Sardinia in the early Middle Ages

Since the times of emperor Augustus the Roman Empire had undergone many changes. Under Constantine with the Edict of Milan Christianity had become the official state religion. The pressure of the Germanic tribes increased, in the end leading to the fall of the great Roman Empire when the tribes invaded western and southern Europe. The profound changes did leave Sardinia untouched as it became increasingly isolated from the mainland until it was conquered by the Germanic tribe of the Vandals coming from north Africa.

The Vandals in Sardinia

The Vandals were a Germanic tribe originally from the region of the river Elbe. Just like the other Germanic tribes they were attracted by the riches of the Roman Empire and at the same time felt the pressure of the advancing Huns. They invaded the Roman Empire and raided through Gaul until they reached Spain where they hoped to establish themselves around 400 AD. But as it turned out the Visigoths drove them on and the Vandals took to the sea sailing for north Africa where they conquered Carthage (439 AD), the Roman capital of the north-African province 1. The king of the Vandals, Genseric (or Geiseric), became interested in the conquest of the islands Sicily and Sardinia in the hope to cut off the grain supplies from Rome and to subdue the capital of the prestigious Empire to the Vandals, the ultimate goal he wanted to achieve 2. When in 455 AD emperor Valentinian III was murdered the Vandals raided Rome, leading to the second sack of Rome by the Germanic tribes 3. In 460 AD Sardinia had become part of the kingdom of the Vandals 4.

The Vandal reign on Sardinia limited itself to exacting taxes, there was no real government of the island. The Vandal kings Genseric, Hunneric, Gundamund and Thrasamund, like the Ostrogoths, supported Arianism. They banished a number of catholic bishops to Sardinia, using an old tradition of the Romans to exile their adversaries to the island, but allowed the bishops to follow their own religious teachings on the island much as they pleased 5.

The Byzantine conquest of Sardinia

The reign of the Vandals in northern Africa, Sicily and Sardinia was put to an end by the Byzantine general Belisarius who defeated the last of the Vandal kings, Gelimer, near Carthage. The goth Goda (Goddas), one of Gelimer's most loyal men, had already betrayed his king by pronouncing the independency of Sardinia and by sending an embassy to the emperor of the East-Roman Empire, Justinian, even though the emperor had not sent any help to him. Gelimer reacted by sending his brother Tzazo to Sardinia to subdue Goda, and while Tzazo reconquered Sardinia for his king the Byzantines attacked north-Africa. Tzazo was called back immediately but to no avail, the Vandals were crushed in battle. The Byzantine army proceeded to Sardinia where the Sardinians after seeing the severed head of Tzazo subdued without further resistance to the general. As of the year 533 AD Sardinia became part of the Byzantine empire, as a far away province, and it would remain loyal even after the losses incurred by the Byzantines against the Ostrogoths, the Longobards, the Visigoths and later the Arabs 6. For a short period, between 551 and 552 AD the Ostrogoths would conquer the island but only to lose it again to the Byzantines 7.

Sardinia in Byzantine times

The Vandals left almost no visible traces of their occupation on Sardinia. Archaeologists have found little that reminds of their presence and there are almost no written sources. Of the Byzantine period on the other hand much more is known through archaeological finds and through written sources like the letters of pope Gregory, the works of Procopius and the descriptions of the anonymous geographer of Ravenna in the Cosmographia.

Policital and religious institutions

The island of Sardinia was one of the provinces of the East-Roman Empire, called a tema, and it was governed by a praeses and a dux. The praeses stood at the head of the civil bureaucracy and the judicial system as a supreme judge, the iudex provinciae, and was seated at Cagliari. The dux was the supreme commander of the military and was responsible for the defense of the island. His base was at Forum Traiani (Fordongianus). As the jurisdiction and mandate of both functions overlapped in many areas the function of praeses soon disappeared and both civil and military power concentrated in the hands of the dux which subsequently moved to Cagliari. The dux was at that time also referred to as ipatos and in letters of the pope as iudex (judge) 8.
The catholic church remained at first strong in Sardinia, the main drive coming from the archbishop of Cagliari who was strongly supported by pope Gregory. After the death of the pope the Byzantine church grew in power. Greek became the commonly used language for the elite. In fact in Sardinian there are still words that derive directly from the greek of the Byzantine period. The popes tried to maintain the church catholic by continuously reminding the bishops to keep to the latin rituals 9. Today the greek-orthodox church is still present in Sardinia with many followers.

During these first centuries in the Middle Ages under Byzantine rule the towns changed as christianity played a more central role in town life and in town planning. Because of continuous military threats there was a need to build new fortifications, the byzantine castra (sing. castrum), to defend the troops stationed on the island 10.

The towns

In the old towns public buildings like the Roman baths were given different religious or civil destinations. At Tharros the building of the Terme di Convento Vecchio was used for religious purposes, just like the baths at Neapolis, whereas that of the Terme a Mare at Nora probably was used for defensive works. In some cases new structures were partly built on the pavement of the streets determining a change in town planning. Construction material of old buildings was reused in new ones 11. Near old towns new centres grew around churches founded near christian cemeteries like at Sant'Antioco where the new church dedicated to the saint was built over the christian catacombs. The same can be seen at Cornus where the early-christian church was built outside the old town 12.
In this context it is interesting to mention the birth of a new town called Aristanis (Oristano), mentioned in documents of the seventh century, near the ancient town of Othoca (Santa Giusta). This could mean Oristano may have had origins in roman times of the late empire 13.

The byzantine castra

The byzantine castra can be found near the old towns on the coast and in strategical locations inland to protect urban centres and the fertile lowlands. The reason the dux was initially stationed at Forum Traiani would have been to contain the barbaric tribes of the interior. This may have concerned a tribe of Maurs, deported by the Vandals from north-Africa to Sardinia 14. A byzantine castrum has been found near the roman bridge that connected Sant'Antioco to the mainland and the fortifications on the hill of the tower of San Giovanni at Tharros are ascribed to a byzantine castrum where older, punic, sandstone blocks have been reused 15. It is known that at Santa Vittoria di Serri soldiers of the exercitus Sardiniae were stationed there, and in other places like the Castello di Medusa near Samugheo, the Castello di Barumele near Ales and the castrum at Oschiri, all sites where the military presence has been found as a result of archaeological excavations 16.

The countryside

Not much is known from the sources about the economic organisation in the countryside. It is assumed that the roman villa economy was still widely used, although the villae changed owner. A number of baths, appertaining to the pars urbana of the villae, were transformed in churches. One famous example is that of the church of Santa Maria di Mesumundu. But also new churches were built in byzantine style, some with a plan in the form of a greek cross which was often changed again in later reconstructions. The church of San Giovanni di Sinis has a byzantine cupola, although it is not clear if it was built under Byzantine rule or under Vandal rule 17.
Particular places of christian worship in byzantine times were the originally heathen sanctuaries. Examples of this are the hypogeum at San Salvatore, on the peninsula of Sinis, and the church with byzantine frescoes in the caves at Sant'Andrea Priu near Bonorva. The first case was a prehistoric hypogeic sanctuary, the second a prehistoric domus de janas, a grave chamber, one of the largest known on the island and transformed in church 18.

The Dark Middle Ages

Due to the conquests of the Arabs of large parts of the former Byzantine Empire and the continuous threats of incursions and raids Sardinia became more and more isolated. In name Sardinia still was part of the Byzantine Empire, but in practice a form of autonomous governement developed. As this period of time is characterized by the lack of reliable historic documents a reconstruction of what happened exactly is almost impossible. That is why it is called the dark Middle Ages, often injustly associated with decay of civilization.

The incursions of the Arabs

In the seventh century AD the Arab conquest in the Middle East went very fast. Already in 647 the first attacks on Byzantine North-Africa took place and finally in 698 Carthage fell into the hands of their armies. From 711 onwards the Arabs would direct their attention to the Spain of the Visigoths 19. The first raids on Sardinia reported in the sources started in 704 and 710-711 20. Raiding on Sardinia, Sicily and Southern Italy continued in the eighth century and increased in intensity in the ninth century 21. The incursions lead to devastation in coastal towns like Sant'Antioco, Nora and Tharros and many Sards would have been enslaved or killed. But apart from some short periods in time and on small parts of Sardinia there has never been an Arab domination of the island in this whole period of time 22.
The Sardinians had to ask often for help from outside. There was even a Sardinian delegation at the court of the Frankish king Louis the Pious asking for his support against the Arabs. Eventually in the tenth century when the Arabs conquered Sicily and cut off the Byzantine empire from its possessions in the west Sardinia became really isolated. At the beginning of the eleventh century the island turned to the upcoming naval powers Genua and Pisa for support and protection at sea. In Arab and Pisan chronicles an Arab prince is mentioned, called Mugiahid (Museto), who attacked the island in 1015 and managed to conquer parts of the south of Sardinia. The next year he could be defeated with the help of Genua and Pisa ending this brief experience of occupation. It marked one of the ugliest moments for Sardinia in this period 23.

The rise of the Judicates

One of the mysteries of the Sardinian Middle Ages is the creation of the four Judicates, four practically independent states with an autonomous government. How this partition of the Byzantine province came about is not clear from the sources. In the tenth century the sources still mention a by Byzantium appointed protospatario Torchitorio (also mentioned with the title archon), a consequence of the revival of the Byzantine empire in Southern Italy 24. However in a document of pope Gregory VII from 1073 there are mentioned four names; Orzocco of Cagliari, Orzocco of Arborea, Mariano of Torres and Constantine of Gallura. Historians conclude that by that time the political power in Sardinia was divided among the four territorial states guided by a Iudex. It is possible that important families in the tenth and eleventh century usurped political and military power by making the public offices hereditary, something that occurred also in other parts of Europe and even within the Byzantine empire. The institution of the Judicates could have come about well before 1073. In fact a seal found in the town of Tharros mentions the name Zerkis with the title of Archon Arbor 25.


1 Painter 1979, p. 24,25
2 Boscolo 1978, p. 11-12; Mastino 2005, p. 500
3 Boscolo 1978, p. 13
4 Boscolo 1978, p. 15-16; Mastino 2005, p. 499
5 Boscolo 1978, p. 20-25; Mastino 2005, p. 501-504; for Arianism see Wikipedia
6 Boscolo 1978, p. 27-32; Mastino 2005, p. 504-507; Spanu 1998: p 14-16
7 Galoppini 2004: p 137; Spanu 1998: p 34
8 Boscolo 1978: p 67-70, 79-80; Ortu 2005: 23-25
9 Boscolo 1978: p 37-43, 99-107; Ortu 2005: 26-34
10 Spanu 1998: p 17-18
11 Spanu 1998: p 42-43 (Nora),56-57 (Neapolis), 80-88 (Tharros)
12 Spanu 1998: 48-49 (Sant'Antioco), 96-102 (Cornus)
13 Spanu 1998: 60-61
14 Spanu 1998: p 173-174
15 Spanu 1998: p 48, 79-80 (Tharros)
16 Spanu 1998: p 173-190; Zucca 1988: p 6-8 (Santa Vittoria di Serri)
17 Acquaro 1996: p 16 (San Giovanni di Sinis); Boscolo 1978: p 97; Spanu 1998: p 129-132
18 Caprara 1988: p 418-421 (Sant'Andrea Priu) Tav. XX pictures of the frescoes; Donati 1992: p 19-20 (San Salvatore); Spanu 1998: p 164-165 (San Salvatore), 205-209 (Sant'Andrea Priu)
19 Collins 2010, p 148
20 Boscolo 1978, p 55-56; Martini 1861, p 48
21 Collins 2010 p 394-395; Ortu 2005, p 40
22 Ortu 2005, p 40; Boscolo 1978, p 64-66; Martini 1861, thsi author of the nineteenth century gives detailed information that however is in part based on falsified sources, the famous Carte d'Arborea. His account from arab and papal sources is much more reliable.
23 Boscolo 1978, p 66-67, 109-110; Ortu 2005, p 40-42; Martini 1861, p 94-95,99-101
24 Collins 2010, p 394-399
25 Ortu 2005, p 43-51; Boscolo 1978, p 111-123; Zucca 2000, p 1103-1112; Galoppini 1995, p 141-143


1. Acquaro, C. e A. Mezzolani 1996, Tharros, Roma
2. Boscolo, A. 1978: La Sardegna bizantina e alto-giudicale, Sassari
3. Caprara, R. 1988:L'Età altomedievale nel territorio del Logudoro-Meilogu, in: Il Nuraghe S. Antine nel Logudoro-Meilogu, ed. A. Moravetti, Sassari, p. 397-441
4. Collins, R. 2010, Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, Basingstoke
5. Donati, A. and R. Zucca 1992, L'ipogeo di San Salvatore, Sassari
6. Galoppini, L. 2004, La Sardegna giudicale e catalano-aragonese in: Storia della Sardegna, ed. M. Brigaglia, Cagliari, p. 131-168
7. Martini, P. 2009: Storia delle invasioni degli arabi e delle piraterie dei barbareschi in Sardegna, Genova
8. Mastino, A. 2005: Storia della Sardegna Antica, Sassari
9. Ortu, G.G. 2005: La Sardegna dei Giudici, Nuoro
10. Painter, S. 1977: A History of the Middle Ages, London
11. Spanu, P.G. 1998, La Sardegna bizantina tra VI e VII secolo, Oristano
12. Zucca, R. 1988: Il santuario nuragico di S. Vittoria di Serri, Sassari
13. Zucca, R. 2000, Zerkis iudex arborensis in: Giudicato d'Arborea e Marchesato di Oristano: proiezioni mediterranee e aspetti di storia locale, ed. G. Mele, Oristano, p. 1103-1112

Last updated 29/07/2014

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