Part 51: The Western Collapse
Part LI: The Western Collapse
Louis IV took power in the Frankish Empire in 988 following the death of his father, Pepin VI. Louis was an eager student of the old Roman ways, and was dismissive of Frankish tradition in favor of the Roman style. Along the Rhine he implemented a large number of projects similar to those of the old Romans. In particular he began implementing a new law system for directly ruled Imperial territory, and a key part of life which would directly lead to his conflict with Rome: the Church.
At this time the Church, both in Roman territory, and in the West was horribly corrupt. We’ve touched on it a few times, but the issue has been skated over as the Romans have faced more pressing problems, but the expansion of Church land was highly damaging to both Frankish and Roman finances. When nobles without children grew old they would found a monastery to avoid taxation, giving all of their lands over to the Church while acting as the local abbot. Furthermore, nobles looking to gain church favor in some dispute, or to soothe their consciences after some horrid act of violent depravity, donations of land to the Church were common. In either case land which would have paid taxes to the Roman Emperor, or provided soldiers and supplies to the Frankish, was suddenly removed from those ledgers.
Interfering with church property was something a lot of men knew needed to be done, but they simply would not risk the wrath of God, or of their faithful followers, to actually carry out the work.
But the rot at the core of the Church went far deeper than just the monasteries. The bishops and even priests were often made up of wicked and capricious sinners hiding behind the cloth to amass vast fortunes for themselves in the form of tithes and donations from peasants who feared the wrath of both God and their lord should they put his soul in jeopardy through their disobedience. Or put his children’s livelihood in jeopardy as lords often paid princely sums to ensure their younger children were put into supreme positions of authority within the Church.
Bishops were technically forbidden marriage, but often did so anyway with no punishment from higher authorities. The bishop positions had even shifted in some cases to being hereditary, passed from illegally married father to illegitimate son generation to generation, amassing more power and wealth with each generation.
When Louis came to power then, he had had enough. For the first two years he specifically began pursuing the wealthy lands owned by monastaries and Churches in the primary Imperial territory near the Rhine. Six monastaries were investigated, and stripped of at least half their land. Church officials protested, but Louis steadfastly ignored them, making it very clear that he might go after them if they continued. The bishops were deeply angered, and wrote to Rome asking for papal interference. Pope Innocent II heard their plea, and in 989 he sent his own letter to Louis reminding him of the sancrosanctity of Church property, and warning of dire consequences for the Emperor's soul should he continue on this path. Louis took the warning to heart at first, scaling down his attacks on monastaries and other sources of Church wealth. For about six months.
The situation came roaring back in 990 when, according to legend, Louis was visiting Parisius and attended the local mass, only to find that the bishop conducting the ceremony was a twelve-year old boy who spoke barely a word of Latin. Infuriated at what he viewed as sacrilege had the boy seized, stripped, and thrown from the Church, his robes being burned in a public ceremony behind him. The boy fled the city and went south to Aquitaine where he met with the Archbishop of Massilia who had inherited his position, though not as young. Horrified at the actions of the pious Louis the bishops wrote to the Pope Innocent II and demanded that the Frankish Emperor be excommunicated.
The pope complied. In Innocent's view Louis's attack on the bishop of Parisium was a continuation of Louis's attacks on the Church in general. He cared little about the boy, whom the pope himself privately agreed needed to be removed, and he may have approved the move had Louis gone through Church channels. The fact that such a move would also have strengthened the pope's authority over the Western bishops at the same time, since the threat of removal backed by state power would have been a big power boost to the Pope.
I should note here two key facts. While the Eastern Church viewed the pope in Rome to be more pious and spiritual than the Patriarch of Constantinople the view among the Western Church was exactly the opposite. Had the West ultimately been able to impose its view on the Church as a whole the Patriarch probably would have ended up the highest Church figure. As it was of course the opposite was the case.
The southern lords, chafing under northern Imperial rule rallied to the Church's cause, using it as an excuse to oppose the Emperor with what they hoped was God's blessing.
The northern lords meanwhile were less than pleased at Louis’s antics, but the Emperor countered the pope’s order by declaring that by the right of God, granted to him by the Roman Emperor, THE viceregent of God on Earth, his authority was superior to that of any Church figure, and therefore it was illegal to excommunicate him. After significant debate the Archbishop of Aachen heard the arguments put forth by both Imperial and Church officials, and in a shocking decision he agreed with Louis. The Church was subordinate to the Roman Emperor, who had by his own hand granted the Frankish Emperor a position in the hierarchy in the world where only the man who ruled Constantinople was of higher rank.
The Church therefore was subordinate to the Frankish Emperor inside Frankish territory as well. Accusations of bribery were thrown around by everyone, but when Louis called his German lords to march south and expel the bishop who had written to the pope, his lords agreed.
Louis marched into Aquitaine, and defeated a hastily mobilized local army decisively, capturing the rebellious archbishop, the archbishop of Parisius, and Lord Raymond of Marseille, leader of the rebel lords. Raymond was behead, and both the archbishops were stripped of their rainment (for a second time in the latter’s case), and then they were whipped in full view of the army before being expelled from the Church by the Emperor. With his right to rule now solidly proven in battle Louis wrote to the pope and demanded his excommunication be lifted.
This demand was refused. Innocent had acted rashly, there was no doubt of that. He should have simply let the matter rest here, there was no reason for conflict to continue. Louis had won, and it would have been for the best to let the issue die, maybe to take it up again in future when the Emperor's position was weaker. But Innocent was too stubborn. Louis's refusal to back down wasn't just an attack on this stupid child bishop. It was an attack on the Church itself. Backing down and lifting the excommunication without the Emperor doing anything to supplicate himself might well have destroyed Papal authority in the Frankish Empire. So, thinking he was safe behind the Romans, Innocent dug in his heels and let the situation escalate. He ordered all bishops and priests to refuse sacraments to any lord who had taken the Emperor's side in the fighting.
Angry at this treatment Louis wrote to Alexios demanding the order be rescinded. But Alexios, focused on his Eastern border either never received, or ignored, the letter. Louis wrote again, and this letter we know was received in Constantinople in 996, and it was sent forward to the Emperor for review. But at some point in the next few months it disappeared, probably going up in flames in the Emperor’s tent in the aftermath of Dara, never having been read.
Furious at the apparent spurning of his demands Louis went forward on his own initiative, ordering that the interdict be ignored under his own power as the man over the Frankish Church. For the next two years a stalemate took place as portions of the Church, usually laypriests, took the Emperor’s side while bishops and abbots took the pope’s. Deciding that something had to be done to break the deadlock Louis called for an Ecumenical Council, but again his call went unheeded by the distracted Roman Emperor.
Looking for a way out of the situation Louis hit upon a new interpretation of the Frankish crowning. While he was technically Emperor of the Franks, his Imperial rainment and domain was basically the Western Empire, less Spain, southern Italy, and Africa. His realm was Roman, in spirit if nothing else. He claimed therefore the title of Western Augustus, the first in five hundred years. His position was unchallenged as Constantinople remained firmly fixed on the East. Also they may not even have known of the claim.
Lacking authority to call a full church council alone Louis decided to fix the matter himself, and began seizing monastic property. Monks were thrown out of the buildings and new lords put in place. To say that Innocent was furious would be an understatement. He issued a papal bull excommunicating every priest in Franci did not side against Emperor Louis. This unfortunately caused most of Louis’s supporters to desert him. While they might believe that the pope did not have the authority to excommunicate the Emperor, the same was not true for themselves.
At this point however Louis had had enough. He began gathering his full army, and promising his lords the rich lands of Italy if they backed him up. Most agreed, for both spiritual and financial reasons. Sending out one last call for an Ecumenical Council, which never arrived in Romanos’s court, Louis moved his army into Frankish Italy, and wintered there, hoping his show of force would convince Innocent to back down. But certain that Rome could withstand a Frankish siege until the Basileos arrived.
Louis’s army marched out of Genua on March 6, 1000 and began heading south into Roman territory. The army was forty thousand strong, and a second force was led out of Pataviom by Louis’s cousin Matthieu consisting of fifteen thousand men. This army was tasked with securing the East Coast of Italy, in particular the city of Ravenna which functioned as the headquarters of Roman Italy.
Matthieu successfully seized Bononia in late March, but Ravenna refused to surrender. Garrisoned with four thousand men with both strong walls, a port, and surrounded by swamps the Romans inside had little to fear from a siege. Recognizing this Mattheiu abandoned his siege and moved south taking Faventium and Ariminum, cutting Ravenna off from the rest of Italy.
In the meantime Louis had taken the trading city of Pisae without a fight, and swept through Tuscia, forcing surrenders everywhere he went. Italy was well fortified to ward off Varangiann attacks, but few of the citizens had known real war, and going through a siege was quite beyond them. With no Imperial soldiers present the local militias faced the prospect of either trying to hold out against the Frankish soldiers, or simply give up and throw themselves at Louis’s ever present mercy.
Louis responded by not letting his soldiers perform any sacks. These were Christian cities after all, and ones that were showing their allegiance to the Emperor through their surrender. Small garrisons were put in place, new lords were created, and the army moved on. As 1000 ended all of Tuscia was in Frankish hands, as was most of Flaminia in the East. Only two Roman positions held out. Ravenna with its impervious defensive position stood strong against Frankish attack, and to its north sat the powerful merchant city of Venice, which utilized its massive local fleet to launch attacks against Frankish positons along the coast, daring the Franks to try retaliatory strikes.
The next year Louis drove straight for Latium. First he moved along the West, cutting off the Roman ports at Ostia and Portus Romanus, then moved north to completely encircle the Vitelian Walls. Rome’s garrison of six thousand was dwarfed by the thirty thousand men Louis still had, and the two sides settled in for a siege. Innocent, realizing that maybe this was out of hand tried to negotiate a comprimise with Louis, but the Emperor wasn't having it. The pope had shown himself to be a corrupt and cowardly man, a servant of Satan in the cloth, and he would not only be removing the Pope from office under his theoretical authority as Western Emperor, but likely executing him as well. Innocent had no choice but to wait for a savior in the form of the Roman army to arrive.
Indeed, even as the siege was going on, Romanos was racing West at the head of his own army made up of the survivors of his battle Anatolia, six thousand Turkish mercenaries, and additional forces he’d picked up in the Balkans on his way to the port at Dyrrachium. In March the army made a quick crossing and the Emperor heading north, picking up more men along the way until the two sides were roughly equal in size, if not in quality.
Reaching the Via Appia the Roman army pushed north to the Eternal City with all haste, looking to quickly defeat the Franks and then drive their forces back out of Tuscia before returning Imperial attention to the East. Unfortunately what is about to happen would not match Romanos’s vision.
Louis heard of the coming Imperial army and broke off the siege to confront the Eastern Emperor. They met just north of Campania. Alexios deployed his horse archers, still the dominant striking arm of any Imperial army first, with other forces arrayed behind them, while Louis put his heavy knights at the direct center of his army. As the battle began the Turks and Pechenegs charged forward, firing arrow after arrow into the Frankish lines. Where the great horses of the Franks were struk formations were disrupted, but the heavy shields and armor of the knights could withstand the arrows with little difficulty. It was only as the knights came closer that the nomads realized how little effect their weapons were having. But rather than retreating the impetuous men, drew their swords and charged the knights.
What followed was a complete rout. The steppe archers were completely outmatched in the close quarters fighting that the Franks excelled at, and in a brutally one-sided encounter over two thirds were killed. The knights quickly reformed as the nomads fled and once again began advancing forward. They sang hymns as they came, slowly at first, then gathering speed. Their lances came down, and the Roman infantry couldn’t stand it anymore. They fled. The knights ran them down regardless, and behind the knights came the rest of the Frankish army.
They killed and chased for the remainder of the day, until the Imperial army was completely scattered. Of Romanos’s force seven thousand were dead, and the remainder ran for the mountains of Central Italy.
The Emperor escaped with his Tagmata partially intact, but with no prospect of raising another army during the year. Dejected he returned to Brundisium and sailed back to Greece. News of the Emperor’s complete defeat at the hands of the Franks was a thunderbolt to Italy. Innocent committed suicide rather than risk capture and humiliation. Rome surrendered the very next day. Across southern Italy cities began to fall over one another to send their own surrenders, with only the far southern regions of Rhegium and Calabria refusing to follow suit.
Louis was content for now, and installed his own anti-pope in Rome, the former bishop of Aachen, Vitelian VI, who naturally reversed the completely incorrect calls of his predecessor, affirmed the supremacy of the Emperor in Frankish Territory, and recognized the Frankish Emperor as the legitimate Western Augustus.
Romanos stewed in the Balkans for a few more years, but as the Anatolian situation continued with no end in site, and the Syrian armies came under attack from the Persian Turks there simply wasn’t anything for him to do. And so, in 1003 he sent envoys to Louis offering recognition in exchange for the Franks leaving in place the remaining Roman positions in Italy: Ravenna, Venice, Calabria, Rhegium, Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia.
Louis, who didn’t have a navy capable of beating the Roman fleet agreed, and on July 31, 1003 an official peace was agreed to.
But in signing the peace Romanos sealed his own fate. His brother John had been present in Italy as well, and had been disappointed in Romano’s utter failure. With the surrender of the home peninsula, and the failure to salvage the situation in the East, his cousin’s position was now unacceptable. Plotting with high ranking army officers, chief among them the Kommenoi, John brought a group of armed men into the palace, seized Romanos, and sent him to a monastery. The former Emperor’s nose was slit, and it was thought he would not trouble them again. John was crowned Basileos, and set about trying to reverse Roman fortunes. And for that there was one thing he needed above everything else, the Armenians had to be bought off. By any means necessary, financial or spiritual.