New Evidence about the limitanei on Rome’s Arabian frontier
S. Thomas Parker
After a long period of neglect, intensive exploration of Rome’s Arabian frontier in the last four decades has yielded a plethora of new evidence. Most of these recent surveys and excavations have focused on sites of the Late Roman (4th-6th c.) period and thus yielded new insights into the limitanei who manned the frontier in this period. The insights include key evidence about unit size, military equipment, fortifications, deployment (with implications for both strategy and tactics), and supply. Particularly significant is botanical and faunal evidence suggesting that the limitanei were engaged in agricultural production (both cultivation and stock-breeding) from the foundation of the newly reorganized frontier under the Tetrarchy, or more than century earlier than the first explicit references in documentary sources. In short, the evidence could support the notion of limitanei from the beginning of their appearance on the frontier, rather than a later evolution as some have suggested. The deployment of these forces strongly suggests that the chief security threat in the region was external (from pastoral Arab nomads) rather than internal (from a restive sedentary provincial population). This is not to deny the likelihood of periods of peaceful “mutualism” between the Roman army and local Arab nomads, but only when a strong government policed the frontier.
Limitanei: the African perspective
This paper looks at the evidence for limitanei in Roman North Africa, that is to say the provinces of the African diocese and Mauretania Tingitana, in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Uniquely, troops in this region, serving under the comes Tingitaniae and the comes Africae, are specifically labelled limitanei in the Notitia Dignitatum. However the appearance of the two lists is radically different. Whereas the comes Tingitaniae had a series of old-style cohorts and alae at his disposition, his counterpart in Africa had authority over numerous praepositi limitum, commanders of named frontier districts rather than individual regiments.
However, the differences between the two comitava lists were to some degree more apparent than real. Analysis of the fragmentary evidence relating to their history and composition of the troops commanded by the African praepositi limitum indicates that they too largely derived from the auxiliary units of the 1st- to 3rd-century provincial armies. In contrast, the units of the two regional field armies, also listed in the Notitia and commanded by the same comites, predominantly consisted of cavalry vexillations, new legions and legionary detachments established from the late 3rd century onwards to serve alongside the old African legion, III Augusta. These African/Mauretanian comitatenses were very similar in composition to the higher ranking regiments of limitanei in other frontier commands, such as that of the dux Britanniarum. Such regiments were accorded higher status than the cohorts and alae and were sometimes termed ripenses during the early to mid-4th century (though strictly speaking this label probably only applied to those stationed along the Rhine/Danube riverine frontiers). Clearly the manner in which the two North African commands evolved had resulted in the promotion of these regiments to the rank of comitatenses at some stage (perhaps even prior to the formal definition of limitanei as a military grade from the mid-4th century onwards). This emphasises that the ranking of troops could involve a significant element of chance or contingent circumstance, with almost identical units eventually falling into different grades.
The paper will go on to examine what the documentary and archaeological evidence can tell us about the role of the African limitanei, showing how their distribution related to the unique requirements of the North African frontiers, and how these troops interacted with the wider tribal society of the frontier zone.