Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 entry Jan 2010, boxes added Aug 2011 &  May, Sept  2018, rev. Aug.2019

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, in text, above), the Latin name for what is now Mt. Lettere, not far from the town of Angri, between Castellammare 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 were also a people from the distant north. 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. (This main entry continues below the box...)

    box added May 9, 2018
The Goths

Historians use the German loan word Völkerwanderung (Wandering of peoples) or the English term Migration Period to refer to the large-scale movement of Germanic tribes from north to south in Europe. Although such movements occurred as early as the first century A.D., by convention we mark the beginning of mass movements from the time of the nomadic Hun invasions (from the east) in 375 AD, lasting until the year 568 when the Longobards invaded Italy (link in text above box) in the wake of Justinian's failed attempt to reunite the eastern and western Roman empires. That, itself, came in the wake of the devastating 20-year Gothic wars (see paragraph 2, main text, above). We don't call the Longobards "Goths", but both groups were Germanic, related both linguistically and genetically.

graphic from Wikipedia

At a certain period make it 700 BC (at about the same time as Greeks were filtering south and west to expand Magna Grecia into north Africa and Italy, a cohesive "original"* Germanic people existed (shown in red, above) in what is now southern Sweden, Jutland (the Danish peninsula) and parts of northern Germany. Germanic sub-groups such as the Goths and Lombards (or Longobards) then appear in sources as distinct Germanic off-shoots shortly before the turn of the millennium and into the early years of the first century AD. By that time the Goths also spoke their own language we refer to as Gothic, now extinct, but a close relative of Anglo-Saxon (Old English, the language of Beowulf.) Once the expansion started, the "splinters" started edging farther and farther south until both the Goths and two centuries later, the Lombards, entered Italy. On the map (upper right), the red speck hanging down at the very top on the right is the bottom half of the island of Gotland, Sweden's largest island (older spellings include Gottland and Gothland. It is in the Baltic sea about 160 km/100 mi south of Stockholm. Local legends are consistent with the claim that Gotland may have been the source of the "original"* Goths, who in ancient times were forced to migrate to the south.
(*Original the fact that the Germanic peoples, too, came from elsewhere as part of the earlier great Indo-European expansion is beyond the scope of this entry.)
At the height of his rule, Theoderic's Ostrogoth kingdom  
(everything in yellow) encompassed all of what today is     
 peninsular Italy, Sicily, and a large chunk of the Balkans.   

Two of these groups are known to us historically as the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths; they played an important role in the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the emergence of Medieval Europe. The Visagoths moved west into France and Spain; the Ostrogoths moved into Italy. In Italy, the lingering presence of the monuments of ancient Rome is overwhelming, but there is still a notable monumental Gothic presence (for example, the tomb of Theoderic the Great (also Theodoric) (454-526) in Ravenna  -  image above, left) and the all-important Longobard presence in the south (which blended with the new-comer Normans in the 1000s to become the Kingdom of Naples. See this link on Sichelgaita.) Not so monumental, but delightful, is the presence in the Naples phone book of the surname, Ostrogoto and tracing your ancestry doesn't get much easier than that!

   following paragraph revised Sept. 17, 2018 & Aug.26, 2019

Finally, Goths also served in the Roman military. It is not clear the extent to which their presence might have (1) caused the collapse of the Roman empire (that is, by the "mercenary" Goth armies turning on their paymasters) or (2) whether the empire was collapsing anyway. Finally, the idea that the movements of Indo-European (IE) nomads into northern and central Europe starting around 4000 BC produced over many, many centuries the Germanic, Scandinavian and Slavic subgroups and their subgroups (such as the Goths) received support in 1956 by Lithuanian linguist and archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921–1994) when she published her Kurgan theory (kurgan is a Russian word for 'burial mound'). Essentially, her 'Kurgan culture'  was the archaeological expression of Proto-Indo-Europeans. She reconstructed a hypothetical pre-Indo-European "Old European civilization", which she defined as having occupied the area between the Dniester valley and the Sicily-Crete line, even holding that various markings found inscribed in many places were a form of a pre-writing system of symbols, an "Old European Script."

The linguistic evidence for a lot of that is overwhelming. Latin, Greek and Sanskrit are related. Additionally, there is recent evidence in molecular genetics to support the claim of relationship. Thus, the "Kurgan Hypothesis" (KH) is still the de facto theory, but the enthusiasm is not universal. Some object to the idea of the straightforward "conquest" of Europe's earlier pre-IE indigenous peoples, generally termed the Donau (Danube) civilization in central Europe (also called "Old Europe" by Gimbutas) who were quite advanced by 5000 B.C. These scholars are much less willing to assume that large-scale migrations just hammered their way through to subdue native populations or were as important as long-lasting underlying patterns of intermarriage and continuity of cultural forms and religion; for example, the Eastern Roman Empire was less affected by migrations, surviving until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. One recent competitor theory — more like a supplementary theory, really — is the "Anatolian Hypothesis" (AH) formulated by Colin Renfrew and published in 1987: 
(Renfrew, A.C., 1987, Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, London: Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6612-5). The AH is not a refutation of the IE linguistic connections, nor could it be since they are irrefutable. It is rather a reconsideration of the place of origin of the IE people. Renfrew places at least some of those origins on the Anatolian peninsula (modern Turkey) and sets the beginning of the IE spread at a much earlier date, around 7000 BC.

(I know, all that is the part I said was beyond the scope of this entry. And so it is.)

I'm sorry this is so oversimplified. That's why the page is called "Easy Steps."

The graphic, (on the right, above) is a detail from a map entitled (in German) "Ostrogothic Kingdom at the death of Theoderic the Great (526 AD)" published by Droysen/Andrée; G. Kossina  in the Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas by G. Droysen. The entire map series is entitled "Europe at the time of the Völkerwanderung." (That German phrase is commonly used in the anthropological discourse of European languages in general. It means "The wanderings -- or migrations -- of peoples".)

                                 (continuation of main entry)

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 that way 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 fleet from the Holy Roman Empire, Byzantium, the Papal States, Naples and Gaeta. 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.

            to history portal             to top of this page

© 2002 - 2023