Italy: The Barbarian Invasions

The Barbarian Invasions

Like the rest of the Roman Empire, Italy in the early 5th cent. a.d. began to be invaded by successive waves of barbarian tribes—the Germanic Visigoths, the Huns, and the Germanic Heruli and Ostrogoths. The deposition (476) of Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor of the West, and the assumption by Odoacer of the rule over Italy is commonly regarded as the end of the Roman Empire. However, the Eastern emperors, residing at Constantinople (see Byzantine Empire), never renounced their claim to Italy and to succession to the West.

On the urging of Zeno, the Eastern emperor, the Ostrogoth Theodoric the Great invaded Italy, took (493) Ravenna (which had replaced Rome as capital), killed Odoacer, and began a long and beneficent rule over Italy. Roman institutions were maintained with the help of scholars and administrators such as Boethius and Cassiodorus. After Theodoric's death (526), the murder (535) of the Gothic queen, Amalasuntha, was followed by the reconquest of Italy by Emperor Justinian I of the East and his generals, Belisarius and Narses. Except, however, in the exarchate of Ravenna, the Pentapolis (Rimini, Ancona, Fano, Pesaro, and Senigallia) on the central Adriatic coast, and the coast of S Italy, Byzantine rule was soon displaced by that of the Lombards, who under Alboin established (569) a new kingdom.

The papacy emerged as the chief bulwark of Latin civilization. Gregory I (reigned 590–604), without assistance from Byzantium, succeeded in saving Rome and the Patrimony of St. Peter from the Lombard conquest, thus laying the basis for the creation of the Papal States. At the same time, he effectively freed Rome from allegiance to the Byzantine conquerors.

The Lombards warded off Byzantine efforts at reconquest and in 751 took Ravenna; their advance on Rome resulted in the appeal of Pope Stephen II to Pepin the Short, ruler of the Franks, who expelled the Lombards from the exarchate of Ravenna and from the Pentapolis, which he donated (754) to the pope. Pepin's intervention was followed by that of his son Charlemagne, who defeated the Lombard king, Desiderius, was crowned king of the Lombards, confirmed his father's donation to the papacy, and in 800 was crowned emperor of the West at Rome. These events shaped much of the later history of Italy and of the papacy. Among the direct results were the claim of later emperors to Italy and the temporal power of the popes.

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