In the tumultuous era of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a small but significant domain known as the Kingdom of Soissons emerged. This territory, located in the northwest of Gaul, was successively led by three Roman generals: Aetius, Aegidius, and Syagrius, all holding the title of Magister Militum per Gallias (commander-in-chief of Roman forces in Gaul).

This political entity, although commonly referred to as a kingdom, functioned more as a military and administrative enclave in a fragmented Gaul beset by Germanic invasions.

To understand the Kingdom of Soissons, it is crucial to place it in the broader context of the transformation of the Roman Empire. After the reforms of Diocletian in the third century, the empire was divided into western and eastern parts, creating a tetrarchic system that, although designed to strengthen imperial control, eventually facilitated fragmentation.

Possible portrait of Aetius in the diptych bearing his name.
Possible portrait of Aetius in the diptych bearing his name. Credit: Tataryn / Wikimedia Commons

In the fifth century, the Western Roman Empire was in full decline, weakened by continuous invasions and internal power struggles.

The origin of the Kingdom of Soissons can be traced to the rule of Aetius, a Roman general who maintained his authority in Gaul during the early Hun and Germanic invasions and is remembered for his victory against Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451.

He was a key figure in the defense of Roman territories in Gaul, which, after his assassination in 454, came under the control of Aegidius, appointed Magister Militum per Gallias by Emperor Majorian in 457.

The Huns in the Catalaunian Plains (A. de Neuville)
The Huns in the Catalaunian Plains (A. de Neuville). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

This decision by Majorian is considered the de facto origin of the Kingdom of Soissons. Thus, Aegidius consolidated his power in northern Gaul, resisting pressures from the Franks to the northeast and the Visigoths to the south.

The territory was initially connected with the Italian peninsula but became isolated when Germanic tribes occupied Auvergne, Provence, and Languedoc.

Aegidius allied with Childeric I, the king of the Franks, against the Visigoths, whom they managed to keep at bay. Some researchers even believe that the request for help sent by the Romano-Britons, known as the Groans of the Britons, was addressed to Aegidius rather than to the emperor.

Western Europe in the 5th century AD. The Kingdom of Soissons identified by the name of its ruler, Syagrius.
Western Europe in the 5th century AD. The Kingdom of Soissons identified by the name of its ruler, Syagrius. Credit: Varoon-Arya / Rowanwindwhistler / Wikimedia Commons

The death of Aegidius in 464 or 465 prevented him from responding to that call and led his son Afranius Syagrius to take command, continuing the administration of the Gallo-Roman enclave from his base in Noviodunum (modern-day Soissons).

The deposition of the last Western emperor in 476 by Odoacer marked the official end of the Western Empire. However, Syagrius did not accept Odoacer’s authority and, after Odoacer’s recognition by the Eastern Emperor Zeno, cut all ties with Rome.

Although Soissons thus became an independent state, Syagrius always maintained that he was governing a Roman province.

Extension and cities of the Kingdom of Soissons
Extension and cities of the Kingdom of Soissons. Credit: Isaac Sanolnacov / Rowanwindwhistler / Wikimedia Commons

In fact, he adopted the title of dux (military chief of a province), but the Germanic tribes called him rex Romanorum (king of the Romans). The Gallo-Roman historian Gregory of Tours, writing in the mid-sixth century AD, was responsible for identifying the territory governed by Syagrius as Regnum Romanorum, that is, kingdom of the Romans.

The relative stability of the Kingdom of Soissons under Syagrius was threatened when Clovis, king of the Salian Franks, began his expansion southward from Tournai.

Thus, in 486, Clovis and his Frankish army confronted Syagrius at the Battle of Soissons, defeating him and marking the end of Gallo-Roman rule in the region.

Syagrius captive before Clovis.
Syagrius captive before Clovis. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

It was the end of the Kingdom of Soissons, which was assimilated into the Frankish kingdom that by 555 already included all of Gaul. The Germanic kingdoms, which originally coexisted with Roman structures, began to adopt and adapt Roman laws, merging culturally and legally.

This phenomenon of Romanization of the Germans and Germanization of the Romans was key to the formation of future political and cultural identities in Western Europe.

The Kingdom of Soissons was thus the last territory of the Western Roman Empire to fall in 486 AD. Ten years had passed since the deposition of the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and six since the death of the true emperor Julius Nepos.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 21, 2024: Reino de Soissons, el último bastión romano en la Galia que sobrevivió diez años a la caída del Imperio de Occidente

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