Francia travelogue – Septimania

Today the French Mediterranean coast is known for soft sandy beaches and elegant resorts. Thirteen centuries ago the region was on the brink of years of battle and bloodshed.

Septimania was a vaguely rectangular region that ran from the French southwest Mediterranean coast to the northeast for perhaps 150 miles, and from the sea to about fifty miles inland. It was bounded by the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean, and the river Rhone to the east. First named for the Roman seventh legion who settled there, the region included one of the first Roman roads in Gaul, the Via Domitia, that ran from Italy to Spain. The Via Aquitania split off from that and ran to Bordeaux. The towns of Narbonne and Agde were ports and trading sites in Roman times, and salt was extracted from around Narbonne. The province remained more Roman than Rome as the barbarians closed around the mother city in the fourth and fifth centuries. Finally in 462 the Romans handed it to the Visigoths.

The residents were fierce, and held to their independence. In 585 King Guntram of Burgundy, Septimania’s neighbor to the east, invaded with a strong army. Guntram “ordered the fighting forces of his entire kingdom against the Goths in Septimania.” One army plundered around Nimes, another around Carcassonne. “Neither of these forces was able to take those Gothic cities which closed their gates. No effort was made to mount a siege; only the surrounding areas and the cities whose citizens were foolish enough to open their gates and were plundered. By the end of July it became clear that this army was not going to subjugate Septimania; not only were Guntram’s troops finding it difficult to forage, but the hostile populace was continually harassing them.” Sometimes even kings never learn. “In 589… he again sent an army into the area… Claudisu, the Gothic leader in Septimania, prepared an ambush… [O]nly those who were able to reach their mounts escaped; those less fortunate were either killed captured.”1.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp.61-63.

After that repulse the residents knew relative peace until the eighth century dawned, and the Muslims crossed North Africa and headed for Spain. They crossed the Straight of Gibraltar in 711, conquered Spain, and, barely pausing for breath, crossed the Pyrenees and conquered Septimania by 720. Ardo was the last of the Visigothic kings, who  could not hold them off. The Arab governor al-Hurr worked hard. “For almost three years, by means of fighting and negotiating treaties, he sought control over Gallia Narbonenesis.”2.Chronicle of 754, ch.62, Wolf, Conquerors and Chroniclers, p.136. It was not a peaceful conquest. Roger Collins notes that “The first decade following the Arab invasion saw a wave of violence and military activity pass through the Iberian peninsula from north to south and then on across the Pyrenees into the former Visigothic region of Septimania. Certain areas were probably hardly touched; others, such as the Ebro valley and the region around Narbonne may have seen a disproportionate amount of fighting and destruction.”3.Collins, Arab Conquest, p81. Further, “A number of garrison towns had been created by the Arab and Berber troops, including both Cordoba and Narbonne… In the case of Narbonne at least this had been preceded by the slaughter or enslavement of the indigenous population.”4.Ibid, p93.

Peace did not settle on the region once Arab rule was established. Using Septimania as a base several raids and operations were launched into Aquitaine and Francia, the raid of 732 being the most notable. In 737 “the mighty race of Ishmael, who are now known by the outlandish name of Saracens, rebelled and burst across the river Rhone.”5.Fredegar, Continuations, ch20. Charles Martel fought back, lifted the siege of Avignon (in Burgundy), and

[C]rossed the Rhone with his men and plunged into Gothic territory as far as the Narbonnaise. He invested its famous capital, Narbonne itself. He threw up up lines on the banks of the Aude in which he installed offensive armament of the battering type. He then continued his lines in a wide sweep round the Saracen emir ‘Abd ar-Rahman and his viziers, investing them so. He added carefully constructed works at intervals. When news of this reached them, the chief lords and princes of the Saracens who were still in Spain collected an army out of their united manpower to fight a pitched battle, and set out bravely in arms to meet Charles under another emir, Omar-ibn-Chaled. Our unconquerable Duke Charles made all haste to meet them upon the banks of the Berre, at the palace in the valley of the Corbieres[Aude]… [After the battle the Arabs fled to the seas, where the Franks] were quickly after them in boats with whatever weapons came to hand and pushed them down and drowned them in the water.6.Ibid.

Gradual Arab weakness in the region gave Martel’s son Pepin an opportunity to recapture lost Christian territory, and secure the primary river route from the north to the Mediterranean on the river Rhone. In 752 he took control over most of eastern Septimania, and in 759 Narbonne was handed over. The local population was glad to take on new masters, provided they could continue to live under Visigothic law.7.Wallace-Hedrill, Barbarian West, p.98.

With Septimania secured Pepin felt able to begin a long and bloody campaign against Duke Waifar of Aquitaine. In 762 the fighting spilled over to Narbonne, when Waifar

[S]ent his cousin, Count Mantio, with counts to Narbonne with the object of capturing and killing the garrison, sent by the king to hold Narbonne against the Saracens, either as they entered the city or on their way back home. It so happened that Counts Australdus and Galemanius were making for home with their following when Mantio fell upon them with a crowd of Gascons. There was a stiff fight; but Australdus and Galemanius succeeded, with God’s help, in killing Mantio and all his companions. When they saw this, the Gascons turned tail and fled. They thus lost all the horses they had with them… The Franks continued home rejoicing, with great booty and many horses and trappings.8.Fredegar, Continuations, ch.44.

By that point Septimania was firmly a part of the Frankish realm. On Pepin’s death in 768 Septimania was included in the bequest to his son Carloman. Ten years later Septimanian levies are mentioned in the enumeration of regions contributing to the army that marched into Spain. But invasion, battle, and other specters loomed as large as ever.

[In 793] a severe famine lay upon Italy and Burgundy too, and upon some areas of Francia, and there was severe famine also in Gothia and Provence, such that many died as a result of this dearth… [The governor of Spain sent one of his generals to Gaul] Coming to Narbonne, they put its suburbs to the torch and captured many Christians and great booty. They were intending to on to the city of Carcassonne when William went out against them with other counts of the Franks. Battle was joined on the river Orbiel. It was an exceedingly severe battle, and the greatest part of the Christian people fell that day. But William fought bravely that day. Seeing, however, that he could not hold them, since his companions abandoned him and fled, he broke away from them. And the Saracens collected the spoils and returned to Spain…9.Moissac Chronicle, 793, King, Translated Sources, p.159.

Not all Arab perils came over the mountains. “Charlemagne placed strongpoints and coastguard stations at all the ports and at the mouths of all rivers considered large enough for the entry of ships, so that the enemy could be bottled up by this military task force. He did the same in the south, along the shore of southern Gaul and Septimania, and along the whole coast of Italy as far north as Rome, against the Moors who had recently begun piratical attacks.”10.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.17.

By 806 the great Charles saw the end of his life approaching (although he would last another eight years), and he drew up a document for the division of his kingdom. Septimania was not forgotten, and was bequeathed to his son Louis.11.Capitulary Divisio Regnorum, 806, Loyn, Reign of Charlemagne. And so it goes.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp.61-63.
2. Chronicle of 754, ch.62, Wolf, Conquerors and Chroniclers, p.136.
3. Collins, Arab Conquest, p81.
4. Ibid, p93.
5. Fredegar, Continuations, ch20.
6. Ibid.
7. Wallace-Hedrill, Barbarian West, p.98.
8. Fredegar, Continuations, ch.44.
9. Moissac Chronicle, 793, King, Translated Sources, p.159.
10. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.17.
11. Capitulary Divisio Regnorum, 806, Loyn, Reign of Charlemagne.

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