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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Clovis, Towards a New Chronology Part Three.

Chlodoveus Rex and the battle for Soissons and Marriage to Clotilda.

 By Dane R. Pestano ©2015

491. The First War – The Battle for Soissons

The context of the battle of Soissons was one of flux and change. Ravenna, Rome and Italy had fallen to the barbarians of Odoacer in 476 and by 491, the Gothic Magister Militum Theoderic had arrived from the east and engaged Odoacer in battles for power. The Burgundians under Gundobad and his brothers, noticing the troubles in Italy and Noricum, had in 490 invaded the northern Italian province of Liguria and laid waste to it. By now much of central and southern Gaul had fallen to the Visigoths under the expansive Euric, and they had even pushed up to the Loire and into the south of Belgica II supporting Syagrius. Alaric II, his son, was now King since 485 but he didn't appear to have the martial prowess of his father and was still like Clovis, a young king of twenty-two. Clovis and his kin, observing these wars and the collapse of Roman power decided the time was right at the age of eighteen to challenge the last bastion of Roman power in northern Gaul, the Gallo-Roman kingdom of Syagrius, and in so doing, defeat the hated Visigothic allies of Syagrius who had deposed his father and whom had caused the Franks so many problems.

Gregory is our only source for the battle against Syagrius for Soissons, but there is other indirect evidence which we will discuss when we consider the letter of Remigius to Clovis and look at other annalistic evidence. We are dependent on Gregory for a date of between 486 and 493 for the battle which unfortunately cannot be depended on. Gregory or an interpolator placing it in the fifth year after Clovis became King. Instead, when the rest of the sources are examined, it appears the battle took place soon after Clovis became king. Halsall was also sceptical of an early date for Soissons, pointing out that all of the Frankish kings mentioned at this time were still alive between 507 and 511, which would be twenty to thirty years later if the battle was in 4861. If it were placed in around 491 however, it would make more sense in that regard, fifteen to twenty years. So lets place it in 491 when Clovis was eighteen years old. 493 though, five years after 488 could technically still work.

As discussed in part two, Syagrius had assumed power in Soissons and probably territory as far as the Seine and possibly beyond with Gallo-Roman and Visigothic help. This situation occurred when Childeric had taken his Federate Frankish army to Noricum at the request of Zeno or Odoacer in around 476. Possibly at this time the Gallo Romans had made a play for power in the West, suggesting that Syagrius himself may have done so. Without the support of Zeno though this fell through and instead Syagrius appealed to the Visigoths for support. The transition of Childeric leaving and Syagrius assuming power may have been a fairly peaceful one agreed amongst the Gallo Romans of northern Gaul. The remaining Franks, still being pagan, were not yet appreciated as politically or militarily strong enough to intervene having been subdued by the Visigoths on the Rhine, and nor were the Britons of far western Armorica since the demise of Riothamus. This choice of the Visigoths may seem strange when we consider that Sidonius and through him Gregory had painted a picture of Euric as a persecutor of Catholics in south-western Gaul in the 470's. We have seen though that the embassy to Zeno by the Romano Gallic party must have been before 485 when Odoacer and Zeno fell out. This leaves a predicament. The Gallo Romans were unlikely to choose the Visigoths as bed partners if they were currently persecuting Catholic bishops. Euric's initial persecutions must have been over by then and this would make sense as Clermont had been ceded to him in 475 in exchange for Provence being returned to the empire. So a date of 478, three years later is perfectly acceptable. Clovis became king in 488, by 491 he was ready to challenge for power. Gregory is quite clear that at this time Clovis did not posess a kingdom but states that Ragnachar his relative did based in Cambrai. This was the cause of the war then; as king, Clovis needed a kingdom.
In 491, now with a young son by a concubine, eighteen year old Clovis was in a strong enough position to challenge Syagrius having enrolled his kinsmen Chararic and Ragnachar (from Cambrai) to help in the battle as they approached Soissons. Clovis may have chosen his moment carefully. The young Alaric had mustered a Visigothic army in 490 and sent it in August to support Theoderic in Italy who had been besieged by the forces of Odoacer at Pavia. This may have led to a depletion of Visigothic units in the north supporting Siagrius. Or Clovis seeing the attention of Alaric on affairs in Italy realised this was a good time to strike. Placing the battle then early in 491 might make sense of the circumstances. Chararic refused to join the battle but this did not stop Clovis and Ragnachar obtaining victory. It's difficult to say if Gregory was just inventing this detail about Chararic not taking part to justify his later tale of Clovis killing him in revenge, but I would lean on the side of invention. Clovis would have needed every man at his side in this war as Syagrius happily met for battle with his Visigothic allies, meaning their armies must have been fairly evenly matched. Ragnachar though would most likley have commanded the field rather than the young Clovis.

The make-up of the armies facing each other would have been fairly similar. I would not expect both armies to have exceeded 1500-2000 men each. Syagrius would have been able to call on his Gallo Roman nobles to form cavalry units and other units of Visigoth cavalry were also likely. This would be backed up by both light and heavy infantry and foot archers. We know from reports in the 550's that Gothic cavalry was usually armed with a spear and sword, with archers being on foot protected by the cavalry. Light infantry would have worn leather and the heavier infantry mail. The Franks at this time would also have had light cavalry with spear and sword, backed up by similar infantry battalions carrying their francisca axe, swords and spears2. Remember there were no stirrups at this time which would make fighting with heavy lancer cavalry very cumbersome so these cavalry units were basically infantry on horse with perhaps a few lancers. The advantage the Franks had was the impact of their initial infantry charge. The idea was to charge and throw their axes in advance of the final contact, splitting shields and bodies before the ferocious onslaught of their remaining weapons. They could take out the first two rows of any defending line with this tactic3. Archers would also have been employed by them in the rear to deter oncoming cavalry and to fire into the opposing ranks.
The battle may have been a similar one to the battle of Vouille which Gregory describes as a bit of a stand off at the beginning saying one side wanted to fight at a distance, which must have been the Visigoths and one side wanting to get stuck in. The Franks with their power, strength and lethal axes would want to get at the Romano-Visigothic line fairly quickly before enemy archers reduced their numbers. The battle at Vouille also included Gallo Romans who came from Clermont to support Alaric so it was indeed very similar. Both armies therefore would have formed up their battle squares and lines ready for combat. At some point, after the skirmishing, Ragnachar or Clovis gave the command to engage and the lines moved forward, the lethal Frankish charge breaking the Romano-Visigothic line.Once the line was broken the cavalry units would engage and outflank the enemy and take on the Roman-Visigothic cavalry and archers. With the infantry pouring through the middle the leadership of the Romans would be caught up in the mele and be in danger from both cavalry and infantry. Syagrius seeing the battle lost fled the field making his way south to the court of Alaric in Toulouse for protection. Historians have often wondered why he went to Alaric, but now it makes perfect sense when the archaeology explains that the Visigoths had supported his kingdom, as discussed in part two.

Syagrius flees the battle

Gregory states that Clovis was still a pagan at this point in time and that the Franks had despoiled many churches after their victory. Clovis though still appears to have been sympathetic to the Church as he tried to appropriate a captured vase to return it to the Bishop and was mortified when one of his men destroyed it. There is a hint here therefore, that Clovis was already respectful of the Church and their Bishops. Clovis had not inherited a kingdom from his father, the vita Genovefa asserting he was Rex Bellorum,King by right of war”. But he now had a kingdom extending to the Seine. 

492. Marriage to Clotilda of the Burgundians

Gundobad, the Burgundian king and Patrician of the Roman empire had returned from Italy sometime in around 474 after killing the Roman emperor Anthemius and setting up a puppet emperor Glycerius in his place. The eastern empire however was not happy with this turn of events and sent Nepos to intervene, and he deposed Glycerius and became Emperor of the west himself in 474. Wood suggests it may have been this event that caused Gundobad to head back to Burgundy but whilst he was away his father Gundioc had died and Gundobads brothers, Chilperic, Gundomar and Godigisel, in the usual Germanic way, had been apportioned parts of the Burgundian kingdom so he may have returned for this reason also. The circumstances of the deaths of his brothers are unknown. We cannot believe the story Gregory of Tours tells us, that Chilperic and his wife were murdered by Gundobad, being thrown down a well, especially as Chilperic's wife Caretina did not die until around 5064. Also a letter from Avitus to Gundobad implies that Gundobad had mourned the deaths of his brothers5. It is most likely therefore that two of Gundobad's brothers died in the following war.

The Burgundians in 490 invaded northern Italy wreaking havoc in Liguria and taking thousands of captives back to Burgundy. Theoderic and Odoacer were at the time tied up fighting each other further south. But once Theoderic had killed Odoacer and taken control of Italy in 493 he sent envoys to Gundobad to negotiate the release and return of these captives. At this point Godigisel was described as the kings brother rather than as a king himself.6 The only brother we hear of at this time onwards is Godigisel. Therefore Gundomar and Chilperic probably died during the invasion of Liguria. On his death in 490 Chilperics daughters Clotilda and Sediluba sought the protection of Godigisel in Geneva according to Fredegar, writing in the seventh century. The reason for going there was probably because Godigisel was Catholic and Gundobad in Vienne, Arian.

Clovis, having defeated Syagrius and obtaining his kingdom in around 492, was now a powerful young King. Gundobad must have observed this rising power and realised that whoever took power in Italy would take him to task for invading and devastating Liguria. He had to make alliances and so offered the hand of his niece Clotilda in marriage to Clovis. We learn, again from Avitus, that Gundobad had meant to offer his own daughter in marriage to Clovis, but that she had died7. Having obtained a kingdom Clovis courted Clotilda in Soissons and then married her8. Clotilda encouraged him to be baptised a Catholic but after the quick death of their first baptised son he was in no mood to convert at that time9. The fact that he allowed his son to be baptised might offer a tentative suggestion that Clovis had converted to Christianity when he had married but had not chosen which form, Arian or Catholic. We will revisit this subject later. Clotilda is said to have been born in around 470, if so she was older than Clovis and this may be the reason that she was seen as a religous mentor of sorts to the young King.

Clovis was now ready to take on Visigothic possessions to make them hand over Syagrius. That will be in part four.

Footnotes :

1. Ibid Halsall 2010, p.172

2. Much of the information in this paragraph comes from Warfare in the Medieval World by Brian Todd Carey. Pen & Sword Military; Reprint edition 2011.

3. Ibid Carey 2011. At the battle of Casilinum/Volturnus in 554 the Frankish charge took out two rows of a three row Byzantine line made up of both light and heavy infantry. The Franks lost this battle however when heavy Greek cataphract cavalry entered the fray, not to immediately charge the frankish squares which would still have been very dangerous, but to circle and inflict a hail of arrows on them, forcing them back until their squares broke and they were then slaughtered by the cataphracts.

4. Ibid below Shanzer and wood, 2002, p.18

5. Shanzer and Wood, Avitus of Vienne, letters and selected prose ,Liverpool: University Press, 2002, p. 210.

6. Ennodius, Vita Epifani, 174; translated by Cook, The Life of Saint Epiphanius, p. 103.

7. Ibid Shanzer and Wood, 2002, Avitus of Vienne, p. 208

8. MacGeorge, Penny. Late Roman Warlords, Oxford University Press 2003, p.125. From the Liber Historia Francorum.  

9. Greg Histories II.29

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