• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Bagaudae

Updated: May 7, 2019

In the late third century Diocletian sent his colleague Maximian to Gaul to subdue the “country folk and bandits whom the inhabitants call the Bagaudae”.

These folk have often been left on the margins of histories that concern themselves with late antiquity. Perhaps due to the fact it’s easy to write them off as some sort of proto-feudal movement – a portend of the manorial system to come – or simply bandits, not fit for tales of high diplomacy and momentous battles.

Contrary to commonplace narratives, however, the late Roman state did not die on its knees in the western half of the empire. Instead, it succeeded in marshalling far more resources, raising much larger armies and putting down far more threats than any of its predecessors could have countenanced.

Yet, as its core strengthened – alongside its fire-fighting abilities on the periphery –confidence in the west Roman state’s future weakened. Strength is always relative. Despite the state becoming more robust, its challenges grew weightier.

This meant that while the late Roman state’s arteries became oxygenised – like some sort of drugged-up athlete – its capillaries fell into a state of neglect. In the mountainous regions of Gaul and Spain (and anywhere the imperial presence wasn’t kept running at 100 per cent), the Bagaudae appeared.

No state can be everywhere at once. Like a currency one must believe; have trust in its future, or it becomes untenable. This battle of hearts and minds (which reflected a state in which civil war had become endemic) meant that by the time this ragtag bunch had done the unbelievable and blocked a Roman army retreating to Italy in the western Alps, it was entirely believable – even justifiable.

But why mention these peasants; these unsavoury yobs? Because the cultural hegemony of the West is being damaged in a similar manner today. Budgets have never been bigger, centralisation so smooth etc. yet there’s an uncanny feeling that culturally it stands on the doorstep of an era of disruption.

Culture is the glue that binds Man where coercion can or will not. What is perhaps most surprising with the Bagaudae is that they are rarely presented as anti-Roman, no matter what their crimes. Instead, the Gallic priest Salvian noted that their groups were upset at being abandoned and being robbed of the “dignity of the Roman name”.

Similarly, today, though the tools of coercion and the techniques of manipulation have never been stronger or more sophisticated, something feels amiss. The item missing is an identity that binds us; that legitimises force.

When people stop believing in the viability of a “macro” or “host” culture, the force the core exerts becomes delegitimised. The Bagaudae name itself comes from the Celtic word for “war”. It brought a force to the table that claimed equal legitimacy to the Roman state because the latter had failed to provide the means to fulfil its identical ends.

Today, many identities find themselves shoved under the larger ones that no longer appear legitimate. And questions about sovereignty and independence will continue to appear in multi-ethnic, multi-denominational and multi-cultural states, until everybody is happy that their identity-briefs are fulfilled.

If this does not happen at the level of national legislatures, Europe will see an increase in parallelism whereby local non-state forms of control (“stewards” for example) will run alongside the state and look to outlive it.

Hopefully these locales – let us quixotically call them city-states – will not look to medium-weight figureheads like nation-states, which seem too heavy-handed and insensitive to deal with local issues, yet also avaricious enough to tax heavily and absent enough to ignore protests without consequence.

Instead, like the Venetians protesting against interference from medium-powers, they will proudly announce their allegiance to the Roman [Byzantine] name, as when they told King Pippin:

“We want to be to servants of the emperor of the Romans, and not of you”. [1]

N.B. The EU has the correct form for such a state but not the content. In reality, it’s a post-Christian entity i.e. European only insofar as it betrays its civilizational mission, which is Christian, for either of two schools: a pagan indigenous route (making it an ethnic confederation like the Mongol horde) that posits the particularity of western Eurasian peoples against others, or a pagan ideological one (that reduces the world to mechanisms; to rubrics of power), which reduces the particularity of the world to Europe’s nullity. Moreover, this article links sympathy for direct democracy with an attachment to a lofty and distant imperial power (such as Byzantium), whereas the EU’s democratic apparatus is conspicuously meaningless to the point of being an obvious (if opaque) parody of democracy.


[1] Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, ed. G. Moravcsik, trans. R. J. H. Jenkins, Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks Centre for Byzantine Studies, 1993, p. 121.

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