• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Long March of Latin Alienation from the Empire

You ought to know that the pontiffs of Rome preside in that city in order to maintain peace like a common wall occupying the middle ground between East and West Letter from Pope Gregory II to Leo III Part I

In 553, a Gothic lady made a donation of considerable lands near Urbino and Luca. It was witnessed by four eminent citizens with Roman names. Early in the seventh century, a Byzantine made a donation of property in the area of Gubbio. The five witnesses were two citizens without state office, a cancellarius (to a state official) and two military officers. These examples (alongside others) indicate that military personnel were on an upwards social trajectory in Byzantine Italy. The range of terms used to outline this military aristocracy was wide. Axiomatici and iudices reflected the elite’s administration, while others such as optimates and proceres were general terms for social pre-eminence. Even ordinary milites are held substantial amounts of land. Out of the eleven recipients of land from the see of Ravenna 693-769, eight were soldiers. A similar trend is observable in Rome where grants of papal land to the military rose from one in three (625-638) to one in two in the first half of the eighth century. The Byzantine forces in sixth-century Italy were mostly easterners and mercenaries. Both remained important in the seventh century. Only one exarch, Theodore Calliopas (643-664), appears to have had local roots since his father owned land in the region. Perhaps it was these ties that allowed him to get away with arresting Pope Martin and insist on new elections.

On the silver-spoon-in-the-mouth side of the spectrum, a single general is known to have been related to an emperor. Badauarius, son-in-law of Justin II, led an unsuccessful force to Italy c.577. Moreover, Romanus – who recaptured much of the Po Valley and Umbria c.590-596 – was probably the son of Anagastus, a commander on the Persian front and later strategos of Lazica in Maurice’s reign. Four exarchs went on to become important players at court and held the title of chamberlain (cubicularius). One named Plato offered advice to Constans II on how to gain traction for his theological policies in the West. The office of exarch appears to have operated in tandem with Sicily where governors of the island aspired to promotion to the exarchate. Indeed, when politics blew up in the north it usually fell upon Sicily to restore the status quo. The strategos of Sicily, Theodore, for instance sacked Ravenna and sent its archbishop in chains to Constantinople in 710 in retribution for killing the exarch John Rizocopus. Hellenisation was mostly scattered and superficial. It didn’t plant serious roots north of Apulia and Calabria. The exarch of Ravenna Theodore II’s (677-687) difficulty in finding anyone handling his Greek correspondence, or the handful of imperial secretaries operating from Rome in the seventh century are instructive examples. The apex of Byzantine influence is an eighth-century spatharius becoming a/the dux of Rome. Overall, however, it was a tale of Latinisation so that while Armenian units had been big players in the Gothic wars, many became de facto Latin by the mid-seventh century. Armenians were still around, of course, but they formed the elites of expeditions, hence figures such as Mezezius (eventually a rebel) and Saburrus, a general sent against the Duchy of Benevento. The lack of eastern names in the seventh century suggests a drying up of reinforcements due to conflicts with the Iranians, Avars and Arabs. Others appear to have been recruited from refugees of towns captured by the Lombards: numerus Veronensium and numerus Mediolanensium for example. Much of this Latinisation was due to the fact that the most convenient manner of dealing with an exarchate on the fringes of the empire was to make imperial posts hereditary (and therefore localised). Only the position of the exarch escaped this tendency as it fell under the direct supervision of the emperor. Such was the situation that by 726, when the pope defied the emperor in the collection of taxes, the two spatharii sent from Constantinople to take over the duchy of Rome failed (the Pope cunningly granting the title of dux to several big landowners to win them over).

The picture is complicated by the cunning of Byzantine officials who ingratiated themselves with locals and wielded considerable power as a result. The son of Plato, the Byzantine curator of the imperial palaces in Rome, for instance went on to become pope John VII. Texts also have this double-edged quality. The Passio Sancti Apollinaris, for example, clearly suggests Romanitas was a Latin and Greek alloy, but also implies Italians were bluntly Latin in their outlook and not necessarily amenable to being merely a component. Quite how much these spheres on the venn diagram overlapped is open to interpretation. If Agnellus’ history and the Anonymous Cosmography can be taken at face-value, however, the (imperial) values or rhetoric appear identical but hitched to the wagons of different interest groups. Perhaps the instinctive connection of loyalty to ethnicity is what makes modern historians stumble. The behaviour of the Lombards, however, should warn against such assumptions. If John of Ephesus is to be believed, at exactly the moment they posed a mortal threat to the empire in Italy, many fought for the empire in Syria (c. 575). This geopolitical terrain was planted by Tiberius II’s policy to throw money at the problem in Italy. It didn’t always end well for Constantinople, however, given figures like Ariulf could command the left-wing of Byzantine armies against the Persians (582) and yet go on to place the duchy of Spoleto under a Lombard king (though, swing and roundabouts: the warrior also became orthodox after seeing St Sabinus). Benevento was probably under the command of Lombard mercenaries serving Byzantium, too, before its leader Zotto turned traitor. It’s difficult to distinguish diehard turncoats from those who were sick of payment arrears (Authari and Nordulf for instance). Some were simply strong individuals. Droctulft, for example, was Alemannic by birth but lived as a Lombard prisoner of war. Eventually rising to become a duke, he harboured a grudge and served the empire against the Avars and the Lombards of Classe, and commanded the imperial forces at Brescello on the Po. Another named Guduin had a similar career before settling down in Campania.

Such was the crucible that single families could possess both Lombard and Roman names. Roughly a fifth of of Lombards who remained in Northern Italy swapped their Germanic tags for Roman ones. They may have been Lombard in origin and yet came to feel as Roman as Toto, dux of Nepi, clearly did when he installed his brother Constantine as anti-pope in 767. This strange symbiosis is best symbolised by the close attachment of the monastery of S. Maria di Farfa to the Lombards in the area of the Sabina, Rome. Lombard fluidity played out upon a changing society. After the invasion of 568 Byzantine troops held chokepoints in castra and were allocated lands (from state and Church) for maintenance. Gradually these soldiers – who were exempt from the poll tax – coalesced with the class of local possessores, who’d once participated in the municipal councils. The state confirmed this arrangement by attaching an obligation of military service to parcels of land. Its main concern was to ensure the soldiers had tenants i.e. did not work the land themselves, thus subtracting them from the theatre of war (though later emperors such as Leo VI would fold and try to delineate the rights and duties of soldiers who worked their own estates in the East). This development elevated small military contingents into social elites and their leaders set about making their offices hereditary. Meanwhile, civilian landowners militarised their own men. The case of Tullianus and Deoferon, brothers and landlords who armed their peasants for the imperial cause against the Goths in 546, is fairly typical. Many became magistri militum in the loose late antique sense of being able to lead an army in battle (a meaning that would later morph into the early medieval dux). This marked a severe degradation of the term from Stilicho’s day. Indeed, in the Byzantine period its dignity was roughly equal with the title of stratelates.

The imperial outlook on this trend was ambivalent. While Justinian prohibited the bearing of arms by civilians, Maurice’s Strategikon demanded all Romans train with arms while also drawing a sharp theoretical line between civilian and military spheres. The military also took pride in having its own hierarchies. In 774, the scholae militae of Rome are first mentioned and – led by men variously described as patroni, priores or primi – were considered a cut above the officers of the regular army, much like their Byzantine counterparts.

Ceremonial bodyguards didn’t cut much ice with Arab raiders, however, and soon the Church was forced to maintain its own militias recruited from the peasants, collectively known as the familia Sancti Petri. Ravenna also yields an interesting example of mass mobilisation in its custom of fighting on Sunday afternoons. Agnellus informs readers that factions based around city gates (the Porta Teguriensis and Posturulensis for instance) would fight with arms, later using Byzantine nomenclature such as numerus and bandus as terms for each quarter.

Against this dynamism the old sectors of middling prestige (law and bureaucracy) remained but only as insignificant guilds in certain cities. Tabelliones (senior notaries) drew up documents in ninth-century Rome and scattered scholastici (legal advisers) were still able to achieve the status of gloriosus. Indeed, though ranks never truly broke down and many of the old dignities remained in use, all but the highest (patricius) sank to a relatively humble position within the hierarchy. Only epithets associated with the military continued to confer (or at least express) real power: clarissimus or magnificus for commanders and devotus for soldiers.

Dignities such as silentarius, candidatus, strator and spathocandidatus were still to be found but were invariably attached to officials on missions from Constantinople. They clearly meant enough for the urban elites of cities (that still respected the nominal rule of the New Rome: Amalfi, Naples and Venice for instance) to pursue them. In the earliest years of their nascent independence each city toyed with approximately four titles: imperialis hypatos, consul, dux and exspatharius. Indeed, it’s revealing that in Italy the title of consul appears to have been granted almost solely to important landowners who occupied no position within the imperial hierarchy. In Rome, the dignity of Romanus consulatus may even have been offered to Charles Martel in order to encourage him to attack the Lombards.

It’s possible that the consulate was reserved for the governor of provincial towns such as Venice, Naples and Rimini, while in the major centres of Rome and Ravenna it was extended to a number of military officers, all of whom may have held the office of duke. Whatever the truth, by the ninth century the title had become hereditary. Whether this was avarice or the fact that collecting honours from the emperor in Constantinople became impolitic under the Franks (who preferred that titles were retained on a hereditary basis rather than sought from a distant sovereign) is moot.


In short, the Byzantines maintained resilience as late as the eighth century by militarising the whole of society, with the professional military forming its elite. This model is typically seen as doomed thanks to the Lombard conquests but it should not be forgotten that the Eastern Romans forced the Lombard patriarch of Aquileia to move his seat to Cormons, twice defeated their royal army, and decimated the Germanic forces at Fano (739).

It is hard, however, to avoid the suspicion that the empire lost many of its possessions thanks to running them on a shoestring. Localisation needn’t have been a problem (and shouldn’t be overplayed: no matter how local the roots of armies, they were deployed on a national stage) but unfulfilled payments are a different matter. The uprising in Ravenna (616) was largely caused by them, as was the sack of the Lateran palace by Roman troops (638). The only reason the same problems don’t recur is that local seizures of payment in kind became popular and soldiers became landowners. Not in return for military service but through marriage (to local heiresses), inheritance, abuse of power etc. Whether negligence from the top, or decadence from below was to blame for a Latin army’s decision to desert to the Lombards (after being ordered to spend the winter in unfortified sites near Citta di Castello), it contains strong echoes of the revolt against Maurice’s decision to winter north of the Danube. Perhaps the biggest set-piece that demonstrated something had gone very wrong was when both Lombards and Romans assembled on the Salarian bridge to defend Pope Gregory II against an Eastern Roman force. When each Byzantine city (Ravenna, Venice, Rome, Naples) had a force at its disposal – indeed, by the mid-seventh century was often run by the military – an odd democratisation of rule was the result. Few armies were preponderant – and with Constantinople too distant to play divide and rule – the baton of imperial rule became a tad wonky i.e. decentralised. Byzantium, however, shouldn’t be seen as an alien autocracy seeking domination – a view that’s almost certainly a product of the Risorgimento’s eccentric historiography – but a home-grown imperial faction among many others. Ethnic loyalty could be a rather pale animal when set against other feelings such as devotion to one’s patron, Church, military commander, city, region, emperor and/or res publica Christiana. Attachment to the universal imperium was so strong an ideal that Isidore of Seville (d. 636) could write that the post-Roman kingdoms were mere appendices of Constantinople, and seventh-century sacramentaries from Gaul still called for the success of imperial forces in battle. It’s misleading, therefore, to cast Byzantine elements in Italy as some sort of fifth-column, especially given monasteries like Rome’s S. Maria in Cosmedin had a Byzantine abbot until at least 767. If anything they were the original foundation of society. It’s also nonsensical to link knowledge of Greek to an affinity for Constantinople given Gregory the Great enjoyed close relations with the emperor while being virtually ignorant of the Greek tongue and the Eastern Church Fathers. It is undeniable, however, that since the Goths had weaponised classical Roman prejudices about the Greeks during the Gothic War, Latins saw the imperial cause as increasingly foreign. This sentiment might have lurked behind Paul the Deacon’s observation that “Maurice was the first of the race of Greeks to be appointed emperor.” This animosity worked both ways. At his trial, for instance, Maximus the Confessor was asked why he hated the Greeks and loved the Latins. In fact, he was rather bizarrely accused of having a vision filled with western angels drowning out the eastern ones in an acclamation of a rebel exarch in Africa. The tension was intense in Ravenna where the seventh-century Passion of Saint Apollinaris had a Byzantine tribune refusing to summon the saint until he could be sure he was not a Latin. Agnellus, meanwhile, described the Byzantines as “serpents” and refused to describe their state as “Roman” unless quoting others. Italy was riven with complex identity issues. It was, after all, a province that on the one hand could send its exercitus Italicus to the defence of Constantinople in the late seventh century and erect the last column to be set up in the Roman forum to Phokas. Yet it also possessed a city (Ravenna) that was so hostile to the empire that it defended Pope Sergius I against Constantinople’s orders (693), murdered an exarch (710) and happily received Justinian II’s head. Confusingly, Italy’s symbolism was still powerful enough in the mid-seventh century for Constans II to fight in person against the Lombards of Benevento. Conversely, the right of confirmation of papal elections was transferred from the emperor to the exarch by Constantine IV in 681, an obvious demotion in status. Constans II also provides the last example of unmediated imperial action. Few had the temerity to parry a direct order from the font of all authority. The emperor’s presence was hardly typical, however. Maurice provides evidence of what occurred when indirect authority was exerted. Indeed, when an imperial enquiry was despatched to Italy 598-600 under the supervision of Leontius exconsul the result was a mixed picture. Constantinople appeared to care less about gross miscarriages of justice than embezzlement. Ultimately, Leontius achieved a moderate amount but even this was obstructed by Pope Gregory who moaned that he should stop arresting or flogging officials. If he was considered a good pope, the matter of how disobliging a bad one was forms an important question.

Latins seem to have preferred exporting malicious sorts (such as corrupt Sicilian rectors, troublesome Catanian magicians and murderers of papal functionaries) to Constantinople rather than importing over-weening imperial officials to poke their noses into Latin business. Over time, however, communications (which at their fastest took roughly six weeks by sea) became less regular, interference became more arbitrary and spasmodic. Sadly, expeditions against Ravenna, as well as emissaries sent to arrest popes opposed to imperial theology (such as Martin, Sergius I and Gregory II), were in the long run counterproductive in that they failed to impose an imperial outlook or loyalty, and tended to antagonise local populations. In many ways, given the minimal amounts of Eastern Roman investment, it was a miracle Italy considered itself imperial territory at all. Constantinople kept the peninsula within its orbit mainly through an ideological system based on imperial symbols, church rituals and court ceremonies. Portraits of the emperor were used, as were imperial icons, and both mattered to normal folk. The population of Rome for example met their sovereign, Constans II, six miles from the city and escorted him to the Palatine hill. Further up the food chain Pope Benedict II (684-85) accepted locks of hair from the sons of Constantine IV with deference. Byzantine coins were respected as such powerful tokens of legitimacy that Rome refused to accept those of Philippicus due to his heretical views. Moreover, in contracts parties swore oaths “By the safety of the most invincible princeps who rules the Roman empire.” There were warning signs that the universal fabric was fraying, however. The Quinisext Council (692) was despised in the Occident as a condemnation of western usages and an exaltation of Constantinople at the expense of Rome. Iconoclasm was another giant geopolitical misstep, yet the papacy remained polite. Pope Gregory II’s letters reveal a tone that’s more sorrowful than angry, and he clearly respected the imperial ideal. Furthermore, he admonished the Romans (i.e. Latins) “Not to cease in love and loyalty to the Roman empire.” His successor, Pope Gregory III (r. 731-41), urged the Venetians to restore Lombard-occupied Ravenna to “the holy and imperial commonwealth” of the reigning emperors. Italy’s bishops observed oaths that pledged to “defend the most faithful and most Christian Roman principate created by God.” Rebel exarchs tended to be opportunists. Even when the unthinkable happened and the West (Sicily) acclaimed a new emperor (Basil Onamagoulos) in 718, it was less out of hatred for Leo III than because a rumour had spread that Constantinople had fallen to the infidel. Indeed, when the emperor sent a perfunctory expedition under the chartoularios Paul, Syracuse immediately surrendered the rebel leaders who were promptly beheaded. These are habits and customs that are reminiscent more of self-policing hamlets in the wilder parts of Britain (which hand over culprits when the state visits) than some sort of Soviet behemoth imposing itself on hapless locals. Yet as Byzantium (appeared to have) divorced itself from Italian security concerns, or at least believed an autopilot attitude sufficient. And, worse, began to make political plays on doctrine (it was the Byzantine abbot Maximos the Confessor who enunciated the principle in 655 that imperial unity was meaningless unless the correct theological position was upheld), the Roman clergy began to disassociate itself from Constantinople. This barely made an impact on the icing of rhetoric but beneath the surface new ideas frothed. The clergy shamelessly sought political control of former imperial possessions and took over the city’s civic traditions; stational liturgies recalled the progresses of the consuls.

The meaning of the “Roman commonwealth” morphed from the empire based on Constantinople to the patrimony of St Peter centred on Rome. The Donation of Constantine articulated sentiments that had long been active (if silent). Of course the papacy had hardly been created ex nihilo and so the Donation found it hard to shake off the fact the empire remained the source of all authority. 772 is the best red line. It was the last year in which papal documents were dated according to the regnal years of the emperors, and the year in which the murderers of the papal official Sergius were sent to Constantinople, thus acknowledging the city’s sovereignty. Pontifical years were used from 781, the regnal years of the Frankish kings was introduced in 798. At this junction, cities such as Naples (which had once trembled at the arrival of Byzantine ambassadors) had epitaphs – such as that of the consul Caesarius (788) – which smugly described the emperor as “rex novae Romae.” And even referred to their city’s cooperation with Constantinople not as the service of loyal subjects but as of a piece with the alliances other (independent) powers contracted. So weak was Neapolitan loyalty to the imperial cause by the ninth century that duke Anthemius had the gumption to refuse a request for ships to fight the Arabs (a source of regret perhaps to the later Sergii, 840-1137, given they were swallowed by the Normans). This semi-formal autonomy was shared by others in the West such as Venice, as well as Cherson in the East. Yet beneath this ebullience a deeper unease burbled. In the same century (eighth) prayers all over Italy still prayed for the emperor’s dominion to return “more complete.” Perhaps the most illuminating example of Latin ambivalence is the papacy’s treatment of Hellenes fleeing from the Arab, Avar and Slavic conquests in the East. Admired for their erudition and asceticism, they were ultimately categorised as people who occupied a space between house guest and permanent expat. One Byzantine migrant, Theodore of Tarsus, was on the one hand ordained archbishop of Canterbury. On the other, he was forced to give up his existing tonsure, shaven “After the manner of the Eastern [Romans].” And one of the tasks foisted upon his guide, Hadrian, was that Theodore “Should not be allowed to introduce any [Byzantine] customs contrary to the true faith.” To summarise, loyalty was rarely a zero sum game. The choice was not Italy or empire, Rome or Constantinople. Instead, as Rome felt politically and religiously alienated from the East, their notional eschatological fates grew ever more entwined. So that when the Apocalypse of Ps. Methodius was written at the end of the seventh century, it was immediately translated into Latin (in the early eighth). It spoke to all Romans (Latins and Byzantines) and explained that the Christian empire would prevail. This meant Latins still associated themselves with an empire they felt alienated from, in the same way in which a political partisan might remain invested in the fortunes of their party despite having resigned membership. Ultimately, they believed and trusted in Constantinople as the city that would emerge as the “Roman” victor, which would conquer all from across the “Ethiopian” sea. They hoped Italy might share in the glory of an empire whose indestructibility was due to its shared faith in Christ.

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