ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Sixth Century

Section 2: Government and Society in the Old Roman World, A.D. 500-530

Steven Muhlberger

The foundation of the Roman empire and the ancient Mediterranean economy was a network of cities and towns, each of which had been the capital of a rural district, whose economic life supported the town and was directed by officials and landowners who lived in the town. During the imperial period, the cities had become as dependent on imperial patronage as the empire was on control of towns. Indeed, on the borders, the cities had from the beginning owed their entire existence to the empire. They were built because they were needed by the Mediterranean economy or by a political system based in the Mediterranean.

The decline of the empire seen in the last chapter thus had a direct effect on towns in much of western Europe. The new rulers, less powerful than their predecessors, had a more difficult time collecting the old taxes, especially the crucial land tax. This was a relief for the taxpayer, perhaps especially for the rich landowner; but the unanticipated result was a deterioration of the political position of the town. Towns that were no longer collecting tribute for rulers, and no longer receiving privileges and gifts from them, lost much of their reason to be. And where towns diminished, so did the distinctive urban culture rooted in the pagan Mediterranean. A dramatic example is Trier, in the Rhineland. During the fourth century it had been an imperial capital and the largest city in Gaul. Even then, with no more than 30,000 people, Trier was only about the size of a county seat in Egypt; but it had all the amenities of urbanity, paid for out of the profits of empire. In A.D. 500, Trier, now just a provincial town under Frankish rule, had lost most of its population and could no longer support something as basic as a local pottery industry. Of its public buildings, only its churches remained in use.

The urban decline was most marked in Britain. British towns had been so tied into the taxation system of the empire that they had disappeared or shrunk into mere strongholds by 450, even before the wars between Britons and English invaders were well started. Gildas, a British preacher who denounced the rulers of the British west about 550, depicts them as minor warlords whose power was restricted to small areas and dependent on their ruthlessness and their personal retinues of warriors. Farther east, English kings lorded over equally small areas, and like the British kings must have depended on plunder and extorting contributions directly from rural taxpayers. The governmental structure of Roman Britannia had collapsed.

More on sub-Roman Britain.

Ideologically and psychologically Britain lived in a new world, too. Neither English nor Britons thought of themselves as Romans. Gildas, despite his own mastery of legal and literary Latin, did not identify with the empire (which, we must remember, still existed elsewhere). For Gildas, the Romans were a foreign people who in the far past had tried to give the Britons a sense of discipline and order, before finally leaving them to their fate. Roman Britain was only a rhetorical device that allowed him to illustrate how low contemporary Britain had fallen. The imperial past provided lessons for today's Christians, but it had little to do with current reality.

In most of the continental provinces, cities retained some economic importance and much of their historic culture. In Gaul and Spain, the Roman-era civitates or city-states were also the basic political units of the Frankish, Burgundian, and Visigothic monarchies (and perhaps of the Suevic as well). It was with the bishops and the leading men of these towns that the kings had to deal when they wished to raise taxes or enforce their decisions. But in such dealings, kings had less power to get their way than emperors had once had. We know, thanks to the famous Histories (often called the History of the Franks) of Gregory, bishop of Tours between 573 and 594, how people in Gaul fought against the land-tax, gaining from their Frankish kings wide exemptions and even the wholesale burning of tax-registers. Similarly, the bishops of M*rida struggled with some success against the efforts of the powerful Visigothic King Leuvigild to strengthen Arianism and with it royal control of the town.

The kings of Gaul and Spain, although they had much of the property and legal prerogatives of the emperors, were insecurely perched on top of a mostly Roman-style society. Since most landowners, large and small, had little commitment to these kings, and did their best to shake off public duties formerly owed to the imperial government, a king's chief asset was the loyalty of his military followers, particularly the people from whom he derived his title. Without the Franks behind him, the king of the Franks would have been inconsequential. Maintaining that crucial cadre was no easy task. Its identity was fragile. Successful barbarians tried to blend into the more sophisticated Roman society around them, while some Romans preferred the life of a free warrior to the life of a taxpayer. (Theodoric, the king of Italy, described this process pithily: "A poor Roman plays the Goth, a rich Goth the Roman.") Rivalry within the ruling groups was rampant. Frankish or Visigothic kings were in grave danger from their kin and close associates (as were the British kings Gildas called "tyrants."). Kings' claims to ancient lineage or noble blood were desperate attempts to ward off the assassin's knife. Their legitimacy and survival were always in doubt.

Thus kings reached greedily for anything that might increase their power. At the beginning of the century, Frankish, Burgundian, and Visigothic kings legislated, in Latin, for both their own people and their Roman subjects, to demonstrate their key position in the social order. The Frankish king Clovis daringly rejected the Arianism that had become the badge of barbarian distinctiveness, and became a Nicene Christian, hoping to increase his acceptability in the eyes of Gallic bishops and their congregations.

A king's best tactic for building a loyal following was success in war, which increased his personal fortunes and allowed him to fill the pockets of his warriors with loot. Again, Frankish kings excelled at this. Clovis expelled the Visigoths from southern Gaul in 507; his sons (who ruled jointly after their father's death) conquered the Burgundians in 534, and annexed Provence and plundered northern Italy in the 540s and 550s. The Franks also reduced tribes beyond the Rhine to tributary status. But tribute in these wild parts was measured in cows rather than in gold or silver; the old Roman provinces were still the wealthiest countries of western Europe.

North Africa and Italy were more tightly controlled from the center than Gaul or Spain, and the Vandal and the Ostrogothic kings based there were thus more powerful. The Vandal kings are famous as Arian persecutors, but the African economy flourished in their time anyway. The lands they ruled had been for a long time the economic powerhouse of the western empire. In previous centuries it had supported the city of Rome and funded the imperial court of the west. Now Africa's agricultural wealth no longer crossed the sea as tribute, and instead benefited the inhabitants of the kingdom, or at least some of them. Carthage was immensely wealthy.

Archaeology shows that the long-term economic decline of Italy continued in the early sixth century. Because Italy could not draw on overseas resources, the income of its ruling classes and their ability to buy imports fell off. The slow depopulation of the countryside continued, and rural people were less and less involved in the market economy. Yet the stable rule of Theodoric was good for the country, and superficially much remained the same. Rome and Milan were among the largest cities in the world; Ravenna was a glittering capital; the ancient Senate of Rome was still prestigious, wealthy, and politically important. In fact, contemporaries debated whether Theodoric had not simply used Gothic military might to restore the imperial grandeur of Rome and Italy.

Such talk was not just flattery. The king was an emperor in all but name. The imperial regalia, which Odoacer had sent to Constantinople in 476, had been sent to Theodoric by Anastasius in 497 and remained in the Palatium at Rome. One of the two yearly consuls, the honorary heads of the Roman state, was appointed by Theodoric, and his choice was recognized in Constantinople. And at the games in Rome and Ravenna (themselves an important symbol of traditional glory), the Gothic king was cheered as the New Trajan and the New Valentinian, in memory of two famous military emperors of times past. In all, Theodoric was the most powerful western monarch. His influence extended far beyond Italy; for some years after Clovis's crushing defeat of the Visigoths, Theodoric controlled Visigothic Spain through his delegates.

All this did not make the Vandals and the Ostrogoths more secure than the Franks or the Visigoths. If Roman structures were strong in Africa and Italy, the status of their barbarian rulers was all the more precarious. For Theodoric, senatorial resentment of Constantinople and papal feuding with the emperors both helped his cause. But neither aristocratic pique nor theological division would last forever, and then he and his followers would find themselves in an awkward position. The Vandals, as occasional persecutors, at odds with an important segment of the subject population, were even more vulnerable.

The imperial regime at Constantinople gained in strength in the early years of the century. In the east, in the Aegean, Egypt, Syria and much of Anatolia, population and the economy, both rural and urban, were growing. Empire and urban communities still supported one another: the disorder of eastern cities seen in the last chapter was as much a matter of expansion as it was of political instability. Even with all his troubles, the emperor Anastasius was able to leave a full treasury to his successor Justin when he died in 518. This reflects the success of the court in controlling the economy of the eastern provinces and reorienting it around the new capital.

Historians traditionally call the imperial regime in the east the "Byzantine empire," (from Byzantium, the pre-Constantinian name of Constantinople), distinguishing this Greek Christian empire from the older empire based in Latin Italy. In the sixth century, no one would have made this distinction. Granted, both the capital and the government were increasingly Greek-speaking, since most Latin provinces were outside the capital's control; but the emperor was not the emperor of the Greeks, but of the Romans, rightfully the masters of the whole world. It was not clear in 500 that the Latin west was lost; even if it had been, no one in officialdom would have admitted it. They would have pointed out that in the course of Rome's long history provinces had been lost before and recovered.

The Roman experience, even the heritage of the pagan past, had not lost all relevance during the early sixth century, at least in the Mediterranean. Despite the disapproval of Christian rigorists, writers in both Greek and Latin sought to adapt that heritage to present-day conditions. Fulgentius in North Africa (later a famous bishop and theologian) explained how eternal moral lessons were hidden in seemingly immoral pagan myths. Boethius, a minister in Theodoric's government, reintroduced Aristotle's writings on music and logic to his contemporaries by translating them into Latin, and despite a thorough grounding in Christian dogma, insisted that pre-Christian philosophers still had something worthwhile to say on living the good life. Cassiodorus, another Italian senator, propagandized for Gothic rule by showing the Goths as simply the latest nation to contribute its talents to the continuing story of empire. In Constantinople, the jurist Tribonian -- a Greek speaker by birth -- believed fervently that the Latin legal tradition was the best tool to reform the imperial state. The activities of such men reflected a distinctive current of Mediterranean thought in these decades: the idea that if the empire had gone through hard times lately, the foundations were strong enough to restore the edifice, given energetic and worthy leadership. In fact, this was a delusion. The traditional basis of Roman power and the traditional urban culture that had provided its leaders in the past were very fragile.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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