Late Roman Army

Temple of Mithras were often deliberately targeted by Christians.

Soldiers offering prayers.

A Christian under arrest for refusing to serve.

Life in the army!

Life In The Legion

Religion and Belief Christianity had been making considerable headway since the late third century. The Battle of the Frigidus, also called the Battle of the Frigid River, was the last attempt to contest the Christianisation of the empire. It was fought between September 5–6 394, between the army of the Eastern Emperor Theodosius I and the army of the Western Emperor Eugenius. The importance of the defeat of the pagan Eugenius and his commander, the Frankish magister militum Arbogasts, would have been understood even in Britain, and the loss of so many Roman soldiers was a very serious loss, even cataclysmic for the Western army.

A pede in the Praesidiensis would have been subject to laws ensuring the primacy of the church for most of their adult life. At various times these laws would have been proscriptive, prohibiting the worship of household gods and confiscating property in pagan shrines. There is some evidence that pagan temples and even a mausoleum were destroyed in York, presumably by Christians in the fourth century.

Despite this extremism, it is possible to suggest that the enforcement of such laws were inefficient and still allowed the expression of pagan beliefs, if not their practice. Pagan beliefs were perhaps still held by a small minority, who could not afford to attract attention to themselves. The worship of local gods, given in part the attributes of some of the twelve Olympians, may have continued.

Therefore all decoration and outward display on military equipment would be Christian, but the pede himself may have retained some pagan belief. Interestingly some of the shield designs themselves, if accurate, could look back to a pagan past.

Around AD 400 some German tribesman still may have believed in Arianism, stressing the humanity of Jesus at the expense of his divinity. But this sect had been proscribed in AD 381 and AD 388 and for Romans had come to an end. However puritan Donatists were strong and active, but in North Africa. More common in Britain was the Pelagian heresy. His philosophy can be summed up as stressing self-help, with heaven helping those who help themselves. A man’s free will could make him a better person, help the state, and help him achieve goodness.

Mainstream Christianity had its best advocate in Saint Augustine. Augustine accused Pelagius of teaching that man could achieve goodness without the help of God at all. Augustine had humility and eloquence on his side. His view that Grace was man’s only hope undermined human effort. The Roman State was floored, and only a poor imitation of the kingdom of heaven. While soldiers have a duty to stay at their posts, and that wars can be just and necessary, victories bring death with them and the victors themselves are doomed to death.

Man’s salvation lies with God alone, and not in this world. Such a doctrine meant that there are examples of Christians refusing to fight or trying to withdraw from the army. It was not what the Empire needed at this time! How much of this affected the pedes of the Praesidiensis is impossible to gauge.

Ammianus Marcellinus, a serving officer of the fourth century, describes the barbarian as inhuman, vicious, and discouraged by the slightest setback, disorganised, incapable of following any coherent plan, and unable to foresee a train of events. In this light we should see the men of the Praesidiensis as real professionals, positive and well organised, with very definite aims and objectives. If they suffered a reverse, they would work hard to put matters right. As a papyri of AD 233 from Dura Europos states, “We will do what is ordered and at every command we will be ready.”