The contribution of warlordism to the disintegration of the western Roman army (c. AD 395-480)

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Wijnendaele, Jeroen Willy Petrus
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University College Cork
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My thesis investigates the dynamics behind the changing nature of the leadership of the western Roman army in the fifth century through the concept of ‘warlordism’. I carried this out by analyzing those cases of insubordination and military unrest in the officer class of the western Roman army, which can be shown to be linked to the slow decline of central authority and the imperial office in the period 395-480. My thesis demonstrates that theories of ‘Warlordism’, as developed in social sciences, can be useful for both the late Imperial west as for other eras of ancient history, such as the late Roman republic. Warlordism was a way of continuing politics, if necessary by military means, when commanders found themselves outside the legitimate framework. Unlike the case of usurpation of the imperial office, when there was little hope of achieving permanent recognition and acceptance, it offered insubordinate officers a chance of returning to the ruling imperial regime depending on circumstances and the success of their resistance. I propose that warlordism functioned as an alternative to usurpation, a tool for military dissidence, fuelled by an economy of violence. Contrary to modern warlordism, the warlordism of the fifth century AD represented a transient phase which no imperial commander was willing to prolong indefinitely. At some stage, given the means, warlords in the western Roman army wanted to become part of the imperial echelon again. Yet these alternative methods of violent opposition, and the acquisition of force through private means, ensured the breakdown of the state’s monopoly on violence and the disintegration of centralized armies. What started as an accidental revolution became a new form of military rule.
Warlordism , Roman army , Late Roman empire
Wijnendaele, J. W. P. 2014. The contribution of warlordism to the disintegration of the western Roman army (c. AD 395-480). PhD Thesis, University College Cork.