This is the third-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!
But who was Arthur? Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.
THE DEFENSE OF ROMAN BRITANNIA IN THE 4TH CENTURY
To understand the Army of Arthur and the defenders of Britain in the 4th and 5th century, we need to briefly examine the structure and composition of the Roman army that defended Britannia before the Roman withdrawal. This was the model upon which Vortigern (and, ultimately, both Ambrosius and Arthur) based the defense of Britain.
Roman Britannia was divided into three military commands:
The first was the Dux Britanniarum (the "Duke of the Britains"), head-quartered at Eburacum (York). His responsibility was the northern defenses; particularly the garrisons that supported Hadrian’s Wall. The second command, the Comes Litoris Saxonici ("Count of the Saxon Shore"), commanded the coastal fortresses fronting the English Channel and the North Sea. And, finally, the senior of the three: the Comes Britanniae ("Count of Britain"), commanding the province’s mobile field army (Comitatensis).
As in other parts of the Roman Empire, all Roman soldiers in Britain were divided into two rough classes: second-rate, hereditary garrison troops, called Limitanei; and the first-class fighting troops, called comitatenses (sometimes referred to as Comitatus in the singular). Both classes contained units of cavalry and infantry, light and heavy troops. The Limitanei (garrisons of the Limes, the border defenses) were the descendants of the classical Roman legions and auxilia cohorts, stationed along the frontiers since at least the time of Hadrian, and in some places much earlier.
Over the centuries, their size and quality had deteriorated. From the 3rd century on, the best were occasionally pulled back to the interior of the provinces, to make mobile field armies; capable of responding rapidly to any major breakthrough of the frontier perimeter. These, and new regiments raised by various emperors, comprised the comitatenses: the mobile field armies stationed in key frontier provinces.
The strategy of the Late Empire was for the limitanei garrisons to deal with low-level threats, such as raids by war-parties or pirates. Major invasions by tribal armies were allowed to pass between the forts (the various “barbarian” races were never adept at siege work, and these border forts tended to get bypassed by invaders eager for easier plunder); leaving the limitani intact to sally-out later to harass stragglers or interdict the invader's supply and reinforcements. It was the job of the comitatensis to intercept and defeat these larger invasions. Until the 5th century, the qualitative gap between limitani and comitatensis units had been narrow. Limitanei were capable of being pulled ad hoc out of their garrisons to augment the field armies on specific campaigns. (Limitanei so elevated to field-force duty were designated pseudocomitatensis.)
In the 5th century, as their corn rations from imperial granaries in North Africa dried up, these troops became part-time militia; living in their fortresses with their families, and farming the surrounding area. As the situation deteriorated in the Western Empire, these garrisoned fortresses became islands in sea of German-controlled territories. By the last decades of the 5th century, many swore allegiance to the new German authorities, be it Frank, Visigoth, or Burgundian.
A third class was the Foederati. From the 2nd century onward, the Romans made use of small groups of tribal warriors from outside the Empire. These fought in their native dress, using their own equipment and tactics and commanded by their own leaders. They were hired for specific periods, and not given citizenship upon discharge (unlike auxiliaries recruited from tribes within the Empire). At times they were settled within the Empire after their discharge, often in border regions; to provide both future soldiers and a buffer between civilized lands and the barbarians beyond the frontier.
At the end of the 2nd century, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, 5,500 Sarmatian foederati from the Danube frontier were settled in Britannia. Tantalizing enough, these may at one point have been under the command of a Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus! They and their descendants remained in Britain till the end of the Roman period and, presumably, beyond. At least one cuneus (wedge) is recorded as still part of the garrisons that supported Hadrian’s Wall at the time of the Roman withdrawal.
From the 4th century, whole tribes of barbarians were enlisted as feoderatii. As their numbers grew in proportion to the rest of the army, so did their demands. The best example is Alaric, who commanded Visigoth foederatii in the Balkans. In the first decade of the 5th century, he and his Visigoths revolted when his demand to be named as Magister Militum of Illyricum was denied. It was this mutiny by Alaric and the Visigoth foederates that set in motion the chain of events that, in the end, led to the end of the Western Empire. ( See Part One here)
Britannia was not warded from attack by the Roman Army alone. In the north, between the long-abandoned Antonine Wall and Hadrian’s Wall, the Romans had cultivated the friendship and alliance of the Celtic tribes who dwelt there. Most notable amongst these were the Votadini; who later formed the Kingdom of Gododdin in what would become the Scottish lowlands; and a branch of whom , under their legendary leader Cunedda, founded the Kingdom of Gwynedd in Wales (as discussed in previous instalments). This transfer of a Roman allied tribe (or a portion thereof), from southern Scotland to Northern Wales was accomplished sometime between the last days of Roman Britain and the mid-5th century. It was a major political achievement. It has been suggested that the Roman or Romano-British authorities used these fierce allies to crush a hostile Irish settlement in north Wales; and replace them with a buffer client-kingdom.
As discussed previously, it is tempting to link this move to both Germanus and Vortigern’s activities between 429 and 440. This theory of Roman/Romano-British influence in Cunedda’s occupation of north Wales is not, however, without critics. But the suggestion that a major migration of a client people across Roman Britain could have occurred without the blessing of the provincial authorities is absurd.
THE ARMY OF ROMAN BRITAIN IN THE 4TH CENTURY
The army that garrisoned Britannia numbered between 4,800 and 6,600 comitatensis, assigned to the field army of the Comes Britanniae. The Dux Britanniarum had another 9,000 troops spread across the north; and the Comes Litoris Saxonici commanded some 2,200 manning the coastal forts. Thus between 15,000 and 17,000 men were deemed adequate by the Roman authorities to secure the island.
These units were both cavalry and infantry. The majority were armed with spear or javelin (or both); though a portion of the auxilia were archers. The later Roman army stressed archery, and cohorts of sagittarii used a powerful “Skythian” composite bow. Civic militia, conversely, were allowed a weaker “soft” bow, suitable to unskilled burgers doing infrequent military service and asked only to defend their own town’s walls. How many of the units in Britain were archers is unknown.
These were now designated as limitanei; the first assigned to the Saxon Shore and garrisoning the fort at Rutupiæ (Richborough), the latter at Eburacum (York), under the command of the Dux Britanniarum. One of these old limitanei legions was withdrawn by Stilicho in 406 (likely the VI Victrix). Both would have numbered no more than a thousand each, and likely somewhat less.
Like all late Roman heavy infantry, they were armed with a light spear called a lancea, or a throwing spear called a spiculum; either of which could be thrown or retained to use in close-quarters. These were possibly augmented by either a lighter javelin called a verutum; or (in rare cases) a half-dozen small throwing darts, called plumbata, carried in a rack inside of their shields.
Few Roman infantry outside of the field armies wore armor beyond a helmet. What designated them “heavy” as opposed to light infantry was their role in battle and the tactics they employed. Heavy infantry, regardless of the amount of armor (if any) worn, fought in deep and closely ordered formations; often with shields either overlapping or touching. Their job was to close with the enemy; and after showering them with missiles, finish them with spear and sword.
“Light infantry” auxilia were more versatile; and had attained high status in the mobile field forces of the late empire. They could be used to skirmish on the wings of or in front of the main battle line of heavy infantry. Or, in other cases, to form-up in similar depth and density and fight in the main battle line with the “heavy” legions. They were particularly useful in wooded or rough terrain. Their armament was also lancea and verutum. The majority of limitani posted in Britain and remaining after Constantine III pulled the comitatensis out in 407, were light infantry auxilia.
Cavalry too was classified as light and heavy. As with the infantry, these designations had everything to do with their battlefield roles, and little to do with their armaments.
Many of the limitani units of cavalry that (likely) remained in Britain after 407 were classified as “heavy”, armed with lance or javelins, and wearing some amount of armor. At least one unit of catafractarii, the Equites Catafractarii Iuniores (exceptionally heavily armored lancers) and a unit of Sarmatians, the Cuneus Sarmatarum (who were heavily armored lancers as well), are known to have been part of the northern garrisons.
Armored lancer regiments fighting in the Sarmatian style grew in number and importance among Roman heavy cavalry of the 4th and early 5th century, perhaps equaling the traditional javelin-armed heavy cavalry. After the Romans departed Britain, the northern parts of the province and what would later be known as Lowland Scotland became the Kingdoms of Gododdin and Strathclyde. The nobles of these Celtic peoples maintained a heavy cavalry tradition into the 9th century. As we know that Sarmatians had been settled in the north since the 2nd century, it is not unlikely that the Sarmatian style of warfare may have permeated among and been partially adopted by the north British nobility.
The Roman heavy cavalry garrisons also included more "conventional" regiments equipped with spear or javelins and a large shield. These could either skirmish with the enemy at a distance, showering them with javelin; or charge home with spear or sword. In later Post-Roman Britain, most of the Celtic Romano-British upper class warriors fought in this fashion.
Late Roman light cavalry tended to be javelin armed as well; with either large shields or, occasionally, smaller “target” type. They were useful in skirmishing on the flanks of the heavy troops, and were skilled at showering enemy infantry with missiles from a distance. They were also quite comfortable riding down fleeing enemies with sword.
The prime secondary weapon of all Roman (and later Romano-British) soldiers was the sword, or spatha. The short gladius of the classic Roman legions had long gone out of usage. The 34” spatha, originally a cavalry sword, had become the standard side-arm of all branches of the Roman army. These spatha was the ancestors of the later medieval broadsword.