Masters and Commanders: The Changing Role of the Military Elite in the Late Roman West (AD 363-476)

Thesis author: 
Vedran Bileta
Year of enrollment: 
Duration of thesis project: 
Sep, 2011 - Dec, 2012
Thesis supervisor: 
Volker Menze
Thesis abstract: 

The mid-fourth century saw a shift in the status and position of the military elite in the Late Roman Empire. The emperors, traditional commander-and-chiefs since Severans, ceased to lead the army in person, and ensconced themselves in security of the imperial court. Their place was taken up by the military potentates, generals and warlords, who used the army to establish themselves as leading figures of the Late Roman state.
The study of Late Roman aristocracy is a well developed field, with numerous works written on the topic. However, it must be noted that – except for a few examples – the studies mainly focus on civilian (senatorial) elites. The viri militares, commanders of the imperial armies, one of major players of that period, seem to be given minor importance. With my dissertation I aim at contributing to the change of this approach. The underlying presumption of the dissertation is that renegotiation of socio-political ties between the emperors and elite in the Late Roman West, was result of a long struggle between military elites and their civilian counterparts, which started during the third century. The tentative period - death of the emperor Julian (363 AD) until evaporation of the Western Roman state (476 AD).
The object of the dissertation is to examine circumstances under which the metamorphosis of the role played by the military elite in the West was undertaken, its nature and consequences. To achieve this, three main features will be analyzed, which I believe are crucial for this development. The thesis postulates an innovative concept of the late Roman military identity. The origin of high imperial commanders is to be addressed, and put into context of the ongoing barbarization/Romanization debate. Following model suggested by Guy Halsall, the thesis will operate within gender studies framework, focusing on the notion of the Late Roman military masculinity, particularly when comparing military elite with its civilian (or barbarian) counterparts. Further, using recent finds in empire studies, the dissertation aims at re-examination of imperial unity concept, arguing for a notion of an united empire, at least until the reign of Theodosius II.
The problem of shift, the changing nature of interaction between the military elite and imperial court, is addressed through two main phases: The interaction between so-called barrack-emperors and military elite; and relations between military commanders and “sedentary” rulers, later being given a particular attention. Here, the (non) military role of the emperor, notions of loyalty, mutiny, military frustration and re-negotiation of power relationships are some of concepts explored.
Lastly, the dissertation deals with the military elite’s status in the wider Roman society, with particular attention given to the provincial and frontier society. It is based on re-examination of Mann’s theory of power (so called IEMP model). Also it further examines the question of warlordism (military landlordism) and the status and position of the Late Roman field army (in particular the field army stationed in Italy).
The study uses an interdisciplinary approach, relying mainly on the written sources (compendiums of law, historiography, chronicles, poems, and epigraphy). Further, the study makes use of material evidence (burials, grave-goods, coinage, archaeological sites, and monuments). As the sources do not cover entire period adequately, the dissertation uses extra-field studies (cultural studies, geo-political analyses, comparative studies, battle studies) in attempt to fill some of the gaps. This is particularly important when one thinks about identity, origin and mentality of the Late Roman military elite.