The thirty years which followed the death of Justinian are covered by three reigns, those of Justinus II [565-578], Tiberius Constantinus [578-582], and Maurice [582-602]. These three emperors were men of much the same character as the predecessors of Justinian; each of them was an experienced official of mature age, who was selected by the reigning emperor as his most worthy successor. Justinus was the favourite nephew of Justinian, and had served him for many years as Curopalates, or Master of the Palace. Tiberius Constantinus was “Count of the Excubiti”, a high Court officer in the suite of Justinus: Maurice again served Tiberius as “Count of the Foederati”, or chief of the Barbarian auxiliaries. They were all men of capacity, and strove to do their best for the empire: historians concur in praising the justice of Justinus, the liberality and humanity of Tiberius, the piety of Maurice. Yet under them the empire was steadily going down hill: the exhausting effects of the reign of Justinian were making themselves felt more and more, and at the end of the reign of Maurice a time of chaos and disaster was impending, which came to a head under his successor.
The internal causes of the disaster of this time were the weakening of the empire by the great plague of 544 and still more by the grinding exactions of Justinian’s financial system. Its external phenomena were invasions by new hordes from the north, combined with long and exhausting wars with Persia.
The virtues of the emperors seem to have helped them little: Justin’s justice made him feared rather than loved; Tiberius’s liberality rendered him popular, but drained the treasury; Maurice, on the other hand, who was economical and endeavoured to fill the coffers which his predecessors had emptied, was therefore universally condemned as avaricious.
The troubles on the frontier which vexed the last thirty years of the sixth century were due to three separate sets of enemies—the Lombards in Italy, the Slavs and Avars in the Balkan Peninsula, and the Persians in the East.
The empire held undisputed possession of Italy for no more than fifteen years after the expulsion of the Ostrogoths in A.D. 553. Then a new enemy came in from the north, following the same path that had already served for the Visigoths of Alaric and the Ostrogoths of Theodoric. The new-comers were the race of the Lombards, who had hitherto dwelt in Hungary, on the Middle Danube, and had more frequently been found as friends than as foes of the Romans. But their warlike and ambitious King Alboin, having subdued all his nearer neighbours, began to covet the fertile plains of Italy, where he saw the emperors keeping a very inadequate garrison, now that the Ostrogoths were finally driven away.
In A.D. 568 Alboin and his hordes crossed the Alps, bringing with them wife and child, and flocks and herds, while their old land on the Danube was abandoned to the Avars. The Lombards took possession of the flat country in the north of Italy, as far as the line of the Po, with very little difficulty. The region, we are told, was almost uninhabited owing to the combined effects of the great plague and the Ostrogothic war. In this once fertile and populous, but now deserted, lowland, the Lombards settled down in great numbers. There they have left their name as the permanent denomination of the plain of Lombardy. Only one city, the strong fortress of Pavia, held out against them for long; when it fell in 571, after a gallant defence of three years, Alboin made it his capital, instead of choosing one of the larger and more famous towns of Milan and Verona, the older centres of life in the land he had conquered.
After subduing Lombardy the king pushed forward into Etruria, and overran the valley of the Arno. But in the midst of his wars he was cut off, if the legend tells us the truth, by the vengeance of his wife Queen Rosamund. She was the daughter of Cunimund, King of the Gepidae, whom Alboin had slain in battle. The fallen monarch’s skull was, by the victor’s orders, mounted in gold and fashioned into a cup. Long years after, amid the revelry of a drinking bout, Alboin had the ghastly cup filled with wine, and bade his wife bear it around to his chosen warriors. The queen obeyed, but vowed to revenge herself by her husband’s death. By the sacrifice of her honour she bribed Alboin’s armour-bearer to slay his master in his bed, and then fled with him to Constantinople [A.D. 573].
But the death of Alboin did not put an end to the Lombard conquests in Italy. The kingdom, indeed, broke up for a time into several independent duchies, but the Lombard chiefs continued to win territory from the empire. Two of them founded the considerable duchies of Spoleto and Benevento, the one in Central, and the other in Southern Italy. These states survived as independent powers, but the rest of the Lombard territories were reunited by King Autharis, in 584, and he and his immediate successors completed the conquest of Northern Italy.
Thus, during the reigns of Justin, Tiberius II., and Maurice, the greater part of Justinian’s Italian conquests were lost, and formed once more into Teutonic states. The emperor retained only two large stretches of territory, the one in Central Italy, where he held a broad belt of land, extending right across the peninsula, from Ravenna and Ancona on the Adriatic, to Rome on the Tyrrhenian Sea; the other comprehending the extreme south of the land—the “toe” and “heel” of the Italian boot — and comprising the territory of Bruttium and the Calabrian towns of Taranto, Brindisi, and Otranto. Sardinia and Sicily were also left untouched by the Lombards, who never succeeded in building a fleet. The Roman territory which stretched across Central Italy cut the Lombards in two, the king ruling the main body of them in Tuscany and the valley of the Po: while the dukes of Spoleto and Benevento maintained an isolated existence in the south.
This partition of Italy between the Lombards and the empire is worth remembering, from the fact that never again, till our own day, was the whole peninsula gathered into a single state.
(Source: “The Byzantine Empire”, by C. W. C. Oman)
Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus