Private Armies and Personal Power in the Late Roman Empire
By Ryan Wilkinson
Master’s Thesis, University of Arizona, 2009
Abstract: This thesis’ case studies examine the critical roles played by personal power and private armies in the late Roman empire. Chapter 1 examines alleged military corruption in fourth-century C.E. north Africa, arguing that the imperial government’s power under the Dominate was diffused among competing interest groups within Roman society, whose interests were not always conducive to the security of the empire as a whole. Chapter 2 argues that bandit-ridden Isauria in Asia Minor was apparently successfully integrated into the imperial system, yet relied heavily on local personal power to control its violence-prone population. Chapter 3 argues that Roman pursuit of private or factional power sealed Rome’s loss of the Gallic provinces in the fifth century. Together, these three case studies argue that the later Roman empire was significantly influenced by internal divisions and private power, which were just as important as foreign, ‘barbarian’ influences in determining the empire’s fate.
This thesis is a study of personal power and private armies in the late Roman empire. Cooperative personal power at multiple levels and the personal loyalty of the ‘state’ armies had provided foundational support for government by the emperors under the Principate. At the same time, competition between rival bearers of personal power led to tensions equally inherent in the empire. In the late empire,social-political factors, including changes in the structure and policies of the imperial government, increased the centrifugal effects of factional disunity in the empire. Where this trend could be restrained, personal power and even various private armies offered useful benefits to hard-pressed emperors. Where this trend was not restrained – i.e. in the western empire – the result was the end of Roman imperial rule and the transfer of control to warlords and independent private armies instead.
By ‘personal power,’ I mean the ability to control and influence situations and other human beings using resources or authority outside the formal apparatus of the Roman state. Here, I am particularly (though not exclusively) concerned with the manifestation of such power in the raising and/or directing of private armies. By ‘private army’ I mean a significant group organized for the purpose of projecting actual or potential lethal force, either answerable to persons outside the apparatus of the Roman state or whose loyalties have been focused using methods outside the official mechanisms of the state. My use of ‘significant’ in this definition, meant to distinguish an ‘army’ from (for example) a group of angry, drunken brawlers heading home from the tavern, is of course subjective. I have no fixed size limit in mind for defining an army. The definition is meant to be flexible, but the key factor is the ability to influence areas of life which were traditionally under the purview of the state: regional or community defense, the administration of justice and of governmental policies, the enforcing of loyalty to state leaders, etc.