The Cornuti seniores

This page created 1 May 2014, and last modified: 21 November 2014 (buckle photos added)


In the western half of the empire, the most senior of all the auxilia palatina units listed (98/9.034 in Ingo Maier's numbering scheme) in the Magister Peditum's infantry roster is the Cornuti seniores; it is assigned (102/5.060) to his Italian command. Its shield pattern (92#14), as shown in various manuscripts under the plain label (92.o) Cornuti, 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 white ground with a red figure that appears to be a debased version of the twin-headed zoomorphic motif that is extremely common in the Notitia (over a dozen examples), especially amongst auxilia palatina: the version borne by the Cornuti seniores lacks the "heads" (as do those of the next two most-senior auxilia palatina units in the west, the Brachiati seniores and the Petulantes seniores); however the Froben edition ("B") has some indication of the heads as the tips of the horns of the pattern are clearly bulbous.

In the eastern half of the empire, the second-most senior of the auxilia palatina units under the command of the second Master of Soldiers in the Imperial Presence is called the plain Cornuti. Its shield pattern is similar to that of the Cornuti seniores, if not closely so, as it features a yellow ground rather than white ground, and its zoomorphic pattern not only retains the "heads", but also seems to have some sort of neck fringe, like a mane.

In the west, the pattern labelled the Cornuti (iuniores) has no similarity, but the next unit after it, labelled the Sagittarii Nervii, is very clearly related to that of the eastern Cornuti, as it reproduces the shield of the eastern Cornuti in miniature within a border - this is one of the reasons I believe many of the western auxilia Notitia patterns are mismatched. See the following patterns taken from the Paris manuscript:

Shield patterns

The name Cornuti is usually taken to mean "the horned ones" (though other etymologies have been advanced). The original Cornuti regiment is believed to have been one of the foremost components of Constantine I's army when he defeated Maxentius in 312, since scholars have seen the central figure shown below (amongst others) on the Arch of Constantine, completed ca. 315, as being a soldier of the Cornuti, due to his helmet decoration. The scene depicts the siege of Verona in 312; these "horns" look more like feathers to me...

Siege of Verona detail
(photo by MM, and used under CCA 3.0 license)

This goes back to Andreas Alfoeldi, who in the early 20th century also observed that one of the men on the Arch carries a shield with the following pattern:

Zoomorphic Shield on Ach of Constantine
1934 photo taken from the German Archaeological Institute in Rome (no. 34.2121) and used under CC 3.0 DE license

A winged Victory stands above the boss, while below, we see two horned creatures, possibly goats, facing each other, and with their necks curving in towards each other (but interpreted by Michael P. Spiedel in "Ancient Germanic Warriors: Warrior styles from Trajan's Column to Icelandic sagas", Routledge, 2004, as dragons). It may be that this shield pattern represents that of Constantine's original Cornuti regiment, before it was divided into eastern and western divisons.

However, this identification with Constantine's Cornuti is far from sure, since it isn't known if this figure dates from the 312-315 construction date of the main arch like the above figure surely does - this one may have come from another earlier monument like other figures on the arch are known to have done (although that in itself would be a surprising conclusion).

Nonetheless, at least one regiment in Constantine's force clearly bore the zoomorphic motif, even if it wasn't the Cornuti. In the Princeton University Museum of Art is a 4th century Roman weight in the form of a small statue of Constantine I; the shield clearly shows the motif, surmounted by a Christian chi-rho monogram, as shown below:

Zoomorphic Shield on Statue of Constantine
Photo by Bruce M. White of PUAM; object y1955-3257; crude interpretation by myself.

In addition to its numerous appearances in the Notitia, the twin-headed zoomorphic motif is known from a range of sources; some further examples are given below:

Torslunda die

Bronze die press from Torslunda, Sweden.
Late 7th century?; object number 4325 in the
Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm.
Public domain image taken from a 1903 book.
Belt buckle

Bronze belt buckle from Monceau-le-Neuf, Aisne, France.
Early 5th century?; and now in the Laon Museum.
Photo by "Vassil" and released into the public domain.
Finglesham buckle

Gold belt buckle from Finglesham, Kent, England.
Late 6th century; private collection.
Photo from York Digital Library.

In Ammianus, "the" Cornuti were typically brigaded with the Brachiati (15.5.30), and the two were famous for their rendition of the "barritus" or war-cry (Ammianus 16.12.43). Next in the list after the western Cornuti seniores in the Notitia is indeed the Brachiati seniores, whereas in the east, the Brachiati iuniores, under the command of the first Master of the Soldiers in the Imperial Presence, appears after the (eastern) Batavi seniores. Thus "the" Cornuti at the Battle of Strasbourg in 357 were more likely the western Cornuti seniores than the eastern Cornuti.

At what date the western unit was divided between seniores and iuniores is unknown, but epigraphic evidence (AE 1977, 806) shows that this had happened as early as 356 for the eastern unit, as an inscription of this date from Nakolea (modern Eskisehir in Turkey) reading NUMERUM IO CORN SEN has been expanded to read the "numeru[s] Ioviorum Cornutorum seniorum"; and this unit can hardly be the western Cornuti seniores, since we know from Ammianus that the western unit was operating on the Rhine in that year. That the unit carries the Tetrarchic name Iovius shows that the unit had not only been in existence in Constantine's day (see M.P. Speidel, Raising New Units for the Late Roman Army (1996), available here), but was apparently raised by Diocletian in the late 3rd century. This inscription is, incidentally, the first mention known of seniores unit - see Thomas Drew-Bear (1977), available here, and disproved the long-held theory that the first iuniores/seniores divisons happened early in Valentianian I's reign, in 364. Recently E.A. Mehamadiev has connected the introduction of iuniores/seniores to the problem of replacing the casualties inflicted in the heavy fighting between Magnentius and Constantius II in the early 350s, and links it with the concerns expressed in the de Rebus Bellicis regarding troop numbers; see E.A. Mehamadiev; Anonymus de Rebus Bellicis and Latin inscriptions from Aquileia: the question of the formation and development divisions seniores-iuniores late Roman army in the 4th C; in Mnemon, Research and publications on the history of the Ancient World; Ed. E.D. Frolova; Issue 13 (2013); p277-291, available here (in Russian).

The (western) Cornuti seniores are more clearly attested (CIL 6.32963) from an early 5th century inscription from Rome giving the [...]O CORNUTORUM SENIORUM.


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