What determined the collapse or survival of the successor kingdoms in the West

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Last updated: April 7, 2019

In addressing the question, I have chosen to look particularly at two kingdoms which I feel best illustrate the notions of collapse and survival: for continuity, I have chosen the Visigoths of Spain, and for collapse, I have chosen the Ostrogoths of Italy. Implicit in my analysis is the acknowledgement that the Visigothic kingdom did collapse in 711 with the arrival of the Moors, but I have chosen not to discuss that as I feel the notions of collapse are admirably illustrated by the Ostrogoths, and where further examples are required other contemporary civilisations, such as the Vandals.Beyond the battle in which the king is killed and the country officially taken, it is sometimes difficult to see exactly what had happened to the kingdom that it has ended like this, especially in the case of Ostrogothic Italy. There are usually a combination of key factors behind this collapse, most notably the structure of the state and its relationship with the church. Finally, the importance of geographic location must be considered.

At some point or other, the tribes that have been considered in this essay were defeated and their territories conquered by another tribe or army.Thus the different types of external threat that these kingdoms face must be considered. The contrasting weakness or strength of neighbouring barbarian kingdoms and the consequent threat they posed was a crucial external threat.

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The Franks, especially under the expansionist regime of Clovis (481 – 511) were a continual annoyance on the northern borders of Ostrogothic Italy, though were effectively neutralised for a while with the settlement of the displaced Alamans on the borders.Similarly, the Berbers were a more persistent and effective annoyance to the Vandals. These constant border conflicts affected the pace and stability of settlement, as it was difficult for garrisons to settle down and start cultivating the land if there was a continual requirement for them to go off and repel invaders. Conversely, a weak kingdom on your borders could be exploited for the benefit of your own civilisation, as seen in the initial Visigothic expansion into the Spanish peninsula, formerly home to the Sueves, who were pushed back to Galicia.Initially based in Southern France, Frankish conquests forced the Visigoths back into the peninsula and in reality to a much more secure position. Another key external threat was that of the Empire. Given that all of the territories discussed were still technically part of the Roman Empire, permission or acknowledgement of kingship by Constantinople was crucial to a problem free settlement of an area.

We see this most clearly in the invasion of the Italian peninsula in 488 by Theoderic, following an agreement with the emperor Zeno.Zeno benefited doubly from the agreement, as not only would it ensure the deposition of Odoacer, but also remove the Ostrogothic presence from the Balkans, where it was something of a nuisance. Later, the Empire would become more than a threat, and it was the armies of Belisarius, chief general to the emperor Justinian, who toppled Ostrogothic power in 539 and eventually the general Narses at the battle of Busta Gallorum and Mons Lactans in 552 who took out the last of the Ostrogothic kings. External threats proved to be the crucial final determinant in the survival of the kingdoms.If external threats could be neutralised, by diplomacy or show of sheer military force, then the kingdom could maintain or even expand its boundaries and culture. External threats, however, do not necessarily amount to anything when there is decisive and charismatic leadership in place. Rather than the nature of the threat which the kingdom faces, it could be argued that it was the unity and single mindedness with which the kingdom faced the threat, necessarily masterminded by a king that determined their ultimate collapse or survival.

Good kingship prevented such collapse through the fusion of territorial and cultural stability, as exemplified by the reign of Theoderic in Italy: He showed a ‘genius for uniting seemingly disparate groups1’, first in uniting a vast and vaguely named group of Goths from Balkans and conquering Italy. His political cunning was notable as well, as he united Goths and Romans within one system continuous with prior Roman heritage, which stood up until his death. Similarly, ‘It was the career of Leovigilid that really altered the standing of the Visigothic monarchy on the peninsula’2.

Appointed ruler of the south of the Visigothic kingdom by his brother Liuva (568 – 73) while he was addressing matters further north, Leovigilid (569 – 86) managed an impressive reconquest of much of the south and succeeded to the throne of the whole kingdom after the death of his brother in 573. Both were Arian by religion, yet managed to unite diverse strands of population, across ethnicities and religion, creating dialogue and managing problems in a system where they were the minority religion (though perhaps Leovigilid less towards the end of his reign) an impressive feat at that time.Conversely, bad kingship and weakness, especially on the battlefield, proved crucial in the collapse of reigns. A lack of foresight to continue previous policy could prove fatal.

A good example of this is Theodehad, the last Ostrogothic king: his lack of tactical anticipation proved fatal for him in the fight against Justinian, who almost managed to intimidate Theodehad into abdicating in favour of him3. Dealing with this external threat was what would make or break these kingdoms, so it is thus unsurprising that leadership was crucial.We see this most plainly when leadership was deficient or unstable, as it is at these points which kingdoms collapse. Yet perhaps it is a bit too simplistic to talk of one leader providing the impetus for a kingdom’s continual existence.

While there are undoubted personalities in the period that propelled their territories to greater heights, it was the structure of government and society which sustained these achievements and supported these rulers. Embedded in these ideals were, to a greater or lesser extent, those which had been assimilated by the Romans, to mixed results.The more ‘Romanic’ way of maintaining a structure of government was to separate the laws of the Goths and the Romans, and this was something that the successor kingdoms inherited to some extent. In the crudest way, it was practiced by tribes like the Vandals and the Sueves, who practised enslavement and subordination of their Roman populations. Ostrogothic Italy under Theoderic approached the problem differently, aiming to give Goths and Romans separate, but equal parts to play in the ruling of society, primarily that of citizen and politician to the Roman and soldier and general to the Goth, basing his ideas in classical Roman law.Patrick Amory, amongst others, has argued that this was disastrous for Ostrogothic Italy; the dualist nature of classical ethnography fitted ill to the multicultural society Theoderic presided over.

Thus by the arrival of Justinian, such roles were meaningless as it was impossible to lump the endlessly rich and varied populations within Italy into two groups, moreover two groups with such an implied cultural contrast: ‘The words Goth and Roman, redefinable as they were, could never fully describe or reorder a society far more complex than a division into two groups’4.No ‘Goths’ and no ‘Romans’ essentially amounted to no Ostrogothic identity and state. This did not appear to be such a problem for the Visigoths as the nature of the definition was essentially much more fluid and adaptable. There is evidence of constant renewal of laws: Code of Eusebius, Code of Alaric, Code of Leovigilid, and armies were provided by bands of nobles and followers attaching themselves to king in return for housing and favour. The structure of government and kingship was also crucial to a stable and integrated kingdom.However, the aristocratic class in Italy, given it was the location of the Senate, was that much larger than that in Spain, perhaps a reason why there were more specific laws to structure the interaction of Romans and Goths in government. Yet this did not maintain the Ostrogothic kingdom as it did the Visigothic. Perhaps we should return to the notion of kingship and the structure of inheritance.

A hereditary system had its benefits, thus why we see King Gaiseric of the Vandals restructuring his tribes traditional hereditary structure of equal division of land between sons to an eldest son structure to strengthen his territorial possessions. However, while one king could be a strong ruler, there was no telling what kind of a man his son would be like. In Italy, for example, Theoderic failed to produce an heir so nominated his daughter’s husband, Eutharic.Unfortunately, he died before Theoderic did, leaving the minor Athalaric as the heir to the throne. As he was still too young when Theoderic died, his mother Amalasuntha, along with two other generals, ruled for him. But when he died, power passed to the previously mentioned Theodehad, who was weak and old and refused to let the remarkably competent Amalasuntha into power. This created tremendous instability, and it was Amalasuntha’s death at the hands of Theodehad which was Justinian’s apparent reason for invading Italy.There is a marked contrast in the Visigothic system.

A relic from their tribal law left them much more relaxed about the rise and fall of dynasties, and so they were not afraid to remove someone from the throne if they performed poorly. We thus hear the story of how King Theuderic pardons his murderer on his death bed, as he himself did the same thing the the previous king, Amalric. This enabled the potential election of the best man for the job each time, and thus a much more dynamic monarchy was sustained.Thus we can see that the structure of government of these kingdoms was crucial in enabling them to repel invaders. Similarly, the nature of the ruling hierarchy, whether it was hereditary or more flexible to accommodate change and talent, permitted kingdoms to adapt and survive. In the above paragraph we have looked at the difficulties the states faced in trying to deal with their ‘Roman’ population, but so far we have ignored the relationship between the state and the church.If we look at this age and see in the transformation of the Roman Empire disaggregation, ‘the progressive separation and the loss of links among the different parts of the Empire’5, what remained as a form of structure after the Roman empire had gone was the Catholic church, and increasingly bishops were looked to not only as spiritual leaders, but political ones too (for example, Bishop Felix of Tarvisium, modern day Treviso, negotiated his city’s surrender to Alboin the Lombard in 5686). The relationship between the state and the church would prove vital to a stable kingdom.

There were those who took a neutral line and neither attempted to coerce or ban the church, such as the Ostrogoths. Despite Theoderic’s Arianism, he remained remarkably relaxed about so great a presence of another directly conflicting religion in his kingdom, and rarely persecuted Catholics, saying ‘We cannot impose religion, and no one can be made to believe in spite of himself’7. While admirable sentiment, one has to bear in mind that it was for the sake of Catholicism that his kingdom was reconquered by Justinian.

Perhaps had he formed a more aggressive alliance with the Pope it might have turned out differently.Equally aggressive, but in a different manner, were those who rejected the notion of toleration in favour of subjugation, unsurprisingly the Arian Vandals. Their subjugation and occasional enslavement of their Catholic population resulted in it being increasingly harder to control the population without constant recourse to force, and they willingly joined sides with the Orthodox Justinian when Belisarius’ army came through in 532.

The most successful alliance with the church was formed in Spain, where a position of cooperation was eventually adopted.Following the increasingly aggressive Arianist policies of Leovigilid, including a modification of the Arian doctrine to make it more amenable to Catholics, a situation was reached in Spain where serious conflict would arise if one of the parties would not assimilate the other. Luckily, the death of Leovigild and the accession of his son, Reccared, who promptly converted to Catholicism, saved the country being torn apart by civil war, as the few dissenters were quickly put down. Collins notes ‘the willingness of the Catholic bishops… to cooperate with the Visigothic monarchy.

.. ad no parallel in Western Europe8′ Given that these bishops were also frequently the political and social leaders of their communities, it represented a massive boost to the unity of the Visigothic government, and continued to do so through the series of kingdom wide councils held in Toledo from 630 onward, something Collins credits with knitting the disparate regions of the country together9. Some of these bishops, most notably Isidore of Seville, went on to provide valuable spiritual guidance and intellectual stimulation for the Visigothic rulers, similar to figures like Cassiodorus to Theoderic in Italy.It is pointless denying the influence of the Church on Late Antiquity, and as it moved ‘from the pagan concept of a religion defined by the state to the Augustinian notion of a state defined by religion’10 it gained in power and influence. Whereas previously bishops such as Ambrose of Milan had encountered limitations on the exercising of their power over emperors, such as Eugenius as he was pagan, the virtually homogenous Catholicism of Western Europe meant that they were a force to be reckoned with.

As has been demonstrated, good relations with the church were crucial to a stable and unified kingdom.Yet perhaps to look at factors which led to stable kingdoms consequently better equipped to repel invaders is to overlook one central historical occurrence of the period: that of Justinian’s invasion and reconquest of Africa and Italy. This was not undertaken because the two kingdoms were weak and ripe for the picking; it was undertaken because their recapture was central to Justinian’s belief about the nature of his role as an Orthodox emperor. Perhaps the geographic location of these kingdoms was as important to their collapse or survival and other factors that their leaders could affect.

Italy was the cradle of the Empire, and despite the gradual dissipation of the ruling structures and territories in the Western Empire, it, and Rome especially, were regarded with special affection by every true Roman, be they in Constantinople, Carthage or Cologne. One can see this in the shock waves that reverberated throughout the Roman world upon the sack of Rome in 410. In contrast, Spain was much more at the periphery of Roman heritage, and troops had all but pulled out of it by 41111.It certainly contained few monuments to past Roman glory to rival those in Carthage or Rome. As such, any kingdom established here, provided they did not threaten Byzantine possessions in Africa, was by and large left alone.

This is seen in the small Byzantine enclave on the south eastern coast of Spain at the time, centred round Cartagena. This was most likely to provide support to the African coast, and during the whole period of Justinian expansion and reconquest it was not belligerent at all to its Visigothic neighbours.Thus in conclusion, it appears that many of these factors contributed to the stability of their kingdoms, which in turn led to stability of settlement and kingdom, were they undertaken in a certain manner. Undoubtedly it seems obvious that only through a process of co operation with the prior residents of a territory and concessions on part of customs and religion were truly lasting societies developed. Yet this seems a bit simplistic, as one could argue that the Ostrogothic kingdom undertook these actions but was deposed after 65 years, whereas the Visigothic kingdom lasted until 711.

 However, when assessing these kingdoms, we must remember that the evidence upon which we draw our assessments provides us with a far from full picture, for example we have large resources of Visigothic law and codes to draw on but very little idea of the process of law and how the law was implemented.

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