The Dark Ages get the shaft of history and art history pretty often. Of course, it’s not a rare specialty, but over the centuries it has been derided. One of the first major art historians, Giorgio Vasari, had almost nothing good to say about them. But you know who has it even worse? The mercenaries and barbarians in the interlude after the fall of Rome and before the darkness settled. Written off as by man as uncultured and war hungry, the barbarian tribes that gained considerable power in the fifth century were both cunning military strategists and artists worth studying.
Italy’s crowning achievements in art history may be Roman art and the Renaissance, but the nation actually owes a lot of its traditions to the barbarians. Some of the Late Roman Empire’s most powerful allies were the foederati. Foederati is derived from the Latin term for treaty. Though barbarian tribes, including the Franks and Visigoths, were not granted Roman citizenship, they were expected to provide military force to aid Rome. Without this band of mercenaries, Rome could not have defeated the Huns in 451.
The history of this period is pretty incestuous. Two famous barbarian kings were foederati: Alaric I of the Visigoths and Odoacer, a military leader of mixed or ambiguous ethnicity. These two men helped establish an amazing hotbed of art historical treasures: Ravenna. Alaric did not attack Ravenna in the early 400s, so the imperial capital was moved to this undamaged city. After Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of Rome, he set up shop in Ravenna. Odoacer was killed (during dinner!) and surplanted by Theodoric, turning Ravenna into the hub of the Ostrogothic empire.
Why does all this matter to art history? Clearly the barbarian tribes were damned clever at forming alliances and using their military prowess as leverage, but they also knew how to use art. Ostrogothic helmets from the 6th century have been found in very spread out locations, leading historians to believe they were made as gifts to win over visiting dignitaries. On the flip side, the beautiful buckle pictured may be a treasure given to tribes to persuade them to assist Rome. In other words, art mattered! The tribes grappling for power after Rome’s fall were not only concerned with political strategy, but cultivating and preserving their own aesthetic culture.
Art was also used as a way to manipulate and mark one’s territory. When Justinian, the great leader of the Roman Empire in Byzantium, took over Ravenna, he probably covered mosaics of Theodoric with his name, a bit like the destruction of Hatshepsut’s image in ancient Egypt. Besides portraiture and coins, the Franks, Lombards, and Ostrogoths also had a rich tradition of making exquisite pieces for burials, a custom that has most likely influenced Western European monarchy’s elaborate tombs and treasures laid to rest with its rulers. The Lombardic crown was even used for Italian monarchs up until the twentieth century.
TL;DR: We owe even the more obscure cultures quite a bit, whether it’s a military or artistic tradition.