The Roman Empire didn’t ‘fall’ in a cataclysmic event as the movies and TV would have you believe – it localised and eventually dissolved like chain mail fragmenting into separate links, giving way to rump states, local city states and petty kingdoms. New, dynamic and often warring nations emerged – Goths, Franks, Alamans and Burgundians.
But one part of the Roman empire hung on in Gaul – the intriguing Domain of Soissons.
Officially, the last Roman emperor in the West reigned until AD 475 (Julius Nepos) or AD 476 (Romulus Augustulus) – take your pick of the two available contenders. But the last really effective Roman emperor, Majorian, had died in AD 461. Before he did, he’d appointed Aegidius in AD 457 to command all military forces in Gaul as magister militum (master of soldiers).
Soissons in the north-west was the only remaining Roman territory in Gaul by then and included Angers, Orleans, Reims, Paris and much of modern day Normandy up to the Channel coast. A corridor to Italy was annexed by the Germanic tribes occupying Gaul, cutting off Aegidius and his citizens from the empire.
Aegidius managed to rule in much of his province, but died in AD 464 or AD 465 and after a brief rule by Paulus, a Roman official, his son Syagrius succeeded him as ruler. Although Syagrius was sometimes called Rex Romanorum (King of the Romans), probably by the barbarians settled on Soissons’ borders, the citizens living there didn’t consider themselves as anything other than inhabitants of a separated province of the Western Roman empire. They perpetuated Roman rule and core structures for nearly thirty years despite being cut off from the Italian homeland (which was also pretty chaotic at this time).
Unfortunately for Syriagus, in AD 486 he came up against the most dynamic and ruthless leader of the new Europe, the Frankish king Clovis, and lost the Battle of Soissons. Syriagus sought sanctuary with Alaric, king of the Visigoths, but when Clovis threatened war, he handed Syriagus over to Clovis for execution.The Gallo-Roman enclave was absorbed into the Frankish kingdom, a step that established the Franks as the major regional power and laid the foundations of a later nation-state, France.
Even though it’s a footnote of history, Romans carrying on a Roman life – social, economic, legal – surrounded by barbarians does have a tinge of the romantic, of a people stranded in time…
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