Italy in the Middle Ages

From Academic Kids

History of Italy
Prehistoric Italy
Roman Period
Middle Ages
Italy under foreign domination
Monarchy and Mussolini
Italian Republic

This is the history of Italy during the Middle Ages.


Goths, Byzantines, Lombards (6th-8th centuries)

Italy was invaded by the Visigoths in the 5th century, and Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410. By the end of the century the peninsula was mostly under Ostrogothic control, and the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed in 476 by Odoacer. On February 25, 493 Theodoric the Great defeated Odoacer and became the king of the Ostrogoths and moved the capital to Ravenna.

The eastern half of the Empire, now centred on Constantinople, invaded Italy in the early 6th century, and the generals of emperor Justinian, Belisarius and Narses, conquered the Ostrogothic kingdom after years of warfare, ending in 552.

The collapse of the Ostrogoths allowed the Lombards to fill the gap, and the Eastern Empire could not hold on to its reconquered territory against the Lombard invasion. The Lombards ruled Italy until the late 8th century when in 774 their kingdom was conquered by Charlemagne.

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Rise of the Catholic Church (4th century-8th century)

The Church (and especially the bishop of Rome, the pope) had played an important political role since the times of Constantine, who tried to include it in the imperial administration.

In the politically unstable situation after the fall of the western empire, the Church often became the only stable institution and the only source of learning. Even the barbarians had to rely on clerics in order to administrate their conquests. Furthermore, the catholic monastic orders, such as the Benedictines had a major role both in the economic life of the time, and in the preservation of the classical culture.

After the Lombard invasion, the popes (i.e. St. Gregory) were nominally subject to the eastern emperor, but often received little help from Constantinople, and had to fill the lack of stately power, protecting Rome from Lombard incursions; in this way, the popes started building an independent state.

The Holy Roman Empire (9th-10th centuries)

Missing image
Map of Italy in 1050

At the end of the 8th century the popes definitely aspired to independence, and found a way to achieve it by allying with the Carolingian dynasty of the Franks: the Carolingians needed someone who could give legitimacy to a coup against the powerless Merovingian kings, while the popes needed military protection against the Lombards. As a result, in 774 the Franks invaded and defeated the Lombards, and their leader Charlemagne was proclaimed legitimate king of the Franks by the pope. Later, in 800, Charlemagne was also crowned emperor of the Holy Roman empire by the pope; the new emperor (who was never recognized as such by the Byzantines) immediately conceded direct rule over central Italy to the pope, creating the Papal States.

However, after the death of Charlemagne (814) the new empire soon disintegrated under his weak successors. After Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious died in 840, the treaty of Verdun in 843 divided the empire. Louis' eldest surviving son Lothar I became Emperor and ruler of the Central Franks. His three sons in turn divided this kingdom between them, and Northern Italy became the Kingdom of Italy under Louis II, Holy Roman Emperor in 839.

Most of the coastline of southern Italy was under the Eastern Roman Empire throughout the period.

Even the papacy went through an age of decadence, which ended only in 999 when emperor Otto III selected Silvester II as a pope.

The end of the Middle Ages (11th-14th centuries)

The 11th century signed the end of the darkest period in the middle ages. Trade slowly picked up, especially on the seas, where the four Italian cities of Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa and Venice became major powers. The papacy regained its authority, and started a long struggle with the empire, about both ecclesiastical and secular matter. The first episode was the Investiture controversy.

Meanwhile, the South and Sicily were invaded by Normans, who eventually defeated the Byzantines (in the mainland) and the Arabs (who had conquered Sicily in 900),



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