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Two vicus questions for anyone in the know
Topic Started: Jul 15 2008, 04:16 PM (775 Views)
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Interesting set of posts!

It's important to remember that the Wall system was NOT designed as a defense against large-scale assault, but to provide security to the frontier against persistent low and medium level threats: everything from 'cattle rustlers' to smallish bands of marauders. Further, the Wall acted as a deterrent, since any group--small or large--intent on entering the province would first have to cross the Wall, thus alerting the garrison, and then--once they'd done their looting, etc--find a way back across the Wall, loot in hand, as various garrison elements closed in. In effect, the Wall made it quite difficult to engage in quick raids across the frontier.

The Army maintained an extensive reconaissance network well beyond the Wall itself, allowing the Romans to gain some warning of any attempts by potential enemies to organize larger forces. Roman practice would have been to meet such threats north of the Wall rather than trying to use the Wall system as a defense per se. The Wall defenses provided logistical support for such pre-emptive moves, of course, but was not intended to act as a formal defense against large-scale assault.

As Harry observed, for a variety of reasons the 4th c. frontier fortifications assume a more overtly 'defensive' nature along large parts of the Empire's periphery. The Wall itself was not perhaps quite so affected as other regions, since it was already a fortified frontier.

I’d like to address the general narrative concerning Rome’s frontiers, which runs something like this:

“The early Imperial military was composed of legions, auxiliary cohorts, and ad-hoc ‘local’ forces under various designations, supplemented by allied troops as needed. The legions were highly trained, the auxiliaries less so. In general, Roman forces could easily defeat any threat due to their tactical prowess, high levels of training, and excellent morale. Indeed, it was generally suicidal to confront a legion in open battle.

Roman forces built the Wall to provide a solid defensive network from which to repel aggressors. The Wall fulfilled its role until the mid-fourth century, when a greatly degraded Roman military was unable to prevent large-scale incursions. Indeed, the fourth and fifth century military was composed of units whose morale, training and discipline were much lower than that of their predecessors, due in part to the ‘barbarization’ of such units.”

If I may, I’d like to address some of the assumptions underlying this narrative.

Roman legions were qualitatively superior to the auxilia.

While this was certainly true in, say, early Augustan times, modern research indicates that the early Imperial period saw the auxilia brought to a high degree of training and tactical skill, comparable armament and armor, and high morale. The average auxiliary cohort was probably about as a capable as a legionary unit. The key difference between the two lay (I suspect) in the fact that a legion of ten cohorts was organized to fight as an entity in which each component operated with the others with the efficiency borne of long association, and thus as a whole the legion possessed greater tactical flexibility (and higher morale) than any ten random auxilary cohorts thrown together. Moreover, the legions appear to have possessed an engineering capacity lacking in the auxilary forces. That said, the quality of an individual legionary was probably quite similar to that of the average auxiliary of the time. Some evidence of this can be gleaned by the Batavian Revolt which saw properly trained auxiliaries fighting--and prevailing--against legionary forces of comparable strength.

Later Imperial forces were less efficient/well-trained than their predecessors.

This is a huge generalization, and in part based upon the perceived 'Germanization' of the forces. However, while quite clearly some fourth and fifth century units were not as capable as those of previous eras, it is by no means clear that many or most were. The various crises of the third century had required detachments from legionary units—generally those men most capable of being moved on short notice—which did indeed result in the fragmentation of legionary forces. In most cases such detachments never returned to their parent formations, becoming independent units of their own (cf. the Notitia Dignitatum for many examples). Auxiliary cohorts could be transferred in toto from their bases (as happened at Vindolanda several times) or might likewise send detachments elsewhere.

The ‘mobile forces’ gradually assumed a formal personality of their own, characterized as ‘companion’ or ‘Palatine’ forces by the fourth and fifth century governments. The evidence indicates that these forces were fully as capable as their first and second century predecessors in terms of training, morale and equipment. However, they were also concentrated well away from the frontiers, a fact for which the latter suffered.

The steady attrition of frontier garrison forces, their best components sent off to the newest flashpoint, meant that the frontiers had to ‘make do’ with forces which were both relatively weaker than those of the second century as well as ‘less capable’ in terms of mobility, and, perhaps, training and morale. Conversely, the nascent ‘field forces’ tended to comprise the better trained, more mobile detachments, plus newly raised units. The dichotomy between ‘frontier forces’ (limitanei, riparenses, etc) and the field forces (the Palatini, comitatenses, etc) of the fourth century came about organically rather than through deliberate policy, although policy came to recognize the de fact situation rather quickly.

What this implies, for the Wall as much as elsewhere, is that there was no set Imperial policy that dictated force levels, training or funding for the garrisons. Each unit’s experience of the third and fourth centuries might be quite different from that of its neighbors’. A cohort of the early fourth century might—dependent upon its actual manpower, the character of its commander, its morale, etc—be quite similar to that of the same cohort a hundred years prior—or it might be a mere relic, possessing low morale, little training, and perhaps existing as not much more than a very low-grade militia.

My point is that we must be cautious about generalizing concerning the later period’s Wall garrisons (or the legionary forces in York and Chester, for that matter). We can, perhaps, state that up to the third century funding, training, morale and force levels were held to a fair degree of constancy across the Empire and over time than was later the case (though more than one commentator remarks that, even at the height of Roman power, the ‘eastern forces’ were considered to be inferior in quality to the Rhine and Danube units). During the third century some units might be stripped of much of their manpower; others might be transferred away from the frontier entirely. Some might—under good commanders—maintain a relatively high level of readiness, while others—lacking the more coherent government support of earlier periods—might suffer. In general, I posit that, given a pressing need to obtain troops for ‘mobile forces’, the frontiers doubtless suffered a degree of benign neglect—not through any deliberate policy, but merely because the central government perceived the ‘mobile component’ of its army to be of higher priority. For the Wall as for other areas, this implies that unit capability would rest far more heavily on local variables than previously—but note that this does not mean that all units deteriorated in quality. Quite clearly, capable local commanders and civil administrators could ‘keep things going’ to some degree, while incompetent or corrupt officials could rapidly reduce even the best units to ineffectiveness, absent any effective support from the central government.

At Vindolanda, it appears—I use that term with caution, and based upon the rather more haphazard, ad-hoc nature of the remains from that period--that the fourth century garrison was indeed of lower quality than the garrison of earlier periods, though intangibles such as morale and training may be impossible ever to quantify. It would make sense, given the probable overall decline in quality and quantity of the Wall’s garrisons (the best men having long ago been seconded to the ‘field forces’, leaving understrength garrisons), to more strongly fortify bases which had previously been manned by stronger, more capable units.

The size or absence of a vicus is not necessarily due to any greater nearby enemy threat, but to the simple fact that both garrison size—ie, the customer base for local trade—was lower. I would expect, in the absence of a large customer base, that the civilian component at Vindolanda would, in the fourth century, consist of the garrison’s immediate dependants, and perhaps some small-scale artisan workshops. It would be interesting to learn whether overall ‘monetary velocity’ (the scope and intensity of use of coined currency) diminished; I suspect it did. ‘Localization’ of craftwork and commerce is well-attested in the West in general at this period, and though the Army would still enjoy large-scale supply shipments under the aegis of the central government, the overall complexity and extent of the Wall’s local economy was probably several notes lower than that of the third century. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the vicus slowly shrank in population as the local economy worsened, with the threat of barbarian incursions a contributory—though not necessarily a primary—factor. It would then be entirely sensible to bring the remaining civil component within the fort itself, obviating the need for any vicus at all—which would then be a ready-made supply of quarried stone for use within the fort proper, of course.

Just my own observations!

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Jan 15 2010, 09:56 AM
But, in defense of the "home team", it should be noted that neither Vindolanda nor to my knowlege any of the major Wall forts were ever sacked in a fashion that has been archeologically obvious. So to base their competence on the straightness of their masonry seems a bit harsh.
I agree: we cannot accurately assess the abilities of the Wall's fourth century garrisons only by the physical remains. However, we can get some idea of the relative capability of the army from its actual battlefield performance, plus any other anecdotal information, supplied us by various writers of the period. My point concerning Vindolanda was that the aggregate evidence (not just the 'quality of repair work) would seem to favor, on average, a less capable garrison than that of prior centuries (a comment potentially applicable, I must add, to ANY frontier garrison of the period, absent contravening evidence). However, it's entirely possible that the later garrison was favored by conscientious commanders and maintained a fairly high level of training and readiness. We simply don't know, nor probably can we ever know.

What the ad-hoc nature of later Imperial repairs can perhaps tell us, if nothing else, is that 1) such masonry was built in haste, or 2) was built by inferior artisans, or 3) both.

Clearly there is a general diminuition in frontier force capabilities from the 3rd century onward; how much the Vindolanda garrison units, or the Wall overall, were affected by such trends is open to debate. I'd also be interested to learn how drastically the events of 367 affected the Vindolanda garrison (though I imagine there's nothing to really tell us, either way).

Oh for a time machine....
Edited by ericjacobson, Jan 15 2010, 06:10 PM.
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