Ancient History & Civilisation

The Burgundians

The greatest saga of the post-Roman age, the Niebelungenlied, the basis for Wagner's Ring operas, has its historical roots in one of the smaller Germanic kingdoms of fifth-century Gaul, that of the Burgundians.42 In 413 the short-lived Roman usurper Iovinus awarded to his Burgundian ally Gundahar (Gunther) a kingdom west of the Rhine around Worms. The kingdom was virtually destroyed by Aetius commanding an army of Hunnic mercenaries in 435,43 but in 443 Aetius resettled Burgundians around and south of Lake Geneva.44 These foederati, ruled by the brothers Gundioc and Chilperic, served the Roman Empire in the west against Attila. In 456, after the fall of the Gallic emperor Avitus, they extended their influence as far south as Lyon. They lost ground to the martial emperor Majorian (Maiorianus) and the Roman magnate Aegidius, who claimed Lyon in 458, but after the fall of Majorian in 461 the Burgundians recovered their southern possessions and extended them to the valley of the Drôme. This was with the approval and connivance of Ricimer, who had married Gundioc's sister, and appointed Gundioc to the Roman rank of magister militum. When the emperor Zeno sent an easterner, Anthemius, to replace Libius Severus as emperor, the praetorian prefect of Gaul, Arvandus, claiming to represent the interests of the Gallic aristocracy, proposed that his prefecture be divided between the Visigoths and the Burgundians. Gundioc's younger son Gundobad was also made magister militum by Ricimer, and led the campaign against Anthemius, strangling him with his own hands in Rome in 472. After the death of Gundioc in the early 470s, Chilperic adopted a pro-Roman stance against the Visigoths, who were attempting to seize the Rhone valley, and challenged their authority over the Auvergne. The Burgundians also took on the Alemanni in the region of the Jura and the Vosges. The relationship between their rulers and the western court, which was fostered during the hegemony of Ricimer, consolidated Burgundian status as Rome's most favored federate allies and the ties were strengthened by a new treaty between Chilperic and Rome in 474.45

Sidonius, in humorous hendecasyllables which parody Catullus (his addressee was called Catullinus), had categorized his “seven-foot Burgundian patrons” as archetypical Germans:

Why, even if I had the skill, do you order me to compose a poem for Dione, lover of Fescennine verse, when I am situated among bands of hairy folk, having to put up with German conversation, and to praise with a wry face the songs sung by gluttonous Burgundians, who have greased their hair with rancid butter. (Sidonius, Carm. 12, 1–6)

But this little satire belied the strong Burgundian inclination to adopt a Roman cultural identity. Until the fall of the western empire, it seems clear that the Burgundians still identified themselves as Roman foederati.46 Under Valentinian I, around 369, the Burgundians claimed kinship with the Romans (Ammianus 28.5.11–13). This affinity was demonstrated by their religious politics. Many Burgundians were Catholics, not Arians.47 Clotild, daughter of Chilperic, the Burgundian wife of the Frankish king Clovis, is credited by Gregory of Tours with pushing him towards Catholicism (Greg. Tur., Hist. 2.28–31). According to Gregory, Chilperic's brothers, Gundobad and Godigisel, were both Arians, along with their followers. Chilperic fought a civil war with Godigisel, who was based in Vienne and supported by Clovis, and Gundobad, who controlled Avignon. Gundobad eventually prevailed, but was persuaded to adopt the Catholic faith by Vienne's influential bishop Avitus (Greg. Tur., Hist. 2.34). Acting on Gundobad's behalf in 499, Avitus had been able to obtain recognition from the Pope that the bishop of Vienne among the Burgundians, not the bishop of Arles among the Visigoths, should be the chief metropolitan of all Gaul.

A remarkable feature of Burgundian Romanitas was the tradition they established of using the Roman system of consular dating for inscriptions and legal documents. The practice is particularly conspicuous in the epigraphic record for the century between 480 and 580, but continued until the mid-seventh century. It thus outlasted the practice of dating by consuls in Italy itself, and continued long after the demise of the independent kingdom of Burgundy in 534. The practice marked the region and the Burgundians apart from their neighbors, and shows clearly that ethnic identity could be asserted not only by stressing indigenous traditions, real or fictive, but also by the ostentatious adoption of an external cultural marker.48 It is notable that almost all the acts of Gallic church councils in the first half of the sixth century use this consular dating system as a badge of their Roman affiliations.

Gundobad's son, Sigismund, who married Theoderic the Amal's daughter Ostrogotho sometime before 497, and succeeded his father in 516, also became a Catholic.49 Avitus was one of his close advisors, and it was Avitus, writing on Sigismund's behalf, who averred to Anastasius, the emperor in Constantinople, that “my people is yours,” and that the Burgundians would serve Rome rather than fight for their own independent interests (Avitus, ep. 93, trans. Shantzer and Wood p. 144). Sigismund was duly rewarded from Constantinople with the rank of a patricius. Social and political reasons were surely responsible for the changing religious allegiance of the Burgundians. The shift from Arianism to Catholicism indicated that they were aligning themselves with the provincial population of the Rhone valley and the Auvergne, who were led by influential families of the former Roman aristocracy, and organized by their powerful and effective Roman bishops. They thus turned their backs on the Visigoths, whose influence in southern France in any case ended with the defeat of Alaric by Clovis in 507.

Like the Visigoths, the Burgundians enjoyed the cooperation of Romano-Gallic landowners and aristocrats, who provided them with a professional cadre of diplomats, administrators, and legal experts. The most striking of these was Syagrius, great-grandson of a Roman consul and a man of high literary culture, to whom Sidonius wrote a teasing letter about his mastery of the German language in which he was able to correct the Burgundians themselves:

It is incredible to relate how amazed I am that you have grasped a knowledge of the German language with such facility.…The bowed elders of the Germans are amazed as you translate their letters, and have taken you on as a judge and arbitrator in their business with one another. (Sidonius, ep. 5.5.1 and 3)

Sidonius, who comically pretended to fear that Syagrius might forget his Latin culture, called him a Solon among the Burgundians, who discussed their laws. Syagrius may have had a hand in creating the Burgundian law code. The Burgundian law codes that have survived were created somewhat later than those of the Visigoths. A lex Gundobada of around 500 was followed in 519 by the lex Romana Burgundionum, which was concerned with the legal distinctions between Burgundians and Romans under the conditions created by the arrival of Germanic newcomers into the former Roman provinces, and the Lex Constitutionum, modeled in form on the Theodosian Code, which was drawn up under Sigismund.50 Gregory of Tours observed that Gundobad instituted milder laws among his people, to stop them treating the Romans unjustly (Greg. Tur., Hist. 2.33).

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