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Early Middle Ages (475-1000)

Post-Roman Europe I: Italy and Southern Gaul From Theodoric to the Lombards (488-600)


Eastern Rome from Marcian to Justin: Doorstep of Byzantium (450-527)


The remains of the Western Roman state had been ruled since 476 by Odovacar, as supposed viceroy in the West to Eastern Emperor Zeno. The latter was uncomfortable with this arrangement, as Odovacar had presented him with a fait accompli. At the same time, in the mid 480s, Zeno was facing repeated invasions into Eastern Roman lands by the Ostrogoths under Theodoric. After the uprising against and defeat of the Huns in the 450s, the Ostrogoths had settled on the Byzantine side of the Danube en masse through foederati agreements by Byzantine Emperor Leo I. At his death in 474, they left their reservations based on hospitalitas, criss-crossing Thrace and the Balkans in search of food and in general warfare. By the late 470s, Theodoric had gained prominence as an Ostrogothic leader. Alternately supporting Leo II against rebels such as the general Illus and the Germanic-roman officer Theodoric Strabo, and revolting in search of food and better office in the Roman system, the Ostrogoths spent the greater part of the 480s raiding up and down the Balkans. At the same time, Odovacar in the West had heard of Zeno's plans to oust him, so launched a preemptive strike into Pannonia, the Western Balkans, hitting the Rugians hard. In 488, Zeno thus offered Theodoric the position of Master of Soldiers in Italy, in return for unseating Odovacar.

Tired of a seventeen-year trek through Byzantine lands, Theodoric agreed. Passing through Pannonia, he acquired Rugian and Gepid troops through 489, then moved into Northern Italy, attracting Burgundians and Visigoths to the fight. He quickly reduced Odovacar to Ravenna, which was put under siege until 493. Then, in a banquet called to signal reconciliation, Theodoric and his servants murdered their opponent.

Thus from 493, Theodoric established the first post-Roman kingdom in the West. By the 510s his lands included all of Italy, stretching past Milan in the north to the Alpine regions, where the kingdom abutted the Franks as well as the Burgundians in the northwest. Provence was also included in southeastern France, after Frankish defeats of the Visigoths in the region. Finally, Pannonian and Dalmatian lands along the Adriatic were incorporated into Ostrogothic dominions. Legally, he presented himself to Italian Latins as the Emperor Zeno's Master of Soldiers for the region, and maintained as thoroughly as possible Roman urban and rural administration, including the Senate. To the Germanics, however, he was a king. In effect, the system was dualistic: Roman law, practice, religion (Catholicism), taxes, and language for the indigenous Italians, as opposed to Germanic kingship, tribal Ostrogothic (as well as Rugian) law, Arianism, and military duties for the German newcomers, who were outnumbered by native Italians. The relationship between the two groups was based on the old hospitalitas model. Roman landowners were required to provide about one-third of their agricultural revenues. This "administrative dualism" was justified according the Roman legal convention that the military-- in this case the mostly Gothic Germans--was in legal, financial, and other matters, accountable to a different system from that of civilians--the natives in this case.

From 493 to the 520s, Theodoric made his rule popular and administrated Italy better than any predecessor back to the 410s. Though Arian, he respected the Catholic Church, which was currently in a sate of schism with Constantinople over doctrine. His military force was equal to all challenges of the day, and through marriage alliances with Vandals, Visigoths, and even Franks, he was able to fend off territorial challenges. He also sponsored building and restoration projects in Rome, Ravenna, and elsewhere, even reestablishing the grain and wine dole for the urban masses, after having turned Sicily into the grain producing area given the Vandals' control over North Africa. Theodoric also attracted capable Roman aristocrats as administrators, including Cassiodorus, Boethius, and Symmachus, who were invested with proper Roman titles (and offices of) Patrician, Consul, and Master of Offices, the chief civil administrative offices in Roman parlance. Basically, the division of labor, in Theodoric's mind was Goths as military and Italians as civil, so that a Germano- Roman harmony could continue.

Providing comparative security and a semblance of Roman continuity to the 510s, Theodoric's rule began to falter at this time. A) The German/Goth elements of the system did not quite fall into step with the spirit of their king's arrangements. For example, when they traveled to Ravenna on a yearly basis to receive financial bonuses as soldiers, Gothic units plundered native farms and villages along the way. B) Byzantine Emperors were increasingly displeased with what they considered Ostrogothic expansionism into the East. Anastasia had disliked Ostrogothic occupation of Sirmium in the Balkans in 504, as well as their 505 defeat of Bulgars along the Morava river. Restricted in resources, the Greeks did launch naval raids on Italian coasts in 508, and the Emperor recognized the Frankish King Clovis with an honorary consulship in 507, as at least a symbolic counterweight to Theodoric. In 518, Justin became Byzantine Emperor. A native Latin speaker born the Balkans, he was keen on reestablishing stronger ties with the Italian Roman aristocracy as well as the Catholic Church. D) A divide of increasing importance between Goths and Romans was based on religion. Though Christian, Goths were adherents of Arianism, considered heretical by the Western Catholic Church. At the beginning of Thoedoric's rule, this was not too important. He respected Catholic churches, and felt that Goths would remain Arian, as Italians would stay Catholic. At this time, there were no Catholic candidates for rule; Franks were still pagan, and the Eastern Emperor embraced Monophysitism, so the Church in Constantinople was in schism with that of Rome. By 518, the situation had changed. Between 496 and 506, Clovis had led his Franks into the Catholic form of Christianity, and his comparative savagery did not outweigh his conversion's significance in the eyes of Italy's Catholic clergy. Further, Justin of Constantinople was totally Orthodox in his beliefs, opening the way for Rome- Constantinople reconciliation and his reassertion of influence in the West.

From the 520s, Theodoric felt much more insecure in his rule, wedged in between a Catholic Barbarian to his north and an Orthodox Emperor to his east. In 519 direct Papacy-Byzantine relations were restored, and Justin elected to forbid Germans in his realm from backsliding into Arianism after converting to Catholicism. Around this time, Theodoric forbade Italians from bearing arms, and sent Pope John I to the Byzantine capital to secure toleration for resident Arians. Though he succeeded, the Pope was received too favorably in Constantinople and showed too much devotion to Imperial revival (he crowned Justin) for Theodoric's threatened tastes. Upon his return in 526, John I was detained in Ravenna, dying in custody. Certain Roman aristocrats, such as Boethius and Symmachus, were judged to be in treasonous communication with Constantinople, and were executed. And, while the new Pope, Felix IV (526-30) was more Arian-tolerant and diplomatic in his relations with Theodoric, the Roman clergy was quite pleased with the restored bond with the East. Feeling ever more pressured and without a real Germano-Roman melding, the King ordered Arian confiscation of all Catholic churches, but died on the day of the decree.

The Ostrogothic throne then passed to Thoedoric's grandson Athalric, a child. His mother Amalasuntha became a powerful regent. Still Romanist in intent, they elevated Cassiodorus to Praetorian Prefect. Athalric died in 534, however, and Ostrogothic nobles were unprepared to tolerate female rule, especially as she continued Romanization. They thus nominated Theodoric's nephew Theodehad as king, who after marrying Amalasuntha, imprisoned her. According to official Byzantine sources, she had been assured by Justinian of imperial protection, and after her murder in 535, the Emperor had came close to effecting Theodehad's (also a Romanizer) abdication in favor of himself. A preemptive Gothic strike against Dalmatia during which a close associate of the Emperor was killed however, ended negotiations. Using recently re-conquered ex- Vandal North Africa as a base, Justinian's general Belisarius invaded Sicily, occupying it quickly (535), then proceeded to take Naples. Advancing north, Belisarius found only sporadic resistance, and was able to take Rome in 537. By this point, regrouped Goths had elected a new king, Wittigis, who was able to besiege the Byzantine commander in the city. In the following year, a second Byzantine army had landed in the Italian north, cutting off Wittigis' communications with his capital in Ravenna. A year later, Belisarius had broken out of Rome and chased dispiritied Goths back to Ravenna, where he was able to besiege Wittigis. By 540 a land and naval blockade of the city convinced the Goths to negotiate. Holding out the possibility that he would revolt against Constantinople and declare himself western emperor, Belisarius tricked the Ostrogoths into surrendering the city. Thus, by 540, Italy had been regained by a resurgent Empire.

The tide turned just as immediately. Just prior to defeat, Wittigis had appealed to the Persian Sassanian shah Chosroes II for help in the form of opening a second front along Byzantium's eastern borders. This he did, and in 540, marched as far as Antioch (along the modern Syrian-Turkish border), sacking the important Christian city and carrying off its survivors. Justinian thus ordered Belisarius to the East, with Goths as added soldiers. Under a new Gothic king elected in Pavia, the second phase of the Italian war began, lasting from 540-552. The king's nephew, Totila, guaranteed a bloody, drawn out, quite expensive contest. He was finally defeated by Belisarius' replacement Narses at Busta Gallorum (552), while his successor Teias was defeated the following year.

By this point, other European powers had taken an interest in Italy. From the late 530s, Franks began encroaching southward, looting Milan in 539, and holding Venetian areas until the mid 550s. Any semblance of a great Roman revanche in Italy was ended in 568, when the solidly Barbarian and savage Lombards, who had been permitted entry into Pannonia by Justinian himself, descended upon Italy, bypassing cities and ravaging rural areas. Their king Alboin had himself crowned in Milan in 569, while by 573-4 he was able to occupy Pavia, which became their capital. In the next twenty years, Lombards lived without kings, with up to thirty-six dukes sharing power to pillage and extend Lombard control as far south as Apulia. They had no interest in unification or Roman traditions. By 600, three powers vied in Italy: the Lombards, in control from the Frankish north through the majority of the Italian boot; Byzantium, which controlled the environs of Rome, connected to Ravenna's precincts by a small corridor, Otranto and Apulia, as well as Sicily, Sardinia, and the boot of Italy; and the Papacy, which while supporting the Byzantines, shouldered much civil administration, and was looking to other patrons in the face of receding Byzantine protection against the Lombards.


Looking at the 470-600 period, four primary questions present themselves: 1) Did Roman civilization fall with the arrival of the Ostrogoths? 2) Why was Theodoric not able to engineer a lasting political arrangement? 3) Why did Justinian's reconquest prove so ephemeral? 4) What made the Lombard invasion of Italy so different from previous Barbarian incursions? Regarding the first matter, while it is true that Rome as a united polity ceased to exist really from the 450s, it can be argued that Theodoric at least was consciously attempting to establish a Roman continuity, now under Gothic political control. It was of course, important that he have freedom of action from Eastern Roman interference; still, he presented himself in earnest only as Zeno's viceroy, and maintained proper relations with Constantinople. He also restored much of Rome's urban landscape, recommenced the dole, and continued to nominate senators from the historically prominent families such as the Cassiadori, of course forwarding their names to Constantinople for approval.

While this could all be interpreted as simply practical, a more substantive element must be considered. Theodoric's people, whether long-term Ostrogoths or the newer accretions to the tribe, had interacted with Rome as a state and culture since the 360s. Among the masses of Barbarians, they and the Visigoths were the most highly Romanized, and most familiar with what they had come to possess. While on the one hand they were committed to their Germanness and its accoutrement--such as Arainism, tribal justice, and personal bonds of loyalty and legal strictures--many of the leading Ostrogoths were equally committed to becoming part of Rome, or at the least, making Rome theirs. This did not involve eliminating previous elites. They were of course necessary to aid the newcomers in accomplishing their goals. Just as certainly, individuals such as Symmachus, Boethius, and Cassiodorus were aware of the niche they could fill and the ways they could facilitate a continuity of civilization as they knew it. Indeed, chroniclers put into Theodoric's mouth the notion that while the Germans had come with the martial spirit and civic energy the urbanized Romans had lost over the previous centuries, the Romans themselves would contribute knowledge of administration, culture, and the arts. Thus, a new synthesis would guarantee Roman continuity.

Given this, why did Theodoric's plan fail? Part of it is due to the fact that the idea was not thoroughgoing synthesis as such, where both elements undergo something of a metamorphosis. In key spheres necessary for melding, Goths and Romans were kept separate. Religion and law were essential here. Western Romans simply would not regard Arian Christians as being of the same confessional group as they were. And, as the Ostrogothic leaders felt pressured from Orthodox Constantinople or newly Catholic Franks, it was too easy for them to perceive a need to restrict Catholic expression in Italy. As regards law, Threodoric was simply unable to convince his Goths to submit to indigenous Roman courts, procedure, or legal principles. As was the case in their attitude to Ariansim, for the Germans, giving up the wergild and ordeal system was analogous to surrendering national identity. What evolved then was de facto--or perhaps de jure--segregation on ethnic lines in almost all areas that could have united two peoples yearning for stability.

It is also probable that both inclination and timing militated against a Gothic- Roman melding. As regards inclination, we have seen that several Gothic elites stood against too rapid a cultural shift to Romanness, or were opposed to it altogether, and continued to view Italy as just another region in which to camp out, requisition supplies, and command subject populations from a distance. We must not forget that Theodoric was unique in the long amount of time he had spent in Constantinople, gaining a desire for thorough Romanization, as well as a comprehension of its meaning. In terms of timing, Theodoric was not even allowed the space of his own lifetime to preside over the process he is said to have wanted. By the 510s, pressures from the Frankish north and growing Byzantine disquietude made the whole program precarious. Simply put, by the mid 530s, the process of Gothic-Roman commingling had not been allowed to proceed far enough to gather its own momentum.

In such circumstances, one would expect a rapid, sustainable Eastern Roman victory under Justinian's powerful armies and generals. So, why was the Roman return so short-lived? Some of it relates to Justinian's forces and command structure. Though overwhelming at first, Roman armies suffered severe limitations, in manpower in particular. Justinian's wife Theodora was distrustful of anyone potentially a threat to her husband's--and her own-- status. Thus, the daring general Belisarius was only allowed 7,500 men to take Italy, as opposed to the 15,000 he had had in North Africa. In this condition, sustained siege warfare and combat-related attrition had a debilitating effect on Roman advances. Further, mutual dislike among Roman generals, such as Belisarius and Narses, as well as a later tendency of field commanders not to obey the former after he had been temporarily disgraced in the 540s by Theodora, made adequate command structures difficult.

Additionally, the significance of the Sassanian irruption in the 540s was paramount. The Eastern Roman state simply did not have the resources or trusted tacticians at this point to handle simultaneous hard-pressing military challenges on two widely-spaced fronts. This is especially the case when we consider that the new Persian wars were not simply massive raiding expeditions as before. Pushed westwards by Turkic tribes nearly off the Iranian plateau, Sassanians were now geared to permanent conquest of Roman lands. Preventing this would require all available Roman resources. Belisarius was simply unavailable in the West, as Persian fighting demanded all of his attention. On perhaps an even higher level of significance was the epidemic that struck all urban centers in the larger Mediterranean basin from 542 onwards. With perhaps a 33% mortality rate affecting cities and settled peasants the most, it devastated the demographic basis of the Roman state, sapping its material resources. All this was at the same time as Bulgar invasions into Byzantium's north.

This is not to discount the Italians and Greeks themselves. Justinian's ambitions for reconquest were by no means shared by his soldiers, subjects, or Italians supposedly awaiting his salvation. While perhaps popular during the first quick thrusts, campaigns in Italy became increasingly difficult. This meant ever-mounting taxes for Byzantines as well as Italians in areas subject to Imperial control. Furthermore, much of the Western Roman aristocracy had become committed to the Gothic cause in the preceding fifty years, continuing to help them on pain of death for suspected treason. Boethius is a perfect example, as he was executed in 527 by Goths suspecting traitorous communication with Constantinople. As one of the last classical philosophers in the West, his execution has given the Goths a particularly bad name. Of course, Cassiodorus continued to work for his Gothic masters, retiring later to a monastery he founded. More basically, however, by the 520s, Italy was beginning to enjoy its first full generation of relative peace. The Roman revanche from the East wrecked this peace. Major urban areas only beginning to recover, such as Rome, were sacked multiple times, as were Milan and Ravenna. Increasingly, Byzantine forces were as materially exacting from their Roman brothers as had been the Visigoths or Vandals before them. Thus, by the 550s, there were few in Italy feeling better off for Byzantine presence. The Pope, of course, was less than elated. Though often looking to Eastern Rome as patron and protector, previous years of doctrinal schism had weakened the goodwill. Further, Imperial commanders in Ravenna who were unavailable to protect the Papacy, yet financially demanding and politically restrictive, offered little to the Church it could not hope to gain from an arrangement with Lombard kings. This in fact is what Gregory I did in the 590s.

This brings us to our final question regarding the Lombard impact. Looked at in retrospect, while the 540s may have presented a return to Roman unity in the Mediterranean basin, the non-stop ravages of the Roman-Gothic wars from 535-52, followed just fifteen years later by the Lombard invasion, signaled the transition from the Late Antique to the Dark Ages for Italy, as well as Byzantium. The destruction of Justinian's wars was unparalleled in previous times. Compared to this, however, the Lombard invasion was catastrophic. They were the most unreconstructed Barbarians to date, with absolutely no taste for preserving Roman society. Lombards came in extremely large numbers, tipping the demographic balance in Barbarian favor unlike before with Visigoths or Ostrogoths. And, while they did settle parts of the peninsula intensely, they spent the first generation--570-600 at least--in unremitted plunder. This had irreversible consequences in ecological terms for Italy and southern Gaul. Regarding the latter, inland cities reverted to towns because they were cut off both from denuded countryside as well as from the Mediterranean coast, its trade, and culture. In Italy, remaining landowners fled in large numbers for coastal areas, depriving cities of wealth and vitality. The old Roman administrative structure and personnel were eliminated permanently, with only Byzantine outposts, Lombard duchies, and Papal possessions remaining. The countryside was abandoned by defenseless peasants, who fled to the mountain villages. It is from this time that the ancient terrace system of agriculture was perforce abandoned, both in Italy and Balkan areas afflicted by Slavs and Bulgars. In the ensuing generations, terraces left untended due to Lombard ravaging or plague-related mortality could not stop rains from causing continued erosion. Alluvial deposits called youngerfill swept down from mountains and corrupted previously fertile soil. From the 580s-620s, then, we can locate the onset of the Dark Ages throughout the Mediterranean.

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