Recounted in a biography written by Eugippius, Saint Severinus’s peregrinations along the Danubian frontier illustrate different stages of coping with a growing insecurity on a frontier that was gradually abandoned by Roman forces and harassed by small tribes roaming the area.
First, there is the gradual recognition that imperial forces were not what they used to be. The tangible presence of the empire was disappearing, and the towns were losing their main security providers. “So long as the Roman dominion lasted, soldiers were maintained in many towns at the public expense to guard the boundary wall. When this custom ceased, the squadrons of soldiers and the boundary wall were blotted out together.” But the gradual withdrawal of Roman troops did not seem to have had a shocking impact on the locals, who perhaps did not notice immediately that their security required the presence of armed men. Indeed, few consider how security and deterrence are maintained while peace reigns.
The Roman troop at Batavis (modern day Passau), however, held out. The place was itself a military base rather than a town; located on the confluence of two important rivers, the Danube and the Inn, it occupied important strategic real estate that most likely was deemed more valuable than other towns east of it. It was a remnant of a string of military outposts, and the soldiers there seemed to be severed from the bulk of the legions. At some point, “some soldiers of this troop had gone to Italy to fetch the final pay to their comrades.” They did not make it far because the barbarians marauding in the area killed them. For a while no one was aware of this massacre, but “one day, as Saint Severinus was reading in his cell, he suddenly closed the book and began to sigh greatly and to weep. He ordered the bystanders to run out with haste to the river, which he declared was in that hour besprinkled with human blood; and straightway word was brought that the bodies of the soldiers mentioned above had been brought to land by the current of the river.”
That was a shock.
The role of these few Roman soldiers was first and foremost one of reassurance. They could not have defended the small towns in case of a prolonged barbarian assault. They also did not maintain the safety of the surrounding areas, leaving it open to small but frequent barbarians incursions — and as the violent end of the few soldiers heading to obtain the overdue pay indicates, they could not even protect their own forces. Finally, these scarce imperial forces certainly did not serve as a “tripwire” because it was unlikely that, in case of a barbarian attack on them, Roman legions would have marched north in retaliation. In brief, they did not deter the barbarians. But they were there to reassure the locals. They were good enough to reassure, even if not good enough to deter and defend. And that is why when imperial forces melted away the locals were discouraged.
Second, after the reassuring presence of imperial might has vanished, the next stage does not include calls for defense or balancing or stronger walls. No. It is the stage of disbelief and self-delusion. As Roman power waned, the locals comforted themselves with the delusion that the threats did not exist or, if they did, that the menace was not great. Perhaps the enemies would seek other targets. Perhaps the walls would suffice. Perhaps the barbarians liked peace and commerce as much as they did. Perhaps they would just go away. Perhaps they would peacefully blend in. The list of possible justifications for this delusion is as long as it is wrong.
In the first town he visited, Asturis, Severinus warned the population that the enemy was indeed near and dangerous. They should repent, he told them. They should pray and fast, and they should unite by abandoning the search for the selfish fulfillment of material desires. Of course, as was to be expected from a complacent and materially satisfied polity, Severinus was laughed out of town.
People who are deluded — and do not see higher reasons for their own existence — will gladly justify their material self-satisfaction. Severinus left “in haste from a stubborn town that shall swiftly perish.” And perish Asturis did.
Third, in the next town, Comagenis, Severinus had more luck — the locals were on their next stage of grief. Because one man escaped from Asturis bringing the terrible news, the people of Comagenis could no longer ignore the hard fact that the barbarians were near and in search of destruction.
They recognized that security was a creation of force, not a self-sustaining reality.
But even before the technical question of how to defend themselves, the locals needed a reason to do it. They needed what Roman troops, however scant, had provided before: some reassurance. And this was Severinus’s greatest contribution: he reassured the local populations. He supplied the surviving towns with a firm motivation to resist and defend themselves, a reassurance that defense was worthwhile. With his presence the frontier “castles felt no danger. The trusty cuirass of fasting, and praiseworthy humility of heart, with the aid of the prophet, had armed them boldly against the fierceness of the enemy.”
This stage of geopolitical grief can be productive because it is characterized by the nascent desire to engage in the competition at hand. Security, these frontier towns realized, was not guaranteed by impersonal forces, but needed to be underwritten by somebody. And they had to do it themselves.
The problem at this stage is that the passage from delusion and panic to the desire to produce indigenous defense is not automatic. Before the “how” and the “where” of defending oneself, it is necessary to have a clear and firm answer to the “why.” A polity can have all the technical marvels, logistical supplies, and tactical skills, but without a strong motivation to defend itself they will all be useless. A castellum can be architecturally pleasing and surrounded by thick walls, but if the people inside it do not know who they are and why they should fight, it is as undefended as a wide open field.
In one of the Danubian towns, the local commander Mamertinus was concerned that the forces at his disposal were insufficient. (He was also future bishop — a pattern that replicated itself elsewhere in the decaying western Roman Empire. Bishops quickly became the main city authorities, caring not only for the spiritual life but also for the material survival of their flocks.) Mamertinus told Severinus: “I have soldiers, a very few. But I dare not contend with such a host of enemies. However, if thou commandest it, venerable father, though we lack the aid of weapons yet we believe that through thy prayers we shall be victorious.” Material capabilities are important, indeed essential; yet motivation and morale is even more so. Severinus stiffened their spines. Go out and engage the enemy, he told them. “Even if thy soldiers are unarmed, they shall now be armed from the enemy. For neither numbers nor fleshly courage is required, when everything proves that God is our champion.” Mamertinus’s troops went out, found some of the barbarians, attacked, and succeeded in routing most of them while obtaining a stash of their abandoned weapons.