In the 6th century, having been governed for centuries by the now-defunct Western Roman Empire, Germanic tribes suddenly found themselves fighting for supremacy. But the western world was also fighting for survival, following natural disasters and a plague that the ancient world had never before experienced. What remained of the Romans in the east set to work rebuilding under an ambitious emperor, and further east still, China was unified for the first time in over 150 years. In this article, we will look at 7 key events that took place during the 6th Century.
Battle of Vouillé (507)
With the Western Roman Empire gone, newly freed Germanic tribes fought for territory in its ashes, with the Franks and Visigoths clashing in Gaul in 507. King Clovis of the Franks had already enjoyed some success in Western Europe, expanding their borders, and the nearby Visigoths recognized the threat. Peace talks failed leading to battle, and despite being outnumbered, the Franks prevailed, pushing the Visigoths to retreat further south after Clovis allegedly killed their king. The victory was much admired by the Byzantine Emperor, and with many kingdoms looking to fill the void left by Rome, the Frankish victory established them as a regional power and served as an important first step in their domination of Europe.
Anno Domini dating is invented in Rome (525)
In the west, up until the 6th century, years had been defined by the Roman consuls who held office that year, as opposed to the numbering system we use today. Although not popularized until the 8th century by Bede, the Anno Domini dating system was first invented by the Scythian (around modern-day Romania) monk Dionysius Exiguus in 525, calculating it had been 525 years since the death and reincarnation of Jesus Christ. In time both the Gregorian and Julian calendars would incorporate it, and it is still widely used today. It would also replace the Anno Mundi calendar, the interpretation of which suggested the world would end 500 years after Christ’s death, thus quelling long-standing Christian fears of pending apocalypse.
The resurgence of the Byzantine Empire in the East (527-565)
When the Western Roman Empire collapsed before the beginning of the 6th century, the surviving empire in the east, known to modern history as the Byzantine Empire, was threatening to do the same. However, Emperor Justinian staged an ambitious restoration and rejuvenation: first securing his eastern border against the Sasanian Empire in 532, then recapturing territory two years later previously lost in the north of Africa to the Vandal Kingdom. Southern Hispania and Italy would follow, although would take longer to realize and be extremely costly, and Byzantine would reach its territorial zenith in 555. While Justinian’s ambitions were not realized by his death in 565, and the Lombards invaded and retook large portions of Italy just ten years later, the resurgence under his leadership maintained and re-established Byzantine’s position as a global power.
The Nika Riots of Constantinople (532)
Despite Justinian’s success as Byzantine Emperor, the first decade of his almost 40-year reign was tarred by large-scale riots in the capital. The Nika Riots, as we know them today, started due to sporting hooliganism, of all things, as factions of different chariot racing teams came to blows following a murder that occurred following a race, and aggravated further by an already aghast population, angry at the high taxes that Justinian had imposed. With the emperor’s attention distracted by the negotiation of a peace treaty with the Persians, in the first few weeks of 532, the riots erupted at the hippodrome, and chaos ensued. A week later, once order had been restored, a usurper had been executed, as many as 30,000 people had been killed, and half the city was destroyed.
A volcanic winter ravages the globe (536)
In 536 temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere dropped by as much as 2.5 degrees Celsius, causing catastrophe across Europe. Although we cannot be certain of the exact cause, modern historians believe it to be the cause of a volcanic eruption in either Iceland or North America (possibly multiple eruptions), as ash or dust was thrown into the atmosphere, reducing the sun’s radiation reaching the surface. Crop failures, famine, and countless deaths at the hands of plague exacerbated by the dropping temperatures, all compounded to make this “the worst year to ever be alive”, according to some medieval scholars, in what was the most severe case of its kind in 2000 years.
The first recorded pandemic of the bubonic plague (541-542)
Starting at first in the Byzantine Empires, the first recorded instance of bubonic plague ravaged much of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, and is estimated to have killed tens of millions of people worldwide. Also known as the Plague of Justinian, due to a lack of modern medicine and understanding of the disease, it persisted for decades, although its first outbreak between 541 and 542 was the most deadly, although where it originated is much debated. Contemporary authors record tens of thousands of deaths in the capital alone, with the emperor himself being afflicted at one point, although he would survive. Evidence suggests it stretched as far as Syria in the east and Britain in the west, with it likely being compounded by the global drop in temperatures that occurred around the same time.
China is reunited for the first time in 150 years (589)
Since 420, China had been split in two in a time known as the Northern and Southern dynasties. It was a time of political chaos and much warfare, as varying dynasties fought for supremacy in the north and south, each hoping to bring China together again. One such important change of power occurred when the Northern Zhou conquered the Northern Qi in 577. Yang Jian, a powerful member of the Zhou court, built-in popularity in power, eventually usurping the emperor and taking the throne for himself, declaring himself Emperor Wen of Sui dynasty. In a pattern that would then be repeated countless times in Chinese history, the established and strong northern power then steamrolled the south. The Sui quickly overwhelmed the ruling Chen dynasty, bringing China together for the first time in over 150 years. The short-lived Sui Dynasty went on to connect the various sections of the Grand Canal for the first time, a monumental feat that linked the north with the south, allowing future emperors easier transport and trade links across their empire.
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