After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Western world went through a turbulent and dramatic period during which a succession of kingdoms rose, grew, and crumbled in spans of only a few generations. The wars and personalities of the dark ages are the stuff of legend, and all led toward the eventual reunification of Europe under a different kind of Roman rule — this time, that of the Church. Below, historian Peter Heather selects ten moments from the period upon which the fate of Europe hinged.
March 15, 493 AD: King Odoacer slain by Theoderic
Theoderic, king of the new Ostrogothic coalition created since the death of Attila the Hun in 453, slices Odoacer in half after dinner in Ravenna to take complete control of Italy and the Adriatic coast of Dalmatia. He subsequently adds to this Sicily, a large part of modern Hungary, southern France and most of Spain to relaunch Empire in the west, consciously styling himself as the head of a fully and legitimately Roman state.
January 1, 519 AD: Eutharic becomes consul
Theoderic’s chosen heir and son-in-law, Eutharic, receives the Roman consulship with the full blessing of Constantinople, seeming to guarantee that Theoderic’s Empire will last into the next generation. But Eutharic dies before Theoderic, and, on the latter’s death, Constantinople encourages the centrifugal forces which break the Empire up once more into separate Gothic kingdoms in Italy and Spain.
January 18, 532 AD: Massacre at the Nika riots
The Emperor Justinian turns loose his General Belisarius and his trusted soldiery on a crowd in the Hippodrome, which has been baying for his replacement, after a sequence of military defeats against Persia. At the end of the day, thousands are dead and the ceremonial centre of Constantinople a burnt out ruin, but Justinian has clung onto power. (Pictured: the Hippodrome today.)
June 8, 632: The prophet Muhammad dies
Muhammad perishes on the eve of the great Islamic conquests which will engulf the Near East, North Africa, and much of Spain within the next hundred years. They utterly destroy the Persian Empire and deprive Constantinople of between two-thirds and three-quarters of its territories and tax revenues. The old East Roman Empire is reduced from world to regional power, and its domination of the western Mediterranean, reasserted under Justinian, destroyed forever.
Christmas Day, 800 AD: Charlemagne is crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in St. Peters
The Islamic destruction of Constantinople’s capacity to influence western events has combined with transalpine economic and demographic development to allow a restoration of Empire in the west based for the first time on a north European powerbase. Contrary to his own propaganda, Charlemagne has been actively seeking the imperial title for at least a decade, and it is no coincidence that, the day before, he had convened a synod which cleared the Pople of some very embarrassing allegations, with no questions asked.
June 25, 841 AD: The Battle of Fontenoy
Charlemagne’s grandsons fight a bloody engagement at Fontenoy, kickstarting the process of Carolingian imperial fragmentation. Unlike its Roman predecessor which used large-scale taxation to maintain professional military forces, the capacity of Charlemagne’s state to wage war was based on militarised gentry and aristocratic landowners whose allegiance had to be bought – largely by grants of land – in each generation. This made it extremely difficult to maintain centralised supra-regional power in the long-term, as wealth tended to leech away from monarchs, especially in the context of civil war, where military support was at a premium.
February 12, 1049 AD: Coronation of Pope Leo IX
Bruno of Egisheim-Dagsburg is crowned Pope Leo IX, marking the moment when the products of the Christian cultural revolution instigated by Charlemagne took possession of the Roman Papacy to further his ideals of Christian reform. Emperors and Kings had previously provided the Church with the necessary resources and enforcement structures to make reform work, but Latin Christendom (increasing in size as conversion continued) was now divided between too many rulers for any one to be the source of the united leadership that the common culture of Latin Churchmen, the product of Charlemagne’s libraries and reforms, desired.
December 28, 1210 AD: Approval of the Compilatio tertia, the oldest official compilation of Papal legal decisions, or decretals
When Leo IX became Pope, the Papacy enjoyed great prestige, but little practical authority. This was transformed by a legal revolution – beginning with Gratian’s Concordance of Discordant Canons in c. 1150 – which used the legal principles and techniques of old Roman imperial law systematically to resolve disagreements in Church teaching on the principle that existing Papal rulings carried greatest authority, while simultaneously requiring that any new or currently unresolved issues be addressed by new Papal decrees.
November 11, 1215 AD: Fourth Council of the Lateran
Seventy-one metropolitans, four hundred and twelve bishops, and nine hundred abbots and priors gather in Rome for the opening of Lateran IV, then the largest Christian council ever held. It defines required standards of Catholic lay and clerical piety which last down to the twentieth century. Equally important, it symbolises the transfer of ecclesiastical authority from emperors to Popes. Four hundred years earlier, it was Charlemagne who had called the ecclesiastical shots, but, in the meantime, the legal structure of one Roman Empire had been used to create a new one.
September 14, 533 AD: The battle of Ad Decimum
Desperately seeking renewed legitimacy, Justinian sends Belisarius to North Africa this time to exploit political division in the Vandal kingdom. In the battle, Belisarius wins a stunning victory over the Vandal king Gelimer, and Carthage swiftly falls. This unexpectedly easy victory leads Justinian to adopt a more general policy of conquest in the west which will add Italy, Dalmatia and parts of southern Spain, as well as North Africa, to his Empire by the mid-550s.
Image credits: 1. Coin with profile of Odoacer. Permission via Creative Commons by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. Via Wikimedia Commons. 2. 16th century statue of Theoderic. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 3. The Hippodrome of Constantinople today. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 4. Mosaic depicting Justinian. Permission via GNU license. Via Wikimedia Commons. 5. 18th century Turkish depiction of Muhammad ascending to Heaven. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 6. “Coronation of Charlemagne” by Jean Fouquet, c. 1460. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 7. “Battle of Fontenoy” by Pierre Lenfant, c. 1747. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 8. Statue of Pope Leo IX in Altorf, France. Permission via GNU license. Via Wikimedia Commons. 9. Pope Innocent III, whose decretals comprised the Compilatio Tertia, depicted in a fresco c. 1219. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 10. “Lateran Palace” by Giuseppe Vasi, c. 1752. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.