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Egidius and Syagrius – “last Romans” in Gaul

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Syagrius, released by the Visigoths, stands before Clovis
Syagrius, released by the Visigoths, stands before Clovis

The term “last Roman” was most often used in history to describe the commander in the last significant battle won in the history of the Roman Empire, in the Catalaunian fields in 451 CE – Flavius ​​Aetius.

Other figures were sometimes also referred to as: Maiorianus, the last Western Roman emperor who made vigorous attempts to save the Empire from collapse, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a semi-legendary commander in Britain in the mid-5th century CE, Justinian the Great, a Byzantine emperor who recaptured much of the lands of the former Western Roman Empire in the 6th century CE or his general Belisarius. Among these characters there is also Egidius and, above all, his son Syagrius – the last representative of the legal Roman authorities in Gaul, maintaining his power, surrounded by barbarian kingdoms, even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire – until 486 CE.

Battles led by Egidius

Egidius was a close friend of Emperor Majorian, with whom he served in the army, and probably came from the senatorial family of Syagrii from Lugdunum (now Lyon) in Gaul. His grandfather or great-grandfather was Flavius ​​Afranius Syagrius – consul in 382 CE. By appointment of the emperor, he became the commander-in-chief of the Roman armies in Gaul (magister militum per Gallias). The exact date when this occurred is unknown, probably in 457 CE (at the beginning of Majorian’s reign) or in 459 CE (after the victories in southern Gaul), the Christian chronicler and hagiographer Gregory of Tours mention that it could have taken place as early as 456 CE. Egidius’s predecessor as the commander of the Roman armies in Gaul was Agrippinus, who was accused of treason, and the competitor for taking command was probably the ruler of the Salic Franks – Childeric I, but there were no major conflicts between them (Roman troops were supported by Childeric I all the time).

When Egidius took command in Gaul, the situation in the Western Roman Empire was difficult. After the death of Aetius, all barbarian tribes were emboldened to attack the Roman army. Egidius fought on the Rhine – he defended the city of Colonia Claudia Augusta Agrippina (today’s Cologne), which he had to leave in 456 CE, under the onslaught of the Rhenish (Ripuarian) Franks. In the summer of 457 CE undertook an expedition to recapture the city, but it was unsuccessful. From the capital of the province of Lower Germania, the city of Cologne became a Germanic city. In 458 CE Egidius regained his hometown of Lugdunum from the Burgundians, and in 459 CE defended Arelate (now Arles in France) against the attack of the Visigoths. After these campaigns, the Burgundians were assigned a place of settlement in today’s region of Savoy, and the Visigoths did not expand their possessions. In the following years, Egidius tried to restore Roman military supremacy in Gaul. After a failed expedition against the Vandals, Majorian was treacherously murdered by Ricimer, commander-in-chief of the Western Roman army, a barbarian by origin. There was an immediate conflict: Egidius did not recognize the power of Majorian’s successor, the puppet emperor Libius Severus and Ricimer again appointed Agrippinus to command the Roman army in Gaul. There was a war in which Ricimer and Agrippinus were supported by the Visigoths. Aegidius in 462-463 CE besieged the Visigothic city of Chinon in 463 CE defeated the Visigoths at the Battle of Aurellanum (today’s Orléans). In 464 CE he was taking steps to form an alliance with the Vandals against Ricimer. Already from 461 CE, i.e. the death of Majorian, Egidius was basically an independent ruler in northern Gaul, taking as his capital the city of Augusta Suessionum or Noviodunum (today’s Soissons), where many Roman forges producing weapons were located. In 464 or 465 CE Aegis died. The reasons for his death are unknown, it is assumed that he was murdered or poisoned on behalf of his enemy Ricimer.

Battles led by Syagrius

After the death of Egidius, his son Syagrius succeeded him. Some sources say that the commander of the Roman army in northern Gaul in the meantime was comes Paulus. However, he was probably one of the military officers in Gaul, subordinate to Egidius and then Syagrius. According to sources, Paulus died in 469 CE at Adecavus (today’s Angers) on the Loire in battles with the Saxons before the allied troops of the Salic Franks could arrive. Syagrius, as the commander of the Roman troops in Gaul, recognized the supremacy of the Eastern Roman emperors and the Western Roman emperors installed by them: Anthemius (reigned 467-472 CE) and Julius Nepos (reigned 474-475 CE). The lands ruled by Syagrius were called “Dominio di Siagrio” (“Syagrius’ district” in Polish) covering the entire north of Gaul, except for Armorica (today’s Brittany) and Belgium (Galia Beligica). The southern border with the Visigothic State was the Loire, in the southeast the district of Syagrius bordered on the Burgundians, and in the north with the Salic and Ripuarian Franks. The chronicler Gregory of Tours called Syagrius the king of the Romans (“rex Romanorum”), but he probably did not use this title, but was only called so by the barbarians. Perhaps, despite the end of the Empire, the aversion to the title of king was still alive, even though about 1000 years had passed since the overthrow of the last Roman king.

In 470 CE fought with the Visigoths and won them at Avaricum (today’s Bourges), which, however, was not properly used by the emperor Anthemius – the Visigoths occupied the entire southern Gaul. Despite the fall in 476 CE of the Western Roman Empire, Syagrius maintained power in northern Gaul, accepting the suzerainty of the then Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno. Tensions between Syagrius and his recent Salic Frankish allies increased in the following years, especially after he died in 481 CE. Childeric I and the takeover of power by his young son Chlodwig. The rulers of the Salic Franks combined the functions of kings and formal administrators of the province of Galia Belgica. Hence the rivalry between Childeric I and Egidius for the position of commander-in-chief of the Roman army in Gaul. Although it was Egidius, and then Syagrius, the Salian Franks were allies of the Romans in battles with other barbarians until now. As a result of the conflict, Syagrius probably changed the front and entered into an alliance with the Visigoths. The young Chlodwig quickly united the Franks for battle and, with the help of his kinsman Ragnachar, defeated Syagrius at the Battle of Soissons in 486 CE. The last Roman commander in Gaul fled to Toulouse to the court of Alaric II, king of the Visigoths, but from there he was sent back to Chlodwig and in 486 or 487 CE lost.

With the death of Syagrius, Roman rule over Gaul, lasting from the conquest of Julius Caesar ended. However, the Syagrius family was not completely killed – his descendants lived in the Frankish Kingdom as late as the 8th century CE and were politically engaged. The area of ​​the Syagrius district became one of the main regions of the Merovingian Frankish Kingdom, the Carolingians, the West Frankish Kingdom, and then the Kingdom of France.

Author: Eligiusz Idczak (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • David Frye, Aegidius, Childeric, Odovacer and Paul, Nottingham 1992.
  • Edward James, The Franks. Blackwell, Oxford 1988.
  • Penny MacGeorge, Late Roman Warlords, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002.
  • Konrad Vössing, Syagrius. In: Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde (RGA), Berlin /Nowy Jork 2005.

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