Rome's Last War

This is the way the empire ends, not with a whimper but a bang.

... to stand the line from Eliot on its head. It seems to be a consistent trait of empires that they do not exit the stage quietly: Assryia passed into history as its last king set fire to his palace with himself and his wives inside it. Babylon fell with a siege and the writing of God on the palace wall. Persia summoned a vast host that crumbled before the dash and brilliance of Alexander. Carthage mustered her greatest army under her most brilliant general, Hannibal, and tumbled in the sands at Zama before the cunning of Scipio. Byzantium died on the walls of Constantinople with her last emperor, Constantine XII, as, sword in hand, he vainly tried to stem the overwhelming tide of Ottoman Janissaries.

In this respect Rome, or to be more precise, the Western Roman Empire, was no different. She did not go gentle into that good night. She took her stand, made her best effort, and ended.

Historians have traditionally dated the end of the western Empire at the year 476, when her last puppet emperor, a boy named  Romulus Augustus, was removed from his position by his Commander-in-Chief, a barbarian mercenary named Odoacer. A quiet event, practically unnoticed by its contemporaries. However, as this article will show, with the emperor gone the Empire was not yet dead. Part of it, an amalgamation of four former imperial provinces, still survived in northern Gaul.

In that region, in 451, the western Imperial army allied with federate barbarian tribes, had won a decisive victory under Rome’s last great general, Aetius, against the Huns. Among the officers of Aetius were a certain Majorian and his friend Aegidius, the latter possibly grandson of the consul Flavius Afranius Syagrius.

In 454 Aetius was murdered by the emperor Valentinian, who himself died soon afterwards at the hands of Aetius’s soldiers. In 457 Aegidius’s fellow officer, Majorian, became emperor. The new emperor lost no time in promoting his army colleague to the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Roman forces in Gaul.

The Beginning of the End: Gaul in the mid 400’s

At this time the Western Roman Empire was in crisis. North Africa, its richest province and breakbasket for Rome, had been in Vandal hands since the 430’s. Spain, occupied by the Vandals and the Suevi after them, was only nominally under imperial control and then only along the eastern coastline. Southern Gaul was in the hands of the Visigoths who were theoretically ‘federates’, or subordinate allies, of the Empire, but in reality did as as they pleased, and had begun a policy of expansion into the rest of Gaul. Britain had been evacuated by the Roman army and administration in the first decade of the century and had collapsed into anarchy. Only Italy and northern Gaul remained under effective imperial control.

Majorian began a campaign to reconquer the lost provinces of the western Empire, gaining the submission of the Visigoths by a show of force – helped by Aegidius, who was able to bring along loyal federate Franks under the leadership of their king, Childeric. With the Visigoths and Burgundians reduced to federate status again, Majorian passed on to Spain, subjugating the coastal regions. At Carthago Nova he gathered a fleet with which to transport an army to Tunis and regain north Africa from the Vandals. Aware of his plans, the Vandal king Genseric tried making peace with him and, failing that, succeeded in destroying his fleet through treachery. His plans foiled, Majorian returned to Italy where he was murdered by his jealous Italian commander-in-chief, Ricimer.

With his death most of Majorian’s work was undone, but Aegidius, in his position of Gallic commander-in-chief remained in control of northern Gaul. He refused to recognize the imperial successor appointed by Ricimer. The latter, with his new puppet emperor, Severus, probably instigated the Visigoths against Aegidius in order to bring him into subjection.

Aegidius, however, still had his own troops and the help of his Frankish federates under their king Childeric. He counterattacked at Orleans, killing the brother of the Visigothic king in the fighting, but did not press his victory, possiby distracted by troubles elsewhere.


The Creation of the Roman Enclave

As the situation stabilized, Aegidius found himself the quasi-independent ruler of a territory about the size of Ireland, comprised roughly of four former imperial provinces: Lugdunensis II, Lugdunensis III, Lugdunensis IV Senonia, and Belgica II.

To the west were the semi-independent but allied Bretons in the Armorican peninsula. The federate Franks of Childeric were to the north, the Alamans to the east, and the Visigoths to the south. Saxons had landed on the coasts of Normandy and for a time posed a threat, until they were defeated by Aegidius with the help of Count Paulus, a military commander possibly sent to Aegidius’s aid by the emperor Anthemus.

The territory controlled by Aegidius had, more than anywhere else in the west except perhaps Italy, preserved the structures of Roman society. The rich landowning class from which Aegidius and Syagrius came were nearly as wealthy here as they had been in the past, unlike other regions where the breakdown of Roman authority had weakened the state infrastructure, in some places to the point of anarchy. This wealthy class, many of them hereditary senators (though the term would become increasingly loose in meaning) clung to their Roman identity, as the correspondance of Sidonius Apollinaris shows, and were committed to the survival and restoration of the Empire. It is significant that both Aegidius and Syagrius ruled in the name of Rome: as governors, not as independent monarchs, and were accepted as such by their subjects. When Syagrius finally abandoned his status of imperial governor disastrous consequences followed, as we shall see.

In 464 Aegidius died and was succeeded by his son Afranius Syagrius. Syagrius inherited a stable situation. The Visigoths were quiescent, the Bretons on friendly terms, and the Franks, under their over-king Childeric, remained Roman federates. This status quo was not disturbed by the deposition of the last western Emperor in 476. Aegidius and Syagrius after him had recognized no emperors since Majorian and were able to maintain their authority without imperial approval.

In 481 Childeric died and was succeeded by his son Clovis as king of the Salian Franks of Tournai. Despite Childeric’s ascendancy the Franks had not been a united people, but rather a loose confederacy of tribes of which those on the west bank of the Rhine, the Salian (or Sea) Franks had been under the overlordship of Childeric whilst those on the east bank, the Ripuarian (or River) Franks were independent.

Clovis was only fifteen when he was raised on the shield by his father’s men. Syagrius, in a move possibly calculated to keep the boy-king under his sway, conferred on him the administration of the province of Belgica II, implicitly confirming him in his high kingship status over the other Frankish tribes in the area. This was made known to Remigius, bishop of Reims, who wrote a letter to Clovis:

Word of great import has reached us that you have received the administration of Belgica Secunda. This is not a new thing, that you should begin to be what your forefathers always were.

Remigius then went on to advise Clovis on how he should administer his new province, urging him to make use of the experience of the bishops.

Initially Clovis seems to have accepted the situation and for several years made no trouble. But then something happened which changed everything and sparked off a war that would last over ten years and end in the conquest of the last territory of the western Empire.


The Last War

What exactly happened to end the peace that had existed between the Franks and Romans for decades? There are two sources who give some insight: Procopius and St Gregory of Tours.

Procopius was scribe of the eastern Roman general Belisarius, ccompanying him in the first half of the sixth century on his campaigns to reconquer the territories of the former western Empire for the eastern emperor Justinian. In his History of the Wars, Book XII, Procopius describes the beginning of the conflict between the Franks and Gallo Romans of Syagrius:

But as time went on, the Visigoths forced their way into the Roman empire and seized all Spain and the portion of Gaul lying beyond the Rhone River and made them subject and tributary to themselves. By that time it so happened that the Arborychi had become soldiers of the Romans. And the Germans, wishing to make this people subject to themselves, since their territory adjoined their own and they had changed the government under which they had lived from of old, began to plunder their land and, being eager to make war, marched against them with their whole people.

The ‘Arborychi’ is a slightly corrupted version of ‘Armorici’, or inhabitants of Armorica, the region largely comprised of Syagrius’s realm. ‘Germans’ as Procopius explains earlier, are Franks.

St Gregory of Tours, a prominent Catholic bishop in the 6th century Frankish kingdom wrote The History of Franks about a hundred years after these events. In the Second Book of the Histories, he describes the beginning of the war as follows:

After these events Childeric died and Clovis his son reigned in his stead. In the fifth year of his reign Siagrius, king of the Romans, son of Egidius, had his seat in the city of Soissons which Egidius, who has been mentioned before, once held. And Clovis came against him with Ragnachar, his kinsman, who also possessed the kingdom, and demanded that they make ready a battlefield.

The cause of the war seems to have been a change in the political status quo. What does St Gregory mean by stating that Aegidius ‘once held’ Soissons? One approach to this question is to take another look at St Remigius’s letter to Clovis, in which he states that the new Frankish king had received ‘the administration of Belgica Secunda.’ Look at the map. The area enclosed by the former Roman province included not only Soissons, but also Reims, seat of Remigius (which would perhaps explain why the bishop wrote to Clovis). Reading the text literally, Clovis’s federate control would, by gift of Syagrius, have extended nearly to the Seine. In this light, Gregory’s mention that Syagrius took up his seat in Soissons would imply that the Roman ruler revoked the grant of land he had given to Clovis, taking back the lands his father ‘once held.’

How does one tie this in with Procopius’s statement that the Franks made war with the Romans since ‘they had changed the government under which they had lived from old’? Here one can only speculate. My own impression, reinforced by subsequent events in this war, is that Syagrius had decided finally to dispense with the fiction of being a provincial governor, and began to rule in his own right. This would explain St Gregory’s appelation of Syagrius as ‘king of the Romans.’ Syagrius had maintained the fiction of being a governor only because it gave him the legitimacy necessary to keep Childeric and Clovis in line as federates. I sense that he had reached the point where he felt he no longer needed to play carefully with the Franks. What would have given him that confidence? Procopius gives the clue: ‘By that time [the occupation of Spain by the Visigoths in the 470’s] it so happened that the Arborychi had become soldiers of the Romans.’ What is meant by this? In his conflicts with the Visigoths in the 460’s Aegidius had used Franks as his muscle, perhaps augmented by some local troops of his own. But now Syagrius had built his military strength on a new foundation: troops recruited from his own provinces with perhaps the aid of the Bretons from eastern Armorica - who fought in the Roman manner and maintained a disciplined military establishment in Brittany throughout this period (as the continued occupation of the Roman fort of Le Yaudet on the north Brittany coast demonstrates).

The revocation of Clovis’s title to Belgica Secunda plus Syagrius’s abandon of the pretense of acting in the name of Rome gave Clovis all the pretext he needed. The young king had started his political career as the fifteen-year-old chief of a Frankish tribe concentrated around Tournai. Using the overlordship implied by Syagrius’s grant of Belgica Secunda, he had succeeded in building enough support among the other tribes on the west bank of the Rhine to assemble an army capable of challenging Syagrius. The Roman ex-governor, however, had no fear of him: ‘And Siagrius did not delay nor was he afraid to resist.’ Clearly he felt the army he had built up was more than capable of dealing with the Frankish threat.


The Battle of Soissons

The two armies met somewhere near Soissons in 486. The result was a disastrous defeat for Syagrius:

And so they fought against each other and Siagrius, seeing his army crushed, turned his back and fled swiftly to king Alaric at Toulouse.

We have no details of this battle, the last recorded one involving a western Roman army. With some help I have created a hypothetical reconstruction of how it might have gone, at this link.

Immediately after the battle Syagrius left his realm for the Visigothic kingdom, never to return. Why did he do that? The Visigoths were his traditional enemies, and his own realm was far from crushed, as following events would demonstrate. His immediate priority after a military defeat would have been to stay on the scene and prepare for further Frankish moves whilst rebuilding his army. He did neither. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that he was deposed by his own administration. This fits the circumstances: If Syagrius had thrown off the mantle of imperial governor then he no longer had ‘legitimacy’– an important concept in that age. He had become an opportunistic warlord, or regulus, whose authority would last only as long as his military successes did. Furthermore the Franks had been content to be federates for decades; what better move after the Roman defeat than to eliminate Syagrius and re-establish his realm as a ‘legitimate’ imperial province again, and negotiate a new federate treaty with the Franks? That this was the case seems implied by Procopius:

But the Arborychi proved their valour and loyalty to the Romans and shewed themselves brave men in this war.

Clovis did not buy the legitimacy argument and continued the war, and the Armorican forces, who had hitherto fought under a ‘changed’ government, now ‘proved their valour and loyalty to the Romans’, i.e. they were now fighting in the name of Rome.


A Ten Year War

Clovis may have hoped for a quick resolution of the conflict after Syagrius’s defeat, but he was soon disappointed. He succeeded in occupying Reims and Soissons and advancing to the Seine, but that is as far as he got. The Liber Historiae Francorum, an account of the history of the Franks, written in the year 727, states:

Clovis enlarged his kingdom, extending it as far as the Seine. At a later time he occupied as far as the river Loire.

What was the nature of this war? There is no recorded instance of a major battle although, as we shall see, there is a record of at least one siege. This is the time of the emergence of the Breton cavalry that would cause the Franks so much trouble in the future. The Frankish army had two weaknesses: it was poor at siege warfare and it lacked good cavalry. Added to that was the fact that Clovis did not have a professional standing army; he could muster his men only seasonally. The Armoricans, aided by the Bretons, would turn that to good account.

I add here some observations on the likely nature of the war from a friend of mine whose opinion I highly respect:

The war becomes a matter of a Frankish army occasionally turning up and trying to provoke a battle (and when it does not get one, ravaging crops and besieging towns, which without effective siege equipment and techniques will not get very far), and when it goes home having eaten up all the supplies in the vicinity then the local Frankish chief starts marauding with his followers and the Bretons come out to play, resulting in a few sharp little actions in which the Franks generally get their fingers burnt (ambushes of straggling Frankish columns by Armorican cavalry being a favourite until the Franks learn not to straggle, at which point the Bretons begin trapping them in valley ambushes).

Given well-kept walls, enough food and sufficient garrison to fend off enthusiasts with ladders and/or wooden rams, the Bretons could have kept the Franks out of their forts.  Siege warfare was something German tribes in general and Franks in particular seem never to have excelled at: where they took towns, it was usually by treachery or intimidation (or people letting them in on the understanding that they would be merciful to fellow-Christians, which sometimes happened but often did not).

Forts and fortified towns would not necessarily stop a Frankish army (it could just march past them) but it could emit cavalry behind them, acting as scouts and picking off any Franks who strayed too far from the main body (or deserted to go home with loot), so the Franks would tend to own only the ground they marched or slept on, and scouts and foragers would tend to be lost frequently, a difficult situation for an army in unfamiliar territory without guides.

The main Breton army would, once mobilised, march on a parallel route to the Franks, hoping the invaders would blunder into a defile or split their force or stop to besiege a town.  They could then launch a surprise attack on a portion of the Frankish army, inflict losses, and pull out before the Franks got everyone together.  A full open battle would be very unlikely, as it would be too much of a gamble for both sides (especially the Armoricans), but Breton counter-raids into Frankish territory (maybe helped by a sympathetic population, at least initially) would probably have occurred on a regular basis when the main Frankish army was not around.

Naturally, this type of war would tend to exhaust both parties without achieving much by way of results.  The Breton border territories would tend to be ravaged on a regular basis, while the Franks would accrue casualties and develop a sense of worry that would make invasions short.

Clovis was stalemated as Procopius makes clear: ‘the Germans were not able to overcome them by force’.


The Siege of Paris

The Vita Sanctae Genovefae, a life of St Genevieve written in the sixth century, has been recently rehabilitated by historians as a source of reliable information about this period. ‘The first Vita Genovefae, almost certainly written c. 520, preserved important details about the saint that were airbrushed out by later editors, perhaps because they did not suit the emerging legend. Daughter of Gerontia and Severus, Genovefa seems to have been born around 420 to a distinguished Frankish military family on one side and a member of the Roman administrative class on the other.’ - The Fall of the Roman Household  by Kate Cooper.

After the defeat at Soissons Paris found itself on the front line and under attack by the Franks. The Vita describes the siege. The city, an important town in northern Gaul, had closed its gates to the Huns thirty-five years previously under the inspiration of St Genevieve. In 486 she was still alive and used her influence to persuade the Parisians to close them to the Franks. The Frankish army laid siege to the town over a period lasting, according to the original version of the Vitae, ten years. At one point the inhabitants were near starvation. St Genevieve was able to slip eleven barges up the Seine past the Franks and get supplies from Troyes back to the beleagered town.

In the time that the city of Paris was besieged for the term of ten years as the ancient histories recount, there followed so great a famine and hunger that many died from hunger. The holy virgin, constrained by pity, went to the Seine to go and fetch provisions by ship.

[here follows details of the voyage]

From Arcy the holy virgin returned to Paris with eleven ships charged with provisions.

It is unlikely that the siege was continuous. The Frankish army would have had to go home for the harvest and on more than one occasion may have needed to decamp to meet a Romano-Breton relief force. In any case the Frankish efforts to take the town were ineffectual. The records are not specific, but it is at least possible that St Genevieve bolstered Parisian resistance against the Franks until the final peace, at which point the town surrendered to Clovis.

The End of the War

Two principal causes for the Gallo-Roman refusal to accept Clovis’s rule was his lack of ‘legitimacy’ and the fact that he was an unbaptized pagan. The  former was not a major obstacle – the Visigoths had dispensed with their ‘legitimate’ status as federates since 475 – but the latter was a real problem.

In 493 Clovis married Clotilde, a Burgundian princess whose father and mother had been murdered by her uncle in his bid to seize control of the entire Burgundian kingdom. His new wife came from an Arian royal family but was herself a Catholic. Almost as soon as she reached Clovis’s new capital at Soissons she began to do her utmost to persuade him to become a Catholic. He allowed her to baptize their children but would not go any further than that. Reading between the lines, I detect in Clotilde’s importunity not so much a nagging nature (though she was a forceful woman) as a sincere desire to bring her husband out of paganism, combined with a realisation that the only way to end the war between the Franks and Gallo-romans was for Clovis to embrace the Catholic Faith and become a ruler the Gallo-Romans could accept.

Clotilde had no success until 496, when an event took place that would have momentous consequences, not only for Clovis, but also for the future of his kingdom and western Europe as a whole. To quote St Gregory of Tours:

But he could not be influenced in any way to this belief, until at last a war arose with the Alamanni, in which he was driven by necessity to confess what before he had of his free will denied. It came about that as the two armies were fighting fiercely, there was much slaughter, and Clovis's army began to be in danger of destruction.

He saw it and raised his eyes to heaven, and with remorse in his heart he burst into tears and cried: "Jesus Christ, whom Clotilda asserts to be the son of the living God, who art said to give aid to those in distress, and to bestow victory on those who hope in thee, I beseech the glory of thy aid, with the vow that if thou wilt grant me victory over these enemies, and I shall know that power which she says that people dedicated in thy name have had from thee, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name. For I have invoked my own gods but, as I find, they have withdrawn from aiding me; and therefore I believe that they possess no power, since they do not help those who obey them. I now call upon thee, I desire to believe thee only let me be rescued from my adversaries."

And when he said thus, the Alamanni turned their backs, and began to disperse in flight. And when they saw that their king was killed, they submitted to the dominion of Clovis, saying: "Let not the people perish further, we pray; we are yours now." And he stopped the fighting, and after encouraging his men, retired in peace and told the queen how he had had merit to win the victory by calling on the name of Christ. This happened in the fifteenth year of his reign.

Clovis’s actual words may be a gloss on the part of St Gregory, but the fact of his conversion was not. On Christmas Eve of 486 or 487 he was baptized at the cathedral of Reims by St Remigius, along with three thousand of his men. It was to be the decisive turning point in Clovis’s career. With the two sides now of the same religion it was possible to end the conflict between them. Two Gallo-roman bishops, Melanius of Rennes and Patern of Vannes, are credited with brokering the peace between Clovis and the Armoricans and Bretons. In the treaty, eastern Armorica – the former realm of Syagrius - was absorbed into Clovis’s kingdom, whilst the peninsula of Brittany, with its complex mix of Breton sub-kingdoms and Armorican towns, remained semi-independent. It was their common Faith that not only cemented the peace, but became the source of the process of fusion that would turn the Gallo-romans and Franks into a single nation, as Procopius describes:

…since the Germans were not able to overcome them by force, they wished to win them over and make the two peoples kin by intermarriage. This suggestion the Arborychi received not at all unwillingly; for both, as it happened, were Christians. And in this way they were united into one people, and came to have great power.

The war was over, and with it, the western Roman Empire. Some things did remain. The structures of Roman society survived and would eventually become the foundations of Mediaeval civilisation. The Roman army, an institution that had created the empire and made and unmade its emperors, persisted as formations that kept their identity in the decades that followed. To quote Procopius:

Now other Roman soldiers, also, had been stationed at the frontiers of Gaul to serve as guards. And these soldiers, having no means of returning to Rome, and at the same time being unwilling to yield to their enemy who were Arians, gave themselves, together with their military standards and the land which they had long been guarding for the Romans, to the Arborychi and Germans; and they handed down to their offspring all the customs of their fathers, which were thus preserved, and this people has held them in sufficient reverence to guard them even up to my time. For even at the present day they are clearly recognized as belonging to the legions to which they were assigned when they served in ancient times, and they always carry their own standards when they enter battle, and always follow the customs of their fathers. And they preserve the dress of the Romans in every particular, even as regards their shoes.

Finally, the memory of Rome would never be forgotten: even in the present day the Empire moves us in a way that the other empires of antiquity do not, to the extent that I was able to write this article knowing that it would be read with interest, whilst my own interest motivated me to write it in the first place. As Rutilius Namantianus, the fifth century Roman poet put it, more truly than he could have realised: ‘who can live and forget you?’

Click on map to enlarge

Click on map to enlarge.