‘The lunatic is easily recognised. Sooner or later he brings up the Templars’ (Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum) The Bacaudae are seen in a similar light.
On three occasions we find references to Bacaudae (or Bagaudae, or variants of that name) in Roman Gaul. The first time was in the third century, the second in the fourth and the final in the fifth.
They have been characterised in many ways, existing mainly in the political analysis of those discussing them. It does remind me of Umberto Eco’s maxim.
There has been much controversy over the name, which appears to be Gaulish. It’s possible that they did not know the meaning of the word either. There may have been groups calling themselves Bacaudae prior to this, but which we know nothing of. We can’t even be certain this is an endonym (what people call themselves) as opposed to an exonym (what others call you, which the Romans were quite good at).
Bacaudae is of course a plural, and the singular form Bacauda. A man of that name was made Tribunus Voluptatum (minister for public amusement) at Milan by Theodoric (Cassiodorus Variae 5.25), a position to be held for life and an innovation at that time. This man was a Visigoth, so it is possible that the Bacaudae were followers of a Bacauda, a Germanic leader of some sort.
Why the Bacaudae were so prominent, because banditry and piracy were endemic in the Roman world? Julius Caesar had himself been captured by pirates. Lincoln Blumell in his article ‘Beware of Bandits! Banditry and Land Travel in the Roman Empire’ Journeys 8.1-2 (June-December 2007) points out that an expectation of banditry was commonplace, citing the plot of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (aka The Golden Ass).
Eric Hobsbawm refers to later ‘social bandits’ :
The point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and the state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice . . .and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported (EJ Hobsbawm 1969 Bandits)
We should consider as something close to that resistance figures such as the Lusitanian Viriatus, whom Diodorus Siculus refers to as ‘lord of all’; there are references to him also in Silus Italicus and Livy; he resisted Roman conquest of what is now Portugal in 147BC, the same year as Carthage and Corinth were burnt down by the Romans. Polybius sees him as using both war and theft to resist Roman conquest; even Romans could become social bandits, as in the case of Sertorius, who followed the example of Viriatus in the same area fifty years later.
|Modern Statue of Viriatus, Portugal|
Moreover in the era of Septimius Severus around AD190-210 we find references in Cassius Dio to Bulla Felix (‘Lucky Charm’) a semi legendary Robin Hood figure, who evaded capture for two years. Since Dio says he had a gang of 600 supporters, that seems incredible. If he existed at all (some doubt it) Bulla Felix would have found it impossible to navigate around Italy without being found, since he would have had to provide 1800 meals and fodder for 600 animals every day. A gang of 600 riders would have blocked the roads and been visible for miles. Dunbar’s Law (the so-called Law of 150) suggests that any number over 150 becomes increasingly difficult for one individual to manage. A Roman century had eighty men, and the double century which headed each legion had 160, but there would always be absences and injuries to subtract from that.
|Bulla Felix, 'lord of all'|
Another liminal figure is Tacfarinas (Tiqfarin), a former Roman officer who deserted and led Berber groups into raiding Roman supply camps in north west Africa in the time of Tiberius, reported by Tacitus Annals). Unlike Juba and Jugurtha, he was not a local king with Roman tastes, but a non-noble Berber. We might also consider the case of Gildo, a rebel and former Roman soldier, who also used the Roman’s own fighting techniques against them in the 390s AD.
|Mausoleum of Tacfarinas, North Africa|
Galen, writing in the early third century AD, refers to what many might have considered normal reactions to banditry:
On another occasion we saw the skeleton of a bandit lying on rising ground by the roadside. He had been killed by some traveller repelling his attack. None of the local inhabitants would bury him, but in their hatred of him were glad enough to see his body consumed by the birds which, in a couple of days, ate his flesh, leaving the skeleton as if for medical demonstration. (Galen On Anatomical Procedures 1.2)
It’s hard to tell common thieves from Hobsbawm’s social bandits, as in the parable told by Jesus (Luke 10.30) ‘A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.’ Centuries earlier, Isaiah had commented that ‘Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.’ (Isaiah 1.23). Men who were supposed to be magistrates and heard cases were allying themselves with thieves and acting as rebels. In the east there were continuing reports of semi-political bandits (Strabo Geographika 16.2.18, Josephus Bellum Judaicum 1.304)
Bacaudae seem to be a product of social stress, since they are reported around AD289 by Claudius Mamertinus in a panegyric about Maximian; we know that Maximian hired barbarians to attack him so he could defeat them, so we should not be surprised if the original Bacaudae were invented for that same purpose. However, the name is associated with Gallic revolutionaries Amandus and Aelianus, both of whom, it should be noted, had fairly standard Roman names.
Some consider them to be social bandits, the term coined by Eric Hobsbawm for movements in Greece, Hungary and the Balkans in the early modern era which undermined the Ottomans in south-eastern Europe. The closest seem to be the Hajduk, who operated in that has recently been Yugoslavia, peasant Christian irregulars operating as small warbands of at most 100 men.
The crises which provoked the so-called Fall of the Roman Empire were mainly crises in Gaul. Virtually every problem of territory and people in the later empire led to break-up involved Gaul at some point. Take Rutilius Namatianus’s comments in his poem De Reditu Suo (On his return home [to Gaul], Loeb translation, 1934)
the fields of Gaul summon home their native. Disfigured they are by wars immeasurably long, yet the less their charm, the more they earn pity. 'Tis a lighter crime to neglect our countrymen when at their ease: our common losses call for each man's loyalty. Our presence and our tears are what we owe to the ancestral home: service which grief has prompted ofttimes helps. 'Tis sin further to overlook the tedious tale of disasters which the delay of halting aid has multiplied: now is the time after cruel fires on ravaged farms to rebuild, if it be but shepherd's huts.
This is not just the invasions of Vandals, Sueves and Alans, but a protracted period of ‘wars immeasurably long’, with ‘fires on ravaged farms’.
Then there are the great complainers, Paulinus ‘of Pella’ and Salvian ‘of Marseille’. Paulinus (377-461) actually lived in southern Gaul and had only been born at Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia, when his father was proconsul there, leaving it forever at age nine months. Salvian (400-490) was actually from Trier in the Roman Rhineland, and left it for Marseille when Trier was evacuated in AD407.
The perils of being a landed noble in fifth century Gaul are ably told in Paulinus’s Eucharisticos (Thanksgiving), written when he was eighty-three in AD461 (born in 378). Paulinus was the grandson of Ausonius and his own father had been Proconsul of Africa. After a life of luxury and idleness, Paulinus was at 37 in AD415 made head of imperial finances by Priscus Attalus, the Visigoths’ puppet emperor in southern Gaul. This meant he was probably party to the treaty between the Visigoths in Gaul and northern Spain and the Romans, which lasted until the Visigothic leader Euric annulled in the 470s.
|Professor Walter Goffart|
Under that treaty, one third of all taxes were to be handed to the local Gothic commander in cash, while the remainder was to be handed to the Roman tax-farmer as before. The scheme is detailed by Walter Goffart in his groundbreaking Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation (Princeton University Press, 1987). It must have occurred to the Roman taxpayer in Gaul that if he could be defended adequately on a third of his taxes, what were the rest of his taxes for?
|This book will change your history|
The invasion of Gaul and then Spain by Germanic groups from AD407 onwards led to an major outbreak of disease in Spain in 409 (Chronicle of Hydatius), famines in Spain in 410 (Hydatius) and Gaul in 411 (Gallic Chronicle of 452). Much of the reason for the famine must have been seizure of crops by the invading Vandals, Sueves and others; the invading groups had no provision for food, so they must have seized what they could each day. People are less likely to plant crops or rear livestock if there is a good possibility of it being stolen by a foreign army. The imperial government had to forgive much is its tax revenues in the second and third decades of the fifth century. Even in Britain, Gildas refers to a famine ‘the discomfited people, wandering in the woods, began to feel the effects of a severe famine, which compelled many of them without delay to yield themselves up to their cruel persecutors, to obtain subsistence’ (De Excidio Britanniae 20).
Bacaudae are mentioned in Gaul during this very period, specifically in the Loire Valley and Aremorica (today’s Brittany), and it seems the Alans, a Turkmen warrior group associated with the Vandals, but known for their attack on Orleans ,were used to suppress them. It has been claimed that Aetius hired the local Alans under their king, Goar, to do so (Constantius of Lyon, Vita Sancti Germani).
Aremorica was seized by British rulers around this time. Today’s Brittany has ancient divisions known today as Domnonée and Cornouaille, which replicate Dumnonia and Cornovia, today’s Devon and Cornwall. It’s possible that some of the people displaced by the British takeover also ended up as Bacaudae. The invading Britons were not fleeing from the Saxons, because the Saxons never got there until the time of Alfred the Great in the late ninth century. Quite possibly the Britons crossed to Aremorica to take advantage of the chaos there. Many people had ceased to work on farms in the semi-bondage which had become normalised in the fourth century, but never accepted. Lands termed agri deserti were not actually deserted, but farmed only by tenants who were too small and poor to pay major taxes; it was their landlords who deserted their tax liability.
Leaders like Tibatto (Constantius and Hydatius, who calls him princeps rebellionis) and Basilius, (Hydatius, s.a. AD449), accused of killing federates troops in a church at Tyrasso. Spain) don’t seem to be either social bandits or oppressed workers.
|Execution of bearded men, perhaps Bacaudae, by Roman soldiers|
The Loire Valley seems to have been a dividing line between various authorities. It marked provincial boundaries in imperial times, and by the fifth century the polities into which Gaul had transformed used this navigable waterway as a boundary. The comic play Querolus (The Angry Man) includes a conversation between the titular Querolus and his lar familiaris, household god. Querolus asks for power without responsibility. The Lar says “I know! Go and live on the banks of the Loire… In that place people live by the law of nations. … capital sentences are issued from an oak tree and written on bones. … private persons act as judges:.
Salvian’s most famous work, De praesenti judicio, often renamed De gubernatione Dei, On the Governance of God, attacks the imperial government for the existence of the Bacaudae. He blames the harshness of the rich and the high taxes on the lower orders which has made people flee to the Bacaudae (DGD v.5-6). He comments over and over that the barbarians may be rough and uncouth, but at least they are honest and not hypocrites.
In the middle of the fifth century AD, the phenomenon of Attila the Hun stunned Europe. Priscus, a member of the Roman posse sent to negotiate with Attila,
As I waited and walked up and down in front of the enclosure which surrounded the house, a man, whom from his Scythian dress I took for a barbarian, came up and addressed me in Greek, with the word Xaire, "Hail!"… He considered his new life among the Scythians better than his old life among the Romans, and the reasons he gave were as follows: "After war the Scythians live in inactivity, enjoying what they have got, and not at all, or very little, harassed. The Romans, on the other hand, are in the first place very liable to perish in war, as they have to rest their hopes of safety on others, and are not allowed, on account of their tyrants to use arms. And those who use them are injured by the cowardice of their generals, who cannot support the conduct of war. But the condition of the subjects in time of peace is far more grievous than the evils of war, for the exaction of the taxes is very severe, and unprincipled men inflict injuries on others, because the laws are practically not valid against all classes. A transgressor who belongs to the wealthy classes is not punished for his injustice, while a poor man, who does not understand business, undergoes the legal penalty, that is if he does not depart this life before the trial, so long is the course of lawsuits protracted, and so much money is expended on them. The climax of the misery is to have to pay in order to obtain justice. For no one will give a court to the injured man unless he pay a sum of money to the judge and the judge's clerks."… My interlocutor shed tears, and confessed that the laws and constitution of the Romans were fair, but deplored that the governors, not possessing the spirit of former generations, were ruining the State. (Priscus Fragment 7)
We see here the sorts of circumstances the Bacaudae faced, repeated by Salvian and Priscus: severe taxes and injustice, which made Romans happy to consider viable alternatives. If the Goths charged only a third of the regular tax assessment, where was the rest going to? Many would have said the idle mouths of the rich and the Church.
In conclusion: rebellion against the empire was not new or confined to a limited area. What the Bacaudae did, antagonists like Viriatus and Bulla Felix had done before them: take advantage of Roman weakness along liminal areas; in the valley of the Loire, the fifth century Bacaudae could take advantage of fragmented jurisdictions to act like the Border Reivers of the Anglo-Scottish border did for centuries; sometimes making themselves available to either party in a dispute, as the medieval gallowglass would do. They don’t sound very different to Alaric’s Visigoths.