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Thursday, August 23, 2012

The King's Mountain


The southern side of the Mugnone Valley, in Tuscany. The narrow passage that you see between the two hills in the background marks the road to the central plains of Italy, toward Rome. It is here that, in 406 A.D., the Roman Army stopped the invading Goths in a memorable battle that lasted a few days. On Aug 23 of that year,  Radagaisus, King of the Goths, was captured and executed on the hill that today takes the name of MonteReggi ("Mons Regis", the King's Mountain)


If you visit the Mugnone Valley, near the city of Fiesole, in Italy, you'll see a quiet place, mainly inhabited by people who commute everyday to Florence, just a few km away. But you may also note how the hills at the southern side of the valley mark the last natural obstacle for those who follow the road that goes through the Appennino mountains and leads to the central plains of Italy. Those hills have played the role of a line of defense more than once in history. Today, August 23rd, is the anniversary of the final act of the "battle of Faesulae" that raged there for a few days in the year 406 A.D. and that saw the attempt of the Goths to reach Rome stopped by a Roman Army.

In those years, Rome was entering what was to be the last century of the Western Roman Empire. The Roman society was experiencing a new phase of decline and collapse that led, among other things, to the loss of the fortifications that had protected the Empire's territory for centuries. Then, the peoples of the Eastern Regions, whom the Romans called "Barbarians," found that the road to to the Empire's territories was open for them. Entire populations moved onward and, in 406 A.D. the Goths, led by their King, Radagaisus, were marching South with the objective of conquering Rome.

The task of stopping the Goths fell on Flavius Stilicho, magister militum of the armies of the West and himself of Barbarian origin. He was acting on behalf of Emperor Honorius who, in the meantime, did nothing but hiding in Ravenna, protected by the marshes surrounding the city. In Gibbon's words (chapter 30 of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire")

..... such was the feeble and exhausted state of the empire, that it was impossible to restore the fortifications of the Danube, or to prevent, by a vigorous effort, the invasion of the Germans. The hopes of the vigilant minister of Honorius were confined to the defence of Italy. He once more abandoned the provinces, recalled the troops, pressed the new levies, which were rigorously exacted, and pusillanimously eluded; employed the most efficacious means to arrest, or allure, the deserters; and offered the gift of freedom, and of two pieces of gold, to all the slaves who would enlist

We don't have many details on how exactly the battle went, but it seems that the Goths first besieged Florence, then were forced to retreat and finally were trapped in the Mugnone valley; blocked by the fortifications built around the city of Faesulae.  Gibbon tells us (chapter 30) that:

Conscious that he (Stilicho) commanded the last army of the republic, his prudence would not expose it, in the open field, to the headstrong fury of the Germans. The method of surrounding the enemy with strong lines of circumvallation, which he had twice employed against the Gothic king, was repeated on a larger scale, and with more considerable effect.

Surrounded, the Goths had no escape. The Romans and their Hunnic allies had turned the valley into a killing zone. After a few days of battle, they surrendered in great numbers, so many that the slave market is said to have collapsed for a brief period. King Radagaisus himself was captured and beheaded, putting an end forever to his attempt of conquering Rome.

That was not to be the last time that the Romans could defeat an army of invading barbarians. But each victory left Rome a little weaker and closer to the final collapse. The battle of Faesulae was not an exception: it was a great victory that brought nothing but disaster to the Romans. Just two years later, in 408 A.D., almost on the same date when Radagaisus had been executed (Aug 22), Stilicho was betrayed, captured and beheaded in Ravenna at the orders of Emperor Honorius. Being a general is always a dangerous job but, apparently, being a successful general is even more dangerous if you have to deal with a suspicious and tyrannical Emperor. Without Stilicho, the Roman army melted away, leaving Italy defenseless. A couple of years later, in 410 A.D., Rome was to fall to another Gothic King, Alaric. Rome survived this event, but it was another step along the way that would lead the Western Empire to its final demise with the last decades of the 5th century A.D.

Of those remote times, little more than a few lines in history books remain. But, in the Mugnone Valley, you can still find a hill that takes the name of Montereggi, from the Latin "Mons Regis", the King's Mountain. It is the place where, it is said, King Radagaisus was beheaded. We can still walk there and find a small Christian church surrounded by cypress trees. There is also a pile of stones with a sign that says "Ave crux, spes nostra" (Hail, cross, our hope). We have no reason to believe that it was the exact point where the king was beheaded, but surely it is a suggestive place. 

Perhaps another echo of this ancient battle is the old legend that has that in the early times of the city of Florence, a king named "Fiorino" defended the city from the Etruscans of Faesulae and was killed in battle. It is said that the blood of king Fiorino turned red the irises flowering in the fields and that was the origin of the symbol of Florence, the red fleur de lys.

It is just a legend and surely no king with that name ever ruled Florence. But the links with the historical fate of King Radagaisus are evident and the legend might well be a garbled rendition of the ancient battle of Faesulae. After all, many of the defeated Goths must have remained in the area around the valley, either as slaves or fugitives. A little of their blood may well still be with us, today.



Image of Montereggi taken on Aug 22nd 2012, showing also your modest author, Ugo Bardi. More pictures of the city of Fiesole can be found at my blog "Foto di Fiesole"

For more information about the tumultuous 5th century and the characters of the time, you can give a look at my article on Empress Galla Placidia "Chemistry of an Empire"




5 comments:

  1. Thank you, Ugo, for reminding of glorious Roman victory at the battle of Faesulae. As long as brave general Stilicho was the supreme commander, the Roman Empire could repellent the Goths. Though the Empire was already doomed.
    As a descendant of ancient Fiesolani, you look very nice at the Montereggi.

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    1. Thanks Tatiana. Yoou should come to visit here and report about that place on your blog about Italy

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    2. Thank you, Ugo, I would like to come some day. I've seen very beautiful pictures in your blog about Fiesole.

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  2. Ugo,
    Looks as though you are on vacation...
    Thanks for sharing this story. I really enjoy tales of ancient rome.

    Here in North America, it is very difficult to find any record of human history so long past - most of that history now only being preserved as an oral history in the songs and legends of the descendants of the original inhabitants of this continent.

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    1. Well, yes, Lucas. A relaxed period. But every year I make a point to go to Montereggi in August to commemorate that ancient battle. Not completely sure of why I do that, but I think it is because the ancient collapse of the Roman Empire is so fascinating - it echoes of things ongoing right now!

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