The Vlach Connection and Further Reflections on Roman History

The Vlach Connection

Whether what the emperor Justinian did, in recovering North Africa and Italy for the Empire, was a good idea is still argued by historians. At the same time, it is a bit ridiculous to sneer at the Eastern emperors because they weren't properly Roman, somehow, and then simultaneously fault the one who goes out and recovers nearly half of the old West from the Germans. Nevertheless, what Justinian was and what he did contain important elements of how the mediaeval world was becoming different from the ancient, and how the later empire was different from the earlier.

What Justinian was is a large but little noted part of the story. He is supposed to have come from a Latin speaking family in Macedonia. Now, a Latin speaking family in, say, Spain would mean people whose language would eventually evolve into Spanish; in Gaul, into French; etc. A Latin speaking family in Macedonia would thus be people whose language would eventually evolve into the Romance languages called "Vlach" south of the Danube and, north of the Danube, Romanian. So, in short, Justinian was a Romanian, whether in the modern or the ancient sense. A Romanian emperor of Romania.

This leads into several issues.

  1. Vlach is itself an interesting word. It seems to be a derivative from the same Germanic word cognate to welsch in German and Welsh in English, both meaning Roman, whether the Romans be Latin-speaking or Celtic-speaking. Vlach itself is Slavic (taking that form in Czech) and could mean Italian or Romanian, though the same word, with appropriate case endings, turns up in mediaeval Latin (Blachi) and Greek (Blakhoi, pronounced Vlakhi), only applied to the Romance speakers of the Balkans. It also occurs in Polish as Wloch, in Hungarian as Olasz, in Russian as Volokh, in Yiddish as Walach, and in various other forms even in those same languages (cf. "Vlach," A Dictionary of Surnames, Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges [Oxford University Press, 1988], p. 558). Vlach also significantly turns up in the name of the first Romanian principality: Wallachia (or sometimes "Walachia"). Thus, we can imagine the word being left behind in the Balkan Sprachbund by the German tribes during their stay in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. [see further discussion at Românians.]

    For many centuries Vlach was a spoken and not a written language. When it was committed to writing, the Cyrillic alphabet was used, in line with the Orthodox faith of the people. Later, a national consciousness arose in the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, where the language came to be called "Romanian." The name was at first itself influenced by Turkish pronunciation, as Rumanian or Roumanian, but along with the adoption of the Latin alphabet and an attempt to Latinize the language more, the name also was more Latinized. For clarity, the language of modern Romania can be called Daco-Romanian. Several islands of Vlach speakers survive in Greece, Albania, and the former Yugoslavia, though the use of the word "Vlach" for these is dying out. Two islands of speakers in Albania and Greece are now said to speak Arumanian, while another island of speakers in Greek Macedonia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are said to speak Megleno-Rumanian. The Megleno-Rumanian speakers thus might be thought of as the descendants of Justinian's own people.

  2. This throws an important perspective on the Eastern empire through the rest of its history. When Greek replaces Latin as the Court language under the emperor Heraclius, historians begin to think of the empire as a Greek empire, even as Western Europeans (Franks) tended to think of everyone in the empire as Greek. But of course nothing of the sort was true. Greek stood to the later empire just as Latin had stood to the earlier: the language of higher culture and universal communication, but not the spoken language of all the ethnic components of the whole. Greek had a bit of that role in the earlier empire as well: Marcus Aurelius did not become Greek because he kept his diary in that language. At the same time, real Mediaeval Greeks were even hesitant to call themselves Greeks: Hellenes, the Greek word for "Greeks," tended to imply the ancient pagan Greeks. Christian Greeks didn't need to call themselves anything but "Romans."

    Besides Greeks, the later empire had a very large element of Armenians, other groups whose languages were not written until later, like Albanians and Vlach speakers, and finally other indigenous ethnic groups to whom there are occasional references, like the Isaurians and Phrygians, whose languages are not well attested and who actually disappear completely in the course of the Turkish conquest of Anatolia. Indeed, it is not clear just how and when many of the ancient indigenous peoples of Anatolia disappear or are assimilated -- people like the Phrygians, Lydians, Dacians, Galatians (who were Celts), Cappadocians, etc. After Basil II had finally conquered Bulgaria, a large Slavic element of Bulgars and Serbs, centuries after their having broken through the Danube frontier, was finally also integrated into the empire. Even the Latin Emperors in Constantinople, aware of the history and multi-ethnic nature of the Empire, still called it Romania.

    Thus, while the modern Romanians preserve that identity as speakers of a Romance language, mediaeval Romania meant an empire of many peoples, united by the history of the Roman Empire and the Church, and simply governed in Greek. The greatest "Byzantine" dynasty, the Macedonians, starting with Basil I, seems to have actually been Armenian in origin, even as two of the in-law emperors in the same dynasty, Romanus I and John Tzimisces, were also. In this respect, again, the Roman Empire had assumed more fully the characteristic of a Hellenistic state -- which simply meant that anyone who learned Greek gained full political equality.

  3. There is finally the mystery of the Daco-Romanian speakers in their current territory. The Romance speakers of the Balkans enter history in the 12th century as the Vlachs: When the second Bulgarian kingdom broke away from Romania in 1186, the revolt was led by the Asen brothers, who were Vlachs themselves. John Asen styled himself, in Latin, imperator omnium Bulgarorum et Blacorum. When the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa passed through in 1189, the Vlach element seemed predominant, since John was referred to as "emperor of the Vlachs and of the most part of the Bulgarians," "emperor of the Vlachs and Cumans," or "emperor of the Vlachs who was called by them emperor of Greece" [History of the Byzantine Empire, A.A. Vasiliev, University of Wisconsin Press, 1964, p.442]. The Asens may have emphasized the Bulgarian element simply because that was the independent institutional precedent, of state and church, that they were claiming.

    Since we do not previously hear about Romance speakers in the Balkans in any mediaeval history, and Vlach at that point was still not a written language, these people seem to just pop up out of nowhere. Much the same is true of the Albanians. Even more mysterious is the appearance of the Romance speakers north of the Danube, which had largely been terra incognita for the previous thousand years. Thus, anyone would wonder what had happened. Romance speech means Roman colonization, and we have to go back all the way to the 2nd and 3th centuries to find out about that.

    Since Romanian nationalism naturally identifies itself with the present land of Romania, and also with the pre-Roman inhabitants of Dacia -- the plateau protected on south and east by the Carpathian moutains -- it stoutly maintains that Daco-Romanians have occupied the same territory continuously. On the other hand, the Hungarians, who ruled Transylvania (the same plateau) from the founding of their own state all the way, except for the Turkish occupation, to 1918, like to claim that they were actually there first, and that the Romanians came in later. These competing political claims, which often have overtones of self-interested ethnic myth-making, make it very difficult for outsiders to evaluate the arguments -- anyone might be reasonably suspicious of what any of the Daco-Romanian or Hungarian sources say.

    What we know from Roman sources is that the province of Dacia, conquered and colonized by Trajan in 106, was abandoned around 271. This was, as we have seen, a very bad period for the Romans, and Dacia was a salient into territory mostly surrounded by increasingly active enemies. With the Roman withdrawl, the area drops out of recorded history for many centuries, and notice of Romance speakers there doesn't occur until something like the 14th century. Texts in the Vlach/Romanian language don't occur until the 16th century. Across the void of the Transylvanian plateau and Carpathian mountains, mediaeval historians only notice the passage of nomads -- Germans (Goths and Gepids), Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Magyars, Patzinaks, Cumans, and, last but not least, the Mongols. The locations of Wallachia and Moldavia seem like virtual nomadic no-man's lands during much of the Middle Ages, with no literate culture and no civil organization or political authority apart from the nomadic empires.

    While the Romans withdrew their legions, administrators, and many colonists, it does seem unlikely that all the inhabitants of Dacia, which before the Roman conquest had been a fairly unified and formidable state, would have left. Any unassimilated rural population, especially, would have had no particular reason to leave -- rule by some Germans might not have seemed worse, and perhaps better, than Roman rule. The archaeology reported by modern Romanians indicates a continuity of the material culture, even if urban areas decline precipitiously and there is little in the way of epigraphic material. Romanians like to point out that rural costume even today looks like the Dacian costume of Trajan's Column in Rome. Coin hoards indicate, especially for the 4th century, a continuing cash economy, which means continuing trade contact with the Empire. That even allowed for the penetration of some Christianity. What percentage of this remaining population was Latin speaking, and what percentage was still using the old Dacian language, is impossible, in the absence of the records of a literate culture, to say.

    The withdrawn colonists, probably all or mostly Latin speaking, were settled just across the Danube in the Roman province of Moesia Superior (Upper Moesia). That province was later subdivided into Upper Moesia (Moesia I) and, of all things, Dacia. This is now in the part of Serbia south of the Danube and east of Belgrade. This Dacia was later subdivided in two. These provinces were then collected, with Upper Moesia and other nearby provinces into the Diocese of Dacia. In late Roman times the area was Latin speaking and outside where Greek was commonly used (cf. A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Warren Threadgold [Stanford University Press, 1997], p.6). It is not hard to imagine the contacts that continued between the inhabitants north of the Danube, Romanized to a greater or lesser extent, and those who had withdrawn to the south, even as late Roman trade crossed back and forth all along the Rhine-Danube frontier.

    Not only did the original Dacia drop out of history in 271, but the later Dacias did so also, after the Avars and Slavs breached the Danube frontier and poured into the Balkans in 602. Only the conversion of Bulgaria to Christianity in 879, with the introduction of the Cyrillic alphabet, returned the region to literacy. As it happens, only one other place in the Roman Empire dropped out of history in quite the same way. That was Britain. The withdrawl of Roman forces in 410 drops Britain into a void very similar to that of the Dacias, and for a while all that is apparent is the descent of sea-going Germans -- the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. When literate culture returns, dramatically evident in the history of the English church written by the Venerable Bede in 731, we suddenly see the results. Roman Britain has disappeared from most of the island, with Romanized Celtic speakers pushed into Wales and Cornwall. The Cornish were under such pressure that many of them crossed over to Brittany. The Celtic speakers of Cornwall have today disappeared, but the Bretons are very much alive and aware of their past. Although the Angles and Saxons inherited the old Roman place names, and came to tell the King Arthur stories by which the conflicts of the 5th century were vaguely remembered, Saxon England owed little enough to the culture it had displaced.

    Roman Britain survives in Wales and Brittany. Even pre-Roman culture survives in Spain, where the mountains in the North harbor the Basques, whose language has no obvious affinities to any other. This is revealing. The geography of England poses few obstacles to conquest, but both the Welsh and the Basques held out in mountains -- relatively modest mountains perhaps, no more than 3000 feet in Wales and not much more than 7500 feet on the south side of the Ebro valley in Spain (though over 11,000 feet in the nearby Pyrenees), but something that could impose significant costs to invaders -- in the Middle Ages, the Basque country was the basis of the long independent Kingdom of Navarre. Americans need only remember how the Appalachians, which don't get much over 6000 feet, originally hindered westward movement. The Transylvanian plateau, in comparison to these, provides a formidable redoubt. The Danube River itself tells the tale, since it must make a broad detour to the south, around the whole area. The southern branch of the Carpathians, the Transylvanian Alps, has peaks over 8000 feet high, and even the western side goes up to 6000 feet in the Bihor mountains. This makes it immediately obvious why nomads tended to pass around, like the Danube. Nomads like flat grasslands, which are present on the Hungarian plain and in the Danube Valley of Wallachia, but not in the mountains or up on the Transylvanian plateau. We should expect to find an autochthonous population in Daco-Romania just as much as in Wales or Navarre.

    Consequently, it is no more difficult imagining the Dacians surviving than it is explaining the Welsh or the Basques. On the other hand, this makes it somewhat more difficult to explain why the original Dacian language would not have survived. The area of Daco-Romania was under Roman rule for a shorter time, about a century and a half, than Britain, about three and a half centuries, or than Spain, more like six and a half centuries. A Romance language did not take root in Britain, and even all the Romance dominance in Spain failed to entirely displace Basque. So why does the pre-Roman language not survive in modern Romania? The relatively brief Roman occupation hardly seems like the kind of thing that could have done so thorough a job, especially in the face of the organization and resistance that the Dacians originally offered. Nor was it Roman policy to deliberately stamp out local languages -- that was just a side effect of Roman colonization and the use of Latin as the administrative, literary, and, later, religious (i.e. Roman Catholic) language. The dominance of Romance speech in Daco-Romania thus might require some other impetus of Latinization.

    We may find that by asking what happened to all the Latin speakers south of the Danube, in the later Dacian provinces and diocese. If we look there now, one thing we find is that there are still Romance speakers. In the bend of the Danube River, where it breaks through the mountain barrier at the Iron Gate, which corresonds to the north part of the Roman Province of Dacia Ripensis, there is a Daco-Romanian speaking area even today, as part of Serbia. These are people who need not have moved in 1700 years. But most of the area of the Roman Dacias is occupied by speakers of Serbian or Bulgarian. On the other hand, the Vlach languages to the south, as I understand it, do not betray the influence of Greek that they should, had they originated in Macedonia and Albania. And there is, of course, the pocket of Istro-Rumanian, which is all the way West in Istria, which was part of Austria until World War I. Since all the Romance languages of the Balkans appear to come from one proto-language -- Proto-Romanian -- the dispersed pockets, like Arumanian, in Albania and Epirus, and Istro-Rumanian, must have originated in the same area. That looks to be the Late Roman Dacias. The event to have have scattered the languages would have been the Avar/Slavic breakthrough in 602.

    Some of the people stayed more or less put, like the Welsh, while others scattered in the face of the invaders, like the Bretons. Since there are no historical records of this, as there are none for the Slavic migration itself, we are left with nothing but the evidence of the results. From Istro-Rumanian, we know that some went West. From Megleno-Rumanian and Arumanian, we know that some went South. However, the most obvious thing for them to do would have been to go north-east right back into the original Dacia. This was now no worse than heading south or west, which offered no real refuge (Roman authority having collapsed so completely), and could easily have been considered better, since they likely would have known from rumor that the invaders had mostly passed around the highlands.

    Hidden from history, like other Dark Age migrations, the Roman evacuees from Dacia could well have, in returning, provided the additional impetus of Latinization that erased the vestiges of the ancient Dacian language. Nor need this have been an all-at-once process. It looks like mediaeval Serbia started a bit west of the Moesia region, in modern Bosnia, and gradually moved east. In the meantime, the Roman Dacias, which included parts of modern Bulgaria, like the city of Sofia (Roman Serdica), could well have remained largely Vlach. This seems to be no less than what we see in the age of the Asens. As the second Bulgarian empire declined, however, the Serbs pushed to the east. This may have motivated continued Vlach exodus. The continued movement of peoples even in the modern period is a claim of the Serbs themselves, who say that Albanians moved into Kosovo after the Turkish conquest. This is very possible. It also makes possible the movement from the Roman Dacias.

    If this view of events is correct, then both Romanian and Hungarian nationalists are, after a fashion, correct. There was continuous Daco-Romanian occupation of Transylvania, and there was migration from what had been Roman Moesia, south of the Danube. Not south by much, however. The areas are still contiguous today. This is worse for Hungarian claims than for Romanian. What continued migration explains is the purely Romance character of Daco-Romanian.

    It also explains something else, however, which is the nature of the Romanian Church. The early Daco-Romanians of Transylvanian did not convert en masse or in any organized way to Christianity, or we would have heard about their bishops at the Ecumenical Councils, and they very well could have been Arians, like the Goths. Nor did Daco-Romanians acquire the religion of the Hungarians, for that would have been allied to the Church of Rome, not of Constantinople. Instead, the Romanian Church goes back to the conversion of the Bulgars. The appearance of "Roumanian" in the Cyrillic alphabet, as well as the influence of Old Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Bulgarian Church, on Daco-Romanian, are all evidence of that. After the conquest of Bulgaria by Basil II and the century and a half of rule from Constantinople, the Bulgarian Church was revived by the Vlach Asens, with the Patriarchate at Trnovo. "The Primate of all Bulgaria and Vlakhia" (totius Bulgariae et Blachiae Primas, in Latin) is what the Patriarch called himself. This seat, and that of Russia, were the only independent Orthodox Churches authorized from Constantinople. As Bulgaria declined and Serbia arose, an independent Serbian Patriarchate was established at Peç (Kosovo) in 1346, just in time for the coronation of Stephan Dushan as "Tsar of the Serbs and Romans." Bulgaria, Serbia, and Wallachia, however, were soon all overrun by the Turks. By 1483, in the still, for the time being, independent Moldavia, there was metropolitan established in Suceava for the Romanian Orthodox Church. I have not found yet the year in which this was actually done, but the Romanian Church has been autonomous ever since [note]. The Orthodox faith of Romanians in Transylvania cannot have originated there except directly under the influence of the Bulgarians, who ruled it at the time of their conversion, or because of migration and influence of Vlachs, who had converted closer to the center of Bulgarian power. Once Transylvania passed to Hungary, any influence would have been for Catholicism, which evidently is something that we do not see.

    This is about the best I can do, for the moment, with the mystery of the Dark Ages in both Daco-Romania and the Late Roman Dacias. It might not satisfy all Romanians, and certainly not many Hungarians, but dealing with such an issue, outside the sphere of historical records, is intrinsically speculative and uncertain. At the same time, it is nice that somewhere the name of "Romania" is preserved in a modern nation, and it is also well worth remembering that there were people in the Balkans who spoke Latin, as we understand from Justinian's own family.

Taxes and Survival

Who Justinian was is thus of considerable interest; but what he did, of course, looms far larger. Of great significance for the development of mediaeval history was the drawn out struggle to defeat the Ostrogoths in Italy. Italy and Rome itself probably experienced far less devastation during the original Germanic "conquest" and the "fall of Rome" than it did during the Roman reconquest. They certainly represented no new source of strength to the empire, especially when, shortly after Justinian's death, the Lombards would seize the Po Valley and much of Tuscany and of the South of Italy. It is sad to see how far the land had fallen that at one time could lose whole armies to Pyrrhus or Hannibal yet quickly field entirely new ones. The city that had conquered the world and that had long ceased to be the center of power, now was the center of no power at all, except for such pretenses of power as the Pope could, and would, begin to claim.

How Italy could have gone from being the populous fountainhead of Roman conquest to being little more than a strategic liability, its fate in the hands of others for many centuries, is the remaining question about the collapse of the Romania in the West. Historians still are arguing over whether the population had declined or not, after the invasions and plagues of the third century, or what it ever even was. There was also plague in Justinian's day, and we know how devastating that could be from our knowledge of how the later Black Death carried off a third of the population of Europe. On the other hand, the measures taken by Diocletian are revealing in another respect: not only did he fix prices, a typical response to the inflation caused by constant debasement of the coinage, but he tried to fix everyone in their occupations, especially those on the land. The repetition of these measures is a clear indication that people were actually leaving the land, almost certainly to escape the crushing burden of taxation that Diocletian's new empire required.

If agriculture was abandoned because it was unprofitable, or otherwise intolerable, for farmers, this would bode ill for the wealth, health, or size of the population. The agricultural work force can only profitably be reduced when agricultural productivity makes a larger work force unnecessary. There is little in fourth century law that encourages one to believe in increased agricultural productivity. At the same time, there is the evidence of how a change in policy towards the land produced a change in the fortunes of empire: The Emperor Heraclius has long been thought to have introduced the innovation of granting small farms to individual soldiers, on the condition of military service, created a system that would ensure not only a supply of military men but also create incentives for productivity on the part of these men who stood to derive all the benefit from their own labor.

This would have been a strategy exactly the opposite of Diocletian's; and, while too late to prevent the disasters of the seventh century, it could lay a solid groundwork for Romanian revival in the ninth and tenth. It also protected the empire from feudalism, as the relationship of individual soldiers was with the central government rather than with sovereign feudal intermediaries. It's breakdown, indeed, has been thought to have occurred in the eleventh century, even as the empire appeared to have become invincible, when powerful families, whose names we begin for the first time to hear in the ruling dynasties -- the Ducases, Comneni, Angeli, etc. -- are allowed to usurp possession of the land and peonize the smallholdings. This has been thought to have devastated the military strength of the empire, destroying the freedom and incentives of those from whom the backbone of the army had been drawn since Heraclius, curiously coinciding with the first debasement of the coinage since Constantine. The roots of Middle Romanian power were destroyed.

The whole picture of Heraclius instituting military smallholdings, however, has now been questioned. Mark Whittow (The Making of Byzantium, 600-1025, U of California Press, 1996) calls many of the accepted views about late antiquity into question: There is little evidence that the plagues of the 6th century were devastating and, especially, there is no evidence that Heraclius introduced anything like military smallholdings. The Empire surived, it seems, more because of institutional strength and continuity than because of reforms or innovations. Soldiers were paid in cash and evidence about the inheritance or sale of land reveals no hereditary obligations to military service. These new arguments and information nicely reinforce the picture of "Early Byzantium" as the Roman Empire -- the army even continued to use Latin terminology longer than the central government -- but it puts us back to square one if we want to explain the decline in the strength of Italy. If taxation was driving peasants off the land in Diocletian's day, this burden may well have been mitigated by the time of Justinian. The late evidence from places like Egypt seems to be of prosperity rather than misery.

The Romanian Sui

Justinian, then, whether he was stuck with a flawed engine of power or not, nevertheless possessed a vastly more sophisticated and prosperous state than those created by the Germans. He began with a device that had been tried before, in 468, and should have succeeded then: A naval expedition against the Vandals in North Africa. The Emperor Leo had gotten the Western Commander Ricimer to agree to an Eastern candidate for the Western throne, Anthemius, and to participate in the joint expedition. This was exactly what was needed. The Vandal occupation of North Africa had cut off grain from both Italy and the East, and the Vandal navy had turned the western Mediterranean into a sea of pirates for the first time in centuries. Recovering North Africa would immediately return command of the sea to the Romans, secure the grain, and extend Roman control all the way to Spain. Leo's expedition should have succeeded, but it was ruined by treachery and incompetence. It is now unimaginable how different matters might have been if the Vandals had been removed so promptly, hardly twenty years after they had secured their control.

So Justinian had to do it all over again, in 533, with no help from a Western Emperor, though the Ostrogoths foolishly (for their interest) did not oppose, and actually somewhat assisted, Justinian's move. But this time, far from treachery or incompetence, Justinian could rely on the brilliance of the great general Belisarius, of whom Hannibal, who had tried to accomplish some of the same feats on the same kind of shoestring resources, could have been proud. The Vandals, caught off guard, fell like rotten fruit. Then it was the turn of the Ostrogoths, whom Belisarius quickly routed, in 536, but unfortunately could not finish off. The recovery of the Ostrogoths led to a protracted and desperate struggle. That was not settled until Justinian sent a new army overland with Narses, in 552, annihilating the Ostrogoths.

Thus the reconquest of the West commenced. Curiously, much the same kind of process would begin in China in the very same century. Before judging whether Justinian was wise or foolish, reactionary or progressive, that comparison must be made. China had undergone an experience similar to Rome's. At the fall of the Han Dynasty (220 AD), the country had split up (the Three Kingdoms, 220-265), and then the North had been overrun by barbarians, who set up their own kingdoms (368). In the sixth century China bore more than a passing resemblance to Romania at the beginning of the same period, with Imperial control over one half, barbarian control over the other. Then Yang Chien [Jian] reunited the country and founded the Sui Dynasty (590-618). No one calls the Sui emperors fools or reactionaries, because they succeeded, and they were followed by the glory of the great T'ang [Tang] Dynasty (618-906).

Romania, in effect, had a Sui but no T'ang. Something cut short the reconquest, and it wasn't the Germans this time. The Romans had to deal with an astonishing Bolt from the Blue such as never menaced the Chinese (at least until the Mongol invasion).

The Islamic Tide

Even before the unpleasant surprise of the seventh century, it was no easy job for the Romans. There were two formidable enemies who had to be dealt with, the Lombards and the Persians; and the success of the empire against them, despite its ultimate futility, is testimony to the fundamental strengths of the state as well as the occasional brilliance of its leadership.

The invasion of Italy in 568 by the Lombards, who had previously been allies, ended the era of Germanic movements and took the bloom, such as it was, off Justinian's reconquest. The inability of the Lombards to reduce the whole peninsula, and the inability of the Romans to throw them back out, created features of Italian political geography that survived until the 19th century. The Po Valley and Tuscany were gone forever, and the Lombards broke through to establish semi-independent, detached duchies (Spoleto and Benevento) in the South, leaving a curious corridor of Romania between Rome and the administrative capital, as it had been of the late Western empire, Ravenna. This corridor was later "donated" to the Pope by the Frankish King Pepin in 754, becoming the "Patrimony of St. Peter," or the Papal States. Although most of it was alienated during the Middle Ages, the warrior Pope Julius II (1503-1513) managed to get it all back together. It survived as such until 1860, when all but the area around Rome went into the new Kingdom of Italy, and 1870, when the withdrawal of French troops to be defeated by Prussia left the Italians free to occupy Rome itself. The conquest of the Lombards by Constantinople, rather than by the Franks, certainly would not have produced such secular power for the Pope or a history of division for Italy. That such a conquest could well have happened is indicated by the success enjoyed by the Emperor Constans II when he moved up the Po Valley in 663. At the time, however, his attentions already could have been better directed elsewhere.

Even more serious, and briefly more successful, than the Lombards were the Persians. Ever since their advent in 224, overthrowing the Philhellene Parthians and helping to precipitate the Crisis of the Third Century, the Sassanids had aspired to reassemble the great Empire of the Achaemenids. As it happened, the Shah Shapur I (240-272) was the only enemy of Rome ever to capture a Roman Emperor alive: the luckless Valerian (253-260). Now, in league with the Avars, the ambitious Shah Khusro II (591-628) set out to accomplish this hope of centuries, and he mostly accomplished it between 607 and 616. It was one of the worst moments Romania ever had. The Danube frontier collapsed after the army mutinied, the worthless Emperor Phocas was elevated to the Purple, the Avars and Slavs poured into the Balkans, all the way to the Walls of Constantinople, the Persians occupied Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, and a Persian army appeared across the Bosporus from their Avar allies (626).

In the midst of this disaster, Heraclius landed from North Africa and seized the throne (610). The worst was not over, but Heraclius pursued the brilliant strategy of striking directly at the Persian homeland (623). The defeats he inflicted there, despite the distraction of Avar and Persian advances against Constantinople, which, as always, was impregnable, soon led to the overthrow of Khusro by his own nobles. Peace was made, the Persians evacuated, and by 629, the status quo ante had been restored (except for the uncontrollable Balkans).

It is hard to imagine a more brilliant and tragic figure than Heraclius. The military and institutional salvation of the empire was to his credit. Speaking Greek himself, the Roman Empire reverted to Hellenistic form; and Heraclius even took from the defeated Persian Shah his very title: the Great King, henceforth rendering the Greek basileus the official translation of the Latin imperator. Yet Fate allowed Heraclius only five years to rest on his laurels (629-634). Then an invincible army appeared out of nowhere: The fierce Arabs of the Caliph Omar carrying the incomparable Message and Enthusiasm of a new religion -- Islâm.

Sassanid Persia was utterly swept away (637-651). The final Shah, Yazdagird III (632-651), was fated to be the last one for many centuries. Heraclius was lucky by comparison, but Palestine (636), Syria (640), and Egypt (642) were lost to Romania, and Christendom, forever. Sick, reviled for the sin of having married his own niece (God seems to have changed his mind by the time Philip II of Spain did the same in the 16th century), Heraclius must have died a very sad and broken man. If only he could have know that he had enabled his people to survive victorious for another four centuries, and to endure altogether for another eight.

The True Dark Age

When the Emperor Honorius informed the British, c.410, that they were on their own, Britain dropped out of history into a mythic age where King Arthur and his (anachronistic) knights bought a brief respite of peace against the tide of Angles, Jutes, and Saxons. This sort of "darkness" wasn't quite as bad in Gaul; but it is still hard to tell what was going on much of the time, and the material culture evidently declined. Interesting information about the economic level of these regions is related by Mark Whittow: there is archaeological evidence (of the "coins lost under the cushions" sort) that the use of copper coins declined, which indicates when a cash economy gave way to a barter and subsistent economy. Copper coin vanished across Britain and Gaul in the 5th century, across Italy and the Balkans in the 6th, and finally in much of the rest of the reduced Romania in the 7th. As this all coincides with a decline, or disappearance, of historical records, the temptation to speak of the Dark Ages is irresistible.

A slightly different light may be thrown on this when we consider what was happening. Britain and Gaul either passed out of or became solidly peripheral to the Roman world during the 5th century. The new Frankish Kingdom in Gaul was at first cut off from the Mediterranean by the Burgundians and Goths and later found the Lombards hostilely interposed between them and Romania, with whom they otherwise had cordial relations. Meanwhile, the decline of Italy clearly coincides, not with the establishment of Odoacer's realm and the Ostrogothic Kingdom, but with the long war of attrition in Justinian's reconquest and then the similar stalemate after the arrival of the Lombards. Similarly, the Balkan economy declined as Slav raiding increased and the Roman army was distracted by various 6th century wars with Persia. Nevertheless, Roman command of the sea after the end of the Vandals meant that the only practical means of long distance trade, by sea, remained open. And Whittow examines extensive evidence that most of the Roman economy in the 6th century empire was quite robust. Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor were as wealthy and productive as they had ever been. And there is one striking bit of evidence that at some level an international economy remained active even in the West: the Merovingian and Lombard Kings continued to mint gold coins. This all represents the hope of a steady recovery of trade and material culture in the future.

However "dark" the 5th and 6th centuries were, this would not compare with the damage about to be done. The whole arrangement of prosperous provinces at the end of secure sea lanes was utterly destroyed by the advent of Islam. The true Dark Age follows when the arteries of commence are severed and the Mare Nostrum permanently disappears as such. The rural economy of 7th century Romania joins the low level of Britain, Gaul, Italy, and the Balkans when communication not just with wealthy Egypt and Syria is lost, but when any shipping in the Mediterranean becomes a perilous voyage through hostile waters.

At first, Roman control of the sea persists, as the forces of Islam are unfamiliar with ships and such naval expeditions as are attempted focus on Constantinople itself (674-677 and 717-718), to disastrous results against the fearsome superweapon of the age, Greek Fire. This allowed an amphibious counter-attack against Alexandria in 645 and seemed to hold out hope that North Africa could be retained. However, on land Islam would not be denied, as Egypt was secured in 646 and, with the aid of Berber conversion to the new religion, North Africa was reduced between 670 and 698. In the latter year Carthage, which had originally been destroyed by Rome in 146 BC, and rebuilt by Augustus in 29 BC, was captured and destroyed for a final time. But, as the Arab and Berber army of the Omayyad Caliphs crossed into Spain (711) and hence into Gaul, the islands of the Mediterranean remained in Roman hands.

Soon, however, things began to slip. While Roman power could still be well projected into Italy in 663 and Pope Martin I (649-654) could still be arrested, brought to Constantinople, and exiled to the Crimea, none of this could be done any longer as the 8th century progressed. The long stalemate with the Lombards began to shift. Ravenna fell to them in 733, was recaptured, and finally was lost forever in 751. This was the end of Ravenna as a center of power, and thus culminates a period that began when the Emperor Honorius retreated there nearly 350 years earlier. It seemed that the collapse of Romanian power in Italy would then leave the Pope and Rome itself at the mercy of the Lombards. Pope Gregory III (731-741), however, took the fateful step of appealing to the Franks. In both 739 and 740 Charles Martel declined to intervene. After the final fall of Ravenna, the desperate situation called for desperate measures. Pope Stephen III (752-757) traveled to the court of Charles' son, Pepin (753-754), pleading for help against the Lombards. Since Pepin wanted to end the line of Merovingian Kings and become King of the Franks himself, Stephen held out the powerful offer of Papal blessing for this. Consequently, Pepin not only agreed to move against the Lombards, but undertook to return the entire Exarchate of Ravenna, the whole Romanian corridor across central Italy, to the Pope personally. Later, when Pepin's son Charles -- Charlemagne -- actually conquered the Lombards and permanently ended their threat, Pope Leo III (795-816) rewarded him with the title of Emperor -- hardly the Pope's to bestow but, now well free of control from Constantinople, not a power that any Emperor there could prevent him from claiming.

With Charlemagne we see one further sign of economic decline: his prized coinage was not of gold, but of silver -- little silver pennies (denarii) and half-pennies (oboli). Gold coinage would not again be seen in Europe until the 11th century. Romania never sank so low, as Constantinople itself remained the center of a commercial cash economy, while, of course, Islam never had to experience anything like a "dark age": The prosperity of Egypt and Iraq, and the trade opened up through the whole world of Islam, kept the Middle East prosperous and creative for several centuries. The brief "Carolingian Renaissance," although lifting the curtain of history somewhat, could not disguise the trouble that lack of trade, cash, cities, and education would spell for the newly consolidated Frankish Kingdom. Lands that could not be administered by paid bureaucrats or controlled by paid soldiers drifted away under the autonomy of feudal suzerains.

Meanwhile, Romania was losing its grip on the sea. The first of the Balearics fell to Islam in 798, Crete was taken in 823, and Sicily was invaded in 827. As Islam began to sweep across the Mediterranean, the West was reduced to isolation, ringed around and punctured with devastating raids, not only from the south, but also from the north by the newly active Norsemen and from the east by a new steppe people bumped off into the Hungarian plain, the Magyars. Some apparently isolated locations, as in the heart of Burgundy, were actually raided by Moslems, Vikings, and Magyars successively. This age of terror is sometimes called "The Second Dark Age" (cf. Martin Scott, Mediaeval Europe, Longmans, 1964), but in an important sense it merely continues the process that began with the original Islamic conquest of Egypt and Syria.

The unity of the Mediterranean world was now forever shattered, and we see a strong clue why Rome never had its T'ang Dynasty: China was not a bubble of land around a sea. All the little peninsulas, islands, and valleys around the Mediterranean had always bred their own distinctive local cultures and civilizations. Rome, by extraordinary determination and fortune, had united them all and in great measure, over several centuries, had produced a remarkably united meta-culture, complete with a brand new synthetic meta-religion. Nothing quite so complicated had to be accomplished in China. Then, under the extraordinary and unexpected blow of Islam, we see the old Roman unity, maintained in theory even by the distant Franks, cracked, broken, and then shattered. Certainly it was a drawn out enough process to suggest the breakage of pottery; but as we draw back in time, it might seem more like the bursting of a bubble. The sea, so easily a means of communication and unity, also could be a fragile, vulnerable, weak center. As the predations of the Vandals hurried the fall of the Western Empire, so those of Islamic seafarers permanently severed Constantinople from any chance of projecting real power to the west or south. The naval supremacy that Rome had wrested from Carthage was now finally gone, returned to Phoenicia's Semitic kinsmen, and with it the last chance of completing Justinian's project.

Catholic and Orthodox

When the tide of decline finally turned, prospects everywhere changed rapidly. When the German King Otto I defeated the Magyars at the Lech River in 955, it ushered in a new era, not just of German power, as Otto set Italy in order and obtained the imperial crown (recently fallen dormant) from the Pope, but of the rapid spread of European civilization. In 836 Cyril and Methodius had set out to convert the Slavs. That had led to the conversion of the Czechs and Croatians and especially, in 870, the Bulgarians. A Croatian, Tomislav, was recognized as a Christian King by the Pope in 924. But following Otto's victory, most of the rest of Europe followed rapidly. Poland acknowledged Otto, and Christianity, in 966; by 1000 Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were mostly Christian; and in 1001 the Pope recognized St. Stephen as a Christian King of the Magyars, so that the last steppe people to ravage central Europe became the Kingdom of Hungary. Somewhat further afield, and more under the influence of Constantinople, St. Vladimir led Russia into Christianity in 989. Soon, Prussia, Lithuania, Latvia, and the steppe would be the only remaining areas of paganism, all to fall to conquest or conversion by the 13th century.

These explosive developments may be in great measure due, ironically, to the previous ravages. The ability of the Vikings to raid right through the heart of Europe, into the Mediterranean, through the rivers of Russia, and up to Constantinople itself is really a great testament to their organization and technological achievements. Like the 5th century Germans, the Vikings were a threat because they were sophisticated, not because they were primitive. The arrival of the Russian Vikings, or Varangians, at Constantinople in 839 led to Romanian influence on an organized Russian state at Kiev in little more than a century. In 957 the Regent of Kiev Olga was already travelling to Constantinople to be baptized. The nadir of the Dark Age thus most significantly contained the seeds of its own end. While the Germans had been folded into the Empire, degrading Roman civilization, only because of the pressure of the steppe peoples behind them (mainly the Huns), the Vikings and Magyars were mostly held outside and so spread rather than undermined the centers of culture. The Norman possession of Southern Italy and Normandy, and the brief Danish possession of England, were thus the exceptions that prove the rule.

Although the southern littoral of the Mediterranean was lost to Christendom forever (except as imperial possessions for a while), Christian states on the northern side consolidated and expanded, including Romania itself, which returned as far as Antioch in Syria and regained the Danube frontier, against the now Christian Bulgarians, in the Balkans. Nevertheless, there was an increasing estrangement and differentiation between East and West, between Romania and Francia. The West was, as it happened, doing rather better than the East, spreading more broadly and developing faster. This would soon stand revealed in the most dramatic fashion, as Romania endured a catastrophic defeat and collapse while Francia surged back with a spectacular display of its strength and potential. The fortunes of Islam also figure in this; for although the losses of Romania would become the gains of Islam, there was overall merely a kind of rotation in the possessions of the Faith: As one ancient heartland of Christianity, Anatolia, slowly slipped under the Turks, so did one early conquest of Islam, Spain, slowly fall to the Reconquest. This process is curiously reciprocal, if we compare the red letter dates in the rise and decline of imperial Spain and Ottoman Turkey:

TurkeySpain
The Rise
Battle of Manzikert, Seljuks open Anatolia to Turkish settlement1071Fall of Toledo, beginning of Reconquista1085
Seizure of Constantinople by Fourth Crusade, Romania fragments1204Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, Almohad power broken1212
Fall of Constantinople to Mehmet II1453Fall of Granada, Reconquista complete1492
TurkeySpain
The Decline
Second Seige of Vienna, Turks defeated1683Battle of Rocroi, Spain defeated by France1643
Battle of Navarino, British intervention, Greek Independence1827Mexican Independence, Monroe Doctrine1821
Balkan Wars, World War I, loss of European and Arab possessions1912-1918Spanish American War, loss of Cuba and Philippines1898

Thus, when the army of the Emperor Romanus Diogenes was destroyed by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert in 1071, enabling the Turks to sweep over Asia Minor all the way to the shores of the Bosporus, the fall of Toledo to the Christians, though not seeming anywhere near as significant at the time, began a process that later could be recognized as the Reconquest. Within a couple of centuries, Islamic Spain collapsed into a tiny remnant: In 1212 the last major Islamic power to span the Straits of Gibraltar, the Berber Almohad dynasty, was defeated at Las Navas de Tolosa just as catastrophically as Romanus had been defeated at Manzikert. Indeed, there was soon much less left of Islamic Spain than there had been of Romania, though little enough, in fact, was left of Romania at that time, since a treacherous blow had cut through to the heart of the empire. But that is to get a little ahead of the story.

Of equal significance in the 11th century was the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches. Even the terminology of the schism betrays the same kind of Western bias as the use of the term "Byzantine." The single, true, and orthodox Church of the Roman Empire was the "Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church." The term catholic itself was Greek, katholikê, "on the whole, in general" i.e. "universal" -- one of the Early Romanian Greek terms eschewed by Latin scholar purists. Nevertheless, when the Church split in 1054, the Pope somehow managed to retain the "Roman Catholic" label, while Romania was merely left with being "Greek Orthodox." Thus Whittow casually refers to "the fundamental division between the Roman and Byzantine worlds" [p. 161], despite Francia truly being "Roman" in no remaining recognizable sense except that it contained the City of Rome. (Mediaeval Europe, indeed, is never called "Roman" any more than the empire of Constantinople is -- "Latin" West and "Greek" East is more common and more appropriate, at least in being linguistically descriptive.) While the Roman Empire derived its name from the City, which subsequently lost its identity to the Empire itself, the Roman Church, beginning as the identity of the Empire, with no particular connection to the City (all the Ecumenical Councils were held at Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, or Constantinople), ultimately loses its identity, ironically, to the City -- all because of the Schism of the Church and the success of Papal claims in the West. (That those claims were eventually rejected by Protestants meant that the Christian Church was no longer Roman at all, in terms of either Empire or City.)

Like the luckless Mensheviks who foolishly began calling themselves what the Bolsheviks called them, the "minority," the Greek Orthodox Church even calls itself this, despite having as good a claim to "Roman Catholic" as the Pope and despite being no more "Greek" historically than was Justinian or Leo V, the Armenian. Being "orthodox" is, of course, a nice twist since, if the Greek Church is Orthodox, does this make the Pope's Church .... Heterodox? The term "Orthodox" has clearly come to mean absolutely nothing except to distinguish, in a polite way ("Schismatic" is the impolite way), the Eastern Churches from the Western. Thus it is even applied to Monophysite Churches, like the Copts or Armenians, who were considered Heterodox ever since the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The final irony, or insult, is when "Greek Catholic" is used to apply to Greek Orthodox Christians who convert to Papal doctrine and authority but retain the rites of the Eastern Church. If we see the struggles of the Mediaeval Church as a propaganda war, the Papacy won it hands down (only to lose it, later, in Germany).

The consequences of the disaster at Manzikert and the schism of the Church were vastly magnified, however, when it was clear what Francia could actually do if properly motivated and unified. When the Emperor Alexius Comnenus asked for some help against the Turks, he did not expect the Crusades, which suddenly swept over the Holy Land and soon enough swept over Romania itself.

Animated History of Romania

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


The Vlach Connection and
Further Reflections on Roman History, Note


I have been informed by Simona Adela that the Metropolitanate seems to have been established under Prince Petru Musat of Moldavia (1374-1391). I am also informed by James Meyer-Bejdl that there was not an autocephalous Patriarchate established for Romania until 1865/1885.


Return to text