The Sagittarii nervi

This page created 2 April 2014, and last modified: 26 October (Frankfurt fragment image added)


The Sagittarii nervi is one of the auxilia palatina units on the Magister Peditum's infantry list; it is assigned to the Comes Hispenias. Its shield pattern as shown in various manuscripts is as below:

Shield patterns

Disclaimer: remember, I'm not an expert in the field of Notitia studies, so take my comments with a grain of salt...

Note that Seeck amended the name to the Sagittarii nervii; none of the manuscripts record the name with the extra "i" in "nervii" (at least, in the textual entries; it can be found in the pattern labels), but the printed Froben edition does.

The shield pattern shows a green ground with a red rim, and, in the centre, a yellow disc bearing a red double-headed zoomorphic device that is extremely common in the Notitia (over a dozen examples), especially amongst auxilia palatina - in other words, the shield pattern of the eastern auxilia palatina unit the Cornuti rendered in miniature. Clearly, these two patterns are related.

However, it is evident that this is the "wrong" shield pattern; like that of some other western auxilia platina units, it has been shifted from its proper place (or, to be more exact, the label has likely been shifted from its proper place) - this pattern actually belongs to the Cornuti iuniores. Rather, the true pattern would appear to be that ascribed to the next unit in the list, the Leones seniores, the pattern of which is illustrated by various manuscripts as below:

Shield patterns

This pattern is not too dissimilar, showing a green boss and main ground (faded to yellow in M), with each being bordered in red.

The Sagittarii part of the unit's implies (but does not establish) the unit was bow-armed (it may conceivably, for example, have just been partially bow-armed, and just distinguished itself for its archery at some point; or perhaps it may even have been formerly bow-armed, but no-longer necessarily so). The nervi part of the name is likely connected with the part of Gaul that is now north-east France and Belgium and at the time of the Notitia was called "Nervica", as in the 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 the men under the Tribunus cohortis sextae Nerviorum, listed as being one of the commanedrs under the Dux Britanniarum). The area was later termed the Civitas Nerviorum; the Sagitarii nervi were presumably recruited from the area.

However, another possible derivation 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 - "steadfast", which is not only a particularly suitable name for a military unit, but would appear to be exactly how the palatine legion the Nervii got their name, given they are paired with a unit whose name also means "steadfast, brave" - the Fortenses. This alternative meaning becomes yet more likely given no cavalry units are so-called, only infantry units, precisely the type that should be steadfast as opposed to dashing.

Inscriptional evidence for the Sagittarii nervi comes from the cemetery at Colonia Iulia Concordia (modern Portogruaro in Veneto, Italy), which produced an inscription (CIL 5, 8762) mentioning the unit in the form of the n sagitariorum ner; exactly what the "ner" expands to (e.g. Nervii; Nerviorum; Nervicani...) is debatable. See here for Hoffmann's 1963 analysis (in German).


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