Some time ago, while suffering through, and thinking about, the inconsistent performances of my favourite NHL team (the Ottawa Senators) and the local one (Winnipeg Jets), two things crossed my mind: first, what constitutes "a good record"; second, do - or even could or should - the criteria for sports team excellence apply to other phenomena? The other that I had in mind was the late Roman military, often either good or bad in modern estimations, with very few verdicts falling in between. If I took the general criteria for evaluating the success of a given team over the course of a season and applied it to the late Roman military how would it stack up? With this ridiculous idea and parallel in mind, I present this comparative approach to an evaluation of the late Roman military.
The criteria that I'm going to use are quite basic: how many wins are there and how many losses. This is the easiest way to compare sports to militaries: both win and lose. To make the analogy between then (late Rome) and now (modern North American sports), I've also decided to see how the military performs in different centuries, with the aim being to present a wider picture. I should note too that I've limited this discussion to wars agains external foes, for in civil war surely everyone's a loser from the Roman perspective. Any significant military activity (and I have been rather loose with respect to what counts) has been included, whether it's what could be considered a full-scale war or some sort of military campaign. Also, it's hardly an extensive list: I've only considered those wars listed in the back of volume 2 of the Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare. So, without further ado, here's late Rome's "performance": a preliminary investigation.
208-210 Septimius Severus in Scotland WIN
213-214 Caracalla against Alamanni WIN
215-216 Caracalla invades Parthia WIN
230-233 Alexander Severus campaigns against Persians DRAW
234-235 Alexander against Alamanni and Marcomanni - buys them off - DRAW
238 Persians attack eastern frontier - LOSS
243/244 Gordian defeated by Shapur I - LOSS
249/250 Goths raid Balkans - LOSS
251 Decius dies in battle against Goths - LOSS
260 Valerian captured by Persians - LOSS
260 Franks invade Gaul - LOSS
260 Alamanni invade Gaul - LOSS
262-267 Goths invade Asia Minor/Greece - LOSS
271 Aurelian defeats Palmyra - WIN
273 Aurelian reconquers Gaul - WIN
337-350 inconclusive war with Persia - DRAW
357 Julian defeats Alamanni - WIN
359 Shapur captures Amida - LOSS
361-363 Julian invades Persia - LOSS
378 Goths defeat & kill Valens - LOSS
396 Alaric & Goths ravage Greece - LOSS
410 sack of Rome - LOSS
429-439 Vandals take Africa - LOSS
440s Attila - DRAW
455 Vandals sack Rome - LOSS
460 Majorian's expedition to get Africa fails - LOSS
468 Basilicus' expedition to get Africa fails - LOSS
480s Goths overrun northern Balkans - LOSS
502-531 Rome wars with Persia - DRAW
533 Belisarius takes Africa - WIN
540 Belisarius takes Italy - WIN
540 Khusro attacks east - LOSS
544-552 Narses defeats Gothic resistance in Italy - WIN
568 Lombards invade Italy - LOSS
572 Justin II invades Persia - WIN
578/579 Avars start invasion of Balkans - LOSS
586/587 Slavs raid Greece - LOSS
590s Romans "win" in Balkans - WIN
614 Persians take much of east - LOSS
627 Heraclius defeats Persians at Nineveh - WIN
642 Arabs capture Alexandria - LOSS
Overall Wins-Losses-Draws 12-22-5
As noted, this is a far from thorough and extensive compilation of wars and wins/losses/draws and the like, and what has constituted for me a win or loss, or draw for that matter, has come down to a vaguely arbitrary decision. Still, a few comments - the evaluation portion - are in order.
Overall, the late Roman military (henceforth lrm) has a dismal record. In most north american sports leagues, or any for that matter, a 31% winning percentage isn't likely to lead to an extension of a coach's or manager's contract. That percentage puts them in the same rank as the Buffalo Sabres of this current NHL season (at 28% at the Olympic break - even worse remarkably). If we break it down by century, things look particularly grim in the third and fifth centuries, which is perhaps what we'd expect. So too, however, does the situation seem to be in the fourth, when most consider the lrm to have been performing at a reasonable level. In fact, it's the sixth century that the lrm does best, though a 56% winning percentage is nothing to write home about. Just ask the Jets; it's not going to get you into the playoffs. The record for the sixth century may not seem so dire either, though I stopped in the middle of that century.
There's at least one other way to look at these figures, however, at least if we look at the century by century breakdown: does the lrm win its last or most important battles/wars? If that's the criteria, then the third and sixth centuries again represent winning seasons: they've finished on top. Still, the records leave much to be desired.
In the end, a poor showing, though a more detailed complete would be far more helpful. So too would some additional comparative material, like Rome during the republican era and the early imperial one. Perhaps in another post...