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The Heirs of Rome

 

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Coin of Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths in Italy.

 

By the time of the official political “fall” of the western roman empire in 476 AD with the removal of teenage emperor Romulus Augustus by Germanic general Odoacer, western Europe was a mosaic of so-called successor states led by “barbarian” kings and leaders. In this essay, I will focus on the successors I consider the most successful. But first, we must clarify what is meant by the term ‘successful successor state’. As an Italian, I believe that success in late antique and the early middle ages is shown through: political stability, military might, the presence of a central authority with administrative and military branches, territorial control and expansion, achievements in the arts, as well as the willingness to adopt roman cultural traits as the base for further reforms and development.

We often consider the political disintegration of the western roman empire as the end of what we think to be the classical period. Most evidence points to the contrary however, as the so-called “barbarians” that took positions of power inside the imperial bureaucracy became heads of successor states and tried to perpetuate the western roman empire. Most probably, the average roman citizen after 476 AD would not have noticed any changes in his or her daily life, despite now being ruled by a “barbarian” king. Proof of this is the consular ivory diptych depicting Manlius Boethius, father of the famous philosopher Severinus Boethius, shown after 476 AD as a man of high social status who was able to remain in a position of power even after the fall of the western roman empire in 476 AD.

Among the many successor groups of the western roman empire, I believe the Goths were one of the most successful. Both the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, respectively western and eastern Goths, had military and commercial contacts with the Romans for centuries and seem to have had some level of admiration for their culture, as they were the most ‘romanized’ of the “barbarian” groups. This can be seen even today, as Theodoric’s capital, Ravenna, shows his attempt at reproducing late roman and classical forms of art and architecture. Ravenna was to be modeled after Constantinople, as Theodoric had been raised there. His city also took from Rome, in particular his mausoleum, which imitates the classical tombs of the emperors Augustus and Hadrian. Another example is the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in the city of Ravenna, the palatine chapel of king Theodoric, built on the model of the roman civil basilica. Its mosaics on a golden background emulate eastern roman styles.

During the 4th century AD, the Goths’ conversion to Arian Christianity, aided by Bishop Wulfila’s translation of the bible into Gothic, constituted a clear attempt of an immigrant group to better integrate into roman society, although Aryanism was later deemed a heresy at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Their adoption of Arian Christianity presented a great obstacle to the successful amalgamation of Nicene Romans and Arian Goths under the rule of Theodoric in Italy, which would have otherwise been entirely successful.

Theorodoric’s respect and admiration for senatorial elites as well as roman civilization and administration reflects itself in the Ostrogothic administration of his kingdom, which was modeled on its roman counterpart. While military power remained in the hands of the Goths, he left the administration to the senatorial elite, as a sign of admiration for their experience and political shrewdness. He also kept some positions of courtly bureaucracy and power that were directly inherited from the late roman state, such as the office of quaestor sacri palatii, held by Aurelius Cassiodorus and that of magister officiorum, held by Severinus Boethius, author of De consolatione philosophae. Based upon our earlier definition of what constitutes a successful successor state, it is clear the Goths should be seen as successful because they had the ability to adapt and integrate the imperial roman administrative machine to their tribal reality, turning gothic kings from purely military leaders into heads of state with authority over both the administrative and military branches of their reigns.

In terms of political stability however, the Goths lacked continuity as they were often on the move, first on the Danube frontier, then in Moesia, Aquitania Secunda, Italy and finally Spain. These repeated migrations is where their success becomes blighted.

The Goths were to also find success though in the realm of law. The reign of king Chindasuinth saw the compilation of the Liber Iudiciorum, later expanded by his son king Recceswinth in 654 AD, based on the work of past great legislators, such as emperor Justinian and Theodosius II. The main innovations of this code were that women were allowed to inherit land and title, and dispose of their properties independently from their husband’s consent. In his Etymologiae, a monumental collection of general knowledge and etymology, Saint Isidore of Sevilla, although not a Goth himself, shows that visigothic Spain was not a brutish and “barbaric” land, but a culturally flourishing one.

In the field of numismatics, Theodoric the Great, tried to heavily imitate late roman coinage and their characteristic abstract representations while introducing some Germanic elements such as the moustache. During the middle ages, the main Visigoth mints were located in Gaul and in the Iberian peninsula. Visigoths minted mostly solidii and tremissis, two coins which were popular during the late roman era.

The Vandals are another Germanic group that can be considered successful within our construct. Beginning in 429 AD, they were able to establish a relatively stable kingdom in North Africa thanks to the leadership of King Geiseric, a politically able and intrepid leader. Their military prowess showed in their victories against the multiple roman attempts at regaining North Africa, such as that of eastern roman general Basiliscus in 468 AD. The Vandals were successful in developing advanced military tactics, as demonstrated by their use of fireships against the Roman fleet in Cap Bon, Tunisia. They went as far as sacking Rome in 455 AD, when led by Geiseric, who did not burn the city or slaughter its inhabitants due to his promise to Pope Leo I.

Like the Goths, the Vandals also minted their own coinage which was heavily inspired by late roman numismatics.

The Vandals are usually disparaged because of their perceived brutality, of which little historical proof exists. Modern historians however consider them as perpetuators of roman values and culture. I believe the Vandals were not as successful as the Goths or the Franks as their kingdom was brief and ended when North Africa was regained in the 6th century by Belisarius, with very limited resources and manpower.

The transition from a tribal system to some form of centralized government was also a unique skill of the Franks, another Germanic people who were first reunited under King Clovis I and had significant exposure to the roman world.

In terms of territorial control, the Franks came to rule most of central Europe with their sphere of influence extending to northern Italy and the Iberian peninsula under Charlemagne. However, this large territory was divided among Charlemagne successors by the treaty of Vedun in 843 AD, reducing the opportunity for a centralized government and undermining Frankish political stability and unity.

Unlike the Goths who were Arians, the Franks converted to Nicene Christianity with the conversion of King Clovis I on December 24th 496 AD. The king’s conversion to Nicene Christianity and alliance with the church constituted an attempt to align himself with the great Christian emperors of Rome, and the future basis for the empire of Charlemagne. Frankish leaders allied themselves with the personnel of the catholic Church in order to better control their lands as well as influence the political and social spheres of the empire.

In fact, the Frankish kingdom under the Merovingian dynasty paved the way for the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, a Germanic attempt at reestablishing some level of universal authority over Western Europe. The Franks were also able to demonstrate significant military strength, defeating Islamic forces at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD thanks to the leadership of Charles Martell, mayor of the palace under the Merovingian dynasty.

Even more than under the Merovingian dynasty, the reign of Charlemagne brought about a period of flourishing cultural activity called “Carolingian Renaissance”. This cultural renaissance was characterized by the restoration, preservation and emulation of ancient and classical texts and artistic canons by scholars and clergymen of the time, pointing in the direction of the renovatio imperii that saw Charlemagne as the restorer of imperial roman authority in Western Europe. In particular, illuminated manuscripts made mostly by clergymen, such as the “Godescalc Gospels”, can be recognized as works of particular artistic and cultural significance. Another relevant cultural innovation was the introduction of the Carolingian minuscule, a clear script promoted by Charlemagne between the 8th and 9th century AD. This script provided a standardized writing style which facilitated reading and comprehension of medieval Latin throughout Europe. During his reign, Charlemagne also promoted better education for clergymen as they played a relevant role in the administration of the Carolingian empire. The reign of Clovis I, saw the compilation of the Frankish legal code around 500 AD. Unlike the Visigothic legal code, the Frankish one displayed little Roman influence. However, it nonetheless represents an important attempt to regulate life in the Frankish kingdom and, most importantly, constitutes a transition from early Germanic laws, which were oral compilations of custom, to written statutes.

In my opinion, the Goths can be considered as a worthy successor state to the western roman empire. Their close interaction with the Romans within the lands they occupied shows a strong willingness to amalgamate with them. This may have been related to the fact that they conquered coastal territories such as Italy and Spain which were the heart of the old roman world. Their conversion to Aryan Christianity was also a way to integrate themselves into the empire in the 4th century, as the empire was almost fully converted to Christianity, with the eastern roman empire having an Arian emperor, Valens. The Goths also had the cunning and perhaps the luck, to keep the roman senatorial elites in a position of power, taking advantage of their administrative skills and keeping them in line. Unlike the Goths, the Vandals did not experience the same cultural development, as their reign was relatively brief, despite occupying the most fertile lands of the old roman empire. The Franks however do rival the Goths as the most successful successor group of the western roman empire. While the Franks developed a form of centralized government under Clovis I, their interaction with the Roman world at that time was relatively marginal. In terms of religion, the Franks made a more forward looking decision than the Goths, as they converted immediately to Nicene Christianity bypassing all other heresies. As for political longevity, the Franks outlasted all other Germanic groups as they formed the nucleus of what was to become the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, the Franks were also able to demonstrate the greatest military proficiency of all of the successor states, through their halting of the Arab advance into western Europe and the defeat of the Lombards under Charlemagne, while the Visigothic kingdoms fell prey to the Arab push and Ostrogoth Italy became prey to the armies of Constantinople. Although the Franks appear to be the most successful state in terms of prowess, longevity, and cultural achievements, I nonetheless believe the Goths had a symbiotic relationship with the roman world that the Franks never had, and are thus a more direct successor state to the western roman empire.

 

 

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A Knife in the Dark: the Arcani

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Missorium of Emperor Valentinian I, surrounded by his bodyguards. From left to right, the second and fifth guard appear to be from the Lanciarii division. The Arcani were disbanded during the reign of Valentinian. Photo credit to MAH, photo J.- M. Yersin, inv. C1241.

The Arcani or Areani were a Roman paramilitary group which acted as a secret police force for the state. Their name means “the hidden ones” or “the secret ones” in Latin, which in and of itself, suggest a role of secrecy. The lack of information about the Arcani is another confirmation of their secretive role. The Arcani were mostly tasked with reconnaissance duties and intelligence missions around the frontiers, giving detailed reports about enemy forces and leaders. The majority of them most likely had military experience, especially “field agents”, whose mission it was to infiltrate enemy territory. We don’t know much about their techniques of subterfuge, but most of their covert operations probably took place during diplomatic gatherings, military expeditions or hostage exchanges. During the late Roman period, they were probably responsible for multiple assassinations of foreign chieftains and kings. They may have worked alongside the Exploratores and Praeventores in supervising the frontier. According to late Roman author and military officer, Ammianus Marcellinus, by the second half of the 4th century AD, the Arcani had become an old and corrupt institution. After being accused of collaborating with the enemy, particularly in regards to the Great Conspiracy, a joint invasion of Britain which included the Attacotti, the Franks, the Saxons and the Picts, the Arcani were disbanded by Count Theodosius the elder, father of future emperor Theodosius I. The Arcani were, and continue to be, often subject of romanticized depictions and wild speculation, especially because very little is known about them. Perhaps the mystery surrounding the Arcani was meant from the beginning?

 

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.

 

Sexuality and Contraception in the Middle Ages

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Credit to http://www.odee.com.

The medieval ages were a sexually diverse time. On the one hand, the spiritual authority of the Church denounced lust and everything/everyone associated with it, especially women. On the other hand, the medieval literary conception of “Courtly Love” cherished femininity as well as the idea of “falling in love”. Marriage in medieval times was a political affair, love was often sidelined. Women always felt the pressure to produce  heirs, particularly males, and were considered men’s property. Marriage proposals were often decided when women were at the tender age of 9 or 10. Therefore, most women and men were involved in adulterous affairs. As a result of this, medieval lovers who wanted sex but not its consequences turned to medical experts who then developed exotic contraceptive techniques for women. The practice of drinking a man’s urin or of swallowing a bee were adopted by women of these times. By scrubbing cedar oil on their womb, women, according to medieval experts, would have prevented contact with the male sperm during sex. Coitus interruptus was also a popular contraceptive method used during the Middle Ages, though an ineffective one. Wrapping herbs in linen and letting them hang from a woman’s neck among her breasts was also a curious contraceptive technique of the time. Lastly, if a woman ate sage cooked for three days, she wouldn’t have been able to conceive. As you can see, medieval medics only had a very basic understanding of the human body and how it functioned during reproduction. They relied instead on Humorism, a system of medicine adopted by Ancient Greek and Roman physicians and philosophers, of balancing the vital “humors” that were present in the body. Medieval women’s main ideological adversary was the Catholic Church. In fact, priests believed that women, descending from Eve, were the carriers of the “Original Sin” and therefore the ones who were overcome by lust and sexual desire and ultimately responsible for seducing men and leading them to sin. Sex was viewed as a filthy and scandalous affair by the Church, and therefore presented as taboo. As a result, virginity was considered to be the highest virtue a woman could possess. This concept was in direct contradiction with the image of femininity and the idea of “Courtly Love” spread by the troubadours of Southern France. In fact, this tradition and the related movements which sprang up throughout Europe, portrayed women as angelic beings, pure and kind, who were pursued and worshipped by their extramarital lovers.

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Credit to http://www.irishhistorypodcast.ie.

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