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.