This page last modified: 30 May 2014 (some commentary updated). This section is very much "under construction".
A note on copyright and the Notitia
These web-pages illustrate these shield patterns (for how we can be sure they are shield patterns, given they are not labelled as such, see my discussion here). Several manuscripts and other documents containing the pictures exist, showing various differences; these patterns are taken from:
1. the manuscript (manuscript "O") that now resides in the Bodleian library in Oxford. The versions on this site were originally derived from scans taken by Nik Gaukroger, but are now supplemented by the Bodleian's own scans, many of which are now available on-line);Generally speaking, the P manuscripts pictures are probably the clearest, but have more spelling mistakes in the labels, and occasionally miss a detail that may be found elsewhere. Those of W are particularly crude, especially with regard to proportions; they also have problems with fading colours, but often preserve details, albeit crudely, that may be skipped in one or more of the other manuscripts. Those of M have even more problems with colours, sometimes miss details, and in addition those details that are present are often over-embellished. B, being an imprint of an apparently no-longer existing copy once residing in Basel, is one further step removed from the original than O, P, M, & W, and is, if anything, even more fanciful than M. Further, they are very frequently reversed, and are often displayed in the wrong order; nonetheless, they very occasionally show a detail lost elsewhere, such as with the shield ascribed to the Mattiaci iuniores. Those of O are generally a happy medium, although some of the pictures have suffered damage from staining in places. In general, no one set can be considered "the best"; each must be evaluated on its own merits with regard to any particular shield pattern, which is why I am presenting them together.
2. the manuscript (manuscript "P") that now lies in the Bibliotheque nationale de France, Paris, and which is now also available on-line, at the library's web-site (sorry about the lack of a grave accent on the e in Bibliotheque!); and
3. the manuscript that now lies in the Bavarian State Library, which show two sets of pictures (manuscript sets "M" and "W"), which are also available on-line, at the library's web-site.
4. the Froben printed edition of 1552 (imprint "B"); at least two versions of which are available on-line. That of the University of Cologne unfortunately does not have colour pictures, whereas that of Ghent University, and digitised by Google books, does.
Much of the text that accompanies the pictures, such as the names of the units, is taken from Otto Seeck's 1876 edition, as presented by Halstein Sjolie at his web-site; I have noted some amendments in certain places, particularly where they impact the identification of units with certain shield patterns: Seeck often amended a unit label for no good reason, and sometimes amended it is such a way to actively hinder understanding (e.g. with the Legio secundae britannicae siue secundani.
Only some of the units mentioned in the Notitia have their shield patterns depicted. In particular, none of those of the limitanei or "border" troops are illustrated, nor are any of those of the eastern cavalry units, hence the complete lack of shield patterns for some of the forces listed below. Why this is so is an unanswered question. It may be that the Carolingian copyist grew tired of drawing so many patterns, and yet the document probably owed its continued existance because of the visual interest these very same patterns provided. But the selectivity of the omissions is striking; compounded by the fact that, amongst the infantry of the Magister Militum per Illyricum, it is the pseudocomitatenses units (i.e. recently-transfered limitanei units) - and only the pseudocomitatenses units - that are not illustrated. It is appears quite likely that the "original" document simply did not contain the "missing" shield patterns.
The Eastern empire:In addition to these major blocks of illustrations, many units of the units' patterns are shown and discussed individually: you can reach them from links from the above officers' lists, or you can look for them alphabetically.Magister Militum Praesentalis I - 24 shieldsThe Western empire:
Magister Militum Praesentalis II - 24 shields
Magister Militum per Orientem - 21 shields
Magister Militum per Thracias - 21 shields
Magister Militum per Illyricum - 15 shields
Magister Officiorum - 6 shields
Comes domesticorum equitum, peditum - 2 shields
Comes limitis Aegypti - 3 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Comes per Isauriam
Dux Thebaidos - 2 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Dux Armeniae - 1 shield taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Dux Moesiae secundae
Dux Moesiae primae
Dux Daciae ripensis - 2 shields taken from elsewhere in the NotitiaMagister Peditum - 123 shields
Magister Peditum's Italian command - 43 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Magister Equitum - 39 shields
Magister Equitum's Gallic command - 46 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Magister Officiorum - 7 shields
Comes domesticorum equitum, peditum - 2 shields
Comes Illyricum - 19 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Comes Hispenias - 15 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Comes Africae - 31 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Comes Tingitaniae - 6 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Comes Britanniarum - 4 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Comes litoris Saxonici per Britanniam - 1 shield taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Dux Mauritania - 2 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Dux Tripolitanae - 1 shield taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Dux Pannoniae secundae ripariensis et Saviae
Dux Valeriae ripensis
Dux Pannoniae primae et Norici ripensis
Dux tractus Armoricani et Nervicani - 6 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Dux Belgicae secundae
Dux Britanniarum - 2 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
Dux Mogontiacensis - 4 shields taken from elsewhere in the Notitia
The manuscripts from which these illustrations are taken do not derive from the late Roman period: the only surviving copies date from the 15th and 16th centuries, and all derive from a single codex - the Codex Spirensis - that is known to have existed in 1542 but is now lost (and has been lost since the 17th century), and which was itself a Carolingian copy and not the Roman original. This raises the question of the authenticity of the illustrations: are they faithful reproductions of the original Roman material; wholesale fabrications of a medieval scribe; or something in between?
Robert Grigg was the first to raise serious questions about the authenticity of the Notitia patterns, in a couple of articles in the Journal of Roman Studies (Vol. 69 (1979), 107-124, and Vol. 73 (1983), 132-142, respectively).
We can at least be sure that at least some of the patterns shown in the surviving copies of the Notitia are not completely wholesale medieval fabrications because the patterns shown are in general terms very similar in style to other late Roman illustrations, and in some cases, essentially identical (see my discussion here). But that doesn't mean they all are. Grigg made much of how the shield patterns shown appeared to get simpler and simpler the further into the manuscript one delves, as if the illustrator got tired of inventing new designs. But even if this is the case (which I would partially dispute - what Grigg saw as "essentially blank" often looks nothing like that to me) - there may be one or more perfectly reasonable explanations for this. For example, it appears that some of most senior units (i.e. those depicted first, in order of precedence) tend to have the most complex shield patterns, at least in the east, as if accumulating "badges" over time. Since the patterns for the least senior units in the East (i.e. the 2nd quarter of the document) are missing, this alone could account for a diminishment of pattern complexity.
Grigg also questioned the symbolism involved. For example, only a couple of shield patterns appear to illustrate a wreath, even though this was a very common shield motif in former times; further, in each, the depiction is crude, like a circle; this made Grigg suspect other wreathes may have been illustrated, but had been stylized to the point of appearing as circular bands (I agree this has likely occurred, although possibly as much for reasons of scale as lack of care in copying). And thunderbolts, so ubiquitous in the past, are now seemingly entirely lacking. But there are also arguments as to why this might be so, even without copying problems (which are, of course, inevitable in transmitting documents by hand). Symbols move with the times after all. Thunderbolts hurled by Jupiter may have been inappropriate in the newly-Christianized post-Constantinian world in which the Notitia was first drawn up.
Grigg was on stronger ground when he questioned the faithfulness of individual patterns, in other words, whether the identification of any one particular pattern with any one particular unit is secure. This is because there is a strong hint that some of the patterns at least may be misaligned with the units. For instance, on the first page of the Magister Peditum's patterns, the Matiarii and Ascarii seniores, neighbouring entries, are given essentially the same pattern. It looks like one has been accidentally duplicated. Maybe one of the two is just missing, leaving the rest unchanged; or maybe all subsequent entries have to be shifted over one place (this was noticed at least as long ago as by Seeck). But there are further problems too. E.g. only one "Equites Brachiati" is illustrated and listed as part of the Magister Equitum's cavalry list, whereas both an Equites Brachiati seniores and an Equites Brachiati iuniores is listed as being assigned to field commands, and so there is no way of conclusively knowing which of these two units the shield pattern belongs too.
Having said this, a close examination of the patterns shows in many cases clear "family" resemblances. In some cases, units that are known to have historically been connected with each other by citations from literary texts, such as the historian Ammianus, bear strikingly similar patterns. And in other cases, units with similar names bear similar very patterns, for example. Grigg downplayed this is part, because there were many instances in which "expected" relationships were not in evidence. But that is begging the question. There is no need to assume every "related" set of units must perforce have had similar shield patterns just because some of them did. And to say that just because a unit named Heculiani shows an eagle pattern, instead of depicting the god Hercules, it must perforce be inauthentic, is very questionable logic indeed.
Perhaps the following extract best sums up Grigg's attempts to deny obvious relationships between the shield patterns shown and the unit titles they are attached to. Regarding the following four pairs of units: the Ioviani iuniores and the Herculaniani iuniores, the Fortenses and the Nervii, the Daci and the Scythae, and the Primani and the Undecimani, Grigg stated (his 1983 paper, page 138) that "in only one of the four pairs of units (Not. Or. vi, 5, 6, the Primani and Undecimani) are the titles even remotely related". I simply can't see how someone can deny the names Jupiter and Hercules are related, given they represent a father-son pair. Likewise the names Daci and Scythae are related through being the names of neighbouring provinces, and the names Fortenses and Nervii are related through both having the same meaning, of "steadfast".
Grigg also made much (his 1983 paper, page 140) of how units that bear similar titles are much more likely to have similar shield patterns only when in the same command, which he said can "best be explained by presuming that the artist's concern for the co-ordination of the emblems of related units was more easily defeated when time and energy were required to satisfy it". Clearly the thought that units might have received new shield patterns when they were transferred to a new command never occurred to him. Most of Grigg's arguments are unfortunately similarly lacking in rigour (or perhaps, fortunately lacking, given if they were true, the document would be less useful).
So we need to distinguish between various levels of "authenticity": is a particular pattern in the Notitia merely "an authentic shield pattern of some late Roman unit", or "the authentic shield pattern of the particular late Roman unit that it is labelled as belonging to..."
Furthermore, even assuming they are "authentic", the patterns shown can't be claimed to be entirely faithful reproductions (as in "true to the real-life prototype"), even individually, as there are in places some differences between the various surviving manuscript illustrations - differences that these web pages illustrate. Obviously there are corruptions that must inevitably be introduced by the multiplicity of copying events between the 5th century original and the present manuscripts which leads to discrepancies between the surviving versions.
Indeed, the reason the Munich library contains two sets of pictures is that the manuscripts' commissioner was not satisfied with the pictures in the copy initially presented to him, and asked for a new set to be produced. The first set of pictures, manuscript copy "M" according to Ingo Maier's scheme) look prettier than the second set (copy "W"), and while the second are rougher in execution, they might well be more faithful reproductions overall given their reason for existence. For example, the colours of the second set usually more closely match those of the Bodleian and Parisian manuscripts (copies "O" and "P"), increasing confidence in their accuracy (both the Munich sets have many faded colours, but the M set is clearly worse off than the W set). Likewise, in W, one of the helmets shown under the western Magister Officiorum looks - admittedly vaguely - like a fairly normal conical-type helmet of the type that would later be called a "spangenhelm", complete with crest and what look to be singly-scalloped cheek guards. But in M, this crude picture has been transformed into a much clearer but easily recognizably anachronistic German sallet, albeit embellished with a crest and two tassels. Prettier, but clearly less authentic. On the other hand, sometimes the pictures in W do not correspond to those in M, but they do not correspond to those in O, P, and B either, which implies they are not the most authentic (note that they date over a hundred years after those of O and P were produced).
The document that is the Notitia Dignitatum is apparently divided into halves pertaining to the western and the eastern portions of the Roman empire (or rather, eastern and western portions; the Romans not adhering to the same worldview as us). On internal evidence, the eastern section appears to be (at least at first sight) an essentially uniform composition dating to (or heavily revised in) ca. 394 AD; some would date almost all of it to ca. 400 AD, however. The western section seems to initially date from the same time, and then having evidently undergone considerable revision, with some items seemingly dating to 420 AD or even as late as 425 AD. (I say "apparently divided" into two halves, because much of the perceived division is actually due to Seeck's rearrangement of the material, and is not reflected in the actual manuscripts themselves).
Thus the "Notitia" does not present a snap-shot picture of the Roman army, but rather a view of many changes occuring over 30 or so years, and disentangling these is a tricky business at best. Many of the units listed in the western section for instance seem to be duplicated in two (or even more) different commands. It is difficult to say which is the 'original' posting and which is the 'latest' one (assuming that is we are not dealing with two identically named units; perhaps because they are two halves of a unit split between different stations that have not yet acquired a unique identity!). Nor is it easy to discern if a given unit in a field army with an identical name to a unit in a limitanei area is merely a detachment of the latter, or whether the unit in its entirety was withdrawn from the frontier...
In addition to displaying the shield patterns, I have endeavoured to give some sort of commentary about the units and army concerned. I make no pretence of being an expert in the area however; take my conclusions with a grain of salt. Some comments derive from (or argue against) AHM Jones' analysis of the Notitia Dignitatum: "The Later Roman Empire, 284-602. A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey" by A.H.M. Jones, The John Hopkins University Press, 1986, ISBN 0-8018-3285-3 (this is the single-volume paperback edition; sometimes I quote the separate hardback volumes). References to 'Burns' are to "Barbarians within the gates of Rome" by T.S.Burns, Indiana University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-253-31288-4. Various other works are referenced when mentioned. Much of the epigraphical evidence for British units comes from the valuable Roman Inscriptions of Britain and much other British information from the excellent www.Roman-Britain.org site. A potted history of the old legions in previous centuries can be found at www.livius.org (beware many things stated here as apparent facts are mere suppositions, however). Evidence is biased towards British units not least because I am an English speaker and can't access other languages so easily, but also because British archaeological comparisons are comparatively extensive.
I have compiled an alphabetical list of the units mentioned in the Notitia which may help people in analysing the distribution of units, etc. Some include links to their shield patterns, etc.
Some troop type statistics and analyses are described below:
Numeri Barbarcoriorum etc.
Singulares, Domestici, and Bucellarii
Other Numeri and Cunei
Return to my Ancient Military History index page.