Friday, June 20, 2014


Frank Riess, Narbonne and its Territory in Late Antiquity: From the Visigoths to the Arabs. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013. Pp. x, 288. ISBN 9781409455349. $134.95.

Reviewed by Gregory Halfond, Framingham State University (

Version at BMCR home site


It has been over thirty years since the publication of Michel Rouche's L'Aquitaine des Wisigoths aux Arabes, 418-781: Naissance d'une région, which argued forcibly and controversially that the construction of that Gallic region's unique cultural and political identity originated as early as the fifth century.1 Although it differs considerably in its methodology, Frank Riess' Narbonne and its Territory in Late Antiquity reaches a similar conclusion regarding the civitas of Narbonne and its surrounding region. Observing that Narbonne typically has "fallen between the larger historiographies of the 'birth' of France and Spain" (3), Riess posits that Narbonne emerged as a cohesive "micro-region" even prior to becoming the focal point of an actual regnum orientalis in the seventh century, a regnum whose unique identity he argues survived the failed revolt that led to its establishment.

In Chapter 1, Riess reviews the geographical, environmental, and topographical evolution of Narbonne from the Neogene through the fourth century AD. He describes Narbonne as a communications nexus, observing that its "location from a military and economic perspective represented a crucial meeting point, a crossroads providing entry into Gallia and Hispania but also guarding these" (21). Riess goes into surprising, but nevertheless relevant – even fascinating – detail regarding the region's natural resources, such as the unusually high levels of phytoplankton in Narbonne's lagoon complex (the lacus Rubressus), which encouraged the large-scale farming of oysters in the Roman era. In a similar vein, he notes how the lagoons' natural salinity encouraged the commercial production of salt. In general, Riess' stimulating account of Narbonne's environmental history appropriately privileges data directly relevant to that region's social and economic development.

Chapter 2 glosses several late antique historical texts containing noteworthy references to Narbonne in this period. Riess begins with a lengthy analysis of Orosius' Historia 7.43, in which he argues that the marriage of the imperial heiress Galla Placidia to the Gothic rex Athaulf in Narbonne in AD 414 is for Orosius a "summation of his world history" (56). Riess compares Orosius' account with that of Olympiodorus, who similarly understood this marital union as binding romanitas and barbaritas, as well as those of Hydatius and Philostorgius, who conversely viewed the marriage through the lens of eschatology, aware of the event's implications for the crisis of imperial rule in the West. While the aforementioned texts all underscore Narbonne's political import (for barbarians and Romans alike), Sulpicius Severus' Dialogues additionally reveals its contemporary religious significance by linking the civitas to a network of holy places.

The first half of Chapter 3 consists of a nearly line-by-line gloss of Sidonius Apollinaris' Carmina 23. Riess observes how Sidonius, in comparison with Orosius, Philostorgius, and Hydatius, adorns his description of Narbonne with classical and pagan imagery and associations, depicting "a Roman city that was passing away, a community under siege" (109). Riess compares Sidonius' idealized and "imagined" city with the increasingly-Christianized topography of the actual late antique civitas. While Christian worship was originally concentrated outside of the urban walls in suburban cemeteries, by the early fifth century the city's bishops were dramatically transforming the urban landscape, destroying old Roman public buildings, and constructing in their place new episcopal churches. Riess questions the traditional assumption that the city shrank in size over the course of Late Antiquity, observing that much of the urban population lived beyond the city walls.

In Chapters 4 and 5, Riess turns to the political impact of the passing of Roman imperial rule over Narbonne. Like other western civitates, Narbonne remained an important administrative and economic hub in the post-Roman era. As Riess rightly observes, the arrival of barbarians could, in fact, augment a city's regional importance. Despite Visigothic hegemony over Narbonne, the city and its surrounding region did not simply transform into an inconsequential appendage to an Iberian-based state over the course of the sixth century. Riess shows through a quantitative analysis of epigraphic evidence that Narbonne, while retaining its particular regional identity, cultivated the distinction of being a unique center of power in the Visigothic regnum through the late-sixth century. Nevertheless, individual cities in Septimania periodically passed in and outside of Visigothic control as the result of disputes with other Gallic powers, and Narbonne remained a "frontier zone" and flashpoint for Visigothic-Frankish clashes that also drew in non-Gallic parties as part of the "sixth-century international Great Game."2 Furthermore, Riess makes the important observation that the Merovingians disputed Narbonnese territory even at times when "the Visigoths supposedly controlled the entire region" (194).

Not surprisingly, Narbonne became the focal point of periodic revolts against the monarchs of Toledo, revolts often encouraged and aided by the Franks, who saw in them an opportunity to intervene in Visigothic and Septimanian affairs. Citing onomastic evidence, Riess sees familial loyalties and heredity underlying those succession conflicts in which Narbonne played a significant role. Chapter 6 examines the best known of these conflicts: the dux Paulus' revolt against Wamba in AD 673. Paulus was a self-described rex of "a secessionist kingdom of the East," i.e. a regnum orientalis similar in form, Riess argues, to a Merovingian Teilreich (190). Riess follows the urban typology and modeling of Laurent Schneider and André Constant in identifying sites peripheral, but nevertheless linked, to Narbonne proper, such as defensive fortifications. He demonstrates that Narbonne was already a cohesive "micro-region" even prior to the establishment of Paulus' Kingdom of the East, retaining its unique identity despite a centralization of political power at Toledo. Not surprisingly, "estrangement" between Narbonne and Toledo only grew in the years following the revolt. Riess observes that by the late seventh century, Narbonne was inching ever closer to the Frankish orbit. He cites conciliar legislation exempting Narbonnese Jews from national policies as evidence for both Visigothic administrative and fiscal weakness, as well as for Septimanian "separatism." It is odd that Riess does not discuss here (or elsewhere) the legislation of the ecclesiastical Council of Narbonne (589), whose canons more prefigure the anti-Jewish measures legislated at the later Councils of Toledo than parallel contemporary Frankish conciliar regulae.3

In Chapters 7 and 8, Riess traces the history of Narbonne through the Arab conquest of Iberia and into the Carolingian era. Although the region was violently conquered by Emir al-Hurr ca. 720, and subsequently by the Carolingians in 759, Riess points to Narbonne's promotion of its metropolitical claims as evidence that memories of its status as a former regnum orientalis persisted into the post-Visigothic era.

While the evidence for the maintenance of historical memory is slim, Riess' central argument that Narbonne's location along a contested frontier fostered a unique regional identity is generally persuasive. Stylistically, however, Riess' narrative can be frustratingly disjointed, despite the chronological arrangement of the chapters, and it assumes considerable knowledge on the part of the reader of events and personages. Conversely, Riess is careful and consistent in his application of literary and archeological theory and terminology, providing a sturdy theoretical scaffolding on which to frame his discussion. Overall, Riess' monograph exhibits the virtues of a regionalist approach while, at the same time, persuasively arguing for Narbonne's relevance to the greater political, military, and diplomatic affairs of the post-Roman Mediterranean world.


1.   Michel Rouche, L'Aquitaine des Wisigoths aux Arabes, 418-781: Naissance d'une region (Paris: École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 1979). For criticism of Rouche's thesis, see the review by Walter Goffart in Speculum 56, no. 3 (1981), pp. 652-656.
2.   Readers unfamiliar with Walter Goffart's "Byzantine Policy in the West under Tiberius II and Maurice: the Pretenders Hermengild and Gundovald," Traditio 13 (1957), 85-118, and "The Frankish Pretender Gundovald, 582-585. A Crisis of Merovingian Blood," Francia 39 (2012), 1-27, may find Riess' abbreviated discussion of the "Great Game" difficult to follow.
3.   Rachel Stocking, whose work Riess does not cite, has suggested that the legislative agenda of the Council of Narbonne (589) was, in part, a reaction to the rebellion of the previous year: Rachel Stocking, Bishops, Councils, and Consensus in the Visigothic Kingdom, 589-633 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 96-98 and 108-109. On the Jewish communities of Southern Gaul Riess does cite Arthur J. Zuckerman's unreliable A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972).

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