Short history of Italy (526-700)

The medieval period was one in which Italy was exposed to a variety of foreign influences, mainly in the form of conquests and migratory movements, which have greatly influenced the shape and nature of present-day culture. Economically, the period is notable for the development, as was the case elsewhere in Europe, of a feudal pattern of land ownership, and, critically, for the emergence of the merchant capitalism which we now tend to associate with great city states such as Venice. Artistically, the second part of the period of course saw the beginnings of the Renaissance, and has bequeathed to us painting, architecture and literature of great importance and sensitivity.  Politically, the immediate post-Roman centuries were characterized by the gradual division of Italy into two parts: much of the centre-south largely remained under the control of the Greek eastern kingdom, from its seat of power at Ravenna, and of the Church; while the north was gradually invaded and settled by ‘barbarian’ tribes of Franks, Goths and Lombards.

Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great died in 526, and under his successors the Ostrogothic kingdom gradually declined. Tension between Goths and Romans increased in the kingdom during the reign of Athalaric (526-34), a minor who ruled through his mother Amalasuntha. The later was killed by Athalaric’s successor Theodahad (534-36) in 535, and this prompted the eastern emperor Justinian to declare war on the Ostrogoths. There followed twenty years of bloody fighting which had a devastating effect on most of the Italian peninsula. The outcome of this Gothic war was that the Byzantine armies under Belisarius, who landed in Sicily in 535, and later Narses gradually defeated the Goths under a succession of leaders, the most notable of whom were Witigis (536-40) and Totila (541-52). Belisarius fought his way up through the peninsula, taking Ravenna in 540. Totila led a remarkably effective counterattack, recapturing most of Italy and Sicily, including even Rome, where he evicted all the inhabitants, leaving it deserted. Only Ravenna and some key coastal towns which enjoyed the protection of the Byzantine navy remained in Byzantine hands. However, Narses eventually recaptured the peninsula for the Byzantines, killing Totila and then Teias, the last Ostrogothic king, in 552. By 561 Narses had also defeated the Franks, who had since 540 been settling north of the River Po. The Byzantine reconquest of Italy was complete.

The native Italians seem largely to have been unwilling bystanders and victims in this bitter struggle between Goths and Byzantines which was being fought around them, not greatly caring who the victors were, since neither side would really make very much difference to their day-to-day reality. The war ravaged large areas of the country, the damage being particularly serious in Emilia, Picenum, Umbria and Campania. Here the countryside was severely disrupted, and there are accounts of serious famine and hardship. In the end the Goths were virtually wiped from the face of Italian history, disappearing a trifle mysteriously, hardly leaving a trace of their period in control. Justinian proceeded to turn the clock back, issuing in 554 what is now referred to as the Pragmatic Sanction, which re-established Italy as a province of the eastern empire, restored all property (including slaves!) to its pre-Gothic owners, and revived many Roman institutions. There is evidence that Justinian’s reconquest was on the whole welcomed by many sections of the old Roman ruling class, but what is more certain is that he left his mark on Italian culture. Dante includes him in his Paradise, he appears in Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican and, above all, there are the great portraits of himself and his wife Theodora in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna – fine examples, these, of the Byzantine art which was greatly to influence later Italian works. Additionally, Justinian is remembered for his codification of Roman law before his death in 565. His disappearance from the scene heralded the next important development of this early medieval period: the resurgence of the ‘barbarians’ in the form of the Lombards.

Originally a Germanic people, the Lombards invaded northern Italy from Pannonia (modern Hungary) in 568 under their leader Alboin. They occupied the plain of the Po during 568-9 without encountering a great deal of opposition, establishing their dukes in the main cities, and taking Pavia in 572 following a three-year siege. They came to control what is now Venetia, Liguria and Tuscany. Alboin was murdered in 572 and his successor Cleph suffered the same fate two years later. There followed an interregnum of ten years during which the Lombards appear not to have had any overall leader, but by the end of the sixth century, under the young and romantic figure of Authari (584-90) and then Agilulf (590-616), they controlled two-thirds of Italy.

Map of Italy around 600 AD
Map of Italy around 600 AD

They clearly attempted to capture the whole of the peninsula, but lacked the resources to do so, being relatively few in number and often divided among themselves, to the extent that one of the Byzantines’ main tactics against them seems to have been attempting to bribe some of their leaders. Additionally, the Byzantines, with their ‘belt’ of territory linking Ravenna and Rome, acted as an effective bulwark against Lombard expansion, often with the help of the native Italians who tended to regard the Greek empire as marginally preferable to the unsubtle pillaging of the ‘barbarians’. Thus the division of Italy into two parts was complete and became the political status quo in early medieval times. It is important to note that the ability of the ‘exarch’ at Ravenna to repel the barbarians was very much dependent on the temporal power and support of the papacy, which can be seen as having developed into the ‘third force’ in the Italy of this period. The popes owned large amounts of land, and to a large extent enjoyed the support of the populace, providing as they did a rudimentary system of social security for the poor which they financed with the income from their estates. The eastern empire’s hold on Italy was often tenuous, and the papacy to a large extent propped it up, fearing the militant paganism of the Lombards, exemplified by Authari’s anti-Catholic edict of 590 (Authari died soon after – divine justice according to Gregory the Great!). The Church was thus largely responsible for administering Byzantine territory and for mustering resistance to the Lombards. It is probably legitimate to speculate that, had it not been for the papacy, Italy would have been reunited under Lombard rule during the sixth or seventh centuries.

Pope Gregory the Great, who assumed the papacy in 590, negotiated with Agilulf to put an end to the Lombard siege of Rome in 594 – the prelude to a series of truces between the Byzantine exarchy and the Lombards which was to establish a reasonably stable equilibrium in Italy and give relative peace to the territory for about 130 years. The Lombards established their capital at Pavia, and for much of their period in power the main Lombard kingdom in northern Italy and Tuscany was politically dominant over their duchies of Spoleto and Benevento, especially during the reign of Grimoald (662-71) and of Liutprand (712-44), probably the most significant of the Lombard kings. Pavia itself contained a variety of magnificent architectural features, reflecting its position as the pre-eminent Lombard city. These included the royal palace, several fine churches, and an interesting bath complex, one of the few which were operational in the seventh century. Unlike the Ostrogoths, the Lombards brought distinctly Germanic customs to Italy, although their administrative and political structures had a strong Roman flavor to them. We know a considerable amount about their ways because their customs were fully and systematically documented by Rothari in his Edict of 643. They were in essence organized around a series of fairly independent noble warriors, usually dukes or gastaidi, who controlled their locality, usually living in its most important city such as Milan, Brescia and Verona, and who owed some degree of allegiance only to the king. Lombard kings had often to be generous with patronage and estates in order to secure the support of their dukes. This resulted in a substantial devolution of power, and contributed to the growth in the independence and influence of the cities and the regions during this period. The central-southern duchies were generally more centralized, with the governments in Spoleto and Benevento maintaining a tight rein on their local gastalds. The large degree of local power in the main kingdom meant that there were frequent boundary disputes between the major cities, who usually turned to the king for mediation. For example, there were four disputes between Parma and Piacenza between 626 and 854, as well as an enduring one between Arezzo and Siena which is still reflected in modern rivalry between these cities.

The Lombards adopted the local Italian language, losing their own by about 700, and the local style of dress, shedding their traditional long hair and striped linens for Roman leggings and trousers. They mixed and intermarried with the local people, as their burials which have been discovered at Nocera Umbra, Castel Trosino (near Ascoli Piceno), Invillino (in the Friuli), Fiesole, Brescia and Cividale tend to testify. They thus fused almost completely with the local populace, leaving a permanent mark on the Italian people. However, this was an invasion of a ruling Elite: the majority of the population of Italy was and remained Roman in origin. Lombard power over large parts of Italy lasted for nearly 200 years before they were finally overrun by the Franks.

This article is based on material taken from “A Traveller’s History of Italy” written by Valerio Lintner