Europe at the Death of Theodoric (AD 526)
Once the supreme power in the Mediterranean, the Roman Empire found itself effectively halved when its western dominions disintegrated into Germanic kingdoms in the second half of the fifth century. However, the power of Constantinople proved strong enough to survive and initiate reconsolidation. With the western empire gone, there was now a single Roman government and empire again, one which considered itself the sole embodiment of Roman authority in east and west. Germanic claims to the Western Roman inheritance therefore meant little at the court of Constantinople. Nevertheless, it would be a while before the eastern empire’s ambitious dreams of reclaiming lost western territories could be turned into realisable plans.
As the eastern empire worked to build up its strength, the Roman legacy in the west began to merge with Germanic traditions. The barbarian elites admired the Roman culture and did much to keep it alive in their respective dominions, considering themselves the successors to Rome. The desire to keep the past alive is most obvious in how the barbarians treated Roman law. Germanic kings recorded the laws of their Roman subjects in the leges Romanae (Roman laws) and codified the Germanic customary laws in the leges barbarorum (barbarian laws). This alone proves how deep Roman influence remained in the west, even after AD 476. The Germanic takeover and fall of the Western Roman Empire thus had little impact on the common people of the era. The families of local Roman elites survived under the new rulers, the peasantry generally remained where they were, most cities continued to exist and the Roman civitates would become the fundament for the Roman Catholic Church’s dioceses and archdioceses. The greatest change was the fact that the complexity of society diminished. Though the Germanic kings desired to maintain the Roman governmental framework as much as possible, especially in terms of taxation and local administration, they lacked both the skill and resources to do so. The power of the imperial government thus dispersed among local rulers who assumed the titles of dux (duke) or comes (count). This intensified the process of fragmentation which would characterise the Early Middle Ages.
It did not take long before the barbarian kingdoms began competing with each other, transforming the map of Western Europe once more. By far the most successful kingdom was that of the Franks, which rose to prominence by the early sixth century. The principal architect of the Frankish expansion was Clovis, who succeeded his father Childerik in AD 481. Childerik himself was the son of Merovech, the half-mythical namesake of the Merovingian dynasty which would now push the Frankish boundaries ever further. Clovis first unified all the Frankish splinter factions under his leadership and subsequently waged war against the Romans and other Germanic tribes, decisively defeating them in a series of battles, most notably at Soissons in AD 486, Tolbiac in AD 496 and Vouillé in AD 507. The Frankish success was further strengthened by conversion to Catholic Christianity in AD 496, gaining the Franks the valuable support of the Roman Catholic Church. At Clovis’ death in AD 511, the Franks had conquered much of Gaul and were expanding into Central Europe.
Politically though, the Merovingian dynasty lacked cohesion: the Frankish territories were not considered a res publica in the Roman sense, but rather a familial patrimony. When Clovis died, his kingdom was therefore divided into splinter dominions, where the Merovingian elites enthusiastically spilled each other’s blood for control of more territory. Two important developments took place in the background of these brutal power struggles. Firstly, the continued eastward spread of Christianity paved the way for future Frankish conquests. Secondly and more importantly, the power of the major-domos at the Merovingian courts grew steadily, eventually giving rise to a new Frankish dynasty – the Carolingians.
While the Franks expanded their power, the Eastern Roman Empire decided to settle its open account with Odoacer for toppling the western empire in AD 476. To this end, the imperial government of Constantinople incited the Ostrogothic king Theodoric to invade Italy in AD 489, effectively ending Odoacer’s rule by AD 493. Emperor Zeno subsequently recognised Theodoric as his representative in the west, which allowed the Ostrogoths to establish their own kingdom in Italy under the nominal authority of Constantinople. Theodoric’s rule was the most peaceful and stable period Italy had known since the rule of Valentinian I (AD 364 – 375). Using his Roman support and diplomatic cunning, Theodoric portrayed his kingdom as ‘Roman’ and proceeded to press-gang several Germanic tribes into accepting his lordship, including the Burgundians and Visigoths.
However, by the time of Theodoric’s death in AD 526, a new emperor had risen to the throne in Constantinople – Justinian I. Under his powerful leadership, the Eastern Roman Empire was at last ready to initiate its ambitious plans for the Renovatio Imperii Romanorum, the final Roman attempt at the complete restoration of the empire’s ancient supremacy…
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