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7-08-2015, 20:35

The continuing unity of the post-roman world

Throughout the political history of western Europe, there have been few periods of such dramatic change as the fifth century. In 400 the borders of the Roman empire in the west, by then distinct from the eastern empire which was governed from Constantinople, stood reasonably firm. They encompassed all of Europe south of the Antonine wall in Britain and the Rhine and Danube rivers on the continent, extending eastwards of the Danube’s confluence with the Drava; they also included a band of territory along the African coast, stretching two-thirds of the way from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Nile. But within a hundred years this mighty entity had ceased to exist. North Africa had come under the power of groups known as Vandals and Alans; Spain of Visigoths and Suevi; and Gaul of Visigoths, Franks and Burgundians. The Romans had withdrawn from Britain early in the century, leaving it exposed to attacks from the Irish, Picts and Anglo-Saxons, while in Italy the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476 by a general, Odovacer. The supplanter of Romulus was himself deposed and murdered in 493 by Theoderic the Ostrogoth (493–526), who established a powerful kingdom based on Italy. While the empire had weathered the storms of the fifth century largely unscathed in the east, in the west it had simply ceased to exist. Western Europe, one might be excused for thinking, had moved decisively into a post-Roman period, and the middle ages had begun. However dramatic these events may have been, they did not constitute a definitive parting of the ways between the west and what we may now call the Byzantine east. Long-distance trade continued throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, as research on African pots found across a wide area is increasingly making clear.1 Consuls were being appointed for the west in the year 500 and when, a few decades later, the western consulship lapsed, some in the west still dated documents with reference to the eastern consuls who continued to be appointed. TheMediterranean was traversed by members of the intelligentsia and diplomats, such as a legate of Theoderic who made twenty-five trips from Italy to Spain, Gaul, Africa and Constantinople. The west was awash with doctors from the east, among them Anthimius, who lived in Italy and wrote a fascinating book on diet for a Frankish king in which he recommended the use of such foods as leavened bread, beer and mead made with plenty of honey. Another eastern doctor was Alexander of Tralles, brother of the well-known architect Anthemius. Alexander practised medicine in Rome and his Therapeutica was translated into Latin in the sixth century.2 On the other hand Priscian, who was probably an African, was in Constantinople when he wrote what were to become standard works on Latin grammar;3 we know that Africans in Constantinople were renowned for their Latin accent, but reviled for their poor Greek. Latin manuscripts were copied in Constantinople and Greek ones in Ravenna, the Gothic capital in Italy. Furthermore, despite the political changes in the west, the new rulers there were keen to represent themselves as in some way subservient to the Roman emperors who still ruled in Constantinople. Theoderic the Ostrogoth wrote to Emperor Anastasius that ‘our kingdom is an imitation of yours . . . a copy of the only empire’ and Sigismund the Burgundian informed him that, while he gave the appearance of ruling his people, he believed himself to be merely the soldier of the emperor.4 In these and many other respects, the post-Roman west remained firmly part of the Roman world.