An Age goes Dark

It’s hard focusing on writing today.

Somehow I need to find the motivation to write about a Christian author, watching his society crumble around him into chaos and barbarism, as he tries t chart a course for the intellectual and spiritual development of those who would come after to kindle lights in the darkness.

If only this historical stuff were relevant to the modern situation…

In any case, here’s a historical section on the falling of a dark age from the start of chapter 3:


Historians like the term “Dark Ages” even less than they like the term “Middle Ages.” Both of these terms were invented as value judgments so that writers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment could look down on the age that came before them and that separated them from the luster of Classical Antiquity. Conventionally speaking, the term “Dark Ages” usually gets applied to the general time period that we’re looking at. One end of the period is bounded by the loss of central authority in the Roman West at some point in the fifth century (usually referred to as the Fall of Rome); the other end is conveniently anchored by the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The term “Early Medieval” is a better way to refer to this span of time because, even though the word “medieval” is simply a Latin translation of “middle ages” it does not carry the same overt value judgment with it. Migration Period is another term for the fourth through the eight century that focuses on the mass movements of tribal peoples around and into Europe, basing the title on a description of events.

All that having been said, there are some times and places that have earned the label “Dark Age” due to the amount of destruction, devastation, and death focused in a particular place at a particular time. By any reckoning the Italian sixth century earns that label due to the amount of mayhem and human misery that occurred there. If the four horsemen of the apocalypse are rightly reckoned as War, Famine, Plague, and Death, all four were certainly present then.

The fifth century had opened with a massive influx of barbarians across the Rhine River, and an angry federate army led by Alaric sacking Rome as recompense for a slaughter of thousands of Gothic hostages—mostly women and children—by Roman mobs. The mobs had themselves been angered by the apparent inaction of the army against a large Gothic force lead by Radagaisus plundering Northern Italy. Thus, the barbarian sack of Rome in 410 was more about an epic failure of internal affairs than the usual conventional construction of barbarians hating civilization. By the mid-fifth century, the power of the Western Roman Empire was largely limited to Italy itself as migrating tribes took over Spain, Roman Gaul, and tribes clashed with the Eastern Roman Empire in the Balkans and Greece. The capital of the West had been moved out of Rome to the more defensible Ravenna and by the end of the fifth century Rome was but a pale shadow of itself; it had started the fifth century with a population around 800,000 souls and ended it with a count somewhere around 100,000. That’s the numerical equivalent of the population of San Francisco dropping to that of Billings, Montana over the course of a century.

A turning point that set up the horrors of the sixth century was the deposition of the last Emperor of the West in 476 by Odoacer. To call the deposed Romulus August the last Roman emperor of the West would be a little misleading if by “Roman” we mean born of Italian stock; that ship had sailed as early as ad 193 when the Lybian-born Septimius Severus had emerged victorious from the disaster of succession known to history as the Year of Five Emperors. From that point on, the emperors tended to be descended from North African or Syrian stock until the rise of powers in Pannonia and Moesia, the provinces on the Danube that were a hotbed of motion as tribes from Asia moved into Europe and North European tribes migrated into Southern Europe.

However, in 476 Odoacer did something different and proclaimed himself king (rex) rather than emperor. The Roman Senate at his behest sent the imperial regalia back to Zeno, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople, requesting that the Empire be unified and that Odoacer be formally recognized as the Empire’s regent in the West. Zeno, despite his Greek name, was himself a borderland barbarian of the Isuarian people; he recognized Odoacer, but never trusted him. Zeno had his own Gothic problem as two warlords named Theoderic warred against each other and him in the East. However, after Theoderic the Amal came out victorious, Zeno persuaded him that his true future lay in the West. Agreeing, Theoderic swept into Italy and in 493 personally killed Odoacer at a banquet that was supposed to have celebrated a peace treaty between the two.

Despite this rocky start, the rise of Theoderic the Amal was a bright spot in an otherwise troublesome time, and earned himself the name “Theoderic the Great.” Theoderic inherited an Italy that had suffered decades of invasion and depredation, but which still had a Roman bureaucratic system intact. As he settled into his new position, three different groups emerged as power players in the new order. The first group was, clearly, the barbarian might of the military. The Gothic nobility retained control of the military. Then there was the old aristocracy of Rome. Most of the senatorial families had either died out or fled and in the sixth century there were two great clans, the Decii and the Anici, who wielded the ancient authority of the Roman Senate. The third group were provincial nobles, large landholders outside of Rome some of whom who had come into Italy relatively recently and were disdained as nouveau riche newcomers by the ancient Roman clans. Theoderic gave these provincial nobles important places in his Ravenna-centered government, giving himself leverage against the old Roman aristocracy by playing the two off against one another and these two against the Gothic military.

The delicate balancing act was disrupted by events in the East. Zeno had died and on the death of his successor the imperial purple was seized by Justin, a career military man who had started life as a Thracian swineherd. But he was old and power quickly passed to his nephew Justinian. An ambitious man, Justinian—the last Latin-speaking Emperor of the East—proclaimed his presence on the world stage as a recovery of Romanitas. At his direction, his skillful generals Belisarius and Narses began great campaigns against the Persians and Vandal-held North Africa, seeking to recapture what Justinian considered the proper extent of the Roman Empire. The senators of Rome began casting hopeful eyes East and, whether warranted or not, two top Western administrative officials lost their heads when Theoderic suspected them of plotting with the East.

The final nail in the coffin was the Gothic succession. Theoderic’s only legitimate daughter Amalasuntha was married to the Visigoth Eutharic who was proclaimed Theoderic’s successor. But disaster struck with his death in 522. His young son was named heir in 526—the year of Theoderic’s death—and he ascended the throne with his mother as regent. However, Athalaric proved unfit and died young, prompting a traitorous cousin Theodahad to imprison the queen mother, murder her, and declare himself king in 535. These instabilities provided the perfect pretext for Justinian and he commanded his best general, Belisarius, to recapture Rome from the barbarians.

The stage was now set, and hell itself was unleashed upon Italy.

For the next five years, armies trampled the length of Italy, killing, burning, and pillaging. Two different Eastern armies were in the field against the Gothic forces while forces of Franks and Burgundians intermittently popped over the Alps to aid one side or the other, each time sating their own appetites for plunder. Several Gothic kings rose and fell over the course of the war until Ravenna, the Gothic capital in the north fell to Belisarius in 540. The Gothic king, Witiges, and his immediate court were sent to Constantinople where he died shortly thereafter.

Wars bring famine. Growing fields are trampled by marching boots and drenched in blood, supplies are horded, stolen, or burned as armies seek to feed themselves and deny food to their enemies. The peasantry is conscripted as cannon fodder and put to the sword. War on its own is bad enough. But a strange weather event—likely caused by the eruption of one or more volcanoes in the Americas—devastated harvests across the globe in 536. Procopius, the Eastern chronicler of the Gothic Wars, recounts that the sun’s brightness was dimmed and it seemed like a constant state of eclipse. Irish chronicles report failure of the harvests from 536 until 539. Chinese chronicles report not only crop failures but snow falling in August. In Italy, food already scarce thanks to continuing violence became ever more scarce. But worse even than the famine was a virulence somehow aided by the unseasonal weather.

As the Eastern reconquest of Italy seemed complete, the situation destabilized further. Plague swept across the known world in a toxic wave. Starting from rats in China, the first recorded transcontinental pandemic swept across the Eurasian continent initially killing somewhere around 25 million people, roughly 13% of the global population. Constantinople was hammered, and Justinian himself fell ill but recovered. The bacterial culprit, Yersina pestis, is the very same bug responsible for the Black Death in fourteenth century Europe and the English Plague Year of 1666. Just as the Black Death upended European society and set a new course for the Late Middle Ages, so the Plague of Justinian (as it came to be known) caused similar repercussions across the Early Medieval world.

The plague swept through Italy in 542; the Eastern armies were hit hard. This event, combined with renewed hostilities with Persians on their Eastern borders drawing off troops and generals, inspired a Gothic revolt. The war in Italy rekindled and would continue to burn for another twelve years. Eastern armies returned to tramp the length of Italy, devastation reigned unchecked, and the Italian aristocracy largely fled to Constantinople for safety. Finally, in 554 Justinian issued his Pragmatic Sanction restoring lands in Italy to the Roman aristocracy displacing barbarian landholders, and in 555 the final fighting force of Goths surrendered.

At one point in the renewed fighting, during a Gothic recapture of the city, Procopius gives us another glimpse of the population of Rome: “Among the common people, however, it so fell out that only five hundred men were left in the whole city, and these with difficulty found refuge in sanctuaries. The rest of the population was gone, some having departed to other lands and some having been carried off by the famine, as I explained” (Procopius, Wars 7.20.19-20). That’s a drop from 800,000 people in the fourth century to 500 in the middle of the sixth century.

Italy was once again in Roman hands. The Empire, though now securely centered in the East, once more claimed Rome, its ancestral home. But at what a cost! The death toll has been estimated to be as high as five million souls. In terms of resources, one estimate puts the cost of the war on the Eastern treasury at 300,000 pounds of gold. James O’Donnell offers a look at the financial cost from another direction: Justinian inherited a treasury containing 28 million solidi; his wars cost about 36 million solidi with 21.5 million of that going to the war in Italy. Indeed, the final two years cost roughly half of the full amount. And this account doesn’t even factor in his spending on building campaigns back in Constantinople. Since, in a good year the Empire would bring in 5 million solidi, his warlike pretensions left the East deeply in debt. A veritable fortune in finances but even more so in human lives was squandered in this largely symbolic recapturing of the Roman homeland. And the last indignity was yet to be suffered.

Only three years after the death of Justinian, in 568, the Germanic Lombards moved south en masse and stripped Italy from its nominally Roman masters. A new flood of pillaging and killing undid any reconstruction since the end of the Gothic War. While Eastern control would linger in some regions for hundreds of years, the Lombard conquest permanently finished the Eastern dream of a renewed Roman Empire around the Mediterranean basin. Weakened by fighting in Italy and by ravages on its northern and eastern borders by barbarians and Persians alike, the Eastern Empire never attempted to retake Italy and focused on its own survival.

Truly, the Italian sixth century deserves the label of “Dark Age” as misery upon misery swept through the peninsula.

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