The Felices Theodosiani Isauri

This page created 5 April 2014, and last modified: 4 July (Trajan's column image added)


The last of the 18 units of auxilia palatina listed (9.41 in Ingo Maier's numbering scheme) in the command of the first Master of the Soldiers in the Imperial Presence (i.e. the Magister Militum Praesentalis I) is called the Felices Theodosiani Sauri, at least in O and M; the form Felices Theodosiani Scauri is found in P and B; this was amended by Seeck (OR.V.66) to Felices Theodosiani Isauri. Its shield pattern (8#16) as shown in various manuscripts, under the label (8.q) Felices Theodosiani Sauri, 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"

This is a unique shield pattern in the Notitia, with no clear resemblance to that of any other unit. The main ground is indigo (purple in B, faded to pink in M, and brownish in W), and appears to show a light brown cow (or bull) entering similarly coloured cave. On top of the cave appear to be a winged figure of some sort in black, flanked by some upright decorations (trees?) of some sort. A few other units' shields feature cows/bulls, but no other has anything like the cave shown here. This might be a Mithraic reference: the exemplum of Roman Mithraic imagery is of the god Mithras killing a bull in a cavern. Here we see a cave, a bull, and what appears to be a divine figure, albeit not yet at the point of slaying the bull. However, if this is indeed a Mithraic scene, it would represent an unusually late example, as the consensus appears to be that no Mithraeum (an underground venue in which Mithraic rites were practiced) continued in use into the 5th century.

It is perhaps more likely the scene alludes to something else, unrelated to Mithraism. The figure is probably just a winged Victory, as found in the top position of many other shields in the Notitia. Given the other indications of shield patterns representing unit standards in the Notitia, the upright "trees" might represent a collection of the unit's standards, perhaps implanted in a rampart. Alternatively they could be heads mounted on poles, such as depicted on Trajan's column. The bull might be a sacrificial victim, and/or the unit's totemic badge. Or the scene could refer to something else entirely different.

Trajan's column, scene XXV, detail
Impaled heads on a Dacian rampart.
Photo by Mike Bishop and used under CCA 2.0 license.

Felices or felix most commonly means "fortunate" or "lucky" (it has a secondary meaning of "fruitful"), and was a common moniker for Roman units; over twenty units in the Notitia incorporate it into their name. In particular, in addition to this auxilia palatina unit of Felices Theodosiani Isauri, there is also another auxilia palatina unit, under the Magister Militum Praesentalis II, called the Felices Theodosiani (12.36); a limitanei ala called the Ala felix Theodosiana (71.11) in Pontus, under the Dux Armeniae; another listed (71.24) as the Ala prima felix Theodosiana under the same commander; a limitanei cohort listed (56/7/43) as the Cohors prima felix Theodosiana under the Dux Thebaidos; and a pseudocomitatenses unit called (21.25) the Felices Theodosiani iuniores under the Magister Militum per Illyricum. Thus a significant proportion of the units entitled "felices" in the Notitia also bear the name of Theodosius, and which presumably refers to Theodosius I, who died in 395, around the time the Notitia was first compiled.

Given the late position of this unit in the Magister's list, some thought should be given to whether the name Theodosiani commemorates his grandson Theodosius II, who became Augustus in 408, but there seems no evidence that the list of the Magister Militum Praesentalis I has been amended since the document was first drawn up (unlike that of the Magister Militum Praesentalis II).

Isauri refers to the province of Isauria, which in later times was a principle recruiting ground of the eastern Roman empire. Lenski (Assimilation and Revolt in the Territory of Isauria (1999), available here), has tied the Felices Theodosiani Isauri to the troops described in 389 as accompanying Theodosius by the panegyricist Pacatus; these are apparently Isaurians due to the mention of the "frozen Taurus" mountains.

After the time of the Notitia, the unit was apparently stationed in Egypt, being mentioned by the 6th century monk Cyril of Scythopolis in his life of Saint Sabbas (see p 87 here, lines 6 to 16; see also commentary by A.M.Kaiser, Egyptian Units and the reliability of the Notitia dignitatum, pars Oriens (2014), available here).


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