Goths, Lombards & Franks: The Dark Ages

Goths, Lombards & Franks

As the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century AD, Germanic tribes swept down from the north and wreaked mayhem on central Italian cities as group after group fought their way down to Rome in a sacking free-for-all, pillaging all the way down and often on the way back north as well. A few tribes decided to engage in a bit of empire-building themselves.

The Ostrogoths got Ravenna on the Adriatic coast, and when the Byzantine Empire established its base there, it often made attempts to conquer Italy, starting with the first lands it came to: Umbria and Tuscany.

The Goths swept down in the 6th century a.d., and one of their leaders, Totila, conquered Florence in AD 552.

Perhaps the strongest force in the Dark Ages were the Lombards, who, after settling in the Po Valley in the north of Italy (Milan’s region is still called Lombardy), expanded south as well starting in the mid[nd]6th century. They established two major duchies in central Italy, one based at Lucca, which governed most of Tuscany, and the other at Spoleto, which took care of most of Umbria.

When their ambitions threatened Rome (now a church stronghold) in the 8th century, the pope invited the Frankish king Pepin the Short to come clear the Lombards out. Under Pepin, and, more important, his son Charlemagne, the Lombards were ousted from Tuscany and Umbria.

The Lombard duchy at Lucca was merely replaced by a Frankish margrave, with Tuscany ruled by powerful figures like the Margrave Matilda. Charlemagne gave the lands he took from the duchy of Spoleto directly to the pope, but the pontiffs gradually lost control over the region as they busied themselves with other concerns.

With the breakup of Charlemagne’s empire in the 9th century, the German emperors started pressing claims over the Italian peninsula.

The thorny question of who should wield temporal power, the pope in Rome or the German emperor, embroiled European politics on the larger scale for several centuries. (The effects of this struggle on Tuscany and Umbria are discussed in the “Guelfs & Ghibellines: A Medieval Mess” section). On the smaller scale, central Italy was plunged into political chaos out of which emerged for the first time the independent city-state republic known as the comune.