Roman Roads in Post-Carolingian Politics; or What Did the Romans Ever Do for Adalbero of Rheims?

Charleville-Mézières was a busy place in the tenth century. No fewer than three fortresses (that we know about) duked it out for control of the area. Most recently, I’ve been looking at an event described in the Chronicle of Mouzon. Around 970, Otto of Warcq, a younger son of Count Albert the Pious of Vermandois, began to build a castle at Warcq (basically next door to Mézières). This did not make Archbishop Adalbero of Rheims happy, largely because he had his own designs on the region, in pursuit of which he’d set his brother Count Godfrey of Verdun to fortifying Mézières itself. Adalbero and Godfrey led an attack on Warcq and razed it. This was not the first time within living memory something similar had happened. Back in the 940s, a Count Bernard had raised a fortress at Arches-en-Porcien (modern Charleville, next door to Mézières but to the north rather than the west) and it had been razed by the bishop of Liège.

Once he had raised Warcq through the intervention of a helpful cow (long story), Adalbero took the relics held by the castle and transported them to Mouzon, where he kicked out the existing monks and imposed a new regime more closely under his control. Thinking about this, I happened to look at a map of Roman roads (specifically this one), and I noticed something curious: both Mézières and Mouzon are on Roman roads. In fact, they each control one of the two branches of the road directly eastwards from Rheims into Lotharingia. Adalbero was clearly thinking very strategically.

What’s left of a Roman road in the south of France (source)

By itself, nifty; but then I kept noticing correlations between important places and Roman roads. Staying with Rheims, the Roman roads run out of the city in four directions. We’ve already seen the eastern road, but I traced their path in the other three directions as well. The roads north are fairly quiet – one leads to an area well-populated by old settlements, going to Laon and thence Saint-Quentin; the other goes to Bavay (a dog that fails to bark in this regard, more below) and then, amongst other places, to the key fortification of Mons. Westward, the road is a bit more interesting: a short hop to Soissons, and then three options, one eastwards to Senlis, one southwards to Troyes, and a northward road which branches off in one direction towards Noyon and in the other towards Saint-Quentin. Here, things get spicier: Château-Thierry lies directly on the Troyes road and Coucy-le-Château on the Saint-Quentin road, both of which were absolutely critical fortifications in the mid-tenth century and both of which seem to have been relatively new developments (an early-eleventh century bishop of Orléans was the eponymous grandson of the Thierry after whom Château-Thierry was named).

Southwards, things really take off. There are three southern branches. First, one road takes another short hop to Châlons, and from Châlons goes in three directions. First, an eastern road to Vertus. Second, a south-eastern route to Troyes. This one is interesting because it passes by Ramerupt. Third, a southern route which gets to Corbeil and then splits in half. The first part of this goes to Troyes as well; the second part goes to Langres, and on the way passes both Rosnay and Brienne before passing through Bar-sur-Aube. The second southern road from Rheims goes southwards through Bar-le-Duc. The third and final route heads eastwards to Verdun, past Vienne-la-Ville (and thus explaining the route Charles the Simple took for his invasion in 898).

The Rheims-Châlons-Langres route is particularly interesting here, because all three of the places I mentioned, Brienne, Rosnay, and Bar-sur-Aube, grew into counties by the late tenth century. Brienne in particular first appears in our sources late in the reign of Louis IV, when the king apparently made a major effort to raze the fortification, which was held by two brothers named Engelbert and Gozbert. The fact that this Engelbert was the first count of Brienne shows that Louis was probably struggling against the tide here. Ramerupt, too, became the centre of a county; and Bar-le-Duc became one of the key strongholds of Duke Frederick of Lotharingia and his heirs. Frederick, like Adalbero, clearly had a good grasp of the strategic geography because Bar-le-Duc was the second fortification he built in that immediate neighbourhood – the first, Fains, Louis had made him destroy. My theory is that the Roman roads south into Burgundy – one of Louis’ key support bases – were a) so important to him that he made significant efforts to keep them clear and under control; but b) the social and political capital – maybe even the königsnahe which came from being close to the king on the road – of being based on such well-travelled highways could be exploited by canny nobles to bolster their own positions.

This pattern clearly doesn’t work everywhere. When I was poking around this question, I looked at Rheims because – thanks to Flodoard – I know the geography of that region best. Some other places I had a more fleeting look at do have interesting things – from Limoges, for instance, the emergent vicecomital seats at Ségur, Aubusson and (I think) Comborn are all on the roads. However, other areas – Chartres, for example – didn’t have all that much going on. Equally, there are new counties – the biggest and most important probably being La Marche – which are nowhere near Roman roads. Even when Roman roads factor into the equation, they’re not the only important thing that’s even visible on a map – most of the places I just mentioned are also on rivers. Furthermore, at that point, ‘control of a hard point which controls multiple transport routes is important’ seems like a no-brainer.

Still, the overlap between comital seats and Roman roads is enough to make me thing there may be something here. Roman roads in the Carolingian era seem like something someone should have written something about, but I haven’t yet found the right keywords to put into Google Books or the IMB to find it… (Suggestions in the comments, please!) As always, if something more comes up I will keep you posted, but the development of ‘road counties’ seems like a potentially important tenth-century development.

PS: I just this moment thought as I wrote this last paragraphy, why don’t I check where Aurillac is; and wouldn’t you know, it’s at a pretty major Roman road junction! Suggestions for reading would be really appreciated, because this may be a project…