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Battle of Roncevaux Pass
Part of Charlemagne's campaign in the Iberian Peninsula
Mort de Roland.jpg
The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux, from an illustrated manuscript, 1455–1460
Date 15 August 778
Location Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees
Result Basque victory
Franks Basques
Roland ,
Eginhard, Anselmus
(speculated: Duke Lop of Vasconia)
Major army Unknown (guerrilla party)
Casualties and losses
Massacre of the Frankish rearguard but safety for the main force Unknown

The Battle of Roncevaux Pass (French and English spelling, Roncesvalles in Spanish, Orreaga in Basque) was a battle in 778 in which Roland, prefect of the Breton March and commander of the rear guard of Charlemagne's army, was defeated by the Basques. It was fought at Roncevaux Pass, a high mountain pass in the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain.



After a Muslim invasion of 711 and the rise of the Carolingians, the Duchy of Vasconia and Aquitaine had been severely punished by both sides. The last double Duke, Waifer, had been defeated by Pepin the Short and the Frankish domain north of the Pyrenees seemed consolidated.


The plot

See Abbasid-Carolingian alliance for more.

Sulayman al-Arabi, the pro-Abbasid Wali (governor) of Barcelona and Girona, sent a delegation to Charlemagne in Paderborn, offering his submission, along with the allegiance of Husayn of Zaragoza and Abu Taur of Huesca in return for military aid.[1] Their masters had been cornered in the Iberian peninsula by Abd ar-Rahman I, the Umayyad emir of Córdoba. The three Umayyad rulers also conveyed that the caliph of Baghdad, Muhammad al-Mahdi, was preparing an invasion force against Abd ar-Rhaman.[2]

Seeing an opportunity to extend Christendom and his own power and believing the Saxons to be a fully conquered nation, he agreed to go to Spain. It seems that al-Arabi induced Charlemagne to invade Al Andalus by promising him an easy surrender of its Upper March, of which Zaragoza was the capital. The King didn't make up his mind until the winter, but he finally decided to launch an expedition into the Iberian peninsula the next year.

Following the sealing of this alliance at Paderborn,[3] Charlemagne marched across the Pyrenees in 778 "at the head of all the forces he could muster".[4] Charlemagne led the Neustrian army across the Western Pyrenees that crossed Vasconia and went into the Basque Country, while the Austrasians, Lombards, and Burgundians passed over the Eastern Pyrenees through Catalonia. His troops were welcomed in Barcelona and Girona by Sulayman al-Arabi.[5] As he moved towards Zaragoza, the troops of Charlemagne were joined by troops led by al Arabi.[6]

Abd ar-Rahman of Córdoba sent his most trusted general, Thalaba Ibn Obeid, to take control of the possibly rebellious city and to prevent the Frankish invasion. Husayn and Ibn Obeid clashed repeatedly; eventually Husayn managed to defeat and to imprison Ibn Obeid.

Reinforced in his autonomous position, Husayn became reluctant to yield his new privileged status to the Frankish monarch and refused to surrender the city to Charlemagne, claiming that he had never promised Charlemagne his allegiance. He seems to have tried to appease Charlemagne by giving him the prisoner General Ibn Obeid and a large tribute of gold, but Charlemagne was not easily satisfied, putting Sulayman al-Arabi in chains.

Meanwhile, the force sent by the Baghdad caliphate seems to have been stopped near Barcelona.[7] After a month of siege at Zaragoza, Charlemagne decided to return to his kingdom.[8]

The retreat

As the Frankish army retreated towards Pamplona they suffered an ambush led by the relatives of al-Arabi. Sulayman al-Arabi was liberated and brought to Zaragoza, where both conspirators jointly resisted a new attack by Abd ar-Rahman. Sulayman al-Arabi would eventually be murdered by al Ansari.

Charlemagne also suffered an attack from the Basques in central Navarra. After stopping at Pamplona, Charlemagne ordered the walls of this strategic city be destroyed, possibly fearing that it could be used by the Basques in future rebellions. Some primary sources suggest that he destroyed the city altogether.[9]

The battle

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The battle itself took place in the evening of Saturday 15 August 778, causing numerous losses among the Frankish troops, including several most important aristocrats and the sack of the baggage, probably with all the gold given by the Muslims at Zaragoza. After their success, the attackers took advantage of the night to flee.

The sources are somewhat contradictory, yet the second redaction of the Annales Regii (falsely attributed to Eginhard) reads:[10]

Having decided to return, [Charlemagne] entered the mountains of the Pyrenees, in whose summits the Vascones had set up an ambush. When attacking the rearguard confusion spread by all the army. And, while Frankish were superior to the Vascones both in armament as in courage, the roughness of the terrain and the difference in the style of combat made them inferior. In this battle were killed the majority of the paladins that the King had placed in command of his forces. The bagagge was sacked and, suddenly, the enemy vanished thanks to their knowledge of the terrain. The memory of the injury so produced darkened in great manner in the King's heart that of the feats made in Hispania.

The Vita Karoli mentions the names of the most important paladins killed among many others: Eggihard, Mayor of the Palace, Anselmus, Palatine Count and Roland, Prefect of the March of Brittany[11].

The Basque army

The guerrilla army of the Basques is not well known. A later source, the anonymous Saxon Poet, talks of the Basque spears, which fits with the Pyrenean and Basque tradition that would be present much later among the almogavars. A typical such mountain warrior would have two short spears and a knife or short sword as his main weapons, and would not normally wear armour.

Pierre de Marca, a Béarnese author, suggests that the attackers were a reduced number of mostly local Low Navarrese, Souletines, and Bazatanese, whose main motivation may well have been plunder. Nevertheless he also suggests that the Duke of Vasconia, Lop, may have been their commander.[12] This opinion is also held by the authors of the General History of Languedoc who claim that Duke Lop was the leader of the Gascons that attacked Charlemagne.[13]

The presence of people from other areas beyond those mentioned by de Marca is very likely anyhow. It is difficult to imagine why Bazatanese were there and not, for instance, the people of nearby Aezkoa or Salazar valleys. There are even attributions to Guipuscoans, like a dedication in a chapel of Pasaia that gives thanks to Our Lady of Piety because of her support to their alleged participation in this battle. Nevertheless the date mentioned (814) may refer to the Second Battle of Roncevaux (see below).


Map of the roman roads in Hispania. A suggested location for the battle is on Via Caesar Augusta, that led from Caesaraugusta to Benearnum and joined Via Ab Asturica Burdigalam to Burdigala. It crossed the Pyrenees through the valley of Hecho. On the other hand, the pass of Roncesvalles is located in Via Ab Asturica Burdigalam, that started in Castra Legiones and went to Benearnum, where it joined Via Caesar Augusta till Burdigala.
Ibaineta (Roncevaux) pass

There have been many different hypotheses as to where this battle actually took place, some suggesting various places in the High Pyrenees in Aragon or Catalonia.

The mainstream opinion is that the battle took place somewhere not far from Roncevaux itself as it is not just one of the easiest routes but also traditional. Indeed, the Roman road known as Via Ab Asturica Burdigalam, which started in Castra Legiones (current León) and went to Benearnum, crossed the Pyrenees through Roncevaux. Notably however, the old Roman road (also called Route of Napoleon) followed a different route than the modern one, not crossing Ibaineta (the traditional location) but heading eastwards and crossing instead the Lepoeder and Bentartea passes, not far from Urkuilu peak, at Aezkoa. It might well have been at one of these narrow passages where the actual battle took place.[14]

Another possible location that has been suggested for the battle is that of the Selva de Oza pass, in the valley of Hecho, on the border between Aragon and Navarre, since the old Roman road called 'Caesar Augusta' that led from Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza) to Benearnum (Béarn) crosses the Pyrenees there. Since Charlemagne was returning from Caesaraugusta, it has been seen as a very possible location. Apart from tradition, which points to Roncesvaux as the place of the battle, the main argument provided against the Selva de Oza location is that according to the chronicles, Charlemagne retreated from Pamplona after arriving there from Zaragoza. This would suggest that he took Via Ab Asturica Burdigalam, which passed through Pamplona, instead of Via Caesar Augusta, which led the way from Zaragoza. However, when physical descriptions of the battle site are taken on account, the Selva de Oza location seems to fit descriptions that tell about gorge-like passages wide enough for an army to pass easily and with several high locations from which to attack the enemy, whereas the Roncevaux pass is regarded as only dubiously fitting them, considered as too narrow or difficult to settle for an attack. Nevertheless, it is to be noted that both Roncesvaux and Selva de Oza pass are only about 30 kilometers apart.

Other locations have also been suggested, some as far away as in Catalonia, indicating that it is not established that Charlemagne took any of the Roman roads when retreating, neither it is clear he retreated directly from Pamplona.


The Franks failed in capturing Zaragoza and suffered significant losses at the hands of the Basques. They would only be able to establish the Marca Hispanica a decade later, when Barcelona was finally captured. Zaragoza remained an important Muslim city, capital of the Upper March and later of an independent emirate, until the 11th century.

Defenceless Pamplona was captured by the Muslims soon after and held by them for some years, until in 798-801 a rebellion expelled them as well and helped to consolidate the Banu Qasi realm and eventually the constitution of the independent Kingdom of Pamplona in 824.


Over the years, this battle was romanticized by oral tradition into a major conflict between Christians and Muslims, although, in fact, both sides in the battle were Christian. In the tradition, the Basques are replaced by a force of 400,000 Saracens. (Charlemagne did fight the Saracens in Iberia, though not in the Pyrenees.) The Song of Roland, which commemorates the battle, was written by an unknown poet of the 11th century. It is the earliest surviving of the chansons de geste or epic poems of medieval France in the northern dialect or langue d'oïl of what became the French language. There is a tombstone near the Roncevaux Pass commemorating the area where it is traditionally held that Roland died. Several traditions also state that Roland was slain by a child who, in time, would become the very first king of Navarre: Iñigo Arista.[citation needed]

There is an alternate medieval Iberian legend involving Bernardo del Carpio, a medieval Leonese hero, whom some stories hold to be the vanquisher of Roland at Roncevaux.[citation needed]

Second and Third battles of Roncevaux

In the year 812 there was a second battle in the same pass, which ended in stalemate due to the Franks taking greater precautions than they had in 778.

In the year 824 was the possibly more important Third Battle of Roncevaux, where counts Eblus and Aznar, Frankish vassals, were captured by the joint forces of Iñigo Arista's Pamplona and of the Banu Qasi, consolidating the independence of both Basque realms.[15]

Value for comparative history

In the case of the Battle of Roncevaux, historians possess both the description of an event by contemporary and fairly reliable sources and the depiction of the same event resulting from centuries of an oral tradition, in which it was magnified to epic proportions and changed almost unrecognizably.

The ability here to compare both accounts, and trace how an actual historical event is transformed into myth, is useful for the study of other events of which the only existing account is one deriving from centuries of oral tradition, and in which historians need to try to reconstruct the actual historical facts and separate them from later myth (for example, Homer's depiction of the Trojan War).

See also

The battle is also referenced in the song "Roncevaux" by Van Der Graaf Generator, originally recorded in 1973-4 but only released in rather rough form many years later.


  1. ^ Lewis, p. 244
  2. ^ Lewis, p. 244
  3. ^ Lewis, p.245
  4. ^ Lewis, p.246
  5. ^ Lewis, p.253
  6. ^ Lewis, p.246
  7. ^ Lewis, p.249
  8. ^ Lewis, p.249
  9. ^ Lewis, p.249
  10. ^ Narbaitz, Pierre. Orria, o la batall de Roncesvalles. 778. Elkar, 1979. ISBN 84-400-4926-9
  11. ^ Thorpe, Lewis Two Lives Of Charlemagne ISBN 0-140-44213-8
  12. ^ Pierre de Marca, Historie du Béarn (quoted by Narbaitz, op.cit.)
  13. ^ Devic and Vaissette, Historie Genérale du Languedoc, 1872 (quoted by Narbaitz, op.cit.)
  14. ^ Narbaitz, op. cit.
  15. ^ Ducado de Vasconia (Auñamendi Encyclopedia)

External links


  • Narbaitz, Pierre (1979). Orria o la batalla de Roncesvalles: 15 de Agosto del 778. Pamplona: Ediciones Vascas. ISBN 9788440049261. OCLC 7435876. 

Coordinates: 42°59′22″N 1°20′02″W / 42.98944°N 1.33389°W / 42.98944; -1.33389).


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