The Sack of Constantinople in 1204

There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.
(Sir Steven Runciman, 1954)

Until I read John Julius Norwich’s account of the Fourth Crusade, which ended with the devastating sack of Constantinople in 1204, I hadn’t appreciate what a seismic and unmitigated disaster it was.

Norwich’s account of the Latins’ destruction of the biggest, richest city in the world was so harrowing I was depressed for days and found it difficult to continue reading the book in which he describes it, Byzantium: The Decline and Fall.

Like reading detailed accounts of Hiroshima, I just felt that…. after seeing humanity revealed in such appalling colours, why… why go on with anything?

For me, personally, the reason to go on is to understand better. Not to understand perfectly, which I am confident, or acknowledge, is beyond human wit. But just because perfect understanding is an impossible platonic absolute, doesn’t mean that some understanding isn’t better than none. And, for me, personally, understanding things brings sweet mental joy.

And so, just like Norwich’s detailed description of the Sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410, a detailed description of the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople makes it so much more comprehensible. Only if you follow the events in the most detailed way possible do you realise that a distant event which is often treated as a single thing – the Sack of Constantinople – was in fact a complex concatenation of accidents and misunderstandings and misjudgments and bad agreements. It took the malevolence of some people (the doge of Venice), the chancer’s gamble of the pretender to the Byzantine throne Alexius III, and then the passive acquiescence of the majority of the crusaders, to take place. Reading the details makes you realise that a) this is how ‘history’ i.e. human events, work, in complex unexpected ways, where all kinds of spokes are stuck into the machine and b) makes you realise how the nature of human life, human experience, human societies, and big political events, doesn’t change much. I’m thinking of the sequence of events which brought about Brexit, and which we are still in the middle of. The results aren’t as murderous and destructive as the sack of Constantinople – but they are recognisably the product of the same confused, chaotic species.

In other words, reading about the sack itself is grim and depressing, but the knowledge and insight it gives you into human nature and how human affairs operate, are powerful and liberating.

Summary

This is the short version you’re likely to read in books focusing on other subjects, such as the crusades as a whole, or the Middle Ages.

In April 1204 the Latin, Western soldiers of the Fourth Crusade laid siege to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. On 12 April the crusader armies breached the city’s defences and stormed the city. Attacking Venetian forces tried to use fire as a defensive shield but it quickly got out of control and burned unchecked through the city. As if that wasn’t catastrophic enough, once the crusaders had established a bridgehead, they proceeded to spend three days pillaging and looting the city.

The Greek emperor fled and leaders of the ruling families were driven into exile, so the crusaders chose a Latin ruler – Baldwin of Flanders – who was crowned Emperor Baldwin I and inherited about a quarter of the territory his Greek predecessors had ruled This Latin rule of the Byzantine Empire was to last just under 60 years, before a Greek ruler and army re-established Greek power.

After the city’s sacking, most of the Byzantine Empire’s territories were divided up among the Crusaders, but Byzantine aristocrats also established a number of small independent splinter states, one of them being the Empire of Nicaea, which would become the kernel of Greek resistance and – after a long series of small wars, setbacks and struggles to reunify Greek leadership – would eventually recapture Constantinople in 1261 and restore the Greek tradition and religion to the city of Constantine.

But the restored Byzantine Empire never managed to reclaim all its former territorial or economic strength, and eventually fell to the rising Ottoman Sultanate in 1453.


Background

The Latin West and Greek East of Christendom had been growing apart for centuries, with the pope in Rome arrogating more and more power and authority to himself, insisting the Eastern church submit to his authority, and Western clerics as a whole coming to regard the Eastern Orthodox church as schismatic and in error on a wide range of theological and procedural issues. Norwich’s three volumes of Byzantine history are littered with theological, administrative and geopolitical arguments between the papacy and the emperor or Patriarch (head of the Eastern Church) of Constantinople. This helps explain the indoctrination of western crusaders that the Byzantines were exotic, untrustworthy, almost heretics.

But the real focus of the story is the growing rivalry between the maritime republic of Venice, whose wealth was based on shipping and trading across the Muslim Middle East to the ‘Indies’ where spices and pepper came from, and Byzantium as the established power in the region. Successive emperors of Byzantium had been obliged to make trade treaties with Venice and given Venetian merchants extensive privileges in the city, such as an entire quarter down by the docks for their use and trading rights across the Empire’s territories and islands.

The sack had three causes:

  1. long-term mistrust between Latin Westerners and Greek Byzantines
  2. the long-term rivalry with Venice which wished to supersede Byzantium as the main power in the eastern Mediterranean
  3. a short-term, proximate cause which was a string of accidents to do with the mismanagement of the Fourth Crusade, which were ruthlessly exploited by the doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, to fulfil point 2.

East-West relations

1. Mass arrest of the Venetians 1171

Latin Catholics from the rival cities Venice and Genoa dominated the city’s maritime trade and financial sector, having secured concessions from successive Byzantine emperors, which resulted in a virtual maritime monopoly and stranglehold over the Empire by the Venetians.

Rich Italian merchants grew very rich and so did the Byzantine aristocrats who allied with them, leading to popular resentment among the middle and lower classes in both the countryside and in the cities.

The Venetians resented that their main Italian rivals, the Genoese, also had extensive quarters in Constantinople, and in 1171 the Venetians attacked and largely destroyed the Genoese quarter. The Emperor retaliated by ordering the mass arrest of all Venetians throughout the Empire and the confiscation of their property (a move he had probably been meditating for some time – the Genoese attack gave him a pretext). As with all civil unrest, there were also rapes and the burning of houses. Infuriated, the Venetians launched a naval expedition to attack Byzantine interests, which failed, but the encouraged the Empire’s enemies, specifically the Serbs – to take advantage of the unrest and launch land attacks.

Relations were only gradually normalized, reaching an uneasy peace in the mid-1180s.

2. The massacre of the Latins

But the simmering resentment didn’t go away and burst out anew in the Massacre of the Latins which took place in Constantinople in April 1182.

After the death of Emperor Manuel I in 1180, his widow, the Latin princess Maria of Antioch, acted as regent to their son and became notorious for the favoritism she showed to Latin merchants and the big aristocratic land-owners.

In April 1182 she was overthrown by the ageing general Andronicus I Comnenus. He marched on Constantinople and entered the city in a wave of popular support. But the celebrations quickly got out of hand and escalated into mob violence against the hated Latins. The ensuing massacre was indiscriminate: Latin men, women and children were attacked in the street, their houses burnt down, Latin patients lying in hospital beds were murdered. Houses, churches, and charities were looted. Latin clergymen received special attention and Cardinal John, the papal legate, was beheaded and his head dragged through the streets at the tail of a dog.

Andronicus finally took control and curtailed the rioting, but the massacre obviously left profound bad feeling. The Normans under William II of Sicily in 1185 sacked Thessalonica, the Empire’s second largest city, while over the next decade or so, the German emperors Frederick Barbarossa and Henry VI both tried to get papal approval to mount an attack on Constantinople.

The Fourth Crusade

Henry VI’s failed expedition

This fraught relation between East and West, and especially between Byzantium and Venice, was the difficult background to the Fourth Crusade and largely explains what happened next.

The Third Crusade had ended in 1192 with a treaty signed between Richard I of England and Saladin, leader of the Saracen forces, agreeing that Jerusalem would remain under Muslim rule but that Christian pilgrims and traders would be assured safe passage to visit the city.

Almost immediately the failure to liberate Jerusalem led to calls for a new crusade to finish the job. In 1195 there was one of those large-scale western incursions into the area which aren’t included in the canonical ‘crusades’ but which Norwich describes in just as much detail – the steady rumble of expeditions, wars, raids, alliances and defeats which fill Norwich’s pages and help put the crusades into a broader context of unending conflict.

Henry VI, the second son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, organised a new Eastern expedition and in the summer of 1197 a large number of German knights and nobles, headed by two archbishops, nine bishops, and five dukes, sailed for Palestine. There they captured Sidon and Beirut, but then the army heard that Henry himself had died at Messina in Sicily on his way to the Holy Land and many of the nobles and clerics returned to Europe. Deserted by much of their leadership, the rank and file crusaders panicked before the advance of a Muslim army from Egypt, and fled to their ships in Tyre. Thus ended this brief Western foray.

Pope Innocent III preaches the fourth crusade

Pope Innocent III succeeded to the papacy in January 1198 and immediately began preaching a new crusade. The kings of Germany, France and England were all distracted by dynastic squabbles, but the pope managed to get a leader in the shape of Count Thibaut of Champagne who, in 1199, committed to the crusade and began rallying knights. In the event, Thibault himself he died in 1201 and was replaced by an Italian count, Boniface of Montferrat.

Richard the Lionheart’s advice – attack Egypt

Now, on his return from the third crusade in 1192, King Richard of England had given his opinion that the main goal of any future crusade should be to seize Egypt. Jerusalem is far to the south of the east Mediterranean coastline and experience had shown that, going the land route through Anatolia (modern Turkey) tended to focus the military efforts of the crusaders on the territory they passed through – on Cilicia and Syria and Antioch and so on, in the north of Palestine – whereas Jerusalem is far to the south, much closer to the heart of what had been the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt.

The idea being that whoever held Egypt would find it easy to secure Jerusalem as a strategic add-on and would have a strong secure hinterland. The leaders of the fourth crusade took all this on board and planned from the beginning to launch a naval campaign against Muslim Egypt.

The deal with Venice

However, an invasion of Egypt would require ships and the only Christian kingdom with the maritime capacity to help was Venice. Thus Boniface and the other leaders sent envoys to Venice, Genoa, and other city-states in 1200 to negotiate a contract for transport to Egypt.

Venice agreed to help. Specifically, Venice agreed to build the ships necessary to transport 33,500 crusaders across the Med. The agreement made for a full year of preparation on the part of the Venetians to build numerous ships and train the sailors who would man them. All this would take place at the cost of her own commercial activities. Venice also negotiated for permanent possession of ports seized in the Holy Land. The crusade was to be ready to sail on 24 June 1203 and make directly for the Ayyubid capital, Cairo. The agreement was ratified by Pope Innocent, with a solemn ban on attacks on Christian states.

However, nobody had enforced commitment to the Venice plan on the heterogenous armies and forces scattered all across Europe, and so various contingents sailed under their own steam from a variety of European ports. The number of crusaders who actually turned up at Venice in the appointed month of May 1202 was about a third of the expected 33,500.

Reasonably enough, the Venetians, under their aged and blind Doge Enrico Dandolo, would not let the crusaders leave without paying the full amount agreed to, some 85,000 silver marks. The crusaders could only manage 35,000 silver marks between them. This was disastrous for the Venetians, who had suspended their usual trading for a year, trained sailors and so on, in order to fulfil the deal.

Doge Dandolo proposes an attack on Zara

It is now that the Doge Dandolo starts to emerge as the wicked genie of the expedition. Dandolo proposed that to pay off their debts the crusaders should help Venice with a spot of bother: the port of Zara in Dalmatia had traditionally been dominated by Venice but had rebelled in 1181 and allied itself with King Emeric of Hungary. Dandolo told the crusaders they could pay off their debt if they helped Venice seize back control of Zara.

Now King Emeric was himself a Catholic and had taken the cross in 1195, so many of the crusaders understandably refused to countenance attacking Zara, and some, including a force led by the elder Simon de Montfort, returned home. Also, as soon as he learned about the proposal, the Pope wrote a letter to the crusading leadership threatening excommunication if they attacked another Christian state. However, this letter was kept secret from the ranks of the crusader army, which proceeded to take ship across the Adriatic and besiege Zara in November 1202.

Although the inhabitants of Zara hung banners from their buildings with crosses on to point out that they were fellow Christians, the crusaders quickly breached the walls and proceeded to ransack and pillage the city. Giving way to crude greed, the Venetians and other crusaders came to blows over the division of the spoils.

When Innocent III heard of the sack of Zara, he sent a letter to the crusaders excommunicating them and ordering them to return to their holy vows and head for Jerusalem. The leaders kept this letter from the troops, and replied to the pope that they had been forced to do it by the Venetians, having had no alternative between carrying out the attack or calling off the whole crusade.

The pope relented and in February 1203 rescinded the excommunications against all non-Venetians in the expedition. Somewhere someone must have done a study of just how ineffectual papal excommunications were in the Middle Ages.

The fatal deal with Alexius IV Angelus

Meanwhile, the nominal leader of the crusade, Boniface of Montferrat, had left the fleet before it sailed for Zara, to visit his cousin Philip of Swabia. At Philip’s court he found the exiled Byzantine prince Alexius IV Angelus, Philip’s brother-in-law and the son of the recently deposed Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelus. (Isaac II had been deposed and blinded by his older brother, Alexius Angelus, who then claimed the throne as Alexius III. Alexius IV wasn’t Alexius IV yet, but would be if he could only reclaim the throne.)

Now Alexius proceeded to make the two would-be crusaders an offer: if they could get the crusaders to sail to Constantinople, and overthrow the reigning emperor Alexius III Angelus, and restore his father and himself to the Byzantine throne, then Alexius would:

  1. use the wealth of the Byzantine Empire to pay the entire debt owed to the Venetians
  2. give 200,000 silver marks to the crusaders
  3. give 10,000 Byzantine professional troops for the Crusade
  4. pay for the permanent maintenance of 500 knights in the Holy Land
  5. offer the service of the Byzantine navy to transport the Crusader Army to Egypt
  6. place the Eastern Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope

This fantastic offer was passed on to the leaders of the Crusade as they wintered at Zara and they enthusiastically agreed, seconded by Doge Dandolo – although the latter knew that Alexius could never keep these promises: he knew that Byzantium didn’t have that much money and would never agree to submit its church to Rome. Dandolo did, though, see at a glance the benefits for Venice in such an arrangement, which were:

  • revenge for the massacre of the Latins and other historical grievances
  • seizure of Constantinople’s significant wealth
  • by reinstating a large Venetian colony in the city, gaining a permanent commercial advantage over Venice’s rival, Genoa

Even now there were dissenters among the crusade’s leaders who (correctly) thought it was no part of a crusade against the Muslims to attack the mainstay of Christian power in the East. Led by Reynold of Montmirail, they sailed directly on to Syria.

Diversion of the crusade to Constantinople

But the majority of the fourth crusade now set sail for Constantinople in April 1203. The fleet consisted of some 60 war galleys, 100 horse transports and 50 large transports (manned by 10,000 Venetian oarsmen and marines). The Pope hedged and issued an order against any more attacks on Christians unless they were actively hindering the Crusader cause, but he did not condemn the scheme outright.

The crusaders attack Constantinople

When the Fourth Crusade arrived at Constantinople on 23 June 1203, the city had a population of approximately 500,000 people, a garrison of 15,000 men (including 5,000 Varangians), and a fleet of 20 galleys. Norwich emphasises that the city’s defences had been left to decay by the useless emperor Alexius III Angelus, and most of the galleys had fallen into disrepair.

The crusaders delivered their ultimatum demanding that that the emperor Alexius III should abdicate to make way for his nephew, Alexius IV. The emperor refused. The crusaders attacked the suburbs of Chalcedon and Chrysopolis. When about 200 ships, horse transports, and galleys delivered the crusading army across the narrow strait of the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe, Alexius III had lined up the Byzantine army in battle formation along the shore but, when the crusader actually knights charged, the Byzantine army turned and fled.

The Crusaders followed south along the shore and attacked the Tower of Galata. From this tower stretched a massive chain across the Golden Horn, the strait of water up the east side of the city, preventing entry to enemy ships. The crusaders took the tower and lowered the chain, allowing the Venetian fleet to sail up the Golden Horn. This is a narrow strip of water and the crusader galleys were able to come up close against the city’s seaward walls. Here they presented the pretender to the throne, Alexius IV, but were surprised when the people and soldiers of Constantinople jeered from the battlements. The crusaders had been told the people were in the grip of a cruel dictator and that they and Alexius would be greeted as liberators. Now they began to realise this was not true.

The crusaders set about attacking the city, combining an attack on the land walls at the north-west, with attacks on the sea walls from the fleet in the Horn. Eventually a breach was made and the crusaders entered the city. They were forced back by the Byzantine response and set a fire to keep off their attackers. This fire got out of control and was the first of the disastrous fires which were to burn through a large part of the city, this first one leaving an estimated 20,000 people homeless.

Alexius III made one last foray out to face the crusaders, but compounded his reputation for cowardice and ineffectiveness by turning his 8,500 men back in the face of the crusaders’ smaller force of 3,500. The impact of the fire and of this dismal capitulation led to a collapse in morale among the defenders. Alexius fled the city with his favourite daughter and courtiers.

The Byzantine officials now quickly declared the runaway emperor deposed and restored blind old Isaac II to the throne.

This presented the crusaders with a dilemma. The main, official, justification for the whole expedition was supposed to be restoring Isaac and his son, Alexius IV, who had proposed the whole scheme in the first place, to the throne. Now the Byzantines had called their bluff and restored Isaac. The crusaders responded that they would only recognize the authority of Isaac II if his son was raised to co-emperor, but the Byzantines again called the crusaders’ bluff by immediately agreeing to this, taking Alexius into the city and hurriedly arranging for his coronation at Hagia Sophia where he was crowned Alexius Angelus IV, co-emperor.

Alexius is unable to pay

As Norwich makes all too plain, Alexius now realised what a dreadful error he had made. The mismanagement of the Angelus dynasty over the previous decades had left Byzantium’s coffers bare, and Alexius III had made it worse by fleeing with as much imperial treasure as he could carry.

Alexius IV now ordered the seizure and melting down of priceless icons and church plate to use their gold and silver to pay off the impatient crusaders who were waiting across the Golden Horn in the suburb of Galata. Forcing the populace to destroy their most precious icons to satisfy an army of foreign schismatics did not endear Alexius IV to the citizens of Constantinople. Alexius negotiated a six-month extension to his pledge to the crusaders, making it now fall due in April 1204. Alexius IV then led 6,000 men from the crusader army against his rival Alexius III in Adrianople, with a view to seizing back the treasure his uncle had stolen and whatever could be ransacked from the Empire’s second city.

The Great Fire of Constantinople

But during the co-emperor’s absence in August 1203, rioting broke out in the city against the arrogant Latin occupiers, a number of whom were killed. In retaliation armed Venetians and other crusaders entered the city from the Golden Horn and, among other mayhem, discovered a church which had been converted into a mosque to cater to Constantinople’s not insignificant Muslim population. Citizens, both Greek and Muslim, rallied to the defence of this building and, to cover their retreat, the Latins started a fire, which – as is the way with fires – quickly spread out of control.

This became the ‘Great Fire’ of Constantinople which burnt from 19 to 21 August, destroying a large part of the city, consuming many ancient palaces and churches, and leaving an estimated 100,000 homeless. Amid the ruins the demoralised citizenry struggled on, while the crusaders waiting impatiently for their money.

The overthrow of Alexius IV

In January 1204, blind old Isaac II died, probably of natural causes, and rule now passed to his lamentable son, Alexius IV. The Byzantine Senate elected a young noble Nicolas Canabus to be co-emperor, in what was to be one of the last known acts of this ancient institution. However he declined the appointment and sought church sanctuary. Who can blame him?

Now during this period of crisis a nobleman called Alexius Ducas (nicknamed Mourtzouphlos, referring to his bush eyebrows) had led Byzantine forces during the initial clashes with the crusaders, winning respect from both the army and the people. And so it was Mourtzouphlos who one night entered the bed chamber of Alexius IV, told him there was rioting outside and the people were baying for his blood, led him through secret passages in the palace, to a dungeon where he chained and locked him up. Then returned to join his supporters and have himself proclaimed Emperor Alexius V. A few weeks later Alexius IV, the man who had caused all this trouble with his foolish promise to the crusaders, was strangled.

Alexius immediately took control of the Byzantine resistance and had the city fortifications strengthened, as well as recalling loyal troops from the provinces to bolster the Constantinople garrison.

The crusaders and Venetians, incensed at the murder of their supposed patron, demanded that Mourtzouphlos honour the contract that Alexius IV had made. The terms, if you remember, were to:

  1. use the wealth of the Empire to pay the entire debt owed to the Venetians
  2. give 200,000 silver marks to the crusaders
  3. give 10,000 Byzantine professional troops for the Crusade
  4. pay for the maintenance of 500 knights in the Holy Land
  5. offer the service of the Byzantine navy to transport the Crusader Army to Egypt
  6. place the Eastern Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope

The crusaders renew their attack

Alexius V refused for the simple reason that there was nowhere near that much money in the imperial treasury. In March he ordered the forcible expulsion of all Latins from the city, which , and so in April the crusaders launched another attack on the city. Alexius V’s army put up a strong resistance, hurling projectiles onto the crusader’s siege engines, shattering many of them, and bad weather also hampered the attackers.

Pope Innocent III again sent a message ordering the crusaders not to attack, but once again the papal letter was suppressed by the clergy and never made public. While the Latin crusaders prepared to attack the land walls the Venetian fleet drew close to the sea-walls in an attempt to storm them.

On 12 April 1204, the weather conditions finally favoured the crusaders. A strong northern wind helped the Venetian ships get close to the seaward walls while on the land approach, the crusaders managed to make a hole in the walls through which a force of crusaders was able to crawl and overpower the defenders.

The crusaders captured the Blachernae section of the city in the northwest and used it as a base to attack the rest of the city. Alexius V fled the city accompanied by his wife and mother-in-law. In the Hagia Sophia Constantine Lascaris was acclaimed emperor but, when he failed to persuade the Varangian guard to continue the fight against the crusaders, in the early hours of 13 April he also fled, leaving Constantinople abandoned to the control of the Latins.

The sack of Constantinople

Over the centuries Constantinople had become a museum of ancient and Byzantine art. Having secured control of the city the crusaders proceeded to systematically sack and devastate it for three days. Churches and palaces were ransacked. Vast numbers of works of art were stolen, or melted down for their precious metals, or just burned and destroyed. Thousands of citizens were murdered or raped.

Despite the pope’s threat of excommunication, the crusaders destroyed, defiled and looted and set on fire the city’s churches and monasteries. Priests were abused, defrocked or murdered. In the greatest church in Christendom, Hagia Sophia, the crusaders melted down the silver iconostasis, smashed the icons, burned the holy books, and set on the patriarchal throne a prostitute who sang bawdy songs as the crusaders got drunk and pissed on the holy relics.

It was now that the Venetians stole the four statues of horses which they set up over the portico of St Mark’s cathedral in the main square in Venice. A large bronze statue of Hercules, created by the legendary Lysippos, court sculptor of Alexander the Great, was destroyed. Like countless other artworks, the statue was melted down for its metal value.

It was said that the total amount looted from Constantinople was about 900,000 silver marks. After the dust had settled the leaders of the ‘crusade’ made a big pile of their takings and divided up according to a pre-arranged deal. The Venetians took 150,000 silver marks that they reckoned was their due, while the crusaders took 50,000 silver marks. A further 100,000 silver marks were divided evenly up between the crusaders and Venetians. The remaining 500,000 silver marks were kept back by crusader knights and gangs.

When Innocent III heard of the conduct of his crusaders he was beside himself with rage. The whole episode sharply highlights the limits of papal power, and the ineffectiveness of even of the strongest weapon the pope possessed, that of excommunication. Various popes excommunicate numerous kings and emperors and princes throughout Norwich’s book and it never seems to have the slightest effect. In fact I wonder if there is a single example of the threat of excommunication making anyone (anyone of note, any leader) change their behaviour. In his shame the pope wrote:

As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood, they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys. Not satisfied with breaking open the imperial treasury and plundering the goods of princes and lesser men, they also laid their hands on the treasures of the churches and, what is more serious, on their very possessions. They have even ripped silver plates from the altars and have hacked them to pieces among themselves. They violated the holy places and have carried off crosses and relics.

The fourth crusaders

The naval attack on Egypt was never carried out. Only a relatively small number of the members of the Fourth Crusade finally reached the Holy Land. About a tenth of the knights who had taken the cross in Flanders arrived to reinforce the remaining Christian states there, plus about half of those from the Île-de-France. What a farce.

The Fourth Crusade – if indeed it can be so described – surpassed even its predecessors in faithlessness and duplicity, in brutality and greed. Constantinople in the twelfth century had been not just the wealthiest metropolis in the world, but also the most intellectually and artistically cultivated and the chief repository of Europe’s classical heritage, both Greek and Roman. By its sack, Western civilisation suffered a loss greater than the sack of Rome by the barbarians in the fifth century or the burning of the library of Alexandria by the soldiers of the Prophet in the seventh – perhaps the most catastrophic single loss in all history. (Norwich, p.182)

The aftermath – a Latin emperor and the Greek successor states

When the looting was quite finished and large parts of the once-glorious city burned to the ground, the crusaders convened to appoint a Latin emperor to take control of the city and the Byzantine Empire. Doge Dandolo wisely withdrew from the field of candidates and Boniface of Montferrat was deliberately rejected because of his family ties with the Greek regime. Several other crusader leaders were overlooked till they settled on the inoffensive Baldwin of Flanders. The Empire was now partitioned:

  • Boniface went on to found the Kingdom of Thessalonica, a vassal state of the new Latin Empire.
  • The Venetians founded the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean Sea.
  • A Duchy of Athens controlling most of Greece.

Byzantine refugees founded their own rump states, namely:

  • the Empire of Nicaea, just across the Bosphorus on the Asian mainland, under Theodore Lascaris (a relative of Alexius III)
  • the Empire of Trebizond far away on the south coast of the Black Sea
  • the Despotate of Epirus on the Dalmatian shore opposite Italy

While Crete, Rhodes, Caphalonia and Corfu were permanently handed over to Venice.

Partition of the Byzantine Empire into The Latin Empire, Empire of Nicaea, and Despotate of Epirus after 1204 (source: Wikipedia)

Its enemies take advantage of the ruin of the Byzantine Empire

Norwich’s book takes a decisive turn after the sack of Constantinople. Up till then the reader had a reasonable grasp on the notion of one Byzantine Empire and one Byzantine emperor, who faced a sea of opponents to north, west and east.

But now there were no fewer than four emperors – the Latin one in Constantinople, the Greek one in Nicaea, one in faraway Trebizond and an aspirant one in Epirus (not to mention the Holy Roman Emperor based in Germany). Each of these are led by rulers who aren’t content with their holdings but immediately started scheming against each other, and involving the leaders of the lesser states – the Duchy of Athens, the Principality of Achaea and so on.

For the next fifty years or so, all these characters conspired against each other, fought against each other, made and broke alliances with each other – all the time doing the same with the many enemies who continued to surround and menace the Empire, from the Bulgarians and Serbs in the north, to the Seljuk Turks in the East.

Several of the major Greek and Latin protagonists in the events died or were killed soon after the fall of the city. The betrayal and blinding of Murtzuphlus by Alexius III led to his capture by the Latins and his execution in 1205. Not long after, Alexius III was himself captured by Boniface and sent to exile in Southern Italy. He died in Nicaea in 1211.

On 14 April 1205, one year after the conquest of the city, the Latin emperor Baldwin was decisively defeated and captured at the Battle of Adrianople by the Bulgarians. In 1205 or 1206, the Bulgarian Emperor Kaloyan mutilated him and left him to die (others suggest he was kept captive in the famous Baldwin’s Tower in the Bulgarian capital Veliko Turnovo, where he died under unknown circumstances). Either way, he only lasted a year as the ruler of the Latin Empire and that Empire was to lead a stunted, blighted life, menaced on all sides and deprived of all economic livelihood.

Baldwin was succeeded by his brother Henry of Hainault who appears to have been a wise and fair king, liberal to his Greek subjects, and who – beside battling the troublesome Bulgarians – reached a peace settlement with the Greek Empire based in Nicaea.

The Latin Empire always rested on shaky foundations but it took nearly sixty years before the city was finally retaken by the Nicaean Greeks under Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261. But it was a ruined wreck of a city, as Norwich’s desolate description makes clear. Many of the churches and palaces still lay abandoned ruins. The population had collapsed. The city was never to recover.

Conclusion

The sack of Constantinople was a major turning point in medieval history. The Crusaders’ decision to attack the world’s largest Christian city was controversial at the time and has been ever since. Reports of Crusader looting and brutality horrified the Orthodox world and crystallised bitter opposition to the barbarian West.

Relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches were blighted, arguably right up to the present day. Norwich makes the point that, as the Turks drew nearer in the coming centuries, most Byzantines, whether aristocrats or peasants, preferred the idea of subjection by the Muslims to the barbaric destructiveness of the West Europeans. The Byzantines had a saying, ‘Better a turban than a cardinal’s hat,’ and they meant it.

So much for East-West relations, but the main and obvious result of the sack was that the Byzantine Empire was permanently crippled. Broken up into a number of successor states, it was never to be really unified again, never able to muster the resources in men and goods necessary to hold off its enemies, especially the Ottoman Turks who would begin their rise to power 200 years later.

The actions of the Crusaders thus directly accelerated the collapse of Christendom in the East, and in the long run facilitated the expansion of Islam across the Bosphorus and right into the heart of Europe. In 1529 the Ottoman Turks led by Suleiman the Magnificent were to lay siege to Vienna.

So you could argue that the net effect of the entire crusading enterprise was not only to leave an enduring legacy of bitterness throughout the entire Muslim world and among the Greek Orthodox eastern world – but also to hand the Middle East, all of Anatolia and half the Balkans over to Muslim occupiers.

Was ever a mass social movement and religious undertaking so utterly and completely counter-productive?


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938)

Now, in Constantinople there is a square called ‘The Square of Brotherly Love’ with a fine group of statuary in it, on a tall pedestal, commemorating the fraternal devotion of the sons of the emperor Constantine – who subsequently destroyed one another without mercy. (p.183)

Robert Graves

Apart from one year teaching at the University of Cairo, Graves made a living for his whole long life (1895-1985) from writing – books and articles, editing collections, but above all writing poetry.

He regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, slaving over his carefully constructed verses and developing slightly eccentric theories about poetic inspiration. It was only to pay the rent, and feed his growing family that he churned out the prose works which he didn’t consider nearly as important.

But ironically, it is these prose works which posterity has remembered Graves for, starting with his hugely enjoyable autobiography, Goodbye To All That (1929), famous for its account of his service in the First World War, but which also includes humorous memories of his childhood growing up in Wimbledon, and then merry anecdotes of being a struggling poet, husband and father in the 1920s.

I, Claudius

On the same level of fame is the pair of novels he wrote about the Roman emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54), I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both published in 1934) which were made into a famous BBC TV series in 1976. Presumably this introduced Graves’s name (and Claudius’s) to million of viewers who’d never heard of either before.

Belisarius

Close behind the Claudius duet in reputation is this novel, which is also based around another major figure from the classical world, General Flavius Belisarius.

Belisarius (500-565 AD) rose to become the leading general of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first half of the 6th century. He is best known for serving the Eastern Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) and leading a series of campaigns to try and recapture the Western half of the Empire, over a century after the first sack of Rome (by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410), 50 years or so after the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed (476) and Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy had been overrun by barbarian conquerors.

Belisarius made his reputation in a campaign against the Persian Empire on the eastern border, before leading campaigns against the Vandals in Africa (then a word describing what is basically Tunisia today), before taking Sicily and then fighting Ostrogoth armies the length and breadth of Italy during the prolonged Gothic War (535-554). Unfortunately the resulting waste and devastation of Italy left the inhabitants with an enduring resentment of the Easterners / the Greeks / the Byzantines. At one point a minor character, the tall good-looking Theodosius who is a favourite of Antonina’s (and who court gossip quickly suggests is having an affair with her) composes a comic song which ironically lists all the ‘benefits’ Byzantine rule has brought to Italy, including ‘massacre, rape, arson, enslavement, famine, plague and cannibalism (p.298).

In fact the next effect of Justinian and Belarius’s campaigns was so to weaken both Goth and Roman authority that just fourteen years after both sides had fought to exhaustion, the entire peninsula was conquered by another tribe of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, in 568.

As with the Claudius books, Graves had a number of good sources for the career of General Belisarius, namely the scurrilous account of court intrigue by the contemporary historian, Procopius (the origin and motivation for whose books is dissected right at the end of the text), as well as other chronicles by the likes of John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus. But being such a good classicist, he has slipped in various inventions – invented characters and events – which fit seamlessly into his vision of the 6th century Byzantine Empire.

Flavius Belisarius depicted in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The novel

I found the book slow going to begin with, but then became more and more absorbed by it. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, covering Belisarius’s boyhood and school years, his move to the Eastern capital Constantinople, his rise in the army, reforms to the army, and then the long, long sequence of military campaigns.

What brings the book alive, though, is the narrator Graves has invented to tell the whole, long story – Eugenius the eunuch (p.11). He makes Eugenius the long-suffering servant of Belisarius’s wife, an ex-prostitute named Antonina who, at an early point in her life ran a sort of nightclub-cum-brothel with several other filles de joie, including – as it happens – one Theodora who, after a series of unlikely events, ends up marrying the Emperor Justinian and becoming ‘Her Resplendent Highness, the Empress’.

And what power she has! Again and again Eugenius shows Theodora as being the most resolute and decisive of all the emperor’s advisers, and even going behind his back to take strong decisions when Justinian was dithering.

Theodora was no fool of the priests. She had seen the world, and she understood men and politics, both lay and ecclesiastical. She ruled Justinian as absolutely as it is said that the great Livia once ruled Augustus, the first Emperor of the Romans. (p.147)

[A discreet nod, there to the guiding theme of the Claudius novels, published just four years earlier.]

Thus although the novel is generally about a man, a military man, one of the most famous generals in history – and although it certainly contains a great deal about the Byzantine army and cavalry, their equipment, training and tactics, and describes in great detail pretty much every battle Belisarius was involved in – nonetheless, the novel still has quite a lot of feminine content, the eunuch Eugenius being as understanding of and sympathetic to his mistress and her lady friends, and in tune with the friendship between Antonina and Theodora, as he is with the more famous menfolk.

In fact Eugenius manages to be consistently rude about most of the male figures, not least Justinian (and his illiterate predecessor and sponsor, Justin, and his hapless predecessor, Anastasius I). Here he is on Justinian:

The man was a mass of contradictions: most of which, however, were to be explained as the result of great ambitions struggling with cowardice and meanness. Justinian wised, it seems, to make himself remembered as Justinian the Great. His talents would indeed have been equal to the task if he had only been less of a beast in spirit. (p.146)

Rudeness which slowly changes into contempt as he describes Justinian’s growing meanness, avariciousness, paranoia and poor decision-making, until he is routinely describing examples of Justinian’s

incompetence, cruelty, procrastination, meanness, ingratitude (p.407)

Towards Belisarius Eugenius is more ambivalent, painting him as the generally innocent victim of various court intrigues and Justinian’s petty mean-mindedness – but all the same, he doesn’t really like the general and is only supportive because of his undying loyalty to Belarius’s wife, Eugenius’s mistress, the lovely Antonina.

The Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and his entourage as depicted by a contemporary mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (it is believed that the figure standing on Justinian’s immediate right is Belisarius)

We learn a lot about the backstories of Eugenius, Antonia and Theodora which are described with wonderful plausibility. I particularly like Eugenius’s own story, that he was the young son of a Welsh prince, kidnapped by Saxon raiders and then sold on to an unscrupulous Greek salesman of fake religious relics, Barak, who had him castrated, and crops up at amusingly unlikely moments throughout the rest of the story.

At Constantinople Barak [who had been arrested and sent there by Belisarius] secured an honourable release through bribery, and though by now seventy years of age, resumed his long-interrupted task as overseer of monuments in the Holy Places. It was his pleasure to refresh the blood-marks on the pillar of scourging; and to  renew the hyssop-sponge at Golgotha, which the piety of pilgrims had worn almost to nothing; and to discover at Joppa, buried in an old chest during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, a startling number of early Christian relics of the first importance and in an agreeably sound state of preservation. (p.305)

A passage which, incidentally, gives you a good feel for Eugenius’s own ironic scorn for most Christian belief and practice.

Eugenius is a gossipy narrator and frequently stops the narrative to tell us diverting anecdotes about whoever is appearing in the main narrative whether it is the early stories about Antonina and Theodora setting up their brothel, or stories about the enemies Belisarius faces, like old Khavad of Persia, or describing the culture of the north African Moors, or a revealing anecdote about King Gelimer of the Vandals. All these little asides and stories make the book much more accessible and readable.

Eugenius is also a chatty and fascinating guide to the culture of 6th century Constantinople where the first half of the novel is set, before Eugenius sets off accompanying his mistress Antonina who insists on accompanying her husband Belisarius on his western campaigns.

Two massive issues dominated the culture of the time, which were the powerful antagonisms stirred up by the various Christian heresies which swirled round the empire, and, in the city itself, the huge division between the two factions, the Blues and the Greens.

Heresies

By the early 300s the spread of Christian heresies throughout the empire was already such a problem that the Emperor Constantine, the man who ordered the building of Constantinople (officially consecrated in 330) had been forced to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to thrash out definitions of the key ideas and terms of Christianity.

Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, though far from the last. The heresy it was called to address was Arianism, named after the presbyter Arius who preached that Jesus – the Son of the Christian Trinity – was at some point created by the Father and therefore was not identical with him and was therefore, logically, inferior to him. This belief became very popular but contradicted the orthodox view that Jesus was fully divine, part of the Holy Trinity which was made up of equal members.

Although the Council of Nicaea stripped Arius of his teaching position and exiled him, his heresy continued to flourish, and others soon joined it. A recurring problem was defining the precise nature of Jesus: was he a man, or a God? Or half man, half God? Or both man and God? Was he eternal and one with God, or ‘begotten’ i.e. created at some later date i.e. not as godly as God?

These are all ‘Christological’ issues i.e. debates about the person, nature, and role of Christ, and they turned out to be prolific. To put it another way, Christianity was and is to this day, a very unstable theological or philosophical system, liable to splinter off into all kinds of heresies and sects.

At the period when the novel is set the most common heresy in the Greek East was monophysitism. This held that in the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature. This view conflicted with the ‘orthodox’ position, which had been agreed at a later ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which proclaimed that Jesus possessed two natures, divine and human.

The emperor Justinian was a staunch defender of the orthodox view propounded at Chalcedon, but his wife, Theodora, was a believer in miaphysitism. Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one nature, ‘united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration,’ although – looking it up – I see that Chalcedonian orthodoxy considered this view assimilable within the orthodoxy. Thus Justinian and Theodora were more or less at one in their theology.

This may all sound very theoretical and abstruse but in fact heresy played a vital role in the geopolitics of the day. Virtually all the ‘barbarian’ tribes who had conquered the territories of the former western empire were Arians which put them at loggerheads both with the pope (who clung on in defeated Rome) and Justinian.

Thus the Ostrogoths, who had conquered and occupied all of Italy and the Adriatic coast, and who reached the zenith of their power under Theodoric (454-526) were Arians. It was these Ostrogoths who Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer in what turned into the long and ruinous Gothic War (535-554 AD) and, at various points in the long, complex negotiations for peace, the issue of religious belief became a stumbling block.

Also the Vandals who had travelled through Spain and crossed the straits in order to conquer Carthage and the surrounding area of north Africa were also Arians who lorded it over the native Roman population who were orthodox. This fact led to some bad decisions, for Belisarius – having conquered them in battle – sensibly recommended to Justinian that the Vandals be allowed to worship in their own way and receive eucharist from their Arian priests. But Justinian, more devout and more removed from military reality, insisted that the Vandals be forced to submit to orthodox priests and that their own religious rites be banned. Predictably, this (along with other tactical mistakes Justinian made, like not allowing the victorious Byzantine troops to hang on to the estates they had sequestered) led to a rebellion against Byzantine rule after Belisarius had left the area in order to campaign in Italy, forcing Belisarius to weaken his forces by sending some back to quash the rebellion. It could have become a peacefully restored part of the Byzantine empire but for Justinian’s religious intolerance on this central issue of Christian heresy.

These heresies add depth to the personal, social and military clashes which feature in it. Of every single major character we need to know which form of Christianity they follow in order to gauge or understand their likely reactions to other characters, and to understand the broader religious-cum-power politics of the situation.

The Blues and Greens

Within the Eastern empire itself, and especially in the city of Constantinople, raged a fierce enmity between the Greens and the Blues. These had originally been the colours of competing teams of chariot racers in the city’s massive Hippodrome. In fact there had originally been blue, green, red and white teams but the latter two had been swallowed up by the former.

By the time of the novel the conflict between Blues and Greens had permeated every level of Byzantine society. It was a bit like Brexit. Families were divided, friends opposed, politics became poisoned by the fierce opposition of Blues and Greens at every level. Even religion was dragged into it, with the Greens broadly representing monophysitism and the lower classes, while the Blues tended to be orthodox and upper class. Blues and Greens took opposing views not only on religion, but on social and political issues, up to and including the choice of new emperors.

Early on in the novel we learn that the empress Theodora was the daughter of one Acacius, a bear trainer of the hippodrome’s Green faction. An internal rivalry among the Greens led to Acacius’s death whereupon his widow brought her four children, including young Theodora, into the Hippodrome wearing garlands, but they were roundly booed and rejected by the Green half of the audience who had been led to believe Acacius had been a traitor to their colour. To spite the Greens, they were taken up by the Blues and from then on Theodora would be a Blue supporter.

The degree of enmity this rivalry caused has to be read about to be believed. In its sporting origins it was a bit like the sectarianism of football fans of my youth in the 1970s, and was accompanied by a lot of street hooliganism. Except that there were only two factions and the rivalry permeated right to the top of Byzantine society, something like the ineradicable difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

As with all the other sociological aspects of the book, Graves gives a completely convincing description of what it felt like to live and work in a society drenched in this rivalry. The different factions developed different haircuts and fashions. Young toughs of both sides patrolled the streets in gangs, wearing short swords, frequently stabbing each other in broad daylight.

The mounting anarchy climaxed in the Nika Riots of January 532. Some rioters from a previous horse race had been arrested and most of them hanged. A pair escaped and took refuge in a church. The emperor Justinian was just at a delicate point in negotiations with the Persian empire and facing hostility over high taxes at home. At the next day of chariot racing, on 13 January the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans at Justinian who, as usual, was sitting in the royal box (which linked directly into the enormous royal palace just behind the Hippodrome). By the end of the races the entire crowd, Blues and Greens, had united in chanting their opposition to Justinian via the slogan ‘Nika’, meaning ‘Victory’, the chant usually set up when one or other of their champions had won a race.

The crowd then surged out into the streets and ran wild, burning and looting. Justinian’s palace was besieged and over the next week nearly half of Constantinople was burned or destroyed (including the grand church of Hagia Sophia) and hundreds of people killed. Senators opposed to Justinian saw their opportunity, first of all to call for the repeal of his unpopular laws and then, as things really got out of hand, they were bold enough to declare a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.

All this is described in a thrilling eye-witness account by the narrator, Eugenius. He explains how a) Justinian was all for fleeing the burning city but was restrained by Theodora who, like so many of Graves’s women, is the really strong figure in the story, and so b) contrives a solution to the anarchy. This was to bribe the Blue faction by pointing out that he, Justinian, was a Blue supporter while the new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. This, and a hefty bribe of gold, got the leading Blues back on the emperor’s side, at which point they left the hippodrome, leaving the Green leaders isolated.

And it was at this point that Belisarius was ordered to lead Imperial troops into the Hippodrome, commencing a merciless slaughter of the Green rebels. In all, after the street violence and the out of control city fire, and then the mass slaughter, it is estimated that some thirty thousand rioters were killed.

Justinian tracked down Hypatius, who pleaded that he had only agreed to become puppet emperor because the rioters threatened to lynch him, but Justinian had him executed nonetheless, and had the senators who had supported the riot exiled. He then rebuilt Constantinople, and particularly the church of Hagia Sophia which stands to this day (although it was converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Glorious though this may sound, Eugenius continually criticises Justinian for spending more money building churches and basilicas than defences for strategically important cities, and for continually skimping on men and supplies for Belarius’s many expeditions.

Fighting the Persian empire

Again Graves takes historical fact and, by filtering it through the gossipy, chatty, storytelling narrator Eugenius, makes it come to life. The ancient Persian or Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under Xerxes (519-564 BC) and Darius (550-486 BC), who both tried to invade the West, at that point represented by the Greek federation of cities led by Athens, which stopped the invaders at the famous Battle of Marathon.

At the time the novel is set, nearly 1,000 years later, Persia is ruled by the Sassanian Empire, the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. To quote Wikipedia:

In many ways, the Sassanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian civilisation. The Sassanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sassanians throughout the Muslim world.

The Persian ruler is the ageing Kavadh I (449-531) (who Graves – or Eugenius – refers to as Kobad). The Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire are the two main powers sparring for control of the Middle East. In the first, Eastern half of the book, we become very familiar with the towns and rivers of the border region, the dividing line between the two empires running roughly from the Caspian Gates – a narrow pass through the Caucasus mountains in the north – dividing Christian Armenia in two, and then running across the headwaters of the River Euphrates, sloping diagonally down towards the Red Sea. Many offences are launched from the Persian frontier town of Nisibis. Belisarius leads the defence of the town of Dara, just over the border opposite Nisibis, in the Battle of Dara of 530, which Graves describes in great detail. A few years later the Persians launched a devastating raid on Antioch which they pillaged and burned (540).

Map showing the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 502 to 628

What is really interesting about Graves’s account, though, is the insight he gives into the strangely friendly relationship between the Roman emperor and Persian emperor. Although they wage intermittent wars, there is a continual correspondence between them including exchanges of gifts and land. When both are threatened by attacks from the Hunnic tribes north of the Caucasus they arrange to suspend hostilities between them to fight against the common foe, indeed Kavadh at one stage invites Justinian to send Byzantine soldiers to bolster the Persian garrison defending the Caspian Gates. There had been another, important historical juncture when, in 525, Kavadh had asked Justinian’s predecessor, Justin, to ‘adopt’ his youngest son, Khosrau. Kavadh had two older sons but wanted Khosrau to succeed. Much bloodshed would have been spared if Justin had agreed but, as it happened, he (Justin) was without an heir and so worried that Khosrau, if officially adopted as his son, might end up with a good claim to the Byzantine throne, which Justin wanted to hand on to his appointed heir Justinian. So Justin refused the offer and Kavadh was mortally offended, immediately launching an attack on Roman border towns.

Ten years later Belisarius, having completed the conquest of the Vandals in North Africa, returned to Constantinople where he was granted an enormous victory parade, first the soldiers of his army marching along the imperial high street, then hordes of captured Vandals, and then huge amounts of plunder and treasure which the Vandals themselves had built up during their career of looting (not least during their comprehensive sack of Rome in 455). But it is characteristic of the time that the new king of the Persians, Khosrou, sent an embassy to Justinian, half-jokingly asking for his share of the spoils since, as he pointed out, it was only due to his keeping peace on the Persian frontier which had freed up the soldiers Belisarius had used to conquer North Africa. And very characteristic that Justinian, choosing to continue the joke, sent the ambassador back to Khosrou with his thanks and bearing a valuable gold dinner service (p.204).

This is all fascinating stuff, but made all the more readable by being told in Eugenius’s factual, but chatty, gossipy style, assigning praise and blame, relating these historical incidents to the present conflicts and battles he is describing, and weaving in and out of them his concerns for his mistress Antonina or behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles at the court of Justinian.

Belisarius’s career

505 Flavius Belisarius born in Illyria.
532 Belisarius puts down the Nika Uprising, slaughtering between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
530 Belisarius defeats the Persians at the Battle of Dara
533 Belisarius leads the Byzantine invasion of North Africa and defeats the Vandals under King Gelimer at the Battle of Ad Decium and the Battle of Tricameron.
534 Belisarius celebrates a triumph in Constantinople.
535 Belisarius’ first campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy, during which he conquers Sicily and, in spring 536, takes Naples.
536 Rome falls to Belisarius but is then besieged by the Ostrogoths from March 537 to March 538, during which Pope Silverius and some senators try to betray it to the Goths.
539 Belisarius conquers Ravenna and captures the Ostrogoth king Witigis but, due to disagreements in the Byzantine chain of command, Milan falls to a combined force of Goths and Burgundians, its inhabitants decimated and the city razed to the ground.
540 Belisarius captures the Goth capital of Ravenna, and is offered the crown by the Goths, but turns it down. Nonetheless he is recalled to Constantinople by Justinian who has been listening to rivals claiming Belisarius plans to seize the throne. Instead Belisarius is sent once again against the Persians.
545 Belisarius’ second campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy.
559 Belisarius is recalled again to Constantinople to defeat the invading Bulgars.
562 Belisarius is arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of corruption. Pardoned by Justinian and restored to former position.
565 Belisarius dies in Constantinople of natural causes, and so does the Emperor Justinian
571 The year the narrator, Eugenius the eunuch, claims to be writing his text in (p.388)

Proverbs

One entertaining way Graves brings the period to life is having Eugenius report and explain various trivial aspects of contemporary life, such as the Empress’s use of a wig, or the way young men of the Green faction wear their hair shaved back over the forehead but left hanging long at the back, ‘in the Hunnish manner’. He tells us that the poor of Constantinople could claim a dole so long as they had obtained the requisite wooden ticket. He also includes a number of proverbs. Who knows whether he’s made them up or not. When discussing the Massagetic Huns’ addiction to drinking mares’ milk, Eugenius comments:

  • Every fish to his tipple
  • Thistles are lettuces to the ass’s lips

And various characters make pithy replies or sayings at crucial and dramatic moments, which are overheard by slaves and servants and end up becoming proverbial sayings. All these add colour and verisimilitude to the account.

Cruel and unusual punishments

But the story never lets you forget that they were living in a world of almost perpetual warfare, that anyone living in what was left of the Roman Empire was – far from being guaranteed peace and security – almost certain of the opposite. The narrative shows how Belarius brought war and ruin to North Africa, before inaugurating 20 years of war and devastation the length and breadth of Italy which reduced the land and all the cities to abject poverty – Rome’s ancient defences are entirely removed by the Goths, who also burn Milan to the ground – marking a decisive break between the peace and plenty of the ancient world, and the role of backwater littered with ruins which was to be Italy’s lot for the next 1,000 years. All the towns and cities of the Levant do not escape, as the book covers a period when the two largest cities – Antioch and Jerusalem – are sacked, and many other towns entirely razed, their populations taken off into slavery by the Persians. And Thrace, the area of north Greece to the west of Constantinople, is ravaged more than once during the 60 or so years the book covers, with barbarian tribes making it right up to the walls of Constantinople before just about being beaten back.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a world of continual warfare, in which the forces of Roman civilisation and Christian culture are only just keeping their heads above water.

And a world of stunning brutality. You get used to reading that an entire city was burned to the ground by the Goths or the Persians, all the men of fighting age massacred, and all the women and children led off into slavery but, if you stop to really reflect on what this must have meant, it makes reading the book a mournful and harrowing experience.

And this is brought into the foreground of the story, so to speak, by some of the cruel and unusual punishments meted to out to named characters. Thus we are told the fate of Photius, Antonina’s son by her marriage before Belisarius. He grows up to be a selfish, scheming brat. After losing lots of money gambling on the hippodrome races, he flees Constantinople to Belarius’s camp in Persia and there spins a long cock and bull story about how his mother (Belisarius’s wife, Antonina) is having an affair with her musician companion Theodosius, and the two are conspiring to blacken Belisarius’s name.

To cut a long story short the empress Theodora becomes involved to try and reconcile Belisarius and Antonina and this involves arresting, imprisoning and torturing Photius, at which he admits the whole thing was a conspiracy and also admits a string of thefts, embezzlements and perjuries. He had been helped in all this by a figure referred to simply as ‘the Senator’ who also confesses under torture. Now here’s the point: as punishment, Theodora has the Senator stripped of all his property and immured in a dark underground stable. He is tied to a manger with a short halter, his hands shackled behind him and there he was forced to stand, unable to move or lie down, but forced to eat, drink, try to sleep, defecate and urinate in a semi-standing position. It turns out that back in the days when she worked in a brothel the Senator had very rudely insulted Theodora’s appearance. This was her revenge. As for Photius he was shackled in the same underground stable but not given the manger treatment. After a while Justinian (who found sneaks and snitches useful) helped him escape. (pp.332-3)

Boutzes was one of Belarius’s most successful generals but when he fell foul of Theodora she had him convicted of treasonous speech and punished by being lowered into an unlit dungeon in solitary confinement. He was thrown scraps of bread and meat once a day. He was only released after two years and four months by which point he could only crawl on his hands and knees which were covered in callouses, had lost all his hair and most of his teeth, and when he was dragged out the sudden exposure to harsh sunlight meant that he could never again see properly (p.345).

This litany of imperial cruelty reaches a climax at the very end of the book when the scheming, paranoid, ageing Justinian, unrestrained by Theodora, who predeceases him (she dies 548, Justinian dies 565) having  recalled Belarius to Constantinople, finally charges him with a long list of ‘crimes’.

Now Eugenius has described in great detail all his military campaigns so that we know that his defeats and setbacks were almost all due to the emperor refusing to send enough reinforcements or money. It was Justinian’s insistence that the Arian Vandals be forbidden their religious rites, and his skimping on the pay of his own troops, which led to mutiny and the loss of North Africa, and we have seen countless examples of how Justinian’s penny-pinching and deliberate undermining of Belsarius’s authority hamstrung the years of campaigning in Italy. Why? Because, in Eugenius’s account, Justinian is determined to go down in history as ‘Great’ and he is jealous of Belisarius and, when his general is at his most successful, genuinely afraid that Belisarius will raise up in rebellion and declare himself emperor. Certainly this has happened many times before in Roman history but Justinian completely fails to appreciate Belisarius’s honesty and rectitude (as depicted by Eugenius).

Thus, at this final trial, Justinian takes all the occasions when Belisarius had failed militarily and declared them deliberate treasons, along with all the times he had been accused by others of treasonous speech or plotting, strings them all together, and comes up with the surreal conclusion that Belisarius is the greatest enemy of the state – despite his obvious track record of defeating all of the empire’s major enemies (the Persians, the Vandals, the Goths).

All Belisarius’s household servants and associates were tortured to provide incriminating evidence, including Eugenius the narrator. The tortures included being racked and scourged, having cords tied round the forehead and then tightened, and having their feet burned in a charcoal brazier. Eugenius insists he proclaimed Belisarius’s innocence of all charges, but many others didn’t. Belisarius was found guilty of treason against the emperor and blinded. Then he was pushed out of the state prison into the street, in rags.

The final pages describe how passersby give him money, then word spreads that the man who had, within the last year, led a last-ditch military effort to save Constantinople from marauding Bulgarians, had been treated this disgracefully and crowds, and then huge crowds assemble, to put money into his begging bowl, while his old troops and comrades rally to his assistance. Even this last monstrous ingratitude from his emperor doesn’t shake Belisarius’s loyalty and he is led by friends to Antonina’s house where he spends his last days quietly before passing away. The murmur against Justinian becomes so great, shouting against him in the Hippodrome as well as graffiti all over town saying that he is the real traitor, that Justinian – cowardly to the last – hurriedly revokes the charge and magnanimously ‘pardon’s Belisarius. But the noble warrior is beyond caring and passes away in peace of spirit.

In the chapters up to this point the reader had formed the opinion that Justinian was a paranoid coward. This last passage leaves you feeling sick at the mention of his name.

Then again…

It’s worth pointing out that John Julius Norwich, in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries, gives a far more favourable account of Justinian, noting his jealousy of Belisarius’s success, and his failure to give his general enough money or men to achieve the goals he was set, but also blaming the emperor’s animosity against Belisarius largely to the influence of Theodora – more or less the opposite of what Graves’s fiction claims.

Moreover, Norwich dismisses the story of Belisarius being imprisoned and blinded and then walking the streets of Constantinople dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl as a touching but entirely fictitious legend. Apparently, this story first appears in a history written five centuries later, in the 11th century, and so Norwich dismisses it.

Homo homini lupus

This novel was published in 1938, the year of the Munich Crisis and when the Italy which features in the book had been ruled for 16 years by a Fascist dictator, and Germany by the Nazi dictator for five years, and all Europe was paralysed with fear of another world war. Graves had served in the First World War and this gives his many detailed descriptions of Belisarius’s battles a kind of quiet authority. But it also adds to the one small passage where Eugenius reflects that war is an unmitigated evil.

Credit

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves was published by Cassells in 1938. All references are to the Penguin Classics paperback edition.


Related links

Other reviews of late antiquity

Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich (1988)

Viscount Norwich

As his own website explains:

John Julius, 2nd Viscount Norwich, was born on 15 September 1929, the son of the statesman and diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper (1st Viscount) and the Lady Diana Cooper. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer.

Could it be possible to be more posh? Norwich died  last year. He had written or edited about thirty books, the major ones being histories of the Mediterranean, of Sicily, of Venice and of Byzantium. The volume under review is the first of the trilogy of popular histories which continues with Byzantium: The Apogee (1992) and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1995).

Byzantium: The Early Centuries is divided into 18 action-packed chapters, which take us from the family background of the Emperor Constantine (reigned in the 320s and 330s) through to the Empress Irene (775 to 802) i.e. up to about the time of Charlemagne whose coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800 marks a watershed in European history.

The book comes with handy extras like maps of all the relevant territory, family trees of the complex imperial families, a list of emperors and – nice touch, this – a list of sites in present-day Istanbul which date from the Byzantine Empire and which tourists can still visit today.

Highlights

It was the Emperor Diocletian who decided to split the empire in two, appointing a fellow emperor to rule the West in 293 while Diocletian concentrated on the East, securing the whole of the current Middle East round to Egypt against attack from the Persian Empire, while also guarding the frontier along the river Danube.

It was the Emperor Constantine who founded the new eastern capital of Constantinople, basing it on the existing small Greek town of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Roman Empire was under pressure from barbarians pushing at all its borders, leading to a complex series of wars, alliances, betrayals and defeats. In the 390s the western emperors had moved their court to Milan in northern Italy, closer to the centre of western Europe, and in 402 moved on again to the town of Ravenna, thought to be more defensible because it was situated behind a network of marshes which could only be crossed by a couple of narrow causeways.

The scholar Emperor Julian reigned for 18 months during which he tried to reinstitute paganism across the Empire, closing Christian churches, subsidising the great temples, attending countless pagan ceremonies, all with little effect, until he died from a spear wound incurred during his fruitless invasion of the Persian Empire, in 363. With his death went the last hopes of reviving paganism and, during the reign of Theodosius (379-395), the old religion was banned, temples closed and Christianity made the official and compulsory state religion.

The various barbarian incursions led up to the reign of terror of Attila the Hun (434-453). During this period the Empire suffered a series of military blows and by the time of Attila’s death, Britain had been abandoned (410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes had settled in Spain and the western half of north Africa – the Empire’s breadbasket – had been seized and settled by the Vandals. Norwich gives a relatively brief account of Attila, which can, however, be supplemented by reference to Christopher Kelly’s recent book.

The next major figure is the Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565, and launched expeditions to reconquer North Africa, then to seize back Italy, before being distracted by incursions from the newly warlike Persian Empire, as well as reeling from major outbreaks of plague which decimated the population from the 540s onwards. All his clever schemes came to nothing and he left the Eastern Empire bankrupt.

Norwich devotes more space to Justinian than any other emperor (pages 190 to 263) in an account which I found profoundly depressing. Specifically, as regards the career of his top general, Belisarius, who slaved away for the emperor devotedly but was hampered at every turn by the scheming of the Empress Theodora. It is profoundly lowering to see such a talent so hamstrung, and gives a powerful sense of the self-defeating futility of palace intrigues which raged on while the empire was collapsing around them.

But, on a different level, it is also depressing to see in some detail how Justinian’s ‘noble’ campaign to reclaim Italy from the Gothic rulers who had overthrown the last Western emperor in 476 (the so-called Gothic Wars which lasted a generation, from 535 to 554) was also in the end so self-defeating.

Belisarius’s military campaign amounted to besieging most of the major cities and devastating the countryside his troops had to live off; but when he was recalled to Constantinople, management of the country was handed over to a cabal of greedy incompetents who taxed Italy to the hilt, continued plundering all available settlements while turning tail and running every time the Goths threatened to counter-attack.

The upshot was that most Italians came to hate the Greek Byzantine army and its rapacious administrators much more than the Goths, and both were happy when a new tribe, the Lombards, swarmed into the peninsula in the 560s, eliminating both their predecessors and quickly establishing kingdoms throughout Italy.

Heraclius

There is a similar tragic, or just depressing, downward spiral to the reign of Heraclius (610-641). Heraclius was appointed exarch (ruler/manager) of Carthage in the comprehensive reorganisation of the Eastern Empire carried out by the Emperor Maurice (582 to 602). Maurice (a wise and efficient ruler, according to Norwich) was overthrown and executed along with six of his sons in a coup carried out by a general, Phocas. Their heads (and this happens over and over again in this history) were impaled on spikes and put on display in Constantinople.

Phocas was a populist, but when he met resistance he responded with brutality. Under his rule the Danube borders were breached by Avars (yet another barbarian tribe) while the ruler of Persia, who had concluded a truce with Maurice, used Phocas’s rebellion as an opportunity to relaunch the semi-permanent Persian War and seize territory round to Egypt in the south and as far into Asia Minor as Antioch.

It was this growing chaos around the Empire which prompted Heraclius to raise the standard of rebellion against Phocas in Carthage and sail slowly to Constantinople, securing his supply routes and islands along the way. By the time Heraclius arrived at the capital, the army, politicians and religious leaders were all ready to abandon the tyrant. Phocas was dragged before Heraclius and then, rather rashly, insulted him to his face. So Heraclius had Phocas beheaded on the spot, his body was mutilated, paraded through the capital and burned.

After this grim start Heraclius settles down to become a great emperor, reorganising the Empire’s finances and defences, seeking a solution to the endless problem of the monophysite heresy which plagued and divided the Empire, and latterly embarking on a spectacularly successful campaign against the Persians, scoring a series of decisive victories which eventually led to the overthrow of the latter’s great leader, Chosroes II. If Heraclius had died in 628, he would have gone down as one of the great emperors for administrative reforms and military successes.

However, he lived into the first decade of the Rise of Islam. In 622 Mohammed had fled from Mecca to Medina, marking the start of the Muslim era. In 633 Mohammed died and his followers, tightly organised and enthused with fanatical fervour, swept out of Arabia to conquer the Middle East. Part of the reason for their early success was that twenty years of gruelling warfare had shattered the region and exhausted its two great powers, Byzantium and Persia. Into this vacuum swept the Muslims.

Just as importantly, most of the region’s inhabitants were ‘monophysites’. This was the Christian heresy which believed that Jesus Christ had only one ‘nature’, that the godhead and the human being were united. Taken to a logical extreme, this implied that God actually died on the Cross, which is an obvious theological nonsense. This explains why a series of Church Councils declared ‘monophysitism’ to be a heresy, and affirmed the ‘Catholic’ position that Jesus had two distinct ‘natures’, united in one ‘person’ i.e. the human who died but the godhead which remained eternal. But these were subtle differences, difficult for many people to grasp. And it’s a consistent thread of the book that there was a big difference in theology between the Latin West and the Greek East of the Empire.

For the East was a hotbed of theological debate, packed with fiery bishops, monks, preachers and heretics all disputing a wide range of subtle variations of Christian belief, and it took centuries to hammer out an ‘orthodox’ creed, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’.

And this is why, historians argue, on the level of personal belief, the Arabs’ extremely simple, practical monotheism (‘There is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet’) appealed to much of a population exhausted by centuries of conflict caused by Christian heresies. The Muslims swept north to Damascus and south through Egypt, conquering vast areas which were never to be Christian again.

So Heraclius’s last decade was spent watching everything he had planned and fought for – territory reclaimed from the Persians and Christian unity – destroyed before his very eyes. Prematurely aged and sick, he began to deteriorate mentally, developed a phobia of water and brutally punished those he suspected of conspiring against him (ordering the noses and hands of his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric to be cut off) before passing away, a senile and disappointed old man who’d lived on into a new era.

The Middle Ages

Historians like drawing lines and defining eras. This book is no exception and joins the host of others which variously claim that the Middle Ages started with the death of Theodosius the Great (395), with the Sack of Rome (410), with the overthrow of the last Western Emperor (476), with the death of Justinian (565), and so on.

For me, the lesson of this book, as of Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, is that it is the arrival of the Muslims on the world stage which marks the decisive break. All the other moments are part of a continuum of Roman rule or semi-rule or detached rule or vicarious rule (i.e. allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc).

But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast were lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break had been made with the cultural unity of the Mediterranean, which lasts to the present day. Surely it is the advent of Islam which decisively marks the start of the Middle Ages.


Thoughts

1. Great men

This is a beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining account but it is very much a history of emperors. It takes for granted that a history of this subject will be a history of Great Men. That there are other perspectives is demonstrated by Peter Brown’s history of Late Antiquity which features the emperors, of course, but also captures a lot about the changing economic and social scene, or a book like Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity which gives a thrilling sense of the changing political and social background of the period.

2. Murder and massacre

Not just about Great Men but about their Great Quarrels. The history of Byzantium is presented as a succession of power struggles and features an extraordinary amount of double-dealing, treachery and murder. And that’s just in Constantine the Great’s family – e.g. in 326 Constantine had his eldest son, Crispus, and then his own wife, the Empress Faustina, executed, no-one quite knows why, maybe to impress on his underlings that he had no hesitation whatsoever about keeping complete control of the empire in his own hands. (An incident which later Christians, who wanted to declare Constantine a saint, found tricky to explain away.)

The book includes a family tree of the families of Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian and Theodosius, and I struck out in pencil the name of everyone in the trees who died an unnatural death (murder, execution, assassination, forced ‘suicide’) and it turns out to be by far the majority. In fact I made a pencil mark in the text wherever someone eminent met with an unnatural death, and there’s one on every page.

One of the clichés of later Byzantine history is the idea that it is dense with convoluted palace politics, plots and poisoning – but this book demonstrates very clearly that this culture was simply a continuation (and maybe an intensification) of established Roman imperial practice. When I was young I think I found all the poison and bloodshed thrilling, but now I find it a depressing indictment of human beings’ endless capacity for cruelty and deceit.

3. A clearer understanding of key events

It’s difficult to pick out themes in a 400-page book so dense with historical incident, but I was grateful to it for giving a detailed account of at least two events which, as a result, I properly understood for the first time: Alaric and the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome (410 AD) and the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus (476 AD) both of them dates which every ‘schoolboy’ is supposed to know by heart, though I wonder how many modern schoolboys have even heard of them.

The sack of Rome

The thing to grasp about the barbarian leaders is that they rarely wanted to seize or overthrow Imperial power: they generally wanted recognition and high rank within the Roman system, and land for their followers to settle on.

Thus the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, began his career leading his Goths as mercenaries within the Roman army. In 394 Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 that helped the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius defeat the Frankish usurper Arbogast at the Battle of Frigidus. But disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces and so decoyed southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. A bit belatedly, the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum (master of the soldiers) in Illyricum and Alaric stopped his rampage. Like Attila and Odoacer after him, the ravaging was a form of negotiating strategy.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated by the Roman general (of Vandal descent) Stilicho at Pollentia in 402. A second invasion that same year also ended in defeat at the Battle of Verona, though Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. Stilicho had emerged during this decade as the most powerful man in Italy, which is why it was a fatal mistake when the Western Emperor Flavius Honorius had Stilicho and his family executed, on trumped up charges of making secret deals with Alaric.

Honorius then did something even more stupid and caved in to the pent-up frustration of many Romans with the way their country was being held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes. So Honorius ordered a co-ordinated massacre of tens of thousands of wives and children of the foederati (allied) Goths serving in the Roman military. As a result some 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric, who now marched on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

In classic style, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and ravaged towns along the Adriatic Sea before arriving to lay siege to Rome in September 408. Alaric blocked off all points of entry to the city which quickly began to starve. As Christmas approached the first cases of cannibalism were reported. Finally, the Senate granted Alaric a substantial subsidy of (i.e. bought him off with) 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 hides of dyed scarlet and 3,000 pounds of pepper.

Alaric ended the siege of Rome and marched north to Rimini, where he met envoys from Honorius and demanded the Roman territories of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum in which to settle, plus subsidies to feed his people in exchange for which Alaric pledged loyalty to the emperor and to defend Italy against any enemy.

These were generous terms but Honorius like an idiot refused them. Alaric reduced his request to just the (ravaged) province of Noricum on the Danube. Once again Honorius refused and so, incensed, Alaric marched his army back to Rome and invested it for a second time, making clear that his aim wasn’t the sack of the city but the removal of Honorius.

The Senate quickly agreed to this demand, opened the gates to Alaric, and he entered Rome in peace. The Senate declared Honorius (who all this time had been holed up in well-defended Ravenna in the north) no longer emperor and replaced him with the Prefect of the city, one Priscus Attalus, who promptly appointed Alaric as his own magister militum, the highest level of command in the Roman army.

The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the fact that North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – was still controlled by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But the newly installed emperor, Attalus, insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to negotiate with Heraclian. This envoy was, unfortunately, promptly murdered.

Alaric badgered Attalus to let him attack Heraclian, but Attalus refused to give a Goth army (Alaric’s army) permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point the former emperor Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to be given official control of Ravenna, received an unexpected boost in the shape of ships from Constantinople carrying some 40,000 troops sent by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Emboldened, Honorius announced his intent of marching against the Visigoths.

Infuriated at being blocked and threatened at every turn, Alaric summoned Attalus to Rimini and ritually stripped him of the imperial diadem and purple cloak. Then he marched on Rome for the third and final time determined to make his supremacy and will absolutely clear. After a brief siege he forced a gate and entered Rome, giving his troops license for three days of looting and pillaging.

Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. They were –  it is worth emphasising, as were most of the so-called barbarians – actually devout Christians themselves, albeit of a variety – Arianism – which had been declared heretical in the previous century.

(Arius was an Alexandrian priest who lived from around 250 to 336. He took Jesus’s teachings that he was the son of God, literally, asserting that the son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither ‘coeternal’ nor ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. This makes Jesus a more human figure, and his story more tragic, but fatally undermines the orthodox doctrine of the equality of the three persons of the Trinity. The orthodox view that the three parts of the Trinity are eternally co-valent and consubstantial was hammered out at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and hence is sometimes referred to as Nicene or Chalcedonian Christianity. Early missionaries to the barbarian tribes beyond the border happen to have been Arians and so converted the majority of the tribes to this ‘heresy’. When the Arian barbarians overran parts of the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, they brought their Arian beliefs with them, though they were generally tolerant of the Nicene inhabitants of the lands they conquered. It has been suggested that, for some time – centuries – the Arian heresy helped differentiate between Gothic overlords and Roman inhabitants. Whether this was so or not, the strength of the orthodoxy of the church of Rome and the Eastern Empire eventually overcame Arianism and the last Arian kings in Europe were Grimwald, King of the Lombards 662 to 671, and his young son, Garibald, 671.)

After pillaging Rome, Alaric marched his men south, planning to take ship to Africa and deal once and for all with Heraclian in order to gain control of Italy’s grain supply. At Cosenza he was taken with a fever and was dead in a few days.

So:

a) The sack was the result of a very complicated series of diplomatic and military manoeuvres, involving, by the end, three emperors – Honorius, Theodosius II, Attalus – as well as the military strong-men Stilicho and Heraclian.

b) To a surprising extent the sack was the Romans’ own fault:

  • the stupidity of Honorius in executing the only man who could hold Alaric at bay – Stilicho
  • Honorius’s refusal to grant Alaric’s demands when they were eminently reasonable
  • the refusal of Attalus or the Senate to let Alaric sail off to Africa (which would, at the very least, have got him off Italian soil and bought them time)

c) All of which underscores a remark Norwich makes somewhere in the first half about the quality of the Roman army. The Empire equalled the army: strong army, strong empire. None of the books I’m reading on the subject really tackle this issue head on. Why did the Roman army deteriorate? Why by the 390s and 400s was it incapable of confronting and beating Alaric? The same but worse occurred during the time of Attila the Hun (430s to 450s) when all the Roman army could do was shadow Attila’s rampages. What changed between, say, 200 AD and 400 AD which made the Roman Army so fatefully weak?

(As a footnote, Alaric’s death so soon after sacking Rome became a useful tool to later protectors of the Holy City. Priscus reports that when Pope Leo I rode out to meet Attila the Hun who was rampaging south to take Rome in 452, the superstitious barbarian only had to be told/reminded of the fate of Alaric to decide to call off his assault.)

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

The overthrow of ‘the last Roman Emperor’ (in the West)

The last generation of emperors in the West make for a sorry story as one barbarian overlord after another sponsored puppet ’emperors’ in what had become the Western Imperial capital, at Ravenna, in north-east Italy.

In 474 the Eastern Emperor Leo I appointed Julius Nepos Western Roman Emperor. This was to replace the ruling emperor Glycerius, who Leo regarded as a usurper. (Julius is called ‘nepos’ (nephew) because he was married to Leo’s wife’s niece.)

When Julius arrived in Italy in June 474, Glycerius promptly surrendered, was spared by Julius and packed off to become bishop of Salona. But Julius only ruled over what was left of the Western Empire (now more or less reduced to mainland Italy) for less than a year. In 475 he appointed magister militum (leader of soldiers) the experienced general, Orestes. (Orestes in fact has a fascinating backstory: having been born and bred in Pannonia, he remained when the territory was ceded to Attila the Hun in the 440s and found himself appointed Attila’s secretary and ambassador.) This turned out to be a mistake, for in August 475 Orestes marched on the Western capital, Ravenna, prompting Julius to flee to Dalmatia (modern Yugoslavia) where he carried on regarding himself as the legal emperor until (typically for the times) he was assassinated in 480.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Orestes didn’t claim the imperial crown but appointed his 12-year-old son Romulus, emperor. Technically this gave him the title Romulus Augustus, which cynics at the time changed to Romulus Augustulus i.e. ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus as Western Emperor – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was himself engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ i.e. did what his father told him, for just ten months, for Orestes turned out to be as unlucky / stupid as Julius. The army he had led to Ravenna mostly consisted of barbarian mercenaries. When Orestes refused their demands for up to a third of the land area of Italy to settle in, they simply mutinied against him, appointing the Germanic Odoacer their new king, on August 23, 476.

Odoacer led the barbarian army on a rampage through every town and village in northern Italy, pursuing Orestes to Pavia, where the bishop gave him sanctuary, but he had to flee again when the Germans broke through the city defences and ravaged the church, razing many of the city buildings to the ground.

Orestes rallied the remnants of a Roman army and engaged the barbarians outside Piacenza, where the Romans were slaughtered, and Orestes himself was captured and executed. A few weeks later Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed. Legend has it that Odoacer’s heart was softened when he had the young boy brought before him, so he spared his life and sent him into permanent retirement in the Campania. Nothing more is known of lucky Romulus Augustulus.

More interestingly – and counter-intuitively, but something which these barbarian conquerors repeatedly did – Odoacer was then happy to submit to the authority of the Eastern Emperor Zeno, asking to be granted the official status of patrician of Rome and to rule as administrator of Italy in Zeno’s name. Although we see them, with hindsight, fatally undermining Roman authority, the major players of the time all still saw themselves acting within the Empire and seeking ultimate authority for their rule from it.

(History doesn’t stop. The overthrow of Romulus looks to us like a hugely significant event, but the rulers of the day carried on fighting each other as if nothing had changed. Julius Nepos continued styling himself the Augustus of the West from his stronghold in Dalmatia, and when he was murdered in 480 Odoacer used it as a pretext to invade Dalmatia and punish the murderers (and annex the territory). Odoacer then foolishly decided to ally with the Eastern general, Illus, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow the Eastern Emperor Zeno in 484. Zeno retaliated by appointing the Ostrogoth ruler, Theoderic the Great, who had been menacing Constantinople, King of Italy, thus motivating him to attack Odoacer. Theoderic invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on 5 March 493. Theoderic invited Odoacer to a banquet of reconciliation and promptly killed him by, according to our sources, walking up to him at the banquet table, drawing his sword and cleaving his body in two, from collarbone to waist. And thus perished the man who showed mercy to Romulus.)

Conclusion

These two stories (just two from hundreds of similar events) give a good flavour of this long, beautifully written history, which can only be described as ‘entertaining’ if you find the relentless description of high-level power politics, military strategy, court intrigue and endless battles entertaining.

As it happens, I do – but I can also see how the inexorable saga of conspiracy, war and violent death on almost every page could put a lot of people off.

The Biggest Idea

In the 670s a Muslim fleet under the Caliph Muawiya laid siege to Constantinople and tried for five years to break into the city from the sea. They persisted despite repeated Greek counter-attacks which deployed the secret weapon known as Greek fire (a kind of napalm). After five long years of losses, the Caliph admitted defeat and ordered his fleet home (and the fleet was caught in a storm on the way, and further depleted). At the same time his land forces had been harassed by the so-called Mardaites, freebooting Christian marauders who spread south from Syria to wage a relentless guerrilla war against Muslim forces, as far south as Jerusalem. Demoralised by the combination of these setbacks, in 679 the Caliph accepted defeat and made terms with the Emperor Constantine IV, handing back the Aegean islands he had seized and agreeing to pay the emperor an annual tribute.

Thus, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV had halted the Muslim progress into Europe, the first real setback in the hitherto unstoppable spread of Muslim forces. It was a decisive moment, and in reward he received grateful thanks from many former enemies: the Khagan of the Avars, the Slav tribal leaders in the Balkans, the Lombard and Frankish princes of the West.

By holding the line at Constantinople Constantine IV ensured the Muslims would only be able to enter Europe via Spain, forcing them to stretch their lines of communication to breaking point along the whole north coast of Africa, then up across Iberia so that their progress via this route would be halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. These far-off and, to most people unknown, events had vast historical significance. As Norwich comments:

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham (2009)

The sub-title is ‘A History of Europe from 400 to 1000’. It is the second in the ‘Penguin History of Europe’ series, following Classical Europe and preceding Europe in the High Middle Ages. It is a dense 550 pages long, plus extensive notes, bibliography, index and maps. But I’m not sure it’s a book I’d recommend to anyone. Why?

Events and theories

Very roughly there are two types of history books – ones which tell you the events in chronological order, and ones which discuss themes, theories and ideas about the events. Thus Dan Jones’s breathless account of the Plantagenet kings gives a thrilling head-on narrative of their trials and tribulations from 1120 to 1400. You can go on to explore individual Plantagenet monarchs further via in narrative-led books like Marc Morris’s accounts of King John or King Edward I.

By contrast, a thematic history would be one like John Darwin’s overview of the British Empire, which examines different elements or themes of the imperial experience, bringing together incidents, facts and stats from widely disparate territories and different points in time to prove his general points.

This book is very much the latter. Although divided into four chronological sections –

  • The Roman Empire and Its Breakup 400-550
  • The Post-Roman West 550-750
  • The Empires of the East 550-1000
  • The Carolingian and Post-Carolingian West 750-1000

– it is much more a thematic than an events-based account. Wickham explains the bits he needs to, but yanks them out of contexts as disparate as Viking Iceland or Muslim Baghdad. In the same sentence he can be talking about Justinian in the 550s then switch to Constantine’s reforms in the 312s and end with some comments about Theodosius in the 390s. I found the result very confusing.

In my experience you have to read the most detailed account possible of contentious historical events in order to feel you have even the beginnings of an ‘understanding’ of them; in fact ideally you read several complementary accounts to begin to build up a three dimensional picture. By ‘understanding’ I mean the ability to put yourself in the place of the relevant players – kings, queens, nobles, opposing generals or whatever – to understand the social, economic, cultural and psychological pressures they were under, and to understand why they behaved as they did. Alaric sacked Rome because of a, b, c. Charlemagne attacked the Saxons so savagely because of x, y, z.

The further removed you are from a comprehensible, chronological and granular account of the Past, the sillier it often looks.

For example, if you are told that the armies of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century were diverted from attacking the Saracens in the Holy Land and ended up besieging, sacking and permanently weakening Christian Constantinople (in 1204) you will be tempted to make all kinds of generalisations about how stupid and violent the crusaders were, how muddle-headed medieval leaders were, how hypocritical Christianity has always been, and so on.

It’s only if you delve deeper and discover that Constantinople was experiencing a major leadership crisis in which an anti-Crusade emperor had deposed a pro-Crusade emperor and was threatening to execute him, and that this crisis was taking place against the background of mounting tension between the Latin and the Greek populations of the city which had already led to one major riot in which the city’s Greek population had massacred or forced to flee the entire Roman population of around 60,000 – if you’re told all this, then the crusaders’ motives no longer look so random and absurd: in fact you can begin to see how some of them thought the diversion was vital in order:

  • to rescue ‘their’ emperor
  • to ensure the safety of ‘their’ people in the city
  • and to establish favourable conditions for the ongoing pursuit of the crusade against the Muslims

In fact it was not so stupid after all. You are also better placed to understand the arguments within the Crusader camp about whether or not to besiege the city, as the leaders of different national factions – each with different trading and political links with the Greeks or the West – will have argued the case which best suited their interests. Now you can begin to sympathise with the conflicting arguments, you can put yourself in the place of the squabbling crusaders or the different factions within the city. Now – in other words – you have achieved what I define as a basic ‘understanding’ of the event.

Or take the famous sack of Rome in 410. I recently read John Julius Norwich’s long account of the Byzantine Empire from 300 to 800, very dense with facts and quite hard to assimilate – but it does have the merit of describing events very thoroughly, giving you a clear picture of the unfolding story of the Byzantine Empire – and its clarity allows you to go back and reread passages if you get a bit lost (easy to do). Thus, although I’ve read references to Alaric and the Visigoths’ sack of Rome scores of times, Norwich’s book was the first one I’ve ever read which explains in detail the events leading up to the disaster. And it was only by reading the full sequence of events that I learned the unexpected fact that the sack was mostly the fault of the obstinate Roman authorities, because they snobbishly refused to negotiate a peace deal with Alaric, a peace deal he actually wanted, and that their foolish refusal eventually forcing him into extreme action. (See my review of Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich.) Norwich’s account was a revelation to me, completely transforming my understanding of this key event in the history of western Europe. Compare and contrast with Wickham, who covers it in one sentence (on page 80).

For me, in the study of history – the closer, the clearer and the more chronological, the better.

Modish

On top the confusing thematic approach, Wickham’s text is aggressively modern, theoretical and self-consciously up-to-date. He uses the lexicon of literary theory I was taught in the 1980s and which has gone on to infest history writing and art criticism. Events are ‘situated’ in the ‘space’ created by hierarchies, his book sets out to survey ‘the socio-political, socio-economic, political-cultural developments of the period 400-1000’ and will investigate the complexity of the state structures within which the major figures ‘operated’. And he is liberal with maybe the key indicator of fashionable post-modern jargon, ‘the Other’; hence,

The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’ (p.43).

The trouble with this kind of jargon is that it rarely explicates things and more often confuses or obscures them. ‘The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’.’ What does that say except look at my modish post-modern vocabulary. Does he mean that the Roman Empire, within which law, order, peace and trade prevailed, was surrounded by territories in which shifting alliances of illiterate barbarian tribes lived their mostly unrecorded lives, tribes which periodically threatened to overrun the borders of the Empire.

Wickham emphasises how bang up to date he is and is at great pains to skewer the vulgar error of all previous historians of this period, who thought the Roman Empire ‘collapsed’ under pressure from invading ‘barbarians’. The whole thrust of his book is that Roman law, administration and other structures lingered on much much longer than has been previously thought – hence the book’s title. But he still needs a generic word to describe the non-Roman peoples who indisputably did break across the frontiers of the Empire, who did ravage large sections of it, who did cause enormous disruption and who did form the basis of the post-Roman societies which slowly replaced the Empire. Having ruled out the use of barbarians, since that falls into the vulgar error of all previous writers on the subject, he eventually decides to call them ‘barbarians’, with added speech marks and so throughout the book the word ‘barbarian’ occurs just as much as it would in a traditional account, but with the quotes around it to remind you that the older accounts were so so wrong, and this account is so much more sophisticated.

All past accounts are wrong

The opening pages of The Inheritance of Rome explain why all previous histories of the Early Middle Ages were wrong – they suffered from any of three major flaws:

1. The Nationalist Fallacy i.e. countless histories have been written over the past two hundred years in the nations of modern Europe claiming that the period 400-1000 saw the ‘seeds’ being laid of their respective proud nation state – of modern France, Germany, Britain etc etc. No, they weren’t, says Wickham. The people we are investigating lived their own lives in their own time according to their own values inherited from their recent past – they had absolutely no inkling what would happen in the future. To write as if Charlemagne was laying the foundations for modern France is unforgiveable teleology i.e. seeing a purpose or aim in events, a sense of inevitability (rising, in conservative nationalist histories to a sense of Historical Destiny) which simply doesn’t exist and which didn’t exist at the time.

When Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate in 472 no-one knew that he would be the Last Roman Emperor in the West. All the various political players continued jostling for power in the normal way, invoking the presence, the power and the continuation of the Empire, not least the Eastern Emperor Zeno, as if a replacement would shortly be found. Even a hundred years later, the so-called ‘barbarian’ rulers of Italy were still invoking the authority of the Emperor and using Roman titles to bolster their rule. No, the ‘barbarian’ rulers of Western Europe circa 600 had no thoughts of founding France or Germany or Belgium or Holland. They must be seen entirely within the context of their own times and values to be properly understood.

Basically – avoid hindsight. Assess historical periods in themselves, as their protagonists experienced them. Don’t make the mistake of judging the Early Middle Ages as a hurried way station on the journey to later, greater things: of conceptualising Clovis as just a stepping stone to Charlemagne or Offa as just a step on the way towards Alfred.

Only an attempt to look squarely at each past in terms of its own social reality can get us out of this trap. (p.12)

2. The Modernist Fallacy i.e. European history has been a tale of steady progress towards our present giddy heights, towards the triumph of a global economy, liberal culture, science, reason, human rights and so on. These all began to appear in ‘the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome’, but then – tragically – fell into a pit of darkness with the end of Roman Imperial rule, a bleak ‘Dark Age’ awash with ‘illiterate barbarians’ who only slowly, painfully clawed humanity back up into the light, which began to shine again during the Renaissance, and has risen steadily higher ever since.

Nonsense, says Wickham. The early medieval period was first given the negative name ‘the dark ages’ by chauvinists of the Renaissance who despised everything Gothic and non-classical. Later, 18th century and Victorian historians reinforced this negative image due to the paucity of documents and evidence from it, which for so long made our knowledge of it so patchy. But recent revolutions in archaeology, along with the availability of more documents than ever before (including from behind the former Iron Curtain), and their freely available translations on the internet, mean that:

a) we can write much better, more informed histories of the period than ever before
b) this significantly increased amount of evidence shows that Roman administrative structures, law and literacy carried on for much longer than was previously thought. I.e. there is much more continuity of civilisation in post-Roman Europe than those old historians claim. I.e. it wasn’t so dark after all.

The fundamental aim of Wickham’s book is to bring together this recent(ish) research in both document-based history and archaeology to show that the Roman Empire didn’t inevitably ‘decline and fall’ under the impact of ‘barbarians’.

a) There was no inevitability: the structures – the tax system and bureaucracy and church – lasted for centuries after the first ‘barbarian’ incursions in the West and, of course, continued for an entire millennium in the Byzantine East.
b) We have lots of evidence that the so-called ‘barbarians’ – all those Goths and Vandals and Burgundians and Franks – themselves quickly assimilated Roman standards, ideas and terminology, that many of them wanted to remain vassals of the Emperor in Byzantium, centuries after the West had fallen. Roman ideas, practices, the language and bureaucracy and structures of power, all lived on for a long time into the Early Middle Ages (and for another 1000 years in the East). The so-called ‘barbarians’ in fact went out of their way to adopt the Roman language, Roman iconographies of power, a Roman bureaucracy run on Roman lines and so on, for as long as they could after seizing power in their respective areas. I.e. there wasn’t an abrupt END – there was a very, very long process of assimilation and change…

Themes not events

So this book is not a blow-by-blow chronological account of the period. It proceeds in chronological periods but skips through the events of each period pretty quickly in order to get to what motivates and interests Wickham – academic discussion of themes such as how much the Imperial tax system endured in 5th century Gaul, or just what the archaeology of the lower Danube tells us about the Romanisation of its inhabitants. And so on.

I found a lot of this discussion very interesting – and it’s good to feel you are engaging with one of the leading experts in this field – but I was only able to enjoy it because I had recently read three other books on the exact same period, and so understood what he was talking about. In other words, I would not recommend this book as a ‘history’ of the period. It is a collection of discussions and meditations on themes and topics arising from the history of the period, but it is not a detailed sequential account of what happened. For that you’d have to look elsewhere.

Interesting insights

Once you understand that it is a meta-history, interested in discussing themes and topics arising from the period, and presupposing you already have a reasonable familiarity with the actual chronology, then the book is full of insights and ideas:

  • Ethnogenesis The ‘barbarians’ were illiterate; when they conquered somewhere they recruited the local Roman bureaucracy to run things and record laws. We’ve long known that the Roman accounts of the tribes which fought and invaded were unreliable. But I hadn’t realised that the terms Ostrogoth, Visigoth and so on were merely flags of convenience later writers give to peoples who didn’t call themselves that. More searchingly, recent historians think that even the idea of coherent tribes and peoples is open to doubt. More likely these groupings were probably made up of smaller tribes or even clans which temporarily united round one or other leader for specific ad hoc campaigns or battles, before splitting up again. Complicated.
  • Britain and Ireland A sort of proof of this vision of fissiparous ‘barbarians’ comes in chapter 7 which Wickham dedicates to Ireland and Britain. Ireland was never ruled by Rome and so kept its native pattern of tiny kingdoms, maybe more than 100, each owing fealty to higher kings, who themselves owed fealty to whoever managed to seize control as the High King at any one moment. Chaotic.

The end of Roman rule in Britain

More interesting is what happened to Britain after the Romans withdrew. The collapse of post-Roman Britain seems to have been quicker and more complete than of any other Imperial territory but modern historians now think the end of Roman rule was more complicated than the bare dates suggest. In his history of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, Gildas says that most of Britain’s Roman garrison was stripped by the commander Maximus when he made his bid to become Augustus or emperor in the West, in the 380s. Maximus took the garrisons with him on his invasion of Italy but was defeated and killed in 388. Britain returned to the rule of the Emperor Theodosius – until 392 when the usurping emperor Eugenius seized power in the West, although he also was defeated by Theodosius, in 394.

When Theodosius died in 395, his 10-year-old son Honorius succeeded him as Western Roman Emperor but the real power behind the throne was Stilicho, Honorius’s father-in-law. In 401 or 402 Stilicho stripped Hadrian’s Wall of troops for the final time, to bring them to Europe to fight the Visigoths.

In 407 a Roman general in Britain, Constantine (not the Great), rallied his troops in rebellion against Honorius (perhaps because they hadn’t been paid for some time) and led them into Gaul, where Constantine set himself up as Emperor in the West. But ‘barbarian’ invasions soon destabilised his rule and in 409 or 410, British authorities expelled his magistrates and officials. The Byzantine historian Zosimus describes this as a British ‘rebellion’.

This is how the stripping away of Britain’s defending army actually took place over a thirty year period, from 380 to 410, and as a result of the (generally failed) ambitions of a succession of usurpers and military governors.

Later in his history, Zosimus says the British authorities appealed to help from the Emperor. The Emperor replied (in the so-called Rescript of Honorius) that the British civitates must look to their own defences.

That’s it. Britain had been stripped of all Roman garrisons and legions and was wide open to sea-borne invasion by Saxons and others. These are traditionally dated to the 440s and 450s. The collapse of the Roman-British lifestyle was, apparently, very quick after the garrisons withdrew. Within a generation, archaeology tells us, the towns and villas had been abandoned. 50 or 60 years later, in 510 or 520, Gildas writes his long lament for the ‘ruined’ state of Britain. By the mid-500s the Eastern historian Procopius writes that Britannia was entirely lost to the Romans.

More insights

Militarisation of the élite Following the fall of Rome, in the West the secular aristocracy became militarised: the trappings of the Emperor became more military; the importance of a secular education i.e. the ability to quote the poets and write Latin prose like Cicero, declined rapidly; wealth across the Empire also declined and the hyper-rich Senatorial wealthy class disappeared. The widespread Latin education which was the bedrock of the extensive tax-gathering bureaucracy withered and disappeared, and with it our sources of written records.

Rise of church records It is logical, but I hadn’t thought of it this way, that into the vacuum left by the falling away of Roman Imperial records come church records. In the 6th and 7th centuries, as secular records from the disappearing Roman bureaucracy grow thinner on the ground, we have increasing records of church synods, the gift of land to the church, church land ownership records, along with increasing numbers of ‘lives’ of saints and popes and holy church figures, as well as a wealth of texts recording the period’s abundant theological disputes and debates. Thus what we know about the period, and  how we think about it, is hugely conditioned by the type of writings which have survived. It opens the possibility that maybe the Roman aristocracy lingered on for centuries after the ‘fall’, but didn’t write or record their activities so systematically.

Fatal loss of Carthage It is interesting that, in Wickham’s opinion, the failure of the Roman authorities to prevent Geiseric the Vandal moving from Spain into North Africa and seizing Carthage in 439, is far more important than Alaric’s 410 Sack of Rome. The trade, tax and food umbilical cord between Rome and Carthage was broken permanently. (Carthage supplied all Rome’s foodstuffs in lieu of tax. No Carthage, no food. From the mid-5th century the population of Rome begins to drop fast; in the 6th century its population probably plummeted by 80%.)

Tax collapse And so a vast tax hole opened in the Western Empire’s finances, which made it progressively harder to pay armies (increasingly made up of ‘barbarian’ mercenaries, anyway). Slowly a shift took place towards paying armies, generals and allies off with land; very slowly the Empire moved from being a tax-based to a land-based administration. This is the basis for Western feudalism.

The Goths in their various tribal formations took Gaul, Spain, then North Africa, then Italy. But Gothic hegemony was itself transient: by 511 it was over. Clovis, king of the Franks, defeated the Goths in the Roman province of Gaul, which increasingly becomes referred to as Francia; and the Eastern general, Belisarius, led violent campaigns in Italy to expel the Goths from the mainland (although it turned out he only created an exhausted power vacuum into which a new tribe, the Lombards, would enter).

Francia But the success of Clovis I (ruled 480s to 511) would establish Frankish rule in most of Francia and transform Gaul from a peripheral kingdom into the core of Western Europe for centuries to come (up to, including and following Charlemagne’s vast extension of Frankish power in the late 700s).

Tax Wickham makes some points about tax-based regimes I’d never thought about before: Tax-based regimes are generally much richer than land-based ones, because they tax a broader spread of citizens, more effectively. Tax-based regimes also are generally more powerful than land-based ones, because tax collectors and assessors monitor the entire domain more thoroughly, and court officials, army officers etc are paid salaries from the royal treasury. By contrast land-based armies or nobles are more independent and harder to govern – which helps to explain the endless rebellions which are so characteristic of the High Middle Ages.

Meat It’s one of only hundreds of interesting details in the book, but I was fascinated to learn that the shift from Roman to post-Roman society can be measured in diet. Aristocratic, senatorial and wealthy Romans asserted their class through a rarefied diet of delicate and expensive ingredients. The ‘barbarian’ successor states liked meat. The rituals of the royal hunt, the killing of wild beasts, and the division of cooked meat to loyal retainers in the royal hall or palace replaced the ornate, lying-on-a-couch sampling dishes of larks’ tongues of the Roman Empire – and The Hunt is a central motif of art and literature, drenched with power and significance, all through the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance period.

But ultimately…

Although Wickham hedges it round with modish qualifications and theoretical reminders not to be teleological or use hindsight, despite all the warnings to be more subtle and alert to slow increments rather than catastrophic ‘falls’ – nonetheless, the fact remains that the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist as a coherent political entity by the mid-6th century. It was replaced by a patchwork of kingdoms ruled by non-Roman ‘barbarian’ kings. And – rather contradicting his own thesis – Wickham admits that the archaeological record shows ‘the dramatic economic simplification of most of the West’ (p.95); north of the Loire in the 5th century, in the core Mediterranean lands in the 6th.

Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalised, exchange became more localised.

Wickham sees the shift from the Empire’s efficient tax-based economy, to the land-based administration of the post-Roman states as decisive. By the mid-sixth century the successor states couldn’t have matched Roman power or wealth, no matter how hard they tried, because they lacked the sophisticated tax system and revenue. Different states, with different social and economic system, different iconographies of power and different values, were firmly established.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown (1971 2nd edition 1989)

Peter Brown has been a pioneer of the study of the late Roman / Early Medieval world for 50 years.

His works in the 1960s and 70s are credited with bringing a new coherence to the study of the period, and a new attitude which saw it not as a story of inevitable decline and fall, but as a period of surprising vigour and innovation – as a much more complex, rich and fascinating period than had previously been thought.

Brown helped to bury the term ‘Dark Ages’ – which is now generally deprecated – and bring about the recategorising of the period as the ‘Early Middle Ages’, now generally defined as 500 to 1000 AD.

The World of Late Antiquity was published in 1971 as an extended essay or meditation on the earlier part of this period, from roughly 250 to 750 AD. It was published by Thames and Hudson under the umbrella of their Library of European Civilisation series. It is some 220 pages long, in a large format paperback, with 130 illustrations, a chronology and a map – adding up to a well-written, visually stimulating and beautifully packaged book.

And it is extraordinarily accessible and interesting right from the start, throwing out ideas and insights on every page.

Structure

The structure tells the overall story:

Part One: The Late Roman Revolution
I Society
II Religion

Part Two: Divergent Legacies
I The West
II Byzantium
III The New Participants (Islam)

Society Between 245 and 270 every border of the Roman Empire was breached by its enemies, most significantly the Persians in the east, the Goths in the north. Communication between provinces broke down and the army produced no fewer than 25 emperors in 47 years. The prolonged crisis gave rise to a military revolution which remodelled the leadership of the Roman Empire. The old aristocrats were banned from military service and leadership of the Empire became more militarised, selected from the new men who had risen through the ranks.

Thus the Emperor Diocletian, who set his stamp on the Empire from 284 to 305, came from a lowly family in Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast. During his reign the army almost doubled in size, to 600,000, making it the largest organisation in the world, and more than doubled in cost (one of the dominant themes of surviving documents from the period is everyone complaining about the high tax burden: land tax had trebled in living memory by 350 AD).

Emblematically, the new-style emperors aren’t depicted wearing the flowing toga of the leisured aristocracy of the early Empire, but wearing military outfits, generals’ costumes.

The old view was that these new men, these arrivistes, represented a decline from the leisured aristocratic class of the 1st and 2nd centuries, with its balanced prose style, its exquisite classical monuments etc. The modern view is that the late 3rd century re-organisation of the Empire led to rejuvenation and a burst of creativity in the 4th century. In this view the new style in art and mosaics is not a ‘decline’ from earlier classicism – it is a new, more expressive mode. On coins and monuments artists refer to this age as Reparatio saeculi, the Age of Restoration.

The greatest example of this comprehensive re-organisation of the Empire was the Emperor Constantine’s decision to divide the Empire in two, the West to continue being ruled from Rome, the East from the new capital city he built over the existing Greek town of Byzantium and named after himself, Constantinople.

The new city was officially consecrated in 330 AD. This division of the Empire into East and West, along with Constantine’s Edict of Milan decriminalising Christianity in 313, were the two greatest legacies of the late Roman Empire to the rest of European history.

Religion Perhaps the biggest embodiment of this new creativity was the surge in religious thought. Brown points out that Christianity didn’t experience steady growth from Jesus’ death to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312. Instead it simmered underground for two centuries before undergoing a surge in growth during the troubled late 3rd century, alongside other exotic beliefs, such as the popular Mithraism, and varieties of Gnosticism.

Again, conservative historians used to see the spread of these eastern religions as a falling-off from the purity of classic Roman paganism: the modern view is to see them as creative responses to the new political and social conditions. And Brown points out that a new generation of arrivistes – i.e. men who didn’t hail from the close-knit traditional Roman families – changed the intellectual world as much as the military: leaders of the new ways of thinking including Plotinus from Upper Egypt, Augustine from North Africa, Jerome from Stridon, John Chrysostom from a clerk’s office in Antioch.

Provincialisation The Age of Restoration, in the West especially, saw the rise of enormously wealthy landowners: the dominance of super-rich, provincial patrons who indulged in a more private lifestyle (Brown points out the abrupt falling-off in public dedications of buildings after 260). This new leisured class lived in big villas, decorated with fine mosaics, which show that they were decorated by wall paintings, tapestries and hangings. For those lower down the scale, the petit bourgeoisie, businessmen and merchants, the Age of Restoration offered a world of new stability and greater mobility.

I never cease to be amazed by the breadth of the Roman Empire and the way it enabled a tremendous cultural uniformity across such a vast area: Brown has a lovely paragraph describing how bureaucrats working at the border with Scotland in the rainy north or at Dura on the Persian border, both lived in villas built to the same plan and decorated with the same images, drinking from goblets and eating off plates produced to the same styles.

The new religious beliefs offered:

  1. a framework of belief and living and practice for people below the level of the provincial aristocracy and of the big landowners, the middle class, the ordinary people
  2. continuity and stability – bishops and their congregations became increasingly well organised at the collection of alms, the distribution of charity, for helping their growing flocks in difficult times

Brown is insightful about how the new popular religions, especially Christianity, offered ‘instant wisdom’, without the lengthy and intensive study required by the traditional training of the aristocratic class. The processes of ‘revelation’ and ‘conversion’ offered quick access to new mind-sets, complete with pithy practical ethical guidelines.

Angels and demons Pagans believed the world was alive with spirits operating under the aegis of a variety of gods and demi-gods. Brown claims the biggest intellectual change in this era was the arrival of demons, angels and demons, and the master of demons, the devil. Although historians tend to analyse the rise of Christianity in terms of its sophisticated theology and erudite thinkers, Brown points out that almost all contemporary accounts claim the really distinctive thing about Christianity was the way the new holy men, the saints and martyrs, had the ability to perform exorcisms and cast out evil demons.

This more starkly black and white view of the universe, and the notion of the earth as a battlefield between God and his army of saints and the devil and his legions of demons – this sounds like the start of the Middle Ages right there, so it’s striking to have it located so early.

Monasteries Brown makes an issue of demons as representing an intellectual turning point, but I’d have thought the invention of monasteries was as much or more important, certainly in terms of social organisation. The first monk (from the Greek μοναχός, ‘monachos’, meaning ‘single, solitary’) is generally considered to have been Anthony, who around 270 left his village in Egypt to go into the desert and live by himself. Word of his piety spread and villagers brought him food if he would pray for them. Others followed his example, some living in very loose communities of solitaries and anchorites. Within two generations the movement was widespread across the Middle East and went on to become one of the dominant forms of social organisation throughout the Middle Ages.

And it is in the East that all this takes place: the new Christian movements, the most radical Christian thinkers, the most important frontiers, the new capital city Constantinople, all this happens around the Eastern Mediterranean where passionate Greek-speakers were also reviving pagan traditions, spinning them out into new neo-Platonic mysticisms, conducting ferocious intellectual battles against the newly invigorated and confident Christians: all of this happens east of Rome.

The turning point

Into what, by now, Brown has convincingly portrayed as a complex balance of social, political, economic and military, religious and cultural forces, came a generation of military disasters.

It started with the Battle of Adrianople in 378, in which the Roman Army was soundly thrashed and its emperor, Valens, killed by the Goth army led by Fritigern. In 406 other Goths crossed the Rhine border and spread throughout thinly defended Gaul and into Spain. In 410 Visigoths led by Alaric sacked Rome itself.

Brown points out that the sack of Rome in 410 was caused by the blinkered chauvinism of the old Roman aristocracy. They had earlier given Alaric and his Vandals permission to cross the Rhine frontier to escape from marauding Huns; but they then allowed them to be mistreated by provincial governors and, when Alaric marched towards Rome, haughtily refused to buy him off with subsidies.

The Imperial government had already moved to Milan before the sack of Rome and now moved to the more easily defended Ravenna – but having lost so much territory and tax revenue, it was virtually bankrupt between 410 and the dismissal of the last emperor in the West in 476.

Brown points out how the growing sense of threat, and then the advent of actual catastrophe, were linked to a wave of religious fervour: at the end of the 4th century there was a wave of anti-pagan repression (in 382 Gratian disestablished the Vestal Virgins, in the 390s the Emperor Theodosius effectively banned pagan religion and made Christianity the official religion of the empire).

The new fervour of Christian chauvinism included an ominous new development – attacks on Jewish communities who became increasingly blamed for rejecting Christ’s healing revelation.

The decadent West

The Western Empire fell because it was decadent. If the East was made up of hundreds of coastal cities and towns in a tight web of maritime commerce, and similar webs of fierce philosophical and religious argumentation, the vast areas of Gaul and Spain and Britannia were only thinly defended and, in the century preceding the collapse, had become the playgrounds of a handful of fabulously wealthy landowning families. Their ideal was otium, a life of leisured scholarship, inviting each other to stylish dinner parties or recommending each others’ sons or nephews for posts in the increasingly powerful Church hierarchy. When the Goths invaded in the 400s, they found huge expanses of lightly defended territory, ideal for seizing, looting or, eventually, settling in.

Brown makes the point that it was the very snobbery of the Latin landowners which helped isolate the incoming barbarians and ensured they would set up their own free-standing kingdoms. He compares this huge social transformation with the way the Chinese were comprehensively invaded by Mongol barbarians in the 13th century yet, within a few generations, had completely assimilated them so that the new rulers were almost indistinguishable in style and culture from the conquered.

According to Brown, the image of Roma aeterna was a creation of the heady but impotent patriotism of this age, consciously created by the writers and senatorial poets of the late 4th century. In the same way, the growing cult of St Peter in Rome was a conscious Christian counterblow to the survival of paganism and the triumph of the barbarians. Together, nostalgic pagans and Christians helped to create the myth of ‘the grandeur that was Rome’.

Attila the Hun 434-453

Attila ruled a vast confederation of Hunnish tribes from 434 to 453. They formed the first barbarian empire the Romans had to confront and the Romans soon learned they couldn’t be withstood by full frontal military attack. Instead the Huns forced the emperor in the East to resort to buying other barbarian allies to form alliances against them.

The ongoing tribulations of the fifth century saw a significant shrinkage in the Latin cultural domain. There were fewer schools or libraries or centres of learning, and Latin shrank to become the badge of a small aristocratic elite. Local ties and local affections became steadily more important, replacing the distant emperor in Ravenna, let alone the immeasurably distant emperor in Constantinople. Thus local saints and the increasingly reliable and consistent local organiser, the local bishop, steadily grew in importance.

After the last emperor was removed from Rome in 476, coins continued to be minted in Rome but no longer showing an emperor’s head, instead depicting symbols of Roma invicta. This represented the dawning of a romantic ideology of Rome, a nostalgia for old power. The Catholic Church in the West became an increasingly beleaguered outpost of learning in the shifting seas of barbarism, transforming its officials into an isolated oligarchy. The privileged libertas of the old aristocracy, the confidence to bestride the vast territory of the empire, passed to the new cosmopolitan élite, the bishops.

Justinian 527-565

The Emperor Justinian emerges as one of the most fascinating figures in the book. He had been eastern emperor for a few years when the Great Nika Riot broke out in Constantinople, with the masses sacking the city, burning and looting.

The riot appears to have spurred Justinian to carry out sweeping reforms, improving city morals, raising the emperor and his entourage to semi-divine status, cutting away dead traditions, focusing power on himself and his advisers. This far more centralised administration, characterised by poisonous and intricate palace politics, was his chief legacy to his successors, and gives its meaning to our modern usage of the word ‘byzantine’, referring to a formidably complex bureaucracy.

Hand in hand with the reforms in the Eastern Empire went Justinian’s aggressive military campaigns: first against the Aryan heretics in the West, then in 533 he sent an army to North Africa which conquered it in one quick campaign. Thus emboldened, Justinian’s army proceeded to Italy where in 539 it drove the Ostrogoths out of Rome and in 540 his general, Belisarius, entered Ravenna.

However, events in the East brought this progress to a grinding halt. In 540 the ruler of the Persian empire, Khosrow I Anushiruwān, broke his truce with Rome and attacked into Roman territory, sacking Antioch, then slowly returning home, devastating towns and cities as he went.

In response Justinian stopped the Western campaign in mid-flow, stripped the Danube of its defences and undertook a punitive attack in the East. But the campaign was hampered by severe setbacks: 542 saw the outbreak of a devastating plague which recurred throughout the decade and ravaged the Roman army. Having denuded the Danube defences, Justinian left them exposed to attack, so that in 548 Slavic tribes carried out their first invasion across the river into the Balkans, penetrating far enough south to threaten Constantinople itself.

So, in the end, Justinian’s conquest of the West was left unfinished, while his defence of the East split his forces and required permanent attention. For the rest of his long reign Justinian was tied up in endless struggle to keep the barbarians at bay.

His general, Belisarius, was accompanied on his campaigns in the West by the historian, Procopius of Caesarea (500-554), who went on to write a history of his campaigns titled The Wars. But it is symptomatic of the times that Procopius is better known for his scandalous Secret History, which gives a lurid account of Justinian and his court. (It was these copious sources which the novelist and poet Robert Graves used to create his historical novel, Count Belisarius.)

The start of the Middle Ages

The disasters of the mid to late 500s saw a hardening of borders. For the first time Constantinople began to seem the isolated, beleaguered beacon it would remain for the next 900 years. This was accompanied by an inner, cultural hardening, with increasing persecution of ‘heretics’ and Jews. Brown says it was now, in the late 500s, that you see the emergence of the Total Christian Society which was to characterise the Middle Ages.

In the West the secular élite vanished. On the other hand, ‘the Book’ stops being a workaday manuscript and becomes a precious Codex, highly decorated and valued as a relic of a lost age. The classical past becomes perceived as irreparably gone.

One aspect of this was that it was a golden age for fakes and forgeries as authors filled in blanks in the Christian record, creating the documents, the histories and letters which they thought ought to have survived, forging the letters which which Paul ought to have written, and Peter should have dictated.

In the East, the figure of Christ rises above the merely human to become Christ Pantocrator, the All-Powerful, his image overshadowing the emperor in increasingly hieratic iconography. Throughout Christendom, the relic and the holy grave oust the living holy man.

There is a great turn towards a large and authoritative Past. Part of this was the continuing rise of the bishops; as the old secular landed aristocracy vanished, it left bishops in every urban centre as the sole focal point of their dioceses, as the main organiser, the last surviving sponsor of literacy and learning. It was they who rallied populations against the barbarians and when, in the 630s, the Muslims conquered, it was the bishops who emerged as leaders and representatives of their populations.

In the early 600s the Persian leader Khosrow’s grandson, Khosrow II ‘Aparvēz’, took advantage of the weakness of the Eastern Empire to attack and seize Antioch (613), Jerusalem (614), Egypt (619), and got as far as the walls of Constantinople itself in 620. At Jerusalem he even seized a relic of the True Cross.

The Emperor Heraclius (ruled 610 to 641) responded aggressively, buying alliances with neighbouring nations then counter-attacking deep into Persian territory, defeating the Persians at the Battle of Nineveh and marching south along the Tigris to sack Khosrow’s great palace at Dastagird. After this humiliation, Khosrow was murdered in a coup led by his own son. But the damage had been done – the Persian War had devastated territories around the Eastern Mediterranean, the populations and economies of Antioch and Alexandria were decimated. Though nobody knew it at the time, this would make them ripe for attack a generation later by the rampaging Muslims.

Islam

Brown’s brilliant, thought-provoking, vivid and insightful account ends with 20 pages on the rise of Islam and the eruption of Arab war bands into the Middle East in the mid-7th century.

I was fascinated to read Brown’s account of how the original Arab/Bedouin version of Islam was then co-opted by the Persian empire under the rule of the Abbasid dynasty, which reached its height in the rule of Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and the establishment of Baghdad as a centre for art and learning.

It is a natural culminating point in the story, heralding the end of the Mediterranean as ‘our’ lake, entirely surrounded by first classical and then Christian civilisation. This monumental shift threw increasing emphasis onto the surviving Christian kingdoms in the north and west of Europe, creating the geographic concept of ‘Christendom’ which – in the secular form of the European Union – arguably lasts to this day.

Thoughts

Living in England and being interested in English history from the Roman through the Saxon and Viking periods, I tend to think of the Dark Ages in North European terms. This book is a powerful reminder of the Eastern-ness of the Roman world. It hardly ever mentions Gaul and only names Britain once or twice.

Instead, by the 500s and the rule of Justinian, the barbarian kingdoms in Gaul, Burgundy, Spain, north Africa and Italy were well-established and ‘Late Antiquity’ means the Eastern Empire. Thus Brown doesn’t mention the Vikings, Charlemagne or Alfred, heroes of the north, because they are outside and after the era of Late Antiquity. Late Antiquity is a lot earlier, and a lot more eastern, than we tend to think.

A Late Antique chronology

284 to 305 Emperor Diocletian, typical new man of the period, rises through the ranks to become emperor and reorganise the Roman Empire.

313 Edict of Milan, the Emperor Constantine decriminalises Christianity
325 Constantine calls the Council of Nicaea to define Christian doctrine
346 The first Christian monastery was founded in Egypt by St Pachomius
376 Visigoths under King Fritigern appeal for permission to cross Danube into Roman territory and settle
378 Visigoths forced into revolt by famine and excessive taxation, leading to –
378 The Battle of Adrianople (9 August) Eastern Roman Army led by Valens destroyed by Gothic forces led by Fritigern
379-395 Theodosius, the last emperor to rule over West and East, institutes reforms which include the banning of pagan religion ie Christianity becomes the official religion of the Empire
395 Partition of Roman Empire into West Roman Empire (Honorius) and East Roman Empire (Arcadius), ruled by a Tetrachy of four rulers (an emperor and assistant for each half)

410 Sack of Rome by the Visigoths under Alaric
434-453 Attila ruler of the Huns and an empire which stretched from Holland to the Caucasus
455 Vandals raided Rome
476 September 4 – Odoacer (a Germanic leader in the Roman army) deposes the last western Roman emperor, ruling the Western Roman Empire as King in his own right
486 Franks conquered the Seine and Loire valley

507 Frankish King Clovis converted to Catholicism taking his people with him
524 Execution of philosopher and statesman Boethius at the order of Ostrogoth King Theoderic
526 Death of King Theodoric
529 Saint Benedict founded his monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy
529 Justinian closed the Academy at Athens, founded by Plato in 347 BC
535-553 The Gothic War – Byzantine invasions, and finally conquest of the Ostrogothic Kingdom
568 The Lombards leave their homeland in the western Pannonian plain and, under King Albion, arrive in Italy

600s Persian armies under Khosro I seize Antioch (613), Jerusalem (614), Egypt (619)
620s The Emperor Heraclius counter-attacks forcing the Persians to an exhausted truce
622 Mohammed and his followers migrate to Medina, the event known as the Hijra marking the beginning of the Islamic calendar
632 Death of Mohammed
635-38 Middle East falls to the Arabs
670-95 North Africa falls to the Arabs


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 by Richard Fletcher (1997)

Big book, enormous subject. Just as well we’re in the company of such an immensely knowledgeable and charming companion – medieval historian Richard Fletcher. Sadly Dr Fletcher died in 2005 – read the Guardian obituary – but his works live on, and this is his masterpiece.

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 (1997) forms a great companion to Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book about the Vikings, The Hammer and The Cross (2010). The ‘Viking Age’ was roughly 800 to 1100. Ferguson describes in forensic detail the brutal, masculine world of the barbarian raiders from the seas, heathens from beyond the pale of Roman civilisation, law and literacy; only slowly is their bloodlust brought under control as the various Danish kings and warlords are converted and baptised at the end of the 900s and into the 1000s. Ferguson’s thesis is that, shadowy and difficult to pin down as the definition of ‘Viking’ is, there is certainly one constant to all their activities: their super-violent hatred of Christianity. Christian centres are not just attacked, they are destroyed and the inhabitants exterminated.

Fletcher’s book, on the other hand –

  • Covers a much larger period – from the emperor Theodosius banning pagan religion in the 380s to the conversion of the Lithuanians one thousand years later, in the 1380s – and a far wider canvas, from Scotland to Romania.
  • Covers the same story from the other side, examining the administrative and cultural framework of Christianity as it developed inside the Pale of Roman administration, law and literacy, and then slowly extended beyond it.

The main difference is that, compared to the Vikings, we actually have quite a lot of information about individual proselytisers because so many of them became saints (St Martin, St Columba, Patrick, St Augustine, St Wilfrid and so on) and had hagiographies (biographies of saints) written about them, often by followers who had personally known them and witnessed key events in their lives.

By the 7th and 8th centuries, many of these pioneers can be shown either to have come from aristocratic families or to have had aristocratic or royal sponsors. After the obscurity of the 5th and 6th centuries, Fletcher’s book in the 7th and 8th centuries becomes like a tapestry or puzzle, wherein we can see the complex web of relationships between successive kings and their spouses and their missionary monks and priests, the evangelists pushing into new territory, the royals providing the money and material to build them new churches and monasteries, which become engines of education and learning, generating new mission-minded monks who themselves set off further north or south or east to copy the example of their sainted forebears.

Slowly, slowly, by painstaking efforts, the whole continent is converted.

The rise of Christianity

The opening chapters move swiftly over Jesus (‘Christianity traces its historic roots to the ministry of a Jewish preacher and exorcist in a backward province of the Roman empire’, p.13), the missions of St Paul, the letters of the earliest fathers and martyrs, through to the ‘Eusebian accommodation’. The emperor Constantine plays a pivotal role in the history of Christianity because it was he who, in the Edict of Milan in 313, brought all Roman persecution of Christianity to an end and decriminalised Christian belief and practice. The age of persecution and martyrs ends in 313.

Constantine was a practical man who set about establishing peace throughout the Empire, reorganising its taxes and laws, establishing a fundamentally new structure whereby the empire was divided into a western and an eastern half (the latter to be ruled from the new capital he established at the old Greek town of Byzantium which he completely rebuilt and renamed Constantinople). And he brought the same practical thoroughness to the up-and-coming religion which had now established itself throughout the empire, Christianity, calling councils to thrash out its beliefs, to have them set in writing and promulgated under his name, as well as sitting in judgement on the theological and administrative squabbles of the early church.

Eusebius was court theologian to Constantine and, as well as the panegyrics he wrote to Constantine’s wonderfulness, he developed the idea that the empire and Christianity were intertwined: it was their destiny to work together, the wise and good Constantine providing the peaceful framework within which his holy church could save souls, the wise and good Church leaders providing the emperors with spiritual guidance. Now that it had adopted Christianity, the Roman Empire would be protected and supported by a loving God. The two would go hand in hand in peace and power.

100 years later this line of argument got into trouble when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths (410). Surviving pagan philosophers used this disaster to refute the argument that the Empire had been blessed and protected by Christianity: it looked very much the opposite, that abandoning the old pagan gods had led to disaster.

Far away in North Africa, the great theologian Augustine was prompted the fall of Rome to write his huge masterpiece City of God (426). This completely rejected the idea of an accommodation between Rome and Christianity, and asserted a complete separation between the earthly city with its corruption and imperfection, and the divine City of God. The Eastern, Greek empire, stuck with the Eusebian ideal; the West with Augustine’s separation, with huge consequences. Augustine’s insistence on the separation of Church and State sowed the seeds of the long-running feud between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, and between individual rulers and their archbishops and the Pope, a tendency which led to the rejection of central Church authority in the Reformation. All this was in sharp contrast to the Greek Eastern Orthodox tradition which followed Constantine’s wish of uniting church and state – leading to the arguably more authoritarian regimes of Orthodox countries, epitomised by Russia.

If in the East church and state were nearly identical, in the West they were often at odds. Harmony was characteristic of the east, tension of the west. It was to be a critically important constituent of western culture that church and state should be perceived as distinct and indeed often competing institutions. Built into western Christian traditions there was a potential rarely encountered in the east for explosion, for radicalism, for non-conformity, for confrontation. (page 28)

Augustine’s pessimistic vision seemed to be confirmed when the Empire in the West collapsed and the last emperor was killed in 476. The slow decay of Imperial law and institutions eventually left the archbishops and bishops and abbots and monasteries – the papacy and the Church bureaucracy – as the only thing left standing to embody the literacy, legality and civilisation of the Roman Empire as the barbarians swarm across Europe.

Why convert anyone to Christianity?

Because Jesus told them to. The key passage is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 16–20:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

In later years this would become known as ‘the Great Commission’ and was used in the era of European expansion and colonisation (1500 to 2000) to justify missionising to all the native peoples Europeans encountered.

Fletcher’s book shows:

a) How very slowly it came about that the Church hierarchy even considered missionising beyond the urban centres – for a long time it was thought that you only needed a few converts in each of the ‘nations’ – and those mostly among the urban rich. ‘Surely that’s enough, isn’t it?’ Fletcher brilliantly describes how slow the notion of conversion and mission was to emerge. For centuries the authorities concerned themselves only with bringing the pagans within the Empire into the Church; that was challenge enough. He shows how Christianity was above all an urban phenomenon, and identified entirely with the wealthy and – once Constantine adopted it – with the extremely wealthy. These oligarchs fell over themselves to lavish land and bequests on the Church. In its earliest period Christian evangelisation was restricted to urban centres – St Paul’s epistles are to congregations in cities. Christian authorities followed the Roman prejudice that country dwellers were illiterate beasts. Only slowly did the idea develop that bishops should stamp out paganism in the countryside.

b) And this extending of the faith beyond urban centres itself turned out to be a chalenging and slow business – such that popes and bishops are still writing about the scandal of pagan worship clinging on among the peasants well into the 600s and 700s. And not on the periphery, but right in the heart of the ‘Christian’ empire, in Italy itself, 20 miles from Rome – let alone in the further lands of Francia and Spain, or out in the wild frontiers like England.

c) Only slowly, in the work of isolated writers and a few brave experimenters, did the notion of going beyond the borders of Romanitas to convert the heathen become even thinkable – the notion of sending Christian officials outside the boundaries of the former Roman Empire into hard-core, non-Latin, barbarian territory to ‘spread the Word’. The first half of the book tells the story of just such hardy souls, St Martin, St Patrick, St Boniface, and the wonderful miracles they did and hordes they converted. (The bishop was the standard rank of mission leader – a bishop could establish a ‘diocese’, set up a centre for ecclesiastical administration, appoint and manage priests, organise church-building etc, all the while corresponding with the Head of the Organisation back in Rome.)

What were the converters up against?

Fletcher builds the text by taking examples of figures both famous and obscure from across Latin Europe (Italy, France, Spain, England) and using the written records we have of them to investigate and compare their various motives, procedures, what they were up against (pagan resistance) and how much they succeeded.

The great frustration of this subject is that we know so little about what so-called ‘pagans’ actually believed or did. A central part of the ‘conversion’ process was to destroy every single shrine, statue, holy tree and so on, a scorched earth policy as regards buildings and objects, and it’s the same with texts – not a single text survives anywhere which records the nature of pagan belief, compared to the thousands and thousands we have which record the holy sayings and wonderful deeds and pious activities of Christian martyrs, saints and teachers.

In practical terms, this is because the Christians – of course – controlled the only means of storing and transmitting information i.e. writing. It appears that the pagans had no writing (apart, in some places, from primitive runes carved into stone) and certainly didn’t have the means of recording, replicating and storing writing which Christians established in the shape of monasteries full of educated, literate, text-copying monks.

But various church officials did, in scattered letters, sermons and theological works, make scattered references to the ongoing pagan practices, and from them we can piece together – if not the content of the beliefs or even the names of the pagan gods (pitifully rare) – at least some of the more superstitious practices of rural people. The De Correctione Rusticorum of Martin of Braga (now northern Portugal), written at the end of the 6th century, is a letter written to a fellow bishop, Polemius of Astorga, which laments the ongoing bad behaviour of his pagan flock who:

  • celebrate new year with the pagan Roman festival of Kalends
  • burn candles at stones and trees and springs and where three roads meet
  • observe divinations and auguries and days of idols
  • observe the Day of Vulcan (23 August) and the first days of each month
  • adorn tables and hang up laurels and ‘watch the foot’
  • pour wine and fruit over the hearth and put bread in a spring
  • women invoke Minerva in their weaving
  • keep weddings for the day of Venus (Friday)
  • mutter spells over herbs and invoke the name of demons in incantations
  • find special meaning in the behaviour of little birds and in sneezing (p.53)

The Christian authorities decried the existence of arioli (singular: ariolus), holy men who uttered impious words at altars and offered sacrifices, who tied ligatures on the bodies of the sick and applied medicines. In 598 Pope Gregory wrote to the bishop of Terracina just 50 miles from Rome lamenting that local inhabits continued to worship sacred trees, in the pagan manner.

And it wasn’t just the peasants who continued with heathen superstitions. A council of bishops at Toledo in 633 thought it necessary to forbid bishops, priests, deacons or any other clerical orders from consulting magicians, augurs, diviners or soothsayers (p.55). The power of these superstitious practices lingered on for centuries. In fact, in the final pages Fletcher gives records of Church authorities still trying to stamp out rural pagan practice in the 1600s!

How did the converters convert pagans?

This is simple and startling. Contrary to modern practice of converting through reading, teaching and discussion, medieval missionaries performed miracles and magic. ‘My God is more powerful than your gods – watch! Told you so!’

While the Church elite was writing and arguing about high points of theology – which is what many histories of Christianity tend to focus on – down on the ground, among the peasants of the Touraine or Galicia or Mercia, individual evangelists were going head to head with the local deities to show that only the Christian God could end a drought, guarantee safe childbirth, prevent a flood and so on.

The point is not only that the Christians could perform miracles – it’s that the pagan gods could too. High level theologians could dismiss pagan power as empty superstition but down on the ground, missionaries knew the pagan idols had power but they reinterpreted this power as coming from the Devil and his legion of demons – something they had good warrant for in the Gospel stories.

Early medieval Europe was a world in which persons of every level of intellectual cultivation accepted without question that the miraculous could weave  like a shuttle in and out of everyday reality. (p.10)

All these people lived in a world dominated by cruel and capricious forces – incurable diseases, natural disasters, plague and famine, not to mention the unexpected attacks from rampaging armies which killed, raped and dragged survivors off into slavery. Traditional beliefs were the only science and the only technology they had to try and order and control and give meaning to their lives. It took a lot to dislodge these time-honoured traditions.

In a European countryside where over hundreds of years diverse rituals had evolved for coping with the forces of nature, Christian holy men had to show that they had access to more efficacious power. (p.64)

Only by going head to head with the powers of the traditional gods could Christian missionaries hope to make even the slightest impact. Thus the records we have of missionaries throughout the period (300 to 1400, and beyond) tend to dwell on their miraculous works.

  • St Martin of Tours, according to the written records we have of him, frequently encountered supernatural beings: the Devil several times, angels, demons, St Mary, St Agnes, Saints Peter and Paul, he had telepathic powers, could predict the future, could exorcise evil spirits from men or animals, and could raise the dead, as well as performing numerous miracles such as halting a hailstorm in the region of Sens. A letter he wrote cured the daughter of a Roman official just by being placed on her body. He cured a girl of 12 who had been dumb from birth. On one occasion he was cutting down a sacred tree and the pagans dared him to stand where it would fall so Martin did so and as the tree began to fall towards him he made the sign of the cross and it miraculously veered in another direction. The pagans cried with one voice that Christ was king and implored to be baptised.
  • Bishop Simplicius encountered an idol being trundled about on a cart to bless fields and vineyards: he made the sign of the cross and the idol crashed to the ground while the oxen pulling the cart were rooted to the spot. Simplicius made 400 converts.
  • Emilian was a shepherd in the Rioja district of Spain who was called to the Holy Life and built up a powerful network of clients for his wonder-working. He cured the blindness of a slave girl of the senator Sicorius. He exorcised one of the slaves of Count Eugenius. He exorcised the evil spirits which had possessed the senator Nepotian and and his wife Proseria. He cured a woman named Barbara from her paralysis. He made the sign of the cross over the belly of the monk Armentarius and cured him. (p.58)
  • Eugendus wrote a letter to a demon who was possessing a girl in eastern Gaul; the demon left her before the letter was even delivered. The lady Syagria, member of a leading aristocratic family of Lyons, was cured of a grave illness by eating a letter from Eugendus.
  • Samson, grandson of the king of Gwent, was a native of Demetia in South Wales who made his way to England, received clerical training, and sailed across to Armorica in Gaul where he had a career as a miracle-worker, converting the pagan locals, and founding a monastery to preserve his name and build on his good work. In Trigg in north Cornwall he came across people who traditionally worshiped an idol. A boy was killed out riding. Samson told the people their idol couldn’t revive the boy but his God could and, if He did, they should abandon their idol forever. the people agreed. Samson prayed for two hours. The boy came back to life. The people destroyed their idol and agreed to be baptised.

The centrality of miracle working

Again and again and again, in countless accounts of saints’ lives, it is clear that the chief tool in the armoury Christians seeking to convert both aristocrats and peasants to Christianity was their wonder-working, miracles, cures and exorcisms.

These aren’t embarrassing details to be downplayed by modern believers – they are absolutely central to the success of the conversion effort. What’s more, they have their roots in the original gospels, where Jesus is nothing if not a wonder-worker, a miracle-maker, a curer, healer and exorciser, often pitched in direct conflict with the Devil and his demons.

And Jesus’ powers themselves have their roots in the old Jewish scriptures in which heroes as far back as Moses have to fight against the power of the pagan gods, and prove – even to the sceptical Israelites – that Jehovah is Boss. As Fletcher points out, the Book of Psalms was the most widely read book of the Bible in the early medieval period, and its songs repeatedly stress the direct link between piety and worldly success, stressing ‘the causal relationship of correct cult with victory, prosperity and progeny’ (p.244). And he cites the story of Elijah who, in the first Book of Kings, chapter 18, goes head to head with the prophets of Baal and Asherah for an extended competition to see whose god is more powerful and can end the three years of drought. With predictable results, but results taken literally by two thousand years of Christian believers.

Thus medieval superstition isn’t eccentric, it is part of a thousand-years-old tradition, and is intimately linked to the kind of folk beliefs which continued in the West until very recently, and continue to this day in many parts of the world.

It is the post-Enlightenment despiritualising of nature and the world around us, it is the modern Western denial of magic powers and miracles, which is the historical oddity.

Fighting pagan gods/demons

Thus pagan shrines, idols and objects had to be destroyed, pagan practices quashed – and even descriptions of pagan practices suppressed and ignored – not in the name of a secular ideology, but because they had power. They weren’t just empty errors, they were the Devil’s work, they were the activities of the opposition – they represented a real and ongoing threat to the survival, and to the salvation, of the Christian community.

Thus Martin and the hosts of other convertors like him didn’t just smash pagan shrines and buildings – they built over them. There was power in them which couldn’t be ignored – it had to be incorporated into the True Belief and redirected into the holy cause.

Converting from heresy to orthodoxy

It’s easy to forget how central Heresy was and is to Christianity – the history of early Christianity is mostly the history of heresies and, of course, Christianity is itself a heretical deviation from orthodox Judaism.

The most disruptive among a host of types of ‘wrong thinking’ was Arianism, one of the countless deviations thrown up as clever men agonised over the mystery of the Trinity: if God is all-powerful, what is the relationship with the Holy Spirit mentioned throughout the holy texts, let alone with his Son? Is the Son equal in power to the Father? Are they the same entity? How much of Jesus was man and how much God? Did God give birth to the Son who is therefore less than the Father?

Arius (c. AD 250–336) was a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt and he became associated with the belief that Jesus was begotten by the Father. Arius’s aim was not to dilute the power of the Father, to assert the absolute primacy and omnipotence of the One God. However, this had the effect of downgrading the Son and, by extension, of downgrading Jesus’s sacrifice: if he isn’t fully equal with God then maybe his sacrifice on the cross wasn’t fully earth-redeeming.

Difficult though the philosophical niceties are to follow, the practical consequences are simple. For most of the 4th century the battle lines between Arianism and Orthodoxy hardened and embittered. Arius was anathematised during his lifetime and the newly Christian emperor Constantine (ruled 306-37) called the Council of Nicaea in 325 precisely to try and thrash out a form of words which would please all sides – resulting in the text which became referred to as ‘the Nicene Creed’.

But so powerful was Arianism that the emperor’s own son, Constantius II (337–361) and his successor Valens (364–378), both in fact supported the Arian heresy, with the result that patriarchs and archbishops, bishops and priests were inducted into Arian Christianity – and that initial contacts with Gothic tribes and barbarians was with Arian missionaries.

It was only with the advent of the zealously Catholic emperor Theodosius the Great (ruled 379-95) that Arianism was decisively defeated within the Church: Theodosius ordered all Arian writings to be destroyed and their authors vilified. But from the point of view of a history of Christian conversion, an important element of the early Middle Ages was not just converting the pagans, it was converting those who had mistakenly adopted the Christianity of Arius, back into the fold of Orthodoxy.

Slavery

We need to remember that the slave trade was probably the most widespread business activity of the early medieval world. (page 113)

Reading this book reminds the reader, yet again, that slavery has been an almost universal feature of human societies. Ancient Egypt was a slave society. The ancient Greek cities were slave societies, Athens was a slave state. The Roman Empire was built on slave labour. The Parthenon, the Forum, all that poetry and maths and drama – based on slavery.

One of the major Roman exports from Roman Britain was slaves: we have written evidence and slave manacles and chains have survived. According to Bede’s story the official Roman mission to England was sent, in 597, because Pope Gregory the Great encountered some English slaves in the slave market in Rome. They were so attractive that the pope asked who they were. ‘Angles’, came the reply. ‘Not Angles, but angels,’ the pope quipped. Fletcher’s account of early missionaries to the Franks mentions ‘slaves from across the water’ i.e. the Channel, working for the French aristocracy. St Patrick was six years a slave.

The Goths had slaves. The Huns had slaves. The Vikings took slaves wherever they went to sell in Europe’s slave markets. It is a recurring feature of missionaries that they are recorded as buying and liberating slaves in pagan societies, where possible. Every few pages in this 500-page-long book Fletcher mentions slaves. In one form or another (as serfs, as bonded labour) Europeans carried on enslaving other Europeans until the late medieval era.

The shift North

The later part of the book divides into long chapters dealing with Big Themes: the Greek missionary push into the Balkans and up into Eastern Europe (chapter 10), trying to convert the Vikings (Chapter 11), North-Eastern Europe and the Baltic (chapter 12). All of them are fascinating, tell gripping stories and shed light on the religious and cultural patterns of contemporary Europe.

But one of the biggest ideas to emerge is in chapter 9 which assesses the early Medieval relationship with Judaism, and then with the sweeping military successes of Islam, which rampaged along the North African shore and up into Spain (completely conquered in the years 711 to 718), over the Alps and only being stopped in southern France at the Battle of Tours (10 October 732), where the Frankish King Charles Martel decisively defeated an army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. Charles went on to push Frankish domain south to the Pyrenees thus pinning the Moors inside the Iberian Peninsula, where they created the often stunning culture of Al-Andalus.

But although the Christians held their own against Muslim assaults in southern France, in Sicily (threatening Italy) and in the East, where Islam swept through the Middle East to confront the Byzantine Empire – the net effect of the loss of the North African littoral to Christianity was to push the cultural and political focus of Europe north. Towards the end of this fascinating chapter, Fletcher describes a further seismic process, the slow partition of Christendom itself between Greek East and Roman West. It took centuries of disagreement, misunderstanding, occasional conflict, and a drift apart of theological and cultural practices – but Fletcher brings out another important element.

For centuries after the collapse the Roman Empire in the West, Rome (and the pope) still came under the nominal protection of the Emperor in the East. But as early as 800 the papacy had recognised the power and protection of the Franks, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. And the diversion of the Emperor’s resources East to hold the Muslims at bay tended to make the papacy continue to look West, and North. A key moment in the breach came when the armies of the Fourth Crusade were diverted from the Holy Land and attacked Constantinople itself – theoretically to restore a pro-Western Emperor, but in reality the army ran riot and sacked the place, killing many of the inhabitants.

The Muslim Conquests and loss of North Africa of the 700s – the triumphant creation of a huge Frankish Empire by Charlemagne in the 800s – the conversion of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the 6th and 7th centuries, then of the Germans, Danes and Poles in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries – alongside the collapse of Byzantine power which was crystallised in 1204 — all these factors ensured that Roman Catholicism, though based in Rome, would gravitational pull towards the North, around the court of France for a long time, and then the long stormy relationship with the various Holy Roman Emperors of Germany.

So that in the twentieth century Poland could be one of the most fiercely and devoutly Roman Catholic countries. Poland! The heroes of early Christianity – Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen – they wouldn’t even have known where Poland was. In the really big scheme of things, it is this shift of the Christian world towards the north of Europe which I found one of the most interesting ideas to emerge from this endlessly fascinating book

Random notes

– I’ve always liked the fact that the Emperor Constantine, the man who legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire, thus guaranteeing that Europe would become Christian with all that meant for future world history, was first acclaimed emperor when still a general by his troops in Britain – and in York!

– The most distinctive feature of early medieval Christendom was the explosion of the monastic movement in the 300s-500s – possibly as a response to Christianity becoming decriminalised in the early 300s, and then becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire by 380. There was no more scope for martyrdom. But you could still mortify your own worldly ambitions (and those of your parents) by chucking in a promising career as a lawyer, or even as a bishop, and disappearing into the obscurity of a world-denying enclosed religious order. The establishment of monasteries went hand in hand with the more orthodox spread of dioceses across Western Europe, a movement associated with men like St Martin, bishop of Tours from 371 until 397.

– It was fascinating to learn how much this activity was associated with wealth; often the bishops came from very rich families, or they performed miracles which converted the very rich and powerful, who  themselves went on to commission churches and monasteries. Despite Christian propaganda, the Church from the early medieval period was associated not with the poor and slaves, but with money and power. This is emphasised by the string of textbooks, sermons and papal letters Fletcher quotes in the middle of the book which were aimed at trying to bring a very worldly clergy under control – no attending communion drunk! Cut down on the hawking and hunting!

– Only when the internal colonisation of the Empire by Christian networks of church and monastery was reaching completion, did it occur to anyone to go beyond the pale of Roman administration to spread Christianity to peoples outside the borders of the empire. Pioneers included:

– Ulfilas (311-83), the apostle of the Goths, who translated the Bible into a Gothic script which he invented for the purpose. Except that his translation of the Bible notoriously excluded the Books of Kings, which are mostly a record of ancient Israel’s wars. The Goths didn’t need any encouragement in that direction.

Palladius, sent as bishop to the pagan Irish in 431, much overshadowed by his successor St Patrick, 540-60(?). Fletcher spends a long passage describing and analysing the work of Patrick but the main thing about him is that:

As far as our evidence goes, [Patrick] was the first person in Christian history to take the scriptural injunctions literally; to grasp that teaching all nations meant teaching even barbarians who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire. (p.86)

– The Latin word peregrinatio began life as a definition of a type of citizen, an alien or exile from their homeland living within the Roman Empire. In the early parts of his book Fletcher shows how it was taken over to describe the new idea of an ‘exile from Christ’, a person who devoted their lives to travelling and preaching and which became applied to what we would now call ‘missionaries’, men like St Patrick or the Englishman Winfrid, born in Wessex in the 7th century, who took the Latin name Boniface and travelled across North Europe to take a leading role in the conversion of the pagan Saxons, earning himself the title of the Apostle of the Germans. He was ‘martyred’ in the 750s. But towards the end of this long book, Fletcher pauses to consider how the word peregrinatio continued to change its meaning so that by the 11th century it was being applied to planned journeys by groups of people to sites of veneration, churches and shrines erected to the martyrs and saints of what was by now a mostly settled, Christian Europe. These journeys began to be called peregrinatios, translated into Middle English as pilgrimages.

What had once been wild journeys into the unknown had become package holidays.

Crusading violence

The final part of Europe to be converted to Christianity was up in the north-east, in northern Poland, in Livonia, along the Baltic and into the big and successful Duchy of Lithuania. Fletcher’s final chapter paints a rather grim picture of how this final proselytising effort was darker and more violent than what had come before, mainly under the influence of the Crusades. He has to take a detour to explain how the rhetoric of anti-Muslim Crusade came to be redirected towards the last pagan kingdoms – and also how the Crusades witnessed the birth of a new phenomenon, bands or ‘orders’ of knights banding together to either fight in the Holy Land or, like the Knights Templars, to protect pilgrims and other travellers to Palestine. Thus military orders grew up in the north-east devoted to converting the pagan, by fierce military means if necessary, the most notable examples being the Sword of the Brethren and the Teutonic Order. This Wikipedia map gives a good picture of the geographical territories involved and the way ‘conversion’ had been reduced to a military campaign.

Astonishingly, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania held on to its pagan status and religion until as late as 1386 when the Grand Duke seized the purely contingent opportunity of marrying the ten-year-old girl who’d inherited the throne of Poland and had to submit to baptism as part of the political deal.

But these last few centuries of the story are redolent of war, conquest, seizure of territory, rebellions by the conquered put down with brutality. As Fletcher points out, the castles built by these orders in their conquered territories bespeak imperial colonisation, like the contemporary Plantagenet colonisation of Wales. It is a long long way from the heroic solo missions of St Patrick or St Martin, or the better resourced but still peaceful missions of St Augustine or St Boniface. The licensing of military violence by the pope and Church hierarchy is ugly, and sets the scene for the lamentable invasions of the New World which began barely a hundred years later.

All of which, paradoxically, makes the Christianity of the so-called Dark Ages (400 to 1000) seem much sweeter and gentler by comparison. With a few notable exceptions (like Charlemagne’s genocidal ‘conversion’ of the Saxons in the 780s) the converters of the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries were more likely to be solitary holy men impressing pagan mobs by raising the dead or averting hail storms or stopping floods or bringing good weather. Although their miracles may be doubted, the bravery and faith of these early apostles can’t be, and there is something very admirable about it and them, which is worthy of respect.

Some early medieval dates

  • 406-7 the Rhine freezes and barbarian pagan Germanic tribes swarm across it into Gaul.
  • 410 The emperor Honorius withdraws the Roman armies from Britain to defend Rome from the barbarians.
  • 410 Rome is sacked by the the Visigoths under Alaric.
  • 451 The Battle of Châlons in 451 – one of the last major military operations of the Western Roman Empire when Romans under general Flavius Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric I fought against the Huns and their vassals commanded by Attila. The battle stopped the Huns seizing complete control of Gaul and installed the Frankish king, Merovech, as king of the Franks, from whom later Frankish claimed descent (and called themselves the Merovingians).
  • 476 The last Roman emperor in the West, Romulus Augustus, dies.
  • 481-509 Clovis king of the Franks, pressurised by his Christian wife Clotilde, is baptised on Christmas Day 496 and – crucially – into orthodox Catholic Christianity, not the Arian heresy espoused by almost all the surrounding barbarian nations. This single decision helped to ensure that Europe became a Catholic continent. Clovis founded a new capital at Paris, and called a Church Council to bolster Catholic orthodoxy in his realm.
  • 510s the Burgundians under King Sigismund convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • St Columba (520-97) regarding himself as an exile and pilgrim, established monasteries in Ireland and at Iona, which was to become an important religious centre and shrine off the west coast of Scotland.
  • 530s the Vandals convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 560s the Sueves convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 570s the Saxons of the Loire valley are converted to Catholicism by bishop Félix of Nantes.
  • 580s the Visigoths of Spain convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • Angle and Saxon kings:
    • 597 Pope Gregory the Great despatched St Augustine of Canterbury to Kent to convert King Ethelbert, at the bidding of his Frankish wife Bertha.
    • 604 King Saebehrt of the East Saxons accepts Christianity and builds a church in London.
    • Sometime before 605 King Redwald of the East Angles converts – though he later backslides and is in fact thought to be the pagan king buried at the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial.
    • 627 King Edwin of Northumbria is baptised, again under influence of his Christian wife.
  • St Columbanus (543-615) ‘an exemplar of Irish missionary activity in early medieval Europe’.
  • St Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne monastery (active 635-651) ‘Apostle to the English’, friend of the Northumbrian kings Oswald and Oswine, who overthrew Edwin in 633.
  • Benedict Biscop (628-90) founder of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Priory in Northumberland.
  • The Venerable Bede (672-735) the Northumbrian monk, historian and author of the vital Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (732). Although the book’s purpose is didactic, nonetheless Bede was unusually scrupulous in his weighing of the evidence before him.
  • Saint Boniface (c. 675 – 5 June 754) an influential figure in North European history, who reorganised the Frankish Church, missionised into north Germany, and brought the Frankish dynasty and the papacy closer together, paving the way for the triumph of Charlemagne (747-814).

What medieval history teaches us

Why bother reading books like this? Well, studying pre-modern history teaches lots of things:

1. For a start, it gives a deeper sense of the importance of Christianity and why it spread to become the religion of Europe. It gives you a deeper sense of Christianity’s multi-faceted appeal – in providing a coherent narrative of the world to the illiterate and educated alike, assuring them of salvation and the help of God, Jesus and the Saints; giving rules to guide believers through the many problems of life, protocols and ritual to accompany all the way stations of life, from birth to death; assuring magic and miracle-working for those in need, suffering or pain – in numberless ways Christianity offered hope and solace and explanations and technologies (books, relics, crosses) for understanding and managing human life. Moreover, for pagan rulers, Christianity was the gateway into the legacy of Roman civilisation, into fabulous wealth, literacy, laws, coins and better ways of managing your realm, as well as access to the extensive trading networks of Christendom which eventually stretched from Iceland to the Black Sea. At a personal psychological level, at a social level in terms of law and order, and at the royal level of providing an entrée into the ‘club’ of European royalty,  Christianity as belief system, legal system, cultural heritage and power network was infinitely richer, more complex and sophisticated than the pagan alternatives.

2. It is so easy to ridicule the wonder-working saints and monks and the endlessly squabbling kings and the gullible peasants, but are we any better? Study of the past should make us realise that ‘we’ will also soon be ‘the past’, and that our great grandchildren will look back in wonder at how we wasted our resources, destroyed our environment and ruined the world, while fussing about there not being enough black actors in the Oscars or ‘freeing the nipple’. Our ability to stress over trivial cultural issues while ignoring the extermination of the environment and all the life forms in it will make medieval peasants believing in miracles seem as reasonable as Einstein. They were credulous and astonishingly ignorant by our standards – but at least they left us an inhabitable planet, which is more than we are doing for our descendants:

3. Since Europe went on to colonise the world and, in the last 70 years Europe’s child, America, has gone on to be the world’s dominant military and cultural force – studying early medieval Europe gives a deeper understanding of where it all came from, and why and how.

4. Study of this period teaches doubt and hesitation and respect for the profound uncertainty of human knowledge. Our sources are so limited; our ignorance of human activity through entire centuries so profound; the slightest discovery can so easily shed light on blank eras or overthrow widely-held views – that study of this period encourages what I take to be an appropriate attitude to human knowledge, which is one of deep scepticism. There is so much we don’t know and will never know.

5. We live amid the wreckage of all these centuries of ancestors and predecessors. We should respect their achievements, their cathedrals and statues and jewellery, their saints’ lives and often bizarre theology, because they are the heroic products of the human mind struggling in dark times. To my eye, their often primitive and unnerving artefacts have a haunting and mysterious beauty. These obscure messages from the remote past offer a strange and powerful hope for mankind’s survival.

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: