8 – Military Might
The Western Roman Empire’s army was once feared throughout the known world but its influence and quality waned in the latter part of its existence. One of its biggest failures at this time was neglecting to introduce conscription. Instead, the army became dependent on regimentation with a compulsion to remain in the profession of one’s father. By the fifth century, the practice of forcing the sons of soldiers to follow suit was obligatory. Alas, this resulted in a severe decline in the quantity and quality of the troops. These were not battle-hardened men or talented commanders. They were men thrust into positions they didn’t want, and the results became clear on the battlefield.
This scarcity of soldiers meant a reliance on barbarian mercenaries. It would have been problematic had these troops merely been of a lower rank, but in the fifth century, a significant number of generals were German; a situation that only exacerbated the problem. These soldiers had questionable loyalty, and they ultimately had far too great an influence on who became emperor. German Masters of Soldiers, such as Ricimer and Orestes, chose who ruled, so every emperor after Valentinian III was a âlame duck.’
With so many enemies, the Western Empire had no chance of survival as it had such a dearth of quality within its ranks. The writing was on the wall by the beginning of the fifth century when Stilicho was unable to prevent the Suevi, Alans, and Vandals, from crossing the Rhine. These tribes destroyed and depopulated several cities and caused a number of the Western Empire’s subjects to switch sides. Those who immediately succeeded Alaric were happy to share in the relative prosperity of the empire but by 425, the northern frontier was weak, and there were five Germanic kingdoms in the Western Empire. Add in an increasingly Gothic army, and it was clear that the West was doomed.
Meanwhile, in the East, the empire was strong enough to withstand attacks from Huns and other groups. Payoffs were a big part of its tactics, but it also had a far stronger army than the West. While the likes of Honorius and Valentinian III did nothing to prevent the Goths from taking over the army, Leo I of the East quickly replaced his German troops because he doubted their loyalty. He brought Isaurians into the fold in return for making them subjects of the empire. Zeno went a step further by creating an army of native troops. The Eastern Empire survived several wars toward the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth centuries and began to flourish under Justinian.