Late Roman Shield Patterns

Mismatched patterns and labels in the Magister Peditum illustrations

This page created 10 November 2014 and last modified: 10 November 2014


An examination of the shield patterns attributed to the western Magister Peditum throws up some anomalies. Several pairs of adjacent patterns representing auxilia palatina units seem similar to one another, as if they come from "related" units, but the names typically do not relate, nor do they correspond to known historical brigaded pairs of units as recorded in the writings of Ammianus, for instance.

However, a closer examination reveals a likely explanation for these observations. It is readily apparent that the shield patterns labelled Mattiaci and Ascarii seniores are almost identical. Either one has been accidentally duplicated from the other, or they belong to two somehow "related" units. While such inadvertent duplication is relatively easy for copied text, it is barely conceivable for an elaborate illustration such as this.

As I have mentioned on my page on the Magister Peditum, Seeck listed three units in his edition (the Batavi seniores, Mattiaci seniores, and Mattiaci iuniores) for what in the illuminated manuscripts appear to be just two units: the "Batavi matriciaci seniores" and the "Mattiaci iuniores" (see page 20 of Ingo Maier's concordance). Seeck was not the first to spilt the units thus, for the printed Froben edition, and likey edited by Rhenanus, gives exactly the same three units. If, instead of assuming both the shield pattern and the label of one or the other Mattiaci units is missing, we instead propose that what is missing is only the label for one of these two units, but not the shield pattern, this has the effect that the remaining shield patterns should be shifted along one position to the left (or to state the same result another way, the labels should be shifted along one position to the right).

If this is done, something rather remarkable ensues. Suddenly, in addition to the Mattiaci seniores & iuniores now having very similar shield patterns corresponding to similar unit names, various other units of auxilia palatina with related names now have related shield patterns. E.g.

the Ascarii seniores and the Ascarii iuniores are differenced only by the latter lacking the animal charge of the former;
the Leones seniores and the Leones iuniores have almost identical patterns featuring (Lion?) heads;
the Felices seniores and the Felices iuniores now both feature very hairy heads;
the pattern of the Cornuti iuniores is now revealed to contain the pattern of the eastern Cornuti circumscribed within a border; and the Salii seniores now features two cut-off canids like the eastern Salii does,
assuming the label shift jumps the three-unit block of the Exculcatores seniores, the Sagittarii Tungri, and the Exculcatores iuniores, as the patterns do (none of these three units are assigned to any field command). Further, the Iovii seniores now features, instead of a plain disc, a winged Victory (an attribute of Iovius).

Assuming this shift is correct, the question arises of where, if at all, does it stop? The best recourse would appear to be to look further down the list for patterns, or better yet, sets of patterns, that seem to be aligned with sets of names. The block

Honoriani Atecotti seniores
Honoriani Marcomanni seniores
Honoriani Marcomanni iuniores
Honoriani Atecotti iuniores
stands out, for not only do the Honoriani Marcomanni seniores and iuniores have similar patterns to each other, but the Honoriani Atecotti seniores and iuniores not only share a similar colour scheme, but they do so with the Atecotti iuniores Gallicani even further down the list, increasing confidence that these units, and presumably subsequent ones as well, are back in their proper alignment.

Preceding this block of four units are shield patterns labelled as follows:

Sagittarii venatores
The Latini and the Sabini have obviously related names (constituent tribes of ancient Rome), but it is the Sagittarii venatores and the Latini that share related shield patterns; it appears the labels here have been slipped. Now it just so happens that, in the textual list, a unit called the Brachiati is inserted between Sabini and Honoriani Atecotti iuniores, but no such shield pattern label is given. By inserting this label, by giving it to the Sabini, and shifting the other labels along one position in the same direction, the Latini and the Sabini are given related patterns: brown eagles on yellow fields. Furthermore, this has the effect that the two units immediately preceding in the list, and which have related names, the R(a)eti and the Sequani (neighbouring provinces of the upper Rhine), now have related patterns: both now feature heads stuck on a pole, differing mainly in the colours of their shields' rims and main grounds being reversed.

However, it must be noted this shift is the opposite direction to the one described previously, which makes for something of a problem (not enough patterns to go around), albeit one with an explanation. If the shift only stops at the end of the Magister Peditum's section, this leaves a rather unsatisfying discrepancy between the number of patterns and the number of names for his section. This is by no means an unsurmountable objection, but one that perhaps should be avoided, if possible, so let us assume that the shift should terminate at some point within the Magister Peditum's section.

Two possible positions immediately come to mind, based on Seeck's other amendments. Seeck had in his edition deleted the unit simply called "Batavi" that is listed between the Gratianenses iuniores and the Valentianenses iuniores in the manuscripts, but for which there is no label attached to a shield in the relevant position in the manuscript illustrations (see notes 84, 85 in Ingo Maier's commentary). So this missing "Batavi" position should be considered ("Option 1"). Seeck also noticed that there is a shield labelled Atecotti iuniores between those of the Felices iuniores Gallicani and the Tungri, but there is no such corresponding textual entry, so Seeck added it in (as the Atecotti iuniores Gallicani; I have no idea why Seeck decided "Gallicani" should have been appended; see here, page 14, note 69 for some commentary by Ingo Maier). So this position should also be considered ("Option 2").

There are a couple of other obvious candidate positions, however. In the textual list, there is a Brachiati iuniores between the Sabini and the Honoriani Atecotti seniores, but there is no correspondingly labelled shield. So this position should be considered ("Option 3"). The second possible position ("Option 4") comes between the Invicti iuniores Britanniciani and the Exculcatores iuniores Britanniciani, where a Batavi iuniores is illustrated, but there is no corresponding unit listed in the textual list.

So which of these four options above fits the evidence best? With Seeck's extra label added (the Mattiaci iuniores), to equalise the number of patterns with labels we should look to either add in a "missing" pattern, or take away an "extra" label. Both options 1 and 3 would imply a missing shield should be added, corresponding to the "extra" textual name, so are tenable. Options 2 and 4 would require removing the "extra" Atecotti iuniores or Batavi iuniores label, so are also tenable. Any one of these options would keep the number of listed auxilia palatina units equal to 65.

However, why choose just one? Recall that there are three other "missing" auxilia palatina illustrations form the magister peditum's illurations to be found in his list: the Exculcatores seniores, Sagittarii Tungri, and the Exculcatores iuniores, are a simple missing block of three shields and three labels, and do not involve any displacements). If these three labels are added, creating three more labelling shifts, we have have four shifts in total, nicel balancing each of the four options above.

What would such a rebalanced list of auxilia palatina look like? Of course amending the text of a document like the Notitia is far easier than amending the pictures, or at least, the patterns shown in the pictures, as opposed to the text captions, so we should presume the pictures (and their label) are less likely to be


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