Alaric II Drafts the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Visigothic king Alaric II drafted his breviary, codifying a transmitted body of Roman statutes and jurisprudence in a form accepted by a European barbarian ruler. The breviary’s existence demonstrated how Roman law and custom had a profound role in the lives of not only barbarian Europeans but also others in subsequent centuries.

Summary of Event

In 418, the Roman master of soldiers Constantius concluded a treaty with the barbarian Visigoths that settled them in Aquitania, the name given then and now to southwestern Gaul (now France). This marked the beginning of the so-called kingdom of Toulouse, Toulouse, kingdom of the first of what were to become several barbarian kingdoms carved out of the Western Roman Empire. In 477, the Visigoths Visigoths , under their king Euric Euric , occupied the last Roman territory of southern Gaul, and, in Gaul at least, the Roman Empire was at an end. [kw]Alaric II Drafts the Breviarum Alarici (February 2, 506) [kw]Breviarum Alarici, Alaric II Drafts the (February 2, 506) Alaric II Breviarum Alarici France;Feb. 2, 506: Alaric II Drafts the Breviarum Alarici[0070] Government and politics;Feb. 2, 506: Alaric II Drafts the Breviarum Alarici[0070] Laws, acts, and legal history;Feb. 2, 506: Alaric II Drafts the Breviarum Alarici[0070] Alaric II Euric Clovis

The Visigoths, however, were but a drop in a Roman sea, and in many ways ruled only by the sufferance of the Roman Roman Empire, Western majority. By this time, Gallo-Roman bishops had become the de facto rulers of the Roman population, and powerful Gallo-Roman senators were a force to be reckoned with. Barbarian rulers offended influential Romans at their peril.

One of the most significant areas of incompatibility between Visigoths and Romans was religion: Both peoples were Christian, but the Romans were Nicene (Catholic) and the Visigoths Arian, resulting in an insurmountable obstacle to any meaningful integration of the two societies, for each considered the other to be heretics. Christianity;Arian and Nicene The ambitious Euric, in attempts to consolidate his authority, forbade the ordination of Catholic bishops as sees became vacant and, as a result, seriously antagonized the Roman aristocracy. Bishops of newly acquired Roman cities were often exiled or imprisoned.

At the same time, Euric attempted to regularize the legal affairs of his kingdom by issuing a law code known as the Codex Euricianus Codex Euricianus (code of Euric). He did so not only to impose his control more firmly on his Visigothic subjects, but also to assert Visigothic independence of any vestige of Roman authority. Laws and law codes;Visigoths It has been suggested that the code was based on Visigothic custom and intended only for the Visigoths, but it would appear that many of the pronouncements were in fact based on Roman provincial law and applied to Visigoths and Romans equally. The surviving entries in his code, about 60 of an original 350, touch on matters of property, buying and selling, loans, and gifts. When Euric died in 484, his son Alaric II inherited a very tense social and political situation. Even though Alaric subsequently allowed vacant sees to be filled, Visigothic relations with the Gallo-Roman aristocracy continued to be strained.

In the north, meanwhile, another ambitious barbarian chieftain, Clovis Clovis , became the ruler of one of the many fragmented bands of Franks in 481. In 486, he doubled the size of his kingdom by defeating Syagrius of Soissons Syagrius of Soissons , the last independent Roman ruler in Gaul. In 496, Clovis adopted Nicene Christianity and was baptized, then immediately became the darling of the Gallo-Roman establishment. In the Visigothic kingdom, a number of Roman bishops were exiled or imprisoned for supposedly favoring the Franks.

By the early sixth century, Clovis had incorporated most of the other Frankish groups into his own kingdom, and it was clear that he had his eyes on the kingdom of Toulouse. Faced with this northern threat, Alaric attempted to shore up his sagging Gallo-Roman support. In 506, he permitted the Catholic bishops to summon, in the small coastal town of Agde, the first church council to be held in Aquitania since the arrival of the Visigoths.

On February 2 of the same year, Alaric sanctioned the issuance at Toulouse of yet another law code Laws and law codes;Romans , this one strictly Roman in nature. Although described in the text simply as a Corpus (collection), it later became known as the Breviarium Alarici (breviary of Alaric), or the Lex romana Visigothorum (Roman law of the Visigoths). Its publication was overseen by the vir inlustis (illustrious gentleman) Count Goiaricus, and it was edited by the vir spectabilis (respectable gentleman) Anianus and distributed by the vir spectabilis Count Timotheus. Its heading noted, “In this body (corpus) are contained the laws (leges) and the image of justice (ius), selected from the Theodosian and other books and, as it was commanded, interpreted.” Its prologue proclaimed that it had been issued “So that all the obscurity of Roman laws (leges) and ancient jurisprudence (ius), led into the light of a better intelligence with the assistance of bishops and the nobility, might be made clear and so that nothing might remain in doubt,” and it asserted that “the assent of the venerable bishops and chosen provincials has strengthened” it.

The Breviarium Alarici is a typical product of Roman provincial jurisprudence. It complemented, but did not replace, the code of Euric by giving Visigothic sanction to selected elements of Roman law. In doing so, it reinforced the notion that the Visigothic kings were the direct successors of the Roman emperors. It was excerpted from the two primary sources of Roman law: the statutes (leges) issued by Roman emperors and the opinions (ius) put forth by eminent Roman jurists. In the former category were entries from the Codex Gregorianus (code of Gregorius) and Codex Hermogenianus (code of Hermogenianus), both originally issued in the 290’s under the emperor Diocletian (r. 284/285-305) (and both known primarily only from their entries in the Breviarium Alarici); 398 constitutions (less than one-eighth of the total) from the Codex Theodosianus Codex Theodosianus (Theodosian code), issued by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II Theodosius II (Byzantine emperor) (r. 408-450) in 438; and the Novellae (new laws), which were issued between 438 and 471. The only jurists cited were Gaius, Paul, and Papinian.

Yet this is not to say that the Breviarium Alarici merely copied, or even summarized, the Codex Theodosianus. Rather, a clear selection process was at work. For example, some Roman legislation, such as that on hospitium (the billeting of troops), agri deserti (deserted lands), and heretics, was omitted. Other laws were revised: The Breviarium Alarici repeated the prohibition of intermarriage between Romans and barbarians dating from the 370’s but substituted the words Romani (Romans) and barbari (barbarians) for provinciales (provincials) and gentiles (foreigners)—a curious instance of the Visigoths self-identifying as barbarians. Furthermore, the Breviarium Alarici also included, at the express request of Alaric, extensive legal interpretationes of the Theodosian provisions, which give an indication of the enormous scope of legal activities in late and post-Roman Gaul. Although it has been generally assumed that Alaric’s Gallo-Roman legal advisers completed the task of assembling and issuing the code within the remarkably short space of a few months, it would seem more likely that the work had been going on for a very long time in private Gallic legal circles and that the politically astute Gauls merely used Alaric’s dire straits to their own advantage in securing his approval for work that was already essentially complete.

It is impossible to say where Alaric’s initiatives might have led. In the following year, 507, the armies of Alaric and Clovis met at Vouillé, and the result was the destruction of the Visigothic army and the death of Alaric. During the next year, Clovis occupied nearly all of the kingdom of Toulouse. All that remained to the Visigoths, now firmly entrenched in Spain, was Septimania, a coastal strip focused on Narbonne. The Gothic kingdom of Toulouse was at an end, and the history of post-Roman Gaul was to be written not by the Visigoths but by the Franks.


The Breviarium Alarici, however, went on to enjoy a distinguished and influential afterlife. Although other more complete sections of various parts of the Theodosian code survived elsewhere, the Breviarium Alarici is the only extant document that preserves the organizational structure of the entire code.

Furthermore, Alaric’s initiative gave a barbarian imprimatur to Roman law that was seconded in other barbarian kingdoms that in the sixth century and later also introduced law codes heavily influenced by Roman law in general and by the Breviarium Alarici in particular. These include the Lex romana Burgundionum (Roman law of the Burgundians) of the Burgundian kingdom (which included a mere forty-seven clauses) and even the Pactus legis salicae (record of salic law) of the Franks.

The publication of the Breviarium Alarici also was one reason why subsequent Western barbarian law was based on the Theodosian code rather than the updated and expanded Codex Justinianus (Justinian’s code), issued by the Romans at Constantinople in early 529. Other forms of the Theodosian code, perhaps based in part on the Breviarium Alarici, also were used in post-Roman western Europe and attest to the code’s continued vitality. These include the Lex romana curiensis (Roman law of Chur) dating from about 800. In general, the Breviarium Alarici demonstrates in a microcosm the ways in which Roman law and custom had a decisive role in barbarian Europe that continues to have an effect today.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drew, Katherine Fischer. “The Barbarian Kings as Lawgivers and Judges.” In Life and Thought in the Early Middle Ages, edited by Robert S. Hoyt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967. Assesses the influence of the Breviarium Alarici, especially in southwestern Gaul and the Rhone Valley, even after it was superseded by the seventh code known as Liber, or Forum Judicum.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harries, J., and Ian Wood, eds. The Theodosian Code. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Provides a background for understanding the Roman legal precedents on which the Breviarium Alarici was based.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathisen, Ralph. Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul: Strategies for Survival in an Age of Transition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993. A useful study of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Ian. “Disputes in Late Fifth and Sixth-Century Gaul: Some Problems.” In The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe, edited by Wendy Davies and Paul Fouracre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. This scholarly article places the Breviarium Alarici in a helpful legal and historical context.

Categories: History