Thursday, August 02, 2012

A British Army for the Roman Empire?

The announcement in recent weeks of the British Army 2020 reforms has raised a lot of arm-chair generals analysis of the historical context that will see the regular army reduced to 84,000 personnel.

"Smallest army since the Boer War" has proved one particularly incendiary phrase.

Whilst the reforms are inevitably connected with the wider austerity cuts to public services, they also comprise a fascinating re-structuring of the army into two distinct forces; a rapid-reaction fighting force and a larger stabilisation force. A fighting element and a nation-building element that can work symbiotically to defend vulnerable states from the threat of extremist insurgency.

It is here that I would like to throw my "historical geek analysis" hat into the proverbial ring. The proposed restructuring of the British Army does not make it comparable to its Boer War predecessor but more to the reformed Late Roman Army under Constantine I in the early 4th century AD that ended the legionary system and divided the army into mobile field armies, comitatenses, and stabilisation forces, limitanei, that maintained security amongst diverse ethnic populations situated near the exotic borders of the Roman Empire.

The reforms of the Roman Army under Constantine were in response to the changing threats that faced the Roman Empire. Similar to Western militaries of the modern era, the Roman Army could dominate other militaries on the battlefield but was susceptible to asymmetric raids and insurgencies that sapped the economic and political will of the Roman state to garrison rebellious occupied territories.

The mobile comitatenses were used for expeditionary warfare that would overcome opposing armies, whilst the limitanei pacified occupied territories with a larger but cheaper force that included recruits from local cultures and promoted empire building by bolstering trade, urban development and law.

Despite the merits of the reforms to the Roman Army in temporarily stabilising the Empire from near-collapse, there has been much debate among scholars as to whether the quality of its soldiery in morale, equipment and training suffered as a result of a split into a dual-structured army. It undeniably failed to prevent the eventual end of the Western Roman Empire and Rome was sacked by invading hordes just a century later.