Italian Early Medieval: A Mosaic of Kingdoms and Cultures

Italian Early Medieval Ages

Charting the Course of Italy

Italy’s Early Medieval timeline is a captivating journey through a transformative period in its history, from the crumbling remnants of the Roman Empire to the emergence of powerful city-states. Spanning roughly from the late 5th to the 11th century, this era is marked by significant political upheaval, cultural exchange, and the birth of new identities.

The Fall of Rome and the Barbarian Influx (5th – 6th Century)

The decline of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century ushered in the Early Medieval period in Italy. In 476 AD, the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer. This marked the symbolic end of Roman rule in the Italian Peninsula.

Various barbarian groups, including the Visigoths, Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Lombards, descended upon Italy, each leaving its mark on the landscape and culture. The once-mighty Roman infrastructure crumbled as these groups established their own kingdoms, competing for dominance.

Byzantine Italy (6th – 8th Century)

In the midst of this turmoil, the Byzantine Empire maintained control over parts of Italy, notably the Exarchate of Ravenna and the Duchy of Rome. Byzantine influence brought a strong Eastern Roman cultural and religious presence, shaping the Italian identity.

The Lombard Kingdoms (6th – 8th Century)

The Lombards, a Germanic people, established several kingdoms in Italy, with their capital in Pavia. They ruled over much of the peninsula, except for areas under Byzantine control and the Papal States. This period saw the emergence of new political entities that laid the groundwork for regional divisions within Italy.

Carolingian Period and Papal States (8th – 10th Century)

The Carolingian dynasty, centered in the Frankish Empire, exerted influence in Italy during the 8th and 9th centuries. Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor of the Romans in 800 AD brought Italy into the orbit of the Carolingian Empire.

Simultaneously, the Papal States emerged as a significant political entity under the leadership of the papacy. The Church played a central role in Italian affairs, both politically and culturally.

The Rise of City-States (9th – 11th Century)

Toward the end of the Early Medieval era, Italy witnessed the growth of powerful city-states, including Venice, Florence, Genoa, and others. These city-states began to assert their independence and play pivotal roles in shaping the Italian peninsula’s destiny. They became hubs of trade, culture, and innovation, setting the stage for the Renaissance and the Italian unification in the centuries to come.

The Italian Early Medieval timeline is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of the Italian people in the face of sweeping changes. It laid the foundation for the rich tapestry of regional cultures, artistic achievements, and political landscapes that continue to define Italy today. This era’s legacy remains palpable in Italy’s diverse regions, each with its own distinct history and identity, contributing to the enduring allure of this historic and culturally rich country.


Alaric, King of the Visigoths sacks Rome
An 1894 photogravure of Alaric I taken from a painting by Ludwig Thiersch.

An 1894 photogravure of Alaric I taken from a painting by Ludwig Thiersch.

In the 5th century, Italy faced an invasion by the Visigoths, and in 410, Rome suffered a devastating sack at the hands of Alaric.

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The last Western Roman Emperor was deposed
Romulus Augustulus

19th-century illustration of Romulus Augustus surrendering his crown in front of Odoacer

In 476, the Eastern Germanic general Odoacer deposed the traditionally recognized final Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus. Odoacer, who reigned for a period of seventeen years in Italy as "rex gentium," ostensibly acknowledged the suzerainty of the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno, but effectively governed with full autonomy. During his rule, the administrative structure largely mirrored that of the Western Roman Empire and extended religious freedoms to Christians. Odoacer also engaged in conflicts against the Vandals, who had taken control of Sicily, as well as various Germanic tribes that intermittently encroached upon the Italian peninsula.

Theodoric the Great becomes the King of the Ostrogoths
Mausoleum of Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, in Ravenna, Emilia–Romagna, Italy

Mausoleum of Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, in Ravenna, Emilia–Romagna, Italy

On February 25, 493, Theodoric the Great emerged victorious over Odoacer, ascending to the throne as the Ostrogothic king. Despite his Germanic origins, Theodoric had spent a considerable time in Constantinople and is commonly regarded as a Romanized figure. His rule over Italy predominantly relied on Roman officials and administrators.

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The Gothic Wars

The Gothic War, occurring between 535 and 554, pitted the Eastern Roman

Mosaic of Justinian I, also known as Justinian the Great

Mosaic of Justinian I, also known as Justinian the Great -
(Petar Milošević, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Empire, ruled by Emperor Justinian I, against the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy. This conflict unfolded across various regions, including the Italian Peninsula, Dalmatia, Sardinia, Sicily, and Corsica, and marked one of the final chapters in a series of Gothic Wars waged by the Roman Empire.

The war's origins can be traced to the ambitious agenda of Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Justinian I. His aim was to reclaim territories in the former Western Roman Empire that had been lost to invading barbarian tribes during the preceding century, particularly during the Migration Period.

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The Lombards conquer the Italian Peninsula
The Iron Crown of the Lombards

The Iron Crown of the Lombards

The Lombards, also known as the Longobards (Latin: Longobardi), were a Germanic group that achieved dominance over the majority of the Italian Peninsula from 568 to 774 through conquest.

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The Lombards seize Ravenna
The Byzantines (orange) and the Lombards (cyan) in 590.

The Byzantines (orange) and the Lombards (cyan) in 590.

In 751, the Lombards captured Ravenna, leading to the dissolution of the Exarchate of Ravenna. This event marked the conclusion of Byzantine authority in central Italy, even though certain coastal cities and pockets in southern Italy continued to remain under Byzantine rule until the 11th century.

Creation of the Papal States
Arms of the Papal State and Vatican

Arms of the Papal State and Vatican

Confronted by a fresh Lombard offensive, the papacy sought assistance from the Franks. In 756, Frankish troops triumphed over the Lombards, establishing the legal authority of the papacy over central Italy and leading to the formation of the Papal States. Nevertheless, the rest of Italy remained under Lombard control, as exemplified by regions like Benevento and Spoleto, or Byzantine control, as seen in areas such as Calabria, Apulia, and Sicily.

King Charlemagne invades the Kingdom of Italy
The Bust of Charlemagne, an idealised portrayal and reliquary said to contain Charlemagne's skull cap, is located at Aachen Cathedral Treasury, and can be regarded as the most famous depiction of the ruler.

The Bust of Charlemagne

In 774, responding to an invitation from the Papacy, the Franks launched an invasion into the Kingdom of Italy and ultimately absorbed the Lombards into their domain. In recognition of this assistance, Frankish King Charlemagne gained the backing of the Papacy.

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King Charlemagne crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire

Pope Leo III resurrected the title of Roman emperor in Western Europe, more than three centuries following the demise of the ancient Western Roman Empire in 476, by crowning Frankish King Charlemagne as the Roman Emperor on December 25, 800.

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New Empire disintegrates after the death of Charlemagne

Following the passing of Charlemagne in 814, the newly established empire quickly unraveled during the reign of his ineffectual successors. The stability previously maintained through the remarkable charisma of the great emperor eroded. This decline was exacerbated by external factors, such as Saracen incursions and the growing influence of maritime republics.

Charlemagne had already outlined his plan to divide the Empire in 806, designating his son Pepin of Italy to govern the Lombard-Frank realm, along with Bavaria and Alamannia.

Muslim Arabs conquered Sicily


In the year 827, Sicily was invaded and subsequently conquered by Muslim Arabs known as the Aghlabids. The island remained under their rule and that of their descendants, the Kalbids, until the year 1053.

Sergius founds the dynastry of the Sergi in Naples

In the year 840, after a brief period of considering allegiance to the Franks, specifically to Lothair I, and the appointment of a Frankish duke named Duke Contard, the people of Naples chose Sergius I as their magister militum. Sergius I founded a dynasty known as the Sergi, which would govern the duchy for the ensuing three centuries.

Treaty of Verdun

Louis the Pious (right) blessing the division of the Carolingian Empire in 843 into West Francia, Lotharingia, and East Francia; from the Chroniques des rois de France, fifteenth century

Following the passing of Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious, in 840, the Treaty of Verdun, established in 843, marked the division of the Carolingian Empire. Lothair I, Louis' eldest surviving son, assumed the role of Emperor and ruled over the Central Franks. Subsequently, Lothair I's three sons divided this realm among themselves, with Northern Italy evolving into the Kingdom of Italy, which was later governed by Louis II, who held the title of Holy Roman Emperor starting in 839.

Muslim Arabs invade Rome
Leonine wall and the tower of Saint John inside the Vatican Gardens

Leonine wall and the tower of Saint John inside the Vatican Gardens

In 846, Rome was subjected to an invasion by Muslim Arabs who ransacked St. Peter's Basilica, plundering all its gold and silver treasures. In reaction to this, Pope Leo IV initiated the construction of the Leonine walls surrounding Vatican City in 847, a project that concluded in 853. In the latter part of the 9th century, the Byzantines and the Franks jointly launched an offensive campaign against the Arabs in southern Italy.

Emperor Louis II invades divides the southern peninsula

In the year 849, Emperor Louis II, in one of his initial actions as King of Italy, launched an invasion of the Italian peninsula. His primary objective was to establish peace among the warring Lombard factions. As a resolution, he partitioned the principality into two distinct entities, one centered in Benevento and the other in Salerno. From that point onward, the narrative of the Lombard south unfolds as a tale of diminishing and rivaling authorities.

Saracens take Bari and found an emirate
Louis II at the capture of Bari, 871, from Houze's Atlas Universel Historique et Geographique (1850)

Louis II at the capture of Bari, 871, from Houze's Atlas Universel Historique et Geographique (1850)

In 852, the Saracens captured Bari, establishing an emirate in the region. This posed a significant threat to Greek influence and Adriatic trade. To counter this, the Byzantine emperor sought an alliance with Louis II of Italy. Simultaneously, Adelchis, the new ruler of Benevento, an independent-minded leader, also sought Louis's assistance.

Louis intervened, recapturing Bari in 871 following a prolonged siege. He then attempted to extend his influence across the southern territories by stationing his troops in Beneventan fortresses. In response, Adelchis imprisoned and robbed Louis while the emperor was residing in the princely palace at Benevento. Later, Saracens landed with a new invading force, prompting Adelchis to release Louis and have him lead the armies against this threat. Adelchis compelled Louis to swear never to return to Benevento with an army or seek revenge for his detention.

A palace coup in Salerno

In Salerno, a palace coup occurred in 853, leading to the removal of Sico II, who had succeeded Siconulf. This upheaval created a period of instability within the principality, lasting until a new dynasty, the Dauferidi, assumed control in 861.

King Otto I assumes the Iron Crown of Lombardy
12th-century stained glass depiction of Otto I, Strasbourg Cathedral

12th-century stained glass depiction of Otto I, Strasbourg Cathedral

In 951, King Otto I of Germany entered into matrimony with Adelaide of Burgundy, who was the widow of the late King Lothair II of Italy. Despite facing competition from his rival, Margrave Berengar of Ivrea, Otto went on to claim the Iron Crown of Lombardy in Pavia. As a result, the thrones of Italy and Germany were unified under his rule.

King Otto I conquers the Kingdom of Italy

In 960, when Berengar launched an attack on the Papal States, Pope John XII called upon King Otto for assistance. Otto responded by conquering the Kingdom of Italy, and on February 2, 962, he received the coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in Rome, effectively resurrecting the legacy of Charlemagne's empire. Following this event, the monarchs of Italy consistently held the title of the Kings of Germany, solidifying Italy as an integral kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire, alongside the Kingdom of Germany (regnum Teutonicorum) and, beginning in 1032, Burgundy. The German king (Rex Romanorum) would undergo a coronation ceremony conducted by the Archbishop of Milan, who used the Iron Crown in Pavia as a preliminary step before heading to Rome for the imperial coronation by the Pope.

The German King, Henry II, crowned Rex Italiae
Henry II in a sacramentary c. 1002–1014

Henry II in a sacramentary c. 1002–1014

Following the death of Emperor Otto III in 1002, Margrave Arduin of Ivrea, who followed in the footsteps of the late Berengar, managed to secure the Italian crown. He even emerged victorious against the imperial forces led by Duke Otto I of Carinthia. It wasn't until 1004 that the new German King, Henry II of Germany, with support from Bishop Leo of Vercelli, could venture into Italy and receive the title of "rex Italiae." Arduin is recognized as the final native "King of Italy" before the ascension of Victor Emmanuel II in 1861.


  • Storia dell’Esarcato d’Italia. (2015).

  • The End of Europe’s Middle Ages – Italy’s City-States. (2023).

  • Odoacre, Zenone e Teodorico – Storia e cronologia. (2018, September 11).

  • Le 4 repubbliche marinare: Amalfi, Pisa, Genova e Venezia. (2021, November 14). Fatti per La Storia.‌

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, September 19). Italy in the Middle Ages. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation.

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, August 25). Ostrogothic Kingdom. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation.

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