Gaul is a battleground & Rome is on the retreat. The Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks vie for supremacy while Gauls are trapped in between them…yet maybe ‘Barbaria’ isn’t as bad as it seems.
By the year 418 many Romans feared that Romania had been replaced by Barbaria. On the one hand, the Romans were right that central state authority had broken down across the near-entirety of Gaul. The emperor and Senate only directly controlled the southern coast. The middle-west third of Gaul became an autonomous part of Rome known as the Seven Provinces. The remaining two-thirds of Gaul was under the control of the Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks, with Armorica breaking off to form its own state.
As Gaul nears its post-Roman phase it is time to examine who these peoples and states were, and the long-term cultural and political impact they will have upon Francia, and eventually France. I think the simplest way to do this is to start this tour with the least impactful to the most impactful.
The least impactful group in the long-term were almost certainly the Visigoths. The Visigoths were a confederation of Germanic peoples who had lived in Eastern Europe before they were pushed westward by the Huns and Alans. The Visigoths raided the Western Roman Empire in their search for a stable food supply, and many of them eventually settled in southwestern Gaul and northern Hispania in 418 under King Wallia. When Wallia died the next year, King Theodoric I took control of the Visigoths and became an incredibly important figure, who I will talk about more in this and the next episode. During the 5th century the Visigoths had an enormous impact on the political and military situation. But by 508 the Visigothic Kingdom was almost entirely swallowed up by the emergent Francia, and most Visigoths submitted to their new rulers or fled into Hispania.
Culturally, the Visigoths left almost no impact on France. According to C.E.V. Nixon despite inhabiting southern Gaul for nearly a century there is almost no archeological or cultural artifacts remaining for three main reasons. First, the Visigoths adapted to Gallo-Roman culture. The Visigothic people had been wandering, raiding and pillaging for a century, making them very strong warriors but they weren’t very literate, couldn’t construct complex buildings and largely lacked the skills of sedentary people.
The second reason is that when the Visigoths arrived in southern Gaul they allowed the local Gauls to continue their businesses as usual…so long as they got a cut of the profit and grain. While this might sound like a raw deal for the Gallo-Romans, you might be surprised to hear that it was probably better than living under Roman rule. In fact, a number of Romans actually fled Western Rome to the Visigothic Kingdom for economic opportunity! Rome was taxing its people to the brink in order to fight off its numerous invaders so Romans under Visigothic control actually paid less in taxes to their barbarian overlords than they would have to their fellow Romans. As such, life continued as usual under the Visigoths, who encouraged and copied their Gallo-Roman counterparts.
The third reason why the Visigoths left so little cultural impact is because the Gauls despised the Goths who they viewed as uncultured. The Visigoths were relative newcomers, unlike say, the Franks, who the Romans were well-acquainted with. While the Franks had adopted many Gallo-Roman habits and in turn influenced them, the Visigoths were still adjusting to their new sedentary lifestyle. Moreover, the Visigoths under Alaric I were responsible for sacking Rome in 410 and for many Roman citizens the Goths embodied the worst of the barbaric tendencies.
For all these reasons the Romans abhorred Gothic culture, while the Visigoths adapted to Roman culture, law and state bureaucracy. This Visigothic Kingdom even adopted the Theodosian Code, the latest great law code of the Romans, to administer their state. Not that the Visigoths developed much of a state. The Visigoths were only tenuously united and while a strong king like Theodoric I could command the armies, he had little control over localities. One of the major problems of the Visigothic state was that some tribes still raided Gallic villas and towns in their search for food. This upsurge in violence and banditry meant that towns declined, leaving the Visigothic Kingdom with a few large cities while most people lived in small villages.
Despite this, the Visigothic Kingdom was better than pure anarchy, which the Romans were well-acquainted with. The Visigoths maintained trade, most notably with the Vandals, at their port at Burdigala (Bordeaux) and along the Mediterranean coast. Most importantly, the Visigoths supported the Christian Church which by now had taken over numerous functions of state, including running charities and arbitrating disputes. The Visigoths were Arian Christian, meaning that they believed Jesus Christ was not God, but was literally the son of God and therefore his inferior. This bothered many Gallo-Romans who held the Nicene orthodox view of Jesus as God, but during this period these two sects lived in relative peace with one another. In one striking example in 470 from Bourges, in the Seven Provinces, a community of Arian Christians actually chose an orthodox Catholic as their leader. In the next few centuries orthodox Christians routinely persecuted heretical Christian sects, but 5th century Gaul was divided between orthodox, Arians and a small minority of pagans so there was little anyone could do but just live and let live.
The third most influential new group were the Burgundians. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, The Burgundians were actually Scandinavians who inhabited what is today northern Poland. The Burgundians were pushed westward by the Gepids, an eastern Germanic tribe, until they settled in eastern Gaul and founded Burgundia. The Burgundians were similar to the Visigoths in that they encouraged the Gallo-Romans to maintain their economic and cultural practices while adapting to them. However, the Burgundians developed law codes for themselves while allowing the Romans to maintain their traditional laws, unlike the Visigoths who just copied Roman laws. Like the Visigoths the Burgundians didn’t maintain a unique material culture but they did have a lasting linguistic impact. Burgundian became one of the many oïl languages in France, and through it France adopted a number of Germanic words. Finally, the Burgundians developed an intense feeling of local and ethnic pride which endured for at least a millennia. There would be three different Kingdoms of Burgundy and even more states based around the Burgundian identity. Only in 1482 did the last Burgundian state, the Duchy of Burgundy finally incorporate into France.
The second most influential independent people in Gaul were those in Armorica in the northwest peninsula. In the 410s the Gauls in that region lost faith in Rome due to a combination of barbarian invasions and usurper generals from Britannia and within Gaul. These people decided to break-off and form their own independent country. The Armoricans believed that the rocky land, the violent sea and relative remoteness could protect them from invaders better than any legion could, and as it turned out they were right. The land wasn’t very fertile and the people could easily slip away on ships which meant none of the large countries bothered conquering it. This area was more traditionally Celtic than anywhere else within Gaul, though it maintained Roman-style laws and customs. Armorica became a refuge for Gallo-Romans fleeing Germanic rule, and became a last haven of Gallo-Roman culture after 475 when Rome lost control of all of Gaul.
From the 5th-7th centuries Armorica rapidly transformed due to events in Britannia. During this time three Germanic tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes migrated into Britannia, forcing many local Britons to flee. Many of these sought refuge in Armorica. The huge influx of Britons to the region changed the culture, identity and language. Eventually, the peninsula dropped the name ‘Armorica’ for the more appropriate Bretagne, or in English, Brittany, meaning ‘land of the Britons.’
This Celtic peninsula would divide into numerous different states but it maintained a markedly different culture from the rest of France. Even to this day, many Bretons consider themselves to be a Celtic people separate from the French majority, with their own unique culture; likewise among many contemporary French people there is a stereotype of Bretons as being lovable weirdos. Brittany would maintain its independence until 1532, and even then it was legally a separate country from France, though both were ruled by the same monarch. Brittany wouldn’t fully incorporate into France until the Revolution in 1789. Thus, this breakaway Celtic state maintained and developed a culture and identity that lasted for over a millennia.
Can you take a guess who the final and most important group was in the history of Francia? If you guessed anything other than the Franks, you really need to re-listen to our old episodes. By now we’re well acquainted with the Franks. They made up a large percent, if not an outright majority, of the soldiers serving Rome in Gaul. Their leaders were among the most respected generals in the empire, serving from Hispania and Africa all the way to Egypt and Syria. Of all the ‘barbarians’ they were the most integrated and intermarried with the Romans. As they adopted Latin the Gauls adopted some of their words and created a hybrid language that became Old French. The Franks and Gauls adopted each others’ names. Finally, those Gauls living under Frankish rule called themselves Franks, meaning there was virtually no difference between an ethnic Frank and their subjects.
While much of their material culture is lost the Franks had a unique art-style that depicted animals and humans in less realistic, more pronounced fashion than the Romans. They frequently worked with gold and precious stones, and were far less likely to use marble, which by this point was a rarity in Gaul. They frequently depicted animals which may have to do with their pagan roots. The most distinctive feature of the Franks was their tendency to lay out graves in rows. Franks were often buried in their clothes with jewelry and other objects, which has led to a number of discoveries of these ancient peoples.
Finally, the Franks had well-developed legal codes, the most famous of which was Salic law, which came from the Salian Franks. These laws were passed down by rachimburgs, or ‘lawspeakers’ since the Franks were mostly illiterate. Salic law dealt with virtually every aspect of life, and outlined a patriarchal, property-based society which specifically forbid women from inheriting titles and property.
By 418 the Franks were probably the most numerous and powerful people within Gaul. However, they were divided between tribes and would not have a king that united most of the tribes until Childeric I in the latter 5th century, and his son Clovis I who united nearly all the Franks. The records for the Franks are scarce, unreliable and often written centuries after the fact, as with the case of Gregory of Tours whose work The History of the Franks is the most complete on the topic. In these and other works there are a handful of legendary figures who may have been king of a few tribes, starting with Faramund, then Chlodio and finally Merovech, who was allegedly the progenitor of the Merovingian dynasty.
Hopefully I’ve explained who the major peoples and their countries were within Gaul. For the rest of the episode I’m going to cover the major events up to 451 when Rome faced off against Atilla and the united Huns.
After the sack of Rome the Roman leaders knew that their empire was falling apart. It would have been foolish to try to retake Illyria from the Goths, North Africa from the Vandals, or Hispania from the Vandals and Visigoths. The Romans were overtaxed and had to decide which part of the empire they could realistically keep, aside from Italy. Ultimately they decided that Gaul would be the last Roman territory they could and must hold. Gaul had always been an important part of the empire. It was a large, agriculturally-rich land. Moreover, by this point most of Rome’s soldiers came from Gaul, either from locally-enlisted Gauls or from the foederati, those non-Romans who joined the army as mercenaries. The emperors and their advisers decided that they would try to control as much of Gaul as they could and fight against invaders there, rather than allowing them to control the passes through the Alps and ravage Italy.
One man was put in charge of defending Gaul from collapse: Flavius Aetius. Aetius was born around 391 in Moesia, near the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Hunnic Empire. The son of a Roman general, he enrolled in the army as an officer. In 405, at the age of 14, he was given to Alaric I as a noble hostage. Alaric I trained the boy for three years and grew fond of him, but was ordered to send him to Uldin, the most powerful leader of the Huns. Aetius experiences familiarized him with multiple war cultures and he learned how to fight as a Roman, as a Goth and finally as a Hun.
In 423 the Western Roman Emperor Honorius died, leaving no heir. The Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II supported the four-year old nephew of Honorius, Valentinian, to the purple, but by then a usurper named Joannes had seized power. Aetius declared for Joannes and recruited a mercenary army of Huns to support him. But by 425, when Aetius arrived in Italy Joannes was dead. Now Valentinian III’s supporters and Aetius were in an awkward spot, since Aetius had an army of Huns behind him, but no legitimate claim to power himself. The two parties compromised when Valentinian III’s advisers made Aetius the military commander in Gaul. This initial confrontation created a permanent rift between Aetius and the Eastern-backed court at Rome. For the next thirty years Aetius was grudgingly tolerated because of his ties with the Huns. As long as he used these connections and military cunning to further Rome’s interests he would be safe, but the second he wore out his usefulness the politicians in Rome would gladly slide a knife between his ribs.
In 426 Aetius marched with his Huns to Arelate, the capital of Roman Gaul, which was under siege by the Visigoths under Theodoric I and defeated him. Afterwards, he spent the next five years alternately fighting the Franks and Visigoths, capturing a few notable cities but mainly pushing the Germanic tribes back into their own territory. By 433, Aetius was the undisputed military commander in Western Rome due to his military genius, his connection with the Huns, and the fact that the two other leading generals were killed due to political intrigue.
In 436, Aetius fought against the encroaching Burgundians with his Huns. Theodoric took advantage of the situation and besieged Narbo. Aetius’ second-in-command Litorius held the city with his own Hunnic mercenaries lent to him by Aetius and chased the Visigoths back to their capital at Tolosa (Toulouse) by 439. This was far too ambitious and Theodoric I defeated the army and captured Litorius who died shortly thereafter. Theodoric I then went on the offensive and Aetius fought him to a stalemate and the two agreed to a peace.
While Litorius wanted to seize glory for himself and reconquer lost territory, Aetius knew the days of Roman expansion were over, and chose not to try to reconquer North Africa, Britannia and parts of Hispania. For him, victory was when the ‘barbarians’ realized that fighting Rome was more trouble than it was worth. Aetius respected the so-called ‘barbarians’ and dealt with them amicably. Despite consistent conflict, Aetius and Theodoric I actually had a working relationship and were rivals rather than committed enemies. In 442 Aetius settled Burgundian tribes around modern-day Savoy, hoping that by giving them land he could establish peace with them, which he did. In 445 the Franks began seizing Roman cities most notably Turonum, modern-day Tours. Aetius marched against them and warred until 450, though he gave them good terms and according to legend adopted the Frankish king Merovech as his son.
Aetius’ actions would have scandalized earlier Roman generals like Scipio Africanus, Caesar and Trajan, but he was the perfect man for his time. Aetius understood that the Germans were here to stay. Though he could be brutal at times Aetius’ never imposed harsh terms on his rivals, and certainly never disrespected them. He became a man under Alaric I, he became a leader under Uldin, and his Hunnic mercenaries made him the most powerful man in Western Rome. His far-sightedness would save the empire at least for a while. Next time, Atilla will lead the Huns westward and Rome would fight one last epic battle.
Early Medieval Europe 300-1000 by Roger Collins, 3rd ed. 2010
Fifth-century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity? Ed.s John Drinkwater and Hugh Elton 1992
The Franks by Edward James, 1988
Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul by Ralph Whitney Mathisen, 1993