The Batsbi?

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A case study:
the Alanic kingdom of the Loire



(PARIS: ERRANCE, 2005, PP. 106-110)


It is interesting to linger for a while on the case of the Alanic kingdom of the Loire—the best documented, despite the gaps in our knowledge, of the ephemeral political and territorial structures of the Alans in Western Europe.

The Alans of the Loire (unlike the small groups of Sarmatian gentiles previously installed in Gaul; cf. I. Lebedynsky, Les Sarmates, 2002) formed a compact and settled population led by its own king. Their situation was comparable to that of the 'federated' Visigoths or Burgundians, established on Roman territory by virtue of a foedus, a pact that laid out the obligations of both parties: the 'Barbarians' received land (that legally remained part of the indivisible empire) and different sources of income, etc., in exchange for which they were to defend the area that they had been entrusted with. In the case of the Alans of Gallia ulterior, the texts do not expressly mention a pact of this kind, although it is obvious that the settlement of the Alans was carried out based upon an official order issued by the Roman authorities—and more precisely by Aetius, who wielded effective power in the West. In any case, if foedus there was, it was clearly much earlier than 440-442 and dated back to the time of the entry into Gaul of Goar's troops. It is very unlikely that the Alan troops would have been able to spend 40 years in the country without some sort of legal status.

It is important to note that the Alanic kingdom was not independent, or rather that it, like the other 'Romano-Barbarian' kingdoms of Gaul, had a dual structure. The Alans dealt with internal matters as they pleased, being foreigners to whom Roman law did not apply. On the other hand, they were bound to obey military orders issued by the Roman authorities—as king Eochar did, for example, when he went to crush the Armorican revolt, later granting Saint Germanus of Auxerre no more than a conditional 'pardon' that had to be confirmed by the emperor or by Aetius (and wasn't!). The obvious problem was that of possible conflict between the Alans and the Gallo-Roman population of the areas they occupied, the latter still under imperial authority and Roman law. The first and main conflict of this kind, in 442, was brought to an end by expelling reluctant landowners, and Aetius approved, or at the very least let it happen: to this realist, strategic preoccupations were more important than legal principles.

The Alans' numbers were clearly not insignificant (several thousand warriors?), given the strategic role they were given in the fight against the bagaudae insurgents and no doubt also the Visigoths of Aquitaine. Aetius did not hesitate to entrust them with the task of restoring control over Armorica. The request for intervention that the Armoricans addressed to Saint Germanus shows that they were not so much expecting a few limited retaliatory raids but the complete destruction of their country. The Vita Germani also mentions that Eochar's cavalry 'encumbered the entire road'. And lastly, we saw the role that the Alans played at the battle of Mauriacum against the Huns in 451. Yet despite this, their numbers—at any rate after these clashes and those against the Visigoths the next year—must have been lower than the 'critical mass' that would have been necessary to ensure the sustainability of the Alanic kingdom and its transformation into a political construction as durable as the Visigothic or Burgundian kingdoms.

The land granted to the Alans (like that of the Visigoths and Burgundians) did not coincide with Roman administrative or territorial boundaries, and its exact limits remain unknown. We do, however, know two things: firstly, in 451, king Sangiban resided in Orleans, which logically indicates that the town stood in his territory. Also, if the Alans were sent to fight Armorican secession, it was probably because their kingdom bordered on Armorica. Unfortunately, this latter name remains a rather vague geographical expression: of Celtic origin (are-morica, the land 'facing the sea'), the word covered a great part of Northwestern Gaul, and the dux tractus armoricani wielded an authority that overlapped the borders of several provinces. The Notice des Dignités shows that towards the end of the Vth century he was responsible for the protection of the Gaulish coast from Blaye to Bayeux and its hinterland. The Vita Germani explains that Eochar, after his meeting with Saint Germanus, withdrew his troops back to their peacetime quarters... but omits to mention precisely where these are.

In the absence of archaeological traces (cf. infra), the toponymy, whose method of use shall be commented upon later, suggests an Alanic occupation between the rivers Seine, Loire and Sarthe, apparently with a centre in Beauce. Some toponyms appear in southern Normandy. The general impression this gives is that Alanic territory was to the north of the course of the river Loire and of the town of Orleans. Curiously, some have also placed the Alans in Sologne, i.e. south of the Loire. This affirmation can for example be found in A. Thierry's Histoire d'Attila et de ses successeurs (1865), written under Napoléon III, and was later reproduced by various vulgarisers. It is however very doubtful that the Alans were largely installed along the southern banks of the Loire, an area in which no toponym can be attributed to them. Might they have occupied bridge-heads controlling the river? That is the same as to ask ourselves whether their southern 'border' was the Loire itself or, perhaps, the ancient provincial limits between Aquitaine and Lyon, slightly to the south of the river. Let us however note that the Alans, according to Jordanes (History of the Goths, XLIII), were settled 'beyond the Loire' (trans flumen Ligeris).

Jordanes (History of the Goths, XXXVII) tells us that in 451, the Alanic king Sangiban had established himself (consistebat) in Orleans. Aurelianensis/Orleans was in the mid-Vth century a Gallo-Roman town of relatively secondary importance protected by a wall (some historians prefer to refer to the town as a castrum instead). The existence of a quite prosperous trade is attested to in the VIth century (Gregory of Tours mentions the wine trade and the presence of colonies of oriental merchants), but we do not know what the town must have been like in 440-450. Strategically, Orleans was particularly important for control over a crossing of the Loire, first mentioned in this location as early as the Ist century A.D., and where a kind of inter-provincial toll gate may have stood.

We do not know if Sangiban usually had his residence in Orleans, nor if his (likely) predecessor Eochar had also held court there, which would have made the town a sort of capital of the Alanic kingdom of Gallia ulterior. This would by no means have been unique: for reasons of prestige and no less of practicality, the kings of 'barbarian' peoples officially installed in Gaul settled in the main towns of the territories they had been granted. Thus the Visigothic kings in Toulouse, the Burgundian kings in Geneva and later Lyons, and the Frankish kings with their several different capitals. An Alanic royal residence in Orleans might suggest a nascent integration into the Roman framework, or perhaps the creation of a kind of barbarian 'Court' similar to those of contemporary Germanic kings, and possibly the employment by the Alanic authorities of a Roman administration that had continued to function. Similarly, if the hypothesis of a toll gate is accepted, this taxation may have been entrusted to the Alans.

A possible indication of a tradition of royal residence in Orleans is the fact that in the early VIth century, the town was from 511 to 524 the capital of the Frankish king Clodomir, one of Clovis' sons.

We know two kings of the Alans of Gallia ulterior, Eochar (during the second half of the 440s) and Sangiban (in 451). Their status must have been the same as that of, for example, the Burgundian sovereigns, both kings and traditional war lords of their people, and agents of Roman authority. We do not know if Rome bestowed an official title upon them; the sources only refer to them as 'king of the Alans' (rex Alanorum). The two probably succeeded each other, although it is not impossible that the Alans had several sovereigns simultaneously. Nothing indicates that they might have been related.

The Vita Germani describes Eochar as the 'very fierce king of the Alans', possessed by 'the greed and cupidity' typical of the 'Barbarians'—but this did not prevent him, as we saw earlier, from allowing himself to be swayed by Saint Germanus. More important than this somewhat grotesque portrayal is the identification of the the man named Goar who entered Gaul in 406. Linguistically speaking, this can be done; besides the fact that Eochar seems to appear under the name of Goar in some editions of the Vita Germani, both forms—and other variants thereof—can be brought back to a same Alanic prototype *Gô-ar, 'he who steals cows', or *Gô-xar, 'he who eats cows'. E. Demougeot (v. 2, 1979) remarks that, if the two were the same man, he must have been quite old at the time of the campaign in Armorica (assuming that he was only 25 in 406, he would have been 65 in 446). B. Bachrach (1973) uses this advanced age to explain Eochar/Goar's replacement by Sangiban, no later than in 451, since the Alans, according to Ammianus Marcellinus (XXXI, 2, 22), disliked 'declining old men'; but of course, this is pure hypothesis. The name is in any case not unique and may have been widespread among the Alans and the Goths: in addition to St Goar, born in the VIth century in Aquitaine, we know of another Goar, a Goth from Dalmatia (Procopius, History of the Wars, IV, 27). It is quite possible that, towards 445, king Eochar of the Alans of the Loire was the agèd Goar, now reaching the end of his long career as an associate of Rome. But we cannot be certain, and we must of course avoid building, as many have done, a kind of 'saga of king Goar' that attributes to him, besides the events of 406, of 411 and of the 440s, other episodes during which his presence is unattested, like the siege of Bazas in 415: the historian must never be a novelist.

As for Sangiban, he only appears (in the role of the potential traitor!) during the Hunnic invasion of 451. The name is apparently Iranian (and may even be a title, cf. Index). A certain similarity has been noted with the name (also known from a single source) of Sambida, the Alanic chieftain settled in 440 in the region around Valence (D. Jalmain, 1984), but the similarity is superficial and is not enough to identify the two, let alone to draw certain conclusions regarding the possible migration of this group to the area around Orleans. The year of Sangiban's death also remains unknown.

The successive westward migrations of the Alans, their long association with Roman power the strategic nature of their settlement in Gallia ulterior had transformed them into a community of military colonists. The expulsion in 442 of the reluctant Gallo-Roman landowners means that the Alans replaced them as the masters of the land. Curiously, only very few authors have asked themselves what they did with it. They no doubt needed vast areas for the maintenance of the great herds of horses that their cavalry required. Some of them were perhaps still semi-nomadic, moving with their herds as the seasons changed. But is it not more likely that the Alans confiscated these lands in order to cultivate them, or rather to have them cultivated by a servile or dependent labour force? The establishment of Alanic lords in Gallo-Roman villae would explain the origin of toponyms such as Allainville < *Alani villa or Allaincourt < *Alani curia, and perhaps also of those that may be based upon the name of Goar (cf. infra). The incomes derived from cultivation were no doubt augmented by a kind of salary, paid in money or in kind by the Roman authorities, and occasionally by war booty. Of course, there was little booty to be seized during law enforcement operations against the bagaudae, which may explain the 'greed and cupidity' with which, according to the Vita Germani, Eochar coveted the riches of Armorica.

At a cultural level, the Alans of the Loire, who were themselves perhaps the second or third generation of Alans in Gaul, apparently maintained their particularities. The names of their kings (unfortunately the only Alanic anthroponyms that we know of in the region) are Iranian or at the veryatt least Caucasian: Sambida's name seems Armenian (cf. Index). If we are to believe the Vita Germani, Eochar was a pagan king, 'the servant of idols'. This terminology indicates that he was not a 'heretic' Arian, like the Goths or Burgundians, and that he instead followed the traditional Alanic religion; as no doubt all his people did. What is more, Saint Germanus at first spoke to him through an interpreter. This probably means that in the years 440-450, the Alans of the Loire had maintained their language, and that specialized interpreters managed contacts between them and the Gallo-Roman population. This conservatism most likely springs from the fact that the Alans had migrated to Gaul along with their families, as a complete 'miniature' people. For reasons attributable to both their legal status (unions between Roman citizens and 'Barbarians' were in theory forbidden) and their lifestyle, they no doubt practised a form of endogamy that favoured the maintenance of their traditions.