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Thread: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

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    Default Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    I know that armor was used, but i wanna know how often was it used? Iknow it wasn't worn except in battle or on guard duty...
    Quote Originally Posted by Roma_Victrix
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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    I'm afraid you've opened up a can of worms here!

    On the one hand, we have the Vegetius comment where he deplores the lack of troops wearing armour within his own time - which is often cited to both illustrate a largely Roman army no longer wearing mail or scale armour, and also indicates a break down in morale or effectiveness on the battlefield. Coupled with this is a Late Roman tendency to show military individuals on tombstones, mosaics and manuscript illustrations as either wearing no armour or wearing stylized Classical armour which is seen as artistic license and not representing reality.

    On the other hand, we have the evidence of the fabricae which produced armour (why produce armour if no one was wearing it?) and also even specialised in certain types of armour, together with archeological finds which attest to mail shirts with a tendency to longer sleeves and thigh-lines for greater protection. Debate even rages about whether beneath such armour a leather subamarlia was worn to ease the weight of the mail shirt. There is debate that western Roman troops preferred chain mail while eastern troops veered more towards scale, although I have yet to read primary evidence for this.

    In the past, the war-gaming community held to the belief that leather cuirasses predominated but that fell out of favour and is now creeping back in again.

    If we take the Vegetius quotation out of the mix, all evidence points to Roman heavy infantry - the front-line troops - always wearing full heavy armour, with middle and rear-rankers perhaps being lighter armoured, although whether this was because they were skirmish troops or because of a paucity in armour is not known for sure. Guard details among high ranking officials and commanders wore elaborately coloured undress uniform - see the mosaics of Justinian (or is it a re-worked Theodoric as is now claimed?), for example. But again these may be merely artistic stylization!

    If I am free over the weekend, I will post up some period images.

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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    I'm thinking that vegetius in a sense might be right for the later late army, such as Aetius', as most of his troops were upgraded limitanei, which at least in rio's mod are portrayed as unarmored light infantry for the most part.
    Quote Originally Posted by Roma_Victrix
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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    Quote Originally Posted by Magistri Militum FlaviusAetius View Post
    I'm thinking that vegetius in a sense might be right for the later late army, such as Aetius', as most of his troops were upgraded limitanei, which at least in rio's mod are portrayed as unarmored light infantry for the most part.
    Vegetius may have seen troops in barracks who quite possibly would not have bothered wearing armour. Then again, he may well have been railing against what he perceived as the 'barbarisation' of the army during his day. The line drawings of the now destroyed Column of Arcadius shows infantry both wearing cuirasses, mail hauberks and also unarmoured, and as its presumed Vegetius was writing between 383AD and 425AD, this may well be a fair representation of the state of the army during his day.

    As those who have followed other threads know, I have always advocated infantry wearing a mix of muscle cuirasses, mail/scale hauberks and also possibly wearing just the Thoracomachus as described by the author of the 'De Rebus Bellicis'. There is just too much pictorial evidence to dismiss the use of muscle cuirasses, and one historian has quite rightly pointed out that upto the late 3rd/early 4th century AD monuments and other works always showed the troops in contemporary armour, with only officers wearing cuirasses, yet we are led to believe that for some obscure reason a few decades later they ignored more than a century of artistic convention and started representing troops in 'archaic' armour forms.

    The debate is not helped by the ancient authors referring to the troops to wearing 'lorica' and similar terms which just basically mean armour. There are references within Julian, Ammianus etc that at least some troops wore metalic body armour, but exactly what form this armour took is open to debate.

    And of course there are those 5th/6th Century AD ivory and wood carving of Late Roman infantry in Egypt wearing scale, mail and other armour types.

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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    Great point! I'm all for the Idea that troops used plate and lamelar armor still, but chainmail was probably dominate. +rep
    Quote Originally Posted by Roma_Victrix
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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    Quote Originally Posted by SeniorBatavianHorse View Post
    I'm afraid you've opened up a can of worms here!

    On the one hand, we have the Vegetius comment where he deplores the lack of troops wearing armour within his own time - which is often cited to both illustrate a largely Roman army no longer wearing mail or scale armour, and also indicates a break down in morale or effectiveness on the battlefield. Coupled with this is a Late Roman tendency to show military individuals on tombstones, mosaics and manuscript illustrations as either wearing no armour or wearing stylized Classical armour which is seen as artistic license and not representing reality.

    On the other hand, we have the evidence of the fabricae which produced armour (why produce armour if no one was wearing it?) and also even specialised in certain types of armour, together with archeological finds which attest to mail shirts with a tendency to longer sleeves and thigh-lines for greater protection. Debate even rages about whether beneath such armour a leather subamarlia was worn to ease the weight of the mail shirt. There is debate that western Roman troops preferred chain mail while eastern troops veered more towards scale, although I have yet to read primary evidence for this.

    In the past, the war-gaming community held to the belief that leather cuirasses predominated but that fell out of favour and is now creeping back in again.

    If we take the Vegetius quotation out of the mix, all evidence points to Roman heavy infantry - the front-line troops - always wearing full heavy armour, with middle and rear-rankers perhaps being lighter armoured, although whether this was because they were skirmish troops or because of a paucity in armour is not known for sure. Guard details among high ranking officials and commanders wore elaborately coloured undress uniform - see the mosaics of Justinian (or is it a re-worked Theodoric as is now claimed?), for example. But again these may be merely artistic stylization!

    If I am free over the weekend, I will post up some period images.
    Thats an interesting point about the fabricae as the artwork depicting the various fabricae in the Notitia shows them as producing iron hauberks, iron helmets, iron breastplates and iron arm/leg tubular armour as well as spears and swords of various lengths and axes of various types.

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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    You mean those paintings? It may have been depicting a fabricae that made armor for clibanarii/cataphractarii. I think it's excellent. Remember the romans were very versatile and often used weapons that weren't standard. Also, the various lengths may be representing the imperfectness of roman weapons.
    Quote Originally Posted by Roma_Victrix
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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    Quote Originally Posted by Magistri Militum FlaviusAetius View Post
    You mean those paintings? It may have been depicting a fabricae that made armor for clibanarii/cataphractarii. I think it's excellent. Remember the romans were very versatile and often used weapons that weren't standard. Also, the various lengths may be representing the imperfectness of roman weapons.
    I would go along with what you say, but for the fact that we know from other sources that specific fabricae produced specific goods for infantry, others for cavalry etc. I'm not against the idea that a fabricae producing helmets and hauberks may also produce breast plates and arm/leg armour.

    As to your stating that the weapon lengths were down to 'the imperfectness of roman weapons', I fear that that statement is quite wrong. Roman infantry at this time were armed with both the Spiculum (a spear roughly 6 feet long) and veruta (a javelin roughly 3.5 feet long), plus possibly pila if the references in Ammianus to troops throwing 'pilis' are correct. Also cavalry spears appeared to have varied in length from 3.5 feet to approximately 8 feet for the contus.

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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    well yes, but all of those weapons looked different. BTW, didn't they also use the lancea?
    Quote Originally Posted by Roma_Victrix
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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    I'm going back to your original question.

    Quote Originally Posted by Magistri Militum FlaviusAetius View Post
    I know that armor was used, but i wanna know how often was it used? Iknow it wasn't worn except in battle or on guard duty...
    I'm a bit dubious about guard duty. When on campaign, it seems obvious that armour would be worn but not necessarily when in the base fortress in peacetime conditions. Then, I would imagine that guards would probably wear what has been called "camp dress" with additional weapons (see below).

    Quote Originally Posted by SeniorBatavianHorse View Post
    On the one hand, we have the Vegetius comment where he deplores the lack of troops wearing armour within his own time - which is often cited to both illustrate a largely Roman army no longer wearing mail or scale armour, and also indicates a break down in morale or effectiveness on the battlefield. Coupled with this is a Late Roman tendency to show military individuals on tombstones, mosaics and manuscript illustrations as either wearing no armour or wearing stylized Classical armour which is seen as artistic license and not representing reality.
    In the case of tombstones, the depiction of individuals in camp dress, i.e., in uniform but not armoured for battle, goes back to the 1st Century. Basic camp dress seems to consist of tunic, cloak (sagum or paenula) and side-arms. Often, shields and missile weapons are also shown. Possibly (I'm flying a bit of a kite here), these show the deceased as he would be if equipped for guard duty but I would not go so far as to suggest that this is what the sculptor intended. The Camomile Street Soldier is an excellent illustration of late 1st Century camp dress.

    Vegetius' comments have generated a considerable amount of discussion. I hold him in some regard and am reluctant to think that there is nothing in what he says, although I will acknowledge that he may have deliberately over-stated the case in order to make his point. I set out below an extract from an article that I wrote for the journal of a society to which I belong in which I suggest a possible explanation for his remarks.

    Perhaps the most controversial of Vegetius’ assertions is his allegation that, from the reign of Gratian onwards, Roman soldiers had abandoned helmets and body armour, finding them excessively heavy due to lack of training (Veg. 1,20,3-4). This is not reflected in Ammianus who, in a number of passages, alludes to the wearing of armour and helmets (e.g., Amm. 16,10,8; 24,6,10), the last being during the battle of Adrianople (ibid. 31,13,3). However, Vegetius’ wording is sufficiently imprecise as to allow for the abandonment to have taken place after the closing events of Ammianus’ narrative. Nevertheless, in his account of Adrianople, Ammianus states that the soldiers became distressed by the weight of their arms (armorum) (Amm. 31,13,7) and, although he uses a word of general application, armour would have formed a major component of those arms. Vegetius’ favoured word for body armour is catafracta, which is the term used by Tacitus for the encumbering armour worn by Sarmatian heavy cavalry in their defeat at the hands of legio III during their invasion of Moesia in AD 69 (Tac. Hist. 1,79). Late Roman reliefs show Roman soldiers wearing long-sleeved mail and scale shirts reaching to the knees or below which may be this type of armour. There could, therefore, be the suggestion here that, for particularly exhausting battle conditions such as at Adrianople, Roman armour had become too heavy. Having said this, to dispense with it altogether, as Vegetius alleges, seems far too drastic a step and some other explanation should be sought.

    This may be found, perhaps, in tactics employed after the disaster of Adrianople. Zosimus tells of an engagement between a Roman force led by the magister militum Modares and a large band of Goths, apparently early in the reign of Theodosius I (Zos. 4,25,2-3). Without armour and armed only with swords and shields, the Romans attacked the Goths as they lay in drunken sleep and slaughtered them. This type of commando raid was not unknown. In the weeks before Adrianople, the infantry commander Sebastianus led a night attack upon some bands of Goths and inflicted a heavy defeat upon them (Amm. 31,11,4). Perhaps significantly, Sebastianus had been transferred from the West, where such tactics had been in use for some time. In Gaul in 365-6, the magister equitum Jovinus had on two occasions led raids against bands of Allamani and attacked them before they were able to arm themselves (ibid. 27,2,1-2) while, in 359, Julian had ordered 300 light-armed troops (milites expeditos) to force the opposite bank of the Rhine by night. In order not to alert the enemy, they were to drift downstream in boats with raised oars and, possibly to avoid the accidental clashing of metal weapons, they were armed with palisade stakes (ibid. 18,2,11-12). Vegetius himself advises that no opportunity should be missed to take the enemy unawares and to attack him when he is least prepared (Veg. 3,19,1). For him, pitched battles conferred no advantage on either side and were to be avoided, if at all possible. Such tactics are known to medievalists as “Vegetian tactics”.

    In the aftermath of Adrianople, the army of the East was in no condition to engage in open warfare and it may well be that official sanction was given by Gratian for the general adoption of guerrilla tactics. Full armour could be an impediment in this type of warfare, restricting rapid movement and endangering the element of surprise, and accordingly some units at least may have been allowed to set it aside, until the strength of the army could be restored. However, troops thus equipped would be dangerously exposed in a pitched battle: hence Vegetius’ strictures. In effect, what he recommends, consciously or unconsciously, is a compromise in which the army should strive to employ Vegetian tactics but should be equipped against the eventuality of its having to engage in a full-scale battle.
    Quote Originally Posted by Magistri Militum FlaviusAetius View Post
    well yes, but all of those weapons looked different. BTW, didn't they also use the lancea?
    Yes, there are tombstones showing lancearii holding bundles of five of these weapons. See J.C. Balty & W. Van Rengen, Apamea in Syria: The Winter Quarters of Legio II Parthica, Brussels 1993, pls. 3-5.

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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    Okay, great. I have a painting of that battle in AD 69 in a book. It's Rome and her Enemies, well, at least i think that's the correct battle.
    Quote Originally Posted by Roma_Victrix
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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    That's an interesting article extract - I know that Vegetius' writing is placed after the events of Adrianople, and following on from Milner's translation, gives Theodosius as the Emperor to whom Vegetius is dedicating the work. It follows that tactics and overall strategy is geared towards a defensive Roman army using starvation and hit and run tactics against the invading Goths, Huns and Alans.

    My problem with Vegetius is that apart from his description of the Roman soldiers complaining about the weight of the armour, no other contemporary source that I am aware of highlights this tendency to discard armour in battle. If Vegetius had not mentioned it, I doubt it would even feature in the debates about late Roman military effectiveness. We know that armour continued to be worn in the east if we take Mauricius' Strategikon to be an extension of late Roman military doctrine - at worst, he argues that only the front-rankers should wear heavy armour while the middle to rear rankers stand unencumbered.

    Coupled with this is the vast intake of Germanic recruits into the ranks of the Roman army the bulk of whom fought with helmet, shield, spear, javelin and sword only because of the expense of obtaining a mail shirt. My understanding is that Gothic warriors stripped Roman troops of armour at every opportunity and so valued it.

    What has always struck me in reading Vegetius at this point has always been the sheer improbablity from a psychological point of view of what he is talking about here - men deliberately throwing away tried and tested defensive armour (particularly in a battle situation where missile weapons dominate through-out - see Ammianus's description here of the battles in Thrace). It reads as too thesis-like and stands as a point designed to back up his overall-critique of the army as it stands in his time.

    As we can never really grasp from where Vegetius derived his view regarding the armour - some have stated that it was probably Gratian's Alan guards who discarded armour for parade purposes, others have said it was Vegetius writing about limitanei and misunderstanding their role, others have said that he was referring to a practice in which the light-armed auxillia fighting doctrine was seeping into the field army - we will never really unravel what was happening here.

    I see in it a satirical comment by someone who is perhaps not truly grounded in the military - much in the manner of his scathing comments regarding late Roman valuation of Hunnic horse rearing as opposed to tried and tested Roman equestrian methods. His treatise of horse rearing makes interesting reading in relation to his work on the military!

    Here's an extract from a RAT article which highlights one interpretation:


    The fact that he was not in close contact with the field forces may also be behind Vegetius' impression that the troops
    were allowed by Gratian to stop wearing armour and helmets, a claim dismissed by Gordon as 'sheer nonsense'.[17]. A
    possible interpretation is that Vegetius is basing his views on the (hypothesised) petitioning by the guard units that they
    be allowed to stop wearing armour when on ceremonial duty in the presence of the emperor. Such a reinterpretation
    does cause a problem, since Vegetius' following comment relates that the lack of armour was the reason behind the
    losses to the Goths, with the unprotected infantry simply being mown down by Gothic archers. But on the other hand this
    also can be explained: given that Vegetius was a patriotic Roman, the lack of armour would be a sensible reason behind
    the long-running problems with the Goths, as it would in some way explain both the dramatic loss at Adrianople and the
    ensuing military problems associated with the defeat. The alternative would be to admit possible Roman inferiority.
    Consequently, it may be seen as a convenient excuse for current problems, in which case it is possible that Vegetius'
    statement that the army was allowed by Gratian to discard their armour may not be wholly accurate: it actually refers to
    only a small proportion of the Roman forces, and then only when on parade duty.

    Last edited by SeniorBatavianHorse; July 11, 2010 at 12:18 PM.

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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    Great post! +rep. Very informative...
    Quote Originally Posted by Roma_Victrix
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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    Quote Originally Posted by SeniorBatavianHorse View Post
    That's an interesting article extract - I know that Vegetius' writing is placed after the events of Adrianople, and following on from Milner's translation, gives Theodosius as the Emperor to whom Vegetius is dedicating the work. It follows that tactics and overall strategy is geared towards a defensive Roman army using starvation and hit and run tactics against the invading Goths, Huns and Alans.

    My problem with Vegetius is that apart from his description of the Roman soldiers complaining about the weight of the armour, no other contemporary source that I am aware of highlights this tendency to discard armour in battle. If Vegetius had not mentioned it, I doubt it would even feature in the debates about late Roman military effectiveness. We know that armour continued to be worn in the east if we take Mauricius' Strategikon to be an extension of late Roman military doctrine - at worst, he argues that only the front-rankers should wear heavy armour while the middle to rear rankers stand unencumbered.

    Coupled with this is the vast intake of Germanic recruits into the ranks of the Roman army the bulk of whom fought with helmet, shield, spear, javelin and sword only because of the expense of obtaining a mail shirt. My understanding is that Gothic warriors stripped Roman troops of armour at every opportunity and so valued it.

    What has always struck me in reading Vegetius at this point has always been the sheer improbablity from a psychological point of view of what he is talking about here - men deliberately throwing away tried and tested defensive armour (particularly in a battle situation where missile weapons dominate through-out - see Ammianus's description here of the battles in Thrace). It reads as too thesis-like and stands as a point designed to back up his overall-critique of the army as it stands in his time.

    As we can never really grasp from where Vegetius derived his view regarding the armour - some have stated that it was probably Gratian's Alan guards who discarded armour for parade purposes, others have said it was Vegetius writing about limitanei and misunderstanding their role, others have said that he was referring to a practice in which the light-armed auxillia fighting doctrine was seeping into the field army - we will never really unravel what was happening here.

    I see in it a satirical comment by someone who is perhaps not truly grounded in the military - much in the manner of his scathing comments regarding late Roman valuation of Hunnic horse rearing as opposed to tried and tested Roman equestrian methods. His treatise of horse rearing makes interesting reading in relation to his work on the military!

    Here's an extract from a RAT article which highlights one interpretation:


    The fact that he was not in close contact with the field forces may also be behind Vegetius' impression that the troops
    were allowed by Gratian to stop wearing armour and helmets, a claim dismissed by Gordon as 'sheer nonsense'.[17]. A
    possible interpretation is that Vegetius is basing his views on the (hypothesised) petitioning by the guard units that they
    be allowed to stop wearing armour when on ceremonial duty in the presence of the emperor. Such a reinterpretation
    does cause a problem, since Vegetius' following comment relates that the lack of armour was the reason behind the
    losses to the Goths, with the unprotected infantry simply being mown down by Gothic archers. But on the other hand this
    also can be explained: given that Vegetius was a patriotic Roman, the lack of armour would be a sensible reason behind
    the long-running problems with the Goths, as it would in some way explain both the dramatic loss at Adrianople and the
    ensuing military problems associated with the defeat. The alternative would be to admit possible Roman inferiority.
    Consequently, it may be seen as a convenient excuse for current problems, in which case it is possible that Vegetius'
    statement that the army was allowed by Gratian to discard their armour may not be wholly accurate: it actually refers to
    only a small proportion of the Roman forces, and then only when on parade duty.
    Of course, it could also be the case that the troops Vegetius was referring to were auxilia, rather than legionarii. Vegetius perceived the 'barbarisation' of the Late Roman army weakened it, and noted that there was a greater influx of recruits into the auxilia units due to the fact that duties within the auxilia were less arduous than those in the legiones. This may well have led to at least the auxilia abandoning armour.

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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    Auxilia palatina? I doubt that but definately limitanei yes.
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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    Quote Originally Posted by Magistri Militum FlaviusAetius View Post
    Auxilia palatina? I doubt that but definately limitanei yes.
    There are still some historians, including a couple of modern ones, who feel that the Auxilia may not have worn armour other than a helmet. There is a reference to this in Vegetius as well as the famous depiction of what may be the Cornuti (Auxilia Palatina in the Notitia) on the Arch of Constantine where they are in battle scenes and wear no armour but have helmets, shields and spears.
    Some historians are not against the idea that auxila units raised from say the Goth's during the latter part of the 4th Century AD may have initially at least fought in a more native style and therefore may have not worn body armour. This is partially backed up by the Column of Arcadius which shows both armoured and unarmoured captured Goth's who were under the command of the Usurper Gnaius.
    Last edited by Valentinian Victor; July 12, 2010 at 09:04 AM.

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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    It is my understanding that since the army reforms by Diocletian ,with the exception of the elite auxilia palatina, auxilia units were only differentiated from legionary units the unit names. In other words there was no real difference between the two including methods of recruiting. After all the real barbarians would join foederati units.

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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    Valentinaian lets get this straight. By auxilia do you mean foederati or the auxilia in the regular army which were the decendants of the auxilia cohorts raised in the 1st/2nd centuries AD?

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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    Quote Originally Posted by Marcus Aemilius Longinus View Post
    Valentinaian lets get this straight. By auxilia do you mean foederati or the auxilia in the regular army which were the decendants of the auxilia cohorts raised in the 1st/2nd centuries AD?
    I'm afraid that your wrong to equate the Auxilia Palatina units with the auxilia raised before hand. They were brand new units, probably initially raised by Diocletian, whose 'barbarian' unit names actually did not always reflect the composition of the unit in question. Many later units were raised from various other barbarian tribes and they may have initially have fought in their native styles before becoming totally Romanised (although some may never have been fully assimilated). Typical examples would be those raised from the reign of Theodosius The Great onwards. There are many interesting journal articles and chapters in books on the Late Roman army devoted to this topic.

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    Default Re: Usage of Armor in the late roman army

    Oh, again this talk about aux palatine. We know, they formed the battle line at Strasbourg, we know the Batavians were placed as a tactical reserve at Adrianople. You don't use some motley bunch of unarmoured peasants for these purposes. They definitely had armour, probably not all of them. But that exactly points out they were likely the same as the legions (as many on this forum explained before, about 1/3 of troop in every heavy infantry unit were unarmoured skirmishers). Perhaps, there were a totally unarmoured aux palatine units (skirmishers only) but it's not really important.

    Ammianus said clearly the troops at Adraianople were having hard time under the burden of their armour. Also, McDowall said that many Goths were actually armoured prior to Adrianople since they took Roman body armours after the battles at Marcianopolis and Ad Salices.
    Regardless of Vegetius reasons for his improbable statements, I give much more credit to the Ammianus' descriptions.


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