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7-08-2015, 20:40

Byzantine military difficulties in the west

Throughout Justinian’s reign, that part of the empire south of the Danube had been troubled by incursions, in particular those of the Turkic-speaking people known as Bulgars and groups of Slavs whom contemporaries called Antes and Sclaveni. The government dealt with the threat as best it could by building forts and paying subsidies, but following Justinian’s death in 565, the situation deteriorated rapidly. His successor Justin II adopted a policy of withholding subsidies, and in particular he refused a demand for tribute made by Avars, who had recently made their way into the Danube area. The Avars soon showed their mettle. In 567 they joined forces with the Lombards living in Pannonia to crush the Gepids, a victory that signalled the end of theGermanic peoples along the middleDanube. In the following year the Lombards left Pannonia for Italy, whereupon the Avars occupied the lands they had vacated, the plain of modern Hungary. From there they launched attacks deep into imperial territory, and the renewal of war with Persia in 572 made the Byzantine response to these developments the less effective. In 581 Slavs invaded the Balkans, and before long it became clear that they were moving in to stay. These events had a major impact on the west. The attention of the authorities was now diverted from the newly won provinces, and direct land access to Italy was rendered difficult. Moreover, it may well have been the rise of the Avars that impelled the Lombards to launch in 568 their invasion of Italy where they quickly gained control of the Po valley and areas of central and southern Italy. The Byzantine administration, under the successor of Narses, the praetorian prefect Longinus, proved embarrassingly ill-equipped to cope, and a force eventually sent from the east under Justin’s son-in-law Baduarius was defeated. In 577 or 578 the Roman patricius Pamphronius, who had gone to Constantinople seeking help, was sent away with the 3,000 pounds of gold he had brought with him and told to use the money to bribe some Lombards to defect or, failing that, to secure the intervention of the Franks. In 579 a second embassy was fobbed off with a small force and, we are told, an attempt was made to bribe some of the Lombard leaders. Perhaps we see here the reflection of a change in imperial policy, for while Justin had behaved in a miserly fashion, his successor Tiberius I (578–82) was inclined to throw money at his problems. However, neither strategy succeeded, and it was all too clear that the situation in Italy was desperate. It was time for Constantinople to play the Frankish card again. For the greater part of the sixth century the Franks had steadily been growing more powerful. Their defeat of the Visigoths in 507 was followed by expansion from northern into southern Gaul, while the weakening of the Burgundians and Ostrogoths in the 520s and 530s saw further gains.33 In the early stages of the Gothic war they were in the happy position of being able to accept the payments that both sides made seeking their assistance, but when King Theudebert marched into Italy in 539, he was acting solely in his own interests. Theudebert issued gold coins displaying his own portrait rather than that of the emperor and bearing legends generally associated with emperors rather than kings. He responded to an embassy from Justinian in grandiloquent terms, advising him that the territory under his power extended through the Danube and the boundary of Pannonia as far as the ocean shores.34 Towards the end of Theudebert’s life his forces occupied Venetia and some other areas of Italy, and it was rumoured that he planned to march on the City: such was the fear he inspired in Constantinople. The settlement of the Lombards in Pannonia by Justinian in about 546 may have represented an attempt to counter the Franks. Following the death of Theudebert in 547, Justinian sent an embassy to his heir Theudebald proposing an offensive alliance against the Goths, but he was turned down and Frankish intervention in Italy continued to be a problem throughout the Gothic war. The advent of the Lombards, however, placed the Franks once more on the far side of an enemy of the Byzantines and they could again be looked upon as potential allies. But the attempts made to gain their help occurred against a highly complex political and military background. It is difficult to reconstruct the web of alliances and animosities that lay behind relations between Constantinople and the disparate parts of thewest towards the end of the sixth century. In 579Hermenigild, the elder son of the Visigothic king Leovigild, revolted against his father. After the rebellion’s suppression, Hermenigild’s wife (the Frankish princess Ingund) and son Athanagild fled to the Byzantines; Athanagild was taken to Constantinople, and his Frankish relatives were unable to secure his return to the west, despite their efforts. A few years later one Gundovald, who claimed to be the son of a Frankish king, arrived in Marseilles. He had been living in Constantinople, but had been lured back to Francia by a party of aristocrats. The emperor Maurice (582–602) gave Gundovald financial backing, and one of his supporters inMarseilles was later accused of wishing to bring the kingdom of the Franks under the emperor’s sway. This was almost certainly an exaggeration, and Gundovald’s rebellion came to naught, but again we have evidence of imperial fishing in troubled western waters.35 In 584 the Frankish king Childebert, the uncle of Athanagild, having at some time received 50,000 solidi from Maurice, sent forces to Italy, but the results were not up to imperial expectations and Maurice asked for his money back. Other expeditions followed, but little was achieved. Finally, in 590 a large Frankish expedition advanced into Italy and made its way beyond Verona, but failed to make contact with the imperial army. This was the last occasion when Constantinople used the Franks in its Italian policy. The fiasco of 590 may be taken as symbolising a relationship which rarely worked to the benefit of the empire. While it may often be true that the neighbours of one’s enemy are one’s friends, Byzantine attempts to profit from the Franks had persistently failed. By the last years of the century theByzantineswere in difficulties throughout the west. Most of Italy was under Lombard control, and severe losses had also been sustained in Africa, although the latter can only dimly be perceived. In 595 Berbers caused alarm to the people of Carthage itself, until the exarch tricked them into defeat. A geographical work written by George of Cyprus early in the seventh century indicates that the imperial possessions in Africa were considerably smaller than those which the Vandals had controlled, themselves smaller than those which had belonged to the Roman empire.36 The establishment of exarchs in Ravenna and Carthage indicates a society that was being forced to become more military in orientation, and while the Byzantine possessions in Spain are not well documented, it is clear that they tended to diminish rather than grow.