The Birth of the Middle Ages, 395-814

By H. St. L. B. Moss | Go to book overview
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VII
THE AFTERMATH

THE ruin of Justinian's handiwork was nowhere seen so speedily as in northern Italy. A few years after his death the Lombards burst into the plains that lie between Alps and Po, and in a short time had possessed themselves of the district. From their original home in the Elbe region they had travelled across Europe by stages. By the end of the fifth century they were the ruling power in Hungary, and soon afterwards, by crushing the Heruls, they became Rome's neighbours on the Danube. Their conversion to Arian Christianity, and the introduction of more settled conditions, led to an increase in the royal power, as was usually the case with German peoples when thus exposed to Roman influences. But the culture which they acquired here was very slight; a century later they appeared to the Romans to be typical 'barbarians'. Their king, though absolute, was little more than a war-leader chosen for a single campaign. They possessed no magistrates or constitution; the blood-feud still reigned supreme, and the real bond of society was the clan. Since their departure from the Elbe they had rarely remained settled on the same land for more than one generation, and their agriculture was consequently primitive, since even in Hungary they had left the field-work to be done by slaves and subject peoples, while they themselves plundered the territory of their neighbours.

Hitherto the Lombards and Gepids had been the leading forces on the Danube frontier, and Justinian had, in Rome's customary fashion, retained Sirmium, the key-point of the district, for the Empire by playing off one people against the other. The entry of the Avars, a fierce tribe of Asiatic origin, broke up this situation. Using the Lombards as their catspaw, they destroyed the Gepid kingdom, taking most of the territory and booty for themselves. The Lombards were now in sorry plight; their independence was threatened by the Avars, and the hoped-for increase of land was not forthcoming. In desperation they embarked upon what was to prove the final stage of their migration. In 568,

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