Introduction: the “Dark Ages”
The disintegration of the Roman Empire in the West left in its wake a patchwork of Germanic kingdoms founded on its ruins. The Germanic general, Odovacer, ruled Italy. The Visigoths held Spain and southern Gaul. North Africa was the realm of the Vandals. Britain was divided between the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, known to us simply as the Anglo Saxons. And the rest of Gaul was starting to fall under the sway of what would eventually become the most successful of these tribes, the Franks. In addition, there were various minor tribes scattered throughout the West trying to carry on an independent existence: Burgundians, Lombards, Heruls, Gepids, Alans, Sueves, and so on.
Traditionally historians have described the centuries following Rome’s fall as a barbaric and chaotic period known as the Dark Ages. However, recent historical research shows a much more gradual transition to the Middle Ages, especially in the Western Mediterranean where Roman influence was more deeply rooted and contact continued with the Eastern Roman (AKA Byzantine) Empire.
To a large extent the fall of the Western Empire saw the interests of the Germanic rulers in the West and Byzantine emperors in Constantinople largely converging. This was largely because of the attitudes that the Germanic tribes and emperors in the Eastern Roman Empire had toward the situation and each other.
From many of the barbarians’ point of view, rather than coming to destroy the empire, they had been looking for new lands within the empire and Roman titles to go along with those lands. For example, the Visigoths originally entered the empire as allies of Rome. Throughout their wanderings, they continued to see themselves as such allies, and occasionally acted accordingly. They settled in Gaul and Spain as part of a deal with Rome where they would clear other tribes out of those provinces for the empire. They also fought at Rome’s side against a much more deadly common enemy, the Huns. When dividing their new lands between themselves and their Romans subjects, the invaders even tried to follow an old Roman custom known as hospitalitas, where the conquerors would take one-third of any conquered lands and leave the other two-thirds for the natives.
Therefore, the Germanic kings wanted Roman titles for two basic reasons. First of all, they had sincere respect for the accomplishments of Rome with its vast empire, network of roads and incredible system of aqueducts. Even if they had contempt for the unwarlike inhabitants, they still stood in awe of the Roman achievement and wanted to carry it on, although ultimately they failed. Secondly, holding Roman titles made the Germanic rulers look more like legitimate rulers to the Roman natives under them. This was especially important since most of these tribes were Arian Christians facing the hostility of their Roman Catholic subjects.
On the other hand, the emperors in Constantinople still felt the lands in the West were rightfully theirs and wanted to keep their legal claim to those lands alive until they were strong enough to take them back. Therefore, they granted Roman titles to the Germanic rulers in the West to maintain the legal fiction that the Empire was still alive in the West and owed allegiance to the one emperor in Constantinople. This way, they could bide their time until the Eastern Empire was strong enough to reclaim the West in reality as well. Until that time came they would have to follow other strategies.
One such strategy was to play different tribes off against one another. This was especially tempting in the case of the Ostrogoths (cousins of the Visigoths) who were troubling the Eastern Empire. The Byzantines decided to kill two birds with one stone by diverting the Ostrogoths into Italy, giving them the legal right to settle there. This way, they would be rid of the Ostrogoths while weakening them and Odovacer in the fight for Italy, hopefully, opening the way for eventual reconquest by the Byzantines. Therefore, in 487, the Ostrogothic king, Theoderic, led his people into Italy, which they soon conquered.
Theoderic’s rule in Italy is a perfect example of how well some of the Germanic tribes had absorbed Roman culture during the last 200 years. While the army consisted solely of Ostrogothic warriors, Theoderic was smart enough to keep the Roman civil servants in charge of day-to-day government operations. Although the Ostrogoths were Arian Christians, Theoderic showed tolerance for his Roman Catholic subjects who formed the majority of the population. He also had swamps drained, harbors dredged, and aqueducts repaired. As a result of this enlightened rule, Italy, which had been a parasite on the rest of the empire for centuries, was self-sufficient for the first time in 500 years. However, trouble was looming on the horizon.
Justinian and the reconquest of Italy
In 527, Justinian I became emperor in Constantinople. He has been called the last of the Roman emperors, since he spoke Latin and was clean-shaven. After him, the emperors spoke Greek, wore beards, and are generally called Byzantines rather than Romans. Justinian also saw things from a Roman point of view and worked to restore the old boundaries of the empire. Therefore, he turned the Eastern Roman Empire’s resources toward reconquering the West.
His first campaign against the Vandals in North Africa was a quick and resounding success. Easy living had sapped the Vandals’ vitality, and the Catholic population hated these Arian Christian rulers. From North Africa, the Byzantine forces moved north against the Ostrogoths. Sicily and Southern Italy fell almost without a fight, and it seemed Justinian’s dream of a reunited Roman Empire might come true. Then trouble hit as the Ostrogoths regrouped and counterattacked. What ensued were twenty years of warfare raging up and down Italy. Rome was besieged three times and, for a while, became a virtual ghost town.
In the end, Justinian conquered Italy, but it was a costly victory for both the Eastern Empire and Italy. The cost of his wars in the West, tribute to keep the Persians to the east quiet, and a devastating epidemic (probably Bubonic Plague) left the Eastern Empire exhausted. This opened it up to 200 years of invasions from all directions, which nearly destroyed it.
As far as Italy was concerned, three years after Justinian’s death in 565, the Lombards invaded from the north and conquered about half of the peninsula. When Rome was threatened, pope Gregory I had to lead its defense since the Byzantines were unable to defend it any longer. Rome had passed from the city of the Caesars to the city of the Popes. Italy would remain fragmented into a number of warring states for 1300 years until its final reunification in 1871.
A gradual transition
As stated above, historians have revised their traditional view of a sudden collapse of civilization in Western Europe during the early Middle Ages, seeing instead a gradual transition to medieval civilization. This was especially true for the areas surrounding the Mediterranean that were reclaimed by the Byzantines or were ruled by tribes strongly influenced by extended contact with Rome before taking over. However, this period was a mixed bag, showing signs of continuity with the Roman Empire in some ways, but decline or change in others.
There were several areas of continuity and even revival. For one thing, both the Byzantines and Germanic rulers maintained Roman law codes for their Roman subjects. Justinian’s codification of Roman law reinforced this trend in areas of Byzantine rule (N. Africa, Italy, and S. Spain). The Church, which maintained its own courts, also used Roman law, spreading its influence among the Frankish, Lombard, Visigothic and Celtic realms.
The social structure of the old Roman lands largely continued as before. Although the old Roman nobility had been expelled by the Vandals and Lombards in North Africa and parts of Italy, they remained influential in Spain, Southern Gaul, and Central Italy, having fled to their country estates to avoid religious persecution and tax collectors in the cities. Over time, many of these nobles would intermarry with the ruling Germanic nobles, blending into a new ruling class that by 700 had even replaced their tripartite Roman names (e.g., Gaius Julius Caesar) with Germanic forms. By the same token, the late imperial trend continued where peasants sought protection from nobles protection in return for their freedom.
After the turmoil of the invasions subsided, agriculture revived somewhat as peasants abandoned marginally productive lands in favor of more fertile ones. This involved dispersal of the population from the safety of the estates to more rural areas where some peasants could maintain or reclaim their freedom from nobles. An abundance of coin hoards indicate trade also continued to thrive across the Mediterranean as Byzantine silks, Egyptian papyrus & natron (for making glass), and Chinese and Indian spices were traded in return for Western products such as grain, pitch, pottery, and slaves. Likewise, Germanic kings and a large number of local mints issued gold, but not silver or bronze, coins according to Byzantine standards. However, the huge purchasing power of gold made trade on a small scale difficult, leading to a gradual deterioration of the gold coinage to conform to real trade conditions. It remains a mystery why the Germanic rulers failed to issue silver and bronze coins.
However, there were areas of decline and change existing alongside those of continuity and revival. One unfortunate policy of continuity at first was the oppressive tax system of the late empire and the self-perpetuating bureaucracy needed to run it. However, as rulers tried to squeeze as much as they could from the economy, their subjects often revolted or fled the tax collectors, letting themselves become nobles’ serfs in return for protection from the government. As a result, tax revenues diminished, causing gradual break down of the old Roman administration.
Cities overall in the Western Mediterranean went into decline, ceasing to function either as centers of production and consumption or centralized administration (as Roman central government broke down). Wars seriously damaged some cities, such as Milan, Trier, and Arles. Rome especially suffered, with its population declining from an estimated 800,000 in the 300s to 25,000 after the turmoil of the Byzantine re-conquest. However, other cities, such as Pavia and Ravenna in Italy, Toulouse and Paris in France, and Toledo and Barcelona in Spain, revived as centers of local government, trade, or church administration. Such cities were always walled and, if the seat of royal government, mimicked Roman imperial cities with palaces, palace staff, and royal retinues. More often were centers of trade and local administration with a count (from the late imperial comes) and/or a bishop over-seeing local administration, justice, and commerce. Bishops were an especially new factor, since they ran their own courts, hospitals, and hostels for travelers. As agriculture (and church revenues from its lands) revived, bishops became the primary patrons of new buildings. Thus the landscape of early medieval cities saw Roman secular monuments give way to more religious buildings such as churches and bell towers.
The armies of these new states differed greatly from the professional Roman armies of old. For one thing, Germanic rulers usually used only their own people for military service, excluding the Roman population. Also, as government funds declined, soldiers were typically paid with land instead of money. In partial compensation, kings, nobles, and even bishops typically kept their own private armies of retainers, known then as bucellarii (Latin for “biscuit eaters”). Thus we see the beginnings of the more private feudal armies of a later age.