Between the years 584 and 590, King Childebert II of Austrasia (r. 575-595) launched several invasions into the Lombard-controlled regions Italy, ruled at that time by King Authari (r. 584-590). King Childebert II was given financial support in his campaigns by Emperor Maurice of Constantinople (r. 582-602), whose forces were also combating Lombard influence in Italy. The emperor’s aid to King Childebert was quite generous, with one of the payments allegedly amounting to 50,000 pieces of gold. Yet, despite the monetary support and the military ableness of Childebert’s Frankish warriors, the campaigns he waged against the Lombards in Italy made little progress. As a result, the lines of communication between the king and emperor remained open for years, with envoys going back and forth. One such diplomatic mission—led by three men named Grippo, Bodegisil and Evantius—was sent by King Childebert II around 588 to negotiate for more financial and military coordination from Emperor Maurice in upcoming Frankish invasions of Italy. These envoys, however, would live up to the saying that the journey is more exciting than the destination. Before Childebert’s diplomats reached the imperial city, they found themselves engulfed in a deadly scandal that had the potential to fracture the partnership between the Kingdom of Austrasia and the Empire of Constantinople.
As the story goes, the Frankish envoys boarded a ship, intending to reach Constantinople by sea. During their voyage, the diplomats made a stop in the city of Carthage, which was, at that time, under Emperor Maurice’s control. The emperor’s Prefect of Africa was headquartered in that city, and the Frankish diplomats decided to wait in Carthage until the Prefect could help them schedule an audience with the emperor. While they waited, the diplomatic party and their guards lodged together in a single compound within the city, turning an inn into a small fortress.
Grippo, Bodegisil and Evantius, as well as their servants, mostly kept to themselves in their rented space, often drinking, but they were also known to frequent the local markets to browse what the city merchants were selling. One such shopping trip done by a guard assigned to Evantius, however, would throw the city into turmoil. The Frankish guardsman, it was reported, grabbed an item from one of the city’s merchants and fled without paying. Due to principle or price, the merchant tracked down the thief to the diplomatic compound and, as the thief had gone inside, the merchant decided to stake out the place. When the guilty guardsman next exited the building, the merchant was there to confront him about the theft. Ultimately, the merchant grabbed hold of the thief, signaling that he would not let go until he had justice for the crime. The guardsman, however, did not respond well to having hands laid on him—despite being in a city street with lots of witnesses, the guardsman drew his sword and killed the merchant.
After committing the murder, the guardsman slipped back inside the diplomatic compound to lay low. Sources from the Frankish side of the dispute, such as the writings of Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), claim that the lead envoys, Grippo, Bodegisil and Evantius, had no knowledge of the murder, and that they innocently partied within their lodgings, ignorant of the growing public outrage in the city of Carthage. Whatever the case, the diplomats chose to fortify themselves in their lodgings, and there they remained while the city folk outside their walls gathered into a militia and demanded that the Prefect avenge the slain merchant.
As the story goes, the Prefect indeed decided to pursue the case, and he reportedly led a rag-tag band of professional warriors and armed citizens to the lodgings where the Frankish envoys were staying. What happened next is difficult to assess. For some reason or other, the confrontation at the diplomatic compound turned into a deadly skirmish. Did the militia disobey the Prefect and attack without leave? Did the Frankish envoys refuse to cooperate with the Prefect and instead charged out to battle the hostile force? These questions are left unsatisfactorily answered in the medieval sources. Whatever the case, a battle erupted that day between the members of the Frankish delegation and locals of Carthage. The main entrance to the compound became the scene of carnage, as it was the bottleneck where both sides clashed. Despite the defensive advantages held by the diplomatic party, they were still greatly outnumbered, and they began to suffer heavy casualties. These included several of the leading envoys—both Bodegisil and Evantius were slain during the fight.
Grippo, the last surviving lead member of the diplomatic mission, somehow signaled to the Prefect that he wanted to call a truce and negotiate. If the militia and warriors of Carthage had been insubordinate up to this point, the Prefect now managed to get them under control and he successfully halted the assault on the Frankish diplomatic party. Talking instead of fighting, the envoy and the Prefect decided that the important relationship between their two lieges was more important than carrying on the day’s battle. Both sides agreed to cease hostilities, and the Prefect arranged for what remained of the diplomatic mission to be shipped out of Carthage and over to Constantinople as quickly as possible.
When Grippo reached Constantinople, he was given an audience with Emperor Maurice. The emperor showed no ill will toward the envoy; instead, he apologized about the unfortunate incident in Carthage, and assured the envoys that he would not let the incident go unpunished. He then reconfirmed his commitment to coordinating and supporting King Childebert’s campaigns against the Lombards, packed Grippo’s ship with gifts, and sent the diplomat back on his way to the lands of the Franks. Later, Emperor Maurice dispatched his own diplomatic party to the court of King Childebert II. The diplomats brought with them twelve prisoners who were supposedly involved in the incident at Carthage. Grippo, who was present when this intriguing group arrived, reportedly denied recognizing any of the prisoners and doubted they were related to the incident. Putting aside the vague identities of the prisoners, the envoys of the emperor explained that Childebert could do what he wanted with the twelve—the king could execute them to put the matter to rest, or he could accept a ransom payment of 300 gold pieces per prisoner, sparing their lives in exchange for money from the emperor. Fortunately for the twelve prisoners, King Childebert II decided to take the second option, accepting 3,600 gold pieces from Emperor Maurice and letting the mysterious prisoners go free.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration from a 14th century manuscript of the Bible historiale complétée, labeled BL Royal 18 D VIII, f. 1 in The British Library, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons.jpg).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.