فصل 18کتاب: تاریخی کوچک از جهان / فصل 18
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THE STORM Have you ever watched a storm approaching on a hot summer’s day? It’s especially spectacular in the mountains. At first there’s nothing to see, but you feel a sort of weariness that tells you something is in the air. Then you hear thunder just a rumble here and there you can’t quite tell where it is coming from. All of a sudden, the mountains seem strangely near. There isn’t a breath of wind, yet dense clouds pile up in the sky. And now the mountains have almost vanished behind a wall of haze. Clouds rush in from all sides, but still there’s no wind. There’s more thunder now, and everything around looks eerie and menacing. You wait and wait. And then, suddenly, it erupts. At first it is almost a release. The storm descends into the valley. There’s thunder and lightning everywhere. The rain clatters down in huge drops. The storm is trapped in the narrow cleft of the valley and thunderclaps echo and reverberate off the steep mountain sides. The wind buffets you from every angle. And when the storm finally moves away, leaving in its place a clear, still, starlit night, you can hardly remember where those thunderclouds were, let alone which thunderclap belonged to which flash of lightning.
The time I am now going to tell you about was like that. It was then that a storm broke that swept away the whole, vast Roman empire. We have already heard its rumblings: they were the movements of the Germanic tribes at the frontiers, the incursions of the Cimbri and the Teutones, and the campaigns led by Caesar, Augustus, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius and many others in their efforts to keep those tribes out of the empire. But now the storm had come. It had started at the other end of the world almost as far away as the wall built by the Chinese emperor Shih Huang-ti, the enemy of history. No longer able to mount their raids on China, Asiatic hordes from the steppes had turned westwards in search of new lands to plunder. This time it was the Huns. People like these had never been seen before in the West: small, yellow men with narrow, slit eyes and terrifying scars on their faces. Half man, half horse they seemed, for they rarely dismounted from their small, fast ponies. They slept on horseback, held meetings on horseback and ate, on horseback, the raw meat they had first made tender under their saddles. With fearful howls and a noise like thunder they charged down on their foes, showering them with arrows, before whirling round and rushing away, as if in headlong retreat. Then, if they were followed, they would twist in their saddles and shoot backwards at their pursuers. They were nimbler, more cunning and more bloodthirsty than any of the other tribes. Even the brave Germans fled before them. One of these Germanic tribes, the Visigoths, or West Goths, sought refuge in the Roman empire, which agreed to accept them. However, it wasn’t long before they were at war with their hosts. They marched as far as Athens, which they sacked. They also marched on Constantinople. Finally, under the leadership of their king, Alaric, they turned towards Italy where they besieged and sacked Rome in 410. When Alaric died they went north, this time to Gaul, and eventually to Spain, where they settled. In order to defend themselves against these armies the Romans were forced to recall large numbers of their troops from frontier garrisons in Gaul and Britannia, and from the Rhine and the Danube. Seizing their chance, other Germanic tribes now burst through into the empire
A LITTLE HISTORY OF THE WORLD
in many places. It was the moment they had been waiting for, all those hundreds of years. Some had names you can still see reflected on a map of Germany today: Swabians, Franks and Alemanni. Across the Rhine they came, their creaking ox-carts piled high with wives and children and all their goods and chattels. They fought, and they conquered. For when they fell there were always more behind to take their place. Thousands were slain, but tens of thousands followed. This period is known as the time of the Migrations. It was the storm that swept up the Roman empire and whirled it to extinction. For the Germanic tribes didn’t stop when they reached Gaul and Spain. The Vandals, for instance, captured Carthage in 439 and used it as a base from which they launched their pirate ships to loot and burn the coastal towns. They ravaged Sicily and crossed into Italy. Today we still talk of ‘vandalism’, even though the Vandals were really no worse than many others. As for the Huns, they were worse. They now had a new king: Attila. In 444 he was at the height of his power. Can you remember who was in power 444 years before Christ’s birth? Pericles, in Athens. Those were the best of times. But Attila was in every way his opposite. People said that wherever he trod, the grass ceased to grow. His hordes burnt and destroyed everything in their path. And yet in spite of all the gold and silver and treasures the Huns looted, and in spite of all the magnificent finery worn by their leaders, Attila himself remained a plain man. He ate off wooden plates and he lived in a simple tent. Gold and silver meant nothing to him. Power was what mattered. It is said that he never laughed. He was a fearsome sovereign who had conquered half the world, and those he didn’t kill had to fight for him. His army was immense. Many of his soldiers were Germans largely East Goths, or Ostrogoths (for by this time the Visigoths had settled in Spain). From his camp in Hungary he sent an envoy to the emperor of the Roman Empire of the West with the following message: ‘My Lord, and your Lord, Attila, bids me tell you that you will give him half of your empire and your daughter to be his wife.’ When the emperor refused, Attila set out to punish him with his mighty army, and
take by force what had been denied him. The two sides met in a tremendous battle on the Catalaunian plains in Gaul, in 451. All the armies of the Roman empire, assisted by Germanic troops, joined forces to repel the barbarian horde. The outcome being undecided, Attila turned towards Rome. Appalled and panicstricken, the Romans could only look on as the Huns approached. Nearer and nearer they came, and no army there to save them. It was at this point that one man dared defy Attila and his host: this was Pope Leo, known as Leo the Great. With priests and holy banners he went out to meet him. Everybody waited for the Huns to strike them down. But Attila was persuaded to turn back. He left Italy, and this time Rome was saved. Only two years later, in 453, Attila married a German princess and died on the same night. Had the Pope not saved the Roman Empire of the West on that occasion it would have ceased to exist. For by this time the emperors had lost all authority, and such power as remained was in the hands of the soldiers, most of whom were Germans. The day came when the soldiers found that they could do without an emperor, so they decided to depose him. The last Roman emperor had a rather remarkable name: Romulus Augustulus. It is a curious coincidence that Rome’s founder and first king was called Romulus and the first Roman emperor was the Emperor Augustus. Romulus Augustulus, the last one, was deposed in 476. In his place, a German general called Odoacer proclaimed himself king of the Germans in Italy. This marked the end of the Roman Empire of the West and its Latin culture, together with the long period that goes all the way back to prehistoric times, which we call ‘antiquity’. So the date 476 marks the birth of a new era, the Middle Ages, given its name for no other reason than that it falls between antiquity and modern times. But at the time no one noticed that a new era had begun. Everything was just as confusing as before. The Ostrogoths, who had previously fought alongside the army of the Huns, had settled in the Roman Empire of the East. The Roman Emperor of the East, wishing to be rid of them, suggested that they might do better if they went to the Empire of the West and
A LITTLE HISTORY OF THE WORLD
conquered Italy. So in 493, led by their great king, Theodoric, the Ostrogoths went to Italy. There, the battle-hardened soldiers made short work of a wretched, war-torn land. Theodoric captured Odoacer, but he promised to spare his life. Instead, he invited him to a banquet and stabbed him to death. It has always puzzled me that Theodoric could have done something so monstrous, because in other ways he was a truly great ruler, a man of real merit and distinction. He made sure that the Goths lived in peace with the Italians and gave his warriors no more than one piece of land each to farm. He chose Ravenna, a harbour town in northern Italy, to be his capital and built beautiful churches decorated with wonderful brightly coloured mosaics. This was all quite unexpected. That the Ostrogoths might succeed in building themselves a mighty and prosperous kingdom in Italy, one that would one day pose a threat to the imperial rule in Constantinople, is something that would never have occurred to the Emperor of the East, who must have regretted his advice. From 527 onwards Constantinople was ruled by a mighty, luxury-loving and ambitious sovereign, whose name was Justinian. The emperor Justinian was possessed of one great ambition. This was to recover the whole of the old Roman empire and unite it under his rule. His court had all the splendour of the East. His wife, Theodora, was a former circus dancer and they both wore heavy robes of jewel-encrusted silk and great ropes of gold and pearls round their necks, which must have made a tremendous swishing and jangling when they moved. In Constantinople Justinian built a gigantic church with a huge dome on top called the Hagia Sophia, and did his utmost to revive the lost grandeur of ancient Rome. He began by making a collection of all the laws of ancient Rome, together with the many commentaries made on them by great scholars and legislators. This great book of Roman law is known as the Pandects of Justinian. Even today, anyone who plans to become a lawyer or a judge should read it, as it forms the basis of many of our laws. After Theodoric’s death, Justinian tried to drive the Goths out of Italy and conquer the country, but the Goths put up a heroic
defence and held out for decades. Given that they were in a foreign land whose inhabitants were also hostile to them, this was no easy task. Moreover, although they were also Christians, their beliefs were unlike those of either of their opponents for instance, they did not believe in the Trinity (the existence of one God in three persons: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). So they were attacked and persecuted as unbelievers as well. In the end most of the Goths were killed in these battles. After the last battle, those who were left an army of less than a thousand men were allowed to disband without reprisals, and vanished away towards the north. It was the end of that great tribe, the Ostrogoths. Now Justinian ruled over Ravenna as well. He built wonderful churches there which he had decorated with splendid portraits of his wife and himself. But the rulers of the Empire of the East didn’t stay long in Italy. In 586, new Germanic peoples called the Lombards came down from the north. The land was conquered yet again and today part of Italy is still called Lombardy after them. That was the last rumble of the storm. Then, slowly the clouds parted to reveal the starry night of the Middle Ages.
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