THE DARK AGES
Enter Alaric, a Visigoth. When he attacked Rome in 410, the citizens practically opened the gates for him”and then crept out themselves, fleeing to the hills. Their emperor, Honorius, had read the Vandals’ writing on the wall already, and so was hiding out in Ravenna. Unlike some of the foreign occupiers to follow, Alaric wasn’t too interested in ruling, mostly just in raiding, and the gold he looted from Rome is said to be buried still with his tomb under a river in Calabria. Next came Attila the Hun, not much of a negotiator, but he was persuaded by Pope Leo not to sack the city. He was followed by Gaiseric the Vandal, and then a line of Goths leading to Theodoric. Theodoric set up shop in Ravenna, holding off the Lombards, who had taken control of the northern plains and had moved all the way south to Tuscany. Theodoric was one in a long line of Italianized foreigners: An able Goth wants to be like a Roman, he said. Only a poor Roman would want to be like a Goth.
The popes had their own ideas of how Italy should be run. They had taken the reins of an embattled Eternal City and stressed the notion that the church was not just a spiritual power, but also a temporal one. Pope Gregory II cut Rome’s ties with Constantinople in 731 and started looking for military allies. He was most concerned with thwarting the advance of the Lombards, as well as Byzantium’s legions of”imagine the irony”Roman troops. In 800, the pope named the king of the Franks, Charlemagne, as the new Roman emperor. The 8th and 9th centuries embodied the depths of the Dark Ages for Italy. Rome was nearly abandoned, except for the popes, leaving the imperial buildings to decay while the clergy built hundreds of churches and cloisters. Most of the rest of the peninsula was overrun by barbarians, offering scant political or cultural contributions.
One place that did prosper was Venice. Over the next few hundred years, it rose to power with the other maritime republics”Amalfi, Pisa, and Genoa”whose four symbols now grace the flag of the Italian Navy. (Pisa was once on the sea.) The end of the Dark Ages in Italy is usually defined as the birth of the Holy Roman Empire, commenced in 962 by Charlemagne’s successor, Otto the Great. It saw a reorganization of power into fiefdoms, and the peninsula divided itself into a jigsaw puzzle of duchies, city-states, and republics. The fractiousness that resulted lasted until at least the unification of Italy in 1861. Many would argue it still exists today.
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