The Balistarii Theodosiaci

This page created 6 April 2014, and last modified: 2 August 2015 (P.Nessana 15 reference added)


The Balistarii Theodosiaci is listed (15.34 in Ingo Maier's numbering scheme) as the ninth of pseudocomitatenses units under the Magister Militum per Orientem. Its shield pattern (14#15), as shown in various manuscripts under the matching label (14.p) Balistarii Theodosiaci, is as below:

Shield patterns

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

The shield pattern has a yellow boss encircled with a red band, a white main field with a red rim, and an 8-pointed star in the 12 o'clock position (6-pointed in M, B). The shield pattern is clearly related to three other units under the command of the Magister Militum per Orientem, as a side-by-side comparison of the Paris manuscript shields shows:

Shield patterns

The Balistarii Theodosiaci would thus appear to be either a detachment of the Legio secunda Flavia Constantia Thebaeorum (15.22), or a former limitanei unit that was brigaded with it, and given a similar shield pattern to help integrate the two. Legio secunda Flavia Constantia Thebaeorum appears to have originated as a detachment of Legio secunda Flavia Constantia Thebaeorum in Egypt that was moved to Macedonia during the start of Theodosius I's reign, during the big troop exchange related by Zosimus (IV.27). That the pattern of the Balistarii Theodosiaci is differentiated from the that of the Legio secunda Flavia Constantia Thebaeorum purely by the addition of a small 8-pointed start, the primary symbol of Macedonia, is very suggestive that the Balistarii Theodosiaci, at least, gained its shield pattern in Macedonia, and probably the Legio secunda Flavia Constantia Thebaeorum as well, and likewise for the Prima Flavia Constantia (15.21) and Balistarii seniores (15.20). Accordingly, these shield patterns should be dated to very early in Theodosius' reign, when the Egyptian units arrived in the Balkans; and at some later time the Legio secunda Flavia Constantia Thebaeorum was moved east, to join what became the command of the Magister Militum per Orientem, which, contrary to Zosimus' statements (IV.27), most scholars agree (see Burns, page 313, note 49, and pages 98-100) cannot have been formed until 386 at the earliest.

If this is the case, why the Balistarii Theodosiaci is a pseudocomitatenses unit, rather than a legio comitatenses like the Balistarii seniores that is also in the Magister Militum per Orientem's command, needs explaining. Perhaps it, unlike the Balistarii seniores, only joined the field army much later.

Regarding this, inscriptional evidence (AE 1808,178) from Kherson in the Crimea during the reign of Valentinina I (367-375) mentions a S T V BAL[... ...]. The "BAL" part of this inscription has been seen as a reference to the Balistarii seniores (e.g. by Roger Tomlin, Seniores-Iuniores in the Late-Roman Field Army (1972), at p 272, available here). However, given one of the largest towns in the Crimea in the 4th century was none other than Theodosia (modern Feodosia), I suspect that this might instead refer to the Balistarii Theodosiaci, whose name would then refer to the locality, and not, as might be imagined, to the emperor Theodosius. Since Theodosia was taken by the Huns ca. 375, if the Balistarii Theodosiaci was garrisoning the town, it would presumably have been evacuated no later than then. It may have been relocated to some other station before joining the field army, but keeping its former station name (cf. the Praefectus militum Carronentium, under (51.3) the Dux tractus Armoricani et Nervicani, who is nonetheless stationed at Blabia, and not Grannono). Alternatively it may have joined the field army directly, and have retained its pseudocomitatenses status for the next twenty years - by no means impossible, as the example of the Prima Armeniaca (15.26) shows. However, since another inscription (IOSPE 5.6), from Cherson, and dating to 487 or 488, records (in Greek, image here) the presence of a unit of "Ballistrarion", this would imply that the Crimean Balistarii unit either never (in whole) left the region, or that (part of) it returned later. Incidentally, it is recorded by Constantine Porphyrogenitus (section 53) that in the reign of Diocletian, the neighbouring city of Cherson had used ballistae to destroy a force of Bosporans in am ambush. These were possibly supplied by the Roman army campaigning with them at the time, but in any case, evidently the employment of artillery was nothing exceptional in the area.

Another potential post-Notitia reference to the unit has been found, from Nabatean Nizana in the Negev, since a papyrus receipt from there dated 30 May 511 records (in Greek) (P.Nessana 15, line 3) the "[str]atiote[s] arithmou ton kathosiome(enon) Theodosiakon", i.e. the "[so]ldier[s] of the faith(ful) unit the Theodosiaci". While it is notable that the Cherson inscription also uses the word "kathosiomenon" ("faithful, loyal, dedicated") in describing the unit, this seems to have been something of a commonplace, however, so perhaps no special import should be attached to this.


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