April 19, 2006

Semeia, Vexilla, and Roman/Byzantine Military Standards

So, this is another research blog to remind me of some interesting things that I need to come back to at some point. The topic, is the standard.

Keeping in line with this topic of morale is the standard. The standard had been an important part of the Roman military for a while; in fact, since the days of the Republic. When commanders, or units, lost their standards in combat, there was usually a desparate attempt to get it back. If it didn't work out in that very battle, then they would endeavour to do so in the future. When Augustus' great feats was to win back – albeit through negotiations and diplomatic finagling – the standards lost by Crassus at Carrhae. One last point about standards in combat: during the course of battle another interesting – or, rather, pertinent – point in this regard was the falling of the standard. Just as the sight of a general falling in the heat of battle may cause soldiers to panic and flee, so might the falling of the standard. There were important things, and they remained an integral means of maintaing, or bolstering morale through the Byzantine period.

In Late Antiquity, even with the advent of Christianity and its proliferation in the army, the standard was still important. Both Maurice and Procopius mention the standard on a number of occasions; plus, Maurice uses at least two different words for standard (early stages: he could use more and I'm not sure whether there's a distinction yet). Now, here's the 'new' interesting bit.

Vexillations were used in the 1st century AD by the army (if not earlier) and these rag-tag units got their name from the vexillum, the Roman standard (signum is also used to identify a standard, at least in Vegetius). By the 4th C the vexillationes had morphed into a new, largely cavalry-based unit. Before they could be formed from both infantry and cavalry units, and legiones and auxilia. These units were used increasingly from Marcus Aurelius and eventually they spent more and more time away from their home units. That's basically how they became separate units (and probably at some point – Gallienus? – in the 3rd C someone said, let's just make them a separate automous unit). Now, what's interesting is that some of the units that arose in the early – to – mid Byzantine period (7th – 9th centuries) also seem to have got their name in the same way that the vexillationes did. So, by perhaps the 8th C (really unsure about this) and well after the themes have been introduced – actually, in that light perhaps this wasn't until at least the 9th C – we also see the rise of smaller units (the themes seem to have been the next step in the evolution of the older mobile armies, I think the Commitatenses and Praesental armies, of Late Antiquity – 4C – 7C, and what happened when they were given permanent homes in Anatolia) called banda. So, to look for the evolution of the unit banda, we probably (if it hasn't been done yet) have to go back to actual meaning of the word banda (I know that it at least shows up in Maurice, and have no idea if it shows up in any other sixth or seventh century Greek texts and means standard – Procopius doesn't use the word, at least thus far in my work I haven't come across it – he sticks with semeion). Anyway, it just seems that the military units called banda got their name from the same process whereby the vexillationes got their name. If anything, this also (though perhaps only slightly) points towards continuity in many of the practices of the Roman army from the Principate well into the early and then mid-Byzantine period. Interesting indeed.

One last point: GO SENS GO!!!!


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