Friday, December 18, 2009

Tangent: Merovingian Gravesites

Upcoming posts will explain how the Burgundians were linked to the Merovingians of Clovis by both marriage and politics. As such, it is with interest that we learn that Merovingian gravesites were recently discovered Paris (via Medieval News):

Noisy-le-Grand is first mentioned in the History of the Franks, by Gregory of Tours at the end of the 6th century AD, in which he mentions a "royal villa" and an oratory for prayer. Can the latter be associated with the cemetery being brought to light at the moment? It is one of the numerous problems that the archaeologists will try and tackle; the study of the bones will bring, in addition, precious indications about the living conditions of the population of Noisy-le-Grand between the 5th and 10th centuries, their demographic profile, kinship links, nutritional deficiencies...

Merovigian belt buckle circa 6th Cent.

On this same plot of land, two cemeteries succeeded each other and intermingle. The first one, Merovingian (5th-6th c.) consisting of almost 300 graves, is characterised by plaster sarcophagi, the dead adorned with bead necklaces, ear-rings, brooches and plate buckles (belt). The sarcophagi, orientated east-west, are grouped by family and community....

Monday, November 2, 2009

Gallo-Romans and Burgundians - Part 3

Sidonius wrote often about his Burgundian overlords and was both complimentary and derogatory in his remarks. He described the wedding of a Burgundian Princess in which the groom was "in flame-red mantle, with much glint of ruddy gold, and gleam of snowy silken tunic, his fair hair, red cheeks and white skin according with the three hues of his equipment." The guards who walked with him were more martial in appearance:

Their feet were laced in boots of bristly hide reaching to the heels; ankles and legs were exposed. They wore high tight tunics of varied colour, hardly descending to the bare knees, the sleeves covering only the upper arm. Green mantles they had with crimson borders; baldrics supported swords hung from their shoulders, and pressed on sides covered with cloaks of skin secured by brooches. No small part of their adornment consisted of their arms; in their hands they grasped barbed spears and missile axes; their left sides were guarded by shields which flashed with tawny golden bosses and snowy silver borders, betraying at once their wealth and their good taste.*

However, not all Burgundians had similar fashion sense, as Sidonius also wrote of how his seven-foot Burgundian patrons of Lyon reeked of garlic and onions and spread butter in their hair. Additionally, he seemed to write from personal experience when he complained of having to feed them breakfast, which required a generous amount of food.

He also related to Auspicius, bishop of Toul that he had written a letter to Felix of Narbonne that said, “I have less opportunity to enjoy the blessed contemplation of your presence, fearing at one time harm from my neighbors [the Visigoths], and at another resentment from my patrons [the Burgundians].” Despite Sidonius’s derogatory remarks, he also praised the Burgundians and preferred their rule to that of the Visigothic King Euric, which he had endured for a time. Additional proof of this belief was given by Sidonius when he wrote of the actions of two of his relatives who moved into Burgundian lands in the 460s because they preferred Burgundian to Visigothic rule.

Most Gallo-Romans hoped that Burgundian power would counter the expansionist desires of the Visigothic king Euric. The aristocratic families in Roman Gaul adjusted to Burgundian rule by restructuring the methods and institutions to better suite the new situation. While the senatorial families of Gaul had withstood the barbarian occupation and some had even thrived, the political positions and patronage that had been in place under the Empire vanished. As a result, they regarded the ecclesiastical offices as a suitable, if not the only, replacement for an aristocratic hierarchy.

Ralph Mathisen (Roman Aristocrats) opined that Gallo-Romans moved into ecclesiastical offices in pursuit of a “general aristocratic ideology. Virtually all of the material and psychological needs of secular aristocracy were available in the church.” This may be true, but reducing their motivations as strictly materialistic discounts the very real possibility that they actually wanted to serve both their communities and the church. Noblesse oblige was an important component of the Gallo-Roman aristocratic ideology. However, these aristocrats were also hindered by the new barriers placed between them by the new barbarian states, which made it more difficult to cultivate and maintain a network of political and personal relationships without risking the suspicion of the barbarian king.

*Edward James, (The Franks) believed this wedding is evidence of a possible marriage alliance between the Burgundians and the Salian Franks engineered by Ricimer and the Burgundians to unite against the Alamans around 469. James believed that Sidonius’ account of the wedding of the Frankish prince Sigismer was “an interesting corrective to the view that late Romans viewed barbarians with distaste.”

UP NEXT: Gundobad


Sidonius, The Letters of Sidonius.
Edward James, The Franks.
Mathisen, Roman Aristocrats.
Avitus of Vienne, ed. Shanzer and Wood.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Gallo-Romans and Burgundians - Part 2

The Burgundians were a small tribe and realized that they could not simply overwhelm the traditional inhabitants of any region in which they were settled. In addition, at least one of their traditions claimed they were genealogically related to the Romans. As such, in the case of the Burgundian kingdom, there was no social differentiation made between Gallo-Roman or Burgundian.

Roman senators and Burgundian nobles were considered of a class, and this equality between social strata held true down to the lowest classes of both people. Additionally, the Burgundian kingdom was administered similarly to a traditional Roman province. It was composed of civitates, which were the same as the episcopal dioceses, and was administered by both a Burgundian and a Roman official.

The new Roman aristocratic clergymen sought barbarian patronage. For instance, Pope Hilarus wrote to Leontius of Arles about a complaint concerning Mamertus of Vienne’s ordination of a new bishop, Marcellus, for the city of Die. In a letter dated October 10, 463, Hilarus explained that he heard of this from his “son, the illustrious master of soldiers Gundioc” who also said that Marcellus was named bishop against the wishes of the inhabitants of Die.

This amply illustrated that Gundioc was not only the new Burgundian king of Die, but was also a Roman official and sent a report to Hilarus that prompted the Pope’s action. Whether Gundioc directed his report to the Pope because he was the leader of the ecclesiastics and logical choice to address the matter or because Gundioc was a Catholic and naturally deferred to the Pope remains unknown.

Gundioc’s position as both king and Roman official probably complicated the networks of loyalty, patronage, and authority at Die. Nonetheless, this Burgundian king filled the void left by the removal of Gallo-Roman patrons and often heard Gallo-Roman appeals. That Gundioc held the position of both Burgundian king and the Roman office of magister militum per Gallias reveals the degree of assimilation achieved by the Burgundians, something that neither the Visigoths nor Franks had yet accomplished.

Thus, the Burgundian kings held a definite place in the imperial hierarchy and this led to the Gallo-Romans accepting the legitimacy of the Burgundian royal court as the locus of provincial government. This peaceful coexistence resulted in very little direct conflict between Burgundians and the Roman Empire. They only fought once at Lyons in A.D. 458, against Marjorian.

Another account told of the charity of the Gallo-Roman senator Ecdicius during a famine in Burgundy. Ecdicius sent his men with wagons to gather the starving people to his estate and fed and lodged four thousand until the famine was over. He then returned them home. There were other reports of how Ecdicius was a leader and man of action, as indicated by a story of how he repelled a party of Goths with only ten other men.

Another Gallo-Roman, Patiens, Bishop of Lyons, helped people avert starvation in a like manner. These stories show the charity of the Gallo-Romans as well as their ability to maintain their comfortable lifestyle under the “harsh rule” of barbarian kings.

Church officials could also successfully petition barbarian kings for relief. In the 460s, the abbot Lupicinus of St. Claude asked the Burgundian king Chilperic I to free some paupers who claimed that they had been illegally enslaved. The oppressor of these peasants was a Roman “sycophant” according to Sidonius. As a means of defense, the accused Roman official attempted to smear the abbot by charging that Lupicinus had predicted the ruin of the Burgundians ten years prior. Lupicinus accused the King and his tribe of oppressing the poor against the wishes of Rome. The king was affected by the plea of the abbot and offered land and vineyards to the monastery as recompense. This act of impartial justice toward a Catholic abbot by a supposed Arian king stood the Burgundian royalty in good stead among Catholics, especially as compared to other barbarian Arians, such as the Goths.

Records show that Gallo-Roman families continued to be influential, and wealthy, for generations. Some transferred their service from the state to the church, though many became gradually accepted into Burgundian service, serving as Counts, treasurers or in other positions, with some offices designated only for those who were Roman by birth. Their influence upon the administration of the Burgundian kingdom was evident, for instance, the Burgundians continued to use consular years to date administrative documents, still written in Latin.

One major difference between Burgundian and Roman rule was the development of the office of count (comes) into a dual position of both military officer and civil servant. This was antithetical to the standard of separation of powers that had been the imperial policy since Diocletian. These representatives of Roman culture greatly influenced the Burgundians and also benefited from the relationship, as did the Catholic church, which experienced an upsurge in church building under the Arian Burgundians.

UP NEXT: Gallo-Romans and Burgundians - Part 3


Wolfram, Germanic Peoples.
Hil.Epist. “Qualiter contra sedis” (MGH Epist. 3.28-29) in Mathisen, Roman Aristocrats.
Elton, “Defence in fifth century Gaul,” in Fifth-century Gaul: a Crisis of Identity?, eds. Drinkwater and Elton.
Barnwell, Emperors, Prefects, & Kings.
Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks.
Samual Dill, “Persistence of the Aristocratic Way of Life,” in The Barbarian Invasions: Catalyst of a New Order, ed. Katherine Fischer Drew (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970).
Bury, Roman Empire.
Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire.
Vulpicini 10 in Mathisen, Roman Aristocrats.
Yitzhak Hen, Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul A.D. 481-751 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995).
Louis Halphen, “Germanic Society in the Early Sixth Century,” in The Barbarian Invasions, ed. Drew.
The Burgundian Code, trans. Katherine Fischer Drew with a foreword by Edward Peters, 4th ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).
King, Roman Gaul.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Gallo-Romans and Burgundians - Part 1

Concessions to barbarians in the form of lands and titles were a necessity for the Empire. However, the constant rebellions for expansion strained the imperial treasury and the Empire taxed the goods produced by its territories to pay for the army and its administration. At the same time, the Empire was giving away either land or the tax revenue it generated, which reduced the resources available for defense and civil service. This reduction in resources significantly affected the Roman elite.

By the fourth century, as the church had expanded and the Roman bureaucracy shrank, Roman aristocrats became attracted to ecclesiastical offices as a means of exercising local political power. As a result, the line between imperial politics and ecclesiastical administration became blurred. There were also many who sought these office for more traditional, spiritual reasons and some, such as Martin of Tours and Ambrose of Milan, opposed imperial interference in Church affairs, though others, such as Felix of Trier, supported secular involvement in administration.

The Roman aristocratic class relied on imperial careers for prestige and class legitimization as well as moneymaking opportunities. The weakening of the Roman Empire, perceived by the lessening of revenue by these elite, weakened the attachment between them and Rome. Eventually, loyalty to Rome served no practical purpose and the elite landowners began to look to the barbarians who lived among them to preserve their societal standing and property.

This atmosphere prompted Salvian of Marseille, writing in the 440s, to observe that many Romans fled to the barbarian lands, despite their different religious beliefs. These Romans “prefer to live as free people under an outward form of captivity than as captives under an appearance of liberty.” As such, the idea of being a Roman citizen, once coveted, was abandoned. Gallo-Roman aristocrats perceived a lack of imperial interest in maintaining Gaul at the level they expected and this may have tended to both unify the Gallo-Romans and separate them from others of their class who lived in other parts of the empire.

By the time the Burgundians entered Gaul, the Gallo-Romans had already begun to think of themselves less as Romans, more as Gauls and more interested in their own immediate concerns than in preserving the concept of empire. Additionally, though they loved Rome, self-interested Gallo-Romans had considered a strong central government not in their best interests and a threat to their family-based commercial and political oligarchy. Aristocrats who assessed their situation and reacted appropriately often survived the barbarian conquerors and even profited from them.

However, this did not mean that they lost faith in the Roman method of government. According to Barnwell (Emperors, Prefects, & Kings), “Where Romans were in charge, it is not unreasonable to suppose that ‘Roman’ governmental traditions were continued at the local level.” While this Gallo-Roman flexibility contributed to their survival, it could not have succeeded without an accommodating barbarian king and his people. From their first contact with Rome, barbarians had been cognizant of the advantage of life in the Empire. Regardless of the exact nature of their entrance into the Empire, whether as raiders or foederati or refugees, they sought land of their own. Barnwell, again: “They were likely to look for militarily and economically secure places to settle, and to seek integration with the native population.”

UP NEXT: Gallo-Romans and Burgundians - Part 2


Mathisen, “The Gallic Church In The Fourth Century,” in Ecclesiastical Factionalism.
Heather, “The Huns.”
The Writings of Salvian the Presbyter, trans. Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan, (New York, 1947) in Murray, Merovingian Gaul.
Mathisen, Roman Aristocrats.
Geary, Before France and Germany.
Barnwell, Emperors, Prefects, & Kings.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Burgundian Expansion, Ricimer and Roman Politics

There were two legitimate Roman generals considered to be both militarily and politically strong enough to attract a following in Gaul and to be viable candidates for emperor. The first was Marcellinus, who was supported by both Gallo-Roman aristocrats and the Burgundians in Lyons. The other was the Roman general Majorian who had the support of his barbarian colleague Ricimer. To prevent conflict, Marcellinus decided to support Majorian, a friend as well as a rival, in his bid for Emperor. His Gallo-Roman followers were not so understanding and continued to agitate for Marcellinus after Majorian’s ascendence to the throne. For this continuing intransigence, Majorian burdened them with heavy taxes.

In A.D. 457, the Burgundians seized large portions of Lugdunensis I and Viennensis, apparently as a form of self-payment for their just concluded service to the Empire. They were aided by an uprising in Lugdunum (Lyon) and proceeded to occupy the city, probably at the invitation of the Gallo-Romans. Majorian gathered an army to move against them, but they withdrew, either because of fear of Majorian’s army or because of diplomacy undertaken on Majorian’s behalf. Majorian, not confident in the strength of the Italian army, lobbied the Burgundians and gained their support. As proof, we have Sidonius' allusion to both the efforts of an Imperial Secretary, Petrus, to secure Burgundian support for Majorian and that Burgundians marched under Majorian’s standard in later action.

However, despite any agreement, the Burgundians soon returned to Lyons and took the city, perhaps as early as A.D. 461, but no later than A.D. 474. They continued to expand in this period, taking Die in A.D. 463, Vaison before A.D. 474 and Langres before A.D. 485. Ian Wood noted:

For the most part…the Burgundians were among the most loyal federates of the Empire, and they were proud of their connections with the Romans. The conflict with Majorian was caused by his reversal of the policies of Avitus, rather than any hostility towards the Empire held by the Burgundians themselves.

Part of these land grabbing movements could be attributed to the political machinations of Ricimer. Majorian was but one of many subsequent puppet emperors put up by Ricimer. Ricimer disposed of Majorian and Marcellinius refused to recognize the next puppet, Severus. Instead, Marcellinius went to Dalmatia where he posed an immediate threat to the Ravenna government of Ricimer. Ricimer’s position was made more precarious because Marcellinius also had the protection of the Eastern emperor and he was also under threat from the west by Marjorian’s former general Aegidius. However, Ricimer enlisted the aid of the Burgundians, perhaps with the help of his young Burgundian assistant, Gundobad.

Ricimer was a master propagandist and successfully portrayed Aegidius as an upstart and replaced him with Gundobad’s father, the Burgundian king Gundioc, no later than A.D. 463, who he moved into the strategically well-placed Lyons. He also convinced the Visigoths that his emperor, Severus was the rightful one. This forced Aegidius to seek allies, including the Franks from Tournai, under the Merovingian chief Childeric. Ricimer and his allies eventually prevailed, but these events set the stage for further antagonism between the Franks, Visigoths and Burgundians. Further, as a reward for his help, Ricimer formally awarded Gundioc with Aegidius’s former position of master of soldiers, while he ceded control of Narbonne to Theoderic II.

In fact, every subsequent Roman regime lobbied support from Gallo-Roman and Italian senators, Goths, Franks and Burgundians. This resulted in a policy among the Germans of withholding support for an imperial figurehead unless a proper payoff was promised. The Burgundian kings won Roman titles as Gundioc, Chilperic I and later Gundobad, were all regarded as patricians of Gaul. By the time of the Emperor Anthemius (A.D. 467-472), large concessions had been made to the Burgundians in Gaul to ensure their aid against Euric and his Goths.

These events reveal that the Burgundians were active participants in imperial faction politics. They apparently felt that standing in the Empire and relations with respect to the Emperor were important. Their earlier military actions confirm this. They supported the Romans against the Sueves in the 450s and the Huns in A.D. 452 and sided with one emperor against the followers of a deposed other when they fought Aegidius. They may have seized Lyons after Avitus was deposed because the Gallic senators supported the late emperor and opposed Majorian. They also must have been viewed as powerful political players in the empire if the Gallo-Roman aristocrat Arvandus approached them to propose that they be given territory in exchange for supporting the removal of Anthemius.

UP NEXT: Gallo-Romans and Burgundians

Randers-Pehrson, Barbarians and Romans.
Marius of Avenches in Murray, Merovingian Gaul.
Sidonius, Poems and Letters. trans. and intro. by W.B. Anderson, vol.1, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936).
Ian Wood, The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751 (London: Longman Group, 1995).
Musset, Germanic Invasions.
Wolfram, Germanic Peoples.
A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: a Social, Economic and Administrative Survey, 3 vols, (Oxford, 1964): 241-2, in Barnwell, Emperor, Prefects, & Kings.
Heather, “The Huns.”
Mathisen, Roman Aristocrats.
Bury, Roman Empire.
Barnwell, Emperor, Prefects, & Kings.
Sidonius, The Letters of Sidonius, trans. O.M. Dalton, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1915) in Murray, Merovingian Gaul.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Expansion in Gaul

The traditional political groups interested in the western imperial regimes of the first half of the fifth century were the Eastern Empire, the Roman armies and the Roman and Gallic senators. After about A.D. 450, the barbarian groups that had been established on Roman territory (including the Burgundians) had to be added to this mix. After the death of Attila in A.D. 453 and his greatest sponsor Aetius in A.D. 454, the Huns were no longer a factor in Roman politics. The only sensible course of action was to include some of the barbarian groups in the political machinations of the time.

The Burgundian king Gundicar had fallen to Attila’s horde at Chalon and his sons Gundioc and Chilperic I assumed leadership of the Burgundians. They supported Avitus, a Gallic aristocrat who had been appointed master of soldiers in A.D. 455, as candidate for emperor when news came to Toulouse that the Emperor Maximus had been killed by the Vandal sack of Rome in A.D. 455. Avitus’ candidacy was also supported by the Franks and he was declared Roman Emperor by the Gallo-Roman senators on July 9, 455.

Also in this year, according to Danuta Shanzer and Ian Wood, it is recorded that the Gepids were driven back by the Burgundians and dispersed through Gaul. This is a more recent translation and is contrary to earlier ones that reversed the driver and driven. Shanzer and Wood argued convincingly that, while the Continuatio Havniensis Prosperi stated that the Burgundians were dispersed throughout Gaul because they “were driven back by the Gepids,…It would make more sense if the Gepids rather than the Burgundians were the subject of the verb repelluntur.” Thus, the Gepids were driven by the Burgundians, and not the other way around. The apparent misstatement in the Continuatio Havniensis Prosper is a clear example of the confusions and ambiguities associated with the sources which contribute to the Burgundians being lost in the mist of time.

The raising of Avitus to the purple was the conclusion of a process that had been developing in Gaul for some time. The provinces in Gaul had been administered semi-autonomously from the imperial government prior to the late fourth and fifth centuries, but any pebble thrown into the center of the Imperial pool made waves that eventually reached the outer edges. All of the trials and tribulations that were endured by Rome were also felt by her provinces. The Gallic aristocracy saw the imperial court abandon Trier, heard the barbarians pounding on their gates, and felt the tension between the Eastern and Western imperial courts after the death of Theodosius. An attitude of self-reliance was born, though interest in the machinations of imperial politics was still keen as Gallo-Romans continued to participate in imperial factional politics. The raising of the Gallo-Roman Avitus as emperor was the pinnacle of their efforts.

Gundioc and Chilperic I then accompanied the Visigothic king Theodoric II (A.D. 453-466) on his campaign against the Suavi in Spain (A.D. 456), which he undertook at the behest of Avitus. Together, the Burgundians and Visigoths fought the entire tribe of the Suavi near the river Ulbius and almost destroyed them. Unfortunately for Avitus, the Eastern Empire did not support him and Majorian and Ricimer, Roman-barbarian generals, deposed him at Placentia, where he was made a bishop and died soon after.

UP NEXT: Ricimer


Geary, The Myth of Nations.
Heather, “The Huns.”
Avitus of Vienne: Letters and Selected Prose, trans. with an introduction by Danuta Shanzer and Ian Wood, Translated Texts for Historians, vol. 38, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002).
P.S. Barnwell, Emperor, Prefects, & Kings: The Roman West, 395-565 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992).
Jordanes, Goths.
Chronica a. CCCCLV-DLXXXI, ed. Th. Mommsen, Chronica Minora 2, MGH AA 11 (1894).
La Chronique de Marius d’Avenches (455-581), ed. and trans. Justin Favrod, 2nd ed. (Lausannne, 1993) trans. A.C. Murray in Murray, Merovingian Gaul.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Founding the Second Burgundian Kingdom

In the Gallic Chronicle of 452, under the year A.D. 443, it is written “Sapaudia was given to the remnants of the Burgundians to be divided with the native inhabitants.” Though their first kingdom ended in catastrophic failure, the Burgundians survived. For the twenty years between the fall of the first Burgundian kingdom and the re-settlement in Sapaudia, no Burgundian King has been identified, but in A.D. 456 Gundioc was first mentioned. He may have been related to Gundahar, though he probably was the scion of a minor line of the Burgundians. It was also possible that he may have been related to the Goths as stories of the mid-sixth century said that Gundioc was a descendant of the old Goth king Athanaric.

The region called Sapaudia covered land that now comprises present-day eastern Switzerland and the southern portion of the Jura Mountains, near Geneva. It is generally believed that Aetius settled the Burgundians in Sapaudia in A.D. 443 because he intended that they serve as a buffer between the Romans of southern Gaul and the traditional Burgundian rivals, the Alamanni, who wanted to expand into the region. However, others have found it hard to believe that Aetius would have placed the recently defeated, and thus severely weakened, Burgundians in such a strategic position.

Even if the Burgundians were not severely weakened, it is doubtful that a brilliant tactician such as Aetius would have placed a strong and resentful Burgundian tribe in a strategic position. Thus, instead of the Alamanni, the problem Aetius hoped to solve by placing the Burgundians as he did was probably the rebellious Bacaudae and their allies in Gaul. Aetius had settled the Visigoths in Aquitania to quell a similar uprising at about the same time. Given this, the Burgundians, though still weakened by their encounter with Aetius and the Huns, were of sufficient strength to deal effectively with a peasant and slave uprising.

The relationship of the Bishop Hilary of Arles and Aetius has also been proposed by Georg Langgartner as a reason for the relocation of the Burgundians to Sapaudia. Hilary enjoyed widespread ecclesiastical support in the region, with a strong base centered at Lerins. He also had strong secular support outside of his own province. One of his strongest proponents was Aetius, who could have moved the Burgundians to Sapaudia to protect Hilary while he was at Besancon. This latter theory does not necessarily exclude the possibility that the Burgundians were placed in the region to quell a rebellion. Taken together, both may offer a more plausible scenario than that of a weakened people being placed in a key defensive position within the empire.

There are other theories. Some believed the Burgundians were too unsophisticated to realize they were being played as dupes by Aetius. The earlier Burgundian support for Jovinus has been cited as proof for this contention, which asserts that the Burgundians were too naïve in imperial politics to realize that they were being rebellious against Rome. Accordingly, the Burgundians applied a kind of circular logic whereby their support of Jovinus legitimized his imperial claim which in term legitimized their support. Thus, with the precedent of a Burgundian collective of circular logicians established, some historians have suggested that Aetius cleverly placed these “loyal if naïve barbarians” in an area that needed to be protected while simultaneously implying to the Gallic aristocrats that these same barbarians may be manipulated or agree with them on a grander plan for Gauls’ place within the empire.

Another, perhaps more likely reason, was that Aetius realized the benefit of having the allegiance and obligations, guaranteed under foederati status, of a group of barbarians who knew what it meant to face the Huns. Perhaps Aetius realized that the Huns were getting too powerful and were a potential problem with whom he would soon have to deal. The Burgundians were only one of a few key alliances he made to vouchsafe against an eventual loss of the control of his Hunnish mercenaries. On the Burgundian’s part, the desire to ingratiate themselves with Rome also cannot be discounted, thus they may have not been so much naïve as having few other options.

Finally, perhaps J.M. Wallace-Hadrill offered perhaps the most measured (if contrarian) opinion that no one knew precisely why the Burgundians were settled in “Savoy” by Aetius in A.D. 443. As he points out, Savoy didn’t seem to be in any danger of internal uprising and the Alamans were possibly too far away to pose an immediate threat.

Whether the Burgundians were settled to perform their duties as garrison troops, constables, or bodyguards, they were eventually called upon by Aetius to provide warriors for military action in other regions of Gaul. In A.D. 451, a faction of Burgundians followed Aetius and Theodoric, king of the Visigoths, when they faced Attila and his Huns and allies on the Catalaunian Plains, near the city of Troyes. Another faction of Burgundians joined Attila.

Attila’s Burgundians were from among those that still lived on the eastern shore of the Rhine and were part of the Hun army that entered the Belgic provinces, took Metz on April 7, 451, and pillaged and burned many other cities. These Burgundians were probably those who had split from the main body during the Vandal assault of A.D. 406. They were also those whom had purportedly turned to Christianity after defeating the Hun Uptar, but later must have been defeated and integrated into the Hunnic horde. The opposing Burgundians illustrates that Germanic tribes didn’t operate in the classically believed mono-ethnic manner. Germans prioritized booty and strength over racial or social loyalty. (Wolfram theorizes that this group seems to have slowly dispersed after the defeat of Attila, and some of them eventually found their way to the kingdom of their tribesmen along the Rhone).

Aetius’ tactic of pitting one Germanic tribe against another, while often successful, resulted in serious repercussions for the Roman Empire. The Empire’s policy of employing barbarians as mercenaries resulted in the gradual consolidation of military power into the hands of various barbarian generals. Roman rulers had concluded that it was safer to have foreign defenders in lieu of Roman armies because foreign chiefs were excluded by their nationality from having a legitimate claim on the throne. They attracted these chiefs by settling their people on Roman lands and extracting a pledge that they and their people would protect Rome from foreign invaders.

The specific nature of the Roman practice of providing land, or some other form of payment, to barbarians in return for their service as defenders has been much debated by historians. All agree that the Roman legal concept called hospitalitas played a role in this mixing of Germans and Romans within a province, but there has been disagreement over the specific characteristics of this system.

The system of hospitalitas was used to settle the Burgundians in their new kingdom of Sapaudia in A.D. 443. Earlier historians believed that Rome gave one-third to two-thirds of the Roman landowners’ estates, including the people on them, to the Germanic troops billeted there. More recent studies, particularly the work of Walter Goffart, have argued that, while there was probably a system of land allotment, this evolved into a system of tax revenue transfer. According to this theory, the Burgundians, and other Germanic tribes, were actually given a fixed portion of taxes assessed on land held by Romans rather than a portion of the actual land thus occupied. Finally, this transfer of tax revenue was made easier because the collection and distribution stayed in the hands of the Roman municipal office holders, the curiales, and did not fall to the barbarians themselves.

Over the years, the Burgundian king gave royal gifts and every loyal Burgundian retainer gained land to go with their share of the tax revenue, if they had not received land already. This informal system turned the Burgundians into landowners. Further, in a series of trade-offs with Roman landowners, they consolidated and centralized their estates, as did the Romans, and a system of Burgundian/Roman land ownership evolved.

Goffart has argued that these results caused confusion in later historical analysis as they were taken to be the form of the original design rather than the evolved result. Additionally, the system of tax reapportionment made sense because settled Barbarian troops did not cost anymore to the taxpayers than Roman troops. According to C.D. Gordon, the “dignity and eminence” of the existing aristocracies and clergy were not adversely affected by the presence of these barbarians.

[W]hen they finally occupied the Roman lands of the west, they had reached a state of civilization which enabled them to appreciate and to make some effort to preserve the civilization they had taken over. This is to be credited in large measure to the subsidies they had received for so long.

The acute instinct of the vastly outnumbered Burgundians to be inoffensive to the Gallo-Romans probably helped them gain the acceptance of their more tenured neighbors. Some historians believe that the Gallo-Romans even welcomed any Germans as a new source of manpower to till Roman lands, or that, specifically in the Burgundians case, that old memories of joining together in support of Jovinus had eased the way for sharing Roman lands.

There were barbarians within the Roman Empire prior to the “invasions,” mostly former or current members of the Roman army or prisoners and their descendants who had been used to repopulate militarily devastated regions. It has also been determined that the Burgundians modified their military unit structure to include Gallo-Romans within the ranks. As such, military, and later political, command, originally in the hands of chiefs or strong warriors who led comitatus, fell to the counts, or comes, of both Romans and Burgundians.

While the Burgundians attempted to smooth relations between their tribe and their Gallo-Roman neighbors, they also took proactive steps to maintain their own tribal unity within their new kingdom. They prescribed common laws and fostered a “common sense of identity” among their Germanic population while at the same time they tried to segregate between the Germans and the Roman or Gallo-Roman people who made up the majority of their new lands. Part of this Germanic unification process was accomplished by kings associating themselves with heroes of often mythical royal families or, at the very least, storied families from the history of their people, as did the Burgundian kings by associating themselves with the Gibechungs (or Nibelungs).

Most of the German tribes used religion as a unifying element and most, including the Burgundians, were Arian, a heretical Christianity that became a sort of cultural unifier, particularly as it became identified with the members of the royal families. The Burgundians also established law codes that drew from both traditional Germanic codes and probably some “local vulgar” Roman law traditions. Unfortunately, while these actions and beliefs were true for the free men who fought for their king, the opinions and thoughts of the peasants and slaves will probably never be known.

Up Next: Expansion


Chronicle of 452, in Murray, Merovingian Gaul.
Wolfram, Germanic Peoples.
Musset, Germanic Invasions.
Edward James, The Origins of France: From Clovis to the Capetians, 500-1000 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982).
Anthony King, Roman Gaul and Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
E.A. Thompson, “The Settlement of the Barbarians in Southern Gaul,” The Journal of Roman Studies 46, parts 1 and 2 (1956).
Justine Davis Randers-Pehrson, Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, A.D. 400-700 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983).
J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Long-Haired Kings and other studies in Frankish History (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1962).
Mathisen, Ecclesiastical Factionalism.
Heinzelmann, Bischofsherrschaft in Gallien: Zur Kontinuitat romischer Fuhrungsschichten von 4. Bis zum 7. Jahrhundert (Munich, 1976) in Mathisen, Ecclesiastical Factionalism
Georg Langgartner, Die Galliepolitik der Papste im 5. Und 6. Jahrhundert. Eine Studie uber den apostolische Vikariat von Arles (Bonn, 1964) in Mathisen, Ecclesiastical Factionalism.
Jordanes, Goths.
Bury, Invasion of Europe.
C. Delisle Burns, “Christianity and the First Europe,” in The Barbarian Invasions: Catalyst of a New Order, ed. Katherine Fischer Drew (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970).
Collins, Early Medieval Europe.
Goffart, Barbarians and Romans.
Geary, The Myth of Nations.
Goffart, “Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians.”
Gordon, “Subsidies in Roman Imperial Defence,”
James, The Origins of France.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Burgundians and Tolkien's Sigurd and Gudrun

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun--his reworking of the Germanic/Norse legends of Sigurd and the subject matter of the Niebelungenlied, the Eddas and others--was published earlier this year to mostly positive reviews (but not all). As with all of his father's posthumous works, Tolkien's son Christopher culled and edited notes and rough drafts (including lecture notes given by Prof. Tolkien who was an accomplished academic linguist) for presentation in this book. The younger Tolkien also offers his own editorial commentary on the source material and, most importantly for the historically inclined, provides some of the notes taken by his father concerning the origins of the various legends. Thus, we have J.R.R. Tolkien's own thoughts--the most contiguous presented in the appendices--on the various interpretive problems and it is here that scholars interested in the historical roots of these ancient Northern European works may profit the most.

J.R.R. Tolkien used other legends such as Widsith and Beowulf to inform his interpretation of how the stories of the mythical Burgundians may have evolved from history.

[Gunther/Gundahari's] tale is one of downfall after glory--and sudden downfall, not slow decay--sudden and overwhelming disaster in a great battle. It is the downfall, too, of a people that had already had an adventurous career, and disturbed things in the west by their intrusion and by the rise of a considerable power at Worms. It is easy to see how their defeat by Aetius only two years previously [in 452 AD] would be telescoped in the dramatic manner of legend into the defeat by the Huns (if not actually connected in history, as it may have been).

[Gunther/Gundahari], already valiant and a generous goldgiver as patron in Widsith, must have been very renowned. Mere downfall, without previous glory, did not excite minstrels to admiration and pity. However, we are probably not far wrong in guessing that there must--quite early--have been some other element than mere misfortune in this tale to give it the fire and vitality it clearly had: living as it did down the centuries. What this was we can hardly guess. Gold? It may well have been that gold, or the acquisition of some treasure (that later still became connected with some renowned legendary gold) was introduced to explain Attila's attack. Attila (when legend or history is not on his side) is represented as grasping and greedy. It may have been in this way that Gunther/Gundahari ultimately got connected with the most renowned hoard, the dragon's hoard of Sigemund [in Old English], of Sigurd [in Old Norse]. (p.340-41)

There is also a discussion concerning Attila's part in all of this (as Atli) that is interesting and concludes with a summary by C. Tolkien that his father:

...sketched out his view of the further evolution of the Burgundian legend when the story that Attila was murdered by his bride had taken root. Such a deed must have a motive, and no motive is more likely than that it was vengeance for the murder of the bride's father, or kinsmen. Attila had come to be seen as the leader of the Huns in the massacre of the Burgundians in 437 {again, telescoping--ed}; now, the murder was done in vengeance for the destruction of Gundahari and his people. WHether or not Ildico {Attila's bride} was a Burdundian, her role in the evolving drama must make her so . And she avenges her brother, Gundahari.

Tolkien believed that the more mythical legends of Sigurd and the Nibelung horde were intertwined with the historical fall of the Burgundians. He based this on a close reading of Anglo-Saxon poetry, particularly Beowulf and Widsith, as compared to the stories as told in Low or High Germany. From his readings, he concluded that the legend of Sigurd was fit into the fall of the Burgundians because both dealt with some sort of gold hoard. He also offers a theory as to how the Burgundians became known as the Nibelungs. In short, it makes for an interesting--if complicated--read.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Germanic Myth and the Burgundians

Early in the thirteenth century, circa A.D. 1200, an anonymous scribe somewhere along the Danube wrote down the old stories, based on even older Germanic myths, that became known as the Nibelungenlied. This tale was supposedly based on the events surrounding the collapse of the kingdom of the Burgundians around A.D. 436/7 and, in particular, it told of the spectacular fall of the royal family at the time, the Gibichungs.

The king of the Burgundians at the time of the tale was Gundahar (Gunther). He was the first historical Burgundian king mentioned, though a tribal history outlined in the Lex Burgundionum of a hundred years later said he was but the fourth king of the line of Gibichungs, founded by Gibica. The Nibelungenlied was based on older Germanic tales, which survive in the Eddas and the Volsung saga. In turn, these stories were derived from an even earlier mythical tradition. Though not necessarily “historic,” the tales are still instructive and supply some clues as to how myth intertwined with actual historical fact or accepted historical belief.


Ivalde was the only being, mortal or god, who knew the source from whence the purest form of the drink, called soma, came. Soma gave the gods in Asgard, led by Odin, their power and wisdom. The gods partook of a less pure form, but strove to learn of Ivalde’s secret.

Ivalde had had three sons, Slagfinn, Egil, and Völund, born to him by Greip, a giantess. One night, Ivalde sent his son Slagfinn and a daughter, Bil, to get a flask of soma for him. After collecting the mead, they were kidnapped by the Moon God, who then dispensed the soma to the other gods of Asgard. Angered, Ivalde kidnapped the Moon God’s daughter, apparently a sort of Sun demi-Goddess, and she eventually bore him many daughters, all of whom were associated with growth and rejuvenation.

A feud between Ivalde and the Moon God erupted. However, though their father was at war with the gods, Ivalde's sons, especially Slagfinn, maintained their friendship with the denizens of Asgard. In Slagfinn’s case, he became particularly close to his now foster-father, the moon-god. From this relationship, Slagfinn thereafter also became known as Huki or Gjuki. Ivalde was defeated in his war with the gods and agreed to an oath of peace. However, this did not last for long. Ivalde later broke the treaty and was defeated and killed.

After the death of their father, Slagfinn-Gjuki* and his brothers Volund and Egil, who were excellent smiths, maintained their friendship with the gods in Asgard for a time, making many treasures for them. However, they too eventually sought to topple the gods. Their attempt failed. Defeated, they departed their lands, running on skis, toward the northern reaches of the world and arrived in the Wolf-dales. There, they met the swan maids, demi-goddesses of growth (and probably their half-sisters), who joined them in their plotting against the gods.

Eventually, however, the swan-maids decided to return south and made their escape while the brothers were away hunting. Upon discovering that their companions had left, Slagfinn-Gjuki and Egil, this time wearing snowshoes, went in search of their swan-maids while Volund stayed behind. Slagfinn-Gjuki searched for his swan-maid, Svanhvít, to the south, while Egil sought his to the east.

Slagfinn-Gjuki eventually found his way to his father’s old hall and claimed the hall and the treasure within as his inheritance. Whether this was equal to his one-third share of the total treasure of Ivalde or if it was the entire fortune, he shared it with his two brothers. Slagfinn-Gjuki buried his treasure inside a mountain for safekeeping. It was the quest for this mythical treasure, the Nibelunge Hort, which inspired so many of the Germanic tales. It was from Slagfinn-Gjuki that the Gjukungs were said to have sprung and, as such, the Gjukungs were one line of the Niflung, or Nibelung, race, and thus rightful heirs to the treasure. Eventually, most of the treasure was collected by the Gjukungs, thanks to their own efforts and those of the mythic hero, Sigurd.

The Gjukungs

Seeking adventure, Sigurd had traveled from his home and come upon a princess, Brynhild, daughter of King Budli, in her castle. They fell in love, and Sigurd gave her a ring, but Sigurd then left her for further adventure. He rode to the lands of King Gjuki, who was married to Grimhild the Wise. They had three sons, Gunnar, Hogni, Guony, and a daughter, Gudrun, as well as a stepson, Gotthorm. Sigurd enjoyed his stay with this family and befriended the sons of Gjuki. Sigurd’s friendship with Gunnar and Hogni grew especially deep and the three warriors pledged mutual bonds of brotherhood. Sigurd formed an even stronger bond with their sister, Gudrun, whom he married and by whom he had two childred, Sigmund and Svanhild.

One day, Sigurd and the sons of Gjuki went to King Atli, son of Budli and brother to Brynhild, on behalf of Gunnar to ask for Brynhild’s hand in marriage. Brynhild lived in a hall called Hinafjall, surrounded by a wall of flame and had sworn that she would only marry the man who could ride through the flames. She had demanded this because she believed that only Sigurd, her true love, would be able to accomplish such a task. Gunnar was not swayed and strove to make the attempt, but his horse did not dare to jump through the flames. Sigurd’s horse was the only one that would brave the flames, but the horse only allowed Sigurd to seat him. Thus, Sigurd and Gunnar switched places and in the guise of Sigurd, Gunnar won the hand of Brynhild and all returned to the lands of Gjuki.

Eventually, the ruse played upon Brynhild was revealed to her by Gudrun. Full of vengeance, she urged her husband Gunnar and brother-in-law Hogni to kill Sigurd. However, they had sworn an oath as brothers to Sigurd and contrived to have their step-brother Gotthorm commit the act. Gotthorm succeeded in killing both Sigurd and his three year old son Sigmund, but was himself killed in the act. Gunnar and Hogni took Sigurd’s treasure for themselves and ruled the land. Brynhild committed suicide.

Atli married Sigurd’s widow Gudrun and invited his new brother-in-laws Gunnar and Hogni to his home. Before their journey, they buried their treasure in the Rhine and then went to Atli’s home where they were attacked and taken prisoner. Atli cut out Hogni’s heart and threw Gunnar in a snake pit.

A harp was procured for him in secret and, because his hands were tied, he played it with his toes in such a way that all the snakes went to sleep, but for one adder, which made for him and gnawing its way through the cartilage of his breast-bone thrust its head through the hole and buried its fangs in his liver until he was dead.

The sons of Gjuki, the Gjukungs or Nibelungs, were no more, and their treasure, the inheritance of the Nibelungs, was lost.

Gudrun, with the help of Hogni’s son had her revenge on Atli, drugging his mead and killing him while he was in a stupor. Then she burned his hall with all of his people within. After that, she tried to drown herself in the sea but drifted and came to the land of King Jonak, whom she married and by whom had three sons. Her daughter Svanhild eventually joined her in this new land. Svanhild grew up to be a beautiful woman and was the object of jealousy between King Jormunrekk and his son Randver. The result of the jealous conflict was the death of both Randver and Svanhild at the hands of the old king. Gudrun urged her sons to avenge the death of their half-sister, which they did. However, the three sons also perished, thus ending the line of the Gjukungs.

Based on these earlier tales, according to Rydberg, the Burgundians believed that Slagfinn-Gjuki was “their emigration hero and royal progenitor.” There were other parallels to other Germanic tribes: Jormunrekk, husband of Svanhild, daughter of Sigurd is the historical king of the Goths in southern Russia, Ermanarich, and events surrounding many of these found their way into Jordane’s history of the Goths. The preface to the Lex Burgundionum, which lists Burgundian kings who have Gjukung names and the Nibelungenlied, which makes the Gjukungs, or Gibichungs, the family of the Burgundian kings, supports this. Slagfinn-Gjuki was not only a hunter, he was also an archer and a fine musician. His musicianship he passed along to his “son,” Gunnar, “the greatest player on stringed instruments in the heroic literature. In the den of serpents he still plays his harp, so that the crawling venomous creatures are enchanted by the tones.” This defiant act was associated with Gunther, king of the Burgundians, who died at the hands of Etzel in the later compilation, the Nibelungenlied.

The Nibelungenlied

Indisputably the Burgundians of Gundahar inspired the later German epic of the Nibelungs. As an anonymous chronicler stated, the historical events of the Burgundian encounter with the Huns must have been memorable to have been used as the basis for the Nibelungenlied. Much scholarly work has been done in an attempt to ascertain the degree of historical accuracy in the work. “The Nibelungenlied remains, with respect to virtually all aspects of its being hitherto examined by scholars, an enigma, but that is a good, if not the major, part of its attraction for both the academic world as well as that of the educated layman.”

The Nibelungenlied was composed of the two stories previously outlined: one story was about a hero, Sigurd (Sigfrid) and the other story was about a villain, Etzel (Atli), supposedly the historical Attila. The Burgundian kings played the role of antagonist and protagonist, respectively, in each. The story of Sigfrid was often believed to hold little or no historical significance, while the story involving Etzel (Atli) was believed to be at least partially based on the true events surrounding the fall of the Burgundians as it was told in the sixth and seventh centuries. Because of this interpretation of the differing levels of historical accuracy, many believed that the stories were two separate tales combined into one epic. That view has changed in recent years.

To recount the second, and probably more “historic,” part of the Nibelungenlied
briefly, Etzel (Atli) married Kriemhild (Grimhild/Gudrun), sister of the Burgundian kings and plotted to steal their treasure, symbol of their wealth and power.

Attila invited them to his court while Kriemhild (Grimhild/Gudrun) unsuccessfully attempted to warn her brothers of her husband’s plot. A battle ensued upon the Burgundian refusal to surrender their treasure and all of them, except Gunther (Gundahar), were killed. Gunther (Gundahar), the last to have knowledge of the whereabouts of the Burgundian treasure, remained defiant in the face of Etzel’s (Atli’s) threats, though he was finally killed. Kriemhild (Grimhild/Gudrun) avenged her kin by killing Etzel (Atli’s). Finally, in a probable reflection of contemporary rumors that a German bride had killed the historical Attila, Kriemhild (Grimhild/Gudrun) was said to have then burned his hall with his retainers inside. She then threw herself into the flames, ending her own life.

The historical linkages between characters in the poem and those from history have been well documented. Less noticed was an apparent link between the historical Roman general Aetius and the hero Sigfrid. Both were heroic external forces that brought doom upon the Burgundian state, both were eventually perceived to be threats to the political system, and both of their deaths involved sexual intrigue and vengeful murder.

The obvious historical error of the saga was the premature placement of Attila as leader of the Huns roughly a generation too soon. However, historical proof of some aspects of the events are extant, i.e. the Burgundians were indeed destroyed by the Huns around A.D. 436, they were led by their king Gundahar, who was killed during these events, and Attila died suddenly in A.D. 453 of a seizure or hemorrhage, possibly brought on by excessive alcoholic consumption. Finally, that the Burgundians had come in contact with, and were influenced by, the Huns has also been shown by their artwork in filigree and by such practices as cranial deformation.

The foundation of the Nibelungenlied was built upon the older Germanic myths surrounding Slagfinn-Gjuki. These tales were fused with historical events to produce a heroic tale of epic proportions. For instance, Hugo Bekker's analysis demonstrates the parallelism between the two sections and other internal consistencies as exhibited by the descriptions of both courtly and military activities throughout the work. Thus, while certain facts about the Burgundians and Attila may have the ring of truth, the historical value of the Nibelungenlied lay more in the way it reflects the later chivalric society of the time at which it was written or compiled.

*Victor Rydberg, in his Teutonic Mythology, explains that his research led to his conclusion that “[t]he names by which Slagfinn is found in our records are accordingly Iði, Gjúki, Dankrat (Þakkráður), Irung, Aldrian, Cheldricus, Gelderus, Hjúki…[and] Hengest (Hengist)….The most important Slagfinn epithets, from a mythological standpoint, are Idi, Gjuki, Hjuki, and Irung.” Another name was Gibich (ie; Gibichungs). Rydberg also determined that Slagfinn and his brothers are Niflungs and that he was also adopted by the moon-god, “whose name he bore. Gjuki and Hjuki are therefore names borne by one and the same person - by Slagfinn, the Niflung.”

UP NEXT: Burgundians and Tolkien's Sigurd and Gudrun


Wolfram, Germanic Peoples.
“Nibelungenlied,” in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Joseph Strayer, ed., (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987).
Viktor Rydberg, Teutonic Mythology: Gods And Goddesses Of The Northland, trans. Rasmus B. Anderson, Memorial Edition, 3 vols., Norrœna Anglo-Saxon classics, vols. 3-5, (London: Norrœna Society, 1907).
The Elder Edda of Saemund Sigfusson, trans. Benjamin Thorpe and The Younger Edda of Snorre Sturleson, trans. I.A. Blackwell, ed. Rasmus B. Anderson, (London: Norrœna Society, 1907).
The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse Mythology, with an introduction by Sigurdur Nordal, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).
The Saga of the Volsungs: The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok together with The Lay of Kraka, trans. Margaret Schlauch, (New York: The AMS Press and W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978; reprint, New York: American-Scandanavian Foundation, vol. 35, Scandinavian Classics, 1930).
Chronicle of 452, in Murray, Merovingian Gaul.
Latouche, Caesar to Charlemagne.

A Companion to the Nibelungenlied, ed. Winder McConnell (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1998).
Francis G. Gentry, Winder McConnell, Ulrich Muller, and Werner Wunderlich, eds., The Nibelungen Tradition: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2002).
Hugo Bekker, The Nibelungenlied: a Literary Analysis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971).
Frank G. Ryder, The Song of the Nibelungs: A Verse Translation from the Middle High German Nibelungenlied (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1962).
Brian Murdoch, “Politics in the Niebelungenlied,” in
in McConnell, ed., A Companion to the Nibelungenlied.
Werner Wunderlich, “The Authorship of the Nibelungenlied,” in McConnell, ed., A Companion to the Nibelungenlied.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Aetius and the Fall of the First Burgundian Kingdom

The Rise of Aetius

After the fall of Stilicho in A.D. 408, the Roman empire had decided to secure military assistance from a non-Germanic source and made a treaty with the Huns, which included the exchange of hostages. One of these was a young Roman named Aetius. By A.D. 425 he had been freed, but his familiarity with the Huns prompted the usurper John (or Joannes), who was in desperate need of military help to ward off an attack at Ravenna, to send Aetius to the Huns with the objective of hiring an army.

Unfortunately for John, Aetius arrived too late to save him, but Aetius was later successful in persuading the Huns to leave Italy in return for booty and hostages. As a result of this remarkable diplomacy, Placidia and Valentinian III forgave him for fighting against them and gave him an imperial title.

In A.D. 432
, Aetius lost to his rival Boniface of Africa in a battle fought near Ariminum. Though he returned to his estate, he maintained enough military strength to preclude an open attack from his enemies. However, Boniface’s son-in-law, Sebastian, attempted to have Aetius assassinated. The failed attempt on his life prompted Aetius to leave his estates and he eventually found his way to the Huns, ruled at that time by Rua. Aetius made a treaty with the Huns in which he handed over Pannonia Prima and also sent his own son, Carpilio, as a hostage. With his new Hun allies, Aetius secured his own position in the Empire and faced down Sebastian, becoming a patrician. He turned repeatedly to his Hun allies to assist him in protecting Gallo-Roman interests.

The Destruction of the First Burgundian Kingdom

Aetius often pitted barbarians against each other for the benefit of Rome. This policy was common, as Roman Emperors were reticent to rely on Roman armies because of a fear of civil war. Imperial authorities had long forbidden men of senatorial rank from joining the army and relied upon the populace in the cities to keep the economy moving. As a result, most of the city and country population of the Roman Empire had nothing to do with the military and the best, and only, recruits left were the barbarians.

The Burgundians were one of the first Germanic tribes against whom Aetius marched, with the goal of preventing their further encroachment on Roman soil. Hydatius wrote, “The Burgundians, who had rebelled, were defeated by the Romans under the general Aetius.” According to Prosper of Aquitaine, “Aetius crushed [Gundahar], who was king of the Burgundians and living in Gaul. In response to his entreaty, Aetius gave him peace, which the king did not enjoy for long. For the Huns destroyed him and his people root and branch.” Various other chronicles put the date of these events in the same approximate time frame, and all lay the defeat of the Burgundians at the feet of Aetius and the Huns.

That Aetius and the Huns both attacked the Burgundians has not been disputed. Whether the Huns proceeded with their attack at the bidding of the Roman general, or did so for other reasons, remains unknown. A comparison of the accounts given in the chronicles only adds to the confusion. Hydatius credited Aetius, or forces under his command, for defeating the Burgundians in both A.D. 436 and A.D. 437, while another anonymous chronicler only mentioned that Aetius was responsible defeating the Burgundians in A.D. 436 and made no mention of a second confrontation. Yet, it was the aforementioned account of Prosper of Aquitaine, who lived during the time of the events, which may provide a hint as to what really occurred.

Prosper clearly separated the two attacks upon the Burgundians as well as those responsible. This does not exclude the possibility that the Huns were acting on behalf of Aetius. If true, then it seems likely that Aetius broke his peace with the Burgundians and their spectacular defeat could have resulted from a mistaken belief that they were at peace. In short, they weren’t prepared for war, especially in a weakened state. However, another interpretation of Prosper’s account would indicate that the two separate attacks were committed by different forces and implies differing motivations on the part of each aggressor. Aetius’s motivation was clear. He sought to protect the Gallic aristocracy from Burgundian encroachment. The reasons behind a Hunnic attack are more difficult to determine.

It has been suggested that the Huns may have had their own reasons for attacking the Burgundians. Some contemporary writers wrote that a portion of the Burgundians had not crossed the Rhine with the bulk of their people. Instead, they remained on the eastern shore of the Rhine, in the region between it, the Main, and the Neckar rivers. According to the ecclesiastical historian Socrates, around A.D. 430, these Burgundians were suffering continuous attacks by the Huns, with devastating results.

Apparently, they spurned their traditional, but ineffective, gods and turned to the Christian god for help. According to the story, their prayers were answered when Uptar, the king of this branch of the Huns, exploded, and subsequently died, as a result of a night of overindulgence. (The death of the Arian heretic Arius is another example of this kind of expiration, though Arius could be said to have "shat himself to death", so to speak. Taking Socrates’ examples, it seems prayers were often answered with this sort of explosive result!). Uptar's leaderless tribe of 10,000 was then easily defeated by a force of only 3,000 Burgundians. Finally, because of this stunning victory, the Burgundians became devout Christians.

While this is undoubtedly a conversion story, some details are verified in other sources. Uptar is probably the same person as Octar, the brother of Rua, king of the Huns, who assisted Aetius. Additionally, the relatively small number of warriors engaged in the battle was notable given that the account was written by an ecclesiastical historian, clerics usually given to inflating the size of medieval military forces! Given this, it can be theorized that a group of Huns, led by the brother of Rua, regularly ravaged the Burgundians but were eventually, and unexpectedly, defeated by their one-time victims. As such, the acts later attributed to the Huns, whether singly or at the behest of Aetius, may have been the result of a desire for revenge. However, and perhaps more simply, it could also be a case of a strong Hun army attacking a weak neighbor for booty and treasure. They would not have needed the blessing, or prompting, of Aetius to embark on such a campaign.

Regardless of their motivation, the Huns were effective in reducing the Burgundians “to manageable dimensions, the manner in which this was done becoming a main theme of bardic recitation.” It was such a remarkable event that it was mentioned by several of the extant chroniclers. This “bardic recitation” eventually became known as the Nibelungenlied. As such, the fall of the Burgundians may have inspired legend, but whether the Huns caused their downfall remains a subject for debate. Finally, the encounter with the Huns may have not only inspired an epic tale, but also, shortly after this time (according to some archaeologists), the Burgundians began to emulate the look of their conquerors as they copied Hunnic fashion and even practiced cranial deformation (though that was not a uniquely "Hun" thing to do).

Germanic Myth and the Burgundians


E.A. Thompson,
A History of Attila and the Huns (London: Oxford University Press, 1948; reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975), 65 (page citations are to the reprint edition).
Musset, Germanic Invasions.
, in Murray, Merovingian Gaul.
Prosperi Tironis
, in Murray, Merovingian Gaul.
Chronicle of 452
, in Murray, Merovingian Gaul.
Walter Goffart, “Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians,” The American Historical Review 86, no.2 (1981).
H. Baynes, “A Note on Professor Bury’s ‘History of the Later Roman Empire’,” The
Journal of Roman Studies
12 (1922).
Socrates, vii, 30, in Thompson, A History of Attila and the Huns.
Socrates Scholasticus, The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, in Socrates and Sozomenus: Ecclesiastical Histories, rev. A.C. Zenos, A Select library of Nicene and post-Nicene fathers of the Christian church : Second series, ed. and trans. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, vol. 2, (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1890).
J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Barbarian West, 400-1000 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999).