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.
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.