Medieval History

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MEDIEVAL ITALY                                                 (Back to menu of History of Italy)

The last hundred years of the Western Roman Empire, from the second half of the 4C, coincided with large migrations of Germanic peoples (Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Huns, Heruli, Alemanni etc.) who on different occasions settled within her territories. At the same time economic conditions also reflected the political instability of the imperial government, it deteriorated gradually and was accompanied by a chronic fall in population.

Already by the 5C the Italian population had been reduced to some six million inhabitants.

With the end of the Western Roman Empire the Italian territory remained basically united, first under the rule of Odoacer and then that of Theodoric the Ostrogoth (493-526). Under the latter, the country had periods of relative economic prosperity and peace. This was also due to the contribution of illustrious Romanists such as Boethius, Cassiodorus and Symmachus.

It was in this period that the influence of the Christian church began to make itself felt more consistently. This was in contrast to the progressive orientalization of the Empire, now focused on its new capital of Costantinople, founded by the emperor Constantine between 326-330 on the site of the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium. The Christian church sought to continue the authority and prestige of Rome. In particular there emerged the figures of popes such as Leo I (440-461) and Gregory the Great (590-604) who were capable of bringing prestige to the institution they represented. Under the latter in particular, the church also began to assume political and administrative functions due to repeated territorial acquisitions (St. Peter's patrimony).

Also at the end of the 4C there began to flower western monachism, with its major figure in St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543). The Benedictine monasteries and abbeys, but also those of other orders, became already in the early Middle Ages not only places of religion but centres for the preservation and spread of culture. In addition, they took an important economic role due to their schemes for the drainage and use of lands devastated and depopulated by recurrent war. The papacy, monasteries and other ecclesiastical institutions found themselves in possession of huge estates, often enlarged by further donations, that contributed to strengthen their political authority and power.

The deterioration in relations between Theodoric's successors and the Eastern Empire offered the emperor Justinian (527-565) the opportunity to re-unite the Empire.

This he did at the price of a difficult conflict, the Graeco-Gothic War (535-553), which had grave consequences for the Italian territory as it was placed under the government of the Exarchate of Ravenna.

The Normans were professional soldiers and rapidly took control of all Southern Italy, Sicily included. Their rule lasted for almost two centuries, from 1029 (acquisition of Aversa) to 1220, which was the year of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen's accession to the Sicilian throne.

In this quest for sea trade, Venice was often in competition with other marine republics. Genoa, for example, managed at the beginning of the 11C to conquer Corsica and Sardinia. Amalfi codified maritime law with its `Tabulae Amalfitanae'. While Pisa, who beseiged Sardinia (1116), was permanently defeated by Genoa at the sea battle of Meloria (1284). Perhaps the most significant factor in their development, however, were the Crusades (10-13C).

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