Was Aeneas Charlemagne’s ancestor?

“Let us set out the beginnings of the kings of the Franks and their origin and also the origins of the people and its deeds.”1.Liber Historiae Francorum, ch. 1.

Thus opens the Liber Historiae Francorum, one of the early medieval sources that relate an origin tale about how the people to be recounted came to their place in the world, and who their original ancestors were. I have found a half-dozen sources from the early medieval era that describe such origin stories. These stories come in two flavors: the first is a straight forward telling that usually starts with some sort of biblical, old testament epitome, continues with the Roman Empire, and then fits in the particular tribe or people.

This first model includes Gregory of Tours, who wrote in the sixth century. The first book of his History of the Franks is all distant history, beginning with the creation of the world. He paraphrases much of the genealogy of the Old Testament, then moves smoothly to the Roman emperors.2.Gregory of Tours, bk. 1. Gregory is usually a “just the facts” kind of writer; he doesn’t even include that fascinating story that Merovech, first king of the Merovingians, was fathered by a sea monster! So disappointing. Although he does include some other juicy tidbits.

The Venerable Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People at the beginning of the seventh century. Bede skips the biblical preface, and instead begins with an almost anthropological summary of the people of Britain. He relates how the Britons came from Amorica (Brittany), and then the Picts came to the island, probably (he isn’t sure) from Scandanivia. After that the Romans came, and Bede gives a pretty accurate accounting of the campaigns of Julius Caesar and, later, Claudius. Things follow in a historical manner after that.3.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk. 1, ch. 1.

Late in the eighth century Paul the Deacon wrote his History of the Lombards, about the people who had been fighting against (and losing to) Charlemagne and his family. Paul opens with geography, and describes the rivers and plains of central Europe. He tells how people pour out of the Slavic lands, because the land cannot feed them. Among those people were the Langobards, who might have come (like Bede, he is not sure) from a place called Scadanavia (not a typo).4.Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, bk. 1, ch. 1.

These three histories are a great boon to historians, as alternate evidence of tribal migrations is extremely thin. But there is another type of history, one that tells us almost nothing factual, but a great deal about the cultural attitude of the people who are the subject of the history. For some writers, the founder of their people was no less than Aeneas, greatest hero of the later classical age.

Aeneas has a bit part in Homer’s Illiad, as a lieutenant to Hector, son of Priam, king of Troy. At one point the god Poseiden rescues Aeneas from the Greek warrior Achilles, noting that Aeneas is destined to be king of the Trojan people. Over the centuries various tales and myths accumulated around Aeneas, until in the years before Christ Virgil made him the hero of the Aeneid, the epic poem of the Roman Empire. Virgil writes that Aeneas was one of the few Trojan survivors after the successful Greek attack with the Trojan Horse and subsequent sack of Troy. After many wanderings and adventures (including a trip to the underworld) Aeneas lands on the west coast of the Italian peninsula, and Rome becomes master of the known world. This is known.

The seventh century Chronicles of Fredegar include bits and pieces (more formally known as “interpolations”) of Gregory and another chronicler, Eusebius-Jerome. Into these extracts Fredegar inserted references to Troy and Priam, including claiming Priam as first king of the Franks. Aeneas, in Fredegar’s telling, remains as founder of Rome, while the Franks form their own people.5.Murray, From Roman to Merovingian Gaul, pp. 589-591.

For the anonymous author of the early eighth century Liber Historiae Francorum, Virgil’s history did not go far enough. Homer and the Illiad had been lost during the journey from classical libraries to the dark age scriptoria, but Virgil and the Aeneiad had not. Thus the anonymous author was able to create his own origins for Aeneas. He is king of the Trojans, “a strong and brave people, the men were warriors and very difficult to discipline. They provoked conflict and stormy contention and fought successfully on their surrounding borders.” The Greeks get fed up and besiege Troy for ten years, after which “the tyrant Aeneas fled to Italy to obtain men to carry on the fighting.” But, “Priam and Antenor, two of the other Trojan princes, embarked on ships with twelve thousand of the men remaining from the Trojan army. They departed and came to the banks of the Tanais [Don] river. They sailed into the Maeotian swamps [of the sea of Azov], penetrated the frontiers of the Pannonias which were near the Maeotian swamps and began to build a city as their memorial. They called it Sicambria and lived there many years growing into a great people.”6.Liber Historiae Francorum, ch. 1. Later the Emperor Valentinian announces that whomever can displace the treacherous tribe of the Alans will be free of taxes for ten years. So “the Trojans… entered the Maeotian swamps along with other Romans, and they drove the Alans out and cut them down with the edge of the sword. Because of the hardness and daring of their hearts the Emperor Valentinian called the Trojans Franks [fierce].”7.LHF, ch. 2.

Early in the ninth century a monk, perhaps named Nennius, wrote the History of the Britons. Like Gregory of Tours, Nennius paraphrases the Old Testament, not only for the genealogy but for the age of the world, as he tallies the years as he lists the fathers of fathers. Nennius also includes some geography of the islands, before exploring the history of Troy. He explains that Aeneas was the nephew of Priam. Aeneas had a son, Ascanius, whose son was foretold to “become the most valiant among the Italians, and the most beloved of all men.” After some adventures in Italy, including accidentally killing his own father, “he came to this island named for him Britannia, dwelt there, and filled it with his own descendants, and it has been inhabited from that time to the present period.”8.Nennius, History of the Britons, ch. 10.

Much later, but in the Germanic tradition, and too good not to include, is the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. Troy is a great and ancient city in Turkey. Thor was a son of King Priam, and Odin a descendant of Thor. Odin traveled north to Sweden, liked what he saw, and established a town. “There he appointed chieftains after the pattern of Troy, establishing twelve rules to administer the laws of the land, and he drew up a code of law like that which had held in Troy and to which the Trojans had become accustomed.”9.Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, Prologue.

While not as factually accurate as other histories, I really like these Trojan antecedents. They represent the aspirations of people who must have known that, despite their revelatory religion, in so many ways they were not in the same class as the ancients had been. Nonetheless, they reached back to establish that link with the past, to prove to themselves and their children that the blood of greatness ran in their veins.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1, 6. Liber Historiae Francorum, ch. 1.
2. Gregory of Tours, bk. 1.
3. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk. 1, ch. 1.
4. Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, bk. 1, ch. 1.
5. Murray, From Roman to Merovingian Gaul, pp. 589-591.
7. LHF, ch. 2.
8. Nennius, History of the Britons, ch. 10.
9. Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, Prologue.

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