The Western Roman Empire falls. Gaul is no more, & three kingdoms vie to replace it. Antiquity ends & Clovis turns the land into the first great medieval kingdom: Francia.
Hello everyone, before we begin I want to make a quick announcement. First of all, life has been hard with the quarantine and having to conduct my teaching duties online, but I have been working even harder! I aim to be back to my schedule of a main series episode every other week.
Second, I have a book coming out May 15th called ‘The Maiden Voyage of New York City.’ After publishing short stories for ten years this will be my debut novel. The Maiden Voyage of New York City is a science-fiction story that takes place in, where else, New York, after the glaciers have melted and the world has flooded over. The city becomes a ‘Venice with skyscrapers’ and a new world wonder as its giant towers float on platforms. Yet a conspiracy threatens to send it crashing into the ocean to join the mythical Atlantis.
The story follows six main characters, including the world’s most famous gonzo journalist, who exposes New York’s dangerous underworld. A mayor whose political ambitions ascend with her city. A Boroughs cop struggling with her own mental illness and her uncertainty in her partner, who looks to escape the rough city before it claims him. A young fugitive framed for a murder he didn’t commit. A brilliant scientist who invents a motor that allows the skyscrapers to sail along the coast.
You can order it through Barnes and Noble’s website, and I will include links across social media and on our page. It’s $15.99 for a physical copy and only $3.99 for a digital copy. So if you need something to read while you are in quarantine and want to support my dream by purchasing a copy and giving it a positive review, assuming you like it, I would appreciate more than you could ever imagine. If I can make money through my fiction to cover my expenses it will free me up to do more podcasting, so it helps me and the show. So, if this sounds like something you would enjoy, please check it out.
Episode 34: Gaul No More
This episode marks the end of an era that lasted 525 years & which took us 17 episodes to cover, including this one. We are finally drawing the curtains over Roman Gaul, as Western Rome and its rump states collapse, and the Franks under Clovis I conquer nearly all this land and transform it into the Kingdom of Francia. Our journey through Roman Gaul and the era of antiquity was incredible, but today we will lay them to rest and move on to Francia and the medieval period.
Attila’s invasion of Gaul in 451 and Italy in 452 sent shockwaves through the West, as the Visigoths and Romans struggled to maintain their holdings in Gaul. But as unsettling as these foreign invasions were, internal political scheming made the situation even worse. In 453 Visigothic King Thorismund was assassinated and replaced by his brother Theodoric II. This fratricide almost certainly weakened Visigothic cohesion and Theodoric II was far less effective a leader than his namesake. Meanwhile in 454 in Rome, Emperor Valentinian III personally murdered his general Aetius after decades of disagreements. The following year, he was assassinated in turn by Aetius’ loyalists. This chaos gave the Vandals in North Africa the opportunity to sail up and sack Rome in 455 and while there they killed the new emperor.
The sack of Rome showed the world that the Western Roman Empire was barely an empire anymore. It had lost much of its eastern holdings to Ostrogoths, the Vandals took North Africa, the Visigoths increasingly took Hispania, and Gaul was divided among numerous kingdoms. All that remained outside of Italy were the center and southern Gaul and patches of Hispania. Barbarian invaders surrounded the Western Romans on all sides, and could even attack from the sea. Immediate defense was the elites’ only concern. Since most Roman soldiers came from Gaul they decided that if Italy were to survive they would have to hold at least part of it. In 455 the Gallo-Roman general Avitus was made the new emperor, and a number of Gallic aristocrats were brought into the Senate in an effort to win over the Gallic people.
Now, I want you to try to imagine the worst possible way this strategy could go bad. If you’ve listened to our podcast since its beginning you should be aware that things can always get worse, and when it comes to Roman politics that’s pretty common. Even as the Roman aristocracy appealed to the Gauls, they alienated the Romans, who were growing increasingly xenophobic after the Visigothic sack of Rome in 410 and now the Vandal sack in 455. In 456 the Roman general Majorian and his Germanic-Roman compatriot Ricimer overthrew Avitus, and Majorian became emperor, while Ricimer became the magister militum, or military leader, of the empire.
In 457 Majorian became the fourth emperor in 2 years and this consistent chaos within Rome had serious consequences in Gaul as the Burgundians ignored treaties with Rome and claimed Roman territory. While the Romans believed the Burgundians had betrayed them, the Burgundians saw it differently. They had made personal treaties with previous emperors, not with Rome itself, and when those emperors were killed the treaties were nullified. Burgundian troops were among the most loyal to Rome, and their kings don’t seem to have any particular animosity towards Rome, but the frequent assassinations and upheaval meant that these Germanic peoples couldn’t keep track of who the usurpers were and who were the rightful leaders since this changed so frequently.
In 456, the Burgundians seized Lugdunum and other Roman territories, gutting Roman power in Gaul. After Majorian consolidated power in Italy he realized that he had to take a massive gamble. If he didn’t act now then Roman Gaul would be swallowed up between the Visigoths in the west, the Franks in the north and the Burgundians in the east. Rome had to make a show of force or lose their main source of soldiers, and give up their buffer zone between Italy and the Germanic hordes. Gaul had been the frontline in this war between Italy and Germania for five hundred years and Majorian wasn’t going to be the emperor to lose it.
In late 458 Majorian personally led an army supported by numerous barbarian contingents to reconquer Gaul while Ricimer remained in Italy. When word reached Toulouse, Theodoric II rode out to meet Majorian and the two armies met at Arelate. Shockingly, Majorian won a crushing victory, and in the peace treaty Rome won back all territories the Visigoths held in Hispania and in Gaul they were reduced to being foederati of Rome. From Arelate Majorian marched on Lugdunum and won another stunning victory over the Burgundians, who were also reduced to foederati status. Majorian’s military brilliance, the alliances with disgruntled barbarians, and the infighting and corruption of his enemies delivered much of Gaul and Hispania back into Rome’s hands and for a moment it looked as if he would revive the Western Roman Empire as the Visigoths declined and the Burgundians were once again contained.
In 460 Majorian was content that Gaul was safe and he left his general Aegidius in charge of Roman Gaul while he campaigned in Hispania, subduing his enemies and winning back more territory. In 461 he returned to Italy, perhaps expecting a traditional Roman triumph for his legendary exploits. Instead, he was assassinated by Ricimer, who believed he was growing too powerful. Yeah, Rome isn’t going to have a happy ending. After brief deliberations, Ricimer replaced Majorian with a puppet named Libius Severus. But general Aegidius refused to recognize this usurpation and he led northern Gaul to secede and form its own state, loyal to Rome, but not to Ricimer and the new Emperor. This Roman country was based around Noviodonum, or modern-day Soissons and called itself Regnum Romanorum, which can be translated as The Roman Domain, though historians often refer to it anachronistically as The Domain of Soissons or the Kingdom of Soissons.
Ricimer decided to smash this breakaway Roman state and in 462 made a deal with Theodoric II, giving him the city of Narbonne in exchange for military aid. The loyal Roman general Aegidius saw the joint Roman-Visigothic army approach his territory and knew he was outnumbered. With no other options he turned to the closest great power: the Franks under king Childeric I. After Atilla made Childeric I king of most of the Franks in 451, Childeric I had been consolidating his power by conquering smaller tribes. The last major holdout were the powerful Salian Franks who fought on the opposite side of Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Childeric I combined forceful coercion with propaganda to bring them under his control when he claimed that he was descended from their king Merovech, making him the rightful heir to the Salian Frankish throne. By 462 Childeric I ruled over most of the Franks and when the joint Roman-Visigothic army marched north he and his ally Aegidius drove them back.
In the next two years three leaders died; a general, an emperor and a king.
In 465 the loyal Aegidius passed away. Before his death he left the leadership of Regnum Romanorum to his son Syagrius, who honored his father’s wishes and pledged his allegiance to Rome and his undying opposition to Ricimer. The same year, Emperor Libius Severus died, and was replaced by Anthemius, a puppet of both Ricimer and the Eastern Roman Emperor. Finally, in 466 King Theodoric II was killed by his younger brother Euric. Even though Theodoric II had acquired Narbonne and its rich seaport, he was corrupt, prone to gamble and lost more battles than he won, which made him unpopular among his people, so Euric took advantage of this, slew him and made himself king.
Euric soon proved himself as one of the great kings of the Visigoths, even equal to his father Theodoric I. His first major challenge came in 470 when Emperor Anthemius raised an army of Briton mercenaries to reconquer the Loire. Euric assembled his armies and marched eastward, where he smashed the Romano-British army. Then in 471 he met another Roman army at Arelate and decisively defeated them and seized central and southern Gaul. With Soissons in revolt, Rome’s only remaining territory was Auvergne.
In 472 Ricimer decided that he hadn’t betrayed anyone in a while and Anthemius was annoying him by acting like he was in charge just because he was the emperor. So, Ricimer had him killed and replaced by another puppet. But then this soap opera had another twist as Ricimer died of a hemorrhage, and was succeeded by his nephew Gundobad. But at this point Italy was a shell of its former self. It had been raided by Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals and Huns, and was barely defensible. It was in such sorry shape that Gundobad abandoned Italy in order to contest the Burgundian throne.
In 475 Euric conquered Auvergne, the last territory in Gaul controlled by the Western Roman Empire. The following year, the Ostrogoths conquered Italy and captured Rome. Within a year, the Western Roman Empire and Gaul were no more, ending an era lasting half a millennia. Rome had a major presence and intimate connection with Gaul for 525 years from Caesar’s final conquest in 50 BCE to the fall of Auvergne in 475 CE. For 525 years Gaul was Rome’s shield against Germania and these two countries remade each other. Caesar’s conquest of Gaul gave him the wealth and military power to conquer the Roman Republic. Octavian raised soldiers from Gaul that helped him win a civil war against Mark Antony and create the Roman Empire. A Gallic rebellion was responsible for overthrowing the Julio-Claudians in the Year of the Four Emperors. During the Crisis of the Third Century Gaul broke off to form its own empire and created a blueprint for Roman survival. Constantine led Gallic armies to conquer the empire; and even though few Gauls had even heard of Jesus, Constantine’s success allowed him to turn Rome into a Christian empire. In the late 4th century Frankish armies from Gaul and their brilliant generals defended the empire during the period of mass migrations. These two regions and peoples were bitter enemies, powerful allies and together they receded from political reality into history and legend.
Gaul was no more, and in its place were the three competing kingdoms of the Visigoths, Franks and Burgundians, and a small rump state that still claimed loyalty to a dead empire. In 475 Euric conquered Augusta Nemetum, modern-day Clermont-Ferrand, his final major in what was Gaul. Despite all of his glorious victories in Gaul, Euric’s greatest accomplishments were in Hispania. Euric’s string of victories convinced many local rulers in Hispania to submit to Euric so that by the time he died in 484 he controlled most of the peninsula.
Euric’s rule was the golden age of the Visigoths in Gaul. In 471 he oversaw the Code of Euric, which compiled traditional laws and rationalized them across his realm. He was famous for his patronage of poets and artists. The only major social problem he faced was over religion. The Visigothic elite were Arians while the majority of the people were Catholic. The bishop Sidonius Apollinaris of Lugdunum wrote that it was impossible to enter basilicas in Visigothic Gaul because they were overgrown with brambles. I hate to call a bishop a liar, so let’s just say that this was quite the exaggeration; like his predecessors, Euric was primarily concerned with his secular power, but in this age, religious and secular power weren’t divided and many Catholic bishops were his political enemies. Euric persecuted those Catholics who opposed him, seizing their land and wealth. But, after Euric appointed loyalists to positions of power the religious tension calmed down and Sidonius even got his old position back, where he faced pressure from his fellow Christians in inter-Church politics.
Alas, Euric’s reign was not some start of a great new empire; instead it was the glorious end of a short-lived kingdom. Up north, in 481 Childeric died and left the Frankish throne to his sixteen year old son, Clovis I. Clovis I spent five years administering his realm, before he decided the time was right for his first conquests. In 486 he marched upon Regnum Romanorum, smashed their army at Soissons and ended the so-called Roman Realm. Afterwards he made Lutetia, modern-day Paris, his capital.
In 491 Clovis I marched westward and conquered a number of Visigothic cities with ease, since their king Alaric II refused to meet him in pitched battle. As he conquered, Clovis I pillaged churches, as he was a pagan and always in need of cash for his armies. But as the young king expanded his realm beyond just Frankish holdings and incorporated Gallo-Romans he realized that he needed to appeal to Christians and he married Clotilde, princess of the Burgundians. This marriage was incredibly important in the history of France and in the Western world, because Clotilde was one of the few Germanic aristocrats that was Catholic rather than Arian. Clotilde tried to impress her faith on Clovis I, but when their first child died shortly after birth, Clovis I claimed that the Christian God had abandoned them.
In 495 or 496 Francia was attacked by the Alemmani and Burgundians, who feared Clovis I was becoming too powerful. Clovis I defeated them at the Battle of Tolbiac, yet this war with eastern Germans allowed the Visigoths to retake those cities Clovis I had conquered. In that same time Clotilde gave birth to a second son and had him baptized without her husband’s permission. Again, this child fell ill, but this time he recovered and grew into a healthy young boy. Clovis I accepted this as a sign, and knowing that most of the people he wanted to conquer were Catholic, decided it was time to publicly convert. In 496 at a small abbey in Reims, Clovis I was baptized. Afterwards he encouraged his fellow Franks to convert to Catholicism so that there would be unity across his kingdom. Clovis I’s conversion and the conversion of the Franks expanded his power immensely. He was popular with the common people of Gaul, who chafed under Arian rule; the high-ranking clergy supported him. Finally, his acceptance of Catholicism legitimized him to the Eastern Roman Emperor, who still exercised some power in Italy. As with Constantine and quite a few opportunistic converts in history, we cannot know how genuine Clovis I’s faith was, though the Catholic Church considers him a saint who was responsible for turning Francia Catholic.
The new Catholic monarch administered his kingdom while his wife gave birth to two more healthy sons and one daughter. All the while he bided his time as he waited to strike at the Burgundians. Since he was a child, he had watched the Burgundians fight frequent civil wars between rival claimants to the throne. Sure enough, in 500 another war broke out and when one aspiring king asked for help, Clovis I marched on Burgundy, where he crushed his rivals and made it a vassal state. By 501 Clovis I had eliminated the last Roman territory and made the Alemanni and Burgundians his vassals, leaving the Visigoths as the only other great power in the region.
Before he set out to conquer the Visigoths he assembled an army and marched on Armorica, thinking the small territory would be a quick and easy conquest. As had happened so many times, since at least Caesar’s campaigns, the rocky landscape and the locals’ swift ships made conquest difficult. Yet, even though Clovis I came as a conqueror he was surprisingly well-received. Like most ex-Romans, the Armoricans were Catholic and viewed Clovis I and the Franks as a potential ally against the Visigoths. The clever leaders of Armorica offered to swear fealty to Clovis I and become an autonomous region within the Frankish Kingdom if he left them alone to deal with the Visigoths. It was deft politicking to say the least, since this meant the Armoricans could essentially retain their independence, and it would get Clovis I to leave. After a year or more of campaigning Clovis I realized that conquering the sparse, infertile land was a waste of time and said, “Okay fine, call me king and I’ll leave you alone.”
With that awkward campaign over, Clovis I unleashed his full might against the Visigoths. Yet even as he annihilated the Visigoths’ armies he forbid his soldiers from pillaging the countryside, since he wanted to ‘liberate’ the Catholic population from their Arian overlords. The war was a tactical stalemate as the Visigoths barely held on to their land. Yet, it was a strategic catastrophe for the Visigoths, since far more of them died to Clovis I’s ferocious assaults. During the early 500s many Visigoths fled into Hispania which was richer and far away from Frankish power.
In 506 Clovis I launched another war, and in 507 the main Frankish and Visigothic armies met at the Battle of Vouillé in the far west. King Alaric II was slain and the Visigothic resistance broke. In 508 Clovis took the Visigothic capital at Toulouse and with it, all of the former Visigothic kingdom was under his control, except for a small rump state along the southern coast called Septimania with its capital at Narbonne. Clovis I wanted to rule every inch of Gaul and decided to invade Septimania. But in order to take Narbonne he first had to seize Carcasum, or as it is known in modern French, Carcassonne. If you know anything about Carcassonne, you should know it is a hill, crowned by one of the largest medieval castles in Europe, but even during the Late Roman period it boasted a near-impregnable fortress. Meanwhile, an army of Ostrogoths from the Kingdom of Italy joined the Visigoths because they feared Clovis I’s growing power. At some point Clovis I decided the siege was too costly and he left this petty domain on the coast. It was a minor power anyway, that couldn’t dream of threatening him.
By 508, Clovis I ruled over the entirety of what was once Gaul, save the southern coast. He directly controlled the north, the center, and the west all the way up to the Armorican peninsula. The Burgundians and Alemanni were his vassals, and the Armoricans hailed him as their lord. Gaul was a legend. The land was now Francia.
In the last years of his reign Clovis I completed the transformation of Gaul into Francia by laying the foundations for a new Frankish political structure, legal practices, religious identification and common identity. In 509 he returned to the north. According to the chronicles, Clovis I uncovered a number of pagan aristocrats who were conspiring against him. We have to take these accusations with a grain of salt though. While it is possible that some pagan aristocrats did reject Christianity, this account does sound like propaganda. After all, how easy would it have been for Clovis I to accuse his political rivals of being pagans conspiring against him? These accusations would be perfect if Clovis I wanted to rid himself of troublesome lords and assert his supreme authority over his kingdom. Regardless of motive, Clovis I purged a number of his enemies and potential rivals to his children. Next, he ordered Frankish laws be compiled into the Lex Salica, or Salian Law, so that uniform rule was exercised across his kingdom.
His last great act was in 511 when he called a synod at Orléans. The First Council of Orléans assembled thirty-two bishops from across his realm in order to unify Catholic dogma. The synod gave churches new powers, most notably sanctuary, which meant that if a runaway or criminal entered a church then secular authorities could not remove them without church permission. Moreover, church lands given by the king were tax free, and churches had power over those they distributed welfare to. Arians were expected to convert and Arian clergy could retain their positions if they converted and an established Catholic bishop accepts them. This council helped establish the legitimacy of the Frankish kingdom and the Catholic Church as they recognized each other as the only legitimate secular and religious authorities. Furthermore, Clovis I’s ability to summon bishops across his vast kingdom demonstrated both his earthly power and his spiritual authority.
Through his conquests, his compilation of Salic law and the First Council of Orléans, Clovis I laid the political, legal and religious foundation for Francia. Historians have said that Clovis I made the Franks a united people because these institutions, cultural practices and religious unity brought Franks, Gauls, Romans and a dozen other peoples together so that they all considered themselves Franks. Before, Francia was a vague, undefined mass of competing tribes, but by the time Clovis I died in 511 it was Europe’s first great medieval kingdom.
Early Medieval Europe 300-1000 by Roger Collins, 3rd ed. 2010
The Franks by Edward James, 1988.
The Merovingian Kingdoms 450 – 751, by Ian Wood, 1994