Battle of Vicus Helena

The battle took place somewhere in Belgica II
Datec. 445–450
Vicus Helena, Belgica Secunda
Result Roman victory
Western Roman Empire Salian Franks
Commanders and leaders
Flavius Aëtius
Julius Majorian

The Battle of Vicus Helena was a clash between Salian Franks led by Chlodio and Roman soldiers commanded by general Flavius Aetius; the latter were victorious. It is attested in a limited number of late Roman and early Medieval sources, and reportedly occurred in or around the year 448 in the unidentified place of Vicus Helena somewhere in the Civitas Atrebatium, modern Artois.[1]



The Franks were foederati of the Romans, but regularly plundered towns and villages within the Roman Empire, and somewhere between 445 and 450, Salian Franks under Chlodio conquered the cities of Turnacum (modern Tournai) and Cameracum (Cambrai), which became centres of Frankish power.[2] The capture of Cameracum must have happened after 443, because Gregory mentions the Burgundians had already settled east of the river Rhône.[3] Next, the Franks expanded towards the river Somme.[3] Around 448, the city of Nemetocenna (modern Arras) was probably sacked by the Franks as well.[1]


Roman general Majorian, who would become the Western Roman emperor in 457, reportedly suppressed a revolt of the Bagaudae in Armorica in 448, and then successfully defended Turonum (Tours) against a siege.[3] 'Shortly thereafter', according to Sidonius, the Franks led by 'Cloio' (Chlodio), who were holding a wedding reception, were ambushed by the Romans near Vicus Helena.[3] Aetius directed the operations while Majorian fought with the cavalry.[4] The Romans emerged victorious.[3]


Most surviving information about the Battle of Vicus Helena comes from the Panegyric to Majorian, written in praise of Majorian's military exploits in 458 by Sidonius Apollinaris:

Cum bella timentes defendit Turonos, aberas. Post tempore parvo pugnastis pariter, Francus qua Cloio patentes Atrebatum terras pervaserat. Hic coeuntes claudebant angusta vias arcuque subactum vicum Helenam flumenque simul sub tramite longo artus suppositis trabibus transmiserat agger. Illic te posito pugnabat ponte sub ipso Maiorianus eques. Fors ripae colle propinquo Barbaricus resonabat hymen, Scythicisque choreis nubebat flavo similars nove nupta marito. Hos ergo, ut perhibent, stravit; crepitabat ad ictus cassis et oppositis hastarum verbera thorax arcebat squamis, donec conversa fugatus hostis terga dedit.[5]

When [Majorian] defended the inhabitants of Tours who feared the war, you [=Aetius] were absent. Shortly thereafter, reunited, you fought the Frank Cloio, who had occupied the plains of the Atrebates. Here, various roads came together narrowed by a defile; next, Vicus Helena could be seen forming an arc, then one could find a river crossed by a bridge made of wooden planks. You [=Aetius] were there; Majorian the knight fought at the head of the bridge. Here was heard, resounding on the next hill, the songs of a wedding celebrated by the barbarians dancing in the manner of the Scythians; two spouses with blonde hair then united. [Majorian], as is reported, defeated the barbarians. His helmet sounded under the blows, and the spears were pushed back by his thick-mesh cuirass, until at last the enemy gave way, disbanded, and fled.[5][3]

— Sidonius Apollinaris, Panegyric to Majorian (Carmen 5, 210–218.)

Some circumstantial information is provided by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks (Book 2, Chapter 9).[3]

Location and date

For centuries, scholars have not been able to locate Vicus Helena, nor been able to determine the precise date of the battle. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volume VI (1789), Edward Gibbon stated that 'both the name and the place are discovered by modern geographers at Lens'.[6] Writing for the Magasin encyclopédique in 1797, Guilmot claimed to have discovered it as the village of Évin, on the road between Tournai and Arras.[7] Alexandre-Joseph-Hidulphe Vincent published an essay in 1840, arguing that neither Lens nor Hesdin (two popular candidates in his time) was plausible, but that Allaines near the Mont Saint-Quentin and the town of Péronne was the lost Vicus Helena.[8] Hubert le Bourdellès (1984) suggested Saint-Amand Abbey, which used to be known as Elnon(e).[9] Tony Jaques (2007) went with Hélesmes in the year 431.[10] De Boone (1954) connected Sidonius' reference to a frozen Loire river to the exceptionally harsh winter of 442–3 mentioned by the Annals of Marcellinus Comes, but Lanting & van der Plicht (2010) rejected this, as Marcellinus doesn't mention any harsh winter in Gaul, and focused mostly on the Eastern Roman Empire; instead, the latter two focused on the military career of Majorian (Sidonius called him a iuvenis or 'young man' in 458, while he had left active military service before 454, suggesting a birth around 420), concluding 445–450 to be the most likely period for the battle.[2] Dierkens & Périn (2003) noted that Majorian had defeated the Bagaudae and freed Tours just before the battle of Vicus Helena; they dated the former two events (and therefore Vicus Helena as well) to 448, and endorsed the Hélesmes hypothesis.[3] Alexander O'Hara (2018) suggested 'in around 448' at 'an unidentified site in the Artois', positing that it may be connected to the destruction of Arras around that time as well, although it is unknown whether Arras was sacked by Huns or Franks.[1]

Primary sources


  1. ^ a b c O'Hara, Alexander (2018). Jonas of Bobbio and the Legacy of Columbanus: Sanctity and Community in the Seventh Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 42. ISBN 9780190858025. Retrieved 1 September 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d Lanting, J. N.; van der Plicht, J. (2010). "De 14C-chronologie van de Nederlandse Pre- en Protohistorie VI: Romeinse tijd en Merovische periode, deel A: historische bronnen en chronologische thema's". Palaeohistoria 51/52 (2009/2010) (in Dutch). Groningen: Groningen Institute of Archaeology. p. 45–46. ISBN 9789077922736. Retrieved 1 September 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Dierkens, Alain; Périn, Patrick (2003). "The 5th-century advance of the Franks in Belgica II: history and archaeology". Essays on the Early Franks. Eelde: Barkhuis. p. 170. ISBN 9789080739031. Retrieved 7 September 2020.
  4. ^ Chronica Gallica Anno 452, 133 (s.a. 438); Sid. Apol. carm. 5.210-218. Cited in Jones, p. 27. Jan Willem Drijvers, Helena Augusta, BRILL, ISBN 90-04-09435-0, p. 12.
  5. ^ a b Sidonius Apollinaris (with French translation by J. F. Grégoire and F. L. Collombet (1836). Oeuvres de C. Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius (in French). Lyon/Paris: Rusand. p. 73–74. Retrieved 8 September 2020.
  6. ^ Edward Gibbon (1906). "Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 6". Online Library of Liberty. Retrieved 8 September 2020.
  7. ^ Millin de Grandmaison, Aubin-Louis, ed. (September 1797). "Découverte du Vicus Helena". Magasin Encyclopédique (in French). 3 (9). Maison de Cluny: 162–175. Retrieved 7 September 2020.
  8. ^ Vincent, Alexandre-Joseph-Hidulphe (1840). Dissertation sur la position géographique du Vicus Helena (in French). Lille: Imprimerie de L. Danel.
  9. ^ le Bourdellès, Hubert (1984). "Le problème linguistique dans l'affaire du Vicus Helena". Revue du Nord (in French). 260: 351–359. Retrieved 1 September 2020.
  10. ^ Jaques, Tony (2007). Dictionary of Battles and Sieges: F-O. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0313335389.