Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews      entry Jan 2010

Easy Steps to the Dark Ages in Naples

The Battle of Mons Lactarius by German artist,
Zick (1845-1907). The battle in 553
marked the final defeat of the Goths in Italy.

As a young citizen of Naples in 475 a.d., you rightfully mumble in your mead about how the Empire has gone to hell recently, but you’re not necessarily aware of the hellish event, itself —that is, the Goth invasion of northern Italy in that year, which leads to the fall of the Western Empire. That is a long way from Naples, but sooner or later, you hear the name “Theodoric” (your new Goth king) and are aware that the last of your Roman emperors, Romulus Augustus, has not been executed but merely put out to pasture right in your own backyard, on the nice small island of Megaride, where the Castel dell’Ovo will one day stand. But your life is otherwise much the same; no one forces you to change your religion (probably Christianity) and no one makes you speak Goth. (Even the Goths give that up for Latin. Maybe you are amused that the Goths will now have to wait another 1,200 yearsafter they are all dead! for someone named Horace Walpole to write something called The Castle of Otranto—a so-called “Gothic (!) novel” in a language called “English”. Strange, indeed.) In any event, you do not necessarily feel that you are about to embark on The Dark Ages.

You find out a few years later, though, when the Greek Byzantine emperor Justinian invades Italy in 535 to restore the Roman empire. That particular Gothic War lasts 20 years and devastates the Italian peninsula, including the city of Naples. The Greeks finally defeat the Goths at the battle of Mons Lactarius (painting, above), the Latin name for what is now Mt. Lettere, not far from the town of Angri, between Castellamare and Salerno. It is, however, a short-lived success and leaves the Byzantine victors so spent that they are unable to resist the Longobard (or “Lombard”) invasions of a scant two decades later. However, for that brief period after 555, with Naples once again a Greek city—under Byzantium—you have a much calmer life, perhaps even enjoy somewhat of a Greek renaissance, they say. Greek is again spoken, translation centers thrive, and those delicately lettered illuminated manuscripts become a bit of a cottage industry in Naples. (Every time you stop your cart, some kid runs out, cleans your horse’s eyeballs and tries to sell you a beautiful letter "S".) Not too unpleasant—again, so they say.

By now you are getting well up there in years, but maybe you live to see the Longobards invade Italy in 568. They set up a kingdom that will last 200 years, but it is not a monolithic kingdom; it is rather a loosely-knit confederation, somewhat of a patchwork. Though it extends most of the length of Italy, it leaves Byzantine enclaves intact, including the Exarchate of Ravenna, the center of what is left of Greek power in Italy; Naples remains another Greek enclave, as do other areas in the south. Even as the Longobards spread through the adjacent area, Naples manages to hold out and declare itself an independent Duchy (with nominal allegiance to Byzantium) in 661. The first Duke is a certain Basilio, born and bred in Naples.

Longobard Italy was at its greatest extent
in about 750, after the Byzantine Exarchate
around Ravenna had ceased to exist and before
the creation of the Papal States.

For about a hundred years thereafter, Naples see-saws between being a Byzantine enclave and an independent duchy; each change, however, weakens the hold of Constantinople on Naples. By around 750, the Duchy of Naples comes into its own and has developed into the main port for African and Spanish wares on the way to Rome.

In the north, the stage is now set for the Lombards to pass from history: they invade the Greek exarchate; the Greeks then call for help from the Germanic Franks and one of them, Pepin, helps retake the exarchate but then gives it to the church of Rome, a gift that is called "The Donation of Pepin." That territory merges with the Duchy of Rome to form the Papal States, a large chunk of central Italy that will separate north and south for the next 1000 years. Pepin's son, Charlemagne, then finishes mopping up the north, and the Holy Roman Empire is born in the year 800. That, however, does little to affect the south. Charlemagne effectively leaves the south to pursue its own course—to remain southern Longobards.

But southern hegemony shatters quickly: the towns of Amalfi and Sorrento declare themselves independent and become seafaring trading centers on their own; there is also the Duchy of Benevento and its breakaway southern half, the Duchy of Salerno. (The Duchy of Benevento will shortly become a Papal enclave surrounded, somewhat anomalously, by successive dynasties of the Kingdom of Naples; it will remain such until the unification of Italy in 1861.) The independent Duchy of Naples in the year 800 extends from Lago Patria to Amalfi. If you live in the mid-800s, you can watch them build what is now the ruined medieval castle of Lettere right at the spot where the Goths were beaten centuries earlier. The castle is part of a chain of forts to promote the general “good fences make good neighbors” policy of the age. Empire is out; feudalism is in.

In the first half of the 800's, the southern Longobards wage bitter attacks in an attempt to take the city of Naples. The Neapolitans turn to the Arabs—the newest members of the cast—who are now prowling the waters of southern Italy and who have already taken the island of Ponza to use as a base from which to raid the mainland. (They would also take all of Sicily by 902.) The Arabs help Naples hold off the Longobards; in return, the Neapolitan fleet a few years later helps the Arabs take the city of Bari on the Adriatic, which remains a Muslim stronghold for thirty years. By 836 there is an alliance between the Arabs of Palermo and Naples. Neapolitan assistance to the Arabs weakens Byzantine sea power in the Tyrrhenian sea, and the Arabs are thus able to carry out successful raids on the Aeolian islands and elsewhere along the southern coast. By the second half of the 800s Byzantine power has withered even further in southern Italy, and Naples— still in the face of Lombard antagonists in the area— succeeds in installing Sergio, Duke of Cuma, as the Duke of Naples. This is the beginning of a true duchy, independent of Constantinople.

Although Naples helped the Moslems take Bari in 841 and Messina shortly thereafter, Arab freebooters continue to interfere with Neapolitan commerce; Naples then forms an alliance with Amalfi, Gaeta and Sorrento to defeat the Muslim pirates, forcing them to abandon Ponza, and in 846 a united Campanian fleet helps thwart the Arab invasion of Rome. This, however, does not prevent these same Campanian sea cities from developing friendly commercial relations with Arab Sicily a few years later. Sergio II, who ruled as Duke of Naples from 870 to 877 is said by Pope John VIII to have turned the city "into another Palermo.” Sergio is excommunicated.

(Added: August 2011)

Technically, the Duchy of Naples lasted for about 500 years, but the first part of that was as a Byzantine state ruled by a duke appointed from Constantinople. The first one of those was Basil in 661. True independence, however, started with Sergio I, in 840. He was the first hereditary duke. The coin in this image depicts Sergio II, ruler from 870 to 878. He is considered particularly important in the long history of the Duchy in that he was aggressive, expansionist and thought nothing of aligning his Duchy with Arab partners if it suited his needs. That did not endear him to the Pope, and, as you read in the main article, Sergio was eventually excommunicated. (See text above this box.) The coin has a few indicators of true independence. Whereas, Byzantine coins in Naples were in Greek and usually had an image of some Greek emperor or other, this one has on one side an image of Saint Januarius (San Gennaro), the patron saint of Naples, and a Latin inscription identifying him, SCS IANV. Thus, the Greek language is finally on the way out in Naples. On the other side of the coin is the ruler, identified in Latin as SERGIU DUX. He is holding the globus cruciger, an orb topped by a cross, a Christian symbol of authority in the Middle Ages.

Roger the Norman                 
(statue at Royal Palace, Naples)

The Arabs are finally pushed off the mainland by a combined Byzantine and Holy Roman Empire force. Except for the anomalous case of Lucera, a Muslim settlement on the Adriatic, which survives into the 13th century, the last Arab stronghold on the mainland is a cove of pirates at Garigliano, near Naples. It is wiped out in 915 by a joint Holy Roman Empire, Byzantine, Papal, Neapolitan and Gaetan force. For the Duchy of Naples the rest of the 900's are full of wars with neighboring Longobards, die-hard Byzantines and Arab pirates.

By the 1000's the Normans have arrived. They retake Sicily; in 1059 Robert Guiscard becomes a Papal vassal, and his younger brother Roger builds a Norman state out of remnant Longobard holdings in the South. By 1076 Amalfi has accepted Norman rule. By 1100 the days of the southern Longobards, the Byzantine Empire, and Islam in southern Italy are through. In 1130, Roger II, "the Norman," crowned king of Sicily, claims Naples. He enters the city in September, 1140, incorporating it into the Kingdom of Sicily (the future Kingdom of Naples). With that, Naples and Southern Italy shift out of the orbit of the classical world of southern Mediterranean cultures and into the "European" one of the future.

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