave or labourer. From a mosaic in the villa of Piazza Armerina, Sicily. Early 4th century AD.


A Roman centurion, or ordinarius, identifiable by his broad-headed staff, beats a slave or labourer. From a mosaic in the villa of Piazza Armerina, Sicily. Early 4th century AD.

By the middle decades of the fourth century, new units had developed in the imperial field armies: the auxilia palatina and the scholae. The latter appear to have been elite cavalry formations, perhaps intended to replace the old Praetorian Guard and equites singulares (‘Horse Guard’), which had been disbanded by Constantine after his victory at the Milvian Bridge in AD312. The former comprised a new front-line infantry force, perhaps developing from the irregular units of semi-barbarian troops (called numeri) of earlier centuries. These new auxilia are first attested on a tombstone from Nakolea in Asia, recording a soldier of the numerus Iovi Cornuti Seniores, who would have enlisted c.AD329. Perhaps significantly, the man was a Roman citizen, born in Singidunum on the Danube; the auxilia seem to have lost their ‘barbarian’ origins earlier in the century.

These units appear to have used a new and different structure of ranks, perhaps adopted from the cavalry. Centenarius was the equivalent rank to the old centurion, although perhaps of higher status. Biarchus and circitor also appear as subordinate positions. It would seem that these new ranks were never adopted by the traditional legions, however. One or two crossover posts used by both legions and auxilia - vicarius, for example - probably appeared later in the 4th century. Ducenarius (Greek δουκιναρίους), which began as an honorific title for centurions promoted into the Protectores, was apparently adopted (by at least c.350) by the auxilia and scholae to denote a senior unit commander.

By the end of the fourth century, the structure of the Roman army had once more metamorphosed: the units of the imperial field armies now gained a special exalted status as comitatensis troops, with an elite core of legions and auxilia called palatini. The remnants of the older legions, and the few remaining cohorts of old-style auxiliaries dating from the earlier empire, were left on the frontiers and given the lower grade of limitanei. The Corps of Protectores changed too, becoming a sort of officer training cadre for younger men of the wealthy classes (protectores domestici) and barbarian noblemen, many of whom went on to higher command positions. This later army, recorded in a document from the late 4th or early 5th century called the Notitia Dignitatum, still preserved many of the old titles and organisational structures from the Tetrarchy and the centuries that preceded it, and was to survive until the final collapse of the Roman empire in the west.


Further reading


A.D. Lee, War in Late Antiquity: A Social History. (2007)

A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social Economic and Administrative Survey. (1964)

Alexander Sarantis (ed), War and Warfare in Late Antiquity. (2013)

Ancient Warfare Magazine, Volume VI, Issue 5: ‘The Armies of Diocletian’.

J.R. Hepworth, Studies in the Late Roman Army. (Durham University PhD thesis, 1963)

Martinus Johannes Nicasie, Twilight of empire: the Roman army from the reign of Diocletian until the Battle of Adrianople. (1998)

Patricia Southern, The Late Roman Army. (1996)

Ross Cowan, Roman Legionary, AD284-337: The Age of Diocletian and Constantine the Great. (2015)

Simon James, Rome and the Sword: How Warriors and Weapons Shaped Roman History. (2011)

Vegetius, de rei militari (‘Epitome of Military Science’), translated by N.P. Milner. (1996)

Musee Departemental Arles Antique

One of the pleasures of writing the "Twilight of Empire" books has been the opportunity to visit many of the places mentioned in the stories. Arles - ancient Arelate - is one of the locations in the second book, "Swords Around the Throne". The Musée Départemental Arles Antique holds a fascinating collection of finds from ancient Arelate and the surrounding area, together with models of the city in its Roman heyday.