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.


Vanished Kingdoms – Burgundia

This was an interesting chapter, because this kingdom is a pretty plastic concept that has moved around over the centuries in the ‘seam’ between France and Germany, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. When these areas were strong, they were absorbed, but in other periods some pretty significant districts and kingdoms appeared.

In the end Norman Davies comes up with fifteen distinct “Burgundy”s:

  1. The First Burgundian Kingdom in Gaul (410-436).  Destroyed by Attila the Hun at Aetius‘ bidding which has been preserved in Germanic Nibelung saga.
  2. The Second Burgundian Kingdom (451-534).  Set up by Aetius after defeating Attila in Gaul.  A player in the fall of the West, conquered by the Franks.
  3. Frankish Burgundy (590-734)
  4. The French Duchy of Burgundy (843-1384)
  5. The Kingdom of Lower Burgundy (879-933)
  6. The Kingdom of Upper Burgundy (888-933)
  7. The united Kingdom of the Two Burgundies (933-1032)
  8. The County-Palatinate of Burgundy (1000-1678)
  9. The Imperial Kingdom of Burgundy (1032-?)
  10. The Imperial Duchy of Lesser Burgundy (1127-1218)
  11. The Imperial Landgravate of Burgundy (1127+)
  12. The united “States of Burgundy” (1384-1477)
  13. The French Province of Burgundy – Bourgogne (1477-1791)
  14. The Imperial Burgundian Circle (1548-1795)
  15. The French Region of Bourgogne (1982-present)

Some of these were major historical players.  In the Hundred Years War, the Duchy and County were unified and joined the English, nearly breaking France entirely.  When Joan of Arc brought a French resurgence, the moment was gone.

While the political fortunes of these states waxed and finally waned, it is interesting how for fifteen hundred years the concept of “Burgundy” has risen again when given the chance.


Vanished Kingdoms – Alt Clud

English: Dumbarton Rock The River Leven in the...

Dumbarton Rock: The River Leven in the foreground joins the River Clyde at this point. Dumbarton FC’s new Strathclyde Homes Stadium can be seen by the rock as can the remaining red brick towers of the recently demolished Ballantines distillery. Viewed from a Glasgow-bound Boeing 747. See also 674060 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m falling a bit behind in recounting these chapters in Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms book.  The second chapter is about another kingdom born out of the end of the Roman Empire in Europe, this one on the border of Scotland, in the area of Glasgow.  Dumbarton Rock was the site of a castle that formed a kingdom during the Dark Ages – The Kingdom of the Rock.

This Kingdom was run by the old British/Celtic and had to contend with the Scots, Picts, and Angles.  One tradition says that this kingdom was where St. Patrick was born before being carried off to Ireland.  Another tradition is that King Arthur himself was from this kingdom.

The Kingdom remained a ‘player’ in the wars during the next several centuries.  In the 870s, the Vikings sacked Alt Clud. Some of the Britons retired to Wales or safer parts of England.  The remainder moved inland to form the district of Strathclyde in the kingdom of Alba.  From there, the distinctiveness of the area faded as it merged into the greater “Scotland”

Dumbarton Rock, Alt Cluath, captured by Amlaíb...

Dumbarton Rock, Alt Cluath, captured by Amlaíb and Ímar after a four-month siege in 870. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vanished Kingdoms – Tolosa

I’ve started reading Vanished Kingdom’s by Norman Davies. It is pretty interesting, and I think it merits a similar treatment to the Notable Trials – a chapter by chapter discussion.

The book itself is about kingdoms and nations in Europe that existed in the past but are now gone – some without much trace, others with more of a current impact.

The first chapter is on the Visigothic kingdom in France.   After Alaric‘s sack of Rome and his death, the new king Ataulf accepted an alliance to fight in Gaul against other invaders with a view to getting land for a settlement.  Around 415, they got it, and settled in the area of Aquitaine.  After some expansion they made Tolosa, modern Toulouse, their capital.

The Goths in Gaul made their biggest impact in history by helping to drive off Atilla’s invasion in 451 at the Battle of Catalunian Fields.  Their king was killed in the battle, but Gaul was saved.  As the Western Empire faded, their power grew until a good third of  Gaul was under their control.  At one point, their puppet Emperor Avitus was ruling the West as well. Around this time the Goths were allowed to expand into Spain, finally taking most of it to rule.

English: Map of the Visigothic kingdom. I crea...

English: Map of the Visigothic kingdom. I created this work entirely by myself. Sources: Cambridge medieval history, Euratlas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the final fall of the Western Empire, there were only two powers in Gaul – the Goths and the Franks.  In 507, Alaric II the king fought Clovis the Frank and was defeated and killed.  The disaster let the Franks occupy virtually all of the kingdom’s lands in Gaul, leaving the Visigoths to rule in Spain until the Moslem invasions a few centuries later.  They never were able to recover their position, and the Franks were masters of Gaul, or rather Francia – France.

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 Frankish Invasion – Thomas Hodgkin

Its Volume VII in the “Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire” from the Folio Society, and the balance of power between the Byzantines, the Pope, and the Lombards is fatally broken by the fall of Ravenna to the Lombards.  Now there is no Exarch to be the Pope’s political superior, even nominally.

Under a series of strong Popes at this time (720-760 AD) the Papacy realigned itself to find a new counterbalance to the Lombards – the Franks.  Its king, Pippin, the father of Charlemagne, wasn’t hugely interested in intervening in Italy at first, but as a good Christian was influenced by the Pope’s cries for aid.

The point of contention was the Pope’s demand to get back part of the area around Ravenna.  However, this time the towns would be under the rule of the Pope and not Constantinople.  The King of the Lombards agreed under pressure, but then found reasons to delay turning over the cities.  Pippin even defeated the Lombards in a few small wars but once the Franks returned home the king returned to his foot-dragging.

Then a new king, Charlemagne, took over the Franks.  He soon had enough of the situation, and conquered the entire Lombard Kingdom and decided to rule it himself. Now the three-way split was the Pope, the Franks, and the Byzantines.  And the Papacy was aligned firmly with the West and the Franks.  But while the rift between East and West would continue to grow, the current happy relations between the Papacy and the Franks would not.  However the breakdown would only happen outside the scope of these books.

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.

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