In the movies, who can’t tell the Romans from the barbarians? It’s obvious. The Romans march in formation, their legions marked by eagles, wearing matching uniforms. They fire ballistae and other marvels of engineering.
The barbarians? They are a cross between Conan the Barbarian and a caveman, covered in fur even in the summer. They scream and charge, swinging axes, clubs, and swords. No order, no uniforms.
Maybe at one time that was true, but in the late Roman empire, everything changed.
When we think of Roman soldiers, we imagine fully armored soldiers with…
• the pilum (spears with an insert of metal, which broke upon contact to weigh down an enemy’s shield)
• the scutum (large rectangular shields that covered nearly the entire soldier and allowed the formation of the testudo, a turtle-shell like covering that could protect an entire formation)
• the gladius (short swords that were thrust into an enemy instead of slashed)
But by the time of “Alaric, Child of the Goths” and the late Roman empire, much of this changed due to a surprising change in Roman technology: they copied the barbarians.
• The lancea and veruta replaced the pilum.
• The shields were round and smaller, better suited for individual fighting.
• Most importantly, the gladius lost popularity to the spatha. Formerly, the spatha was limited to the cavalry, as it was a long sword that could strike enemies from a height. But since the legion became less of a machine and more of individual fighters, the longer swords were better suited.
So, surprisingly at a battle like Adrianople an equipped Gothic army met the Romans, and there little distinguished them. We should not picture the disciplined legions facing the barbarian horde, but rather a group of barbarians paid by Rome facing a similarly armed group of barbarians.
So, how do you find your comrades there? Look for men charging the same way, unless the enemy is retreating, of course! Also, check the shields, as these tended to be painted to show one’s unit / army.
Recommended reading: Late Roman Infantryman 236-565AD by Simon MacDowall (Osprey 1997). I highly recommend all the historical and ancient military books by Osprey. These have some of the best pictures and most accurate, easy-to-read information.
Check out other articles on the Goths:
Sack of Rome
Why didn’t the Goths take over the Roman Empire
True or false
For more information on the Gothic quest for a home and freedom, check out “Alaric, Child of the Goths.”