When Clovis I succeeded his father as King of the Salian Franks in 481, at the age of sixteen, it was perhaps inevitable that he would come into conflict with the only remaining Roman outpost in Gaul, that ruled by Syragius, in the town of Soissons. Although Clovis’ father, Childeric I, had occasionally allied himself with the Roman Syragius, was a matter of little importance to Clovis, who understood even at that young age that conquest was his only means of survival in the barbaric and violent world he inhabited, and it was a mater of simple logic for him to understand that the stability of his domain required that he conquer the Roman outpost
Soissons is Conquered
Although Clovis only possessed about 6,000 or so troops, his warriors were tough and disciplined, and he snuck suddenly through the forest of Ardennes with his men and surprised the equally well trained and significantly larger force belonging to Syragius at Soissons in 486, at the age of twenty-one. His army decimated the ranks of the Roman legion there, forcing Syragius to flee for his life to Toulouse, where he found sanctuary with Alaric II, the Visigoth king.
Clovis thereupon threatened Alaric with war if Syragius was not handed over to him, and Alaric meekly complied. Clovis then imprisoned Syragius until his conquest of Soissons was complete, and then had him quietly executed, hoping in this way to avoid any partisan uprising in his new territory.
The Vase of Soissons
Although Clovis was a Pagan at the time of his conquest of Soissons, he was on friendly terms with the local Catholic episcopate; he had received a warm letter of congratulations from the Archbishop of Reims, Saint Remigius; upon succeeding to his father’s throne. After his soldiers had plundered Soissons, Clovis sought to have the celebrated vase of Soissons, a sacred artifact of extraordinary beauty and workmanship treasured by the diocese, so that he could restore it himself to the archbishop Remigius.
According to the historian Gregory of Tours, one of Clovis’ soldiers was dissatisfied with the degree to which Clovis had allowed his men to plunder the city after conquering it, whereupon he split the vase with his axe, saying to Clovis “You will get only the share allowed to you by fate.” According to the legend, Clovis took this challenge to his authority calmly, but a year later, when reviewing his troops, he came across this same soldier, rebuked him for the ungainly condition of his weapons, and proceeded to split the man’s skull with his own axe, saying “It was thus that you treated the Soissons vase.”
The Lasting Effect of the Battle of Soissons
The defeat of Syragius at Soissons represents a turning point in European history. Although it was an independent and isolated city, it had been the last possession of Imperial Rome in Gaul, and when it fell to Clovis in 486, the authority of the Roman Empire in what was to become the nation of France fell with it. While it is not a simple matter to declare any one specific date or event to mark the beginning of modern history, the conquest of Soissons by Clovis I certainly had a major impact on the development of Europe into a collection of nation-states in the Middle Ages and beyond, an organizational structure still extant today in the geographic map of the continent.
- The Birth of France, by Katharine Scherman Rosin. Random House, New York, 1987.