Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Roman army at the end of the Empire

...was a good deal better than most people might think, and it outlasted the Empire. Procopius, writing in the mid-500's, had this to say about it:

"Now other Roman soldiers, also, had been stationed at the frontiers of Gaul to serve as guards. And these soldiers, having no means of returning to Rome, and at the same time being unwilling to yield to their enemy who were Arians, gave themselves, together with their military standards and the land which they had long been guarding for the Romans, to the Armoricans and Franks; and they handed down to their offspring all the customs of their fathers, which were thus preserved, and this people has held them in sufficient reverence to guard them even up to my time. For even at the present day they are clearly recognized as belonging to the legions to which they were assigned when they served in ancient times, and they always carry their own standards when they enter battle, and always follow the customs of their fathers. And they preserve the dress of the Romans in every particular, even as regards their shoes." – History of the Wars XII

 A few things stand out from this passage:

1. These troops were respected by the Armoricans and Franks. They were not half-trained levys or barbarian mercenaries. They were soldiers of sufficient quality to impress not only the Gallo-roman inhabitants of northern Gaul (the Armoricans or 'Arborychi' as Procopius misspelt it) but also the Frankish conquerors who took over that region. The Franks held them in such high regard that they did not disband them but accepted their fealty. Quality troops indeed.

2. They were professional soldiers in the Roman tradition. Their metier was passed from father to son, i.e. it was a traditional occupation that was handed down in a family, as was customary with many Roman professions in that time. These men made soldiering a lifelong career, with all the pride and competence that went with it.

3.  They were proud of being Roman. They made it clear that they were Roman soldiers, by the standards they took into battle, the military traditions they kept, even the uniforms they wore. This sense of Roman identity was remarkable, and enabled them to remain in being nearly a century after the deposition of the last Roman emperor in 476.

It was these troops that held Clovis and his Franks at bay for ten years, something that no other of his enemies was able to do. Their resistance ceased only when Clovis was baptized at Reims in 496/7, making him a ruler the Catholic inhabitants of Armorica could accept. A truly unique performance.

  Credit: Letavia

Sunday, January 20, 2013

When did the Western Roman Empire end?

Most historians give 476 as the date of the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, that being the date of the deposition of the puppet boy-emperor, Romulus Augustulus, by his Commander-in-Chief Odoacer.

It's a date, but not a terribly convincing one in my view. As far as imperial politics went Rome had not mattered for some time. For decades emperors had been accustomed to live elsewhere, like the easily defended town of Ravenna. Strictly-speaking Romulus Augustulus may not have been the last emperor.  There existed another, Nepos, who had ruled at Rome before Augustulus and been obliged to move to Dalmatia which he still ruled with the support of the Eastern Roman Empire. Augustulus himself had no power and less respect. Even his name was a mockery of the sonorous title his father Orestes gave him. Orestes had renamed his son Augustus. The populace nicknamed him Augustulus, or 'Augustiekins'.

After he was quietly removed (his father having been murdered by Odoacer) there remained at least two imperial territories under Roman control: Dalmatia under Nepos, fated to last until occupied by the Ostrogoths in 480, and northern Gaul under Afranius Syagrius.

Syagrius was the son of Aegidius, the last Commander-in-Chief of Gaul, elevated to the post by the emperor Majorian. After Majorian's death the corridor connecting northern Gaul to Italy was cut by the Visigoths. Aegidius and Syagrius after him were isolated from the other remains of the Empire and became in effect independent rulers.  What is important to note however is that they always considered themselves imperial governors, and ruled their territory in the name of Rome. This gave them legitimacy and enabled them to maintain their authority over the four provinces they controlled: Lugdunensis II, Lugdunensis III, Lugdunensis IV Senonia and Belgica II. It was this territory that became, in effect, the last remaining stretch of the Western Empire after the fall of Dalmatia. It would endure until 496/7, when it finally accepted the rule of Clovis, king of the Salian Franks.

Here is a more detailed history of the period. The map below shows the extent of the territory of Aegidius and Syagrius.It was about the size of Ireland, and contained some of the wealthiest lands of Gaul. It would later become part of the economic heartland of Mediaeval Europe. But more about all that in a future post.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

First Post

Well, here it is, a blog to go with Centurion's Daughter, but which will most probably wander into historical fiction in general, and writing fiction even more in general, and Catholic fiction slightly more in particular.

So why did I write Centurion's Daughter? OK, I'll tell the truth: I enjoyed telling a good story.... and I had a dream about a Roman town that seemed to be a good scene around which to build a novel....and I was interested in fame and fortune (or at least making a living as a writer). There, told the truth.

Since then it has boiled down to liking to tell a good story and hoping a few people will enjoy reading it. Maybe even one day making a living as a writer as well.

Currently I am working on a sequel - more a spin-off actually - that takes place about ten years after the events of the first novel, at the very end of a long war between the Gallo-Romans and the Frankish confederation under Clovis. For a history of that war look here.

My approach to historical fiction is this:

Do the research thoroughly. A fictional world hangs together if you know a good deal more about the time period than you actually put in the novel. Tolkien's Middle Earth was three ages long before he started writing Lord of the Rings. The unequalled depth and panorama of his world came from that fact.

Use ordinary people as the main characters and VIPs as the supporting cast. I steered clear of making Clovis the main character as I wanted to be right on the ground in my late Roman Gaul, with ordinary (if eccentric) people interacting with ordinary people.

Don't overdo the dramatics. I know, it's the name of the game in historical fiction these days (maybe it always has been) but I prefer to avoid it. The worst thing that happens to my principal character is that she undergoes a bout of grinding poverty that eventually causes her to break down in tears. That's pretty much the worst thing that can happen to most of us. There is real poignancy in drama that is constrained by the ordinary circumstances of life, as opposed to the Hollywood let-rip-all theatrics that personally leave me stone cold. Historical fiction is about real life in another age.

Find a good story to tell. A good story is defined as something that touches the depths of the human heart - something that drives the will, the longings, the wellspring of human happiness and misery. It has to be real, not contrived. There's no formula for it (the movie industry would pay big bucks for a formula). One just has to know a story is genuine or fake.

And that's enough for a first post.