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Limitanei

Limitanei

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The limitanei, meaning "the soldiers in frontier districts" (from the Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 phrase limes
Limes
A limes was a border defense or delimiting system of Ancient Rome. It marked the boundaries of the Roman Empire.The Latin noun limes had a number of different meanings: a path or balk delimiting fields, a boundary line or marker, any road or path, any channel, such as a stream channel, or any...

, denoting the military districts of the frontier provinces established in the late third century. They reflect the organization of the Late Roman army
Late Roman army
The Late Roman army is the term used to denote the military forces of the Roman Empire from the accession of Emperor Diocletian in 284 until the Empire's definitive division into Eastern and Western halves in 395. A few decades afterwards, the Western army disintegrated as the Western empire...

 and subsequently the Byzantine Empire
Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire during the periods of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, centred on the capital of Constantinople. Known simply as the Roman Empire or Romania to its inhabitants and neighbours, the Empire was the direct continuation of the Ancient Roman State...

. They were light infantry
Light infantry
Traditionally light infantry were soldiers whose job was to provide a skirmishing screen ahead of the main body of infantry, harassing and delaying the enemy advance. Light infantry was distinct from medium, heavy or line infantry. Heavy infantry were dedicated primarily to fighting in tight...

 similar to spear men
Spear
A spear is a pole weapon consisting of a shaft, usually of wood, with a pointed head.The head may be simply the sharpened end of the shaft itself, as is the case with bamboo spears, or it may be made of a more durable material fastened to the shaft, such as flint, obsidian, iron, steel or...

 and served as a policing force to patrol Rome's distant, far-flung border regions and when necessary, to delay advancing enemy forces until counter-attacks could be arranged. They are historically significant in that their appearance, as part of a plan of military reforms enacted in the late 3rd century, was able to extend the life of the Roman Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

by pushing back the great barbarian invasion
Migration Period
The Migration Period, also called the Barbarian Invasions , was a period of intensified human migration in Europe that occurred from c. 400 to 800 CE. This period marked the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages...

s of late antiquity
Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity is a periodization used by historians to describe the time of transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages, in both mainland Europe and the Mediterranean world. Precise boundaries for the period are a matter of debate, but noted historian of the period Peter Brown proposed...

.

History


Historians believe that the final set of military reforms in the Roman Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

 prior to its fragmentation, were begun in the late 3rd century by the Emperor Diocletian
Diocletian
Diocletian |latinized]] upon his accession to Diocletian . c. 22 December 244  – 3 December 311), was a Roman Emperor from 284 to 305....

. In all respects however, the Limitanei owe their existence to the reforms of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman Emperor, who divided the Roman military into two types of soldiers in 300 AD. Henceforth, all the Roman Cohort
Cohort (military unit)
A cohort was the basic tactical unit of a Roman legion following the reforms of Gaius Marius in 107 BC.-Legionary cohort:...

s were characterized as either frontier garrisons to police border provinces and keep the peace in fringe settlements or mobile field armies to confront attacking enemy forces in mass engagements. The first known written reference to Limitanei was recorded in 363 AD.

Military changes


The creation of the limitanei occurred at roughly the same time as the creation of the Comitatenses
Comitatenses
Comitatenses is the Latin plural of comitatensis, originally the adjective derived from comitatus , itself rooting in Comes .However, historically it became the accepted name for...

. The limitanei were the lighter and less experienced of these two groups, armed primarily with spears and clad in Lorica hamata
Lorica hamata
The lorica hamata is a type of mail armour used by the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. During the 1st century it was starting to be supplemented by lorica segmentata, but had been reintroduced as sole standard-issue armor by the 4th century. It was issued for both primary Legionary and...

, and designated with the task of harassing or delaying invading enemies and otherwise buying time for a larger, more capable force of comitatenses to arrive and destroy an invading force. The limitanei were used in as stationary roles along the frontier and were not expected to fight major battles. Because they were not involved in heavy fighting, these soldiers were granted plots of land to cultivate, which essentially turned them into part time soldiers/farmers. In this way, the limitanei were used to defend the empire in times of war as well as provide additional food for soldiers. The comitatenses represented the bulk of the Roman legion
Roman legion
A Roman legion normally indicates the basic ancient Roman army unit recruited specifically from Roman citizens. The organization of legions varied greatly over time but they were typically composed of perhaps 5,000 soldiers, divided into maniples and later into "cohorts"...

s and were professional heavy infantry
Heavy infantry
Heavy infantry refers to heavily armed and armoured ground troops, as opposed to medium or light infantry, in which the warriors are relatively lightly armoured. As modern infantry troops usually define their subgroups differently , 'heavy infantry' almost always is used to describe pre-gunpowder...

 veterans akin to the earlier Roman Republic
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

an Principes
Principes
Principes were spearmen, and later swordsmen, in the armies of the early Roman Republic. They were men in the prime of their lives who were fairly wealthy, and could afford decent equipment. They were the heavier infantry of the legion who carried large shields and wore good quality armour. Their...

 and Triarii
Triarii
Triarii were one of the elements of the early Roman military Manipular legions of the early Roman Republic . They were the oldest and among the wealthiest men in the army, and could afford good quality equipment. They wore heavy metal armour and carried large shields, their usual position being...

 who were heavily armoured swordsmen.

Although the limitanei were a militia of sorts and perhaps looked down upon by the rest of the more discliplined Roman legions, they were nonetheless a fairly well equipped and trained, division of infantry for their time, especially in relation to other standing armies of the day fielded by Rome's Germanic
Germanic peoples
The Germanic peoples are an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group of Northern European origin, identified by their use of the Indo-European Germanic languages which diversified out of Proto-Germanic during the Pre-Roman Iron Age.Originating about 1800 BCE from the Corded Ware Culture on the North...

, Celtic, Iranic, and Eastern neighbours, collectively referred to as Barbarians by the Romans themselves.

As the soldier profession is often not productive (prolonged periods of training with only occasional conflict), empires had long resorted to this principle of "military colonists." Thus, the late Roman empire adopted the system of limitanei (frontier-colonist-soldier) for economic reasons. By employing soldiers in this way, Rome was able to capitalize on their knowledge of warfare as well benefit from the agriculture produced by limitanei. Many scholars believe that empires stationed these soldiers on the outskirts of empires as a first line of defense against raiding barbarians tribes. (accredited to Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization pp. 364-5)

Effects


Although these military reforms brought about a more effective defensive army than the previous arrangement had, it did have its pitfalls.

Constantine I
Constantine I
Constantine the Great , also known as Constantine I or Saint Constantine, was Roman Emperor from 306 to 337. Well known for being the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine and co-Emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious tolerance of all...

 was criticised for allowing what were perceived as "second-class" infantry, often recruited from non-Roman backgrounds, to be given the responsibility of watching over Rome's most troublesome regions. The elite Comitatenses
Comitatenses
Comitatenses is the Latin plural of comitatensis, originally the adjective derived from comitatus , itself rooting in Comes .However, historically it became the accepted name for...

 and Scholae Palatinae
Scholae Palatinae
The Scholae Palatinae , were an elite military guard unit, usually ascribed to the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great as a replacement for the equites singulares Augusti, the cavalry arm of the Praetorian Guard...

 (the personal bodyguards of the late Roman Emperors such as Constantine I
Constantine I
Constantine the Great , also known as Constantine I or Saint Constantine, was Roman Emperor from 306 to 337. Well known for being the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine and co-Emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious tolerance of all...

) resented being reduced to trivial home guard duties and acting more similarly to an urban police force until such a time that a serious enough threat presented itself at a nearby border, when they were called upon for duty.

The quality of these border troops declined because the limitanei had to live in poor conditions in impoverished and isolated towns, unlike their well-off counterparts the comitatenses, who were typically assigned to more urban and prosperous areas of the empire. This affected the discipline and morale of the late Roman army
Late Roman army
The Late Roman army is the term used to denote the military forces of the Roman Empire from the accession of Emperor Diocletian in 284 until the Empire's definitive division into Eastern and Western halves in 395. A few decades afterwards, the Western army disintegrated as the Western empire...

. In the past it was usually assumed that over time the limitanei settled down more permanently in their posts and became farmers and land owners
Roman citizenship
Citizenship in ancient Rome was a privileged political and legal status afforded to certain free-born individuals with respect to laws, property, and governance....

 as well as soldiers; raising families and earning a living from agricultural means rather than purely military service. It is now more generally assumed that there is no good evidence for this.

It can be surmised due in part to these reforms, that the Roman Empire continued to live on for another 140 years after the end of Constantine's reign, in the face of numerous migrations and invasions from northern and eastern, nomadic peoples such as the Huns
Huns
The Huns were a group of nomadic people who, appearing from east of the Volga River, migrated into Europe c. AD 370 and established the vast Hunnic Empire there. Since de Guignes linked them with the Xiongnu, who had been northern neighbours of China 300 years prior to the emergence of the Huns,...

, Goths
Goths
The Goths were an East Germanic tribe of Scandinavian origin whose two branches, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, played an important role in the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Medieval Europe....

, Vandals
Vandals
The Vandals were an East Germanic tribe that entered the late Roman Empire during the 5th century. The Vandals under king Genseric entered Africa in 429 and by 439 established a kingdom which included the Roman Africa province, besides the islands of Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearics....

, Ostrogoths, Sarmatians
Sarmatians
The Iron Age Sarmatians were an Iranian people in Classical Antiquity, flourishing from about the 5th century BC to the 4th century AD....

, Alans
Alans
The Alans, or the Alani, occasionally termed Alauni or Halani, were a group of Sarmatian tribes, nomadic pastoralists of the 1st millennium AD who spoke an Eastern Iranian language which derived from Scytho-Sarmatian and which in turn evolved into modern Ossetian.-Name:The various forms of Alan —...

, Burgundians
Burgundians
The Burgundians were an East Germanic tribe which may have emigrated from mainland Scandinavia to the island of Bornholm, whose old form in Old Norse still was Burgundarholmr , and from there to mainland Europe...

, Saxons
Saxons
The Saxons were a confederation of Germanic tribes originating on the North German plain. The Saxons earliest known area of settlement is Northern Albingia, an area approximately that of modern Holstein...

 and Franks
Franks
The Franks were a confederation of Germanic tribes first attested in the third century AD as living north and east of the Lower Rhine River. From the third to fifth centuries some Franks raided Roman territory while other Franks joined the Roman troops in Gaul. Only the Salian Franks formed a...

, which continually weakened the Empire until its eventual collapse
Decline of the Roman Empire
The decline of the Roman Empire refers to the gradual societal collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Many theories of causality prevail, but most concern the disintegration of political, economic, military, and other social institutions, in tandem with foreign invasions and usurpers from within the...

 in 476 AD.

Secondary Sources


Benjamin Isaac, The Limits of Empire: the Roman Army in the East (Oxford University Press, revised ed. 1992)