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Mohammed and Charlemagne
By Henri Pirenne
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE CONTINUATION OF THE MEDITERRANEAN CIVILIZATION IN THE WEST AFTER THE GERMANIC INVASIONS
I. "Romania" before the Germans
Of all the features of that wonderful human structure, the Roman Empire, the most striking, and also the most essential, was its Mediterranean character. Although in the East it was Greek, and in the West, Latin, its Mediterranean character gave it a unity which impressed itself upon the provinces as a whole. The inland sea, in the full sense of the term Mare nostrum, was the vehicle of ideas, and religions, and merchandise. The provinces of the North—Belgium, Britain, Germany, Raetia, Noricum, Pannonia—were merely outlying ramparts against barbarism. Life was concentrated on the shores of the great lake. Without it Rome could not have been supplied with African wheat. It was more beneficent than ever now that it could be navigated in perfect security, since piracy had long disappeared. On the roads that led thither from all the provinces the traffic of these provinces converged upon the sea. As one travelled away from it civilization became more rarefied. The last great city of the North was Lyons. Trèves owed its greatness only to its rank of temporary capital. All the other cities of importance—Carthage, Alexandria, Naples, Antioch—were on or near the sea.
This Mediterranean character of "Romania" became even more marked after the 4th century, for Constantinople, the new capital, was before all a maritime city. It was opposed to Rome, which was merely a consumer-city, by virtue of the fact that it was a great emporium, a manufacturing city, and an important naval base. The more active the Orient, the greater its hegemony; Syria was the terminus of the routes by which the Empire was in communication with India and China, while by way of the Black Sea it was in touch with the North.
The West depended on Constantinople for manufactured articles and objets de luxe.
The Empire took no account of Asia, Africa and Europe. Even though there were different civilizations, the foundation was everywhere the same. The same manners, the same customs, the same religions were found upon these coasts, which had formerly known civilizations as different as the Egyptian, the Tyrian and the Carthaginian.
The maritime traffic of the Mediterranean was concentrated in the East. The Syrians, or those who were known as such, were the pilots and traders of the Eastern Seas. It was in their bottoms that papyrus, spices, ivory, and wines of quality found their way even to Britain. Precious fabrics were brought from Egypt, and also herbs for the ascetics. There were colonies of Syrians everywhere. The port of Marseilles was half Greek.
As well as these Syrians, the Jews were to be found in all the cities, living in small communities. They were sailors, brokers, bankers, whose influence was as essential in the economic life of the time as was the Oriental influence which made itself felt at the same period in the art and the religious thought of the period. Asceticism came to the West from the East by sea, as the worship of Mithra and Christianity had come.
Without Ostia, Rome is unimaginable. And if, on the other side of Italy, Ravenna had become the residence of the Emperors in partibus occidentis, it was because of the attraction of Constantinople.
Thanks to the Mediterranean, then, the Empire constituted, in the most obvious fashion, an economic unity. It was one great territory, with tolls but no custom houses. And it enjoyed the enormous advantage of a common monetary unit, the gold solidus of Constantine, containing 4[??]55 grammes of fine gold, which was current everywhere.
We know that since the reign of Diocletian there had been a general economic decline. But it seems that in the 4th century there was a recovery and a more active circulation of money.
In order to provide for the security of this Empire surrounded by Barbarians the frontier guard of the Legions had long sufficed: on the edge of the Sahara, on the Euphrates, the Danube, and the Rhine. But behind the dyke the waters were rising. In the 3rd century, owing partly to civil disturbances, there were cracks in the dyke, and then breaches. From all directions there was an irruption of Franks, Alamans and Goths, who ravaged Gaul, Rhaetia, Pannonia and Thrace, advancing even as far as Spain.
They were swept back by the Illyrian Emperors, and the frontier was reestablished. But on the German side of the Empire the limes no longer sufficed; a deep defensive front was necessary. The cities of the interior were fortified: those cities that were the nerve-centres of the Empire, Rome and Constantinople, became two model fortresses.
And there was no longer any question of closing the Empire to the Barbarians. The population was diminishing; the soldier had become a mercenary. The Barbarians were needed, as soldiers, and as agricultural labourers. They asked nothing better than to enter the service of Rome. Thus the Empire, on its frontiers, became Germanized in respect of blood; but not otherwise, for all who entered the Empire became Romanized. All these Germans who entered the Empire did so to serve it and to enjoy its advantages. They felt for it all the respect of the Barbarian for civilization. No sooner did they enter it than they adopted its language, and also its religion: that is to say, Christianity, after the 4th century; and in becoming Christians, in losing their national gods, and frequenting the same churches, they gradually merged into the population of the Empire.
Before long almost the entire army was composed of Barbarians; and many of them, like the Vandal, Stilicho, the Goth, Gainas, and the Suevian, Ricimer, achieved fame as soldiers of the Empire.
2. The Invasions
As we know, in the course of the 5th century the Roman Empire lost its Western territories to the Germanic Barbarians.
This was not the first time that the Empire had been attacked by the Germans. The menace was of long standing, and it was to guard against it that the military frontier Rhine-Danube limes had been established. It had sufficed to defend the Empire until the 3rd century; but after the first great assault of the Barbarians it had been necessary to abandon the old comfortable confidence and to adopt a defensive attitude, reforming the army by reducing the size of its units in order to render them more mobile; and finally it consisted almost entirely of Barbarian mercenaries.
Thanks to these measures, the Empire continued to defend itself for two hundred years.
What was the cause of its final failure?
It had its fortresses, against which the Barbarians were powerless, its strategic routes, a military art whose tradition was many centuries old, a consummate diplomacy which understood how division might be created among the enemies of the Empire, or how they might be bought—and this was one of the essential features of the Empire's resistance—and further, its aggressors were incapable of agreeing among themselves. Above all, the Empire had the Mediterranean, and we shall see what an advantage this gave it, even down to the time when the Vandals established themselves in Carthage.
I know, of course, that the difference between the armaments of the Empire and those of the Barbarians was not what it would be today; nevertheless, the Romans enjoyed an impressive superiority over peoples without a commissariat and without regular discipline. The Barbarians, no doubt, were superior in numbers, but they did not know how to revictual their forces. Think of the Visigoths, dying of starvation in Aquitaine, after living on the country, and Alaric in Italy!
As against its advantages, we must remember that the Empire was obliged to keep armies in being on the frontiers of Africa and Asia while it had to face its enemies in Europe. Further, it had to deal with civil disturbances; there were many usurpers, who did not hesitate to enter into understandings with the Barbarians; there were Court intrigues, which set up a Rufinus in opposition to a Stilicho; while the populations of the Empire were passive, and incapable of resistance; without civic spirit, they despised the Barbarians, but were ready to submit to their yoke. Consequently the defence could not count upon moral resistance, whether among the troops or in the rear. Fortunately, there were no moral forces on the side of the aggressor either. There was nothing to provoke the Germans against the Empire: no religious motives, no racial hatred, and still less any sort of political consideration. Far from hating the Empire, they admired it. All they wanted was to settle down in the Empire and enjoy its advantages. And their kings aspired to the attainment of Roman dignities. There was nothing comparable to the contrast between the Musulmans and the Christians of a later date. The paganism of the Barbarians did not inspire them with hatred of the Roman gods, nor did it excite their hostility toward the one God of the Christians. About the middle of the 4th century a Goth, Ulfila, who had been converted to Arianism in Byzantium, introduced the new religion among his compatriots on the Dnieper, and they in turn propagated the faith among other Germans, Vandals and Burgundians. Heretics without knowing it, their Christianity nevertheless brought them closer to the Romans.
On the other hand, these Germans of the East had had some initiation into the ways of civilization. On descending to the shores of the Black Sea the Goths had come into contact with the ancient Graeco-Oriental culture of the Greeks and Sarmatians of the Crimea; and there they learnt to practise the production of the florid goldsmith's art which they afterwards made known throughout Europe under the style of Ars Barbarica.
By sea they were in communication with the Bosphorus, where in the year 330 Constantinople, the great new city, had been founded on the site of the Greek Byzantium (May 11th, 330). It was from Constantinople that Christianity had come to them with Ulfila, and we may be sure that Ulfila was not the only one of their number to be attracted by the brilliant capital of the Empire. In the natural course of events they were bound to feel the influence of the great city beyond the Black Sea, just as the Varangians were to feel it at a later date.
The Barbarians did not spontaneously hurl themselves upon the Empire. They were pushed forward by the flood of the Hunnish advance, which in this way caused the whole series of invasions. For the first time Europe was to feel, across the immense gap of the Sarmatic Plain, the repercussion of the clashes between the populations of Farthest Asia.
The arrival of the Huns flung the Goths against the Empire. It seems that their method of fighting, perhaps their appearance, and their nomadism, which seemed so terrible to a sedentary population, rendered them invincible.
The defeated Ostrogoths were flung against Pannonia, and the Visigoths fled across the Danube. This was in the autumn of 376. The Romans had to let them pass. How many were they? It is impossible to say precisely. L. Schmidt imagines that there were 40,000, of whom 8,000 were warriors.
They crossed the frontier with their dukes, like a nation, with the consent of the Emperor, who acknowledged them as allies, subject to the obligation of furnishing recruits to the Roman army.
This was something quite new, and it was a happening of extreme importance. With the Ostrogoths a foreign body had entered into the Empire. They retained their rights of nationality. They were not divided up, but were left in a compact group. The arrangements were hastily made; no territory was assigned to them; and finding themselves in a sterile mountainous region, they revolted no later than the following year (377). What they coveted was access to the Mediterranean, and they began to march toward the sea.
On August 9th, 378, at Andrinople, the Emperor Valens was defeated and slain. The whole of Thrace was pillaged, excepting the cities, which the Barbarians could not take. They penetrated as far as Constantinople, which resisted them, as it was afterwards to resist the Arabs.
Without the possession of Constantinople, the Germans were able to establish themselves upon the coast, thereby reaching the vital centre of the Empire. But Theodosius drove them away from it. In 382, having defeated them, he established them in Moesia. But they still constituted a nation. During the war, doubtless for military reasons, they replaced their dukes by a king: Alaric. It was very natural that he should have wished to extend his territory, and to attempt the capture of Constantinople, which fascinated him. But we must not regard this endeavour, as L. Schmidt has done, on the authority of Isidore of Seville (!), as an attempt to set up a national Germanic kingdom in the East. Although their numbers had been considerably increased by fresh arrivals from beyond the Danube, the Germanic character of the Goths was already greatly diminished by the addition of the slaves and adventurers who had come to join them.
The Empire had taken no precautions against them, if we except the law of Valentinian and Valens, introduced in 370 or 375, which prohibited marriage between Romans and Barbarians under penalty of death. But in preventing their assimilation by the Roman population this perpetuated their condition of a foreign body within the Empire, and probably did something towards inducing them to undertake fresh adventures.
Finding the way open before them, the Goths ravaged Greece, Athens and the Peloponnesus. Stilicho, sailing for the East, fought them and drove them back into Epirus. However, they remained within the Empire, and Arcadius authorized them to settle, still as allies, in Illyria; and hoping, no doubt, to make him submissive to the authority of the Emperor, he invested Alaric with the title of Magister militum per Illyricum. By this means the Goths were at all events safely removed from Constantinople, but they were near Italy, which had not yet been ravaged, and they launched an attack upon it in 401. Stilicho defeated them at Pollenza and at Verona, and drove them back in 402. According to L. Schmidt, Alaric invaded Italy in order to realize his "world plans." This is to imagine that with the 100,000 men whom Schmidt attributes to him he conceived the idea of replacing the Roman by a Germanic Empire.
In reality, Alaric was a condottiere who was greedy for gain. He was so free from convictions of any sort that he hired himself to Stilicho, for 4,000 librae of gold, in order to fight Arcadius, with whom he had a treaty of alliance.
Stilicho was assassinated at a convenient moment for Alaric. With an army enlarged by a great proportion of Stilicho's troops, he marched upon Italy once more in 408. In Alaric the Barbarian was becoming metamorphosed into an intriguing Roman soldier. In 409, as Honorius refused to treat with him, he caused the senator, Priscus Attalus, to be proclaimed Emperor, whereupon Priscus promoted him to the superior rank of Magister utriusque militiae praesentialis. Then, hoping to become reconciled with Honorius, Alaric betrayed his creature. But Honorius had no intention of becoming a second Attalus. Thereupon Alaric proceeded to pillage Rome, having taken the city by surprise; and when he left it he took with him Galla Placidia, the Emperor's sister. Was it his intention to turn back and attack Ravenna? On the contrary. He marched into Southern Italy, which had not yet been pillaged, intending to cross over to Africa, the granary of Rome, and the most prosperous of the Western provinces. And as it marched his army ravaged the country, in order to obtain food. Alaric was not destined to reach Africa; he died at the end of the year 410. His burial in the bed of the Busento was that of an epic hero.
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