Sunday, May 3, 2009

Probus and the Burgundians

The Burgundians moved westward sometime in the middle of the third century. They apparently took advantage of the chaos caused by the civil wars in the Roman Empire following the murder of Maximinus in A.D. 238. Around A.D. 274, the Burgundians were among tribes that raided Gaul and sacked Trier and other towns. Writing in the fourth century, the historian Vopiscus mentioned an encounter between the Emperor Probus (A.D. 276-282) and a group of Germans near the Rhine. (Before proceeding, please note that the validity of the written sources for this period--particularly the Historia Augusta--have been called into question and, at the least, vigoriously debated).

Zosimus, a Greek historian who wrote at the turn of the sixth century and relied upon earlier accounts, mentioned that the group of Germans attacked by Probus included both Burgundians and Vandals. Zosimus described that, in A.D. 277, Probus set out to reclaim Gaul from the Germans who had seized it. Though he had inferior numbers, Probus used a combination of taunting and tactics to prevail over his Germanic adversaries, killing many and driving the rest back over the Neckar River and beyond the Swabian Alb.

Probus was not content merely to defeat them in a single battle, however, and he proceeded to strengthen the frontier along the Rhine to assist in making a more lasting impression upon the Germans. He built garrisoned camps on barbarian soil and provided supporting infrastructure, in the form of farms, houses, and storehouses. He also provided rations of grain for these troops beyond the Rhine.

Some historians are not sure of linking these archaeological finds specifically with the settlements Probus purportedly established, nor of their being long-term. For instance, H. Schonberger didn't think the evidence supported such a theory, however, he also noted that

...similar action must often have been taken before; any partial occupation of the right bank at this time, however, cannot have lasted long. It would fit the evidence well if the area between the Rhine, the Danube and the limes had formed a sort of no-man’s land from 259-60 until about 300. It is then that the Germans first begin to leave tangible archaeological traces in this area.

For that matter, Malcolm Todd observed that archaeology has shown that the Celts and Germans were not so ethnically distinct as portrayed by Tacitus and Caesar and that the Rhine as a dividing line between the two cultures was not only misleading, but it obscured a third people who were neither definitively Celtic nor Germanic, though they were culturally similar.

Setting aside the archaeological debate, sources indicate that, thus strengthened, Probus continued to fight the barbarians and set a price for each head delivered to him. He only stopped when, according to Vopiscus, “nine princes of different tribes came before him and prostrated themselves at his feet.” Probus made a series of demands of these Germans, including a requirement that they supply him with hostages, grain, and livestock. He ordered them to lay down their swords because they would not need them as they were under the protection of Rome. With the consent of the barbarian princes, he severely punished those who had not given back booty.

Not all agreed to Probus’s demands. Zosimus gave the name of a certain Igullus as being the leader of the Germans who refused to surrender their plunder, though whether he was a Burgundian or Vandal was not clear. According to Zosimus, Probus took Igullus and many recalcitrant Burgundians captive and shipped them to Britain where they settled and put down rebellions on Rome's behalf. Vopiscus confirmed that Probus took prisoners, and he also wrote that Probus took sixteen thousand recruits that he then dispersed throughout the provinces, placing small detachments of fifty or sixty among the soldiers along the reestablished frontier.

Vopiscus asserted that Probus scattered these men in this surreptitious manner because he believed “that the aid that Romans received from barbarian auxiliaries must be felt but not seen.” Further, Vopiscus detailed a letter written by Probus and sent to members of the Roman senate in which Probus declared that “all of Germany . . . has now been subdued, and nine princes of different tribes have lain suplliant [sic] and prostrate at my feet, or, I should say, at yours . . . [the barbarians] plough for you, plant for you, and serve against the more distant tribes.”

UP NEXT: The Burgundians in the Accounts of Ammianus and Orosius


Bernard S. Bachrach, “Burgundians,” in Dictionary of the Middle Ages.
Anthony King, Roman Gaul and Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
Flavius Vopiscus, Probus, trans. David Magie in The Scriptores Historiae Augustae, vol.3, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1932).
Zosimus, Historia Nova, trans. James J. Buchanan and Harold T. Davis (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 1967).
H. Schonberger, “The Roman Frontier in Germany: An Archaeological Survey,” The Journal of Roman Studies 59, no. ½ (1969).
Malcolm Todd, Everyday Life of The Barbarians.

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