Tag: Anglo-Saxons

The Normans – The Great Conquerors of the Viking King Rollo

The Normans (Norman: Normaunds; French: Normands; Latin: Normanni) were the people who, in the 10th and 11th centuries, gave their name to Normandy, a region in France.

They were descended from Norse (“Norman” comes from “Norseman”) Vikings (Old English wicingas—”pirates”) from Denmark, Iceland and Norway who, under their leader Rollo, agreed to swear fealty to King Charles III of West Francia. Through generations of mixing with the native Frankish and Gallo-Roman populations, their descendants gradually became assimilated into the Carolingian-based cultures of West Francia. The distinct cultural and ethnic identity of the Normans emerged initially in the first half of the 10th century, and it continued to evolve over the succeeding centuries.

Rollo, (Clive Standen) as depicted in the History Channels hit TV series ‘Vikings’.

The Norman dynasty had a major political, cultural and military impact on medieval Europe and the Near East. The Normans were famed for their martial spirit and eventually for their Catholic piety, becoming exponents of the Catholic orthodoxy into which they assimilated. They adopted the Gallo-Romance language of the Frankish land they settled, their dialect becoming known as Norman, Normaund or Norman French, an important literary language. The Duchy of Normandy, which they formed by treaty with the French crown, was a great fief of medieval France, and under Richard I of Normandy was forged into a cohesive and formidable principality in feudal tenure.

Circa 1190, Richard I of England (1157-1199), also known as Richard I, Duke of Normandy.

The Normans are noted both for their culture, such as their unique Romanesque architecture and musical traditions, and for their significant military accomplishments and innovations. Norman adventurers founded the Kingdom of Sicily under Roger II after conquering southern Italy and Malta from the Saracens and Byzantines, and an expedition on behalf of their duke, William the Conqueror, led to the Norman conquest of England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Norman cultural and military influence spread from these new European centres to the Crusader states of the Near East, where their prince Bohemond I founded the Principality of Antioch in the Levant, to Scotland and Wales in Great Britain, to Ireland, and to the coasts of north Africa and the Canary Islands.

Map of Norman Empire circa 1100 CE It shows the additional lands conquered, including Italy and Sicily, England, the Crusade State of Antioch, the coast of North Africa and Malta.

The legacy of the Normans persists today through the regional languages and dialects of France, England, and Sicily, as well as the various cultural, judicial and political arrangements they introduced in their conquered territories.

The English name “Normans” comes from the French words Normans/Normanz, plural of Normant, modern French normand, which is itself borrowed from Old Low Franconian Nortmann “Northman” or directly from Old Norse Norðmaðr, Latinized variously as Nortmannus, Normannus, or Nordmannus (recorded in Medieval Latin, 9th century) to mean “Norseman, Viking”.

The 11th century Benedictine monk and historian, Goffredo Malaterra, characterised the Normans thus:

Specially marked by cunning, despising their own inheritance in the hope of winning a greater, eager after both gain and dominion, given to imitation of all kinds, holding a certain mean between lavishness and greediness, that is, perhaps uniting, as they certainly did, these two seemingly opposite qualities. Their chief men were specially lavish through their desire of good report. They were, moreover, a race skillful in flattery, given to the study of eloquence, so that the very boys were orators, a race altogether unbridled unless held firmly down by the yoke of justice. They were enduring of toil, hunger, and cold whenever fortune laid it on them, given to hunting and hawking, delighting in the pleasure of horses, and of all the weapons and garb of war.

In the course of the 10th century, the initially destructive incursions of Norse war bands into the rivers of France evolved into more permanent encampments that included local women and personal property. The Duchy of Normandy, which began in 911 as a fiefdom, was established by the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte between King Charles III of West Francia and the famed Viking ruler Rollo, and was situated in the former Frankish kingdom of Neustria.

King Rollo’s Viking fleet en-route to the Frankish Kingdom.

The treaty offered Rollo and his men the French lands between the river Epte and the Atlantic coast in exchange for their protection against further Viking incursions. As well as granting to protect the area of Rouen from Viking invasion, Rollo had to swear not to invade further Frankish lands himself, accept baptism and conversion to the Christian faith and swear fealty to King Charles III.

The area corresponded to the northern part of present-day Upper Normandy down to the river Seine, but the Duchy would eventually extend west beyond the Seine. The territory was roughly equivalent to the old province of Rouen, and reproduced the Roman administrative structure of Gallia Lugdunensis II (part of the former Gallia Lugdunensis).

Before Rollo’s arrival, its populations did not differ from Picardy or the Île-de-France, which were considered “Frankish”. Earlier Viking settlers had begun arriving in the 880s, but were divided between colonies in the east (Roumois and Pays de Caux) around the low Seine valley and in the west in the Cotentin Peninsula, and were separated by traditional pagii, where the population remained about the same with almost no foreign settlers. Rollo’s contingents who raided and ultimately settled Normandy and parts of the Atlantic coast included Danes, Norwegians, Norse–Gaels, Orkney Vikings, possibly Swedes, and Anglo-Danes from the English Danelaw under Norse control.

Anglo-Dane Warriors.

The descendants of Rollo’s Vikings and their Frankish wives would replace the Norse religion and Old Norse language with Catholicism (Christianity) and the Gallo-Romance language of the local people, blending their maternal Frankish heritage with Old Norse traditions and customs to synthesize a unique “Norman” culture in the north of France. The Norman language was forged by the adoption of the indigenous langue d’oïl branch of Romance by a Norse-speaking ruling class, and it developed into the regional language that survives today.

The Normans thereafter adopted the growing feudal doctrines of the rest of France, and worked them into a functional hierarchical system in both Normandy and in England. The new Norman rulers were culturally and ethnically distinct from the old French aristocracy, most of whom traced their lineage to Franks of the Carolingian dynasty. Most Norman knights remained poor and land-hungry, and by 1066 Normandy had been exporting fighting horsemen for more than a generation.

Many Normans of Italy, France and England eventually served as avid Crusaders under the Italo-Norman prince Bohemund I and the Anglo-Norman king Richard the Lion-Heart.

Duchy of Normandy between 911 and 1050. In blue the areas of intense Norse settlement.

 

Italy

The early Norman castle at Adrano.

Opportunistic bands of Normans successfully established a foothold in southern Italy. Probably as the result of returning pilgrims’ stories, the Normans entered southern Italy as warriors in 1017 at the latest. In 999, according to Amatus of Montecassino, Norman pilgrims returning from Jerusalem called in at the port of Salerno when a Saracen attack occurred. The Normans fought so valiantly that Prince Guaimar III begged them to stay, but they refused and instead offered to tell others back home of the Prince’s request. William of Apulia tells that, in 1016, Norman pilgrims to the shrine of the Archangel Michael at Monte Gargano were met by Melus of Bari, a Lombard nobleman and rebel, who persuaded them to return with more warriors to help throw off the Byzantine rule, which they did.

The two most prominent Norman families to arrive in the Mediterranean were descendants of Tancred of Hauteville and the Drengot family. A group of Normans with at least five brothers from the Drengot family fought the Byzantines in Apulia under the command of Melo di Bari.

Between 1016 and 1024, in a fragmented political context, the County of Ariano was founded by another group of Norman knights headed by Gilbert Buatère and hired by Melo di Bari. Defeated at Canne, Melo di Bari escaped to Bamberg, Germany, where he died in 1022. The County, which replaced the pre-existing chamberlainship, was considered to be the first political body established by the Normans in the South of Italy. Then Rainulf Drengot, from the same family, received the county of Aversa from Duke Sergius IV of Naples in 1030.

The Hauteville family achieved princely rank by proclaiming Prince Guaimar IV of Salerno “Duke of Apulia and Calabria”. He promptly awarded their elected leader, William Iron Arm, with the title of count in his capital of Melfi. The Drengot family thereafter attained the principality of Capua, and Emperor Henry III legally ennobled the Hauteville leader, Drogo, as “dux et magister Italiae comesque Normannorum totius Apuliae et Calabriae” (“Duke and Master of Italy and Count of the Normans of all Apulia and Calabria“) in 1047.

From these bases, the Normans eventually captured Sicily and Malta from the Saracens, under the leadership of the famous Robert Guiscard, a Hauteville, and his younger brother Roger the Great Count. Roger’s son, Roger II of Sicily, was crowned king in 1130 (exactly one century after Rainulf was “crowned” count) by Antipope Anacletus II. The Kingdom of Sicily lasted until 1194, when it was transferred to the House of Hohenstaufen through marriage. The Normans left their legacy in many castles, such as William Iron Arm‘s citadel at Squillace, and cathedrals, such as Roger II’s Cappella Palatina at Palermo, which dot the landscape and give a distinct architectural flavor to accompany its unique history.

Institutionally, the Normans combined the administrative machinery of the Byzantines, Arabs, and Lombards with their own conceptions of feudal law and order to forge a unique government. Under this state, there was great religious freedom, and alongside the Norman nobles existed a meritocratic bureaucracy of Jews, Muslims and Christians, both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.

The Kingdom of Sicily thus became characterized by Norman, Byzantine, Greek, Arab, Lombard and “native” Sicilian populations living in harmony, and its Norman rulers fostered plans of establishing an empire that would have encompassed Fatimid Egypt as well as the crusader states in the Levant.

One of the great geographical treatises of the Middle Ages, the “Tabula Rogeriana“, was written by the Andalusian al-Idrisi for King Roger II of Sicily, and entitled “Kitab Rudjdjar” (“The Book of Roger“).

Byzantium

Soon after the Normans began to enter Italy, they entered the Byzantine Empire and then Armenia, fighting against the Pechenegs, the Bulgars, and especially the Seljuk Turks. Norman mercenaries were first encouraged to come to the south by the Lombards to act against the Byzantines, but they soon fought in Byzantine service in Sicily. They were prominent alongside Varangian and Lombard contingents in the Sicilian campaign of George Maniaces in 1038–40.

Varangian Guards at court. Credit: Osprey Publications.

There is debate whether the Normans in Greek service actually were from Norman Italy, and it now seems likely only a few came from there. It is also unknown how many of the “Franks”, as the Byzantines called them, were Normans and not other Frenchmen.

The Varangian Guard, Byzantine mercenaries, largely recruited from Viking and Norman territories in the north and West of Europe.

One of the first Norman mercenaries to serve as a Byzantine general was Hervé in the 1050s. By then, however, there were already Norman mercenaries serving as far away as Trebizond and Georgia. They were based at Malatya and Edessa, under the Byzantine duke of Antioch, Isaac Komnenos. In the 1060s, Robert Crispin led the Normans of Edessa against the Turks. Roussel de Bailleul even tried to carve out an independent state in Asia Minor with support from the local population, but he was stopped by the Byzantine general Alexius Komnenos.

Some Normans joined Turkish forces to aid in the destruction of the Armenian vassal-states of Sassoun and Taron in far eastern Anatolia. Later, many took up service with the Armenian state further south in Cilicia and the Taurus Mountains. A Norman named Oursel led a force of “Franks” into the upper Euphrates valley in northern Syria. From 1073 to 1074, 8,000 of the 20,000 troops of the Armenian general Philaretus Brachamius were Normans—formerly of Oursel—led by Raimbaud. They even lent their ethnicity to the name of their castle: Afranji, meaning “Franks”. The known trade between Amalfi and Antioch and between Bari and Tarsus may be related to the presence of Italo-Normans in those cities while Amalfi and Bari were under Norman rule in Italy.

Norman expansion by 1130.

Several families of Byzantine Greece were of Norman mercenary origin during the period of the Comnenian Restoration, when Byzantine emperors were seeking out western European warriors. The Raoulii were descended from an Italo-Norman named Raoul, the Petraliphae were descended from a Pierre d’Aulps, and that group of Albanian clans known as the Maniakates were descended from Normans who served under George Maniaces in the Sicilian expedition of 1038.

Robert Guiscard, another Norman adventurer previously elevated to the dignity of count of Apulia as the result of his military successes, ultimately drove the Byzantines out of southern Italy. Having obtained the consent of pope Gregory VII and acting as his vassal, Robert continued his campaign conquering the Balkan peninsula as a foothold for western feudal lords and the Catholic Church.

Pope Gregory VII.

After allying himself with Croatia and the Catholic cities of Dalmatia, in 1081 he led an army of 30,000 men in 300 ships landing on the southern shores of Albania, capturing Valona, Kanina, Jericho (Orikumi), and reaching Butrint after numerous pillages. They joined the fleet that had previously conquered Corfu and attacked Dyrrachium from land and sea, devastating everything along the way.

Under these harsh circumstances, the locals accepted the call of Emperor Alexius I Comnenus to join forces with the Byzantines against the Normans. The Albanian forces could not take part in the ensuing battle because it had started before their arrival. Immediately before the battle, the Venetian fleet had secured a victory in the coast surrounding the city. Forced to retreat, Alexius ceded the city of Dyrrachium to the Count of the Tent (or Byzantine provincial administrators) mobilizing from Arbanon (i.e., ἐξ Ἀρβάνων ὁρμωμένω Κομισκόρτη; the term Κομισκόρτη is short for κόμης της κόρτης meaning “Count of the Tent”).

The city’s garrison resisted until February 1082, when Dyrrachium was betrayed to the Normans by the Venetian and Amalfitan merchants who had settled there. The Normans were now free to penetrate into the hinterland; they took Ioannina and some minor cities in southwestern Macedonia and Thessaly before appearing at the gates of Thessalonica. Dissension among the high ranks coerced the Normans to retreat to Italy. They lost Dyrrachium, Valona, and Butrint in 1085, after the death of Robert.

A few years after the First Crusade, in 1107, the Normans under the command of Bohemond, Robert’s son, landed in Valona and besieged Dyrrachium using the most sophisticated military equipment of the time, but to no avail. Meanwhile, they occupied Petrela, the citadel of Mili at the banks of the river Deabolis, Gllavenica (Ballsh), Kanina and Jericho. This time, the Albanians sided with the Normans, dissatisfied by the heavy taxes the Byzantines had imposed upon them. With their help, the Normans secured the Arbanon passes and opened their way to Dibra. The lack of supplies, disease and Byzantine resistance forced Bohemond to retreat from his campaign and sign a peace treaty with the Byzantines in the city of Deabolis.

The further decline of Byzantine state-of-affairs paved the road to a third attack in 1185, when a large Norman army invaded Dyrrachium, owing to the betrayal of high Byzantine officials. Some time later, Dyrrachium—one of the most important naval bases of the Adriatic—fell again to Byzantine hands.

England

The Norman Conquest of England 1066.

The Normans were in contact with England from an early date. Not only were their original Viking brethren still ravaging the English coasts, they occupied most of the important ports opposite England across the English Channel. This relationship eventually produced closer ties of blood through the marriage of Emma, sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy, and King Ethelred II of England. Because of this, Ethelred fled to Normandy in 1013, when he was forced from his kingdom by Sweyn Forkbeard. His stay in Normandy (until 1016) influenced him and his sons by Emma, who stayed in Normandy after Cnut the Great‘s conquest of the isle.

Norman cavalry at the Battle of Hastings as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

When Edward the Confessor finally returned from his father’s refuge in 1041, at the invitation of his half-brother Harthacnut, he brought with him a Norman-educated mind. He also brought many Norman counsellors and fighters, some of whom established an English cavalry force.

This concept never really took root, but it is a typical example of Edward’s attitude. He appointed Robert of Jumièges archbishop of Canterbury and made Ralph the Timid earl of Hereford. He invited his brother-in-law Eustace II, Count of Boulogne to his court in 1051, an event that resulted in the greatest of early conflicts between Saxon and Norman and ultimately resulted in the exile of Earl Godwin of Wessex.

On 14 October 1066, William the Conqueror gained a decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings, which led to the conquest of England three years later; this can be seen on the Bayeux tapestry (a linen, embroidered cloth).

Siege of a motte-and-bailey castle from the Bayeux Tapestry.

The invading Normans and their descendants replaced the Anglo-Saxons as the ruling class of England. The nobility of England were part of a single Norman culture and many had lands on both sides of the channel. Early Norman kings of England, as Dukes of Normandy, owed homage to the King of France for their land on the continent. They considered England to be their most important holding (it brought with it the title of King—an important status symbol).

An Anglo-Saxon Warrior in the late Anglo-Saxon era.

Eventually, the Normans merged with the natives, combining languages and traditions, so much so that Marjorie Chibnall says “writers still referred to Normans and English; but the terms no longer meant the same as in the immediate aftermath of 1066.” In the course of the Hundred Years’ War, the Norman aristocracy often identified themselves as English.

A Norman Warrior in the 11th Century.

The Anglo-Norman language became distinct from the Latin language, something that was the subject of some humour by Geoffrey Chaucer. The Anglo-Norman language was eventually absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon language of their subjects (see Old English) and influenced it, helping (along with the Norse language of the earlier Anglo-Norse settlers and the Latin used by the church) in the development of Middle English. It in turn evolved into Modern English.

Ireland

The Normans had a profound effect on Irish culture and history after their invasion at Bannow Bay in 1169. Initially, the Normans maintained a distinct culture and ethnicity.

Yet, with time, they came to be subsumed into Irish culture to the point that it has been said that they became “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.

Norman keep in Trim, County Meath.

The Normans settled mostly in an area in the east of Ireland, later known as the Pale, and also built many fine castles and settlements, including Trim Castle and Dublin Castle. Both cultures intermixed, borrowing from each other’s language, culture and outlook. Norman descendants today can be recognised by their surnames.

Names such as French, (De) Roche, Devereux, D’Arcy, Treacy and Lacy are particularly common in the southeast of Ireland, especially in the southern part of County Wexford, where the first Norman settlements were established. Other Norman names, such as Furlong, predominate there. Another common Norman-Irish name was Morell (Murrell), derived from the French Norman name Morel.

Names beginning with Fitz (from the Norman for son) indicate Norman ancestry. These included Fitzgerald, FitzGibbons (Gibbons) dynasty, Fitzmaurice. Families bearing such surnames as Barry (de Barra) and De Búrca (Burke) are also of Norman extraction.

Scotland

One of the claimants of the English throne opposing William the Conqueror, Edgar Atheling, eventually fled to Scotland. King Malcolm III of Scotland married Edgar’s sister Margaret, and came into opposition to William who had already disputed Scotland’s southern borders.

William invaded Scotland in 1072, riding as far as Abernethy where he met up with his fleet of ships. Malcolm submitted, paid homage to William and surrendered his son Duncan as a hostage, beginning a series of arguments as to whether the Scottish Crown owed allegiance to the King of England.

Normans went into Scotland, building castles and founding noble families that would provide some future kings, such as Robert the Bruce, as well as founding a considerable number of the Scottish clans. King David I of Scotland, whose elder brother Alexander I had married Sybilla of Normandy, was instrumental in introducing Normans and Norman culture to Scotland, part of the process some scholars call the “Davidian Revolution”.

A computer genrated image of Robert the Bruce.

Having spent time at the court of Henry I of England (married to David’s sister Maud of Scotland), and needing them to wrestle the kingdom from his half-brother Máel Coluim mac Alaxandair, David had to reward many with lands.

The process was continued under David’s successors, most intensely of all under William the Lion. The Norman-derived feudal system was applied in varying degrees to most of Scotland. Scottish families of the names Bruce, Gray, Ramsay, Fraser, Ogilvie, Montgomery, Sinclair, Pollock, Burnard, Douglas and Gordon to name but a few, and including the later royal House of Stewart, can all be traced back to Norman ancestry.

Wales

Even before the Norman Conquest of England, the Normans had come into contact with Wales. Edward the Confessor had set up the aforementioned Ralph as earl of Hereford and charged him with defending the Marches and warring with the Welsh. In these original ventures, the Normans failed to make any headway into Wales.

Subsequent to the Conquest, however, the Marches came completely under the dominance of William’s most trusted Norman barons, including Bernard de Neufmarché, Roger of Montgomery in Shropshire and Hugh Lupus in Cheshire. These Normans began a long period of slow conquest during which almost all of Wales was at some point subject to Norman interference. Norman words, such as baron (barwn), first entered Welsh at that time.

On Crusade

The legendary religious zeal of the Normans was exercised in religious wars long before the First Crusade carved out a Norman principality in Antioch. They were major foreign participants in the Reconquista in Iberia. In 1018, Roger de Tosny travelled to the Iberian Peninsula to carve out a state for himself from Moorish lands, but failed. In 1064, during the War of Barbastro, William of Montreuil led the papal army and took a huge booty.

First Crusade 1095-1101.

In 1096, Crusaders passing by the siege of Amalfi were joined by Bohemond of Taranto and his nephew Tancred with an army of Italo-Normans. Bohemond was the de facto leader of the Crusade during its passage through Asia Minor. After the successful Siege of Antioch in 1097, Bohemond began carving out an independent principality around that city. Tancred was instrumental in the conquest of Jerusalem and he worked for the expansion of the Crusader kingdom in Transjordan and the region of Galilee.

Anglo-Norman conquest of Cyprus

The conquest of Cyprus by the Anglo-Norman forces of the Third Crusade opened a new chapter in the history of the island, which would be under Western European domination for the following 380 years. Although not part of a planned operation, the conquest had much more permanent results than initially expected.

Illuminated manuscript showing king Richard the Lion-hearted authorizing Guy de Lusignan to take Cyprus.

In April 1191, Richard the Lion-hearted left Messina with a large fleet in order to reach Acre. But a storm dispersed the fleet. After some searching, it was discovered that the boat carrying his sister and his fiancée Berengaria was anchored on the south coast of Cyprus, together with the wrecks of several other ships, including the treasure ship. Survivors of the wrecks had been taken prisoner by the island’s despot Isaac Komnenos.

On 1 May 1191, Richard’s fleet arrived in the port of Limassol on Cyprus. He ordered Isaac to release the prisoners and the treasure. Isaac refused, so Richard landed his troops and took Limassol.

Various princes of the Holy Land arrived in Limassol at the same time, in particular Guy de Lusignan. All declared their support for Richard provided that he support Guy against his rival Conrad of Montferrat. The local barons abandoned Isaac, who considered making peace with Richard, joining him on the crusade, and offering his daughter in marriage to the person named by Richard.

Castle of Limassol, near which Richard’s wedding with Berengaria of Navarre is said to have taken place.

 

But Isaac changed his mind and tried to escape. Richard then proceeded to conquer the whole island, his troops being led by Guy de Lusignan. Isaac surrendered and was confined with silver chains, because Richard had promised that he would not place him in irons.

By 1 June, Richard had conquered the whole island. His exploit was well publicized and contributed to his reputation; he also derived significant financial gains from the conquest of the island.

Richard left for Acre on 5 June, with his allies. Before his departure, he named two of his Norman generals, Richard de Camville and Robert de Thornham, as governors of Cyprus.

While in Limassol, Richard the Lion-Heart married Berengaria of Navarre, first-born daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre. The wedding was held on 12 May 1191 at the Chapel of St. George and it was attended by Richard’s sister Joan, whom he had brought from Sicily.

The marriage was celebrated with great pomp and splendor. Among other grand ceremonies was a double coronation: Richard caused himself to be crowned King of Cyprus, and Berengaria Queen of England and Queen of Cyprus as well.

The rapid Anglo-Norman conquest proved more important than it seemed. The island occupied a key strategic position on the maritime lanes to the Holy Land, whose occupation by the Christians could not continue without support from the sea.

Shortly after the conquest, Cyprus was sold to the Knights Templar and it was subsequently acquired, in 1192, by Guy de Lusignan and became a stable feudal kingdom. It was only in 1489 that the Venetians acquired full control of the island, which remained a Christian stronghold until the fall of Famagusta in 1571.

Romanticized image of the Knights Templar.

Canary Islands

Between 1402 and 1405, the expedition led by the Norman noble Jean de Bethencourt and the Poitevine Gadifer de la Salle conquered the Canarian islands of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and El Hierro off the Atlantic coast of Africa. Their troops were gathered in Normandy, Gascony and were later reinforced by Castilian colonists.

Bethencourt took the title of King of the Canary Islands, as vassal to Henry III of Castile. In 1418, Jean’s nephew Maciot de Bethencourt sold the rights to the islands to Enrique Pérez de Guzmán, 2nd Count de Niebla.

Norman expeditionary ship depicted in the chronicle Le Canarien (1490).

Norman Culture

Norman Law

The customary law of Normandy was developed between the 10th and 13th centuries and survives today through the legal systems of Jersey and Guernsey in the Channel Islands. Norman customary law was transcribed in two customaries in Latin by two judges for use by them and their colleagues: These are the Très ancien coutumier (Very ancient customary), authored between 1200 and 1245; and the Grand coutumier de Normandie (Great customary of Normandy, originally Summa de legibus Normanniae in curia laïcali), authored between 1235 and 1245.

Architecture

Norman architecture typically stands out as a new stage in the architectural history of the regions they subdued. They spread a unique Romanesque idiom to England, Italy and Ireland, and the encastellation of these regions with keeps in their north French style fundamentally altered the military landscape. Their style was characterised by rounded arches, particularly over windows and doorways, and massive proportions.

A quintessential Norman keep: the White Tower in London.

In England, the period of Norman architecture immediately succeeds that of the Anglo-Saxon and precedes the Early Gothic. In southern Italy, the Normans incorporated elements of Islamic, Lombard, and Byzantine building techniques into their own, initiating a unique style known as Norman-Arab architecture within the Kingdom of Sicily.

Visual Arts

In the visual arts, the Normans did not have the rich and distinctive traditions of the cultures they conquered. However, in the early 11th century the dukes began a programme of church reform, encouraging the Cluniac reform of monasteries and patronising intellectual pursuits, especially the proliferation of scriptoria and the reconstitution of a compilation of lost illuminated manuscripts.

The church was utilised by the dukes as a unifying force for their disparate duchy. The chief monasteries taking part in this “renaissance” of Norman art and scholarship were Mont-Saint-Michel, Fécamp, Jumièges, Bec, Saint-Ouen, Saint-Evroul, and Saint-Wandrille. These centres were in contact with the so-called “Winchester school”, which channeled a pure Carolingian artistic tradition to Normandy.

In the final decade of the 11th and first of the 12th century, Normandy experienced a golden age of illustrated manuscripts, but it was brief and the major scriptoria of Normandy ceased to function after the midpoint of the century.

An illuminated manuscript from Saint-Evroul depicting King David on the lyre (or harp) in the middle of the back of the initial ‘B’.

The French Wars of Religion in the 16th century and the French Revolution in the 18th successively destroyed much of what existed in the way of the architectural and artistic remnant of this Norman creativity. The former, with their violence, caused the wanton destruction of many Norman edifices; the latter, with its assault on religion, caused the purposeful destruction of religious objects of any type, and its destabilisation of society resulted in rampant pillaging.

By far the most famous work of Norman art is the Bayeux Tapestry, which is not a tapestry but a work of embroidery. It was commissioned by Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and first Earl of Kent, employing natives from Kent who were learned in the Nordic traditions imported in the previous half century by the Danish Vikings.

In Britain, Norman art primarily survives as stonework or metalwork, such as capitals and baptismal fonts. In southern Italy, however, Norman artwork survives plentifully in forms strongly influenced by its Greek, Lombard, and Arab forebears. Of the royal regalia preserved in Palermo, the crown is Byzantine in style and the coronation cloak is of Arab craftsmanship with Arabic inscriptions.

Many churches preserve sculptured fonts, capitals, and more importantly mosaics, which were common in Norman Italy and drew heavily on the Greek heritage. Lombard Salerno was a centre of ivorywork in the 11th century and this continued under Norman domination.

Finally should be noted the intercourse between French Crusaders traveling to the Holy Land who brought with them French artefacts with which to gift the churches at which they stopped in southern Italy amongst their Norman cousins. For this reason many south Italian churches preserve works from France alongside their native pieces.

A bronze lion sculpture attributed to an Italo-Norman artist. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Norman Rulers

See Also

References

  • Bates, David (2013). The Normans and Empire. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-967441-1.
  • Chibnall, Marjorie (2000). The Normans. Oxford, Blackwell publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-4965-5.
  • Rowley, Trevor, ed. (2000). The Normans. The History Press.

 

 

The Battle of Buttington

The Battle of Buttington was fought, in 893, between a Viking army and an alliance of Anglo-Saxons and Welsh.

The annals, for 893, reported that a large Viking army had landed in the Lympne Estuary, Kent and a smaller force had landed in the Thames estuary under the command of Danish king Hastein. These were reinforced by ships from the settled Danes of East Anglia and Northumbria, some of this contingent sailed round the coast to besiege a fortified place (known as a burh) and Exeter, both in Devon. The English king Alfred the Great, on hearing of Exeter’s demise led all his mounted men to relieve the city. He left his Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and ealdormen Æthelhelm, Æthelnoth, and others in charge of defending various towns and cities from the rest of the Viking army.

The king’s thegns managed to assemble a great army consisting of both Saxons and Welsh. The combined army laid siege to the Vikings who had built a fortification at Buttington. After several weeks the starving Vikings broke out of their fortification only to be beaten by the combined English and Welsh army with many of the Vikings being put to flight.

The Kingdom of Wessex.

Viking raids began in England in the late 8th century. The raiding continued on and off until the 860s, when instead of raiding the Viking changed their tactics and sent a great army to invade England. This army was described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a “Great Heathen Army“. Alfred defeated the Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Edington in 878. A treaty followed whereby Alfred ceded an enlarged East Anglia to the Danes.

After Edington, Alfred reorganised the defences of Wessex, he built a navy and a standing army. He also built a series of fortified towns, known as burhs that ringed Wessex. To maintain the burhs, and the standing army, he set up a taxation system known as the Burghal Hidage. Viking raids still continued but his defences made it difficult for the Vikings to make progress. As the political system in Francia (part of modern day France) was in turmoil the Vikings concentrated their efforts there as the raiding was more profitable.

By late 892 the leadership in Francia had become more stable and the Vikings were finding it difficult to make progress there too, so they again attempted a conquest of England. In 893 two hundred and fifty ships landed an army in the Lympne Estuary in Kent where they built a fortification at Appledore. A smaller force of eighty ships under Hastein, landed in the Thames estuary before entrenching themselves at Milton, also in Kent.

The invaders brought their wives and children with them, indicating a meaningful attempt at conquest and colonisation. Alfred took up a position from which he could observe both of the Viking armies. The Vikings were further reinforced with 240 ships, that were provided by the Danes of East Anglia and Northumbria who had settled there after the wars of the 860s and 870s. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that they did it “contrary to [their] pledges.”

At some point Alfred’s army captured Hastein’s family. The annals report that Alfred was in talks with Hastein, but do not say why. Horspool speculates that it may well be to do with Hastein’s family, however while the talks were going on, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck northwestwards. They were overtaken by Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, and were defeated in a general engagement at Farnham in Surrey. They took refuge on an island at Thorney, on Hertfordshire’s River Colne, where they were blockaded and were ultimately forced to submit. The force fell back on Essex and, after suffering another defeat at Benfleet, joined Hastein’s army at Shoebury.

Alfred had been on his way to relieve his son at Thorney when he heard that the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes were besieging Exeter and an unnamed burh on the North Devon shore. Alfred at once hurried westward and when he arrived at Exeter, the Danes took to their ships. The siege of Exeter was lifted but the fate of the unnamed North Devon burh is not recorded.

Meanwhile, the force under Hastein set out to march up the Thames Valley, possibly with the idea of assisting their friends in the west. But they were met by the Western army that consisted of West Saxons, Mercians and some Welsh, it was led by three eldermen namely Æthelred the Lord of the Mercians, Æthelhelm the Ealdorman of Wiltshire and Æthelnoth the Ealdorman of Somerset.

The chronicle says that they “were drawn from every burh east of the Parret; both west and east of Selwood, also north of the Thames and west of the Severn as well as some part of the Welsh people”. Æthelred although a Mercian was married to Alfred’s daughter and thus as his son in law was able to cross the borders of Wessex in pursuit of Vikings. The combined Anglo-Saxon and Welsh army forced the Vikings to the northwest, where they were finally overtaken and besieged at Buttington.

Siege and battle

Battle of Buttington – A map of places named in the Burghal Hidage.

The western English army came up the River Severn, and besieged all sides of the fortification (at Buttington) where the Vikings had taken refuge. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that “after many weeks had passed, some of the heathen [Vikings] died of hunger, but some, having by then eaten their horses, broke out of the fortress, and joined battle with those who were on the east bank of the river. But, when many thousands of pagans had been slain, and all the others had been put to flight, the Christians [English] were masters of the place of death. In that battle the most noble Ordheah and many of the king’s thegns were killed.”

Depiction of a typical Viking fortified town.

The annals say that the Vikings came up the Severn from the Thames making the most likely candidate for the location of the battle as present-day Buttington, Welshpool in the county of Powys, Wales. Another place that has been suggested is Buttington Tump at the mouth of the River Wye, where it flows into the Severn but this is seen as less likely.

The Vikings who had taken to their ships after Alfred’s arrival, at Exeter, sailed along the south coast and attempted to raid Chichester, a burh according to the Burghal Hidage, manned by 1500 men. The chronicle says that the citizens “put many [Vikings] to flight and killed hundreds of them and captured some of their ships”.

According to the Anglo-Saxon historian Æthelweard writing nearly a hundred years later, “Hastein made a rush with a large force from Benfleet, and ravaged savagely through all the lands of the Mercians, until he and his men reached the borders of the Welsh; the army stationed then in the east of the country gave them support, and the Northumbrian one similarly. The famous Ealdorman Æthelhelm made open preparation with a cavalry force, and gave pursuit together with the western English army under the generalship of Æthelnoth. And King Æthelred of the Mercians was afterwards present with them, being at hand with a large army.”

References

 

 

 

Frisians

The Frisians are a Germanic ethnic group indigenous to the coastal parts of the Netherlands and northwestern Germany.

They inhabit an area known as Frisia and are concentrated in the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen and, in Germany, East Frisia and North Frisia (which was a part of Denmark until 1864).

The Frisian languages are still spoken by more than 500,000 people; West Frisian is officially recognized in the Netherlands (in Friesland), and North Frisian and Saterland Frisian are recognized as regional languages in Germany.

The ancient Frisii enter recorded history in the Roman account of Drusus’s 12 BC war against the Rhine Germans and the Chauci. They occasionally appear in the accounts of Roman wars against the Germanic tribes of the region, up to and including the Revolt of the Batavi around 70 AD. Frisian mercenaries were hired to assist the Roman invasion of Britain in the capacity of cavalry. They are not mentioned again until c. 296, when they were deported into Roman territory as laeti (i.e., Roman-era serfs; see Binchester Roman Fort and Cuneus Frisionum). The discovery of a type of earthenware unique to 4th century Frisia, called terp Tritzum, shows that an unknown number of them were resettled in Flanders and Kent, probably as laeti under Roman coercion.

From the 3rd through the 5th centuries Frisia suffered marine transgressions that made most of the land uninhabitable, aggravated by a change to a cooler and wetter climate. Whatever population may have remained dropped dramatically, and the coastal lands remained largely unpopulated for the next two centuries. When conditions improved, Frisia received an influx of new settlers, mostly Angles and Saxons. These people would eventually be referred to as ‘Frisians’, though they were not necessarily descended from the ancient Frisii. It is these ‘new Frisians’ who are largely the ancestors of the medieval and modern Frisians.

By the end of the 6th century, Frisian territory had expanded westward to the North Sea coast and, in the 7th century, southward down to Dorestad. This farthest extent of Frisian territory is sometimes referred to as Frisia Magna. Early Frisia was ruled by a High King, with the earliest reference to a ‘Frisian King’ being dated 678.

In the early 8th century the Frisian nobles came into increasing conflict with the Franks to their south, resulting in a series of wars in which the Frankish Empire eventually subjugated Frisia in 734. These wars benefited attempts by Anglo-Irish missionaries (which had begun with Saint Boniface) to convert the Frisian populace to Christianity, in which Saint Willibrord largely succeeded.

Frisian Warriors.

Some time after the death of Charlemagne, the Frisian territories were in theory under the control of the Count of Holland, but in practice the Hollandic counts, starting with Count Arnulf in 993, were unable to assert themselves as the sovereign lords of Frisia. The resulting stalemate resulted in a period of time called the ‘Frisian freedom’, a period in which feudalism and serfdom (as well as central or judicial administration) did not exist, and in which the Frisian lands only owed their allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor.

During the 13th century, however, the counts of Holland became increasingly powerful and, starting in 1272, sought to reassert themselves as rightful lords of the Frisian lands in a series of wars, which (with a series of lengthy interruptions) ended in 1422 with the Hollandic conquest of Western Frisia and with the establishment of a more powerful noble class in Central and Eastern Frisia.

In 1524, Frisia became part of the Seventeen Provinces and in 1568 joined the Dutch revolt against Philip II, king of Spain, heir of the Burgundian territories; Central Frisia has remained a part of the Netherlands ever since. The eastern periphery of Frisia would become part of various German states (later Germany) and Denmark. An old tradition existed in the region of exploitation of peatlands.

Frisian treasure from the Medieval period.

As both the Anglo-Saxons of England and the early Frisians were formed from largely identical tribal confederacies, their respective languages were very similar. Old Frisian is the most closely related language to Old English and the modern Frisian dialects are in turn the closest related languages to contemporary English, together forming the linguistic category of Anglo-Frisian.

The Frisian language group itself is divided into three mutually unintelligible languages:

Of these three languages both Saterland Frisian (2,000 speakers) and North Frisian (10,000 speakers) are endangered. West Frisian is spoken by around 354,000 native speakers and is not threatened.

Today there exists a tripartite division of the Frisians, into North Frisians, East Frisians and West Frisians, caused by Frisia’s constant loss of territory in the Middle Ages. The West Frisians, in general, do not necessarily see themselves as part of a larger group of Frisians, and, according to a 1970 poll, identify themselves more with the Dutch than with the East or North Frisians. Therefore, the term ‘Frisian’, when applied to the speakers of all three Frisian languages, is a linguistic, ethnic and/or cultural concept, not a political one.

References

  • Greg Woolf, “Cruptorix and his kind. Talking ethnicity on the middle ground”, Ton Derks, Nico Roymans (ed.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009) (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 13), 207-218.
  • Jos Bazelmans, “The early-medieval use of ethnic names from classical antiquity. The case of the Frisians”, in Ton Derks, Nico Roymans (ed.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009) (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 13), 321-329.

The Great Heathen Army

The Great Heathen Army

The Great Viking Army or Great Danish Army, known by the Anglo-Saxons as the Great Heathen Army, was a coalition of Norse warriors, originating from Denmark (and likely also from Sweden and Norway) who came together under a unified command to invade the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that constituted England in AD 865.

Since the late 8th century, the Vikings had settled for mainly “hit-and-run” raids on centres of wealth, such as monasteries. However, the intent of the Great Army was different. It was much larger and its purpose was to conquer.

The name Great Heathen Army is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 865. Legend has it that the force was led by three sons of Ragnar Lodbrok. The campaign of invasion and conquest against the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms lasted 14 years. Surviving sources give no firm indication of its numbers, but it was clearly amongst the largest forces of its kind.

The invaders initially landed in East Anglia, where the king provided them with horses for their campaign in return for peace. They spent the winter of 865–66 at Thetford, before marching north to capture York in November 866. York had been founded as the Roman legionary fortress of Eboracum and revived as the Anglo-Saxon trading port of Eoforwic.

A map of the routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878.

During 868, the army marched deep into Mercia and wintered in Nottingham. The Mercians agreed to terms with the Viking army, which moved back to York for the winter of 869–70. In 870, the Great Army returned to East Anglia, conquering it and killing its king. The army moved to winter quarters in Thetford.

In 871, the Vikings moved on to Wessex, where Alfred the Great paid them to leave. The army then marched to London to overwinter in 872 before moving back to Northumbria in 873. It conquered Mercia in 874 and overwintered at Repton on the River Trent By this time, only the kingdom of Wessex had not been conquered. Towards the end of 875, Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Edington, and a treaty was agreed whereby the Vikings were able to remain in control of much of northern and eastern England.

Background

Viking raids began in England in the late 8th century, primarily on monasteries. The first monastery to be raided was in 793 at Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described the Vikings as “heathen men”. Monasteries and minster churches were popular targets as they were wealthy and had valuable objects that were portable. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 840 says that Æthelwulf of Wessex was defeated at Carhampton, Somerset, after 35 Viking ships had landed in the area. The Annals of St. Bertin also reported the incident, stating:

The Northmen launched a major attack on the island of Britain. After a battle lasting three days, the Northmen emerged the winners – plundering, looting, slaughtering everywhere. They wielded power over the land at will.

The Great Heathen Army approaches English shores aboard a Viking Longship.

Despite this setback, Æthelwulf did have some success against the Vikings. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has repeated references during his reign of victories won by ealdormen with the men of their shires. However, the raiding of England continued on and off until the 860s, when instead of raiding, the Vikings changed their tactics and sent a great army to invade England. This army was described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a “Great Heathen Army” (OE: mycel hæþen here or mycel heathen here).

The size of the army

Historians provide varying estimates for the size of the Great Heathen Army. According to the ‘minimalist’ scholars, such as Pete Sawyer, the army may have been smaller than traditionally thought. Sawyer notes that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 865 referred to the Viking force as a Heathen Army, or in Old English “hæþen here”.

The law code of King Ine of Wessex, issued in about 694, provides a definition of here (pronounced /ˈheːre/) as “an invading army or raiding party containing more than thirty five men”, thus differentiating between the term for the invading Viking army and the Anglo-Saxon army that was referred to as the fyrd. The scribes who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle used the term here to describe the Viking forces. The historian Richard Abels suggested that this was to differentiate between the Viking war bands and those of military forces organised by the state or the crown. However, by the late 10th and early 11th century, here was used more generally as the term for army, whether it was Viking or not.

Sawyer produced a table of Viking ship numbers, as documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and assumes that each Viking ship could carry no more than 32 men, leading to his conclusion that the army would have consisted of no more than 1,000 men. Other scholars give higher estimates. For example, Laurent Mazet-Harhoff observes that many thousands of men were involved in the invasions of the Seine area. However, Mazet-Harhoff does say that the military bases that would accommodate these large armies have yet to be rediscovered. Guy Halshall reported that, in the 1990s, several historians suggested that the Great Heathen Army would have numbered in the low thousands; however, Halshall advises that there “clearly is still much room for debate”.

The army probably developed from the campaigns in France. In Francia, there was a conflict between the Emperor and his sons, and one of the sons had welcomed the support from a Viking fleet. By the time that the war had ended, the Vikings had discovered that monasteries and towns situated on navigable rivers were vulnerable to attack. In 845, a raid on Paris was prevented by the large payment of silver to the Vikings. The opportunity for rich pickings drew other Vikings to the area, and by the end of the decade all the main rivers of West Francia were being patrolled by Viking fleets.

Princess Gisla of the West Franks is the daughter of the Emperor Charles and his most trusted adviser. She is also the fine wife of Rollo and mother of William, Marcellus and Celsa. Here she is escorted to safety, through the streets of Paris by the Royal Guard,.

In 862, the West Frankish king responded to the Vikings, fortifying his towns and defending his rivers, thus making it difficult for the Vikings to raid inland. The lower reaches of the rivers and the coastal regions were left largely undefended. Religious communities in these areas, however, chose to move inland away from the reaches of the Viking fleets. With the changes in Francia making raiding more difficult, the Vikings turned their attention to England.

Invasion of England

The term vikingr simply meant pirate, and the Viking heres may well have included fighters of other nationalities than Scandinavians. The Viking leaders would often join together for mutual benefit and then dissolve once profit had been achieved. Several of the Viking leaders who had been active in Francia and Frisia joined forces to conquer the four kingdoms constituting Anglo-Saxon England. The composite force probably contained elements from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Ireland as well as those who had been fighting on the continent. The Anglo-Saxon historian Æthelweard was very specific in his chronicle and said that “the fleets of the viking tyrant Hingwar landed in England from the north”.

The bulk of the army consisted of Danish and Norwegian Vikings, who, prior to the invasion, would have been raiding Francia and Frisia. Some of the grave goods unearthed at Repton, where the Great Heathen Army spent the winter in 874, were of Norwegian origin, indicating that part of the army was likely to have contained elements of Norwegian Vikings, who would have been operating in Britain, raiding and conquering lands around the Irish Sea. The Great Heathen Army would also have consisted of various independent bands, or liðs, coming together under a joint leadership.

The Vikings had been defeated by the West Saxon King Æthelwulf in 851, so rather than land in Wessex they decided to go further north to East Anglia. Legend has it that the united army was led by the three sons of Ragnar Lodbrok: Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless (Hingwar), and Ubba. Norse sagas consider the invasion by the three brothers as a response to the death of their father at the hands of Ælla of Northumbria in 865, but the historicity of this claim is uncertain.

Actor Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lodbrok – in the TV series ‘Vikings’ on the History Channel.

Start of the invasion, 865

In late 865, the Vikings landed in East Anglia and used it as a starting point for an invasion. The East Anglians made peace with the invaders by providing them with horses. The Vikings stayed in East Anglia for the winter before setting out for Northumbria towards the end of 866, establishing themselves at York. In 867, the Northumbrians paid them off, and the Viking Army established a puppet leader in Northumbria before setting off for the Kingdom of Mercia, where in 867 they captured Nottingham. The king of Mercia requested help from the king of Wessex to help fight the Vikings. A combined army from Wessex and Mercia besieged the city of Nottingham with no clear result, so the Mercians settled on paying the Vikings off. The Vikings returned to Northumbria in autumn 868 and overwintered in York, staying there for most of 869. They returned to East Anglia and spent the winter of 869–70 at Thetford. There was no peace agreement between the East Anglians and the Vikings this time. When the local king Edmund fought against the invaders, he was captured and killed.

In 871, the Great Summer Army arrived from Scandinavia, led by Bagsecg. The reinforced Viking army turned its attention to Wessex, but the West Saxons, led by King Æthelred’s brother Alfred, defeated them on 8 January 871 at the Battle of Ashdown, slaying Bagsecg in the process.

King Æthelred’s brother Alfred, defeating the Viking Great Heathen Army.

Three months later, Æthelred died and was succeeded by Alfred (later known as Alfred the Great), who bought the Vikings off to gain time. During 871–72, the Great Heathen Army wintered in London before returning to Northumbria. It seems that there had been a rebellion against the puppet ruler in Northumbria, so they returned to restore power. They then established their winter quarters for 872-73 at Torksey in the Kingdom of Lindsey (now part of Lincolnshire). The Mercians again paid them off in return for peace, and at the end of 873 the Vikings took up winter quarters at Repton in Derbyshire.

In 874, following their winter stay in Repton, the Great Heathen Army drove the Mercian king into exile and finally conquered Mercia; the exiled Mercian king was replaced by Ceowulf. According to Alfred the Great’s biographer Asser, the Vikings then split into two bands. Halfdan led one band north to Northumbria, where he overwintered by the river Tyne (874–75). In 875 he ravaged further north to Scotland, where he fought the Picts and the Britons of Strathclyde. Returning south of the border in 876, he shared out Northumbrian land amongst his men, who “ploughed the land and supported themselves”; this land was part of what became known as the Danelaw.

King Alfred’s victory

According to Asser, the second band was led by Guthrum, Oscetel, and Anwend. This group also left Repton in 874 and established a base at Cambridge for the winter of 874–75.

Guthrum.

In late 875 they moved onto Wareham, where they raided the surrounding area and occupied a fortified position. Asser reports that Alfred made a treaty with the Vikings to get them to leave Wessex. The Vikings left Wareham, but it was not long before they were raiding other parts of Wessex, and initially they were successful. Alfred fought back, however, and eventually won victory over them at the Battle of Edington in 878. This was followed closely by what was described by Asser as the Treaty of Wedmore, under which England was divided between the Anglo-Saxons of Wessex and the Vikings. Guthrum also agreed to be baptised.

Aftermath

In late 878, Guthrum’s band withdrew to Cirencester, in the kingdom of Mercia. Then, probably in late 879, it moved to East Anglia, where Guthrum, who was also known by his baptismal name of Aethelstan, reigned as king until his death in 890.

The part of the army that did not go with Guthrum mostly went on to more settled lives in Northumbria and York. Some may have settled in Mercia. Evidence for this is the presence of two Viking cemeteries in modern-day Derbyshire that are believed to be connected to the Great Army, at Repton and at Heath Wood.

Excavations at the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Repton in the heart of Mercia between 1974–1988 found a D-shaped earthwork on the river bank, incorporated into the stone church. Burials of Viking type were made at the east end of the church, and an existing building was cut down and converted into the chamber of a burial mound that revealed the disarticulated remains of at least 249 people, with their long bones pointing towards the centre of the burial. A large stone coffin was found in the middle of the mass grave; however, the remains of this individual did not survive. A study of the skeletal remains revealed that at least 80% of the individuals were male, and were between the ages of 15 and 45. Further investigation of the male skeletal remains revealed that they were dissimilar to the local population of Repton, and most likely of Scandinavian descent. In contrast, analysis of the female remains revealed that they were similar to the local population, suggesting an Anglo-Saxon lineage. It is possible that the people in the grave may have suffered some sort of epidemic when the army overwintered in Repton during 873–74, leading to the mass burial. The nearby cemetery at Heath Wood barrow cemetery contains about sixty cremations (rather than burials). Finds of cremation sites in the British Isles are very rare, and this one probably was the war cemetery of the Great Heathen Army.

In 878, a third Viking army gathered on the Thames. It seems they were partly discouraged by the defeat of Guthrum but also Alfred’s success against the Vikings coincided with a period of renewed weakness in Francia. The Frankish emperor, Charles the Bald, died in 877 and his son shortly after, precipitating a period of political instability of which the Vikings were quick to take advantage. The assembled Viking army on the Thames departed in 879 to begin new campaigns on the continent.

The rampaging Viking army on the continent encouraged Alfred to protect his Kingdom of Wessex. He built a navy, reorganised the army, and set up a system of fortified towns known as burhs. He mainly used old Roman cities for his burhs, as he was able to rebuild and reinforce their existing  fortifications.

King Alfred’s ships fighting marauding Vikings.

Historically, every freeman in the land could be called out to protect the realm in times of trouble. However, the speed of Viking hit-and-run raids had been too quick for the local militias to act, so part of Alfred’s reforms were to create a standing army that could react rapidly to attacks. The Anglo-Saxon rural population lived within a 24 km (15-mile) radius of each burh, so they were able to seek refuge when necessary. To maintain the burhs, as well as the standing army, Alfred set up a system of taxation and conscription that is recorded in a document now known as the Burghal Hidage. The burhs were interconnected with a network of military roads, known as herepaths, enabling Alfred’s troops to move swiftly to engage the enemy. Some historians believe that each burh would have had a mounted force that would be ready for action against the Vikings.

By 896, the remains of the Danish army that had not gone to East Anglia or Northumbria found it difficult to make any progress in Alfred’s fortified kingdom, so according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle those that were penniless found themselves ships and went south across the sea to the Seine. As for Anglo-Saxon England, it had been torn apart by the invading Great Heathen Army, and the Vikings were now in control of northern and eastern England, while Alfred and his successors remained in control of Wessex.

NOTES

  1. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called the Vikings Danes, Pagans or Northmen. However it should not be assumed that they were purely Danish as they could also be derived from Sweden or Norway.
  2. The word “Viking” is a historical revival; it was not used in Middle English, but it was revived from Old Norse vikingr “freebooter, sea-rover, pirate, Viking”, which usually is explained as meaning properly “one who came from the fjords” from vik “creek, inlet, small bay” (cf. Old English wic, Middle High German wich “bay”, and the second element in Reykjavik). But Old English wicing and Old Frisian wizing are almost 300 years older, and probably derive from wic “village, camp” (temporary camps were a feature of the Viking raids), related to Latin vicus “village, habitation”.
  3. This reconstruction was made in 1985 by the BBC for a programme called Blood of the Vikings based on a skull and sword found in a burial outside St. Wystan’s Church, Repton

 

Early Viking activity in the British Isles

Norse activity in the British Isles occurred during the Early Medieval period when members of the Norse populations of Scandinavia travelled to Britain and Ireland to settle, trade or raid. The Norse peoples who came to the British Isles have been generally referred to as Vikings, but it is a matter of debate if the term Viking represented all Norse settlers or just those who raided.

At the start of the Early Medieval period, Norse kingdoms of Scandinavia had developed trade links across southern Europe and the Mediterranean, giving them access to foreign imports such as silver, gold, bronze and spices. These trade links also extended westward into Ireland and the British Isles.

In the last decade of the 8th century AD, Norse raiders sacked a series of Christian monasteries located in what is now the United Kingdom, beginning in 793, with a raid on the coastal monastery of Lindisfarne on the east coast of England. The following year they sacked the nearby Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, and in 795 they attacked again, raiding Iona Abbey on Scotland’s west coast.

Background

During the Early Medieval period, Ireland and Britain were culturally, linguistically and religiously divided into various peoples. The languages of the Celtic Britons and Gaels were descended from the Celtic languages spoken by those of Iron Age Europe.

In Ireland, parts of western Scotland, as well as the Isle of Man, people were speaking an early form of Gaelic known as Old Irish. There may have been another pre-Indo-European language spoken by the Erainn up until the 8th century in what is today Kerry, but this is likely to have been Celtic or some other Indo-European language.

In Western Britain, which includes; Cornwall, Cumbria, Wales, and Southwest Scotland, the Celtic Brythonic languages were spoken, with modern descendants such as Welsh and Cornish still being used. In Northern Britain, past the Forth and Clyde rivers which constitutes a large portion of modern-day Scotland, dwelled the Picts who spoke the Pictish language.

Due to the scarcity of writing in Pictish, all of which can be found in Ogham, views are conflicted as to whether Pictish was Celtic like the southernly languages, or perhaps even a non-Indo-European language like Basque. However, most inscriptions and place names hint towards the Picts being Celtic in language and culture.

Most peoples of Britain and Ireland had already predominantly converted to Christianity from their older, pre-Christian polytheistic religions. In contrast to the rest of the isles though, much of southern Britain was considered to be part of Anglo-Saxon England, where Anglo-Saxon migrants from continental Europe had settled during the 5th century CE, bringing with them their own Germanic language (known as Old English), a polytheistic religion (Anglo-Saxon paganism) and their own distinct cultural practices. By the time of the Viking incursions though, Anglo-Saxon England had too become mostly Christian.

The Isle of Man had supported its own agrarian population, but it is widely believed that it was Brythonic-speaking before Old Irish (later to become Manx) spread there. Gaelicisation could have taken place before the Viking age or perhaps during it, when the area was settled by Norse-Gaels who practised their own culture.

In northern Britain, in the area roughly corresponding to modern-day Scotland, lived three distinct ethnic groups in their own respective kingdoms; the Picts, Scots and Britons. The Pictish cultural group dominated the majority of Scotland, with major populations concentrated between the Firth of Forth and the River Dee, as well as in Sutherland, Caithness, and Orkney.

The Scots were, according to written sources, a tribal group which had crossed to Britain from Dalriada in the north of Ireland during the late 5th century. Archaeologists have not been able to identify anything that was unique to the kingdom of the Scots, noting similarities with the Picts in most forms of material culture. The Britons were those dwelling in the Old North, in parts of what have become southern Scotland and northern England, and by the 7th or 8th centuries, had apparently come under the political control of the Anglo-Saxons.

By the mid-9th century, Anglo-Saxon England was divided into four separate and independent kingdoms; East Anglia, Wessex, Northumbria, and Mercia, the latter of which was the strongest military power. Between half a million and a million people lived in England at this time, with society being rigidly hierarchical. This class system had a king and his ealdormen at the top, under whom were the thegns, or landholders, and then the various forms of agricultural workers below them.

Beneath all of these was a class of slaves, who may have made up as much as a quarter of the population. The majority of the populace lived in the countryside, although a few large towns had developed, namely London and York, which were centres of royal and ecclesiastical administration. There was also a number of trading ports, such as Hamwic and Ipswich, where foreign trade took place .

Scandinavia

Society in 8th century Scandinavia was, unlike parts of the British Isles, still pre-literate, existing in the final stages of European prehistory, known to archaeologists as the Iron Age. In Scandinavia, the 8th century proved to be “a period of rapid technological, economic and social development” which would lead the region out of the Iron Age and into what has come to be known as the Viking Age.

At the start of the Early Mediaeval period, the Norse populations saw themselves primarily as inhabitants of specific locations, such as Jutland, Vestfold and Hordaland. It would only be in the later centuries that the national identities would develop amongst the Scandinavians, dividing them into such national groups as the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians.

The Late Iron Age peoples of Scandinavia had not yet been converted to Christianity as the peoples of Britain and Ireland had, and instead followed Norse paganism, a polytheistic set of beliefs that revered such deities as Odin, Thor, Frey and Freyja.

Scandinavian society was heavily dependent on fishing herring, and when that failed, the seafaring Norse sailors turned to navigating around much of Europe during the Early Mediaeval period. The Norse populations of Scandinavia had developed trade links with many areas of Europe, obtaining large quantities of gold in the late 5th century, most of which had been found in Sweden, and to a lesser extent, Norway.

Viking raids: 793–850 AD

In the final decade of the 8th century AD, Norse raiders attacked a series of Christian monasteries located in the British Isles. In the British Isles, Christian monasteries had often been positioned on small islands and in other remote coastal areas so that the monks could dwell there in seclusion, devoting themselves to worship without the interference of other elements of society.

At the same time, it made them isolated and unprotected targets for attack. Historian Peter Hunter Blair remarked that the Viking raiders would have been astonished “at finding so many communities which housed considerable wealth and whose inhabitants carried no arms.” These raids would have been the first contact many Norsemen had with Christianity, but such attacks were not specifically anti-Christian in nature, rather the monasteries were simply seen as ‘easy targets’ for raiders.[13]

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such a terror appeared as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments.

Archbishop Alcuin of York on the sacking of Lindisfarne.

The first known account of a Viking raid taking place in Anglo-Saxon England comes from 789, when three ships from Hordaland (in modern Norway) landed in the Isle of Portland on the southern coast of Wessex. They were approached by the royal reeve from Dorchester, whose job it was to identify all foreign merchants entering the kingdom, and they proceeded to kill him. It is likely that other raids (the records for which have since been lost) occurred soon after, for in 792 King Offa of Mercia began to make arrangements for the defence of Kent from raids perpetrated by “pagan peoples”.

The next recorded attack against the Anglo-Saxons came the following year, in 793, when the monastery at Lindisfarne, an island off England’s eastern coast, was sacked by a Viking raiding party on 8 June. The following year they sacked the nearby Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey.

In 795 they once again attacked, this time raiding Iona Abbey on Scotland’s west coast. This monastery would be attacked again in 802 and 806, when 68 people dwelling there were killed. Following such devastation, the monastic community at Iona abandoned the site and fled instead to Kells in Ireland.

In the first decade of the 9th century AD, Viking raiders began to attack coastal districts along Ireland. In 835, the first major Viking raid in southern England took place and was directed against the Isle of Sheppey.

Treasure hoards

Various hoards of treasure were buried in England at this time, some of which may have been deposited by Anglo-Saxons attempting to hide their wealth from Viking raiders, and some of which may have instead been buried by the Viking raiders themselves as a way of protecting their looted treasure.

One of these hoards, discovered in Croydon (historically part of Surrey, now part of Greater London) in 1862, contained 250 coins, three silver ingots and part of a fourth as well as four pieces of hack silver in a linen bag. Archaeologists interpret this as loot collected by a member of the Viking army. By dating the artefacts, archaeologists came to believe that it was likely that this hoard had been buried in 872, when the army wintered in London.

The coins themselves came from a wide range of different kingdoms, with Wessex, Mercian and East Anglian examples found alongside foreign imports from Carolingian-dynasty Francia and from the Arab world. Not all such Viking hoards in England contain coins, however – for example, at Bowes Moor, Durham, 19 silver ingots were discovered, whilst at Orton Scar, Cumbria, a silver neck-ring and penannular brooch were uncovered.

The historian Peter Hunter Blair believed that the success of the Viking raids and the “complete unpreparedness of Britain to meet such attacks” became major factors in the subsequent Norse invasions and colonisation of large parts of the British Isles.

Invasion and Danelaw: 865 – 896

From 865 the Norse attitude towards the British Isles changed, as they began to see it as a place for potential colonisation rather than simply a place to raid. As a result of this, larger armies began arriving on Britain’s shores, with the intention of conquering land and constructing settlements there.

In 866, Norse armies captured York, one of the two major cities in Anglo-Saxon England. In 871, King Æthelred of Wessex, who had been leading the conflict against the Vikings, died and was succeeded to the throne by his younger brother, Alfred the Great. Meanwhile, many Anglo-Saxon kings began to capitulate to the Viking demands, and handed over land to the invading Norse settlers. In 876, the Northumbrian monarch Healfdene gave up his lands to them, and in the next four years they gained further land in the kingdoms of Mercia and East Anglia as well. King Alfred continued his conflict with the invading forces, but was driven back into Somerset in the south-west of his kingdom in 878, where he was forced to take refuge in the marshes of Athelney.

Alfred regrouped his military forces and defeated the armies of the Norse monarch of East Anglia, Guthrum, at the Battle of Edington. Following Guthrum’s defeat, in 886 the Treaty of Wedmore was signed between the (Norse-controlled) East Anglian and Wessex governments that established a boundary between the two kingdoms.

The area to the north and east of this boundary became known as the Danelaw because it was under the control of Norse political influence, whilst those areas south and west of it remained under Anglo-Saxon dominance. Alfred’s government set about constructing a series of defended towns or burhs, began the construction of a navy and organised a militia system whereby half of his peasant army remained on active service.

Although there were continuous attacks on Wessex by new Viking armies, the kingdom’s new defences proved a success and in 896 the invaders dispersed, instead settling in East Anglia and Northumbria, with some instead sailing to Normandy.

Alfred’s policy of opposing the Viking settlers was continued under the regime of his daughter Æthelflæd, who married Æthelred, Ealdorman of Mercia, and also under the regime of her brother Edward the Elder. In 920 the Northumbrian government and the Scots governments both submitted to the military power of Wessex, and in 937 the Battle of Brunanburh led to the collapse of Norse power in northern Britain. In 954 Erik Bloodaxe, the last Norse King of York, was expelled from the city.

Norse settlement in the British Isles

The early Norse settlers in Anglo-Saxon England would have appeared visibly different from the Anglo-Saxon populace, wearing specifically Scandinavian styles of jewellery, and probably also wearing their own peculiar styles of clothing as well. There was also a difference in the style of hair worn by Norse and Anglo-Saxon men, with the former typically wearing a hair style that was shaved at the back and left shaggy on the front, whilst in contrast to this the latter typically wore their hair long.[23]

Second invasion: 980–1012

Cnut the Great’s domains.

England

Under the reign of Wessex King Edgar the Peaceful, England came to be further politically unified, with Edgar coming to be recognized as the king of all England by both Anglo-Saxon and Norse populations living in the country. However, under the regimes of his son Edward the Martyr, who was murdered in 978, and then Æthelred the Unready, the political strength of the English monarchy waned, and in 980 Viking raiders from Scandinavia once more started making attacks against England.

The English government decided that the only way of dealing with these attackers was to pay them protection money, and so in 991 they gave them £10,000. This fee did not prove to be enough, and over the next decade the English kingdom was forced to pay the Viking attackers increasingly large sums of money. Many English began to demand that a more hostile approach be taken against the Vikings, and so, on St Brice’s Day in 1002, King Æthelred proclaimed that all Danes living in England would be executed. It would come to be known as the St. Brice’s Day massacre.

The news of the massacre reached King Sweyn Forkbeard in Denmark. It is believed that Sweyn’s sister Gunhilde could have been among the victims, which prompted Sweyn to raid England the following year where Exeter was burned down. Hampshire, Wiltshire, Wilton and Salisbury also became victims to the viking revenge attack. Sweyn continued his raid in England and in 1004 his viking army looted East Anglia, plundered Thetford and sacked Norwich, before he once again returned to Denmark.

Further raids took place in 1006–1007, and in 1009–1012 Thorkell the Tall led a Viking invasion into England.

In 1013 Sweyn Forkbeard returned to invade England with a large army, and Æthelred fled to Normandy, leading Sweyn to take the English throne. Sweyn died within a year however, and so Æthelred returned, but in 1016 another Norse army invaded, this time under the control of the Danish King Cnut son of Sweyn Forkbeard. After defeating Anglo–Saxon forces at the Battle of Assandun, Cnut became king of England, subsequently ruling over both the Danish and English kingdoms. Following Cnut’s death in 1035, the two kingdoms were once more declared independent and remained so apart from a short period from 1040 to 1042 when Cnut’s son Harthacnut ascended the English throne.

Invasions of 1066

The Battle of Fulford took place at Fulford near York, on 20 September 1066, when an invading Norwegian force led by King Harald Hardrada of Norway and Tostig Godwinson, his English ally, fought and defeated the Northern Earls Edwin and Morcar. When King Harold II of England heard of this defeat he marched his English army from the south coast of England to meet the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge took place near the village of Stamford, East Riding of Yorkshire in England on 25 September 1066. The Norwegian invasion was repelled but before the English Army had fully recovered, the Normans—under the leadership of Duke William II of Normandy (William the Conqueror)—invaded Anglo-Saxon England. William defeated Harold II of England’s army at the Battle of Hastings.

Evidence:

Written records

Archaeologists James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E. Batey noted that there was a lack of historical sources discussing the earliest Viking encounters with the British Isles, which would have most probably been amongst the northern island groups, those closest to Scandinavia.

The Irish Annals provide us with accounts of much Norse activity during the 9th and 10th centuries.

The Viking raids that affected Anglo-Saxon England were primarily documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals initially written in the late 9th century, most probably in the Kingdom of Wessex during the reign of Alfred the Great. The Chronicle is however a biased source, acting as a piece of “wartime propaganda” written on behalf of the Anglo-Saxon forces against their Norse opponents, and in many cases greatly exaggerates the size of the Norse fleets and armies, thereby making any Anglo-Saxon victories against them seem more heroic.

Archaeological evidence

The Norse settlers in the British Isles left remains of their material culture behind, which archaeologists have been able to excavate and interpret during the 20th and 21st centuries. Such Norse evidence in Britain consists primarily of Norse burials undertaken in Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles, the Isle of Man, Ireland and the north-west of England. Archaeologists James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E. Batey remarked that it was on the Isle of Man where Norse archaeology was “remarkably rich in quality and quantity”.

However, as archaeologist Julian D. Richards commented, Scandinavians in Anglo-Saxon England “can be elusive to the archaeologist” because many of their houses and graves are indistinguishable from those of the other populations living in the country. For this reason, historian Peter Hunter Blair noted that in Britain, the archaeological evidence for Norse invasion and settlement was “very slight compared with the corresponding evidence for the Anglo-Saxon invasions” of the 5th century.

References

 

  • Blair, Peter Hunter (2003). An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Third Edition). Cambridge, UK and New York City, USA: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-53777-3. 
  • Crawford, Barbara E. (1987). Scandinavian Scotland. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Leicester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7185-1282-8. 
  • DeVries, Kelly (2003). The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. ISBN 1-84383-027-2. 
  • Graham-Campbell, James & Batey, Colleen E. (1998). Vikings in Scotland: An Archaeological Survey. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-0641-2. 
  • Richards, Julian D. (1991). Viking Age England. London: B.T. Batsford and English Heritage. ISBN 978-0-7134-6520-4. 
  • Keynes, Simon (1999). “Vikings”. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England (Eds: Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg). Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 460–61.
hleomæg wesiKs

 

 

 

Justinian I – The Greatest Byzantine Emperor

In keeping with the theme of the Baltic Post, it is important to recognise the relationships between the Byzantine Empire, the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and finally the Normans. The Vikings engaged in trade with merchants throughout Europe, Asia and the Far East. The Volga and Dnieper Trade Routes were the two main trade routes that connected Northern Europe with Constantinople, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and the Caspian Sea. 

Eventually, the Vikings formed part of the Varangian Guard (Greek: Τάγμα τῶν Βαράγγων, Tágma tōn Varángōn)  which was an elite unit of the Byzantine Army, from the 10th to the 14th centuries, whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperors. They are known for being primarily composed of Germanic peoples, specifically Norsemen (the Guard was formed approximately 200 years into the Viking Age) and Anglo-Saxons (after the Norman Conquest of England created an Anglo-Saxon diaspora, part of which found employment in the Varangian Guard in Constantinople).

Therefore, the Vikings, Byzantines, Saxons and Normans were intrinsically linked. Which is why it is important to explore perhaps the greatest Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I.

Justinian I (/ʌˈstɪniən/; Latin: Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus Augustus; Greek: Φλάβιος Πέτρος Σαββάτιος Ἰουστινιανός Flávios Pétros Sabbátios Ioustinianós) (c. 482 – 14 November 565), traditionally known as Justinian the Great and also Saint Justinian the Great in the Eastern Orthodox Church, was the Byzantine (East Roman) emperor from 527 to 565. During his reign, Justinian sought to revive the empire’s greatness and reconquer the lost western half of the historical Roman Empire. Justinian’s rule constitutes a distinct epoch in the history of the Later Roman empire, and his reign is marked by the ambitious but only partly realized renovatio imperii, or “restoration of the Empire”.

Because of his restoration activities, Justinian has sometimes been called the “last Roman” in modern historiography. This ambition was expressed by the partial recovery of the territories of the defunct western Roman Empire. His general, Belisarius, swiftly conquered the Vandal kingdom in North Africa. Subsequently, Belisarius, Narses, and other generals conquered the Ostrogothic kingdom, restoring Dalmatia, Sicily, Italy, and Rome to the empire after more than half a century of rule by the Ostrogoths. The prefect Liberius reclaimed the south of the Iberian peninsula, establishing the province of Spania. These campaigns re-established Roman control over the western Mediterranean, increasing the Empire’s annual revenue by over a million solidi. During his reign Justinian also subdued the Tzani, a people on the east coast of the Black Sea that had never been under Roman rule before.

A still more resonant aspect of his legacy was the uniform rewriting of Roman law, the Corpus Juris Civilis, which is still the basis of civil law in many modern states. His reign also marked a blossoming of Byzantine culture, and his building program yielded such masterpieces as the church of Hagia Sophia. A devastating outbreak of bubonic plague in the early 540s marked the end of an age of splendour.

Emperor Justinian I.

Justinian was born in Tauresium around 482. A native speaker of Latin (possibly the last Roman emperor to be one), he came from a peasant family believed to have been of Illyro-Roman or Thraco-Roman origins. The cognomen Iustinianus, which he took later, is indicative of adoption by his uncle Justin. During his reign, he founded Justiniana Prima not far from his birthplace, which today is in South East Serbia. His mother was Vigilantia, the sister of Justin. Justin, who was in the imperial guard (the Excubitors) before he became emperor, adopted Justinian, brought him to Constantinople, and ensured the boy’s education. As a result, Justinian was well educated in jurisprudence, theology and Roman history. Justinian served for some time with the Excubitors but the details of his early career are unknown. Chronicler John Malalas, who lived during the reign of Justinian, tells of his appearance that he was short, fair skinned, curly haired, round faced and handsome. Another contemporary chronicler, Procopius, compares Justinian’s appearance to that of tyrannical Emperor Domitian, although this is probably slander.

When Emperor Anastasius died in 518, Justin was proclaimed the new emperor, with significant help from Justinian. During Justin’s reign (518–527), Justinian was the emperor’s close confidant. Justinian showed much ambition, and it has been thought that he was functioning as virtual regent long before Justin made him associate emperor on 1 April 527, although there is no conclusive evidence for this. As Justin became senile near the end of his reign, Justinian became the de facto ruler. Justinian was appointed consul in 521 and later commander of the army of the east. Upon Justin’s death on 1 August 527, Justinian became the sole sovereign.

As a ruler, Justinian showed great energy. He was known as “the emperor who never sleeps” on account of his work habits. Nevertheless, he seems to have been amiable and easy to approach. Around 525, he married his mistress, Theodora, in Constantinople. She was by profession a courtesan and some twenty years his junior. In earlier times, Justinian could not have married her because of her class, but his uncle, Emperor Justin I, had passed a law allowing intermarriage between social classes. Theodora would become very influential in the politics of the Empire, and later emperors would follow Justinian’s precedent in marrying outside the aristocratic class. The marriage caused a scandal, but Theodora would prove to be a shrewd judge of character and Justinian’s greatest supporter. Other talented individuals included Tribonian, his legal adviser; Peter the Patrician, the diplomat and longtime head of the palace bureaucracy; Justinian’s finance ministers John the Cappadocian and Peter Barsymes, who managed to collect taxes more efficiently than any before, thereby funding Justinian’s wars; and finally, his prodigiously talented generals, Belisarius and Narses.

Theodora

Justinian’s rule was not universally popular; early in his reign he nearly lost his throne during the Nika riots, and a conspiracy against the emperor’s life by dissatisfied businessmen was discovered as late as 562. Justinian was struck by the plague in the early 540s but recovered. Theodora died in 548 at a relatively young age, possibly of cancer; Justinian outlived her by nearly twenty years. Justinian, who had always had a keen interest in theological matters and actively participated in debates on Christian doctrine, became even more devoted to religion during the later years of his life. When he died on 14 November 565, he left no children, though his wife Theodora had given birth to a stillborn son several years into his reign. He was succeeded by Justin II, who was the son of his sister Vigilantia and married to Sophia, the niece of Empress Theodora. Justinian’s body was entombed in a specially built mausoleum in the Church of the Holy Apostles until it was desecrated and robbed during the pillage of the city in 1204 by the Latin States of the Fourth Crusade.

Reign:

Legislative activities

Justinian achieved lasting fame through his judicial reforms, particularly through the complete revision of all Roman law, something that had not previously been attempted. The total of Justinian’s legislature is known today as the Corpus juris civilis. It consists of the Codex Iustinianus, the Digesta or Pandectae, the Institutiones, and the Novellae.

Early in his reign, Justinian appointed the quaestor Tribonian to oversee this task. The first draft of the Codex Iustinianus, a codification of imperial constitutions from the 2nd century onward, was issued on 7 April 529. (The final version appeared in 534.) It was followed by the Digesta (or Pandectae), a compilation of older legal texts, in 533, and by the Institutiones, a textbook explaining the principles of law. The Novellae, a collection of new laws issued during Justinian’s reign, supplements the Corpus. As opposed to the rest of the corpus, the Novellae appeared in Greek, the common language of the Eastern Empire.

The Corpus forms the basis of Latin jurisprudence (including ecclesiastical Canon Law) and, for historians, provides a valuable insight into the concerns and activities of the later Roman Empire. As a collection it gathers together the many sources in which the leges (laws) and the other rules were expressed or published: proper laws, senatorial consults (senatusconsulta), imperial decrees, case law, and jurists’ opinions and interpretations (responsa prudentum). Tribonian’s code ensured the survival of Roman law. It formed the basis of later Byzantine law, as expressed in the Basilika of Basil I and Leo VI the Wise. The only western province where the Justinianic code was introduced was Italy (after the conquest by the so-called Pragmatic Sanction of 554), from where it was to pass to Western Europe in the 12th century and become the basis of much European law code. It eventually passed to Eastern Europe where it appeared in Slavic editions, and it also passed on to Russia. It remains influential to this day.

He passed laws to protect prostitutes from exploitation and women from being forced into prostitution. Rapists were treated severely. Further, by his policies: women charged with major crimes should be guarded by other women to prevent sexual abuse; if a woman was widowed, her dowry should be returned; and a husband could not take on a major debt without his wife giving her consent twice.

Nika riots

Justinian’s habit of choosing efficient, but unpopular advisers nearly cost him his throne early in his reign. In January 532, partisans of the chariot racing factions in Constantinople, normally divided among themselves, united against Justinian in a revolt that has become known as the Nika riots. They forced him to dismiss Tribonian and two of his other ministers, and then attempted to overthrow Justinian himself and replace him with the senator Hypatius, who was a nephew of the late emperor Anastasius. While the crowd was rioting in the streets, Justinian considered fleeing the capital, but eventually decided to stay, apparently on the prompting of Theodora, who refused to leave. In the next two days, he ordered the brutal suppression of the riots by his generals Belisarius and Mundus. Procopius relates that 30,000 unarmed civilians were killed in the Hippodrome. On Theodora’s insistence, and apparently against his own judgment, Justinian had Anastasius’ nephews executed.

The destruction that had taken place during the revolt provided Justinian with an opportunity to tie his name to a series of splendid new buildings, most notably the architectural innovation of the domed Hagia Sophia.

Military activities

One of the most spectacular features of Justinian’s reign was the recovery of large stretches of land around the Western Mediterranean basin that had slipped out of Imperial control in the 5th century. As a Christian Roman emperor, Justinian considered it his divine duty to restore the Roman Empire to its ancient boundaries. Although he never personally took part in military campaigns, he boasted of his successes in the prefaces to his laws and had them commemorated in art. The re-conquests were in large part carried out by his general Belisarius.

War with the Sassanid Empire, 527–532

From his uncle, Justinian inherited ongoing hostilities with the Sassanid Empire. In 530 a Persian army was defeated at Dara, but the next year saw the defeat of Roman forces under Belisarius near Callinicum. When king Kavadh I of Persia died (September 531), Justinian concluded an “Eternal Peace” (which cost him 11,000 pounds of gold) with his successor Khosrau I (532). Having thus secured his eastern frontier, Justinian turned his attention to the West, where Germanic kingdoms had been established in the territories of the former Western Roman Empire.

Conquest of North Africa, 533–534

The first of the western kingdoms Justinian attacked was that of the Vandals in North Africa. King Hilderic, who had maintained good relations with Justinian and the North African Catholic clergy, had been overthrown by his cousin Gelimer in 530. Imprisoned, the deposed king appealed to Justinian.

In 533, Belisarius sailed to Africa with a fleet of 92 dromons, escorting 500 transports carrying an army of about 15,000 men, as well as a number of barbarian troops. They landed at Caput Vada (modern Ras Kaboudia) in modern Tunisia. They defeated the Vandals, who were caught completely off guard, at Ad Decimum on 14 September 533 and Tricamarum in December; Belisarius took Carthage. King Gelimer fled to Mount Pappua in Numidia, but surrendered the next spring. He was taken to Constantinople, where he was paraded in a triumph. Sardinia and Corsica, the Balearic Islands, and the stronghold Septem Fratres near Gibraltar were recovered in the same campaign.

An African prefecture, centered in Carthage, was established in April 534, but it would teeter on the brink of collapse during the next 15 years, amidst warfare with the Moors and military mutinies. The area was not completely pacified until 548, but remained peaceful thereafter and enjoyed a measure of prosperity. The recovery of Africa cost the empire about 100,000 pounds of gold.

War in Italy, first phase, 535–540

As in Africa, dynastic struggles in Ostrogothic Italy provided an opportunity for intervention. The young king Athalaric had died on 2 October 534, and a usurper, Theodahad, had imprisoned queen Amalasuntha, Theodoric’s daughter and mother of Athalaric, on the island of Martana in Lake Bolsena, where he had her assassinated in 535. Thereupon Belisarius with 7,500 men invaded Sicily (535) and advanced into Italy, sacking Naples and capturing Rome on 9 December 536. By that time Theodahad had been deposed by the Ostrogothic army, who had elected Vitigis as their new king. He gathered a large army and besieged Rome from February 537 to March 538 without being able to retake the city.

Justinian sent another general, Narses, to Italy, but tensions between Narses and Belisarius hampered the progress of the campaign. Milan was taken, but was soon recaptured and razed by the Ostrogoths. Justinian recalled Narses in 539. By then the military situation had turned in favour of the Romans, and in 540 Belisarius reached the Ostrogothic capital Ravenna. There he was offered the title of Western Roman Emperor by the Ostrogoths at the same time that envoys of Justinian were arriving to negotiate a peace that would leave the region north of the Po River in Gothic hands. Belisarius feigned to accept the offer, entered the city in May 540, and reclaimed it for the Empire. Then, having been recalled by Justinian, Belisarius returned to Constantinople, taking the captured Vitigis and his wife Matasuntha with him.

War with the Sassanid Empire, 540–562

 

 

Modern or early modern drawing of a medallion celebrating the reconquest of Africa, c. 535

Belisarius had been recalled in the face of renewed hostilities by the Persians. Following a revolt against the Empire in Armenia in the late 530s and possibly motivated by the pleas of Ostrogothic ambassadors, King Khosrau I broke the “Eternal Peace” and invaded Roman territory in the spring of 540. He first sacked Beroea and then Antioch (allowing the garrison of 6,000 men to leave the city), besieged Daras, and then went on to attack the small but strategically significant satellite kingdom of Lazica near the Black Sea, exacting tribute from the towns he passed along his way. He forced Justinian I to pay him 5,000 pounds of gold, plus 500 pounds of gold more each year.

Belisarius arrived in the East in 541, but after some success, was again recalled to Constantinople in 542. The reasons for his withdrawal are not known, but it may have been instigated by rumours of disloyalty on behalf of the general reaching the court. The outbreak of the plague caused a lull in the fighting during the year 543. The following year Khosrau defeated a Byzantine army of 30,000 men, but unsuccessfully besieged the major city of Edessa. Both parties made little headway, and in 545 a truce was agreed upon for the southern part of the Roman-Persian frontier. After that the Lazic War in the North continued for several years, until a second truce in 557, followed by a Fifty Years’ Peace in 562. Under its terms, the Persians agreed to abandon Lazica in exchange for an annual tribute of 400 or 500 pounds of gold (30,000 solidi) to be paid by the Romans.

War in Italy, second phase, 541–554

While military efforts were directed to the East, the situation in Italy took a turn for the worse. Under their respective kings Ildibad and Eraric (both murdered in 541) and especially Totila, the Ostrogoths made quick gains. After a victory at Faenza in 542, they reconquered the major cities of Southern Italy and soon held almost the entire peninsula. Belisarius was sent back to Italy late in 544, but lacked sufficient troops. Making no headway, he was relieved of his command in 548. Belisarius succeeded in defeating a Gothic fleet with 2000 ships. During this period the city of Rome changed hands three more times, first taken and depopulated by the Ostrogoths in December 546, then reconquered by the Byzantines in 547, and then again by the Goths in January 550. Totila also plundered Sicily and attacked the Greek coastlines.

Finally, Justinian dispatched a force of approximately 35,000 men (2,000 men were detached and sent to invade southern Visigothic Hispania) under the command of Narses. The army reached Ravenna in June 552, and defeated the Ostrogoths decisively within a month at the battle of Busta Gallorum in the Apennines, where Totila was slain. After a second battle at Mons Lactarius in October that year, the resistance of the Ostrogoths was finally broken. In 554, a large-scale Frankish invasion was defeated at Casilinum, and Italy was secured for the Empire, though it would take Narses several years to reduce the remaining Gothic strongholds. At the end of the war, Italy was garrisoned with an army of 16,000 men. The recovery of Italy cost the empire about 300,000 pounds of gold.

Other campaigns

Spanish Visigothic gold tremisses in the name of emperor Justinian I, 7th century. The Christian cross on the breast defines the Visigothic attribution. British Museum.

In addition to the other conquests, the Empire established a presence in Visigothic Hispania, when the usurper Athanagild requested assistance in his rebellion against King Agila I. In 552, Justinian dispatched a force of 2,000 men; according to the historian Jordanes, this army was led by the octogenarian Liberius. The Byzantines took Cartagena and other cities on the southeastern coast and founded the new province of Spania before being checked by their former ally Athanagild, who had by now become king. This campaign marked the apogee of Byzantine expansion.

During Justinian’s reign, the Balkans suffered from several incursions by the Turkic and Slavic peoples who lived north of the Danube. Here, Justinian resorted mainly to a combination of diplomacy and a system of defensive works. In 559 a particularly dangerous invasion of Sklavinoi and Kutrigurs under their khan Zabergan threatened Constantinople, but they were repulsed by the aged general Belisarius.

Results

 

Emperor Justinian reconquered many former territories of the Western Roman Empire, including Italy, Dalmatia, Africa, and southern Hispania.

Justinian’s ambition to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory was only partly realized. In the West, the brilliant early military successes of the 530s were followed by years of stagnation. The dragging war with the Goths was a disaster for Italy, even though its long-lasting effects may have been less severe than is sometimes thought. The heavy taxes that the administration imposed upon its population were deeply resented. The final victory in Italy and the conquest of Africa and the coast of southern Hispania significantly enlarged the area over which the Empire could project its power and eliminated all naval threats to the empire. Despite losing much of Italy soon after Justinian’s death, the empire retained several important cities, including Rome, Naples, and Ravenna, leaving the Lombards as a regional threat. The newly founded province of Spania kept the Visigoths as a threat to Hispania alone and not to the western Mediterranean and Africa. Events of the later years of the reign showed that Constantinople itself was not safe from barbarian incursions from the north, and even the relatively benevolent historian Menander Protector felt the need to attribute the Emperor’s failure to protect the capital to the weakness of his body in his old age. In his efforts to renew the Roman Empire, Justinian dangerously stretched its resources while failing to take into account the changed realities of 6th-century Europe.

Religious activities

Justinian saw the orthodoxy of his empire threatened by diverging religious currents, especially Monophysitism, which had many adherents in the eastern provinces of Syria and Egypt. Monophysite doctrine, which maintains that Jesus Christ had one divine nature or a synthesis of a divine and human nature, had been condemned as a heresy by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and the tolerant policies towards Monophysitism of Zeno and Anastasius I had been a source of tension in the relationship with the bishops of Rome. Justin reversed this trend and confirmed the Chalcedonian doctrine, openly condemning the Monophysites. Justinian, who continued this policy, tried to impose religious unity on his subjects by forcing them to accept doctrinal compromises that might appeal to all parties, a policy that proved unsuccessful as he satisfied none of them.

Near the end of his life, Justinian became ever more inclined towards the Monophysite doctrine, especially in the form of Aphthartodocetism, but he died before being able to issue any legislation. The empress Theodora sympathized with the Monophysites and is said to have been a constant source of pro-Monophysite intrigues at the court in Constantinople in the earlier years. In the course of his reign, Justinian, who had a genuine interest in matters of theology, authored a small number of theological treatises.

Religious policy

 

Justinian I, depicted on an AE Follis coin

As in his secular administration, despotism appeared also in the Emperor’s ecclesiastical policy. He regulated everything, both in religion and in law.

At the very beginning of his reign, he deemed it proper to promulgate by law the Church’s belief in the Trinity and the Incarnation; and to threaten all heretics with the appropriate penalties; whereas he subsequently declared that he intended to deprive all disturbers of orthodoxy of the opportunity for such offense by due process of law. He made the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan creed the sole symbol of the Church and accorded legal force to the canons of the four ecumenical councils. The bishops in attendance at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 recognized that nothing could be done in the Church contrary to the emperor’s will and command, while, on his side, the emperor, in the case of the Patriarch Anthimus, reinforced the ban of the Church with temporal proscription. Justinian protected the purity of the church by suppressing heretics. He neglected no opportunity for securing the rights of the Church and clergy, for protecting and extending monasticism. He granted the monks the right to inherit property from private citizens and the right to receive solemnia or annual gifts from the Imperial treasury or from the taxes of certain provinces and he prohibited lay confiscation of monastic estates.

Although the despotic character of his measures is contrary to modern sensibilities, he was indeed a “nursing father” of the Church. Both the Codex and the Novellae contain many enactments regarding donations, foundations, and the administration of ecclesiastical property; election and rights of bishops, priests and abbots; monastic life, residential obligations of the clergy, conduct of divine service, episcopal jurisdiction, et cetera. Justinian also rebuilt the Church of Hagia Sophia (which cost 20,000 pounds of gold), the original site having been destroyed during the Nika riots. The new Hagia Sophia, with its numerous chapels and shrines, gilded octagonal dome, and mosaics, became the centre and most visible monument of Eastern Orthodoxy in Constantinople.

Hagia Sophia

Religious relations with Rome

 

Consular diptych displaying Justinian’s full name (Constantinople 521)

From the middle of the 5th century onward, increasingly arduous tasks confronted the emperors of the East in ecclesiastical matters. Justinian entered the arena of ecclesiastical statecraft shortly after his uncle’s accession in 518, and put an end to the Acacian schism. Previous Emperors had tried to alleviate theological conflicts by declarations that deemphasized the Council of Chalcedon, which had condemned Monophysitism, which had strongholds in Egypt and Syria, and by tolerating the appointment of Monophysites to church offices. The Popes reacted by severing ties with the Patriarch of Constantinople who supported these policies. Emperors Justin I (and later Justinian himself) rescinded these policies and reestablished the union between Constantinople and Rome. After this, Justinian also felt entitled to settle disputes in papal elections, as he did when he favoured Vigilius and had his rival Silverius deported.

This new-found unity between East and West did not, however, solve the ongoing disputes in the east. Justinian’s policies switched between attempts to force Monophysites to accept the Chalcedonian creed by persecuting their bishops and monks – thereby embittering their sympathizers in Egypt and other provinces – and attempts at a compromise that would win over the Monophysites without surrendering the Chalcedonian faith. Such an approach was supported by the Empress Theodora, who favoured the Monophysites unreservedly. In the condemnation of the Three Chapters, three theologians that had opposed Monophysitism before and after the Council of Chalcedon, Justinian tried to win over the opposition. At the Fifth Ecumenical Council, most of the Eastern church yielded to the Emperor’s demands, and Pope Vigilius, who was forcibly brought to Constantinople and besieged at a champel, finally also gave his assent. However, the condemnation was received unfavourably in the west, where it led to new (albeit temporal) schism, and failed to reach its goal in the east, as the Monophysites, remained unsatisfied; all the more bitter for him because during his last years he took an even greater interest in theological matters.

Suppression of other religions and philosophies

Justinian was one of the first Roman Emperors to be depicted wielding the cross on the obverse of a coin.

Justinian’s religious policy reflected the Imperial conviction that the unity of the Empire presupposed unity of faith, and it appeared to him obvious that this faith could only be the orthodox (Nicaean). Those of a different belief were subjected to persecution, which imperial legislation had effected from the time of Constantius II and which would now vigorously continue. The Codex contained two statutes that decreed the total destruction of paganism, even in private life; these provisions were zealously enforced. Contemporary sources (John Malalas, Theophanes, John of Ephesus) tell of severe persecutions, even of men in high position. In 529, the Neoplatonic Academy of Athens was placed under state control as paganism, strangling this training school for this branch of Hellenistic phiosopy.

In Asia Minor alone, John of Ephesus reported to have converted 70,000 pagans. Other peoples also accepted Christianity: the Heruli, the Huns dwelling near the Don, the Abasgi, and the Tzanni in Caucasia.

The worship of Amun at oasis of Awjila in the Libyan desert was abolished; and so were the remnants of the worship of Isis on the island of Philae, at the first cataract of the Nile. The Presbyter Julian and the Bishop Longinus conducted a mission among the Nabataeans, and Justinian attempted to strengthen Christianity in Yemen by despatching a bishop from Egypt.

The civil rights of Jews were restricted and their religious privileges threatened. Justinian also interfered in the internal affairs of the synagogue and encouraged the Jews to use the Greek Septuagint in their synagogues in Constantinople.

The Emperor faced significant opposition from the Samaritans, who resisted conversion to Christianity and were repeatedly in insurrection. He persecuted them with rigorous edicts, but yet could not prevent reprisals towards Christians from taking place in Samaria toward the close of his reign. The consistency of Justinian’s policy meant that the Manicheans too suffered persecution, experiencing both exile and threat of capital punishment. At Constantinople, on one occasion, not a few Manicheans, after strict inquisition, were executed in the emperor’s very presence: some by burning, others by drowning.

Architecture, learning, art and literature

 

Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

Justinian was a prolific builder; the historian Procopius bears witness to his activities in this area. Under Justinian’s patronage the San Vitale in Ravenna, which features two famous mosaics representing Justinian and Theodora, was completed. Most notably, he had the Hagia Sophia, originally a basilica-style church that had been burnt down during the Nika riots, splendidly rebuilt according to a completely different ground plan, under the architectural supervision of Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. According to Procopius, Justinian stated at the completion of this edifice, “Solomon I have outdone thee” (in reference to the 1st Jewish temple). This new cathedral, with its magnificent dome filled with mosaics, remained the centre of eastern Christianity for centuries.

Another prominent church in the capital, the Church of the Holy Apostles, which had been in a very poor state near the end of the 5th century, was likewise rebuilt. Works of embellishment were not confined to churches alone: excavations at the site of the Great Palace of Constantinople have yielded several high-quality mosaics dating from Justinian’s reign, and a column topped by a bronze statue of Justinian on horseback and dressed in a military costume was erected in the Augustaeum in Constantinople in 543. Rivalry with other, more established patrons from the Constantinopolitan and exiled Roman aristocracy (like Anicia Juliana) might have enforced Justinian’s building activities in the capital as a means of strengthening his dynasty’s prestige.

Justinian also strengthened the borders of the Empire from Africa to the East through the construction of fortifications and ensured Constantinople of its water supply through construction of underground cisterns (see Basilica Cistern). To prevent floods from damaging the strategically important border town Dara, an advanced arch dam was built. During his reign the large Sangarius Bridge was built in Bithynia, securing a major military supply route to the east. Furthermore, Justinian restored cities damaged by earthquake or war and built a new city near his place of birth called Justiniana Prima, which was intended to replace Thessalonica as the political and religious centre of Illyricum.

In Justinian’s reign, and partly under his patronage, Byzantine culture produced noteworthy historians, including Procopius and Agathias, and poets such as Paul the Silentiary and Romanus the Melodist flourished. On the other hand, centres of learning as the Platonic Academy in Athens and the famous Law School of Beirut lost their importance during his reign. Despite Justinian’s passion for the glorious Roman past, the practice of choosing Roman consul was allowed to lapse after 541.

Economy and administration

Gold coin of Justinian I (527–565 CE) excavated in India probably in the south, an example of Indo-Roman trade during the period
As was the case under Justinian’s predecessors, the Empire’s economic health rested primarily on agriculture. In addition, long-distance trade flourished, reaching as far north as Cornwall where tin was exchanged for Roman wheat. Within the Empire, convoys sailing from Alexandria provided Constantinople with wheat and grains. Justinian made the traffic more efficient by building a large granary on the island of Tenedos for storage and further transport to Constantinople. Justinian also tried to find new routes for the eastern trade, which was suffering badly from the wars with the Persians.

One important luxury product was silk, which was imported and then processed in the Empire. In order to protect the manufacture of silk products, Justinian granted a monopoly to the imperial factories in 541. In order to bypass the Persian landroute, Justinian established friendly relations with the Abyssinians, whom he wanted to act as trade mediators by transporting Indian silk to the Empire; the Abyssinians, however, were unable to compete with the Persian merchants in India. Then, in the early 550s, two monks succeeded in smuggling eggs of silk worms from Central Asia back to Constantinople, and silk became an indigenous product.

Gold and silver were mined in the Balkans, Anatolia, Armenia, Cyprus, Egypt and Nubia.

 

Scene from daily life on a mosaic from the Great Palace of Constantinople, early 6th century
At the start of Justinian I’s reign he had inherited a surplus 28,800,000 solidi (400,000 pounds of gold) in the imperial treasury from Anastasius I and Justin I. Under Justinian’s rule, measures were taken to counter corruption in the provinces and to make tax collection more efficient. Greater administrative power was given to both the leaders of the prefectures and of the provinces, while power was taken away from the vicariates of the dioceses, of which a number were abolished. The overall trend was towards a simplification of administrative infrastructure. According to Brown (1971), the increased professionalization of tax collection did much to destroy the traditional structures of provincial life, as it weakened the autonomy of the town councils in the Greek towns. It has been estimated that before Justinian I’s reconquests the state had an annual revenue of 5,000,000 solidi in AD 530, but after his reconquests, the annual revenue was increased to 6,000,000 solidi in AD 550.

Throughout Justinian’s reign, the cities and villages of the East prospered, although Antioch was struck by two earthquakes (526, 528) and sacked and evacuated by the Persians (540). Justinian had the city rebuilt, but on a slightly smaller scale.

Despite all these measures, the Empire suffered several major setbacks in the course of the 6th century. The first one was the plague, which lasted from 541 to 543 and, by decimating the Empire’s population, probably created a scarcity of labor and a rising of wages. The lack of manpower also led to a significant increase in the number of “barbarians” in the Byzantine armies after the early 540s. The protracted war in Italy and the wars with the Persians themselves laid a heavy burden on the Empire’s resources, and Justinian was criticized for curtailing the government-run post service, which he limited to only one eastern route of military importance.

Natural disasters

During the decade of the 530s, it seemed to many that God had abandoned the Christian Roman Empire. There were noxious fumes in the air; and the Sun, while still providing day, refused to give much heat. This caused famine unlike anything those of the time had seen before, weakening the people of Europe and the Middle East.

The cause of these disasters aren’t precisely known, but the Rabaul caldera, Lake Ilopango and Krakatoa volcanoes or a collision with a swarm of meteors are all suspected. Scientists have spent decades on the mystery.

Seven years later, in 542, a devastating outbreak of Bubonic Plague, known as the Plague of Justinian and second only to that of the 14th century, laid siege to the world, killing tens of millions. As ruler of the Empire, Justinian, and members of his court, were physically unaffected by famine. However, the Imperial Court did prove susceptible to plague, with Justinian himself contracting, but surviving, the pestilence.

The extent of the Bubonic plague under Justinian’s rule.

In July 551, the eastern Mediterranean was rocked by the 551 Beirut earthquake, which triggered a tsunami. The combined fatalities of both events probably exceeded 30,000, with tremors being felt from Antioch to Alexandria.

Cultural depictions

In the Paradiso section of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, Justinian I is prominently featured as a spirit residing on the sphere of Mercury, which holds the ambitious souls of Heaven. His legacy is elaborated on, and he is portrayed as a defender of the Christian faith and the restorer of Rome to the Empire. However, Justinian confesses that he was partially motivated by fame rather than duty to God, which tainted the justice of his rule in spite of his proud accomplishments. In his introduction, “Cesare fui e son Iustinïano” (“Caesar I was, and am Justinian”), his mortal title is contrasted with his immortal soul, to emphasize that glory in life is ephemeral, while contributing to God’s glory is eternal, according to Dorothy L. Sayers. Dante also uses Justinian to criticize the factious politics of his 14th Century Italy, in contrast to the unified Italy of the Roman Empire.

Justinian appears as a character in the 1939 time travel novel Lest Darkness Fall, by L. Sprague de Camp. The Glittering Horn: Secret Memoirs of the Court of Justinian was a novel written by Pierson Dixon in 1958 about the court of Justinian.

Historical sources

Procopius provides the primary source for the history of Justinian’s reign. The Syriac chronicle of John of Ephesus, which does not survive, was used as a source for later chronicles, contributing many additional details of value. Both historians became very bitter towards Justinian and his empress, Theodora. Other sources include the histories of Agathias, Menander Protector, John Malalas, the Paschal Chronicle, the chronicles of Marcellinus Comes and Victor of Tunnuna. Justinian is widely regarded as a saint by Orthodox Christians, and is also commemorated by some Lutheran churches on 14 November.

Primary sources

  • Procopii Caesariensis opera omnia. Edited by J. Haury; revised by G. Wirth. 3 vols. Leipzig: Teubner, 1962–64. Greek text.
  • Procopius. Edited by H. B. Dewing. 7 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press and London, Hutchinson, 1914–40. Greek text and English translation.
  • Procopius, The Secret History, translated by G.A. Williamson. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966. A readable and accessible English translation of the Anecdota.
  • Elizabeth Jeffreys, Michael Jeffreys, Roger Scott et al. 1986, The Chronicle of John Malalas: A Translation, Byzantina Australiensia 4 (Melbourne: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies) ISBN 0-9593626-2-2
  • Edward Walford, translator (1846) The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius: A History of the Church from AD 431 to AD 594, Reprinted 2008. Evolution Publishing, ISBN 978-1-889758-88-6.