Political history

Protectores on the Balkans, 3rd Century

Protectores on the Balkans, 3rd Century

Kalin Stoev

Institute for Balkan Studies & Center of Thracology

Bulgarian Academy of Sciences


University of Library Studies and Information Technologies, Bulgaria

Fuculty of Library Studies and Cultural Heritage

20 June 2020
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Abstract: Protectores in the Late Antiquity are officers from the immediate imperial entourage, who are gradually beginning to be promoted to high officer positions. The name is associated primarily with the so-called protectors domestici. However, in most of the 3rd Century the word designated a special officer rank, and was given to the people that were chosen to command units of the field army. In present the examples of protectores from Moesia Inferior and Moesia Superior are discussed. Some of the listed cases are of major importance, because they represent the missing link between protectors of the Gallienus’ and Aurelianus’ time and in a sense, talk about their gradual extinction as rank. These protectors, from the time of Constantine onwards, who wore this rank, were already part of protectors domestici or scholae palatinae, common soldiers, "new praetorians.” The inscriptions placed at the end of the 3rd century and mentioning ducenarii show that the demonstration of this originally equestrian rank is now preferred, because it seems that the meaning protector at that time did not carry any other meaning than that of a Praetorian-type guard. 

Key words: Roman Army, Protectores, Gallienus, Field Army, 3rd Century.

The most succinct definition of the rank of protector would be that these are officers from the immediate imperial entourage, who are gradually beginning to be promoted to high officer positions. The name is associated primarily with the so-called protectors domestici, which appeared in the 4th century with the first mention of 346 AD. The mentioned are actually heirs of the earlier Guards troops and like them perform various functions – security, police-administrative, secretarial, liaison and others.[1] In the 3rd century, however, protector was a more complicated concept and initially denoted an army rank, which due to historical circumstances has acquired significant military-hierarchical significance. It seems to protector rank somehow replaced first the rank of evocatus, after which the soldiers started to gain experience as a "reserve" and often subsequently occupied senior positions of Career Centurion, and later tread somewhat duplicated the centurion position itself.[2] The most famous protector of the empire, the Thracian Traianus Mucianus of Augusta Traiana, began his protector positions in the legions immediately after the rank of evocate and occupied them simultaneously with his centurions there.

From the time of Philip there are preserved inscriptions with centurions et evocati Augg. NN (CIL VI 793), Legio Parthica, which suggests the beginning of a development that was the usual "mobile" unit in the imperial entourage during the campaigns of the rulers of the third century.[3] T. Mommsen also suggests the creation of protector ranks in the time of Philip and Decius, and Julianus is of the opinion that this was done under Gordian III, in which the influence of the praefectus must have grown tremendously to allow such promotions (Kedrin points to Gordian as the creator of the protectors).[4]

The importance of the rank of protector to the upper echelons of power has already been said with examples from the careers of the emperors. The cases discussed there speak of the explicit pride of mentioning the tread rank in the inscriptions, as in the 3rd century, entering the protectors practically meant entering the newly created officer class. It seems that in Gallienus' time the important reform was observed, that the protectors began to be recruited in the mobile detachments (the so-called Gallienus field army) of the emperor – and especially in the equites Dalmatae, which must have been the most prestigious corps, with in view of the increased importance of the Balkan front in his time and at that time the protector already exceeded the importance of the centurion.

But how was the issue with the protectors in the "military" Balkan provinces and in today's Bulgarian lands? Surprisingly, the evidence for this does not seem to be abundant. The following inscriptions are known:

Lower Moesia:

Chomakovci, CIL III 14412,4, D (is) M (anibus) / Fla (vio) Dinnio / pr (a) ef (ecto) vehi (culorum) vix (it) / an (nos) LX mil (itavit) an (nos) / XXXV et Aure (liae) / Salviae vix (it) an (nos) / LXX hic sepulti sunt / quorum memoria (m) / filii bene meri (tis) patri / et matri [Fl] a (vius) Bitianus / prot (ector) domes (ticus) fecit 

Svishtov, CIL III 7441, [D (is) M (anibus)] / [3] Castinae / [3] in [3] / annis X [3] / Carusiae e [3] / filiis ex eade [m pro] / genitis M (arcus) A [3] / Julius ex prote [ct] ori (bus) / vivo sibi et sup [r] a / dictis coniugi et / filiis memoriae gra / tia titulum con / stit uit / [v (ale) ] v (iator)

 Upper Moesia:

Viminacium, IMS II,149: Sulpitus posuit// Sabinianus/ pro (te) ctorortus in/provincial Dardania/ reg(ione) Ulpiane [3]/ Dasa qui vixit an (nos) L/qui donec superstaret/ vitam iucundam exegi/ sibi et amicis qui a me/ hodie exoptantur/ et optantur ibidem/ terra levis habeat sem/[per] vosque iter carpite le/ gite [amici opto (?)]/ vos vitam iucundam ex [i]/ gatis post mortem nihil e/ st nisi est vilis umbra vox/[bo] n (a) e memoriae castaqu [e]

Ulpiana, AE 1981, 731, D(is) M (anibus)/ Aelia Clementilla/ vixit an (nos) XVII/ summae intergr (i) tatis/ feminae/Aurel (ius) Maior ex pro/ tectoribus divini/ lateris coniugi/ obsequentissi/ mae posuit.

Vratnitsa, CIL III 14549, D (is) M (anibus)/ Fl (avius) Martialis ex pro / tec toribus vixit/ annos centu (m) ben [e]/ merito patrono/ suo posuit Ma/ xentius gener/ et serv { i} us suu [s] 

Most of the examples shown are not convincing, that it is in fact the Gallienus officer corps of the third century, and that the cases of ex protectoribus are not analogous to the ex praetorianis of older times. Other examples, however, are more interesting. Aurelius Licinian is known from a recently discovered tombstone inscription from Montana, in which he is laconically marked as EX DUC, which according to the publisher of the inscription should be developed as ex ducenario. This suggests that he is a senior financial official – a prosecutor with a cavalry rank, who held a position in the management of mines in Montana, and perhaps in the administration of the Illyrian vectigal.[5]

However, it is difficult to assume that a governor of such high equestrian status will be designated only by the abbreviation ex duc(enario?). First of all, the preposition ex, found mainly in military inscriptions to denote the status of a soldier who resigned from the army, is very rarely used by both senior officers and representatives of the higher classes. The importance of ex before the post of ducenarius in Upper and Lower Moesia is attested only in representatives of the senior officers from the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th century.[6] In other words, this is most likely the end of a military career that crowned deserving officers of non-noble origin (mostly centurions or primipili[7]) from the time of Gallienus onwards, leading to their admission to the class of ducenarii.[8] Undoubtedly the most famous such example is the plate of Traianus Mucianus by Augusta Trayana, as we pointed above, who also followed a classic ducenarius career.[9] Passing through three centurions, a primipilate, a tribunal, to become a protector, he was therefore accepted in the midst of the ducenarios with the right to command a legion.[10] As can be seen, this often happened through the stratum of protectores, which by the end of the third century included "deserved" peregrines, often from good families or dedititii with high status.[11] It is very probable that the above-mentioned inscription from Montana refers to the same chronological and socio-historical layer, as evidenced by other analogies found in nearby regions: another ducenario, with probable epichoric, though not necessarily Thracian, origin is discovered near Ratiaria (see. above one Aurelius Ursus* from the time of Constantine, with probable Celtic origin). Without the rank of ducenarius, but with positions leading to it as protector domesticus and praefectus vehiculorum, two members of a family mentioned in the inscription above are attested, near the ancient settlement near the village of Chomakovtsi (Ziadinnius or Fl. Dinnius; Ziabitianus). Here, too, an advance of a local or new element (dedititii), probably from Dacian, of Thracian-Dacian origin, must be accepted. 

In view of the lack of promotions in the inscriptions, it can be concluded that Aurelius Licinianus was part of those recruited directly into the corps of protectors, where he was promoted to the rank of ducenarius. It is very possible, therefore, that he came from a military settlement or the family of a former Praetorian.[12] Situation is very similar to that of an alleged Roman horseman from Tomi, who again owes his rank to a hereditary military career (hereinafter, Aelius Herculanus).

We can say with great confidence that Aurelius Licinianus followed the model of the classical careers of the protectors, followed by the post of ducenarius, i.e. rank of commander-in-chief of a large military unit, which was probably the troops of the limes Moesiae et Triballiae (see duces ripae), which shows the serious importance that the area of ​​Montana had as one of the centers of this commandant's office. The title protector, of course, is omitted – on the one hand the inscription is tombstone and mentions only the last position of the person, and on the other hand, the inscription is placed to the end of 3rd century, when he no longer wore the same signification.

From these observations, it can be assumed that a person called Aurelius Crescentio also passed through the corpus of protectors and was then assigned here as Crescentio was assigned here as praepositus. For the analogous service of Aurelius Licinianus and Aurelius Crescentio, epigraphic analogies can also be cited as protectores: ex praeposito vir ducenarius (see  AE  1997, 237 from Rome, and also CIL III 8741 of Dalmatia).

His military career could also be based on some older romanization originating from the neighboring lands of Upper Moesia, where the cognomen is more popular, including among the military. This romanization may be related to the military structure in the two Moesians, but it may also be older. It is noteworthy that some of the examples of this cognomen in Upper Moesia are related to traditional Romanization centers that are found in the urban centers of the province.[13] In the long run, it can be assumed that it is the descendant of a Romanized Hellenic family, perhaps from Greece, Macedonia or the Black Sea coast of Lower Moesia, where the name Crescens is popular. However, it is about the lower strata of the urban population, which in military terms fills the ranks of ordinary legionnaires.[14]

There is hardly reason to suppose, as A. von Premerstein concludes from the available word brutes, that this Aurelius came from a family of Goths with a new romanization, who settled here after the victory of Emperor Claudius II at Nis and got their names from this new romanization.[15] It is possible, however, german-goth people to be settled on the both sides of the Limes, i.e. the place of possible assignment of Crescentio before his appointment in Montana.[16] Given the Cognomen's connections with Upper Moesia, this may have been a section of the Danube section, and perhaps even individual Gothic settlements in the hinterland of Upper Moesia or near the camps of the IV Flavia or VII Claudia legions, moreover, in the military territory of the latter the same German word for "daughter-in-law", "bride" is attested.

It should be noted the lower, but still sufficiently traditional level of romanization of the latter, despite the standard cognomen, as well as the observation that in all cases it is associated more with the province of Upper Moesia. It may be connected to a leg. IV Flavia, which from the 3rd century onwards is attested in other testimonies from Lower Moesia. It is obviously a matter of strengthening the Danube hinterland in the lands between the two Moesia, right in the problematic section of the road through the Sofia fields to the south, which since ancient times has been the "weak place" in the heart of the Balkans.[17]

The fact that the two officers came from relatively different (also social) geographical areas – the formed contact zone with barbaricum on the Danube, and the inner region of Lower Moesia of Montana – is eloquent. They have reached a similar position and this shows that in Lower Moesia a homogeneous romanization layer has already been created, which is beginning to integrate "barbaric" elements of the population along the borders of the empire. From the same "layer" – the local "military", population probably originates a probable preposit, whose inscription was found next to Sexaginta Prista – Aurelius Saturninus.[18]

The last example concerns one Aelius Herculanus,v(ir)e (gregius), ducenarius (CIL III 6155). The one identified as a horseman in his monument could not have occupied the post of procurator of a ducenario in the sense of the equestrian careers of the Principate, such as Aelius Faventinus.[19] Some claim that this is a question of centena dignitas, given since the time of Constantine to deserving administrators or veterans.[20] The second variant is much more probable, and, as has already been clarified for Aurelius Licinianus of Montana, it must be assumed that it is an officer (protector?) ducenarius of the late imperial cursus. In this sense can be interpreted and the title of his father vir egregius(!) Centenariu: not a prosecution, but as a military rank since the beginning of 4th c. onwards.[21] In this case, the title of equestrian would either speak of a Late antique rank, or was used quite arbitrarily, using the fact that the title could be mistaken for that inherent in the old equestrian course.[22] In both cases, it is difficult for him to be considered part of the Moesian cavalry and is likely to be an officer with a protective rank.

The last example from Lower Moesia is known from an inscription by Abritus, which mentions three people, a father and two sons and a son, who served in a military unit called equites Dalmatae Beroensium Comitatensium – Avius Avit … Romulus was called vir magnus and held the positions of tribune and a prepositus, as did his son Valerinus. His other son, Romulianus, is designated only as a preposit. The dating of the inscription (first half of the 4th century) and the name of the army obviously indicate that it was the county army of the Dalmatians, whose officers were recruited from the local Romanized Thracian population. Both the father and the son may have been protectors first, and then served in the army in the Limes.[23] 

The four listed cases are of major importance, because they represent the missing link between protectors of the Gallienus’ and Aurelianus’ time and in a sense, talk about their gradual extinction as rank. These protectors, from the time of Constantine onwards, who wore this rank, were already part of protectors domestici or scholae palatinae, common soldiers, „new praetorians”. The inscriptions placed at the end of the 3rd century and mentioning ducenarii show that the demonstration of this originally equestrian rank is now preferred, because it seems that the meaning protector at that time did not carry any other meaning than that of a Praetorian-type guard. Not surprisingly, in the epigraphic documentation for protectors in 3rd., the protectors of the "old type", in other words evocatus and centurions from the mobile army, always would put the emperor's name to the title. Some of them could also have been part of the mobile army, as the latter was transformed into a permanent garrison on the limes, but most of them were probably officers who in one way or another reached a centurion post and then command of part of the border army. 


[1] Richardot 2005, 33 ff.

[2] Protectors, evocati and centurions are practically equated by the author of the biography of Caracalla, who most probably conveys the situation relatively authentically to the middle of the 3rd century: cf. Stoev 2019.

[3] A probable analogue is the rank of veteranus Augusti ( Ritterling 1924, 1477).

[4] Gregoire 1907, 38 ff.

[5] Кабакчиева 2010, 474.

[6] Cf. one Valerius Iovinus ex ducenario , by Timacum Minus, IMS III .2. 53.

[7] Mainly from among the more advanced class of centurions, who appeared together with the army of Diocletian and Constantine - the so-called. centurions ordinarii (see Vegetius II, 8).

[8] Hoffmann 1964, 48.  

[9] Christol 1977, 393–408. 

[10] Cf. Domaschewski , A . in 1967, 185–191.

[11] Nicasie 1997, 100–102.

[12] Another Likkininianos originates from the vicus Clementini.

[13] One Cornelius Crescentio apparently belongs to the gens of the numerous Cornelii in this city , and his wife bears the already significant name Coc(c)eia - IMS V 107. Another interesting example is a complete analogy with Aurelius Crescentius from the Belgrade area, where the said was part of a municipality of Roman citizens: AE , 1911, 167.

[14] Two of the inscriptions in Upper Moesia refer to military: leg . IV Flavia : IMS I 01; IMS II 59. The recruitment of these soldiers took place at the beginning of the 3rd century.

[15] Domaszewski, Av 1893, 13 ff.

[16] By the time of Constantine, the Danube was already called  ripa Gothica : Orig . Const ., 35 - Kulikowski 2007, 73-75. The most justifiable for the presence of this Gothic lexicon in the interior of Moesia seems to be the assumption of H. Mihaescu, according to whom it is a German population moved from the emptied agri decumanes to Recia , moved to these lands to strengthen the Limes: Mihaescu 1960, 192. 

[17] Although the exact route of the greatest Gothic invasion of the 50s and 70s of  3rd is not fully determined, there is no doubt that Montana is covered up strategic Serdica and Pautalia, one of the most important centers in the province of Thrace. At the same time, it must be assumed that due to the practical helplessness of the Roman authorities in the face of these invasions, numerous groups of Goths penetrated into Thrace through this passage as well: cf. Batty 2007, 389.

[18] ------ memoriae? aet?] / ern (a) e Au [rel (io)] / Saturnino e / xp (rimo) p (ilo) o (rnato?) o (rnamentis?) vix (it) ann (is) / LI et Flavia co / niux eius {eius ei} / vixit annis / XXX ERAX / AGLAIS eo / rum posu / it s (it) t (ibi) (?) t (erra) (?) l (evis) (?)

[19] Pflaum, H.-G. Le carrieres… , 950.

[20] Poulter 1978, 242.

[21] Another centenary appears in the nearby region: Valerius Valerianus , AE 1989, 641 by Carsium.

[22] Things fall into place in an example from the same city where Valerius is designated only as a ducenario – ISM II 354.

[23] Ivanov 2017, 81 ff.


AE = Annee epigraphique

CIL = Corpus inscriptioonum latinarum

IMS  = Inscriptions de la Mesie Superiour

Orig. Const. = Origo Constantini imperatoris

Vegetius = Fl. Vegetius Renatus, De re militari

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Иванов, Р. (2017), Между Дунава и Хемус (I-VI век) (София)./ Ivanov, R. (2017), Mezhdu Dunava i Hemus (1-6 vek) (Sofia).

Кабакчиева, Г. (2010), „Новооткрит надгробен паметник с надпис от антична

Монтана“, – В: Славова, М., В. Герджикова, Д. Вълчева, Н. Шаранков (ред.), 471–479.

Стоев, K. (2019), Providentia Imperatoris. Биография на император Максимин Тракиеца (Ямбол).

Batty, R. (2007), Rome and the Nomads. The Pontic Danubian Realm in Antiquity. (Oxford).

Christol, M. (1977), “La carrière de Traianus Mucianus et l’origin des protectores.” – Chiron, VII, 393–407.

Domaszewski, A.v., (1893), “Das deutsche Wort Braut in lateinischen Inschriften,“ – Neue Heidelberger Jahrbücher 3, 13

Domaszewski, A. v. (1967) Die Rangordnung des römischen Heeres. 2. durchgesehene Auflage. Einführung, Berechtigungen und Nachträge von Brian Dobson. (Köln – Graz)

Gregoire, H. (1907), “Inscription de Photiké (Epire).” – Bulletin de correspondence hellénique 31, 38–45.

Hoffmann, D. (1969), Das spätrömische Bewegungsheer (Düsseldorf).

Kulikowski, M. (2007), Rome’s Gothic Wars. From the Third Century to Alaric (Cambridge – New York).

Mihaescu, H. (1960), Limba latina in provinciile dunarene ale imperiului roman (Bucuresti).

Nicasie, M.J. (1998), Twilight of the Empire. The Roman Army from the Reign of Diocletian

until the Battle of Adrianople (Amsterdam). 

Pflaum, H.G. (1960), Les carrières procuratoriennes équestres sous le Haut-Empire

romaine, v. I – IV (Paris).

Poulter, A. G. (1978), “CIL, III, 6155: A third Century Inscription from Tomis,” – Dacia N.S. XXII, 242.

Richardot, P. (2005), La fin de l’armee romaine 284-476. 3e edition revue et augmentee avec une traduction de la Notitia Dignitatum (Paris).

Ritterling, E. (1924), “Legio,” – Pauly-Wissowa Realencyclopädie, XII, 1186–1829.


This page is part of the project LABedia: Еncyclopedia of Late Antique Balkans, 4th-5th c.,
financed by the National Science Fund, contract КП-06-Н30/6, 13.12.2018