The Notitia Dignitatum – The British Section

Known only from an 11th century copy called the Codex Spirensis, the Notitia Dignitatum or ‘Register of Dignitaries’ was a document produced in the late fourth century which listed all of the official posts and military units of the divided later Roman empire. The notitia was effectively two separate documents, the first one dealing with the disposition of commands in the Western Empire, while the second one dealt with the situation in the East; the data appertaining to Roman Britain is to be found, therefore, in the first half of the Notitia.

The two documents were arranged in much the same format. Appearing first were listed the official titles of all civil and military posts within the Roman Imperial administration. This was followed, in the case of the military positions, with a complete breakdown of the military units assigned to each command, including the names of the forts where the units were stationed.

The two documents were compiled at two different times. The section for the Eastern Empire apparently dates from circa AD 395 and that for the Western Empire from circa AD 420. Further, each section is probably not a contemporaneous “snapshot”, but relies on data pre-dating it by as many as 20 years. The Western section contains data from as early as circa AD 400: for example, it shows units deployed in Britannia, which must date from before 410, when the Empire lost the island. In consequence, there is substantial duplication, with the same unit often listed under different commands. It is impossible to ascertain whether these were detachments of the same unit in different places simultaneously, or the same whole unit at different times. Also, it is likely that some units were merely nominal or minimally staffed.

Military Commands in Britain from the The Notitia Dignitatum

For Britain, the Notitia lists several military commands (the dux Britanniarum, the comes litoris Saxonici per Britannias and the comes Britanniarum), the governors of the five British provinces and the staff of the vicarius in London.

Dux Britanniarum

This limitaneus (frontier) command consisted of the region along Hadrian’s Wall and the coast from Cumbria, possibly even down to Wales. The problem with this section is that it is incomplete – we assume that the part concerning Wales is lost. It consisted probably of three parts, one containing the forts of the Wall (per liniam valli) and the Cumbrian coast, the other the units in Yorkshire. The third part, which may have contained the units and forts in Wales, was lost either lost, or the units discontinued at an earlier date. Either way, this extremely valuable information is no longer there. The map (below) represents several cities or forts, representing only a part of the commands including the whole island.

Dux Britanniarum, Oxford, Bodleian Library (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Starting from the top (l-r) is Sextae (York), home of the sixth legion (which is not mentioned in the Notitia). Following are several forts, located south of Hadrian’s Wall, starting with Praesidium (?), Danum (Doncaster), Morbium (?), Arbeia (South Insignia of the Comes Litoris Saxonici per Britannias, British Museum MS Misc 378 folio 153v.Shields), Dictum (?), Concangis (Chester-le-Street), Lavatris (Bowes), Verteris (Brough), Bravoniacum (Kirkby Thore), Maglona and Magis (Old Carlisle or ?), Longovicium (Lanchester) and Derventio (Malton). In fact, the command of the Duke stretched along Hadrians Wall (per liniam valli), west of the Pennines and probably into Wales.

Comes litoris Saxonici per Britannias

Comes litoris Saxonici per Britannias , Oxford, Bodleian Library (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Notitia is the only historical source for the Saxon Shore, an otherwise unknown military command. The Saxon Shore consisted of several forts built around southeast Britain in the later third and fourth centuries, which were probably started by the usurper Carausius or even earlier. The explanation for the term ‘Saxon’ is not clear. It might mean ‘the coast defended against the Saxons’, but also ‘the coast defended by the Saxons’, or ‘the coast settled by the Saxons’. Equally enigmatic is the exact role of the command. Though mostly explained as a coastal defensive system, the inclusion in the Notitia might also warrant an system for tax-collection! This is based mainly on the structure of the forts, which seem to be less useful as naval stations than warehouses for storing taxes. The map (right) represents the coastal command of the Count, showing the forts of the Saxon Shore. Starting from the top (l-r) is Othona (Bradwell), then Dubris (Dover), Lemannis (Lympne), Branodunum (Brancaster), Gariannum (Burgh), Regulbium (Reculver), Rutupiae (Richborough), Anderida (Pevensey) and Portus Adurni (Portchester).

Comes Britanniarum

Comes Britanniarum , Bodleian Library (CC BY-SA 4.0)

There had been a comes Britanniarum in the early fourth century under Constantine, but it had been discontinued long before. As related above, it was probably Stilicho who recreated this command, for we can date the eastern half of the Notitia relatively surely to 394, after which Stilicho was in command of the West from that time. Miller has dated the rather vague references to Stilicho’s work in Britain from Claudian and Gildas to 395, which would very neatly fit this solution. The map (above) shows one ‘city’ called ‘Britannia’, thereby probably showing that the command of the Comes stretched across the whole diocese.

Vicarius Britanniarum

Vicarius Britanniarum Oxford, Bodleian Library (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The civil commander of the British diocese had a body of troops to command, but no regular units. The map (above) represents the command of the Vicar, showing the provinces of Britain. Starting from the top (left to right) is Maxima Caesariensis, Valentia, Britannia Prima, Britannia Secunda and Flavia Caesariensis.

Notes on Army units from Notitia Dignitatum

The problem with this section of the Notitia is that, apart from being incomplete (we assume that the part concerning Wales is lost), it also seems extremely outdated, for most of the units listed for the wall forts are seemingly anachronistic third century cohortes and alae. In the light of the disaster in 367 and the following desertions, most historians think it very unlikely that all units returned unchanged; instead the consensus is that the list was not updated after the fourth century and kept only for administrative purposes. But is this view correct?

Chapter 1: Register of the Dignitaries Both Civil and Military In the Districts of the West

Six vicars: of the city of Rome; of Italy; of Africa; of the Spains; of the Seven Provinces; of the Britains.

Six military counts: of Italy; of Africa; of Tingitania; of the tractus Argentoratensis; of the Britains; of the Saxon shore of Britain.

Thirteen dukes: of the frontier of Mauritania Caesariensis; of the Tripolitan frontier; of Pannonia prima and ripuarian Noricum; of Pannonia secunda; of ripuarian Valeria; of Raetia prima and secunda; of Sequanica; of the Armorican and Nervican tract; of Belgica secunda; of Germania prima; of Britannia; of Mogontiacensis.

Twenty-two consulars:in the Britains two: of Maxima Caesariensis, of Valentia. …

Thirty-one presidents: … in the Britains three: of Britannia prima; of Britannia secunda; of Flavia Caesariensis.

Chapter 3: The Praetorian Prefect of the Gauls

Under the control of the illustrious pretorian prefect of the Gauls are the dioceses mentioned below: The Spains; the Seven Provinces; the Britains.

Provinces: … of the Britains five: Maxima Caesariensis; Valentia; Britannia prima; Britannia secunda; Flauia Caesariensis…

Chapter 5: The Master of Foot in the Presence

Under the control of the illustrious master of foot in the presence:

The counts of the frontiers mentioned below: Italy; Africa; Tingitania; Tractus Argentoratensis; the Britains; the Saxon shore toward the Britains.

The ten dukes of the frontiers mentioned below: Mauretania Caesariensis; Tripolitanus; Pannonia secunda; ripuarian Valeria; Pannonia prima and ripuarian Noricum; Raetia prima and secunda; Belgica, secunda; Germania prima; the Britains; Mogontiacensis.

Chapter 7: Distribution of the Forces Above Named Among the Various Provinces

… In the Britains with the worshipful count of the Britains: One palatine auxilium, One legion of the line, One unclassified body.

Also squadrons of cavalry: … In Britain with the worshipful count of the Britains. Three of the line, Two unclassified. …

Chapter 11: The Count of the Sacred Bounties

Under the control of the illustrious count of the sacred bounties: … The accountant of the general tax of the Britains.

Provosts of the storehouses: … In the Britains: The provost of the storehouses at London

Procurators of the weaving-houses: … The procurator of the weaving-house at Winchester in Britain…

Chapter 23: Vicarius Britanniarum

[The Vicar of the Britains]

Under the control of the worshipful vicar of the Britains:

  • Consulars;
    • of Maxima Caesariensis,
    • of Valentia.
  • Presidents;
    • of Britannia prima,
    • of Britannia secunda,
    • of Flavia Caesariensis.

The staff of the same worshipful vicar is as follows: a chief of staff from the school of confidential agents the first class, a chief deputy, two receivers of taxes, a chief clerk, a custodian, a chief assistant, a keeper of the records, assistants, secretaries, notaries, a curator of correspondence and the rest of the staff…

Chapter 28: Comes litoris Saxonici per Britanniam

[The Count of the Saxon Shore in Britain]

  • Othona [Bradwell],
  • Dubris [Dover],
  • Lemannis [Lympne],
  • Branoduno [Brancaster],
  • Garriano [Burgh Castle],
  • Regulbi [Reculver],
  • Rutupis [Richborough],
  • Anderidos [Pevensey],
  • Portum Adurni [Portchester].

Sub dispositione uiri spectabilis comitis litoris Saxonici per Britanniam
[At the disposal of the Right Honourable Count of the Saxon shore in Britain]

  • Praepositus numeri Fortensium, Othonae [= Othona = Bradwell, Essex]
  • Praepositus militum Tungrecanorum, Dubris [= Portvs Dvbris = Dover, Kent]
  • Praepositus numeri Turnacensium, Lemannis [= Portvs Lemanis = Lympne, Kent]
    Praepositus equitum Dalmatarum Branodunensium, Branoduno [= Branodvnvm = Brancaster, Norfolk]
  • Praepositus equitum stablesianorum Gariannonensium, Gariannonor [= Gariannvm = Burgh Castle, Norfolk]
  • Tribunus cohortis primae Baetasiorum, Regulbio [= Regvlbivm = Reculver, Kent]
  • Praefectus legionis secundae Augustae, Rutupis [= Rvtvpiae = Richborough, Kent]
  • Praepositus numeri Abulcorum, Anderidos [= Anderitvm = Pevensey, East Sussex]
  • Praepositus numeri exploratorum, Portum Adurni [= Portvs Ardaoni = Portchester, Hampshire]

Chapter 40: Dux Britanniarum

[The Duke of the Britains]

  • Sextae
  • Praesidium
    [nr. Bridlington?],
  • Dano
  • Morbio
  • Arbeia
    [South Shields],
  • Dictim
  • Concangios
  • Lauatres
  • Uerteris
    [Brough Castle],
  • Braboniaco
    [Kirkby Thore],
  • Magloue
    [Old Carlisle],
  • Magis
    [Burrow Walls],
  • Longouicio
  • Derventione

Sub dispositione uiri spectabilis ducis Britanniarum:

[At the disposal of the Right Honourable Duke of the Britains]

  • Praefectus legionis sextae
    [= Ebvracvm= York, North Yorkshire]
  • Praefectus equitum Dalmatarum, Praesidio
    [?= Praesidivm = nr. Bridlington, Humberside?]
  • Praefectus equitum Crispianorum, Dano
    [= Danvm = Doncaster, South Yorkshire]
  • Praefectus equitum catafractariorum, Morbio
    [?= Verbeia = Ilkley, West Yorkshire?]
  • Praefectus numeri barcariorum Tigrisiensium, Arbeia
    [= Arbeia = South Shields, Tyne & Wear]
  • Praefectus numeri Nerviorum Dictensium, Dicti
    [?= Dictivm = nr. Whitby, North Yorkshire?]
  • Praefectus numeri uigilum, Concangios
    [= Concangis = Chester-le-Street, Durham]
  • Praefectus numeri exploratorum, Lauatres
    [= Lavatris = Bowes, Durham]
  • Praefectus numeri directorum, Uerteris
    [= Verteris = Brough Castle, Cumbria]
  • Praefectus numeri defensorum, Braboniaco
    [= Bravoniacvm = Kirkby Thore, Cumbria]
  • Praefectus numeri Solensium, Maglone
    [= Maglona = Old Carlisle, Cumbria]
  • Praefectus numeri Pacensium, Magis
    [?= Magis = Burrow Walls, Cumbria?]
  • Praefectus numeri Longovicanorum, Longouico
    [= Longovicivm = Lanchester, Durham]
  • Praefectus numeri superuenientium Petueriensium, Deruentione
    [= Derventio = Malton, North Yorkshire]

Item per lineam Valli

[The route along the line of the Wall]

What was the Purpose of the The Notitia Dignitatum?

Why does the Notitia Dignitatum supplies 46 names of forts (plus 5 provinces, 2 finance offices, and one unlocated army unit)? It may have been effectively a Strength Return for the Roman army for a final attempt to restore Imperial authority over Britain in AD 416-417.

The Reoccupation of Britain?

Phase one: Romans would re-establish links with important Channel ports, Othona (Bradwell), Dubris (Dover), and Lemannis (Lympne), putting London back in regular communication with the Continent and Rome.

Phase two: They would extended Imperial control to six more ports: Branoduno (Brancaster), Gariannonor (Burgh Castle and/or Caister), Regulbio (Reculver), Rutupis (Richborough), Anderidos (Pevensey), Portum
Adurni (Portchester).

Phase three: Restore links with York and its surroundings, the base of the Duke of the Britains and Praefectus legionis sextae. Dano (Doncaster)

Also with three sites just to the south of York, where two of the locations suggested by
Rivet and Smith need to be overruled: Praesidio (Newton Kyme), , and Morbio
Phase four re-established control over key sites across northern England, in a zone that had
probably suffered from attacks by Picts and Scots. The first name, Arbeia, most likely belongs at
Piercebridge, where the main Roman road north crossed the river Tees – a location that outranks
South Shields (a weak guess by Rivet and Smith on the basis of faulty logic). Next is Dicti,
probably near Sunderland at the mouth of the river Wear. Concangios was almost certainly at
Chester-le-Street, upstream on the Wear, by its tidal limit. Then Lavatres (Bowes Castle), Verteris
(Brough Castle), and Braboniaco,(Kirkby Thore) have reasonably certain locations, extending
Roman control to the west of the Pennines.

Phase five took control of forts on the estuaries of Cumbria, where Maglone was perhaps near
Wigton (Old Carlisle Farm), inland from Moricambe Bay. Then Magis was near Workington
(Burrow Walls) at the mouth of the Derwent. Then Longovicio has no certain location, but our best
guess is that a Roman site has been lost near the mouth of the river Ehen, north of Sellafield.
Derventione was the fort at Papcastle, on the Derwent. Rivet and Smith made bad guesses for these
last two locations, which helped to throw other authors off track for the whole Notitia Dignitatum.
Phase six is a list of names per lineam valli running from east to west along Hadrian’s Wall, mostly
agreeing with other sources. The first name, Segeduno, is routinely claimed to belong at Wallsend,
and to have given rise to the name Serduno in the Cosmography, but it would actually belong better
at South Shields. Then, along the Wall, Ponte Aeli (Newcastle), Conderco (Benwell), Vindobala
(Rudchester), Hunno (Halton Chesters), Cilurno (Chesters), Procolitia (Carrawburgh), Borcovicio
(Housesteads), Vindolana (Housesteads), Aesica (Great Chesters), Magnis (Carvoran), Amboglanna
(Castlesteads), Petrianis (Stanwix), Aballaba (Burgh-by-Sands), Congavata (Drumburgh), and
Axeloduno (Bowness-on-Solway).
Ward envisaged many Roman garrisons, notably on Hadrian’s Wall as gently festering in isolation
during the Fall of the Western Roman Empire. Bands of barbarian robbers coming into Roman
Britain would probably not have had the strength or the motivation to attack any proper Roman
fort. Equally the garrisons might not have the numbers to pro-actively seek out the robbers. So the
relief force would probably have concentrated on organisation – putting isolated garrisons back in
communication with each other again and understanding where the barbarians went.
Phase seven heads seems to have turned to parts of Cumbria that would have been particularly
exposed to attacks by Irish raiders (Scotti). Gabrosenti was almost certainly the coastal fort at
Moresby, near Whitehaven; and Tunnocelo has been confidently identified with Ravenglass. Then
inland, to Glannibanta (very probably Ambleside), Alione (probably Low Borrowbridge),
Bremetenraco (definitely Ribchester), Olenaco (possibly Elslack), and Virosido (possibly