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In the time of the Roman Empire bagaudae (also spelled bacaudae) were groups of peasant insurgents who emerged during the "Crisis of the Third Century", and persisted particularly in the less-Romanised areas of Gaul and Hispania, where they were "exposed to the depredations of the late Roman state, and the great landowners and clerics who were its servants".[1] The name probably means "fighters". C.E.V. Nixon[2] 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 as identifying the bagaudae as the impoverished local free peasants, reinforced by bandits and deserters from the legions, who were resisting the extension of proto-feudal privileges and control in marginal areas of the Empire. The invasions, usurpers and disorders of the third century crisis, Léon sees not as causative, but as providing a chaotic relaxation of local power, within which the bagaudae achieved some temporary and scattered successes, under the leadership of lesser members of the ruling class.


Suppressing the bagaudae

After the bagaudae came to the attention of the central authorities in 284, re-establishment of the settled social order was swift: the peasant insurgents were crushed by 286 under the Caesar Maximian and his subordinate Carausius, working for Augustus Diocletian. Their leaders are given as Amandus and Aelianus, although E.M. Wightman, in Gallia Belgica[3] claims that the two were likely local Gallic landowners who became "tyrants"[4] and fought back against the Romans.

The Panegyric of Maximian, dating to 289 and attributed to Claudius Mamertinus, relates that during the bagaudae uprising of 284–285, "inexperienced farmers sought military garb; the plowman imitated the infantryman, the shepherd the cavalryman, the rustic ravager of his own crops the barbarian enemy". In fact, they share several similar characteristics with the Germanic Heruli. Mamertinus also called them "two-shaped monsters" (monstrorum biformium), emphasizing that while they were technically Gallo-Roman farmers and citizens, they were also marauding rogues who had become foes of 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 to rebel and his work was undone.

In the fifth century bagaudae fought armies sent against them by the general Aëtius. With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and the rise of the Germanic kingdoms, the bagaudae vanish from recorded history.

The name bagaudae reappeared in the early fifth century, when they are mentioned as in control of parts of Gaul and the Ebro valley. In Hispania, the king of the Suevi Rechiar (died 456) took up as allies the local bagaudae in ravaging the Ebro valley, a unique alliance between Germanic rulers and local peasant rebels.[5]

That the depredations of the ruling class were in part responsible for the resistance 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 the slaves are thieves and runaways, wine-bibbers and gluttons— the rich are worse (iv. 3); it is their harshness and greed that drive the poor to join the bagaudae and fly 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 narrative 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 Christians among them. In general they seem equal parts bandit gangs and Celtic nationalists, but less a coherent "movement" than an expression of the frustration of ordinary people with an Empire that seemed ever more oppressive, expensive and distant.

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.

See also


  1. ^ J. F. Drinkwater, reviewing Léon, Los bagaudas, in The Classical Review, 1999:287.
  2. ^ Nixon,In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini (1994)
  3. ^ E.M. Wightman, Gallia Belgica (London: Batsford) 1985.
  4. ^ Tyrant in this Greek and Latin sense simply means a wielder of unauthorised power, without the connotations it has since accrued.
  5. ^ 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 in his Historia.


  • Thompson, E. A. Romans and Barbarians: The Decline of the Western Empire. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) 1982.

Further reading

  • Léon, J.C.S. Les sources de l'histoire des Bagaudes (Paris) 1996.
  • Léon, J.C.S., Los bagaudas: rebeldes, demonios, mártires. Revuelatas campesinas in Galia e Hispania durante el Bajo Imperio (University of Jaén) 1996.


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