By the time of its final battles in the late 5th Century, the once mighty Roman Army bore little resemblance to the legendary fighting force that dominated the known world hundreds of years earlier. Although still serving the emperor, these last legions likely looked and fought more like early medieval soldiers than the cohorts of classical antiquity. Under-resourced, scattered across a rapidly dwindling empire and comprised more and more of non-Roman and even barbarian troops, the soldiers of the late western empire would fight a centuries-long defensive campaign aimed at keeping the encroaching hoards of Goths, Franks, Huns and Vandals at bay. By the time the barbarians sacked Rome in 410 and then again in 455, the western empire was beyond hope. Despite this, the ever-shrinking Roman legions of the west fought on. In fact, battles involving armies of Rome would continue until the last decades of the 5th Century. Here are some of those final clashes.
Following the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455, the new Roman emperor Avitus sought to stave off total defeat by mending fences with the western empire’s other historic foe, the Visigoths. It was a controversial policy that was condemned by an ambitious Roman warlord by the name of Majorian. By 457, this anti-Visigoth general actually deposed Emperor Avitus and with the blessing of the Byzantine ruler Leo I, Majorian himself rose to power. Within four years, another Roman strongman named Flavius Ricimer seized the throne replacing Majorian. A protégé of Majorian named Aegidius rebelled against the new emperor and threatened to march on Italy. Ricimer, an ally of the Visigoths, compelled the barbarian’s king Theodoric II to seize Aegidius’ territory in northern Gaul and wipe out the rebel Roman army and their Frankish allies. In 463, the two armies met at Orleans. Details of the size of the opposing forces, the numbers of casualties sustained or even how or even when the battle itself was fought seem to have been lost. What is clear is the Visigoths were defeated and even Theodoric’s own brother was killed. Aegidius continued to rule in Gaul.
Twenty-three years later, remnants of Rome’s once mighty legions would fight again in Gaul, this time against the very allies that helped them defeat the Visigoths — the Franks. By 486, Aegidius’ own son Syagrius was administering the still considerable territory handed down to him by his father. It stretched across northern France from the Bay of Biscay to the German frontier. The then up-and-coming Frankish king Clovis I sought to eradicate this last bastion of Roman authority and add the lands to his growing realm. But Clovis wasn’t just in it for the territory — the Frankish ruler was eager to lay his hands on the well-maintained Roman roads, buildings and infrastructure that dotted Gallo-Roman territory controlled by Syagrius. Clovis assembled a coalition of Franks to seize the region. So convinced of his supremacy was the Frankish ruler, he actually announced the day that his armies planned to converge on the settlement at Soissons and challenged the Romans to march out to meet him there in battle.  It turns out Clovis overconfidence wasn’t entirely ill-founded – he hammered the Romans and took their land. Syagrius for his part fled south into the arms of the Visigoths for protection, the same foe that his father had crushed two decades earlier. Clovis warned the Goths that unless they handed over the deposed Roman, their kingdom would be next. The Visigoths gave up the fugitive Roman, who was summarily put to death. The defeat at Soissons spelled the end of Roman control in Gaul forever and marked the birth of the Frankish Empire.
Mons Badonicus 490 to 517
The last clash involving an army that could be considered even vaguely Roman would likely have been at Mons Badonicus – also known as the Battle of Badon Hill. Much of the specifics of the battle, such as the exact location of the encounter, the size of the opposing forces and even the year it took place remain shrouded in mystery. But historians tend to agree that it took place in Great Britain sometime in the last decade of the 5th Century or the early years of the 6th Century. The battle was fought between the Saxon invaders and the Romano-British, loyal Romans who remained in Britannia after Constantine III withdrew the civil and military authority from the region earlier in the 5th Century. An account of the battle was penned by the British chronicler Gildas sometime between 500 and 570. It tells of how an aristocratic Roman general named Ambrosius Aurelianus formed an army of locals and Roman cast offs to defeat encroaching Saxons. The victory was decisive enough to halt Saxon incursions into Britain for some decades. A 9th Century text refers to the Roman leader Aurelianus by another name: King Arthur.
Flavius Aetius – The Last True Roman Genral?
Gallo-Romans and Romano-British aside, the so called “last of the Romans” was Flavius Aetius. Prior to his death in 454, Aetius enjoyed a remarkable career leading some of the last official Roman armies against the Huns, Burgundians, Franks, Vandals, Visigoths and even other Roman generals. Aetius first rose to prominence in 427 when at just 31 years old, he commanded an army of 40,000 Roman troops in Gaul. It was a two-year campaign that saw him free the region from encroaching Visigoths and Franks. Aetius defeated barbarian armies at Arelate and Vicus Helenae, battles that saw Rome actually recapture lost territories in modern day France and Germany. Impressed, the empire made him a magister militum, a sort of Roman field marshal. More victories would follow against Germanic barbarians in the Roman provinces of Raetia and Noricum northeast of Italy. The triumphs helped further consolidate the commander’s growing clout. Next, Aetius unleashed his army against another Roman warlord named Bonifacius. The two generals were competing for the ultimate political prize of the day – the affection of Galla Placidia, mother and regent of Rome’s next emperor Valentinian III. Aetius emerged from the civil war victorious and went on to dominate Roman politics for the next 20 years, serving as the guardian of Valentinian’s throne. During this time, he would direct Rome’s foreign policy — forging shifting alliances against rival Huns and Burgundians, hammering his old enemies the Visigoths, battling Franks and supressing the odd Roman rebellion when necessary. Aetius’ most famous battle took place in September of 451 on the Catalaunian Plains near what is now Chalons, France. The showdown saw a force of up to 80,000 Romans under Aetius and friendly Visigoths under King Theodoric I do battle with an equal-sized army of Huns. The clash, although a draw, did lead to a Hun withdrawal and is widely seen as a Roman victory. Despite this, by 453, Emperor Valentinian was becoming increasingly wary of Aetius’ seemingly unstoppable power, fearing the general now had designs on the throne itself. The following year, the ruler personally stabbed Aetius to death in a meeting at the Roman capital of Ravenna. The following year, Valentinian would himself be ambushed and knifed in the skull by henchmen of a lesser-known Roman general. The emperor’s own guard detail, appointed by Aetius years before and still loyal to their slain commander, sat idle while Valentinian was murdered before their very eyes.
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