The Dark Ages - Book I of III - Charles Oman - ebook

Sir Charles William Chadwick Oman KBE (1860-1946) was a British military historian.His reconstructions of medieval battles from the fragmentary and distorted accounts left by chroniclers were pioneering. Occasionally his interpretations have been challenged, especially his widely copied thesis that British troops defeated their Napoleonic opponents by firepower alone. Paddy Griffith, among modern historians, claims that the British infantry's discipline and willingness to attack were equally important.

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JUSTINIAN – 540-565 CE

Charles Oman


Book I of III

Copyright © Charles Oman

The Dark Ages


Arcadia Press 2017


Book I of III


In the summer of 477 CE a band of ambassadors, who claimed to speak the will of the decayed body which still called itself the Roman senate, appeared before the judgment- seat of the emperor Zeno, the ruler of Constantinople and the Eastern Empire. They came to announce to him that the army of the West had slain the patrician Orestes, and deposed from his throne the son of Orestes, the boy-emperor Romulus. But they did not then proceed to inform Zeno that another Caesar had been duly elected to replace their late sovereign. Embassies with such news had been common of late years, but this particular deputation, unlike any other which had yet visited the Bosphorus, came to announce to the Eastern emperor that his own mighty name sufficed for the protection of both East and West. They laid at his feet the diadem and purple robe of Romulus, and professed to transfer their homage and loyalty to his august person. Then, as if by way of supplement and addendum, they informed Zeno that they had chosen Flavius Odoacer for their governor, and trusted that their august master would deign to ratify the choice, and confer on Odoacer the title of Patrician.

It has often been repeated of late years that this date, 476 CE, does not form a very notable landmark in the history of the world, that its sole event was the transfer of the nominal supremacy of the Western World from a powerless Caesar who lived at Ravenna to a powerless Caesar who lived at Constantinople. We are reminded that the patrician Odoacer and the deputies of the Roman Senate assured the Eastern Emperor not that they had cast off allegiance to the imperial name, but that Italy no longer needed a separate Augustus, and that a single ruler might once more rule East and West, as in the days of Constantine and Theodosius. And if the representatives of the western realm then proceeded to recommend Zeno to appoint as his vice-regent among them ‘Odoacer, a mighty man of war, and a person well skilled in political matters, whom they had selected to defend their interests,' they were, in truth, making no new or startling proposition; for similar embassies had often arrived at Constantinople to announce, not the choice of a mere patrician, but the election of an independent emperor.

In a purely formal way all this is true enough, and we must concede that the permanent establishment of a Teutonic ruler in Italy as only another instance of what had already occurred in Spain and Africa. As yet nobody in either of the three countries had asserted that the Roman Empire had died out and been replaced for all purposes by a Teutonic Kingship. Documents were still dated and coins still struck with the name of a Roman Emperor upon them alike in Spain, Africa, and Italy. After 476 the subjects of the Visigoth Euric, no less than those of the Scyrrian Odoacer, proceeded to grave a rude portrait of Zeno on their moneys, just as they had done a few years earlier with a rude portrait of Valentinian. What mattered it to them that the one dwelt east of the Adriatic and the other west?

But if the historians of the last century were too neglectful of the constitutional and theoretical aspect of affairs, when they bluntly asserted that the Roman Empire ceased in the West in 476, there is a danger that our own generation may become too much imbued with the formal aspect of things, and too little conscious of the real change which took place in that obscure year. The disappearance of the Roman Empire of the West was, in truth, a long process, which began as early as 411 when Britain, first of all the Occidental ‘dioceses’, was abandoned to the barbarian, and did not, perhaps, end till Francis of Austria laid down the title of Emperor in the year 1806. Yet if we must choose a point at which, rather than at any other, we are to put the breach between the old and the new, if we must select any year as the dividing-line between ancient history and the Middle Ages, it is impossible to choose a better date than 476.

Down to the day on which Flavins Odoacer deposed Augustulus there was always at Rome or Ravenna a prince who represented in clear heritage the imperial succession that descended from Octavian and Trajan and Constantine. His crown might be fragile, his life in constant danger; his word might be less powerful in Italy than that of some barbarian Ricimer or Gundobad who stood behind the throne. Nevertheless, he was brought into real contact with his subjects, and was a visible, tangible personage whose will and character still made some difference in the governance of the state.

The weakest Glycerius or Olybrius never sank into being a mere puppet, like an eighth century King of the Franks, or a seventeenth century Mikado. Moreover, there was till the last a possibility, even, perchance, a probability, that there would arise some strong emperor who would free himself from the power of his German prime minister. Majorian nearly succeeded in doing so; and the stories of the falls of the Goths, Gainas and Aspar, in the East show that such an attempt was not a hopeless undertaking.

But when Odoacer seized the throne from the boy Augustulus, and became with the consent, if not the good-will, of the Constantinopolitan Caesar, the sole representative in the West of the imperial system, a very grave change took place in the status of the empire. Flavins Odoacer was something far more than a patrician ruling as the representative of an absentee emperor. He was not only the successor of Ricimer, but the predecessor of Theodoric and Alboin. For, besides being a Roman official, he was a German King, raised on the shield and hailed as ‘Thiudans’ by the whole Teutonic horde who now represented the old legions of the West. If he never took the title of ‘King of Italy,’ it was because territorial appellations of the kind were not yet known. Euric and Gaiseric, his contemporaries, called themselves Kings of the Visigoths and Vandals, not of Spain and Africa. And so Odoacer being King of a land and an array, but not of a nation, may have been somewhat at a loss how to set forth his royal appellation. He would not have deigned to call himself ‘King of the Italians’; to call himself King of the Scyrri or Turcilingi, or any other of the tribes who furnished part of his host, would have been to assume an inadequate name. Puzzled contemporary chroniclers sometimes called him King of the Goths, though he himself never used such a title.

Still he was a King, and a King with a settled territory and an organized host; not a migratory invader of Italy, as Alaric had been, but a permanent ruler of the land. In this way he was undoubtedly the forerunner of the Ostrogoths and Lombards who took his place, and, though the title would have sounded strange in his own ears, we may fairly style him King of Italy, as we so style Theodoric, or Berengar, or Victor Emmanuel. For it was the will of Odoacer that was obeyed in the land, and not the will of his titular superior at Constantinople. It was Odoacer who appointed taxes and chose officials, and interfered in the election of bishops of Rome, and declared war on the Rugians or the Vandals. In the few documents of his time that have survived, the name of Zeno is seldom mentioned, and in signing grants he styles himself Odovacar Rex, and not Odovacar Patricius, as strict Roman usage should have prescribed. Similarly, an Italian official acknowledges his regia largitas, not his patricia magnitudo. It is, then, in every way correct, as well as convenient, to style him the first German King of Italy, and to treat his reign as the commencement of a new era. If we hesitate to do this, we are logically bound to refuse to recognize the Visigothic or Frankish Kings in Spain and Gaul as independent sovereigns till the middle of the sixth century, and to protract the Roman Empire of the West till Leovigild and Theudebert formally disclaimed the imperial supremacy (540-70).

In the year 476 the greater parts of the lands which had formerly composed the Roman Empire of the West had taken new forms in the shape of six large Teutonic Kingdoms. Italy and Noricum formed the Kingdom of Odoacer; North Africa the dominions of the Vandal Gaiseric. The Visigothic realm of Euric extended from the Loire to the Straits of Gibraltar. King Gundobad the Burgundian occupied the valleys of the Rhone and Saone, as far as their extreme head-waters. The Princes of the Franks reigned on the Meuse, Moselle, and lower Rhine. Last and smallest of the six Teutonic States was the Kingdom of the Suevi in what would now be called north Portugal and Galicia. Interspersed among these German Kingdoms were three or four remnants of the old Roman Empire, which had not yet been submerged by the rising flood of Teutonism, though they were destined to disappear beneath its surface. The province of Britain had become a group of small states of unhappy Celtic Kingdoms, on whose borders the Angle and Saxon had not yet made any appreciable encroachment. Armorica, the modern Brittany, was also a rough confederacy of Celtic states. The Seine valley and the middle Loire formed a Romano-Gallic Kingdom under Syagrius, the last governor who had acknowledged the supremacy of the empire beyond the Alps. The Cantabrians and Basques in their hills above the Bay of Biscay had preserved their independence against the Visigoths, just as their ancestors, five centuries before, had held out against the Roman conquerors of Spain. Lastly, there was still a fragment of territory on the Adriatic which claimed to represent the legitimate Empire of the West. The emperor Julius Nepos, when driven from Rome and Ravenna, had fled to Dalmatia, where he contrived to keep together a small Kingdom around his capital of Salona. Of these five scattered remnants of territory which had not yet fallen into the hands of the Germans, there were two, the Kingdoms of Syagrius and Nepos, which were doomed to a speedy fall; for the other three a longer and more checkered career was reserved.

Around the solid block of land, which had once formed the Western Empire, were lying a ring of German tribes, who had worked forward from the North and East into the deserted dwellings of the races who had already passed on within the Roman border. The Frisians lay about the mouths of the Waal and Lech, north of the land lately won by the Franks.

The Alamanni, a confederacy of Suevian tribes, had possession of the valleys of the Main and Neckar, the Black Forest, and the banks of the upper Danube. East of them again lay the Thuringians and Rugians, in the lands which we should now call northern Bavaria and Bohemia. Beyond them came the Lombards in Moravia and northern Hungary, and the Herules and Gepidae on the middle Danube and the Theiss. All these tribes, like their brethren who had gone before them, were showing a general tendency to press West and South, and take their share in the plunder of the dismembered Empire.

The history of the Teutonic Kingdoms of the later fifth and earlier sixth century falls into two distinct halves. The tale of the doings of Frank, Visigoth, Burgundian, and Suevian in the West forms one. Very slightly connected with it do we find the other, the story of the doings of Odoacer in Italy, and of the Vandal Kings in Africa, whose connections and interests are far more with the Eastern Empire than with the Transalpine Kingdoms. It is with these two states that we shall first have to deal – leaving the discussion of the affairs of the Teutons of Gaul and Spain for another chapter.

Gaiseric, or Genseric as the Romans sometimes called him, first of the Vandal Kings of Africa, was still reigning at Carthage in the year when Odoacer became ruler of Italy. For forty-eight years did this first of the Teutonic sea-Kings bear sway in the land which he had won, and hold the naval supremacy in the central Mediterranean. The creation of the Vandal Kingdom had been one of the most extraordinary feats of the time of the great migrations, and must be attributed entirely to the personal energy of their King. His tribe was one of the least numerous of the many wandering hordes which had trespassed within the bounds of the empire, no more than 80,000 souls, men, women, and children all counted, when they first invaded Vandal Africa. That such a small army should have in Africa, overrun a province a thousand miles long, and should have become the terror of the whole seaboard of the Western Empire was the triumph of Gaiseric's ability. He was not one of the stalwart, hard-fighting, brainless chiefs who were generally to be found at the head of a German horde, but a man of very moderate stature, limping all through his life from a kick that he got from a horse in early youth. His mental powers alone made him formidable, for he was not only a general of note, but a wily politician, faithless not with the light and heady fickleness of a savage, but with the deliberate and malicious treachery of a professional intriguer. He was one of those not uncommon instances of a Teuton, who, when brought into contact with the empire, picked up all the vices of its decaying civilisation without losing those of his original barbarism. It is not without some reason that the doings of Gaiseric have left their mark on the history of language in the shape of the modern word ' Vandalism.' The sufferings of Italy and Africa at his hands were felt more deeply than the woes they had endured at the hands of other invaders, because of the treachery and malice which inspired them. Compared with Gaiseric, Alaric the Goth seemed a model of knightly courtesy, and Attila the Hun a straightforward, if a brutal, enemy. The Vandal King's special foibles were the conclusion of treaties and armistices which he did not intend to keep, and a large piratical disregard for the need of any pretext or justification for his raids, save indeed the single plea that the city or district that he attacked was at that particular moment not in a good position to defend itself.

From his contact with the empire, Gaiseric had picked up the characteristics of the two most odious types of the day – the tax-collector and the persecuting ecclesiastical bigot. There was more systematic financial oppression in Africa than in any of the other new Germanic Kingdoms, and far more spiteful persecution of religious enemies.

The system on which the Vandal organized his realm was not the comparatively merciful 'thirding of the land' that Odoacer and Theodoric introduced into Italy. He confiscated all the large estates of the great African landowners, and turned them into royal domains, worked by his bailiffs. Of the smaller estates, tilled by the provincials who owned them, he made two parts; those in the province of Africa proper and the best of those beyond it, were appropriated and made into Vandal military fiefs for his Teutonic followers. These sortes Vandalorum, as they were called, were hereditary and free from all manner of taxation. The royal revenue was raised entirely from those of the poorer and more remote provincial proprietors, who had not been expropriated, and from them Gaiseric, by pitiless taxation, drew a very large revenue.

But it was for his persecution, far more than his fiscal oppression, that Gaiseric was hated. The Vandals, like most of the other Teutons, had embraced Arianism when they were converted, and Gaiseric – evil as he was – had set his mind on forcing his subjects to conform to the religion of their masters. He confiscated all the Catholic churches in Africa, and either handed them over to the Arians or destroyed them. He forbade the consecration of new Catholic bishops, and banished or imprisoned all whom he found already existing in his dominions. Occasionally he put to death, and frequently he imprisoned or sold as slaves, prominent supporters of the orthodox faith. If martyrdoms were few, 'Dragonnades ' were many, and, by their systematic cruelty, the Vandal King and people have gained for themselves an ill name for ever in the pages of history.

Their hateful oppression of the provincials made the Vandals' power in Africa very precarious. They were far too few for the mighty land they had conquered, even when Gaiseric had attracted adventurers of all sorts to his banner, and had even enlisted the savage Moors of Atlas to serve on his fleet. The fanatical Africans, the race who had produced the turbulent Donatist sectaries and the wild Circumcelliones, were not likely to submit with meekness to their new masters. They only waited for a deliverer in order to rise against the Vandals, and twice, during the reign of Gaiseric, it seemed as if the deliverer were at hand. On each occasion, the Vandal snatched a success by his cunning and promptitude, when all the probabilities of success were against him.

In 460, the Emperor Majorian had collected a fleet of overwhelming strength at Carthagena, and was already gathering the army that was to be conveyed in it. But warned and helped by traitors, Gaiseric came down on the ships before they were manned or equipped, and carried off or burnt them all. In 468, Emperors of East and West, Leo and Anthemius, had joined their forces to crush the nest of pirates at Carthage. They actually sent to Africa an army that is said to have amounted to nearly 100,000 men, and overran the whole country from Tripoli to the gates of Carthage. In the hour of danger Gaiseric's courage and treachery were both conspicuous.

After deluding the imbecile Roman general Basiliscus, by asking and gaining a five days’ truce for settling terms of submission, he sent fire-ships by night against the hostile fleet, and, while the Roman troops were endeavoring to save their vessels, attacked their unguarded camp. After suffering a defeat, the coward Basiliscus drew off his armament, and the Vandal, saved as by a miracle, could breathe again.

The last ten years of Gaiseric's reign were filled with countless pirate raids on Italy and Sicily, unopposed by the five puppet-emperors who ruled at Rome and Ravenna in those evil days. Gaiseric survived the fall of Romulus Augustulus just long enough to enable him to make a treaty with Odoacer. By this agreement the Vandal, always more greedy for money than for land, gave up his not inconsiderable conquests in Sicily in return for an annual payment from the newly-enthroned King of Italy.

Gaiseric died in 477, and with him the greatness of the Vandals, though their Kingdom was to endure fifty years more. He left behind him a fine fleet and a full treasury, and a palace resplendent with the spoils taken at the great sack of Rome in 455. But the dominion of his handful of Vandal followers in Africa was still as precarious as ever; their one security had been the cunning and courage of their aged King, and when he was gone there was no defense left to prevent the Vandal dominion from falling, the moment that it should be attacked. Dreading rebellion among the provincials, Gaiseric had dismantled the walls and gates of every African town save Carthage. One battle lost would place the whole country-side in the hands of an assailant, and at no very distant day the assailant was to come, to avenge the sufferings of three unhappy generations of the oppressed subjects of the Vandals.

Gaiseric was succeeded by his son, Hunneric, a man already Hunneric, advanced in years, who was, like his father, an Arian and a bitter persecutor. He was married to Eudocia, the daughter of the emperor Valentinian III, a prisoner of the sack of Rome in 455. But his wife did not much influence him; he drew from her no tincture of Roman civilization, nor did her persistent orthodoxy wean him from his Arianism. After living with him for sixteen unhappy years and bearing him two sons, she at last contrived to escape secretly from Carthage, fled to Jerusalem, and died there enjoying once more the Catholic communion of which she had been so long deprived.

Hunneric was a tyrant of the worst type. His dealings with his family are a sufficient proof of his character. Gaiseric, to avoid the danger of a minority – a contingency which would have been fatal to his precarious monarchy – had prescribed that each Vandal King should be succeeded, not by his next-of- kin, but by his eldest relative. Such successions were very usual among the Teutonic tribes, though they had never before been formally made into a rule.

Now Hunneric had a grown-up son, Hildecat, whom he destined for his successor; but the prince was, of course, younger than the King's own brothers. Instead of cancelling his father's law, Hunneric set to work to exterminate his brothers, and slew them with all their children, save two youths, the sons of his next brother, Genzo, who saved themselves by timely flight.

During the seven years of his reign (477-484) Hunneric waged no wars; his fleet could no longer prey on the dying carcass of the Western Empire. The two formidable Kingdoms of the Visigoth Euric and the Scyrrian Odoacer could not be ravaged like the realm of a Maximus or a Glycerins. They were left alone, while the energies of Hunneric were devoted to persecution of the Catholics in his own realm. The orthodox declared that he from first to last caused the death of 40,000 persons, a hyperbolical exaggeration which half causes us to doubt the reality of what was in truth a very cruel and severe persecution. Hunneric delighted more in mutilation of hands and eyes and tongues than in death given by the sword and the rope, but there is no doubt that, in a considerable number of cases, he punished Catholics with the extreme penalty.

While Hunneric was thus employed it is not strange to hear that he was vexed by rebellions. The Moors of Mount Atlas rose against him, and, by no means to the grief of the Latin speaking provincials, encroached on the Southern border of the Vandal Kingdom, and pushed their incursions as far as the Mons Aurasius in Numidia. While preparing to attack them the King died, smitten, if the Catholic chroniclers are to be believed, by the same horrid disease which made an end of Herod Agrippa. His eldest and only grown-up son, Hildecat, had died before him, and the Vandals at once placed on the throne Gunthamund, the eldest of his two surviving nephews, a prince who showed great forbearance, when the circumstances are considered, in imprisoning instead of murdering Hunneric's two younger children.

While we turn from the Vandal Kingdom in Africa to the dominions of Odoacer in Italy, we are struck at once by the internal contrast between the methods of government employed in the two countries. While Gaiseric and Hunneric ruled as mere barbarians, and cast away all the ancient Roman machinery of administration, King Odoacer kept up the whole system as he found it. He appointed praetorian prefects and magisiri militum and counts of the sacred largesses, just as the Emperors before him had done. The senate still sat at Rome and passed otiose decrees, the consuls still gave their names to the year. But his great scheme of expropriation, by which one-third of the land of each of the richer proprietors of Italy was confiscated for the benefit of his mercenary troops, must have caused much trouble and heart-burning. It is curious that we find so little complaint made about it in the historians of the time. Probably Odoacer's wisdom in letting the smaller proprietors alone has preserved his name from the abuse which still clings to the reputations of many of the Teutonic conquerors of the empire.

On the whole the provincials of Italy must have felt comparatively little change, when they began to be governed by a barbarian King, instead of by a barbarian patrician, such as Ricimer or Gundobad had been. Odoacer appears to have been one of those wise men who can let well alone. Though an Arian himself, he refrained from all religious persecution; and, if he firmly asserted his right to confirm the election of bishops of Rome, we do not find that he ever forced his own nominees on the clergy and people. Indeed, he was noted as a repressor of the alienation of church lands and of simony.

Odoacer's foreign policy seems to have been limited in its scope to the design of keeping together the old 'Diocese of Italy,' that is, the peninsula with its mainland appendages of Noricum and north Illyria. He ceded to the Visigoth Euric the coastland of Provence, which he had found still in Roman hands, and made no attempt to establish relations with the Romano-Gallic governor Syagrius, who held Mid-Gaul, pressed in between Visigoth and Frank. On the other hand, he pursued a firm policy on his north-east frontier. When Julius Nepos was murdered by rebels in 480, Odoacer at once invaded and subdued the Dalmatian Kingdom, which the ex-emperor had till the last contrived to retain. Further north, in Noricum, the Rugians had for many years been molesting the Roman provincials and pushing across the Danube. Odoacer sent against them his brother Hunwulf, who drove them back over the river, and took prisoner Feva their King. But, when freed for a moment from their Rugian oppressors, the Roman provincials took the opportunity, not of repairing their ruined cities, but of migrating en masse to Italy. Protected by the army of Noricum Hunwulf, the whole population of Noricum, bearing all their goods and chattels, their treasures, and even the exhumed bodies of their saints, poured southward over the Alps, and obtained from Odoacer a settlement on the waste lands of Italy, which the Vandals had ruined. Only in the Rhaetian valleys did some remnants of the Latin-speaking population linger behind. Hence it comes that south Bavaria and archducal Austria are not at this day speaking Roumansh, like the Engadine, but the German tongue of the Rugians and Herules who passed into the deserted province of Noricum, when it was abandoned a few years later by the armies of Odoacer.

For thirteen years, 476-489, the Scyrrian King bore rule over Italy, Noricum, and Dalmatia with very considerable success. As the years rolled on without any disaster, with the army in good temper, and the Italians fairly content at being at last freed from Vandal and Gothic raids, Odoacer must have begun to believe that he had established a Kingdom as well founded as those of his Burgundian or Visigothic neighbors. But there was one fatal weakness in his position: he depended not on the loyalty of a single compact tribe, but on the fidelity of a purely mercenary army, made up of the remnants of a dozen broken Teutonic clans, which looked upon him as a general and a paymaster, and not as a legitimate hereditary prince, descended from the gods and heroes.

The regiments of Foederati, who had proclaimed him King, were in no sense a nation; it would have taken many generations to weld them into one, and the fabric of the new Kingdom was to be tried by the roughest of shocks before it was even half a generation old.

In 489 there came against Odoacer from the Danube and the Illyrian Alps, Theodoric, son of Theodemir, the King of the Ostrogoths, with all the people of his race behind him – a vast host with their wives and children, their slaves and their cattle, blocking all the mountain-passes of the north-east with the twenty thousand ox-wagons that bore their worldly goods.