Whenever I read about the collapse of the western half of the Roman empire, I get a feeling of total collapse, as if no legions existed there anymore. The collapse of the empire would also mean no payment for the legionaries. I am surprised I read nothing about the legions existing at the time, as if none existed or that they simply vanished, without a bribe or promise of further employment. And what Roman legionary would fight for a barbarian king? Where were the legions in 476 AD?

EDIT: Here's a YouTube video with some relevant info.

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    Not a complete answer, but the empire had been decline for decades (arguably the last century) due to abuse, civil wars, and more. There was negligible military strength left at the time of the collapse.
    – Luke_0
    Apr 12, 2014 at 18:06
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    I understand that, but I've never read an explicit statement about it anywhere. The legions disappeared! When did it happen? What battle wiped them out? What treachery? Apr 12, 2014 at 18:22
  • You might want to check out en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decline_of_rome. Lots of good stuff there. It's a rather broad topic
    – Luke_0
    Apr 12, 2014 at 18:25
  • Wouldn't the simple statement "all the legions were gone" be a better explanation for the downfall, than all the different theories there, if the legions were indeed gone. Apr 12, 2014 at 22:30
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    No, because then you'd have to ask "but why were they gone" and it's downfall/decline theories all over again.... Apr 13, 2014 at 10:50

4 Answers 4


The legions just became the armies of local warlords, they had been made up of local forces more loyal to their local leaders rather than Rome for a long time (centuries).
So in a sense they stopped to exist, in another sense they continued to exist, just under theoretically different high command.
But remember that the empire had for centuries been highly fractured, with each outlying region being more or less independent and minding its own affairs. Pretty similar in a way to how the EU was run in the 1970s and '80s, with some central command mostly on foreign policy level and a bit of economic coordination but otherwise independent fiefdoms.
And that situation persisted in Europe for centuries more, until finally the big players of the late middle ages consolidated several of the stronger of these fiefdoms each under a single ruler (France, England, the Holy Roman Empire).
The last vestiges of the Roman Empire itself moreover survived for quite a while after the fall of Rome as the Byzantine Empire, formerly the eastern Roman Empire, formerly the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. And there were very real legions there for centuries to come (though in time they probably were no longer called that as the language lost ever more of the influence of Latin on it).

  • Why are there western magistri militum listed here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magister_militum , were they without armies? Apr 12, 2014 at 20:39
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    @user1095108 they probably had armies on paper, but how much could those be relied upon to follow orders from Rome? Hard to tell. Probably they'd follow orders as long as those were not contrary to the will of their local commanders. During the late Roman Empire in the west more than one legion attempted to set up its leader as Emperor, only to usually see itself destroyed a few months to years later by the next legion in line.
    – jwenting
    Apr 12, 2014 at 20:42
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    I upvoted but I'd consider removing the comparisons to the EU - they are very misleading for a novice reader. Apr 13, 2014 at 10:58
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    Actually, there is a big thing missing from the answer - you present well the situation with the limitanei, the "border troops" which were about worthless in the long run, but there is no mention of the comitatus, the mobile field armies kept by the emperors close to their person (and under strict control). They were the main muscle of the late Late Empire and arguably it was their disintegration in the West that led to the downfall of the empire. Apr 13, 2014 at 16:24
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    Increasingly even the comitatus had to be raised from scratch when gearing up for a major operation. That's one of the reasons the various reunificaton movements or assaults on Vandal Africa didn't work...they took too long to get moving and the Vandals counterattacked.
    – Oldcat
    Apr 15, 2014 at 22:07

Rather than speculate from ignorance, I looked up one interesting chapter title on the relevant period from Gibbons: History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to wit: Chapter XXXI: Invasion Of Italy, Occupation Of Territories By Barbarians.—Part I., and found this [my emphasis]:

The incapacity of a weak and distracted government may often assume the appearance, and produce the effects, of a treasonable correspondence with the public enemy. If Alaric himself had been introduced into the council of Ravenna, he would probably have advised the same measures which were actually pursued by the ministers of Honorius. 1 The king of the Goths would have conspired, perhaps with some reluctance, to destroy the formidable adversary, by whose arms, in Italy, as well as in Greece, he had been twice overthrown. Their active and interested hatred laboriously accomplished the disgrace and ruin of the great Stilicho. The valor of Sarus, his fame in arms, and his personal, or hereditary, influence over the confederate Barbarians, could recommend him only to the friends of their country, who despised, or detested, the worthless characters of Turpilio, Varanes, and Vigilantius. By the pressing instances of the new favorites, these generals, unworthy as they had shown themselves of the names of soldiers, 2 were promoted to the command of the cavalry, of the infantry, and of the domestic troops. The Gothic prince would have subscribed with pleasure the edict which the fanaticism of Olympius dictated to the simple and devout emperor. Honorius excluded all persons, who were adverse to the Catholic church, from holding any office in the state; obstinately rejected the service of all those who dissented from his religion; and rashly disqualified many of his bravest and most skilful officers, who adhered to the Pagan worship, or who had imbibed the opinions of Arianism. 3 These measures, so advantageous to an enemy, Alaric would have approved, and might perhaps have suggested; but it may seem doubtful, whether the Barbarian would have promoted his interest at the expense of the inhuman and absurd cruelty which was perpetrated by the direction, or at least with the connivance of the Imperial ministers. The foreign auxiliaries, who had been attached to the person of Stilicho, lamented his death; but the desire of revenge was checked by a natural apprehension for the safety of their wives and children; who were detained as hostages in the strong cities of Italy, where they had likewise deposited their most valuable effects. At the same hour, and as if by a common signal, the cities of Italy were polluted by the same horrid scenes of universal massacre and pillage, which involved, in promiscuous destruction, the families and fortunes of the Barbarians. Exasperated by such an injury, which might have awakened the tamest and most servile spirit, they cast a look of indignation and hope towards the camp of Alaric, and unanimously swore to pursue, with just and implacable war, the perfidious nation who had so basely violated the laws of hospitality. By the imprudent conduct of the ministers of Honorius, the republic lost the assistance, and deserved the enmity, of thirty thousand of her bravest soldiers; and the weight of that formidable army, which alone might have determined the event of the war, was transferred from the scale of the Romans into that of the Goths.

In summary, Rome in the guise of the ministers of its Emperor, Honorius, determined that it had no need of 30 thousand experienced veteran loyal troops because only Christian were suitable to defend the Empire; and divested itself of the services of those loyalists. So there were Legions a plenty, loyal and veteran, but they were at least in this instance told to go stuff themselves.

Only volunteer militias are loyal to home and country; professional standing armies are only loyal to their commander and their paymaster, and all of Rome's legions had been professional standing armies since Marius' reforms. This is a key reason for the US Military's standing order that POW's are forbidden to give parole to a captor - by forbidding parole (and continuing to pay them while POW) the military continues to be their paymaster, and thus continues to command their loyalty.

As noted in the quote above, because they were manned by pagans Honorius's ministers reneged on the contract to pay the Legions, thus effectively bequeathing them on Alaric, who was willing to pay them without any qualms about their beliefs. The Legions were always there, willing and perhaps even keen to remain loyal, but were rightly miffed at such repudiation. For a comparable more modern example, consider the causes of the Sepoy Mutiny in India in 1857:

The Mutiny was a result of various grievances. However the flashpoint was reached when the soldiers were asked to bite off the paper cartridges for their rifles which were greased with animal fat, namely beef and pork. This was, and is, against the religious beliefs of Hindus and Muslims, respectively.

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    @user1095108 Technically, Rome never ceased to be a republic. This fiction was assiduously maintained by Augustus and some of his successors. Eventually, it wore very thin but even in the Late Empire (aka the Dominate) some residual republican forms persisted. Apr 13, 2014 at 10:56
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    I am not sure this really answers the question. One episode of mismanagement, however stupid, could not by itself sap the military strength of Rome. Apr 13, 2014 at 10:59
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    @FelixGoldberg: Look at the timeline for this particular quote, and who the legions were disposed of to. This is Alaric, King of the Goths, who will shortly sack Rome (in 410 AD). In her hour of greatest need since Hannibal, Rome simply bequeathed her existing veteran legions to her foe. Rome had not raised legions from her own citizenry in over 200 years - doing that on short notice, effectively, was not something quickly and easily learned. Apr 13, 2014 at 11:37
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    @FelixGoldberg: Rome had not raised legions predominantly from its residents since Marius, almost 500 years previous. That is why Marius's grant of citizenship to pensioned Italian allies was so controversial. Apr 13, 2014 at 13:23
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    The episode discussed here is the pogrom against the Goths in 408 during the purge of Stilicho. This was more a 'race riot' than (probably) a policy of Honorius. The Eastern Empire did a similar purge of Goths in the army at about the same time, but had the walls of Constantinople to hide behind. Whatever the cause, the Roman army that was stuffed with Goths taken in when Radagasius' invasion was defeated broke up and more or less defected to Alaric. So now Rome had no general, and no army. The Sack of Rome in 410 was the result.
    – Oldcat
    Apr 15, 2014 at 22:14

By 476 CE there were no Western legions to speak of. When Theodosius I had died in 395 both parts of the Empire were still going strong and had big armies. However, the first decade of the 5th century set in train events which led to a vicious circle for the West:

barbarian incursions -> inept handling of them -> devastation of the Empire's tax base lands and barbarian settlement within them -> inability to pay for the armies -> more barbarian incursions...

For a while the West got along and staved utter disintegration by skilfully playing the barbarians against each other (Aetius was a past master at this game but there were others as well).

Then the barbarians toyed with the imperial throne and crown for a while (case in point: Ricimer) and in the end (476) just dispensed with the onerous formality of maintaining a superfluous Western emperor who controlled nothing.

Wikipedia has a big and serious article on the Late Roman Army where one can learn (almost) all one ever wanted to know about its ranks, pay scales, helmet types, etc. Unfortunately, this article stops short of explaining the collapse of the Western army, merely alluding to it briefly as in this passage:

An analysis of the ethnicity of Roman army officers named in the sources shows that in the period 350–99, 23% were probably barbarian-born. The same figure for period 449–76 officers, virtually all Easterners (as the Western army had largely dissolved) was 31%.

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    As you note, the article does not go in depth, as regards my question. No other source I've read does either. The percentages... Where have they come from? Perhaps those sources could explain more. Apr 13, 2014 at 19:32
  • @user1095108 The percentages are easy - take a list of names and analyze how many of them are Barbarian (like Stilicho or Gainas) versus Roman (like Aetius or Bonifacius). Apr 13, 2014 at 22:21
  • Even in 395, a major fraction of the large army of the East was Alaric's Goths, an unassimilated nation. And it was not the only such group in either army. Increasingly the "Roman" part of the army were Germanic, and then large foreign mercenary groups leavened the loaf. As taxes fell away, the "Romans" went home, or joined the foreign armies which by 420 or so became virtually the entire force.
    – Oldcat
    Apr 15, 2014 at 22:04
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    The Senate liked to posture and give speeches about how Rome should field armies like they used to, but when confronted with the cost of raising, equipping, and training a legion, would decide instead to give some land and the title "general" to some German chief. The result was almost no "Romans" under arms in the west. Oct 31, 2018 at 4:46

many legions went east to the Eastern roman empire and a good number became mercenaries I found records of a legion forming a mercenary band called Legio I ultimum as far as I know they went to the kingdom of the vandals in 444 after which they disappear from the records.

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    Bold statements. You need to back that up with evidence.
    – Jos
    Mar 23, 2021 at 3:37

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