Author: Sitwat Mirza
Institution: King’s College London
The most distinct political and administrative elements that characterised the western Roman empire were Roman written law, the centralised bureaucratic system, taxation and a professional state army. During the transition from the Roman Empire to its western successor states, the majority of these elements, associated with being ‘Roman’, were embedded in the governing systems of these new regimes. Having said that, different successor states in the former western Empire, experienced different levels of change. The two most notable cases are, Ostrogothic Italy, where the abdication of Roman foundations was gradual and slow, and Anglo-Saxon England, where there was a sharp discontinuity in the constitutional system of the Roman world.
However, using these aspects alone to measure how ‘Roman’ these states were, can only give an indication of continuity and change in the short term as by the end of the seventh century the western successor states had largely abandoned the use of these Roman institutions. Instead, one should focus more on what remained ‘Roman’ in these states in the long term, which was predominantly Roman religion, ideology and culture. To illustrate this, I will be comparing Ostrogothic Italy, the Merovingian Frankish kingdom, Vandal Africa and Anglo-Saxon England.
Written law was the main constitutional feature of the Late Roman Empire. It was also the most attractive aspect of ‘Romanity’, that ‘symbolized [a] divinely ordained social order and consensus’. The Roman law was upheld in its entirety by Theodoric the Great during his rule of Ostrogothic Italy, in the years 475 to 526. In his writing, Gothic History, Jordanes makes it clear that much of this legislation had no Gothic descent, but was derived from Roman literature. Much of this continuity was based on Theoderic’s admiration of the Roman legislative system and his belief that he had divinely inherited the Roman style of governing due to his personal connection with Constantinople.
An important comparison to be made here is with Clovis I, Merovingian King of the Franks. Like Theodoric, he also maintained Roman legal practices in his kingdom, however there is some evidence to suggest change over time, as elements of Germanic oral legends were embedded within this Roman model. For instance, Salic law had its origins in the pre-Christian era and was founded upon early Frankish policy and tradition. Therefore, Roman law was an aspect that remained largely unchanged under the reign of powerful leaders like Theoderic and Clovis. The fact that these rulers were the most successful in the administration of their kingdoms, suggests that Roman legislation and the Roman ideology associated with it, were seen as the foundations of a stable governing system.
This imitation of Roman jurisdiction implies that the successor states in the former western empire were essentially as Roman as their predecessors. However, some elements of Germanic custom and law had to be integrated into this pre-existing system to make it adaptable to suit the needs of a new society, made up of not only Romans but also Germanic settlers. As correctly pointed out by Historian, Wormald (page 28 of regne and gentes), these rulers ‘legislated…not to supersede but to supplement the law they had inherited from their imperial predecessors’.
In order to assess how ‘Roman’ the successor states in the former western empire were, it would not be sufficient to just look at whether they adopted the roman legislative system. It is also essential to consider how similar their administrative system was to the large and centralised bureaucratic institution of their Roman precursors. Amongst these successor states, Ostrogothic Italy demonstrates ‘a highly successful experiment in Romano-Germanic co-operation and mutual appreciation’. Theoderic’s main incentive for embracing imperial central rule was that Italy ‘needed a history and a constitutional role for itself that fitted in with the intellectual expectations of the Roman upper classes’. This dependence on the Roman elite to ‘set cultural goals for the new regime’, meant that the social hierarchy that existed in the empire was also maintained.
Further evidence to emphasise the revival of Roman political elements in Italy, is the renovation of Roman infrastructure such as the ‘repair of aqueducts, public baths, city walls and palaces…in a variety of major Italian cities, including Rome, Ravenna, Verona and Pavia’. In spite of this there is some evidence that suggests otherwise. For example, the ‘administration of justice’ was a role that revealed the separation of cases where Romans officers could not interfere in ‘inter-Gothic disputes’ and likewise Gothic officers could not handle ‘cases involving just Romans’.
Although one cannot disregard this evidence, there is far less of it than the majority of evidence that proposes continuity. One can therefore conclude that, like the upholding of legislation, rule in Ostrogothic Italy was principally based on the Roman concept of centralisation. Therefore, politically Italy was very similar to the Roman Empire.
One can draw links between the centralised administrative system of Ostrogothic Italy and that of Vandal Africa, ruled by King Geiseric, in the years 428-478. In Italy, the Roman style of local governance was kept in the form of the ‘civitas…comprising both an urban centre and a stretch of dependent rural territory which was administered by a council of local landowners’. The only difference was that these officials had to report back to the ‘king rather than an emperor’.
In Vandal Africa, this system continued in the form of ‘Roman provincial assemblies’, the survival of Latin in court as well the adoption of the Roman way of ‘life in rural villas’. From this we can deduce that the endurance of the Roman system in Africa was more cultural than it was in Theoderic’s kingdom. In Italy, adherence to the Roman political structure was followed precisely, according to the letter. What these examples show is that the ‘Romanity’ of different successor states in the former western empire, was based on the differing imperial attitudes of their rulers.
In contrast to both Italy and Africa, Anglo-Saxon England was a part of the empire that was rapidly decentralised. ‘By the mid-sixth century [the large central bureaucratic system] had totally disappeared, to be replaced by a series of small scale and mutually antagonistic kingdoms’. It is true that by the year 600, the western successor states had all evolved into independent localities. However, it would be natural to question why different regions experienced varying levels of change.
After looking at the examples of Italy and Africa, it would be valid to say that for the survival of Roman political and administrative elements, the presence of the land-owning Roman elite, needed to maintain the governing system, as well as a central royal court was necessary. Hence, the absence of these elements explains why Anglo-Saxon England was an acute exception to the pattern of continuity that can be seen in the governing systems of other western successor states.
Another way to measure how ‘Roman’ the western successor states were is to compare their military and taxation system to that of their predecessors.
An important distinction must be made between the leaders Theoderic and Clovis. From the Letters of Cassiodorus, it is evident that Theoderic was a diplomatic leader who sought to keep peaceful relations with other kingdoms. By example, in his letter to Clovis he says: ‘let rulers be allied by family, so that separate nations may glory in a common policy’. Essentially, the army under Theoderic was ‘an extension of traditional Roman propaganda’ which proposed the idea that taxation was a means to pay the professional state army. Clovis also adopted the ‘pre-existing Roman…military structures’, however his nature in dealing with his rivals was more aggressive, perhaps inherited from ‘his father, Childeric’. This can be clearly seen in Gregory of Tours’ writing:’ King Clovis raised his own battle-axe in the air and split his skull with it … [the other men] were filled with mighty dread’. In short, one can say that although ‘the army was Frankish, the culture was Roman(ized)’.
In Vandal Africa, taxation continued and ‘at Carthage the clerks of local government organised the billeting of imperial troops in the traditional ways’. This evidence gives the impression that there was little change in the way in which armed forces were organised. Nevertheless, in Vandal Africa there were some notable innovations in the fiscal administration; it was the first to ‘bring back a stable currency of coins of small and medium denominations’. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the year 476, most of the successor states upheld the traditional Roman military and taxation system which implies that they were substantially Roman in this respect. It was not until the end of the seventh century that this system was fully abandoned and replaced by local and private armies rewarded by land as opposed to being paid, suggesting a very slow and gradual transformation away from these Roman political elements.
Although all these political and administrative aspects of ‘Romanity’ were abdicated in the long term, what remained entrenched in some of these kingdoms was the Roman religion of Christianity. Gregory of Tours details the legend of Clovis converting to Catholicism, narrated in the words of Clovis: ‘If you [Jesus Christ] will give me victory over my enemies…then I will believe in you and will be baptized in your name’. This moment was significant in determining how ‘Roman’ Clovis really was in the eyes of the Romans themselves; Constantinople recognised him as a true King after this event. Conversely, Theoderic was Arian and so had a hard time trying to convince Emperor Anastasius to make an alliance with his kingdom: ‘we humbly beg that you will not remove from us the high honour of your Mildness’s affection’. The fact that he was not legitimately Roman in the eyes of the emperor despite his strict adherence to the Roman political system, shows just how important it was to be Catholic in order for one to be considered ‘Roman’.
Similarly, Vandal Africa was also Arian and here the persecution of Catholics was severe which ‘reached a climax under Geiseric’s son Huneric in 484’. The Romans saw the Vandals and Ostrogoths as heretics. So, although kings Theoderic and Geiseric followed the Roman way of governing, they must be considered less Roman than kings like Clovis, who converted to Catholicism, as differences in religion outweighed conformity to the Roman administrative system. Further evidence to support this is the fact that Christianity was most widespread ‘in those areas of Britain which under the Empire were least Romanised’.
In Anglo-Saxon England, having no traditional centralised political system to assist the spread of Christianity, the church relied on towns as their ‘ceremonial and government centres’. It was the ‘arrival of Pope Gregory the Great in 597’ which initiated the strengthening of bonds with the Roman Church. All in all, the political elements of the Roman Empire, adopted by most of the kings of these successor states was a short-term indication of them being Roman. In the long run, after these elements had been abandoned, it was the adherence to Catholicism that defined a kingdom as truly ‘Roman’ in the eyes of the Romans themselves.
Anglo-Saxon England was a clear exception to the other successor states in the former western empire, in that there was no formal continuation of Roman imperial rule and administration. However, what did remain was a legacy of the ‘ideology and vocabulary…that had grown out of the dissolution of the Roman Empire in western Europe’. Evidence for this can be seen in geographical similarities ‘in the use of the Roman landscape’. For instance, the ‘boundary…between Anglian and Saxon areas broadly corresponds with the boundary suggested for these two late Roman provinces’. This evidence as well as that used to support the idea of the endurance of Catholicism in Anglo-Saxon England, rejects the common view of this state not being Roman at all. Instead, we can clearly see considerable traces of ‘Romanity’ in this region, even after the end of the seventh century.
In conclusion, the successor states were largely built on the political and administrative features of the former western Empire, with the exception of Anglo-Saxon England. On the whole, there was a continuity in the use of written law, a state army, taxation and maintaining a centralised bureaucratic system, which is illustrated best using the example of Ostrogothic Italy. Moreover, any changes in the Roman system of governing under the kings, Theoderic, Clovis and Geiseric, came about due to the attempt to adapt the old Roman style of politics to the new population of Roman and Germanic settlers. Essentially, these rulers used the Roman model as a foundation for their new regimes, primarily due to the fact that they knew this model to be successful in forming a stable government. By the end of the seventh century, like Anglo-Saxon England, the other successor states had also developed their own system of governing based on smaller pre-modern states.
It was mainly a difference of Anglo-Saxon England, abandoning the Roman style of governing, a lot earlier due to the absence of a Roman elite to organise such an administration. Therefore, in the short term, Ostrogothic Italy, Vandal Africa and the Frankish kingdom were the most ‘Roman’ successor states as a result of their maintenance of the Roman governing system. Nevertheless, as emphasised earlier, one cannot simply conclude from this analysis that Anglo-Saxon England had no ‘Roman’ dimension to it. For a Roman, what distinguished them from other societies was their religion and ideology. Hence, in the long term, it was only the states that upheld this ideology and had strong connections with the Roman Catholic Church, that could be considered as truly ‘Roman’.
Cassiodorus, Senator, The Letters of Cassiodorus: Being A Condensed Translation of The Variae Epistolae of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, translated by Hodgkin, Thomas (London, 1886), I and III
Collins, Roger, Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, 2nd edn (USA,1999), ch. 7,11
Encyclopædia Britannica, (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Salic-Law, accessed 25/10/2017)
Goetz H.W, Jarnut Jorg and Pohl Walter (eds.), Regna and Gentes (Leiden ,2003)
Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II, translated by Thorpe, Lewis, (London ,1974) 27-43 on Clovis
Heather, Peter ‘State, lordship and community in the West’, in A. Cameron, B. Ward-Perkins and M. Whitby (eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History vol. 14: Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, AD 425–600 (Cambridge, 2001), 437-468