Discover Late Antiquity: The Sixth-Century West

1996 French stamp issue featuring Clovis I (r. 496-511)

1996 French stamp issue featuring Clovis I (r. 496-511)

We’ve talked about Justinian. What of the West from 500ish to 600ish? Well, it’s a dangerous place to visit. While such a statement could be taken literally, I mean it figuratively in this instance. You see, the emergent polities of post-Roman western Europe are often seen as the precursors of their medieval and even modern successors. Visigoths in Spain, Franks in Gaul, Anglo-Saxons in Britannia, Picti in Caledonia. The French Republic celebrated Clovis, the Merovingian King of the Franks (d. 511), on a postage stamp (I own a copy).

Last time we saw how Justinian recaptured Africa, a bit of Spain, and Italy, thus reuniting parts of the western and eastern Mediterranean divided for more than a century. The rest of the West does not join in the Roman imperial fun.

Gaul

Gaul is dominated in this century by a people group called the Franks — I recommend reading their story in Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, from c. 595. Their king at the turn of the century was Clovis, who was descended from a fifth-century Frankish leader named Merovech; his dynasty is called Merovingian and will last into the 700s. The two most important factoids about Clovis: 1. he unites the various Frankish groups into a single kingdom; 2. when he converts to Christianity, he chooses Catholicism, not Homoian/Arian Christianity. As a third thing to take away, let it be noted that both he and his father claimed to hold titles and offices within Roman administration and acknowledged the headship of the faraway Emperor in Constantinople. Clovis also conquers various parts of southern Gaul previously under Visigothic rule.

Later Franks do the same, in fact. By century’s end, Gaul is theirs, and they are pushing increasingly further into Germania. This trans-Rhine world of the Merovingians is highly significant. Previously, because of the Mediterranean focus of Rome, Germania was barely ever taken, most of it not at all. Now the Merovingian Franks are taking over various parts of the trans-Rhine world and incorporating it into their kingdom and administrative system, bringing with them Catholic Christianity, their own coins, taxes, and laws. Germania is thus moving from the hinterland to becoming an integrated part of the European world, politically, culturally, religiously.

Sources: One of the best for the period, besides Gregory of Tours, is the anthology From Roman to Merovingian Gaul by Alexander Callander Murray.

Hispania/Spain

The Third Council of Toledo in Codex Vigilanus (10th-c, my favourite Spanish manuscript)

The Third Council of Toledo in Codex Vigilanus (10th-c, my favourite Spanish manuscript)

I’m the sort of person who would normally say, ‘Spain’, in these conversations, but the piece of Mediterranean geography I’m referring to is the whole peninsula, including Portugal. The Visigoths were the main force in Hispania this century, and they were busily consolidating their power. They were remarkably successful at it, given that the topography of the peninsula tends more towards fragmentation than centralisation. The Visigoths maintained Roman book culture, taxation, and military traditions. They used these to fund battles against the Franks in Gaul.  They also hosted a lot of church councils in Toledo starting this century (which only had two, the Second [527] and Third [589]). At the Third Council of Toledo, King Reccared I of Hispania and Septimania, oversaw the adoption of Catholic Christianity within his realms — hitherto, the Visigothic kingdom had been Homoian/Arian.

Sources: I’m less of an expert on Hispania, but primary sources worth looking at are John of Biclaro’s Chronicle and Isidore of Seville’s History of the Kings of the Goths, both of which are translated by Kenneth Baxter Wolf in Conquerors and Chroniclers in Early Medieval Spain.

Britannia, Caledonia, Hibernia

At the northern edge of the Roman Empire was Britannia; to the North was Caledonia (modern Scotland), and across the Irish Sea was Hibernia (Ireland). Some of the contenders for King Arthur are alleged to have lived in the sixth century. On the whole King Arthur issue, see my review of Guy Halsall’s Worlds of Arthur. In the 500s, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britannia are taking shape and forging themselves into polities. There is little, if anything, Roman about the pagan, Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons. Gildas, writing either early or mid-century, says:

Britain has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges, but unrighteous ones; generally engaged in plunder and rapine, but always preying on the innocent… (ch. 27, trans. J.A. Giles)

Without a lot of archaeology, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for this century is largely unhelpful, sadly. What it does show, however, is that we are still in what might be termed the ‘migration period’ in Britannia. The mingling of Germanic and Romano-British that would produce Anglo-Saxon culture was ongoing.

Of course, the thing that had the greatest impact on Anglo-Saxon politics occurred at century’s end. Here is how it is told by Bede in ch. 66 of The Reckoning of Time (often excerpted as the World Chronicle, as in the Oxford World’s Classics translation of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People):

In the thirteenth year of the reign of Maurice and the thirteenth indiction, Gregory, the bishop of Rome and outstanding teacher, assembled a synod of twenty-four bishops at the tomb of the blessed Apostle Peter, to make decisions concerning the needs of the Church. He sent to Britain Augustine, Mellitus and John, and many others, with God-fearing monks with them, to convert the English to Christ. Aethelberht was soon converted to the grace of Christ, together with the people of the Cantuarii over whom he ruled, and those of neighbouring kingdoms. [Gregory] gave him Augustine to be his bishop and teacher, as well as other holy priests to become bishops. However, the people of the Angles north of the river Humber, under Kings Aelle and Aethelfrith, did not at this time hear the Word of life. (trans. Faith Wallis)

Britannia’s neighbours were also divided. Eire was an assemblage of small kingdoms that had a variety of different relationships, as we see in the Chronicle of Ireland. Palladius and Patrick had already brought Christianity in the century before. In the thick of dynastic struggles, in fact, a young Irish nobleman named Columba was to take refuge in Pictish lands, bringing Christianity to their kingdom and settling a monastery on Iona. Columba died in 597, and Adomnan’s Life of St Columba is worth a read.

All over Britain and Ireland, small kingdoms were vying for power, and coalesced towards century’s end in the smaller states that would shape the character of the 600s — see Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, 157-160.

Italy

Finally, let us return to the Mediterranean world. One would think that Justinian would be the end of this story, that we could just dust our hands and say, ‘Italy = Byzantine.’ However, if we were to do that, we’d have to use definition 5 or 6 of ‘Byzantine’ at Dictionary.com:

5. complex or intricate …
6. sometimes lowercase characterized by elaborate scheming and intrigue, especially for the gaining of political power or favor …

First, we have to acknowledge the growing local power of the Metropolitan Bishop of Suburbicarian Italy. I mean, the Pope. In Rome. Things for him are complicated because of his continued support for the Emperor in Constantinople, but the tendency of the Exarchate based in Ravenna to interfere in Roman affairs.

Also, the Lombards. They invade northern Italy in 568 and stick around until 774. In the 590s, their invasions push South towards Rome. Italy is not so simple, all of a sudden!

Italy in 572

Italy in 572

Thus, we have Ostrogoths under Theoderic in 500. The coming of the East Romans in 535; final conquest of Italy by Justinian’s forces in 554. Then we have the coming of the Lombards in 568. They proceed to push ever further south. By Lombard King Alboin’s death in 572, Italy has been carved up into different spheres of ‘Byzantine’ and Lombard influence.

Sources: For the closing decade, most definitely the letters of Gregory the Great. I can’t just now think of where else to look for the Lombards besides the eighth-century History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon. For the early 500s, a most invaluable source are the Variae of Cassiodorus.

Well, I know it was longer than usual, but here you have it. The disconnected, fragmented, post-Roman West. New kingdoms forming, asserting themselves, gathering taxes, fighting each other, entering into diplomatic relations with each other, sharing missionaries with each other. It’s a brave, new mediaeval world.

 

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One thought on “Discover Late Antiquity: The Sixth-Century West

  1. Pingback: Whither the Senate? | The Wordhoard

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