The Comites seniores

This page created 23 May 2014, and last modified: 11 December 2015 (references rearranged)


In the western half of the empire, the most senior unit of vexillationes palatinae in the Magister Equitum's cavalry list, and therefor the entire field army, is called the Comites seniores (102/5.3 in Ingo Maier's numbering scheme); it is assigned (102/5.210) to the Magister Peditum's Italian command. Its shield pattern (100#2) as shown in various manuscripts, under a label (100.b) stating plain Comites, except in the Bodleian manuscript (O) where the form Comites sen. is found, 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 is very simple, with a red rim and a plain indigo/purple main ground (faded in M, W) and a boss of the same colour quartered with white. This simple pattern means it resembles many other patterns in the Notitia. While it might seem surprising such an elite unit should bear such a simple shield design, this is not as strange as it initially sounds. Garrison units could procure their supplies at leisure. In contrast, field army units were constantly on the move, and had to make do with equipment procured from a variety of sources. The rise of imperial fabicae, or armaments factories, seems to have coincided with the rise of stationless field armies, so that they could be adequately supplied with gear. Shields would be no exception, and indeed, in as much as a shield is an expendable item, designed to be hacked apart by the enemy instead of its bearer being given the same treatment, then the more likely it was to see action, the less likely it was to have much extra embellishment devoted to it; and to judge from Ammianus, "the" Comites were in constant action during the 4th century.

The name "Comites" means "companions"; specifically, companions-in-arms of the Emperor; it is where the aristocratic title "Count" comes from. Note that another unit of Comites seniores is listed (12.2) in the Notitia, in the eastern half of the empire; it is the most senior unit under the command of the Magister Militum Praesentalis II.

Inscriptional evidence for what has been taken to be the Comites seniores comes from the cemetery at Colonia Iulia Concordia (modern Portogruaro in Veneto, Italy), which produced an inscription (ILS 506) mentioning an officer of the EQUITUM COMITIS SENI SAGIT, which expands to the "equitum Comit[um] seni(orum) sagit(tariorum)". This relies on equating the thus-attested Equites comites seniores sagittarii with the (western) Comites seniores, rather than to the my mind more likely simply-missing-from-the-Notitia Comites sagitarii seniores, since a Comites sagitarii iuniores is listed (9.5), under the Magister Militum Praesentalis I).


1. Ingo Maier; "Appendix 4: Numeration of the new edition of the compilation 'notitia dignitatum' (Cnd)"; last accessed 26 October 2015. See also for here for numbering examples. Return
2. For some spectacular examples from the mid-3rd century, see Simon James; "Excavations at Dura-Europos 1928-1937, Final Report VII, The Arms and Armour and other Military Equipment", British Museum Press, London 2004. Return
3. Ammianus Marcellinus ("Ammianus"); "Res gestae a fine Corneli Taciti"; available here in Latin and here in English (last accessed 21 November 2015). Return
4. Dietrich Hoffmann; "Die Spätrömischen Soldatengrabschriften von Concordia"; Schweizerische Zeitschrift für klassische Altertumswissenschaft, Vol. 20.1 (1963), pp 22-57 (1963), available here (last accessed 8 December 2015). Return


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