The Restoration of Rome – Peter Heather

Barbarian popes and imperial pretenders

This is the third book in a series about the end of the classical world and the development of modern Europe.  The first centered on the fall of the Western Empire, and the second was on the change in Europe from a Germanic dominated to a Slavic dominated eastern Europe and Balkans.

The Restoration of Rome covers another aspect of post-Roman Europe – the attempt to recover the idea of the Empire in a new world.  First, came the attempts to physically duplicate the Empire – starting with Theodoric the Ostrogoth.

Within 20 years or so of the Fall of the West, Theodoric took a faction of Goths into the Eastern Empire to make their fortune, just as many other groups had in the last several hundred years.  With a little luck and cleverness, his faction grew to be powerful enough to be considered a threat to the Empire.  Thus they were ‘invited’ to move into Italy to take it away from Odovacar, who had put the final nail in the Western Empire.

Theodoric succeeded very well, and managed to dominate the successor states and become the arbiter of the region.  For a short time he even acquired south France and Spain.  He and his court saw himself as a true successor of Rome.  And he might well have pulled it off – except he did not produce an heir.

This left an opening for the second attempt to physically recover the Western Empire – Justinian’s attempt to recover the West.  He managed to destroy the Ostrogothic state in the end, but did not have the strength to hold on when faced with the subsequent threats of the Lombards in Italy and the Muslims in the East.

The third successor to claim Imperial honors was Charlemagne and the Frankish Empire in North France and Germany.  This was the first successor to move beyond the Mediterranean core and set up an Empire in Europe proper.  Again, they managed to produce a mini Enlightenment that lasted a while, but soon the power of the Empire faded, this time for structural reasons.  Dr Heather notes that a feudal state has a fundamental issue with rewarding followers – a state like Rome can give jobs and money from tax revenues perpetually.  A feudal state leader needs to give land to followers, which results in a permanent transfer of power from the central government to the aristocracy. Eventually, central power fades away.  This happened to the Frankish Empire, and the subsequent Ottonian Empires in Germany.

The final chapter is a new take on claiming the mantle of Rome – the Papacy. Rather than using force to make a physical copy of Rome, that could not be sustained in a post-Roman world, the Papacy claimed a moral successorship to Rome and became a moral arbiter of the successor states in Europe.  They had to pull some interesting tricks to pull it off, but the Middle Ages until the Reformation and later centered around the power of the Papacy in Europe.

This is a great, readable series on not only the history of this period, but also its reflection on other times.


Belisarius – Ian Hughes

The Last Roman General

This is the last book, chronologically at least, in Hughes’ trilogy featuring major generals of Rome in the late empire or early Byzantine empire.  This one features Belisarius, a general who won a major victory against the Persians, was sent by Justinian to conquer the Vandal kingdom in North Africa and then the Ostrogoth kingdom in Italy.

As in the other books, Hughes does a great job in collating the available information into a coherent story.  It was interesting that he seemed to downplay the traditional idea that Justinian was jealous of Belisarius and his success.

However, unlike the other two books Hughes seems to go out of his way to try and puncture the general’s reputation by downplaying the victories as due to “luck” or “good subordinates” and crowing about the setbacks and defeats.  When a subordinate disobeys orders, it is the general who is attacked, since he should be able to rule a fractious collections of nobles with their own personal armies like a modern day sergeant can bully a raw recruit.

Hughes seemed to certainly be a lot more understanding of the similar problems Aetius and Stilicho faced than he is here.  Belisarius does get his share of hero worshipping press, but we don’t have to compensate for that with slanted attacks.  His merits will stand or fall on the facts.

Aside from that, an excellent book from the author and Pen and Sword Books, who I am glad to have discovered as a publisher of ancient military history over the last few months.

Vanished Kingdoms – Byzantion

This chapter in Norman Davies‘ book on states that have vanished from the European scene is an amazingly ironic one, I presume unintentionally.  The thesis of the chapter is that the Byzantine Empire gets a short shrift from Historians.  Davies demonstrates this by giving it short shrift in his book.

The state, that lasted from the 300s AD to 1453 AD, gets about 20 pages.  Tolosa, a state that was crushed by the Franks after living a hundred years or so, gets about the same.

But at least Tolosa gets to be discussed.  Byzantium’s chapter is about how historians refuse to give it credit for its accomplishments – as a historian doesn’t discuss them again.  He rails at Gibbon for dismissing the dynasties in a long chapter – as he works past them without any mention at all.  And he is disdainful of Enlightenment historians and their anti-Christian bias, while in the next sentence writing off Theodosius I as a “Ceasaro-papist”.

Not that I know what the hell that means, but since at the time there was no powerful Pope in Rome, and Bishop Ambrose of Milan famously made Theodosius do public penance for wrongdoing, this seems to be the pot calling the kettle black to me.

Then while decrying the absence of knowledge of later Byzantine history as he skips over it, he does have time to describe who got jobs recently in university teaching about it, and the chats they had with the hired workmen about it.

Byzantium may be the greatest of the Vanished Kingdoms as he writes.  It is certainly absent from this chapter.


The Frankish Empire – Thomas Hodgkin

Finished the final book in Hodgkin’s Folio Society series on The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire.  This takes the situation in the West up to the death of Charlemagne.

The earlier alignment of the Papacy with the Byzantine Empire has been replaced by one with the Franks, who were strong enough to remove the Lombard threat for good.  The Pope received land in central Italy that would become the Papal States, which formalized the dual nature of the Papacy as both a religious leader and a secular one for the next thousand years or so, tempting Popes to muddle church matters with political ones.  Although the Franks rule supreme, already the signs are there of the future struggle between the Papacy and the German Holy Roman Emperors that would pop up in the future.

Meanwhile, the political exclusion of the Byzantines fueled the future religious separation into the Eastern Orthodox church that would be finalized in a few hundred years.

I always like reading this series even more so as I become more familiar with the period.  The breakup of Rome has become increasingly interesting to me in recent years.  I wonder if there is a similar overview of the next five hundred years available.

The Lombard Kingdom – Thomas Hodgkin

This is Volume 6 in the Folio Society‘s edition of Hodgkin’s “Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire”. It covers the years 600-744.  In the previous book, the Lombards had swept in and taken a large part of Italy, leaving only small enclaves to the Byzantine Empire along the coastline, centered primarily around Ravenna, Rome, and the southern tip of Italy.  The Lombards took the northern Po Valley as the center of their kingdom – still called Lombardy to this day.

The position of the Empire in Italy continued to erode as the Lombard Kingdom chipped away at their territory, especially around Ravenna.  This tended to reduce the power of the Exarch of Italy, nominally supreme, and the political power of the Popes in Rome grew to compensate.  In earlier times a Pope could be called to Constantinople to account to the Emperor in a dispute. That time came to an end now, as exarchs no longer dared try to extract a Pope from Rome.  The Pope soon became the de facto ruler of the enclave about Rome.

The influence of the Pope also grew when the Lombard Kingdom converted from Arianism to Catholicism. The Pope could always try to use religion to mitigate the attacks of the Lombards or reduce their effects.  This was aided by the fact that the southern part of Italy was ruled by independent dukes around Spoleto and Benevento.

So there is a balance in this period between the Exarch, the Pope, and the Lombards.  But the incursions of the Muslims into the East weakened the Exarch, and yet another religious controversy split Italy from the rest of the Empire – Iconoclasm.

This mystical idea, from the mideast, that images of Saints and other figures are sinful.faced great resistance in Italy, and not just because it was yet another crazy idea coming unbidden from the east.  It was hard everywhere for common people and priests to see why venerable objects of religious art had to be broken up.  So now a rift between the secular powers and the religious arm and the people grew, just as the Exarch was unable to provide any security against the Lombards.

This will culminate in two acts in the next book – the Pope assuming secular power in Italy for his own after the fall of Ravenna, and then looking for aid elsewhere, from the Franks, to provide a counterpoise to the Lombards.

The Lombard Invasion – Thomas Hodgkin

I just finished Book Five in Hodgkin’s series on the barbarian invasions of Rome and Italy, published by the Folio Society. As time goes on, the focus of the volumes concentrate primarily on events in Italy, with information on its neighbors only when it impinges on the situation in Italy.

Up until this point, the invasions have not changed the fact that Italy remained a single political unit – Odoacer replaced the West Empire, the Ostrogoths replaced Odoacer, and in the last book the Eastern Roman Empire crushed and replaced the Ostrogoths. But almost at once after that, the Lombards invaded Italy from the region of the Danube where the previous troubles had also come from.  The difference was that the Lombards were not able to totally eject the Byzantines, taking slabs of Italy for themselves and leaving a collection of enclaves along the coast,  This started the divided Italy that would persist until the 19th Century.

The Lombards themselves were more divided than previous invaders – their lands were separated into duchys that cooperated only fitfully with each other.  For a time the Lombard dispensed with a king altogether.

In the face of this invasion, the Byzantine exarch did little, and failed at most of what he did attempt.  One effect this had — the Papacy, technically loyal subjects of the Empre, came into increased prominence.  Under a particularly strong Pope, Gregory the Great, the Papacy became a stronger player in Italy with every passing year, ransoming captives from the ‘unspeakable Lombards’ as well as running its own properties across the country.  The schisms in the Church, where the Imperial government supported the other side also helped develop the independency of the Papacy from the East.  This would only grow as the reach of Constantinople faded and the religious differences grew leading up to the final separation of the Eastern Orthodox from the Catholics.

Related articles