The Notitia Dignitatum: an extraordinary document

The Notitia Dignitatum is an extraordinary document that survives in a number of manuscript copies from the Middle Ages. This document lists the offices and social ranking of the civil and military branches of the Roman imperial government in the Eastern and Western Empires. There is considerable debate as to when it was actually composed, and many scholars believe it dates to c. AD 425, which is actually after the end of Roman Britain.

We do not understand the purpose of the Notitia. Was it an index or directory, like a phonebook, for a functionary in the imperial court? Was it part of normal record-keeping, or did it serve some other purpose? The Notitia is a complex document and, without understanding its purpose, it can be difficult to assess the evidence it contains.

Regardless of these uncertainties, many scholars have used the Notitia to reconstruct and understand the organization and distribution of the late Roman army. This table reproduces Chapter 40 of the Notitia for the Western Empire, which is the command of the dux Britanniarum. The table allows you to see the line of the Notitia that notes the commander of a unit (named) with its base also named. There are some errors, noted by previous scholars, and these have been indicated with ‘lacuna’. Where the placename can be associated with a known Roman fort, this is listed. Where the place is uncertain, possible locations are also noted.

Chapter 40, the dux Britanniarum

The table below is drawn from the Notitia Dignitatum Occidentis with certain and possible identification of unit locations.

When the locations of these units are known, we can map the units to achieve a better understanding of the distribution of the army of the dux Britanniarum.

Shows the locations from the Notitia Dignitatum on a map

Larger version of the map

Also available as a pdf download

The confirmed units have been mapped, but note that there are some locations, such as Catterick, where there is archaeological evidence for occupation but no mention in the Notitia Dignitatum. This highlights the complexities of using documentary and archaeological sources; it may be that Catterick was garrisoned by part of a unit whose base was elsewhere, for example York. Or perhaps the Notitia is listing the units in residence in the year 405, while the archaeological dating cannot be so precise.

This uncertainty of dating also leads us to ask a much bigger question. If Roman Britain is generally agreed to have come to an end around 410, and the Notitia is thought to have been compiled around 425, then are the lists for Britain current for 425 or do they simply record the last known organization and status of the offices prior to 410?

While our understanding of the Notitia is certainly imperfect and there are still many questions left unresolved about this document, it does allow a tentative identification of the military situation in the northern frontier in the late 4th and early 5th centuries.

Those locations that are uncertain are marked with an asterisk*. Placenames have been changed to the generally-accepted Latin spellings of those places, though variations of these spellings are found in the Notitia.

17. At the disposal of viri spectabilis the Duke of the Britains Location
18. Prefect of Legio VI York
19. Prefect of the equites Dalmatarum at Praesidium *East or North Yorkshire
20. Prefect of the equites Crispianorum at Danum Doncaster
21. Prefect of the equites catafractariorum at Morbio *Piercebridge
22. Prefect of the numerus barcariorum Tigrisiensium at Arbeia South Shields
23. Prefect of the numerus Nerviorum Dictensium at Dictum *Wearmouth
24. Prefect of the numerus vigilum at Concangium Chester-le-Street
25. Prefect of the numerus exploratorum at Lavatris Bowes
226. Prefect of the numerus directorum at Verteris Brough-under-Stainmore
27. Prefect of the numerus defensorum at Braboniacum Kirkby Thore
28. Prefect of the numerus Solensium at Maglonis Old Carlisle
29. Prefect of the numerus Pacensium at Magis *Piercebridge
30. Prefect of the numerus Longovicanorum at Longovicium Lanchester
31. Prefect of the numerus supervenientium Petueriensium at Derventione *Malton
32. Along the line of the Wall  
33. Tribune of the cohors IV Lingonum at Segedunum Wallsend
34. Tribune of the cohors I Cornoviorum at Pons Aelius Newcastle
35. Prefect of the ala I Asturum at Condercum Benwell
36. Tribune of the cohors I Frixagorum at Vindobala Rudchester
37. Prefect of the ala Sabiniana at Hunnum Haltonchesters
38. Prefect of the ala II Asturum at Cilurnum Chesters
39. Tribune of the cohors I Batavorum at Brocolitia Carrawburgh
40. Tribune of the cohors I Tungrorum at Vercovicium Housesteads
41. Tribune of the cohors IIII Gallorum at Vindolanda Chesterholm/Vindolanda
42. Tribune of the cohors [lacuna – II ] Asturum at Aesica Great Chesters
43. Tribune of the cohors II Dalmatarum at Magnis Carvoran
44. Tribune of the cohors I Aelia Dacorum at [lacuna – Banna] Birdoswald
[lacuna – 44a. Tribune of the cohors II Tungrorum] at Camboglanna Castlesteads
45. Prefect of the ala Petriana, Petriana Stanwix
46. [illegible] at Luguvallium Carlisle
47. Prefect of the numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum at Aballava Burgh-by-Sands
48. Tribune of the cohors II Lingonum at Congavata Drumburgh
49. Tribune of the cohors I Hispanorum at Axelodunum *Bowness
End of Wall section (not noted in text)  
50. Tribune of the cohors II Thracum at Gabrosentum *Moresby
51. Tribune of the cohors I Aelia classica at Tunnocelum Ravenglass
52. Tribune of the cohors I Morinorum at Glannibanta *Ambleside
53. Tribune of the cohors III Nerviorum at Alione *Maryport, Watercroock
54. Equites Sarmatarum at Brementenracum Ribchester
55. Prefect of the ala I Herculea at Olenacum Elslack
56. Tribune of the cohors VI Nerviorum at Virosidum Bainbridge

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