Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Battle of Soissons (AD 486) ~ The final fall of Roman power in Gaul

Approximate extent of the domain of Syagrius, AD 486.
What if I told you that the Western Roman Empire didn't actually fall until AD 486? Yes, most know that Odoacer deposed the puppet emperor Romulus Augustulus in AD 476, and Julius Nepos reigned as "emperor of the West" from Dalmatia until AD 480. But in Gaul, a sizable territory remained under Roman control for another six years after the death of Nepos. This is the so-called “Kingdom of Soissons”, and it had been carved out originally by Aegidius, the last Magister Militum per Gallias.

Aegidius was a former lieutenant of the great Roman commander, Flavius Aetius. After Aetius’s assassination, Aegidius became a partisan of the emperor Majorian, helping him in his campaign against the Visigoths in southern Gaul. When the barbarian Magister Militum Ricimer toppled Majorian, Aegidius refused to recognize Ricimer’s puppet emperor, Libius Severus, and established a separate polity in northern Gaul. Given Aegidius’s apparent facility with creating alliances with his barbarian neighbors and Ricimer’s inability to project power beyond the Alps, Aegidius was able to hold his domain successfully until his death of plague in AD 465. Upon that event, his son Syagrius took control of Soissons and was able to protect it from barbarian incursions for over 20 years.

Things came apart for Syagrius and Soissons, however, with the arrival on the scene of the powerful Frankish king, Clovis I, who desired to add Soissons to his growing possessions. The account of Gregory of Tours, written in the mid-6th century AD, offers a summary of what happened next:
“Childeric died and Clovis his son reigned in his stead. In the fifth year of his reign Siagrius, king of the Romans, son of Egidius, had his seat in the city of Soissons which Egidius, who has been mentioned before, once held. And Clovis came against him with Ragnachar, his kinsman, because he used to possess the kingdom, and demanded that they make ready a battlefield. And Siagrius did not delay nor was he afraid to resist. And so they fought against each other and Siagrius, seeing his army crushed, turned his back and fled swiftly to king Alaric at Toulouse.” [Gregory of Tours (Brehaut, ed.), History of the Franks, pg. 36]
This small passage is the last written remnant we have of a significant Western Roman army doing battle to defend the Empire.

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Interestingly, several years ago this tiny fragment of history was expanded into a full-fledged novel by Justin Swanton entitled Centurion’s Daughter. The book is one of those rare pieces of historical fiction that successfully shines light on a very obscure time without engaging in ridiculous revisionism, allowing the extant history to speak for itself while providing a completely plausible framework.

Here is an excerpt from Swanton’s well-written narrative, told from the point-of-view of Aemilia, a Franco-Roman maiden from Soissons. It has always struck me as a very good representation of a clash of arms between late Romans and Franks:
Over the wind the murmur of a clamor reached her ears: a faint cry that rose and fell. With it came a sound as of a vast drumming. One of the cavalry guards turned to Ennodius. “Doing their warcry, My Lord, and hitting their weapons against their shields. They’ll be coming now.”

For a full minute the cry lingered on the wind, then, drifting like a heavy mist over the land, the thin line of Frankish skirmishers approached the Romans.

Aemilia did not hear the command that let loose a rainstorm of arrows upon the Franks. She saw figures fall. It took a moment for the truth to impact on her mind—within her sight, men were wounded, dying, dead. All she had read about the epic clash of arms, the renown of great soldiers and the glory of battle melted before the reality like wax in a fire….

The Battle of Soissons as imagined by
Justin Swanton in Centurion's Daughter
After a few moments, the Frankish skirmishers reached their own bowshot range and stopped to shoot back. A number of them ran closer and hurled javelins at the front ranks. In their turn the Romans added darts and javelins to the blizzard of arrows enveloping the Franks. More and more fell and finally, as if on a signal, the survivors broke and ran.

The horse archers surged after them, individual horsemen pausing now and then to shoot arrows at the retreating Franks. Their pursuit followed up all the way to the main Frankish lines which became their next target.

Some moments passed. Finally, through the front Frankish line, the Frankish cavalry charged. The horse archers ceased shooting and turned, making for their lines at a full gallop with the Franks close behind.

With her attention on the horsemen, Aemilia did not immediately notice what was happening in the center. Once the remnants of the Frankish skirmishers had retreated through the main lines, the frontmost of these began to advance rapidly towards the Roman infantry. At the same time the Frankish cavalry halted in their pursuit of the retreating horse archers. There was a murmur from the riders surrounding Aemilia and Ennodius.

“What’s happening?” Ennodius asked.

“The Franks have stopped their charge,” replied the one who had spoken to Ennodius earlier. “First time I’ve ever seen barbarians do such a thing…My Lord.” Aemilia heard the note of concern in his voice.

The horse archers reached their starting positions and began milling around, slowly reforming their line. Aemilia sensed that Syagrius’s plan had met a hitch: the Franks were not doing what was expected of them.

Thwunk, thwunk, thwunk. The noise startled Aemilia. She glanced to the left. The ballistae, enormous crossbow-like weapons mounted on wheeled bases, were firing their missiles at the Frankish line. The bolts flew with incredible speed over the heads of the Plumbarii and disappeared into the enemy ranks, with what effect she could only imagine.

A few moments later, the archers loosed on the Franks, followed shortly after by a volley of large war darts from the Plumbarii. Then, as the Frankish first line drew near, Aemilia heard the centurions crying out an order, “Second line!” …

[© Justin Swanton. Centurion’s Daughter, page 184-5. Reprinted with permission.]
Needless to say, the situation soon deteriorates for Syagrius, but this excerpt should give you an idea of how well the author captures the action. Swanton offers some additional comments on the research he put into this novel here. He provides a very detailed hypothetical reconstruction of the Battle of Soissons here.

If you like this sort of thing, as I do, you will enjoy Swanton’s writing and thoughtful attention to historical detail. Given the scant information available on these events, he has done an admirable job piecing together a plausible scenario for the final stand of the Western Roman Empire and the emergence of Clovis's powerful kingdom of the Franks.

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