In the later Roman Empire, bagaudae (also spelled bacaudae) were groups of peasant insurgents who arose during the Crisis of the Third Century, and persisted until the very end of the western Empire, particularly in the less-Romanised areas of Gallia and Hispania, where they were "exposed to the depredations of the late Roman state, and the great landowners and clerics who were its servants".
The invasions, military anarchy and disorders of the third century provided a chaotic and ongoing degradation of the regional power structure within a declining Empire into which the bagaudae achieved some temporary and scattered successes, under the leadership of members of the underclass as well as former members of local ruling elites.
The name probably means "fighters". C.E.V. Nixon assesses the bagaudae, from the official Imperial viewpoint, as "bands of brigands who roamed the countryside looting and pillaging". J.C.S. Léon interprets the most completely assembled documentation and identifies the bagaudae as impoverished local free peasants, reinforced by brigands, runaway slaves and deserters from the legions, who were trying to resist the ruthless labor exploitation of the late Roman proto-feudal manorial and military systems, and all manner of punitive laws and levies in the marginal areas of the Empire.
Suppressing the bagaudae
After the bagaudae came to the full attention of the central authorities about AD 284, re-establishment of the settled social order was swift and severe: the peasant insurgents were crushed in AD 286 by the Caesar Maximian and his subordinate Carausius, under the aegis of the Augustus Diocletian. Their leaders are mentioned as Amandus and Aelianus, although E.M. Wightman, in her Gallia Belgica proposes that the two belonged to the local Gallo-Roman landowning class who then became "tyrants" and most likely rebelled against the grinding taxation and garnishing of their lands, harvests and manpower by the predatory agents of the late Roman state (see frumentarii, publicani).
The Panegyric of Maximian, dating to AD 289 and attributed to Claudius Mamertinus, relates that during the bagaudae uprisings of AD 284–285 in the districts around Lugdunum (Lyon), "simple farmers sought military garb; the plowman imitated the infantryman, the shepherd the cavalryman, the rustic harvester of his own crops the barbarian enemy". In fact they shared several similar characteristics with the Germanic Heruli people. Mamertinus also called them "two-shaped monsters" (monstrorum biformium), emphasising that while they were technically Imperial farmers and citizens, they were also marauding rogues who had become foes to the Empire.
The phenomenon recurred in the mid-fourth century in the reign of Constantius, in conjunction with an invasion of the Alemanni. Although Imperial control was re-established by the Frankish general Silvanus, his subsequent betrayal by court rivals forced him into rebellion and his work was undone. In around AD 360 the historian Aurelius Victor is the sole writer to note the attacks of bagaudae in the peripheries of the larger towns and walled cities.
In the fifth century Bagaudae are noted in the lower Loire valley as far as the Atlantic shore, circa AD 409-17, fighting to a standstill armies sent against them by the last seriously effective Western Roman general, Flavius Aëtius. With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire shortly thereafter, and the rise of the successor Germanic kingdoms, the bagaudae begin to slowly disappear from recorded history.
The name bagaudae reappears once again in the mid fifth century, when they are mentioned in control of parts of central Gaul and the Ebro valley. In Hispania, the king of the Suevi, Rechiar (died AD 456) took up as allies the local bagaudae in ravaging the remaining Roman municipia, a unique alliance between Germanic ruler and rebel peasant .
That the depredations of the ruling classes were mostly responsible for the uprising of the bagaudae was not lost on the fifth-century writer of historicised polemic, Salvian; setting himself in the treatise De gubernatione Dei the task of proving God's constant guidance, he declares in book iii that the misery of the Roman world is all due to the neglect of God's commandments and the terrible sins of every class of society. It is not merely that slaves and servants are thieves and runaways, wine-bibbers and gluttons— the rich are much worse (iv. 3); it is their harshness and greed that drive the poor to join the bagaudae and flee for shelter to the barbarian invaders (v. 5 and 6).
Reputation of "bagaudae"
The reputation of the bagaudae has varied with the uses made of them in historicised narratives of the Late Empire and the Middle Ages. There has been some speculation that theirs was a Christian revolt, but the sparsity of information in the texts gives this little substance, although there may well have been many Christians among them. In general they seem to have been equal parts brigands and lumpenproletariat — less a coherent "movement" than the expression of the frustrations of ordinary people with an ever more oppressive, bankrupt and distant Empire.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, interest in the bagaudae revived, resonating with contemporary social unrest. E. A. Thompson's assessment in Past and Present (1952) approached the phenomenon of these rural malcontents in terms of Marxist class warfare.
- J. F. Drinkwater, reviewing Léon, Los bagaudas, in The Classical Review, 1999:287.
- Nixon,In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini (1994)
- M.-Cl. L'Huillier, "Notes sur la disparition des sanctuaires païens" in Marguerite Garrido-Hory, Antonio Gonzalèz, Histoire, espaces et marges de l'antiquité: hommages à Monique Clavel-Lévêque, (series Histoire et Politique 4) 2005:290.
- E.M. Wightman, Gallia Belgica (London: Batsford) 1985.
- Tyrant in the Greek and Latin sense simply means a wielder of unauthorised power, without the connotations it has since accrued.
- Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 3.16, noted by L'Huillier 2005:290.
- L'Huillier 2005:290.
- Thompson, Romans and Barbarians, 184f. Isidore of Seville, writing of Rechiar, believed that it was not bagaudae with whom Rechiar allied, but rather the Visigoths. Theodore Mommsen follows him, but there is no reason to accept Isidore over Hydatius and every reason not to, when considering that Isidore neglects to mention the Bagaudae at all in his Historia.
- Thompson, E. A. Romans and Barbarians: The Decline of the Western Empire. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) 1982.
- Léon, J.C.S. Les sources de l'histoire des Bagaudes (Paris) 1996.
- Léon, J.C.S., Los bagaudas: rebeldes, demonios, mártires. Revueltas campesinas en Galia e Hispania durante el Bajo Imperio (University of Jaén) 1996.