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A History of Diplomacy in the International Development of Europe: Vol I The Struggle for Universal Empire
- The Relations of the Barbarian Kingdoms to the Empire
by David Jayne Hill, LL.D.


The sending of an embassy by Odoacer and the Roman Senate to the Emperor Zeno certainly did not imply that the Empire had ceased to exist. On the contrary, it was an explicit admission of its existence and of its authority as a legal fact. In truth, no one even thought of disputing it, least of all the barbarians themselves. To them, as to all men of that time, it seemed that the Empire was a part of the system of nature. The ground on which Odoacer's embassy asked authority to rule in Italy was, that no lawful emperor longer existed in the West. It is to be noticed also that it was in the name of the Roman Senate, that Odoacer appealed to Zeno for authority to rule. The reception and reply which Zeno accorded to this embassy confirmed the theory which its mission implied. The diadem and purple robe of Romulus brought by the ambassadors of Odoacer were accepted; but, at the same time, the ambassadors of the previously deposed Emperor, Julius Nepos, who came to appeal for help in his behalf, were received with equal honor. With dexterous diplomacy, neither request was denied and neither granted. The Senate was informed that, so long as Nepos lived., he was the legitimate sovereign; but, as he was a helpless exile, and no aid was furnished to his cause, the reply was merely nugatory. On the other hand, Odoacer was praised for his method of governing and permitted to rule in Italy, though not distinctly authorized to act as Patrician. Thus, the theory of the Empire was maintained, and the actual government continued to exercise authority. The imperial form persisted, but the reality had perished. The whole procedure was distinctly oriental; yet such was the prestige of the imperial idea that not only Odoacer in Italy, but the Visigoth Euric in Spain, the Burgundian Gondobad in Gaul, and the Vandal Genseric in Africa continued to permit documents to be dated and coins to be struck with the name of a Roman emperor upon them.

In fact, to most persons living in Italy under the rule of Odoacer, it could hardly have been apparent that any important change had taken place. The new Patrician retained, in the main, all the machinery of the Roman administration. The Senate still met at Rome, and the consuls gave their names to the years, just as they had done under the emperors. Pretorian prefects and masters of the soldiers were appointed as before. The Church was allowed to pursue its way unmolested; for, while Odoacer assumed the right to confirm the election of the bishops of Rome, he did not presume to name them. It was only in the expropriation of the land demanded by the mercenaries that the change was deeply felt, and this source of discontent seems to have been reduced to the minimum by divesting of their estates only the large proprietors, leaving the small ones in the quiet possession of their lands.

The date 476 is usually regarded as marking the final fall of the Roman Empire in the West, and as the boundary between the ancient and the mediaeval periods of European history. In truth, the Empire had long before ceased to be a reality and long afterward continued to be treated as a legal fact. In the twenty-one years previous, nine nominal emperors had succeeded one another, nearly all of them the helpless as well as the ephemeral creatures of barbarian leaders like Ricimer, Gundobad, and Orestes; who, under the name of "Patricius" or "Magister Militum" had virtually held what central power still remained.

The year 476 may, therefore, perhaps, as well as any other definite date, be chosen to mark a transition which was in its nature progressive and almost insensible, but which reached a culmination in the embassy of Odoacer. The significance of it lies in this, that it serves to fix in the mind the substitution of local and racial authority in Western Europe in place of the waning influence of universal imperial rule. It separates the period of European unity under the Empire, which it practically terminates, from that long age of change and disturbance in which the fragments of the old Roman world sought protection from further invasion and plunder, first by the organization of the barbarian kingdoms, then by the revival of the Empire, later by feudalism, and finally by the influence of the Church, until at last the solution was found in the rise of the great national monarchies and the development of the modern State System.

During all these centuries, and long afterward, the imperial idea was the dream of great thinkers and statesmen. It has never ceased to feed the imagination by its inspiring ideals and its splendid memories. It made of Rome the capital of the world in all that quickened ambition or directed thought. Its far reaching shadow fell upon every throne and guided every great aspiration. It, therefore, becomes the key of European history, and above all of European diplomacy, whose supreme efforts have been, on the one hand to create anew an empire fashioned upon the model of the old Roman imperium, on the other to thwart this endeavor and secure for the separate nations of Europe the guarantees of their independence and their rights of national sovereignty. The Roman and the German, using these terms in their broadest sense, have represented two opposing forces in the creation of the modern world. Neither has completely triumphed, but the organization of the one and the freedom of the other have combined to produce the political system of modern times.

When the barbarians overran Europe and Northern Africa, they were migratory bodies whose sense of nationality was not derived from the land they occupied but from their identity of race. Their kings were not the lords of prescribed territories, nor were they regarded as rulers of any particular regions. Euric, who was the Visigothic king in Spain, and Genseric, who was the Vandal king in Africa, were not kings of Spain or of Africa, but kings of the Visigoths and the Vandals. Odoacer, who ruled as Patrician in Italy, with the permission of the Emperor at Constantinople, signed his grants not as Patricius but as Rex; yet he never regarded himself as King of Italy. All these royal barbarians found it, for a time at least, quite consistent with their wishes and pretensions to recognize, in a theoretical fashion, the existence of the Empire; but they ruled the population where they dwelt without reference to the imperial will.

Several large kingdoms and many smaller ones of this kind rose upon the lands of the West where Rome had formerly held sway. Italy and Noricum were under the kingship of Odoacer. To the east of Noricum and south of the Danube, was the kingdom of the Ostrogoths, or East Goths. North of the Alps, along the Upper Rhine, lay the kingdom of the Alamanni. Between the Main and the Elbe was the kingdom of the Thuringians. West of this, lying along the Weser, was the kingdom of the Saxons. South and west of the Rhine, extending over the Lower Rhine, the Meuse, and the Moselle, as far south as the Somme, and destined to dominate the whole of Gaul and Germany, was the rising kingdom of the Franks. To the south, in the valley of the Rhone, lay the kingdom of the Burgundians. To the west, between the Somme and the Loire, was the evanescent Galle-Roman kingdom founded by Egidius and ruled by his son and successor Syagrius. All the remainder of Gaul and the whole of Spain, excepting the little kingdom of the Suevi in the northwest corner of the Spanish peninsula, constituted the seat of the great kingdom of the Visigoths, whose extent promised a still further expansion. Stretching along nearly the entire Mediterranean coast of Africa lay the vigorous but shortlived kingdom of the Vandals.

All these kingdoms were to undergo radical and rapid changes, for they were the habitations of restless and migratory peoples. The Franks were to spread over the whole of Gaul, annexing to their domain the lands of the Burgundians, the Alamanni, and the Thuringians, and making great inroads on the Saxons and the Visigoths. But it is unnecessary for our purpose to trace these mutations, which were to end, after a long period of movement and conflict, in the suppression of the barbaric kingdoms and the consolidation of the greater part of Western Europe under the Franks.

The diplomacy of Zeno in dealing with the embassy of Odoacer, while yielding to the necessity of the moment, had successfully guarded the legal rights of the Empire; and the Emperor had never abandoned the intention of restoring the imperial authority when the occasion offered. In 479, Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, requested of Zeno the authorization to join his army with the forces of the deposed Emperor Nepos for the purpose of restoring the dethroned monarch. The death of Nepos in 480 prevented the consummation of this negotiation, but about ten years later a similar proposition was made in behalf of Augustulus. Zeno, wishing to divert the Ostrogoths from an invasion of the East, approved the enterprise of reconquering Italy. and Theodoric, with the title of Roman Consul, set out at the head of his army, under orders of the Emperor, "to avenge the injury done to Augustulus."

The Romans were filled with joy at the prospect of seeing the Empire restored in Italy, and refused asylum to Odoacer when, forced to retreat, he sought refuge within the walls of Rome. After four years of heroic resistance, Odoacer was finally overcome. Theodoric had promised to spare his life, but in the midst of a banquet slew him with his own hand. The conquest of Italy had been made in the name and with the authority of the Emperor, to whom Theodoric still owed allegiance. For many years, Roman consuls continued to be named at Byzantium, while the name of the Emperor appeared on the monuments restored by the Gothic king and coins were stamped with his image. In time, however, Theodoric reunited nearly half of the old Roman Empire in the West, and Italy, rendered prosperous by his wise and vigorous rule, became in fact an independent kingdom.

Not merely by the power of the sword, but by the exercise of statecraft, did Theodoric attempt to extend and rule his wide dominions. The heir of the Roman institutions in Italy, which Odoacer had not disturbed, he had come into possession not only of a complete system of political methods and formulas but of highly skilled advisers. In the person of the elder Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman who had served Odoacer as a valued counsellor, Theodoric enjoyed the assistance of a trained publicist who was a master of all the imperial traditions. The younger Cassiodorus, who had received a careful education to fit him for public life, besides filling other high offices, became the confidential adviser of the King, the chief of his chancellery, and the historian of his time.

The first thought of Theodoric, after his conquest of Italy, was to obtain from the Emperor Anastasius a recognition of his government. For this purpose he sent an embassy to present his homage to the new emperor, who had just succeeded Zeno, and to express his acknowledgment of the imperial supremacy. Although, according to a chronicler of the time, the Emperor not only recognized Theodoric but presented him with the imperial ornaments which Odoacer had sent to Constantinople, it is doubtful if the advances of the Goth were received without distrust.

On his part, at least, the barbarian king was quick to perceive the incompatibility of his own ambition and the permanent interests of the Empire. Placed between Constantinople on the East and the barbarian kingdoms on the West, his security lay in the cultivation of peaceful relations on both sides. Foreseeing the inevitable conflict with the Empire when it was prepared to assert its authority over him, he at once began to organize his defence by forming strong alliances with his barbarian neighbors. The identity of political interests was strengthened by the community of religious faith among these invaders of imperial territory; for, like himself, the kings of the Visigoths, Burgundians, and Vandals were followers of the Arian heresy. Under the guidance of Cassiodorus the Elder, Theodoric undertook to create a system of alliances with his neighbors, by which their forces would be united to preserve their conquests from future reclamation by the Emperor.

The first step in this direction was a series of marriages by which his family became connected with the principal barbarian kings. Taking as his wife Audelfreda, the sister of Clovis, King of the Franks, at that time a pagan nation, he hoped to exercise a predominating influence upon the future of that kingdom. Having married his sister, Almafreda, to Trasamund, King of the Vandals, his two daughters by an earlier marriage were given to Alaric II, King of the Visigoths, and Sigismund, son of the King of the Burgundians. A niece, Amalaberga, was married to Hermenfrid, King of the Thuringians. Having thus made himself the centre of a group of family alliances, he endeavored by means of gifts and friendly services to unite all the others under his leadership.

The task which Theodoric had undertaken was not devoid of serious difficulties; for, while the Vandals, the Visigoths, and the Burgundians had already made extensive conquests, and were endeavoring to consolidate their power within the limits already attained, the Franks were eager to extend their borders, and under the leadership of their energetic and unscrupulous king were constantly invading and subjugating their neighbors. When the Alamanni, driven by the merciless violence of the Franks, crossed the Alps to seek refuge in Italy, Theodoric was placed in a position of extreme embarrassment. If he refused protection to the unfortunate refugees, he would lose his influence with his peaceable neighbors. If he afforded them asylum, he would incur the hostility of Clovis. The manner in which he solved this delicate problem illustrates the acumen of this barbarian prince. He welcomed the refugees and offered them homes in the depopulated districts of Northern Italy, but at the same time wrote to Clovis a friendly letter, congratulating him upon his brilliant victory and intimating that, since Clovis would, doubtless, regard it wise to exercise moderation after so signal a triumph, he, as a friend and relative, had received the vanquished and would be pleased to aid him in his exhibition of clemency by caring for them in such a manner as to redound to the credit of the Frankish king.1 Two ambassadors were charged to deliver this clever message, and, in order to appease still further the warlike temper of Clovis, an accomplished singer and citharist was sent to soothe his spirit with gentle music. Touched by the friendliness of the letter and the sweetness of the songs, Clovis accepted the offer of Theodoric, and the crisis was safely passed.

In his efforts to extend his realm and to influence his neighbors, Theodoric was brought into relations with all the barbarian rulers, particularly with those of the Franks and the Burgundians, and thus the forms and usages of the old Roman chancellery were passed on and became the common property of these kingdoms. Under the name of nuntii, missi, or legati, envoys were sent by these rulers not only to the Eastern Emperor but to one another. In one of his letters, Cassiodorus has expressed his estimate of the qualities essential to a diplomatic agent, an opinion which may furnish an instructive lesson to our own time. "If, indeed," he says, "every embassy requires a wise man, to whom the conservation of the interests of the state may be intrusted, the most sagacious of all should be chosen, who will be able to argue against the most crafty, and to speak in the council of the wise in such a manner that even so great a number of learned men will not be able to gain a victory in the business with which he is charged." 2

In order that the embassy might be impressive as well as sagacious, for the transaction of important public business only illustrious men were chosen, especially men of learning. As the conduct of a mission often required freedom of judgment, the instructions given by the King were of the most general character, and appear to have been chiefly oral; but Casaiodorus has preserved and transmitted forms of letters of credence, whose Latin formulas continued to be used, practically without alteration, throughout the whole of the Middle Ages, and have furnished the general type of these documents for all subsequent times.3

Even among the most barbaric nations, the inviolability of envoys appears to have been recognized from very early times. To protect them from violence on their journeys, a supplement to the Salic Law imposed a wergeld of eighteen hundred soldi upon the murderer of an ambassador. Similar penalties are found in the codes of the Alamanni, the Saxons, the Frisians, and the Lombards.4

Provision for the entertainment of envoys travelling through the country was also customary in the barbaric kingdoms. An old Burgundian law provides that free lodging must be furnished to an envoy on his journey, and a sheep or other animal is to be added when required, under penalty of a fine of six soldi for refusal. All persons who have received presents from the King must entertain an envoy over night at their own charges, and failure to do this, when requested, is punished with a fine of twelve soldi. In like manner, an ancient Ripuarian law imposes a severe punishment for refusal to entertain an envoy travelling to or from the royal court.5

Upon his arrival at his destination, the envoy was received by a master of ceremonies (magister officiorum), a high officer of state, aided by several subordinates, who, in continuance of the old Roman custom, arranged the first audience with the sovereign and looked after the entertainment of the embassy. The duties of this officer at the court of Theodoric are explicitly mentioned by Cassiodorus, who says: "Intercourse with foreign peoples was so carefully mediated by him that foreign envoys were reluctant to return home, on account of the honorable reception accorded them."6

The ceremonies of reception at the Gothic court were in imitation of those customary at Byzantium, where great pomp and elaborate formality were in vogue, and included the exchange of gifts, and other oriental usages. Even the Frankish and the Visigothic kings, as we learn from incidental references of the chroniclers, endeavored to reproduce the etiquette of Constantinople; for we read of ambassadors prostrating themselves before the Merovingian princes, and kneeling in the Asiatic manner before the throne of Euric.

It was not, therefore, owing to a want of forms of intercourse, that the barbarian kingdoms did not establish permanent international relations, and build up a system of sovereign states like that of modern times. It was, rather, because there was wanting that settled association between the people and the land which we now know under the name of territorial sovereignty, and because the relations between the peoples in whose name the kings governed demanded only the most elemental compacts with their neighbors. The great task that lay before them was the formation of political organisms by the blending of the conquering and vanquished populations, the revision of their laws, and the consolidation of society.

While the vicissitudes of those changeful times bore no permanent fruits prior to the Frankish conquests, in one respect they deserve our further attention here. The barbarian invaders had at last found permanent abiding places, and the great general migrations came to an end. The people tend, henceforth, to become identified with their geographical environments, and to form local patriotisms which give them a distinctive character. They group themselves closely around their immediate leaders, who have become the possessors of the soil; and these, in turn, retain their connection of military service with their superiors. And thus the ground is prepared for the development of that feudal order which is to prove the strongest reliance for purposes of self-defence when new invaders harry the land and the protection of the central power fails. Further than this, the settlement of the various races on the soil of the Empire sowed the seed of those national cohesions which were eventually to assert themselves as the organic elements of modern national development. The unity of the peoples, purely racial in the beginning, was, in time, to be transferred to the territories which they occupied and in which they continued to dwell; so that, at last, the persistent national units which compose modern Europe were to emerge from this confusion of migratory hordes. The identification of the people and the land was to become the basis of a new political order, challenging and at last superseding, the idea of a universal empire with a new conception, - that of a family of nations.

During the remainder of the fifth and the first quarter of the sixth centuries, while the West was experiencing the rivalries and conflicts of the barbarian kingdoms, the Empire in the East was wholly preoccupied with its own affairs, defending itself from internal rebellions and the encroachments of the Persian monarchy, which was endeavoring to advance its frontiers toward the West.

In 518, Justin, an Illyrian peasant and soldier of fortune, obtained the imperial throne of the East, and in 527 was succeeded by his nephew, Justinian, whose brilliant reign aimed at the complete restoration of the old Roman Empire. Served by his able general Belisarius, Justinian was able to conquer the Vandals in Northern Africa and reduce that region once more to a province of the Empire, which it continued to remain until its final conquest by the Arabs.

The task of recovering Italy was of a more arduous nature, for Theodoric had organized its defence with unusual skill and foresight. His league with the other barbarian kings would, doubtless, have proved effective, had it not been for the defection of Clovis and the rapid extension of the Frankish monarchy, which swept away the Arian kingdoms upon which Theodoric depended for support.

When, finally, in his last years, after his generous tolerance of the Catholic faith, Theodoric beheld the work it had accomplished in destroying the power of the Arian kings and the extension of the Frankish rule, his rage burst forth in a torrent of persecution.7 Believing the conspiracy of Rome against him to have entered his own palace, and suspecting the philosopher Boëthius, a high officer in his service, of secret negotiation with the Eastern Emperor, Theodoric cast him into prison, where he wrote his famous treatise on the "Consolation of Philosophy," - a message of comfort to many unhappy victims of despotic anger, - and at last put him to death after cruel tortures.

Although Theodoric may have been justified in his belief that Rome was plotting the downfall of his kingdom when his death should leave it enfeebled, it was too late to avert its doom. The fury of his vengeance in the execution of Symmachus, chief of the Roman Senate, and the imprisonment of the Bishop of Rome only precipitated the crisis; and a few years after bis death in 526, his kingdom was swept away. But the victories of Belisarius and Narses, which temporarily restored Italy to the Empire, produced few permanent results. The wars of Justinian proved, however, that the imperial conception was not wholly wanting in vitality, and served to revive the traditions of a universal monarchy.

The great and abiding achievement of Justinian's long and heroic reign was the codification of the Roman Law, the most noble and lasting legacy of imperial Rome to modern Europe. The system of Justinian and his minister Tribonian comprised the "Code," consisting of the edicts and rescripts of the emperors, arranged in twelve books; the "Digest," or "Pandects," being the opinions and decisions of the great jurists, classed and grouped under four hundred and twenty-nine titles in fifty books; and the "Institutes," based on the earlier work of Gaius bearing the same name, and intended to serve as an introductory text-book, or treatise of fundamental principles. All these works were published in the years 533 and 534, and were declared to be the only legal standards. Justinian's own edicts and rescripts were afterward put forth in private compilations under the title of "Novels" (novellae leges).

The form imparted to this system, though far from scientific, gave to the substance of the Roman Law an elasticity that rendered it admirably suited to new applications, and fitted to become the source of law for future times. Introduced into Italy in its systematic form by Justinian's conquest, the Roman Law continued in use there except where the rude hand of the Lombard temporarily swept it aside, and in later centuries spread to other countries of Europe, serving to give support to the development of the great monarchies in their struggle with feudalism; and, finally, becoming the foundation of modern law for most of the European nations. But the chief interest of Justinian's work to the history of diplomacy lies in the fact that his compilations were to furnish to the jurists of the seventeenth century the foundation principles for a Law of Nations in its widest sense.

But even Roman jurisprudence could not long remain without change of form in the Eastern Empire, which was essentially Greek rather than Latin. By the seventh century, the study of the Latin language had been so much neglected in the East that the legal works of Justinian bad become sealed books to the Eastern lawyers, and justice was administered according to local customs rather than by Justinian's Code. In order to restore it to practice, Leo the Isaurian had it partly translated into Greek, but only in the form of an abridgment, from which whole sections were omitted, with a view to adapting it to the transformed conditions.

In all that relates to community of thought and influence, the calm waters of the Adriatic presented a more impassable barrier than the mighty masses of the Alps; for that narrow arm of the sea thrust a dividing line between two distinct types of civilization and two great centres of dominion, separating not only the Eastern and the Western divisions of the ancient Empire, but two divergent systems of social and political existence. The East had inherited the old Hellenic life and culture, with its individualism in the sphere of thought, mingled with an oriental docility in the realm of action. The West had been more deeply penetrated by the barbarian invasions, and had before it the stupendous task of assimilating and organizing the new and refractory elements which had been thrust upon it. The problems of Constantinople were rather Asiatic than European; for it had to face the Persian and the Saracen, who held its attention eastward and southward. The problems of Rome were wholly European, for it had the task of permeating the barbarians with its leaven and shaping their wild and untamed impulses to its laws. Until the West poured its armed knights eastward to vindicate the rights of Christendom to its holy places, each of the great divisions of the old Empire lived a life apart, broken only by occasional embassies, the futile efforts of the Exarch at Ravenna to assert the claims of his imperial master, the angry controversies between ecclesiastics, and the recurring struggles of the imperial cities in Southern Italy to beat back the conqueror.

It is the fortunes and movements of the West that chiefly fall within our lines of interest, but we shall have frequent occasion to refer to the great Eastern Empire, which for nearly a thousand years after the embassy of Odoacer was to guard in its impregnable stronghold of Constantinople that ancient Greek civilization that was its principal inheritance and its greatest glory; until, in the middle of the fifteenth century, the hand of the Turkish invader scattered it abroad, and created by the permanent establishment of the Turk in Europe that great Eastern Question which still continues to vex the diplomacy of modern times. Through all these centuries, the traditions of the peace and glory of the old Roman Empire were never quite forgotten by the peoples of Western Europe; but it was from Rome, rather than from the distant shores of the Bosphorus, that they seemed to radiate.




1. Cassiodorus, Variae, II,41.

2. Cassiodorus, Variae, II, 6. Also Löhren, Beiträge, p. 26.

3. For examples, see Cassiodorus, Variae, I, 1; III, 1; X, 20; also Menzel, Deutsches Gesandtschaftswesen, p. 7; and Fumagalli, Delle istituzioni diplomatiche.

4. See the laws referred to in Pertz, Monumento Germaniae Historica: Lex Alamannorum, XXX; Lex Saxonum, c. 7; Lex Frisonum, XVII; and Merkel's edition of Lex Salica, p. 96.

5. See Pertz, as above, Lex Burgundionuin, XXXVIII, 3-5; Lex Ripuaria, 65, 3; and Löhren, Beiträge, p. 50.

6. Cassiodorus, Variae, VI, 6; and Löhren, Beiträge, p. 58.

7. The work of Rome in its attempt to destroy the Arian heresy of the Goths will be discussed in the next chapter. The persecution with which Theodoric closed his reign was provoked by the hostile action of the Emperor. "Dès 523, commencent à Byzance les persécutione contre les ariens; l'lntolérance des orthodoxes Justin et Justinien contraste avec la tolérance des hérétiques Zénon et Auastase; il y a d'abord, dans les édits de persécution, quelques exceptions en faveur des Goths de l'empereur d'Orient; mais on ne tarde pas à les supprimer, et l'empereur se pose nettement comme le chef laïque de tous les catholiques coutre les Vandales et les Ostrogoths." - Lécrivain, Le Sénat romain.

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