DBx and FOG are wrong. The gardingi were personal military retainers of the Visigothic king. They were wealthy and led their own retainers into battle. Given they were wealthy, and a military elite, they probably fought mounted. And in an army where even some slaves wore armour, it is beyond belief that these palatine officials were unarmoured.
I started with the question: Is the wargamer belief that the gardingi of the Visigothic army lists were unarmoured skirmishing cavalry justified? Which led me to the question: Who were the gardingi?
The Wargamers’ view
Wargaming rules commonly classify the gardingi as unarmoured skirmishing cavalry in contrast to the armoured bucellarii with lance. This view has shaped the wargamer convention for generations.
Apparently this all started with Ian Heath’s book on Dark Age armies (Heath, 1980). In his book on Heath says:
Visigothic armies consisted of both cavalry and infantry, though reliance was always principally on the heavy cavalry, supplied by the bodyguard troops of the king and nobles. However, although these were important they were outnumbered by javelin-armed light/medium horsemen probably supplied by saiones, gardingi and richer townsmen serving in the levy.
Heath (1980, p. 16)
As a result the DBM Army List II/82 Later Visigothic 419AD-720AD classified the Gardingi as Irr Cv(O). “CV” in DBx is short for “Cavalry” and basically means close formation shooting types on horses. The DBM list explains this classification by saying “Gardingi comprised minor royal officials, lesser gentry and followers in more traditional Gothic equipment, but now relying more on skirmishing with javelins than on a fierce charge”. I say “show me the proof”! I’ve never been able to reconcile guys in “more traditional Gothic equipment” with “relying more on skirmishing with javelins”. The Goths were famous for charging cavalry. Of course the DBM army list has those in the form of the generals and bucellarii. These are classified as Irr Kn(F), i.e. Knights.
DBA followed the trend by including large numbers of 3Cv in list Army List II/82 Later Visigothic 419AD-720AD. And again the generals are 3Kn.
The DBx family of rules are now quite aged but even the more recent FOG reflects Heath’s view of the Visigothic world. The FOG army list Later Visigothic [in Decline and Fall] classifies the Gardingi as
Cavalry, Protected, Superior/Average, Undrilled, Light Spear, Swordsmen.
In contrast the FOG classification for the Bucellarii is
Cavalry, Armoured, Superior, Undrilled, Lancers, Swordsmen.
“Protected” in FOG means they have a shield but no armour; the bucellarii get armour. And notice the “light spear” rather than “lance”. Disappointingly the list makes no attempt to explain or justify the difference.
However this view is not accept by everybody. Certainly not by historians outside the wargaming community and even within the community it is challenged.
Duncan Head, another historian of the wargaming world, is unconvinced by Heath’s assertion that there were two categories of Visigothic cavalry:
The Gothic Cv came IIRC originally from Ian Heath based on Isidore and Gregory, so the evidence is 6th/7th-century only. I didn’t find real support for two “grades” of cavalry when I previously read up on Visigoths
With some minor differences the non-wargaming historians are pretty unified. The gardingi were the king’s elite military retainers (McCormick, 1990).
Gardingi: the suffix -ing denotes ‘membership of’ or ‘belonging to’ and the stem gard means literally a household, but here more specifically a contraction of Wulfila’s word thiudangardi meaning kingdom, or the power center of the kingdom, the royal palace. So gardingi means literally members of the royal palace or the aura regia. But again notice it is thiudans in the sense of king and not reiks. (Heather, 1999, p. 369)
Ervig’s army law, IX.2.9, distinguishes those of higher military standing, from laymen who form the bulk of the soldiers (King, 2006). The higher military group includes dukes, counts and gardingi. Dukes and Counts where higher status than the Gardingi.
The gardingi were part of the palatine officials (palatinum officium (King, 2006). This was a large group and included all men in direct service of the king. It also has a narrower meaning of the higher echelons of the larger group. [According to King, Thompson (1969) denies that the gardingi were part of the palatine officials.]
The character of the gardingus is best accounted for in terms of personal loyalty and special military service (King, 2006).
Thompson (1969) mentions the gardingi in his book on the Goths. He believes they were the king’s retinue and equates gardingi with fideles and comitatus. But it probably wasn’t quite that simple.
All the king’s subjects were obliged to take an oath of allegiance but the palatine officials, including the gardingi, had to swear the oath in person before the king. All such men were fideles.
King (2006) distinguishes the companions (comites) from those who gave personal military service (gardingi). The companions were trusted men with proven capability, and had a role in government. Those companions whose names have reached us are overwhelmingly Gothic in race.
King (2006) points out that the military service of the gardingi had to be unique in some way as compared to the general obligation to serve. He speculates that the gardingi served mounted.
Gardingi were patrons (patroni) in their own right and led their own men on campaign. In contract the military dukes and counts were the chief officers of the regular units (King, 2006).
As mentioned above the gardingi were the king’s elite military retainers. I believe that has massive implications for how they were armed and fought. These guys were fighters. Unlike the other palatine officials the gardingi only had military obligations. They were rich. So rich they led their own bands of retainers. Rich enough to fight mounted, like the other nobles, and to wear armour. And they probably were lancers like the nobles and their guards.
Bear in mind a proportion of the armed slaves in the Visigothic army were given armour (The Visigothic Code: (Forum judicum)). In an army where slaves wear armour I find it difficult to believe that the elite military retainers of the king himself went unarmoured.
Heath, I. (1980). Armies of the Dark Ages 600-1066. Wargames Research Group.
Heather, P. J. (1999). The Visigoths from the Migration Period to the Seventh Century: An Ethnographic Perspective. Boydell & Brewer
King, P. D. (2006). Law and Society in the Visigothic Kingdom. Cambridge University Press.
McCormick, M. (1990). Eternal Victory: Triumphal Rulership in Late Antiquity, Byzantium and the Early Medieval West. Cambridge University Press.
Thompson, E. A. (1969), Goths in Spain. Clarendon.