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A History of Europe


476 to 741

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

The Rise of Feudalism
What Really Happened in Medieval Warfare
Theodoric the Ostrogoth
Justinian's Campaigns
Avars, Lombards and Slavs on the Move
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Part II

The Byzantine Way
The Visigoth Kingdom
The Merovingian Dynasty
England: The Heptarchy
Commerce in the Dark Ages
The Church's Role in the Recovery of the West
Against Islam's First Wave: The Empire and the Eastern Church
Iconoclasm: Act I
Population in the Dark Ages

The Rise of Feudalism

To escape the ruthless tax collector, peasants in the latter days of the Roman Empire often put themselves in the service of the local landowners. In return for the title to the peasant’s land, the landlord guarded the peasant and did as much as possible to shield him from taxes. This seems like a hard bargain from the peasant's point of view, for he surrendered his property and became a tenant whom the landlord could evict at will. Taxation must have been really bad, for in the last century of the Western Roman Empire, nearly all peasants willingly gave up the rights they had; they were better off as serfs.

The landlord gained all around. When the peasants paid their rents, the landlord tried to take it in produce instead of coins, for the less money he earned, the less the tax collector took. It became necessary for him to live on his land, rather than in a town, and soon he was overseeing the everyday life of his estate and serfs as though no other authority existed.

On a positive note, slavery went out of style as Roman civilization broke down. Whereas most of the people in a typical Roman city were slaves, the landlords did not need slaves if they already had serfs working the land. There was no decree like the Emancipation Proclamation suddenly ending slavery; instead the practice just stopped in the areas the barbarians ruled directly, and disappeared over a period of several centuries in cities like Rome. It disappeared so gradually, in fact, that the laws concerning slavery were not removed from law codes. That allowed slavery to make a comeback at the end of the Middle Ages, when the Black Death (see Chapter 9) caused a shortage of workers, and Portuguese explorers solved this problem by enslaving the Africans they met on their voyages of discovery.

But while civilized men gave up their freedom, the barbarians, being warriors, still cherished it. The only person they owed allegiance to was the leader of their band, and they promised their loyalty to him with an oath at the beginning of a campaign. In an era that saw wars every year, they might submit to the same man for many years, so they tended to accept a successful war-leader as a permanent king. Previously, the office of king was only a temporary post, to lead the tribe through an emergency, and even after the man with the crown got to hold it for life, there was no rule that said it belonged to his family. The rules of succession evolved slowly, to prevent a bloodbath at every coronation. While that happened, the Germans settled on Roman land and their warriors became landowners. However, they still owed an obligation of military service in time of trouble to the chief of the old war-band, and the chiefs owed the same service to the king. The peasants passively accepted the arbitrary rule of the new landowner and paid him rent in the form of produce or labor in return for his protection. They probably found him cheaper to support than a Roman who measured his standard of living by how many luxuries he could bring home from the cities; he also did a much better job than the Roman landlords when it came to defending the land and its tenants from military invasions.

By the time the barbarians carved up the Western Roman Empire among themselves, many of them were Christians, so the Church stepped in to make the change in rulership less violent. This mainly meant teaching the warriors that they now had a duty to protect the peasants, instead of plundering them. Once this was accomplished, the Church developed the idea that there were three basic classes of society, each interdependent on the other two: the warriors had to defend everyone, the peasants had to feed everyone, and the clergy had to enlighten and bring salvation to everyone. This outlook would persist for nearly a thousand years; when a merchant class reappeared in western Europe, it was seen as part of the peasant class until the merchants could buy a better status for themselves.

As the new system started to work, it grew to encompass every place that had once been part of the Roman Empire, because in those anarchic times people who organized into large groups tended to prevail over those who didn’t. In the interest of preserving peace and order, all free men were advised to find a lord to submit to; after a while anyone who claimed to have no lord was likely to be slain on the spot as a common outlaw. Only in places that were totally uncivilized did the idea of equality remain.

The society formed by this fusion of Christianity and the old German system is called feudalism. Basically, it replaced law and money with obligation and tithe. But to those who lived back then it meant a lot more than that, for while the government was only one part of the Roman's life, feudalism, like religion to a fundamentalist, affected every aspect of the medieval man's existence. In a feudal society everyone holds his fief(1) as a tenant, and to keep it one has to give produce, labor, or military service--whichever is appropriate for his station--to his overlord. Yet as long as he paid what he owed, he could not be evicted from his fief and he could pass it to an heir, so in some ways the fief was his by hereditary right. Thus, we have a complete fusion of commerce and politics in the reciprocal relationship between lord and vassal.(2)

The landowners were soon subdivided and ranked according to who was lord and vassal to whom, so that the small landowners (usually called knights or barons) owed service to a big landowner, and only the biggest landowners (known as dukes) owed allegiance directly to the king. Also, the military obligation was purely defensive, so if a king wished to attack somebody, he had to attract followers with promises of plunder or titles of nobility. At home, quarrels between dukes were expected and often settled by force (the so-called "private wars"), though there was a tendency to request arbitration from the king, and later from the Church. A powerful personality at the top could make the whole system run smoothly, but a king's actual power depended on the size of the “royal domain”--the land owned directly by him and his own knights, not land owned by any of the dukes.

The best thing about feudalism is that it is cheap and does not require a large group of educated “public servants” to make it work. Unfortunately, the justice administered within the framework was not very good, so the peasant depended on the good nature of his lord, and had to hope that he would make an impartial decision, when nothing in the feudal code required him to do so. But the last years of the Roman Empire proved that a legal system can cost more than it is worth, and the feudal system brought considerable relief to poverty-stricken Europe. The Lombards put the rules of feudalism down in writing in the early seventh century, and others did the same after 800, because the system was working fairly well by then.(3) However, the emphasis on a hereditary chain of command made feudalism unsuitable for large empires, so the huge one created by Charlemagne couldn't last. What's more, if the king had two or more sons, he was expected to divide his inheritance between them. Finally, the king was likely to be inbred if his dynasty was successful enough to last more than a few generations. These were the closest things feudalism had to a system of checks and balances.

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What Really Happened in Medieval Warfare

The most famous institution of feudalism, knighthood, came about because of the crying need for a well-trained cavalry. We saw in the last chapter that the most dangerous barbarian tribes, like the Huns, had armies made up almost entirely of men on horseback, and they were hard to beat because they spent most of their lives in the saddle. Unfortunately, Rome could not afford to maintain a native cavalry that was good enough to stop barbarian cavalry. We have stories of nomadic archers who could shoot birds out of the air while riding; six months of training could not give that skill to a soldier who had previously been a peasant or city-dweller. The Eastern Roman Empire built a cavalry later on, but it was still inferior to that of the barbarians, so the emperors were always looking to hire barbarian horsemen. Among the Germanic tribes, only the Ostrogoths and Lombards used horses much at all. The Parthians had a corps of chainmail-wearing knights as early as the second century B.C.; they succeeded because they could remember their early days as nomads in Turkmenistan. When the Persians regained control of Iran in the third century A.D., they were aggressive enough to keep the Parthian knight tradition alive, with their Clibanarii. By contrast, the Chinese never could build a good cavalry, though they had more resources to draw on than any nation in the West, and their barbarian problem (mainly Huns, Turks, Mongols and Manchus) was more persistent. Finally, it wasn't practical for a peasant to raise horses, when he could feed his family on the same amount of land needed to feed one horse. Keep in mind that the typical nomad on a long journey would bring extra horses to use as remounts, so he wouldn't have to stop for long when the horse he was riding got tired; that means he needed a lot of pasture! For all these reasons, a farming community doesn't easily produce mounted soldiers.

It was feudalism that solved the problem of how to raise a cavalry force from a nation of peasants, by gathering everything that was needed in the hands of the nobility. Europe has a wetter climate than North Africa and the Middle East, causing the composite bows used by mounted archers to warp quickly, so it wasn't worth it to give bows to horsemen. Fortunately for them, much of Europe is forest, and that helped to cancel the archer's ability to attack from a distance. What the rulers of post-Roman Europe chose to do instead was create a heavy cavalry. By charging headlong with a lance, the knight could concentrate his weight and the weight of his horse to produce a shock wave powerful enough to break through any other military formation. The knight needed protection from the impact when he put his lance to work, so from the start it was customary to dress knights--and their horses--in the heaviest armor they could get. And it took a big horse to carry a fully armored knight, so the breeding and raising of horses became a more exact science. Western Europe's nobility worked for centuries to develop the culture of the war horse, using much of the continent's wealth to mount, equip and train themselves for the job. The new class of professional riders outlasted the role's usefulness (even today the queen of England bestows knighthood as a gift on those who serve the country well). Heraldic designs that identified a knight in full armor became the insignia of his family. The behavior considered appropriate for a knight became the code of chivalry when poets and writers got hold of it.

In the days of the Roman Empire, the Franks did not wear much armor, and their main weapon was a small axe called a francisca, which they threw like a tomahawk. After the Franks founded their kingdom, they got to wear a loose form of scale armor, and added swords, spears and shields to their armory, but they still fought on foot most of the time, massed together in a legion-style formation. As long as they only had a few of the newfangled knights, they had a hard time stopping mounted raiders. We now credit Charles Martel for creating enough knights in France to turn the situation around, in the eighth century. When Moslems raided southern France, Martel decreed that every landowner in the kingdom would have to contribute enough goods to support one knight, and if he could afford it, support more than one. As a result, he had the cavalry he needed at the battle of Tours, which we will cover later in this chapter. In the ninth and tenth centuries the nations around the Frankish kingdom trained knights of their own, allowing Christian Europe to begin a counteroffensive.

Not all farms were large enough or rich enough to provide horses (a horse cost as much as twenty cattle in those days), so Charles Martel ordered each estate which couldn't afford horses to contribute at least one foot soldier and his equipment. This provided him with an infantry to back up the knights. For the rest of the Middle Ages, knights got all the attention, but they usually made up only one tenth of the available force; most of the men in a medieval European army were the unappreciated infantry, serving jobs that varied from archers to siege engineers to pikemen.

We see the Dark Ages as a time of chaos because of the constant fighting, and while this is true, keep in mind that the wars were mostly little wars. Moreover, the typical soldier of imperial Rome was a full-time warrior who could stay in the field year-round. No medieval nation, no king, had as much land, money, or people as the Roman Empire did, so while they would have liked having a huge juggernaut of an army that could crash through everything, they couldn't afford it. Whereas the Roman army numbered 360,000 men in the fourth century, most medieval armies had less than 20,000 men. And only a fraction of the soldiers in a medieval army were professional (mainly the knights, king's guards and siege engine crews); the rest were a mob called up for the occasion, who could not clash for more than a few months before they had to go home and harvest their crops. The only nation that could come close to fielding an army like that of Rome was the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire; that goes a long way toward explaining why the biggest war of the Dark Ages was the one the Byzantines fought with the Persians, in the early seventh century. Ironically, the first total war of the modern era, the Thirty Years War, was so devastating because it was in the seventeenth century that the nations of western Europe began to field empire-sized armies again (see Chapter 11).

In the movies (which include fantasy films like The Lord of the Rings), medieval battles are usually portrayed as a free-for-all in a field, something like the second half of this silly video. But while these were the battles mistrels sang about, they were the exception to the rule. They only happened if both sides were confident they could win. Open combat was something to be avoided if at all possible, because it wasted lives; the commander who led a heroic charge against an enemy army was brave, but he was probably stupid, too. Scouts, spies, and advantageous features in the local terrain would be used, if the commander had them. And if a commander felt his army was weaker than the enemy army, he would put up enough defenses to turn a battle into a siege, especially after castles were invented (see Chapter 8). When this happened, the siege could go on for months, sometimes years, until the attacker broke through the defenses, the attacker gave up trying to take the stronghold in question, or the defender ran out of food. England's King Richard the Lionhearted, for example, is celebrated for leading armies constantly, but over the course of his career he fought three field battles; the rest of the time he was besieging castles. Meanwhile Richard's more competent French rival, Philip II, fought just one field battle. As one author put it, "battles were rare even though warfare was constant."

Finally, the lack of resources mentioned above meant that most medieval wars could not be a fight to the finish, dragged out over a decade or more, like the ancient wars between Athens and Sparta, or between Rome and Carthage. The preferred strategy was a series of small, seasonal campaigns that picked off one enemy village or stronghold at a time, because that was less likely to get half the men in the force hacked up. Even a raid to kill the peasants of an enemy lord, and steal their crops and livestock, could be a worthy pursuit, since most petty wars were fought over property rights, rather than over more abstract concepts like freedom or religion.

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Of all the barbarians who overran the Western Roman Empire, only one tribe produced a legacy that lasted beyond the Dark Ages. As their rivals disappeared it was the Franks who thrived and expanded. In the early sixth century the Frankish kingdom became the main power in western Europe, and stayed there for the next 400 years; from it came the modern nations of France and Germany.

Why did the Franks succeed when so many other Germanic peoples failed? The first reason was that their slice of the Roman Empire bordered on Germany. Unlike the other tribes, they had more Germans right behind them, who moved in to join the tribe before there was any danger of success spreading them too thin. They also were more cautious, only moving into a new part of Belgium or Gaul as they acquired enough people to settle it; the emperors were willing to forgive Frankish raids because they were a minor irritation compared to Gothic and Vandal attacks.

Clovis became king of the Franks in 481, when he was only fifteen years old. At first he was a fine example of a barbarian; brutal, ignorant, and without morals, he split skulls, stole treasure, and collected concubines with glee. From his Merovingian father(4) he inherited the lands between the Rhine and the Somme Rivers, with a rude capital at Tournai. Five years later he overthrew the last Roman general in the West, Syagrius, and annexed his land. This gave him all of Gaul (henceforth known as France) that the other tribes didn’t have already--everything north of the Loire and west of the Rhine. The kingdom of Brittany swore allegiance to Clovis in 497, but neither Clovis nor his successors did much to enforce this submission, so the Bretons were really an independent ally of the Franks. In 496 he defeated the Alamanni, and went on to conquer them in 505.


Most important to the common people of those days was the fact that under Clovis, the Franks became Catholics. All other barbarians were either pagans or Arian Christians, a never-ending source of friction between them and their Catholic subjects. The Catholic bishops of Gaul looked for a barbarian chief who would become their champion, and had a very skimpy selection of candidates to choose from. So when Clovis won battle after battle they decided that he was their man, despite his personal life.

Clovis listened to what the bishops had to say with interest, and may have seen the advantages of joining the same faith that the ordinary person practiced; at the very least, he saw the disunity Arianism fostered and stayed away from it. He became a better listener when he chose a Catholic princess, Clothilde of Burgundy, as his bride. Clovis was encouraged to convert by both the bishops and the queen, but he held out until he fought his first battle against the pagan Alemanni; this was such a close call that Clovis promised to accept baptism if God would give him the victory. He won, and the ceremony was performed at Rheims on Christmas Day of 496, to a garish display of Christian pomp and barbarian militarism, after which 3,000 warriors followed Clovis into the baptismal font.

There is no evidence that Clovis’ spiritual life or moral character improved much after his conversion, but the fact that it happened caused the Romans living under Gothic, Burgundian and Vandal rule to welcome him as a liberator. One Burgundian bishop, Avitus of Vienne, voiced his sympathies boldly in a letter to Clovis congratulating his baptism: “Your faith is our triumph. Every battle you fight is a victory for us.” The other Germanic peoples learned from the example and success of Clovis and gradually switched from Arianism to Catholicism; first the Burgundians (516), then the Suevi (561), then the Visigoths (589), and finally the Lombards in Italy (653). By this time the other followers of Arianism, the Vandals and the Ostrogoths, had been eliminated by the Eastern Roman Empire, so the seventh century saw the restoration of the Church’s unity.

The wisdom of the choice of Clovis was shown on the battlefield of Vouillé; here in 507 he defeated the Visigoths, killed their king, Alaric II, and almost ran them completely out of France. Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king, intervened in time to keep the land south of the Garonne (Gascony) as well as the western part of the Riviera (known as Septimania) in Visigoth hands. As for those Visigoths caught on the wrong side of the new border, Clovis allowed them to stay and keep their lands on condition that they be re-baptized as Catholics.

Clovis celebrated his triumph by moving his capital from Soissons to an island in the Seine River--a brilliant location that would remain the capital of France afterwards--Paris.(5) From far-away Constantinople, Emperor Athanasius was impressed enough to give Clovis the titles of consul and patrician, in effect making him the rightful heir of Syagrius. Because the Empire saw the Franks as boorish barbarians, this was defintely praise.

The Frankish kingdom
The growth of the Frankish kingdom, 481 to 814.

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Theodoric the Ostrogoth

Odoacer’s first years on the Italian throne were good ones. To the west, Euric had seized Provence before Odoacer could consolidate his rule there, so he avoided a war with the Visigoths by recognizing this annexation in a treaty. Gaiseric had conquered Sicily for the Vandal Kingdom a few years earlier, but a confrontation with Odoacer looked so profitless that he gave back all but the western tip of the island when pressed. In 480 Julius Nepos died, and Odoacer annexed his piece of the Western Roman Empire on the Adriatic. In 487 the Rugians migrated out of Bohemia, and he beat them so decisively that their kingdom disappeared (a branch of the Suevi called the Bavarians took their place.). But even to him the Roman Empire was an inescapable reality. To make his rule appear legitimate, he sent the regalia of the last Western Roman emperor to Zeno, the current emperor in the East, and swore loyalty to him as an officer of the ultimate monarch. Because Ravenna was too far away for Zeno to enforce his authority, Odoacer could pretty much do what he pleased, and Constantinople responded with a carefully hedged acceptance. But this didn't hide the fact that Odoacer was an illegal ruler and an Arian heretic, so he had to go.

Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king, came up with a solution. He didn't like Odoacer either; his father had killed Odoacer's father in an earlier battle, so the two sons were blood enemies. Going west to finish the feud also seemed like the best way to get out of the Empire; Theodoric had served Zeno for many years, but he knew that the citizens of the Empire would never accept him completely because he was a barbarian. Accordingly, he went to Zeno and offered to reconquer Italy for the East. Zeno gladly agreed; sending barbarians to eliminate other barbarians worked perfectly for him, especially if they had to fight to the last man. His predecessor Arcadius, remember, had used the same method to remove the Visigoths at the beginning of the century.

In 489 Theodoric led the Ostrogoths in an invasion of Italy. He conquered most of the country fairly quickly, but Odoacer's forces held out in Ravenna, meaning that three years of the four-year-war were spent in a siege of the Italian capital. In 493 Odoacer made a first-class mistake--he invited Theodoric into Ravenna under a truce, and together they agreed to rule Italy jointly. Theodoric threw a banquet to celebrate, and right after offering a toast, he slew Odoacer with his own sword, cleaving him from the collarbone to the thigh. The force of this blow, which nearly cut Odoacer in two, astonished even Theodoric, who exclaimed, “The wretch cannot have had a bone in his body!” Then Theodoric’s men slaughtered most of Odoacer’s warriors.

Despite this treacherous start, Theodoric ruled as an enlightened monarch for the next 33 years. To treat his subjects as fairly as possible, he governed with two law codes, one for the Romans, the other for barbarians. He continued to employ Romans as administrators under their old titles, repaired seaports and aqueducts, and built a palace with glittering mosaics at Ravenna.(6) He also made his reign look more legal than Odoacer's by making frequent shows of submission to Constantinople. In one tactful letter, for example, Theodoric told the emperor that “Our royalty is an imitation of yours, a copy of the only empire on earth.”

As we noted previously, Theodoric got involved in the war between the Visigoths and the Franks. First he defeated the Burgundians, who used the Frankish victory to annex the coastland between the Rhone River and the Italian border. This territory, now called Provence, became a part of the Ostrogoth kingdom instead. In 511 the throne of the demoralized Visigoths became available, and they offered it to Theodoric. This created a truly impressive Gothic empire; Goths now controlled the entire northwestern part of the Mediterranean basin, from Spain to Dalmatia. The prestige they gained was enough to make the Vandals give up the western tip of Sicily without an argument. However, Theodoric did nothing to merge the two governments into one; acting as a regent, he gave the West Gothic crown back when a legitimate heir to it, Amalaric, came of age in 522. After Theodoric's reign ended the Visigoths were completely on their own again. By contrast, the Franks had successfully integrated themselves into Gallo-Roman society, and though Clovis divided the realm between four sons, they were in complete agreement on foreign policy, so outsiders regarded the Frankish kingdom as a single state with four kings.

The Visigoth and Ostrogoth kdms.

The two Gothic kingdoms, in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Underneath all these accomplishments, the foundations of the Ostrogoth kingdom were no more firm than those of most other new German states. As with the Vandals and the Visigoths, Arian ruler and Catholic subject lived in separate communities, each distrusting each other. Also like the other kingdoms, the Ostrogoths weakened rapidly following the death of the kingdom's founder in 526. Amalasuntha, the daughter of Theodoric, became the real ruler, acting as regent for her young son. She sought support from the new emperor of the East, Justinian, and he accepted. But then the son died and an evil cousin, Theodahad, first married Amalasuntha to share power, then murdered her so he could rule alone. That would give Justinian the righteous excuse he needed when he invaded Italy in 535.

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The Eastern Roman Empire rested for nearly fifty years after the fall of the West. Its main achievement was that it stopped losing ground to the barbarians. Zeno, like so many other emperors of the fifth century, died without leaving an heir, so his crown went to a palace official known for his ability and integrity, Anastasius I (491-518). Anastasius made himself a legitimate ruler by marrying Zeno’s widow in the same year that he came to power. His reign was a troubled one, involving a revolt of the Isaurians (whom he had removed from power), a war with Persia (502-05), and raids from the Huns and Slavs. To protect the capital and its vicinity, Anastasius built a wall that still bears his name, about 35 miles west of Constantinople. He was unpopular because he favored the Monophysitic doctrine, but he suppressed lewd dancing and gladiatorial duels with wild beasts. Anastasius bequeathed to his successor a substantial treasury and a well-disciplined army.

The Empire was ready to re-enter the arena of international politics when a new dynasty took over in 518. The founder, Justin I, was a young Illyrian peasant who had walked into Constantinople with nothing but a bag of bread; he joined the army and made his fortune over the next fifty years, rising through the ranks. When the throne became vacant, Justin was commander of the palace guards, the only significant armed force in the city; he used that and some gifts of silver to make himself emperor. But by then he was nearly seventy years old, and only had experience in military matters; not even literate, he had to depend on a brilliant nephew, Flavius Petrus Sabbatius, to do the administrative work for him. In return, Sabbatius changed his name to Justinian to make sure everybody knew who his uncle was. Although he did not become the official heir until 526, one year before Justin's death, for most of Justin's nine-year-reign, Justinian appears to have been the real manager of the Empire.

An energetic leader, Justinian (527-565) took a direct interest in any detail of management, no matter how small. He ate little and fasted often, rose early and went to bed late; “the emperor never sleeps” was how one government worker described his activity. However, he still found time to meet with his subjects. Procopius, the unfriendly historian who is our main source of information from this time, admitted that Justinian was “the most accessible person in the world. For even men of low estate and altogether obscure had complete freedom not only to come before him but to converse with him.”

Justinian succeeded in handling a busy schedule because he was superb at attracting individuals more talented than he was, and delegating tasks to them. His inner circle included the best lawyers, bureaucrats, generals, and architects of the day. However, he also had great dreams for the future, and those dreams would cost money. Anastasius and Justin had been frugal spenders, but Justinian was going to need more than what they had saved in the treasury; he spent 3,700 pounds of gold just to celebrate his coronation. Fortunately, his circle of friends included an excellent tax collector, John the Cappadocian. John centralized the tax code, reorganized it so that the rich paid as much as the poor, and was absolutely incorruptible. Although this allowed him to squeeze the proverbial blood out of a turnip, the higher taxes made him enormously unpopular; what's more, he had no personal charm, was a glutton and a drunkard, and had a reputation for torturing those that he suspected were not paying their fair share.

One of Justinian's his first acts as emperor was to organize several judicial commissions to overhaul, rewrite, and make sense out of a thousand years of Roman laws, which often contradicted one another and were not even written down in one place. The lawyer he picked to lead the commissions, Tribonian, was a walking encyclopedia of legal knowledge. Removing the repetitions and contradictions, and changing the laws to make them more compatible with Christian morals, he produced the first part of the new law code, the Corpus Juris Civilis, in 529, just fourteen months after he got started. This condensation of older laws, also known as the Codex Justinianus, would become the model for the legal code of nearly every European nation afterwards. But for Tribonian this was just the beginning; next he summarized the written statements of Roman lawyers and jurists, to produce the Digesta, a work even larger than the Codex, and wrote a textbook for law students, the Institutiones. Later on a fourth work, the Novellae Constitutiones, covered the laws that were passed after 534, because the other books were completed by then. Altogether he managed to boil down more than two thousand treaties and three million verses into just fifty books, an awesome achievement however you look at it. Unfortunately, the price for all this was having Tribonian on your side, for while he had the social skills that John the Cappadocian lacked, almost anyone could bribe him to change the law in their favor, and even worse, he was an unashamed pagan. Consequently he soon became the second most hated man in the Empire, after John the Cappadocian.

Justinian, his general Belisarius (left), and another member of his court. From a church mosaic at Ravenna.

Perhaps the most important of Justinian’s associates was his wife, Theodora. Theodora is the most famous of the Eastern Roman empresses, because of the gossip passed on to us by Procopius. According to him she was an improbable consort, the daughter of a bear-keeper in the Hippodrome, a prostitute and actress so notorious that people who passed her on the street gave her as much room as possible, so they wouldn’t be associated with her. She attracted Justinian’s attention before he became emperor, and since the law did not allow him to marry a woman of such lowly status, he persuaded his uncle to change the law so that he could. By the time of the marriage, Theodora had changed her ways, and for the rest of her life she backed her husband, in both good times and bad.

Though ruthless and autocratic, Theodora also had her compassionate side. She sheltered a deposed patriarch in her own apartments for twelve years without anyone knowing it. In Constantinople she built hospitals for the poor, and converted an old palace on the banks of the Bosporus into a home for destitute women. When she died of cancer in 548, Justinian lost his most powerful base of support.

Empress Theodora.

Theodora’s best moment came in 532, when a riot in Constantinople's Hippodrome got out of hand. In Chapter 4, we noted that factions formed around the two most popular chariot-racing teams, the Blues and the Greens. Like today's British soccer fans, fans of the races were notoriously rowdy, and now they were seething, thanks to what John the Cappadocian and Tribonian had done. Justinian had several members of both gangs executed for the murders that had been committed in the riot, but when two of them were to be hanged, a Blue and a Green, the ropes broke, and they escaped to a church, where they were protected by an angry mob. An attempt by Justinian to calm tempers by calling a new race, where he personally addressed the fans, only resulted in all of them turning against him; he fled to the palace, and the crowds broke out of the Hippodrome, whereupon they began burning down much of Constantinople. Many citizens left the city to escape rioters who shouted “Nika!” (“Conquer!”), and Justinian considered doing the same. Theodora was the only one who stood firm, and said:

Theodora stands firm

“If flight were the only means of safety, yet I should disdain to fly. Death is the condition of our birth, but they who have reigned should never suffer the loss of dignity and dominion. I implore Heaven that I may never be seen, not a day, without my diadem and purple; that I may no longer behold the light when I cease to be saluted with the name of queen. If you resolve, O Caesar, to fly, you have treasures; behold the sea, you have ships; but tremble lest the desire of life should expose you to wretched exile and ignominious death. For my own part, I prefer the old saying that the imperial purple makes the best burial sheet!”

Justinian stayed and sent the city guards into the Hippodrome; they killed 30,000 rioters (about one tenth of the people in Constantinople) and quickly crushed the rebellion. It is also worth noting that Justinian was the only Eastern Roman emperor who survived a major riot; on other occasions when the population of the capital revolted, the emperor's reign was as good as over. The riots had also destroyed the Senate chamber, the public baths, churches, and part of the palace. For Justinian, this became a signal to begin one of his projects; he responded with the largest building program the Empire had seen since Constantine I.(7)

Like several previous emperors, both pagan and Christian, Justinian felt that spiritual unity was as important as political unity. To start with, in 529 he closed the Neo-platonist university in Athens, paganism’s last stronghold. Far more disruptive, though, was the Church’s internal enemy--heresy. Egypt and Syria were hotbeds of Monophysitism, a doctrine which taught that Christ’s godly nature was so dominant that His human side was unimportant. Since Theodora had Monophysite leanings, and these provinces were critical to the Empire's defense, Justinian tried to reach an agreement with the heretics. However, Monophysitism had been condemned by the Church Council of Chalcedon (451), so the pope refused to accept any compromise. The result was vacillation; sometimes Justinian made concessions to the Monophysites, sometimes he made concessions to the pope. Because the Egyptians and the Syrians were left unsatisfied by this policy, the next century would see them welcome invasions from the Empire's enemies: first the Persians, and later the Arabs.

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Justinian's Campaigns

Justinian's campaign cap
Did Donald Trump get any ideas from Justinian?

More ambitious than his predecessors, Justinian's biggest project was the recovery of the West. His cabinet thought it couldn't be done and voted unanimously against the plan; Justinian went ahead with it anyway. And he already had the man to carry out the project, a young officer named Belisarius. A member of Justin's bodyguard, Belisarius showed such promise that when Justinian became emperor, he put Belisarius in command of the army facing the Persians, though he was only twenty-two years old. The Persians had been raiding across the frontier since 524, and needed to be taught a lesson. By entrenching his infantry, and using his cavalry to break up enemy attacks with harassing attacks of his own, he fought the Persians to a standstill; in 531 they got a new king, Khosrau I, and he agreed to make peace. Most importantly, Belisarius' force had been outnumbered all the time, so the war showed that he could do a lot with a few good men. After the war, he returned to Constantinople, where he led a third of the troops that put down the Nika riots.

Justinian first sent Belisarius against the Vandals (533). He gave him 16,000 men, 1/3 of them cavalry; because the Vandals had defeated an army six times larger in 468, they wouldn't have been scared of this army--if they had known it was coming. After pausing at Sicily with the consent of the Ostrogoths, the expedition sailed to Africa and completely surprised the enemy. Half the Vandal army was dealing with a revolt in Sardinia; the half still at home was scattered by Belisarius outside of Carthage, and he took the Vandal capital. When the other half of the army came back from Sardinia he annihilated it, too. The Vandal king first hid in the Atlas Mts., and then surrendered a year later, and after Belisarius captured the Vandal treasury at Hippo Regius, St. Augustine's city, he returned to Constantinople.

In the days of the Roman Republic, it had been customary to give a lavish victory parade, a "triumph," to a conquering hero. Roman armies hadn't conquered much in the past four hundred years, so when Justinian decided to honor Belisarius with a triumph, it was the first that the Romans had seen in centuries. Belisarius led the procession, riding in a chariot, followed by the Vandal king and other important prisoners, and the treasures he brought back were prominently displayed. Among those treasures was a seven-branched candlestick, reportedly the menorah from Herod's Temple in Jerusalem. It had been a war trophy for the Roman emperor Titus in 70 A.D., and for the Vandal king Gaiseric in 455; now it became Justinian's prize.(8) However, this would also be the last triumph in Roman history.

In 535 Justinian sent Belisarius west again, this time to fight the Ostrogoths. Though the Ostrogoths were not in much better shape than the Vandals, Justinian was now overextended; he could only give Belisarius 9,000 soldiers for this expedition, so at first he only asked the general to capture Sicily. Belisarius got off to a flying start; the only fighting he had to do on Sicily was at Palermo, so both he and Justinian agreed to go for more. A mutiny in the North African garrison required his attention first, though, and by the time Belisarius took care of that, the campaigning season was over for 535, to he had to wait until the spring of 536 to move to the Italian mainland. When he arrived, he had his way again, meeting no effective opposition until he reached Naples. The siege of Naples took only three weeks, and one month later (December 536), cheering crowds welcomed Belisarius into Rome.(9)

The citizens would not have cheered so much if they had known what Belisarius was planning. The king of the Ostrogoths, who had previously been absent from the war, was finally coming, so Belisarius decided to sit tight, leaving the next move to his opponent. However, this wasn't Theodahad, who had been king when the war started. Theodahad had concentrated all his efforts on defending Dalmatia from a Roman army in the Balkans, to the point that he did nothing to help Naples. His refusal to meet the main enemy in battle was unacceptable behavior for a German king; the Ostogoths deposed him and crowned Witigis, a son-in-law of the late Amalasuntha. Witigis didn't have time to defend Rome, because Belisarius moved too quickly, but after Rome fell, he showed up with a huge Gothic army. By then the Romans had repaired the city wall, forcing the Goths to try a siege.(10)

The siege lasted for fourteen months. Witigis cut off Rome's water supply, which still came in through the aqueducts, but that caused a malaria outbreak in his own camp. Then Belisarius remembered how he had used empty aqueducts to sneak his troops into Naples, so he blocked the Roman conduits with masonry before the Ostrogoths could try the same trick. To protect his infantry, Belisarius used the northern semicircle of the city wall the same way he had used his trenches against the Persians. Whenever a Gothic unit got separated from the rest of the enemy, he sent out the cavalry to carve it up. As the siege dragged on, the Ostrogoths suffered more than the Romans, because they were exposed to the elements, and had to travel farther and farther to forage for food. In addition, Rome was too big for the attacking army to encircle, so the reinforcements sent by Constantinople were able to get through. By early 538, the Ostrogoths had been worn down to the point that they did not want to fight anymore. When two thousand Roman horsemen broke out, charged deep behind enemy lines and captured Ariminum (modern Rimini), a port only thirty-three miles south of Ravenna, Witigis gave the order to withdraw to his capital, and Belisarius went on the offensive again.

Belisarius did not march on Ravenna right away; his first target after Rome was Ancona, on the Adriatic coast. Meanwhile in the northwest, the archbishop of Mediolanum (modern Milan) called on Belisarius to liberate his city. A thousand soldiers were detached to do this, but on the way seven other cities and forts also opened their gates to the Romans, and each of them needed a garrison, so that left only three hundred men for Mediolanum. At this point, jealousy back in Constantinople began to undermine the war effort. Belisarius was getting too successful, too popular; he was now the type of person who could sieze the throne for himself. And because he was young, he could wait a long time for the right opportunity. Empress Theodora trusted no potential rival of her husband, so the next time reinforcements went to Italy, they were led by another general, an Armenian eunuch named Narses. Because of his condition, Narses was not a threat to the emperor, and because he was in his sixties, he looked more frail than he really was.

Narses arrived to find Rimini besieged, and Belisarius in a bad mood. He had ordered the two thousand cavalry in Rimini to withdraw before the Ostrogoths tried to take the city back, and John, their commander, flat-out refused to obey that order. Belisarius and most of his officers felt that John deserved whatever happened to him, but Narses declared that the Empire could not afford to lose the men in Rimini, because they were its best soldiers. Narses had the better argument, so Belisarius launched a rescue mission; Witigis abandoned the siege without fighting the relief force, and John made relations between the commanders worse when he gave credit for the bloodless rescue to Narses, not Belisarius. Soon the army was divided between those loyal to Belisarius and those loyal to Narses. When Witigis besieged and took Milan in 539, no help came for the defenders, because each faction of the army was too small by itself to do anything. Eventually Constantinople realized it had been a mistake to split the army, and recalled Narses.

Now Belisarius had a free hand to go for Ravenna. The two divisions of the army in Italy surrounded the Ostrogoth capital, a Roman fleet in the Adriatic cut off access to Ravenna by sea, and a third army from Dalmatia came around the Adriatic and attacked from the north. Witigis decided to play the foreign card; he wrote the Persians, urging King Khosrau I to break the treaty he had signed eight years earlier. Khosrau responded by invading Syria and sacking Antioch, but that didn't relieve the pressure on the dispirited Goths. In 540 King Witigis surrendered himself and his capital, and Belisarius went home with another captive monarch. A thousand Ostrogoth warriors and a few towns remained in the Po valley, but it looked like a simple mopping up operation would take care of them; Belisarius was now needed on the Persian front again.

In the east, Belisarius chased the Persians out of Syria quickly enough, but before he could retaliate with an attack on Persian territory, disaster struck. It was a terrible disease, an early outbreak of bubonic plague. We know less about this epidemic, henceforth known as "Justinian's plague," than we do about the Black Death, the more famous epidemic of the fourteenth century, because it was further in the past and we have fewer records, but the effect appears to have been the same. Appearing in Egypt in 541, it quickly spread to both the Roman and Persian Empires. Because it was the largest city in the known world, Constantinople was hit hardest of all. There 300,000 died, out of a population of 750,000; at one point the city was losing ten thousand a day, and undertakers got so far behind in burying the dead that corpses were stacked floor to ceiling in an abandoned fort. Equally bad was the effect on the economy. Crops went unharvested and shops were understaffed, meaning that the next few years would see famine and a slump in business. On the war front, both Romans and Persians had to call time out until 544.

Justinian himself caught the plague, and because Theodora was childless, she could only hope to keep her position if she married whomever became emperor next. However, the generals got together and acted as if Justinian was already dead, declaring that they would only support their own candidate, whether Theodora liked it or not. Then unexpectedly, Justinian began to recover (somebody in Heaven must have thought that the world would be worse off with Theodora but not Justinian). Regaining her confidence, Theodora had revenge on the disloyal generals. One was locked up until, according to the words of one historian, "he emerged more shadow than a man." Belisarius had also been at that meeting, but he was too popular to be sent to jail. Instead he was accused of keeping too much loot from the African campaign, and stripped of his command; his household staff was dismissed, and all his treasure was confiscated. He remained in disgrace until bad news from Italy forced Justinian and Theodora to call him back and give him another chance, but they never fully trusted him again.

In Italy, the plague and the absence of Roman leadership allowed an eleventh-hour rally for the Ostrogoths. At Pavia they elected a new king named Totila, the nephew of Witigis, in 541. Totila accepted the fact that this was a battle to the death, so he burned his bridges behind him with two gestures of defiance against the Empire. First he minted coins which treasonably showed him dressed in imperial costume; next, he dismissed the Roman Senate, which had long outlived its usefulness but was still a symbol of Roman authority. To the people of Italy, he portrayed himself as a champion of the middle and lower classes, pointing out that taxes had increased since the Romans returned, and that much of the money the Romans took went to build palaces in Constantinople or to pay off distant barbarians--things that meant nothing to Italians. He also talked about abolishing both slavery and feudalism, an act that was sure to upset landowners and please everybody else. His populist message was so attractive that it even won over some of the soldiers in the Roman camp. Then he restored Ostrogoth morale with a series of successful offensives, which recovered most of the peninsula by the fall of 542; he took Naples in May 543.

In 544 Belisarius returned to Italy and found Roman rule disintegrating everywhere. This time he had with him a mere 4,000 men, and with an army that small there was little he could do but repeat his old defensive strategy. Much of his time was spent writing Justinian, asking for reinforcements and wryly remarking that even he needed men to get things done. The commander of the garrison in Rome surrendered to Totila in 546; Belisarius retook Rome in 547, but it wasn't good enough for Constantinople. Justinian recalled Belisarius in 548, and Rome fell to the Ostrogoths again a year later. By 551 the Empire had nothing left in Italy but Ravenna and Ancona, and Gothic ships were raiding Sicily, Sardinia, and even the Balkan coast.

It took until 552 for Justinian to scrape up a new army strong enough to face the Goths, and find a suitable leader for it. Sick of the politics and that had ruined his opportunities, Belisarius had retired after his recall, so the aged Narses was put in command, and was promised whatever reinforcements he might need. Narses had lost Milan the last time he was in Italy, but he turned out to be a good choice; his administrative skills served as a substitute for the tactical genius Belisarius had. Marching through the Balkans, Narses collected more soldiers from tribes like the Lombards(11), Heruli and Bulgars. Now leading 35,000 troops, he proceeded around the head of the Adriatic to Ravenna, and then marched on Rome. At Busta Gallorum on the Via Flaminia (the main road through the Apennines) Goth and Roman met for what both sides recognized would be the decisive battle of the long war.

The result was a complete victory for the Romans. The attacking Goths were pinned down by the Roman center and destroyed by the fire of the bowmen Narses massed on the flanks. Totila was among the Gothic dead. In the next year Narses killed Teia, the last Ostrogoth king, as he made a vain attempt to break the Roman siege around Cumae (near Naples). A few Goths held out in the north a bit longer, and the Franks launched an unsuccessful invasion of Italy, but the restoration of Roman power now proceeded steadily. For all practical purposes, after 554, all of Italy was back in the Empire.(12)

Besides Africa and Italy, there was much more. At the same time Justinian managed to keep the Persians away, though Khosrau I was their greatest king. In 552 a civil war among the Visigoths allowed him to send a small expedition which easily won a quarter of Spain. And by conquering the Vandals he gained control over the islands between Italy and Spain: Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands. In 559 the Kutrigur Huns, led by a king named Zabergan, crossed the Danube River to raid the Empire's Balkan provinces and threaten Constantinople. There weren't any troops available to defend the capital, so Justinian called Belisarius out of retirement, and the general recruited and trained a tiny rag-tag force, which defeated the Huns until Justinian could end the fighting by paying another Hunnish tribe, the Utigur Huns, to attack their rivals. The final score: Justinian held the entire East and reconquered 45 percent of the West.

Whether it was worth the effort was questionable. Procopius thought not. He closed his account of the African wars with this sentence: “So it came about that those of the Africans who survived, few as they were in number and exceedingly poor, at last and after great trial, found some peace.” Society had collapsed in the Western provinces long before Justinian arrived; disease and urban decay had depopulated Italy to the point that when the Lombards took over a few years later, their historians asserted that they found the country a virtual desert. After Italy was pacified, the emperor launched no more campaigns, because he didn't have the money or the manpower for them. Nor did the lives of the provincials get better after the fighting ended. In North Africa, constant efforts failed to prevent Berber tribes from moving in between the cities. The result was that the recovered lands could not contribute anything toward the upkeep of the Empire; their main value came from the prestige they added, and the restoration of imperial dignity and confidence that came with their conquest.

The Eastern Empire under Justinian
The Eastern Roman Empire at its height (565 A.D.), and the invaders who wrecked it soon after that.

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Avars, Lombards, and Slavs on the Move

The Eastern Roman Empire fell to pieces with amazing speed after Justinian’s death in 565. In Spain the Visigoths recovered, counterattacked, and reduced the Empire's Spanish province to a strip of land along the coast. North of the Danube, a new barbarian tribe, the Avars, appeared. Expelled from Mongolia in 552, they arrived on the slopes of the Caucasus and sent an embassy to Justinian in 557. For Justinian it was standard procedure to keep peace at home by encouraging chaos in barbarian lands, so he paid the Avars to raid everybody else nearby. They did that, and much more; between 559 and 561 they conquered most of the tribes on the steppe, making themselves masters of everything between the Volga and the Danube. Then in 562 they pushed into central Europe to harass the Saxons, Franks and Bavarians.

On their first European campaign, the Avars passed the Carpathian mountains on the north side, going through the land of the Western Slavs (modern-day Poland). Unfortunately for them, northern Europe is heavily forested; in Thuringia, Sigebert of Metz, one of the grandsons of Clovis (see below), led the army that stopped this invasion. By now the Avars had a new leader, Bayan (562-602), who acted a lot like Attila reincarnated; he soon discovered that the plains of Hungary were a great place for the horde to stay, just as they had been for Attila. The Avars earned themselves a home in Hungary by supporting the German tribe living there, the Lombards, in a war against the German tribe in Transylvania, the Gepids. The resulting victory was so overwhelming that the Gepids ceased to exist as a separate people (567). Then the Lombard king, Alboin, celebrated in true barbarian fashion: he made a cup out of the skull of the last Gepid king, Cunamund, and married his fair daughter, Rosamund.

Justinian didn't have any children (but Theodora had two illegitimate daughters before they got married, if the information supplied by Procopius is accurate), so the imperial crown went to Justinian's nephew Justin. He inherited a country weakened by plague, and a drained treasury from the long war in Italy, but conditions were stable at home and Justinian had signed a peace treaty with the Persians in 562, so everything would be all right if the Empire had some time to recover. Instead Justin II foolishly irritated the Avars, who up until now had been more interested in raiding their German neighbors.

The trouble between the Empire and the Avars started over Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica), a town just west of Belgrade. Sirmium had been an important frontier outpost in the third century, the headquarters of the Roman legions guarding the Danube. More recently the Gepids had it, the Avars claimed it, and the emperors wanted it back, so when the Lombards destroyed the Gepids, Justin moved in to take Sirmium.

Instead of going for Sirmium right away, Bayan bided his time until the Empire suffered a defeat in a new Persian war (573), and then he took his vengeance on the Balkan provinces. Justin had a nervous breakdown when he heard the bad news from Persia, and his wife, Sophia, persuaded him to turn over most of his duties to Tiberius, the captain of the guard. Tiberius made peace in time to save Sirmium, but the Avars tried again in 582. This time Bayan captured Sirmium, and in two subsequent raids, got all the way to Thrace before meeting enough opposition to make him turn back. The Romans, fully occupied by the Persian war, were forced to buy him off with a fortune in gold coins. Attila would have been proud.

Less than a year after their war with the Gepids, the Lombards invaded Italy (568). They had been there before, having gotten a tour of the peninsula when they marched with Narses’ army fifteen years earlier. Now that they had the Avars for neighbors, the situation at home was becoming very uncomfortable, so Alboin decided that it would be better to move to Italy and leave Hungary to the Avars.

He was right. As governor of Italy, Narses had devoted too much time to enriching himself, until Empress Sophia heard about it and Constantinople felt compelled to recall him. According to Edward Gibbon, the empress declared that only men should lead armies, while the proper place for a eunuch is in the palace, spinning with the maidens. Narses indignantly responded with, "I will spin her such a thread as she shall not easily unravel!" and actually invited the Lombards into Italy before stepping down. His successor, Longinus, did not have the soldiers needed to deal with an armed invasion. Thus, when the Lombards crossed the Alps, they became masters of nearly the entire Po River valley without a battle. This became the heart of their kingdom, and it has been called Lombardy ever since; Pavia, the last capital of the Ostrogoths, now became the Lombard king's capital. All the Romans could do was lock themselves up in their towns and hope that the invaders would run out of food before they did. On the coast this worked; the Romans still had command of the sea and could bring in supplies by ship, but inland the result was a disaster; when the Lombards moved south they quickly conquered more than half the interior. The result was a peculiar division in which the Romans retained control over Genoa, Sipontum, Naples, the heel & toe of the Italian “boot(13),” and a zigzag corridor that ran from Rome to Venice.(14)

Alboin did not get to enjoy his triumph for long. In 572 he offended Rosamund at a party by forcing her to drink wine from her father's skull. Afterwards she organized a conspiracy that murdered Alboin, but she could not keep the throne, and soon she and her lover sought refuge in Ravenna. In 574 the one who got the throne, Cleph, also fell victim to an assassination, and for the next ten years the Lombards had no king at all; during this time the emperors paid the Lombard dukes with gold to keep Italy in a state of anarchy.

After the Lombards got a king again, some hostilities took place, but the balance of power between Roman and Lombard lasted for more than century. In fact, the only changes before the year 700 were the Lombard conquests of Genoa and part of the heel of the peninsula. The Lombards failed to complete their conquest of Italy because the king had to spend most of his time keeping the dukes in line.

There were about thirty dukes. The two in the south--the dukes of Spoleto and Benevento--had deliberately left the central Italian corridor in Roman hands so that the Lombard king could not get at them. In fact, the Duchy of Benevento outlasted the rest of the kingdom, precisely because of that corridor. Five dukes in the north--those of Milan, Bergamo, Brescia, Trent, and Friuli--were strong enough to do pretty much as they liked, no matter what the king said.

Italy in 600, showing Lombard and Imperial territories.

There was little, if any, resistance to the Lombards from the civilian population. Justinian was the last Roman emperor who spoke Latin as his first language. Most of the “Roman” administrators and troops he sent spoke Greek, and they treated the Italians more like subjugated foreigners than liberated countrymen. When Totila retook Naples in 543, he fed the starving, and protected women and even captured enemy soldiers from abuse, whereas Belisarius had celebrated his triumph in that city seven years before with a general massacre. Few Italians could have been happy to see the Lombards come, but at the same time few were sorry to see the Empire's agents leave. Time had mutual suffering had done a lot to make the Italians accept the Germans.

As Roman control over the peninsula faded, the pope tried to step in (more about that below), but by himself he wasn't strong enough to take the emperor's place. This encouraged the Lombards, who were under their greatest king, Liutprand (712-744), in the early eighth century. By declaring himself a champion of the Church's images when the Iconoclastic Controversy began, Liutprand gained an excuse to conquer several cities which had previously remained in Roman hands, especially Bologna and the east coast from Rimini to Ancona. He even captured and briefly held Ravenna, but gave it back in return for the emperor's support, when he marched against Benevento and Spoleto (eventually he replaced their rebellious dukes with members of his own family). For the pope he granted Sutri, a town 30 miles from Rome, and the land surrounding it, in 728. The "Donation of Sutri" was the first land outside Rome's immediate neighborhood ruled directly by the pope, and it marks the beginning of the Papal State that dominated central Italy for the next thousand years. For affairs outside of Italy, Liutprand allied himself with Charles Martel, and in 736-737 he led a campaign across the Alps to help Charles drive the Moors out of southern France.

The Lombards were not the only people who moved out of central Europe because of Avar activity. Since the fifth century the Slavs had been steadily expanding in all directions, from their original home around the Pripet Marshes (see Chapter 1). Most of that expansion had taken place while they were under the Huns and the Avars, so it did not become visible until they regained their independence in the early seventh century. To the west, Hun and Avar attacks had driven the Germans back; the Bavarians moved from Bohemia to Bavaria, while the Saxons and Franks abandoned their holdings east of the Elbe River. More vacant areas had appeared every time a German tribe left to take its chances in the Roman Empire, and often the Slavs were right behind them to fill up those vacuums. In was a slow but steady advance, less glorious than the furious charges and volkerwanderungs of other tribes, but more successful in the long run. To the south, the Romans held the lower Danube, which remained theirs until the Bulgars arrived in the late seventh century, but several Slav tribes were able to cross the middle Danube and settle in Illyria, becoming the South Slavs or “Yugo-Slavs” of today.

The Slavs in 700.

Back in Constantinople, Justin II died in 578. Like several previous emperors, Justin was childless, so Tiberius succeeded him; he soon proved to be quite popular because he was handsome and a big spender. To keep people from associating him with the first emperor named Tiberius (see Chapter 4), he called himself Tiberius Constantine; modern historians simply call him Tiberius II. Apparently the former empress Sophia elevated him with the idea that she could control him if he married her, but Tiberius refused to abandon the wife he had already, so that ended Sophia's career in politics. Late in 582 he fell ill, and on the day before his death he crowned Maurice, the general commanding the Persian front, as his successor.

Maurice managed to hold onto the throne for twenty years (582-602); nearly half of that time was spent fighting Persia, but Maurice eventually brought the war to a successful conclusion. During a truce in the winter of 586-587, the Persians sent the Katholikos, the leader of the Nestorian Church, to Maurice. He gave the emperor a creed, which he had checked out by the Patriarch; the Patriarch declared it orthodox and without error. After that he no longer had reason to view the Christians within the Persian Empire as heretics, so religion ceased to be the main reason behind wars with Persia; now only the Monophysites opposed the Empire for religious reasons. Then in 590 came a stroke of luck; the Persian king died and Khosrau II, the crown prince, fled to the Romans. Maurice gave Khosrau his daughter Mary and sent him home with an army to regain his throne. Khosrau paid him back by giving up Iberia (northern Azerbaijan) and most of Armenia. Now Roman troops could be transferred from Asia to Europe, to restore the Danube defenses and even cross the Danube to teach the Avars a lesson.

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Immediately after the fall of Rome, the Eastern Roman Empire had five armies at its disposal: the armies of Illyria, Thrace and the East (each in the territory by that name) and two guard armies (held in reserve at Constantinople). Justinian created a new army for the defense of Armenia, and at some time in the sixth century the two guard armies were combined, so the total number of armies remained at five.

The three emperors before Maurice had spent too much, so Maurice tried to reduce spending whenever he could. Unfortunately his subjects considered him tightfisted because of that. One of those cost-cutting measures was an order to the soldiers fighting the Avars; because food was in short supply in Constantinople, they would have to spend the winter of 602 on the far side of the Danube, living off the land. Instead of obeying, the soldiers revolted, marched on Constantinople, killed Maurice, and crowned one of their own, an illiterate officer named Phocas.

This despicable act marked the beginning of eight years of catastrophes. To no one's surprise, the Avars used this coup as an excuse to devastate the Balkans. Less expected was a vast forward movement by the Slavs, who followed the Avars and settled the whole interior of the Balkans. The Romans were forced to abandon all of Illyria except the province of Dalmatia, and even that was shrinking fast; within a few years “Dalmatia” was just three or four towns on the Adriatic coast. From 587 to 805, the Slavs even ruled part of the Peloponnesus, in southern Greece. At the same time, Khosrau II of Persia, who had learned from Maurice how to take advantage of dynastic strife, declared that he would avenge his late father-in-law. The war that he began in 603 was no unimaginative border conflict, but an attempt to restore the great Achaemenid Persian Empire of classical times. Phocas was forced to forget about the Balkans, and transfer most of the troops he had to the Persian front.

For Phocas, the worst news was the reaction of the army. Many commanders would not accept a usurper like Phocas as emperor, because he had destroyed all sense of legitimate rule; Phocas was the first eastern emperor since Constantine I who could not use blood, marriage or service to link himself with his predecessor. The governor of Carthage, Heraclius, agreed with them, and launched a revolt in North Africa. However, Heraclius was too old for the top job, so he nominated his son, also named Heraclius, as a more sensible alternative to Phocas. First the rebels cut off the North African grain shipments to Constantinople, then they sent an army to capture the other major breadbasket, Egypt. It took all 608 and 609 for them to prevail here, because Phocas withdrew the army of the East from the Persian front and sent it into Egypt. It was a dangerous gamble, and Phocas lost; not only did he fail to stop the rebellion, despite extremely heavy fighting in Egypt, but Khosrau had no trouble with the local militias who were supposed to hold the border forts until the main army came back. By 610, all of Roman Mesopotamia was in Persian hands, Armenia was abandoned, and the Persians raided Cappadocia, putting them within reach of Constantinople.

Phocas was now so unpopular that the elder Heraclius confidently launched stage three of the rebellion, sending his son directly to Constantinople by ship. Phocas tried to defend Constantinople by enlisting the two factions of chariot-racing fans, the Blues and the Greens, but the Greens went over to Heraclius, and the Blues were more interested in beating up the Greens. The younger Heraclius got there without incident, stepping ashore to a thunderous welcome from a hungry crowd. Phocas was arrested in a palace church, and brought to the ship of Heraclius, who asked, "Is this how you have ruled, wretch?" Phocas defiantly replied, "And will you rule better?", prompting Heraclius to kill and behead him on the spot. Phocas's body was then dismembered and burned.

Almost anybody could have done better, after such a disastrous reign, but Phocas had a point; the Empire was on the verge of collapse. It was under attack on several fronts from Avars, Slavs, Lombards, Visigoths and Persians. The army of Illyria had disintegrated, while the army of the East was pushed back to the Taurus mts., after losing Syria (611-613), Israel (614) and Egypt (619) to the Persians. Meanwhile in the west, the last part of imperial Spain fell to the Visigoths (621). No troops could be spared from elsewhere to turn back the invaders, food ran out after Egypt and Thrace were lost, and there was no money in the treasury.

Heraclius saw that the Empire had two assets left that he could use--the navy and Asia Minor. In Asia Minor were twenty loyal provinces, which had to maintain the armies, and must be defended at all cost. North Africa was too far away for its men and resources to help, and except for the capital, Europe was written off. The Thracian command was broken up and its units transferred to the army of the East. This left three armies: the Guard in Constantinople and the Armenian and Eastern forces on the Persian front. Each was given half a dozen provinces in Asia Minor as its area of responsibility and as a source of recruits and supplies. Then the government experimented with a form of feudalism, by placing groups of peasants on state land and charging them with payments of military service instead of rent. Now the struggle could be sustained even while the imperial treasury remained empty.(15)

The new districts each army served in were known as “themes,” from the Greek word for an army command. Shortly after the creation of the themes the old provinces were abolished, and with them the civilian administration. Because the theme system worked so well in Asia Minor, what was left of the Empire in Europe was reorganized into three more themes by 700: Thrace, Greece and Sicily. The post-Heraclian empire was ruled by generals (strategoi in Greek).

Heraclius was the most charismatic ruler the Eastern Roman Empire ever had. It shows in how his subjects patiently waited twelve years, while he raised an army for a counterattack and scrounged enough money to pay for it. The Persians had carried away from Jerusalem the True Cross on which Christ was crucified, so Heraclius called this a holy war, promising to lead the army personally against the pagan fire-worshippers, until he got the Cross back. This meant he had to study manuals on strategy and tactics before he could go forth; he was the first emperor in two centuries to go with his men into battle. Leaving the capital in the care of the Patriarch Sergius and a general named Bonus, he kept morale high by constantly writing letters with instructions on the tiniest details of defense.

Instead of using his last army in wasteful attempts to take back the lost provinces, he transported it by sea to Cilicia, struck north through Armenia, picked up some support from the Khazars, a Turkic tribe on the north slopes of the Caucasus, and looked for a weak spot in the defenses of the Persian homeland. Meanwhile to the west, the Persians struck at the enemy homeland, too; one of their armies got into Asia Minor, maneuvered its way around the themes, and reached Chalcedon, on the eastern shore of the Bosporus (626). What made this really alarming to the Romans was that the Avars attacked Constantinople from land at the same time, and they planned to ferry Persian soldiers over to the European side in rowboats. Fortunately, their last lines of defense didn't fail them. Again the walls of Constantinople stood firm, not yielding to the siege engines of the Avars. Every day Patriarch Sergius led a parade on top of the walls with an icon of the Virgin Mary, convincing the defenders that God was protecting them, and that the icon struck terror into the hearts of the attackers. Even more important, the Roman navy still ruled the sea, preventing the Empire's enemies from joining forces on the last mile of water between them. Sorties from the navy destroyed the Avar ships, and eventually forced the Avars to withdraw.

A year after the successful defense of Constantinople, Heraclius descended onto the plains of northern Iraq. He won a convincing victory at the ruins of ancient Nineveh, which unraveled the Persians and brought a sudden end to the long war; Khosrau was deposed and murdered by his nobles, and they sued for peace. The treaty ending the war restored the prewar boundary between the two empires. The True Cross was returned, and Heraclius took it first to Constantinople, and then back to Jerusalem.

In the Balkans, the failure of the Avars to take Constantinople marked the end of their glory days. The Slavic tribes under their rule became completely independent within a few years after 626. A Frankish merchant named Samo established the first Slavic kingdom in Bohemia in 623, defeated an Avar attempt to regain control, and ruled over it until his death in 658 or 659. Although the Avars hung around until the end of the eighth century, most of them were confined to Hungary and Transylvania. North of the Black Sea, the last of the Huns, augmented by Turks migrating from Asia, changed their name to the Bulgars; we'll be hearing a lot from them soon.

After the last Roman-Persian war, Heraclius completely overhauled the legal system. Changes were definitely overdue. For a start, Latin and Greek were still the two official languages of the court, though Latin was no longer in daily use. The Empire still called itself “Roman,” when in fact it had become a Christian version of Alexander’s Greek empire. Consequently, the emperors after this stopped using Latin titles like Imperator, Caesar and Augustus, preferring to call themselves Basileus, which was simply Greek for "king." Historians mark the reforms of Heraclius by calling the Empire “Byzantine” after this, rather than “Roman,” Byzantium being the original name for Constantinople. However, we must remember that this is a modern term. The Byzantines never called themselves by that name, and while outsiders called them Greeks, they continued to call themselves "Romans" all the way to the end of their empire's history. To further confuse medieval nomenclature, the Greeks used an equally inaccurate term for the people of western Europe, calling them all Franks.

The exhaustion suffered by the Byzantine and Persian empires from their long and fruitless war left them vulnerable to attack from an unexpected direction. Until now, the nomads of Arabia had never been more of a nuisance; both empires prevented raids by paying a subsidy to the nearest tribes, counting on them to make sure the others behaved. All that changed in the early seventh century, because while the Byzantines and Persians were fighting, the Prophet Mohammed appeared, rejected the combination of pagan, Jewish and Christian practices that passed for a religion among the Arabs, and imposed Islam in its place. By the time of his death in 632, Arabia was united, and soon after that, the Arabs boiled out of the desert, intent on conquering the rest of the world for Islam. Heraclius had to watch while the provinces he had so painfully won back were lost again. The next four years saw the Arabs conquer Syria, Iraq and the Holy Land, cutting through larger imperial armies like a knife through butter. In Italy, the Lombards took Genoa (640), a reminder that not all of the Empire's enemies were in the east.

If Heraclius felt that his life's work had been in vain, it was because he had lived too long. Had he died around 630, after the last Perso-Roman War but before the first Arab invasion, he would have been remembered as the greatest emperor after Justinian. When he presided over the ceremonies marking the return of the True Cross, observers noted that his shoulders were stooped, and that his curly, blond hair was now grey and mostly gone; the long war had worn him out, just as it had worn out the Empire. His first wife, Eudocia, was beautiful and extremely popular, but she died early in his reign, and while she would have been a hard act to follow, the emperor responded by marrying his niece Martina, an act of incest that was guaranteed to offend the public. Elsewhere I have written about what inbreeding can do to a family, and it happened here; Heraclius and Martina had ten children, but four died in infancy, one had a paralyzed neck and one was a deaf-mute. The Church had to ignore this scandal while Constantinople was in jeopardy, but after the war ended everyone felt that the misfortunes of Heraclius were God's punishment for an illegal and immoral marriage.

In pain and obviously ailing, Heraclius lost all confidence; when he returned home in 639, after an unsuccessful attempt to defend Syria, he suddenly became afraid of water, and refused to cross the Bosporus. The fear-stricken emperor stayed in Chalcedon for a year, and only crossed to Constantinople when a pontoon bridge was constructed and covered with foliage to hide the water, allowing him to gain control over his terror. His last years were spent trying to resolve the dispute over the nature of Christ, and also saw a quarrel over whether a son of Eudocia or a son of Martina would be his heir. Just before his death in February 641, news reached him of a successful Arab invasion of Egypt. At the end, he probably felt there was no more hope for the Empire than there was for him, but at least he had something to give his successors. His Persian counterpart, Yazdagird III, wasn’t so fortunate; the Arabs overran his country completely.

Heraclius wanted Heracleonas, a son of his and Martina who had been born in Georgia during the campaign against the Persians, to be his heir, but Constantine III, the eldest son of Heraclius and Eudocia, was much more popular, so when Heraclius died, Constantine and Heracleonas were crowned co-emperors. Constantine, however, was already sick from tuberculosis, so he sent a letter and more than a little money to the army, telling them to back his son, Constans II. Sure enough, Constantine died after a reign of three months, and a top general persuaded Heracleonas to accept Constans as another co-emperor. But this didn't squelch rumors that Constantine had been poisoned. In September 641 a revolt toppled Heracleonas and his hated mother; they were mutilated (Martina's tongue was cut out and Heracleonas lost his nose)(16) and banished to a monastery on Rhodes. Thus, only seven months after Heraclius passed away, his eleven-year-old grandson was sole ruler.

This is the end of Part I. Click here to go to Part II.


1. A fief was usually a piece of land, but not always. A job, like a court or military assignment, could also be a fief.

2. In feudalism a lord is anyone you owe goods or service to; a vassal is anyone who owes goods or service to you.

3. The German-ruled kingdoms in Western Europe inherited a considerable amount of the Roman government’s machinery, and if the German kings knew the Roman boundaries for a particular district, they would appoint king's representatives, called counts, to oversee those districts. As with other offices this appointment soon became hereditary, and count became just another feudal title.

4. The royal family called itself Merovingian, after a grandfather of Clovis named Merwig, who led the Franks in the war against Attila. The name Clovis would be transformed by time and language into the modern names Louis and Ludwig.

5. Paris was the site of a town named Lutetia in the Celtic and Roman eras. It got its current name from the Parisii, a Celtic tribe that lived in the neighborhood. Later, when the kingdom split into two realms called Austrasia and Neustria, Cologne became the capital of the Austrasian (German) half, and a rival to Paris.

6. Because Ravenna’s natural defenses enabled it to withstand almost every attack directed against it, some of the best examples of art and architecture from the sixth century, especially the churches erected by Justinian, can be seen here.

7. Chief among Justinian's new buildings was a rebuilt Hagia Sophia, which now became the most magnificent church in eastern Europe. To the architects, Justinian only gave two commands: create the most beautiful building in the world, and do it as quick as possible. The architects accomplished the latter by dividing the work crews into two teams of 5,000, and had them race to see who was the fastest on the job. They finished in only five years. When Justinian first entered Hagia Sophia, he reportedly said, “Oh Solomon, I have surpassed thee! My temple is greater than thine!” Not until the Gothic cathedrals went up in the thirteenth century, did a more impressive church appear anywhere, and they took decades, sometimes more than a century, to complete.

8. We are assuming that when Gaiseric took the menorah from Rome to Carthage, and when Belisarius took it to Constantinople, they also took the silver trumpets and the Table of the Divine Presence from Herod's Temple, since Titus had displayed all of these Temple treasures together after he captured them. After Constantinople, the trail of the Temple treasures grows cold for historians. In the mid-1990s, the government of Israel accused the Vatican of holding the treasures in a vault, and demanded them back, but nobody could give a convincing story of how the treasures might have returned to Rome after 534. In 2006 a British archaeologist, Sean Kingsley, announced that according to Dark Age authors like Procopius and Theophanes Confessor (c.760-817), the Temple artifacts are already back in the Holy Land; at some point in the sixth century, they were sent to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and after the Persians invaded in 614, they were secretly hidden at the monastery of St. Theodosius, near Bethlehem. Because the Persians spared Bethlehem, and everybody forgot about the treasures in the turmoil of the last Perso-Roman War, they are probably buried somewhere on the premises of the monastery, if a treasure-hunter with a metal detector hasn't found them by now. The monastery is in the Palestinian Authority, one of the most bitterly contested places in today's world, and Kingsley feels that the treasures would be used as a deadly tool to encourage more violence in the Middle East, so he hopes they are not discovered any time soon.

9. From Sicily to Rome, Belisarius followed the same path that would be used by the Allied forces in the Italian campaign of World War II.

10. The circumference of the Roman walls was just over 11 miles.

11. Lombards is a corruption of Langobardi, meaning “long beards.” Like the Franks, the Lombards felt that their king should have longer hair than anybody, a crown of hair to go with a crown of gold.

12. Justinian did not attempt to occupy the portion of the middle to upper Danube which had been part of both the Western Roman Empire and Theodoric's kingdom (modern Austria, Hungary, and eastern Croatia). Consequently the Bavarians in Raetia became independent, and the Lombards moved into Noricum and Pannonia with Justinian's blessing (545).

13. The Romans called the heel Calabria and the toe Bruttii. When the Lombards conquered the heel the Romans transferred Calabria’s name to the toe; Calabria has meant the toe ever since.
Transferring the name of a lost area to the nearest province still under imperial control was something the Romans did more than once in their long history. It makes geography confusing, but it allowed the Romans to pretend that the Empire was as big as ever, and it also allowed the displaced administrators to keep their jobs.

14. Constantinople appointed a viceroy, called the exarch of Ravenna, to run what was left on the Italian mainland (but not Sicily). He had authority over both the civilian government and the local armed forces, an extraordinary amount of power which was not permitted anywhere else in the Roman administrative system. A second exarch was put in charge of the African provinces, plus Corsica and Sardinia. The creation of these special governorships meant that Constantinople no longer wanted to use any eastern armies in the West; the reconquered provinces would have to fend for themselves.
We only have traditions to tell us how Venice got started. They assert that the city was founded in 452, by the inhabitants of northern Italian cities who fled to twelve islands in the Venetian lagoon, to escape Attila the Hun when he invaded Italy. They elected their first doge (From the Latin word dux, meaning duke) in 697. That marks the birth of the Republic of Venice, which lasted exactly 1,100 years and was one of Europe's most important states in the medieval and Renaissance eras; we'll be hearing a lot from Venice in Chapters 8-10. In practice, however, Venice remained part of the Empire until the mid-eighth century, and the doge was a non-hereditary monarch, because once elected, he ruled for life.

15. These troops had to be paid if they served outside their area of responsibility. Heraclius was able to launch his counter-offensive against the Persians only because of the Church’s financial support. When things looked really bad he considered moving the capital to Carthage, because North Africa was the only part of the Empire that wasn't fighting for its life. However, the Church leaders in Constantinople did not want to lose their protection or abandon their valuable property. In a great act of patriotism, the people of Constantinople promised to make whatever sacrifices were necessary, if Heraclius would stay; Patriarch Sergius I opened the Church treasuries and gave the emperor enough gold and silver to keep him where he was.

16. Blindings and other mutilations became distressingly common in the Byzantine royal family after this, because it was believed that a person was disqualified to rule if he did not have an unblemished face.

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