Transition to the Middle Ages – Ostrogoths, Lombards, Franks

We are not to suppose that the settlement of Germans within the Roman Empire ended with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, near the close of the fifth century. The following centuries witnessed fresh invasions and the establishment of new Germanic states. The study of these troubled times leads us from the classical world to the world of medieval Europe, from the history of antiquity to the history of the Middle Ages.

The Ostrogoths under Theodoric

The kingdom which Odoacer established on Italian soil did not long endure. It was soon overthrown by the Ostrogoths. At the time of the “fall” of Rome in 476 A.D. they occupied a district south of the middle Danube, which the government at Constantinople had hired them to defend. The Ostrogoths proved to be expensive and dangerous allies. When, therefore, their chieftain, Theodoric, offered to lead his people into Italy and against Odoacer, the Roman emperor gladly sanctioned the undertaking.

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Ostrogothic Invasion of Italy, 488-493 A.D.

Theodoric led the Ostrogoths–women and children as well as warriors– across the Alps and came down to meet Odoacer and his soldiers in battle. After suffering several defeats, Odoacer shut himself up in the strong fortress of Ravenna. Theodoric could not capture the place and at last agreed to share with Odoacer the government of Italy, if the latter would surrender. The agreement was never carried into effect. When Theodoric entered Ravenna, he invited Odoacer to a great feast and at its conclusion slew him in cold blood. Theodoric had now no rival in Italy.

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Theodoric king of Italy, 493-526 A.D.

Though Theodoric gained the throne by violence and treachery, he soon showed himself to be, as a ruler, wise, broad-minded, and humane. He had lived as a youth in the imperial court at Constantinople and there had become well acquainted with Roman ideas of law and order. Roman civilization impressed him; and he wished not to destroy but to preserve it. Theodoric reigned in Italy for thirty-three years, and during this time the country enjoyed unbroken peace and prosperity.

Theodoric’s rule in Italy

The enlightened policy of Theodoric was exhibited in many ways. He governed Ostrogoths and Romans with equal consideration. He kept all the old offices, such as the senatorship and the consulate, and by preference filled them with men of Roman birth. His chief counselors were Romans. A legal code, which he drew up for the use of Ostrogoths and Romans alike, contained only selections from Roman law. He was remarkably tolerant and, in spite of the fact that the Ostrogoths were Arians, was always ready to extend protection to Catholic (*) Christians. Theodoric patronized literature and gave high positions to Roman writers. He restored the cities of Italy, had the roads and aqueducts repaired, and so improved the condition of agriculture that Italy, from a wheat-importing, became a wheat-exporting, country. At Ravenna, the Ostrogothic capital, Theodoric erected many notable buildings, including a palace, a mausoleum, and several churches. The remains of these structures are still to be seen.

Theodoric’s foreign policy 

The influence of Theodoric reached far beyond Italy. He allied himself by marriage with most of the Germanic rulers of the West. His second wife was a Frankish foreign princess, his sister was the wife of a Vandal chieftain, one of his daughters married a king of the Visigoths, and another daughter wedded a Burgundian king. Theodoric by these alliances brought about friendly relations between the various barbarian peoples. It seemed, in fact, as if the Roman dominions in the West might again be united under a single ruler; as if the Ostrogoths might be the Germanic people to carry on the civilizing work of Rome. But no such good fortune was in store for Europe.

End of the Ostrogothic kingdom, 553 A.D.

Theodoric died in 526 A.D. The year after his death, a great emperor, Justinian, came to the throne at Constantinople. Justinian had no intention of abandoning to the Ostrogothic Germans the rich provinces of Sicily and Italy. Although the Ostrogoths made a stubborn resistance to his armies, in the end they were so completely overcome that they agreed to withdraw from the Italian peninsula. The feeble remnant of their nation filed sadly through the passes of the Alps and, mingling with other barbarian tribes, disappeared from history.

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The Lombards in Italy, 568-774 A.D.

The destruction of the Ostrogothic kingdom did not free Italy of the Germans. Soon after Justinian’s death the country was again overrun, this time by the Lombards. The name of these invaders (in Latin, “Langobardi”) may have been derived from the long beards that gave them such a ferocious aspect. The Lombards were the last of the Germanic peoples to quit their northern wilderness and seek new homes in sunny Italy. They seized the territory north of the river Po–a region ever since known as Lombardy– and established their capital at Pavia. The Lombards afterwards made many settlements in central and southern Italy, but never succeeded in subduing the entire peninsula.

Lombard rule in Italy

The rule of the Lombards at first bore hardly on Italy, which they treated as a conquered land. In character they seem to been far less attractive than their predecessors the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Many of them were still heathen when they entered Italy and others were converts to the Arian form of Christianity. In course of time, however, the Lombards accepted Roman Catholicism (*) and adopted the customs of their subjects. They even forgot their Germanic language and learned to speak Latin (**). The Lombard kingdom lasted over two centuries, until it was overthrown by the Franks.

Results of the Lombard Invasion

The failure of the Lombards to conquer all Italy had important results in later history. Sicily and the extreme southern part of the Italian peninsula, besides large districts containing the cities of Naples, Rome, Genoa, Venice, and Ravenna, continued to belong to the Roman Empire in the East. The rulers at Constantinople could not exercise effective control over their Italian possessions, now that these were separated from one another by the Lombard territories. The consequence was that Italy broke up into a number of small and practically independent states, which never combined into one kingdom until our own time. The ideal of a united Italy waited thirteen hundred years for its realization.

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The Franks

In 486 A.D., just ten years after the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the Franks went forth to conquer under Clovis, one of their chieftains. By overcoming the governor of Roman Gaul, in a battle near Soissons, Clovis destroyed the last vestige of imperial rule in the West and extended the Frankish dominions to the river Loire. Clovis then turned against his German neighbors. East of the Franks, in the region now known as Alsace, lived the Alamanni, a people whose name still survives in the French name of Germany. The Alamanni were defeated in a great battle near Strassburg (496 A.D.), and much of their territory was added to that of the Franks. Clovis subsequently conquered the Visigothic possessions between the Loire and the Pyrenees, and compelled the Burgundians to pay tribute. Thus Clovis made himself supreme over nearly the whole of Gaul and even extended his authority to the other side of the Rhine.

The Franks and the Gallo-Romans

Clovis reigned in western Europe as an independent king, but he acknowledged a sort of allegiance to the Roman emperor by accepting the title of honorary consul. Henceforth to the Gallo-Romans he represented the distant ruler at Constantinople. The Roman inhabitants of Gaul were not oppressed; their cities were preserved; and their language and laws were undisturbed. Clovis, as a statesman, may be compared with his eminent contemporary, Theodoric the Ostrogoth.

Christianization of the Franks, 496 A.D.

The Franks were still a heathen people, when they began their career of conquest. Clovis, however, had married a Burgundian princess, Clotilda, who was a devout Catholic (*) and an ardent advocate of Christianity. The story is told how, when Clovis was hard-pressed by the Alamanni at the battle of Strassburg, he vowed that if Clotilda’s God gave him victory he would become a Christian. The Franks won, and Clovis, faithful to his vow, had himself baptized by St. Remi, bishop of Reims. “Bow down thy head,” spoke the bishop, as the Frankish king approached the font, “adore what thou hast burned, burn what thou has adored.” With Clovis were baptized on that same day three thousand of his warriors.

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Significance of Clovis’s conversion 

The conversion of Clovis was an event of the first importance. He and his Franks naturally embraced the orthodox Catholic (*) faith, which was that of his wife, instead of the Arian form of Christianity, which had been accepted by almost all the other Germanic invaders. Thus, by what seems the merest accident, Catholicism (*), instead of Arianism, became the religion of a large part of western Europe. More than this, the conversion of Clovis gained for the Frankish king and his successors the support of conversion the Roman Church. The friendship between the popes and the Franks afterwards ripened into a close alliance which greatly influenced European history.

(Source: The book “Early European History“, by Hutton Webster)

(*) Back then, there was no ‘Catholic’ Church in the way people perceive it in our times. There was the One, Undivided, Holy, Catholic -in the literal, greek, meaning of the word, i.e. ‘Universal’- Apostolic Church, that was Orthodox in faith. But the practical deeds with reference to the Faith in East and West, from this point of History and on, start to differ a lot. And gradually, eventually, and moreover unavoidably, led to the separation of the East and West. From a point in History and onwards, and for a variety of reasons, Nova Roma, i.e. Constantinople, could not enforce Roman rule and law in the Italian peninsula. Hence, from that point on, the Popes of Rome act ‘independently’ -and indeed more politically- of the surviving Roman State. The Patriarch in the East could never behave in the same manner, even if he wanted to; the Roman Emperor and  Roman Law had decisive power to prevent it. So, the now ‘independent’ Pope invited the -strong- Franks as ‘protectors’ of the Church of Rome. And this Pope decided the coronation of Charlemagne. As it is written in the same book, our ‘Source‘ for this article:

To reject the eastern ruler, in favor of the great Frankish king, was an emphatic method of asserting Rome’s independence of Constantinople.”

i.e., ‘independence’ from the surviving, legitimate Roman State. The conversion practices in the West during these times appear radically different than what they used to be before the German invasions, and were surely totally different from the ones practised in the Roman East. In the East, the christian conversions -to Orthodoxy– hardly ever have included massacres of unbelievers to enforce conversion -in a 1000 years period, mostly diplomacy, culture and impression were used for East Rome’s conversion propaganda- something which the Carolingian dynasty, especially Charles himself, have done from the very beginning, as our ‘Source‘ informs us:

Much of Charlemagne’s long life, almost to its close, was filled with warfare. He fought chiefly against the still-heathen peoples on the frontiers of the Frankish realm. The subjugation of the Saxons, who lived in the forests and marshes of northwestern Germany, took many years. Charlemagne at the head of a great army would invade their territory, beat them in battle, and receive their submission, only to find his work undone by a sudden rising of the liberty-loving natives, after the withdrawal of the Franks. Once when Charlemagne was exasperated by a fresh revolt, he ordered forty-five hundred prisoners to be executed. This savage massacre was followed by equally severe laws, which threatened with death all Saxons who refused baptism or observed the old heathen rites. By such harsh means Charlemagne at length broke down the spirit of resistance among the people.”

and, with the blesses of the Pope of Rome:

The pope, in turn, was glad to reward the man who had protected the Church and had done so much to spread the Catholic faith among the heathen.”

And, unfortunately, things like this never stopped happening until the 20th century.

Our reader may now want to read this: https://novoscriptorium.com/2019/01/22/empire-of-god-conversion-propaganda-in-the-christian-roman-empire/

(**) This must be an indication that the Lombards were much fewer in numbers than the native Romans. Hence, eventually, they were ‘absorbed’ by the ‘stronger’, more influencial culture and its population numbers, too.

Research-Selection-Comments: Anastasius Philoponus

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