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.