The Militarisation of Roman Society, 400 – 700

The Militarisation of Roman Society, 400 – 700

By Edward James

Military Aspects of Scandinavian Society in a European Perspective AD 1 – 1300, edited by Anne Norgard Jorgensen and Birthe L. Clausen (Copenhagen, 1997)

Introduction: Historians and archaeologists have lavished attention on the new kingdoms established by various barbarian peoples in the former western Roman Empire in the fifth and sixth centuries. These peoples are, relatively speaking, visible: their kings issue lawcodes; men such as Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville and Bede write their histories; they bury their dead with jewellery, vessels, and, of course, weapons. Even if we cannot follow one Anglo-Saxon archaeologist, who seems to argue that because Angles and Saxons buried weapons with the dead their society must necessarily have been very violent, we must at least accept that the Germanic barbarians lived in militarised societies. Let me define that term. By a militarised society I mean a society in which there is no clear distinction between soldier and civilian, nor between military officer and government official; where the head of state is also commander-in-chief of the army; where all adult free men have the right to carry weapons; where a certain group or class of people (normally the aristocracy) is expected, by reason of birth, to participate in the army; where the education of the young thus often involves a military element; where the symbolism of warfare and weaponry is prominent in official and private life, and the warlike and heroic virtues are glorified; and where warfare is a predominant government expenditure and/or a major source of economic profit.

A society may partake of some of these without necessarily being a militarised society. William Jefferson Clinton is commander-in-chief of the armed services of the United States, and all American adults can carry weapons, but the United States of America is far from being a militarised society. More pertinently, a Roman Emperor was the commander-in-chief, and warfare was the predominant government expenditure of the Empire; but the Romans preserved a strong distinction between soldier and civilian, did not allow civilians to bear arms, and maintained a predominantly literary rather than military education. Certainly some of these distinctions were beginning to break down in the West by the late Roman period. At one moment of panic in the early fifth century even slaves were encouraged to take up arms; increasingly great magnates seem to have assembled private armies; some officials are known who had both civilian and military functions; the word militia came to be used indiscriminately of military and civilian service. MacMullen talks about the very gradual militarisation of government and administration over the last two centuries of the Roman Empire. But, it is generally reckoned that, by the criteria I have listed above, the barbarian kings of the early Middle Ages presided over militarised societies, whereas the Emperors of the Late Roman period did not.

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