Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 45 Part 1 – Rosamund

Chapter 45 which has the title state of Italy under the Lombards. In fact it covers several other important topics which will require our attention and the action opens in Constantinople where the death of Justinian was announced to a city where nobody much under 50 would have had any memory of regime change.

It was a dangerous moment. Justinian left no son and had bestowed his affections fairly evenly over seven nephews. Any one of them could have staked a claim. It was an incredibly irresponsible way to leave the empire. As it was by luck and the quick thinking of the people on the ground at the time, the succession was smooth enough. A servant claimed to have found the dying emperor and reported his dying words as being to nominate Justin – the son of his sister.

 

Justin as it happened was on hand and was in charge of the imperial bodyguard. This was probably the more important fact in securing his elevation than the lucky chance of being nominated right at the last minute with a witness conveniently on hand. But the Senate was quick to recognise his reign, and Rome had a new ruler. It could have been a lot worse. And indeed Justin seemed like a decent enough man and started with some popular policies.

The most popular was paying off Justinian’s creditors. The previous regime had needed huge amounts of cash to fund the military and to pay off enemies who for one reason or another it wasn’t desirable to have a fight with. This is a foreign policy that requires the state to have plenty of portable wealth on hand. Justinian had built up quite a stash of it via taxation, fines and borrowing. This is not a recipe for popularity, and indeed is something of a drag on the economy by taking out spending power. So Justin’s reversal of this approach was bound to win him friends.

The possible downside may have become apparent when the Avars and their ruler, the Chegan, turned up demanding money with menaces. A visit from barbarians highly skilled in horse riding, hand to hand fighting and spending money extorted from more civilised people was just the kind of thing Justinian would have used his treasure to cope with. Justin presumably didn’t have the ready cash. So he told them that they could get lost. This was risky. It is hard to know if it was a bluff. We’ll never know because the Chegan didn’t call it. He decided to roll with the insult and instead attack the Germans.

In fact it was a pretty good time to get involved with conflict in Germany. There had been a long-standing animosity between the Lombards and the Gepids.This had probably originated as part of a Byzantine divide and rule operation. And in fact there does still seem to have been some kind of Byzantine involvement. But it had long ceased being of any strategic value to the Empire.

The short version is fairly simple. The Lombards and the Avars united to defeat the Gepids and to share the spoils of victory. The Gepids were wiped out and left the pages of history. The survivors largely joined the Lombards. The Allies then fell out. So the Lombards now strengthened by additional resources of cash and manpower invaded Italy with the intention of establishing a defensive position to enable them to avoid having to submit to the Avars. They also recruited some Saxon allies for extra muscle power.

And Italy was ripe for the conquest. It was on the point of rebelling against the rule of the eunuch Narses. To head off this trouble Narses had been withdrawn and replaced with a less unified command. The Lombards, who had operated in Italy in a previous campaign knew the territory. Without an effective opponent the battle hardened Lombards and their allies were able to quickly establish themselves. The kingdom of Lombardy was established and would be a feature of the map of Europe for next 400 years.

There is still a region of Italy called Lombardy today, and indeed there is a small movement who want to make it an independent country again. One possible way the EU might develop in the future is into what is sometimes referred to as a Europe of the regions where areas like Scotland and Catalonia which are currently parts of political unions that aren’t single nations can thrive on their own but inside the larger EU structure. It seems like quite a nice idea to me. It would certainly be interesting to see Lombardy reappear after all these centuries.

There was a human story behind the Lombards career of conquest. The young ambitious Lombard king Alboin was keen to create a dynasty – that being the way these things worked back then. And there was an extremely neat option available to get him started on this. The daughter of the king of the Gepids was a beautiful woman called Rosamund. She was well connected and indeed was the granddaughter of the Frankish king Clovis. What better way to unite the two tribes and put Alboin and the Lombards into the international top league at the same time? And they knew one another from a spell Alboin had spent in the Gepid court.

Unfortunately Rosamund herself was having none of it, and German women were not easy to push around. But Alboin was determined and raped her. The result was war. The result of the war was as have heard the defeat of the Gepids and the death of their king, Rosamund’s father. Alboin had his skull made into a drinking vessel and forced the marriage she had rejected onto his daughter.

This most unhappily of conceived marriages meant that when Alboin established his new kingdom he already had a queen. This wasn’t maybe the best of relationships from day one.

And if they weren’t bad enough already things turned really sour. It happened when Alboin was in a drunken haze at a feast to celebrate his conquest of Italy. He obliged Rosamund to drink from the cup made of her father’s head. Even in the unenlightened state of gender politics at the time this was pushing it. Rosamund plotted revenge. She disguised herself as a servant girl, seduced one of Alboin’s warriors, and then revealed her true identity. Given that he had now committed treason with the king’s wife, he was obliged to throw his lot in with her. If what he had done became known to Alboin he was dead anyway. He attacked the king in his bed and killed him.

The pair made an attempt to seize the throne for themselves. But it soon became clear that they had very little support amongst the Lombards. Instead they headed for Ravenna and handed themselves over to the Byzantine authorities.They took with them the child of Alboin’s first marriage. This would have made quite a nice diplomatic package for the Empire if it had been intending to restore its authority in Italy. A well connected figurehead could have been a very good card to play.

But Rosamund was unfortunately not really cut out as diplomatic prize material. She fell out with her conspirator and gave him poison to drink. He drank it, but then realised what was going on. It was perhaps the kind of thing he had learned that his new girlfriend was capable of. As his life ebbed away he forced her at sword point to drink the poison as well. So Rosamund’s second relationship came to as bad and violent an end as the first. Her’s was a short and in some ways rather futile life, but at least she chose not to be a victim. I think that is why she has become something of a romantic legend since her death. Maybe she’s not at the forefront of many people’s consciousness but she still has admirers.

In fact she is the eponymous princess of the Princess Diaries. This is not a series I follow very closely, but its premise is that the descendent of a royal princess is living in New York. And Rosamond is the princess from whom she is descended. Rosamund was out of place in the world of courts and barbarians, but I have a feeling she was the kind of rumbustious female dynamite that would fit right in in New York rather than the elaborate diplomatic circles she ended up in.

In fact it is doubtful whether Constantinople could have taken advantage of having a member of the Lombard royal family under its control. It was too weak at this stage for big new projects. And in any case the Lombards seem to have been at least partially democratic and might not have accepted Rosamund as a figurehead anyway. The immediate successor to Alboin didn’t last very long, and a new King was elected to replace him.

But weak as it was the Byzantine position in Italy was not yet impossible. It still controlled some pretty key areas, and probably the most economically productive ones. But it didn’t have the power to take control of the whole peninsular again. In particular Rome was now outside its area of control. The Romans in the city itself still respected the empire’s claim, and expected it to have the interests of the Romans at heart as well. So when following a flood they ran short of supplies they expected to receive help from Constantinople. And indeed Constantinople expected to be able to provide it. But unfortunately no help was available for the stricken city. The east had problems of its own. It was a sign that Rome was now far from the centre of things in the empire whose name it still furnished.

Unfortunately the reign of Justin did not live up to that of his uncle. Gibbon recounts what was obviously the official version of the story. Justin found himself unable to cope with the demands of the role of the emperor. In fact according to reports it drove him mad. He had to have organ music played to calm himself down. In the end his shortcomings were so serious he was obliged to give up and hand over the reins to a more suitable man. He didn’t have the physical strength to face the onerous task and retreated to a life of solitude and contemplation where he finally found happiness knowing that the empire was in the hands of somebody far more capable of bearing the burden.

But when we learn that this paragon of virtue who stepped in to save the monarch’s sanity was a military strong man, it raises the obvious question as to whether the handover was quite as voluntary as the records from the time suggest. But whatever, the new emperor was called Tiberius – though he changed it to Constantine when he ascended the throne. Picking a name with a good pedigree as the founder of Christian Constantinople is the sort of thing someone worried about their legitimacy might well do.

But however he got the job he didn’t get to do it for long. He died 4 years after coming to power. Unusually, before he went he arranged for a smooth succession to another military man. Gibbon repeats the praise of the character of Tiberius that he found in the texts from the time. Whether this should be believed or not we’ll never know, but in ensuring a peaceful transfer of power he definitely did perform a public service.

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