1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Italian History - Gothic and Lombard Kingdoms

(Part 31)


Italian History - Gothic and Lombard Kingdoms

In 488 Theodoric, king of the East Goths, received commission from the Greek emperor, Zeno, to undertake the affairs of Italy. He defeated Odovakar, drove him to Ravenna, besieged him there, and in 493 completed the conquest of the country by murdering the Herulian chief with his own hand. Theodoric respected the Roman institutions which he found in Italy, held the Eternal City sacred, and governed by ministers chosen from the Roman population. He settled at Ravenna, which had been the capital of Italy since the days of Honorius, and which still testifies by its monuments to the Gothic chieftain's Romanizing policy. Those who believe that the Italians would have gained strength by unification in a single monarchy must regret that this Gothic kingdom lacked the elements of stability. The Goths, except in the valley of the Po, resembled an army of occupation rather than a people numerous enough to blend with the Italic stock. Though their rule was favourable to the Romans, they were Arians ; and religious differences, combined with the pride and jealousies of a nation accustomed to imperial honours, rendered the inhabitants of Italy eager to throw off their yoke. When, therefore, Justinian undertook the reconquest of Italy, his generals, Belisarius and Narses, were supported by the south. The struggle of the Greeks and the Goths was carried on for fourteen years, between 539 and 553, when Teia, the last Gothic king, was finally defeated in a bloody battle near Vesuvius. At its close the provinces of Italy were placed beneath Greek dukes, controlled by a governor-general, entitled exarch, who ruled in the Byzantine emperor's name at Ravenna.

This new settlement lasted but a few years. Narses had employed Lombard auxiliaries in his campaigns against the Goths ; and when he was recalled by an insulting message from the empress in 565, he is said to have invited this fiercest and rudest of the Teutonic clans to seize the spoils of Italy. Be this as it may, the Lombards, their ranks swelled by the Gepidae, whom they had lately conquered, and by the wrecks of other barbarian tribes, passed south-ward under their king Alboin in 568. The Herulian invaders had been but a band of adventurers ; the Goths were an army; the Lombards, far more formidable, were a nation in movement. Pavia offered stubborn resistance ; but after a three years' siege it was taken, and Alboin made it the capital of his new kingdom.

In order to understand the future history of Italy, it is necessary to form a clear conception of the method pursued by the Lombards in their conquest. Penetrating the peninsula, and advancing like a glacier or half-liquid stream of mud, they occupied the valley of the Po, and moved slowly downward through the centre of the country. Numerous as they were compared with their Gothic predecessors, they had not strength or multitude enough to occupy the whole peninsula. Venice, which since the days of Attila had offered an asylum to Roman refugees from the northern cities, was left untouched. So was Genoa with its Riviera. Ravenna, entrenched within her lagoons, remained a Greek city. Rome, protected by invincible prestige, escaped. The sea-coast cities of the south, and the islands, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, preserved their independence. Thus the Lombards neither occupied the extremities nor subjugated the brain-centre of the country. The strength of Alboin's kingdom was in the north; his capital, Pavia. As his people pressed south-ward, they omitted to possess themselves of the coasts; and what was worse for the future of these conquerors, the original impetus of the invasion was checked by the untimely murder of Alboin in 573. After this event, the semi-independent chiefs of the Lombard tribe, who borrowed the title of dukes from their Roman predecessors, seem to have been contented with consolidating their power in the districts each had occupied. The duchies of Spoleto in the centre, and of Benevento in the south, inserted wedge-like into the middle of the peninsula, and enclosing independent Rome, were but loosely united to the kingdom at Pavia. Italy was broken up into districts, each offering points for attack from without, and fostering the seeds of internal revolution. Three separate capitals must be discriminated—Pavia, the seat of the new Lombard kingdom ; Ravenna, the garrison city of the Byzantine emperor; and Rome, the rallying point of the old nation, where the successor of St Peter was already beginning to assume that national protectorate which proved so influential in the future.

It is not necessary to write the history of the Lombard kingdom in detail. Suffice it to say that the rule of the Lombards proved at first far more oppressive to the native population, and was less intelligent of their old customs, than that of the Goths had been. Wherever the Lombards had the upper hand, they placed the country under military rule, resembling in its general character what we now know as the feudal system. Though there is reason to suppose that the Roman laws were still administered within the cities, yet the Lombard code was that of the kingdom ; and the Lombards being Arians, they added the oppression of religious intolerance to that of martial despotism and barbarous cupidity. The Italians were reduced to the last extremity when Gregory the Great (590-604), having strengthened his position by diplomatic relations with the duchy of Spoleto, and brought about the conversion of the Lombards to orthodoxy, raised the cause of the remaining Roman population throughout Italy. The fruit of his policy, which made of Rome a counterpoise against the effete empire of the Greeks upon the one hand and against the pressure of the feudal kingdom on the other, was seen in the succeeding century. When Leo the Isaurian published his decrees against the worship of images in 726, Gregory II. allied himself with Liudprand, the Lombard king, threw off allegiance to Byzantium, and established the autonomy of Rome. This pope initiated the dangerous policy of playing one hostile force off against another with a view to securing independence. He used the Lombards in his struggle with the Greeks, leaving to his successors the duty of checking these unnatural allies. This was accomplished by calling the Franks in against the Lombards. Liudprand pressed hard, not only upon the Greek dominions of the exarchate, but also upon Rome. His successors, Rachis and Astolf, attempted to follow the same game of conquest. But the popes, Gregory III., Zachary, and Stephen II., determining at any cost to espouse the national cause and to aggrandize their own office, continued to rely upon the Franks. Pippin twice crossed the Alps, and forced Astolf to relinquish his acquisitions, including Ravenna, Pentapolis, the coast towns of Romagna, and some cities in the duchy of Spoleto. These he handed over to the pope of Rome. This donation of Pippin in 756 confirmed the papal see in the protectorate of the Italic party, and conferred upon it sovereign rights. The virtual outcome of the contest carried on by Rome since the year 726 with Byzantium and Pavia was to place the popes in the position held by the Greek exarch, and to confirm the limitation of the Lombard kingdom. We must, however, be cautious to remember that the south of Italy was comparatively unaffected. The dukes of the Greek empire and the Lombard dukes of Benevento, together with a few autonomous commercial cities, still divided Italy below the Campagna of Rome.

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