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.
The Coin Collection of the Kusnthistorischesmuseum in Vienna, Austria is one of the five largest and most important coin collections in the world. Its Münzkabinett owns over half a million objects which make it one of the largest collections of its kind, and it can be traced back until the 16th century. Most of the coins and medallions listed below are part of a special collection of the highest-carat gold pieces from the Vienna Coin Cabinet once-imperial collection. Many of the objects on display were honorific gifts to the emperor or were targeted acquisitions for the imperial collection.
Golden coin of Emperor Constantine the Great, a valiant general and the man responsible for the Edict of Toleration emanated in Milan in 313 AD.
Coin of Philip the Arab, one of the innumerable military emperors of the 3rd century AD.
Coin of Eastern roman Emperor Theodosius II, author of the Codex Theodosianus, a compilation of general laws and edicts.
Medallion depicting emperor Constantius II, middle child of Constantine I and Fausta. Constantius is often underrated as a leader despite having successfully defended the Empire’s frontiers on various occasions.
Medallion of emperor Valentinian the Great. Soldier emperor, cultured man, excellent strategist and good administrator, Valentinian was one of the last strong political figures of the roman West.
Huge gold coin depicting the brother emperors, Valentinian the Great and Valens. Valentinian died of a stroke in 375 AD, in modern day Hungary. His brother Valens died in battle in 378 AD near Adrianople, modern day Edirne.
Splendid gold medallion depicting Eastern roman emperor Valens. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, Valens was a good looking man of medium height and with olive skin.
Another beautiful medallion of Valens. The emperor sternly defended the arian christian cause. Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that he was an extremely loyal friend.
Yet another medallion of Valens. Valens was the son of Gratian the Elder, a prominent military commander.
Guess who this is? That’s right, it’s our pal Valens. I think it’s safe to say he enjoyed being portrayed.
Valens my friend, how many times have I told you? Don’t be too narcissistic! The guy never listened…
Medallion of Valens. The emperor began his career as a Protector Domesticus and was then elevated to the throne by his brother Valentinian I.
Amazing medallion of Constantine I, the emperor who built the city of Constantinople, modern day Instanbul.
Coin of emperor Constantine I, founder of the original Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome.
Coin of Valentinian I, a legend of the Late Roman Era.
Coin of emperor Julian, also called “The Apostate”. He tried to revive the pagan cults in the mostly Christian roman empire.
Golden coin of Constans I, represented holding a globe which symbolyzes power.
Coin of a byzantine emperor holding a cross.
Silver coin of emperor Constantine I, known as “Trachala” for his big neck.
Silver coin of Constantius II, wearing the imperial diadem.
Coin of Constantius II, the man who ordered the execution of Caesar Gallus.
Coin representing Valentinian and Valens seated on the throne. Barbarians or slaves are prostrating beneath them.
Golden solidus depicting Constantius II among his soldiers and officers.
Amazing and rare big medallion depicting emperor Valens on horseback.
Coin depicting emperors Carus and Carinus, military emperors of the 3rd century AD.
Golden bar which, on the left, depicts three emperors: Theodosius I, Valentinian II and Arcadius.
Golden bar issued by Theodosius I.
Coin of Constans I, youngest son of Constantine I.
Coin of emperor Maximian, soldier emperor and collegue of Diocletian. He is often portrayed as a violent and cruel man, especially by Christians. His real character was probably different, we will never know.
“La vostra fedeltà brilla come stella intorno a noi e invidiata da tutti i popoli risplende nel mondo” – Federico II di Svevia ai pugliesi
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.
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.
Giustina was born in Picenum, Italy to Giusto, the governor of the city under the emperor Constantius II. She was famously beautiful and ambitious, marrying the usurper Magnus Magnentius, a commander of the Ioviani and Herculiani. After his suicide in 353 AD, Giustina became the second wife of emperor Valentinian I, a man of complex personality and great military prowess. According to legend, Valentinian’s first wife, Marina Severa, was the one who, being struck by Giustina’s beauty, presented her to the emperor. She gave Valentinian a son, Valentinian II, and became the stepmother of the emperor’s first son Gratian. During Gratian’s reign, Giustina lived in Sirmium, Pannonia. As most Roman empresses, she wore elaborate jewels, sported eccentric hairstyles and long, rich earrings. When her son Valentinian II came to power at the age of four, Giustina ruled in his name, showing the full extent of her ambition and strong personality. Being a fervent Arian Christian, Giustina ferociously opposed the powerful and influential bishop of Milan, Ambrose who was a Nicean Christian. Giustina died in 387 AD while traveling. Lacking her protection, her son Valentinian II was assassinated soon after. Giustina demonstrated an impressive personality, able to control the political scene at court even when the odds were stacked against her. With her legendary beauty, she enchanted the late Roman courtiers while also dominating them with her iron personality.
Emperor Majorian was born around the year 420 AD. Coming from a prominent military family, Majorian served as an officer under the Magister Militum Flavius Aetius, a very able commander. Majorian lived in a violent epoch in which most of the western Roman Empire was flooded by germanic tribes or dismembered by civil strife and economic collapse. The professional legions, the traditional core of the Roman army, were disintegrating and increasingly replaced by germanic warriors. The empire was led by Valentinian III, an ineffective emperor, mostly concerned with issues arising from the rapidly growing Christian church. Under Aetius, Majorian distinguished himself as a cavalry tribune against the Franks of King Chlodius. On June 20th 451 AD, the armies of Aetius clashed with the Huns and their allies, led by King Attila, on the plains of Chalons en Champagne in Gaul, modern day France. The Romans, aided by the Visigoths of King Torrismund, were victorious and Majorian managed to survive the bloody battle. In 454 AD, however, Majorian’s commander Aetius was brutally assassinated by emperor Valentinian III in Ravenna, Italy which had become the fortified capital of the western empire.
One year later, Valentinian himself was hacked to pieces by two gothic soldiers loyal to Aetius in the Campus Martius in Rome. The western empire was in disarray. The two most important men of the empire had been killed, and inevitably, a power vacuum soon followed, causing a calamitous situation in ancient Rome. First, a roman aristocrat by the name of Petronius Maximus was elevated to the imperial throne, though his reign lasted just sixty days. The gaul Avitus replaced him, and managed to hold onto power for fifteen months. He was ultimately deposed, however, by Majorian and by his germanic coconspirator, Ricimer. Majorian was subsequently proclaimed emperor by the troops in 457 AD. During his reign, Majorian successfully defended Italy from foreign threats, strengthened the army by recruiting german warriors, and reconquered Gaul with the use of arms and diplomacy. He failed, however, to recapture Northern Africa, which had been previously conquered by the Vandals, as his fleet was destroyed by traitors near Elche, Spain.
Apart from being a great soldier, Majoran was also a cultured man and an admirer of philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius. Majorian was also a stern legislator as he wrote the Novellae Maiorani, a collection of general laws. The emperor minted coins in gold, silver and bronze and was often depicted with a helmet in order to show his military background. He tried to cooperate with the senatorial elites by involving them in civil administration. He also had a keen interest in safeguarding public monuments which were suffering from looting. The successful reign of Majorian ended when his germanic Magister Militum, Ricimer, betrayed him. Ricimer met the emperor with a band of troops near Tortona and arrested him. Majorian was deposed and on August 7th 461 AD, and was beheaded near the river Iria, in the Italian province of Liguria. Majorian can be considered the last truly successful western emperor as he was a keen reformer and an able military leader, truly deserving, in my opinion, the title of Last of the Romans.
We all know the floating city of Venice as the Most Serene Republic, one of the naval powers of the Mare Nostrum or Mediterranean Sea. How did Venice become this powerful? What are the origins of the city? The epic story of the Serenissima starts in the Late Roman Era. During Attila’s Hunnic invasion of Northern Italy in the 5th century AD, refugees from the conquered cities of Padua, Aquileia, Altino and Treviso took refuge in the marshy lagoons over which the city of Venetia or Venetia would later be built. These people became known as Incolae Lacunaeor lagoon dwellers. When the Italian Peninsula was reconquered by Emperor Giustinian’s armies in the 6th century AD, the region surrounding Venice was organized into the Exarchateof Ravenna, a province administered by a military governor, the Exarch, based in the previous imperial capital of Ravenna. Its distance from Constantinople as well as its strategic position made the city of Venice increasingly autonomous from the Eastern Romans. Early semi-independent forms of government like the Tribuni Maiores appeared in Venice during the 6th century AD. Governed by the Doge since the 8th century AD, the city soon became an empire capable of fielding entire transport fleets for the crusade movement.
The Doge was aided by the Great Council or Maggior Consiglio, a political organ and council of noble elders exclusive to those enrolled in the Libro d’Oro or Golden Book, the formal directory of nobles in the Republic of Venice. An example of a patrician Venetian family is the distinguished Contarini family, one of the twelve that elected the first doge in 697 and later gave Venice eight doges as well as many other eminent citizens. Another noted clan was the Dandolo family, of which the famous “immortal” Doge Enrico Dandolo was a member. The Doge of Venice is strictly related to late roman military hierarchy. In fact, the term Doge comes from Dux, which in Latin means “military commander” and in the late roman world indicated the officer in charge of the Limitanei or Riparienses, semi-professional troops who guarded the Roman limes or frontier. The city also had its own order of knights: the Cavalieri di San Marco, famous for their insignadepicting the San Marco lion and the Cavalieri della stuola D’Oro. As Venice developed into a powerful thalassocracy, from “θαλασσα”, meaning sea and “κρατεῖν”, to rule, trade with the eastern Roman Empire and its capital Constantinople flourished. Trade with Constantinople granted access to the Aegean islands and the Muslim world to the powerful fleets of the Republic of Venice. Eastern Mediterranean trade routes made Venice on the most sprawling cities of Western Europe. Employment of mercenary bodies and companies was extensive in the Republic of Venice as the city and its dominions offered only a small quantity of manpower. For example, the “στρατιώται” or stradioti in Italian, were a body of Greek, Albanian and Dalmatian mercenaries who fought as light cavalry and skirmishers. Also, the use of capitani di ventura or venture captains, captains of mercenary companies, was extremely popular in Venice and in northern Italian cities from the late medieval ages and throughout the Renaissance. Bartolomeo D’Alviano was a famous venture captain employed by the Republic of Venice during the Italian wars.
The Persian army under the Sassanid dynasty of Late antiquity was an extremely efficient force, more loyal and reliable than its Parthian predecessor. The heavy cavalry or cataphracts, taken from the Azadan or minor Persian nobility (feudal nobles) were its core divisions. The 10.000 knights guarding the King of Kings, the Zhayedan or Immortals, were cataphracts as well.
The 1.000 elite Pushtigban were the same type of heavy cavalry and were based at the capital Ctesiphon. The charge of a shock unit like the cataphracts in battle produced massive damage to enemy divisions and also had great psychological impact on the enemy. In fact, these knights were completely encased in armor, including their faces. According to roman officer and author Amianus Marcellinus, cataphracts looked like “moving iron statues”. The military officers of the Sassanid army were drawn from the Wuzurgan nobility. Light cavalry such as skirmishers and horse archers was mostly supplied by the bellicose tribes of Central Asia like the Hepthalites and the Massagetae. Regiments of light Arab cavalry, mostly provided by the Lakhmids, were always present in Persian armies. The Sassanids also had infantry, though most of their footmen were not trained or professional soldiers but levied and seasonal troops, mostly being armed with spears and large wicker shields. However, an elite body of infantry troops also existed: the Daylamite warriors, Daylamig in Middle Persian.
These warriors were drawn from the mountainous regions of Northern Iran, the Southern shores of the Caspian Sea. They reached such a high status that 4.000 of them were chosen as private bodyguards by Shah Khosrow II, thereby forming the Gond-i Shahanshah or Army of the King of Kings. The Sassanid army was a very efficient sieging force, using mining techniques, siege towers, catapults and battering rams to siege walled and well fortified cities like the roman fortress of Dura Europos. War elephants from India carried little fortified towers with archer support on top. The elephant corps was under a special chief, known as the Zend-hapet, or “Commander of the Indians”.
High Ranking Officers:
- Erahn Spahbed – Commander in chief of the army, the equivalent of a Roman Magister Militum.
- Spahbed – Army commander and field general, Middle Persian Spahpat.
- Pushtigban Salar – Commander of the Pushtigban bodyguards based in Ctesiphon, Mesopotamia.
- Eran Anbaraghdad – Officer responsible for the army supplies, of crucial importance while campaigning.
- Stor-Bizeshk – Senior officer responsible for the health of the steeds, essential for the cataphracts and very knoledgiable about herbs.
- Arghbed – Commander of a fort or castle.
- Payghan Salar – Chief of an infantry division, guarded by elite Daylamites, Northern Iranian warriors.
- Savaran Sardar – Head of a cavalry division.
- Varhranighan Khvadhay – Commander of the 10.000 Zhayedan bodyguards (the Immortals).
The Ioviani were created by soldier Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD) as an elite guard unit. The name Ioviani derives from Iuppiter, the patron god of the legion. Later on, they became part of the Palatina Legions of the new Constantinian army as elite regiments led personally by the emperor. They served under emperor Valentinian the Great as Ioviani Seniores in his aggressive campaigns on the Rhine Frontier, taking part in the Battle of Solicinium in 368 AD.
They also served in the province of Britannia under Comes Theodosius against the Picts, the Franks and the Saxons. In the year 388 AD, the Ioviani fought again in Germany, losing their commander Heraclius in battle. They took part in the Battle of the Frigidus in 395 AD. They served under the Magister Militum Flavius Stilicho and in this period they were headquartered in Pisa, Tuscany. They fought against the rebellion of the Comes Gildo in North Africa alongside the Herculiani Seniores. At the beginning of the 5th century, the Ioviani Seniores were probably still based in Pisa and were one of the last units to dissolve in the west, remaining loyal to the emperor till the very end. The Ioviani were one of the most senior Palatina Legions in the west. They were proficient in the throwing of plumbata, a form of lead-weighted dart carried by heavy infantry. Their shield crest was a red eagle on a blue field. Before engaging in battle, the Ioviani would perform the barritus, a roman war chant of germanic origin that consisted in a crescendo of low pitched noises enhanced by putting the mouth close to the shield. They fought as heavy infantry, armed with a long spatha and an oval shield. They probably also carried short spears.