Historically, the year 476 A.D. is considered to be the end of the Western Roman Empire, its last emperor being Romulus Augustulus. It was not something that happened suddenly but as a result of an evolutionary process initiated centuries ago, along which Rome suffered a progressive weakening for many reasons, some external and others internal, some general and others specific. And although the legions were not indifferent to these changes, they made an effort to defend that agonizing light of civilization until the last moment, in what we can consider their last battles.
Since the second half of the fourth century, a new system of relations had been formed, based on the closed rural economy, in an almost independent villa that was very different from the old slave estate and that constituted the first step towards a new figure, that of the fief. This had an effect on the colonate (slavery tended to disappear when it cost more than it produced), whose members, middle and lower class, used to exercise great mobility to avoid taxes and found in these mini-state a good way to avoid the imperial collectors.
To avoid it, the state dictated measures that linked them to the land, which resulted in a transformation of the cities, which became fortified to the detriment of trade. The fall in trade also meant the fall of slavery because, since there was no market for products, it cost more than it produced. At the same time, this stopped monetary activity in favor of payment in kind; the latter was extended to soldiers, who, except for those of a certain rank, began to receive part of the salary in goods. In fact, they were also assimilated to a relationship of servitude, especially in the border areas, originating private units (generally mounted, called bucellarii).
The army could not avoid reforms either, giving entry into its ranks to the barbarians, especially in the limes, which implied two things: on one side, the difference between border troops and the local population was blurred; on the other, those in charge of defending the empire from external threats did not see them as such and, in fact, outsiders often ended up receiving a licence to settle in imperial territory under the foedus formula. Thus, the late Roman legionnaires were subject to their commands by servitude, which brought them closer to the medieval world than to the classical world and limited both a coordinated defense and the available resources.
They had also experienced changes in their equipment, germanizing it: the segmented hull was imposed over the galea, the chain-mail over the plate armour, the circular or oval shield over the tiled one, the spatha over the gladius and the long spear over the pilum, the latter according to the recovery of the formation in phalanx. They were adaptations which, despite what is believed, did not reduce either their operability or their effectiveness and only in the end did the army begin to be overwhelmed, often undermined by the instability of the empire itself, involved in internal wars, and the insufficiency of funds, the result of what was described above, which prevented adequate replacements from being available.
Even so, the Roman army continued to fight until it had its swan song in a series of battles that marked the last few years. Not all of them can be reviewed, obviously, so let’s look succinctly at the most outstanding of the 5th century A.D.
Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (451 A.D.)
Flavius Aetius is often referred to as the last Roman and, of course, can be considered the pillar upon which the Western Roman Empire was sustained in its final stage. He was a military genius who had begun to stand out in 427, with a two-year campaign in Gaul that put an end to the growing importance of Franks and Visigoths. At that time he was only thirty-one years old but his victories in Arelate (Arles) and Narbonne meant that he won the post of magister militum, later extending his unbeatability elsewhere.
His list of defeated enemies includes Huns, Burgundians, Franks, Vandals and Visigoths. But also Roman adversaries. For example, General Bonifacius, with whom the favor of Galla Placidia was disputed, mother (and regent) of the future Valentinian III ending in civil war. He won it, of course, becoming the strong man of Rome and right-hand man of the emperor for the next two decades. And at that time he won one of his most famous triumphs: the one that confronted him against the Huns in the Catalaunian Plains (now Chalons).
At the head of an alliance with the Visigothic Theodoric I and other peoples (Franks, Alans and Burgundians), his troops went out to meet those of Attila in Gaul, a territory that he wanted to seize after looting several of its cities. The Huns were not alone either, as they were accompanied by the forces of vassal kingdoms such as the Ostrogoths, the Heruli, etc. It was therefore a large-scale clash which, although it actually ended in stalemates, is usually considered a Roman victory because it meant the withdrawal of the Huns… although with it they would change their objective and invade Italy. Aetius, by the way, died of success: it seemed to Valentinian that he had become too powerful and he ordered his assassination three years later; the emperor was also killed twelve months later while his guard, formed by loyalists to Aetius, did not lift a finger to prevent it.
Orleans (463 A.D.)
It is curious that the looting of Rome by the barbarians in the years 405 and 455 was done practically without the need to have previously defeated it in battle. In any case, the new emperor, Avitus, decided to avoid new surprises by negotiating with the Visigoths, because after all their king, Theodoric II, had helped him to ascend to the throne. However, neither he nor his policy of appeasement was popular and ended up deposed by General Majorian, who took his place until he himself was assassinated by Flavius Ricimer, the strong man of Rome, who put Libius Severus in his place (he could not be emperor as he was Germanic of origin).
Ricimer met the opposition of a former protégé of Majorian, General Aegidius, who did not recognize Severus and proclaimed himself independent in the north of Gaul – of which he was a magister militum – supported by the Franks, threatening to march on Rome. Ricimer skillfully managed to get Theodoric II out of his way by opening up the possibility of extending the Visigothic kingdom beyond the Loire. The clash took place in Orleans. The size of the forces of the contenders, the number of casualties recorded and how the battle unfolded are unknown. But the Visigoths were defeated and their chief, Frederick, brother of Theodoric, lost his life.
Naval Battle of Carthage (468 A.D.)
The Vandals left the Iberian Peninsula in 429, when the emperor gave it to the Visigoths as foederati (as before to them) and settled in the current Tangiers and Ceuta, then expanding into North Africa and establishing the capital of his new kingdom in Carthage. In 468, fed up with his races, the emperor Majorian had carried out an operation of punishment against them that was resolved in the battle of Carthage, ending with a naval disaster for the Roman fleet. Thirty-nine years later, the eastern emperor Leo I decided to solve the problem with an invasion that, incidentally, would avenge the looting of Rome made by the Vandal King Gaiseric in 455.
To do so, he assembled a fabulous fleet, made up of just over a thousand ships in which he embarked ten thousand soldiers under the command of his brother-in-law, the dux Basiliscus. He counted on the collaboration of the Western Emperor Artemius and General Marcellin, who governed the province of Illyria. The latter fulfilled his mission of conquering Sardinia and Libya, then joining forces with those of Basiliscus to advance on Carthage and send an ultimatum to Gaiseric. The vandal warlord asked for time to negotiate the conditions and so he could take the attackers by surprise, sending them dozens of fireships (burning ships full of combustible materials) that provoked a catastrophe in the invading fleet, making it lose half of its troops.
Gaiseric’s victory provoked some surprising, suspicious and welcome consequences for him: faithful to their time, the defeated Roman leaders dedicated themselves to exterminating each other; only Basiliscus was saved but he was exiled.
Soissons (486 A.D.)
Gaul was once again the scene of a battle at that time, this one between the old Roman and Frankish allies. Aegidius’ successor, Afranius Siagrius, ruled as dux that independent territory with capital in Novidunum (now Soissons) that stretched between the rivers Meuse and Loire, but the Frankish Salians (of the Rhine area, now the Netherlands and Germany), led by Clovis I, were in full expansion towards the west and were not going to stop for what was already the last piece of power of Rome (Romulus Augustulus had been deposed by the Herulus leader Odoacer in the year 476).
Clovis managed to bring together various Frankish peoples and in a display of boasting he put the city of Soissons as a confluence point. Siagrius, defeated, had to escape at gallop and ask for protection from the Visigoths of Alaric II… who did not forget that his father had crushed them two decades earlier. And if they forgot, Clovis took it upon himself to warn them that the Kingdom of Toulouse might be his next target, so Siagrius and his court were executed. The Roman Empire also disappeared from Gaul, and the Frankish Kingdom was born in exchange.
Battle of Badon (490-517 A.D.)
Mons Badonicus was the name of a mountain of indeterminate location although situated in Britannia. There, on an unspecified date, a battle was fought between British-Roman forces and Anglo-Saxon raiders of which there are hardly any data, except that they came from the north. In fact, as is frequent in that time and place, everything is very dark and only the work De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the ruin and conquest of Britain), by the autochthonous cleric Gildas, sheds a little light without specifying too much (although being a contemporary of the facts gives him some credibility). Here, too, we do not know how many forces there were in battle, but we do know that the defenders were the last Roman remnants on the island after Constantine III ordered it to be abandoned at the beginning of the 5th century.
According to Gildas, the supreme command of the army fell on Ambrosius Aurelianus, an aristocratic and Christian general who has often been identified as the character who originated the legend of King Arthur and whose historicity is confirmed by other sources, such as the Historia Britonum. We do not know whether Aurelianus himself led the troops in battle or delegated to a subordinate; we do know that the southern Saxons of Aelle of Sussex (founder of the kingdom of the same name) faced several cohorts barricaded on Mount Badon and a contingent of Sarmatian cavalry. Surprisingly, given their numerical inferiority, the latter triumphed, stopping the Saxon raids for a time.
Sources: Historia de Roma (Sergei Ivanovich Kovaliov)/La caída del Imperio Romano. Las causas militares (Arther Ferrill)/En el final de Roma (ca. 455-480). La solución intelectual (Santiago Castellanos)/Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire (John M. O’Flynn)/Late Roman Warlords (Penny MacGeorge)/De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (Gildas)/Late Roman Army (Pat Southern y Karen R. Dixon).