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The Long Road to Aquitaine

In the fifth instalment of ‘The So-Called Dark Ages,’ Herbert Bushman describes the conclusion to the Visigoths’ four-decade quest for a permanent homeland.

· 13 min read
The Long Road to Aquitaine
Goths Cross a River, by French artist Évariste Vital Luminais (1821-1896).

What follows is the fifth instalment of The So-Called Dark Ages, a serialized history of Late Antiquity, adapted from Herbert Bushman’s ongoing Dark Ages podcast.

We left off last time with the Visigothic sack of Rome in 410 C.E. and its immediate aftermath. Having plundered the birthplace of the Roman Empire, the Gothic king, Alaric I, took his followers south to attempt a crossing to Sicily, but was thwarted by the Goths’ (seemingly congenital) inability to properly operate boats. He died on the Italian mainland, and was buried in the bed of the River Busento—along with (legend has it) a substantial haul of riches that has tantalized treasure-hunters ever since.

Alaric was succeeded by his brother-in-law Ataulf—whom me met in passing during our fourth instalment, when his Gothic force were intercepted en route to assisting in Alaric’s military campaign against Olympius (who’d been effectively ruling the Western Roman Empire for the past decade). We know nothing about Ataulf before he marched his troops southwest from his base in the Roman province of Pannonia. Later incidents will suggest that he was more caught up than Alaric in inter-tribal Gothic rivalries. But Ataulf also seems to have inherited Alaric’s sense of duty to provide for his people. He continued to maneuver around Italy after Alaric’s death, raiding for provisions and attempting to push the court of Emperor Honorius—which had installed itself in the more defensible coastal city of Ravenna—to come to an agreement. But despite still having Honorius’ half-sister, Galla Placidia, in tow, two years went by with nothing accomplished.

Detail of Honorius as depicted on a consular diptych in 406 C.E.

As had been the case throughout his life, Honorius was more figurehead than actual ruler. The real power in Ravenna was a Moesian (which is to say, Serbian) general known as Constantius. Complicating our narrative is the fact that “Constantius” seems to have been an extremely popular name during this period—for politicians, consuls, and Christian saints alike. This one is typically referred to by historians as Constantius III). He was more competent and loyal to Honorius than his recent predecessors, and would eventually be rewarded for his service by being elevated to the role of co-emperor.

In 411 C.E., Constantius’s problems were legion. The wave of Germanic invaders that had crossed west across the Rhine into Roman-held Gaul had been followed by another wave, this one made up of Vandals, Alans, and Suevi. As we’ve previously discussed, the fact that the Romans had to divide their military resources between the Italian and Rhine fronts is one of the reasons why both fronts ended up collapsing—which, in turn, opened up a power vacuum in the northern part of the Western Empire for ambitious Imperial challengers. 

These included a Roman general named Constantine—no relation to his far more well-known namesake, Constantine the Great, of Constantinople fame—a former rank-and-file soldier who’d been spontaneously (he assured everyone) acclaimed Western Emperor by his own beleaguered troops in Britannia. Constantine promptly set sail with his soldiers to Gaul, thereby surrendering Britain (forever, it turned out) to its post-Roman fate.

Upon arriving in modern France, he became known as Constantine III, albeit with the equivalent of scare quotes around the regnal number, as his status never much surpassed that of a regionally dominant Imperial usurper. In 408, the Romans had sent Sarus the Goth, who then led Gothic auxiliaries loyal to Honorius, to evict Constantine, but Sarus was forced to retreat to Italy. And so Honorius grudgingly acknowledged Constantine as co-emperor, with authority in Gaul, Hispania, and (theoretically) Britannia. Everyone knew this arrangement couldn’t last.

Constantine III was soon undone by his own subordinates—a common fate for usurpers in all eras. A Spanish revolt led by a former loyalist named named Gerontius overwhelmed an army led by Constantine’s son, Constans II. Meanwhile, those Vandals, Suevi, and Alans who’d breached the Rhine defenses took advantage, and just kept heading east into Spain. Like Britain, Hispania was now effectively lost to any kind of Roman control.

Amid the chaos, yet another Imperial pretender—a Gallo-Roman senator named Jovinus—set up his own fiefdom in northern Gaul. Constantine III admitted defeat and agreed to enter a monastery. This epilogue ended in predictably bloody fashion, with both he and his son being captured by Constantius’ men, and then executed shortly thereafter.

A map of the continental portions of the Western Roman Empire, including Corsica and Sardinia, in 413 C.E., rendered in Spanish, showing areas controlled by forces loyal to the Emperor Honorius (blue); the ill-fated usurper Jovinus (green); agrarian insurgents known as bagaudae (purple); Vandals, Suevi, and Alans (light orange); Burgundians (darker orange); Visigoths (dark pink); and Franks, along with other Germanic tribes (light pink).

This is when Priscus Attalus—a disgraced Roman ex-senator who’d been briefly seated on the Imperial throne by Alaric as a puppet prince, and had been tagging along with the Goths ever since—advised Ataulf to give up his ravaging of Italy, and head north to offer support to Jovinus, who’d just seized part of Gaul with help from the neighboring Burgundians (upwardly mobile players, of whom we’ll hear much more in future arcs). Ataulf agreed, and the Visigoths crossed into Gaul in 412 C.E. Jovinus’ grip on Gaul was still far from secure, as he didn’t fully control the Mediterranean coast, and his Frankish allies to his northeast were poised to turn on him at any moment. In need of new friends, he was happy to welcome Ataulf’s Visigoths into his fold.

Shocker: the alliance didn’t last.

By this time, Sarus had fallen out with Honorius, and had decided that he, too, would head north to join Jovinus. But Ataulf intercepted his rival Goth leader, and later had him executed. Clearly, these Goths had not been so Romanized that they’d given up on their tradition of blood feud—a tradition that would remain strong among the Germanic kingdoms that succeeded the Roman Empire for centuries to come.

For his part, Jovinus was aghast at this bloodshed, and soured on Attalus. The two men argued over the Visigoths’ place in Gaul, with Ataulf having been under the impression that he’d have a leading political role, while Jovinus saw the Goths as just another auxiliary force to be ordered about. The conflict came to its predictably bloody end when Ataulf seized and executed Jovinus and his brothers, then sent their heads to Ravenna as a means to gain Imperial goodwill. An appreciative Constantius thanked Ataulf with shipments of Roman grain.

But while Constantius was eager to reassert Roman control over northern Gaul, he wasn’t prepared to make any kind of permanent deal with the Visigoths without getting something substantial in return. For starters, he requested that Ataulf return Galla Placidia, who’d been held captive for three years by this point. When Ataulf hesitated, Constantius cut off the grain supply, leading to yet another round of war. The Visigoths attacked Marseilles unsuccessfully, but were able to take Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Narbonne.

Ataulf was in full revolt now, and duly proclaimed Priscus Attalus to be Emperor (again). Even more provocatively, in 414 C.E, Ataulf married Galla Placidia. But she was reportedly a willing participant in these nuptials, and soon gave birth to a son (who sadly died shortly thereafter).

An eleventh-century depiction of Orosius

The Roman priest and historian Orosius, our primary source for all this, framed the marriage as an earnest effort at peaceful bridge-building on Orosius’ part. In this vein, he related a summary of a speech given by Ataulf, which Orosius later heard later from someone who’d claimed to have been present at the time it was delivered:

At first, [Ataulf] was ardently eager to blot out the Roman name and to make the entire Roman Empire that of the Goths alone, and to call it…Gothia…and that he…would become what Caesar Augustus had once been. When, however, he discovered from long experience that the Goths, by reason of their unbridled barbarism, could not by any means obey laws…he chose to seek for himself the glory of completely restoring and increasing the Roman name…For this reason, he strove to refrain from war…especially by the influence and persuasion of his wife Placidia, a woman of very keen mind and good religiosity.

It’s hard to know what to make of that quote. Some have interpreted it as a full-blown statement of Visigothic policy, which seems far-fetched. University of York historian Guy Halsall suggests that if Ataulf really did say anything like these lines, the Gothic leader might have been joking. But I see it as more likely that Ataulf would have been intending that his words make their way back to Ravenna, as a token of his continued willingness to work with Honorius in pursuit of a long-term deal between Romans and Goths.

Whether or not Honrorius heard any of it, it made no difference. Under Constantius, the Imperial army kept up the pressure by blockading the Goth-held port of Narbonne, which ultimately forced the Visigoths to abandon their holdings in Gaul—though they took the time to sack the cities under their control before moving south into Vandal-held Spain.

Following this, Ataulf attacked and captured Barcelona before succumbing to a survivor of his old blood feud with Sarus: The story goes that an old servant of Sarus assassinated Ataulf while he was bathing.

The new king of the Visigoths was Sarus’ brother, Sigeric, who seems to have been a real piece of work. His (very) short reign was a bloodbath, with Ataulf and Alaric’s supporters and family being violently purged. Placidia was spared, but was humiliated by being forced to walk among all the other captives in a procession before the new king. The terror didn’t last long, though, as Sigeric was murdered just a week after taking the throne.

The next, and far more historically consequential, king of the Visigoths (this being the fourth in the space of just four years) was Wallia, a relative of Alaric and Ataulf (though the nature of the relationship isn’t certain). Wallia started his reign under deeply unfavorable conditions, with his Goths bottled up in Barcelona and at risk of starvation. The Vandals who controlled the surrounding country exploited the situation by selling the Visigoths grain at outrageous prices—one solidus (gold piece) per spoonful; and gave them the mocking nickname truli, which means, roughly, “spoonies” (though it might also have meant trolls). One group of Goths tried to escape by sea to Africa; but, true to the Gothic maritime tradition, got caught in a storm and drowned.

Wallia found his way out of the trap by finally reaching an agreement with Constantius and Honorius. Galla Placidia was returned to Italy, where Honorius forced her to marry Constantius—this marriage, unlike her first, being very much against her will—while Wallia committed to helping the Romans regain control of Hispania from the Vandals and their Suevi and Alan allies. Once this was accomplished, it was agreed, the Visigoths would be settled in Aquitania, in the southwest of Gaul (roughly corresponding to the southwest French region of Aquitaine).

A political map of what is now France, as it roughly would have appeared in the late fifth and early sixth century C.E., roughly a century after the events described in this article.

The deal was a good one for both sides, but it did leave Priscus Attalus high and dry—again. He attempted to slip away, but was captured by Constantius’ men and sent back to Italy. It could have been a lot worse for him, though. As a usurper and puppet of barbarians (twice used, twice discarded), he probably expected to be executed horribly. Instead, one of his hands was cut off, and he was sentenced to exile on the Aeolian Islands, off the north coast of Sicily, where he lived out the rest of his days. There’d been so many opportunities for both Alaric and Ataulf to dump him. I can’t help but think that the man must have had some kind of charm about him.

True to their word, Walia’s Visigoths took up the job of fighting the Vandals with gusto. Even aside from the more recent spoon-themed humiliations, the two peoples had been rivals for generations. Remember that it was the Goths who’d originally pushed the Vandals out of eastern Europe as they spread south toward the steppes. Over time, both groups had both fought in civil wars as federate Roman troops, as allies as often as enemies—a history that brought with it generations of slights and grievances.

Of course, an army marches on its stomach, and the Vandals never had much to fear when Wallia’s Goths were on the brink of starvation. But everything changed once Honorius’ Roman navy, which had formerly been blockading the Goths, now began bringing in boatloads of food and weapons. The Italians themselves could no longer raise armies big enough to counter the barbarian hordes that had flooded across the Rhine. But they were still often able to keep their allied auxiliaries properly supplied.  

The wars in Spain are what historians call “poorly attested.” The main source I’ve been referencing, the accounts of Orosius, comes to an end as the Visigoths begin their wars against the Vandals, attesting only that Walia “faced danger to himself by fighting against the other tribes that had settled throughout the Spains, and conquered them for the Romans.” Otherwise, the best detailed source, the Chronicle of Hydatius, was written fifty years after the fact, and is, shall we say, idiosyncratic in its reporting style. (The author, a Roman bishop, interpreted events according to his apparent belief that he was living in biblically prophesied end times.)

But while we don’t have a blow-by-blow account of the fighting, we do know that the Visigothic victory was surprisingly swift. Having been properly supplied, Wallia defeated not only the Vandals, but also their Alan and Suevi allies. There may have been a plan to finish these tribes off, but by 418 or 419 C.E., Constantius seems to have decided that the situation in Spain was sufficiently stable that he could call off the Visigoths and settle them in Aquitania, as promised.

Alas, Wallia did not live to see the fulfillment of his clan’s longstanding goal of attaining a permanent homeland, having died in 418 C.E. (we know not how). At the time, Wallia was probably in his mid-thirties. He’d been king of the Visigoths for around three years, and in that short time had earned a reputation as a fierce fighter and a wise ruler.

Wallia had no sons (though, as we’ve seen, primogeniture-based succession wasn’t necessarily the norm in Gothic society anyway). He was succeeded instead by another member of his Balthi clan, Theodoric I (not to be confused with his more famous Ostrogothic namesake, Theodoric the Great, who will get his own extended star turn in future instalments). It was Theodoric, who may have been an illegitimate son of Alaric, or possibly a son-in-law, who would oversee the Visigoths’ settlement of their new Gallic lands.

The sources differ on the geographical extent of Visigothic Aquitaine, though there’s a consensus among modern historians that the lands the Goths were given to farm lay along the Garonne Valley, including Toulouse and Bordeaux, and possibly along the Atlantic coast from the Pyrenees mountain range to the mouth of the Loire. It’s a large chunk of territory, but notably absent from it is any Mediterranean port. My own interpretation is that Constantius wanted to make sure that he had a monopoly on the provision of outside support for the Visigoths.

A modern map of the Garonne River watershed.

The provincial Roman officials of southern Gaul were duly summoned to a council at Arles, and the settlement agreement was presented to them, whereupon they expressed their approval. These formalities were significant, because Constantius wanted it made clear that the Roman state was allowing the Visigoths to settle on Roman lands. In no sense was it giving lands away to a separate barbarian entity.

At least, that was the plan. In 418 C.E., no oe could know that the arrangement agreed to by Constantius, Theodoric, and the council at Arles was sowing the seeds of an independent Gothic kingdom. But in the fullness of time, that’s what it turned out to be.

The four decades in the wilderness that had passed since their victory at the Battle of Adrianople had changed the Visigoths as a people—much as it did the fabled Hebrews of the book of Exodus, after their own similarly lengthy wanderings. They’d gone from a loosely organized tribal people to a more hierarchical, Roman-style society. Having migrated constantly under arms, their leader was now expected to combine the roles of military field commander, head administrator, and chief dispenser of justice. He was, in short, a proto-medieval king.

The Visigoths fought differently now, too, having discarded their tradition of relying on heavy infantry in favor of cavalry. The primary weapon was now the long lance. And the elite gothic fighters who wielded it would have worn a mail shirt that hung to the knees (with the very wealthy having added bits of lamellar armor over that). Helmets now mostly followed a Roman pattern—specifically, the so-called ridge helmet, which featured a high round dome, a heavy reinforced central ridge, cheek flaps, nose guard, and an aventail of mail or articulated plates to guard the back of the neck.

An (uncharacteristically) jewelled Roman ridge helmet discovered in modern Serbia, believed to date to the early fourth century C.E.; photographed in 2013, during its temporary exhibition in Rome.

While this is largely a Gothic tale, the Roman perspective on these events is important. In hindsight, we know that the early fifth century was the twilight of the Western Roman Empire. But at the time, the rollback of the Vandals in Spain and the successful settlement of the Goths in Gaul was cast as part of a Roman comeback. As he finished his Historiae Adversus Paganos (History Against the Pagans), Orosius challenged his readers to find “any times more fortunate” than those they were then inhabiting.

Certainly, Constantius had reasons for optimism. Though his tasks were far from complete, he’d at least gotten the Goths out of Italy, established something resembling order in Gaul, and brought much of Spain back into the Roman orbit. To cap off his accomplishments, he was elevated to co-emperor with Honorius in 421 C.E.

He didn’t get to enjoy the purple for long, however, dying just eight months after getting the top job. And so Constantius never lived long enough to witness the emergence of an even more formidable and terrifying barbarian force from out of the eastern steppes. In our next instalment, we’ll trace the rise of these horse-mounted nomads, along with their leader, Attila the Hun.

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