Friday, May 8, 2009

Burgundians in the Accounts of Ammianus and Orosius

Under Diocletian (A.D. 284-305), the military was restructured, and two types of legions were created. The first, the limitanei, was composed of garrison troops along the heavily defended frontier and was composed mostly of ill-trained and ill-equipped local troops. The comitatenses, a mobile and more skilled field army, was rushed to assist these local border guards when emergency occurred. The limitanei gradually became composed of local soldiers who were the sons of soldiers and the line between barbarian and Roman was blurred. The comitatenses also filled its ranks with barbarian recruits.

Roughly eighty years after the Burgundian encounter with Probus, Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that, in A.D. 359, the Burgundian lands were located next to the Alamanni in a “region called Capillacii or Palas where boundary stones marked the frontiers of the Alamanni and Burgundians.” This placed the Burgundians somewhere east of the Alamanni, between the upper Rhine and Danube, possibly on the other side of the Roman limes that had been deserted in the third century.

Ammianus also wrote that the Burgundians knew that they were descendants of the Romans from ancient times and that he believed they had descended “from the Romans whom Drusus, and later Tiberius, left behind on the Elbe and elsewhere to defend the frontier.” That they did descend from Romans was possible given the aforementioned frontier garrison policies of Diocletian. Additionally, as Patrick Geary observes, although Ammianus’ Burgundians may have formed in the fourth century, they maintained names and traditions linking them to ancient people of an earlier time and transferred this identity through various social formations.

Paulus Orosius, writing around A.D. 417, also mentioned that the Burgundians were in this region along the Rhine during this period. According to Orosius, around the year A.D. 367, the Burgundians, “a new name for a new enemy” numbered 80,000 armed men who had settled on the Rhine (John Bagnall Bury believed that the 80,000 number reflected, at most, the population of the entire tribe, not the number of warriors). Orosius generally confirmed Ammianus’s theory of Burgundian descent, though this may indicate he used Ammianus as a source. Orosius added that these camps were in the interior of Germany and that the Germans had been dispersed to different camps, a possible reference to Vopiscus’s account of Probus’s policy towards the Burgundians.

By A.D. 367, some of these people dispersed by Probus “came together to form a great nation and so even took their names from their work, because their frequent dwelling places” along the limes where they had settled and “assumed possession” were called “burgi.” As has been shown, it is possible that some unknown chief, perhaps with a legitimate ancestral claim to a Burgundian genealogy, had united these people.

In A.D. 369, the Emperor Valentinian I (A.D. 364-375) had recurring problems controlling the Alamanni and he asked for assistance from the Burgundians, “a warlike people, rich in a countless number of strong warriors, and therefore a cause of terror to all their neighbours.” Valentinian sent secret letters that asked them to take part in a coordinated attack against the Alamanni. (Writing in the seventh century, the historian Fredegar said that, under Valentinian I, the Gallo-Romans invited the Burgundians so that they could stop paying taxes. Walter Goffart points out that, while this could be the reason why the Burgundians were in the region at that time, the likelihood of Fredegar’s claim was probably influenced more by contemporary, rather than historical, events). Valentinian's plan called for the Burgundians to proceed with an initial attack and he and his Roman armies would support them by crossing the Rhine to prevent any Alamanni from escaping.

Ammianus indicated that the Burgundians were amenable to these entreaties by the Emperor for two reasons. The first was because the Burgundians and Alamanni were traditional rivals. They frequently fought over important salt pits and the Burgundians saw this opportunity as a way to solidify their control of these valuable assets. The second reason ascribed by Ammianus was an alleged sense of kinship that the Burgundians felt toward the Romans, which recalled Ammianus’ earlier assertions regarding the Burgundian heritage. (Herwig Wolfram observed that Ammianus’ feeling of closeness toward the Burgundians, owing to a shared romanitas, kept him from dismissing the unique Burgundian form of kingship as barbaric and instead elicited a comparison to the "sacral responsibility of Egyptian pharaohs").

The Burgundians sent their best warriors on the campaign and fought the Alamanni to the Rhine before the Romans had even put their forces in the field. The delay was caused by the Emperor’s preoccupation with fortifying the frontier. This presumably distracted him from forming his army in time to support the Burgundians, as he had pledged. The sight of Burgundian war parties opposite the Rhine apparently caused fear among the Roman citizens. According to Ammianus, the Burgundians saw the panic they had caused and halted. They waited on the opposite shore for word from Valentinian.

When neither Valentinian nor his forces appeared to be readying for war, the
Burgundians believed, rightly, that he had reneged on his bargain. They decided to return to their homelands, but first sent envoys to him to demand that he, at the very least, protect their retreat against the Alamanni still in the region. Apparently, Valentinian refused to address these envoys “and when they perceived that by subterfuges and delays their request was practically denied, they went off from there in sorrow and indignation.” The Burgundian kings were informed by their envoys of Valentinian’s disrespectful treatment and were greatly enraged. They proceeded to kill all of the Alamanni prisoners they had captured and returned to their lands. Ammianus further explained that the Burgundians had weakened the Alamanni to such an extent that, the following year, Theodosius, commander of the cavalry in Gaul, seeing that the Alamanni had scattered in fear of the Burgundians, attacked them, killed many and sent the prisoners to Italy.

Ammianus also offered a description of the Burgundian leadership:

In their country a king is called by the general name Hendinos, and, according to an ancient custom, lays down his power and is deposed, if under him the fortune of war has wavered, or the earth has denied sufficient crops; just as the Egyptians commonly blame their rulers for such occurrences. On the other hand the chief priest among the Burgundians is called Sisistus, holds his power for life, and is exposed to no such dangers as threaten the kings.

According to Ammianus, then, the dualistic Germanic leadership structure was in evidence among the Burgundians in the late fourth century. However, it seems that the hendinos was clearly in charge of military matters and seemed to have been held responsible for the general welfare of the tribe. The sisistus (or sinistus) appeared to be a holy man who could probably trace his ancestry back to the tribe’s founders. His position was more ceremonial. He had been a “king by noble birth” (rex ex nobilitate) and had been the leader of a smaller, essentially ethnically homogeneous society. The hendinos had earned his position by his action and led a more diverse, and presumably larger, army.

Those from the royal line of the sisistus were not necessarily excluded from becoming a hendinos. Should a line fail by being surpassed in deeds by one from another family, it was often the case that a new royal family, and often a tribe with new ethnic elements, would co-opt the ancient origin of an established people. This was probably how such tribal names as the Burgundians were kept alive. As the ancient tribal kingship model was replaced by the warrior king of migrating armies, the latter was forced to assume many of the political, or official, duties formally assigned to the sisistus. However, with greater power came greater responsibility, and the reverse, such that the sisustus was relatively secure in his position while the hendinos was often held directly accountable for the welfare of the tribe, regardless of his culpability. Thus, it seems apparent that, according to Ammianus’ observations, by this time the Burgundian dux, the hendinos, had gained the preeminent position of authority among the Burgundians.

All that being said, a cautionary note. Ian Wood has explained that Ammianus Marcellinus’:

...famous description of sacral kingship among the Burgundians…demands cautious treatment. Ammianus compares the Burgundian system with that in use in Egypt. But Egypt did not have sacral kingship in the late fourth century A.D. This suggests that Ammianus is quoting a much earlier source. Whatever the source was, the evidence cannot be used at face value for a study of Burgundian kingship just before the migrations.

UP NEXT: The First Burgundian Kingdom


Geary, The Myth of Nations.
Ammianus, The History.
Heather, in “The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe,” The English Historical Review .
Geary, Before France and Germany.
Paulus Orosius, The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, vol. 50, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1964).
J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1958).
Fredegar, Chronicles, 2.46 (MGH Script. Rer. Merov., vol 2).
Goffart, Barbarians and Romans.
Wolfram, Germanic Peoples.
Ian Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and Consent,” in Early Medieval Kingship, eds. P.H. Sawyer and I.N. Wood (University of Leeds, 1977).

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