Late Roman Shield Patterns taken from the

Notitia Dignitatum

This page last modified: 15 April 2014 (many links to Paris and Munich on-line pictures added, some commentary changed and added, etc.). This section is very much "under construction".


A note on copyright and the Notitia

The various surviving copies of the so-called Notitia Dignitatum, the "List of Offices" or better, the "Register of Dignitaries", include pictures showing the shield patterns of hundreds of units in the Roman army as it existed at the start of the 5th century AD.

These web-pages illustrate these shield patterns. 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, and are originally derived from scans taken by Nik Gaukroger, supplemented by the Bodleian's own scans which are now available on-line),
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 paired manuscripts that now lie in the Bavarian State Library, which show two sets of pictures (manuscripts "M" and "W"), which are also available on-line, at the library's web-site.
The Froben printed edition of 1552 (imprint "B") is also available on-line in facsimile, but it only has outline drawings of the shield patterns, rather than colour illustrations. so is of less visual interest. Generally speaking, the P manuscripts pictures are the clearest, but have more spelling mistakes in the labels. Those of W are particularly crude, especially with regard to proportions; they also have problems with fading colours. Those of M have even more problems with colours, and often over-embellished. Those of O are generally a happy medium, although some of the pictures have suffered damage from staining in places.

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.

Only some of the units mentioned in the Notitia have shield patterns preserved. 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. This applies even when a single cavalry unit is inserted halfway through a list of otherwise all-infantry units that do have their shield patterns illustrated (as in the pseudocomitatenses units of the Magister Militum per Orientem). Why this is the case is an unanswered question. It may be that an early medieval copyist grew tired of drawing so many patterns, and yet the document probably owes its continued existance because of the visual interest these very same patterns provide. But the selectivity of the omission mentioned above regarding the Magister Militum per Orientem would seem to refute such a simple explanation.

The Eastern empire:
Magister Militum Praesentalis I - 24 shields
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 duplicated shields
Comes per Isauriam
Dux Thebaidos - 2 duplicated shields
Dux Foenicis
Dux Syriae
Dux Palaestinae
Dux Osrhoenae
Dux Mesopotamiae
Dux Arabiae
Dux Armeniae
Dux Scythiae
Dux Moesiae secundae
Dux Moesiae primae
Dux Daciae ripensis - 2 duplicated shields
The Western empire:
Magister Peditum - 123 shields
Magister Peditum's Italian command - 43 duplicated shields
Magister Equitum - 39 shields
Magister Equitum's Gallic command - 46 duplicated shields
Magister Officiorum - 7 shields
Comes domesticorum equitum, peditum - 2 shields
Comes Illyricum - 19 duplicated shields
Comes Hispenias - 15 duplicated shields
Comes Africae - 31 duplicated shields
Comes Tingitaniae - 6 duplicated shields
Comes Britanniarum - 4 duplicated shields
Comes litoris Saxonici per Britanniam - 2 duplicated shields
Dux Mauritania - 2 duplicated shields
Dux Tripolitanae - 1 duplicated shield
Dux Pannoniae secundae
Dux Valeriae ripensis
Dux Pannoniae primae et Norici ripensis
Dux Raetiae
Dux Sequanica
Dux tractus Armoricani et Nervicani - 6 duplicated shields
Dux Belgicae secundae
Dux Britanniarum - 2 duplicated shields
Dux Mogontiacensis - 4 duplicated shields
In addition to these major blocks of illustrations, many units of the units' patterns are shown and discussed individually, you can reach them fro links from the above officers' lists, or you can look for them alphabetically.

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). 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 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. 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 is a perfectly good explanation for it. What is immediately clear from looking at the shield patterns is that the most senior units have the most complex shield patterns (as if accumulating "badges" over time). But the patterns for the least senior units in the East (i.e. the 2nd quarter of the document) are missing, whereas those from the West (the last quarter of the document) are present. So it is entirely natural that the patterns diminish in complexity given this fact!

Grigg also questioned the symbolism involved. For example, only one shield illustrates what appears to be a wreath, even though this was avery common shield motif in former times, and the depiction is crude, like a circle, making him suspect other wreathes may have been illustrated, but were stylized to the point of appearing as circular bands. And thunderbolts, so ubiquitous in the past, are now entirely lacking. But there are arguments as to why this might be so. Symbols move with the times after all. Thunderbolts hurled by Jupiter may have been inappropriate in the newly-Christianized post-Theodosian world.

Grigg was on stronger ground when he questioned the faithfulness of individual patterns, and the identification of any one pattern with any one unit is much less secure, since 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 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. But there is a a further problem - only one of the two Equites brachiati is shown, whereas both a seniores and juniores are listed next to each other; likewise other patterns are missing under the Magister Equitum.

On the other hand, 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 bear similar patterns. In other cases, units with similar names bear similar 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 if nay of them did. And to say that just because the Heculiani show an eagle pattern instead of depicting Hercules it must perforce be inauthentic is very questionable logic indeed.

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, the patterns shown can't be claimed to be entirely faithful reproductions, even individually, as there are in places some differences between the various surviving manuscript illustrations - differences that these web pages illustrate, at least for four sets of illustrations. 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 quality of the pictures in the copy first presented to him, and asked for a new set to be produced. The later set (herein called "the first set", since they appear at the front of the manuscript; manuscript copy "M" according to Ingo Maier's scheme) certainly look prettier than the earlier ("second") set (copy "W"), and while they are less artistic, and rougher in execution, one may nonetheless say they are likely to be more faithful reproductions. This can be seen in many places. For example, the colours of the second set more closely match those of the Bodleian manuscript (copy "O"), 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 ancient helmet, along 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, embellished with a crest and two tassels. Prettier, but clearly less authentic.

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 paperback edition). References to 'Burns' are to "Barbarians within the gates of Rome" by T.S.Burns, Indiana University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-253-31288-4. Other works are referenced when mentioned.

The document that is the Notitia Dignitatum is 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. 395 AD, with minor alterations perhaps dating to 5 years later; 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.

Thus it 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...

Epigraphical evidence for British units comes from the valuable Roman Inscriptions of Britain and much other British information from the excellent site. A potted history of the old legions in previous centuries can be found at 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 all 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:

Auxilia Palatinae
Auxiliary Cohors
Auxiliary Milites
Auxiliary Pseudocomitaneses
Other Auxiliares
Equites Armigeri
Equites Catafractarii
Equites Clibanarii
Equites Dalmatae
Equites Illyriciani
Equites Indigenae
Equites Mauri
Equites Promoti
Equites Sagittarii
Equites Scutarii
Equites Stablesiani
Numeri Barbarcoriorum etc.
Singulares, Domestici, and Bucellarii
Other Numeri and Cunei


Return to my Ancient Military History index page.