19. King Euric

466 to around 473

The Visigoths break out, under the leadership of their new and aggressive King Euric. Inside the empire, another emperor falls to Ricimer’s scheming.

An appropriate map for this episode is here.


Title Music:
“The Britons” by Kevin MacLeod at Free Music Archive
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

Over the last few episodes, we’ve been pretty tied up in Imperial politics, with the coup of Majorian and Ricimer, and the follow-up coup of Ricimer alone taking up most of the narrative. Which is understandable, but this podcast was supposed to be about the people and nations that replaced the Roman empire in the west, and here we are nearly twenty episodes in and the old eagle still flies. That is not going to change today.  Today though, we will be talking more about the volks we began the whole thing with, the Visigoths. They’ve been around in one way or another from the beginning, and their time to shine is coming.

Since 418, the Visigoths had been federates of the empire. They fought in its army, received subsidies from its treasury, were given lodging and maybe land to farm for themselves. Visigothic kings were first and foremost military leaders who lived within the imperial hierarchy alongside their noble roman neighbors. It wasn’t always a comfortable relationship. For much of Aetius’ tenure, Gothic uprisings were an almost annual tradition, as the Germans sought to wring a few more privileges – more land, greater access to trade, higher pay – out of Ravenna. Ravenna, and more immediately and importantly, the local aristocracy, was often prepared to make those concessions, since the Goth’s military muscle helped keep them safe from other threats, including “unofficial” barbarians, and of course the ever present threat of the common people. There were so many more of them, you see.

Through those actions, the Visigoths had gradually expanded their territory, from a relatively narrow strip along the Garrone valley, from Toulouse to Bordeaux, to a healthy chunk of southwestern Gaul. The territory fluctuated, but the general trend had been expansion of Gothic influence and increased prestige for the Gothic king. 

It’s easy to see this as coming at the expense of Roman power, and that’s partly right, if we think of Roman power as only originating in the courts of Italy. But the Roman power that was important to most people, that had day-to-day relevance, was the power of the local Gallo-Roman aristocracy, the men who owned the land and ran the churches of Gaul. Through a process that was ongoing throughout the empire, this class of men had become increasingly localized, so where once the great men of the empire controlled portfolios of land in multiple provinces, holdings had become less and less spread out, and so the scope of the nobility’s interests became narrower, and more parochial. There was now an Italian nobility, a long-suffering Spanish nobility, and a Gallic nobility. And the Gallic nobility was perfectly willing to work with the Visigoths to maintain some semblance of order, as it became ever more clear that Italy wasn’t really up to the job anymore.

This was a fruitful partnership for the Visigoths, as the Gallics could help cool things down when the imperial court became too annoyed by gothic antics. Not that the imperial court could do much to influence the Visigoths actions at this point anyway. But all through the chaos that we’ve talked about, wars with the vandals, and huns, and the various civil wars and rebellions, the Visigoths could make a claim to be working in the interest or at the behest of the empire, even if their interpretation of imperial interests may be a bit idiosyncratic at times. And through it all, they remained officially a federate force within the structure of the empire. An unruly child, but still a member of the family.

That began to change in the 460s. Majorian had laid a pretty thorough smackdown on both the Visigoths under Theodoric II, forcing the Visigoths to give up territories in hispania and Septimania – essentially the coastal zone between Barcelona and the mouth of the Rhone. But Ricimer’s coup, and the rebellion of Aegidius against Ricimer reversed the situation. The court of Toulouse supported Ricimer and Libius Severus in hopes of winning concessions, and in the resulting chaos the Goths entered Narbonne. Aegidius defeated the Visigoths at Orleans and bought himself some time, but his death in 465 offered an opportunity for revenge, and the germans pushed Aegidius and his associated Franks back to the Loire. Gaul in the 460s was the place to be if you were a fan of uncertainty and violence.

King Theodoric was murdered in 466 by his younger brother Euric in 466. He had been king of the Visigoths for thirteen years, after having murdering his older brother for the crown. Sic biscuitus disintegrat.

Euric’s fratricide was a naked power grab, and expansion of the Visigothic regnum was just a logical extension of that mindset. He was encouraged by the weakness at the Roman center to take it further than his predecessors had.

Gothic ambassadors were sent out to the Suevi, the Vandals, and the Burgundians, seeking to make peace and maybe alliances. That on its own would have seemed threatening to the Romans, even without knowing the content of Euric’s proposals. When the eastern invasion fleet approached Carthage, the Visigoth ambassadors departed the city in a hurry, which maybe suggests that they were not wholly innocent of skullduggery.

To back up his ambitions, Euric also had control of an army that had become powerful and hardened by the years of constant war. It was so strong in fact that Roman officers, rather than recruiting from it, offered their services to the king – essentially abrogating their responsibility to Rome in order to serve this more successful force. 

That army maintained and improved itself by fighting with rebels and usurpers for territory in Gaul, and in Spain against the Suevi. By the time Euric took the throne, the territory he controlled was vastly larger than the territory specified in any treaty with Rome, and legally speaking the Visigoths were squatting on that extra land. But that was about to change.

Whether Euric consciously set out to create a new and completely independent kingdom is up for debate. My guiding light in all things Gothic, Herwig Wolfram, is quite adamant that from the moment he took the throne, Euric was operating outside of the framework of the empire and was operating with the specific goal of forming a new polity in his territories. More recent scholars, like Andrew Gillett and Guy Halsall, contend that while Euric was certainly motivated to improve his position at every opportunity, he still was careful to maintain an alignment with the Gallo-Roman aristocracy, if not the empire, who were fulfilling important administrative roles in Euric’s kingdom. It is fairly obvious though, that the emperor did not trust the new Visigothic king.

By the way, I am conscious that when I say the emperor was weak, it’s not necessarily clear what that actually means in practical terms. I think we in the quote-unquote west have an image that a president or prime minister being weak might mean that other leaders don’t particularly respect them, that they might get push back from congress or a parliament, but all the departments of the government will still carry out his instructions.  As will the joint chiefs and so on, and a summons would still require a response. Compare that kind of situation with that of the last few Roman emperors vis a vis the barbarian kings set up in their various strongholds around the empire. Those kings may technically hold their positions by agreement with the emperor, but in practice, they could do whatever they wanted, and could only be stopped by force. They could choose to dismiss the emperor’s command, and often did. The emperor’s command had from the beginning been backed up by the threat of force, but at this point that threat was substantially reduced. Especially since in the barbarian kingdoms the only tools available to back up imperial authority were the armies of the barbarian kings, and their loyalties were clear. The emperor couldn’t guarantee his instructions would be carried out, he couldn’t rely on his joint chiefs – or magisters militum in this case – and a summons might very well be ignored. It was a problem.

Anthemius was aware of the danger Euric posed, but he had barely enough reliable men to fend off the hostility of Ricimer, plus he was initially distracted by the invasion of Africa we talked about last time. So instead he worked diplomatically to build an anti-goth coalition to surround Euric and prevent the threat from growing. In the Southwest, the occasionally reliable Burgundians agreed, while the north was held by Syagrius and another commander named Paulus in Soissons. The north was much more willing to work with Anthemius than with Libius Severus, and could be relied on to counter Gothic aggression. There may have also been agreements between the Spanish Suevi and their Roman neighbors along those lines as well.

Around 468 or 69, a new player appeared on the board, the mysterious Riothamus. Riothamus came from Britain, which had been out of direct imperial protection for almost 60 years by this point. Who he was or what motivated him are not entirely clear, he may have been a loser in British politics looking to carve out a place in the chaos of Gaul. We are told that he brought with him a force of 12,000 men into Armorica, that being Northwest Gaul, including Brittany. He probably didn’t have that many men, but we can assume from events that it was a sizable force that crossed the Channel. Anthemius, on the lookout for any advantage over Euric, offered him and his men a foedus right away. Whoever Riothamus and his army were, they seem to have been a trigger for what happened next. Maybe. 

It began with the arrest and trial of a man named Arvandus. Arvandus was a Gallo-Roman of apparently not very distinguished birth who rose through the civil service and was appointed praetorian prefect of Gaul. Twice, actually, once by Libius Severus, so, you know, by Ricimer, and once by Anthemius, so, you know, probably by Ricimer. For unknown reasons he was not at all a popular fellow in the province, and in 469, just a year or so after his second appointment, he was arrested and hauled off to Rome on charges of treason. He had supposedly sent a letter to Euric, urging the new king not to make an alliance with the “Greek emperor”, and instead to attack the Britons in the north. Arvandus argued in this letter that Gaul should be divided between the Visigoths and the Burgundians, rather than submit themselves to rule by the unworthy Anthemius. 

Arvandus’ trial in Rome should have been presided over by the ubiquitous Sidonius Appolinaris, he had been made urban prefect of the city after delivering a panegyric in honor of Anthemius, and administration of justice was within his remit. But Sidonius was well acquainted and friendly with Arvandus, and recused himself from the trial. Arvandus was found guilty and stripped of his rank and titles, and sent into exile. The fact that he wasn’t executed is attributed in several of the original sources to Sidonius’ intercession on behalf of his friend.

I usually try not to spend too much time on the historical debates around events. Partly because they’re often centered on trivial issues that would only make the narrative more confusing, and partly just to keep us moving along. The paucity of sources means that competing theories about all kinds of things are all over the place, and we would never get anywhere if I went into all of them. But in the case of Arvandus, the gulf between interpretations is so wide, I feel the need to get into it. 

The traditional interpretation is that Arvandus had betrayed the emperor and more directly Riothamus – as prefect of Gaul Arvandus would have had a formal agreement with Riothamus and a working relationship – and that he hoped to divide the empire and take the purple for himself. The example of Avitus suggested that the support of the Visigoths could make all the difference in such a venture. Herwig Wolfram, in his epic History of the Goths, directly asserts that “Those that Arandus designated the enemy of the Goths were the first to suffer defeat”. So much is made of the betrayal aspect of the story, the personal betrayal, that the story of Riothamus and Arvandus has been put forward as the historical source for the story of King Arthur and his traitorous nephew Mordred. Which, frankly, is bizarre, and not coming from professor Wolfram, to be clear. 

But the more recent scholarship, summarized by Guy Halsall, points out some holes in this interpretation. First, a lot depends on the gap between the arrest of Arvandus and the actual battle that eventually did take place between Euric and Riothamus. Arvandus was arrested and tried in 469, while the eventual battle is dated anywhere between then and 471. If it is later, as is the more modern view, then the connection between letter and battle seems pretty weak. Second, Arvandus’ letter, as reported, did not mention Riothamus by name, Riothamus may not even have been in Armorica yet when Arvandus was arrested. Third, there’s no clear evidence that Euric wanted anything to do with the plan, or even that he ever received the letter. (THe letter wasn’t produced at the trial, Arvandus’ secretary testified that he had dictated it. Which would be very sloppy plotting, to my mind.) Lastly, most of Arvandus’ accusers came from one tribe of the Gallo-Roman nobility, and we’d already heard that the prefect was widely unpopular. It’s entirely possible that the treason charge was invented to settle a dispute between the magnates and get the unpopular prefect out of the way.

I’m not a professional historian, as I hope I’ve made clear, and I can only cower in awe and terror at the depth of professor Wolfram’s scholarship, but I personally have to go with the more recent writers on this one, overall. But then, why did the war break out at all? Whether Euric consciously sought to break out of the Roman cage, or whether it was one of those forces-and-trends things that are so popular among historians these days, the end result would be the same. The interpretation that seems most plausible to me is that Euric saw the agreement between Riothamus and the Romans as part of the encirclement strategy that it was. That he saw it as a prelude to action being taken against him to take back some of the territory he held, and so decided to take preventative measures and attack the most immediate threat, that being Riothamus. Arvandus’ involvement was insignificant, to my mind. Again, not a professional historian.

The battle between Euric’s Visigoths and Riothamus’ army, at Deols sometime between 469 and 471, was a direct attack on an ally of the Roman emperor. It was also a crushing defeat for Riothamus. So much so that his army disintegrated and the survivors sought refuge with the Burgundians. But now the war was on. 

Euric’s influence was pushed northward, until it was stopped by the combination of Paulus of Soisson and Childeric’s army of Franks. The Gothic advance continued on all fronts from 470 onward. The Romans offered stiff resistance in the Auvergne, led by their new prefect, named Ecdicius, the son of ex-emperor Avitus, and by Sidonius Appolinaris, who had been made bishop of Clermont in 470. Together they spread an ideology that identified resistance to Gothic domination and defense of the Catholic faith as one and the same. Barbarian was synonymous with heretic, and the survival of the true church in the face of Arian aggression became the rallying cry.

The traditional view -and the view of the ancient historians – has been that instability at the top led to Euric’s abrogation of the foedus between Goths and Romans, as emperors began to be set up and toppled with alarming regularity. But honestly, that isn’t really borne out by the simple chronology. Majorian was emperor for four years, Libius Severus for four years, Anthemius for five. Not exactly year-of-five-emperors stuff. Four years took just as long to go by then as it does now, and as we all know now, it can seem like an eternity while you’re living through it. But it was clear that the empire could do little to stop Euric from doing what he wanted, and when it began to look like that might change, as anti-gothic coalitions were being knitted together, he took steps to ensure his own freedom of action. 

That anti-gothic coalition was never, in real terms, going to be enough to contain the Goths. Coordination was lacking, both because of poor communications and a general lack of energy. Against the Visigoths, who had by far the most powerful military force in the west, it’s hard to imagine such a ramshackle alliance having much success. But that kind of hindsight was not available to Euric, who perceived a threat and acted upon it.

When the African adventure failed, the coalition could do nothing at all to stop Euric from starting a new war in Spain against the Suevi, and then against what little remained of Roman power, which by this point was being exercised on a city-by-city basis in Spain. It took very little time for Tarragona, Pamplona, and Zaragoza to fall to Euric’s forces, and the last meaningful Roman presence in the peninsula was extinguished.

Meanwhile, victory over Riothamus had put Tours and Bourges in Euric’s hands, and almost the whole length of the Loire formed his northern border. This all feels like it cries out for a map, and I think I promised one for the last episode too… I will try to make both things happen.

The image of Germanic invaders overwhelming old Roman strongholds as the empire crumbled has fallen out of favor with most historians, and in most cases that is accurate. But in Spain and the Auvergne, that image was most likely perfectly accurate for many settlements and many people. 

The popular image – of barbarians in the Conan or Dungeons and Dragons mode – bare chested, dressed in skins, and so forth, is mostly wrong. I feel like I’m repeating myself here, but it’s a point worth belaboring a bit. The Visigoths had lived inside the Roman empire for nearly a hundred years. Roman culture and Germanic culture had been blending long before that, through the mechanism of German service in the Roman armies. The armies of the Visigoths would have looked mostly similar to the armies that defended against the Visigoths. At the core of the Visigoths force, though, remained the mounted spearman who was the elite soldier and king’s retinue. More and more Roman soldiers joined the Gothic armies as time went on as well; the law that success attracts success has been active through all of human history.

In 471 the focus of fighting was in the South and east of Euric’s domain. Clermont was under siege, and Sidonius did his best to keep spirits up, and Euric’s forces also struck south toward Arles. Anthemius took the opportunity presented by a momentary easing of tensions between himself and Ricimer and dispatched an Italian army to defend Arles. The army, led by his son, was soundly beaten by the Visigoths. Anthemius’ son died in the fighting. Arles, though, still held out, as would Clermont, for a few years longer.

But time was up for Anthemius. His defeated expeditionary force had been the only thing keeping the hostility of Ricimer at bay. Now the old leopard pounced. His supporters battled the emperor’s in street brawls, and Anthemius was forced to feign illness and take sanctuary in Saint Peter’s basilica. He was supported by the senate, and the general populace of Rome, while Ricimer commanded the loyalty of most of the army. Most of that army, if not all, by now, was made up of hired barbarian auxiliaries. Among those units was one commanded by a man called Odoacer, who we’ve met before, back in episode thirteen. Saint Severinus prophesied great things for him. We shall see.

From Constantinople, Leo tried to defuse the situation. He sent Olybrius to mediate. 

Olybrius Olybrius? The Olybrius that had been the alternative candidate to Anthemius? That Olybrius?

Yes, that Olybrius.

The story goes that when Olybrius arrived in Italy, his belongings were searched by Ricimer’s men. They found a sealed letter from Leo to Anthemius, and brought it to Ricmer. The letter instructed Anthemius to kill both Ricimer and Olybrius, and be rid of two problems at the same time. Ricimer showed this letter to Olybrius, whose feelings were a little hurt by the thing. Ricimer formally deposed Anthemius and his army acclaimed Olybrius as the new emperor. Anthemius, though, remained holed up inside Rome. Ricimer’s army besieged the city.

After five months, Ricimer’s men broke through and divided the city, cutting the river ports off from the parts still controlled by Anthemius. Knowing sure starvation would follow, Anthemius disguised himself and slipped out of town. He made it as far as the church of Santa Maria Trastevere, where he was recognized, captured, and beheaded, either by Ricimer himself or by his nephew Gundobad. It was the 11th of July 472. Anthemius had been emperor for five very stressful years.

It has to be said that I don’t buy the letter story, and I’m not sure many do. Good conspirators try not to put their nefarious plans in writing if they can help it, and it must have been assumed that Ricmier would have Olybrius’ baggage searched on his arrival. No, I think Olybrius and Ricimer made a private deal, and then concocted the letter story to provide moral cover for overthrowing Anthemius. 

Anthemius had done his best, but he simply didn’t have the cards to play, and each time he tried to go for the big play, things came out against him. It’s really just too bad.

Olybrius looked all set to be another puppet of Ricimer. The army was the only significant power base in Italy now, and Ricimer was in control of it, QED. 

Italy and Provence was all that Ricimer could reasonably claim at this point, though. Paulus and Syagrius remained “Roman” by their own proclamation, but their armies were mostly made up of Franks, and they were so far away, effective control by the center was almost impossible now. But still there remained a strong Roman identity throughout Gaul. Probably in Spain too, though the sources are even scarcer. Sidonius and his fellow nobles scrambled to pull together defenses on their own denarii to resist the Visigoths aggression, and under the competent command of Avitus’ son Ecdicius, they managed to keep Clermont and a large part of the Auvergne out of Euric’s hands.

As long as the Visigoths had functioned within the empire, as partners with their own identity, Sidonius had been perfectly happy to have the Visigoths as neighbors. Remember, he had written that rather appealing description of Theodoric II. Now that Theodoric’s brother was clearly aiming at a separate kingdom, not a kingdom inside the empire, but a Gothic kingdom, a line had been crossed.  Sidonius and his compatriots fought hard to stay out of such a kingdom and to remain Roman.  The Roman empire might have lost political power, but the Roman identity remained strong. 

So what about that Visigothic kingdom? It covered a massive land area, bounded by the Loire in the North, the Rhone in the east (with exceptions), and extending down across the Pyrenees and indeed down to the Pyre-ankles to encompass most of the Iberian peninsula, though the northwest remained stubbornly out of reach. I’m sorry, I believe I promised not to do the Pyre-ankles joke again, especially since it isn’t even mine, but I’m not to be trusted when it comes to dad humor.

The Spanish lands were really hinterland for Euric though, a source of pillage and a place to keep his soldiers busy, trained, and rewarded.  The real core was Gallia, and in 473 both Arles and Marseille fell to him.  The Roman prefecture had been divided into eight civitas, each centered on a city; now Euric held seven of them.  Only Clermont remained, strategically a bit of a problem, as it sat like a wedge on the middle Rhone, a potential route for Burgundian invasion from the east. He wouldn’t have to worry about it for much longer, though.In the meantime, Euric set up his administration, he divided the country and appointed local administrators, many of them former roman officials and commanders.  The highest ranking of these held the Roman title dux, which had been a military commander of an area of the empire, and would become the word duke. Lower down on the scale were the comes, counts, also mostly Romans.  The dux of Hispania was a roman named Vincentius, the dux of Aquitaine was Victorius. These men apparently came over to the Visigoths with most of their staff intact, and so the Roman style of administration was at least partly preserved.

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