Sunday, 11 September 2016

Tales of the Riverbank: Severinus and Rome's Fall

The very edge of the Roman Empire; the people are being pushed out or taken captive by invaders; the remaining soldiers are fading away; a hero is needed to lead the people to fight back and win. A man appears as if from nowhere and does just that.

Does that sound a bit like King Arthur? Quite a bit, I’d say. But this was not post-Roman Britain, but almost-post-Roman Austria. This border was not Hadrian’s Wall, but the river Danube. And the hero was not Arthur, but Severinus, a mysterious holy man, later regarded as a saint.

We have a detailed biography of him by Eugippius, a monk who knew him well, the Vita Sancti Severini (henceforth just Vita), together with a letter from Eugippius to a deacon called Paschasius in AD511, and Paschasius’ reply. There is also a reference to Severinus and some of the events of that time in the work now known as the Anonymous Valesianus and the Vita Sancti Antonii Eremitici, a Life of St Antony the Hermit, who had lived and worked alongside Severinus. Severinus also features in the History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, a Lombard contemporary of Charlemagne. There is also a modern discussion in Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation (OUP, 2005).

Saints’ Lives were the principal form of literature in Europe and the Near East in late Antiquity. They were written for a growing monastic readership. The Rule of St Benedict requires a young monk with a good voice to read improving literature to the monks at dinner time (Rule, Ch.38) Benedict’s Rule was written at Monte Cassino between 528 and 543. Saints’ Lives that already existed were ready made for Chapter 38.

Severinus appeared, as if from nowhere in the 450s, to minister and run the towns along the south bank of the Danube in the Roman province of Noricum Ripense in what is now the panhandle of western Austria.

Austrian schilling coin of 1982 depicting St Severinus

What we witness through the Vita is the disintegration of a province in the middle of the fifth century. And Noricum Ripense was part of the prefecture of Italy, close enough to make the Italians notice. Yet it turns on many dubious points.

The appearance of Severinus at just the right time reminds me of nothing more that the role of The Stranger played by Clint Eastwood in my favourite western High Plains Drifter (1973); if Eugippius had not known him personally (a standard trope of vitae is personal attestation that however clichéd the miracles are, they really happened), you would consider it more like a classical myth.

The Noricans played little part in defending their own province. Local place names reflect this: Batavis (modern Passau), Asturis, Commagenis. These reflect the places established alongside the Danube by and for soldiers recruited from the Batavi (in the Netherlands), the Asturians (in north west Spain) and the men of Commagene (possibly Isaurians) in Asia Minor. These were clearly military forts.

It is hard to know where the ‘barbarians’ were located. At Commagenis they were within the walled town as protectors, and rushed out when an earthquake struck (Vita 2); in other locations they were invaders.

And who exactly were the locals? When Noricum asked to join the Roman Empire, what is now southern Germany was part of the Celtic world.  We can tell by the detailed place names given by Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblios map data, which are full of names ending in the classic Gaulish –acum and -dunum (Lacus Curtius has modern renditions of these maps). So the area north of the Danube was not yet Germanic in c.150. The names of Batavis and other places suggests that auxiliaries were settled upon discharge near where they had served. Only Lauriacum, with its Gaulish name (modern Lorch)  seems to have been a metropolis for the remaining Noricans.

Noricum was well known for its iron mines, which are mentioned in Rutilius Namantianus De Reditu Suo, book 1, where they are compared with those of Elba and Sardinia. Perhaps that was what made the area desirable for the Germanic peoples (had they worked as guards there?) and worth the Romans defending. Legion II Italica Pia was established in Lauriacum by Marcus Aurelius in c.180, and these may be the few who remained to defend Noricum in the fifth century. The Vita contains this moving account of the last soldiers:

So long as the Roman dominion lasted, soldiers were maintained in many towns at the public expense to guard the boundary wall. When this custom ceased, the squadrons of soldiers and the boundary wall were blotted out together. The troop at Batavis, however, held out. Some soldiers of this troop had gone to Italy to fetch the final pay to their comrades, and no one knew that the barbarians had slain them on the way. One day, as Saint Severinus was reading in his cell, he suddenly closed the book and began to sigh greatly and to weep. He ordered the bystanders to run out with haste to the river, which he declared was in that hour besprinkled with human blood; and straightway word was brought that the bodies of the soldiers mentioned above had been brought to land by the current of the river. (Vita Ch.20)

The border wall was the Roman limites, which ran from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Around Lauricum, the system switches from the Upper Germanic limes to the Raetian limes. Was there a weakness either in physical structure or in the chain of command, as might have been known by some Germanic peoples who had served with the Roman army? 

Reconstruction of the Danubian limes, 19th century
Eugippius tells us about the frozen Danube affording movement of people: ‘A well-known proof of the terrible cold is afforded by the Danube, which is often so solidly frozen by the fierce frost that it affords a secure crossing even for carts’ (Vita 4). This matches the comment of Jordanes that the Danube ‘freezes so hard that it will support like a solid rock an army of infantry, and carts and sleds’ (Getica 55). I suspect that this is the origin of the story often told as if fact about the barbarian invasion of New Year’s Eve 406 crossing the frozen Rhine near Strasbourg. The Danube froze at Vienna in January 1901 according to Eugippius’s translator in 1914. Our source for the crossing of the Rhine on that date is Prosper Tiro of Aquitaine, whose detailed Chronicle does not mention it being frozen then. It may be as late as Gibbon, but what Gibbon took as a surmise (‘On the last day of the year, in a season when the waters of the Rhine were most probably frozen, they entered without opposition the defenceless provinces of Gaul.’ Ch.30) has been relayed as a fact by later historians.

A comment is also made by Herodian that ‘The Rhine in Germany and the Danube in Pannonia are the largest of the northern rivers. In summer their depth and width make them easily navigable, but in the cold winters they freeze over and appear like a level plain which can be crossed on horseback. The river becomes so firm and solid in that season that it supports horses and men’ (Herodian Roman History 6.7); this is a description of a battle by Maximinus Thrax at Sirmium in AD236.

An icebound Danube also features in references to a famine at the town of Favianis. However it seems that the cause of the famine was a local magnate ‘a certain widow, Procula by name, had concealed much produce of the fields’ (Vita 3). Severinus is said to have publicly berated her for hoarding the corn, presumably for power and profit. By forcing her to release her store, Severinus ended the famine.

Not long after, there unexpectedly appeared at the bank of the Danube a vast number of boats from the Raetias, laden with great quantities of merchandise, which had been hindered for many days by the thick ice of the river Aenus. When at last God's command had loosed the ice, they brought down an abundance of food to the famine-stricken. Then all began to praise God with uninterrupted devotion, as the bestower of unhoped relief; for they had expected to perish, wasted by the long famine, and they acknowledged that manifestly the boats had come out of due season, loosed from the ice and frost by the prayers of the servant of God (Vita 3).

This was coming from Raetia (Switzerland) and had floated downstream, but been blocked off by ice floes from the river Aenus (the Inn, as in Innsbruck). This does show that the movement of food and supplies continued. How this had happened is hard to tell, but it looks more like commerce than the prayers of the stricken. Later we read of oil reaching Noricum Ripense ‘a commodity which in those places was brought to market only after a most difficult transport by traders’ (Vita 28). One of his acolytes, Maximus, arranged for a collection of donated clothes to be transported 200 miles across the Alps in winter to the Danube, having hired local men to fetch it on their backs (Vita 29), allegedly guided by a non-hibernating bear. Timing is all; the icebound river presumably prevented fishing, which would normally have prevented famine.

The frozen Danube in a recent picture
The Vita contains several elements found elsewhere in later hagiography. The enemy are always furious, always angry with the Romans and always keen on killing them. The enemy are implicated here in the death of the two soldiers mentioned above. Likewise two men are captured by the enemy less than two miles from the city walls of Favianis, having been warned off from going to collect fruit from the orchards (Vita 20). Similarly, we are told that ‘Hunimund, accompanied by a few barbarians, attacked the town of Batavis, as the saint had foretold, and, while almost all the inhabitants were occupied in the harvest, put to death forty men of the town who had remained for a guard’ (Vita 22).

Later we are told that the Heruli attacked Ioviaco (Salzburg) ‘That night the Heruli made a sudden, unexpected onslaught, sacked the town, and led most of the people into captivity. They hanged the priest Maximianus on a cross’ (Vita 24). The ‘enemy’ also sought to scale the walls of Lauriacum, but because nearly all livestock had been herded within the walls seized cattle left outside and went away, abandoning their scaling ladders (Vita 30).

There seems to be a considerable confusion just who the inhabitants of Noricum Ripense were facing. They seem to have the Heruli, the Alamanni, the Rugii and the Thuringi attacking them at different times. The saint’s response seems to have been to abandon the towns after a little resistance. It is worth quoting in full Chapter 27:

At the same time the inhabitants of the town of Quintanis, exhausted by the incessant incursions of the Alamanni, left their own abodes and removed to the town of Batavis. But their place of refuge did not remain hidden from the Alamanni: wherefore the barbarians were the more inflamed, believing that they might pillage the peoples of two towns in one attack. But Saint Severinus applied himself vigorously to prayer, and encouraged the Romans in manifold ways by examples of salvation. He foretold that the present foes should indeed by God's aid be overcome; but that after the victory those who despised his admonitions should perish. Therefore the Romans in a body, strengthened by the prediction of the saint, and in the hope of the promised victory, drew up against the Alamanni in order of battle, fortified less with material arms than by the prayers of the saint. The Alamanni were overthrown in the conflict and fled. The man of God addressed the victors as follows. "Children, do not attribute the glory of the present conflict to your own strength. Know that ye are now set free through the protection of God to the end that ye may depart hence within a little space of time, granted you as a kind of armistice. So gather together and go down with me to the town of Lauriacum." The man of God impressed these things upon them from the fullness of his piety. But when the people of Batavis hesitated to leave their native soil, he added, "Although that town also, whither we go, must be abandoned as speedily as possible before the inrushing barbarism, yet let us now in like manner depart from this place."

As he impressed such things upon their minds, most of the people followed him. A few indeed proved stubborn, nor did the scorners escape the hostile sword. For that same week the Thuringi stormed the town; and of those who notwithstanding the prohibition of the man of God remained there, a part were butchered, the rest led off into captivity and made to pay the penalty for their scorn.

In short, the people of Quintanis moved to Batavis, and when that was sacked, they went to Lauriacum, with a view to a withdrawal to Italy. Both the Alamanni and Thuringi were involved at different times.

Noricum Ripense was, as mentioned above part of the Prefecture of Italy. The Prefect at that time seems to have been Caecina Decius Basilius, a high born Italian noble, who later was made Consul and who had three sons who also made both Prefect and Consul under Odoacer. His sole objective seems to have been to suck up to whoever was ruler at the time. He clearly failed to maintain adequate communication with the Danube. The last Prefect before Odoacer was Felix Himelco, a man one assumes of Punic ancestry.

Relations with Germanic neighbours was not always bad, as Chapter 14 tells us how Gibuldus the local king of the Alamanni came secretly to Batavis and negotiated with Severinus and arranged for many prisoners to be freed and returned home. Interestingly, Amantius, a local priest, sent letters to Gibuldus and received several from him, suggesting either the king was literate or had staff who were. Perhaps the king was a former Roman soldier.

One of the groups most closely involved with Noricum were the Rugii. They had once lived on the Baltic island of Rugen, but had morphed into a warband, which means they were probably around 150 strong. Now 150 armed men can do a lot of damage, but they are not the overwhelming numbers people often talk about. This is Dunbar’s Number, the maximum number of people one individualcan know properly, and thus command. The Roman First Century of the primus pilus had a full strength of 160. As mentioned above, in Commagenis, the Germans were local defenders, while at Batavis, they were few enough in numbers to catch local men in orchards Sometimes, even in winter, it was safe enough to transport supplies down the Danube despite ice. The toughest of all warriors was General Winter.

In some instances the Rugii were voluntarily protecting the Romans against fellow Germans. Feba, the Rugian leader, probably a kinsman of King Odoacer, offered to protect the locals and this was accepted (Vita 31).

We have some clue to who Severinus was. When he died in AD482, he was conveyed to Naples, where a rich woman called Barbaria built a mausoleum for him in a castle. She had corresponded with Severinus, which suggests a postal service of some sort still existed. This suggests that Barbaria was some form of kinswoman (Vita 46).

Severinus is credited both in the Vita and the Anonymous Valesianus with having met Odoacer long before he became king of Italy and, like all good saints to have predicted Odoacer’s rule. After Severinus’ death, the Rugii seem to have fallen into a disputed succession between Feba’s brother and his son and for attacks on the Roman towns, which required Odoacer to send in a full army, and then, via his brother Onoulph, also a Roman general, and a comes called Pierus, to order the evacuation of all remaining Romans to Italy (Vita 44).

Those who would prefer to see the end of the Roman empire as the peaceful accommodation of a handful of almost-Roman soldiers will be disappointed. The terminology in French and German is educational: Les invasions barbares versus die Völkerwanderungen (wanderings of the people). Germans might easily be on all sides of what clearly could be a major struggle and people who considered themselves Roman could either settle down under new masters or be evacuated to Italy. Either way, nothing remained quite the same.


  1. Very interesting article. Thanks.

    If the Rugian fighting force was 150-strong, how many Rugian tribespeople in all would that imply?

    I had thought that the Rugii a much larger people than you indicate.

  2. Thanks for your interesting question.

    'Fighting force' suggests a standing army, such as the Roman army, which took centuries to evolve into its classic form. Eugippius' opening sentence refers to events after the sudden collapse of Attila's multi-ethnic force in the 450s.

    Many different groups, including even some Romans, had been caught up in this singular force, and when it broke up, they found themselves in new locations, maybe hundreds of miles from ancestral lands.

    A commander of some status, finding himself in an area where people loyal to him dominated, could readily proclaim himself king and parcel up the land to his senior followers in return for military service. He thus created a service aristocracy, who could farm, live somewhere and rent out lands to locals and more junior soldiers in return for military service.

    The Rugii as seen here might have scant connection to Rugen and many might have included Boii, local Celts, owing military service to a Rugian lord in return for land to farm. These small groups seem to be driven more by cattle raiding, piracy and seizure of Noricans in return for supplies. The frozen land would affect them more if living in tents and huts. Offering to protect local Romans in return for living quarters and food is essentially a protection racket; in Gaul at that time the Visigoths were paid a third of taxes to 'protect' farmers.

    So I see it more as free soldiers using semi-free and unfree people under their command to raid and plunder (Hrothgar in 'Beowulf' is termed 'lord of the rings' because his raids supply such items to his men) to maintain and buy status.

    Germanic royal inheritance goes to the next oldest, able-bodied and hopefully sane male member of the royal family (which is why 'Claudius' inherited and Hamlet didn't in the play) leading at times to disputed inheritance and the need to maintain loyal retainers.

    I hope that's a helpful answer.

  3. That's really helpful, yes. Gives me a much clearer idea of what was going on there at the time with wandering peoples and settled Romans. Thanks, Martin.

  4. Nice information for all about this. I really get wonderful information . Thank you so much. . ..