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Renovatio Imperii

While the Western Roman Empire started to disintegrate in the first half of the 5th century AD, the Eastern Roman Empire was still intact and flourishing. Eastern armies guarded the frontier from the Danube to the border with the Sassanid empire. The main Christian centers of the late Roman world were situated in the east, in Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria of Egypt.

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Mosaic depocting Emperor Justinian in his imperial regalia. His earrings are a symbol of imperial power. San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Into this world was born Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus, known to posterity as Emperor Justinian I. When Justinian ascended to the throne of Constantinople in 527 AD, he envisioned a plan for the reconquest of the old Western Empire. In order to launch this great invasion, he first however needed a general and an army. The general he ultimately selected to lead this campaign was Flavius Belisarius, a Thracian with a keen strategic and tactical mind as well as  experience gained through conflict with the Sassanids. The army was duly formed after signing a peace treaty with the Sassanid Empire.
In 533 AD, Belisarius’ army landed in North Africa, a rich Roman province controlled by the Vandals, a Germanic people who had migrated there during the last years of the Western Roman empire. Belisarius acted swiftly and effectively, defeating the Vandals, led by King Gelimer. The conquest of North Africa was made easier by the religious divisions between the Romans and the Vandals, as the Vandals were Arian Christians while the Romans were Nicene Christians. The Vandals had also encountered difficulties in integrating with the local Roman elites.

After the conquest of North Africa, the next step in Justinian’s plan was to recover the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy, founded by Amal king Theodoric the Great. In the Ostrogothic kingdom, relationships between the old Roman elites and the recent Gothic arrivals had plummeted. After the death of Theodoric, power had passed to his daughter Amalasunta, who was deeply pro-Roman and fascinated by Greek and Roman culture. When Amalasunta was imprisoned and disposed of by Theodahad, count of Tuscany, Justinian declared war on the Goths. Belisarius was swiftly sent to Sicily in 535 AD, where he occupied the island with little resistance, before crossing into mainland Italy in 536 AD, where he captured Naples and Rome.
The recapture of Rome had a powerful symbolic meaning although real power was now located in the east. After defending Rome from a Gothic onslot, in 540 AD Belisarius took the city of Ravenna, the old western imperial capital. After having refused the Ostrogothic offer of getting crowned as Emperor of the Western Empire, Belisarius was sent back to the east by Justinian, to deal with the renewed Sassanid threat and probably because of the emperor’s envy of his military prowess. The Ostrogoths under king Totila exploited the absence of Belisarius to mount a counteroffensive that while initially successful, ultimately failed. Justinian’s dreams of reconquering Western Rome was fulfilled at great cost.

The “Gothic wars” caused institutional damage, farmland devastation and civilian casualties in the Italian peninsula. The wars also overstretched the Eastern Roman army and their supply lines. Eastern Rome had few soldiers to spare and it needed most of the legions at the frontier. Belisarius’ expedition had weakened the frontier and the troops which remained were not enough to hold the whole Italian peninsula and North Africa. This situation was exploited by the Lombards, a Germanic people who waged a violent war against the remaining Eastern Roman troops in Italy. The Lombards conquered most of the Italian peninsula except for a few coastal areas. Both Ravenna and Rome remained under Eastern control as they were supplied by the powerful Eastern Roman navy. The segments of Italy controlled by Eastern Rome would remain under the command of the exarch of Ravenna, a military commander subordinate to the emperor. The territories acquired in North Africa were governed by an exarch based in Cathage. These territories were always on the defensive as Constantinople could not supply enough military resources to mount a counteroffensive. The bishop of Rome gradually detached himself from the control and influence of Constantinople. While initially seeking help from Constantinople to defend Rome against the Lombards, the pope eventually found a new defender in the king of the Franks.

In the end, we can say that the Eastern Roman empire under Justinian did not have sufficient manpower or resources to maintain control over the new conquered lands. Although we have little information about the Eastern Roman army of the time, we know that the core of the army was made of Scutati or Scutatoi (shield bearers), which were essentially late Roman legionnaires, equipped with oval shields, Spathas, mail armor and ridge helemts. The role of the cavalry was increased as mobility was more valued on the battlefield. Most cavalry regiments were provided by Germanic peoples, the Huns, the Alans or the Sarmatians, all horse breeding peoples. However, the elite arm of Belisarius’ army was made of Bucellarii, privately owned soldiers who were loyal to their commander. They were the best trained as well as the best equipped of Belisarius’ troops. Belisarius could afford to employ thousands of them. It is also probable that some Limitanei regiments served under Belisarius in North Africa and Italy. Most of the information relating to Belisarius’ campaign comes from Procopius of Caesarea, Belisarius’ personal attendant and secretary.

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A New Horizon: The Reforms of Diocletian

In the later part of the third century AD, the Roman empire was in the midst of civil wars and a severe economic crisis. Generals were being declared as emperors by their troops, dangerously destabilizing the established system of centralized power. During this period of upheaval, Diocles, later Diocletian, was born in the province of Dalmatia, in modern day Croatia. Born of simple stock, Diolcles distinguished himself in the ranks of the roman army, even becoming a cavalry commander under emperor Carus. This was not an uncommon path for an emperor at the time, with many previous emperors using the army to rise socially, with high amounts of social mobility a defining characteristic of this era. His rise culminated in 284 AD, when he became princeps (emperor), inheriting an empire in chaos. He immediately set about to solve these problems through a series of political, military, social and economic reforms.

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Head of a togate statue of Diocletian. His gaze toward the sky indicates a link with the gods. His short hair and beard is common among military emperors of the time.
Photo credit: R.V. Huggins

For the army, he changed the traditional structure of 5000 men legions into more fluid and efficient units of 1000 men. Also, legions became more specialized and their equipment was to be provided by the state through the fabricae, which were groups of state-owned warehouses and workshops. The equipment of the soldiers morphed as they started adopting more oval shields and spears with longer spathas as secondary weapons. These changes may have been caused by many of Rome’s enemies being cavalry soldiers such as the Sassanids, the Sarmatians and the Scythians. The organization of the army into Comitatenses and Limitanei may have also began with the reign of Diocletian. The Cohortes Praetoriae, were relegated by the emperor to a secondary role, forming the garrison for the city of Rome, as they were considered too corrupt and ambitious to be trusted in the field. The new imperial guard was formed by the Ioviani and Herculiani regiments, chosen from the legio Iovia and legio Herculiana, famous for their loyalty to emperor Diocletian.

Diocletian, being a man of simple origins, born outside the confines of old aristocracy, disliked the senate and the old oligarchy it represented. He deprived the Senate of most of its powers, relegating it to the role of governing the capital. Power became increasingly centralized in the hands of the new military elites, which were forming the empire. This began the transition towards the separation of the military and civilian roles within the Roman world, which will happen during the reign of Valentianian I. The court system around the emperor became intricate and extremely bureaucratic, as nets of administrators and officials effectively shielded the emperor from the outside world, eventually making it difficult for him to connect to his empire.

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Head of Maximian, Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse. Born in Sirmium, Maximian was the military arm of Diocletian, leaving politics and reforms to the emperor.

The emperor, considered the first of the roman citizens, was now to be considered a dominus, an authoritarian father figure with links to the gods. Diocletian noticed that the empire was too large to be controlled by a single emperor. It simply was not possible due to its vastness. As a result, in 286 AD Diocletian elevated his old war companion Maximian to a Caesar in the West, based in Mediolanum. Maximian was a perfect candidate for the job as he was a loyal man as well as an able commander. Maximian was later promoted to the rank of Augustus, a full-fledged colleague of Diocletian. The Roman empire thereafter turned into a diarchy, with Maximian ruling the West and Diocletian ruling the East from Nicomedia. Diocletian quickly realized that two emperors alone were not able to maintain stability in the empire. Because of this, he formed the famous tetrarchy, rule of four, an effective division of the empire into four spheres of influence. Maximian had Constantius Chlorus as his Caesar (junior colleague) in the West, based in Trier, modern day Germany, while Diocletian chose Galerius, a peasant who had risen from the ranks of the army as his Caesar, based in Thessalonika.

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Emperor Galerius’ portrait head in porphyry, from his palace in Romuliana (Gamzigrad). Emperor Galerius was a rigid military commander and an advocate for the persecution of Christians during the tetrarchy.

Diocletian wanted to stabilize the economy but did not have competent experts at his disposal, so he only managed to debase the Roman coinage by creating a new series of imperial mints. Diocletian later died in 313 AD at his fortified palace at Split, Dalmatia, knowing that his tetrarchic project was doomed to fail. The rise of Diocletian and the tetrarchic period marks a new point in Roman history and it brings the crises of the third century to an end by projecting the empire into an era of political and military stability. The tetrarchic model revealed itself to be a political failure in that it did not account for the ambitions of men, and the impeccable order installed by Diocletian could not be maintained. Diocletian can be considered a pillar of the Roman state as he was an excellent legislator and reformer. The period from the rise of Diocletian onwards would be called the Dominate instead of the Principate as the authoritarian emperor created by Diocletian would become the norm.

 

 

The Brother Emperors

Valentinian I “the Great” is an extremely fascinating character.

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Coin of brother emperors Valentinian I and Valens. Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett. Photo credit to Adriano Zampolini.

A man mostly forgotten by history, Valentinian was a great military strategist and was prone to incredible bursts of anger. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, he was good looking, loved sober elegance, had good memory, was envious of other successful individuals, disliked the rich and the shy, being one himself and used to impose rigorous discipline on soldiers. However, underneath the harsh military exterior and the wrathful temper, he did have an extremely sensitive side, full of empathy and passion.

When he was acclaimed Emperor by the troops and the imperial Council on February 26th 364 AD, Valentinian was already an experienced military officer who had served both on the Rhine and in Mesopotamia, where he was promoted tribune of the elite Scutarii regiment. He was insecure, however, about the stability of his future reign, as immediately preceding him there had been a bloody civil conflict between the relatives of emperor Costantine. Therefore, to avoid further roman blood being shed and to impose his power on the imperial Council, he made his loyal younger brother Valens co-emperor in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, who disliked Valentinian, it was Germanic general Dagalaifus who pressured the emperor into choosing his brother Valens, despite him being inexperienced in civil and military matters. Though, according to the Late Roman historian, despite being greedy and quite lazy, Valens would turn out to be an excellent administrator. He was good looking and got a cataract in his eyes by the age of 50.

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Medallion of emperor Valens. Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett. Photo credit to Adriano Zampolini.

At Sirmium, in modern day Serbia, the two emperors divided their military personnel. The legions that were to serve Valentinian were dubbed Seniores while those under Valens were called Iuniores. Immediately, Valens’s power in the east was challenged by a usurper named Procopius, while Valentinian was occupied against the Alamanni tribe on the Rhine frontier. Valens was alone against Procopius, and as he had always been more of a follower than a leader, upon receiving news of the revolt, he faltered and even considered suicide. After this initial crisis of confidence, Valens strengthened his resolve to fight, ultimately managing to defeat Procopius in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) at the Battle of Thyatira. Procopius was captured and beheaded on the spot by Valens’s officers, and his head was sent to Valentinian as a trophy.

Meanwhile, Valens’s older brother was achieving victory after victory against the Alamanni in the West. An exceptional military man, Valentinian designed aggressive campaigns against the tribes living outside the Roman borders. One of these was the 368 AD expedition in which the Emperor gathered a massive army, including the Italian Comitatenses (professional troops) led by the Comes Italiae Sebastianus. He achieved a great victory at the Battle of Solicinium after which he then fortified the frontiers by building fortresses both inside and outside the established borders. Valentinian was the last western emperor to fortify the Roman frontiers and to lead an expedition outside the Roman Limes. By 370 AD, the empire seemed relatively stable after other successes against the Saxons.

 

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Colossal bronze statue of Valentinian I in Barletta, Apulia. Photo credit to Adriano Zampolini.

 

According to Ammianus Marcellinus, death for Valentinian came in the form of a bursting blood vessels during one of his angry outbursts while negotiating with tribes on the Rhine (14 November 375 AD). This account is questionable.

Power in the west fell to Valentinian’s young son Gratian while the east remained under Valens. Valens had obtained victories over the Goths under Athanaric in the Balkans by the year 369 AD while Armenia was invaded by the powerful Persian King of Kings Shapur II. The bloody military encounters that followed ended in a stalemate in the East, with the persian armies kept at bay for the time being. In the year 376 AD, Valens was forced to rush to the Danube frontier, as the gothic tribe Tervingi had crossed the river and had defeated a roman force near Marcianople. After some initial success by the Roman general Sebastianus, the Goths, led by chieftain Fritigern, managed to defeat Valens’s imperial army at Adrianople, in Thrace.

Valens was among the dead, though his body was never found. Thus the Valentinian brothers came to an end, a period in history which has been undervalued to say the least, but was nevertheless rich of heroism, intrigue, imperial might and cruelty. This period is also proof of the Late Roman Empire’s military and civil might, charateristics that will be preserved in the Eastern half of the Empire and deteriorate over time in the West after the demise of Valentinian.

 

A Late Roman Mystery

The medieval Italian city of Barletta in Apulia, has between its narrow streets, a “little” hidden secret, which dates back to before the Middle Ages. In fact, near the Basilica del Santo Sepolcro, there is a mysterious and colossal bronze statue of an unidentified Roman emperor. This statue however is not like the great portraits of Hadrian and Trajan. Instead, it represents a forgotten time in which classical antiquity was mixed with new ideas that would shape medieval art. The statue is about five meters tall, with an emperor displayed wearing a Lorica Musculata (a garment widely used by Roman emperors and senior commanders). The emperor is depicted wearing an imperial diadem, which screams of Costantinian portraiture, and has a haircut typical of the Late Roman period.

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How this magnificent bronze statue came to Barletta is widely debated, but it has been in Barletta since at least the year 1309 AD.

Some believe that the statue was taken from the city of Constantinople by the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade. The statue would have been stored on a boat but, when this boat went down at sea, the bronze emperor would have arrived on the southern coasts of Italy, eventually making its way to Barletta.

A second origin story about the statue involves the former imperial capital of Ravenna. During excavations in the 13th century, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen would have found the statue in Ravenna and could have brought it to Barletta.

The first origin story has been discredited by experts, as no signs of salt water were found on the statue. So, it seems we are left with the second option, though this too does not seem entirely likely. What we know for certain however is that this fascinating piece of bronze represents a Late Roman emperor, characterized by strong facial features and a hard gaze: a warrior emperor in his fifties. The identity of the Augustus himself is the true mystery here though.

The problem is, how do you identify a Roman Emperor? The answer lies in using coinage and literary sources to match him with an emperor of a similar time period and description. The first hypothesis is that he could be emperor Theodosius I, but we can see from his coinage that his facial features do not resemble the bronze statue.

 

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Coin of Theodosius I, the man who made the Roman Empire officially Christian. Credit to finds.org.uk.

 

The colossus’s face does however resemble the facial features of Emperor Jovian. But therein lies another problem, as Jovian never reached either Constantinople or Ravenna, as he died in his tent in Anatolia.

 

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Coin of emperor Jovian, who mysteriously died in Anatolia. Credit to CNG Coins (www.cngcoins.com).

 

Could the bronze emperor therefore be Theodosius II? The two do share some similarities, such as the short cut beard, but the shape of Theodosius’s face does not match the statue, and his bookish personality certainly is not identifiable in the harsh gaze and features of the colossus.

 

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Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II, who promulgated the Codex Theodosianus while in Constantinople.

 

Could the statue therefore represent the mighty and strict warrior emperor Valentinian I? As we can see in his coinage, Valentinian is depicted with strong facial features and a square jaw.

 

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Solidus of emperor Valentinian I, an experienced military officer and the last emperor to cross the Rhine frontier. Credit to Adrian Murdoch.

 

By being a soldier emperor, Valentinian embodies the perfect candidate for the bronze statue as his martial and wrathful temper is present in the hard stare of the colossus. From Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman officer and author, we know that emperor Valentinian was “considerably tall and muscular, with grey eyes that were capable of an oblique hard stare, being overall a wonderful emperor figure”. Could Valentinian then be our man? Could he be our mysterious emperor?

Recently, Professor Emanuela Sibilia of the University of Milano-Biccocca, was able to date the statue. According to the thermoluminescence dating technique employed, the bronze statue was cast between 300 and 500 AD, making Valentinian I and Theodosius II the most likely of candidates.

The Last Bastion of the West

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Stunning view of the Abbaye Saint Jean des Vignes in Soissons, Aisne, France. Credit to Dronestagr.am.

By the time teenage emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Germanic general Odoacer in 476 AD, the western Roman world was fragmented and governed by mostly “barbarian” rulers who led the so called “romano-barbarian” kingdoms. There was however a land in northern Gaul, near the city of Noviodunum (modern day Soissons), which still claimed to be part of the Roman Empire. The leader of the domain of Soissons was Afranius Syagrius, the son of the able Magister Militum per Gallias, Aegidius. He was referred to as “King of the Romans” by the Frankish nobles, and tried to maintain a successful Gaullic-Roman state in the middle of a mostly germanic ruled western Europe. Syagrius succeeded in pursuing his objective for about 25 years, but, in 486 AD, he was challenged by the ambitious king of the Franks, Clovis I. Syagrius confronted the armies of Clovis near Soissons, in the modern French department of Aisne. The Franks managed to crush the Roman forces, as Syagrius was forced to flee to the Visigothic court of Alaric II. Alaric, intimidated by the powerful Franks, handed Syagrius over to Clovis, who summarily executed him. Gregory of Tours wrote about the event, claiming that Syagrius was stabbed in secret. With the death of Syagrius, Roman rule in the West came to an end. This is not to say that Roman culture disappeared entirely, as the Eastern Roman Empire was still strong and the new germanic kingdoms viewed Rome as a model, which they copied extensively, from administrative posts to military tactics and ranks.

A Gothic Hero

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Death of emperor Valens on the battlefield near the city of Adrianople. The emperor died fighting with his own bodyguards.

Fritigern is one of the most famous Gothic rulers in history. Contrary to popular belief, Fritigern was not born into a primitive and barbarian society. On the contrary, he was part of a group of people, the Tervingi Goths, who had been in contact with the Roman world for years, as a result of trade and Roman attempts at converting the Goths to Christianity. The Romans were even partly successful, with the Goths partly embracing Arian Christianity thanks to the conversion campaign promoted by bishop Ulfilas, with Frigern being one of those converted. In the year 375 AD however, things changed drastically for the Goths as bellicose Hunnic tribes invaded from the North. In 376 AD, in response to the invasions of the Huns, the Goths began amassing on the northern banks of the Danube, in modern day Bulgaria. The river served as the northern boundary of the eastern Roman empire, which at the time was led by emperor Valens. The gothic leaders, including Fritigern, did not want to invade the empire, instead they wished to settle down within its borders and be protected from the Hunnic threat. The gothic chieftains sent ambassadors to the emperor, who was based in Antioch, in modern day Syria. 

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Bust of emperor Valens. Capitoline Museums. Rome, Italy.

Valens, planning to enlist the gothic male population into the army, accepted their proposal. Therefore, the Goths crossed over the Danube under Roman supervision. The Roman provincial authorities however, were not able to deal with the immigration wave and, in the city of Marcianople, they slaughtered the gothic authorities. Fritigern was the only chieftain to survive the carnage. He maintained his pro-Roman policy, facing Roman armies only when necessary. In 378 AD, near the city of Adrianople in Thrace, Fritigern tried to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict with the emperor. While Fritigern’s delegation (which included a priest) and Valens were discussing peace terms in the Roman camp, a battle started outside. The confrontation would end with a complete victory for the Goths and with the death of Valens on the battlefield. Fritigern however, would always remain open to negotiations with the Romans. In order to bring them to the negotiating table, Fritigern even tried to besiege Adrianople and Constantinople, failing in both attempts and saying: “I make peace with stone walls”. He then confronted the new eastern emperor, Theodosius I, in three years of guerrilla warfare. During this period, he disappeared from history, probably dead in battle or assassinated by his own men (with the aid of roman gold). Fritigern is arguably the first germanic leader to truly challenge Roman power. He did not want however to replace the Roman culture with that of the Goths, instead wanting cooperation between the two groups. Being the leader of a tribal society, he must have been a truly charismatic and competent character, demonstrating his military prowess in the battles of Marcianopolis, Ad Salices and Adrianople. After his mysterious death, Fritigern was succeeded by Athanaric, who finally managed to negotiate a peace treaty with Theodosius I.

 

The Warrior Archbishop

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5th century mosaic of Ambrose as an imperial official. This portrait is considered a realistic one. St. Ambrose’s basilica, Milan, Italy.

On November 30th 374 AD, the atmosphere was extremely tense in the city of Medionalum (modern day Milan). Arian archbishop Auxentius had just died and the city had to nominate his successor. The election occurred in an unidentified church of the city. There, the citizens, divided between the Arian and the Nicene creeds, were struggling to find common ground, while a high ranking imperial official, a man named Ambrose, listened carefully to their speeches. After listening to their reasons, Ambrose made a speech aimed at restoring harmony between the two factions. While talking, a man in the crowd shouted: “Ambrose for bishop!”. Soon afterwards, the whole crowd started shouting: “Ambrose for bishop!”. This is how Ambrose, an important player at the court of emperor Valentinian I, became Archbishop of one of the most important cities of the Roman West. However, he never wanted to pursue a career in the church. Although a Nicene Christian, he was trained to become an imperial civil administrator, not a member of the clergy. With time however, Ambrose, a strong personality with impressive rhetorical skills,  learned how to act as a successful religious figure and even became the tutor of the emperor’s son, Gratian. Ambrose was elected bishop during a time in which the power of the Roman state in the West was waning and the Christian church was gradually taking control over secular matters. As a bishop, Ambrose was an enemy to Arian Christians, deemed as heretics at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The emperor’s wife, Giustina, however, was among the Arian faction. After the death of Valentinian I in 375 AD, Ambrose therefore entered into a fierce contrast with the imperial court, which was dominated by Arian christians. During this period, Ambrose built four basilicas in the city in order to strengthen his position: the basilica martyrum, the basilica apostolorum, the basilica virginum and the basilica prophetarum. He also clashed with a pagan aristocrat, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who was a stern supporter of the traditional politeistic roman religion. The Archbishop eventually won both encounters, risking his own life during an Arian attack and becoming one of the most powerful men in Milan. He went as far as excommunicating emperor Theodosius I after the massacre of Thessalonica, during which the emperor ordered the slaughter of 7.000 citizens. This demonstrated his enormous personal power and extreme self confidence. Ambrose introduced a new form of liturgical chant, the Canto Ambrosiano, known for its collective singing. He was one of the first Christian religious figures to hold significant secular power. Currently, he is the patron saint of Milan. He is displayed on the first Gonfalone of the same city.

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Beautiful absidal mosaic of St. Ambrose’s basilica. St. Ambrose’s basilica, Milan, Italy. 

Federico II: Un Imperatore Medievale?

“La vostra fedeltà brilla come stella intorno a noi e invidiata da tutti i popoli risplende nel mondo” – Federico II di Svevia ai pugliesi

 

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Taglio dal Codex Manesse, conservato nella biblioteca universitaria di Heidelberg, raffigurante il cantore Konrad von Altstetten con la sua amante, spesso identificato con Federico II e Bianca Lancia di Agliano. 

Uomo, imperatore, mecenate, “anticristo”, “stupor mundi”, “puer Apuliae”, Federico II fu tutte queste cose e anche di più.

Seguito durante la sua infanzia e gioventù da tutori di prestigio, tra cui il Pontefice Innocenzo III, un Imam musulmano ed il futuro papa Onorio III, Federico diventerà un giovane uomo dalla forte personalità, saggio e sorprendentemente precoce nel raggiungere la maturità. Egli cresce in Italia e soprattutto in Sicilia, al tempo crocevia della cultura greco-bizantina, islamica e latina che Federico assorbirà totalmente. Sarà anche addestrato all’uso delle armi e alla cavalcata, abilità tipicamente riservate alle classi dirigenti medievali. Lo Svevo, nato dall’unione tra Costanza d’Altavilla, regina normanna, ed Enrico VI, imperatore germanico (figlio di Federico I “Barbarossa”), erediterà il Regno di Sicilia e si aggiudicherà il Regno di Germania, caratterizzato da una monarchia elettiva, con l’aiuto di Innocenzo III e Filippo II di Francia e con la vittoria sull’avversario politico, Ottone IV di Brunswick, a Bouvines nel 1214.

Convinto difensore della superiorità temporale dell’impero sulle altre autorità laiche e soprattutto sulla Chiesa di Roma, Federico attua politiche espansionistiche in Oriente attraverso le Crociate, diventando anche Re di Gerusalemme, ed in Italia settentrionale combattendo contro la seconda Lega Lombarda. Lo Svevo è in continuo contrasto sia con lo spirito universalistico della Chiesa di Roma che con i Comuni italiani, in buon numero coalizzati contro di lui e favorevoli alla politica papale, sui quali non riuscirà mai ad imporre la sua piena autorità.

L’imperatore è un uomo di grande cultura, un mecenate ed un poliglotta, animato da una forte curiosità scientifica. E’ autore attivo, patrono di una corrente letteraria siciliana, poeta e grande costruttore di edifici pubblici. Insieme con i suoi collaboratori, tra cui spicca la figura dell’amico Pier delle Vigne, sarà responsabile di un programma di accentramento del potere regio nel Regno di Sicilia, culminato con l’emanazione delle Costituzioni di Melfi nel 1231. Profondamente innamorato della Sicilia e soprattutto della Puglia, da lui considerata rifugio spirituale e definita “luce dei miei occhi”, Federico è considerato da molti come un sovrano illuminato, predecessore del Rinascimento.

Il mito federiciano è sempre stato al centro di un animato dibattito storiografico. Da un lato, autori quali David Abulafia, presentano il monarca come un sovrano puramente tradizionale e quindi medievale. Molti storici lo considerano un uomo radicato nel suo tempo perché legato ai principi della tradizione medievale quali la religiosità cristiana, il timore verso i papi, la scarsa tolleranza nei confronti delle fedi non cristiane e la concezione del re come come princeps romano. Dall’altro autori del calibro dello storico polacco Ernst Kantorowicz, tratteggiano la figura di Federico II come quella di un monarca illuminato, profondamente laico parchè uomo di scienza e avversario della Chiesa e precursore del pensiero Rinascimentale parchè uomo di cultura, mecenate e dagli interessi poliedrici.

A mio avviso, Federico fu entrambe le cose. Se da un lato intavolò rapporti amichevoli con le componenti islamiche del suo regno tanto da formare un suo corpo di guardia con militari provenienti da quelle regioni, atteggiamento insolito per quei tempi, dall’altro ordinò deportazioni di massa di cittadini islamici a Lucera dopo averne giustiziato i capi. In uno dei suoi scritti, lo stesso imperatore affermò di fare la guerra ai papi e non alla Chiesa, rivelandosi uomo profondamente cattolico, aspetto proprio della tradizione medievale. Allo stesso tempo, si dichiarava avversario della politica universale adottata dal Papato.

Federico è stato un grande uomo ma anche una figura eccessivamente idealizzata. Infatti, i pochi episodi di maltrattamenti di prigionieri di guerra nell’età medievale sono riconducibili proprio al sovrano Svevo. Ad esempio, quando nel 1237 a Cortenuova le sue truppe sconfissero l’esercito della seconda Lega Lombarda, una volta catturato il leader dell’esercito nemico Pietro Tiepolo, figlio del Doge di Venezia, l’Imperatore lo fece uccidere dopo averlo umiliato. Si tratta di un comportamento insolito da parte di un sovrano medievale, in quanto ai prigionieri di guerra veniva solitamente risparmiata la vita e riservato un trattamento d’onore.

Perno del suo Regno non sarà mai la Germania, terra politicamente instabile, bensì proprio l’Italia meridionale, resa potente a partire dalla dinasta normanna degli Altavilla, da cui Federico è discendente da parte di madre.

La vita sentimentale dello Svevo fu sempre soggetta alla necessità di stringere alleanze politiche, come dimostrano le sue unioni con Costanza d’Aragona, Jolanda di Brienne ed Isabella d’Inghilterra. Ci fu però una donna, Bianca Lancia, probabilmente di origine piemontese, che occupò il suo cuore dall’anno 1225 e che sposò sul letto di morte.

La sua dinastia si rivelò alquanto sfortunata poiché il primo figlio Enrico si suicidò dopo una ribellione contro il padre. Il figlio illegittimo Enzo, re di Sardegna, preso prigioniero dopo la battaglia di Fossalta, morì durante la prigionia senza che il padre lo riscattasse. Manfredi, invece, figlio di Bianca Lancia, morì durante la battaglia di Benevento nel 1266, sconfitto dalle truppe di Carlo d’Angiò. La morte violenta a Napoli del giovane nipote Corradino pose fine alla supremazia della dinastia Sveva che si era fatta portabandiera dell’universalità dell’impero.

Federico subisce da sempre il fascino dell’assolutismo degli imperatori romani. La nuova monetazione da lui introdotta, l’augustale, un chiaro riferimento alla romanità, riporta da un lato l’immagine dell’imperatore laureato e dall’altra l’aquila imperiale. Lo Svevo amava farsi ritrarre come sbarbato e laureato, similmente alla ritrattistica traianea, mantenendo i tratti giovanili anche in età matura. Questo aspetto propagandistico della sua immagine si può ritenere attinente al processo di accentramento del potere ed all’esaltazione della sua autorità.

Frate Salimbene da Parma, che conobbe l’imperatore di persona, lo descrive come un uomo di bell’aspetto e di media statura. Il francescano fu avversario dell’imperatore, e difatti lo descrisse come un uomo avaro, malvagio e lussurioso seppur poi ammettendo la presenza in lui di grandi qualità.

Federico II risulta a mio pare una figura estremamente affascinante. La sua personalità poliedrica, il suo carattere duro ma allo stesso tempo sensibile fanno di lui un monarca ideale, con il quale si può cacciare con il falco e dialogare di filosofia.

Bibliografia

Abulafia, D. (2015). Federico II. Einaudi.

Bocchieri, M. T. (2005). Federico II. Ragione e Fortuna. Laterza.

Houben, H. (2009). Federico II. Imperatore, uomo, mito. Il Mulino.

Di Svevia, F. De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus.

Kantorowicz, E. (2000). Federico II Imperatore. Garzanti.

Vellucci, L. (2016) Federico II. L’imperatore del mistero. Tipheret.

 

Gratian the Elder

grati.jpg
Unidentified male portrait, Villa dei Papiri, Ercolano. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.

Gratian the elder was born in Cibalae, modern day Croatia, a region known for providing military officers and personnel to the Empire. At an early age, his compatriots nicknamed him Funarius. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that he was a rope salesman and the second is that he prevented a group of soldiers from stealing a rope. Despite not being a member of the aristocracy, Gratian managed to enter the Protectores Domestici, an elite body of high ranking officers close to the emperor. Thanks to his physical prowess and military skills, Gratian was promoted to Comes Africae, commander of the Comitatenses, professional soldiers of North Africa. However, he was soon accused of embezzlement and forced to resign. Unfortunately, little is known about this incident. Around 340 AD, Gratian was recalled to military service under emperor Constans I as Comes Britanniae. Gratian rebuilt the frontier forts and fortified the island, demonstrating his military capabilities. During this time, he is likely to have worked in close cooperation with the Comes Litoris Saxonici and the Dux Britanniarum, respectively the commander of the coastal defenses and the commander of the Limitanei or Rparienses. After this last assignment, Gratian retired to his country villa in Pannonia. He had two sons, Valentinian and Valens, who would both become emperors. His property in Pannonia would be devastated during the civil conflict between Constantius II and Magnus Magnentius. He died in the year 367 AD. A brass statue of him was built in the Curia of Costantinople. Gratian is a really fascinating character as he came to power and to a prestigious position only through merit and not thanks to money or social status.

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