The Nervii

This page created 5 April 2014, and last modified: 8 October 2015 (Constantine I commentary added)


In the eastern half of the empire, the fifth of the legiones palatina listed (9.21 in Ingo Maier's numbering scheme) under the command of the first Master of the Soldiers in the Imperial Presence (i.e. the Magister Militum Praesentalis I) is the Nervii. Its shield pattern (7#6) as shown in various manuscripts, under the matching label (7.f) Nervii, 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 pattern features a small yellow boss centre (white in B) encircled with a red and then a yellow band. An indigo 8-pointed star (purple in B, faded to maroon in M, W) radiates therefrom into a light blue main ground; a thin ray projects between each of the main points of the star (absent in P). The whole is bordered by a yellow band and finally by a light blue band (white in W) forming the shield's rim. The pattern is thus very similar to that of the previously-listed unit under the same commander, the Fortenses (9.20), as can be seen from following patterns taken from the Paris manuscript:

Shield patterns

Given the similar shield patterns and the adjacent ranking under the same commander, it is clear that these two units were habitually brigaded together (see further, below). Various other units of Nervii are listed in the Notitia, but none are of comparable rank (i.e. none have palatine status); and as they are all of limitanei status, their shield patterns are not recorded. There are some other units including the name Nervi(i) in their title in addition to other appellations, but these are auxiliarii units, not legiones, and their patterns are also very dissimilar. The units are:

Sagittarii nervi (98/9.45), an auxilia palatina unit under the "Comes" Hispenias;
Sagittarii Nervii Gallicani (98/9.86), an auxilia palatina unit in the Magister Equitum's Gallic command;
Cohors tertiae Nerviorum (154.36), a limitanei auxiliary cohort under the Dux Britanniarum;
Cohors sextae Nerviorum (154.39), another limitanei auxiliary cohort under the Dux Britanniarum;
Numerus Nerviorum Dictensium (152.7), a limitanei numerus under the Dux Britanniarum;
Milites Nerviorum (152.4), a limitanei unit under the Dux Belgicae secundae; and the
Laeti Nerviorum (156/8.57), a "unit" of gentes under the Dux Belgicae secundae.
All of these units are in the western half of the empire. The name Nervii is usually connected with the part of Gaul that is now north-east France and Belgium, as in the Notitia's Dux tractus Armoricani et Nervicani. The name comes from the ancient Gallic tribe the region was named after: the Nervii (a large number of auxiliary units were recruited from the area in the early empire, some survived long enough to appear in the Notitia, such as those listed under the Dux Britanniarum). The area was later termed the Civitas Nerviorum; units of Nervii were presumably recruited from the area.

However, another possible derivation for the Nervii legion (as opposed to auxilia) should seriously be considered: in Latin "nervi" can mean nerves, or sinews, and could be used metaphorically, not in the way English uses "nervous" (as in "flighty"), but in the opposite sense - "brave, steadfast", which is a particularly suitable name for a military unit (English can use the word in a somewhat similar way - as in "he's got a nerve!"). That this particular unit should be so-called is particularly appropriate, given that the unit they are paired has a name also means "steadfast, brave": Fortenses (9.20). A third explanation is that the name may well be punning, and refers simultaneously to both meanings; cf. the Corniacenses (98/9.146).

If the name did derive from the Civitas Nerviorum, the unit probably gained the moniker during the reign of Constantine I the Great, in a similar manner to the Divitenses seniores (98/9.23), which is known to have derived from a detachment of Legio II Italica stationed at Castrum Divitia (modern Deutz in Germany). The legion stationed closest to the Civitas Nerviorum at the time was probably Legio XXX Ulpia Traiana, with its main base at Xanten in Westphalia, Germany. Other legions stationed in the general region at the time were Legio I Minervia, with its main base being at Bonna (modern Bonn); Legio VIII Augusta, with its main base being at Argentoratum (modern Strasbourg), and which is known to have to have had a detachment stationed as Divitia at some point in the 4th century; and Legio XXII Primigenia, with its main base being at Mogontiacum (modern Mainz), and which is also know to have to have had a detachment stationed as Divitia. The last-mentioned is particularly likely, because the tile stamps from Deutz attesting the legion have LEG XXII CV and not something like LEG XXII P for "Primigenia". This has been interpreted to mean Legio XXII Constantiana Victrix (see Limes XX: Estudios sobre la frontera romana (Roman frontier studies): 3, Anejos de Gladius 13, 2009, at p 753). Since the legion is apparently not attested after Constantine I, who was singularly victorious, and thus not somebody who lost legions, the unit must have acquired a new name in the meantime: Nervi(i) fits the circumstances most conveniently (it also, it must be said, fits the circumstances of the Tongrecani (seniores) (98/9.24) just as well, with this unit having the additional advantage of being known to have been brigaded with the Divitenses).


Return to the Notitia alphabetical unit list page.
Return to my Notitia index page.