Friday, August 15, 2008

Askatasunaren Eguna

Today the Navarrese (Basque) people celebrate the date in which they told Europe that they wanted their independence and their sovereignty, and they did that by defeating the most powerful army in Europe at the time. The events that came as a result of the outcome of this battle led to the formation of the Basque kingdom of Pamplona that would go on to became the Kingdom of Navarre. This date is therefore a stark reminder for those who go around saying that there was never a Basque Country before that they are lying.

The Battle of Orreaga can be compared to the Battle of Thermopylae because the small Basque army was able to defeat a larger military force thanks to the bravery of the Basques and their knowledge of the terrain, a military operation that favored tactics over numbers.

This is a recount of what happened that day:

Battle of Orreaga

The Battle Orreaga, also known as the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (French and English spelling, Roncesvalles in Spanish, Orreaga in Basque) was a famous battle in 778 in which Hruodland (Roland), prefect of the Brittany March and commander of the rear guard of Charlemagne's army, was defeated by the Basques. It was fought at Roncevaux Pass, a high mountain pass in the Pyrenees in the heart of the Basque Country. The battle gave rise to a body of legend that far outlasted the facts.


After the Muslim invasion of 711 and the rise of the Carolingians, the Duchy of Vasconia and Aquitaine had been severely punished by both sides. The last double Duke, Waifer, had been defeated by Pepin the Short and the Frankish domain north of the Pyrenees seemed consolidated.

The plot

Sulayman al-Arabi, Wāli of Barcelona and Girona, had been present at the Court meeting of Paderborn in 777. It seems that he induced Charlemagne to invade Al Andalus by promising him an easy surrender of its Upper March. The King didn't make up his mind until the winter, but he finally decided to launch an expedition into the Iberian peninsula the next year.

The Franks advanced as two armies: one by the east (Catalonia) and another by the west (Basque Country). Charles himself took the command of the second army that crossed Vasconia and camped at Pamplona without apparent opposition.

Meanwhile in Zaragoza, the capital of the Upper March of Al Andalus, its governor Hussain Ibn Yahya al Ansari, apparently part of the pro-Frankish conspiracy, had to face other problems. Abd ar-Rahman I, emir of Cordoba sent his most trusted general, Thalaba Ibn Obeid to take control of the possibly rebellious city and to prevent the Frankish invasion. Al Ansari and Ibn Obeid clashed repeatedly; eventually the wali managed to defeat and to imprison the Cordobese general.

Reinforced in his autonomous position, al Ansari became reluctant to yield his new privileged status to the Frankish monarch. No matter what they might have previously negotiated, the gates of Zaragoza remained closed against the Christian army.

It is unclear if Charlemagne besieged Zaragoza. Whatever the case, the military pressure on the city could not have lasted much more than a month. This time was filled with negotiations that nevertheless did not result in the surrender of the city.

Both conspirators seem to have tried to appease Charlemagne by giving him the prisoner General Thalaba and a large tribute of gold, but Charlemagne was not easily satisfied, putting Suleiman al-Arabi in chains.

The retreat

As the Frankish army retreated towards Pamplona they suffered an ambush led by the relatives of al-Arabi. Suleiman al-Arabi was liberated and brought to Zaragoza, where both conspirators jointly resisted a new attack by Abd al-Rahman. Suleiman al-Arabi would eventually be murdered by al Ansari.

After stopping at Pamplona, Charlemagne ordered this strategic city be destroyed, possibly fearing that it could be used by the Basques in future rebellions.

The battle itself took place in the evening of Saturday, August 15th 778, causing numerous losses among the Frankish troops, including several most important aristocrats and the sack of the baggage, probably with all the gold given by the Muslims at Zaragoza. After their success, the attackers took advantage of the night to flee.

The sources are somewhat contradictory, yet the second redaction of the Annales Regii (falsely attributed to Eginhard) reads:

Having decided to return, [Charlemagne] entered the mountains of the Pyrenees, in whose summits the Vascones had set up an ambush. When attacking the rearguard confusion spread by all the army. And, while Frankish were superior to the Vascones both in armament as in courage, the roughness of the terrain and the difference in the style of combat made them inferior. In this battle were killed the majority of the paladins that the King had placed in command of his forces. The bagagge was sacked and, suddenly, the enemy vanished thanks to their knowledge of the terrain. The memory of the injury so produced darkened in great manner in the King's heart that of the feats made in Hispania.

The Vita Karoli mentions the names of the most important paladins killed among many others: Eggihard, Mayor of the Palace, Anselmus, Palatine Count and Roland, Prefect of the March of Brittany.

The Basque army

The guerrilla army of the Basques is not well known. A later source, the anonymous Saxon Poet talks of the Basque spears, which fits with the Pyrenean and Basque tradition that would be present much later among the almogavars. Such typical mountain warrior would have two short spears and a knife or short sword as main weapons, not using armour normally.

Pierre de Marca suggests that the Duke of Vasconia, Lop may have been their commander. This opinion is also held by the authors of the General History of Languedoc who claim that Duke Lop was the leader of the Gascons that attacked Charlemagne.


Ibaineta (Roncevaux) pass

The mainstream opinion is that the battle took place somewhere not far from Roncevaux itself as it is not just one of the easiest routes but also traditional.

Notably the old Roman road (also called Route of Napoleon) followed a different route than the modern one, not crossing Ibaineta (the traditional location) but heading eastwards and crossing instead the Lepoeder and Bentartea passes, not far from Urkuilu peak, at Aezkoa. It might well have been at one of these narrow passages where the actual battle took place.

Another possible location that has been suggested for the battle is that of the Selva de Oza pass, in the valley of Hecho, in the border between Aragon and Navarre, since the old roman road called 'Caesar Augusta' that lead from Caesaraugusta (Saragosse) to Benearnum (Bearn) crosses the Pyrinees there. It is to be noted that both Roncesvaux and Selva de Oza are just about 30 kilometers away.


The Franks failed in capturing Zaragoza and suffered significant losses at the hands of the Basques. They would only be able to establish the Marca Hispanica a decade later, when Barcelona was finally captured. Zaragoza remained an important Muslim city, capital of the Upper March and later of an independent emirate, until the 11th century.

Defenceless Pamplona was captured by the Muslims soon after and held by them for some years, until in 798-801 a rebellion expelled them as well and helped to consolidate the Banu Qasi realm and eventually the constitution of the independent Kingdom of Pamplona in 824.


Over the years, this battle was romanticized by oral tradition into a major conflict between Christians and Muslims, when in fact both sides in the battle were Christian. In the tradition, the Basques are replaced by a force of 400,000 Saracens. (Charlemagne did fight the Saracens in Iberia, though not in the Pyrenees.) The Song of Roland, which commemorates the battle, was written by an unknown troubadour of the 11th century. It is the earliest surviving of the chansons de geste or epic poems of medieval France in the northern dialect or langue d'oïl of what became the French language. There is a tombstone near the Roncevaux Pass commemorating the area where it is traditionally held that Roland died. Several traditions also state that Roland was slain by a child who, in time, would become the very first king of Navarre: Iñigo Arista.

Until a few years ago the French would teach their kids in school that it was the Etruscans and not the Basques the ones that defeated Charlemagne, just so you get an idea of how distorted the truth about the history of the Basque is when it suits the interests of the French and the Spaniards.

Second and Third battles of Roncevaux

In the year 812 there was a second Battle in the same pass, that ended in stalemate due to the greater precautions taken by the Franks.

In the year 824 was the maybe more important Third Battle of Roncevaux, where counts Eblus and Aznar, Frankish vassals, were captured by the joint forces of Pamplona and the Banu Qasi, consolidating the independence of both Basque realms.

Value for comparative history

In the case of the Battle of Roncevaux, historians possess both the description of an event by contemporary and fairly reliable sources and the depiction of the same event resulting from centuries of an oral tradition, in which it was magnified to epic proportions and changed almost unrecognizably.

The ability here to compare both accounts, and trace how an actual historical event is transformed into myth, is useful for the study of other events of which the only existing account is one deriving from centuries of oral tradition, and in which historians need to try to reconstruct the actual historical facts and separate them from later myth, specially the one created by the Franks in which Roland goes on to slain thousands of "Saracens" before being wounded (for example, Homer's depiction of the Trojan War or the Biblical account of the Exodus).

And some claim that Basque nationalism started at the end of the XIX century.

Note: The original source was Wikipedia but there was so much anti-Basque slant to it that I was forced to remove entire paragraphs.

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