Belisarius under the walls of Rome by AMELIANVS on DeviantArt.


Part of Justinian’s wars of Reconquest.


Italy about 575, Byzantine possessions in orange.

The great Italian historiographer Arnaldo Momigliano recounted that, when he wanted to understand Italian history, he caught a train and went to Ravenna. ‘There, between the tomb of Theodoric and that of Dante, in the reassuring neighbourhood of the best manuscript of Aristophanes and in the less reassuring one of the best portrait of the Empress Theodora’, he could begin to feel what Italian history had ‘really been’.

The presence of a foreign rule, the memory of an imperial pagan past, and the overwhelming force of the Catholic tradition have been three determining features of Italian history for many centuries. These three features first joined together when Ravenna became the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom.

It is an idiosyncratic passage but also an illuminating one so long as we remember that he was not really writing about ‘Italian history’ but about the history of what happened in the Italian peninsula. The Goths, Lombards and Franks of the old ‘Dark Ages’ were fighting not about Italy but for territory they wanted to conquer and settle. As for the Byzantines, foes of the first two barbarian invaders, they fought because they, the Roman imperialists of the east, were ambitious to recover for themselves the western imperial heritage.

Historians have an everlasting desire to overturn the verdicts of their predecessors, and it has become customary to claim that the ‘barbarian invasions’ of the late Roman Empire were neither barbarian nor invasions but migrations of not very aggressive Germanic peoples. Similarly, the Dark Ages are no longer seen as especially dark: if they were a sort of twilight in some areas, in others, such as the Ravenna of the mosaics, they were positively bright. In the endless debates between change and continuity – as if all history, even for the briefest period, is not a combination of the two – continuity in this instance is triumphant, except in Italy, where historians have a long memory of intruders and can recognize an invasion when they see one. Yet although the cities may have survived in a diminished state, along with certain aspects of Roman administration, civilization was altered throughout the western empire, and people became poorer. Archaeological evidence indicates that in Britain after the withdrawal of the legions economic life reverted not to the preceding Iron Age but to the Bronze Age before that: at the beginning of the fifth century the craft of pottery became extinct, and the technique of making it on a wheel was not retrieved for three centuries.

As rulers, the barbarians – if such they were – started well. Little is known of the origins of Odoacer, who in 476 overthrew the last emperor of the west (a child called Romulus Augustulus), except that his father was a notable at the court of Attila, King of the Huns. Odoacer made himself king, governed largely in accordance with Roman practice, and resided in the emperor’s palace in Ravenna, which had been the imperial capital since the beginning of the century. Unfortunately he provoked the anger of the Byzantine emperor, Zeno, who persuaded Theodoric, chief of the Ostrogoths, to abandon his raids on the Balkans and instead invade Italy, where he would be permitted to make himself king as a vassal of Constantinople. Theodoric obliged with an invasion in 489, a long siege of Ravenna and the murder of Odoacer, his wife, his son and many of his followers.

The reign of the new king began with a bloodbath and ended soon after the execution of the philosopher Boethius, who wrote his celebrated De consolatione philosophiae while waiting in prison for his death. Yet for three decades in between Theodoric ruled wisely and peacefully. He insisted on religious tolerance, refusing to favour either side in the controversy over Arianism, the heresy which denied the full divinity of Christ, and he managed to dissuade his victorious Goths from bullying the Roman population. His was the last kingdom to extend over the whole of Italy for over 1,300 years, yet it was even more transient than other regimes of the age, disappearing shortly after his death and leaving little visible trace apart from his imposingly primitive mausoleum at Ravenna.

Theodoric had theoretically ruled Italy in the name of the Byzantine emperor on the Bosphorus, and it was one of Zeno’s successors, Justinian, who intervened again in Italy when Theodoric’s daughter was deposed and strangled by a cousin. The pretext was usurpation and murder, but the motive was the ambition of an emperor of the east to recover the empire of the west. Justinian ordered his general Belisarius to follow up his victories over the Sassanids in Persia and the Vandals in north Africa with an invasion of Sicily and the peninsula. The imperial army reached Ravenna in 540, thus making possible the creation of the great mosaic portrait which unsettled Momigliano: that of Justinian’s tough and capable wife, the Empress Theodora, robed in imperial purple in the octagonal church of San Vitale, a long distance from her past as an actress, a dancer and a single mother.

Sporadically suspicious of his general, Justinian recalled Belisarius a few years later and left the rest of the ‘reconquest’ to be completed by Narses and his other commanders. After a war that lasted nearly twenty years, an emperor once again controlled Italy, this time through the exarchate (or viceroyalty) of Ravenna. Although the Byzantines were in fact Greeks and were phasing out Latin, they called themselves rhomaioi (Greek for Roman) and continued to do so for centuries to come; no one called anyone or anything Byzantine (derived from Buzas, Constantinople’s first name) until the sixteenth century, after their empire had collapsed. They regarded themselves as the heirs of classical and Christian Rome and believed that they had reversed the process of decline. Yet the war had been costly for the empire and ruinous for Italy, destroying the prosperity preserved by Odoacer and Theodoric. The genius of Belisarius may have given the illusion of a genuine imperial revival, but the Byzantines were not rich enough, strong enough or popular enough to keep the whole of Italy.

In 568 Alboino, King of the Lombards, brought his Germanic people from the Danube Valley over the Julian Alps and into north-east Italy. Their advance was almost unopposed, and by the end of the following year they had captured all the cities north of the Po apart from Pavia, which they took in 572 and later made their capital. From there bands of Lombards ventured further south, eventually establishing independent duchies at Spoleto and at Benevento. Between the Lombard kingdom in the north and a reduced Roman-Byzantine exarchate in Ravenna, an uneasy coexistence survived for nearly 200 years, long enough for the heartlands of both to become permanently known as Lombardy and Romagna. Yet the Lombard king seldom exercised the far-flung authority of Theodoric. He was king of his own people (rex gentis langobardorum) not King of Italy, and wide areas of the south remained outside his control. Even in the Lombard areas he was frequently opposed by the dukes, not only of Spoleto and Benevento but also several others who governed the duchies or city-territories of the kingdom. So influential were these magnates that towards the end of the sixth century the Lombards experimented for a disastrous, anarchic decade with rule by dukes only.

Byzantine power began to crumble in the north and centre of the peninsula early in the eighth century. In 727 Ravenna rebelled against the Byzantine prohibition of icons and killed the exarch; a generation later, it fell to the Lombards, thus ending its three and a half centuries of glory as the capital of the Roman Empire, of the Ostrogothic kingdom and of Byzantine Italy. Yet in the south the Byzantine Empire held on for longer than the Lombards in the north and even managed to expand its territory: at the beginning of the eleventh century its dominions in Italy included Apulia, Lucania and Calabria, all of them under the ecclesiastical control of Constantinople rather than Rome. Byzantium had possessed Sicily too, and Syracuse, one of the greatest cities of the Mediterranean, had briefly been its capital in the seventh century; but Arab invaders from north Africa had subsequently conquered the island, and Taormina, the last toehold, had capitulated in 902. Muslim armies also succeeded in seizing several cities in Apulia and in establishing an emirate based in Bari in 841. They were eventually driven out by Christian forces, and Bari became the imperial headquarters in Italy for a further two centuries. But in 1071 the Byzantines suffered two defeats at the extremities of their empire, in the east by the Seljuk Turks and in the west by Norman knights, who captured Bari and went on to build themselves a sturdy kingdom in southern Italy.

Thus a great empire left the western stage, though the duchy of Venice remained within its orbit. Centuries later, Byzantium was condemned by Gibbon, Montesquieu and other writers of the Enlightenment as corrupt, deceitful, ineffective and tortuously bureaucratic; even the adjective Byzantine was used pejoratively, though the noun itself was later rehabilitated in the poetry of W. B. Yeats along with the sages and spirits of Constantinople. Yet it seems unfair to apply such insulting attributes to an empire that lasted a thousand years longer than its western partner and which was forced to expend much of its stamina resisting invasions of, among others, Persians, Huns, Bulgars, Goths, Lombards, Arabs, Normans, Venetians, crusaders, and both the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. By resisting the Arab armies in the seventh and eighth centuries, Byzantium had preserved not only itself but also Christendom and the future of Christian Europe.

Lombard kings were still expanding their territories in the middle of the eighth century, yet within a generation they had lost everything, including their crown. Pushing southwards down the peninsula, they alarmed the papacy which, since the exclusion of the Byzantines from central Italy, now controlled Rome and its hinterland. Pope Stephen II thus travelled to France, where he crowned the Frankish ruler, Pepin the Short, and in return received military help against the Lombards. He thereby inaugurated one tradition – of papal appeals for foreign help – which lasted till the nineteenth century, and another – of French invasions of Italy – which enjoyed an equally long history. Pepin twice brought an army into Italy to defeat the pope’s foes, but it was left to his son Charles, later known as Charlemagne, to descend upon Italy in 773, capture Pavia and sweep away the Lombard kingdom.

The following year Charles journeyed to Rome, where he received the title King of the Lombards to add to that of King of the Franks, and on a subsequent visit to the city he had his son, another Pepin, crowned King of Italy. He changed the name of the kingdom from regnum langobardorum to regnum italiae and he kept its administration separate from the rest of his empire. Yet he was less interested in Italy itself than in its role in his plan of renovatio imperii or ‘the empire renewed’. The goal of his long, obsessive career as a warrior, which included eighteen battles just against the Saxons, was the recovery of the western Roman Empire, of which he considered himself the heir; and he did indeed conquer much of it, with the exceptions of Britain, most of Iberia and the Byzantine parts of south Italy. On Christmas Day 800 he returned to Rome to be crowned Emperor of the Romans, a title which greatly annoyed the other emperor in Constantinople.

The alliance between the Franks and the papacy stimulated two potent ideas that crystallized into two extremely powerful institutions: the idea of a universal power, whose embodiment, the Holy Roman Empire, was only extinguished by Napoleon 1,000 years later, and the idea of territorial dominion of the popes, a reality that survived for even longer. Although the relationship may have been conceived in need and amity, it developed into a contest with fluctuating fortunes for both sides that ended only when the Emperor Charles V emerged victorious more than seven centuries later. This lengthy struggle was one of the determining factors in the saga of Italian disunity.

The papacy owed its rise to a number of audacious claims: that St Peter was Bishop of Rome (for which there is little evidence), that Jesus had given him primacy over his other apostles (which is debatable – the apostles seem to have been unaware of it), and that Peter’s successors – if they were his successors – had received divine authority for their claims to universal jurisdiction over the Church and to superiority over the monarchs of western Christendom. Fortune favoured pretensions to papal supremacy, especially after three rival patriarchates (Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria) came under Muslim rule in the seventh century, and a fourth (Constantinople) went into schism with the Roman Church in 1054. Yet while the pope’s claims to be the ‘Vicar of Christ’ might conceivably be supported by a zealous interpretation of the New Testament, no one pretended that Jesus had said anything about Peter and his successors becoming rulers of earthly states. A fresh act of audacity was thus required to justify the papacy’s temporal power.

In 754 the Frankish King Pepin had agreed to conquer and to give Pope Stephen territories in central Italy that had belonged to the exarchate of Ravenna. Known as the Donation of Pepin, the promise was confirmed and magnified (though largely unfulfilled) twenty years later by his son Charlemagne. Yet, as the Frankish kings had no rights in Italy at this time, it could be argued that their donations of former Byzantine land were invalid. An older and higher authority was needed, and thus the Donation of Constantine came into being, a document in which the formidable fourth-century Roman emperor, grateful for his recovery from leprosy, was supposed to have granted his papal contemporary temporal dominion as well as spiritual primacy over the Roman Empire of the west. Not until the Renaissance was this proved to be one of history’s most spectacular forgeries. By that time the document (the work of a papal cleric in the eighth century) had served its purpose of justifying the formation of the Papal States, a thick band of territory stretching from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian that kept the Italian peninsula divided until the second half of the nineteenth century. The popes expanded their territories from Rome and its environs – the so-called ‘Patrimony of St Peter’ – to include the duchies of Perugia, Spoleto and Benevento, the March of Ancona and finally the Romagna and parts of Emilia. In the process Christ’s differentiation between the realms of God and Caesar was forgotten; so was the sixth-century pope, Gregory the Great, who liked to be called ‘the servant of the servants of God’. No one would have considered a Renaissance pope the servant of anyone, even God.

The strident struggles between the popes and the Holy Roman Empire date from the eleventh century. Before then both papacy and government descended into ages so dark that not even revisionists have been able to illuminate them. The empire of Charlemagne was divided between his grandsons and then his great-grandsons, and the dynasty’s generally absentee rule in Italy petered out in the reigns of Charles the Bald (875–7) and Charles the Fat (880–7). The century closed with invasions by the Magyars from Hungary, who ravaged the north, and stability did not improve over the following sixty years. In the long history of Italian disunity these decades are in a league of their own, a period dominated by magnates claiming to be king – and sometimes emperor – fighting other equally implausible claimants. One index of anarchy and upheaval is the list of claimants who succeeded in becoming kings of Italy between 888 and 962: one Marquess of Friuli, two Dukes of Spoleto, one Duke of Carinthia, one King of Provence, one Duke of Burgundy, two Kings of Arles, two Marquesses of Ivrea and one King of Germany.

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