In 476 Odoacer was appointed Dux Italiae by the
Eastern Roman Emperor, but very soon he ran into conflict with his formal master. After having regained
Sicily from the Vandals, Odoacer expanded his influence over the territories between the Danube
and the Adriatic Sea; these territories (Pannonia and Dalmatia)
belonged to the former Western Roman Empire, but the Eastern Emperor Zeno regarded them as a
natural extension of his provinces in the Balkans.
Zeno had allowed the settlement in Pannonia, today's western Hungary, of the Ostrogoths (eastern Goths), a Germanic tribe which had been forced out of their land by the Huns. In 488 he appointed Patricius Italiae Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, thus inviting him to attack Odoacer. Theodoric, unlike other Germanic leaders, had received a formal education at Constantinople, where he had spent his youth as a hostage; at the imperial court he had acquired military skills and had served as senior officer in the emperor's army.
The Ostrogoths crossed the Alps and soon forced Odoacer to retreat to Ravenna, which was protected by a ring of marshes. The siege of Ravenna lasted three years. Eventually Theodoric convinced Odoacer to surrender by promising him a certain share of power; Theodoric kept his promise for just a few days as very soon during a banquet he personally killed Odoacer.
According to the traditional Germanic rules, the Ostrogoths claimed for themselves one third of the land, but Theodoric managed to contain the resentment of the former Italian landlords by leaving in their hands the administration of the state and by adding to his name that of Flavius, a clear reference to a glorious Roman dynasty.
The kingdom of Theodoric (the Great) can be summarized in the formula two nations, one state: the Goths were Arians, while the Italians followed the Nicene creed, the Goths took care of the military defence of the country, while the Italians retained control of trade and of the economy, both Goths and Italians retained their own laws, for instance those ruling family matters. Notwithstanding these difficulties for at least thirty years Theodoric managed to control the hostility between the two communities: this achievement was helped by his foreign policy: he acquired a prominent position as political and religious leader of the Arian Germanic kingdoms of western Europe and he was therefore able to grant Italy a long period of stability and peace which led to a certain economic recovery.
At the end of his reign quarrels arose with Emperor Justin I, who had oppressed the Arians living in his territories. Theodoric retaliated by persecuting some members of the old Roman aristocracy. At his death in 526, relations between Ostrogoths and Italians had worsened considerably.
S. Pudenziana: mosaic of the apse: detail
We often associate Christian mosaics with a set of isolated characters on a golden or
otherwise uniform background; the early mosaics of S. Pudenziana (Vth century)
show that initially Christian mosaics in Rome continued to follow the naturalistic approach
of classic art and patterns of its iconography: Jesus was
portrayed as an ancient senator wearing a traditional robe; at his left St Paul was crowned
with a laurel in the same way the emperors returning from a victorious campaign were crowned;
each character was given a very distinctive face;
both the portrayal of the characters and the depiction of buildings showed compliance with perspective laws: although the city in the background was supposed
to represent Jerusalem, it actually showed the temples and basilicas of Rome.
The few Goths living in Rome had their own churches: S. Agata dei Goti was one such church: it was dedicated to the saint in 592 when the Arrianorum ecclesia was acquired by Pope Gregory the Great, but its name retained a reference to its former owners.
Athalaric, Theodoric's grandson and heir, was just ten years old when he became king.
He died in 534 without defining a clear line of succession: the contrasts among the Ostrogoths over who should
succeed Athalaric attracted the attention of Justinian, the Eastern Roman Emperor who in 527 had
succeeded his uncle Justin. He thought the time had come to reunify the Roman empire under
a sole emperor and a sole creed.
In 533 Justinian's general Belisarius conquered Carthage and the Kingdom of the Vandals in Africa. From there Belisarius led a relatively small army into Sicily and, having easily conquered the island, he then landed in southern Italy. He captured Rome in 536 and managed to defend the city against the Goths, who on that occasion severely damaged the aqueducts. He then moved northwards and eventually in 540 he took Ravenna. Belisarius was then recalled to Constantinople by Justinian because of threats on the eastern border of the empire; when he returned to Italy in 544, the Ostrogoths had regrouped under the leadership of Totila, who had regained control of northern Italy and seized Rome. Belisarius retook Rome, but without enough troops and supplies he was unable to conclude the war. Justinian replaced Belisarius with Narses who eventually in 555 was able to defeat the Ostrogoths and to restore the imperial rule over the whole of Italy.
(left) SS. Cosma e Damiano; (right) detail of the apse mosaic portraying St Peter, St Cosma and St Theodore
During the Ostrogothic rule some buildings of the Roman Forum were converted into churches:
Amalasuntha, Theodoric's daughter, gave to the Pope a library of Tempio della Pace and the adjoining circular
Tempio di Romolo: the two buildings were united to form a church
dedicated to SS. Cosma e Damiano. Pope Felix IV (526-30) decorated the apse with a
very fine mosaic, which shows the development of new patterns. It is interesting to observe
that St. Peter was portrayed as an ancient Roman senator, while St. Theodore was depicted
as an imperial courtesan wearing an elaborate
silk dress which covered him almost entirely; he also wore socks. Nudity had been a cornerstone
of classic art; this mosaic shows how much things had changed.
The Greek-Gothic war had a very negative impact on the population of Rome: the effects of the war were amplified by a pestilence, known as the plague of Justinian: the initial outbreak most likely originated in Egypt, but it rapidly spread throughout the empire: the plague did not go away for almost two centuries and during this period each generation knew a more or less devastating pestilence.
The Byzantine administration did not have time to prompt the
economic recovery and the re-establishment of trade and communications,
when another misfortune hit Italy.
In 568 new invaders crossed the eastern Alps and rapidly gained control of northern Italy: they were called Longobards, after their long lances (eventually they gave their name to Lombardy, the region around Milan).
Museo dell'Alto Medioevo in Rome: gold decoration of a Longobard saddle found in a grave
Similar to the Ostrogoths, the Longobards came from Pannonia (where they had been
allowed to settle by Emperor Justinian) and they were Arian. Unlike the Ostrogoths, however
they were not familiar with the Roman civilization and did not have enough military strength
and skills to complete their conquest of Italy. The Byzantines, who could rely on a strong
fleet, retained control of a coastal strip both along the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian seas.
The Longobards did not have a centralized government structure and their kings had only a nominal power over the local dukes (the country was divided into 36 duchies): the unity of Italy was broken and never restored for the following thirteen centuries. The Longobards never captured Rome, but they raided its countryside in 579 contributing to its impoverishment and final abandonment.
S. Gregorio Magno al Celio: fresco (attributed to Pomarancio) portraying the vision of St. Gregory the Great
The gloomy events of the VIth century were in part enlightened by the action of St. Benedict,
the founder of western monasticism, who lived and preached in Rome in S. Benedetto in Piscinula and
founded important monasteries in Subiaco.
His motto Ora et labora (pray and work) led his followers to become involved in farming and
in preserving the ancient scientific knowledge.
In 590 a Benedictine monk became pope. Gregory I (St. Gregory the Great), had also a civilian background and had spent six years in Constantinople as representative of his predecessor Pelagius II.
The winter of 590 had hit Rome in three ways: a flood, a famine and a pestilence: Pope Gregory was leading a procession to S. Pietro, when, above the fortified tower, which once had been Hadrian's Mausoleum, he saw an angel unsheathing his sword, a sign that the pestilence was coming to an end.
Pope Gregory realized that Rome could get little help from the Exarch, the Byzantine governor of Italy who resided in Ravenna, and he almost took into his own hands the administration of Rome. In 593 the Longobards reached again the gates of Rome and according to the tradition Gregory confronted the Longobard king Agilulf on St. Peter's steps and convinced him to retreat. As a matter of fact it is more likely that Gregory, who belonged to a wealthy family, paid for the siege to be ended.
With the help of Theodolinda, wife of two consecutive Longobard kings, Gregory favoured the conversion to the Nicene Creed of prominent members of the Longobard aristocracy. Historians see this and other actions by Gregory, such as his role in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons kingdom, as the first signs of the future role of the popes as Western Patriarchs, a title that Pope Benedict XVI has chosen to give up due to political sensitivities.
The remaining Byzantine possessions in continental Italy were placed under an Exarch, a
governor appointed by the Emperor, who resided in Ravenna; Rome was placed under a dux, who reported
to the Exarch and who resided in the surviving buildings of the former
The Longobards had established a strong duchy at Spoleto in central Italy, and they easily cut communications between Ravenna and Rome when their relations with the Byzantines were tense (which was the usual situation). The Longobards controlled most of the inland territories of southern Italy through their Duchy of Benevento. The presence and the action of the dux must have had some periods of interruption, during which the popes had to act in his place by taking care of the administration of Rome. Notwithstanding Rome's historical relevance, the ruling Byzantine emperors treated it as a remote province of their empire.
Justinian's dream of restoring the ancient Roman empire was abandoned by his successors who had great difficulties in containing the threats posed by nomadic tribes such as the Avars in the Balkans and by the Sassanids in the Near East.
The final move away from the Roman empire was sanctioned by Emperor Heraclius (610-41) who dropped the Roman title of Augustus in favor of the Greek Basileus (king) and who replaced Latin as the empire's official language with Greek. Heraclius engaged in a long war with the Sassanids who had occupied Syria, Palestine and Egypt and was able to drive them off and eventually he defeated them in 627 in their own territory. But the long war had so much weakened both the Byzantines and the Sassanids that a few years later they were not able to resist the Arabs, who by 642 occupied Mesopotamia and most of Persia, as well as Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
During the Byzantine administration because the dux and a certain number of other
Byzantine officers resided in the imperial palace, the Roman Forum retained its role of
city centre. The various Byzantine emperors were celebrated by changing inscriptions on existing
monuments or statues. Colonna di Foca was a column taken from a fallen
building and placed on a base to celebrate Emperor Phocas (602-610). The main church used by the Byzantine officers and their families
was dedicated to the Virgin - Santa Maria (Antiqua/Liberatrice) - and it was built by enlarging an existing vestibule placed at the
beginning of the steps leading to the imperial palace. In 625 Curia Julia, the hall which housed
the Senate's meetings, was turned into a church dedicated to S. Adriano and an adjoining building
became a chapel dedicated to S. Martina.
A ring of churches contoured the western flank of the Palatine: S. Giorgio al Velabro, S. Anastasia and S. Maria in Cosmedin.
While in the eastern provinces of the empire the cult of the saints (at that time mainly martyrs killed during the persecutions) was subject to criticism, in Rome, where so many martyrs had lost their lives, many churches were dedicated to them.
The saints were also celebrated by honouring their relics (on a few occasions their entire bodies, more often fragments of their bones); the reliquary of S. Anastasia has relics of more than twenty saints: they are kept in containers which have the shape of the part of the body from which the fragments were taken.
The cult of the saints had a great importance in favouring the acceptance of the Christian faith in a city which for centuries had had a religion based on a variety of deities, each of whom presided over a sacred location or an activity.
Depending on their background, the martyrs were regarded as patrons of the various craftsmen and some of them, depending on aspects of their martyrdom, were regarded as having a role in fostering the recovery from specific diseases.
In the following centuries the town-states which arose in many parts of Italy placed themselves under the protection of a saint; in their frequent naval battles, the Venetians shouted San Marco, the Genoese replied San Giorgio and then they gladly slaughtered each other.
At the time of Justinian the emperor was the de facto head of the Church: the appointment of bishops (and even of the four great patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople,
Alexandria) by the local clergy
had to be endorsed by the emperor.
Justinian himself convened an ecumenical council in Constantinople to condemn
new Arian, Nestorian, and Monophysite writings, which he regarded as dangerous for the religious unity
of the empire. The pope, as the bishop of Rome was called, was regarded by the emperor as
having a supremacy among the patriarchs, but this privilege was easily withdrawn when the pope's views
did not meet the emperor's wishes.
For this reason some popes were deposed, imprisoned, exiled and even killed by the Byzantine emperors.
The decline of the Byzantine empire and its inability to effectively protect Rome gradually led the popes to take a greater role in the government of Rome, regardless of their religious views and of their country of origin. Egypt had fallen into Arab hands in 642; the Arabs continued their move westwards and in 698 they conquered Carthage, thus cutting trade routes between Rome and northern Africa through which Rome received most of its grain supplies. After having vainly called for Byzantine help, the popes felt they had to find alternative sources of supply and they developed direct "diplomatic" relationships with the Germanic kingdoms of western Europe.
S. Clemente: details of the "transennae"
In 663 Emperor Constans II visited Rome for twelve days: it was a short but rather rapacious visit
as he ordered the shipment to Constantinople of the bronze tiles of the Pantheon (which in 608 had been converted into a church); the bronze tiles never reached Constantinople, as they ended up in Arab hands. Constans was welcomed by the pope, but he reaffirmed the emperor's role establishing
that the pope should report to the Patriarch of Ravenna, as that city was the seat of his exarch.
Works of art had travelled the other way round (from Constantinople to Rome) when Pope John II (533-35) embellished S. Clemente with elegant "transennae" forming a parapet separating the altar from the nave. They came from Constantinople where they were developed as a form of elegant decoration which refrained from all references not only to animal life, but even to the vegetable world: the letters of the pope's name (JOHANNES) were used to decorate some "transennae" in what can be regarded as an anticipation of the Muslim calligraphic art (for another example of "transenna" see a basilica built by Justinian in Ephesus). The image used as a background for this page shows a detail of another "transenna" in S. Clemente.
During the VIIth century the Longobards slightly expanded their influence in Italy by conquering Genoa
and the Italian Riviera, but they
were unable to unify the territories under their rule into a strong kingdom.
At the beginning of the VIIIth century the strong leadership of King Liutprand (712-744) concurrent with a grave religious dispute caused by Emperor Leo III, helped the Longobards in the conquest of Ravenna and of all the Byzantine territories in northern Italy. In 718 Leo III managed to resist an Arab siege of Constantinople and in 726 he faced another Arab invasion of the Byzantine territories: the fight between the Byzantines and the Arabs had clear religious connotations: the invaders claimed that the original Christian monotheism had been turned into a pagan idolatry and cited the worship of images as supporting evidence of their claim. In 727 Leo III thought that he would deprive the Arabs of this argument by prohibiting paintings and statues inside religious buildings (iconoclasm). In Italy Leo's edict was immediately opposed by Pope Gregory II and revolts broke out in Ravenna and other towns in the Byzantine territories. The Longobards, who had abandoned the Arian creed, profited from the unrest and King Liutprand invaded the Byzantine possessions and easily occupied them from Bologna to Ancona, with the sole exception of Ravenna (which eventually capitulated in 737).
Liutprand advanced towards Rome but at Sutri he was met by Pope Gregory II who convinced him to withdraw his troops: in this context the king donated to the pope the town of Sutri and other nearby castles which were eventually called Patrimonium Petri and became the first territory under the formal rule of the pope.
A few years later the donation of Sutri was felt to be an inappropriate basis on which to justify the temporal (related to worldly matters) power of the popes and a forged document (Donation of Constantine) claimed that Emperor Constantine had donated to Pope Sylvester I the city of Rome and the entire Western Roman Empire.
The Arab invasion of Palestine and Syria forced some
communities of monks to seek refuge in Rome where they founded the monasteries
of S. Saba and SS. Vincenzo e Anastasio alle Tre Fontane, thus
increasing the importance of eastern culture in Rome. Between 685 and 752 eight out of ten popes
were either of Greek or of Syrian origin.
The worship of images continued to produce fine mosaics: Pope John VII (705-07) commissioned for S. Pietro a cycle of mosaics of which only one has survived (now in S. Maria in Cosmedin): it shows a skilled knowledge of this technique while a relief (S. Saba), which is attributed approximately to the same period, documents the dramatic loss of expertise in a field where Rome had excelled. The relief is a rare case of a Roman early medieval work of art not portraying a religious subject.
The following external links show works of art portraying characters and events
mentioned in this page:
Justinian and his court mosaic in S. Vitale - Ravenna.
St. Gregory the Great by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) in S. Maria in Vallicella.
Theodolinda crowns her second husband - XIXth century engraving.
The Donation of Constantine by Giovanni Francesco Penni (1496-1528) in Sala di Costantino - Vatican City.
Next page: Part II: Medieval Rome
II - The Iron Age of Rome
Previous pages: Part I: Ancient Rome:
I - The Foundation and the Early Days of Rome
II - The Early Republican Period
III - The Romans Meet the Elephants
IV - Expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea
V - Pompey and Caesar
VI - Augustus
VII - From Tiberius to Nero
VIII - The Flavian Dynasty
IX - From Nerva to Marcus Aurelius
X - A Century of Turmoil (180-285)
XI - From Diocletian to Constantine
XII - The End of Ancient Rome