Sunday, October 19, 2008
The sixth century saw major invasions from western Russia and from the steppes further east. About 550, the nomad horsemen known as the Avars appeared in the Caucasus and, with the encouragement of the Byzantine emperor, began to attack the peoples of the Black Sea coasts. They quickly moved westward and in the 560s reached the middle Danube, filling the void left by the dispersal of the Gepids. When the Lombards moved south into Italy, the Avars had a free hand to enlarge their sphere of operations and they quickly dominated the middle Danube region, even extending north into the Elbe basin. The power of the Avars was to endure into the early seventh century, but the rising power of the day, the Slavs, was to replace them as the dominant force in east and central Europe.
The origins of the Slavs are shrouded in uncertainty, made all the more impenetrable by modern interpretations which owe more to political ideology than to dispassionate scholarship. Earlier notions of a Slav genesis within a limited area have now been generally abandoned, though they are still made to appear in some accounts fully formed from the Pripyet Marshes. More plausibly, the Slavs, the Sclaveni of Byzantine sources, were an amalgam of cultural groups based between the Dnestr and Dnepr in the east and the Vistula and Oder in the west during the late fifth and earlier sixth centuries. They certainly had links with the Baltic peoples to the north and various Germanic groups to the west. Their movement westward and southward was facilitated by the advance of Germanic peoples into the Danube lands. Within a short time of their recognition in our written sources, Slav settlers had entered Bohemia, passed from there down the Elbe valley, extended north into Poland and eastern Germany, and south into the Balkans by way of Bulgaria. Further expansion into western Europe seemed inevitable, but the Frankish advance east of the Rhine brought it to a stop. The Slavs did hold on to the northern Balkans, though their occupation of Greece was ended by the Byzantines in the ninth century. So widespread a dispersal of population inevitably ended in the emergence of numerous Slav states rather than the more unified powers of Germanic Europe.
Among the most shadowy of the migrant peoples were the Gepids, not least because they failed to achieve a permanent settlement either within or outside the Empire. They were early associated with the Goths and may have had similarly mixed origins. They failed to take possession of land in Dacia when it was given up by Rome, and later settled north of that province, to the east of the river Tisza, and remained there until made subject to the Ostrogoths in the fifth century. Their fighting strength was later placed at the disposal of the Huns, the Gepids being close allies of Attila in his invasions of the Balkans and Gaul. But after Attila’s death they took a leading part in the revolt against his successors, which broke up the Hun Empire. They briefly took hold of the Carpathian basin, but their old opponents the Ostrogoths ejected them and thereafter they failed to find a secure home. The rise of Lombard power in Pannonia was their final undoing. The Gepids were driven out and dispersed after 540; those who hung on were subdued by the invading Avars twenty years later. After that, their name survived but the people disappeared.
The Langobardi or Lombards had long occupied the lower and middle Elbe valley, but had played relatively little part in the invasions of the Roman world before the fifth century. In the 480s, they moved south into northern Austria, and a generation later crossed the Danube to settle in Pannonia, there to become a force to be reckoned with. Under their king Wacho early in the sixth century they maintained friendly relations with Byzantium and with the Franks by means of diplomatic marriages with the royal house. In 552 a Lombard force took part in the last Byzantine campaign against the Goths in Italy. The attractions of the peninsula were not lost on them and at the same time their home in Pannonia was increasingly exposed to the Avars. The new Lombard king, Alboin, decided that the future for his people lay in Italy. In 568 he led a large army towards the Adriatic, drawing in not only Lombards, but also Pannonians, Noricans, Sarmatians, Gepids, and even Bulgars. Behind them, the Avars swept into Pannonia and the Slavs into the northern Balkans. The Lombard army enjoyed a swift success in northern Italy. Within a year many ofthe northern cities were in their hands, along with much of the fertile valley of the Po. The Byzantines and their allies hung on with difficulty to a dwindling number of strongholds, but the Lombards were confident enough to leave them and continue their advance southward, into Tuscany and later to Rome. The land of Italy still offered considerable riches to an invader. The cities made desirable bases for their leaders and there were still productive estates to be plundered. The Lombards had not entered Italy under -the terms of a foedus but as invaders, and for thirty years they behaved accordingly. No regular system of government was instituted in place of that which they had themselves destroyed. Lombard administration was itself quickly devolved upon a number of military leaders or duces, Alboin and his successor being murdered only a few years after the invasion. The central monarchy was restored in 584, but the military organization of the conquerors remained in place as the administrative framework of the kingdom. The Roman landed order had been largely destroyed and its territory taken by the new masters of Italy. This was much more of a Germanic kingdom than that over which Theoderic had ruled.
The re-establishment of the monarchy led to the consolidation of Lombard power in the north and its extension southward. The principal areas of Lombard settlement, as revealed by cemeteries and place-names, lay north of the river Po, between Piedmont and Friuli. South of the great valley the cemeteries extend thinly to the Romagna hills, but hardly beyond. Some of these can be related to seventh-century land-taking. This is true of the two large cemeteries of Nocera Umbra and Castel Trosino in the duchy of Spoleto. Both were associated with hilltop strongholds in commanding positions. Nocera Umbra contains the graves of several warriors of high rank, charged with the task of guarding the road which linked Ravenna and Rome. Castel Trosino presents a picture of a more mixed community, one in which women’s jewellery was recognizably influenced by contemporary Roman and Byzantine fashion. Even in the seventh century barbarians could not escape all influence from Rome.
In the north of Italy several old cities played a significant part in the Lombard kingdom. One of these was Cividale in the north-east, a small town but a favoured early centre. One of the cemeteries outside the town contains graves of men and women who almost certainly took part in the invasion of 568. Another, at the Church of San Stephano, was used as a burial place by a noble Lombard family about 600, by which time they had apparently embraced the Christian faith. There were other noble burials within the walls of Cividale, including one within a church which was probably the grave of a military leader. This kind of noble interment must also be expected at cities like Milan, Verona, and Brescia.
Relations between the Lombards and the Italian population are a complex and much-debated matter. The Roman population of Italy has little voice in the records of the period, but it was clearly not exterminated nor expelled. In the areas under direct Lombard control there appears to have been a fairly effective mingling of barbarian and Roman, which shows itself occasionally in the products of craftsmen and in loan-words. Many of the Lombard loan-words in Italian are of rather humdrum things, while the Lombards seem to have given up their own language by the end of the seventh century, suggesting a fairly rapid integration with the surviving provincials. Lombard nobles who had their seats in the old cities of Italy can hardly have avoided association with the remaining Roman families, even if they wanted to. The Elbe valley, if it was remembered at all, must have seemed a long way off