The Sagittarii Nervii Gallicani

This page created 18 October 2014, and last modified: 30 October (Frankfurt fragment image added)


The Sagittarii Nervii Gallicani is one of the auxilia palatina units listed in the Magister Peditum's infantry roster; it is assigned to the Magister Equitum's Gallic command. Its shield pattern as shown in various manuscripts, under the label Sagittarii Nervii, 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...

The pattern has a red boss (white in M, W) encircled by a red band with a red pillar beneath, thus forming a "keyhole" motif that is commonly found with auxilia palatina units in particular in the Notitia, The main field is white, and encircled by a yellow band; the rim is red (white in P, purple in B). The main field is charged with a head above the boss portrayed as white; the head is completely surrounded by hair & beard, which is violet (more purple in B, green in W, and not coloured in M). The pattern shown in the Frankfurt fragment, Ff, is not only extremely faded, but has also been heavily damaged and stained due to being used as a book cover before being recognised for what it is.

Only three other shield patterns in the Notitia show such a head together with the keyhole motif: those ascribed to the Leones iuniores, the Tubantes, and the Lanciarii Augustenses; only the middle of these has the boss differentiated from its encircling rim as does the Sagittarii Nervii Gallicani.

Although there is evidence that many labels attached to the shield patterns illustrating the western auxilia platina have been shifted from their proper places, it is not clear that this has happened to this unit; it may well be labelled with the correct shield pattern.

Note that in addition to the Sagittarii Nervii Gallicani, there is also a plain Sagittarii Nervi listed in the Magister Peditum's infantry roster; it is assigned to the "Comes" Hispenias.

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 Nervii 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 may have been recruited from the area. If so, the Gallicani unit was split off from the Sagitarii Nervi at some point for service in Gaul; perhaps when the rest of the Sagitarii Nervi was assigned to Spain.

However, another possible derivation for "Nervi(i)" 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" (a usage that also occurs in English, as in "you've got some nerve doing that!"). This 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 "brave" - the Fortenses.


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