The Vesontes

This page created 13 April 2014, and last modified: 21 November 2015 (RIB 1137 photo added)


The Vesontes is listed (98/9.105 in Ingo Maier's numbering scheme) as the 8th of the 32 units of legiones comitatenses in the Magister Peditum's infantry roster; it is assigned (102/5.185) to the "Comes" Hispenias. Its shield pattern (95#19), as shown in various manuscripts under the matching label (95.t) Vesontes, 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 shows a white ground, a red rim, a boss encircled in red (white in W) quartered white and indigo (but plain white in W), and four rather morel-shaped devices in red (purple in B and dark green (?) in W), and is thus very similar indeed to that of the Octavani (98/9.29), one of the legiones palatinae assigned to the Magister Peditum's Italian command. A comparison, using the patterns given in the Parisian manuscript, makes this obvious:

Shield patterns

The name Vesontes comes from the town of Vesontio / Bissontio (modern Besancon in France), which was presumably where this unit was once stationed; in Caeser's day it was the largest town of the Celtic Sequani; by the time of the Notitia, it was still presumably the headquarters of the Dux Provinciae Sequanici, although the one unit listed (149.2) under his command is said to be stationed elsewhere.

The Octavani are evidently (a detachment of) Legio VIII Augusta Pia Fedelis Constans, formerly based at Argentorate (Strasbourg), but by an inscription (CIL 13.11538; photos here) dating to 371 AD mentioning (at least part of) the legion at Etzgen in northern Switzerland, they had apparently been partially or entirely moved further up the Rhein before they were drafted into the Magister Peditum's Italian command. Legio VIII Augusta is also know to have contributed a detachment to garrison the fort of Divitia in the 4th century. Speculatively, they may have contributed a detachment to Vesontio, or alternatively, some other unit from Vesontio may have been brigaded with (a detachment of) the Eighth legion at some point in the 4th century. If someone could fill me in on the history of the Roman military presence in Besancon, I'd be grateful!

The morel-shaped emblems that make up the shield pattern bring to mind the business end of a military "turf cutter" (the Latin word for which is unknown, and which re-enactors suspect was used for some other job, because it does a poor job of cutting turf); the photo below shows one excavated from Newstead in Scotland:

So-called turf cutter

Taken from this book published in 1911, and now in the public domain.

On the other hand, they are also not too dissimilar from the pelte-shaped decorative elements often found as variations of the usually-angular supporters flanking tabula ansata. That shown below was found at Corbridge (RIB 1137).

RIB 1137

Photo taken by M.C. Bishop, and used under CCA 2.0 license. The red colouring is a modern addition.

Tabula ansata were not only used on shield covers in the days of the principate to identify the (sub-)unit the shield belonged to, but could also be found as shield decorations themselves, as shown in several of the metope of the Tropaeum Traiani from Adamclisi. It is possible these decorative elements are behind the morels found on the shield of the Octavani, although the the fact there are four rather than two would have to be explained, perhaps by way of symmetry. This can be found on a shield borne by one of the soldiers on the Brescia Casket, a 4th century ivory box depicting Christian themes, as shown below:

Brescia Casket Soldiers

Photo by RobyBS89, and dedicated to the public domain.


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