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From Aug 2006 - Nov 2013 WeDig provided a live forum for diggers & fans of Vindolanda. It has now been mothballed and will be maintained as a live archive.

Here you will find preserved 7 years of conversation, photos, & knowledge about a site many people love. Vindolanda gets under the skin. (Figuratively and literally as a volunteer excavator!) It's a place you remember, filled with people you remember!

Thanks for 7 great years!


The period of the Anarchy (c. 235 CE-284 CE) had witnessed significant cultural, social, political and religious developments; by Diocletian’semperor 284 CE-305 CE accession the fiction underpinning the Principate—that the emperor was merely ‘first among equals’—was defunct. Since the beginning of the Imperial period effective power, based upon control of the military and of various civil offices, had been masked with ever-less success by the nominally ‘civilian’ nature of the Principate. Leaving aside the dramatically clear revelation that imperial power rested upon the military, the crises of the 3rd century also required the emperor to intervene ever more directly and closely in the day-to-day running of government at virtually all levels. In turn, the relatively small civil service of the second century was put under unsupportable strain in an attempt to shore up an economy and society which were changing extremely rapidly. The fiction of the Principate, in short, was no longer an effective paradigm for governance.

Diocletian decided to formally centralize and to buttress his authority by establishing an openly autocratic system, hoping that the awesome trappings of monarchy would deter would-be usurpers. More practically, he multiplied the number of offices at every level of government, seeking to distribute power (lessening the ability of any one official to rise up against the central government) while arrogating to government as a whole powers which were literally ‘totalizing’—totalitarian—in nature.

Civil and military powers were separated; provincial governors now oversaw only the civil aspects of their domains; the provinces themselves were split, and split again, in hopes that no one province would enjoy enough military power to raise a successful rebellion. The throne itself was divided amongst two emperors, each with a ‘vice-emperor’., or ‘Caesar’ (the ‘Tetrarchy’ or ‘Rule of Four [Men]’), in the belief that such a collegial system would allow an Imperial presence at four different locations, making usurpation (and enemy incursions) even more difficult. To stabilize the economy, Diocletian essentially turned the Empire into a gigantic garrison, in which each person had his assigned hereditary post, be it as a civic councillor or as a soldier in the army. For the first time in history a national budget was devised, based upon a painstaking assessment of land and personal value across the Empire.

It appears that the army was greatly expanded; the old linear defense scheme instituted under Hadrian lay in ruins, with detachments of legions scattered across the Empire. Diocletian apparently raised numbers of new units—whether at the old legionary strengths is not known. The Diocletianic army, then, would have presented a very mixed appearance: garrisons carrying the titles of long-extant legions, but often at much reduced strength; other units composed of former legionary detachments, now independent in their own right; auxiliary cohorts in garrison, perhaps little changed over the centuries; numeriLat s. numerus, ‘number’ of ‘native’ (ie, barbarian) contingents fighting in their own style; and Diocletian’s own new units. A widespread fortification program buttressed the augmented army; the linear defense system was given a new lease on life. Because the scope of the threat had increased so markedly, typified by larger, more formidable barbarian confederations and the ever-present Sassanid Persian state on the eastern borders, Diocletian decided that keeping enemies outside the frontiers was quite simply impossible. The Hadrianic defense structure had effectively barred small-scale incursions while providing mobile legionary and auxiliary forces which would be able to pre-empt larger attacks on the enemy’s own ground (ideally) or at worst could rapidly bring him to battle before he could move far into Roman territory.

The far more widespread, and larger, threats of the third century meant that simultaneous incursions were not only possible but likely across several frontiers at once. Therefore, Diocletian’s fortification program sought to create a heavily garrisoned zone, extending as much as 100 miles behind the frontiers, in which an enemy force would find itself entangled. Fortifications controlled the roads—which invaders had used to their own advantage in the third century; cities and towns were fortified; and the limitaneiderived from the Lat. ‘limes’, or ‘frontiers’; thus, ‘frontier forces’ —the old frontier garrisons, of wildly varying quality—were ideally suited for holding such locations.

The theory went that an enemy force would thus find itself in a military zone in which all targets, including supply bases, would be difficult to attack. A formal siege (at which the barbarians were inexperienced) would provide time for reserve forces to arrive; otherwise the enemy would find himself in a barren area, unable to move easily, and were he to penetrate further into the Empire, his forces would find a heavily garrisoned zone waiting to hinder his eventual retreat. The intent, then, was to contain incursions, no matter how widespread, within a few score miles of the frontier. While central field armies existed, they were not considered to be the only combat ready forces—provincial troops, especially the better trained, can and did provide local assistance as needed.

Constantineemperor 306 CE-337 CE and his successors weakened the defense in depth which Diocletian had so painfully built, preferring to transfer the best frontier units to central field armies (thus formalizing the ad hoc solution of the later third century), leaving ‘second-tier’ forces to garrison the frontiers. The theory was that a centralized force would be completely loyal to the emperor, while allowing him a permanent strategic reserve with which to react to enemy—or domestic—threats.

Frontier forces thus tended to languish, and over time their fighting qualities clearly suffered. While efficient enough as garrisons in fortified posts, such forces no longer possessed the ability—without extensive retraining—to contain incursions on their own, a radical departure from the system from Hadrian to Diocletian. In effect, enemy incursions would be allowed henceforth to roam the countryside until central forces could arrive to repel them; and indeed, the severity of such incursions grew, as witness the German depredations in mid-fourth century Gaul—a state of affairs which would probably have not occurred in the third century. Worse yet, since the central armies were the best trained forces, their loss would mean that the Empire no longer possessed a reserve of trained men—as it had all along the second and third century frontiers—from which to draw reinforcements.

Diocletian began the transition to a highly centralized state; his successors accelerated the process, and the Dominate endured to the end of the Western Empire, and continued in the East thereafter.

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