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Notitia Dignitatum
( ca AD 395-430)
Robert Vermaat

For a discussion and a list of the Notitia Dignitatum for Britain, click here.

The Notitia Dignitatum is an enigmatic document that is not only the earliest written evidence for fifth-century Britain, but also the only documented evidence of the term Litoris Saxonici (‘Saxon Shore’). Though we speak mostly of the Notitia Dignitatum, the real title of this manuscript is Notitia omnium Each shield represents a regiment of the mobile field armyDignitatum et administrationum tam civilium quam militarum, an official list of civil and military offices in the western empire, which was of service to the primicerius notariorum occidentis (imperial records office of the West), which kept records of all imperial administrative affairs. In fact this document consists of a Notitia Dignitatum Occidentis (‘Register of Offices in the West’), as there is an eastern half as well, the Notitia Dignitatum Orientis.

The earliest copy of this document known to us dates from the 11th century, a manuscript known as the Codex Spirensis, now lost. This (incomplete) survey by the administrative bureaucracy included details of finances, mints, industries and military commands throughout the empire. Other forms of this document may have existed before or after this one, but this copy seems to have been made for a specific purpose (below), ending up in Ravenna, where it was used by the Carolingians after 800 as a blueprint for the governing of a ‘Roman’ empire.

The Codex Spirensis was copied as well, and it is one of these later copies that form the basis of our knowledge of the Late Roman Army. Because of this, we cannot be sure of the correctness of the text, but even less of the drawings, which symbolize the commands of the civil and military functionaries. The medieval scribes may have failed to understand the symbolisms, and the evidence of e.g. the colour of the shields at face value may be misleading. As we can see from the images reprensenting several commands (below), this is clear enough - the scroll in the top left corner has been turned into a book, and the cities do not exactly represent Late Roman architecture. All images and maps are from the MS Canon Misc. 378.

Origin and Date

We can’t say with complete certainty when exactly this list was drawn up or altered, with the obsolete items sometimes retained and sometimes not. There probably never was a time when the Notitia was completely up to date in all sections. Suggestions vary from around 390 to 425, though the truth may lie somewhere in-between. Most scholars though connect the Notitia with Stilicho. The clue to this connection stems from the form in which the Notitia still exists. The clue is that the Notitia is not one single document, nor two separate ones, but consists of two separate halves under a unified government. Therefore, the document must have been drawn up for the specific purposes of one ruler who had in mind to govern both halves separately.

This description would fit Stilicho very well, who after the death of Arcadius in 408 had planned to extend his influence over the young Theodosius II. But if we look at the information for the eastern part, none of that would have to date later than 395, which would make it rather outdated for a document (even a version) freshly drawn up in 408. J.C. Mann proposed that the time that would fit this problem best is the usurpation of Eugenius in 394, after which a specific version of the Notitia had to be drawn up [Mann’s document A]. The clue seems to be that the Notitia contains a Prefecture of Illyricum that is subject to the Eastern emperor in Constantinople. This becomes logical if one takes into account that the usurper Eugenius was in control of Gaul and Italy, which means that the former diocese of Italy, Illyricum and Insignia of the Magister Peditum praesentalisAfrica had been split up, with only Italy under the control of Eugenius.

Illyricum, now the base for the reconquest of the west by the eastern armies of Theodosius I, received its first magister militium per Illyricum, a further clue to the specific use for which this version was drawn up. Furthermore, the lists of the eastern forces a still very neat and precise (although some ‘clutter’ occurs which signifies that is was drawn up in haste), which suggests that they date from before the very fierce and bloody battle of the Frigidus in 394, and that the Notitia came to Milan with the victorious Theodosius later that year. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that the lists show that only the magister per Orientem was left behind by Theodosius, and that the staffs for the other had to be improvised when the armies returned to the East in 395. No eastern regiments can be shown to have been raised after that year

After Theodosius died in January 395, the primicerius notariorum, holder of the list, suddenly fell under Stilicho, who took command in the West on behalf of the very young Honorius. At this point, a second volume [Mann’s document B ] needed to be drawn up, replacing the split of Italy and Illyricum with a reunified command and being amended as was necessary later on. [A] was subsequently stored in Milan or Ravenna, as it was a document that was drawn up solely for the reconquest, and was outdated after that and never changed until 408. Possible eastern versions that may have existed (of course the governments of Arcadius and Theodosius II had their own Notitia) before or after that time in Constantinople have not survived. As it was Stilicho and his staff who took control of the functions listed in the Notitia, such as the primicerius, the leading officials (princeps, comites and duces), it was probably Stilicho who created in 395 the post of the Comes Britanniarum, the Count of the Britains. The [B] was updated around 400, as the lists reflect the strengthening of the western commands before the great invasions (Alaric, Radagais) in 401 and after.

In 408, when Stilicho turned his attentions eastwards, [A] was changed again, with only the military command surviving in full, whereas the rest was immensely summarized. But Stilicho died that year, which might account for the fact that it was not updated at all. However, [B] was certainly updated after 408, or at least chapter 7 (Occ. VII). Since the post of the comes Hispaniae, which is known only after 420, was neatly added in-between earlier commands, it stands to reason that the latest emendations were made between 420 and 428, when the office of magister equitum per Gallias was revived.

We should keep in mind that by far not all chapters of the Notitia date from the same year. As we have seen, chapter 7 was updated last, while chapters 5 and 6 have not kept the pace. The Index and chapter 42 may date back to 408, the latter maybe because it contains no cavalry units, the elite of the Late Roman army. Others, such as the commands of Britain and Spain are likely to predate Constantine III, as the units listed are unlikely to have survived the upheavals of the first decade of the fifth century.

After 428, the Notitia probably gathered dust in a ‘pigeon-hole’ in the office of the magister pededitum praesentalis, a post that grew in political significance under Theodoric in the sixth century, until the Carolingians took the city. They resurrected the Roman empire under Charlemagne, who needed the Notitia as a document as a blueprint for a specifically Roman empire, which might account for its survival in the German Codex Spirensis.

For a discussion and a list of the Notitia Dignitatum for Britain, click here.


It is still a matter of debate when exactly the Notitia Dignitatum document was drawn up in the first place, how long it was updated for and at what time, especially in relation to Britain, the details ceased to be up-to-date. The anachronistic look of the units on the Wall has raised the suspicion by many researchers that at least the military details were derelict after 367 (the opinion that the Wall was deserted because of the data in the Notitia have been refuted by archaeology), or at least not updated. This author, following Hoffmann, thinks otherwise.

It seems even more unlikely that the Roman administration in Britain survived the British revolt against the usurper Constantine III of about 410, as probably indicated by the account of Zosimus. Even when we hold on to the interpretation that the British did not expel all Roman officials, we should envision that at least those from the continent and those holding to Constantine III did in fact leave, thereby at least severely crippling the administrative organisation. We can’t be sure how (if at all) effected the military organisation, but it seems relatively sure nowadays that the military did not leave wholesale, as claimed by some classical and early medieval authors. Though several commanders could have been left behind by Constantine III, we have no means of finding out which commands as mentioned in the Notitia retained even a shadow of their organisation. This is hampered even more by the loss of the western sections, which makes it hard to even check which forts were held in the late fourth century. For the remainder, the Notitia remains a most helpful document in helping the archaeologists determine which forts were manned up to 400 and after and which subsequently may have survived as private strongholds or civilian settlements.

Internet Medieval SourcebookFor an abbreviated (English) text see: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/notitiadignitatum.html


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