The Long-Haired kings

Artwork by Robbie McSweeney (DeviantArt)

The first medieval mercenaries were very probably the Merovingians, in about the year 752. Later, the Duke of Naples is said to have hired Saracen (Muslim) mercenaries in southern Italy in 832. Beginning in 988, the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire was one of the most famous mercenary corps of history.

The Merovingian ruling family was often referred to by contemporaries as the ”long-haired kings” because their long hair set them apart from the Franks, who cut their hair short. The Merovingians were a dynasty of the Franks (a confederation of Germanic tribes) who, after the decline of the Roman Empire in the West, controlled Gaul for 300 years—until 752, when Pope Zachary deposed Childeric III, the last Merovingian ruler. Gaul included present-day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, and parts of northern Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany.

The Merovingian military structure was created in 481, when, at about the age of 16, Clovis inherited from his father, Childeric, the ruler of Tournai, a small war band of about 400 to 500 men. Clovis was then able to recruit an armed force powerful enough to take control of most of Gaul. The Merovingians set up armies in Gaul, hired knights and mercenaries there, gave them lands in return for military service, and appointed counts (comites) to take charge of defense, administration, and legal matters. They were not men to trifle with. Sidonius Apollinari, the Bishop of Auvergne, writing in the 5th century, says of them:

The Franks [i.e., the Merovingians] are a tall race, and clad in garments which fit them closely. A belt encircles their waist. They hurl their axes and cast their spears with great force, never missing their aim. They manage their shields with great agility, and rush on to their enemy with such speed that they seem to fly more swiftly than their spears.

The Merovingians were able to impose their rule quickly throughout Gaul for two reasons: (1) they were geographically well-placed to fill the power vacuum left by the fading Roman Empire, and (2) one of their kings (Clovis I, 466–511) was a remarkably able leader. The Merovingian dynasty was named after Merovech, the grandfather of Clovis. By the end of his life, Clovis had subjugated the different Frankish sub-groups in what is now France and he ruled between the Rhine and Loire valleys, as well as in Aquitaine. His successors conquered even more lands, e.g., in Provence, Burgundy, Rhaetia (a province of the Roman Empire approximately centered in what is now Switzerland), Alemannia (the German region of Swabia, the French Alsace, and eastern and central Switzerland), and Thuringia (southwestern Germany).

The military organization of the Merovingians, including mercenaries and other paid troops, was largely based on institutions already well-established in Gaul in Roman times. Merovingian strategy involved around the taking and holding of fortified centers. These centers were staffed by garrisons of former Roman mercenaries of Germanic origin; throughout Gaul, the descendants of Roman soldiers continued to wear similar uniforms and to perform similar ceremonial duties.

One of the most effective weapons of Merovingian troops was a throwing axe known as a francisca. The Roman historian Procopius (ca. 500–565) describes the fighters and their use of throwing axes in these words:

Each man carried a sword and shield and an axe. Now the iron head of this weapon [the axe] was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men.

This axe was heavy enough so that, even when thrown to its maximum effective range of about 40 feet, its iron head could still cause considerable injury regardless of whether the edge of the blade itself actually struck an enemy’s body. Moreover, when hurled in volleys, as they usually were, these axes would ricochet when they hit the ground and would then scythe into the shields and legs of the defenders.

Procopius also describes another formidable infantry weapon: the angon. He says:

The angons are spears which are neither very short nor very long; they can be used, if necessary, for throwing like a javelin, and also, in hand to hand combat. The greater part of the angon is covered with iron and very little wood is exposed. Above, at the top of the spear, on each side of the socket itself where the staff is fixed, some points are turned back, bent like hooks, and turned toward the handle.

In battle, the Frank throws the angon, and if it hits the enemy the spear is caught in the man and neither the wounded man nor anyone else can draw it out. The barbs hold inside the flesh causing great pain and in this way a man whose wound may not be in a vital spot still dies. If the angon strikes a shield, it is fixed there, hanging down with the butt on the ground. The angon cannot be pulled out because the barbs have penetrated the shield, nor can it be cut off with a sword because the wood of the shaft is covered with iron.

When the Frank sees [this] situation, he quickly puts his foot on the butt of the spear, pulling it down and [as] the man holding it falls, [his] head and chest are left unprotected. The unprotected warrior is then killed either by a stroke of the axe or a thrust with another spear. Such is the equipment of the Frankish warriors….

Regrettably, it is not possible for modern scholars to distinguish between the Merovingian fighting men who clearly were mercenaries and those who clearly were not. It is clear that the chief lords of the Merovingians had their own personal retinues of professional soldiers6, who were selected with care and were probably well-rewarded for their ability and loyalty. A fundamental problem here, however, is that there was no widely-used, unambiguous technical vocabulary in Latin to denote mercenaries during the later Roman Empire and in Merovingian Gaul.

The Romans used two terms, conducticius and miles mercenarius. Both terms mean “payment for hire” but their more detailed meanings depended on the context in which they were used. Neither term was used very often. Given a lack of documentary evidence, it seems impossible now for scholars to give any precise dates for mercenary involvement in this part of the world. Only educated guesses can be made.

The best summary (shortened, edited, and annotated here) of this complicated issue makes the following points:

There was no unambiguous vocabulary used to define mercenaries during the Merovingian Francia, i.e., during the Frankish kingdom. This fact indicates a continuity of Roman thought patterns and, probably, of Roman institutional structures as well. It is clear that during the later Roman Empire and the Merovingian dynasty there were groups of fighting men, as well as individual fighting men, who could offer their services for hire and who were recruited to perform military duties for pay. Some of the foederati (“federates,” i.e., Germanic soldiers in the service of the Roman Empire) can be considered to have been mercenaries, as well as some of the household forces employed by both lay and ecclesiastical magnates. Militia troops and expeditionary levies, on the other hand, cannot be considered as mercenaries because they did not have a choice whether to engage or not engage in military service.

Merovingian mercenaries may, or may not, have included the fighters known as antrustions: modern scholars seem to be unsure on this point. What is clear is that antrustions were carefully-selected members of the bodyguard or military households of the Merovingian kings; fittingly, their name comes from the Old High German trost, meaning fidelity or trust.8 Any man who aspired to enter this elite band of fighters had to present himself, fully armed, at the royal palace; to place his hands between those of the king; and to take a special oath (trustis), as well as the usual oath of fidelity to the king. In return, as a member of the royal retinue he was a person of considerable importance, was fed and clothed by the king, and was entitled to royal assistance and protection.

The modern scholar J.F. Verbruggen describes the antrustions in these words:

Among the Franks private retinues … existed up to the sixth and seventh centuries. The royal trustis corresponds to the comitatus [the bond existing between a Germanic warrior and his lord, which stipulated that neither could leave the field of battle before the other] described by Tacitus. The bodyguard was a sort of permanent little army which had to protect the king, but which could also be set to other tasks.

Antrustions were held in great respect. If one was killed by another Frank, his wergeld (literally ”man-fee”), i.e., the price that was set on his life and that had to be paid as compensation by the family of the slayer to free the culprit from further punishment and to prevent a blood feud, was three times that of an ordinary citizen. Thus a man who killed an ordinary Frank had to pay 200 gold solidi, but a man who killed an antrustion had to pay 600 solidi. (This was a very large sum of money: the pay of a Roman cavalryman was only about 1½ solidi per month.)

Antrustions played a key role in Merovingian life at the time of Clovis and initially made up much of his army. They became less important, however, as later rulers formed armies in which the Gallo-Romans mingled more and more with the Franks. Antrustions gradually became a small bodyguard and were also used to staff garrisons in the frontier towns. They seem to have disappeared around the beginning of the 8th century.

The recruitment of men who were clearly mercenaries begins to come into sharper focus around the year 832, when the Duke of Naples is said to have hired Saracen (Muslim) mercenaries in southern Italy.

A bit of background may be needed here. “Saracen” is a loosely-defined historical term for a group of Arab Muslims, and its meaning has shifted over time. Initially, in early Greek and Latin, it referred, apparently non-pejoratively, to the peoples living in the desert areas in or near what the Romans called “Arabia.” By the Early Middle Ages, however, this term was being used in a more negative sense to describe all the Arab tribes.

In 827, the Arabs began their conquest of Sicily; a local revolt against the Byzantine authorities gave them the opportunity to land there. By 877, all the major cities of the island were in their hands. The Arab conquest of Sicily would not be completed until the last Byzantine fortresses there finally fell in 902, but as early as 832 some Muslims had already been hired as mercenaries by the Duke of Naples.

Details on them are few but when civil war broke out in Sicily in 839, the two princely rivals for power (Prince Radelchis in Benevento, and his brother Prince Siconulf, or Sikenolf, in Salerno) both hired Saracen mercenaries in about 842 to fight for them in Campagnia (southern Italy). Benevento was the first one to hire mercenaries, apparently engaging some North African Berbers who had been raiding around Bari. Salerno promptly responded by hiring some Spanish Muslims who had been pillaging the Taranto region.11 Writing 20 years after the fact, a chronicler recounted their princely succession dispute and how one of Radelchis’s officials had invited the Saracens into the port city of Bari. The Saracens promptly took the town for themselves and, as the chronicler dryly and laconically noted, “from then onwards everything rapidly got worse.”

In 842–843, Prince Siconulf seized from a local monastery large quantities of gold and silver, thousands of gold coins, and many valuable objects made of gold or silver. He needed this loot both to pay his Saracen mercenaries and to try to buy the friendship of the Duke of Spoleto and of Carolingian King Louis II in his struggles with Radelchis. A colorful story is told about Prince Siconulf in a contemporary work known as the Chronicon Salernitanum. The modern scholar Barbara Kreutz recounts the tale as follows:

Apolaffar [an Arab mercenary leader] had begun his mercenary career not with Radelchis but with Sikenolf, but had stormed off from Salerno in a rage one day because Sikenolf insulted him when they were returning together from a military foray. As the Chronicon describes it, the two were clambering up the outer stairs of the palace when Sikenolf, exuberant over their success, impulsively grabbed Apolaffar, a small man, and hoisted him up to the next step. Apolaffar, very sensitive about his size, found this an unpardonable humiliation.

Much later, the Saracens came into the limelight again as a result of a Saracen settlement in the southern Italian mainland city of Lucera. This settlement was the result of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s decision to move 20,000 unruly Sicilian Saracens there in hopes that their expulsion would bring social and religious peace to Sicily itself. Although most of the affluent and powerful Muslims had already returned to North Africa by then, in 1220 Frederick II resolved to ship the remaining Muslims from Sicily to the southern Italian mainland. In 1224, Lucera was one of the seven resettlement sites chosen.

The total Saracen population of Lucera (which alone had 20,000 Muslims) and the other resettlement areas are thought to have been some 60,000 people, which was enough to generate a theoretical maximum of about 14,000–15,000 men fit for military service. Contemporary sources report that 7,000 to 10,000 of them did indeed fight at the battle of Cortenuova in 1237, where Frederick II defeated the Second Lombard League. Saracens also fought at the battle of Benevento in 1266. This was a clash between two factions: the Guelfs, who were Angevin French troops (some of them mercenaries) supported by Italian mercenaries, and the Ghibellines, who were Kingdom of Sicily troops supported by German and Italian mercenaries.

One can pause here to remark that the bloody and essentially meaningless feud between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines is a good example of the gratuitous violence that characterized so much of the Middle Ages and provided so many excellent employment opportunities for mercenaries. A later French Governor of Genoa described the feud in these words:

For with no other quarrel of land or seigneury, they have only to say, “You are Guelf and I am Ghibelline; we must hate each other,” and for this reason only and knowing no other, they kill and wound each other every day like dogs, the sons like the fathers, and so year by year the malice continues and there is no justice to remedy it….

And from this come the despots of this country, elected by the voice of the people, without reason or right of law. For as soon as one party prevails over the other and is the stronger, then those who see themselves at top cry “Long live so-and-so!” and “Death to so-and-so” and they elect one of their number and kill their adversary if he does not flee. And when the other party regains the advantage, they do the same and in the fury of the people, from which God protect us, all is torn to pieces.

To return now to the Saracens: most of the Saracen mercenary troops were lightly armed archers but they were also trained in the use of the sling. They formed a skilled personal bodyguard of 5,000 to 6,000 bowmen, mostly on foot but some mounted, for Frederick II and his successors. The Saracens were politically reliable because they had no ties to any of the rival Italian claimants for power and, in the relatively controlled environments of the resettlement areas, they had no way to challenge royal authority. They were highly valued as mercenaries. If they fought well, they were rewarded: in fact, by demonstrating unusual bravery in battle, Saracens could earn individual or family exemptions from taxes.

This favorable situation later changed for the worse, however. When Charles II of Naples came to power in 1289, he had already planned to expel the Jews from his lands in Anjou and Maine in France. In 1300 he decided to do the same thing to the Saracens in Lucera. His reasons are a bit opaque but it seems likely he hoped that by seizing and selling the Saracen holdings in Lucera he would be able to settle some of his debts with Florentine bankers. His attack on Lucera, aided by treachery inside the city itself, was a decisive victory.

The majority of the city’s Saracens were slaughtered or sold into slavery, though some found asylum across the Adriatic Sea in Albania. The political and social leaders of the Saracen community were imprisoned in Naples. Charles II replaced Lucera’s Saracens with Christians, chiefly Burgundian and Provençal soldiers and farmers. The cathedral of Lucera was built on the ruins of a destroyed mosque. The Civic Museum in modern Lucera still displays shards of evidence, such as pottery with Arabic inscriptions, recalling the Saracen presence there.