Inheritors and Builders :
From the Fall of Rome to Charlemagne (An Overview)
- Invasions and Migrations
- Fifth and Sixth Century Trends
- Merovingian Gaul
- The 'International' Scene
- Charles the Great: A New Emperor of the West?
- Bibliography and Further Reading
1. Invasions and Migrations
The collapse of the Western Roman Empire was preceded by a hundreds years of military, economic and social problems, exacerbated after 407 A.D., but virtually irreversible by A.D. 476. (see Ferrill 1986; Grant 1976; Ward-Perkins 2005). The return of the imperial regalia of Empire by the Roman Senate to Constantinople, and acceptance of a 'king' of Italy only recognized the realities of the late 5th century. Arther Ferrill (1986) has demonstrated that there was a real military collapse of military power in the West, though this was exacerbated by economic and social factors (see Grant 1976; Ward-Perkins 2005; Ferguson 2006).
However, we should not think of this collapse as a direct product of massed invasions right across the northern frontiers of the empire. It is true that the introduction of intact allied Gothic units across the Danube after 376 C.E., Anglo-Saxon pressure on Britain in the 5th century, and the mass crossing of the Rhine in 406-7 were large-scale invasions. However, from the third century onwards large numbers of 'barbarians' had been settled in Dacia, Noricum and Gaul. Likewise, we find later agreements for orderly settlement made with these peoples; with the acceptance of the Goths in the Balkans, then a more lasting settlement of them in Aquitania in south-west France (418 C.E.). Likewise, arrangements were made with the Burgundians to move into central Gaul after their Rhine kingdom was destroyed between 435-436 (suffering defeats from the Romans and the Huns, see Goffart 1980, pp8-9). Settlements of Ostrogoths and Alans occurred in Italy during the 5th century, and there was the acceptance of the Franks as an enduring part of Gallic society. These agreements were born of harsh necessity, and some groups expanded their areas of control beyond treaty areas, e.g. the Visigoths in 1419 for Aquitaine (Wade-Perkins 2005, p15, p57).
Thus we see not just invasions, but also the mass migrations of peoples into new homelands, where they settle and eventually continue relatively stable forms of agricultural and city life (Goffart 1980, pp4-5, 17). Furthermore, we must remember that though the total number of people involved over two centuries was quite high, these individual tribal movements might at first comprise only a few thousand people, and on most occasions less than twenty-thousand warriors. The two largest movements attested, that of the Goths across the Danube in 376, and of the Vandals from Spain to Africa, may have comprised as much as 30,000 warriors, though Goffart argued that this is much too high a figure (1980, pp231-4). However, they moved against a largely civilian, unarmed population (Goffart 1980, p33): the age of great Roman and Greek citizen armies was long gone. Likewise, these different Germanic peoples were not unified either culturally or politically (Goffart 1980, p25, 28).
The settlement of these peoples did not always entail violent displacement of Romans or earlier inhabitants (as occurred in early phases of the Gothic and Vandal invasions). We find the lawful accommodation of various tribes in Gaul, Italy and Spain under the Roman concept of hospitalitas. This had traditionally been viewed as an extension of Roman procedures for billeting and supporting Roman army units (a hypothesis developed by Ernst Gaupp in 1844, followed by Ferdinand Lot in 1928, assessed and criticized by Goffart 1980), and may have involved the assignment of 1/3 - 2/3rd of the land to the 'invaders' (Ward-Perkins 2005, p64). However, Goffart has provided reasons why this interpretation may be erroneous, since we do not hear of widespread revolts against this mass appropriation of lands. There seems to have been a relatively peaceful accommodation of the tribesmen alongside the existing Gallo-Roman society (Goffart 1980, pp38-9, 54-55). The cases where sources (a Chronicle of 452) speak of the seizure of land by the Alans (resulting in civil disturbances, a large number of deaths) were clearly regarded as exceptional (Goffart 1980, p111). In Goffart’s view the procedure of accommodation resulted in proportion of tax revenue, previously collected for the Roman administration, being set aside for the maintenance of the tribal armies, though Ward-Perkins suggests that in Italy real land was transferred (Wards-Perkins 2005, p64). Remaining funds would have been used by local kings to maintain their court and administration, thereby taking over the role of Roman government. Only over time would these tax and rental obligations be commuted into direct forfeitures of proportions of lands, and here the Burgundian kingdom may have been among the first to formalize this procedure (Goffart 1980, pp160-1, p228).
The significance of this trend was that it allowed the invading peoples to settle alongside the existing communities, with the barbarians providing a strong armed force that was able to protect the region at a local level, something that Rome, Milan, Trier or Constantinople were no longer able to do. Furthermore, the local Roman or Gallo-Roman nobility, with their greater administrative skills, their towns, access to education, and with an entrenched Catholic tradition, were a resource that local kings often valued. Indeed, it was this resource which gave the Frankish, Burgundian and Lombard kingdoms distinct advantages over the Vandals and Visigoths, who treated the Romans in a more destructive or prejudicial way. It was this combination of traditional tribal units amid a Romanized Gallo-Roman population which would allow a new phase of state-building under the Franks.
2. Fifth and Sixth Century Trends
The trends in western Europe which followed the collapse of centralised Roman political power include: -
2) We therefore often find, for a time, a dual pattern of society and law, the older population continuing according to its own customs, but now accommodating a distinct warrior caste directly associated with a king. In many cases, e.g. in the Visigothic region of Aquitania and the Vandals in North Africa, it is forbidden for the two populations to intermarry. It is in the Frankish kingdom that these divisions are first set aside. On the other hand, this pattern does foster a certain continuity of Roman legal and literary traditions down into the 6th century (Dill 1966 pp262-3).
3) Christianization had already deeply penetrated Gaul and the Germanic tribes by the fifth century, though some of them followed Arianism, based on the thought of the Egyptian priest Arius (c.250-c.336), who ‘denied the full deity of the preexistent Son of God’ (see http://www.mb-soft.com/believe/txo/arianism.htm). In Gaul, new patterns of loyalty focused upon the authority of individual holy men such as Martin of Tours, Hiliary of Poitiers and Paulinus of Nola, and with the relics and holy places associated with Saints and miracles. As such certain churches and monasteries came to be authoritative centres that even kings could not readily ignore. In Gallic society we find bishops emerging as power-brokers in a society desperately needing protection and leadership. Thus Gregory, as nineteenth bishop of Tours, would happily build up the already high prestige derived from St. Martin, through publicly setting up relics claimed to be those of the martyrs Cosmas and Damian 'in the cell of the holy Martin close to the cathedral church' (Gregory of Tours The History of the Franks, Book X, p278).
4) The Roman empire, in spite of its apparent strength, was undergoing
a crisis in management of its resources (financial and military) that led
to a severe undermining the imperial ability to govern. This began to erode
its capacities terminally by the late fourth century and more certainly
by the mid-fifth century (see Grant 1976; Wade-Perkins 2005). Expressed
in rather exaggerated terms by Edward Gibbon:
The pattern of religious transformation is even more extreme in the conversion of one of the last groups in mid-western Europe to be Christianized; the Anglo-Saxons. Here the power of the 'king' was directly tied to him as a representative of the people before the gods. His actions and the ceremonies of offering he performed ensured good crops and the welfare of the community in general (Chaney 1984, p96). Shared communal eating of sacrificial meat was also used as a form of social bonding in villages, and could also be used as a test of loyalty. The account of the passion of Saint Sabas (martyred in 372 C.E.), for example, shows how a test against Christians was ordered by the ruling council, but the local community wished to protect its few Christians (Thompson 1984, p86-7). Sabas refused, was at first expelled from the village, and later on tortured and killed by the soldiers of leading man (called an optimates or megistanes) from another region (Thompson 1984, p86, p89-91). Generally, if the king could be converted, this would lead at least to a superficial conversion of most of his people (Chaney 1984, p97). Thus we find that in the Frankish kingdom, in Kent, Essex, and the British kingdoms generally the conversion of the royal family, or its apostasy, were crucial in determining the 'official' religion of the people (Chaney 1984, pp97-101).
In most cases the migrating tribes had already been exposed to Christianity; many of them to the ‘heretical’ form of Arianism which denied the equality of the Son to the Father, and therefore questioned the full divinity of Jesus. The Chistianization of Western Europe in fact proceeded along three paths: -
b) The ongoing dialogue between Arianism and ‘Catholicism’, i.e. the body of official interpretation focused on Roman popes and endorsed by Roman emperors, and for this period embracing many of the western and eastern bishops. This dispute was both theoretical and political, and Catholicism gained advantages through prominent men such as Saint Martin, and through its conversion of the Frankish kings and then Burgundian kings to their interpretation of Christianity. The intensity of this dispute between the two churches can be seen in the fact that although the Arian Burgundian King Gundobad was willing to be converted to Catholic beliefs, he refused to make this act public from fear of his staunchly Arian subjects (Gregory of Tours The History of the Franks, p276).
c) A powerful group of ‘Catholic’ bishops soon emerge in Gaul, and play
a major civic as well as religious role in their communities. It is only
in the 6th-8th centuries that they begin to be tied into a hierarchical
pattern of obedience under Roman Popes, a pattern which develops alongside
the recognition of the special status of Frankish kings, first as supporters
of the faith, then as 'Holy Roman Emperors' (see below).
In these contexts, with the need for law codes fitting the new mixed populations, with kings needing to control, tax and administer large regions containing cities as well as landed aristocracies, we find the emergence of the institutions necessary for the modern state. At first legal systems needed to cope with both the dominant German groups and their relations with ‘Romans’. In some cases Roman law was allowed to continue for cases exclusively concerning Romans, e.g. the Visigothic publication of a ‘compendium of Roman law’, the Breviarium of Alaric (Wade-Perkins 2005, p76). However, this did not solve all legal issues. Thus Counts of the Goths had the ‘final say’ in disputes between Romans and Goths during the sixth century (Ward-Perkins 2005, p65). Likewise, gold coins continued to be minted by the Germanic kings of Italy, though at first under the name of the Eastern Roman Emperor, as if a united empire still existed, and adhering to eastern mint standards (Ward-Perkins 2005, pp68-69). By the time of King Theoderic (ruler of the Ostrogoths 471-526 C.E.), however, a gold medallion (Senigallia medallion) could be produced that showed the ruler with long hair and a moustache, a serious break from Roman patterns of representation (Ward-Perkins 2005, pp72-73).
Later on, even Charlemagne did not create a nation-state in the modern sense, that is, a region administered by a government which also correlates with a geographical region peopled by citizens with loyalty to that region as part of their identity. However, these new kingdoms did begin to set up state systems of administration, and geographically, they helped form the basis for the cultural, ethnic and political map of modern Europe. To demonstrate these points we can look briefly at two Frankish dynasties of considerable importance, Merovingian and Carolingian Gaul.
3. Merovingian Gaul
The emergence of a new civilization began when the Franks moved into the region of Rhineland from the third century onwards (Chamberlin 1986 p5) and then began to take control of a region of northern France and south-west Germany. This civilization was built in part on their military strength, in part on their use of Romanized elements in Gallic society. This culture derives its named from an early Frankish chief, Merovech (Chamberlin 1985, p7). As noted by Patrick Geary:
Here the Franks and Burgundians were doing a better job in accommodating and assimilating different peoples into one society than the Roman empire itself had done, with its inability to really accommodate or assimilate the German peoples (see Grant 1976). In this process, assimilation through a shared Christian belief may have been a crucial factor. From now on the term 'barbarian' is not used to describe migrating peoples; it is applied only to non-Christians.
The power of the Franks was recognized by the Goths, with whom friendship was pledged. Over the next 100 years they managed to consolidate their power. However, this family of Merovingians from which the Franks chose their kings seems to have declined by the period prior to King Hilderich (Einhard The Life of Charlemagne, 1, p282), with their Majordomos of the Palace ruling effectively for them. The office of 'Majordomo' was raised to great prominence by Charles Martel, who had managed to defeat Saracens forces at the battle of Poitiers in Aquitaine (732 C.E.) and at the Berre River near Narbonne. The position was then held as a hereditary office by his son Pepin (Einhard The Life of Charlemagne, 2, p282). Pepin (sometimes written as Pippin) eventually tired of the nominal kingship of Hilderich and, apparently with the support of the Pope, had him set aside and assumed the title of king. Pepin was anointed by the Pope in Paris, and the new use of sacred oil, previously reserved for priests and bishops, established his rule as a specifically Christian monarch (McKay 1987, p235). Pepin was engaged in battles with Waifar, Duke of Aquitaine, and handed on the kingship at his death to his two sons, Charles and Carloman. They ruled jointly until the death of Carloman two years later. An overview of developments in Western Europe is provided in the following time-line.
476 Retirement of Last Roman Emperor in the West (Romulus Augustus)
c. 480 Clovis (Frankish King) extends power in northern & central Gaul
c. 490 Clovis issues Salic Law code of the Franks
496-507 Clovis adopts Christianity
507 Franks defeat Visigoths, control most of Gaul
529 Publication of the monastic Rule of St. Benedict
533-535 Eastern Roman armies intervene in Africa and Italy
597 Pope Gregory sends missionaries to convert Britons
698 Carthage and Africa fall to Arab armies
664 Roman Christianity upheld over Celtic traditions as the Synod of Whitby in Britain
c. 700 Publication of Lindisfarne Gospel, of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, & the epic Beowulf
732 A Muslim army is defeated near Poitiers by Charles Martel
752 Pippin III elected king by Frankish aristocrats
754 Pope Stephen anoints Pippin III as king in Paris
756 Pippin III 'donates' the Papal States to papacy
768 Charlemagne become Frankish king
768-805 Charlemagne's conquest of much of western Europe
781 The scholar Alcuin becomes adviser at Frankish court, helps 'Carolingian Renaissance'
800 Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne
814 Louis the Pious’s rules the empire
843 Treaty of Verdun: empire divided between Charlemagne's grandsons Lothair, Louis the German and Charles the Bald.
845-900 Viking, Magyar and Muslim invasions further erode the Carolingian empire
1000 Phase or western political 'unity' ended.
Developments in Gaul, however, should not be considered in isolation. Two other trends were visible. There was a growing political and cultural division between the Rome and the Eastern Empire during the 4th and 5th centuries. During the sixth century the court under Constantinople was able to re-assert itself over parts of Italy and Africa through the victories of their brilliant general, Belisarius (c. 505-565 C.E.), though by this may have been viewed as another invasion by many in Italy (see Wade-Perkins 2005). However, these revivals would be temporary, and would pale before one of the most sudden cultural and military waves of change in world history. Mohammed, born circa 570 C.E. in the Arabian trading city of Mecca, would create the creed of a new religion in the Koran, inspired by Allah and the angel Gabriel (see Amstrong 1995 for the social context). In 622 he led the Hejirah to the nearby city of Medina, returning eight years later as 'the acknowledged leader of a new religion' (Brown 1972, p26). Rapidly, by force of arms and religious conversion, this new wave of ideas and culture conquered large stretches of the Middle East and Africa. With the partial exception of conquests in Portugal, Spain, Persia and the later occupation of Greece and the Balkans by the Turks, this wave of conquest brought with it a profound Islamization and Arabization that has endured into the present century across much of the Middle East and North Africa. Nor should we regard this in any sense as a 'barbarian conquest'; Islamic social policies, for example, were generally more lenient towards Jews than eastern Christian control was during this period. Likewise, the vast philosophical, religious, scientific and medical knowledge of the Arabs (see Fakhry 1983; Qadir 1988), partly based on Greek and Persian learning, was deeply attractive to western scholars. Thus we find in Spanish cities, such as Cordoba during the 9th century, young scholars turning to Arabic learning, poetry and books, virtually ignoring Latin (Brown 1972, pp30-31). This was a revolution in middle-eastern and Mediterranean affairs that had a decisive impact on Byzantium, North Africa and Western Europe (see Table 2).
622 Mohammed’s Hejirah to Medina
630 Mohammed returns in triumph to Mecca
634 Most of Arabia conquered or converted
640 Byzantine provinces of Syria & Palestine captured
640 Cairo and then Egypt taken from Byzantine control
642 Cyrenaica (in North Africa) falls under Arabian control
650 Persian empire conquered
670 Most of North African coast under Islamic control
673 Unsuccessful siege of Constantinople
693 Carthage falls
711-720 Southern Spain brought under control of Muslim rulers
712 Islam reaches Bokhara and Samarkand
717 Unsuccessful siege of Constantinople
732 Probes into Gaul halted at Battle of Poitiers, where incursions are turned back by the Franks
823-961 Crete gradually brought under Islamic control
902 Sicily under Islamic control
1453 Fall of Constantinople to Turks
5. Charles the Great: A New Emperor of the West?
Charlemagne (Charles the Great, 768-814 C.E.) is a figure that has intrigued later Europeans as one of the great 'builders and rebuilders' of their history. He is claimed by various nationalities as intimately associated with their history; but whether we call him Charlemagne (French), Karl de Grosse (German) or Carlo magno (Italian), we must remember that he lived long before nation-states of 'France' and 'Germany' existed (Geary 1988, p221). His dynasty is called the 'Carolingian' after the Latin form of Charles, Carolus (McKay 1987, p233). Likewise, the Franks are generally viewed as a western Germanic tribal grouping, though this does not make them the same as Teutons or Saxons and does not carry the sense of modern nationality. It has also been suggested that ‘Germanic tribal identites’ in the post-Roman western Europe were somewhat flexible, though this only applied within the wider grouping of the Germanic ‘family of peoples’ (see Wade-Perkins 2005, p78). In the long term, it seems that "the indigenous Roman population eventually adopted the identity of their masters, and became ‘Visigoths’ or ‘Franks’" (Wade-Perkins 2005, p80). In turn, the Franks have sometimes been viewed in the modern period as common ancestors to the French and Germans, leading to strong revisionist accounts written since World War II and in part influenced by the emergence of the European Union (see Wade-Perkins 2005, pp175-176).
The main source for this period is one of the intimates of Charlemagne, the monk Einhard (770-844 C.E.), who was educated in the monastery of Fulda (in Germany). Later on Einhard would become an adviser at Charlemagne's court, taking part in the so-called 'Carolingian Renaissance' which flourished under Frankish patronage. Einhard, too, apologizes for daring to undertake this task:
The longest and hardest war Charlemagne engaged in was with the Saxons, which was portrayed as a war of civilization and Christianity against those who were 'savage by nature, given to the cult of demons, and hostile to our religion' (Einhard The Life of Charlemagne, 7, p285). In total the war raged for 33 years, with Charlemagne trying to forcibly convert those he defeated. As noted by Einhard, at the victorious end of the war:
Charlemagne's policies seem to have both strengthened his own resources, and he soon established control over a greater part of Western Europe than any other king since the Western Empire. Originally, the Franks had only controlled the region between the Rhine and the Loire in northern Gaul (Einhard The Life of Charlemagne, 15, p289) but came to controll all of Gaul, northern Spain, northern Italy, a good part of western Germany, and segments of Pannonia, Dacia, Istria and Dalmatia.
Relations with Constantinople were friendly until an unprecedented event took place. Charles, on a visit to Rome to set affairs in order after some Romans had tormented Pope Leo, founded himself granted a single honour. The new Pope Leo III crowned him as Emperor and ‘Augustus’ in late 800 C.E. Einhard claims that Charlemagne was not enthusiastic about this and 'he said he would never have entered the church even on this highest of holy days if he had beforehand realized the intention of the Pope' (Einhard The Life of Charlemagne, 28, pp296-7). Chamberlin argues that there is no reason to doubt Einhard on this point (1986, p201). Edward Gibbon claimed that the crowning was derived from specific Roman and papal interests:
6. Bibliography and Further Reading
ARMSTRONG, Karen Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, London, Victor Gollancz, 1995
BROWN, R. Allen The Origins of Modern Europe, London, Constable, 1972
BROWN, Peter Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity, London, Faber & Faber, 1978
BROWN, Peter The World of Late Antiquity A.D. 150-750, London 1971
CHAMBERLAIN, Russell The Emperor: Charlemagne, N.Y., Franklin Watts, 1986
CHANEY, William "The Conversion of the Germans", in Chodorow, S (ed.) The Other Side of Western Civilization: Readings in Everyday Life, I, San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984 pp93-101
CUNCLIFFE, Barry Greeks, Romans and Barbarians: Spheres of Interaction, London, Batsford, 1988
DILL, Samuel Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age, N.Y., Barnes and Noble, 1966
EINHARD The Life of Charlemagne, trans. E. Firchow & E. Zeydel, in Beatty, J. & Johnson, O. (ed.) Heritage of Western Civilization, Volume I, Englewood Cliffs NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1987, pp280-301
EUGIPPIUS The Life of St. Severinus, translated by George W. Robinson, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1913 [http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/severinus_01_intro.htm]
FAKHRY, Majid A History of Islamic Philosophy, N.Y., Columbia University Press, 1983
FERGUSON, R. James "The Division and Fall of the Roman Empire", Journey to the West: Essays in History, Politics and Culutre, 2006 [Access via www.international-relations.com/History/Fall-of-Rome.pdf]
FERRILL, Arther The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation, London, Thames and Hudson, 1986FRANK, Kenneth A "Pirenne Again: A Muslim Viewpoint", The History Teacher, Vol. 26, No. 3, May, 1993, pp. 371-383
GEARY, Patrick J. Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World, Oxford, OUP, 1988
GIBBON, Edward The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 7 volumes, London, OUP, 1903-1904
GOFFART, Walter Barbarians and Romans A.D. 418-585: The Techniques of Accommodation, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1980
GRANT, Michael The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Reappraisal, Radnor PA, Annenberg School of Communications, 1976
GREGORY OF TOURS From The History of the Franks, trans. O. Dalton, in Beatty, J. & Johnson, O. (ed.) Heritage of Western Civilization, Volume I, Englewood Cliffs NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1987, pp269-279
JONES, Terry Terry Jones’ Barbarians, Video Documentary, Directed by Rob Coldstream, London, BBC and The History Channel, 2006
LOT, Ferdinand "Du regime de l'hospitalite", Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire, 7, 1928, pp975-1011
McKAY, John P. et al., "The Carolingian World: Europe in the Early Middle Ages", A History of Western Society, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1987, pp231-258
PIRENNE, Henri Mohammed and Charlemagne, Mineola, Dover Publications, 2001
QADIR, C.A. Philosophy and Science in the Islamic World, London, Croom Helm, 1988
ROBERTS, J.M. The Triumph of the West, London, BBC, 1985
TELLENBACH, Gerd Church, State and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest, trans. by R. Bennett, New Jersey, Humanities Press, 1970
THOMPSON, E.A. "German Tribal Society", in Chodorow, S (ed.) The Other Side of Western Civilization: Readings in Everyday Life I, San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984, pp85-92
VAN DAM, Raymond Leadership and Community in Late Antique Gaul, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985
WARD-PERKINS, Bryan The Fall of the Roman Empire and
the End of Civilization, Oxford, OUP, 2005
Journey to the West: Essays in History, Politics and Culture
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