Sunday, 13 November 2011

The End of Ancient Rome: Part 3; Failed Restoration

Odoacer, the German mercenary who deposed the last Roman Emperor in the west, ruled Italy till 493, when Theodoric the Ostrogoth invaded with the encouragement of Constantinople, and defeated and killed him. Theodoric then reigned as King until his death in 526; nominally subject to the Emperor of the east, who recognised him with the title of “Patrician”.

Over this period of half a century, Italy was quite peaceful and well-ruled. Theodoric was an Arian Christian, but tolerated the Catholics. Ravenna remained the capital, and new churches were built there. The shadow of Roman civilization remained, declining only very slowly. In Italy, as in France and Spain, the Goths were always outnumbered by the earlier inhabitants, and did not mingle with them much. The new barbarian kings had to use Roman officials and Roman bureaucratic methods officials to keep their kingdoms going, so coins were issued with Latin inscriptions, and ranks like Senator, Consul etc still existed. In France, important legal documents were still written on imported Egyptian papyrus till the end of 7th century: the proper way of doing things! This slow decline can be seen by the way Latin was gradually transformed into dialects of Italian, French, Spanish and others. Only in Britain was there the onset of a “dark age”, when Latin, literacy and Christianity vanished. In Rome, Theodoric repaired public buildings and restored aqueducts: even chariot-racing revived. Villa life continued, as did the drift from the towns to countryside. The era even produced a major intellectual figure, Boethius, an important government official under Theodoric, who eventually fell from power and wrote “ The Consolations of Philosophy” while awaiting his gruesome execution in 523. This work became one of the best-known books of the later middle ages and the Renaissance, despite containing no mention of Christianity at all. All in all, this period might be considered something of a golden age for Italy; and was certainly much better than what followed!

In the East, Constantinople continued to flourish, though now the language was Greek, and henceforth the Empire is known as “Byzantine” to historians, though the people called themselves “Romans” till very end. The greatest Emperor of the period was Justinian, 527-565: by birth a peasant from present-day Croatia. His childless uncle Justin had risen to be Emperor through the army, and Justinian succeeded him, along with his strong-minded wife Theodora, formerly a dancer in the circus, and, according to the scandalmongers, a child-prostitute.

Justinian built the great cathedral of Santa Sophia and codified the laws of the Empire, but his great ambition was to recover the lost lands of the wesr and save them from the Arian heretics. Accordingly in 535 he sent his general Belisarius with an armada against the Vandals in north Africa; defeating them in a single campaign and reuniting Carthage with the Empire. Next, Belisarius invaded Italy, where his campaign was helped by a disputed succession and internal conflicts after the death of Theodoric. He took Rome, but was then besieged there for a year. The city suffered great destruction as the Goths cut the aqueducts and Belisarius demolished ancient buildings to get stone to repair the walls: even statues were broken up for catapult missiles! Rome held out, and Belisarius took Ravenna too, where new churches were then consecrated, with mosaics of Justinian that are today amongst the chief glories of the town (see above). But then the new Gothic king Totila struck back; Rome changed hands three times, and destruction was compounded by outbreak of plague in 543. Meanwhile in 539 the Burgundians took Milan, destroyed the city and slaughtered the entire population. Justinian came to be suspicious of Belisarius; his natural distrust no doubt boosted by reports that the Goths were so impressed by Belisarius’s qualities that they suggested he should join them and they would make him Emperor! Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople in disgrace, though the story that he was blinded and forced to beg on the streets is probably a mediaeval invention.
Justinian made an amazing choice as successor to Belisarius: an aged eunuch called Narses, who had never commanded an army in his life. Narses marched into Italy in 552, met Totila in battle and utterly defeated him: Totila was killed and the surviving Ostrogoths retreated over the Alps.

After 19 years of war, plague and destruction, Italy was now very weak. There was little resistance when in 568 a new people, the Lombards, migrated over the Alps; taking Pavia in 572 and making it their capital. The Lombards were much more barbaric than the Goths, and their kings never had much control over local chiefs. They never ruled all Italy: Venice remained loyal to Constantinople, and Rome was often menaced but never taken. But where could the Popes appeal for aid? Constantinople was no help: the city was itself besieged by the Persians in in the 620s and then by the Arabs in 717-718. Constantinople could even make things worse : in 709 the homicidal emperor Justinian II decided to pillage Ravenna, which was still part of his empire. He arrested all the leading citizens and executed them, except for the archbishop, who was merely blinded and exiled to distant monastery. Ravenna fell to the Lombards in 751; then only Sicily and a few bases on the mainland were still held by the Empire. Probably this was ultimate low point of Italy: the population was down to about 2 ½ million and Rome in ruins, with large areas inside the walls left uninhabited. Italy would not again be unified under a single government until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Who was the most responsible for this? Edward Gibbon blames Justinian, for his futile and destructive attempt to reconquer the old Empire:-
“The triple scourge of war, pestilence and famine afflicted the subjects of Justinian, and his reign is disgraced by a visible decrease of the human species which has never been repaired in some of the fairest countries of the globe”.
Modern historians would point to the great plague epidemic of 543, which caused the deaths of countless thousands in Constantinople and throughout the Empire. Another possibly linked fact is evidence of a gigantic volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 535, causing sulphuric acid peaks in the Arctic and Antarctic ice, and probably causing massive short-lived climate change, with consequent crop failures and starvation. Was this instrumental in bringing about the final collapse of the old Roman world?

But at the same time there were glimmerings of hope for the future. Saint Benedict was born in the Umbrian region of central Italy around 480. It is said that met Totila, but more importantly amidst the savage fighting of the 540s he founded the monastery of Monte Cassino and drew up the Rule that formed the basis for European monasticism, with its triple emphasis on prayer, work and study. It was to be through the monasteries that the learning and literature of the ancient world would be preserved.

("The Secret History" by Procopius gives a splendidly scandalous account of Justinian and his court)

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