Late Roman Shield Patterns

Mismatched patterns and labels in the Magister Militum Praesentalis II illustrations

This page created 10 May 2014 and last modified: 6 February 2015 (Maier reference numbers added)


Disclaimer: Remember, a lot of what comes below is speculation. Hopefully informed speculation, but speculation nonetheless. Comments welcome! (lukeuedasarson "at"

An examination of the shield patterns attributed to the second Magister Militum Praesentalis throws up some anomalies, the most immediately obvious of which is that the last two patterns are essentially blank, showing no boss, no colours except for a pale blue background, and no decoration except for lines that quarter the shields; furthermore, the labels given to these shields do not match the corresponding textual list.

One starting point for investigating these anomalies is by comparing the patterns of the units under the command of the first and second Masters of the Soldiers in the Imperial Presence, as shown below:

Unit correspondences

It can be seen that after removing the two duplicated entries, 12.39 and 12.40, in the list of the Magister Militum Praesentalis II, there are clear correspondences between the two lists. The six legiones palatina in each command are grouped in three pairs, albeit with one of the pairs not being listed together. Amongst the auxilia palatina, there is a direct correspondence in both name and shield pattern for equally-ranked units across the commands, with two blocks of exceptions.

The first problem area concerns the Tubantes, the Constantiniani, and the Mattiaci iuniores of the Magister Militum Praesentalis II, whose shield patterns all appear to have been shifted up one position compared to the corresponding labels, or to be more exact, the labels have probably been shifted down one position, given the likely ease of misplacing text compared to illustrations. This means the pattern correctly corresponding to the Tubantes is probably missing, while that of ascribed to the Sagittarii seniores Orientales does not belong to it (and probably does not belong to the Tubantes either). It is clear that it is the patterns of the Magister Militum Praesentalis II that have been moved, and not those of the Magister Militum Praesentalis I, by examining them and comparing them with their labels. In particular the Mattiaci iuniores carries a shield pattern that is clearly related to the other five sagittarii units that are not the Sagittarii seniores Orientales; thus showing that it is the Sagittarii seniores Orientales that does not have its correct shield pattern.

The second problem area is the block of adjacent units that, at least in the majority of texts (and for the moment ignoring the duplicated entries 12.39 and 12.40 for 12.37 and 12.38), are called the Felices Theodosiani, the Felices Arcadiani iuniores, the Secundi Theodosiani, the Quarti Theodosiani, and the Auxiliarii sagittarii. If the usual correspondence held between the two magistri here, we should expect to see a counterpart of the first Magister's Felices Honoriani iuniores in the second Magister's list, but we don't (since the most similar unit, in both name and pattern, is the Felices Honoriani seniores, and it is instead assigned (15.14) to the Magister Militum per Orientem). Instead we find the Felices Theodosiani. The next unit under the first Magister, the Victores, has an appropriately corresponding shield pattern in the second Magister's illustrations, but the name of unit that the corresponding pattern is assigned to, the Felices Arcadiani iuniores, does not match; instead it matches the Felices Arcadiani seniores, also under the Magister Militum per Orientem. The next units in both lists, the Primi and the Secundi Theodosiani, respectively, do match - but the pattern match may just be coincidence, given the next units listed are the Tertii and the Quarti Theodosiani, respectively, which might also be expected to have similarly close patterns. As it is, the pattern (11#16) of the Quarti Theodosiani is missing (or, to be more exact, is present but not finished), so if the pattern of the Secundi Theodosiani had been slipped one position, from the position held by the Quarti Theodosiani, we would have no way of knowing, given their expected similarities (since the Primi, Secundi and Tertii Theodosiani all have similar patterns, we should expect the Quarti to have had a similar pattern as well). The pattern of the last unit, the Auxiliarii sagittarii, is missing (or alternatively, present (as 11#16), unfinished, and mislabelled (11.q, as the Quarti Theodosiani), while that of the Quarti Theodosiani 11#15 is mislabelled (11.p) as that of the Felices Arcadiani iuniores).

Speculating, it appears as if there has been some reshuffling of the lower-ranked units of the Magister Militum Praesentalis II. The counterpart of the Victores seems to have vanished from the textual list, although its shield pattern remains. The Felices Theodosiani seems to have taken the place of the expected Felices Honoriani seniores, which has instead been assigned to the (later created) Magister Militum per Orientem (there is some doubt about "expected" here, in that one might have assumed the seniores and not the iuniores unit would have been under the first Magister, and not the second). Likewise, the (first, 12.37) textual entry for the Felices Arcadiani iuniores is uncertain. Its corresponding unit (at least, as far as name goes), has likewise been assigned to the Magister Militum per Orientem, while its label appears twice, once attached to a blank shield, and once attached to what appear to be the counterpart of the Victores (this of course corresponds to it actually appearing twice in the textual list). The Primi, Secundi, Tertii and Quarti Theodosiani units appear to have been raised en masse to take the place of these departed units. That there are four of these implies that the Felices Honoriani seniores, the Felices Arcadiani seniores, and the unknown Victores partner should be grouped with a fourth departed unit: presumably the Felices Arcadiani iuniores. Of these four new units, the most recent, the Quarti Theodosiani, was apparently too recently raised to have had a pattern recorded when the Notitia was compiled. Likewise, the final unit required to bring the command up to a strength matching that of the Magister Militum Praesentalis I, the Auxiliarii sagittarii, likewise doesn't have a shield pattern - it doesn't even appear to even have had a proper name by the time this section of the Notitia was finally fixed in the form transmitted to us, implying even confirmation of the unit's identity was still lacking at the time.

What was this missing counterpart of the Victores? A hint may come from the Golden Gate in Istanbul, built in perhaps 413 (when the first of the Theodosian walls was completed), i.e. not long after the Notitia was first complied, and before the western section was last edited. A mixed Latin and Greek inscription on it (AE 1907,62) mentions soldiers of two units: a [...]U[.]ERI MILITUM PRIMO SAGITARIO[.]UM LEONUM IUNIORUM and a MILITVM COR[.]VTO[..]M I[.]NIORVM. The first as been taken (e.g. by Roger Tomlin, Seniores-Iuniores in the Late-Roman Field Army (1972), at p 272, available here) as evidence for the western auxilia palatina unit called the Leones iuniores, but if so, the formulation is extremely unusual, since the primary part of the unit's name would be the "Primi sagitarii", which is not at all hinted at in the Notitia. No absolute barrier to be sure, but reason to be cautious. The second unit mentioned clearly refers to a unit of Cornuti iuniores, and this would appear at first blush to be the western unit so-named (98/9.44), although why it might have been moved east would need explaining. However, since we know from inscriptional evidence (AE 1977, 806) that the eastern Cornuti (12.24) as listed in the Notitia was also named the (Ioviani) Cornuti seniores by 356 at the latest, this implies the existence a corresponding eastern iuniores unit, just as the west had, at least by the time of the Notitia, a seniores unit (98/9.34) to go with its iuniores unit. This eastern iuniores unit is however missing from the Notitia.

Given we appear to have a missing unit to go with the shield pattern ascribed to the Sagittarii seniores Orientales and likely formerly brigaded with the Sagittarii seniores Gallicani of the First Magister, and also a missing unit to go with the pattern ascribed to the Felices Arcadiani iuniores and (formerly) brigaded with the Victores, I ask myself if these are the two Golden Gate units: the field army of the Magister Militum Praesentalis II was usually stationed in the immediate environs of modern Istanbul, after all, just as was the army of the other Magister. One might object that the correspondence between the two missing units in the Notitia and the units that just happened to be named in the inscription is too neat (and there is no particular reason to think the inscription dates to immediately after the Gate's construction, even if the gate's construction itself could be tied down with certainty). Nonetheless, the coincidence, if coincidence it is, needs explaining away as much as explaining.

In Ammianus "the" Victores are paired with "the" Iovii (26.7.13; 27.8.7), but it is by no means clear that the Victores in Ammianus refers to the eastern Victores, since in the Notitia, a Victores seniores is listed (102/5.68) in the Magister Peditum's Italian command but not in his infantry roster; so there would appear to be no help from Ammianus in terms of evidence for brigaded units. Looking at the shield patterns, that the ascribed to the Sagittarii seniores Orientales features two canids, and thus looks a poor choice for a unit of "Leones"; on the other hand, neither does it feature the double-headed zoomorphic device the three recorded Cornuti infantry units do. Further, the Amazonian pelta implies a unit with a clear "eastern" connection (and thus quite likely a unit named something-something-"Orientales", which is why it may have been confused with the Sagittarii seniores Orientales in the first place), which also fits neither of the two units from the Golden Gate. So all in all it looks like neither of the Golden Gate units looks like a good fit for the first missing unit (although the first pattern does sit next to a block of sagittarii units, which would fit with a numerui primo sagittariorum Leonum iuniorum). The second shield pattern also features neither a lion nor a zoomorphic device, although this is not dispositive: neither the Equites Cornuti seniores nor the Equites Cornuti iuniores feature the zoomorprhic device. Perhaps the Golden gate inscription is just a coincidence, after all...


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