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There are accounts of men cutting off their thumbs to avoid service, of recruits having to be transported to their units in a kind of cage, of desertion etc. Why was service so unpopular in the late fourth and fifth centuries, necessitating a reliance on barbarians?
I should think it would be your high chance of being killed. It was also very unlikely that you would find yourself fighting 'true enemies' or 'barbarians. It is far more likely that you would end up fighting other Romans possibly from your own area of the empire. Civil wars were endemic throughout this period, almost every year someone would declare themselves Emperor and off you'd go either fighting for them or against them. In the earlier period of the Empire you could look forward to citizenship, but by this period almost everyone bar slaves were automatically 'citizens'. But the main reason has to be long protracted civil wars, brutal nasty affairs ! just not much fun !!
Here is perhaps one of the most famous opinions:

Quote:The Christians were not less averse to the business than to the pleasures of this world. The defence of our persons and property they knew not how to reconcile with the patient doctrine which enjoined an unlimited forgiveness of past injuries and commanded them to invite the repetition of fresh insults… [N]or could their humane ignorance be convinced that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow-creatures, either by the sword of justice or by that of war; even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community… [T]hey refused to take any active part in… the military defence of the empire. [I]t was impossible that the Christians without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers…

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, XV.


However, at some point in time Christians were actually encouraged to fight for the Empire. This thread mentions it.
Quote:I should think it would be your high chance of being killed. It was also very unlikely that you would find yourself fighting 'true enemies' or 'barbarians. It is far more likely that you would end up fighting other Romans possibly from your own area of the empire. Civil wars were endemic throughout this period, almost every year someone would declare themselves Emperor and off you'd go either fighting for them or against them. In the earlier period of the Empire you could look forward to citizenship, but by this period almost everyone bar slaves were automatically 'citizens'. But the main reason has to be long protracted civil wars, brutal nasty affairs ! just not much fun !!

But what about the third century? It witnessed more than its share of civil wars; moreover there were terrible disasters around midcentury, but there doesn't seem to have been a shortage of troops, enabling Aurelian, Diocletian etc to bounce back.
I read in Goldsworthy's How Rome Fell that Anastasius, eastern emperor at the end of the fifth century, reformed military pay. Troops were again paid in coins instead of food, clothing and equipment. This is said to have made citizens more willing to serve, and reduced the need for barbarians. I wonder, if pay were the problem, why didn't the western Empire implement such reforms before the loss of Africa deprived it of the resources which may have made it possible?
Quote:Here is perhaps one of the most famous opinions:

[quote]The Christians were not less averse to the business than to the pleasures of this world. The defence of our persons and property they knew not how to reconcile with the patient doctrine which enjoined an unlimited forgiveness of past injuries and commanded them to invite the repetition of fresh insults… [N]or could their humane ignorance be convinced that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow-creatures, either by the sword of justice or by that of war; even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community… [T]hey refused to take any active part in… the military defence of the empire. [I]t was impossible that the Christians without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers…

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, XV.


What ancient (or fifth century) sources, if any, are the basis for this? I've heard of Celsus, but he was second century i.e. long before refusal to serve became a big problem.

Quote:However, at some point in time Christians were actually encouraged to fight for the Empire. This thread mentions it.

As another poster once noted, there seem to have been many christian soldiers around 363 CE, who chose Jovian as emperor because he was anti-pagan.
I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Vegetius' giving the reason why it was more popular to sign up with the Auxilia rather than in the Legiones.
Quote:What ancient (or fifth century) sources, if any, are the basis for this?

Gibbon was not known to document his sources to present-day standards, unfortunately. I don't know what he based his opinions on.
I believe the first reference to men cutting off their thumbs to avoid military service comes from a law of Constantine, so the unpopularity of the army must date from at least the Tetrarchic period.

Probably there were a number of factors:

1. Hereditary military service. After, I think, Diocletian, sons of veterans were compelled to serve. Thus anyone joining the army would sentence their heirs to service in perpetuity! Soldiers did have some benefits - they were honestiores rather than humiliores, and so exempt from certain taxes and legal punishments (including torture), and it was a steady job for life with potential to rise to high office, but even so the hereditary compulsion must have put many men off it!

2. Army size. Conscription had always been used by the Romans, but possibly the smaller armies of the Principiate could usually make up numbers with volunteers except in times of emergency. The expanded armies of the later empire needed to use conscription much more rigorously.

3. Long distance service. Limitanei troops could remain close to home, but with the constant possibility of being transferred into the field army and sent far away - Julian's Gallic auxilia demonstrated the unwillingness of soldiers to serve far from home, but we find the same thing in the Abinnaeus archive from Egypt (AD340s):

Quote:I am writing to you about my wife Naomi's brother. He is a soldier's son, and he has been enrolled to go for a soldier. If you can release him again it is a fine thing you do, first of all on God's account, secondly on mine, since his mother is a widow and has nothing but him. But if he must serve, please safeguard him from going abroad with the draft for the field army (Abinnaeus Archive 19)
From Vegetius-

'CAUSES OF DECAY OF THE LEGION

The name of the legion remains indeed to this day in our armies, but its strength and substance are gone, since by the neglect of our predecessors, honors and preferments, which were formerly the recompenses of merit and long services, were to be attained only by interest and favor. Care is no longer taken to replace the soldiers, who after serving their full time, have received their discharges. The vacancies continually happening by sickness, discharges, desertion and various other casualties, if not supplied every year or even every month, must in time disable the most numerous army. Another cause of the weakness of our legions is that in them the soldiers find the duty hard, the arms heavy, the rewards distant and the discipline severe. To avoid these inconveniences, the young men enlist in the auxiliaries, where the service is less laborious and they have reason to expect more speedy recompenses.'
You could try and level a charge of the late army finding it hard to recruit, but it is hard to make stick even considering the greater size of the army compared to the early Imperial period. Rather I suspect the charge that it is hard to recruit soldiers is a constant refrain through history, up to and including today.

People always quote the law of AD 406 allowing slaves to serve, but this is only a special temporary measure. The famous story of men cutting off their thumbs to avoid enlistment is due to attempts to specifically conscript in Italy, with little record of recruitment and ruled by large land owners unfriendly to recruitment amongst their “tenants”. Recruits generally came from elsewhere, and were of better physical stature.
Rather than trying to throw people into the army, in fact there was a whole raft of people who were excluded from recruitment. In AD 370 we have laws exempting Imperial estates providing recruits, and restrictions on recruits drawn from a whole range of social groups. A law of 407 exempted tribunes and praepositi from providing recruits from their estate. Another of 423 exempted decurions and silentiaries. Some palatini and agents in rebus were also exempt.

Certainly the late Roman army made use of “barbarians” but the army always had used such soldiers. After the non Roman auxiliaries were assimilated into the legions there was a greater need of foederati with their own internal organisations. Marcus Aurelius had already recruited slaves, gladiators and robbers into the army. Plague in the Antonine period meant more mercenaries were employed. A large list of foreign units serving with the third century army can be put together. Constantine continues the trend, and many of his elite units (Cornuti , Brachiati, Petulantes and Celtae) came from tribesmen from north Germany and Denmark. Constantine’s army of AD312 came in part from ex-prisoners of war re-settled in Gaul.

The 4th century frontier units have a stake in the empire via land ownership, and Ammianus suggests that some field army units are linked to specific regions. Certainly units of Julian’s army seem to have resisted transfer to the east. The anonymous de Rebus Bellicis advocates land grants to veterans along the frontiers to improve security. Late 4th century limitanei appear to have enjoyed a salary roughly equivalent to their Hadrianic brethren. In pure cash terms they were paid less, but received food and equipment on top of this. They were certainly paid better than their late 2nd and early 3rd century counterparts who suffered from Empire-wide inflation and the debasement of currency.

Rather than a steady decline I see an army developing by the end of the 4th century into perhaps the first “modern” army in the way we understand such terms.
Quote:I read in Goldsworthy's How Rome Fell that Anastasius, eastern emperor at the end of the fifth century, reformed military pay. Troops were again paid in coins instead of food, clothing and equipment. This is said to have made citizens more willing to serve, and reduced the need for barbarians. I wonder, if pay were the problem, why didn't the western Empire implement such reforms before the loss of Africa deprived it of the resources which may have made it possible?
Although the ref is correct, Goldsworthy is not a primary source for Late Roman military history. :wink:
The West, at that time, no longer had the resources to reform the military. The tax basis of the state budget hadd been eroded badly, so not enough coin would have been avaailable to pay the troops. Not that there was a Western army anymore, most troops were hired from outside.
Quote:I believe the first reference to men cutting off their thumbs to avoid military service comes from a law of Constantine, so the unpopularity of the army must date from at least the Tetrarchic period.
Maybe it was just the case in this particularr period? I mean, cutting off your thumb is such a striking image, perhaps too strong? Maybe the army was more popular in other periods?
Quote:To avoid these inconveniences, the young men enlist in the auxiliaries, where the service is less laborious and they have reason to expect more speedy recompenses.'
Another reason to distrust Vegetius - the 'auxxiliaries' were no longer in existance by the time he wrote (whether that was the later 4th or the later 5th c.). These differences between both services no longer applied in the Late Roman army.
Quote:I believe the first reference to men cutting off their thumbs to avoid military service comes from a law of Constantine, so the unpopularity of the army must date from at least the Tetrarchic period.

Goldsworthy wrote that cutting off thumbs occurred in the time of Augustus, at least once, but judging by the number of laws passed against it in the late Empire, it seems to have become widespread.

Quote:1. Hereditary military service. After, I think, Diocletian, sons of veterans were compelled to serve. Thus anyone joining the army would sentence their heirs to service in perpetuity! Soldiers did have some benefits - they were honestiores rather than humiliores, and so exempt from certain taxes and legal punishments (including torture), and it was a steady job for life with potential to rise to high office, but even so the hereditary compulsion must have put many men off it!

If that were a key reason, why didn't they just repeal it--assuming the # of sons was indeed lower than potential new recruits?

Quote:2. Army size. Conscription had always been used by the Romans, but possibly the smaller armies of the Principiate could usually make up numbers with volunteers except in times of emergency. The expanded armies of the later empire needed to use conscription much more rigorously.

I dunno...I think 5th century generals would've been delighted with citizen recruits as numerous as those of Trajan's day.

Quote:3. Long distance service. Limitanei troops could remain close to home, but with the constant possibility of being transferred into the field army and sent far away - Julian's Gallic auxilia demonstrated the unwillingness of soldiers to serve far from home..

Didn't seem to inordinately bother second and third century troops. I believe the european forces of Alexander Severus were reluctant to go to the East, but that didn't lead to problems with recruitment AFAIK.
Quote:The famous story of men cutting off their thumbs to avoid enlistment is due to attempts to specifically conscript in Italy, with little record of recruitment and ruled by large land owners unfriendly to recruitment amongst their “tenants”.
The note about Italy comes from Ammianus (15.12). But there are successive laws against the practice in the Theodosian Code (7.13.5 / 7.13.10 / 7.22.1), indicating that the problem was ongoing. The 'Gauls' described by Ammianus seem to be Germanic barbarian settlers - surely the citizen inhabitants of Gaul itself would differ little from those in Italy by the fourth century?

Quote:Constantine continues the trend, and many of his elite units (Cornuti , Brachiati, Petulantes and Celtae) came from tribesmen from north Germany and Denmark. Constantine’s army of AD312 came in part from ex-prisoners of war re-settled in Gaul.
There's a note in (I think) one of the panegyrics about Constantine enlisting barbarians, but do we have any more evidence for the Cornuti etc being raised by him?

Quote:Rather than a steady decline I see an army developing by the end of the 4th century into perhaps the first “modern” army in the way we understand such terms.
I agree on the effectiveness of the later army. But professional armies in the modern era have seldom been 'popular' :-)

Quote:I mean, cutting off your thumb is such a striking image, perhaps too strong? Maybe the army was more popular in other periods?
As I say, Constantine's legislation (forcing mutilated men to become town councillors instead!) made it into the Theodosian code, so it can't have been an isolated phenomenon. Suetonius notes an equestrian under Augustus doing the same thing to his sons, but that does seem to have been unusual at the time.

Quote:Another reason to distrust Vegetius - the 'auxxiliaries' were no longer in existance by the time he wrote (whether that was the later 4th or the later 5th c.).
This could be Vegetius being silly - but might he have meant the late Roman auxilia? Do we know that there was some ethnic qualification for joining the auxilia? Could a man eligible for enlistment just head to the nearest settlement of 'barbarian' laeti and surrender himself to the recruiting officers? The barbarians would probably be quite happy to have a volunteer substitute! (unless, of course, they had to kit the man out in a big yellow wig and a stick-on moustache first...)