#20 – The Ostrogothic Kingdom
June 28, 2018
#22 – The Father Of The Renaissance (part one)
August 5, 2018

#21 – Enter The Lombards

  • Justin was born near modern Skopje, in the fake Macedonia.
  • He started off life as a peasant and a swineherd.
  • But he rose through the ranks of the army and ultimately became Emperor, in spite of the fact he was illiterate and almost 70 years old at the time of accession.
  • So there you go Ray.
  • There’s hope for you yet.
  • He managed this because at the time of the death of the previous emperor, Anastasius I, Justin was the commander of the palace guard and controlled the only troops in the Constantinople.
  • It’s apparently pretty easy to get voted Emperor when you control the troops.
  • BTW, you know how in a recent episode of Augustus – RIP – we talked about his law that senators couldn’t marry actresses?
  • Well over 500 years later, in 525, Justin repealed that law.
  • So his adopted nephew Flavius Petrus Sabbatius, who changed his name to Justinian to be a complete suckup – could marry Theodora, a former mime actress, and perhaps a prostitute.
  • A contemporary historian, Procopius, commonly held to be the last major historian of the ancient Western world, wrote an infamous history, called his “Secret History”, where he dishes the dirt on the Justinians.
  • He has this to say about Theodora’s acting career:
  • Often, even in the theatre, in the sight of all the people, she removed her costume and stood nude in their midst, except for a girdle about the groin: not that she was abashed at revealing that, too, to the audience, but because there was a law against appearing altogether naked on the stage, without at least this much of a fig-leaf. Covered thus with a ribbon, she would sink down to the stage floor and recline on her back. Slaves to whom the duty was entrusted would then scatter grains of barley from above into the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat.
  • And that’s where the saying “you lucky, lucky goose” comes from.
  • And he had this to say about Justinian:
  • And some of those who have been with Justinian at the palace late at night, men who were pure of spirit, have thought they saw a strange demoniac form taking his place. One man said that the Emperor suddenly rose from his throne and walked about, and indeed he was never wont to remain sitting for long, and immediately Justinian’s head vanished, while the rest of his body seemed to ebb and flow; whereat the beholder stood aghast and fearful, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him. But presently he perceived the vanished head filling out and joining the body again as strangely as it had left it.
  • This eventually resulted in a major change to the old class distinctions at the Imperial court.
  • Anyway, Justin was the first mega Catholic to rule for 50 years, and he started oppressing the Arians a few years into his rule.
  • Which of course the Goths were.
  • The Roman Senate, whose who were all Catholics, shifted their support to the Emperor.
  • Theodoric sent Pope John I to Constantinople to negotiate a better deal for the Arians.
  • But when Pope John got back from his mission, Theodoric suspected a rat and threw him in prison where he died.
  • Which made the Goths even more unpopular with the Catholics.
  • When Theodoric died himself a couple of years later, the kingdom was left to his infant grandson.
  • This caused the network of alliances that surrounded the Ostrogothic state to disintegrate.
  • The Visigoths, the Franks, and the Vandals all went separate ways.
  • With the Franks becoming the new power, especially in Gaul.
  • One thing lead to another and it all culminated in
  • The Gothic War between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Ostrogothic Kingdom was fought from 535 until 554 in Italy, Dalmatia, Sardinia, Sicily and Corsica.
  • It is commonly divided into two phases.
  • The first phase lasted from 535 to 540 and ended with the fall of Ravenna and the apparent reconquest of Italy by the Byzantines.
  • Then the Goths fought back from 541–553 under a new leader, Totila, the penultimate King of the Ostrogoths.
  • He recovered almost all the territories in Italy that the Eastern Roman Empire had captured.
  • He sacked Rome in 546 after a siege that lasted almost a year.
  • But the commanders of the garrison in Rome was a bit of a cunt.
  • Gibbon, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, writes: “Rome was afflicted by the avarice, and guarded by the valor, of Bessas, a veteran chief of Gothic extraction, who filled, with a garrison of three thousand soldiers, the spacious circle of her venerable walls. From the distress of the people he extracted a profitable trade, and secretly rejoiced in the continuance of the siege. It was for his use that the granaries had been replenished: the charity of Pope Vigilius had purchased and embarked an ample supply of Sicilian corn; but the vessels which escaped the Barbarians were seized by a rapacious governor, who imparted a scanty sustenance to the soldiers, and sold the remainder to the wealthy Romans.”
  • Procopius says the ordinary Romans, who were not rich enough to buy grain from the military, were reduced to eating bran, nettles, dogs, mice and finally “each other’s dung”.
  • Some committed suicide.
  • Others escaped at the last minute.
  • According to Procopius, only 500 were left who sought refuge in various churches; 26 soldiers and 60 civilians were killed.
  • And that was only the first of three times Rome was sacked during the Gothic War.
  • But by the end of the conflict Italy was devastated and considerably depopulated.
  • The Gothic War is often viewed as a Pyrrhic victory, which drained the Byzantine Empire of resources that might have been employed against more serious threats in western Asia and the Balkans.
  • Of course there was also the Plague of Justinian in 540–541, which is estimated to have killed up to quarter of the population at the height of the Gothic War, sapping the Empire of manpower and tax revenues.
  • One of the deadliest plagues in history, it resulted in the deaths of an estimated 25 million (at the time of the initial outbreak that was at least 13% of the world’s population) to 50 million people in two centuries of recurrence.
  • In 2013 researchers found that the cause of the pandemic was Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for bubonic plague.
  • Genetic studies point to China as having been the primary source of the contagion.
  • The plague returned periodically until the 8th century.
  • The waves of disease had a major effect on the subsequent course of European history.
  • Modern historians named this plague incident after the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I, who was emperor at the time of the initial outbreak; he contracted the disease himself but survived.
  • It was carried to Constantinople by infected rats on grain ships arriving from Egypt.
  • Procopius recorded that at its peak the plague was killing 10,000 people in Constantinople daily, but the accuracy of the figure is in question, and the true number will probably never be known.
  • He noted that because there was no room to bury the dead, bodies were left stacked in the open.
  • Funeral rites were often left unattended to, and the entire city smelled like the dead.
  • As a consequence, the victorious Byzantines found themselves unable to resist the invasion of the Lombards in 568, which resulted in the loss of large parts of the Italian peninsula.
  • In Italy the war devastated the urban society that was supported by a settled hinterland.
  • The great cities were abandoned as Italy fell into a long period of decline.
  • The impoverishment of Italy and the drain on the Empire made it impossible for the Byzantines to hold their gains.
  • Only three years after the death of Justinian in 565, the mainland Italian territories fell into the hands of the Germanic Lombards.
  • The Lombards originally came out of Scandinavia.
  • They ended up hooking up with the Suebi.
  • Our mate from the Augustus series, historian Velleius Paterculus, who accompanied a Roman expedition as prefect of the cavalry, has the earliest recorded mention of them.
  • Paterculus says that under Tiberius the “power of the Langobardi was broken, a race surpassing even the Germans in savagery”.
  • Apparently their name came from “long-beard” which was one of their names for Odin.
  • The Exarchate of Ravenna, a band of territory that stretched across central Italy to the Tyrrhenian Sea and south to Naples, along with parts of southern Italy, were the only remaining Imperial holdings.
  • The exarchate was organised into a group of duchies (Rome, Venetia, Calabria, Naples, Perugia, Pentapolis, Lucania, etc.) which were mainly the coastal cities in the Italian peninsula since the Lombards held the advantage in the hinterland.
  • The civil and military head of these imperial possessions, the exarch himself, was the representative at Ravenna of the emperor in Constantinople.
  • After the Gothic Wars the Byzantine Empire would entertain no more serious ambitions in the West.
  • Rome would remain under imperial control until the Exarchate of Ravenna was finally conquered by the Lombards in 751.
  • Some coastal areas of southern Italy would remain under Byzantine control, until the late 11th century.
  • A decisive result was that Italy – united into a single political unit by the Romans in the early centuries of their expansion and remaining such throughout the Roman Empire and also under the Goths – was broken up, with the successor states often going to war with each other, until the Unification of Italy in the 19th Century.
  • Initially the Lombards were Arian Christians, at odds with the Papacy both religiously and politically.
  • However, by the end of the 7th century, their conversion to Catholicism was all but complete.
  • Nevertheless, their conflict with the Papacy continued and was responsible for their gradual loss of power to the Franks, who conquered the kingdom in 774.
  • Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, adopted the title “King of the Lombards”.
  • And that’s the story about how the Roman Empire, built by Caesar Augustus, ended up fucked.
  • A combination of Christianity, splitting the empire between east and west, German invasions, wars between the East and the West, and plague, destroyed the population, devolved the political leadership into tiny kingdoms with scattered loyalties, and the loss of the classical writings, philosophies and search for truth, wisdom and beauty.
  • Which lasted for 1000 years.
  • At least in the West.
  • So I think that concludes our “pre-series series” on “how it all got fucked up in the first place”.
  • Next time – how a few guys pulled the West out of the dark ages in the 14th century – and ushered in the re-birth – the Renaissance.

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